Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody? Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln.

Cathal O'Brien leads off:

On Frasier you and David Isaacs were listed as Creative Consultants. What exactly did that mean? Where you in the Frasier offices every day or just reachable at the end of the phone? Did you read over all the scripts and offer input or rewrite?

Am just curious what that title meant compared to the other titles staff had such as producers etc.

The title can mean different things. In our case, it meant that once a week we worked on the show as script doctors. We would go to the afternoon runthrough and come back to the writers’ room and stay for the rewrite that night. Usually this was the first day the script was on its feet and thus needed the most work.

But anytime there is a part-time position, the writer is usually assigned some sort of “consultant” title. In some cases a writer lives outside of LA and is sent scripts. He then suggests jokes and changes and sends it back. In others, a writer may work two days a week, or work the table reading day instead of rewrite night.

Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of these gigs. Shows are tightening their budgets and consultants are deemed a luxury. It’s unfortunate because “consultants” offer two very valuable things: They contribute great jokes (the good ones do), and they offer a virgin perspective to the material. Is a story point confusing? Are they over-explaining something? Writing staffs can easily get too close to the material. It helps to have fresh eyes take a look.

I was fortunate enough to work with three of the very best – David Lloyd, Jerry Belson, and the incomparable Bob Ellison.

From Dene:

My question is: as TV episodes are usually made one after another without a break, how does that work with regards to the lead actor sometimes directing? Don't they need prep time?

When, for instance, Alan Alda directed M*A*S*H, which he did often, did he work his prep around acting in the previous ep, or would there maybe have been a production break of some kind beforehand so that he could prepare for directing?

We had very few hiatus weeks on MASH (usually three or four the whole season). We would try to schedule Alan’s directing assignments as the first show after a hiatus so he’d have the break to prepare. But there were times he had to prep while acting in the previous episode.

What made it a little easier was that he knew the location and tone of the show. And often he directed episodes that he also wrote so he had a pretty good idea going in just how he wanted to shoot it.

Michael wonders:

Besides your daughter Annie and her partner, are there any writers that you helped mentor that have become successful comedy writers?

Yes. Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, Robin Schiff, Boyce Bugliari & Jamie McLaughlin, Tom Straw. I’m sure there are others that I can’t remember. And I’m sure there are young writers who I mentored that didn’t realize I had mentored them.

On the directing side, I taught Jerry Zaks camera-blocking. I guess that counts.

DrBOP asks:

Have you ever been tempted to call, or have you called any basketball games? Do you have any favorite basketball announcers ; and/or any Vin Scully level b-ball broadcasters?

Yes. When I was learning how to announce baseball I would also go to the stands of basketball games with a tape recorder and call those for practice. I would go to Clipper games, and back in the ‘80s I had entire sections all to myself.  That was sweet.  Not so easy to isolate myself across town at Laker games with Magic and Kareem and "showtime" happening every night. 

The only time I ever called a basketball game on the air was when I filled in one night on a Golden States Warriors game on KNBR radio, San Francisco.

As for favorite announcers: My all-time favorites are Chick Hearn of the Lakers and Bill King of the Warriors. Honorable mention to Marv Albert.

Today, for TV I like Ian Eagle, Gus Johnson (you either love him or hate him; I love him), Mike Tirico, Kevin Calabro, and Mike Breen.

Dan Hoard does a great job calling University of Cincinnati basketball.  On a national level:  Dave Sims, John Sadak, Kevin Calabro, Ted Leitner, Dave Fleming, and Tom McCarthy. 

And my current favorite is Sean Grande, the radio voice of the Boston Celtics. I think he is absolutely phenomenal. While everyone else is just calling the play-by-play, he’s also weaving in strategy, pop culture references, on-going discussions with his terrific partner Cedric Maxwell, statistics, NBA history, descriptions of everything going on in the building, opinions, overviews, and insights. And his play-by-play calls are crisp, visual, and exciting. He has great command of the game and language. I’d rather listen to Sean Grande than watch the game on TV.

What’s your Friday Question? Don’t get all crazy tonight celebrating Abe’s B-Day.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bonus questions

One of my resolutions every year is to answer more Friday Questions. So I’m going to sneak in a bonus day of them.  I'm really on top of this resolution -- it being February and all.

