Monday, May 04, 2015

My thoughts on the MASH finale

There was a CBS 60 MINUTES segment years ago on ageism in Hollywood (Yes, it exists). In the piece they spoke to a freelance writer who had done a few episodes of MASH. In order not to appear too old he was taking MASH off his resume.

I would rather leave the business and clean latrines if I had to rather than take MASH off my resume. Getting the golden opportunity to write for MASH was an unbelievable privilege. There is nothing I’ve written before or since that I am prouder of. And if declaring that meant I couldn’t get an assignment on 2 BROKE GIRLS then so be it.

Last night MeTV aired the MASH finale, seen originally by 352,565,532,528,471,943,940,395,000 people (give or take 2). I did not have a hand in the production of that episode. My partner, David Isaacs and I, had left the show a few years earlier. By that final season we were producing the first year of CHEERS. But I’m often asked what I thought of it.

I’ll be honest. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I know and greatly respect all the writers. And there are parts of it that are moving and brilliant. I also loved that everyone was affected in some way by the war. But I felt the show was too long and too serious. Just personal taste. I know many fans adored it.

To me the perfect MASH episode was the one where Henry Blake was killed. Remember that episode? It’s the last one of season three if you want to look it up and watch. It’s twenty-two minutes of inspired comedy and thirty seconds of drama. But that thirty seconds absolutely knocks you flat on your ass. I wish that had been the template. Especially since it was a national event. There were big parties all across America. People wanted to celebrate MASH. I hope the gatherings were all well stocked with alcohol.

And there’s one subplot that I just hated. Again, just my opinion, but the mother killing the baby crossed the line for me. Yes, it was based on a real incident, but for a show that mixed comedy and drama I felt you just can’t come back from that.

That story had been in the research and Alan wanted to do it during our tenure. And I understand his reasoning and agree it’s very powerful. But we just felt it was too powerful. It’s the only time we ever said, “No. Not on our watch.” (And just to be clear, this was never an argument. No actor I’ve ever worked with was more respectful to writers than Alan Alda. It was a discussion and I greatly appreciate that once Alan saw how passionate we were on this issue he acquiesced.)

I did like the interview bytes MeTV used. These were filmed last year in preparation for a documentary that is being prepared. One of my clips made it to the promo so I’m especially happy. It was nice that they used extended clips of writers. Usually in those things you see the writers for two seconds and the actors for five minutes. Unfortunately, the one writer who was the giant of the series, towering high above all of us, Larry Gelbart, had passed away so was not included.

I loved that Burt Metcalfe got a lot of face time. Burt was with the series from the beginning, was the showrunner for the last six years, and directed many terrific episodes including the finale. And they don’t list it in his bio but he was also the world’s best boss.

I guess like most people watching I got choked up. But not at the part anyone else did. Yes, the last scene is a killer with the rocks that spell ‘goodbye,’ but I had seen the show before.

However, afterwards there were final interview comments. One was by Gene Reynolds. Now in his 90’s (and still sharper than me), Gene was the co-creator and showrunner with Larry Gelbart. I’ve mentioned him before. I learned more about story construction and writing from Gene Reynolds than anyone else. In his segment, Gene got a little emotional as he thanked the actors, writers, and staff.

It was Gene who hired us – took a chance on two baby writers who lied and said they had written drama along with comedy. (We had never written drama, but we would have said we had flown to the moon if it meant getting a MASH assignment.) We owe our careers to that man and for him to thank US, well, that got to me.

MASH will not only remain on my resume, it will remain at the top of it. I still can’t believe my good fortune that I was a part of one of the greatest shows in the history of television. I may not get work but there is the small consolation that scripts I wrote thirty-five years ago are still entertaining and moving millions of people today. So there’s that.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

What's it like at a Hollywood screening?

Going to Hollywood advance screenings can be really cool… or really awful.

On the one hand, it’s very exciting. Being invited to a studio screening makes you feel like you’re really “in the biz”. You may not be on the A list but at least you’re on some list. And in Hollywood that’s pretty much all that matters. There was a brief time (real brief) when my partner and I were writing and selling features and were on several studio screening lists. I’d get a letter with the invite and instructions to call Mr. Spielberg’s office to RSVP. Cool! Of course, when I call, I’m automatically connected to voicemail. And when I arrive, half the time there’s a screw-up and I’m not on the list. (But I always bring the invite with me as proof and usually am let in.  And if not, I keep my Emmy in my trunk.)

So what's the experience like? 

Once inside, you feel as special and exclusive as one of 2500 people can. Usually there are celebs sprinkled in. I once sat in the same row as Nicole Kidman!  And this is when she looked amazing!  Generally the popcorn is free. Agents are there and say hello, sometimes even the ones who represent you! You frequently know people who were involved in the making of the movie. (Sometimes I’m envious… but it’s a good envious.)

Then you take your seat and there’s an air of excitement. The lights go off and the movie starts. The print is perfect, the sound is glorious, and you just know you’re in for a thrilling night of cine-magic.

And sometimes you are.

But most times you’re not.

That’s the downside.

Sure, when the screening is for HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 you have a pretty good idea going in that you won’t be blown away, but there have been numerous times when highly anticipated big budget summer tentpole potential blockbusters lay resounding and foul eggs. Then you’re trapped in hell.

