Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Getting a laugh and tear at the same time

As a comedy writer I like to occasionally challenge myself. If I were athletic I’d just climb Everest or run marathons, but that takes waaaaay too much coordination and effort. And no one ever fell off a mountain writing a joke.

James L. Brooks once strove to get a laugh with the punchline “cancer” (in his movie TERMS OF ENDEARMENT). He succeeded beautifully.

Last week I talked about rolling the dice and building an entire show around one big payoff. Today’s feat is to get the audience to both laugh and cry at the same line at the same time.

This is from “Never Love a Goalie – Part Two, “ season five of CHEERS, written by me and David Isaacs.

The premise was that Carla was dating a goalie from the Boston Bruins and ultimately became his jinx. Since most couples have “their song” we thought it would be funny that “Oh Canada,” the Canadian National Anthem played before many NHL games would serve as their romantic song. (Hey, it’s still better than “My Heart Will Go On.”) We got a few jokes out of it and moved on.

Eventually we wanted them to break up. Those scenes are tough because you want the audience invested in your characters. If they experience a great loss you want the viewers to feel bad as well. But those scenes, especially in sitcoms can get horribly maudlin or the tone of the show can switch unnaturally. If at all possible, it’s great to have some laugh in there, even a little one. But you don’t want the laugh to minimize the situation. Tricky, huh?

What we decided was this: Eddie would come to the bar, break up with Carla, and give her a cassette he wanted her to have. Late at night when she was alone in the bar she played the cassette. It was “Oh Canada.”

I looked up at the studio audience. Most were laughing, some were crying, and a few were doing both at the same time.

Of all the things I’ve ever written it’s one of my favorites. Laughs and tears derived from a real moment – it’s everything I ever want to write. And now I can sit home and watch marathons while eating bagels.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Actors test directors

This happens a lot.  Actors will test directors.  They're curious as to how much they can get away with, how much they can trust him or her, how organized he or she is, whether they have any comedy chops,  etc.

And when you're a freelance director it's like you're a substitute teacher.  It can better utter chaos.     You have to win their trust.

One such example for me was Peter Boyle when I first began directing EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND.   Peter was a wonderful actor and a dear man, but he could be challenging.

The episode was called PET CEMETERY.   This was my first day.   There was a scene in the family backyard where they were burying the daughter's pet hamster.  We shot it on the stage.  And it was raining.  Elaborate equipment had been set up to establish rain.  We ultimately shot this scene in front of a live audience, rain and all. 

The line producer asked if I wanted to do the rain effect while rehearsing.  I said no, that wasn't necessary.

The actors reported and I began assigning their places.   Peter objected to his.  He wanted to stand in a different spot.  I explained that he had some private lines with Doris and if he stood where he wanted he would have to say them across Ray.  So he was better where I originally had put him.  Nope.  He wanted to stay in the new spot.

I certainly didn't want to get into a confrontation with him, nor did I want him where he was standing.

So I did this:  I called out to the line producer -- "Okay, change of plans.  I want it to rain, but just over Peter."   He laughed, slid over to where I originally wanted him and we got along famously ever since.

My favorite though was an actress on another show I directed.  I won't say her name.  But she preferred the direct approach, which I appreciated.  She took me aside, draped an arm around my shoulder and said, "Okay, so just who the fuck are you?"   I listed my credits and she said, "Oh.  Welcome.  Great to have you." 

I love directing... except on the first day. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Come see my pilot

Only three more chances to see UNDER ANDREA, the pilot David Isaacs and I wrote for Fox and NBC that has been adapted into a play.  It's part of a program of three passed over pilots called DEAD PILOTS SOCIETY at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.   Very funny stuff and the theatre is air conditioned!

It plays Monday night and the following two Mondays.

Discount tickets for the last two weeks are still available.  Here's where you go.

Some other tickets remain for Monday night's show.  Here's where you go. 

Here's what the critics say:

"Best comedy I've seen in thirty-two years."
-- Brooks Atkinson

"So funny you could hear my laughter all the way from heaven."
-- Walter Kerr

If you do come, stop by and say hello.  Thanks!

Camping in Los Angeles

Going off to camp for the summer when I was a kid was a real East Coast thing. Growing up in LA, and living in the city, when I was nine my parents sent me to something called “Day Camp”. The “camp” was essentially a bus.

Every morning it picked me up and the first camp activity was driving around the Fairfax district for an hour picking up other campers.

