Thursday, October 20, 2016

Following the format

This blog post was inspired by another blog post – by Earl Pomerantz – about “formatting” in TV, films, and musicals. He does a great job discussing the pros and cons of following formats. So I’m not going to do that. I’ll just agree with him and move on.

But he talked about the format of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and pretty much all of the MTM multi-camera shows during their heyday in the ‘70s. Having been there at the time I can attest to its accuracy.

We all followed a six-scene format. Three in the first act, three in the second. I can only speak for THE TONY RANDALL SHOW and BOB NEWHART SHOW, but not only did we have six scenes, no two scenes in the same location were done back to back. In other words, if you open at the office, your next scene has to be at home, and vice versa. There was generally one swing set (built just for that episode) that was like a wildcard that could go anywhere.

Unlike Earl, who questioned it, I just took it for granted that this format was derived after a lot of trial-and-error. As much as I’ve always loved THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, the first year was a little uneven as they groped around in the dark searching for just the right formula.

I also suppose there were practical considerations. Number of wardrobe changes, number of times the cameras moved from place to place, etc.

The only time it felt unwieldy to me was when we had something happen at work in the first scene, then the star went home and had to fill in everybody there as to what happened. The problem there is you’re essentially telling the audience something they’ve already seen. That’s not the best storytelling.

But otherwise I found that having a formula made the stories easier to break. And I was young and new and needed all the help I could get. 

On MASH we had a different format. Five scenes in the first act and five in the second. Generally we tried to avoid doing two scenes in the same locale back to back, but there were no hard and fast rules. We always had at least two stories (and sometimes three) dovetailing throughout the episode. We also knew we could only do 8 1/3 pages of exteriors at the ranch. So we had a lot to juggle.  Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart established this format. 

But unlike at MTM where we were quite content to just follow the format, on MASH David Isaacs and I felt a little restless. So there were times we did shake things up during season seven. We did the POINT OF VIEW episode (seen through the eyes of a patient), the cave episode (to give the show a different look), and one of my favorites – NIGHT AT ROSIES. We wrote that like a play, all in one set (Rosie’s bar). It has to be one of the very few episodes of MASH where you never see the MASH camp.

The key to any format is not to make it so obvious that the audience recognizes it and the show becomes too predictable. Be honest now. Of all the MASH episodes you’ve ever watched in your life, did you know until just now that we had this 5+5 formula? Same with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW?

It might be fun as you watch your current favorite shows to start looking for patterns. Are they following a format and if so, what is it? It’ll give you some audience participation and something to do besides emailing while you watch TV. Let me know if you find anything.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A movie you've got to see

In preparation for tonight’s rehearsal of the next SNL opening (i.e. the presidential debate), I want to alert you to the best movie ever about the absurdity of politics.

It’s called MASTERGATE adapted from the play of the same name. Both were written by the brilliant Larry Gelbart. It is HILARIOUS. No one writes double-speak political bullshit like Gelbart. TIME magazine called it “George Orwell meets the Marx Brothers.”

Two examples: "What did the president know, and did he have any idea that he knew it?" And: "My involvement was strictly limited to the extent of my participation."

The movie of the play was done for SHOWTIME in 1992. It aired for awhile and has been out of circulation for years.

But beginning Friday it will resurface exclusively on Vimeo’s On Demand portal. It will be available on iTunes and Amazon sometime in November. Click here to go to the link.

All proceeds from the film will go to Norman Lear’s People For The American Way Foundation in Larry Gelbart's memory

In this day and age of candidate surrogates, spin doctors, talking heads, and sound bytes, MASTERGATE is a scary funny political satire. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My big announcement!

Okay, it's not a major announcement, but to me it's pretty big. 

After this Friday night's performance of my play, GOING GOING GONE there will be a talk-back with me and the cast.  We'll be talking about the process and sharing behind-the-scenes stories.  And you'll have the chance to ask us questions.   If you enjoyed my series of posts on the making of a play you'll really enjoy this.

And again, for blog readers, I'm offering tickets at half-price.  Just go here.  Type in Promo Code 008 and $30 tickets will only be $15.  Offer good all weekend. 

So come for the laughs.  Stay for the defense.   This Friday night at 8 at the Hudson Theatre in the safe part of Hollywood.

