Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My first grandchild!

We have a new member of the Levine family – Rebecca, born last Thursday in Santa Clara, Ca. Congratulations to my son, Matt and daughter-in-law Kim (who did most of the heavy lifting). Rebecca is their first and my first grandchild.

I still can’t believe I’m a grandfather. Now I realize in West Virginia I’d be a great-great grandfather already, but here in California and still having the mindset of a fifteen year-old, it’s a little hard to grasp.

To me, “grandfathers” were Walter Brennan hobbling around as Grandpa McCoy or Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster. Will I now become Frank Barone? Zeb Walton? Abe Simpson? Moms Mabley?

I still don’t know what to call myself. For the moment I’m going with Big Papi (I’m a member of Red Sox Nation).

Matt & Kim live in Silicon Valley and her due date was over a week ago, so my wife and I have been on 24/7 alert. Picture the classic DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode where Rob practiced grabbing his hat from the headboard to he could get to the hospital eleven nanoseconds sooner.

We got the word from Matt at 6 A.M. on Thursday that they were in the hospital. We then grabbed the first flight to San Jose. (Forget about getting great airline deals when you book last minute. We could go to Yugoslavia in November for what the 300 mile flight to San Jose cost.)

We packed, bought tickets, made hotel reservations, and jumped in my car. By the time we got to LAX we got a text from our son that Rebecca had been born at 8:08 AM and that everyone was doing fine. Through the wonders of overpaying airlines, we arrived at the hospital at 11:00.

Kaiser-Permanente is the first hospital I’ve ever been to where the parking is free. You can’t find a space, but still. In Los Angeles, parking at hospitals cost more than heart operations.

One look at Rebecca and I was in love. They say that happens but no comedy writer believes that. Turns out it’s true! Who knew (besides the rest of the world)?

It’s the miracle of life. And covered by insurance. I will spare you the maudlin paragraph describing the profundity of this blessed event. That’s what Facebook and the Hallmark Channel are for.

I look forward to many days playing with her, bonding with her, drawing pictures, reading stories, and playing tapes of when I used to call Seattle Mariners games.

You know you’re in Silicon Valley when the guy who comes around getting information to fill out the birth certificate also asks a series of questions like what’s your profession, and when the answer is “Engineer” he follows up with “Hardware of Software?” (He was completely thrown when Kim said “Biomedical.”) Ask the same follow-up question in Kansas and it’s “Technical or train?”

My daughter, Annie and her fiancĂ©e Jon drove up on Friday. Firstborns always get so much attention, which, by the way, is fine with me. The first child you race up 300 miles; by the fourth child you’re on Skype.

My wife, Debby, who was an amazing mom and has such a knack for swaddling babies you’d think she made burritos at Taco Bell – stayed until yesterday. It’s always nice to have a little extra help when you first bring the baby home because when that door shuts you’re terrified out of your skull. I went home Saturday because, well… I’m useless. Rebecca will be able to connect with me much better when she starts watching MASH reruns. So in a year.

Annie & Jon drove back on Saturday so I hitched a ride with them. Saved that plane fare, which was the equivalent of a one-way first class ticket to Mars. Not a lot of traffic in the middle of the holiday weekend except around Gilroy. Yes, there’s congestion but also the promise of fruit stands. We took the shortest route, which goes through the Central Valley. 200 miles and the big highlight was seeing a cow.

We got hungry and decided to stop for lunch in Kettleman City, which to help you pinpoint exactly where that is – it's between Hanford and Fresno. Population: 1200. But there’s a rest stop with a bevy of franchise food outlets including In & Out. So of course that’s where we went. Us and everyone else in the entire Central Valley. The place was packed. But what’s the alternative? Carl’s Jr.?  I don’t care how many Kardashians eat there. Jon & Annie stopped at a Carl's Jr. near Bakersfield on their last trip and some dude was trying to figure out the push-button soft drink machine. In frustration he finally wailed, “I’m not a rocket scientist! I just want a soda!”

The rest of the journey was uneventful.  Unfortunately, Annie & Jon couldn’t just drop me off at home. They had to take me to LAX to pick up my car. And, as usual, the 405 was packed. Why? It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon. There are not even fruit stands along the way.

Yes, this post was a somewhat transparent excuse to show some baby photos. Come to my house; I have a thousand more. But I’m thrilled to now have Rebecca in my life and I know she’s got the best parents in the world. She’s a very lucky little girl. I just hope when the time comes the other first graders don’t tease her too mercilessly because her “Big Papi” wrote AfterMASH.

Who knows what technical advances she will see in her lifetime? What morons run for president? How many times bell bottoms will be back in style? Those of us growing up in the last century figured we’d be living the life of the Jetsons by now. Maybe she’ll have a car that turns into a briefcase. But whatever the future holds she can assured that I LOVE LUCY reruns will still be available.

I love you, Rebecca. Have a healthy, happy, long, and wonderful life.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Radar as explained by Gary Burghoff

In honor of Memorial Day I felt I should have a military theme as we pay homage to those before  us who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy (and often take for granted).  
Reader Michael Rafferty submitted a Friday question.  Here's the question and the answer from the man himself, Gary Burghoff.  My EXTREME thanks to Gary for his time and very illuminating response. 

On MASH, first season, Gary Burghoff played Radar pretty much the same as he did in the movie version. But,over time, Radar was softened and became more gentle and naive. Was this a decision of Burghoff or was this a creative decision of Larry Gelbart et al.?

Here's Gary's answer:

In the original feature film MASH, I created Radar as a lone, darker and somewhat sardonic character; kind of a shadowy figure. I continued these qualities for a short time (review the Pilot) until I realized that the TV MASH characters were developing in a different direction from the film characters. It became a group of sophisticated, highly educated Doctors (and one head nurse) who would rather be anywhere else and who understood the nature of the "hell hole" they were stuck in.

With Gelbart's help, I began to mold Radar into more Innocent, naive character as contrast to the other characters, so that while the others might deplore the immorality and shame of war (from an intellectual and judgmental viewpoint), Radar could just REACT from a position of total innocence. This made RADAR super ACTIVE, free and very interesting on a primary "gut" level, which at times delivered the horror of war (as well as the dark humor we became known for) in an effective, universal way that anyone could understand.

Larry, in one interview, was quoted as saying that Radar was his favorite character to write for. I think he liked the fact that the character lacked guile and he could write from his own honest "child's-self" as apposed to having to create "clever" intellectual hyperbole.

ACTING IS RE-ACTING. LARRY gave Radar "permission" to REACT IN SPADES!! in a free, delightful and direct manner. Once these decisions were made, RADAR became PURE JOY to play!! God bless Larry Gelbart and his talented writers such as your most excellent SELF!

I hope this helps.

Love "Ya~ Gary

Love ya, too.  And P.S., Radar was one of my favorite characters to write as well.  It was a true honor to pen the "Goodbye Radar" episodes.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Spec Etiquette

I’ve had several people ask me what NOT to do when trying to get someone to read their spec. It’s a case by case basis of course but I’ll just share some of my own personal experiences or things I have witnessed.

