Monday, October 31, 2016

Boo! Some random thoughts on Halloween

Like all kids, I loved Halloween. What’s not to love? You get to stay up late. You get to wear a costume. You get candy. You get to egg your neighbor’s car.

I never did the latter, but growing up in the suburbs I did all the rest. There were a million kids in my neighborhood and doorbells would ring every five seconds. In three blocks you could have enough candy to rot even Anne Hathaway’s teeth.

Very few kids had store-bought costumes those days. A shirt with an “S” and a red towel and you were the Man of Steel. A Davy Crockett hat and you were Davy Crockett. Most girls wanted to be princesses, which meant they froze. There’s an old photo of me at about 9 wearing a grey suit and mustache. I have no idea who I was supposed to be. Perhaps a scientist on the Manhattan Project.

Every neighbor was home that night doling out bite sized Snickers or chocolate eyeballs.  And there was always one skeesix who was a dentist and gave out floss.  His car was the one that was egged. 

Eventually I got too old to go trick-or-treating. I was in Army Basic Training and the Drill Sergeant wouldn’t let me to go to the various battalions. He didn’t even let us have a cup cake party in the barracks.  It figures -- the one year I had a real costume. 

When I became a parent one of my favorite things was taking my children trick-or-treating. They were always so happy and excited and I wished they could always feel that way – about everything.  (I wish I could feel that way about anything.)  Plus, I’d steal some of their candy when they went to bed.

But it was traumatic when my kids got too old to go trick-or-treating. Every year I still ask. Annie lives near CBS and we could go and get KEVIN CAN WAIT posters. I’m sure they have 7,000,000 of them.

And now I have a granddaughter! So the happy ritual begins again. Rebecca is five months old so she’s still a month too young to run through the neighborhood. But in a few years I’ll be telling her all real princesses wear puffy parkas and will take her trick-or-treating. Ah, the cycle of life.

Wherever you are and however old you are, Happy Halloween. As for me, I’ll be home this year, answering the doorbell, handing out Tootsie Rolls and post cards promoting my play. I’m sure the kids will love them.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The night the Hell's Angels went Trick or Treating

Here's a Halloween story from my sordid disc jockey past. 

1971 and I was doing weeekends at KERN in Bakersfield. I was five at the time. (All TV writers older than twenty who hope to work lie about their age.)  The station was this shack out in the middle of nowhere. And since Bakersfield itself is in the middle of nowhere, the station was really REALLY in the middle of nowhere.

It was my second week. I was holding down the coveted Saturday 6-midnight shift. At about 10:00 the doorbell rang. Who would be coming to call at this hour? Maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses work late in this town. I put a record on and like an idiot went to the front lobby and opened the door.

There was a full gang of Hell Angels – probably thirty of the scariest leather clad, chain wielding, tattoo sporting (before it was fashionable), chopper riding, engine revving, ass kicking (and in my mind, Jew hating) dudes you’ve ever seen. And their girlfriends who could beat the shit out of me.

So I was Jello in a windstorm. Picture Ralph Kramden as the “Chef of the Future”. “Hummina hummina hummina” The leader (at least I thought he was the leader. I didn’t ask for ID.), growled, “You the fucking guy on the radio?”

“Hummina hummina”.


“HUMMINA hummina hummina.”

I was thinking, “What offensive thing did I say that is going to get me killed?” And “This will be a good indication of how many people are actually listening to KERN. Let’s see how long it takes for someone to discover my body."

Mr. Leader of the Pack said, “Do you have Sweet Cream Ladies?” (A late 60s moderate hit by the Box Tops)

A request? That’s why they’re there? To make a song request?

Somewhat relieved I mumble “Sure.”

He signaled to the others and they roared off to terrorize someone else. I locked the door, checked my underwear, and went to the record library PRAYING that we had a copy in there.

There is a God! They had it.

I ran back to the studio and cued it up. It was my next record. I completely broke format but who gives a shit! I could be dead by the time the format said to play an oldie.

A half hour later the doorbell rang again. What to do? They knew I was in there. And they all smoked so they all have matches. Any one of them could set the building on fire. I could just see them dismantling the tower and welding it into more bikes.

I reluctantly opened the door. There they were again. The leader handed me a beer and said, “Thanks, man.” They drive off.

Usually I don’t drink beer while on the air but not that night. Anything to settle my jangled nerves.

The next week, same thing. At about 10:00 they were at the front door to request Sweet Cream Ladies. A half hour later they returned with a beer as thanks for playing it.

The following week I just played the song at 10:00 and at 10:30 receive my reward.

Thus began a ritual that lasted almost a year. And it really proved to be a Godsend on Halloween.