The show is doing so well that it's been extended for two more weekends, now closing November 20th.   We've had great crowds, great reviews, and great word-of-mouth.   So don't wait.  Get your tickets now while you can and while they're at half-price. 

How to fix network television... not that anyone asked me

As the old saying sort of goes: Imitation is the sincerest form of Network Television. The minute one comes up with a hit show, the rest scramble to develop copy-cats. Watch for seventeen kid talent shows next year – all hosted by Steve Harvey.

For every SEINFELD there are four ALRIGHT ALREADYS.

Back in the ‘90s when FRIENDS burst upon the scene, the mantra of every television network was “Get us the next FRIENDS” – an ensemble comedy featuring all twentysomethings that draws big audiences.

For probably ten years there were TWO GUYS, A GIRL, AND A PIZZA PLACE on every network schedule. NBC, home of FRIENDS, even did an American version of COUPLING, eliminating everything that made the British version an absolute classic. NBC even spun off Joey from FRIENDS.  They couldn't even capture the magic of FRIENDS with a cast member from FRIENDS.

All of these attempts were seen for what they were and failed. Eventually the networks moved on and developed eighteen reality shows set on islands.

But here’s the thing: The networks’ timing was off (as usual). NOW is when they should be looking for the next FRIENDS.

The GOP is doing everything it can to distance itself from the horrific presidential candidate THEY selected. But it’s their fault. They got into bed with extremist groups. They knew who Donald Trump was when they chose him. The only surprise is that Billy Bush is going down with him.

Similarly, television networks decided long ago that total audience size is not important. Demographics are. Specifically, YOUNG demographics. So older viewers became irrelevant and all the nets cared about was chasing 18-34’s. Unfortunately, their target audience (we currently call them Millennials) is the one demographic that has abandoned network television. They’re streaming, they’re watching on apps, they’re binging, they’re looking for Pokeman. Many no longer even own TV’s. Again, networks only have themselves to blame. Their big sales pitch to Madison Avenue was that young people are so desirable because they embrace new things. Now it turns out that networks themselves are the “old thing.” Oops. Hoisted on their own petards.

So in a desperate attempt to bring them back, networks are developing sitcoms that they think Millennials like. This year that means edgy, ironic, single camera knockoffs of shows on streaming services. But none of the shows they're copying are legitimate HITS. It’s like if you’re a bottling company and want to get a big chunk of soda drinkers you don't introduce to the marketplace a knock-off version of Cel-Ray tonic.

So I repeat: NOW networks should be looking for the next FRIENDS.

Of course, they could say they tried that and it didn’t work. Uh huh. At one time they tried doing a politically-based show, it didn’t work, and for years White House-themed shows were taboo. Now there are more TV presidents than the number of actual former presidents.

The FRIENDS knock-offs didn’t work because they weren’t executed properly. They were cast with J-Crew models. They weren’t funny. They were aimed at too specific an audience.

FRIENDS is broad-based. It is well-conceived. The characters all actively WANT something. They don’t stand off to the side and just observe. They all have flaws. They’re relatable. The audience hooks into them and cares about their problems. They’re invested in the Ross-Rachel relationship.

And the characters are FUNNY. The stories are FUNNY. There are JOKES – and not just ironic quips, wry observations, pop culture references, and catch phrases. Producers today say Millennials don’t like “jokes.” Really? Who do they think is the number one audience worldwide for FRIENDS? Millennials. Not only are they laughing at jokes, they’re laughing at twenty-year-old jokes.

Which brings me to another element of FRIENDS that networks are ignoring – it’s a multi-camera show. Networks claim that’s an outdated form. How many Millennials even know the difference between single and multi-cam formats? If it’s a show they like they watch. Period. But multi-camera shows, because they’re shot in front of an audience, are held accountable. If the jokes DON’T work the writers replace them with jokes that do. And you’re seeing the dividends twenty years later.

I’m not saying networks should copy FRIENDS. Today’s twentysomethings are different. They talk differently, they have different attitudes, goals, and worldviews. I’m not the one to write it.  You need young writers who have their voice and sensibility.  And here’s the hard part: it’s difficult to find them – young writers who care about storytelling, strive to create characters with dimension so people care, and young writers who are not only funny, but can write funny while moving the story along. There are not many. But there has never been that many. That’s why all the imitators fail. Still, you have to find them. They are out there. You have to look harder.

