Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Questions

You’ve been waiting all week, and here they are: Friday Questions!

Berry Canote is up first.

My brother is somewhat of a TV historian, and we often have discussions on the topic of TV history. One question we have often had is why do the broadcast networks keep trying with certain genres, even when it is clear that genre has not produced many successful shows? The genre my brother likes to bring up is that of the legal drama. According to him the failure rate for legal dramas is higher than that for Westerns (a genre the networks gave up on long ago).

I would disagree that legal dramas are primarily unsuccessful. THE GOOD WIFE, SUITS, and that LAW & ORDER thing are doing okay.   And from PERRY MASON to THE DEFENDERS to LA LAW to THE PRACTICE and on and on, there have been many hit lawyer shows. 

Legal dramas work because the stakes are so high – life and death at times. Plus, in this day and age, who isn’t suing someone or being sued by someone?

From Oliver:

How do you feel about actors getting showrunners fired? There's been plenty of examples over the years. Sometimes it's down to personality clashes and production issues but other times it's pretty clearly down to the creative direction of the show. Is it right for the actors to make such an intervene in such a way in how the show is written?

Regardless of who’s right or wrong, or who’s the asshole, the reality is people tune into television shows to see the actors they like. So if push comes to shove the showrunner will lose.

BUT…

The showrunner generally continues to get paid his full salary and collect his full royalties and ownership stake. So there are showrunners who believe me are praying to be fired. As the saying goes: “Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?”

thomas tucker asks:

I have a great idea for a movie, but I'm not a writer, I'm not in show biz, and I don't live in New York or LA. What do I do with this great idea? (And I'm sure you've never heard this question before, right?)

This question does come up frequently. I wish I had a more optimistic answer. But the truth is execution is more valued than ideas.

If you don’t have a writer to turn your idea into a desirable screenplay or a producer who can attach an approved writer you’re pretty much out of luck no matter how great the idea. And if you manage to somehow beat the odds and get a viable producer to bite, he’ll just pay you a fee for the idea and generally cut you out of the rest of the process.

Sorry I couldn’t more encouraging.

The Bumble Bee Pendant wonders:

Back in the 70s and 80s, Networks always had top notch or at least very popular shows on Saturdays (I remember CBS had the comedy block of MTM, Bob Newhart, All in the Family, Alice and Carol Burnett on Saturdays). I know Saturdays became a viewer wasteland, but now with DVRs/On Demand/Netflix, any show (at any time) can be viewed and become a hit. Do you think the Networks will eventually go back to this?

No. Saturday nights are dead on major networks. Young audiences (all the nets care about) are out on Saturday night and if there’s something they want to watch they’ll DVR it (I guess we’re now starting to phase out the verb “Tivo”) or watch ON DEMAND.

What some networks have discovered however is that sporting events like college football games work on Saturday night. Sports is the only programming people prefer to watch live. And the bonus there is that they can’t zap through the commercials if they’re watching in real-time. I think two of the networks have college football on Saturday nights.

But Saturday original fare will never return. And it’s only a matter of time before Friday falls too.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

My proudest moment as a director

I’ve been fortunate in many areas, but most of all I’ve been blessed with great kids. Last night was a real thrill, watching a show that my daughter co-wrote and I directed. It’s great when you can still do activities with your children. (My thanks as well to the terrific cast and crew of INSTANT MOM – I’d be happy to be related to them too.)

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to collaborate professionally with my son, Matt. He’s an engineer at Apple. He knew more about computers at nine than I’ll ever know. And even though he’s not in television per se, he still won an Emmy. He was part of the team that built Apple TV. For that they were awarded the same statue that Jackee received for Best Actress in a Comedy.
In any event, I couldn’t be more proud of either of them. Please excuse that today’s post is just a father kvelling. I’ll get back to dispensing nonsense tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

I directed and my daughter co-wrote tonight's INSTANT MOM

Tonight on TV LAND they're showing a new episode of INSTANT MOM, starring Tia Mowry.  It was written by Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson.  And directed by me.  This is such a special night of television that TV LAND decided to air it at 11:30 PM.   Hey, it's not like you've got Letterman anymore.  Hope you'll check it out.

And now for today's regular new post:

The day NBC thought I went insane

Just because I was directing my very first episode didn’t mean I couldn’t take time out to punk NBC.