Houses get T.P.ed, and cars get egged and vandalized on Halloween in Bakersfield. It’s a proud tradition. And my car was alone in a lot next to the shack in a dark empty field. I figured I’d get off of work and there would be nothing left but a drive shaft and maybe one hub cap. Instead, the car was completely untouched. Guess word got around that I was BFF with the local Hells Angels.

As I drove away I noticed that every house on the adjacent residential block had been egged and trashed and every car attacked. Except mine. Mine was pristine.

Sorry to say me and the gang haven’t stayed in touch. Especially during network note meetings.

Happy Halloween everyone.

UPDATE: Here's the song. You all owe me beers.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

How do you make a writing partnership last?

Here's a Friday Question that became a whole post.

It's from Dgm:

Beyond finding a good writing partner, how do you keep one? What happens when one wants to fly solo for a while or to "see other people" for certain projects? Do you address those issues up front in some sort of pre-nup-like agreement, or do you wait for the shit to hit the fan?

I can only speak for me and my partner, David. We generally write everything head-to-head, both sitting in a room together. But early on we decided to take one script assignment a season and split it up, one writing the first act and the other writing the second. We’d then put the two together and polish them together. The point was to feel confidant writing on our own. That way our partnership is one of choice not dependency.

The best partnerships have built-in flexibility. I won’t say “as you grow as artists” because the minute you think of yourself as an “artist” you’re destined to write “Tidy Bowl” commercials in five years, but as you fight the windmill that is showbiz your interests often do splinter somewhat. One may want to direct, write plays, or the far more common – desire to become a baseball announcer. Allow each other some room.

But make sure if you want to do something apart from the partnership you discuss beforehand. Don’t just spring it on him: “Oh, by the way, I’m going to polish the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy so I’ll be in New Zealand for the next two years starting tomorrow but I think they have cell service there.”

The key to a good partnership is that you have each other’s back. There will be times when you’ll have personal shit to deal with (your kids will only fall out of trees when a pilot is due) and he covers for you and likewise expect periods where you may have to shoulder the load while he’s in prison.

And most important: You both stand by the work you turn in together. The fastest way to end a partnership is to throw your partner under the bus during a notes meeting. “Yep, I told him it wouldn’t work.” By the time you’ve said “him” he’s texting that weird but funny guy at Starbucks asking if he wants to team up.

There will always be hurdles, tough patches. Our partnership is tested every Superbowl, World Series, Rose Bowl, and NBA Finals. We have never rooted for the same team once in over forty years. That we’re still talking to each other much less writing together is a miracle.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Friday Questions

Getting ready for another weekend of my play, GOING GOING GONE at the Hudson Theare in Hollywood. Come join us.

And now, since it’s Friday…

Jerod Butt starts us off:

I seem to remember cartoons featuring the title of the episode or half-episode at the beginning. I recently satrted watching PITCH and I noticed an episode title under the show title. It seems that this practice is almost non-existent in live action shows.

Why isn't this a more prominent practice?

The title often gives away the plot or a surprise in the episode so I never show them on air.

But now you can go on line or your TV provider menu will generally have the episode title listed. So if you’re really interested that information is available.

Some series had fun with titles like FRIENDS. All of their titles began with “The one with…”

In FRASIER, my partner David Isaacs and I spoofed them by calling an episode "The one where Lilith came back" and "The one where Sam shows up."

OrangeTom asks:

I noticed this week that one of my favorite sitcoms--almost criminally underrated if you ask me--The Middle has been moved from its Wednesday time slot of seven years to Tuesday. Is this ever a good thing for a show late in its run or is it more of a gentle hint from the network to the producers that time is not on their side?

Depends on the show and the network’s need. There are two general explanations for why a network moves a show that’s performing well.

One is because they have faith the show can hold its own and its viewers will follow. They can use it to shore up another night or time slot.

The other is that the network has a new show they want to see get the maximum exposure so they slot it after a big hit (like MODERN FAMILY) to increase its chances. In that case, the original show gets put out to pasture.

Personally, I think the time slot is less important today than it was in the past. People DVR shows or stream them or binge-watch. I watch THE MIDDLE and didn’t even realize it’s broadcast on Wednesday night.

From MikeK.Pa.:

You always write such nice, glowing tributes of people who've passed on. How nice that Emyli gets to enjoy this. Question: Are stage managers attached to particular theaters or do they go wherever they're needed?

Both. Some stage managers are attached to theaters or theater companies, but even then they can work freelance. My stage manager for A OR B? when I did it at the Falcon Theatre was Dale Cooke. He was fantastic and does most of the productions they do there. But I know Dale works at other venues as well. Same with Emyli. She’s associated with several prestigious local theater companies.

