Monday, August 31, 2015

A key to directing

Just finished directing another episode of INSTANT MOM that was written by that sparkling young writing team of Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson. I’d like to thank them for writing in stunts and a dog. But it was a terrific script and INSTANT MOM has a fabulous cast headed by Tia Mowry-Hardrict, Michael Boatman, and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Beginning on September 19th it returns to TV LAND with all new episodes from 8-9 PM every Saturday.

Every TV director has a different approach. And every director has different strengths and weaknesses depending upon their background. An actor-turned-director can communicate more easily with actors than an editor-turned-director, but the former editor is probably more way more proficient with the cameras and technical side of the job.

I bring a writing background. As director emeritus Jim Burrows says, “if the script is good you can just point one camera at the stage and the show will work.” I’ve been directing now over twenty years and my skills have improved in both the technical and creative side.  I was able to tell the dog what his motivation was.   All of those aspects are essential, but there’s one other that I think is both key and rarely addressed in college directing classes or how-to books.

And that is this:

A director must set the tone of the stage.

There are a lot of people working on the production of a show. How does a director get the best work out of all of them? Here again, different approaches come into play.

Some directors are demanding, feeling that people perform best if they’re pushed. Others are very hands-on and feel they must control everything.

I think people do their best work when they’re in a comfortable supportive environment. There’s a lot of pressure on a set. You have to shoot difficult scenes with the clock always ticking. Many things are out of your control (how many takes will the dog need to hit his mark -- even if he knows his motivation?). If the director can create a calming tone I believe that’s a real plus. Relieving tension is as important a skill as knowing classic comic tropes, various acting techniques, and what lens goes with what shot.

Directing is a management job. It requires organizational skills, motivation skills, and leadership ability. For my money, a happy cast and crew will result in a better product. I mean, you’re making a TV show. How cool is that? Shouldn’t you WANT to go to work?

That's a wrap.

Thanks to Andrea Wachner, Kevin Corcoran, and Jake O'Flaherty for the cool photos.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Inside THE PRICE IS RIGHT

Today is my daughter Annie's birthday. So as a salute I thought I would reprise something she wrote for the blog a few years ago. Thanks for being such a wonderful daughter. And for being funny. I love you.
My daughter Annie recently attended the taping of THE PRICE IS RIGHT and along with her writing partner, Jon Emerson files this account of it:

Recently, a friend of mine came to visit and wanted to do something “touristy” in the city. I happen to live very close to where they tape THE PRICE IS RIGHT and my dad happens to enjoy getting a day off from blogging, so it didn't take long to put two and two together...

We got in line around six in the morning and were already behind a half-dozen people praying for the chance to “come on down.” A regular Algonquin Round Table. (IKEA round table; actual retail price: $199.)

There was the married couple from Utah who drove ten hours literally just for this taping. As soon as it was over they were headed right back. I didn't ask how he chose which wife to bring, but I assume she was the one who does the grocery shopping.

And Scott, the entrepreneur, whose real goal was to get on SHARK TANK. His latest stroke of genius was a combination watch and stun gun. (Mederma Scar Cream; actual retail price: $20.)

As the line grew behind us, I began to realize we were dressed like complete idiots. In that we were the only ones not dressed like complete idiots. A rainbow of t-shirts covered in blood, sweat, and Puffy Paint. (Dimensional Puffy Fabric Paint; actual retail price: $9.99 for a pack of six.) Each shirt featured witty turns of phrase like “Sock It Drew Me” and “Just Drew It!” I almost Drew my brains out.

In line at six in the morning and we finally got through the CBS gates around nine. Much to our chagrin, we were just put into another line. Our newest line companion was Michael Polosky. This was Michael's thirty-seventh taping of THE PRICE IS RIGHT. He knew every single thing I could have ever wondered about the show except what made me think coming to it was a good idea.

At last we were given the iconic price tag name badges. The show requires you put your full legal first name on the badge, meaning I had to be Diana. Nobody ever calls me Diana, so for all I know, they did call me down and I just ignored it. That'll make for a fun blooper reel. (Game Show Moments Gone Bananas (DVD); actual retail price: $13.)

