Monday, July 25, 2016

One actor, one desk, two phones

One of the shows I saw while in New York last week was FULLY COMMITTED by Becky Mode. It’s a one-man show that starred Jesse Tyler Ferguson (from MODERN FAMILY). He was amazing and I recommend seeing it when you don't want to mortgage your house to get tickets for HAMILTON

In her Playbill bio, Ms. Mode notes that since 2001 FULLY COMMITTED has been one of the ten most produced plays in the United States. Very impressive. And not to take anything away from it…


It’s one actor, one desk, and two phones. It also must be one of the ten cheapest plays to produce in the United States. The actor gets quite a workout, but still, it’s very doable. Especially if a theatre is planning its season and has another play that requires say...actual costumes.

The theatre scene is really run today on a tight budget. When I wrote my first play it was extremely well received and got big laughs during staged readings. But the late Garry Marshall summed it up. He read the play, called me, and said: “Very funny. Too many people.” Neophyte that I was, I had written a play with seven characters. In today’s world, that was like writing LES MISERABLES on spec.

The requirements today (unless you’re Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard) are this: No more than four actors, preferably one set or just a few props that can suffice for a set, and not a lot of wardrobe or effects. I feel bad for us playwrights because that severely limits the kinds of plays we can write, but I feel worse for the actors. Twenty years there were a lot more parts out there for thesps. And unlike writing where all we need is an idea and Final Draft, actors have to be hired in order to practice their craft.

Even plays that you think of as two-handers “back in the day” usually had more. ODD COUPLE for example. In addition to Felix and Oscar there are also three poker players and two Pigeon sisters.

If Shakespeare were writing today, HAMLET would be reduced to one prince and a skull.  

Getting a play on Broadway, even a modest one, requires a bankable star. If Jesse Tyler Ferguson was in THE MINDY PROJECT, as sensational as he is in FULLY COMMITTED, no chance does he do that play on Broadway.

In Los Angeles, we have the added hurdle of the ridiculous Equity mandate that actors be paid minimum wage for all performances and rehearsals for shows playing in venues of 99 seats or less. Two-thirds of their membership voted NOT to enact that provision but the Equity board in New York ignored them and instituted it anyway.

This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, isn’t it the union’s obligation to follow the wishes of its membership? There is a big lawsuit now filed by members of Equity to block this new ruling. When have you ever heard of members suing their own union?

Secondly, in LA, no one makes money in small theatres. We playwrights sure don’t. Producers don’t. And if this new provision goes into effect in December as scheduled, the result will be fewer productions and eventually fewer theatres. As I said, there are fewer roles for actors as it is. There will eventually be no roles.

Or, actors will break from the union, or start their own union, or non-union actors will be hired instead.

The truth is there are very few full Equity productions each year in Los Angeles. There are only a handful of large theatres and in many cases they import road shows of Broadway musicals so bring in their own casts. Local Equity actors are shut out of those. So where they gonna go?

Had the Equity actors voted to enact this provision I would just have to shake my head and deal with the consequences. If small theatre in LA is killed, well, it was their wish. I can still write plays and land productions elsewhere. But clearly it’s not their wish.

One actor, one desk, two phones. FULLY COMMITTED might be the only show LA theatres can produce. If that.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why people don't laugh

When you do a show multi-camera in front of an audience you always run the risk that unforeseen circumstances will affect the crowd’s reactions.

There have been a number of times in my erstwhile career when shows that should have played through the roof played through the floor. Here’s why.

The most common enemy of all multi-cam shows: the air conditioning going out. I've have had this happen a number of times. And with all the blazing hot lights and no cross-ventilation a sound stage becomes Satan's rumpus room in ten minutes. Comedy evaporates at 80 degrees.

Power failures can also curtail things. I’ve found that audiences do not enjoy sitting in pitch-black darkness. Who knew???   Generally generators restore the electricity pretty quickly, but the audience is still unnerved. Anxiety is not the best warm up for promoting laughter.