My first episode was WINGS. There was a steep learning curve to be sure, especially in terms of the technical aspects of the job. WINGS was a multi-camera show so it was shot like a play in front of a studio audience. As the actors move about the set performing a scene I had four cameras all in motion, capturing the action from different angles. At any one moment I would have some assigned for close ups, or two-shots, or wide masters. And if someone in the cast crossed from point A to point B that would necessitate a change in all four cameras.

As a result, every moment, every movement is carefully choreographed. Add to that my inexperience. I had a crew of a hundred people waiting around for me to assign them shot for shot.  No pressure there.

To assist me, I had a “quad split.” This is a bank of four monitors displaying what each camera was showing. I would stare at the quad split and after each blocking move I would assign everyone’s new camera mark. This can be time consuming and tricky even when you do know what you’re doing (which I of course did not). I can camera block a half-hour sitcom in four or five hours these days. For WINGS I think it took me twelve. Maybe thirteen. I lost all sense of time and the use of my limbs after maybe nine hours. 

The routine for filming day is that the cast and crew assembles at noon. I have three hours to fine tune the shots and rehearse with the cast. A dress rehearsal follows at 3:00 with full cameras. The producers give final performance notes to the actors then generally go back to the room to tweak four or five jokes or make little trims. Everyone eats, the cast gets into hair and makeup and costumes, the studio audience is let in at 6:30 and at 7:00 it’s showtime.

On this particular episode I get the new pages after the dress rehearsal. And I almost plotz.

They’ve added a new scene.

It’s now 6:30 and the audience is already streaming in. No time to block the scene, much less camera block it. The set is in full view of the audience.

I go backstage, round up the actors who will be in this scene, and say, “Okay, after the audience leaves we’ll block and shoot this correctly, but now, for their sake, just go out there, move wherever you want to move, but don’t worry about it. We’ll do it once then come back to it later tonight.” They were fine with that.

I went to the camera operators, gave them a rough idea of where people might be moving and said, just get what you get. We probably won’t use any of it anyway.

I also told my plan to the showrunners, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angel.

So we’re filming the show. Huddled around the quad split are me, my script supervisor (also in on the plan), the showrunners, and the executive from NBC assigned to cover the show.

We get to that new scene. I say "Action!" The actors glide around the set, and the audience enjoys it. Meanwhile, what’s on the quad split is utter chaos – cameras swishing around looking for actors, people being out of focus, actors heads cropped off, moments where none of the four cameras have the actor who is speaking, etc.

Out of the corner of my eye I see that the NBC exec is completely gobsmacked. I realize I never told him what we were doing. So I decided to have some fun.

When the scene was over I yelled, “Cut!” then turned to Peter, David, and David and said, “I got what I needed. You guys good?” They instantly picked up on what I was doing and said, “Yes, we’re fine.” I yelled “Moving on!” and the cameras and crew rolled into position for the next scene.

The NBC exec was in a panic. “Whoa, whoa!” he said. “Don’t worry,” I said, cutting him off. “This is by design. I’m doing something stylistic here. It’ll look really cool when it’s cut together.” He then turned to the three showrunners who confirmed they were on board with this.

For the rest of the night the NBC exec was scratching his head. I’m sure he was thinking, “What am I going to say to my bosses when the rough cut comes in and there’s this bizarre Felliniesque scene in the middle of a WINGS episode?”

Once the audience left and we were about to do pick ups I spilled the beans so he wouldn’t have to stay an extra two hours while we re-shot stuff and did that scene for real. I had known him for ten years and he took the prank in good spirits. But curiously, every other NBC show I ever directed I noticed that the network exec watched me like a hawk.

I never saw the gag reel that year. I’d be shocked if that scene wasn’t in it.  I'm only sorry I don't have a copy.  How great to have that start off my demo reel! 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2: My review

Is it possible to see a summer movie these days that doesn’t have 2 in its title? Yes, I know there are exceptions -- reboots like MAD MAX where they just keep the original title. Most times, unless it’s THE GODFATHER or TOY STORY, 2’s are not better than 1’s. Such was the case for me with AVENGERS 2 and it was certainly the case with PITCH PERFECT 2.