I’ve had people give me spec scripts at high school reunions. Not a good idea unless it’s from the person you always had a crush on and they haven’t gained 300 pounds.

A well known comedy director was in temple during High Holiday services one year when a fellow congregant reached inside his tallis and pulled out a spec script. Not kosher.

When I was announcing for the Orioles I once got thrown out of Bobby Valentine’s office for asking tough questions. He was then the manager of the Texas Rangers. Fifteen minutes later I was summoned back, obviously to receive an apology. No. He had heard I was a writer and pitched me a movie. Try not to be an asshole first.

And then there was the time I was in a funeral home with my father making final arrangements for my grandmother who had just passed away. At one point the mortician asked what I did. When my father said I was a writer the ghoul launched into a twenty minute movie pitch. If my dad wasn’t there no one would believe that story. But it’s true. Pick your spots.

What you need to do is first introduce yourself and try to establish a relationship. How intimate is up to you. But here’s my favorite story. Years ago I and another writer, Larry, were asked to speak at a UCLA extension class. I was a story editor on MASH at the time and he was story editor of RHODA. As we stood in front of the class lecturing, a friend overhead one young woman saying to another: “I think I’ll fuck Larry. I’d rather do a RHODA”.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Getting my start as a director

Sometimes a Friday Question is worthy of an entire post. Like this one by reader, Michael:

How did you get your start as a director? Was it on one of the shows you were a show runner on? If not, was it difficult convincing the producers to give you a chance?

I originally became a director out of necessity. Along with David Isaacs, I was showrunning MARY in 1985 – one of the comeback vehicles for Mary Tyler Moore.

This was maybe episode five. We got a call from the stage that Mary and the freelance director we had hired had had a major blow up and she no longer wanted to rehearse with him. I don't know if it was a clash of styles, a specific disagreement or who was right or wrong.  All I knew was -- we were fucked.  There was a stalemate and the show had completely shut down.  This is not a good thing on a first-time showrunner's watch. 

So we went down to the stage, and just to get everybody back to work I offered to direct it myself. Mary and the cast were fine with that. So I went to work blocking the scene.

Now understand that to this point I had never directed ANYTHING. Not a high school production, not a class, not a skit in camp, nothing. And here I was telling television royalty where to stand. It was positively surreal.

Once the show was blocked, the director we had hired did all the camera blocking (we knew even less about the technical aspects than the performance aspects). And on the screen he got full credit.  I went home and drank heavily. 

Unlike in features, in television the showrunners have final say on the directing. And frequently over the years, on shows I was showrunning, I would ask for scenes to be reblocked or tweaked during runthroughs. I would give performance notes.  Little by little I was familiarizing myself with that process.

And then in editing I would ask for certain shots only to learn that the director didn’t get them.   Example: One character is commenting on another character’s dress and we don’t have a head-to-toe shot of her in the dress. All we have is her close-up. Well, that’s worthless. Or I’d ask for a reaction shot. Sorry, there were none. So there too I learned how to cover a show. It wasn’t enough to have the person delivering a line on camera, you also needed a reaction shot, or a wide shot on occasion.

Eventually, I wanted to try directing myself. It looked like fun, it was a different challenge, and what better way for a writer to protect his material than directing it himself? So for a couple of years I audited James Burrows, Andy Ackerman, Jeff Melman, David Lee and a few other top multi-camera directors.

Once, when I asked Jim Burrows what advice he could give me in preparation he said, “Get the job.” He was right. Until you are thrown into the fire you don’t really know what it’s like.

I was extremely fortunate. I had been consulting and writing on WINGS since the show’s beginning. Showrunners Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell graciously gave me my first assignment. I obviously knew the show very well and had a good relationship with the cast.

So that was my first.  But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of David Lee. By then David was already an accomplished director. He would go on to win Emmys. Camera blocking was Monday. He gave up his Saturday to sit with me and help me plan out the camera assignments. A better and more patient teacher you will never find. Looking back, without that day, I would probably still be camera blocking that episode... that first scene actually.  

It was a frantic week but I loved the experience. And some 50+ episodes later I still enjoy directing.

“Getting that first job” is the key and admittedly it’s very hard to do. Some come up through the writing ranks. Others come up through the technical side. Former editors, first assistant directors, technical coordinators, post production supervisors. A number enter the field through an acting background. And then there are stage directors or directors of short films or music videos that break through. Also, AFI and student intern programs provide an occasional “in”.

It’s not easy but it’s worth it. How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?

This is a re-post from many years ago.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Questions

I prepare for the Memorial Day Weekend by answering some Friday Questions.

The Bumble Bee Pendant starts us off:

Ken, as you know British shows do not have Writers Rooms, mostly because they have shorter series runs, and the penchant for Sorkin-type showrunners, plus a couple of freelancers to write everything. However, BBC is considering it. Would you prefer something like this if you had a limited Netflix type series or do you feel that comedy has to be done by the Writers Room?

I’d like a combination of both. I would like to write all of the scripts (along with my partner David Isaacs), but then when the show is in production I’d like a few writers on staff to help rewrite and fix the mess we had made. I also really enjoy the camaraderie of a writing staff. So I would not choose to go it alone even if I could.

From Liggie:

Is the age of the classic miniseries like "Roots" and "The Winds of War" long gone? Or is the format still alive today in a different look, like a 10- episode season like "Better Call Saul" our "Agent Carter" have had?

I wouldn’t call those two shows miniseries. They’re “series.” (AGENT CARTER is a former series. It was cancelled.)

To me, miniseries are stand-alones. There used to be more of them on networks because they were considered big event programming and were carted out during sweeps. In some cases they were huge home runs (like ROOTS), but they’re risky. And expensive.

Networks still do them, but more on a limited basis. And now there are so many other avenues for miniseries. But they’re around. Every year on the Emmys there are five nominees and I’ve never heard of any of them.

Neal Grinnell asks:

I see that a stage adaption of "Cheers" is coming to Boston in September. Were you or David Isaacs involved at all?

No. We also don’t know if any of our scripts are being used. But we are looking into it. Or should I say our representatives are looking into it? 

Justin Russo queries:

Can you choose a favorite joke or scene that you wrote (from any series) that you are most proud of writing?

It’s hard. Not because there are so many, but because I forgot most of them. But in the first season of CHEERS there was an episode called “Boys In The Bar,” in which the patrons worried that the bar might go gay because Sam came out in support of his former roommate who announced that he was gay.

Sam is in the poolroom with Diane and says something to the effect of: “I should have known. One time on the road we were in a piano bar and he requested a show tune.”

For some reason that got a five-minute laugh. The laugh was so long that the director ordered the cameras to stop rolling. We were wasting too much film. For a comedy writer that’s a walk-off home run in a World Series game.