Everyone in line was divided up into groups of twelve to sixteen people. Each group was interviewed so that the producers could find contestants for this particular episode. Personally, I thought I nailed my interview. I was charming, I was funny, I was a sure-fire TV sensation.

I was seated in the very back row.

We would have been closer to the stage if I sat on my couch at home.

I will say this, though... I don't know if it was the psychedelic set, the allure of winning a trampoline, or what, but as soon as I sat in that metal folding chair, I went from mumbling “I hate this” to screaming “PICK THE KAYAK!” in sixty-seconds flat. (Mark 1 Economy Stopwatch; actual retail price: $8.)

Drew Carey came out, the place went nuts, and only six hours from the time we got in line, we finally heard: “It's the Price is Riiiiiight!”

THE PRICE IS RIGHT is currently involved in a $7.7 million lawsuit. I think the producers might be worried they'll have to pay out because one of the big prizes of the show was a BBQ shaped like a pickle. Sure, people won cars, but I don't remember the old PRICE IS RIGHT requiring you to return those cars to the nearest Enterprise location with the same amount of gas in the tank as when you got it.
For most of the audience (read: old women) the biggest draw of the show was the raw sexual magnetism of Drew Carey...'s male model assistant “Hot Rob.” “Hot Rob” is the first male model the show has ever had. From the looks of him, he gets paid per ab. (Total Gym XLS; actual retail price: $999.)

At one point, Drew read the contestant's bids incorrectly and called the wrong person up to the stage. The audience felt terrible for her as she danced her way up to Drew and then had to walk back to her podium. Then Hot Rob gave her a hug and the audience wanted to kill her.

After the taping, they had us all stay behind to do pick-ups. It was mostly contestants having to recreate their psychotic sprinting from their seats to the stage. Can you imagine? “I'm so sorry you didn't win that trip, that car, any of the furniture, and you got beaten in the Showcase Showdown by only a dollar... But, hey, at least you got that hot dog cooker. Now run down here again and put a little more enthusiasm into it.”

They let us all go home and I have to admit I was thrilled with the experience. Sure, I didn't get called up to be a contestant, but I buy everything with coupons anyway, so how good could I have done?

This particular episode airs tomorrow. I'll be the one way in the back trying to stop a 200 year-old woman from rushing the stage to get at Hot Rob. (Trojan condoms; actual retail price: $14.)

That's the end of this blog post. Thanks for reading and don't forget to have your pets spayed or neutered.

Thanks again to Jon & Diana... I mean Annie.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Why I'm glad I got out of radio

I thank “Kung Fu Fighting.” I was a disc jockey in San Diego in 1974 working the 7-midnight shift. Although we were called a Top 40 station, our playlist was more like Top 20. Research suggested that repetition was the key to rating success so we played the same damn records over and over. The “power” rotation was like five records that played every 70 minutes or so.

There were nights when “Kung Fu Fighting” would come up four times a shift. It was like a drill to my head. I had been flirting with getting out of radio for about a year – maybe try my hand at TV writing if I was good enough and lucky enough to break in – but there was a tugging at my heart. Radio had always been my first love, ever since I was a kid.

I loved the amazing creative disc jockeys like Dick Whittington, Robert W. Morgan, Don MacKinnon, Gary Owens, Dan Ingram, Lohman & Barkley, Bob & Ray, Larry Lujack, Emperor Hudson, Dave Diamond, and of course the incomparable Real Don Steele. Tuning down the dial for non music stations I had Vin Scully calling Dodger games, Chick Hearn calling the Lakers, Bill King describing the Raiders, and dynamic news personalities like Paul Harvey (even I wanted to buy a tractor, he made them sound so inviting).

But I bailed, went into TV and moved on with my dreams. Over the years I’ve kept my hand in radio – weekend disc jockey here, talk show host there, and eventually baseball announcer – but it has always broken my heart to see how the industry has changed, and never for the better.

Once major conglomerates were able to gobble up more than a couple of stations in every market things went from bad to calamitous. Thousands of jobs were eliminated, every corner that could be cut was, commercial loads increased to insane amounts, and the listener was completely disregarded.  Profits.  Profits.  That's all the mattered.  Mortgage any future to make a buck today!