Charles H. Bryan starts us off:

Ken, for the holiday season and because it's free with Amazon Prime, I just downloaded the first season of The Twilight Zone. All 39 episodes. My Friday Question is: How the hell did they make 39 episodes of a show in one year? Doesn't that just seem insane by today's standards? Sure, one could argue that a lot of those shows back then weren't that good, but this is also the time of some classics (e.g., I LOVE LUCY - 35 eps its first season, PHIL SILVERS - avg 35 eps/4 seasons). This was well before the widespread industry-mandated use of cocaine. How did they do it? Just coffee? Really strong coffee?

And it’s worse. Writing staffs were very small back then. Usually no more than four and often fewer. I want to check myself into a hospital just thinking about it.  

The hard part of course, was coming up with stories. 22 is a bitch, much less 39. Call the ambulance.

The difference is -- especially on multi-camera shows -- they didn’t rewrite nearly as much as we did in later years. Starting in the ‘70s there was extensive rewriting that went on in multi-cam shows. After every day’s rehearsal the staff would go back and continue to tinker with the script. Not so when they were cranking out 39. After maybe a rewrite following the table reading, the script was pretty much locked.

When we made MASH, we produced 25 episodes in six months. Today, single-camera shows take eight or nine months to churn out that many. The key for us was preparation. We spent months in pre-production preparing scripts because we knew that once the actors arrived and cameras started rolling, things got insane.

Still, I can’t imagine having to come up with 39 stories a season. If you look back at THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, truly a television classic, you’ll see that in the last season they pretty much redid a few episodes from the first season. Things got that bad.

You had to be incredibly prolific. But I think even Aaron Sorkin would have trouble cranking out 39 episodes a year. Seriously, I’m calling 911.

Kensi Blonde asks:

Would you be able to have such a flagrantly promiscuous character like Sam today? And I realize that pregnancy scares are hard to plumb for laughs, but how does he sleep with "four honeys" (just by season 1) and no one gets knocked up?? Ah, sitcom land...

He used protection. And we only had him sleep with women who were on the pill.

But to answer your question, not only could you still have promiscuous men on sitcoms today (Charlie Harper on TWO AND A HALF MEN slept with four honeys a show), you also could have promiscuous women. Amy Schumer has made a career out of playing that character. Not to mention the shenanigans that go on with the sluts in 2 BROKE GIRLS.

I’d also add CALIFORICATION, but the fact that he was a “writer” who got all that action, that was so completely absurd it doesn’t count.

From Liggie:

With the recent conversation on live TV, Ken, I'd like your thoughts on the format of Neil Patrick Harris' recent variety show, "Best Time Ever". When I first heard of him doing variety, I thought it would be a callback to the '70s shows like Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Donny & Marie: rotating guests, comedy sketches with recurring characters, musical numbers, a big-production finale. So I was intrigued that Harris eschewed most of that in favor of games with the studio audience (and home viewers), hidden camera events, celebrities surprising audience members, just one set-piece number per show, and a live format. Is this a good way to maintain the variety genre and leave the classic format in the past? (Just the format of "Best Time Ever"; as opinions on its actual quality are divided, let's save that discussion for another time.)

People don’t want variety. Not anymore. If they want game shows they find game shows. There are “Punked” hidden camera shows. You Tube provides thousands of production numbers from various TV, movie, and Broadway shows.

Audiences have no patience for sitting through something they don’t like knowing something they do might be around the corner. Being all things to all people is unfortunately serving no one.

THE BEST TIME EVER was cancelled by NBC. No new variety series are in development.

And finally, from Rashad Khan:

How do you (and Mr. Isaacs) find the "perfect" writers to join your writing staff? Is there an initial interview -- and if so, what sort of questions do you ask to determine whether he or she would be a good fit for you and your show?

Believe me, it’s an inexact science. We read material first. Then interview them. We don’t have specific questions. We’re really just trying to determine their personality, whether they’d be fun to be stuck in a room with for 90 hours a week, whether their sensibility jibes with ours, questions about their background, etc.

After that we might call a few writers who they worked for and get their assessment. And then, like I said, it’s a crapshoot. We’ve made some inspired choices down through the years and some horrible ones.