And finally, Stoney wonders”

Allright Ken; let's say your phone rings. You open it and see that it's James Brooks calling. "Hi Jim" "Hi Ken; we've decided it's time to end THE SIMPSONS and we need you to write a finale for us." Well?

I would have the characters wake up and suddenly be their real ages. And I would have the episode dedicated to Sam Simon.

What’s your Friday Question? Have a great and safe holiday weekend.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

LA prepares for summer

As summer approaches with the Memorial Day Weekend just ahead, here’s how we in LA are gearing up for the season:

There are already billboards for Emmy consideration. Obscure shows on networks you’ve never heard of have giant billboards on Sunset.   More people will see the billboards than the shows themselves. 

Billboards for the upcoming Fall TV season are already starting to pop up. 

Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a single billboard, bus board, newspaper ad, TV or radio commercial for the Rams. You would think by now the Rams returning to Los Angeles after twenty years would be a big fucking deal but apparently it doesn’t warrant the attention that Starz mini-series get.

Freeway traffic is beginning to ease somewhat when school is out for the summer. You’ll be able to drive the 405 Freeway at 3 AM with no problems.

“Back to School” displays are already being erected.

Movie premiers are happening in Westwood every week. Barriers are set up to hold back the crowds, desperately hoping to catch a brief glimpse of the stars of SAUSAGE PARTY.

Hollywood sightseeing buses are everywhere. What stars are these tourists going to see in San Pedro?

Sports talk radio is discussing the Lakers 24/7.

Residents brace themselves for June Gloom, that treacherous weather season where there’s cloud cover until early afternoon.

The LA FRINGE FESTIVAL arrives with fun live theater events all over the city. Pull yourself away from the premier of TEENAGE NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS and go see real actors performing for the love of it.

Disneyland probably raises prices.  Take out a loan or refinance your house. 

Six Flags Magic Mountain unveils a new rollercoaster. It seems like they do that every year. They seem to name them after superheroes. Batman, Superman, etc. By now they’re down to Culligan Man.

Now that the LA METRO RAIL goes all the way down to Santa Monica Beach, locals will be thrilled until they realize there is limited parking at most of the stops beforehand.

Stars move into their Malibu Colony homes for the summer.  Streisand still won't let any of them shop at her private mall. 

Some version of the Beach Boys without Brian Wilson will appear. 70 year-old guys singing “When I Grow Up To Be a Man.”

In anticipation of the 2021 Super Bowl, hotels are jacking up their room rates.  

The Hollywood Bowl and Greek Theater schedules come out and you decide whether seeing certain attractions are worth the parking nightmare.

More sound stages are empty as the production exodus to Vancouver continues. One of these shows should actually be set in Vancouver.

People stop watching television. Except for the lucky few who can still see Vin Scully call his last season of Dodger baseball. That’ll be me this summer. Hope you have a great one wherever you are.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


First, let me say I’m a huge admirer of Louis CK. I love his comedy, think he’s a terrific actor, and love that creatively he’s willing to take big chances. If I’m being honest, I have mixed feelings about LOUIE. There are episodes that are brilliant and others that feel very self indulgent to me.

Recently he took his biggest risk (so far). He completely wrote, directed, stars, and financed a ten episode limited series called HORACE AND PETE. It’s not on any network. You plunk your $5 down per episode and screen it on his website. Now that’s a way to get around ABC network notes.

HORACE AND PETE is a dramedy set in a Brooklyn bar and features an astounding cast. Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Rebecca Hall, and a host of the best character actors you see every night on LAW & ORDER reruns.

For weeks you readers have asked what I thought of it.

There’s a lot I applaud. It’s ambitious, it’s out of the box, Edie Falco is sensational, and Alan Alda’s foul-mouth angry character is the best thing he’s done since Hawkeye.  (I missed a golden opportunity not writing in seven "fucks" in his dialogue every week.)

But Jesus, it's a grim show.

Imagine CHEERS with Eugene O’Neill as the showrunner.

There are parts of HORACE AND PETE that are fascinating (although I’m totally confused by all the generations of Horace and Pete’s over the last hundred years and who’s related to who), and other parts that have me scratching my head.

And part one had an intermission.  An intermission?  I'm sorry but how fucking pretentious is that???

The most remarkable achievement is that Louis CK managed to produce a whole star-studded television series in secret. How does that happen in this day and age when Jennifer Lawrence peeing makes social network headlines?

The second most remarkable achievement is getting Alan Alda and Jessica Lange to drop C-bombs at will.

Louis CK has announced that he has lost millions on this show. (Of course he can just go out on tour for three months and make it all back. It’s not like he mortgaged and lost Downton Abbey.) But still, that’s a considerable amount of money and creative commitment. The sense I get from seeing him on interview shows is that he’s somewhat disappointed in the results.

To me the problem is that it’s not a comedy, which is fine, but his fan base – the ones who would shell out $5 – want to pay for a comedy. That’s his “brand.” When he put a concert on line and charged for it he got a lot of takers. They paid to see his stand-up act. But this is like Woody Allen, after ANNIE HALL and a host of inspired comedies, charged people to see INTERIORS.

Still, what excites me about Louis CK is that he’s always willing to take a big swing at bat. So who knows what brilliant, groundbreaking, or even really funny projects are yet to come? Give me that over the next Seth Rogen NEIGHBORS film any day.  But don't have an intermission.  An intermission???

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Naked Jennifer Lawrence Pelted By BB Gun While, Of Course, Peeing

Headline writing used to be an art. Back in the (very) old days when people got their news from newspapers, headlines would entice them to plunk down the nickel or whatever those rags charged. It was a very competitive field then and newspapers actually had headline writers on staff. In later years the tabloids took these headlines to classic extremes. Probably the most famous being from the New York Post:

Headless Body In Topless Bar

Sports sections also featured great headlines from time to time. I was up in San Francisco for the grand opening of AT&T Park. The Dodgers were playing the Giants to an SRO crowd. Dodger shortstop Kevin Elster uncharacteristically hit three home runs en route to a Dodger victory. The headline in one of the San Francisco papers the next day was:

Three Of A Kind Beats Full House

Today everything is on line and we bloggers and webmasters use headlines to try to grab eyeballs. Ideally, they’re intriguing enough that you’ll want to click through.

A major online publication is the Huffington Post. Their front page offers dozens of articles, each containing audience grabbing headlines. But some of them are, well… ridiculous. Over the course of just a couple of days last week I assembled these actual HuffPost Headlines. Why write comedy when I can just cut and paste this?