Once we assembled with the other buses at the Big Town Market parking lot on Pico we set off for our daily adventures, which varied depending on the day and traffic.

Sometimes the bus would drop us off at a swimming school sandwiched between a beauty parlor and real estate office. We’d swim for a couple of hours and get back on the bus. We’d stop at a park and have lunch. Afternoon activities might include going to Griffith Park to go horseback riding, the Lido Theater on Pico Blvd. to see a movie, the La Brea Tar Pits (hours of fun there), a museum, and once a week – the beach. But the best was when we talked the counselors into stopping at the Rexall Owl Drug Store on Beverly and La Cienaga where we bought comic books and baseball cards.

These were all fun activities but half the day or more was spent commuting to these venues. At first the counselors (teenagers all) tried to get us all to sing rousing camp songs. That lasted three minutes. We were not a Kumbaya crowd. The resourceful counselors had a Plan B. They turned on the radio to KFWB, the big Top 40 station at the time. We could sing along to the hits of the day. Except we were eight and nine and few of us listened to rock n’ roll radio. None of these songs were familiar to us. The only music we recognized was commercials. So there we were – your typical campers – barreling down the 405 Freeway singing the Winston cigarette jingle.

We didn’t have a chance to write “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” sob story letters to our parents. We went home every night. I guess if they still have Day Camps, disgruntled campers could send “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” texts.

Still, Day Camp was preferable to just hanging around the neighborhood and doing nothing. And I accidentally grabbed one of the coed counselor’s breasts in the pool one day. At the time it meant nothing but a few years later I realized the magnitude of that event and was aroused for weeks.

My older cousin, Jeff went to sleep-away camp that summer and I went with my aunt to pick him up at session's end. The camp was in nearby Malibu canyon. We drove in, I got my first look at the facilities and HOLY SHIT!! There was a swimming pool so large it had a little island in the center. There was a baseball field and an arts & crafts cabin. At night they roasted marshmallows around a giant on-site campfire. There were rocks to climb, a handball court, and a dining hall. WHAT THE FUCK?! This was camp!

The Rexall Owl Drugs is still there (under a different name) and a few months ago I had occasion to stop in. They still sold comic books. And suddenly I was that nine-year-old boy again, excited and completely care free. God, it felt so good to once again commune with nature.

This is a re-post from four years ago.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

4th of July fireworks

I hope you enjoy fireworks tonight without blowing your hand off. I never quite got the attraction of holding lit sticks with small explosives made in unknown countries by craftsmen who earn nineteen cents a month.

Being a former baseball announcer I used to see firework shows at least five times a year. They were usually exploding in the air when I’m doing the postgame show, trying to read out-of-town scores while the raid on Osama was going on in the background.

When I broadcast for the Mariners in the '90s we used to have indoor fireworks at the Kingdome. That never seemed like a good idea, and in fact ceiling tiles began plummeting to the ground.  Who could have possibly predicted that?   Plus the dome was smokey for the first half inning.   I would routinely hear people coughing through the starting line up announcements. 

And then of course there was the post game fireworks show at MacArthur Stadium when I was broadcasting for the Syracuse Chiefs. A spark started a brush fire beyond the left field wall.

One year I was flying coast-to-coast on the night of the 4th. When you look up at fireworks they gloriously fill the entire sky. But when you're looking down at them from 30,000 feet they're just little colored puffs.

But the best fireworks show I ever heard of was on July 5th, 1985. It was supposed to be a July 4th show. The Atlanta Braves were hosting the New York Mets that night. The game went 19 innings and ended at 3:55 in the morning. At 4:01 the show began. I’m sure the twelve people in the stands LOVED it.

Happy July 4th weekend. Drive safe out there. And during firework shows, keep your pets inside. Pets HATE fireworks.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Friday Questions

What better preparation for the 4th of July holiday weekend than Friday Questions?

Pete starts us off:

There's a Mindy Project episode where a character has been looking at porn on his girlfriend's computer. She mentions finding it on her browser history, to which he responds, "What's a browser history?"

It's a really funny scene. But as I laughed, I thought there's just no way a NYC doctor--even a semi-Luddite--could be so clueless. As a sitcom writer, if you have to pick one, what's more important: Telling a good joke or not straining credulity in the process?

My firm rule is to always play characters at the top of their intelligence. Sacrificing that for a joke, even a great joke, undermines your character and series.  I won't do it.  Period.  But that’s just me.

