Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Questions. Boo!

Happy Halloween. Trick or Friday Questions?

Matt gets us started:

It seems to me that successful plays used to be made into movies. Maybe I am missing them, but that doesn't appear to me to be happening anymore. But I don't understand why. Seems like you would have a built in audience, good press already and in general plays would be more plot driven and cheaper to produce as movies. They wouldn't have to be blockbusters to be a financial success. Can you explain this to me or at least tell me I am wrong?

Plays are still adapted to movies but less frequently.  DINNER WITH FRIENDS springs to mind. First of all, there are fewer original plays getting to Broadway. Revivals and adaptations of Disney movies are clogging up the theatres these days -- an alarming trend to be sure.

Another problem is that plays often are set in one location – like an apartment. (Again -- DINNER WITH FRIENDS).  It’s sometimes difficult to open up a play and make it more visual without losing the essence of the piece. Plays are more dialogue driven. Movies are controlled by images.

Also, plays are sometimes very stylistic, taking advantage of the theatrical experience. When converted to the real world of film they often lose their magic.

That said, my play A OR B? (now playing at the Falcon Theatre) would make a great motion picture. Please contact my agent.

From Jim:

I'm just a bit curious to know what your writing process is when its just you. No partner, no assistant, and I guess no budget for anything like that, just you. Do you sit at your PC quietly typing stuff out, the benefit of years in the business. Or do you try and re-enact everything yourself, complete with impressions of your actors, using whatever you've got to hand as props.

I work on my desktop Apple or laptop Apple, just quietly typing (and mostly deleting). Often I’ll have ‘60s music playing. I like the energy and variety. And what’s better inspiration for writing comedy than “Eve of Destruction?”

When I’m finished with several scenes I print them out and revise off of that. Often I will read it aloud to hear the rhythm. I’m very big on flow and having the dialogue sound conversational and natural.

I never act anything out. I’m way too klutzy.

Steve B. has a question regarding my review of SELFIE:

I saw the pilot, and felt exactly the same way as you did. But you seem to completely dismiss the chances for the show after one episode. We've all seen shows that eventually find their legs and grow greatly over the first season. What is there about a show that will make you give up at the very beginning, and what might give you a little hope to hang in there?

Look, there are shows you watch and see something of value even if it’s undercooked and are willing to give it another chance or two. And then there are shows you see and go “Ugh!!” That’s just human nature. You hate the premise, hate the actors, don’t think it’s amusing or compelling, and time’s too short. For me it’s often the writing. For most people it’s the casting.

But now there’s a third viewing option: shows you hate-watch. There’s something about the train wreck aspect of them that just fascinates you. Watching how inept, how stupid, how unfunny they are is oddly entertaining. We’re a sick society… well, some of us are.

What shows do you hate-watch?

Brian Phillips wonders:

Who did you work with that had a bad reputation, or you heard bad things about, that turned out to be a positive working experience?

Producer Scott Rudin. I had heard horror stories but found him smart, respectful, supportive, and helpful. Of the many studio producers or executives I’ve worked with, he’s one of my favorites.

And I’ve mentioned this before, Kristin Chenowith. I directed three episodes of her sitcom KRISTIN and she could not have been nicer, more professional, and gracious – not just to me but everyone on the crew. That’s the real tell with actors – how do they treat crew members? Kristin was absolutely lovely. I would work with her again in a second.

Have a safe and sane Halloween tonight.  Leave your questions in the comment section and come see my play.  Only a couple of weeks left. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The future of network sitcoms

As I discussed Tuesday, networks are frantically rebooting old sitcoms. Soon they’ll run out of them. And then what? Original ideas are not an option. So they’ll start redeveloping drama franchises as comedies. Here’s a glimpse into the future and what TV viewers can expect:


The Comedy VP is taking pitches from the few comedy writers who are still approved. We CUT from pitch meeting to pitch meeting.

WRITER #1: This is a can't miss idea.   HOMELAND: THE COMEDY. I want to do a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW type thing with Claire as Mary and Saul as Lou Grant. The terrorist leader could be Ted Baxter.

VP: Be careful with that. We have to be sensitive to all nationalities. The terrorist watchgroup is always on our ass. But we can now show Carrie giving a blowjob. That’s okay.

WRITER #1: "Oh Mr. Berenson."

VP:  "Who can blow the world up with her smile?"  I love it!


WRITER #2: Talk about "comedy gold" --  DEXTER as a Benihana chef. Can’t you just see it? “Hey, Dexter, where’s Manuel?” “Manuel isn’t coming in tonight.” Ha ha ha.  And we set it in New Jersey. For the killings, instead of a weird abandoned warehouse, we give him kind of a fun man-cave. “Tonight we’re featuring Hibachi Mobster.”

VP: Single-camera?

WRITER #2: No. I see it multi-cam, in front of an audience.  The first row might have to wear ponchos though. 


WRITER #3: THE GOOD WIFE but set in a high school.


WRITER #4: COLD CASE but as a musical.


WRITER #5: CSI: BLYTHE. Here’s the twist: there hasn’t been a murder in five years. The CSI team is analyzing each others hair and using their sophisticated equipment to determine if they need to rotate the van’s tires. Think of the fun things you could do with all that equipment if it were put to other use. For instance: two technicians compare the molecular content of their sperm. I’m laughin’ just thinking about it. You could also call the show BORED-WALK EMPIRE. Get it?


WRITER #6: BLACKLIST with real blacks.


WRITER #7: I want to bring back THE EQUALIZER.

VP: (after a beat) Yeah…?

WRITER #7: That’s it. Just show the original. Trust me it is now a comedy.


WRITER #8: I know it’s a movie and not a former TV show but what about SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? They screw up and try to save Ryan Reynolds from making bad career choices.

Enjoy the 2019-20 season.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

At least I wasn't naked

This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved and tonight is game seven of the World Series). It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oh no! Another TV rant from me

I guess original ideas are now out. For years networks have been “claiming” that want new ideas, fresh voices. They’re done with tired hackneyed sitcom premises. They have no use for old style rhythms. It’s time to reinvent the form. Be daring. “This is not your parents sitcom.”

Well, they're past that. This year practically everything they’re buying is either adaptations of old movies or adaptations of old TV shows. Gee, that worked so well for NBC with IRONSIDE and THE BIONIC WOMAN.

NBC is rebooting BEWITCHED. Like we need to see that bastardized again. Anyone remember the Nora Ephron film version with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell? Probably not because no one went to see it. Could it just possibly be, and I know this is a crazy notion, that the charm and appeal of BEWITCHED was Elizabeth Montgomery? Brooklyn Decker might not measure up. Or Sarah Chalke. Or “fill in blank of blonde actress who bombed in three previous romantic sitcoms.” By the way, there was a bidding war for this project.