What few precious on air personalities we still have are quickly dwindling. And there’s no one new coming up because who in their right mind would want to begin a career in radio now? That’s like hoping to go into the typewriter manufacturing business.

There were a few more casualties last week. KRTH in Los Angeles, a CBS station, after reaching ratings heights with its ‘80s oldies format, just fired three major reasons why people listened to the station. Shotgun Tom Kelly got left go after 15 years or more. The guy has a fucking star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also dumped were longtime nighttime jock, Christina Kelley (a wonderful talent), and radio icon Charlie Tuna.

Shotgun was given some bullshit title of “ambassador” and will make personal appearances but that’s just nonsense. He won’t be on the air doing afternoons anymore. And by the way, he sounds as good now as he ever did.

Who will replace them? Actually, the question should be “what” will replace them? Generic voice tracks? Or will they splurge and hire some nobody and pay him minimum wage?

It’s disgraceful and it’s an epidemic. Internet radio and satellite radio and podcasts can’t come fast enough. I recently did the Kevin Smith podcast and I bet ten times as many people heard me than if I were on KRTH – and KRTH gets good ratings. And when you did hear me, you didn’t have to suffer through twenty minutes of horrendous commercials, annoying promos, and idiotic contests.

In the past when a great disc jockey got fired he would simply show up elsewhere. But who knows today? Nobody is hiring. They’re all just firing.

It breaks my heart for so many reasons. It’s like, I’m glad I left my girlfriend when I did, but how tragic that she ended up Krysten Ritter on BREAKING BAD.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday Questions

Yes, it’s that time of the week again.

Ted O'Hara with the first Friday Question:

Have you ever found that you've boxed yourself in on future stories due to some plot detail in a past show that seem innocuous at the time? And if so, how did you get out of it?

Yes, it's happened.  You generally try to let time pass and hope no one notices. And yes, that's the chicken shit solution.  In only the second episode of CHEERS we introduced Sam’s ex-wife, primarily for one joke. Later we all thought, why did we do that? We don’t want the added complication of Sam being married before.

So we just ignored that beat as if it never happened. Great storytelling? No. But functional. We've convinced ourselves that it is. 

Sometimes you just ignore the complication and other times you try to explain it away. An example of each:

In an early episode of MASH Harry Morgan appeared as a crazy general (“The General Flipped at Dawn”). Later, of course, he re-appeared as Colonel Potter. Nothing was ever said.

On CHEERS we once established that Frasier’s father was dead. Oops. Tell that to John Mahoney. Later, on the FRASIER episode where Sam Malone visited (written by me and David Isaacs) we explained that Frasier had just said that out of anger.

The truth is there are inconsistencies on most long-running series. It’s understandable. New writers come aboard and don’t know the intricate details of all that went before. Especially before the internet. 

From Andrew:

Have you consciously altered your comedy style over the years? Do you mainly think in single-cam joke form now instead of multi-cam?

We never alter our style to appeal to a certain age group. We write what we think is funny for an intelligent audience. We don’t buy into the thinking that Millennials only want sex jokes or pop culture references.

As for single vs. multi-cam, last year David and I had a pilot at USA (before they shut down their comedy department completely – not our fault, by the way). It was pitched as a single-camera show. They asked if we could change it to multi-cam. I facetiously said, “Sure. In First Draft you can easily just change the template from single to multi-camera. One click and it’s done.”

But seriously, the styles are somewhat different as are the tones. We adjust our approach accordingly.

Since multi-camera shows are filmed before a live studio audience they are constructed more like plays. Dialogue is key and there are more set-up/jokes. The single camera format is more realistic. Laughs come from visual situations as well as witty banter.

Each format has its pluses and minuses. I’ve worked extensively in both. Which one I prefer depends entirely on the premise of the series. Which format lends itself the best to telling the story? MASH in front of an audience would be ridiculous. CHEERS on an empty soundstage would be a waste.  So it varies from project to project.