For young writers going on these interviews, I recommend you just be yourself. Try to relax as much as you can. Be enthusiastic but don’t try to sell yourself too hard. Just have fun with the meeting. Look, you’re either going to get the job or not. And often when you don’t it’s because of circumstances beyond your control. So don’t put any unnecessary pressure on yourself.

What’s your Friday Question? Maybe I’ll even answer it on a Friday. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

In appreciation of Bob & Ray

Readers of a certain age will not know who Bob & Ray are. That age may be 50 and below. But they’re names that everybody who loves comedy should know. They were brilliant.

Bob Elliott & Ray Goulding were a comedy team that worked primarily in radio but also did TV and a little Broadway.

Bob Elliott passed away last week. He was 92. For my younger readers, he was Chris Elliott’s father.

Bob & Ray were absolute masters of comic timing. They would deliver the most outrageously absurd material completely deadpan.

They would take turns being the straight man, they would conduct ridiculous interviews, do soap operas and movie parodies, and pitch goofy products. Among those fictional items: the Monongahela Metal Foundry (“Steel ingots cast with the housewife in mind”), Height Watchers International, and of course, Einbinder Flypaper (“The flypaper you’ve gradually grown to trust over the course of three generations”).

Their material could be very broad, but they always performed them deadly serious, which only made them funnier. And they could be incredibly subtle. One of Bob Elliott’s most famous characters was correspondent Wally Ballou. Whenever they would throw it to him to conduct an interview he always came in a split-second late. So he would announce himself as “ Ballou here.”

At this point I need to take a moment to also acknowledge that many of their inspired bits were written by Tom Koch. Gotta give credit to the writer.

I had the pleasure to work with Bob Elliott once. It was 1999 and I was directing an NBC sitcom in New York called LATELINE (starring now-senator, Al Franken). We used Bob to do his Wally Ballou character as a voice over. I got to spend the lunch break with him and then ushered him onto the stage to record his part. I announced to everybody that we had a very special guest in the studio, Bob from Bob & Ray. Most of the crew was young and had no idea who he was. He received a tepid smattering of applause at best. Bob turned to me and said, “Fifty years in show business and it was worth it all for this one moment.” Here’s a photo of me and Bob – this was during the Cosby sweater era. (I now hate him for that too.)

From the ‘50s through the ‘70s Bob & Ray were a mainstay on New York radio and on national radio. During the early days of television they also had a network TV show. And they were spokesmen for several national products. Over the years they appeared on many TV variety shows from ED SULLIVAN to SNL, and even had a Broadway run performing their understated silliness to SRO crowds.

What’s amazing is that even though some of their bits are fifty and sixty years old, they still hold up.

Thanks to the internet, I don’t have to describe their bits. I can let you hear for yourself. Here are just a few of the classic routines from Bob & Ray. As many of you know, I’m a radio freak. And I just revere these gentlemen.

If you would like to read more about Bob & Ray, there is a sensational biography of them called BOB & RAY, KEENER THAN MOST PERSONS by David Pollock.

Here now are some classic, BOB & RAY routines. Especially if you aren’t familiar with them or their brand of humor, I’d love to hear what you think after listening. Thanks.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

How they shot GREASE LIVE

Last week I posted an extraordinary video – a dance number from GREASE LIVE along with the control room. You heard associate director, Carrie Havel call out the shots. The timing and precision was amazing. Even if you’ve seen it, I invite you to watch it again. It will make today’s post even more meaningful.

I was able to get in touch with Carrie and interview her about that experience. There are so many truly gifted artists who work behind-the-scenes and it’s great to be able to shine the spotlight on one. So here we go…

Me: So have you recovered from GREASE LIVE?

Carrie: (laughs) A lot of friends asked which island I was going to? Actually I had to get up early and fly to New York the next day. I’m working on COMEDY KNOCKOUT for TruTV out here.

Me: Considering what you do, I could see you becoming an air traffic controller just to unwind and relax. Let’s talk about you first and then the role of the director (Alex Rudzinski). It sounded like you had your shots pre-set in order. But instead of just calling them out, you called out beats, numbers of bars, etc. Why?

C: This is a style that’s popular in Great Britain.

