Friday, October 09, 2015

Friday Questions

Friday Questions – come and get ‘em.

Peter gets us started.

What’s your opinion on the news that Cate Blanchett will play Lucille Ball in a biopic written by Aaron Sorkin?

Aaron, you have some ‘splainin’ to do. Actually, I think Cate Blanchett is inspired casting and Aaron Sorkin is a tremendous writer. It’ll be interesting to see how he does writing Cubans, but if anyone can pull it off he's the man.

Shawn K. asks:

Have you ever seen a joke, or gag, on another show that made you say, "How in the world, have I never thought of that?"

Yes, but I sheepishly confess I forget the show. It might’ve been THE DREW CAREY SHOW. If not, I apologize to whatever show it was.

A character said, “The penis -- mightier than the sword.” I thought, “I’ve seen the expression written out a million times – The pen is mightier than the sword – but never made that connection." Well done… whomever.

From Brian Phillips:

I've seen your entries about the men that warmed up the audiences, yourself included. Who are some of the warm up women?

There are not a lot. The only one I know is the one we used on ALMOST PERFECT – Wendy Hammers. She was terrific!

There are probably others but I just don’t know who they are. There needs to be more.

Mark has…

An odd question, but are sound stages air conditioned? In several MASH episodes that were clearly shot on the stage, the actors seem to be dripping in sweat. And I'm talking about episodes that were not set during a heat wave. Overall, what are sound stage conditions like? In the 20th Anniversary special Alan Alda talked about a rat problem on Stage 9.

They are air conditioned but some better than others. And hot bright lights are required for shooting so depending on the stage and scene it can get toasty.

Newer stages have better air conditioning and the lighting has been improved as well.

Those old sound stages on 20th go back to the ‘30s and ‘40s.

As for rats – all sound stages have that problem. Lots of corners and crawl spaces. And if there is a lot of prop food sitting around, especially overnight, it is not uncommon to have visitors.

A show I wrote for in the ‘80s, OPEN ALL NIGHT, was set in a 24 hour convenience store so there were lots of food items on the shelves. Ratatouille and his buck tooth pals had a field day.

Getting back to Stage 9, one day someone on the lot was giving away kittens and one of the writers took one. The kitten got loose and scampered way up into a crawl space. And the poor thing was meowing so we couldn’t shoot. It took several hours of coaxing to get the cat down. She was fine by the way. No animals were harmed in the filming of MASH.  God knows how much the three-hour shutdown cost the studio. 

And finally, from Magnanimous:

Ken - If you know someone is a jerk, treats their staff miserably, treats their own family pretty miserably, does that make you unable to enjoy a show that they work on?

For example, years ago I had a terrible professional experience with someone who is now a high level producer on Empire and because of it I can't be unbiased about the show. You seem like such a professional, but I wonder if you have this issue too.

Of course.   I’m human. There are certain actors I just can’t enjoy because of their off camera tyranny or general scumbagidness. I hesitate to mention a certain comedian turned sitcom star because I don’t want another fifty comments on the subject. But you know who I mean.

And there are producers whose shows I just won’t watch because of their bad behavior.  Don't care how celebrated their shows are. 

Being talented does not give you the right to treat people like shit. And I have little respect for those industry people who wield their power or success to steamroll over others. Especially when they’re two-faced and have this sweet public persona on camera and off camera are holy terrors.

The irony of course, is that more often than not the horrible behaving person is NOT that talented.  So it's easy to skip their show.  


Last week I wrote a rant on how many sitcoms today don't even try to be funny.   My friend & colleague & fellow blogger Earl Pomerantz today offers a thoughtful rebuttal.   Here's my original article.  And here's Earl's response.   I think next week I'll respond to his response.  But check out Earl's.  He's been out for awhile with Legionnaire's Disease (yikes!) so I'm thrilled he's recovered and back.  Bookmark his site.  It's terrific.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The truth about network casting

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Grant Woolsey:

I know you've mentioned a few times in the past about certain high-end Hollywood types interjecting their own favorites or "pet projects" into certain casting calls. In one of Bill Carter's books, he refers to Jennifer Aniston being one of these, and got an audition for "Friends" because of it. Same with William "Gil Grissom" Peterson on "CSI".

How many times has that happened to you? Does some studio head interject in the casting process and make "suggestions", or do they try to form whole shows around actors they like? Does the choice of actor they're backing sometimes seem completely arbitrary? I find this more noticeable in movies (remember the year of a million Jude Law movies?), but I assume TV gets it a lot, too.