Every day I read that another chestnut is being dusted off. The movie HITCHED recently. ABC is remaking THE BACHELOR PARTY. FOX just bought THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER (that one is a real head scratcher).

NBC tried to reboot SAY ANYTHING, but Cameron Crowe (God bless him) made a stink and they dropped the project.

For every adaptation that works (like MASH) there are twenty that don’t.

And that goes the other way too. Movies based on TV series rarely connect. Without Denzel Washington I don’t think anyone would go to see THE EQUALIZER. And there weren’t long lines to see THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE HONEYMOONERS, CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU, DRAGNET, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, DUKES OF HAZZARD, GET SMART, THE GONG SHOW MOVIE, I SPY, LOST IN SPACE, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, SGT. BILKO, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, STARSKY & HUTCH, and S.W.A.T. Before you race to the comments section to list STAR TREK and the other franchises that were hits, I know there have been some but way more have missed.

My point is that Hollywood (and the networks in particular) is once again playing it safe.  Waaaay safe.  Trading on a name or concept. It worked once before, why not again? And if a network should also own the property then they get to double-dip in success. I’m not planning on pitching anything this season, meaning I’m not going out with VOLUNTEERS. But if you are, don’t waste your time coming up with something you’ve never seen before; go to ME-TV and attach yourself to GIDGET.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Closing in on Opening Night

Here’s the latest installment of the mounting of my play, A or B? now playing at the Falcon Theatre.

Everything was geared towards Opening Night, which was last Friday. We had seven previews to tinker. Thanks to all the guinea pigs who attended one of those shows. Come back. It’s different now.

The Saturday night before Opening we had a great crowd. I told the cast I really got the chance to hear what jokes worked and didn’t so to expect a blizzard of new jokes tomorrow. I wasn’t going to do that to them every day, and they’d have several days to learn them, but I warned them they were coming. I then went home and rewrote until 4:30.

Sure enough the new jokes helped. Most worked. I felt I was plugging up holes.

The somewhat major changes I had proposed the week before we put in on Wednesday. This required new blocking, light and sound cues, and the actors getting comfortable with a new scene (which was really the intercutting of two previous scenes). Oh… and then performing it later that night. Three hours of rehearsal were all they required to pull it off. Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert are amazing. Hey, it turns out years of classical training comes in handy.  Who knew?   (Unless you want to be a sitcom star and then just be a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.)

The Wednesday and Thursday previews played okay. The actors were still feeling their way a little. I told them I was not going to give them any more lines this week and they could just learn what they had. Of course I lied and gave them a couple.

Hey, I’m so neurotic I rewrote the pre-show turn-off-your-cellphones announcement. Why not get a few chuckles even before the show and send the message to the audience that it's okay to laugh.  (Preferred even.)

Friday was Opening Night. What they don’t tell you is that opening day of opening night is murder. I kind of walked around in a daze, just looking for things to do, but I’ll be honest, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I don’t wonder how Neil Simon wrote so many plays. I wonder how he survived so many opening days.

I picked up some Opening Night gifts for the cast and some crew members. That killed a little time. I stopped off at nearby Vendome Liquor and bumped into my radio friend, Rick Dees. He had this bottle of bourbon and invited me to take a sip. I did. It was good. He then told me the bottle cost $2000. Wow. It’s a good thing I didn’t ask for some ginger ale to go with it. We made plans to get lunch and I’ll return the favor by offering a sip of some vintage Mogan David’s.

At 7:30 the theatre started filling up. Garry Marshall, who had been in New York directing a play, flew back for this. I love the fact that he did, but no additional pressure there. My son Matt and his wife came down from Silicon Valley. A few other familiar faces including my writing partner David Isaacs and Treva Silverman who is my unofficial dramaturge. Lots of others streamed in who I didn’t know. Which ones were critics?

Some playwrights like to pace in the back during the show but there’s no space to pace. So I sat in the last row with my family and the Marshalls two seats over.

Boy, I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear the first big laugh. And the second. And that they came within the first couple of minutes not hours. Garry was even laughing. I still couldn’t breathe because at any moment the laughs could stop. But thankfully they continued, the cast rose to new heights, and everything finally came together. I was able to exhale for the first time in two days. Seriously, how does Neil Simon do it?

The Falcon always has a great reception in the lobby after the Opening. Fantastic meatballs. I was able to eat everything AND keep it all down.

Now the show is in its run. Five performances a week. Come see it. I’m there every night. How often do I have a play in production? Am I still giving them new lines? Only a few. And not every day. Honest. Like today. No new lines today. Okay, today is a day off. But still.

Hope you enjoyed this series on the making of my play. If I ever become a Benihana chef I will chronicle that journey too, assuming I still have any fingers.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

R.I.P. Dale Dorman

So sorry to hear of the passing of Dale Dorman. Most people don’t know him. But those that do – and I’d bet it’s about a million – loved him. Dale was a longtime disc jockey in Boston. So many listeners felt a closeness to him that he was not just a friend; he was almost a family member. He was known affectionately as Uncle Dale, a nickname he received when he was 21. He was 71 when he died, after battling a long illness (which he always downplayed). 

We were close friends for over 40 years.

I first heard Dale on the radio in 1966 at KFRC, San Francisco. They were the powerhouse Top 40 station back then, one of the pillars of the Drake format that dominated radio in the late ‘60s. But he was very different. Most Drake jocks had rich deep voices. Dale had a high squeaky voice. He was the last person you could imagine would ever get an on-air gig on a major market station.

But Dale compensated by his personality. He was warm, engaging, and wickedly funny. He did the kind of content I appreciated (and adopted although not as well) – all off-the-cuff. In short, he was a revelation.

In 1968 he was transferred to WRKO in Boston where he became the morning man. Almost instantly he was a sensation. For all the announcers with deep authoritative pipes, the guy who sounded like Mickey Mouse kicked their butts. (It’s a lesson that radio still hasn’t learned.)

After 10 years at WRKO he moved on to KISS-FM where he ruled the ratings for another 20 years, then ending his career at WODS.

Getting together with Dale meant either steaks (LA), lobster (Boston), and enough laughs to fill the space in between. As funny as he was on the air, he was twice as funny off. Irreverent, satiric, and sooooo damn fast. If he had gone into comedy writing instead of radio he’d be a legend in that field. He’d be a premiere comedian if he had chosen stand-up as his career. Or he would’ve out Dave Barry’d Dave Barry if prose was his dish. He was just that good, just that hysterical.

My trips to Boston would always include a day just watching him do his show. I was a middle-aged geeky fanboy.