And when you do find them, get out of their way. In an age of oppressive network interference, assume that these top flight young writers know more about mounting a show than you do. Remember that when FRIENDS was originally being developed, NBC wanted there to be a star among the group, not an ensemble. And they wanted an older character in the mix. Today of course, NBC takes credit for developing FRIENDS, but if the creators didn’t stand up to them and reject their suggestions it wouldn’t be the hit it is today.

Do the scouting, shoot high, and stop thinking niche.  Especially since that niche is already out the door.

At this point I would normally say, “What do you have to lose?” But at this moment, in 2016, I say “It might be your last chance.”

Monday, October 17, 2016

Oh, have times changed

So far I'm enjoying DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (although when is going to just "Jack Bauer" on these people?).     Kiefer Sutherland plays a U.S. President.  There's also a U.S. President on SCANDAL.   Both shows are on ABC.   That last fact is important to this story.  Other networks and streaming services have actors are portraying the Commander in Chief as well.  There must be five or six of them.  And as I watch these, I can't help thinking back to when David Isaacs and I sold a pilot to ABC that had a U.S. President character and how that made our life so difficult.

This is a story of development hell, network interference, a flawed premise, total absurdity, and how different things were in 1980.    

The pilot we pitched and sold was centered around the White House press corps. This seemed an interesting area to us – the notion of people working closely together who were close friends but also rivals. We imagined a plethora of stories of reporters roaming the White House corridors, making friends with White House gardeners and maids, trying to out-scoop each other. We could have romantic rivals, eccentric grizzled reporters, eager newbies, etc.

We could also create this world of the administration. WEST WING long before WEST WING.

And we could include political humor, something that was non-existent in sitcoms at the time.

So the show would be edgy, smart, satiric, very contemporary.

That was our pitch and that’s what ABC loved and bought.

We went off to do research. Thanks to a friend who was a White House correspondent, we got temporary press credentials to join the corps.

What we learned was this: the reporters had NO access to the corridors of the White House. They could NOT just roam the hallways. They all had to stay together as one pack in the pressroom. All day long they just sat. They all got the same presidential itineraries, all received the same briefings. If there was a photo op they were all herded as one into the Oval Office, behind ropes, then told to return to their pressroom. Interaction with the President had to be formally requested and granted. You couldn't just happen to be next to him at the urinals.

When the president traveled so did the corps., but as one group. They flew together, were bussed together, and basically did exactly what they did at the White House – sit around and kill time. Wow!!!

This was maybe the least dynamic character comedy premise EVER. But that part wasn’t ABC’s fault; it was ours for pitching this idea without knowing what the hell we were talking about.

Still, we figured we could save it. Create fascinating characters and watch them interact with each other.  Good series are ultimately about relationships anyway.

Originally, we planned to have two young reporters who had a love/hate relationship. We changed that and made the woman the press secretary and the guy a brash new reporter who just got the White House beat.  And they had once had a thing together that ended badly.  Now you had the fun of the reporter needing this person who he had previously dumped. And there was still a little spark for both of them. There was mileage in that. (Here’s how long ago this was: our prototype for the young guy in our pilot was David Letterman.)

So we had interesting characters and we still had the unique arena of national politics.

Here’s where ABC stepped in. We were not allowed to be specific regarding the president. We couldn’t say whether he was a Republican or Democrat. Well, this was sort of a problem. How could we give him a point of view? Sorry. No party affiliation.

We also couldn’t give the president a NAME. Not even a fictitious one. We couldn’t call him President Smith. They thought even a name was too political.

We weren’t allowed to debate issues. So what was anybody going to talk about?  Does anyone know a good barber?

Imagine a lawyer show where no one was allowed to mention the law. It was madness! ABC was concerned our show would be too controversial. President SMITH was too controversial?

Why the fuck did they buy this???

It gets worse.

Our pilot story revolved around one reporter getting to do a one-on-one interview with the president. Which reporter will it be? We decided to go with this story because, well… it’s the ONLY story this premise allowed for.