Morons Charged After Stomping On Iconic Yellowstone Hot Spring

Naked Jennifer Lawrence Pelted By BB Gun While, Of Course, Peeing

Turns Out Matthew McConaughey Is Really Good At Making Weird Noises

Kim Kardashian Vows To Keep Breaking The Internet With Nude Selfies

Meet Kim Kardashian: A Spy Intent On Corrupting Iranian Youth

Stunning Photos Finally Give Cat Ladies Their Due

How To Live An Orgasmic Life When You Don't Have A Sexual Partner

Texas Republican Wants Schools To Decide How To Police Bathrooms -- Unless They Decide Wrong

Congress Is Using Zika To Weaken Truck Safety

This Couple Decided To Take Their Engagement Pictures At Costco

Lawmaker Briefly Proposes Regulation To Keep Strippers Young, Trim

It Turns Out That Having Sex In A Self-Driving Car Is Kind Of Dangerous

Proof That George Washington Would Be Ashamed Of Trump

The 8 Avocado Hacks You Want And Need

Mysterious 'Ghost' Voice Turns Out To Be A Guy In The Chimney

Monday, May 23, 2016

Wow. Talk about an a-hole...

Check this out. The news anchor made the unconscionable error of reading a story this sports guy was going to do. Listen to how graciously he handles it.

The day I was threatened with an injunction, federal and state lawsuit

Who hasn't had that?

I don’t think it’s possible to have a long career in television or motion picture production without being sued, threatened with cease and desist orders, and legal action.

Mine came when my partner, David Isaacs, and I created the series MARY for Mary Tyler Moore in 1985.

I hadn’t thought of this for a long time but in Googling something else recently I came across this article in the Los Angeles Times. You can read the article here.

I actually never saw it when it came out, but it is filled with inaccuracies. Had the Times bothered to talk to one of us and get our side maybe they would have had a more accurate account of events, but let me share that now since it’s an interesting story of gamesmanship and negotiation (and greed).

David and I conceived a series set in a tabloid newspaper in Chicago. There is a research service that clears names for legal purposes. We submitted a list of possible newspaper names and they came back with the few that had cleared. One was the Chicago Post. So that’s the one we chose.

Before designing the set we went to a few newspaper newsrooms to see what they actually looked like. One thing we noticed when we compared the photos was you couldn’t automatically identify one from the other. None had the name of their paper plastered on the walls. So, in designing our newsroom, nowhere did we show the words Chicago Post.  This proved to be a lucky break.

We filmed the pilot early in October (to air in December). The following week the director, Danny DeVito, and Mary went back to Chicago to film the opening title sequence. David Isaacs went with them. I stayed back and worked on upcoming scripts.

On the morning of October 16th I went into the office early. My plan was to work in the morning then go to the Dodger-Cardinal playoff game in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, in Chicago they were shooting scenes of buses going through town with billboards of “the Chicago Post” with Mary's picture prominently displayed (she was supposed to be a columnist).

At about 10:00 I get a call from a gentleman saying he was the publisher of the Chicago Post and happened to see one of these buses. What the hell was going on? I said I would call him back.

I quickly dialed Chicago information and asked for the number of the Chicago Post. Sure enough, she had one. Clearly, our research company fucked up big time.

I called the higher-ups at MTM and alerted them. They said were on it.

An hour later they called and asked how difficult would it be if we had to change the paper's name? I said not difficult at all. We would have to reshoot those opening title scenes with the bus boards, and do some looping of dialogue, but that’s about it. It would be a pain in the ass, but in no way would we have to reshoot the pilot (thus saving a million dollars). Relieved, they said “Great” and told me to stand by.

Then they called the paper’s publisher and very generously offered $100,000 for use of the name. In truth, the Chicago Post was just a throwaway paper. The owner said the name was worth much more and wanted some astronomical fee. He figured we’d have to reshoot the pilot. MTM said that was their final offer and he had until the end of the business day.

With that hanging over my head I sped down to Dodger Stadium to watch the game where Jack Clark hit the three-run home run to win the pennant over my beloved Dodgers. Not a good day. 

Now I go back to the office. The Chicago Post publisher thought we were bluffing and let the deadline pass.   We made those changes and the Chicago Post became the Chicago Eagle.

If he ever called back the next day and said he'd agree to the offer or was open to negotiate I'm not aware.  All I know is when the deadline passed the offer was pulled off the table and MTM was done with the matter.

We reshot the bus board scenes in Los Angeles, reprinted copies of the paper, looped the actors (I think it was said only three or four times), and that was that. Long before the show aired it was done.

So that's the real story.  To my knowledge there were never any injunctions, and federal and state lawsuits.  The show's airing was never in jeopardy.   If the publisher did file those legal salvos he wasted a lot of money because Chicago Post was never in the broadcast version.

I remember at the end of that day, the MTM exec saying, “It’s now only a minor problem of making some fixes. Go home with peace of mind.” And I said, “Screw that. How come Lasorda didn't walk Clark with first base open?" 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

What NOT to do...

,,,when performing improvisational comedy.

This is a hilarious bit from Ricky Gervais' LIFE'S TOO SHORT series. Liam Neeson breaks every rule of improv. But does it wonderfully.  And with conviction.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

My favorite network censor story

Battles between show runners and network Standards & Practices (i.e. Censors – despite what their business cards say) are common. Personally, I never had a major run-in with them. They have been annoying and at times infuriating but that’s just part of the process. Most of the time you can work things out. They tend to be reasonable.   A good friend of mine is the head of Standards & Practices at one of the major networks.  We go to lunch and just wait for him to say "fuck" so I can bleep him. 

But we had an incident in the mid 80s when we were doing MARY (the Mary Tyler Moore comeback vehicle) that at least gave us a chance to have a little fun at their expense… in some small, admittedly immature, but mirth provoking way.

Our S&P person was a middle-aged spinster. Picture: Aunt Bea from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. In one episode we had Mary innocently say “yin yang” in a speech. Aunt Bea called and said we’d have to lose that. Why? She said it was a euphemism for penis. Well first off, I had never heard it used in that context and secondly, we weren’t using it in a suggestive manner. “Yin yang” is the Chinese symbol for opposites. Plus, Mary Tyler Moore was saying it. We were not going to have America's sweetheart do a dick joke.

Still Aunt Bea was adamant. She had a list of euphemisms for penis and none of those words were allowed.

She had a list? An actual list?

I got an idea. I said to her it would be very helpful to hear the list so we’d know in the future what words to avoid. Would she please read them aloud to me?

I then put her on speaker phone so the entire writing staff could hear as Aunt Bea went down the list. Just imagine your dear sweet grandmother saying, “willy. wang, dong, baloney pony, Captain Winkie”.

We were dying.

She was clearly uncomfortable too. But when she finished I asked if there was a list for breasts. As a matter-of-fact there was. I had her recite that list to the gang. “Hooters, kazonkas, sweater meat”.

She reeeeally wanted to hang up after that list. But there was yet another list we really needed to hear. “What about vagina?” I asked.

She took a deep breath. And then from “cha-cha” to “hoo-hoo” with every “man in the boat” in between, she rattled off the terms. Dropping the “C-bomb” and a few that were so ugly that I could only picture Andrew Dice Clay saying them.

I thanked her, she hung up, and we howled for twenty minutes.

We got very few S&P notes after that. And to be fair, we always tried to take the high road on that show anyway. We weren’t looking to slip in dick jokes.

