Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advice for young writers trying to break in

This is in addition to the standard -- just keep writing – the more scripts you write; the better they will be – advice (which, by the way, is still sound.)

But beyond that..

Immerse yourself in the industry. If you want to break in to sitcoms, watch every sitcom (at least once or twice). Know who is on staff on all these shows. Know their background. Did any of these working writers go your college? That’s a connection. Utilize it. Are any of these writers from your hometown? That’s also an in. Do you know if they are rabid New York Jets fans (although I don’t see how anyone could be this season)? You get the point. Do your due diligence.

Information is so much more accessible these days due to this interwhozits thing the kids all yammer about. IMDB is invaluable, as are industry websites. You don’t have to buy Variety or the Hollywood Reporter anymore to keep up on who sold what to whom. Nowadays if someone sells a pilot pitch it’s a big story.

What are the networks buying this development season? There are some clear trends. Have you spotted them? Who are the writers the networks are buying? Why is that important? Because if you know the style of the writer you can get a sense of what the networks are looking for.

Which current shows are on the way out? Which are on the way up? I would not recommend writing a spec PARKS AND RECREATION. The show is ending its run this season. But the announcement of that was made months and months ago. You should not be surprised that it is going off the air. (If you are writing a spec PARKS AND REC, don’t junk it. Just know it will have a very short shelf life.)

Kevin Reilly is now running TBS and TNT. First off, know who Kevin Reilly is. Second, if you’re trying to break into sitcoms, TBS does a bunch of original sitcoms. What impact has Kevin Reilly had? How is he making his mark? This is a story you need to follow.

Who is Wendi Trilling? You hope to sell a pilot to a network? It behooves you to know who Wendi Trilling is.

If you’re going to spec an existing show, binge watch it. Take copious notes. How do they construct their stories? What joke forms do they use? Go to the effort of obtaining a copy of one of their scripts. Know their specific format, the general lenth. FINAL DRAFT has the templates of many current series. Take a minute to scroll. See if yours is among them.

If showrunners are speaking at the Paley Center or UCLA or WGA or Walmart, go see them. If they’re interviewed on podcasts, go listen to them. If they’re interviewed by the TV Academy or WGA for their archives program, go watch them. Attend conferences. Read how-to books on writing. Read scripts. Assemble support groups of fellow aspiring scribes. Sit in all-night diners debating THE MINDY PROJECT for four hours.

Know your history. Just as today’s ballplayers need to know who Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams were, wannabe sitcom writers need to be aware of Larry Gelbart, Nat Hiken, Jim Brooks, Alan Burns, Norman Lear, Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Phil Rosenthal, David Crane, Marta Kaufman, Bill Persky, Sam Denhoff, Danny Arnold, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Diane English, Treva Silverman, Susan Harris, Steve Gordon, Carl Reiner, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr., Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff, Gene Reynolds, Linda Bloodworth, Glen & Les Charles, Sherwood Schwartz, Bud Yorkin, and many more. Tina Fey did not invent TV comedy. There were people before her.  And I don't mean Amy Poehler. 

I suppose the big question aspiring writers have to ask themselves is – is this a full-time commitment or a hobby?

If it’s a hobby, something to do to fill your spare time, that’s fine. And why knows? If you’re super-talented you might get lucky. But truthfully, that's like winning the lottery.  For the most part, success comes to those who almost treat breaking in as a full-time job. And if you’re a newbie to this, let me tell you, those are your real competition. Young writers who are passionate, driven, and know everything that’s going on around them. They eat, breathe, and sleep television.  You stand a much greater chance of success if you’re one of these people.

Yes, it’s hard work with no guarantee of reward. But I will say this – someone has to break in. We all did. Why not YOU? As always, the very best of luck. Thank me when you win an Emmy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BIRDMAN -- my review

BIRDMAN is a cinematic triumph. Unfolding in seemingly one continuous shot, director Alejandro González Iñárritu proves to be a virtuoso in choreography.

I just wish I liked the movie better.

When you are constantly paying more attention to the technique instead
of the narrative that is problematic. The picture is over two hours long and twenty minutes of it is either watching people walking down theater hallways or just watching the hallways themselves.

Themes of art and pretense and commerce are explored, but the movie falls into the trap of the themes. For a supposed absurdest comedy it takes itself very seriously. Oh, the tortured artiste. At the end of the day, for me, it felt like the world’s most ambitious college film. There is even a section with quick cuts of random images just like you see in every student thesis project. Ooooh, the symbolism.