And when the power goes out, so does the air conditioning. See paragraph three.

Rain is a problem. Usually an audience is asked to line up outside the stage before being let in. There are no retractable roofs over movie studios. Sometimes you can find shelter for the two hundred brave souls or let them in earlier, but more times than not they’re exposed to the elements. It’s hard to really yuck it up when your sweater smells like a dead raccoon and your socks are soaked.

There are companies that help fill audiences, especially for new shows. Once a show is a hit there’s a big demand for tickets. (FRIENDS used to have two audiences for every taping. They took forever to do that show. The first audience would come in at about 4:00. By 8:00 they were burned out and the show was only half done. So they were mercifully released and a new audience took their place. Fans were just so excited to be at a FRIENDS taping they didn’t care. Good luck pulling that on a new show that hasn’t even premiered.) These companies arrange for buses and in some cases even pay people to attend the tapings. (Considering some of the shows I’ve seen lately that’s a hard way to earn a buck.) They are not always conscientious when it comes to selecting groups for specific shows. Imagine a hundred 80 year-olds attending a 2 BROKE GIRLS taping.

One time we had a group of convicts. Who did they kill in the yard to warrant that punishment? Again, there’s that unnerving factor for the rest of the audience seeing armed prison guards. And then at 9:00 they were herded out – right in the middle of a scene. Then we were left with a half-empty house. 

I’ve told this story before but a script my partner David and I thought was very solid died on the stage. And only later did we learn that half the audience couldn’t speak English. 

But the worst audience I ever had was for an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore comeback show David and I created. And this was no one’s fault but ours. We had a terrific show. One of our funniest. We were very excited.

And then the morning of the filming the Challenger disaster occurred. Seven brave astronauts perished. Our first instinct was to cancel the filming, but the studio (protecting its investment) argued that we should film anyway. Their reasoning: after a full day of inescapable sorrow, people would gladly welcome the diversion. They would love the opportunity to just laugh for a few hours.

So we gave in. After all, we had a good episode. Sometimes the release of laughter is a Godsend in times of grief and this show was funny.

We filmed as planned. And the show absolutely died. Silence. Crickets. Tumbleweeds. DEATH. I don’t think there were three laughs the entire night. Even the audience that couldn’t speak English laughed at a few things. Not this group. If someone dropped a coin on the floor you could tell by the sound whether it was a quarter or dime – that’s how quiet it was.

As they were filing out I happened to glance at the set and suddenly it all made sense. This was a large newspaper bullpen set along the wall most prominent to the audience was photos of current events. Right in the middle, in plain view of everyone, was a photo of the Challenger.


Still, part of the fun of shooting in front of a live studio audience is the unpredictability. Each filming night is different. And the pros outweigh the cons. Plus, the cons leave at 9.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A stupid photo is worth a thousand laughs

Some taken by me, some taken by others.

This is a real place.  Taken by Jon Emerson
I dunno.  Somehow I think there's a better title for that show.  Thanks again to Jon Emerson.
I took this picture in Beverly Hills.
I always wondered where he ended up.  This is in Philadelphia.
Art gallery in Maui.  Ronnie Wood is in big letters and then in smaller font -- Picasso.
Also in Maui.
Concession stand at the Tokyo Dome when the Mariners were there.  Thanks to Shannon Drayer for these next few pictures.
Good advice in any ballpark.
In America you can't find bookstores anywhere.  In Japan they're in baseball stadiums.
No, this was not taken in Japan,  This was the LAX Hilton during one of my Sitcom Room seminars.  These were not my students.
Same with this one.  
This wasn't taken in Japan either.  It comes from the far more civilized Anaheim, Ca. 
For all the Jews who worried that there was bacon in ice cream.
No, this is not me.  Or anyone I know.  But just a typical patron of the Tilted Kilts in Peoria, Az. 
And finally, the ultimate spring training picture.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Questions

Live from New York – it’s Friday Question Day!