Here’s how far television has come: For a full list of those CBS euphemisms for “penis” watch any three episodes of 2 BROKE GIRLS. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday Questions


YEKIMI leads off:

Do you think these rule changes will help the Golden Globes or is it always going to be a turdfest?

It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but no one is going to really take the Golden Globes seriously. Not when they continue to hire hosts like Ricky Gervais who trashes the event during the event. And not when they have silly categories. And less than a hundred people voting, most of them not even in the industry.

Stars show up because it’s a big drunken party, they get national exposure, SWAG, and it’s more publicity for the Oscars, which are the only awards that really do matter (as far as Hollywood is concerned – for the rest of the world none of it REALLY means shit except for winning office pools).

Dylan Walton asks:

After your effusive praise for Doris Roberts, I wondered that if, in a perfect world, you were given the opportunity to cast a sitcom with your own dream team, who would you choose? Who are the first half-dozen picks in your "sitcom draft"? (Still alive, or all-time living or dead. Your choice.)

Okay, I’ll do two – living and living in our memory. But it’s incredibly hard to narrow it down to just six. I could list twenty in each category and still accidentally leave off a deserving ten. But, for now, here are my lists:


David Hyde Pierce
Louis CK
Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Shelley Long
Ted Danson
Dick Van Dyke


Lucille Ball
Robin Williams
Phil Silvers
Jackie Gleason
Art Carney
Audrey Meadows

What’s yours? (I get to ask Friday Questions too.)

From Tammy:

When the opening credits feature scenes from the show next to each actor's name, who picks which scenes to use? (Seems like a fun assignment.) And do the actors have any say in it? Thanks!

Actually, there are very few shows that are allowed opening titles anymore (which is a major pet peeve of mine). However, in those few cases, if actors’ credits are matched with scene grabs usually it’s the showrunner who decides.

Maybe the editor will narrow down some choices. In some cases I imagine the network or studio will get involved. In this day and age, I imagine opening titles (even if they’re only ten seconds) are focus tested.

Unless the actor is also an executive producer, then no, he has no say.

And finally, Cliff wants to know:

With baseball season starting, I'd really like to hear of your pre-game process to get ready to call the game. Some time ago, you mentioned that Dave N. arrived hours before a game to get ready. What is it you do? Read the sports pages or something? If you have other folks that you've worked with that have unique pre-game rituals, those would be interesting to hear about too.

Everyone has a little different routine. I do a lot of work before I get to the park. I spend an hour or so on the computer, reading newspaper stories from both clubs. Then I check out the stories from the team we’ll be playing next and making notes on them.

I also subscribe to a service that provides player profiles and background stories. I’ll go through those, especially that night’s starting pitcher and any new players who have joined the roster. I also need to know why the new players are there. Who was injured or traded or dropped to create the opening? And if it was an injury, what was the nature of the injury, how did the player get it, and when is he due back?

There is a lot of room on my scoresheet for notes, so I begin jotting down notes for that night’s game.

For a 7:00 game I get to the park around 3:00 and get myself set up in the booth. At 3:15 clubhouses are open to the media so I go down and talk with the players. Usually I’ll go to both clubhouses. For the visiting team, I like to talk to the manager or coaches. They usually provide the best info. It’s great when you can sit in the manager’s office and shoot the shit with him off the record. Each clubhouse generally has the starting line up posted. I take that down and if there’s anything unusual about it I seek out a coach or the manager to find out what’s what.

Around 4:15 the home team manager will usually meet in the dugout with the media to answer questions. The visiting manager does the same later in the afternoon. I always attend those.

Once batting practice begins I hang around the batting cage, or in the dugouts just talking to people – other announcers, reporters, players, team PR people, former players, agents, stadium ushers.

Sometimes I’ll knock on the umpires’ door if I have a question about a rule or a decision.

At around 5:15 I go back up to the booth. I fill in the starting line ups and appropriate stats. By this time the team notes are available along with a big stack of statistics. I scan the statistics. Who leads the team in doubles, triples, strike outs, errors, hitting into double plays, etc? I make notes.

Around 5:45 I’ll duck into the pressbox dining room for dinner. Usually there are advanced scouts there. I try to sit with them and get their impressions about certain players.

At 6:15 I’m back in the booth, highlighting notes and continuing to jot down little nuggets. I assemble my player profiles so they’re easily accessible.

At 6:30 it’s time for the pre-game show (if I’m just doing radio). And we’re off and running.

If it’s television, there’s usually a production meeting to go over the opening and any features the director plans on using. Then there’s the on-camera opening to tape. That usually takes about fifteen minutes and we’re told what time to report to the booth.  So I adjust my day accordingly. 

But wait! There’s more!

After the game I’ll try to either go down to the clubhouse to ask a few players or the manager a couple of questions about the game, or (on the road) will head to the hotel bar where there are usually a few players or coaches enjoying a nightcap.

I’ll also watch MLB highlights before going to sleep.

That’s my routine. There are some announcers who roll in at 6:00. There are others who are at the park at 1:00. Some socialize with the players, others never go down to the clubhouse – they get their info from the teams’ announcers. Some bring their scoresheets with them down to the field and fill them out in the dugout. There’s something to be said for that. Players see that you’re preparing too.

Now you may say I put in a lot of preparation, and that’s true, but as a baseball fan, I do a lot of that anyway. I read articles, listen to and watch games on line and on satellite, and check out all the highlights and stories on MLB.COM. At least when I’m calling games I get paid for it.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

MONEY MONSTER -- my review

MONEY MONSTER is like a comic book movie for adults. There's nothing particularly heavy. I's escape without the cape. Instead of super powers you get super stars… or one-time super stars. Now they’re still-bankable stars. But hey, how many Batmans have we had?

George Clooney and Julia Roberts star in a film that can best be described as DOG DAY AFTERNOON meets THE BIG SHORT meets NETWORK, but not as good as any of them. And yet, I found it entertaining. It zipped along at only 97 minutes. Next to great movies are movies you don’t have to check your watch.

Jodie Foster directed it in a Sidney Lumet style. You’ll notice at every turn I’m comparing this movie to other movies and that’s because there was nothing really original about it.  Yet it’s very well done and holds your interest.

George is a goofy TV host of a daily financial show and Julia is his producer. NEWSROOM with funny hats and props. He is held up at gunpoint live on the air (add KING OF COMEDY to the mix). Now comes a big standoff with police negotiators, Julia talking in George’s ear, Swat teams, and an underlying conspiracy.

In an attempt to get out of the claustrophobic TV studio, the action eventually moves outside and the story gets very silly and implausible. But no buildings are toppled by X-Men, no doomsday machines threaten to destroy the earth, and no one is clonked on the noggin by a flying ancient sledgehammer.

This film did introduce me to Caitriona Balfe, who was quite stunning. Fans of OUTLANDER know her well, but I haven’t watched that show. Until now. I feel a binge coming on.

