Monday, June 30, 2014

Scenes I'd like to see

Cellphones are a writers’ best friend and worst enemy. Now it’s so much easier for characters to contact other characters. If you want someone to know something you can convey it wherever he is. That’s the good news. The bad news is that people talking to each other on the phone is static and not very interesting to watch. And thanks to cellphones we do it more now than ever. In fact, it’s worse. People now communicate via texting. That’s really dynamic to watch – two people in different locations tapping phones with their thumbs.

So it only stands to reason that show producers take a little creative license to find ways of getting people to confront each other in person and not just on their devices. And let me say that I too have been guilty of this. On several occasions on CHEERS we would have somebody come from the airport directly to the bar to see Frasier or Diane or whoever. They wouldn’t check into the hotel first, then call the bar to make sure the person is even there before grabbing a cab and barreling across a town they don't know?

So I’m hyper aware of the convention. Nowhere is it used more often and more glaring than on SUITS. Now I love SUITS. It’s one of my favorite shows. And one of the many things I like about it is how sleek and cool the show looks. And they understand that face-to-face confrontations are way more compelling than phone spats. But in a world where people lock themselves in their office and talk to everyone by phone (including their assistants only five feet away), how do you get characters together? SUITS does it in a variety of ways and these are the scenes if they were to be played for real. If you’re not familiar with the show, Harvey (played brilliantly by Gabriel Macht) is a super-slick cocky lawyer and Mike (Patrick J. Adams) is his genius protégé. This season they are working at different firms and at odds with each other. These are typical conceits the series does:


In the heart of the skyscraper business district. Harvey gets out of a towncar. He crosses to the building where Mike intercepts him.

MIKE: Got a minute?

HARVEY: What are you doing here?

MIKE: We need to talk.

HARVEY: You couldn’t phone me?

MIKE: I wanted to do it face-to-face.

HARVEY: You couldn’t make an appointment?

MIKE: I wanted to do it now.

HARVEY: How long have you been waiting?

MIKE: 45 minutes.

HARVEY: You don’t have better things to do with your time?

MIKE: I do but I wanted to get this out of the way.

HARVEY: What did you do for the last 45 minutes?

MIKE: I just stood here, sent a few texts.

HARVEY: Building security didn’t find it odd that some guy was just loitering outside the building?

MIKE: Well, I got a cup of coffee from the corner.

HARVEY: So you left your post?

MIKE: Well, yeah, for maybe two minutes.

HARVEY: What would have happened if I just arrived during those two-minutes? Would you have stood out here all day?

MIKE:  I would’ve just waited and caught you when you left.

HARVEY: So you’d stand out here for another ten hours? Boy, your clients sure get their money’s worth when they’re billed by you.

MIKE: Will you let me talk?

HARVEY: What if I said, “I’m busy. I really can’t now. Call me.”

MIKE: Harvey!! Jesus!

HARVEY: Alright. Fine. What is it?

MIKE: My client is going forward with the lawsuit.


MIKE: Pretty much. So I’ll see you in court.

HARVEY: You couldn’t text that? (TAPPING HIS PHONE) “My client is going forward with the lawsuit.” Yep. It can be done.

MIKE: I wanted to see the look on your face.

HARVEY: They also have this thing called “Face Time” now.

MIKE: Okay. I left my wallet at home and the office is 25 blocks away. Could I borrow a few bucks or your Metro card?




The skyline of the city is behind him as he works at his desk late into the night. He’s the only one on the floor. Harvey taps on the door.

HARVEY: Got a minute?

MIKE: What are you doing here?

HARVEY: I need to talk to you.

MIKE: How did you know I was here?

HARVEY: I waited outside the building for three hours and you never came out.

MIKE: How’s you get past building security?

HARVEY: The guard was drunk and asleep.

MIKE: Okay. That I buy.

HARVEY: So here’s the deal…

MIKE; How’d you get in the elevator? There’s a key after business hours.

HARVEY: I waited until someone else who had a key came along and shared the elevator with him.

MIKE: How long did you wait for him?

HARVEY: Another hour.

MIKE: The guard never woke up?

HARVEY: He could be dead. I didn’t check.

MIKE: The firm is locked. How’d you get in?

HARVEY: I promised the cleaning lady a car.

MIKE: Why didn’t you just call?

HARVEY: It was after 9. I didn’t want to be rude.

MIKE: So what do you want?

HARVEY: Nah, It can wait until tomorrow.

MIKE: No. You’re here already. What is it?

HARVEY: My client won’t be bullied.


HARVEY: That’s it. My client won’t be bullied.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Alicia Florrick.

ALICIA: Mike Ross?

MIKE: Yes. Who are you?

ALICIA: Alicia Florrick. I just flew in from Chicago and thought I’d come to this empty office building at midnight to see if you were here.

MIKE: I am. So what do you need?

ALICIA: Do you know how to get to the Wellington Hotel?


Sunday, June 29, 2014


Yesterday I discussed the process David Isaacs and I employed to come up with the story for our MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW spec.  Too bad I didn't have the dream that I shared last week.  That was better than what we did come up with.  But in those days I was too busy dreaming about unattainable women.   This is the story what we arrived at:

In the first scene we’re in the WJM newsroom. We establish that Murray is unhappy and unappreciated. Things get worse when Lou comes out of his office and chews Murray out for something. Things escalate. An uncomfortable Mary is in the middle trying to be the peacemaker. Laughs ensue. Murray mentions that a rival channel has an opening and Lou tells him fine, go for it.

Murray comes in the next day and hands in his resignation. He got the job. Mary is sad to see him go. Murray takes the opportunity to let Ted have it.

A few days later. Lou is interviewing candidates for Murray’s job. Fun with goofy applicants. Mary meanwhile, is trying to do her job and Murray’s job and is frazzled. We give Mary a chance to really show off her physical comedy chops.

We go to Mary’s apartment that night. Murray enters. We learn he’s miserable in the new job. Act break.

Act Two: Continuous. Mary’s apartment. Murray wants his old job back but felt he burned his brdge with Lou. Asks Mary to talk to Lou for him. Mary is uncomfortable being in that position but agrees to accompany Murray.

Next day. Lou is in his office. A sheepish Murray enters the newsroom. Mary knocks on Lou’s door. He says come in and they enter to find both Lou and Ted. So now Murray has to try get his job back in front of Ted to make things even more humiliating. Murray is tongue-tied and Mary winds up doing most of the talking. It results in negotiations and Mary becomes a tough bargainer on behalf of Murray. He keeps wanting to say I’ll take it but she says no, hold out. It’s ultimately resolved and everybody’s happy. Some tag I now forget and that’s it.

It felt like a good story for them. It centered on their characters and put Mary in the middle. We tried to construct it so that the jokes could come out of the characters and the tough situations we put them in.

A couple of months later we saw that they did a similar story. Murray was unhappy and decided to leave. But here’s what they did different: Instead of going to a rival station, Murray went to work for Sue Ann. There’s a scene where Mary and Lou go down to Sue Ann’s set and see first-hand that this new job is sheer hilarity hell. (Great moment where Lou punches out a puppet.) Mary then helps Murray get his newswriting job back and the story again resembled ours.

But we learned a great lesson. They took the same premise and did it better. They SHOWED Murray in the nightmarish new job. We just had him talk about it. Always better to see rather than to have off-camera exposition.

No wonder a different writer's name is on the screen instead of ours. 

Our UCLA experimental school writing teacher Crazy Ron had a MARY TYLER MOORE night. Four of us had MTM specs and he read them all aloud. Two were God awful, ours and one other were very well received. We asked the girl who wrote the other good one how long it took her to write it. Two years. Okay, she was no competition.