Studios and networks definitely have their agendas. And they exert more and more of their will into the process.  No, let me be clear.  They CONTROL casting.  They make ALL the final decisions.  We producers just do the leg work for them. 

Each network has a casting director. Each network casting director has actors they like and actors they don’t.

When a writer/producer gets his show greenlit to pilot he submits a list of possible actors for each part. The network responds. They cross certain names off that list.  Bullshit that there's not blacklist.  If you're an actor (or writer) on the non-desired list you don't get hired.   )This is especially disconcerting in areas like acting where judgment is purely subjective.)

Networks will then provide you with their list of “recommended” actors.

Like I said, networks fall in love with certain people. And in some cases I don’t know why. But they will jam them into any project they can.  Kim Raver gets series after series. Not that she’s that bad, but she’s sure not special, and there are hundreds of other better actors who can’t even get in the front door.

So if you have a show that features an attractive forty-something woman as a lawyer, or executive, or CIA operative you may well have Kim Raver shoved down your throat.

So you begin the casting process, seeing first the network recommended people. And guaranteed, some are going to be jaw-droppingly wrong for the part. You also see people your casting agent finds.

At one time this meant the actor would come in a room and audition for three or four producers and studio reps. Not anymore. Now those auditions are all taped. And they’re all sent to the networks. So if you’re an actor and you have a bad day, or you read for a part you’re not really right for, your bad reading gets seen by the network. And you can quickly go on the “no” list. That’s like, if you’re an outfielder in baseball, your manager tells you to pitch, you can’t get the ball over the plate because you’re not a pitcher, and the team releases you as a result.

Not fair, you say? Damn right, it’s not fair.

The next step: You narrow your choices down to three for each part. You make deals with them contingent on studio and network approval. The actors must audition for the network now. Talk about pressure. Imagine you’re one of three actors going up for the part of Chandler on a new pilot called FRIENDS. How different is your life if you get the part versus not get the part?

Usually of the three actors, one will be a network favorite going in. And the other two may give better auditions and be better for the role, but the network will approve their darling anyway.

Again, not fair? You betcha.

We had a pilot ten years ago where we had to fight hard to get a certain actor.  The studio didn't love him.  The network sure didn't love him.  But we argued that he was special and different and had an amazing presence.  After bringing him back several times to read, the network finally begrudgingly approved him (but only after we agreed to take an actor they wanted for another part who was terrible).   The actor we fought for:  Aaron Paul.  

For comedies, the fights are usually over the producers’ desire to hire funny people and the networks’ insistence on hiring attractive people. Guess who always wins.

Networks have gotten so ham-fisted these days that even for one or two-line parts like for waiters or clerks, the producers have to submit tapes of at least three candidates to the network, and the network makes the selection.  They don't even trust producers to hire one-line guys. 

It’s maddening and another reason why network television is so bland. They want to go with safe, cute, known, and fuckable.

Do you think James Gandolfini would be hired to play Tony Soprano if it were for NBC? Not a chance. John Stamos would get the part.

Rachel Dratch was supposed to be a series regular on 30 ROCK, but NBC made Tina Fey replace her good friend with Jane Krakowski for the obvious reason.

There are probably fifteen examples of this every pilot season. Or fifty. 

Networks dictate everything. Casting agents may love you and producers may think you’re a genius, but that means nothing if the network doesn’t think redheads are in this year.

My heart goes out to actors. Especially the Rachel Dratch’es. They’re sure braver and tougher than me.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Hey, you know what's a good show? BREAKING BAD

Okay, I admit it. I’m a little late to the party.

I just finished watching BREAKING BAD.

Didn’t catch it when it first came on. The buzz really didn’t really start until the second or third season – at least in my circles.

And you know how it is – you’d have to start from the beginning and set aside 20 hours, which is fine unless you have other more pressing obligations like Tetris.

So you figure – a) it’s probably not as good as people say, and b) you’ll get to it eventually (maybe once you’ve gotten to level 10).

Then more seasons go by, everybody’s talking about it, but now you’re 40 hours behind. You’d have to give up Tetris and baseball and the Roy Orbison concert they always show on PBS during pledge drives.  So we're talking a major commitment here. 

But now you really feel like an outsider. There’s this whole shared national experience that you’re not a part of and in fact, are actively avoiding since you're sure you’ll get to it someday and don’t want any spoilers.

The zeitgeist can be a cruel mistress when you shun her for Sportscenter.