I saw MONEY MONSTER at a DGA screening. Jodie Foster did a Q&A after the film. She’s very talented. I think Jodie Foster will make it in this industry.

She talked about the development of the film, working for several years on the script, and getting George Clooney to come aboard. Their first choice for the producer character was Julia Roberts and Jodie was surprised when she said yes. Of course, Julia worked only eight days, most of them in a nice protected sound stage, and made several million dollars for her effort. It’s not like she had to do eight days on THE REVENANT and skin a bear.

MONEY MONSTER looks to be a boxoffice hit. George is charming. Julia has great teeth. The fact that it’s released now and not November says they’re not anticipating any Academy Awards, which is fine. It doesn’t deserve any Academy Awards. Of course, neither did AMERICAN HUSTLE, but because it came out in the Fall and was by a hotter director with bigger stars it did get some nominations.

If only Jodie had gotten Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.

Alas, MONEY MONSTER is just a diverting night at the Cineplex. And if they want to use this as a blurb:  It’s the best studio movie out there where no one flies.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Let's be up front about the Upfronts

There’s yet a new wrinkle in this year’s Upfronts (when the major broadcast networks announce their new Fall schedules).  It's called "stacking."  First some background:

Negotiating with the networks has always been a challenge. But over the years it has gotten even more complicated and way worse.

Originally, before networks could own shows, the fights were with studios over number of episodes ordered and license fees. The license fee is what the network gives the studio to produce the show. The network was allowed two airings. If the cost of the show was more than the license fee then the studio paid the difference. The networks made their money by selling commercial time.

So if a series was cancelled after thirteen weeks and the studio shelled out a lot of additional costs it took a bath. But if the show was a hit, like say FRIENDS, then the studio owned it outright. At the time, syndication was the brass ring. Warner Brothers has made billions on FRIENDS. 20th continues to rake in money from MASH. It’s like a slot machine that just keeps paying out for over forty years.

Studios made so much money that the networks eventually cried poverty and lobbied the government to participate.  They won and were allowed to own studios and shows.  There was concern that the networks would then just pick up their own shows and squeeze out outside studios.  "Oh no," they promised, "Our goal is to get the highest ratings so we'll buy the best shows regardless of who produces it."   You know the result.  For the most part networks only picked up shows they owned. If they bought a show from an outside studio they usually required partnership.

If you had an ownership stake in a series (let's say you were the writer/creator/showrunner) you now had another partner. Sort of reminds you of the Sopranos,’ doesn’t it? And even the big syndication dollars were in jeopardy. Why? Because networks began buying cable networks and selling their shows essentially to themselves at reduced rates. The ownership partners were undercut again. The networks profited in that they had quality programming for their upstart networks and they alone profited on the advertising. This prompted several lawsuits by folks with ownership stakes, like Alan Alda.

And now comes something new. The syndication market isn’t what it used to be. DVD sales are drying up. Streaming is the new source of big income.

Instead of selling their hit series to independent TV stations in syndication, they now sell to Netflix or Hulu for big bucks. But those outlets understandably want exclusivity for their astronomical fees. Series owners were able to provide that… until this year.

The arrangement with networks was always that they could stream only five episodes at a time. So you couldn’t binge on an entire series until it went to (say) Netflix.

This year the networks want to stream all episodes of new season’s shows. That's “stacking.” They feel it will generate more interest in the shows, and it’s another way to bring viewers into the tent. And that’s fine, except there goes exclusivity and a big payday down the line.

And just as the networks wouldn’t pick up a show if the studio didn’t agree to become partners, now they can’t get their shows on the schedule unless they acquiesce to this new stacking demand. NBC and ABC have been particularly hard line on this. And negotiations have been very contentious.

You will notice that the actual quality of the product has not been mentioned even once in this post. Once upon a time, the best pilots got on the air. Now, the best deals get on the air.

Will this be a great new Fall Season?  As a viewer I'd say the odds are against you.   Stacked against you. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

My attempt at writing a FRIENDS script

Had the weirdest dream last night.  It’s a strange variation of the workplace nightmare where you forgot to do your assignment and everything is going wrong and the clock is ticking. Whether you’re a writer or shoe salesman you’ve experienced some version of that dream. But like I said, mine was somewhat different. Okay, here it is:

I was hired to join the staff of FRIENDS, probably as a producer. I was the new guy. It was the beginning of a season. I didn’t know any of the other FRIENDS writers. (In truth, I know most of the FRIENDS writers.)

Our offices were in a cool house set up on the Warner Brothers lot (much like the “Big Brother” house ensconced in the middle of CBS/Radford). There was the writers’ room in one part, and living quarters for the actors in another. Yes, the cast of FRIENDS all lived together. (Why would Courtney Cox buy her own mansion when she can share a room with Lisa Kudrow? But I digress.)

For some reason, even before the first day, I had decided to write a FRIENDS script on my own. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. In real life I would NEVER do that. It’s an utterly INSANE thing to do.

I still don’t know what motivated me. Did I think I was that brilliant a writer that I could just go rogue and everybody would be blown away? Was I trying to impress Kaufman & Crane? Was this one of those horrible side effects they list on TV drug commercials?

In any event, I bang out this script, and in the dream I’m really proud of it. I have a PA make a couple of copies. The copier, of course, is in the actors’ living quarters.

I’m now in the break room, still enormously impressed with myself when Jennifer Aniston comes in to pour herself some coffee. She’s talking to the PA and I overhear her say, “Do you know who wrote this script? I read some of it and it was just horrendous. Who is this person? He obviously doesn’t know the show.” Then she turns to me. I had never met her. She squints and says, “Did you write this piece of shit?” At that moment I panicked and lied. “What? Me? No way.” She walked out saying, “Good luck when Marta (Kaufman) reads this.”

And now I’m alternately thinking, “What the fuck did I do?” and “How could it so bad? I’m a funny guy. I wrote for FRASIER, I can certainly write for FRIENDS.” So (still in the dream) I screened an episode of FRIENDS to see where I went wrong. The first scene was in Central Perk and I realized I didn’t even have one scene in Central Perk. How could you have a FRIENDS episode without at least one scene in that location? Again, what the fuck was I thinking?

So apparently I couldn’t write a FRIENDS – certainly not without the benefit of the staff’s input (or permission). Mercifully, I woke up before Marta could hand me my head.

I wondered what the point of this dream was. Surely, there had to be some point (other than a chance to kick my own ass during peaceful slumber time).

I think it’s maybe that I made a common rookie mistake. Instead of doing the hard work and really coming up with the story, and seeking help from those more experienced, I chose to just go off half-cocked. In my twisted mind I must’ve thought I had enough talent that I could just bang it out without an outline or even firm grasp of the show and the brilliance would still just shine through. Uh...WRONG.