Me: And lots of British variety/reality shows came across the pond like DANCING WITH THE STARS, AMERICAN IDOL, AMERICA'S GOT TALENT (obviously not with those titles), and with them their directors.  But still, why that style?

C: Dance numbers require such precision and counting out the beats allows us to get that precise.

Me: Gotcha.  Okay, so the first step of the process?

C: I break down the music into all the beats and bars. Each measure of music is a bar. Standard time is 4-4, 4 beats to a bar. For the most part the music in GREASE was pretty standard. Usually I count each beat, but when we hold for like five bars I just count the bars. People who are used to it just know the cadence and it makes sense.

Me: Who taught you how to do that?

C: Kate Moran, who had been an associate director in England came over here to do DANCING WITH THE STARS and taught me. It’s not a very commonplace skill.

Me: I’m sure I could learn it in a hundred years. But that’s only because I’ve been a director and have a head start. When I block multi-camera sitcoms we have a camera blocking day. Stand-ins walk through the blocking and stop move by move allowing me to assign camera angles and the operators to frame and adjust. You can’t do that with a complicated dance number. You can’t ask a dancer to hold in mid-air while we frame up.

C: No. We shot a wide master. The camera crew didn’t even come on until January 21st. (the show aired January 31st). Then Alex went through it with the choreographer and stage director. “Here’s where we should highlight… here’s where we should push in”…etc. In order to accommodate his vision sometimes they had to move a certain moment more downstage right, that sort of thing. Everything had to work for the dance as well as the camera.

Alex then made out a shot list and each camera was given his assignment. The cameraman jotted them down on a card. Each shot had a number, description of the camera move and number of beats and bars… like “two bars and one beat.”

We then had only three days of full rehearsal. There was no time to commit anything to memory because it kept changing. That’s why you’ll hear A and B or we’ll go from shot 9 to 11.

Me: So you’ll add shots and call them A and B and drop shots, keeping the rest of the shots numbers in tact (as we writers do in scripts during production).

C: Alex is tweaking all the time. We shoot every pass. He’ll then say, “add two beats on shot 11.” You can’t memorize. You just have to feel the music and read the script.

Me: Are you watching the monitors at all during the broadcast?

C: No. My head is buried in the script. If you look up you lose your place. However, I sometimes catch what’s going on out of the corner of my eye. During dialogue scenes I can look up.

Me: What happens if you get lost and lose your place? God forbid you sneeze.

C: You try to get back on track. Usually I cue off the lyrics. But for “Hand Jive” there are 2 ½ minutes with no lyrics. If I was lost I’d have no way of just getting back in. But the Technical Director is a fail safe. He transfers all the shots to a beat shot. He could pick it back up.

Me: What happens if there’s a screw up?

C: If we were to lose a camera or lose the signal, at that point Alex would make changes on the fly and I would just continue to count beats. In the final sequence of “We Go Together” the timing was never going to be precise because of driving in the golf cart. So Alex called it on the fly. I kept counting, he went off book, and eventually we met up and were back on book.

Me: Talk about the first time you ever did a show like this.

C: It was a taped show. Fortunately, it went well and gave me the confidence that I could do this.

Me: You prefer live?

C: Oh yes. Live multi-cam is the most exciting. There’s not that adrenaline with taped shows.

Me: How’d you break in?

C: Kate Moran was doing AMERICA’S GOT TALENT and DANCING WITH THE STARS. Once DANCING WITH THE STARS went to twice a year I filled in.

Me: Watching on the west coast, GREASE LIVE seemed pretty smooth. Any craziness behind-the-scenes?

C: The east coast lost sound for twenty seconds. Fortunately, I could hear the music in the control room and the actors on stage could hear the music so we just kept going. We switched to a backup for that act.

Me: I imagine there’s a backup for everything. You probably taped an entire rehearsal just in case a meteor fell on the soundstage during the broadcast.

C: Absolutely.

Me: You staged this on the Warner Brothers lot. How about the outside number? Did the rain throw you?

C: No. We prepared for the rain. We had full umbrella rehearsals. What we couldn’t prepare for was the wind. At times it was 35 mph. When the wind started slapping at the sides of the tent, they had to take the sides off. If the winds didn’t die down they were not allowing anyone to be under the tent. We were ready to go to our backup. But 20 minutes before, the winds died down and we got the go-ahead. We shot as originally planned.