Dale Dorman is proof that one can beat the odds with talent, heart, and dedication. He had a high voice but a deep mind. And he leaves behind a million nephews and nieces who will forever love and miss their Uncle Dave.

How we plotted stories on MASH

MASH episodes tend to be complicated and I’m often asked how we plotted out stories. So here’s how we did it.

First off, we chose the best stories we could find – the most emotional, the most interesting the best possibilities for comedy. Plotting is worthless if you have a bad story. Chekhov would pull out his hair trying to make “B.J.’s Depression” work. (Side note: stories where your lead character is depressed generally don’t work in comedy. Moping around is not conducive to laughs. Better to make them angry, frustrated, lovesick, impatient, hurt – anything but depressed… or worse, happy. Happy is comedy death.)

We got a lot of our stories from research – transcribed interviews of doctors, nurses, patients, and others who lived through the experience. But again, the key was to find some hook that would connect one of our characters to these real life incidents.

Some of these anecdotes were so outrageous we either couldn’t use them or had to tone them down because no one would believe them.

For each episode we had two and sometimes three stories. If we had a very dramatic story we would pair it with something lighter. The very first MASH we wrote, Hawkeye was temporally blind and Hawk & Beej pulled a sting on Frank.

We would try to mix and match these story fragments so that they could dovetail or hopefully come together at the end.

All that stuff you probably knew. What you didn’t know is this:

We broke the show down into two acts and a tag. Each act would have five scenes. Brief transition scenes didn’t count. But go back through some episodes. Five main scenes in the first act and five in the second. As best we could we would try to advance both of our stories in the same scenes. But each story is different and we tried to avoid being predictable.

Usually, we wrapped up the heavy story last. That’s the one you cared most about.

The tag would callback something from the body of the show, generally drawing from the funny story.

And then we had a rather major restriction: We could only shoot outside at the Malibu ranch for one day each episode. So no more than 8 pages (approximately a third of the show). And that was in the summer when there was the most light. By September and October we could devote 6 pages to exteriors. And once Daylight Savings was over that was it for the ranch for the season. All exteriors were shot on the stage. So if we wanted to do a show where the camp is overrun by oxen we better schedule it for very early in the summer. Those 20th guards never let oxen onto the lot without proper ID.

If possible we tried to do at least one O.R. scene a show. We wanted to constantly remind the audience that above all else this was a show about war.

We always feared that a sameness would creep into the storytelling so every season we would veer completely away from our game plan for several episodes just to shake things up and keep you off the scent. That’s how all format-breaking shows like POINT OF VIEW, THE INTERVIEW, and DREAMS came about. And during our years we extended that to a few mainstream episodes. We did NIGHT AT ROSIE’S that was more like a one-act play. Everything was set in Rosie’s Bar. (I wonder if a series like that but set in Boston would work?) We moved them all to a cave. We did an episode set exclusively in Post-Op and assigned each of our characters to a specific patient. Letters-to-home was another nice device.

I should point out here that I didn’t come up with the MASH guidelines for storytelling. That was all Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (pictured). We just followed the template. And for the record, in all my years in the business, no one is better at story than Gene Reynolds. It was amazing how he could zero in on problems and more impressively, find solutions. The story had to constantly move forward, it had to have flow, logic, surprises, the comedy had to real as well as funny, and most of all – the dramatic moments (especially during the conclusion) had to be earned.

So that’s how we did it, based on how they did it. And when I occasionally watch episodes of MASH from our years there are always lines I want to change or turns that could be made more artfully or humorously, but those stories hold up beautifully. Thank you, Gene Reynolds.

This is a re-post from over four years ago.   Check out my archives sometime.  There are one or two decent entries.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

First review is in

I'll take it.  Any review that starts out with WOW! I'll take.  It's from Stage Scene LA.    Am I allowed to thank a critic?  Oh hell, I'll do it anyway.  Thanks Steven Stanley.

Opening Night

Details Monday when I continue my series on the making of my play, A or B? but thrilled to say that the official opening last night came off extremely well.  I can exhale for the first time in two days.   Opening "days" before Opening Nights are nerve wracking as hell I've just learned. 

Don't know what the reviewers will say, but there were a lot of big laughs, and the cast of Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert just crushed it.  They were thrilling to watch. 

Here's a big difference between Broadway and Burbank:  On Broadway you have Sardi's nearby, the ritzy watering hole of the theater set.  Sondheim, Simon, etc.  In Burbank there's Sardo's.  It's a bar that has porn star karaoke.

Lots of people to thank.  My amazing cast and crew.  Andy Barnicle for proving I was so right not to direct this play myself.  The audience certainly.   And Garry Marshall and the incredible staff at the Falcon Theatre.  

A or B? runs thru November 16, and I'll be there every night.   Come see it.  And say hello. I promise to breathe.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Questions

This is the Opening Night of my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre. And yet, I still have time to answer Friday Questions.   We run until November 16.  Wanna come see it?  Sure you do.  Here's where you go.

Tyler asks:

Do the actors who aren't part of the regular cast but play recurring characters (such as Gil Chesterton or Kenny Daly on Frasier) know at the beginning of a season how often and when they will be appearing? Or do they basically have to keep their schedules open from week to week?

No. Rotating characters are usually worked in depending on the story. And things can shift quickly. Stories change from draft to draft. Gil Chesterton may be in the first draft but not in the second if the story veers in a different direction.

We try to prepare the scripts enough in advance that we can check on the actor’s availability. But if we call last minute for an actor and he’s committed to something else we’re either just out of luck or have to juggle the production schedule to accommodate him. It’s certainly not fair to ask hem to just sit by the phone waiting for us to call.

Sometimes however, actors will know that they’re in a six or seven episode story arc and in that case we lock in their dates. And other times studios will make deals for supporting actors who are really recurring. They’ll sign for six or eight out of thirteen. And in those cases the actors will usually keep their dates relatively free.

For many character actors, it is their DREAM to be a recurring character on a successful sitcom.

And along those lines, Lou H. wonders:

Ken, since you have a foot in both the TV and theatre camps, can you talk about how much a 6-days-a-week play consumes its actors and whether they have time for anything else? A few years ago, Chris Noth was on Broadway and could only appear in a few episodes of The Good Wife. This year, both Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing are in It's Only A Play, and Lane has said he probably won't have any time to appear on The Good Wife.

If you don’t sign the actors to series deals you always run the risk of losing them. If the actor decides a Broadway play takes priority over appearing in your show that’s the way it goes.

However, I’ve seen actors do both simultaneously. I remember Judd Hirsch was starring in TAXI and appearing at the Taper Forum in Los Angeles starring in TALLEY’S FOLLEY. It obviously takes some juggling and accommodating on both ends but it can be done.