Michael Keaton has the kind of showy role that attracts Oscars, but in this case the praise is deserved. Edward Norton plays an impossible pretentious actor -- the role he’s been perfecting his entire career on and off camera. But for my money, Emma Stone stole the picture. The girl can play attitude without you wanting to smack her.  This is not easy to do. Everyone else was terrific as well. It’s hard to go wrong with Zach Galifanakis (who’s now so slim he could do Subway commercials), and Amy Ryan. And what a pleasure to see Naomi Watts not battling tsunamis or other natural disasters.

BIRDMAN is listed as a “comedy,” which is like listing WHIPLASH as a musical. It has received tremendous critical acclaim, and most people I know who have seen it either are blown away or are underwhelmed. You decide.

It’s worth seeing for the cinematography alone. But is it a satisfying story with an emotional message that really resonates or is it just an elaborate exercise? Again, you decide.

I just hope there’s no BIRDMAN 2 with Val Kilmer.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The number one song of all-time is...

We’re fast approaching the “List” time of year. Top movies of the year. Top TV shows. Top sex tapes. And of course these are all bullshit.  The amazing thing is we get pissed when we read them but we KNOW they're absurd. 

Back in my disc jockey days in the swingin'  ‘70s, every station I worked for would put together their “all-time Top 300” or “500” to play over a long holiday weekend. Listeners were invited to send a postcard (email? What’s that?) listing their three ALL-TIME favorite three songs. Invariably, two of the three would be current hits. If we tabulated the audience’s actual entries the number one song of all-time would be “The Night Chicago Died.” Number two would be “Billy Don’t Be a Hero.”  Worse -- if this was done in 1968 "Honey" would be the all-time greatest rock n' roll record ever.

Obviously, we couldn’t go with that and keep our FCC license so we essentially just threw out the cards and two or three of us jocks were assigned to assemble the list. We referenced Billboard Magazine's year-end sales surveys and skewed towards the bands that were popular in our market. Beach Boys songs were more plentiful in San Diego than Four Seasons' tunes, but I’m sure in New York it was just the opposite. In Detroit, Motown ruled. Elvis topped the charts in Memphis. And in Seattle, Marilee Rush & the Turnabouts kicked some serious ass.

We also juggled the music for tempo and variety. There were never two ballads in a row; never two instrumentals. We made sure the years were properly shuffled so there wouldn’t be a stretch of all ’69 records followed by a stretch of ’61’ers. Bubblegum was kept to a minimum. And I don’t care how many records it sold, “Dominique” by the Singing Nuns was not going to make the list. (Ironically, KHJ, the big rocker in Los Angeles just went to an all-Catholic format. “Dominique” would probably now top their chart.)

So without the benefit of exhaustive computation and scrupulous crosschecking to ensure complete accuracy the “Top 300 of All-Time” was assembled. Three guys and a six-pack of beer put it together.

Don’t you think the same is true when ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY or E! television or PEOPLE magazine compile their all-time lists? I would assume young staffers are assigned these tasks, which is why THE MINDY PROJECT might come in as say the #4 sitcom of all-time while ALL IN THE FAMILY ranks #62. Or Dwayne Johnson is considered a bigger all-time movie star than Gary Cooper.

So as these lists begin appearing in the next couple of weeks, remember they are all bogus… except any that ranks MASH or CHEERS or BIG WAVE DAVE’S the greatest sitcom of all-time. Those are legit.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Okay, you can play Christmas music now

Now that we're less than two weeks away from Christmas instead of the day after Labor Day, I think it's finally appropriate to play Christmas songs. Here are some of my favorites and not-so-favorites. What are yours?

Personally, I get a warm feeling when I hear Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song”, which was written by Mel Torme. One Christmas night I saw Mel eating alone at Delores coffee shop. It was ironic but sad.

The Phil Spector Christmas album is still my favorite. Putting aside that he killed someone, we thank Phil for a real musical gift.

And Darlene Love's , "Christmastime for the Jews" which is a recent parody of her own work on the album is maybe the funniest Christmas song ever.

I fancy the oldies. Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”, Bobby Helm’s “Jingle Bell Rock”, and the Beach Boys’ “Little St. Nick”.

The Boss’s Xmas ditty is pretty catchy as are the King’s.

Re: “White Christmas”, give me the Drifters over Bing. (Interesting that so many classic Christmas songs were written by Jews.)