So armed with a script that had been well-received (by fifteen writing students) we set out to conquer Hollywood. Stay tuned for future installments.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Writing our first real script

Here’s another chapter on how David Isaacs and I began our ersatz career. In the last installment I explained how we wrote a pilot together despite neither of us having the faintest idea how to do that. You can read that post here. To the surprise of no one (even us) the pilot didn’t sell.

But it did attract the attention of an agent at a very small firm. Okay, it was just her and a telephone. And okay, it attracted her attention because David knew her daughter. But she agreed to take us on and claimed she knew people in the business. We didn’t bother asking who. It’s not like we had any other options.

We decided to take a writing class at UCLA extension. Wait, it was the UCLA experimental school, which is probably one step down from extension. Our teacher was a real character. We’ll call him Ron. He claimed he had written for BARNEY MILLER and quite a few variety shows. He was particularly proud of his comedic contribution to CHER. Those were the days before imdb. Years later when we did check all the BARNEY MILLER credits and his name wasn’t listed he said he ghost wrote the episodes. Uh huh. The thing is – if you’re going to lie, why lie and say you wrote for Cher?

Anyway, he really made his living playing in a high-stakes weekly celebrity poker game.

But his class was very valuable. We learned we had to write spec scripts from existing shows. David and I were both huge fans of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW so that’s the one we decided to write.

Ron wasn’t big on really “teaching”. If you had a spec script he would read it aloud and then we’d all critique it, which was valuable… but only up to a point.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was on CBS Saturday nights at 9. Believe it or not, Saturday night used to be a big night for television. Now it’s a dumping ground for reruns or burning off UGLY BETTY episodes.

Since David and I basically had no social life we got together every Saturday night, held a small microphone up to the TV and recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder that night’s episode of MTM. We’d then replay it several times, analyze it as best we could, and write a detailed outline. We did that maybe eight weeks in a row. And eventually patterns emerged. We figured out how they approached a story, how many scenes, the types of stories, the tone, etc.

We came up with a story of our own and were ready to write. Tomorrow: that story.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day. I’m thinking of starting a restaurant -- TGIFridayQD. What do you think?

Dana Gabbard gets us started:

What should a newcomer look for in an agent? And what should raise alarm bells to avoid one?

I’ll answer the second part first. It’s hard for new writers to be choosy. Getting any agent is not easy. But if the agent wants money from you up front, if the agent wants you to take off your clothes, if the agent says he has an in on THE MUNSTERS, if his mailing address is Chino prison, or he’s not a WGA signatory I would avoid him.

Assuming you’re in the lucky position that more than one agent wants to represent you, see which one seems more eager, more willing to work for you. See which agent is more connected in the business, has the most contacts. See how many other clients he has. How much time will he have for you?

Get out your bullshit detector. Try to determine which agent is being more honest. Are his promises realistic? “I can get you in a room with the story editor of MODERN FAMILY” is realistic. “I can get you in a room with Spielberg” is not.

From David (not Isaacs):

Do you have a favorite Cheers season as a whole? One you think is the strongest from the first to last episode?

The first season. I would put the first season of CHEERS up against the best season of any sitcom. It’s rare that a first season would be the best. Usually a sitcom needs a season or two to really find its groove. But CHEERS had such great texture, sexual chemistry, and inspired writing by the Charles Brothers that it came out of the gate blazing.

Also, Shelley was amazing that season.

I remember being on the stage the night we shot the season finale – the episode where Sam & Diane finally kiss. The audience went absolutely insane. I turned to my partner David and said, “We’ve peaked. There’s nothing we can ever do with these characters that will elicit that kind of reaction again.”

I was right.

Some of the funniest and best individual episodes of the series took place in subsequent seasons but on the whole, nothing compared with year one. And of course, our ratings were never worse than they were year one.

Ironically, another show that I thought had its best season right at the very beginning of its long run was FRASIER.

Dawn Marie wants to know:

Have you ever done any DVD commentary tracks for any of your shows? And of course, if so which ones so I can rent them? Also, do you ever listen to DVD commentaries? What do you think of them, in general (given that the quality does vary)?

Yes, David and I did commentary tracks on our two SIMPSONS episodes – “Dancin’ Homer” and “Saturdays of Thunder”. Both are rent or buyable.

I listen to DVD commentaries sometimes but rarely find them insightful. Usually they’re just directors pointing out exactly what you’re seeing. “There I thought he should duck behind that car.” Wow! Who needs film school? Actor tracks tend to be the worst. They just joke around with each other, offering nothing, and you making you feel excluded.

You guys tell me, what are some great director commentary tracks?

And finally, two questions from Timothy:

First, whats the deal with the unseen announcer on MASH? Why wasn't it a regular character (like Radar or Klinger)? They even had those characters doing announcements from time to time.

The concept was taken from the movie. I think it just added to the strangeness of the place. I liked it actually.

My second question goes along with your failures theater. I recently stumbled across "The Fighting Nightingales", but could only find some archived reviews from obscure websites that told very little. Do you know anything more about it?

It was CBS and 20th’s attempt to do a female MASH. Sort of the like THE GIRL FROM UNCLE but with the Korean War. The Fighting Nightingales were MASH nurses. It starred large-breasted Adrienne Barbeau. Don’t remember her name on the show but if Alan Alda was “Hawkeye” she could have been “Twin Peaks”.

The pilot aired once and was a casualty of television war.

What’s your question?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

My big announcement of the year!

I'm thrilled to announce that my new play, A OR B? will be part of the 2014-2015 subscription series of the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.  Owned by Garry Marshall, this is one of the nicest and most respected theatres in Southern California.   The whole season looks great actually.   
And here's the blurb about my play:
I have to say, this is a big step up for me as a playwright.  My first production was in a war zone in LA on the second floor above a pizza parlor.    My friends wanted to see it but all turned back at La Brea. 

My second production was over a bowling alley (I kid you not).  Nothing is more ideal for comedy than crashing pins all night.  Plus, there was a Jerry's Deli attached.  Going to the war zone production was far safer than a post-theatre snack at Jerry's. 

As the ad says, A OR B? is a romantic comedy exploring both personal and professional relationships from many angles.   If I did my job right, it's both funny and a heartbreaking -- y'know, like love REALLY is. 

For ticket information and more details, here's where you go.    And to be put on the Falcon email list, where you get all kinds of great scoops, you sign up here

We start rehearsals in the fall and I'll keep you up to date on the process and progress.  But most of all, I'd love for you to come see the play.   Who knows?  Someday I may be at the Tony's and some snarky blogger will take gratuitous shots at me.   The theater is about dreaming. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

At some point you've got to be a WRITER

A writer is hired to write a comedy pilot. He is paid a lot of money. More than a regular script. But pilots are much tougher. You have to establish the premise, introduce the characters, set the comic tone, lay in a good story, give an indication of where the series might be going, seamlessly work in all the network and studio notes, and be hilariously funny – all in 22 minutes. It’s not for the faint of heart. But like I said, pilot writers are well compensated.

And if their pilot gets on the air and becomes a hit they see weekly “created by” royalties and often own a piece of the show in syndication.

Now let’s say the pilot script has been greenlit. And it’s a multi-camera sitcom. Here’s the typical process for that genre: The script is rehearsed every day followed by a runthrough. The showrunner and his staff go back to the room and do the necessary rewriting, often staying late into the night because a new script must be on the stage the next morning at 9:00. And you think Jack Bauer faces pressure. But there is a staff. The showrunner doesn’t have to do it himself.