Considering his schedule, I would assume Ryan Seacrest could do two plays and star in three TV shows at the same time, and still have four hours a day to host an early morning radio program.

From MikeK.Pa.:

I've been seeing a lot of Will and Grace in re-runs and that show holds up well with a joke a page minimum (granted about half are gay jokes, but still funny). Max Kohan and Mitch Mutchnick, the creators of the show, have had three bites at another series and none lasted more than 9 episodes. Bite Four is coming soon on TBS in a comedy called "Buzzy." My question is how can creators of such a funny show fail miserably in re-creating another one? Did everything just come together between writing and casting for W&G? Were K&M just one-hit wonders (TV version)?

First of all, the planets have to line up for anybody to have a hit show. The most successful writer/producers can have multiple bombs. No one is immune from Normal Lear to James L. Brooks to Aaron Sorkin to Dick Wolf to Chuck Lorre.

But in the case of WILL & GRACE, I think that series benefited greatly by having James Burrows directing every episode and Jeff Greenstein guiding the writing. Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally also didn’t hurt.

gottacook wonders:

Since Alan Alda was brought up: As a director yourself who apparently still enjoys directing, why do you suppose Alda gave up feature film directing? (Or do you actually know why?)

I can’t say for sure. This is purely speculation on my part. But the answer seems simple. His movies stopped making money. Hollywood can be very cold-hearted. There’s an expression called “Director’s Jail.” That means when a director has made three or four bombs he no longer can projects greenlit.

How do you get out of “Director’s Jail?” Do an Indie film that hits, or now just move into television. There are a number of former feature directors making quite comfortable livings directing series or MOW’s.

In Alan’s case, he’s such a gifted actor that he has always enjoyed a great career in front of the camera. So he’s gravitated back towards that with much success.

And finally, Marianne has a question about one of the stars of my play:

Hey Ken! Friday question: Is Jason Dechert single?

Yes. Come see him on stage.

What’s the Burbank equivalent of Sardi’s? Oh hell, I’m just going to want any place that serves alcohol. Wish me luck tonight.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lazy writing

I know. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. There are many writers who disagree. Many writers I respect. So this is one scribe’s opinion. One lowly scribe with a blog.

But I am not a fan of narration. Unless it’s in prose.

And lately there seems to be a plethora of narration on television, especially among new shows.

What’s my issue? For the most part I think it’s lazy writing.

The hardest part of telling a dramatic story is doling out the exposition. Backstory tends to be dry. Actors hate to say it. And for good reason. It’s just briefing the audience; a data dump of facts the writer feels are important. The trick – no, the art of storytelling is finding clever ways to either show the audience what they need to know or communicate it through entertaining dialogue.

Unless narration is integral to the premise of the series (like in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER where the entire conceit of the show was the father talking to his kids), or a Bullwinkle cartoon (where the narrator was not just a character but did the comedy heavy lifting) it’s generally not necessary. 

When I hear “This is the story about Sarah and Skippy….” Or “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys…” I zone out. Anybody can write “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys,” but a good writer can create a character (who by her actions) shows us that in a fresh and funny way. He relies on behavior and attitude and the situation. Just saying it is the bald on-the-nose easy way.

And just who are these narrators anyway? Why are they there? Why do we need a narrator to guide us through the story? Another big offender of this is Woody Allen. The first five minutes of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is all flatfooted narration that tells you who the heroines are, what their personalities are, what they’re desiring, and why they’re there. LAY-ZEEEE.

Then there are shows where one or more of their characters provide narration. Unless there’s a real good reason for it I don’t know why it exists. Often it’s used to wrap up the show or tell us that week’s theme or life lesson. I like to think I’m smart enough to determine that on my own. I don’t need to be spoon fed.

I suspect one reason shows employ this device is so when scenes they’ve shot turn out poorly they can just scrap them and have the narrator cover the information.

On MASH we occasionally used narration to frame episodes by having a character write a letter home. First off, you knew who the narrator was writing to and why. And secondly, we used this technique very sparingly. It was a way to break the format. And even then, by year seven when David Isaacs and I were heading the writing staff we felt the device was wearing thin. We devised an episode where a Korean spy was writing about the MASH unit and the fun was hearing how he misinterpreted everything he (and we) saw. We never used it as a crutch.

Some shows break the fourth wall and have their lead characters talk directly to the audience. In some cases it works. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF would be one shining example. But that’s because the narration was less about relaying info and more about philosophizing. And I like it in HOUSE OF CARDS. But in that show the narration is part of Kevin Spacey’s character. He uses it to justify his behavior and toot his own horn. And he uses it very sparingly. I love the episode in season two where he doesn’t talk to the audience for almost the entire show, and then at the last minute he turns to the camera and says, “Did you miss me?”

But other times it feels like characters are talking to the camera just to be stylistic. There’s always the danger that you’ll take the audience out of the moment by shattering the reality. So the question becomes – is the device really necessary?

I find this less concerning in the theatre where stories are generally told stylistically, but the reality of film and TV makes it harder to buy… at least for me. JERSEY BOYS is an example where narration worked on the stage, not on the screen.

Some may argue that a narrator is necessary because there are so many facts and the exposition is very dense. The audience would be confused without it. If that’s so I question whether the story itself is too complicated.

Another problem with narrators is that they often just drop out after awhile. You hear them at the beginning and maybe an hour into a movie for three sentences and that’s it. If you establish that the narrator is your vehicle for telling the story then stick with him. To have him just pop in when you need a hole patched is again, lazy writing.

I have no conclusion here. It’s not like writers are going to stop using narration because of this post. Or Woody Allen is going to send me an apology. But if you’re an aspiring writer I want you to challenge yourself. I want you to avoid shortcuts. I want you to rise above. Or I want you to just say screw it and write a novel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What movies do you hate that everyone else loves?

Doesn't it make you crazy when there’s a movie out that’s real popular and all your friends love it but you don’t? It’s like you're totally out of step with pop culture – and is there a worse fate than that? I’ve listed some movies that were boxoffice dandies and zeitgeist zeniths but just didn’t do it for me. You’re going to look at this list and be outraged over a couple. But that’s the whole idea. I KNOW you and most everyone in the world likes these movie but for whatever reason I hate 'em.   Sorry.  I do.   I’ve also left out films from genres I just don’t care for, so it’s unfair to dump on SAW III. And I won’t go to see a Katherine Heigl or Nancy Meyer romcom. Just loathe ‘em.  I know what I’m going to get. And I’m never not being disappointed in being disappointed.

So this is my partial list. I’d be curious. What’s yours? And I’ll make you a deal. If you don’t rip me for not liking LINCOLN I won’t attack you for not liking AMERICAN BEAUTY (although, seriously, what’s wrong with you?).