In hiring these people it’s all about availability.

And finally, with the World Series going on (and my play about baseball) this FQ from Mark:

If you were baseball commissioner what would you do to change the game? From the games themselves to how the league is organized and run.

I would eliminate interleague play. Who gives a shit if the San Diego Padres play the Tampa Bay Rays? The big draw of course is so baseball could have marquee match-ups like the Dodgers and Yankees. But this September, with the Yankees in the wild card hunt and the Dodgers in a pennant race, when the two teams met in New York they drew crowds of 20,000 a game. Jesus. If the Yankees and Dodgers can’t draw what hope is there for the Twins vs. the Diamondbacks?  This would require moving one team to a different league to even the number of teams in each league.  But so what?  Teams have moved before.  The Milwaukee Brewers used to be in the American League and the Houston Astros used to be in the National. 

Another thing, those September call ups. Now teams can expand their rosters to 40. I would say that’s fine but for each game you are only allowed to use 25 players. You must declare which 25 before game time. It’s nonsense that when you get down the crucial final weeks teams can bring in fifteen different pitchers and seven pinch-runners.

I would insist the World Series games start earlier so that kids can watch and the East Coast can see the end of games.  That Dodger-Washington clinching game of the NLDS was absolutely thrilling.  But if you lived on the east coast you were staying up until 1 AM to see it. 

I would not play regular season games in outside venues. No games in Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, etc. These games are too important. You might not think so in May but come the end of September there are teams that go on or go home based on one game. Teams that have to travel to Japan or Mexico are at a disadvantage.

And it doesn’t have to be a foreign country. When I was with the Padres we played a weekend series in Hawaii. The Cardinals had to travel all the way from St. Louis to Hawaii. MLB needs to find other ways to promote its global presence.
I would insist that the commissioner approve all local TV deals. And if the deal doesn’t provide for at least 80% of the market to receive the games I would veto it. The Dodger-Time Warner deal is disgraceful. 70% of the LA market could not watch Vin Scully in his last few years. That’s mind boggling to me.

I could go on and on with changes I’d make, but here’s an example: No more walk-up music. Just get in the batters’ box and hit. Players don’t need individual themes.

What’s your Friday Question or suggestion for baseball?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

How long is 90 minutes?

There is currently a revival on Broadway of the 1928 classic play, THE FRONT PAGE written by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur. (There have been several movie adaptations, the best by far being HIS GIRL FRIDAY, which switched one of the main characters from a man to a woman.)

The current version starring Nathan Lane and John Slattery is getting lovely notices. One thing struck me in one of the reviews – it mentioned that Nathan Lane doesn’t even enter the play until two hours in. When he does he’s great, yada yada, but still – TWO HOURS? How long is this damn play? (Actually, I find that hard to believe. I wonder if Lane was in the first act but the critic just slept through it.  Or showed up an hour late.)

THE FRONT PAGE is in three acts, meaning two intermissions. Now that was the style of 1928, and I suspect with radio in its infancy and TV still just a gleam in the CBS eye, a theatergoer was happy to be entertained for any length of time.

Today, of course, it’s different. We all have the attention span of a gnat. Late night shows are measured in click baits.

And the theater has had to adapt over time as well. By mid-century, plays evolved into two-acts with one intermission.

Today the trend is one long piece, no intermission, running roughly 90 minutes. There are advantages and disadvantages.

Uber Playwright, Tom Stoppard, doesn’t like intermissions. He feels it's like asking the audience, “How am I doing so far?” I must say that’s how I felt during intermissions for A OR B? when it played at the Falcon Theatre. I’d stand inconspicuously in the lobby trying to assess from the conversations whether the play was going over or not.

During one early preview we had an audience that – to use Larry Gelbart’s line – the mean age was deceased. We got zero laughs. When I told the house manager I thought we were bombing he said, “Oh no. They love it.” I said, “How can you tell? No one laughed.” He replied, “They all came back for act two. Nobody left.”

What I don’t get about this new trend is that theater owners seem to be all for it. You'd think they’d be unhappy giving up all the intermission concession sales. Yes, no intermission means people don’t leave halfway through, but so what are far as theatre owners are concerned? They have the customers’ money.

But it’s the trend so it’s what I’ve followed with my latest play, GOING GOING GONE (tickets available here). No act break, just a brisk 90 minutes. As a result, the storytelling changes. No longer do you build to a big crisis act break and then resolve – now you design a story to just build and build and pick up momentum leading you to your conclusion. And that’s okay. Just be aware that concessions to this new format must be made.