The last scene was our brash reporter interviewing the president. We artfully avoided issue questions. Note from ABC: We are not allowed to SHOW the president. We can hear him voice over, but actually seeing him is too specific.

But if you ever go to the White House you’ll notice that there photos of the president EVERYWHERE. Same for most government agencies but certainly in the building where he lives. We couldn’t use an identifiable actor’s picture of course, so my solution was a photo of my dad (pictured: right) . My father looks very presidential. He has often been mistaken for Sam Wanamaker or Ted Baxter.  Nope. ABC wouldn’t allow it. No pictures, not even of a person no one in America knows.

We dutifully turned in the second draft -- which ultimately was 45 pages of absolutely nothing -- and to our great relief, it was STILL too incendiary. ABC passed. Shucks! Today we’d be able to say we once did a David Letterman failed pilot. Unless they said we couldn’t actually show the reporter, which in retrospect, was highly likely.

But ABC did say they loved working with us and implored us to bring our next idea to them first. Would it surprise you to learn we didn’t?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

I'm trying an experiment

I've been on Twitter for several years and want to see if by Tweeting more I actually get more followers.   So I'm Tweeting lots of nonsense I hope you'll find amusing in 140 characters or less.   How has the experiment gone so far?  I've lost 20 followers.  

But a lot of my Tweets are anti-Trump so that's to be expected. 

If you'd like to read my misguided take on politics, show biz, and society please follow me on Twitter.  You can click here or the Twitter icon to the right of this post. 

In a month I expect to either go viral or be down to three followers. 

But I'm asking you to make this experiment a success.   Together we can make Social Media great again! 

Ever have an MRI?

Getting an MRI is never fun. A few years ago I needed one. Hearing the stories of how claustrophobic it can be squeezed into that tube, I asked my doctor whether I needed some sort of tranquilizer. He said he’d be happy to prescribe one but it meant I couldn’t drive home on my own. I asked how long the procedure would take? He said, not long. He just wanted to see one thing. Maybe ten, fifteen minutes.

So I decided not to take the tranquilizer. I could hang in there for ten/fifteen minutes. Besides, I could then come straight from work, wouldn’t need to inconvenience anyone to give me a ride home, etc.

The appointed day...

I arrive at the MRI center and learn I have to be in the tube for forty-five minutes. Shit! That's a little longer than ten. And there are no tranquilizers in sight. I express my reluctance and the technician says, “I think I can help you. We have these headphones. Normally, we play soothing music to help relax the patients." I said, "Like what? TIMOTHY?" He didn't get it. Probably neither did you. (It's a record about a guy who gets trapped in a mine and is eaten by the other miners. But that's for another fun day.)

The technician boasted that on this particular MRI they had television.

“How are you gonna wedge a television in that tube? There’s no room as it is,” I asked, still worried that I wasn’t on major drugs.

“We line up a mirror to a television that’s behind you. You see the image and hear the audio over the earphones.”

"Fine. Whatever. Let’s do it."

So they slide me into the tube. It’s as terrifying as you imagine. I’m handed a bulb to squeeze if I’m about to freak out. I begin hearing the loud rhythmic metallic clanging as it begins to record an image.  That noise alone is terrifying.  And then the fact that your laying in the barrel of a cannon.  They turn on the TV. And that’s when things went from scary to truly frightening. The show they put on was THE NANNY. And not just any episode of THE NANNY. Oh no, this was the one-hour best-of highlights show from THE NANNY.

For forty-five minutes I was forced to lie still in this tube that was no more than an inch away from my face and be subjected to non-stop Fran Drescher at her most extreme.

I thought about squeezing the emergency bulb.  But really, would I be the biggest pussy they'd ever seen?   "Hey, Fred, you shoulda seen the idiot we had in here last night.  He had a meltdown because he didn't like the channel."  

I somehow tough it out.

But they finally wheel me out. I am sweating and hyperventilating. They ask if I'm okay, and I say, “Yeah, I guess so. How did the rest of the Focus Group do?”

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The CHEERS intelligence graph

Compliments of

As someone who wrote these characters for nine years, this would be my order:

(now comes a big drop)

Sam was dumbed down over the years but at least during the first few seasons he was very smart and savvy.  So if you average his IQ over the seasons he still comes out way ahead, certainly better than Cliff.