Some obscure holiday songs I recommend: “Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by the Four Seasons, “Monster Holiday” by Bobby Boris Pickett (that one always tears me up), and “Santa Claus is Watching You” by Ray Stevens. Super obscure but worth finding is “Lost Winter Dreams” by Lisa Mychols. And for the motherlode of bad taste fun, try to find Claudine Longet singing “Winter Wonderland”. Before she shot skier Spider Sabich in cold blood she and husband, Andy Williams, were the first couple of the season. Their annual family Christmas special was a must-see. They even have a kid named Noel.
Songs I can’t stand: “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano, “Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, and “the Little Drummer Boy” by anybody. Whey do stations overplay TO DEATH the songs that are the most repetitious? I seem to recall Paul Anka singing Christmas in Japan, which was like a drill to the head. Also, anything sung by kids usually makes me cringe.

I’m only sorry Kurt Cobain left us before he could give the world his Christmas album.

For a more vocal pop sound, you can’t beat Linda Eder’s holiday album. Her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would bring a tear to a glass eye. Listen for it the next time you’re in an elevator. Streisand is great but there’s more ornamentation than on the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. Johnny Mathis is a little too sugar plum fairy for my tastes, and you can always count on “Mr. Peace and Goodwill to All Men”, Sinatra. The Carpenters have their fans too. And The Manhattan Transfer's acapella album is gorgeous.

But if I had to pick my all-time favorite Christmas song, the one that most expresses my feelings about the holiday season, it would have to be “The Christmas Song” by the Chipmunks. Sometimes the right song and the right performers just combine for sheer perfection.

This is a repost.  From July.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Rob Petrie

Dick Van Dyke is 89 today.  Happy Birthday to one of my idols.

A COSBY writer weighs in

I received this great note in the comments section from Carmen Finestra, who was a writer on THE COSBY SHOW.  This is in response to my article about Bill Cosby being viewed as a mentor to his writing staff.   I personally was never in the COSBY writing room.  My opinions were based on discussions with writers who were and an article in the WGA's magazine.   But in the interest of fairness, I want to re-post this comment so it gets the same space as my original post.  

And by the way, today's post is only discussing Cosby in terms of the writing process.  All of his other newsworthy behavior is for another piece. 

Thanks very much, Carmen.   You have the floor.

I'm glad the writing conditions of THE COSBY SHOW have come up, because I was a writer/Producer on the show for five-and-a-half seasons, and I want to correct some of what you wrote, Ken.

I enjoy your blog, but feel compelled to respond today.

The writer you spoke to somehow gave the impression Cosby would blow smoke in our faces when giving notes, or just to possibly mess with us, and I can say that is NOT true. Yes, Cosby smoked cigars often, and if smoke somehow drifted in our faces (I don't ever remember one incident of that happening to me), it would have been because of a wind change and accidental.

Secondly, Cosby DID NOT make a habit of using funny voices at table readings to mock the script. If, as happens sometimes at a reading, some general silliness broke out, e.g., somebody mangled a line (and even they laughed at their mistake) someone might have fun with that. Or Bill might do a funny voice when kidding that person. But he was just as willing to be made fun of by the cast when he made a mistake. Remember, we had kids in the show, so silliness can happen sometimes.

I have to give a little history on why scripts were written on Wednesdays through Sundays on the show. In the first couple of seasons, scripts were prepared well in advance (with a couple of drafts and a table polish). The problem was Bill Cosby has such a fertile mind, and it's always working, he would often have a different take on a script once he heard it, and throw it in a different direction.... usually, I might add, in a far better direction. So, the writers would face a big rewrite, but the story was better.

The writers, by the third season, decided that instead of pitching stories a month out, they would meet closer to the actual reading to clear a story and write the script, knowing chances were better that Bill wouldn't change his mind on the story. Thus we began writing Wednesday for a Monday reading. These scripts were closer to first draft shape, and we didn't expect them to be home runs. However, the story would usually remain the same. So, we would work on that draft, with great notes from Cosby, incidentally, and whip it into shape for the Thursday taping. Obviously, this required long hours, but it was satisfying, when viewing the end product.

Bill had total creative control of the show, and one advantage was NO network interference.

One of the great pleasures creatively for me was sitting with Cosby three mornings a week discussing story and comedic ideas for the show. It was like your own 2-hour Bill Cosby comedy concert, because he could riff on something off the top of his head for 15 minutes and have you bust a gut laughing. His mind is like Jazz, constantly moving in all directions, and I think what enabled myself and the other writers on staff to succeed is that Bill understood we got it, i.e., what he was looking for.

The atmosphere on the show, as far as the crew was concerned, was very good. It was a completely integrated crew from top to bottom, and had a very nice family atmosphere. Cosby went out of his way to make sure African-American technicians, etc., were hired, and black and white crew worked well together.