You’re also now obligated to keep your play in the 90 minute range. It was easier staging a longer play when the audience was given a break. But what a contrast from FRONT PAGE where one of the two main stars doesn’t enter until two hours in. (I still don’t believe that.  The critic might have had amnesia.)

I can’t speak for other playwrights, and perhaps in dramas it’s different, but to me keeping your play down to 90 minutes is a good thing. The theater offers more free license (or at least it did). Your plays could be as long as you wanted. No restrictions. But sometimes restrictions are a good thing. Haven’t we all spent a brutal night (or twenty) squirming in a theater watching a play that was not only terrible but endless? There’s an old saying about musicals: “Take out twenty minutes and run two more years.”

On the other hand, especially on Broadway, audiences are paying big big money for tickets. I saw a play last summer that was a one-man show starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson (from MODERN FAMILY). He was terrific in it, but the play was like 70 minutes. I walked out saying, “I spent all that money for this?”

This debate will continue I’m sure. The ultimate answer lies, as with most things, in the bathroom. Can audiences go 90 minutes without having to go? They do for movies. In fact, a 90 minute movie is considered short. (Of course at one time long movies also had intermissions. Only Tarantino does that today but that’s because there’s not one single frame of the brilliant HATEFUL 8 that could come out.) Personally, I think the answer is yes. But not 95.

On the other hand, can we go 90 minutes without texting? Hmmm. Just to be safe my next play will be 83 minutes.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Still some tickets for Friday!

Saturday and Sunday are almost booked but a few good seats remain for Friday night's performance of GOING GOING GONE at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.   You want half-price tickets?  Sure you do.   Just go here and type in Promo Code 008 for Friday night.

Meanwhile, here's a neat profile of me and the play from last Sunday's LA. Daily News.   Come join the fun and say hi. 

What shows do you no longer watch?

Now that the new TV season is in full-swing and I’ve had the chance to sample some shows, I’ve added a few to my “season pass” list. But there’s only so much time in the day to watch television so I find myself deleting some season passes.

I like MODERN FAMILY and have watched it for years, but this year notice that ten episodes have been recorded that I haven’t watched. I decided to catch up and found myself watching the Christmas episode. I think it’s time to say goodbye to MODERN FAMILY. I notice that SHARK TANK episodes are starting to pile up. Not a good sign. THE DAILY SHOW is no longer saved daily. And Jesus, I still have some AGENT CARTER’S.

So my question today, dear readers, is what shows had you been recording that you now have discontinued? What series that once were must-see are now must-save-space-for-other-stuff? And why? Most long running shows overextend their welcome by a season or two. Even shows I loved like THE GOOD WIFE clearly gasped to the finish line.  What about the shows you loved now make you say "meh?"

Having been fortunate enough to be on numerous long-running series I know it’s incredibly difficult to keep coming up with new stories, keep finding ways to make the show seem fresh, and keep the actors happy. And there’s always that shark beckoning to be jumped. So I feel for the creative team.


As a viewer I sometimes just have to get off the train.

So again, which shows do you no longer watch regularly and why? This will be a day where the comments are way more interesting than the post.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Best political ad I've seen this year

And it's from Texas yet.

How's this for a truly bizarre dream?

This is one of those dreams where I woke up and scrambled for a pen and paper. I had to write it down immediately so I wouldn’t forget. Okay, dream analyzers, have fun with this one.

I go to my agent’s office. Except it’s not my actual agent. It’s some new guy. Young. Very nice. Ken Jeong in a tailored shirt and tie. Always Tweeting on his cellphone.

I’m there because he had dug up a spec pilot I had written years ago and wanted to go out with it. The pilot had something to do with hockey. I’m not sure of the details because I’ve never written a pilot about hockey. Nor really understand hockey. So why I’d choose that as the subject matter since I’m a big proponent of “write what you know” I have no idea. I have no idea why I wrote a spec pilot in the first place. But all of that is beside the point.

The agent places a call to some low level executive in a production company. I can overhear both ends of the conversation. As best as I recall, it went like this:

AGENT: I’ve got a great spec pilot to send you.

EXEC: Awesome.

AGENT: It’s by Ken Levine.

EXEC: Pass.


EXEC: He’s a hack.


EXEC: CHEERS is shit.

AGENT: CHEERS is a classic.

EXEC: Okay. Fine. What’s it about?

AGENT: Hockey.

EXEC: Pass.


EXEC: Ken Levine can’t write that.

AGENT: Why not?

EXEC: He’s gay.

AGENT: What? Ken Levine is not gay.

EXEC: He’s gay.

AGENT: And you know this how?

EXEC: It’s all over social media. A gay guy can’t write hockey.