Me: I’m on my fourth Xanex just listening to this. How did you have the forethought to record the control room during the broadcast?

C: I will tape the control room video. I also teach and that is a great tool. Alex said, “Oh, you have a nice social media moment.”

Me: Well, congratulations. Of all the live TV musicals of late, GREASE LIVE was actually “good.” People sinerely “liked” it. They weren’t watching to see a trainwreck like PETER PAN. Or maybe they were but were pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be fantastic. Good call not casting Christopher Walken as Danny Zuko.

C: Having a live audience was really key. All of the others were done on big soundstages in New York.

Me: Performers definitely feed off the energy of a live audience, and stage musicals were designed to be performed before an audience. But I think Fox chose the perfect musical and the perfect production team. Again, congratulations.

C: Thanks so much.

 Fox will re-air GREASE LIVE on Easter Sunday. And you can see it on the Fox app and probably eighteen streaming services. Thanks to Carrie Havel. Wish she had done the Super Bowl halftime show.

Monday, February 08, 2016

The Super Bowl and Super Bowl commercials

Super Bowl 50 is history. During the game I decided to live tweet. This is the kind of crap I write on Twitter. You’re welcome to follow me. Here are my most liked and re-tweeted tweets. Most are about the commercials because, well… the game pretty much sucked (unless you were a Broncos fan, and even then). Some of these will make no sense if you weren’t watching the game. In those cases please just assume they were amusing.

Trending: I hate Joe Buck -- even though he's not doing the game and the game hasn't even started.

If the Super Bowl were on Fox, Seth MacFarlane would be singing America the Beautiful.

Nantz: Temperature 76 BUT there are breezes. I hate Joe Buck.

A white guy singing the Jefferson's Theme? I'm boycotting the Oscars.

New drinking game: commercials with bears.

Must there be an animal in every commercial?

No commercial for CONCUSSION so far.

Finally! A talking razor!

Mortgage by phone -- see THE BIG SHORT at a theater near you.

Amy Schumer stole her material from Spuds McKenzie.

Best part of the super bowl -- pitchers and catchers report in about a week.

This is where you ask "what would Pete Carroll do?"

Is there ever NECESSARY roughness?

That's a hospital with all beautiful people. CODE BLACK. For when the Kardashians need an ER.

During half-time, which was billed as celebrating the old, now, and future.

Since the game is on CBS I'm surprised Julie Chen isn't part of the halftime panel.

It's not the Orange Bowl halftime show but it's getting there. They just need floats.

Love Bruno Mars. He can do anything. Sing in a gold suit. Sing in a black suit.

I'd let Bruno receive kickoffs. He can bust some moves.

There's the old. Music acts for the CBS audience.

They should re-show the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.

Alec Baldwin is the next William Shatner.

LOVED the halftime show. I feel guilty I'm drinking a Coke.

More pie charts!

When Graham Gano missed a key field goal:

Hook 'em Gano.

So I'm eating Doritos, watching the commercial and thinking, "Am I eating dog food?"

Death Wish coffee and diarrhea medicine within two commercial breaks. Bring back the Bud Bowl.

El Nino just caused another turnover.

Two more commercials with cute animals. I hate Joe Buck.

Highlight of the third quarter: singing sheep.

The sheep sang better than the super bowl babies.

I'm more upset that this is the last year for THE GOOD WIFE than Peyton Manning.

My vote for MVP: that spastic colon character in the diarrhea commercial.

A thrilling finish could lift this super bowl all the way up to mediocre.

Hey, Carolina. According to Donald Trump, finishing second is as good as winning. So congratulations.

Maybe Jim Nantz's newborn son Jamison will become a sportscaster so people can tweet "I hate Jamison Nantz."

On to baseball! This was more fun than live tweeting DOWNTON ABBEY. Thanks for following!

Sunday, February 07, 2016

I will be Super Bowl live tweeting

Since no one invited me to a Super Bowl party, I plan on just staying home and watching the game myself.  But what good is watching the Super Bowl if you can't make snarky comments?  So assuming my internet or cable doesn't crap out, I will be live tweeting throughout the game.  If you're not following me, now's your chance.   @KenLevine.  