Last Batman movie
Last Superman movie

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The pros and cons of networking

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post when I drifted off and started talking about something else.

It’s from Jim S:

Networking. I've noticed that many writers often work on each other's projects. Do you ask Mr. X after seeing his show for job?  I recall reading about a showrunner who would give one assignment a year to his old mentor who had aged out of the business so that the mentor could keep his health insurance from the writer's guild.

Is that kind of loyalty common?

I don’t know if it’s common, but we gave our mentor an assignment in his later years. We were thrilled to do it. And we were rewarded with a great script. It’s not like athletes. Talent doesn’t fade with age.

Showrunners will often hire writers they’ve worked with and trust. It only makes sense. That said, openings do come up that require showrunners to hire people they have no history with. Lots of time these positions will be lower level thus allowing the showrunner to groom and mentor the new scribes.

One way that new writers can “audition” is to offer their services free to showrunners when they have a pilot in production and are looking to put together a temporary staff to help rewrite and punch up.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this practice. First of all, I feel the young writers are being taken advantage of. It’s one thing to ask a friend to help. We have a relationship, and I also feel I can reciprocate by helping out on his pilot somewhere down the road. But to ask someone I don’t know to come in for eight hours, help out, with no guarantees at all seems unfair. I would feel too guilty. I’m getting paid a lot of money; he's getting nothing but a lovely parting gift and cold Chinese food. It doesn’t seem right.

Yes, if you’re a young writer and you’re offered a chance to participate in a rewrite for a showrunner you don’t know I would say jump at it. You never know. You might impress him and ultimately get a job out of it. I will just say this tough: the odds are against it. Lots of things have to fall in place. But it does happen.  And even if chances are low, you gotta take it. 

My other concern is that when I have a pilot in production it is no time to break anybody in. I much prefer to surround myself with a smaller group of All-Star writers I know. We move quicker and more efficiently. We all have the same comic sensibility. No one is going to waste our time pitching completely inappropriate jokes. Everyone is rowing in the same direction.

I was in a room a couple of years ago for a pilot rewrite. I kid you not, there was no less than twenty writers – probably more. High level, mid level, newbies, maybe even a few people from the studio tour who just happened to wander in. And before that, at the table reading, there were five to ten more writers in attendance. It was nuts.

I’d say most of the writers in the rewrite never spoke a word. I don’t know why they were there other than to eat lunch or maybe hide out from the cops. Others were pitching drivel. Maybe four of the writers actually got jokes in. And they were primarily veterans. Most of the stuff came from the two showrunners themselves. And here’s the irony, they’re both terrific writers. If we had a pilot I would invite just the two of them to help. That’s all we’d need.

So for young writers, not only is it hard to stand out in normal circumstances, you’re trying to be noticed in a room of twenty. Depending on when you enter the room you might be stuck in the back corner – like having the farthest booth in the county fair.

What was the original question? I’ve gone off on a tangent and forgot what he asked. Oh yeah. Networking.

Networking is important. Showrunners help their mentors, friends who are down on their luck, writers’ assistants that have earned a shot, staffers they’ve worked with before, and newbies that dazzle in pilot rewrites.

The trick is getting in. And if free labor is one way then you’ve got to do it. But make no mistake -- you’re doing the showrunner a favor as much as he’s doing one for you.

Somewhere in all that I hope I answered Jim's question.  Or at least touched on it.

Monday, October 20, 2014


We’re now up and running. Here’s the latest installment on mounting my play, A OR B? – now playing at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

When we last left our heroes… tech work had been completed. Now it was time to prepare for the first preview, which was last Wednesday night.

The actors pretty much have the script memorized although more changes were expected once I heard preview audiences. The thing I’m stressing now is to hold for laughs (assuming there are any). When actors don’t hold for laughs two things happen. First, the audience misses the next line or joke because they’re laughing through it. And secondly, after that occurs a few times the audience will just stop laughing for fear of missing something. Of course it’s hard to know just what will get laughs so previews are very helpful.

We had a full dress rehearsal on Tuesday night for an invited audience of maybe 15. With that small a group I was pleased to get a few big titters. As I expected, it was also the NOISES OFF runthrough. In other words, there were wardrobe malfunctions, props not being where they were supposed to be, missed light cues, lines jumped, etc. Best to get all of that out of the way now.   Do you know there’s such a thing as zipper oil? If you’re doing a play with costume changes make sure you have some.

It’s amazing how you can watch rehearsals for four weeks and everything looks great but then you see it on its feet and there are moments you go "Yikes!"  So my routine this last week has been this: show up at the theatre at 4:00. Actors rehearse trouble spots or new material. The show at 8:00, notes at 10:00, and then I go home and rewrite until 2:30.

One thing I miss about being on staff on a TV show – writing material and seeing it performed the next day. Serving it while it’s hot.

Each night gets better. In fact, a new joke I wrote Thursday might get the biggest laugh in the play. And then of course there are the “Bono’s” (see yesterday’s post for explanation). There are a couple that I think I’ll be wrestling with until opening night. The actors are good sports, gamely delivering the new lines without complaint (at least within earshot).

Another difference between the theatre and TV: In TV I go down for a runthrough that consists of about 22 minutes of content. I then go back with seven or eight highly trained comedy writers to fix the script. Here it’s 90 minutes of material and just me. But I will say this – the TV training has been INVALUABLE. You learn to be facile and attack problems. There are a lot of excellent playwrights who happen to write very slowly. This is like catching a moving train. There’s also the temptation for thoughtful (i.e. slow) playwrights to keep things that should go because it took so long to write them in the first place.

I had one scene that felt too long. I couldn’t wait to get home and chop the shit out of it. Jokes I liked a week ago I couldn’t wait to cut. The next night the scene played sooo much better. That’s what often happens. You have a scene with say ten jokes and they all play okay. You cut five and the ones you keep get even bigger laughs. Don’t be afraid to cut.

I generally go into runthrough with some ideas of cuts I’d like to make. Same has been true with the play. There was one joke I was thinking of cutting because I’d like the scene a little shorter. But it got a good laugh. My first reaction was “damn, it worked.” And then I thought, “You idiot. It WORKED.” I’ll find a trim somewhere else.

We also made some lighting and blocking adjustments that quickened the pace.

The Wednesday and Thursdays previews played pretty well. The weekend was better. What’s always odd is that certain jokes that work one night don’t the next and vice versa. And from time to time straight lines will get laughs. Don’t ask me why. I’ll take it.

Something was nagging me however. I couldn’t put my finger on it until the weekend, but a lightbulb went off and the answer was clear. But it will require major light and sound cue adjustments, some new blocking, new wardrobe, and two existing scenes being intercut. It sounds more radical than it is, but still, it will take a little coordinated rehearsal time so we'll put it in this week. It’s not fair to the actors (or crew) to just throw them out there without proper preparation. Especially since I like them. But I’m excited to see the new stuff that goes in starting Wednesday.