Same is true for a pilot, except the stakes are way higher and there is no staff. It’s just the guy who wrote the pilot. Understandably, he could use some help at this point. Back in the fabulous ‘80s there was money budgeted for other writers to come in and help out. I think I lived for two years on failed Cheech Marin pilots alone.

Studios stopped paying consultants. So the pilot writer would ask his writer friends to help out as a favor. Instead of big paydays we would get lovely gifts. For years this system has been in place. I’ve helped out on many a pilot and when I’ve had a pilot myself I’ve been able to call in one helluva cavalry. I’m still more than happy to come in and pitch deep into the night if a friend has a pilot on the stage.

But a new trend has emerged. Pilot writers have begun to ask friends to come in and help punch up the script before it goes to the studio and network. To me, this is taking advantage. It’s one thing to help out during actual production when it’s crunch time, but the pilot writer is being paid a bundle and I’m supposed to help write the script for an iPad Mini? And not even the model that gets 3G?

On the one hand, it puts me in an awkward position. I don’t want to be an asshole and say no, but at the same time I resent being put in that position. I’ve said yes once or twice in the past. From now on it’s no.

Also, isn’t this practice somewhat unethical? If I’m a network and I receive a script with your name on it, it’s fair to assume this represents your work. My decision as to whether to make the pilot could be based on my faith that you can deliver scripts of this caliber every week should I pick up your show. But if all the best jokes and nice moments and inventive story turns were written by a ghost staff, I’m basing my decision on false pretenses.

And lastly, where’s the original writer’s pride of authorship? If you don’t believe in your work and stand by your work, why are you taking the money?

One writer friend was asked to help out on a first draft and arrived to find ten other people also sitting there. The pilot writer then tried to send groups of them off into separate rooms to rewrite the scenes. Unconscionable! My friend balked, as well he should.

There is such an overlay of fear in the business these days. It governs almost every decision. A pilot going into production used to begin with a table read where the cast sat around a table and read the script aloud. Now studios are so afraid of the network’s reaction that they have pre-table reads. And pre-pre table reads. Similarly, networks must approve everything, from the wardrobe to set dressing to actors who have only one line. Experienced showrunners can’t be trusted to pick out a lamp.

And this paralyzing fear has now filtered down to writers… and some studios that encourage this practice of assembling back up writers. I’m sure they reason that other pilots are doing it so they need to do it as well to compete. To that I say ‘so what?’ I can’t control the competition. I have no idea what sweetheart deals have been made or which projects will get priority based on relationships. All I can do is turn out the best script I possibly can. It may not go but at least I can sleep at night.

James L. Brooks has a great line. “At some point you’ve got to become a WRITER.”   The first draft is the only time the writer truly has command over his project.  Don't give that up.  Own it.   Or give me $50,000 for the day and I'll be the writer. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My review of JERSEY BOYS

Broadway musicals are hard to adapt to the screen. They tend to be stylistic on the stage, but don’t translate to the realism of a motion picture. The biggest problem is that people in real life generally do not just break out into song. Rarely is there an orchestra nearby when you need one. To adapt a musical successfully it takes a director with a deft hand or Julie Andrews.

However, I would think that one of the easiest musicals to film would be JERSEY BOYS. The story is set in a real time and place, the structure is solid, the characters are well defined, and the songs they sing are actual songs a group would sing. It’s not Idina Menzel sitting on a subway suddenly belting out “Let It Go” for no reason.

And then there’s the music itself. The songs of the Four Seasons, especially for baby boomers, is as close to bulletproof as you can find.

So it would take a real effort to screw up a movie version of JERSEY BOYS.

Enter Clint Eastwood.

Somehow Clint managed to do to JERSEY BOYS what Dirty Harry did to the Zodiac Killer.

And even though I’ve admired much of his work in the past, I can’t imagine a worse creative choice than Clint Eastwood to direct this movie. Forget that he’s a staunch Republican supporting candidates who are trying to cut funding for arts programs (thanks to Tallulah M. for that observation even though I’m now in for a flood of hate comments), he just has no feel for the genre, the era, the music, or Italians.

What’s next? Eli Roth (of HOSTEL fame) adapting the Carole King musical? Oliver Stone doing BOOK OF MORMON? Michael Bay bringing LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA to the silver screen?

But let’s get to JERSEY BOYS. First, I should say it’s one of the best Broadway musicals I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen it many times. It’s my “WICKED.” I was really looking forward to this.

Visually, the movie is just plain ugly. Washed out color, over exposed, brown – it looks like that old framed photo of your grandparents that has been bleached by the sun for the last sixty years. The music and era is upbeat. Why make it look like Ted Turner colorized an old black-and-white Bowery Boys short?

The tone was all over the place. Sometimes realistic and other times the characters would randomly talk to the screen. Clint almost seemed embarrassed to be directing a musical. I suspect he was permanently traumatized by starring in PAINT YOUR WAGON.

So again? Then why do it? Would you get Sam Peckinpah to direct GIGI?

On the stage, when the Four Seasons finally break through with “Sherry” the musical really takes off. It soars the rest of the way. The movie is endlessly plodding. Now you could say, why blame the Republican? Why not blame the writers if the musical was so much better than the movie? The same writers (Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice) did both. Obviously they weren’t driving the creative train. They didn't cast it.  They didn't determine the look or the pace.   They didn't edit it. 

One bright spot worth mentioning: Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio absolutely steals the movie – and that’s saying something when you have Christopher Walken playing his now familiar court jester of himself. Bergen also played Gaudio on the stage and was so nimble with such charm it was like he was in a different movie.

On the other hand, there’s John Lloyd Young. He originated the role of Frankie Valli and was the toast of Broadway. Tonys and good tables at Sardi’s followed. But acting in a musical, like everything else in a musical is very stylized. Your character might be asked to whisper and you still will have to yell it to the back row. Unless you’re Nathan Lane, real people don’t act that way. And the movie camera is intimate. The acting has to be natural. Tiny facial expressions are sometimes enough to convey entire emotions. And the sad cruel truth is that the camera just seems to love certain people and not love others. It loves Hugh Jackman; it doesn’t love Ryan Reynolds. It loves Anne Hathaway; is real meh about Amanda Seyfried. (And it has no idea what to think about Helena Bonham Carter.) There’s a presence, an X-Factor, just something special required to carry a major motion picture. And John Lloyd Young tries hard but just doesn’t have it. I give Clint props for going with unknowns – that’s how you discover the next Christoph Waltz – but Young belongs on the stage where he thrives.

Yet, he was Brando compared to Vincent Piazzza who played group member, Tommy DeVito. His “dem’s and doe’s” portrayal of a Jersey Italian wiseguy was beyond sketch. Has Clint ever seen a Martin Scorsese movie, because there are ways to play these gunsels without resorting to character assassination. Mel Brooks made Nazis look more credible. Fo-getta-bout-it!

There is, to be fair, one great section of this movie. A terrific street dance production number. Unfortunately, and this is all you need to know about the movie, it’s during the closing credits. So instead of paying to see JERSEY BOYS, wait for a road company stage version to come rolling through your town, and when the flick inevitably goes to HBO and in-flight entertainment (I'm guessing the 4th of July), catch the last five minutes. As a movie it’s a flop; as a music video it’s a pick-to-click.

Monday, June 23, 2014

On the next: Levine Rant

TV’s equivalent of the Hatfields & McCoy’s is showrunners vs. network promo departments.

It’s tough for the promo departments because showrunners are never happy. They all want more promos, they all want longer promos, they all want promos in top rated shows where their message might actually be seen. There are only so many promo slots and invariably somebody or everybody is going to be unhappy.