As if I needed any more incentives to watch, I had met Bryan Cranston a few times and found him delightful, Aaron Paul was in one of our pilots, and I directed Jonathan Banks in a sitcom years ago. I saw them all at a TCA Awards dinner and they all remembered me fondly.  So add guilt.

In fairness, I had a plumbing mishap last year that destroyed my ability to run Netflix on my living room flatscreen. And recently I put in a new system and it’s up and running again. (NOTE: water and electronic equipment mix as well as me and Kim Davis.)

So I finally bit the bullet and decided to binge-watch BREAKING BAD.


It really IS as astounding as everybody says. Season one was good, by season two I was hooked, and the last two seasons knocked me on my ass. As interesting and complex as MAD MEN was, BREAKING BAD was in a whole different stratosphere. There were episodes in which I was literally breathless. Tetris be damned!

I don’t want to get too specific because part of the reason for this post is to encourage other procrastinators to finally hop on board, and I don’t want to spoil anything.

I’ll just say every character is rich and nuanced, anyone who doesn’t empathize with Skyler doesn’t have kids, if you’re considering getting into the meth business you might want to rethink it, no one in Albuquerque is safe (and that includes the Isotopes mascot), and Gus was the Barack Obama I thought I was voting for.

All of Bryan Cranston’s Emmys were richly deserved. Sorry Jon Hamm. In “Walter White” you see a man evolve into a chillingly scary monster. In “Don Draper” you see a successful guy who’s moody. Anna Gunn was sensational, Dean Norris can do no wrong, Bob Odenkirk was a riot, and Aaron Paul was a revelation.

You’re probably laughing because you knew all this three years ago. What am I going to praise next – the 2008 Summer Olympics?

I’m sorry I wasn’t part of the craze at the time. On the other hand, I don’t know if I could have watched this series off the air. I don’t know if I could have waited a week, or in some cases months, for a new episode. Binge-watching was the way to go.

It’s going to be tough transitioning back into real life. At least I have BETTER CALL SAUL to ease my re-entry.

Congratulations to Vince Gilligan and all the brilliant writers, directors, actors, prop people – everyone associated with this extraordinary series. If television can produce shows like BREAKING BAD there’s still hope -- for the medium... and us.

Yo, bitch, go watch it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


Some random rambling…

The fall used to mean holidays. Now it means pumpkin coffee.

The movie THE WALK is causing people to throw up. Can you imagine what those theaters must smell like by the 10:00 PM show?

Since I personally prefer not to vomit, I am avoiding THE WALK. And THE INTERN.

Netanyahu may be a jerk but he never met with Kim Davis.

Stephen Colbert’s show is now pretty good… if you tune in ten minutes late.

John Oliver’s show is great… if you only tune in for ten minutes.

The baseball playoffs begin tonight. Exclusive TV coverage can be found on ESPN, MLB-TV, Fox, Fox cable, and TBS. Let me make this easier – the only network not covering the playoffs is BABY FIRST TV.

When you’re listening to networks hype their great new shows, just remember – the big out-of-the-gate hit last season was CRISTELA.

Red Sox Nation – I feel your pain. Don Orsillo is a wonderful announcer. I wish him the best in San Diego. But it’s not like the Padres have a national following. Their fan base extends to El Centro. Don Orsillo deserves a bigger stage.

An annual pass at Disneyland now costs $1000. Walt’s heirs can’t afford that.

What did they call bed bugs before there were beds? Or did they come after and it’s just part of evolution?

Trevor Noah is getting there. Give him time. But he’s already made me forget about Craig Kilbourne.

What does it say about the season premier of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE when the only funny person on the show was Hillary Clinton?

Hey kids, dress as Donald Trump this Halloween.  That way, when you go trick-or-treating you can just grab as much candy as you can regardless of anyone else. 

Huffpost Headline: Kirsten Dunst thinks TV Is Way Better Than Film. There you have it. The final confirmation.

Another HuffPost Headline: Just Two People Having Sex On Cannes Red Carpet. Just two people? How many usually do it?

There’s going to be a TV adaptation of LETHAL WEAPON. Skinheads are invited to audition for the Mel Gibson role.

Hey, my Cincinnati Bengals are 4-0. I know. Shame on me for not rooting for my local NFL team.

If Hillary loses as President she can play the head nurse on DR. KEN.