RandomQues asks:

Do you ever think that TV shows nowadays aren't as impressive as before because there has been so much TV? By this I mean that in 50's, 60's etc TV was still a relatively new thing. But now so many shows have been written and done that it gets harder and harder to do something truly original. Do you think this is true?

I think television drama is way better now that it’s ever been. More layered, better production values, more challenging.

For today’s comedies I think there is so much emphasis on not repeating past tropes that in many cases they lose what makes a sitcom great – namely the COMEDY. I’m sure there are great sitcoms to come, but I doubt any of the current crop will stand the test of time the way a lot of previous shows have.

I do feel audiences are more sophisticated these days and their tolerance for by-the-numbers entertainment is much lower than previous generations, but there’s no reason writers can’t come up with fresh takes on subjects or create original characters based on today’s society.

Hey, movies have been around a lot longer and they’re still churning out original product (for two months during Oscar season).

Johnny Walker wonders:

Which episodes of M*A*S*H from the Larry Gelbert era are your favourite?

Larry presided over the first four seasons.   My favorites include: “The More I See You,” “The Price of Tomato Juice,” “Hawkeye,” “The Interview,” “Abyssinia, Henry,” and “The General Flipped at Dawn” (the last two written by Everett Greenbaum & Jim Fritzell). And now that I think about it,  pretty much anything from the third and fourth seasons.

From Ted O'Hara:

When you were developing the character of Charles Winchester, how much of the character was established before production started and David Stiers was cast? Was he pretty well defined, or did you just establish the basics of the character and leave the rest for individual scripts and for the actor to find once he was cast? Did the concept of the character change much once David Stiers was cast?

In conceiving the character we wanted to make him as different from Frank Burns as possible. He had to be an adversary but a worthy one. So the thought was to make him even smarter and more skilled than Hawkeye and B.J.

Executive Producer Burt Metcalfe had seen David Ogden Stiers on an episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and thought he’d be perfect. Based on that he was cast. There were no other choices.

Once David was on board we started defining the character around him.

The first actual script to feature Charles was written by me and my partner, David Isaacs. It was called “the Merchant of Korea” and revolved around a poker game. Because the episode didn’t require any outside scenes we held it back until late in the season when we stopped going outside to shoot (due to the lack of sunlight starting in the fall).

But we gave that script to other writers to use as a guide.

The two-part episode that introduced him was called “Fade In/Fade Out” written by Fritzell & Greenbaum.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before but a few days before we began production for the season we had David up to the office to talk about the character. We asked him to read a couple of scenes of “Bug Out” so we could hear his voice.

At first he did it in a very thick Boston accent. We said it was so thick it was hard to decipher some of the words. He said, “Okay, what if I just backed off a little?” He did it again and we said, “That’s PERFECT.” And that’s the way he did it every single episode.

The character evolved but very gradually.  At least during our years.  I can't speak for the last few seasons.  

One final word, I can’t talk about the character without stating what an absolute joy and brilliant actor David Ogden Stiers is. I loved working with him and would jump at the chance to work with him again. He’s truly one of my favorite people.

And finally, from Charles H. Bryan:

How does a production work stunt doubles into a multi-camera show? I was just watching a MIKE & MOLLY in which Mike's mom got into a wrestling match with her sister (played by Margo Martindale!). Given that neither showed her face during the tussle, I'm guessing that stunt performers were used. Are these scenes pre-taped? Or would the show stop for a setup with an explanation to the audience?

Wait a minute. Margo Martindale doesn’t do her own stunts? Since when?

We generally pre-tape any scenes where a stunt double is required although once on ALMOST PERFECT we had a scene where Lisa Edelstein was in a bridal gown and was supposed to make a big entrance walking down a grand staircase (that we set up was very slippery). Since she wore a veil we switched out the stunt person unbeknownst to the audience. When “Lisa” took one step she slipped and went tumbling down the staircase in full wedding dress. The audience went crazy. It was worth doing live.