For showrunners, it’s often maddening that promo departments will give away big plot twists, give away big jokes, or create an ad that’s not an accurate representation of what the episode is about. Many times I’ve seen a promo for my show and just cringed. If there’s a sex joke or pratfall you can bet the farm that’s what the promo will highlight.

One of my new pet peeves is promo departments trying to be too trendy. An example is the recent CBS sitcom, FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES. CBS promoted it as #FWBL. It had aired maybe twice. Who the fuck knew that #FWBL meant FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES? It was just a jumble of random letters and the super-trendy hash tag. At least HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER had been on the air for years before many adopted the shorthand HIMYM. And I’m sure 70% of their audience still doesn’t know what HIMYM means. Stop pandering so desperately to the LOL/OMG crowd that you break the first rule of advertising: tell the public what the product is.
And stop reducing show titles to one word. It’s fine to just say IDOL because we all know what AMERICAN IDOL is. But recently I heard a promo on Fox for DANCE. Huh?  It’s not even like there’s only one show on TV with “dance” in the title. In this case it was SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE – a summer replacement. Of all the shows with “dance” in their name it’s not even the one you think of first. If at all.

This is true in daytime too. When you hear “On the next ELLEN…” you know who Ellen is. You know who Oprah is (or was). But when I hear “On the next Wendy…” I’m scratching my head saying who the fuck is that? A show has to be on long enough or have the star identifiable enough that he earns the right to shorthand. Or have a goofy name like Montell or Arsenio or Queen.

Promo departments also get into trouble with the catchphrase “on the next” because it will trap them into ungrammatical statements. “On the next THE VIEW…”

As if grammar matters. When a cable series goes to commercial the new trend is to hear, “brought to you in part by…” What is brought to you in part by? Would it be so hard to add “MAD MEN is brought to you in part by…?”

A network may claim they do that because they only have precious few seconds to get their message across in this era of fast forwarding through non-content. But that doesn’t stop ABC from saying ABC eight times in every promo. “Tonight on ABC – ABC’s SCANDAL on ABC.” A – we get it, B – it’s grammatically incorrect, and C- it sounds like you think we are idiots.

Promo hype has also run its course. “Tonight on a very special episode of….” means nothing. No one believes “This is the episode everyone will be talking about tomorrow.” One promo claimed I would be “changed forever” if I watched some cheesy procedural.

One particularly heinous promo said, “Tonight it’s MODERN FAMILY, the best family comedy on the air… followed by THE MIDDLE.” Nice promo for THE MIDDLE, guys.

And that brings up another issue. A :30 second promo for MODERN FAMILY and MIDDLE will feature :25 seconds of MODERN FAMILY and :05 for THE MIDDLE. To the network each show gets credit for a promo.

Networks also believe those horrible intrusive animated blobs they have pop up in the middle of shows constitute a promo. Yes, in the sense that you’re turning people off to those shows. The expression “Any publicity is good publicity” does not apply to TV promos. Annoying promos repel viewers. If someone is going to hate my show, at least do so based on the show, not because you think I’m ruining THE GOOD WIFE by shoving my message in your face.

But like I said, this is an age old feud between promo departments and showrunners. I’m sure the promo people could show you research that you can not repeat your network ID enough, even if it sounds forced and desperate. They will tell you that sex jokes attract attention. They will tell you that those animated pop ups are the only way to force viewers to see your title since everyone fast forwards through commercials and promos. They’ll tell you that #FWBL sends a message that CBS is totally locked in to young viewers. They’ll have numbers and charts and graphs. What they don’t seem to have is that one person who’ll step back and say, “#FWBL – WTF does that mean?”

Sunday, June 22, 2014

I had a bizarre dream last night

I was at some party and bumped into Allan Burns, one of the co-creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It was the final year of the show (in my dream). I asked if David and I could write one of the last episodes. Our dream had always been to write a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. He was thrilled we wanted to do one. I guess in the altered world of my dream we had a track record (or I just have the world’s most inflated ego).

Now we flash to the filming of our show. David and I are on the floor. That’s the beauty of dreams – you can skip the actual “writing” part. In INCEPTION everyone dreams elaborate action sequences and fantastical adventures. I dream filming nights.

The episode we came up with, I have to say, was pretty damn good. Someone filed a sexual harassment suit against Murray. So to prove his innocence he came out of the closet. This set up some fun reactions from his co-workers. Mary couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe she sat right next to a person for years and couldn’t detect that he was gay. Lou was unfazed. He knew it all along. Ted started asking Murray questions about what it was like. Too many questions and way too detailed to just be out of curiosity. Sue Ann came in and said something so offensive I can’t even repeat it but it did get a big laugh and clearly there were no CBS censors in my dream world.

What struck me afterwards was this: how different the storytelling is in sitcoms now as opposed to back then. No, this isn’t one of those “back in MY day we knew how to tell a story. Not like these young pissants today” rants. Just an observation. Comedies today are much faster paced. They’re usually jammed with story. Quick scenes, multiple plots. Or in the case of BIG BANG THEORY – just a barrage of jokes.

Storytelling in the 70s and 80s was generally a little more leisurely. I say “generally” because MASH was just as fast paced as today’s shows (or faster) and maybe that’s one reason why it still holds up so well.

But as a rule series used to be constructed differently. You’d have a collection of colorful characters that all had very disparate points of view. You would toss some issue into the middle of the room and watch as they all had their takes and interacted with each other. You allowed room for the characters to breathe, to just have discussions. The downside was the stories moved slower but the upside was you got to really learn more about these characters. And hopefully you would make a connection and start to truly care about them. So their plight in stories took on an added importance.

Now that’s great when it works. When it doesn’t you’re left with a boring half hour where nothing happens and nothing’s funny. Even that the industry got away with for awhile, renaming them “dramedies”.

Anyway, that was my dream. The REAL dream would be if I got residuals from that episode. (Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Johnny Walker for creating the writing "credit.")

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Slipping inside jokes into shows

A reader’s question will sometimes spark an entire post and that’s the case today. Richard Y. wanted to know about inside references and jokes writers slip into shows. Did we do it on purpose? How often did we do it, etc.? He perceptively noticed that on an episode of WINGS, Steven Weber walks by a magazine rack that features an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY with his likeness and real name on the cover.

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone but I’d imagine that all writers slip these little nuggets in from time to time. What good is writing a show for 30,000,000 people if you can’t have a joke or two aimed at only six?

In some cases, writers do this to reward the audience for paying strict attention. I think LOST did that 500 times an episode. There are historical, literate, and spiritual references galore. We didn’t do that on ALMOST PERFECT. But any time Nancy Travis or any character was watching TV they were always watching CHEERS.

Hey, I’ll be honest. We do it for our own amusement. We do it because we can.

There’s a very famous episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S where Adam Arkin keeps commuting back and forth between Hawaii and Chicago. I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about. Well, we show him on a plane four or five times and every time he’s reading my book, “It’s Gone…No, Wait a Minute!” (This did not result in the huge spike in sales I was counting on, however.)

Animated shows are perfect vehicles for slipping in private jokes. The “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS that David Isaacs and I wrote is chock-full of names of actual people I encountered broadcasting baseball in the minor leagues. I play the Springfield Isotopes announcer, “Dan Hoard”. Dan was my partner in Syracuse and is a prominent sportscaster today.

There are often cartoon character likenesses of the writers that show up in THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY. You’d think they’d be more flattering.