If anyone's Mom showed up, Cosby treated her like the Queen of England, and lavished attention and love on her. My Mom, an Italian immigrant with little education, spoke about the day she met Cosby for the rest of her life. I never forgot it, either.

Yes,writing the Cosby Show required very long hours, but almost every writer who came out of it, got a huge boost in their career. I was able, with Cosby Writer Matt Williams, and David McFadzean, to help create HOME IMPROVEMENT, which was also a hit.

I know everyone wants to jump on Bill Cosby now, but I thought he was a good boss. He was demanding, but isn't every creator of a show who wants it to be good? Ask Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

Again, many thanks to Carmen Finestra.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Last few hours of my book sale

Get the Kindle version for only $.99.  Tomorrow it goes back to it's regular price -- a thousand dollars.  Here's where you go.  Get yours now!

Friday Questions

Bring ‘em on.

Broadway Becky gets us started:

Why don't they use more Broadway stars in these big Hollywood musical films that are coming back. Case in point: Russel Crowe, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway scored huge parts in Les Miserables but there are tons of Broadway stars that are maybe better suited to live singing roles. Now they're making Into the Woods and Meryl Streep gets the lead (big shock). Of course, Ms. Streep is a tremendous talent but in the case of a huge musical, why not throw a bone to the tireless Broadway stars who are every bit as talented? It worked for Glee. They launched film & television careers of tons of unknowns & it worked out great.

Movie studios need movie STARS to open movies. It’s as simple as that. The $50 million dollar safe bet.   Broadway performers may be better but they’re relatively unknown to the movie-buying public. Recognition and star power are way more important to Hollywood than talent.

And thus it has always been. Natalie Wood starred in WEST SIDE STORY even though someone else had to do her singing. Same with Audrey Hepburn taking Julie Andrews’ part in the screen version of MY FAIR LADY. Audrey’s songs were over-dubbed with someone else.

In the Bob Fosse movie version of SWEET CHARITY, Shirley MacLaine played the wondrous Gwen Verdon part, and poor Ms. V. was hired to coach MacLaine.

Of course, nothing compares to the film adaptation of the musical PAINT YOUR WAGON starring everyone’s favorite crooner, Clint Eastwood.

Dan Ball has a question about my post detailing how Bill Cosby worked his writers to death.

How bad would conditions on THE COSBY SHOW need to be in order for the WGA to intervene on behalf of the writing staff? Would the WGA ever intervene in a situation like that?

It’s a tricky area. First of all, the writers are generally well paid. It’s not like they’re working around the clock for nothing.

And reader, John Levenstein, who was also a producer on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT offers this excellent point:

I have discussed this with the WGA. They will never intervene because then they would have to intervene when writers overwork their own staffs, which is usually the case.

If conditions become too intolerable there is always the option of quitting. But sometimes it’s hard to do that. Being on a good, well-respected show has its advantages. Episodes you write will rerun and probably go into syndication thus yielding residuals. Just having the name of the show on your resume might put you in line for better jobs and better salaries. And since over-paying is the most common way of keeping good writers on shows run by monsters, you can parlay that into better deals for your next show. Assuming you live through this one.

There is also the possibility of awards.   Writers will eat a tremendous amount of shit for a chance to nibble on that carrot. 

Barry Traylor is one of the very few people in America who actually pays attention to credits.

I have a Friday question for you. In episode "Fade Out, Fade In" part one and two you and your writing partner are listed as Story Editors. Was that your first jobs on MASH? And just what did the job entail?
That was our first job. We were essentially staff writers. Others above us made the creative decisions. We broke stories and rewrote scripts. However, in that same season (6), the head writer left midway through and David and I took his place. So despite still maintaining the position (and salary) of story editor, we were now essentially the head writers.

I was soooo thrilled to have that job I didn't even care about the money.  But don't tell 20th. 

And finally, from Shawn K:

As 'new media' is increasing in popularity, have you ever considered doing a web series, for a good idea that you've had, but maybe didn't merit a traditional 30 minute sitcom structure?

I would not be adverse to doing a web series if I came up with the right idea. And funding. But at the moment I’m focused on playwrighting; developing my third play. I’ll probably make the same money for writing a play as writing/directing/producing a web series – namely table scraps. But at the moment, I’m having a blast working on my play.

FINAL REMINDER:  This is the last day my book, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60S), is on sale for only $.99.  To get the Kindle version of this great gift idea, here's where you go.   But warning:  the sale ends tonight.  Thanks.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The SHARK TANK scene I'd like to see

WARNING: This post contains sexual content and may be viewed by some as offensive. And worse, there are some bad puns. If raunchy material concerns you, we’ll see you tomorrow. Have a great day. My guess is you’re going to read this post BECAUSE of the disclaimer.