Anthony asks:

Yesterday's 'Now I Know' email newsletter talked about Jay Winsten bringing the "designated driver" concept to the US and how he worked with tv executives and "convinced many prominent TV shows of the era -- Cheers, the Cosby Show, L.A. Law, and Roseanne are mentioned in various press reports -- to make a positive, story-relevant reference to the designated driver program in various episodes."

How did you feel having to write certain things in? Were there other times you were told to deal with particular issues and how does it change the writing process?

I was never forced to write anything in. But my shows were always on major broadcast networks. In addition to being a writer and producer I consider myself a responsible broadcaster.

I have been privileged to be given an audience of millions of people. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.

So along the way, if I can champion causes such as “designated drivers” or the danger of smoking and do it organically within the fabric of my show, I am happy to do so.

I come from an era where broadcast stations were obligated to program in the public’s best interest.  Otherwise they could lose their license. Those laws are relaxed today to where they’re utterly meaningless, and there are so many other delivery systems that I think the public’s best interest is now a total non-factor.

But television is the greatest form of mass communication the world has ever known. Why not use it for good?

And finally, from Bill Avena:

OK nobody's around so here's my question: did you ever meet the "Richard Hooker" who wrote the original novel?

No. Richard Hooker, whose real name was Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, had sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox for only a few thousand dollars. So needless to say, he was bitter that the franchise went on to earn billions and he got nothing. You could certainly understand why he had no desire to cooperate with us. Also, Dr. Hornberger was a staunch conservative and disapproved of Alan Alda’s very liberal take on the Hawkeye character. According to Dr. Hornberger’s son, he rarely even watched the series. Again, I can’t blame him.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Actors breaking up in the middle of a scene

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post.

It’s from Tyler:

Do sitcom directors tend to be more amused or irritated by repeated takes being blown by one or more actors in a scene laughing and giggling? Have you worked with any actors who got irked by co-stars who repeatedly did so? I've just been re-watching all the Seinfeld blooper reels (often as funny as the show itself) and Michael Richards at times gets clearly annoyed with blown takes.

Actors infrequently get the giggles so when it happens it’s generally amusing to all concerned. And studio audiences LOVE it. When I direct and it happens I just give the actors a few minutes to regain their composure, well aware that it will still take a few more takes before they can get through the line.

Sometimes these laughing fits come as a result of something so funny in the script or a performance so hilarious that the other actors just can’t hold it.  That's a good thing!

I remember once on CHEERS we used Tony Shaloub as a waiter and he just pulverized everybody. Yes, it resulted in delays but boy was it worth it.

In an episode of FRASIER I directed, two characters came to dinner who had huge noses. I told my camera operators to stay with whoever they were shooting if they were about to lose it. Some of the shots we ended up using were priceless. No actor I’ve ever worked with had more concentration than David Hyde Pierce, and even he was about to explode.

Ray Romano, on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, was so quick and every so often would toss in a hilarious ad lib that would crack up Patty Heaton. But that was on purpose.

I imagine if an actor breaks up habitually it can get old to his fellow cast mates, but I haven’t seen any instance of the cast getting annoyed (although it sounds like Michael Richards did get annoyed.  

Here’s a sheepish confession: There used to be network specials that aired G-rated bloopers. The director would get a nice royalty if a clip from his episode was used. I was the happy recipient of a few of these checks. So when something goofy occurred like an actor with the chronic giggles, one of my first thoughts was “Ka-ching!”

Harvey Korman was a gifted comic actor who was part of the ensemble of THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. Fellow cast member Tim Conway could always break him up. I’m going to leave you now with one of the funniest sketches ever on television. Conway is the dentist, Korman is the patient. Watch Korman. This has me in stitches every time even though I’ve seen it twenty times.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Are "stories" still important?

A lot of Millineals say no. They point out that webisodes are very popular and a recent survey claimed that 2:26 is the optimum length. So who needs to kill themselves coming up with stories? They’re a royal pain in the ass to concoct and audiences prefer their entertainment in bite-sized portions. Who needs an ingenious beginning, middle, and end when you can show a cat trying to climb a greased pole?