It’s always a pain-in-the-ass coming up with names for characters. But this is an ideal way to slip in names of people you know. A lot of my former girlfriends show up as nurses on MASH. One became Charles’ sister, “Honoria”. Yes, I went out with a Honoria. It seems that anytime 24 needed a villain who wasn’t Russian or Persian (so that means twice in nine years) they used the name of a Fox network or studio executive.

Growing up, our family dog was named Babette. My mother named her. Can’t say I was ever crazy about the name. So in an episode of MASH that we wrote, Radar loses his hamster, which he named Babette. Then throughout the show everyone gave him a raft of shit for naming her that. After the episode aired my mom called and said, “Very funny.” But again, what’s the point of producing a primetime network television show if you can’t use it expressly to needle your mother?

Anytime I directed a show and there was a scene in a nice restaurant my dad became the maitre ‘d. That turned into a regular gig on ALMOST PERFECT when the show got picked up and “Annie’s” (named for my daughter) became a permanent set.

I used to love in MAD magazine there were sometimes cartoon panels that were just loaded with little bonus gags in the margins and background. Let’s just say there’s a lot of MAD in MASH.

Update:  I just received the following Tweet from Loren & Byron.

@KenLevine When I was about 20, I sent you a check for $50 to name a character after me on Cheers. You sent it back to me with a nice note.

You mean I didn't take the money? What was wrong with me?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Questions

Some FRASIER related Friday questions lumped together this week. Ask your question in the comments section. I'll try to get to as many as I can. Thanks.
From te:

Some -- well, many -- of the references on Frasier are pretty arcane. Was the writing staff really all that familiar with the hoity-toity world; did you just grab from The New Yorker, or was one of the grips on call for the more obscure wine & cheese jokes?

Some on the staff were more cultured than others. They knew wine, art, and I think two of them were so sophisticated they even spoke French. I knew that wine sold in bottles rather than cans was better. So when faced with hoity-toity references I would consult with upscale magazines or liquor stores. On the other hand, my degree from UCLA is in Psychology. So I was able to compose most of the psycho-babble without any consultation, which is why it’s probably all wrong.

Duffy asks:

Who was the funniest actor you worked with?

David Hyde Pierce. The man is a comic God.

Daws wants to know:

Do you think there's a chance that there will ever be a "Frasier" reunion show?


I'm sure a lot of fans would like to see "where" the characters are five, six, ten years down the line.

No they wouldn’t. Not really. Those things are always so depressing. All you see is how much older everyone has gotten. Or how much weight they’ve gained. Better they should live on in reruns, young and vital, and with hair.

And finally, from Bitter Animator:

Moose (the original Eddie) was clearly a top-notch actor but I couldn't help noticing on reruns that, when Moose retired and his replacement stepped in, Eddie's role diminished greatly. I was really surprised he played such a little part (if he was even in it) in the finale. This had me wondering - was it because Moose's replacement didn't have the range? Or simply that the Eddie character had run his course?

I love the notion that fetching on command could be considered “range”. All of the dogs on FRASIER had a fabulous and loving trainer, Mathilde DeCagny. We tried not to do anything too ambitious, and we always checked with Mathilde first to see if the stunt we had in mind was something Moose could easily learn. And perform in front of a live audience. Moose was pretty remarkable.

And again, Mithilde used nothing but treats and positive reinforcement to train her animals.

Were you guys writing for specific dogs?

Yes, but not on FRASIER.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"That's my name. Don't wear it out."

Yesterday we talked about “what?” (as opposed to “whatever”). Along similar lines, have you noticed that characters in television shows call each other by name waaaaay more than people do in real life? And I’m guilty of this myself.

What I’m talking about specifically are conversations between two people. It’s common to use names during greetings. “Hey, Octavio, what’s going on?” “Eustacia, you’re looking hot”, etc.

But once you get into the text of a conversation, rarely do you say the other’s person name… unless it’s to really emphasize a point, or more often, because you’re pissed at that person. “Persefone, you ran over the cat,” or “Thaddeus, you can’t sleep with the nanny.”

I understand using the convention for pilots. The audience doesn’t know who these characters are yet. And it’s a big help on ORPHAN BLACK where the same actress plays nine different roles. When Sarah and Alisson are talking about Cosima and Rachel, and they’re all the same person, names prove to be mighty handy.

But frequently we writers use names as a crutch, a way to prefix or punctuate a line. And in normal conversation people use prefixes a lot. “Look,” “Listen,,” “I mean,” “You know,” “It’s like,” Um,” and every dialogue writer’s favorite: “Well…” Sprinkling in a character’s name allows you to avoid “Well,” to begin every speech.

I’m currently in the process of rewriting my play. It’s a two-character piece so 90% of the time it’s a dialogue between one couple. As I’m going through, revising, sure enough, there are instances when they call each other by name unnecessarily. I’ve cut that down from 50 to 42. No, I’m kidding. But still, more like 15 times to 5.

Seriously, for the next few days, when you’re in conversations with people you know well, see how many times you call each other by name.

All that said, I have to boast that we on CHEERS found perhaps the best use of a character’s name.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"What" writing partners argue over

Readers always ask if my partner, David Isaacs and I have fights when we’re writing. Sure, but the trick is to never make the fights personal. We can have a heated argument over a story point and then just go to lunch and discuss baseball. If we disagree on a joke pitch we’ve found it’s way easier to just toss it out, come up with something new, not waste a half hour on the argument, and result in someone being unhappy.

That said, we have had one disagreement that has been ongoing for literally decades.

I think characters should say “what?” occasionally when they hear a big piece of information and David thinks it’s unnecessary.

“I want a divorce.”

“There’s a tank coming.”

David thinks I rely it on too much.

“These apples are good.”

Okay, maybe he has a point there. But I contend that people say “what?” in daily conversation way more than they even think they do. And to support my point, if so many people didn’t say it, then the expression would never have evolved to “What the fuck?” I’d like to think that through our scripts I helped coin and popularize that now-treasured phrase.

And I also exercise some discretion.  I never pitch "say what?"

So how have we resolved this sticky matter?

We barter.

David will say, “I’ll give you a ‘what?’ for two ‘so’s’.” Yes, this leads to other arguments (“I have a ‘what’ banked from Thursday.” “No, you used that ‘what’ Monday.” “But we cut that speech.” “It still counts.”), but on the whole this has gotten us through hundreds of scripts. And it’s an example of the kind of stupid shit partners bicker about all day.

And don’t get us started with when to use and when to use --.  The police were once called.

Update: I'm not alone it seems. Don Draper says "what?" a lot. Thanks to reader F.Rumsen for finding this.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

My tribute to Tony Gwynn

I usually try to make my blog lighthearted (or on rare occasions, informative). But every so often someone will pass away who I had great affection for and I will write about that. Usually I like those tributes to be few and far between. This is the first time I’ve done two back-to-back. Casey Kasem yesterday and Tony Gwynn today. I hope you’ll indulge me, but I just couldn’t let their passings pass.

I knew Tony Gwynn well. We were together for three years when I broadcast for the San Diego Padres and he was at the height of his career. You’ll be hearing and reading many tributes to TGwynn (as we called him) and every nice thing they say is true. What I want to do is share some personal recollections, show you some day-to-day examples of what a prince this man was.

One time we were playing the Giants in old Candlestick Park. My two kids, Matt & Annie, were with me at the park that day. It’s several hours before the game, me and my kids are sitting in the dugout and Tony saunters by. My son asks if he could have his autograph. Tony said sure. (Tony always said sure.) Matt looked around for a ball. There were a few old batting practice balls lying around so he picked up one of those. Tony said, “That’s not what you want. Wait here.” The Padres clubhouse was way down the rightfield line, past the foul pole. Tony ran all the way to the clubhouse and back with two brand new baseballs to sign for my kids.