Now… in this instance, a case could be made that the character wouldn’t know browser history. I can’t say. I don’t know the character well enough. There may have been spirited debate in the writing room. They may have believed that that blind spot was credible for that character. If that’s the case, then the bit was valid without sacrificing any integrity.   But if they were just rationalizing in order to keep the joke, then we have different priorities. 

David Kruh asks:

Back when you were writing for hit shows like mash and then in the 80s for cheers, television audiences had very few channels from which to choose. Now with hundreds of channels and a fractured audience does that change the way you would write for a sitcom today? In other words would you target your writing for a specific audience, or do you feel that funny is funny no matter how broad the demographic?

No. I write to the premise and theme of the show. I try to make it as funny as I can while being true to my vision of the show.

And we (David Isaacs and I) try to only write shows and subject matter we feel we can write with authority. Since our humor is character-based we hope that it resonates with multiple generations.

But we don’t do things like throw in a bunch of pop culture references because “that’s what the kids like these days.”

From GS in SF about my post where I chided musicians for introducing band members and yammering during the emotional songs people came to hear.

Here is a question for Ken... does he want the song to remain the same as it was on the record? Or is an acoustic version of a hit song appreciated? Or a different riff or a medley used on a standard song? Because while a talk over may take someone out of the moment of the song, I think all music is like improvisational jazz. I do not think the same can be said for all plays.

A different version or arrangement of a song can be interesting. But often what I hear are just singers being lazy, screwing with the songs because they’re bored with singing them. Especially when part of the attraction of a song might be the purity of the performance, I feel cheated when the singer sloughs it off in the name of “variety.”

I saw Bette Midler recently and was very impressed with how well and how enthusiastically she still sang her songs. She delivered their full impact. Meanwhile, she had plenty of time for patter and goofing around.

DwWashburn has the final question.

With the All Star game being played this year in Cincinnati, it has been rumored that Pete Rose will participate in the festivities. Interesting how MLB will call Pete when it benefits them (All Star Game, All Century Players, anniversary of Rose breaking Cobb's record).

What’s your opinion on the whole Rose / gambling mess in baseball?

Pete Rose broke the one cardinal rule of baseball. Players and managers can’t gamble. Major League Baseball can withstand just about any crisis as long as the fans don’t think the games are fixed. Commissioner Landis went to extraordinary lengths to rid the game of all possible offenders during the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Rose knew all of this but thought of himself as above the game. He’s not. No one is, no matter how many hits they've gotten.

And he continues to lie.  He's always insisted he never bet as a player (only as a manager).  Now proof is coming out that indeed he did bet as a player. 

GREAT ballplayer.  Complete knucklehead.  For continuing to lie for almost thirty years I say he's got zero chance of getting in the Hall of Fame.   Sorry Reds fans, but that's how I feel. 

Have a safe and sane 4th of July.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

An ode to radio

Whenever I would see Gilda Radner do a “Judy Miller” sketch on SNL I always laughed and cringed. “Judy Miller” was a kid who used to star in a fictional TV show in her bedroom. She played every role (what’s a variety show without guests?) I never did that when I was a kid. TV was too advanced for me. But like all true radio geeks I used to do bedroom radio shows.

I was smart enough to wait until my parents were out for the evening and my little brother was asleep. Then I’d set up my old Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder (which I still have, by the way), my 45 rpm record player, my record collection (“He’s a Rebel” and “Ahab the Arab” played constantly), a $2.00 silver dollar microphone, and a copy of LIFE magazine (I needed commercial copy) and would “broadcast.”

It was all rather primitive. I could never segue from one record to another since I only had one turntable, and besides, who gave a shit about “more music?” This was Judy Miller… I mean, MY show. “Ahab the Arab” was coming. Just be patient.

I would do comedy bits between records, various (lame) impersonations, take “dedications” (don’t tell anybody but I made them up – “Here’s ‘He’s a Rebel’ from Carol to Schlomo”), give the time, temperature, promote the concerts I pretended to host (“Saturday night at the Corbin Theater – the Ken Levine revue -- Tina Turner, Jackie DeShannon, and Connie Francis!”) In my pre-pubescent mind I thought a great line-up of talent would be all girl singers with big tits.