Here’s the problem with that theory (besides the fact that it’s incredibly lazy) – two minute webisodes are like pieces of candy. There’s no real nourishment, nothing really satisfying or long lasting about them. You watch, you maybe chuckle, and you move on. It’s a little novelty. You never get really invested in the characters.

And that’s the key. Once you care about a character the interest level goes way up. And you need time to create that connection between the character and the viewer.

There have been myriads of entertainment forms down through the ages – from live theater to literature to filmed works of various lengths designed for various screens. But the principle of good drama remains the same. People want to be engrossed, surprised, delighted, taken to new worlds,  scared shitless, aroused, and involved. They want the subject matter to resonate, they want to maybe learn a thing or two along the way, and they want a certain amount of complexity. You can’t live on a diet of mini-Snickers bars (although I am this week directing INSTANT MOM) .

And two-minute programs may happily exist on websites, but networks, movie studios, and premium streaming delivery systems have way more time than two-minute blips to fill.

We live in a world where audiences watch two-minute shows and binge-watch others for six hours at a time.  People binge-watch because they want to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.   That's the result of story

Like I ranted about yesterday in my MAN FROM UNCLE pan, good drama is storytelling and the foundation of storytelling has not changed in thousands of years. Like I said, it’s a bitch to break stories. You hit roadblocks, you wrestle with logic, you fight the temptation to do something familiar or clich├ęd, you search for ways to hide exposition, you constantly question whether the stakes are high enough, the turns are surprising enough, and whether you’ve chosen the correct length to tell the story. And if it’s a comedy, how to do all that and still have the show be funny. Yes, it’s a tall order.

But it’s worth it.

Webisodes are the new thing, yet there’s still room for classic dramatic structure – or, as the ancient Greeks used to call it – old school.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

THE MAN FROM UNCLE -- THRUSH couldn't kill him but Guy Richie did

THE MAN FROM UNCLE wasn’t just bad. It was downright insulting. I shouldn’t be surprised. It was done by Guy Richie who is the king of style over substance. But this screenplay was so incomprehensible that it was clear Richie didn’t care. There wasn’t even an attempt to fill the audience in or plug up ridiculous logic holes.  

Instead, the screen was filled with slick, glossy, absurd action sequences, and ‘60s tropes. What he was saying was, “as long as I dazzle you with cool shots, fun vintage costumes, and video trickery you're so fucking stupid you will eat it up.” In Richie's estimation we’re just cats who can be entertained by a ball on a string.

I am a huge fan of the television series. I own the box set. I even watched THE GIRL FROM UNCLE (okay, for a different reason but still). As regular readers know, I’m also a major ‘60s freak. (I'll refrain from plugging my book... sorta.) And who doesn’t enjoy things being blown up? So I went in ready to love it.

Ugh!

I’m sorry. First and foremost a filmmaker’s obligation to the audience is to be a storyteller. It is not to fill the screen with almost two hours of retro chic bullshit. Caring about the characters, tracking the narrative is important. Duplicating Twiggy’s wardrobe is not.

Practically every decision Richie made was wrong. By veering so far away from the TV show all he did was alienate fans of the series. So there go the Baby Boomers. And Millennials could give a shit about ‘60s mod style and period detail.  Then for good measure, he does away with the iconic theme song. So he has crafted this multi-million dollar dog’s breakfast that appeals to no one.

The supervillain was as scary and convincing as Kellie Pickler. Henry Cavill was solo -- not Napoleon Solo per se but solo in that he played only one attitude – insouciance… and delivered every line the exact same way. Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin had two attitudes – controlled and rage. Rage was demonstrated by his hand shaking.

My hand was shaking as I left the theater. It’s one thing to make a movie with sincere intentions that falls short. We all fail sometimes. But this was something else. This was a filmmaker who has no regard or respect for his audience. This was a patronizing jerk who believes if you wrap a turd in a piece of shiny paper we’ll eat it and think it’s a Tootsie Roll.

Instead of wasting your time and money with this travesty, go watch the first season of THE MAN FROM UNCLE. Better characters (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum rock), better adventures, better look even – and it was made in black-and-white for probably $2500 an episode.