For Matt's bar mitzvah Tony gave him one of his bats.  Way cooler than a Savings Bond.  
We all know Tony was a spectacular hiter. Eight-time batting champ. Hall of Famer.   But he never took anything for granted. When we were on the road he would bring a portable VHS player, hook it up to his TV in the room, set the timer for the game, and come back and study his at bats.

And he devoted the same effort to his fielding. We were in Pittsburgh once at old Three-Rivers Stadium. It was late September, the end of the season. The Padres had long since been eliminated (probably in August), as were the Pirates (July). This was a weekend series of utterly meaningless games. I got out to the park very early on Friday to begin my preparations for the series. The field was completely empty except for Tony in rightfield, throwing the ball off various parts of the wall to refamiliarize himself with how to play the carom in this particular outfield.

Tony was a great laugher, but the biggest laugh I ever got from him was just after we both were almost killed. He and I shared a cab to Shea Stadium in New York one afternoon. Somewhere in the streets of Queens the cabbie lost control and the cab did a full 360 spin before coming safely to a stop. Once we caught our breath I said to Tony, “You realize that if anything had happened the headline in all the papers and on all the news shows would be ‘Tony Gwynn and passenger killed in car accident.’ My life would be reduced to ‘passenger.’ “ Tony called me ‘passenger’ for the next two weeks.

He answered every question, he spoke to everyone who approached him, he was loyal to the city of San Diego even though he received larger offers from other teams – I can’t think of one bad thing he ever did.

Except one.

He used chewing tobacco. And it killed him at the way too tender age of 54.

One question I'm often asked is “Of all the baseball players that you’ve known, who’s your favorite?” My answer is always, “Tony Gwynn.” He’s my ultimate MVP – with the M standing for Mensch.

I was honored to be his passenger.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A tribute to Casey Kasem

Sorry to hear that Casey Kasem passed away yesterday. He was 82. His last few months have been a circus with his kids and stepmother, Jean Kasem fighting over his care. I don’t have any insight into that whole mess. I never knew his kids and this seemed very out of character for the Jean Kasem I’ve known for years (she played Lo-retta on CHEERS).

I did know Casey but not well. We traveled in the same radio circles and he always came to tapings of CHEERS when Jean guested. He was friendly, gracious, and as warm as his voice.

In many ways he was a trailblazer.

Casey began in radio just as local stations, specifically Top 40 stations , were starting to take off in a big way. At the time, the preferred style for disc jockeys was do anything to get attention. They were loud, they talked fast, they assumed hipster personas, they rang cowbells and inserted sound effects, or they talked in phony voices (known as puking). Casey did none of that. He spoke in a normal voice, never shouted, never pretended to be anyone other than who he was – he just communicated. He talked one-on-one to the listener. He never referred to them as “gang,” or “everybody,” or “cousins.” The smile in is voice was sincere.

I first heard him in the mid ‘60s on KRLA in Los Angeles. He always worked the mid-day shift. His connection with the music was not to snap his fingers and pretend he was “grooving” with every song. He told stories about the artists and the music. My only problem was the station itself. Its format was all over the place and I never felt they got the best use of Casey’s talent. Crosstown powerhouse KHJ wanted to hire him away but he stayed at KRLA. Loyalty was another of his exemplary traits.

But I always thought that Casey’s content blended with KHJ’s streamlined format would produce one of the great radio shows ever.

And I was right.

Because in 1970, Casey would collaborate with Ron Jacobs, the program director and creative mastermind of KHJ on a new project called AMERICAN TOP 40. For three hours a week Casey would countdown the Top 40 hits of the day and weave in stories, dedications, and other nuggets. The show became a huge smash, heard in just about every market in the country. And it still survives to this day (now hosted by someone named Seacrest). Historical note: These were the days long before just emailing mp3s or zip drives. Radio stations would receive three pressed vinyl albums each week that contained the full show.

So Casey blazed new trails for syndication as well.

And then he took on voice overs. At the time, everyone doing voice over commercials had huge rumbling deep pipes. They were all the Voice of God. Casey had a breathy voice. But he also had that warmth and sincerity. You believed him when he recommended a product. Within a few years of doing voice overs, Casey changed the whole game plan. Basso profondos were out, natural relaxed voices were in. And they’re still in to this day. Again, thank you, Casey.

Casey branched out into animation, notably providing the voice of Shaggy on SCOOBY-DOO.

Needless to say, Casey was quite wealthy as a result of his success. But you’d never know it. He never came off pompous, or entitled, or self-important. He was always just a regular guy. Casey will be greatly missed. In this crazy angry world, don’t you wish everybody spoke to you the way Casey Kasem did?

And now he and God can audition for the same spots.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Letter from Stanley Kubrick

This has been going around but worth sharing here.  Stanley Kubrick was, of course, the esteemed director of such movies as DR. STRANGELOVE, PATHS OF GLORY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and 2001: A SPACY ODYSSEY.   James Aubrey, at the time, was running MGM.  I can't vouch for its authenticity but who knows?  It's hilarious. 

Happy Father's Day

On this Father’s Day (the most sacred holiday of the year) I’d like to wish a happy one to my dad, who also happens to be my hero, mentor, and best friend. I love you, Dad.  I'm in therapy for other reasons. 

Here are some pithy Father’s Day quotes:

“To be a successful father… there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.” -- Ernest Hemingway

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.” -- Bill Cosby

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” -- William Shakespeare

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." – Mark Twain

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.” -- Charles Wadsworth

And finally, a salute to Screaming Jay Hawkins. Screaming Jay was a r&b/blues singer. His big hit was “I Put a Spell on You” in which he came out of a coffin. The man was a crowd pleaser. And also a lady pleaser it seems. Upon his death when it was time to divvy up the estate it was discovered he had 57 children. Screaming Jay will not be saluted on Planned Parenthood day.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.  Note to my family:  I hate power tools.  I'm more of a "free trip to Europe" kind of guy. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Karen also sang jingles

Here's a rarity -- Karen Carpenter sang a jingle for KFRC, San Francisco. This was a package KFRC used in the mid '70s. This is kind of like getting Picasso to draw your restaurant's menu cover.

A salute to Karen Carpenter

Last Monday I was ranting about all the needless belting on the Tonys awards.   The current trend of overly emo power ballads is tiresome and no longer packs a real punch.

In contrast...

The '70s gave us the Carpenters.  Their music has been largely disregarded as "pop" and "schmaltz" but Karen Carpenter had an extraordinary voice.  Here are some of her songs with her vocal track singled out.  Just the drums and bass are heard.   But what a rich, pure, soulful voice.  No vocal gymnastics, no ear-splitting final notes.   Just wonderful singing.  Enjoy the artistry of the late Karen Carpenter.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday Questions

Without further adieu, here are this week’s Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Desperado leads off with:

Back in the day when TV series used to have elaborate opening titles, who decided how these would look (i.e. clips of actors shown with names superimposed, vs. establishing scenes as was the case on M*A*S*H)? The director, producer, or was it outsourced?

Same question for the closing credits. Who decided if there would be just a static image (Cheers), vs. clips or stills from the episode just shown (M*A*S*H)? If the latter, who selected the images? Was there a great deal of effort put into making the selections, or was it just an afterthought?

The showrunners have final say on what their opening and closing credits will be – as long it’s within the time allotted by the network. Today it is rare to see full opening titles on network shows (although there are exceptions like CSI), but in the good old days opening titles were a major part of the series. A tremendous amount of time and effort went into it. 