I loved PITCH PERFECT 1. It was a delightful little surprise – funny, sweet, and certainly peppy. And you could almost believe Anna Kendrick and the other actresses were of college age. But the sequel? Yikes – this was your typical Hollywood ridiculous, by-the-numbers money grab with only moments of goodness instead of entire sequences.

Good movies start with a good story, a point, a point-of-view. This one started with “Okay, now what do we do?” The artistic exercise here was to jam in all of your favorite characters, do bigger production numbers, shoehorn in love stories, and up the stakes. If in the first one they had to win a collegiate competition then in the second they have to win the world competition. And once that’s established ten minutes into the film they then have ninety minutes to fill until the actual competition.

So what you’re left with are idiotic spontaneous singing competitions, absurd retreat sequences, and Rebel Wilson fat jokes. Every character is a cartoon, every story-turn silly. Did anyone involved with this even see PITCH PERFECT?

Yes, it’s a movie geared to kids (and it’s doing well in the boxoffice), and when I was a kid we had these stupid music/comedies too – classics like HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI. But they were B-movies, fodder for the drive –ins. They weren’t the big studio summer releases.

So what were those moments of goodness? Some of the production numbers were well-done, (although this was an acapella competition and at no time in the film was there not musical accompaniment). There were funny moments between Elizabeth Banks (who also directed) and John Michael Higgins as commentators, but it was a routine clearly ripped off from BEST IN SHOW where Fred Willard did it first and funnier.

The one true saving grace of PP2 it was Keegan-Michael Key as a record producer. He was hilarious and stole every scene he was in. He also seemed to be in a different movie. He was dry, subtle, and real, and the rest of the film was broad, goofy, and over-the-top.

Sequels are a bitch. I’ve been involved in two of them and liked neither. You’re just trying to manufacture more of the same. You’re following formulas, grasping at gimmicks, hoping to recapture the magic of the original. So sure, they’re rarely as good. But here’s the sad part -- Hollywood doesn’t give a shit. Their only reason for greenlighting these movies is to make boatloads of money. Summer movies are not ranked by quality or good reviews. They’re ranked strictly by boxoffice. PAUL BLART: MALL COP 2 got a humiliating 6% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Only 44% of audiences liked it (which is woeful). But it’s taken in $65 million so far. The studio could not be more thrilled. It’s a home run! As a lifelong hardcore movie fan; as someone who once lived to be in the movie business – I find this heartbreaking. It’s one thing to lower the bar – but 6%?

PITCH PERFECT 2 did better. It scored 67% on Rotten Tomatoes – still not great but certainly decent. You won’t hate PITCH PERFECT 2. You might very well like it. Yes, but will it like enough to go see a PITCH PERFECT 3? That’s the only question Hollywood is asking. If yes, then get Anna Kendrick back on campus even if she’s 35.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day -- and the staff work begins

First, a nod to the real reason for Memorial Day -- to give thanks to the many men and women who sacrificed (sometimes giving the ultimate sacrifice) to preserve our freedom.  We owe them a debt we can never repay. 

Besides a day of tribute and gratitude.. and the unofficial start of summer, this is also the time of the year when writing staffs go back to work. If you’re an aspiring TV scribe, I hope someday that’ll be you. Here’s what you can sort of expect…at least on the comedy side.

The first week will just be sharing vacation stories, home remodeling nightmares, and trashing reality shows. You’ll go out for long lunches, bitch about how much other writers make, compare Prius prices, convince non-Mac using colleagues to finally wise up and get a Mac, and discuss the upcoming summer movie slate. My blog might come up. Half will like it, half will think it’s a piece of shit.

You’ll mosey back to the office, maybe talk in very general terms about the season ahead, some scattershot thoughts on characters and stories, then go home at 4.

Week two you’ll come in and the show runner will panic. He’ll realize you’re now hopelessly behind. From there you get to work, really delving into the characters, spitballing story areas, eventually breaking stories. You still go home at 4 but at least you’re getting something done.

Over the next few weeks the stories will be outlined, assigned, written, turned in, and rewritten by the staff. You start having lunch brought in, going home at 6…and then 7… and then 9. By the time you go into production in August you might have four scripts ready to go with a few others in the pipeline. And hopefully you’ll have seen every summer movie you wanted to see, made your vacation plans for next year, bought that Mac, remodeled that kitchen, fulfilled every dinner obligation, read all those books in your Kindle, caught up on my archives, and took pictures of sunsets so you’ll remember what they look like…because now the real fun begins.