But most of the time it’s easier to just pre-tape. Ultimately, the gag is for the viewing audience not studio audience.

I still can’t get over Margo Martindale not doing her own stunts.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Camelot revisited

There have been a couple of Camelots for TV comedy writers -- idyllic places to work. MTM in the ‘70s and Paramount in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’m privileged to say I worked at both.

MTM was headquartered at CBS Radord in the San Fernando Valley. I got in on the tail end of that Camelot. At the time I joined MTM, they had THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, PHYLLIS, and RHODA.

What made MTM so special was its founder and president, Grant Tinker. He hired the best writers and created the best environment for them to do their thing. There was little or no interference, and he served as a buffer to networks, always taking the side of his creative team.

The day we went to our first runthrough Grant Tinker made a point of coming down to the stage, introducing himself, and welcoming us. This was unheard of. And still is. We were just two baby writers. Today studios welcome baby writers by forcing them to be paper partners so they can pay them half a normal salary.

Most of the writing offices were in a two-story building right off the main entrance. You’d walk down the hallways and see these names on the doors: Jim Brooks, Alan Burns, David Lloyd, Bob Ellison, Earl Pomerantz, Glen & Les Charles, Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels, Dave Davis, Lorenzo Music, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Gary David Goldberg, Hugh Wilson, Michael Leeson, Charlotte Brown. It was the “We Are the World” of comedy.

Once Jim Brooks & crew moved over to Paramount that became the new Mecca. In 1982 you would walk around Paramount and see the following shows on their stages: CHEERS, TAXI, FAMILY TIES, HAPPY DAYS, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, and MORK & MINDY. In addition to the Brooks’ staff, you had the Charles Brothers presiding over CHEERS, Gary Goldberg at the helm of FAMILY TIES, and all of the Garry Marshall shows with his stable of outstanding writers. (I still can't believe he's gone.)

And there was a lot of camaraderie between the shows. Gary Goldberg put up a basketball hoop and there were always pick up games. Filming nights were scattered so if you finished your rewrite night at a reasonable hour you would often swing by the stages of the shows that were filming. Paramount felt more like a college campus than a program mill.

Then, in the ‘90s, writing staffs would gather after filmings at the nearby Columbia Bar & Grill to compare notes and laughs.

It was a glorious time, when smart comedy was appreciated, and writers were treated with great respect. Our shows regularly got 30 million viewers a week so even without interference by the networks and studio we must’ve been doing something right.

Very few of these Camelots still exist. From what I hear, Shondaland is one. I cherish being part of two and honestly believe I became a better writer as a result. The striving for excellence mixed with support and camaraderie pushed me to always do my very best. Treating people well – what a concept! And everyone benefits from Camelot – not just the knights of the rewrite table, but the 30 million subjects as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

R.I.P. Garry Marshall

It’s 3:00 in the morning in New York. But I just had to write this now. If I don’t get any sleep, so be it. But I am devastated by the loss of Garry Marshall, who passed away Tuesday at only 81.

Garry Marshall was an extraordinary man. In the world of comedy where anger is a primary tool for getting laughs, Garry Marshall built an empire by showing that comedy could be humane, comedy could have heart, and comedy could be funny without being mean-spirited, spiteful, and crass. He was a rebel.

Garry Marshall was one of my inspirations. I feel so honored that he did my play, A OR B? at his Falcon Theatre. I will always treasure opening night, sitting two seats away from him and hearing him laugh at my jokes. Ohmygod! I made Garry Marshall laugh.   I have arrived.  

A main reason I wanted to get into comedy in the first place was from watching THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. The writing was so smart. And my favorite scripts were always the ones written by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson. There was just a slight edge, a touch of inspired lunacy, they were funnier. The writing credits for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW were at the end and when my partner, David Isaacs and I were starting out we’d watch the DVD show every afternoon and try to guess the credits. Marshall & Belson scripts were easy to pick out. They were just a shade better. We made it our goal to be Marshall & Belson – to have young writers think our scripts were just that discernible fraction better than the rest.