When we did BIG WAVE DAVE’S we told CBS we really needed an opening title sequence. It was a show set in Hawaii but was multi-camera. We argued that you can’t have a show about Hawaii and not at least for a few seconds SEE Hawaii. They said okay. Instead of 15 seconds we could have 30 seconds. I said that wasn’t enough. We wanted a minute. They came back with 35. We settled on 41. We were literally arguing over seconds.

There used to be a couple of production companies that specialized in opening titles. Castle-Bryant did the CHEERS opening (along with many others). For a number of years these companies had more work than they could handle. Now opening titles are few and far between (on networks).

In the case of MASH, producer Gene Reynolds filmed those opening titles himself.

A lot of shows, especially comedies, would show zany clips of the stars. I always hated those. They felt so cheesy.

Of course everything now has to be so frenetic and attention-grabbing. Yet one of my favorite opening titles (and one I feel was most successful in conveying the tone of the show) was THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Andy and Opie just walking in the woods, Andy toting his fishing pole. So simple yet so classy.
Closing title length also depends on the network. Today it’s a joke because titles are squeezed so the networks can promote their next shows. But back in the day, showrunners chose the style. I always preferred the one static still so the audience could focus on the names on the screen. Why clutter it with quick cuts from the show or some moving image?

What’s your favorite opening title sequence?  Yeah, that's right.  I'm asking YOU a Friday Question.

From Brian regarding a recent post about pilot pitching:

In today's post you mentioned that the networks would start opening up for pilot pitches soon. How does the pilot submission process work? Is it possible for a non-represented writer to get their pilot script in for consideration?

Honestly, no. If you don’t have a track record networks won’t see you. NBC has that online contest though. You might check that out.

But here’s the reality: networks only invite people to pitch they have faith in or want to be in business with. You need either experience or be a hot actor. After you’ve been on staff somewhere for a year or two, then the networks might be interested.

JR asks:

How is writing for shows with commercials different from those without? Is the structure of the script the same? Does the freer form change the process at all?

Commercial placement determines how you tell a story. Will there be one big break in the middle and thus a two act format, or two commercial breaks and a three act format?

You break stories differently if it’s three acts as opposed to two. With two acts, you build to the big crisis at the act break. You need multiple crises in a three act format.

However, when you’re on cable and there are no commercial interruptions you’re not restricted. You definitely want to construct a story that has a good beginning, middle, and end – but where those crisis points come and how many of them, that you can vary from episode to episode. You really can just let the story unfold.

And finally, from Manny:

In the age of binge-watching, it seems shows are becoming more and more serialized. Do you prefer shows, sitcoms, in particular, with lots of continuity and continuing storylines, or do you think doing stand-alones is the way to go? I prefer serialization, but both have their pros and cons.

I think CHEERS sort of began the trend of year-long serialized story arc the first season with Sam & Diane.

I believe that sitcoms can have a serialized element that runs through it, but primarily it should be a stand-alone episode. Especially for syndication purposes. When reruns of a sitcom are on every day, do you watch it every day? Chances are no. You may catch one or two. You don’t want to feel lost because you missed some episodes. You want to sit back, get a few laughs, and move on.

I think part of the problem with the new episodes of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT that ran on Netflix was that they were so interwoven and complicated and required so much attention to detail and continuity that a lot of its most stalwart fans threw their hands up in frustration. I don’t think people want to work that hard with sitcoms.

Please leave your question in the comments section.  Thanks!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bill Kurtis responds to my blog readers

In the comments section of today's earlier post, a number of people brought up Bill Kurtis, who in addition to being a superb newscaster, has also done some very funny acting turns.  Bill himself has responded.  Here's what he said:

Interesting. I'm 73, 30 years with CBS, 20 years producing series for A & E, CNBC, etc. And now picking up 'straight' roles. I remember William Friedken, the director telling someone, "Don't Act. Relax and concentrate." So, straight it is. Humorous lines coming out of a deadpan, suited, old white man's face, has the kind of incongruous, unexpected surprise that is humorous. At least to me. In my early years, I was hoping that would grow into a NYTimes quality product. But it went the other way. Today, John Stewart is the most trusted man in America. Go figure. And have fun. Bill Kurtis

Thanks so much, Bill.  You never know who reads my blog.  

Always hire the actor

This is sort of a follow-up to an earlier post.

There’s an old expression that goes something like this: The difference between a comic and a comic actor is that the comic says funny things and the comic actor says things funny.

Not to take anything away from comics – stand up is truly an art and if you think it’s easy just telling jokes sign up for an open mic night one time; your next stop will be jumping off a bridge -- but there’s a big difference between delivery and acting.

As a writer and producer I’ve always believed that the best comedy comes from attitude. Put people in awkward or difficult situations and see what they do. How do they handle pressure? How do they protect their pride? How do they overcome adversity? Flaws and weaknesses are exposed and those are the elements that writers use to construct screen comedy.

Comic acting is a gift. I don’t think you can teach it. You can hone it, but the good ones just have a feel, a certain innate timing. You can be a funny person and still not have the skill sets to become a great comic actor. The ability to be real, to truly commit to a character, to breathe life into them, to hit marks on the floor without looking down requires a talent and discipline few really have. I don’t have it. I can fool around in improv workshops and get laughs, but when I direct someone like David Hyde Pierce or Shelley Long I realize I couldn’t hold their make up kits.

The contrast between funny actors and comics is most apparent in the early episodes of SEINFELD. Jerry is clearly the weak link. And I’m sure he’d admit it. I give him credit for allowing himself to be surrounded by comic actors who were spectacular and he learned and grew along the way, but who are we kidding? He’s a kazoo player in Wynton Marsalis’ jazz combo.

When David Isaacs and I are running a show and need to cast a guest role we have a saying, “Always hire the actor.” The role may call for a newscaster. Hire an actor. The newscaster might have to do jokes. Yes, some can. But it’s better to hire an actor. If the part calls for an athlete – hire an actor. Or a fashion model, or five-star chef, or pope. It’s a lot easier for a trained actor to fake being a newscaster than the other way around.

And as I mentioned in the previous article, there’s the fact that most actors are out of work so why give away one of their coveted jobs to a newscaster who will see it as a lark?

A good comic actor will get laughs from reactions, body language, a raised eyebrow, the way he shuffles his feet. The truly great ones can get laughs just by standing in place. A comic says funny things, a comic actor doesn’t even have to say things funny. That’s the guy you want.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What killed our show: Follow up

Yesterday’s post on what killed our TV series sparked a lot of conversation in the comments section. So I thought I’d follow up on some things.

Reader Elf asked:

Was there ever any justification given for the network demand that Kevin be dropped? Did they not like his performance? Did they have research that showed he scared small children? Did he sleep with one of the network executive's wives?

The reason given (and I say that because who really knows?) was testing. And it’s not that Kevin tested particularly bad; it’s just that the others tested higher.

When I asked to see the testing they would only provide me with the comments people wrote. There were the usual “love her” “hate her” “I can’t stand the shoes everyone wears” comments, but there were also a lot of comments saying “this is a real cute show and I’d watch this if it were on the air.” And this was after we had been on the air for a year. What this tells me is that a bigger problem than Kevin was the CBS promotion department. On the air for a full season and all these test subjects thought it was a pilot?

And there too, maybe that affected the testing. If these people saw episode 16 and thought it was the pilot then they weren’t properly introduced to the characters and relationships.

RareWaves wondered if we had considered pulling a BEWITCHED and just swapping lead actors. No. Never for a moment. So much of the relationship was the chemistry and dynamics. That changes significantly with a new person in the role. Better to find someone else, go down a different track.

Bill Jones said...