Rehearsals continue for HOLLYWOOD SHORTS at the Whitefire Theatre in Studio City (the liver of Broadway) opening Oct. 19th.  I have a one-act play that I wrote and directed called WAITING FOR GO.  Here's my sensational cast of Paul Pape and Elizabeth Bliss-Bley finding laughs where I didn't know there were laughs.  Come see.

Monday, October 05, 2015

How QUANTICO got on the air

Recently I got ahold of the BLINDSPOT pitch meeting. Today I’ve been fortunate enough to get the transcript of the QUANTICO pitch meeting between the show’s writer/creator and ABC.

Writer/Creator: We understand you have a development deal with Priyanka Chopra, the hot Bollywood star.

ABC: (holds up a framed photo) Yes, here is a photo of her.

W/C: Uh, that’s a photo of a different Bollywood actress.

ABC: Oh. Right. I get them confused.

W/C: Well, I’ve got the perfect vehicle for Priyanka.

ABC: Okay, but I warn you, we’re already developing a sitcom for her. An Indian family show to go along with our black family show, Asian family show, Jewish family show, and Korean family show.

W/C: I’ve seen film on her and she’s not funny.

ABC: There’s film on her?

W/C: Yes. She’s an international movie star.

ABC: Can she act?

W/C: That’s the great thing about my idea – she doesn’t have to.

ABC: Thank God.  We spent a fortune on that deal. 

W/C: We put her in an hour drama, but we load it with so many tropes and make it so busy and absurd that no one notices. The only thing we ask of her is that she look hot.

ABC: Yes, yes, yes.

W/C: Good acting might get in the way.

ABC: Absolutely. And we have Viola Davis so as a network we’re covered in the good acting department.

W/C: Here’s the premise: Priyanka is an FBI recruit. She’s in training boot camp with the other recruits. Then there’s a big terrorist attack – haven’t figured out what or where yet –

ABC: Could it be the CBS building?

W/C: What? Uh, sure, let’s say it’s that for now.

ABC: Doesn’t have to be. It could be NBC.

W/C: I think terrorists are destroying that place from the inside but okay.

ABC: So there’s a big terrorist attack. From who?

W/C: That’s the hook. Well, one of several. The terrorist is one of the recruits.

ABC: So it could be her?

W/C: It could be her.

ABC: We don’t want it to be her.

W/C: Of course it’s not her.

ABC: But the audience thinks it’s her?

W/C: Absolutely.

ABC: But do they like her if she’s a terrorist?

W/C: If she’s hot enough.

ABC: She is hot enough.

W/C: They’ll love her.

ABC: As long as we don’t show her blowing up something and killing hundreds of people.

W/C: She’s not the terrorist.

ABC: Unless she’s in a thong.

W/C: She’s not the terrorist.

ABC: (holding up photo): Can’t you just see her in a bikini planting a bomb?

W/C: That’s the other Bollywood star.

ABC: Oh. Right. Sorry.

W/C: Now some things about the show. All the recruits are incredible looking.

ABC: What about diversity?

W/C: Every color of the rainbow. Smoking hot cheerleader, smoking hot Muslim girl, elegant African-American boss, Mormon kid…

ABC: Mormon isn’t diverse.

W/C: You’re right. We’ll kill him in the pilot.

ABC: You have to have a gay recruit.

W/C: We got one.

ABC: He can’t be stereotypical.

W/C: We make him a New York Jew.

ABC: Never seen that before. Great.

W/C: It’s a fuckin’ melting pot.

ABC: But a good looking New York gay Jew -- he can’t look too gay or too Jewish.

W/C: We’ll have an open casting call in Nebraska.

ABC: Do you think it’s a problem that in reality pretty much every FBI recruit is male and white?

W/C: Not if Priyanka is hot enough.

ABC: And you’re sure she can act enough to get by?

W/C: It’s hard to tell because of the subtitles but she can run.

ABC: In heels?

W/C: I don’t know if she’s that skilled.

ABC: Well, we can always get a double. (holding up the photo) What about this girl?

W/C: Who is she?

ABC: I don’t know. I’ll send the photo to the promo department. Maybe they’ll know.

W/C: Make sure they don’t accidentally post this girl in an ad instead of Priyanka.

ABC: Come on, that could never happen.

W/C: Okay.

ABC: So let’s go over the tropes. FBI show – check. Hot babe action star – check. Big mystery to solve – check. Which one is the terrorist, by the way?

W/C: The actor who questions his lines.

ABC: Gotcha. There are still some tropes missing.

W/C: Everybody has secrets.

ABC: Check.

W/C: There's not a moment in the show that's even remotely plausible.