I’m still a little puzzled as to why I had this dream. Like I said, I NEVER just go off and write a script without at least some outline. I always know my ending. I always devote time to knowing my characters, what makes them interesting, and what are their goals? So why? But then again, when I have the standard college nightmare that it’s the day of the final and I never studied and my alarm didn’t go off – I was always way too organized in real life to ever let that happen. And yet I dreamed it anyway.

The moral here: Don’t just dash off work. Take the time to do it right. It was humiliating enough for me to be rejected by Jennifer Aniston, but for my writing??? That’s five more years of therapy for sure.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The day the CHEERS cast almost killed us

In the early days of CHEERS, when we were still feeling our way along, we experimented with different directions and avenues of comedy. One was “the bar run.”

The Charles Brothers introduced this in the pilot – a few minutes away from the story to feature the kind of silly discussion you would normally hear in a bar. “What was the sweatiest movie?” was the topic in the pilot.

So we tried one ourselves when David Isaacs and I wrote our first CHEERS script. “What is the smartest barnyard animal?” It was only about a page but had some good jokes and got solid laughs during the audience filming.

The only problem was that the show came out long. So the first thing that was cut was the Barnyard run. It was superfluous. (In comedy writing circles we call this type of run an “up and back.” It’s funny but leads you nowhere.)

However, since the bit worked we tacked it onto another script about two weeks later. Same story. The actors learned it, rehearsed it, performed it to big laughs, and it got cut for time.

Undaunted, we inserted it into a third script a few weeks after that. By this time the cast was ready to revolt. We couldn’t use the two previous versions because the wardrobe and extras wouldn’t match. I can’t blame the actors. For them it was like GROUNDHOG DAY. But only 400 people in two filmings had seen it. The ultimate goal was to entertain 30,000,000 viewers and it was still new to them.

The actors dutifully performed this bit yet again. This time it aired. It HAD to. If we had killed it again I think there would have been a mutiny.

From time to time you would continue to see these “Bar Talk” runs but way less frequently. We started an S.O.S. file (some other show), and although occasionally we would reprise a bit that was cut for time, most of them (no matter how hilarious) went to the S.O.S. file to die. You can thank the barnyard.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Starting a pilot

For years the popular thinking was comedy spec scripts had to be from existing shows. Now producers and agents are asking for spec pilots. Pilots present their own set of problems and traps. Setting up the characters, situation, exposition, story, tone, and comedy in the first few pages is the most daunting task. I’ve had many requests for a sample of a pilot first scene. So here’s one David Isaacs and I wrote and produced for Fox a couple of years ago called SNOBS. Paget Brewster played Beverly. A young actor named Aaron Paul played Clay. And another young actor, Kat Dennings played Isabel.   Hope this helps, or at least you find amusing.








Karl, I don’t have time for a formal breakfast this morning.

Well, you’re certainly not going to eat a protein bar like some animal. Please, Beverly, sit.


Oh, I suppose I could have a macchiato and a pain au chocolat.

That’s my girl. We have to keep it civilized in here. Because there’s nothing we can do about (WITH DISDAIN) out there.

Have faith, honey. Someday we’ll have a home that will live up to our furniture.

That someday is here, Bev. If tonight’s party goes well, I’m done teaching community college and we’re on our way to… (WITH REVERENCE) Stanford.

A home in Palo Alto.

Just think of it. A neighborhood where people park their cars in the garage instead of on the front lawn.



Good morning, Isabel.

What time did you go to bed last night?

I didn’t. (BEAT) You’ll be so proud of me, Daddy. I was practicing my Mendelssohn for your guests this evening.

But all night? Honey, the therapist said not to put that much pressure on yourself.

But Daddy said it was the most important night of our lives. He told me if I don’t perform this piece perfectly he won’t get the job at Stanford and we’ll be doomed to short brutish lives in this blue collar hell.

Isabel, that was a “daddy/daughter private talk”.


Here. Read and please respond.

What is it, Gore?

35 reasons why Isabel’s cat should be put to death.


I anticipated this. My rebuttal.



Children, I won’t have you fighting like this!

Yes, and I don’t want to see any of this tonight in front of Dr. and Mrs. Shapiro.

That man holds the future of this entire family in his hands.

I’ll be ready, Daddy.

What a kiss-ass.

And Gore, as for you tonight, let’s go over this one more time. People are entitled to their opinions.

Oh, really? What if our (MAKES AIR QUOTES) “guests” like the Baroque period, or Creationism or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?

We will respect what they say… and make fun of them afterwards.


I’ve gone to great lengths for tonight: the right wine, the right flowers, the right music. Everything will be perfect.


Are you Karl Mallard?

Yes. What can I do for you?

It’s me. Clay!


Your son.

My son?

New Orleans? (BEAT) 1986? (BEAT) How many illegitimate kids do you have?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A spectacular music video

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist back in the days when everyone read the funny pages in the newspaper (back in the days when there WERE newspapers). His cartoons would depict elaborate chain reaction machines to accomplish the simplest tasks (like turning on a switch). They became known as Rube Goldberg machines.  Here's an example:
Thanks to reader "The Bumble Bee Pendant" I found a website that features several of these elaborate Rube Goldberg machines.  This was one of my favorites.  It's a music video for OK Go.  Can you imagine hearing the words, "Okay, let's set it up again and take it from the top."

Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Don’t step on any black cats while reading this week’s Friday (the 13th) Questions.

Andy Rose gets us started.

Preston Beckman recently said that NBC was very excited about the upcoming debut of Friends in 1994, but had a problem. Jennifer Aniston was still in first position on a show called Muddling Through that CBS was airing as a summer series. If CBS renewed it, NBC would have to recast Aniston's role on Friends and reshoot the pilot. So they made a point of sandbagging Muddling Through with strong counterprogramming to make sure it was dead by the end of summer. It worked out great for NBC and Jennifer Aniston. It sucked for everyone else on that show since it might have survived if NBC weren't so intent on getting Aniston for themselves.

Have you ever had a show that you knew was being targeted for failure for reasons beyond your control?

Uh, Mr. Beckman may be embellishing some facts and inflating the importance of NBC at the time.

First of all, networks can’t just target competing shows and arbitrarily knock them off. I suppose if they wanted to move FRASIER to whatever MUDDLING THROUGH’S time slot was they could crush them, but why make such a drastic move, upset your entire programming schedule, just to ensure you don’t have to recast one actor in a pilot for a show that hadn’t even aired yet?

Was NBC excited about FRIENDS? Sure. They were excited about all the new shows they were premiering that Fall.

One other point, when you cast an actor in second position (meaning if the show they’re committed to gets picked up you lose them) you take a big risk. Usually you only take that risk if there’s a very good chance the first-position show is not going to make it. Word on the street at the time was that MUDDLING THROUGH would just live up to its name, which it did.  CBS aired the show on Saturday night (a death slot even then).  It was a place holder. 

But stranger things have happened. I might have felt pretty safe casting Jason Alexander in second-position considering the early scuttlebutt of that SEINFELD thing he was in.