The "lost" CHEERS scene

A yearly tradition...

For several years I've been talking about the "Lost" CHEERS scene. David and I wrote it for the 1983 Super Bowl Pre-game show to promote our fledgling series. They ran it just before game time and it was seen by 80,000,000 people. Nothing we've ever written before or since has been seen by that many eyeballs at one time. But the scene was never repeated. It never appeared on any DVD's. It just disappeared.

Until a couple of years ago.

Sportswriter supreme, Joe Resnick has taped every Super Bowl including that one. And since the scene aired so close to the game, it was on the tape. Thanks to friend of the blog, Howard Hoffman, he was able to digitize it and post it on YouTube.  Here's the text of the scene.

So here it is. The Super Bowl is next.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Writing advice you might not want to hear

Since I can't think of an appropriate photo...
I'm currently teaching a graduate seminar in pilot writing at UCLA.  My students will have to write a pilot for the course.   We're now at the outline stage.   So I thought it would be a good time to reprise a post I wrote four or five years ago answering a Friday Question on the subject.  It’s from Chad (even though he admits that that is not his real name).  

My question is about crafting and selling scripts. You mention that story credit goes to the person who submits the episode outline. I realize this is a necessary part of the process in getting each story told...but I'm not really an outline kind of writer. I jot down some relevant notes/lines/jokes and then head into the first draft, which is where the story really takes shape. Writing the entire story in advance always throws me off because I know that when I get in the groove, it's gonna shift directions easily. So the basic question is, is this practice frowned upon and if so what's your advice on how to amend it?

Chad (or whoever you are) – how can I say this nicely? If you want a career writing for television throw out that shit and become an “outline kind of writer”. Outlines are mandatory.

Let me walk you through the process.

First off, you only have a limited amount of time to tell your story. And you have to tell another story next week. And the week after, and the week after that. You have no time for seeing where the Muse might want to take you.

TV episodes are highly structured. As a showrunner, this is my method and thinking:

Working with the staff, we arrive at a notion we feel would make a good story. We then construct the beats – usually not in a linear way (first this happens, then this, then this, then that, the end). I want to know the act breaks first. I want to know the ending. I want to know where the fun of the story is. I want to know the characters' attitudes.  Then we work back from there and fill in the rest.

Then we revise. Is there a better act break? Is there a more inventive ending? Are we getting the most bang for our buck comedy-wise? Is the show too plot driven? Are all the characters well served? Does part of the story work but part still feel undercooked?

In the interest of efficiency and good story telling, I make sure all these questions are answered before someone goes off to write the draft.

Once we’re all happy with the story I ask the writer to give me an outline. Each show is different but I like detailed outlines. 8-12 pages, complete with a lot of suggested jokes.

I give the writer notes on the outline. Sometimes minor, sometimes throwing out whole sections or subplots. If the story changes significantly I request a new outline.

Once the outline has been approved then the writer goes off and does the first draft. Usually under time constraints. But he’s got the story all worked out, the block comedy scenes all in place, and a lot of good jokes.

When my partner and I set out to write an episode, even if we’re the showrunners, we take the time to write an outline for ourselves. We just don’t have the time to feel our way around blind alleys. We can’t count on finding “our groove”.

And now more than ever, outlines are mandatory. Because now stories have to be approved not only by showrunners but by the studio and network as well. I’m not saying that’s a good thing (in fact, it’s not) but hey, that’s the new reality.

I don’t know how Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley (pictured right) work. I know they’re very prolific and write scripts very quickly. I suspect they may not work off outlines as lengthy as ours but (a) they still work out the story in some detail first, and (b) they’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve developed internal mechanisms to guide any mid-course corrections. But that comes after years of experience and extraordinary God given talent.

Look, here’s the bottom line: constructing stories is the hardest part of the process. It’s much easier and more fun to just go off writing. So human nature would suggest that if you can skip the hard part why not do it?

Because that method is fraught with traps. It’s inefficient, it’s unreliable, and it’s not collaborative in an industry that is built on collaboration.

So my advice? Learn to outline, and more than that – accept the process. It’s here to stay. And you know what? It’s a bitch, but it works.