My on air “style” was a mish-mosh of Elliot Field, Gary Owens, Dick Whittington, Jonathon Winters, Bob & Ray, Don McKinnon, Oscar Levant, Alan King, B. Mitchell Reed, and Emperor Hudson. I somehow managed to combine the worst of all of them.

I recorded these God-awful programs and wisely never listened back to them. I’m sure even at the tender age of 12 I would have been horrified at how truly terrible I must’ve sounded.

But so what? I got to practice my craft. Kids who dreamed of becoming major league baseball players could play little league. Future wannabe rock stars could play in the school band or orchestra. There were no organized programs for nerds who wanted to become disc jockeys. Yes, there were Ham Radio clubs in some high schools, but those nimrods were too nerdy even for us. And they missed the point. The rush wasn’t connecting to some other gozzlehead three states away; it was being on a major market flamethrower like KFWB, WABC, WLS, and KLIF and having millions of your peers (of all schools and chest sizes) hang onto your every word. D.J.’s were STARS back then. And if you couldn’t play an instrument, or throw a spiral, or surf, or look like the kind of person who could do any one of these things, being a radio star was your salvation. It was the acceptable alternative to becoming a serial killer.

At the time I never told anybody about my bedroom shows. It was one of those activities you kept to yourself. (And I had the good sense not to record the other activity.) I thought I was the only kid pathetic enough to do bedroom radio shows. Years later when I got into radio professionally I learned that many of us did variations of this same activity. (Note: A radio child prodigy is one who can talk up to vocals at age 7.)

Just as grown up “Judy Miller” must be thrilled that no one was actually sitting in front of their TV sets watching her fling herself against a wall while displaying her ballet skills, no one heard our bogus radio shows.

However, today is a different story. With computer programs, iTunes, and a microphone, not only could a kid produce a rather sophisticated bedroom radio show but he could BROADCAST it – and not just locally –all over the world. Holy shit! I thank God that wasn’t available in my day. I probably still couldn’t show my face in Luxembourg.

Of course, how many kids want to have bedroom radio stations? How many kids today even give a shit about radio? Radio for us was magic. At night the ionosphere would raise, radio waves would skip, and signals could be heard in distant locations. I used to sit in Los Angeles in the winter and pick up WLS out of Chicago. Imagine – some announcer speaks into a microphone and his voice is being heard 2,000 miles away. Now any idiot can broadcast (or blog for that matter) and his message can be accessed in every corner of the globe (except China or where you need AT&T for reception).

It ain’t the same.

I miss the old days. The innocent days I suppose. When radio was a big part of everyone’s lives. Where we all discovered the same music together. Where we all bolstered our self-esteem because the coolest, hippest, funniest DJ’s on the planet were talking directly to us.

And nerds like us wanted to be on the radio because it was “special.” To be that one person behind the microphone sending your voice 2,000 miles was a privilege. Not everyone could do it. And now everyone can. But no one wants to. To me that’s really sad.

Meanwhile, go on YouTube. I’ll bet there are 50,000 different “Judy Miller” shows.

I’m so happy that I was in radio when I was. You never forget your first love.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

One of those GOOD Hollywood stories....

They do exist.  Every now and again.  Once every five years... okay, ten.    So this is a refreshing change from the horror stories that Hollywood seems to take particular delight in.

It involves Laurence Juber.

Mr. Juber is a guitar player. He played lead guitar for Paul McCartney’s WINGS, so you know “that little country boy can play.” ( Actually, wrong country. He’s from England)

One day, as a tadpole, Juber wandered into an East London movie theater and saw an early James Bond movie. What knocked him out was that great guitar riff that twangs the melody in the first stanza of the James Bond theme. You know the one.

From that moment on, when every boy wanted to be secret agents, he wanted to play guitar.

And so he did. You can’t do too much better than being in a Paul McCartney band.

After the group disbanded he moved to California and became a session player. Lots of albums, soundtracks, commercials, etc.

One day he got a call to lay down some tracks for a movie soundtrack. There was nothing from the somewhat generic title that gave him any clue as to what the movie was about. The title was “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Yes, it was that "Spy Who Loved Me." And his assignment: to play lead guitar on the James Bond theme.

Now, seriously -- “How cool is that?”

Talk about a dream come true, or coming full circle, or six other Hollywood clich├ęs. Every time I hear the James Bond theme it gives me chills… because of that. I, on the other hand, never became a secret agent. It’s a lot harder to ask Mom for espionage lessons rather than guitar lessons.