Another problem we had to address was costume changes. Our actors, Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert, have to make some quick ones. They do it under 30 seconds, but that’s still a long transition on stage with nothing happening. We tried covering it with music and visually interesting things going on on stage, but it wasn’t enough. Our director, Andy Barnicle, came up with the fix – voice over funny dialogue. So I went off into a corner, wrote them, and they were recorded that night.

So a few more days of tinkering and previews, and then Friday is Opening Night. I think we’ll be okay… as long as we have enough zipper oil.

It’s been a blast meeting some blog readers who’ve attended the previews. Thanks so much. Here’s where you go for tickets, and if you do attend a performance please flag me down. I’m the one in the corner of the lobby just rocking back and forth.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's a "Bono?"

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

This was a re-post from God knows when. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What words kan't you spell?

Thank God for spellcheck. There are some words I just can’t spell. For whatever reason my brain refuses to learn the correct spelling of a few words – words that are fairly common and you dear readers have no problem with at all.

One is jeopardy. Even as I typed it just now the squiggly red line appeared underneath. I keep putting a’s where there should be o’s or o’s where there should be a’s. And again, it’s not an obscure word. I watch the TV show all the time. The word is displayed in giant letters.

Another is privilege. I don’t even come close on this word. At any given time I may write privlige, priviledge, priveledge, privlige, privelige. None of these look any more wrong that the actual spelling.

For a long time I wrestled with guarantee. Somehow I mastered it. And I’m afraid to list the ways I misspelled it for fear that that will confuse me again and I’ll be back at square one.

In the case of pigeon, I want to always write pidgeon. And don’t get me started on pidgin.

I’d like to think I’m not alone in this brain cramp. So let me ask you – what are words that you can’t spell?

Imagine losing the final round of the National Spelling Bee over jeopardy?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Questions

Previews continue for my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.  Get your tickets and reward yourself with reading Friday Questions.  Thanks. 
First, my hold-over question from last week.  From Jeff:

What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers? 

For the most part I think they're a waste of time.  Especially in sitcoms.  It's not like these characters are in any real jeopardy.  

One problem is that this convention has now been done to death.  Whatever impact it used to have has been greatly diminished by over-use.  Everyone's doing cliffhangers.  Plus, shows do limited series of six or eight episodes and then go off the air for nine months.  Who can keep track of what? 

And the real problem (that most showrunners are unwilling to accept) is that the audience is not nearly as invested in your show as you think they are.   To the showrunner and writing staff the show is the center of the universe.   Unless you're working on a series that is riding the crest of the zeitgeist, viewers don't really give a shit.  Out of sight; out of mind.  

We've come a long way since "Who killed J.R.?" on DALLAS.  

Dene 1971 asks:

Do you consider sitcom to be less artistically valid, for one of a better term, than a 1-hour drama? I recall reading an interview with a (brilliant) English TV/radio comedy writer, responsible for a first class sitcom which had come to an end: he intimated that he wanted to 'move on' from the 30m sitcom form to the 1hr comedy-drama.

Obviously it depends on the show. I would consider THE WIRE more artistically valid than TWO BROKE GIRLS. But there are quite a few comedies far richer than one hour dramas. And in many ways it’s much harder to do a quality comedy. To explore emotions, create characters and situations that are real, relatable, compelling, AND funny is much harder to accomplish than straight drama. Plus, in comedy you don’t have the luxury of just playing a song under a scene that expresses the emotion you’re trying to convey.  (a standard movie cheat)

But artistically speaking, I don’t think there are many hour dramas that come close to MASH. Maybe BAYWATCH.

Someone who wouldn’t leave his name wondered:

Ken, when writers do a script that includes unflattering jokes about a character's appearance, do you ever worry about how the actor or actress will personally react?

I recall episodes of MASH where Hawkeye insulted Hot Lip's weight, and an episode of All In The Family where Gloria came right out and said she was fat. More recently on Will & Grace, there were many jokes about how flat-chested Grace was.

Do actors just accept this as part of the game, or are there ever situations where the actor is too touchy about something and it's off-limits for the writers? And how can you know this until you've already ticked them off?

It really depends on the actor and how good a sport he is. No, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the phone call I’d get from Loretta Swit if we did Hot Lips fat jokes. On the other hand, Danny DeVito was fine with short jokes. And the great Jackie Gleason had no problem with fat jokes at his expense.

It’s best to diplomatically ask the actor how sensitive he might be to jokes about his appearance before he reads the script aloud in a room full of people.

The irony on CHEERS was that every character took shots at Lilith for how cold and severe she was, and off camera and out of costume Bebe Neuwirth (pictured at the top of this post) was the hottest woman on that set.

And finally, Jrge sent in this question from Spain (where they love this blog).

I've just started to watch the second season of Frasier on DVD (I know i'm late, but I was four when it went on TV).

That’s still no excuse!

I've realized that you appear as "creative consultant". Could you explain what was exactly you function?

Generally that title is assigned to a writer who comes in once a week, usually for rewrite night. Other names are “punch up guys”, “script doctors”, and “clients of agents who make sweet deals”.

They come to the runthrough then help the staff rewrite that night. Sometimes it’s very helpful to have a fresh set of eyes. A writing staff can get too close to a story and it’s great to get an objective opinion from someone you trust…AND can help actually solve the problems he identifies. That last part is the biggie. Anyone can say “this doesn’t work, go fix it”.

Ideally, the best creative consultants can also help you with jokes.

A good creative consultant is like the cavalry riding in to the rescue. A bad one is someone you’re paying a lot of money to eat your food.

I’ve worked with some great ones, notably David Lloyd and Jerry Belson. But bar none the best creative consultant that has ever been is Bob Ellison. I’m going to do an entire post on him soon. At one time he was working on four different shows a week. And not coincidentally, they were the four funniest shows on television.

What’s your question?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Different sitcom styles -- where do I fit in?

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a rambling rant about sitcom writing styles. Notice the irony that I take issue with lengthy speeches yet this post goes on way too long.

The question itself is even long. But stay with it. It’s from Mark.

I've noticed, Ken, that the scripts you and David write and the shows you work on rarely tackle social issues (in the Norman Lear manner) or engage in the kind of sometimes over-the-top preachiness that was common in 1980s-early '90s sitcoms. Nor are yours and David's characters even particularly inclined to learn anything. (It seems like almost every episode to come out of the Garry Marshall factory had to end with the scene where the principals in that night's episode discussed the lesson they'd learned, while a slow version of the show's theme music played softly in the background.)