AGENT: He’s not gay, but even if he were, that’s ridiculous. Why can’t a gay guy write hockey?

EXEC: Hockey is not gay.

AGENT: He wrote MASH.

EXEC: MASH is gay.

AGENT: What? How is MASH gay?

EXEC: Hidden messages. Oh, and it starred a guy in a fucking dress.

I’m overhearing all of this and by now am hysterical. But the agent is getting mad.

AGENT: I’m gay.

EXEC: I love gays. But not for this.

AGENT: That’s discrimination.

EXEC: Can he get Julia Roberts?

AGENT: To play who, the goalie?

EXEC: Not to act. To direct.

AGENT: Julia Roberts directs now?

EXEC: I hear she wants to start. She’d be perfect for this.

AGENT: Julia Roberts directing a pilot about hockey?

EXEC: Get Julia Roberts and send over the script.

That’s when the dream ended, which is too bad because my writing partner knows Julia Roberts and I think I’d have a shot.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Comedy acting advice... not that anyone asked me

The best comic actors know they have to trust the material and not push it. I can always see an actor working, winding up to deliver a punch line. As opposed to actors who are just naturally funny. They know the rhythm but most importantly, they know to play the reality of the moment.

There’s a great example of this from theater royalty. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne performed together on Broadway from the ‘20s to the ‘70s. They were your classic “thee-a-tuh” actors.

Way back in the ‘20s or ‘30s (believe it or not I was not around for that), they were trying out a show in Boston. Lunt got a big laugh on a line where he asked for a cup of tea. But during the New York run the laughs on that line dissipated  until finally there was nothing but crickets. Lunt was perplexed.  Why was the line no longer working?  Fontanne had the answer. “Ask for a cup of tea, not a laugh.”

Good directors understand this.

When Mike Nichols was directing Neil Simon’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley he purposely did not want the actors to go for laughs during rehearsals. Just play the attitudes and emotions and let the circumstances introduce the comedy.

The actors were surprised when they first performed in front of an audience that suddenly there were a ton of laughs. Think about it – Robert Redford getting guffaws? He’s not exactly Mr. Funnypants. But he was hilarious. And why?

He asked for tea.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Working with kids

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post either because the subject matter warranted it or I’m just incredibly verbose.

It’s from Carl:

Ken, what is your opinion of children on sitcoms? I've noticed that the shows you've worked on rarely feature them. Myself, I've noticed that many sitcoms will make an effort early on to give the kiddies screen time, then give up and only trot them out when the plot demands an appearance.

Yeah, not a lot of kids drafted and sent to a MASH unit or hanging out at CHEERS. I did have a running joke though. Remember when there was a show called MUPPET BABIES? I always thought it would be great to have CHEERS BABIES. See little Norm & Cliff ordering beers at the bar. Maybe I should re-pitch it.

But as a director, I’ve worked with kids quite often. They do present certain challenges, which must be taken into consideration.

The first one of course is stage parents. You may get an adorable talented kid but all too often Momzilla comes as part of the bargain. Cruella de Vil with notes.

There are also quite a few restrictions in place that hamper production, but that’s for a good reason. They’re all for the protection of the child. Not that Hollywood would ever take advantage of kids and work them twenty-hour days like mules and force them to take diet pills if they gained two ounces, but just to be on the safe side, kids can only work so many hours and classroom instruction is mandatory. Still, it’s a arduous day for these youngsters, many of whom would rather be playing videogames with their friends than doing planned-pick-ups.

So it means a director only has them for limited periods. We have to work around their schedules. If we’re shooting the show in front of a live audience we have to do it earlier to ensure they wrap at a decent hour.  (Hey, wait a minute.  That's a good thing.)

Generally, kids don’t get the rehearsal time they need. And in truth, they’re the ones who need it the most because they don’t have the experience adult actors have.  Although Kaitlyn Dever can hold her own with Oscar winners. 

So producers have to ask themselves – is it really worth it? More than one family comedy has opted to downplay the role of the children over time because of the obstacles.

That said, I always looked forward to directing the episodes of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND and INSTANT MOM.   The kids were great, the parents were lovely. 

With young kids (like the twins were at the time), it's unrealistic to ask them to memorize a lot of dialogue.  So that cuts down on their screen time. 

I know a number of actors who are in their 20’s and even 30’s who can still pass for teenagers. And believe me, these actors are in greater demand than Meryl Streep.

The other problem with using children is that they tend to grow up. As a director, it’s hard to tell them not to. I believe Disney Channel series usually only go three or four seasons because of this.

Of course, their aging can also be a plus. As they enter new stages of development it can open up new areas for stories. But as the fine folks of GLEE have learned, you can’t keep the same kids in high school for seven years (although they could probably get away with it on JUSTIFIED).