I can't believe they put Cliff anywhere near the top.

Why Coach over Woody?   They were both pretty addled.  But you figure that before he was hit in the head by too many fastballs, the Coach was probably smarter.  Although, now that I think about it, how intelligent do you have to be to just get out of the way?  

This is a re-post from four years ago.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day, and weekend three of my play GOING GOING GONE at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. Hope you can see it and realize that the half-price ticket offer makes it well worth it to fly to Los Angeles from wherever in the world you are.  And tonight, there will be a meet-and-greet before the show.  Just go here for tickets and information.

Wayne starts us off:

Going to see your play next week. (Now THAT’S the way to get your FQ answered.)

What is the running time of a full-length play?

What is the page count of the scripts?

Lengths vary. Some are as short as an hour, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY was something like twelve hours. Bring a sandwich.

Generally plays are in the 90 minute to two hour range, but not necessarily. Eugene O’Neill tends to go long. I've teased him about that. 

And musicals are generally two-plus hours with an intermission. They always talk about the “11:00 number.” That’s the big wind up show stopping song, and if you do the math – if opening curtain is at 8:00, there’s a fifteen or twenty minute intermission, and then the show ends around 11:10 – that’s close to three hours of performance.

My play runs 90 minutes with no intermission. That’s sort of the new trend – eliminating intermissions, playing straight through. For my comedy that all takes place over one night in the same locale, that’s ideal.

What’s interesting to me is that many theaters prefer no intermissions. You’d think they’d want the break to sell more concessions. It’s not like they could have vendors going down the aisles during HAMILTON yelling, “Peanuts! Get yer peanuts, here!” (Although for my play about baseball that might work.)

In the play format each page is about a minute. Mine’s a little shorter because it zips along. GOING GOING GONE is 81 pages.

Here’s another theater question from an Anonymous reader:

I'd be interested to hear about the business end of playwriting.

Say I'm 22 and newly arrived from Genesco, Illinois. I've got the most brilliantly written piece of art since Deuteronomy. I've got an apt in the dumpy heart of Hollywood and 12-year-old Toyota. Now what? I don't know anybody in LA and I don't make friends easily. Nobody back home knows anybody in LA. I'm ready to knock on doors but where are the doors? How does this business work? It's not like there's an ad on Craig's List for "Playwright Wanted." What, at the most basic fundamental level, do I do to get started?

First off, use your name. Plays written by “Anonymous” rarely get produced.

Then join ALAP, the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights. They’re a great organization with many events and chances to network.

Check to see what theater companies in town have playwrighting units; support groups that hear and critique each other’s work.

See if there are extension courses at UCLA. The idea is to meet people and become a part of the theater community. Go see a lot of small theater. Often the playwright or director will be there. They’re usually accessible if you tell them you loved their play. Even if you lie.   I know it works with me.

But ALAP is your best first bet.

Andy Ihnatko wonders:

As the author of the play AND an experienced booth announcer, which is harder: watching an actor make a choice with your character that you didn't originally imagine and don't immediately agree with, or watching an actor choose to do things that look perfectly normal to anyone in the audience, but make you want to scream "WE NEVER BLOW ON OUR COFFEE CUPS THE COFFEEMAKERS ARE ALWAYS SO ANCIENT THAT THEY BARELY CAN MAKE ANYTHING WARM!!! SO FAKE!!!!"?

I can always express my concerns to the director, and that generally clears things up.

Yes, it’s frustrating if an actor makes a choice that to me doesn’t ring true. But often an actor will make a choice I hadn’t considered and it’s better than what I had envisioned. So you take the good with the bad, but generally there’s way more good.

And finally, Steve has a television question about unforeseen circumstances.

What do you do if a death or other event happens between taping a show and broadcasting it makes some of the jokes seem in questionable taste?

Hopefully you can get the network to change the airdate to allow some time to pass. Or, if you do have some time and it’s worth it (because it’ll be expensive), go back and either edit out the sensitive material, or replace it if you’re still in production.

Unforeseen circumstances occur more often in dramas than comedies. World events such as plane crashes or terrorist attacks that mirror events on some entertainment shows often result in the shows being forced to scramble or postponed until enough time has passed. That happened with the 24 pilot as I recall.

What’s your Friday Question?