Excellent story and guidance. However, this part struck me:

"we did one where Nancy overhears who she thinks is the man of her dreams but all she knows is that he spilled salad dressing on himself so at a big industry party she goes around checking out every man’s crotch. And we did one where she goes to a grief counseling class, doesn’t realize it’s for people who lost pets, shares her story and makes it seem like she had sex with her dog."

I'm going to remember this the next time you call out current sitcoms for "too many vagina jokes," etc. Crotch jokes and sex-with-dog jokes aren't exactly highbrow.

Glass houses, etc...

There are ways of dealing with this subject matter in somewhat sophisticated ways. In the case of the dog sex episode, everything was inferred. It was a comedy of misunderstanding not bestiality. And the fun was everyone’s reaction to the story. In today’s series I imagine characters would have sex with dogs. “Dude, I got so wasted last night. I think I did this really bad thing.” We stayed well clear of that.

As for the crotches. The fun was Nancy and the other characters circulating a party having to take discreet quick peeks at guy’s crotches. In some cases they were spotted and the fun was their excuses. At one point Nancy was discreetly checking some guy out and he said, “My eyes are up here.” It was a nice play on the complaint women often have about men always fixated on their breasts. I believe the bit was done in a subtle and tasteful way, but you may disagree. 2 BROKE GIRLS is on every week, Bill. Check it out.

And finally, Chip Zien, from our cast checked in:

Maybe I'm wrong... But I thought the premise of the show was a devilishly handsome but frustrated overlooked member of a writing team with glasses struggles with lack of respect issues and his inability to meet nice women. There was another concept? What?!

The truth is Chip’s character “Gary” was my favorite to write of in the series. I’ve since written a screenplay and stage play where essentially that same character appears and I always hear Chip’s voice when I write it. In ALMOST PERFECT, we had Gary married to “Patty” (played hilariously by Lisa Edelsten) – every Jewish boy’s dream/nightmare. Anytime we had a scene between the two of them, especially an argument, Robin Schiff (one of the show's co-creators) and I would just channel Patty and Gary. The rest of the staff would sit back as Robin and I just dictated the scene. Clearly, we were both in need of serious therapy.
An interesting story about Chip. When we were originally casting the show he was in New York and auditioned on tape. We liked the audition a lot but learned he was committed to another CBS pilot. So we moved on.

The table reading for the pilot was on a Thursday. The next day was Good Friday so we planned to not rehearse; just resume on Monday.

The actor we had chosen for Gary did not do well at the table reading. We decided to replace him. But with whom? At least we had one day’s reprieve because of Good Friday. Talk about scrambling. Our casting director discovered that Chip had only been hired as a guest star in the pilot. They had no hold on him other than filming the actual pilot (which had already been shot). It’s a gamble production companies sometimes take. They figure the actor won’t get another pilot so if their show is picked up they can negotiate a better deal. But if he does get another pilot, you’re fucked.

So Chip was available. We watched his tape again and knew instantly that he was the guy. A call was made to Chip who said he was interested.

Things were going a little too smoothly. We called CBS and they wanted us to see several other actors, none of whom were even remotely right. We didn’t have the time to waste. We had to close Chip’s deal and get him on a plane to Los Angeles.

Thus a long call to CBS. We said time was of the essence, they obviously like Chip’s work if they approved him for another pilot, the actors they suggested were totally wrong for what we had in mind – let’s just do this. They begrudgingly gave in. Usually that means they’ll hate the person, but we would face that potential problem later.

So Chip arrived on Monday, was fantastic, and on Wednesday we had the network runthrough. To their credit, after Chip’s first scene, the executive who had his doubts took us aside and said, “He’s perfect! I didn’t see what you were going for, but now I get it totally.”

Unfortunately, that executive was replaced and the rest is "our show was history."

I’ve inquired about getting ALMOST PERFECT released either on DVD or on streaming sites. So far I’ve hit a brick wall. It’s too bad because it was a good show that deserved a better fate.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What killed our series

Reader Tudor Queen had an interesting comment about ALMOST PERFECT from Sunday's post on pilot pitching. She said:

When you mentioned the pitch for "Almost Perfect" I couldn't help remembering how good the first season was, and then the network decided to completely change the premise - she lost the guy - and the show wasn't nearly as good.

As a peek behind the curtain in television, I thought I’d share with you the backstory to that whole sordid concept change.

ALMOST PERFECT was created in 1995 by Robin Schiff, David Isaacs, and myself. The premise very quickly: A young single woman in her 30s is struggling in her career and love life. And then on the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life, and both are fulltime jobs. How does she juggle both?

We cast Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner as the couple. When we first brought Kevin to CBS to get him approved, the then-president thanked us for finding him. He was over-the-moon thrilled. As were we.

But during our first season there was a regime change at CBS. You see where this is going.

Our numbers the first year were decent – not spectacular but not Mindy-like either. We were originally on Sunday night, traditionally not a good night for comedy, and then moved to Monday  where we fared much better.

Still, we were a show on the bubble.

So David, Robin, and I flew back to New York when CBS was cobbling together its fall schedule. That’s when we got the mandate to drop Kevin. There was no arguing the point. We fire Kevin or the entire show in cancelled and everybody is fired. And even firing Kevin was no guarantee we’d get a second year pick-up.

The next day the three of us sat in a hotel suite and desperately tried to come up with an alternate direction. Without that central theme, what were we left with? A single working woman is dating. Big whoop. There were dozens of shows with that premise including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, which did it as well or better than any other show in history.

All day long we bounced around ideas and nothing seemed to gel. It’s like our series became its own spinoff.

Ultimately, we decided to go the dating route for awhile and hope that one of the dates could catch on and we could steer back to our original concept.

Here’s the end result: We did some very inventive and funny episodes, but coming up with each and every story was like emergency root canal in a Cambodian jungle performed by a villager.

We did a dream sequence show paying homage to different movie genres (including a splashy dance number), we had Nancy date a creepy guy who was a Nielson family (her job was running a TV cop show), we did one where Nancy overhears who she thinks is the man of her dreams but all she knows is that he spilled salad dressing on himself so at a big industry party she goes around checking out every man’s crotch. And we did one where she goes to a grief counseling class, doesn’t realize it’s for people who lost pets, shares her story and makes it seem like she had sex with her dog.

Meanwhile, we tried to work in some potential new boyfriends but no one clicked.

Me directing A.P.
First year stories were relatively easy to come by. We just followed the stages of a relationship. What’s it like having to sleep at his place for the first time? How do they negotiate living together? When should they live together? What happens when he learns she makes more money than he does? How do you deal with past lovers? And the heart of the premise -- how do you juggle both personal and professional worlds? In other words, we weren’t starting flatfooted every week.

Again, none of this surprised us. We knew the minute we had to let Kevin go that the series was in trouble because it was no longer ABOUT anything. We not only did the best we could, we wound up working twice as hard, but the end result was understandably disappointing.

The moral here – you need your show to have a theme, a purpose, a fresh point of view. Wacky characters trading zingers is not a series. That's four months of being stuck in the writing room for 20 hours a day/seven days a week, and then getting cancelled. That's satisfying every network and studio note (thus turning it into one big mish-mosh) because you have no strong direction yourself. It’s constant flailing.

In another couple of months the networks will once again open their doors to new pilot pitches. And a crazy high concept idea that’s not about anything may well sell. And get on the air. At that point I pity the poor writer. Because the misery begins promptly with episode two.

UPDATE:  There have been a lot of comments about this post so tomorrow I will do a follow up, answer some of your questions, and fill you in with more stories.   Y'all come back now, ya hear?