Garry went on to great success building a sitcom empire at Paramount in the ‘70s and ‘80s. From HAPPY DAYS, to LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, to my favorite – THE ODD COUPLE, Garry not only produced wonderful comedies, he also discovered many terrific young writers who would go on to have spectacular careers. And he introduced the world to Robin Williams.

Garry was naturally and effortlessly funny. With his distinctive Bronx cadence he could say “Have some coffee” and somehow get a laugh. I never knew how he did that. But you just wanted to be around him. He always made you feel good about yourself, which is a lovely feeling – especially when you’re also laughing at the same time.

And in my case, he made me want to be better. That started with the first script I ever wrote and extended all the way to A OR B?

My love and prayers to Barbara, Ronny, Kathleen, and the entire Marshall family. We used to see them every Christmas vacation at the Kahala Whoever-owns-them-now. If ever there was a close-knit family that truly loved each other it was his, and I’m sure in large part because of him. Hey, I wanted to be his grandkid.

I’m sure there will be many tributes today. That’s what happens when everyone you ever met loves you. Like I said, I feel so blessed that I got to work with him. The greatest compliment I may ever receive as a playwright was from Garry after that opening night. All he said was, “Welcome to a new career.” Who needs Tonys after that?

He will continue to live in my heart, not to mention TV LAND, TCM, and whoever plays PRETTY WOMAN. To sum up: In an industry that’s built on meanness, Garry Marshall was “nice.” Nice to everybody. Writers, actors, executives, pool boys.

If I could say one last thing to Garry it would be “Thank you.” He would probably respond with, “Get some sleep already.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How we got our first SIMPSONS assignment

Here's a Friday Question worth a bonus post.  

It's from DyHrdMET:

Can you tell the story of how you got to THE SIMPSONS and came up with this story idea?

My partner, David Isaacs and I were friends with the late Sam Simon and had worked with him on a couple of other shows. When he became the showrunner for THE SIMPSONS he asked if we would write one. At the time they paid much less than a standard live-half hour sitcom. Because they were animated, the studio was able to get away with paying essentially the same as a Saturday morning cartoon. But we were fans of the show, wanted to help Sam out, and my kids were little at the time and Sam promised them jackets and toys. That’s really why we did it – for the swag.

We came in with some story notions. Most were Homer stories. At the time (early in the run) Bart was the breakout star but we identified more with Homer (Gee. wonder why that is?). I had spent the last three summers broadcasting baseball in the minors so the idea of Homer becoming a mascot for the local team stemmed from that experience. Those goofy guys dancing on dugouts very much exist. 

There are a lot of inside jokes and references to the International League in that episode – shamelessly so.   Also, if you watch the episode, freeze frame the outfield signage for more jokes. 

As I recall, the three of us (me, David, and Sam) worked out the story in a morning. I’m here to tell you, the real creative force behind THE SIMPSONS was Sam Simon. The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor – that was all developed on Sam’s watch.

One of the story elements we came up with was that Homer would get a call to the majors and fill in for the big league mascot. I've done some cartooning so I asked if I could design the character. Sam said, "Go for it" and I'm proud to say the Capitol City Goofball is my creation.

Other quick notes about that episode:

I got to be the voice of the Springfield Isotopes. The name I used was Dan Hoard, who was my broadcast partner in Syracuse and now is the radio voice of the Cincinnati Bengals and the U. of Cincinnati Bearcats.

When the city of Albuquerque got a new minor league team a few years ago they named them the Isotopes, based on our episode.  This was taken in the team's clubhouse. 

Tony Bennett got to sing the Capitol City song.

And we're on the bonus track of the DVD.

Writing the script was a blast. I remember saying to David that there was so much you could do with these characters that I thought THE SIMPSONS could go five or even six seasons. They’re on what, year 35?