Some children I've worked with are a pleasure and others are world-weary fifty-year-olds trapped in the body of a ten-year-old.  My heart always goes out to children actors, even the successful ones.  It's tough enough dealing with peer pressure, puberty, and pimples.  I can't imagine also being rejected by the producers of THE SUITE LIFE ON DECK.  

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Everything you wanted to know about the CHEERS "Bar Wars."

I get a lot of questions about the “Bar Wars” episodes of CHEERS that my writing partner, David Isaacs and I wrote. So here are the FAQ’s.

Did we purposely plan for the Cheers gang to lose every time?

Yes. Except for the last one. Frustration is much funnier than victory. The trick however, was to find different ways for them to lose – or screw themselves. Guess I grew up watching too many Road Runner cartoons.

What about the last Bar Wars in the final season?

Ultimately, we decided to not only let Cheers win but to demolish Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern once and for all. We’re nothing if not vengeful. Trivia note: That is the only episode of CHEERS that I appear in. I’m sitting at the bar in an early scene.

Who played Gary?

The answer is: which time? We had two actors who played Gary, in no particular order. The first time the character appeared, Joe Polis played him in a 1985 episode called “From Beer to Eternity”. When we wrote the first Bar Wars episode Joe wasn’t available. It was the very end of the season. We had no other scripts so we just had to recast. Robert Desiderio became Gary. For Bar Wars II we went back to Joel Polis and used him one other time. Otherwise, it was Robert Desiderio. Confusing? I don’t understand why we did it either. Hopefully this mystery will be tackled in the sequel to the DA VINCI CODE.

What is your favorite Bar Wars episode?

Bar Wars V. My partner came up with this idea. Sam’s prank kills Gary. Or at least that’s what Sam thinks. If you can’t get laughs with a man digging up a grave you’re not a comedy writer.

What is your least favorite Bar Wars episode?

Bar Wars VI. The gang thinks a wise guy buys Gary’s bar so a prank unleashes the Mafia after them. We were reaching. And sometimes too clever for our own good. In Bar Wars II, there’s a Bloody Mary contest. I mentioned this last Thursday.  We had too many twists and turns. By the end I think there were maybe six too many. It was the BIG SLEEP of Bar Wars episodes – no one alive can tell you exactly what happened.

Was it hard to plot these episodes?

Yes. Very. These episodes were a bitch to conceive and then hard to write because there was always so much story. By nature, exposition and set ups are not inherently funny and entertaining. We had to pull a lot of jokes out of nowhere.

What was your favorite gag?

Filling Rebecca’s office with sheep. That’s the power of being a writer. You come up with a goofy idea. And voila, there are fifty sheep being herded onto the set. I’m sure the guy who came up with snakes on the plane had the same heady feeling.

There are some Bar Wars type episodes not called Bar Wars. How come?

Those were episodes not originally designed to be bar wars but evolved into them. Or they were competitions not practical joke wars, per se. In other words, I dunno. I’m still trying to figure out BAR WARS II.

And finally, are you that diabolical?

Let’s just say I hope you’re not allergic to sheep.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Questions

Another weekend and time is running out to see my play, GOING GOING GONE at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. Again this weekend, half-price tickets if you just go here and type in Promo Code 008. And tonight only – a talk-back with me and the cast.  But wait!  There's MORE.  A SPECIAL appearance! Howard Hoffman, who does the voice of the announcer, will BE at the theatre. LIVE and IN PERSON. You do NOT want to miss this!

Okay, let me stop plugging my play for five minutes to answer some Friday Questions. Leave yours in the comments section. Many thanks.

Mike Barer starts us off:

Ken, have you ever been on stage? I know many producers and directors insert themselves into a show.

Not really.  On a few of the sitcoms that David Isaacs and I have written freelance episodes for we’ve inserted ourselves in the shows, but only for a cameo and a line or two.

Here’s my feeling about that:  Yes, as a producer I could insert myself into as many shows as I want, but I’m not an actor and by playing a part myself I’m taking money away from a real actor; someone who is trying to make a living or even support a family on the income he makes acting. So I gladly put my ego aside and let someone way more qualified take the role.

About ten years when I co-wrote a musical that was being produced at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut, I was standing on the stage during one of the final rehearsals with Andrew Rannells, who was starring in the show.

I asked him what was it like to be on stage, to feed off the energy of a big audience? He said, “Why don’t you just write yourself into the show and see for yourself.” I nodded and said, “That’s a great idea except for one thing: I can’t act, I can’t sing, and I can’t dance. What the hell am I gonna do?” He agreed that might be a problem.