In the interest of getting it right -- a highly placed NBC executive who I totally trust and was there at the time said that yes, NBC did indeed try to squash MUDDLING THROUGH by pre-empting EMPTY NEST or whatever their regular programming was and substitute instead some high powered movies of the week by a very popular author.  Again, I believe this source so let this update be the definitive answer to the question. 

Charles H. Bryan with a question pertaining to filming multi-camera sitcoms before a live studio audience:

What happens if an audience member has a coughing fit or loud sneeze? Are the stage microphones directional enough to not pick up those sounds?

The audience sits in a bleacher section. There are three or four microphones placed over their heads in different locations. We can easily remix the audience reaction to downplay or eliminate the hacker.

A bigger problem is occasionally having an audience member talk back to the actors. We had one I remember on CHEERS. He was yelling things like “Don’t go in that door, Diane!” He was politely asked to leave.

Ben Devine queries:

I've been re-watching old Seinfelds and noticed possibly a reference to you in Season 1, Episode 2. At a gathering of relatives in Jerry's apartment, a cousin appears into the conversation. Jerry says, "Elaine, this is my cousin Artie Levine," pronouncing it "Leveen." Artie, looking annoyed, barks, "It's Le VINE!" After he exits, Jerry says, "Yeah, Le VINE, and I'm Jerry Cougar Mellencamp." Was this a friendly dig at a fellow NBC writer?

I'd like to think so but I have no idea. I’ve never asked Larry David because I’d look like a complete idiot if it wasn’t.

From Al Leos:

We were having a discussion of the "Edith Bunker gets attacked" episode of All in the Family in an online forum, and the question came up whether CBS could have blocked the script from airing. Do you have to clear any scripts ahead of time, if it involves a controversial topic or a vital change to a key character?

Nowadays you have to clear EVERY script, every outline, every story notion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a controversial story or someone overcooks the Thanksgiving turkey. Maybe a superstar producer like Chuck Lorre or Shonda Rhimes can exert a little push-back, but today it’s not a matter of whether the network will air the show, they won’t even let you make it.

What’s your Friday Question? You can leave it in the comments section.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The sexual tension ticking clock

I’m still getting comments from readers weighing in on whether Sam and Diane should have ridden off into the sunset together. (Feel free to join the conversation.) And now you can have the same debate over THE GOOD WIFE finale. Should Alicia & Jason have paired up? Will they pair up? (By the way, I liked THE GOOD WIFE finale. But I was kinda hoping the woman in her building who got all her mail slapped her.)

But it brings to light a bigger question that TV writers are faced with: When constructing a romantic storyline, how long can you keep the couple apart?

This is not a problem in movies. You are allowed an ending. You’ve got 90 minutes (or in Judd Apatow’s case 180 minutes) to get them together, throw in complications, and ultimately resolve them.

But a television series is open ended (and six part mini-series don’t count). Sexual tension is great but you can’t keep doing it for seven years. Not in 2016 (and I suspect not in 1016 but there were different FCC rules back then). And usually once a couple finally gets together the series is never as good. You’re always playing “now what do we do with them?”

I’ve told this story before but the night Sam & Diane finally had their first big kiss (at the end of season one) the studio audience went through the roof and I turned to my writing partner, David Isaacs and said “We’ve peaked. There’s nothing we can do with these characters that will ever get a bigger reaction than this.” I believe I was right (who knew?).

Things were easier in the late ‘60s. You could have a show like THAT GIRL. Anne-Marie could string hapless Donald along forever. The only problem was that it was a total disconnect from real life.

They tried on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to give Mary a boyfriend but there was never any chemistry. And that’s something you can’t force.

CHEERS pretty much began the romantic comedy within a series formula that now extends to pretty much every show except LIVE WITH KELLY AND MICHAEL.

Producers walk a fine line. You want to keep the delicious sexual tension going as long as possible, but at some point you cross into high school. On CHEERS in 1982 we all felt one year was enough. If we were doing CHEERS today I don’t know. Practically every Millennial sitcom pilot I watch opens with at least one series lead in bed having meaningless sex. In MASTER OF NONE Aziz Ansari’s condom breaks during a hook up with someone he just met. In LOVE, Gilliam Jacobs’s ex-boyfriend breaks into her house in the middle of the night, scaring the shit out of her. She says, “Okay, I’ll fuck you but then you have to leave.” (Yes.  Huh???)  So you’re left with two dilemmas: No one waits five minutes before hopping into the sack, and there’s no romance.

For my money, if romance isn’t part of the equation then why even bother at all? It gets back to chemistry and whether you WANT to see the couple get together. David & Maddie – yes. Ross & Rachel – yes. Pam & Jim – yes. Mary & Mr. Grant – NO!

As far back as the ‘60s (and the dawn of the so-called Sexual Revolution – although I didn’t get the memo for several years), there was pretty much the three-date rule. If it was going to happen, it would happen by date three. (THAT GIRL had a three hundred-date rule.) So you’re talking a few weeks, a month maybe as your time frame? By those standards, even a year was pushing it.

So you need a way to stall. One popular device is withholding intention. A character won’t admit that he’s attracted to another character. This buys time but is also a trap. The characters quickly fall into high school. Aaron Sorkin characters do this a lot. I loved NEWSROOM and WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT, but anytime there was sexual tension it was more like “should I pass him a note in homeroom” than steamy foreplay.

Networks still love romantic comedies. Every season we get three or four new ones (with one starring Casey Wilson). And when they work they’re magic. But they come with expiration dates – that are getting shorter and shorter. Producers today need to find the perfect balance between THAT GIRL and Tinder. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Who does NETFLIX think I am?

As a Netflix subscriber, when I go to my home page it offers me suggestions based on what I’ve watched. And this is fine.

Tivo used to do that too. I think seven sitcoms did the story where the blue collar dad watched something that lead Tivo to conclude he was gay so he came home to find all these gay-themed shows waiting for him.  (Credit goes to the first of the seven, whoever that was.) 

But at least you could understand Tivo’s thought process. With Netflix I’m at a loss.

Here are some of my suggestions:



Because I watched HOUSE OF CARDS they know I'd love FIXER UPPER, THE BARKLEY MARATHONS, DOPE, WORLD WAR II IN COLOUR, and GILMORE GIRLS (although it's essentially the identical show to WORLD WAR II IN COLOUR). 


Because I watched THE MAKING OF A MURDERER they suggest the similarly-themed  UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT, SCANDAL, FAMILY GUY, and of course FULLER HOUSE.

I thought the whole idea of marketers being able to track your preferences allowed them to more accurately pinpoint your likes and dislikes. Suggesting I watch FAMILY GUY because I watched THE MAKING OF A MURDERER says they think I’m Steve Avery. I hope my Netflix consumer data isn’t distributed to other marketers. I’ll start getting Ted Cruz newsletters, applications to join the Peace Corps, and a free subscription to BRIDES magazine.

I should start watching CHEERS and see if they want me to also check out JOSEPH FRITZL: STORY OF A MONSTER.