ABC:  Big check there.  

W/C: Our hot star sleeps around, always one night stands – so the nerd in the basement watching this shit will fantasize that she’s saving herself for him.

ABC: Or for me.  Check.

C/W: Authority figures that may or may not be good guys.

ABC: You've done your homework.

C/W: The star has to clear her name.

ABC: Oooh, you got THE FUGITIVE trope in there too. Nicely done.

C/W: A wildly expensive super slick pilot with explosions and car chases and sex and violence. Once we get a pick up, all subsequent episodes will cut every corner we can.

ABC: All of this sounds awesome, but I worry about the longterm prospects. What if this show goes seven years?

C/W: You mean, how long can we keep this premise going? At what point do we have to identify the terrorist and then what is the show about?

ABC: Huh? No. We don’t care about any of that crap. In seven years will she be hot?

C/W: If not, we’ll shoot her character and find someone who is.

ABC: Wait a minute. “Who shot Priyanka?”

C/W: Exactly.

ABC: Okay. I love it. We just have to call Shonda Rhimes and see if it’s alright with her that we’re developing a pilot without her.

C/W: (grabbing the photo) Get back to me soon or we’re going to NBC with this girl.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Writing under less than ideal conditions

When my partner and I started out we would lock ourselves in a room whenever we wrote. We couldn’t have any distractions. Most of the time that meant working in one of our apartments so it was easy to do… except for the neighbor across the courtyard who kept playing the Jethro Tull WAR CHILD album over and over. But we eventually killed him so that problem was solved.

When we finally went on staff of a show and got our first office we would always keep the door closed. Just the idea of people going by or our secretary answering a phone was too distracting. How could we be funny if we saw two people walking down the hall?

Then we stepped into our first writing room. The showrunners were the great Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, two of the funniest men I’ve ever known. The writers sat around a kitchen table and just dictated the script. There was a writers’ assistant right there in the room taking shorthand. Yes, an actual intruder! Besides that, the door was open and there was always steady traffic in and out of the room. The casting director had questions, the prop guy needed to show us crossbows, the P.A. dragged in a new foosball table.

At first this was very intimidating. Like in the seventh grade when I first had to shower with everybody in gym class. And unlike school, I had to get over it in under two years.

What you learn real quick is that part of the skill of sitcom writing is the ability to concentrate and perform on demand. You’re always under pressure. You’re never going to be able to control the conditions. So you just have to deliver.

By the end of that first week I was starting to feel comfortable enough that I could pitch a joke now and again. One, I remember, actually made it in! I was so proud of myself – coming through under the toughest of all conditions.

Or so I thought.

Then came show night. This was a multi-camera series (THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM if you’re scoring) and the writers all stand around the floor behind the cameras looking important. During a scene one of the jokes bombed. After the director yelled, “Cut!” Tom and Jay got us all in a huddle. We needed a new joke NOW. Holy shit! There were two hundred people in the audience waiting, another hundred crew members waiting… all on the clock. All looking at us. This was like having to shower in front of a school assembly.

I was frozen while the more experienced writers, Gary David Goldberg and Hugh Wilson fired joke suggestions at Tom & Jay as if it was nothing. One was selected, the scene was re-shot, and the new joke got a huge laugh. Yep. This was the Big Leagues. And I was a rookie.

Through trial by fire I eventually felt comfortable contributing in that aspect of the job as well.

The next season we moved on to MASH. That’s a single-camera show. No audience. So you’d think it would be easier, right?


The first day of filming every episode was a rehearsal day. The cast would move from set to set on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox and rehearse their scenes. Once they were satisfied, David and I were summoned to come watch the scene and then go off and do any rewriting that was necessary. But since it made no sense to keep schlepping back and forth between our office and the stage every half hour, we just did our rewrites right there on the stage. We commandeered a table in the mess tent and that’s where we worked – with actors, crew people, extras, God-knows-who walking by. And in some cases just sitting down and joining us. We’re trying to fix a scene and some extra plops himself down at the table and begins eating a burrito. We eventually killed him, too.

Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn. But schools never teach it. That was one of the reasons why I started the Sitcom Room. Sure wish I had had the chance to experience what room writing was like before I was on a network show.

I have no plans however, to start the Shower Room seminar.

This is a re-post from four or five years ago.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Dance Me to the End of Love

I LOVE this video.  Leonard Cohen's great "Dance Me to the End of Love" with a montage of Cary Grant dancing.  Maybe the coolest guy EVER.