From Thomas:

You recently joked about Thomas Gibson's dismissal being mood lifting for the writers room on Criminal Minds. But it occurred to me you did include in him your list of actors who where good to work with. Was he better on the set of Dharma & Greg?

Well Thomas (hey wait a minute – you’re not “Thomas” Gibson, are you?), the truth is Thomas Gibson was an absolute dream during the episodes I directed of DHARMA & GREG. Easy-going, totally professional, prepared, took direction well. I had absolutely no problem with him.

I have no idea what his issues were with CRIMINAL MINDS, what tensions existed, what creative differences there were, or what other shit was going on in his personal life. But apparently his violent outburst at a writer was not his first.

Still, I maintain my experience with him was a pleasure.

Jonathan asks:

Are there any "written-word" comedy writers (novelists, essayists, etc.) you particularly enjoy?

A number of them. My favorite currently is Paul Rudnick. His humor pieces in THE NEW YORKER are brilliant. He’s also a hilarious playwright and screenwriter. There are several books that are compilations of his humor pieces. I recommend them.

Political satirist Andy Borowitz is also a personal fave. Dave Barry still makes me smile. And if you want to go back into ancient times – Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen (when he was young and funny), and P.G. Wodehouse.

A few comic authors I thoroughly enjoy are Carl Hiassen, Douglas McEwan, and the late John Kennedy Toole who wrote my all-time favorite comic novel, CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES.

Doug McEwan has a new book coming out soon. Can’t wait.

And finally, from Jahn Ghalt:

Ken wrote: the amount of time it took to write (The Me Generation) vs. the sales didn’t propel me to just jump right in and begin the next decade. Too bad, because lots of neat stuff happened in the ‘70s.

and Carol wrote: What about writing a play based on your memoir? I can imagine a good 'coming of age in the 60's' story working as a play

Carol almost took the words out of my mouth: How about a play based on your 70s careers? Radio, the Army(?), writers room for M*A*S*H?

That’s sort of what I am doing now. The play is very loosely autobiographical about the inspiring world of comedy in the mid ‘70s. And to circle back to the first question – no, I will not be playing a part in it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Come see my play for HALF PRICE

Another great review for GOING GOING GONE.   Still a few half-price tickets for Friday, which will feature a talk-back after, and now I'm going to make Saturday and Sunday half-price too.  So here's what you do.   Go here and for the promo code type 008.  

Would love to fill the theatre for all three weekend performances. 

So see you at the Hudson Theatre for a night of laughs.  And after that debate, God, do we NEED them. 

Following the format

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A movie you've got to see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My big announcement!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For every SEINFELD there are four ALRIGHT ALREADYS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Oh, have times changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the fuck did they buy this???

It gets worse.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

I'm trying an experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Ever have an MRI?

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

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

The appointed day...

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

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

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

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

"Fine. Whatever. Let’s do it."

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

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

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

I somehow tough it out.

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

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The CHEERS intelligence graph

Compliments of

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

(now comes a big drop)

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

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

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

This is a re-post from four years ago.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Questions

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

Wayne starts us off:

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

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

What is the page count of the scripts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another theater question from an Anonymous reader:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But ALAP is your best first bet.

Andy Ihnatko wonders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

For those who like to laugh

There are still about ten half-price tickets left for tomorrow night's performance of my new play, GOING GOING GONE in Hollywood.  And before the show a meet-and-greet.  It's a great way to begin the weekend, support this free blog, and meet other readers. 

Just go here to order tickets.  Type in the promo code 008.   Tickets will be only $15. 

Here are some more reviews. 

Erin Conley -- On Stage or Screen.

Serita Stevens -- Splash Magazine.

Mark Evanier -- News From ME

Now back to today's blog post.

The hardest-working person in theater

Here’s another chapter in the making of a play – notably mine – GOING GOING GONE, currently playing at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.

Now the play is up and just clicking along. Getting to this point was not easy. The week before opening we had two dress rehearsals and then two previews with audiences. The first one was a disaster. The air conditioning in the theatre went out. There’s a reason David Letterman kept his studio in the 60’s and not 90’s. The first rule of comedy: People don’t laugh when they’re having a heat stroke.

The second preview went better although there were sound problems. But hey, that’s what previews are for. By opening night, everything worked and we were on our way.

To give you an idea of what goes on behind-the-scenes I want to focus today on the hardest working person in the production. No, it’s not the director, or producer, or even playwright (although he in particular is VITAL). It’s the stage manager.

Emyli Gudmundson is ours, and despite the bizarre spelling, is the one person that keeps the show going.