Does this come from yours and David's personal tastes and preferences in comedy, or is it more a reflection of the kinds of shows you guys have tended to work on?

Both… although I would argue that we did get into social and political issues on MASH; the topics were just more universal than contemporary.

But our comic preference has always been focused on character – exploring human foibles and examining relatable behavior. How people deal with frustration, obstacles, absurdity, emotions, and each other. The “funny” comes from all of us.

People do learn lessons but rarely every week. We searched more for the truth in a given situation than the lesson to be derived from it.

But let’s be perfectly honest, we were incredibly lucky. We got hired on shows that encouraged that style. Were we hired on GOOD TIMES we would have been writing long speeches about urban decay. (Those speeches were so cringeworthy. They even had statistics in them. J.J. just happened to know that “34.7% of Americans made less than $22,500 a year.”) Ugh.

My other problem with long gooey speeches at the end of the show with the requisite soft music in the background is that the speeches were rarely earned.

WILL & GRACE was guilty of this all the time. 25 minutes of rollicking burlesque humor and suddenly this unbelievably sappy speech. The show just changed tones on a dime. The sentimentality came out of nowhere. So it always felt artificial.

Of course, no sitcom was more guilty of this than MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY. This was a series back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s starring Danny Thomas.
 They’ve been running it again on one of those nostalgia channels. Every week Danny yells and screams and then has this long, maudlin, treachly speech that makes your teeth rattle. At least when Gleason got sappy on THE HONEYMOONERS it was only for a moment. “Alice, I’m a mope.” He didn’t deliver the State-of-the-Union.

David and I try to avoid long life lesson speeches at all costs. I know I’ve told the story before, but for “Goodbye Radar”, which we wrote, we purposely constructed the story to have casualties arrive just as Radar was departing. That way all the goodbyes were one or two lines delivered on the run. Otherwise, we felt the show would just be a series of graduation commencement speeches.

But I reiterate, we were lucky. Had we not landed on MASH early in our career we might have been writing for GOOD TIMES or THE SMURFS. Work is work, especially when you start out. I see bad shows today and often wonder if the next Larry Gelbart is a staff writer on that piece of shit. Writing stupid speeches is still better than the Dairy Queen. The fact that we were allowed to write what we write is a true blessing. There’s a lesson in that. I’ll wait until the soft music starts. Where’s the music? I gotta have music! It’s just not the same without the music.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What makes a good Warm-Up Man?

A key component to any multi-camera taping is the warm-up man. It’s a tough job. I did it the first year of CHEERS. Tapings can take four hours or more (I think they’re still in the middle of taping a FRIENDS episode from season five). You’re expected to fill a lot of downtime between scenes. And then there are costume changes that can take forever. (Again, I think Jennifer Aniston is trying things on for that FRIENDS taping that’s still going on.)

(Seriously, FRIENDS tapings took so long they literally had two audiences. The first came in at about 4 and the second around 9. No one wanted to stay for the eight or nine hours it took to film a single episode.)

You need to keep the audience focused on the show and in a heightened state of excitement. They have to be in such a good mood they’ll laugh twice or even three times at the same jokes depending on how many re-takes of a scene there are.

And God forbid the air conditioner goes off.  I've had that happen.  I've also had a power blackout.  Fun fun fun. 

A good warm-up man can have a major impact on a sitcom taping. A good crowd energizes the cast and performances can really be lifted.

But a bad warm-up man can have the opposite effect.

Different warm-up men have different styles. Some are stand-ups, some are just high-energy cheerleaders, and a few are dynamo entertainers. I hate the dynamos. I mostly hate the high-energy dudes. Why? Because they upstage the show. A recent warm-up guy I saw had the crowd dancing wildly in the aisles and was giving away prizes. and when the bell rang signaling it was time to film a scene, the entire audience groaned. The show became an imposition to the party that was going on in the bleachers.

As writer/blogger extraordinaire Earl Pomerantz so accurately says – the audience is not there to watch a television show. They’re there to watch the MAKING of a television show. (I passed on the CHEERS warm-up baton to Earl in season two.) The unique experience of watching a TV taping is to see all the behind-the-scenes shit – the cameras, the director, the confabs with the actors, the bustling going on on the stage. Writers huddle and suddenly new jokes are introduced. Based on instructions from the director, actors make acting adjustments. You’re privy to live bloopers. Actors go up on lines. How do they handle it? You’re on the inside. Create the “drama” behind-the-scenes. Have them watch a confab and be curious to see what the outcome is. Bring them into the loop. And remind them that they’re PART of the show because their laughter is recorded and becomes a permanent part of the soundtrack.

To me, a good warm-up man is a tour guide, explaining exactly what is happening down on the stage – who all those crew people are and what do they do? People can dance and win silly coffee mugs anywhere.

Before each scene Mr. Warm Up needs to recap where they are in the story. There may have been a ten-minute break since you saw the previous scene. He should know the cast’s resumes. He should know the history of the series. He should know the producer’s background, what shows he’s worked on in the past. Same with the writers, same with the director. Again, THE SHOW is the star; not the warm-up man because he can balance a table on his nose.

He should budget his time. If he's whipped up the audience into a mad frenzy at 7:00, what shape are they going to be in at 9:00 when you’re on the final scene? They’ll be gassed. Regulate the enthusiasm.

And finally, warm-up men have to be spontaneous. They can’t just rely on their forty-minutes of stand up material. They need to converse with the audience. Their patter should be humorous but more importantly, be engaging. They must put the audience at ease. Create a good mood. Convey the idea that the audience is getting a real treat. Very few people ever get the chance to see how a television show is made. It’s a rare privilege. And just like when you go to a baseball game you never know if you’re going to see a no-hitter; if you go to a TV taping you never know if you’re going to see the best show of the year, or the Pope makes a guest appearance. Bottom line: make the audience feel like they’re participating in a special experience (which they are).

So junk the hula hoop contest, leave the magic tricks at home, and turn around. There’s a television show going on behind your back. Tell the folks about THAT.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My latest rant

Even though I know I'm just howling at the moon...

Most network notes come out of fear. Networks are deathly afraid viewers are going to tune out if they're not captivated every second. Go four lines without a joke and networks believe half your audience will bail. Take a minute in your storytelling to breathe and have two characters just relate to each other and networks are certain it’s the same as the Great East Coast Blackout.

One thing the networks have always believed is that you must explain every moment and every little thing that is going on. And then, to be certain, explain it again. Today, more than ever, that is their mantra (because today, more than ever, they’re gripped with fear).

If a viewer is confused he will tune out, is their reasoning. But there is a difference between confusion and just asking the audience to work a little to figure out what is going on. If viewers are lost because they don’t know why a character is so upset or where a scene is taking place then I’m the first one to say that has to be addressed.