Performance artist Casey Jenkins of Melbourne, Australia has been knitting a scarf from a ball of yarn inserted in her vagina. I kid you not. Here’s a video (not for the squeamish):

Yes, the art world needs this. Now you might not think there’s a practical purpose for this rather unique, er… skill, but I beg to differ. This is just the kind of product I’d like to see on SHARK TANK. So join Casey as she pitches Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, and Robert Herjavec.


ANNOUNCER: Now entering the Shark Tank, a young woman with the birth of a new idea.

Casey Jenkins enters the room and addresses the group.

CASEY: Hi, Sharks. My name is Casey Jenkins and I’m the founder and CEO of “Fruit of the Womb” scarves and I’m asking for $250,000 for 10% of my company. Who wants cheap mass produced scarves when you can have knitted fabric that truly comes out of a human being? There are no costly machines. No sky-high electric bills. Each scarf is hand-knitted from yarn that is stored in a woman’s vagina. So which Shark is going to snatch this opportunity?

The Sharks give their customary patronizing chuckle.

KEVIN: Do you have a factory?

CASEY: No, at the moment it’s just me.

KEVIN: As an investor am I allowed to inspect the process.

CASEY: Not for 10%.

BARBARA: This is insane.

MARK: Do you have any licensing deals with sports teams?

CASEY: There’s a university in Oregon that has inquired.

LORI: How did this business come about, Casey?

CASEY: I have a cat, and often times he would jump on the table and unravel the yarn, so I needed a place to hide it.

KEVIN: Y’know, that’s usually the first place boys think to look.

BARBARA: I can’t believe this.

ROBERT: Is there anything proprietary about your vagina?

BARBARA: Seriously. What is going on here?

CASEY: We do have some design patents pending.

KEVIN: Can I inspect the drawings?

BARBARA: Kevin! Jesus!

LORI: How many of these have you sold?

CASEY: In the last six months – four.

ROBERT: Why so few?

CASEY: I sometimes forget to remove the ball of wool before taking bathroom breaks.

BARBARA: Kill me now, God. Please kill me!

KEVIN: Is there a way a person could double the production? If there was a place to say, store a second ball of wool?

BARBARA: Kevin, that is gross, disgusting, and highly uncalled for!

KEVIN: All I care about is making money.

BARBARA: Dear God!

MARK: What are sales like?

CASEY: I’ve sold three.

MARK: On line?

CASEY: No. I sold one to a man in a raincoat, and the rest is from word-of-mouth.

LORI: Have you approached the Big Box stores with this? I would think this is a big box item.


MARK: You really muffed that.

KEVIN: Could Robert and I both go in on your vagina?

BARBARA: Can we stop the tape?

LORI: What do you need the money for, Casey?

CASEY: I’d like to expand my business. Get a few more knitters. Make ski sweaters.

MARK: Casey, I usually buy technological products. And you haven’t convinced me that you can make smart phones out of your vagina so for that reason, I’m out.

CASEY: Okay. Sorry to hear that. The Mavericks suck, by the way.

ROBERT: My father was an immigrant and did all kinds of menial labor when he first got to this country. He worked 16 hours a day to support his family. Give me a second to cry. Another second for Lori to cry. (beat) Okay. The point is I buy into any company that offers employment opportunities similar to what my father did, and since he never knitted out of any orifice, I’m afraid I’m out.

CASEY: Fine. You might want to touch up the dye job on that hair.

MARK:  Lori?

LORI: Well, like most women, I’ve stored yarn in my vagina but I sometimes forget that it's there, so I’m out.

BARBARA: I’ve never done that. Why would a woman do that?

LORI: I don’t always have pockets.

KEVIN: I’ll make you an offer. I’ll get in bed with you.

BARBARA: This can’t be happening.

KEVIN: I’ll give you the $250,000 but I want 80%, a $2.00 royalty on every item in perpetuity, your house, any inheritance you may receive for the next fifty years, and your cat. Oh, and you have to renounce your Australian citizenship and admit that Nicole Kidman was miscast as Grace of Monaco.

CASEY: Can I think about it?

BARBARA: That’s it! This is over.

Barbara springs out of her chair, grabs Casey by the hair, and begins dragging her out of the room.

CASEY: Hey, what are you doing? Aaaaaaa!

KEVIN: (calling out) You can give me your answer tonight over dinner!


Just a couple more days of the big sale on my humorous memoir, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60S).  How many other Christmas gifts can you give that cost less than a dollar and won't be insulting.   Here's where you go to order yours.  Thanks.