Here’s a list of just some of the things she does:

Organizes the rehearsals. Sends out notifications to the actors, prints out scripts, and prepares the rehearsal hall (setting up tables, chairs, props, etc.).

During the rehearsals she keeps track of all the blocking and makes notes of things the director or cast might need. She also keeps track of when the actors are required to go on a break.

After each rehearsal she has to file a report that goes to the producers, director, me, and I’m sure Putin. It lists what exactly was rehearsed and what additional requests the cast or director might have.

She then coordinates with the set designer, sound designer, lighting designer, costume designer – anyone who has “designer” in his or her title – along with the prop director and theatre representatives. She coordinates the building of the set.

She makes sure actors have suitable dressing rooms, props and sets get stored properly, and there are water bottles.

Before each show she dresses the stage, setting up the props. If there is food involved (like there is in my play), she arranges for the groceries and a microwave to cook them in. After each weekend she takes the costumes to the cleaners and picks them up before the next weekend’s shows.

After opening night the director generally disappears. The stage manager is then the de facto director. She leads the cast through a read-through before the first performance of the weekend. If there is a fight on stage Equity requires a fight rehearsal before every show. The stage manager runs that.  If the director phones in notes for the actors it is the stage manager who delivers them.  Not me.

Sometimes there are critics or VIP’s that request specific seats. The stage manager sets that up.

The stage manager also checks levels and lighting cues before each performance.  

If there are any technical problems the stage manager does the trouble-shooting , and in Emyli’s case, she solves most of the problems.

All of the sound and lighting cues are built onto a computer program and during the actual show someone has to trigger all of those cues? Guess who that is? Yep.

One night she had to fill-in and usher.  

During the performance, Emyli is in the booth having to pay strict attention to every second to the play so she can execute the cues. I’m getting tired just writing all of this.

After the show she stores the props and makes sure everything is put away properly. Then she writes a detailed report on the performance – the audience size, whether they were attentive, any screw-ups with explanations why, any instructions for the forty-seven “designers.”

Emyli is always the first to arrive and last to leave. Writing the play was easy compared to what she does. So my eternal gratitude to Emyli and all the stage managers that lurk in the shadows but keep theater alive.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing alone

Writing alone is a lonely enterprise and having the social interaction of a partner or writing room can make the process a lot more fun and (if you have the right partner/room) expedient.

But what if you have to write alone? How do you develop the discipline to face the tyranny of the blank screen?

This is a task made even more difficult these days because we have the internet and worse, Pokeman Go. 

There’s no right answer; just various methods and tricks others have used. You have to find the one that’s right for you. But here are a few options:

Pick a specific time of day and force yourself to sit down and work at that time. Could be early morning or the middle of the day while the kids are at school. I’m a night person. I will tend to write late at night when the house is quiet and there’s nothing on TV but infomercials and GOLDEN GIRLS reruns. Many like to get up early, get their writing out of the way and be done for the day.

Pick a specific amount of time. An hour, several hours. Writer/goddess, Jane Espenson goes on half-hour or hour “writing sprints” where she clears the deck and works non-stop during those periods. 

Some people need goals. They have to write a certain number of pages or scenes before they step away. If they finish that script by Tuesday they'll treat themselves to a Thai massage at that new parlor next to the bail bonds place.

I will tend to write until I'm stuck on something. I'll then stop, even if it's in the middle of a sentence. I'll put it down for the night. Usually, if I allow my subconscious to work on it overnight I will come up with the solution in the morning. Then I can go back to work and have a head start. Others must power through until they finish a scene, regardless of how long it takes. They need that sense of closure. Can't fault 'em for that. It's just not the way I personally work.

Finding comfortable conditions is key for some writers. Are you a “must be isolated with no noise whatsoever” kind of a person? Or are you a “must be in public where there’s activity and energy all around” kind of guy?   Proust used to write in bed.  If Shakespeare were still alive I'm sure he'd be a Starbucks man. 

Does music provide some inspiration? A noted poet friend of mine has Jackie Wilson records blaring while she writes poetry. They all end up reading like “Lonely Teardrops” but still.

One method I don’t recommend but writers have been using it for centuries is getting completely shit-faced before writing.  Get your supplies at Staples, not BevMo. 

Another method that works for some (but not for me) is waiting until the last minute and then just blasting forward. They need that self-imposed pressure and prelude to their next heart attack.

Look, writing is hard. If it wasn’t then Kim Kardashian would be doing it (especially if she could do it in bed). But if you find the right way to work (for you), it can make the process far more manageable. Personally, I’m not the best person to ask. I checked my email twice while writing this post.

But how do you work and why?  If we can't all write together, we can at least tell each other how we do write.