But does a character have to tell us he’s sad? Can’t we tell by his behavior? Does Jack Bauer have to remind Chloe six times that if she doesn’t get him the coordinates the Grand Canyon will blow up?

The bottom line is networks think we’re so stupid that we need to be spoon-fed every detail. It’s more than mildly insulting.

As a writer I always assume the audience is intelligent. I feel that if they have to work a little to follow the action they will be more engaged, more invested. They’ll also appreciate that I’m treating them with respect. That I give them a little credit. I’m saying they can read books without the benefits of pictures. They can figure out how to turn on a blender. They can see a guy in a surgical gown and surmise he’s a doctor.

It’s time for networks to trust writers again. It’s time to realize that someone who has been writing and producing comedy for years knows more about how to make a sitcom than a former business major at C.W. Post. And it’s time to stop running scared.

Comedy needs to be daring, subversive, challenging. Networks need to be safe, non-offensive, appealing to the lowest common denominator. No wonder new sitcoms are premiering with a 1.0 share. No wonder shows can’t build an audience even after three years on the air. The audience is not so dumb after all.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hi Tech

Getting close. Previews of my play A OR B? begin Wednesday at the Falcon Theatre. This is my weekly report on the process of getting one of these bad boys mounted.

After three weeks in the rehearsal hall things shifted into high gear last week once the stage was ours. Construction began. As I said on my Facebook page -- I'm living every playwright's dream. They're building sets for my play and I don't have to pay for them.

Jason & Jules
The actors (Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert) have somehow memorized the script (which to me is a skill greater than tightroping over Niagara Falls.) and are now making it their own.

Tech rehearsal began last Thursday. This is the arduous part of the process. Literally twelve-hour days. All the logistic questions that have been tabled over the first three weeks now come to roost. How do props get on and off the stage between scenes? How long will costume changes actually take? That offstage sound we just assumed will sound great now gets put to the test.

Every light cue, every sound cue must be painstakingly locked in. There are a thousand decisions and problems that must be dealt with. What music? How loud? Will there be crowd noise? If so, how much and for how long? Where exactly will the props be backstage?

And as I’m sitting there watching this I’m thinking to myself, “Not my problem.”

Certain transitions from one scene to another are very complicated. One of the actors has to make a quick costume change, there are numerous sound and lighting cues, and it all has to happen in less than 30 seconds.

Not my problem.

The poor actors had to do the transition six or eight times until everybody got it right. It probably took a half hour. This is a 90-page script and at that rate tech would take a month. They only have so many hours over a few days.

Not my problem.

In television when we do multi-camera sitcoms in front of a studio audience we still have the luxury of stopping after every scene. You just say to the prop master one time that you need a coffee mug here or a statue of the Washington Monument in sugar cubes there and poof, they’re there. Not so in live thea-tuh.

So why am I even there?  Well, for one thing I got to see everyone in full wardrobe for the first time and a bright idea I had for one scene totally did not work.

Yes my problem.

Everyone continued to rehearse and I went off to rewrite the scene.

But the real reason I was there was to learn. It’s a treat to watch these highly professional technicians go about building a real theatre experience one sound cue and light adjustment at a time. I can’t imagine what tech is like on a Broadway musical. I have a cast of two and a play. What was LES MISERABLES like? They had to stage the entire French Revolution, not to mention all the sets, rotating stages, costumes, God knows how many actors, singers, and dancers, the orchestra, etc. In MISS SAIGON they also had to land a real helicopter on stage. Good luck when the Podunk Community Theatre does that one.

Not my problem.

Understudies Josh & Lori
Our understudies Josh Covitt and Lori Eve Marinacci were also on hand to help out. Why should they miss the fun of changing clothes in eight seconds and crashing into walls in the dark?

Late yesterday we had a full runthrough with all departments. As the saying goes: At some point the musicians all have to play together.  The problem scene is now way better (although I still have a couple things I'm going to change after I finish writing this).   Off day today, tomorrow a full runthrough and then a dress rehearsal for an invited audience.  Hopefully the play will be funny and touching.

Definitely my problem.

Fine tuning on Wednesday and then previews begin. Please come see the end result of all this mayhem.

Another difference between the theater and TV -- when our director, Andy decides to re-block something, it’s no big deal. As long as the actors aren’t upstaging each other and the moment works it’s done. When I direct television shows, if I re-block I always have to think of cameras. If my star walks around the other side of the couch then suddenly all four of my camera assignments need to be changed.  That gets very complicated.   I told this to Andy who gave me a smile that clearly said…

Not my problem.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Beating" jokes

When is something funny enough? That’s a little hard to say since every example is different and every case is subjective. But as a general rule, whenever I write a joke I ask myself two questions.

Is it funny?

What would be funnier?

Just getting a yes on the first question is no easy task. And by funny I mean FUNNY. Not wry, not amusing, not lol, not smiley face, but something that will make people actually laugh. And not just people – strangers. It’s hard. It’s why they used to pay the big money.

So when you feel your joke has passed the rigorous mirth test it’s tempting to take a moment, pat yourself on the back for being a comic genius, and move on to the next triumph That’s what most comedy writers do.

Don’t be one of them. Ask the second question. How can you make the joke funnier? What’s a more offbeat reference that achieves the same result? What’s fresher? Is there a better set up? Is the wording just perfect? Or is there just a better line altogether?

Small example of a joke just to give you a sense of my thought process. When Manny Ramirez was suspended for violating baseball’s drug policy I was asked if I was surprised. My first thought was, “At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Teresa was a dope dealer.” The incongruity of Mother Teresa selling drugs seemed funny. But “is there something better than dope dealer? What I came up with is this: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Teresa was a gun runner.” That seemed to suggest a funnier image, Mother Teresa haggling with terrorists over AK-47’s.

At some point of course you've got to land on a joke and go with it otherwise you can spend the next fifty years trying to get Jess out of a room. But don't just automatically settle for the first thing you come up with. That sounds obvious but you'd be surprised how many writers do.

A better example comes from THE HANGOVER. How many bachelor party gone-bad-in-Vegas screenplays do you think there’ve been? A thousand? Ten? Four idiots getting shitfaced and in trouble in sin city is comic gold. But I bet none of those scripts had tigers, chickens, missing babies, and Mike Tyson. Okay, well most of them didn’t have Mike Tyson. But you catch my drift. Reach.

There’s an expression in the writing room – “Can we beat this joke?” Don’t settle. ESPECIALLY if you’re writing a spec script.

Eventually you’ll train yourself to automatically think that second question. It could be the subtle difference between good and “you’re hired”.

This was a re-post from the last decade.  But revised.