The actors come in rested and the first day of production you’re ready to kill them. And so it begins.

Your first real break comes when you can say "Happy Thanksgiving".

Note:  for new writers these are all exciting steps, even the long nights.  Enjoy every minute of it.

This is a re-post.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Gentlemen, start your engines

Today marks the annual running of the Indianapolis 500. Today it’s on television, but back in 1967 it was not. Here’s a story from my book, THE ME GENERATION…BY ME (perfect for summer reading… so buy it) about the Indy 500 – its spectacle and personal violence.

Of course I didn’t only usher musicals. The Indianapolis 500 auto race was a huge annual event. But back then there was no network television coverage of it. You either listened to “the greatest spectacle of racing” on the radio anchored by Sid Collins, or you went to selected theaters to watch a closed circuit feed.

The Valley Music Theater was offering the telecast and I volunteered to be one of the ushers. Hey, they were paying $2.50 an hour! I believe the race started at 8:00 AM on the west coast. All I know is we started letting people in at 6:30. By 7:00 AM the place was packed. There were numerous full bars going from the moment the doors opened. USC football players were hired as the bartenders, just to make sure things didn’t get too out of hand.

The race started and literally within the first ten seconds there was a fourteen-car pile up. Roadsters were caroming off each other, smashing into the wall, catching fire, tires flying, drivers scurrying, some scaling the fence. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. But the race was halted for another hour-and-a-half. Needless to say, the natives were getting restless… and hammered.

By the time the drivers rounded the very first turn, 3,000 boisterous rowdies had been drinking for three hours.

The next six hours were insane. There was almost a riot when they ran out of snacks. It was not uncommon to see someone vomiting. Me and three other ushers tried to break up a fight and I got punched. I think it was someone from my temple.

The race finally ended and these lushes staggered out to their cars. God knows how any of them made it home – if they did. We ushers had to comb the building to make sure everyone was out. Yeah, big concern that some were going to hide in the bathrooms for five hours so they could sneak into that night’s performance of The World of Susie Wong starring Connie Chung.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Robert W. Morgan

I’m often asked who were my comic influences? Aside from the usual – Nat Hiken, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Marshall & Belson, Kaufman & Hart, and Dan Ingram – I’d have to put at the top of my list Robert W. Morgan. For almost thirty years Morgan ruled the morning airwaves in Los Angeles (and briefly in Chicago).

He passed away seventeen years ago yesterday.

I still miss him. I still look at something I’ve written and wonder, “what would Robert W. think?” He was never shy in telling me. We worked together briefly in 1974 at a station called K100. (I say briefly because I was fired long before he was.) Robert W. could be a tough critic on you (if you call threatening to come down to the station and beat the shit out of you tough). But he also could inspire you to new heights if he believed you had it in you. There was no middle ground in his eyes. You had the potential to be great or you were Judy Tenuta.

Morgan himself on the air was truly amazing. Hilariously funny, wickedly subversive, a master of comic timing, and ALWAYS spontaneous. In the moment. One “morgan” (you never said “morning”, you said “morgan.”  If I pronounced my name Le-Veen and did a night time shift I'd be on from 6-10 in the E-veeng. Fortunately for all concerned, I'm not ) when he was on KMPC he had to do a live phone interview with Ray Malavasi, the head coach of the Rams. He asked his first question and Malavasi fell asleep. Instead of trying to wake him, and without missing a beat, Morgan just kept asking him questions and pausing while Malavasi snored.

There is a Robert W. Morgan tribute website well worth checking out containing this and many other classic bits. Comedy on the radio is a lost art. Robert W. Morgan was one of its great artists. Morgan also was blessed with a gorgeous voice. Rich, mellow, and warm (as if I wasn’t envious enough of his talent). In 1969 while at KHJ he narrated a 48 hour radio special – THE HISTORY OF ROCK N’ ROLL. This epic work painstakingly traced the roots and trends of rock music and to this day is considered a masterpiece. (back in the days when the only hits Phil Spector was known for were records)

Robert W. was only 61 when he passed away. Way too young. Lung cancer. DON'T SMOKE!! He should still be around, probably writing biting comments in this blog.