It’s hard to slip out without being noticed, so most of the time you just have to suck it up and stay until the end (which is always 45 minutes longer than it has to be). And then there’s that horrible filing out into the lobby afterwards. Usually the filmmakers are there ready to receive you in a greeting line.


The only thing worse then being in that line is being one of the filmmakers receiving that line. When there was a screening of VOLUNTEERS (which, to be fair, was primarily well-received), I was standing next to one of the producers, Walter Parkes. A woman friend of his took both of his hands and said, “Oh, Walter, we love you anyway.”

But by and large it’s those forced compliments that no one believes. I imagine the post-screening of THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2 ANGELS OF DEATH was the very definition of awk-ward!

An actress I know told me that she went to the advance screening of a movie she was in and it was so unspeakably terrible that when the lights came back on the entire cast was crying.

Every so often I’ll be channel-surfing and there will be a movie I saw at a studio screening. It’s 2:00 in the morning and it’s some channel from Oxnard or some cable channel that’s so bad they can’t even scare up an infomercial to fill the time. The print is bad, the sound is muddy, and I think back to the night I originally saw it. The excitement and promise. This movie was going to be the next big thing. And now an animated promo for an exercise show that reruns every morning at 6 takes up 20% of the screen.  Either that or I see the DVD of the movie in a 99 cent bin at Rite-Aid.

They don’t call it the Dream Factory for nothing.

I haven’t been to a big studio advance screening in years. I imagine they’ve changed. I bet people are now texting each other all throughout. I bet the post parties are nowhere near as grandiose. You probably have to pay for popcorn these days. Fancy invites have been replaced by form emails.  Fewer celebrities attend. Getting through the paparazzi is a hassle. Red carpets have been rolled up. And traffic has gotten so bad, especially around Westwood, that more and more agents and publicists are skipping them. They're probably nowhere near as fun or as glamorous as they were even ten short years ago.   So I guess what I’m trying to say is…

Can I get back on the lists?

This is a modified re-post from many years ago.   So things have probably gotten even worse. 

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Bullshit Hollywood Terms

Reader Eric J. has a Friday Question worthy of a Saturday post.

How about list of "Bullshit Hollywood Terms" writers should be familiar with?

Most of the real creativity in Hollywood goes into positive spin. Here are some industry expressions and what they really mean:

Hospitalized because the actor was simply feeling dizzy due to a medication he was taking for an ear infection” – drunk

“Hiatus” – cancelled

Good Exit Numbers” – DOA at the boxoffice

Highly qualified” – knows somebody

“They’re still good friends” – the ugly divorce settlement is still pending.

“They’re just good friends” – they’re humping nine times a day

“I want to spend more time with my family” –fired.

“I want to explore other exciting opportunities” – fired

“Creative differences” – fired

“Parting by mutual agreement” – fired

“We think the script needs a fresh eye” – the director will now destroy your screenplay

“They have a lot of respect for each other” – they despise each other

“No comment” -- he did it

“Fielding offers” – unemployed

“Projects in development” -- unemployed

“Looking into financing” – unemployed

“Tom Cruise is interested” – I’m a really bad liar

“Proactive” – active

“She’s a perfectionist” – she’s a bitch

“Entry level position” -- slave labor

“Thanks for coming by” – no sale, I hated it.

“I really liked it” – thanks for coming by.

“I really loved it!” -- it got good coverage

“He’s in a meeting” – you’re not important enough to talk to.

“Back end” – money you’ll never see

It just needs a little polishing” -- page one rewrite

We’re pleased with the demographics” – the ratings are shit

“Commands a great deal of respect” – he’s a fucking nightmare

“Do you have a card?” – I want to get away from you but don’t want to appear rude.

“Zitcom” – Any half hour on the Disney Channel

Exhaustion” – overdose

“A private matter” – a public scandal

I’ll give it a read” – I’m throwing it away

“The studio is really behind it” – it’s going straight to DVD.

“He’s taught me so much” – I’ll never work with that asshole again

Freelance” – unemployed

High concept” – gimmicky

“Actor’s Director” – he can’t shoot action movies

“Director’s Director” – his movies haven’t made a nickel.

“Emmy winning writer” -- blogger

Friday, May 01, 2015

The very first CHEERS promo

I remember when NBC proudly showed us this we all said, "Huh?"

Friday Questions

Happy May Day (Malone). Celebrate with Friday Questions.

Michael starts us off:

How much leverage do writers have in negotiating higher salaries on successful shows?

Never as much as we’d like. Hollywood always feels any writer could be replaced. And even if the quality of a show goes down, audiences tune in to see the actors.

Aaron Sorkin was replaced on WEST WING and it went another couple of seasons. Larry David left SEINFELD and it trundled on. MASH survived Larry Gelbart’s departure (and even though I was one of the writers who replaced him I can honestly say this was a case where the quality did indeed suffer).
A few years ago Matthew Weiner’s negotiations with AMC to continue running MAD MEN were stalled. Although it’s inconceivable to imagine that show without Matt at the helm, AMC was making contingency plans. Ultimately they might have gone with new showrunners. But if Jon Hamm were to walk off the show it would be toast.

That said, valued writers still can make very rich deals. And if it’s their show and they have ownership stakes they can really make a bundle.

And A-list writers can leverage their success to get network commitments for future shows, which can be more valuable than money if the circumstances are right.

Stormy wonders:

How would you have handled broadcasting a game where there were no fans in the building like the Orioles & White Sox faced on Wednesday?

The same way I handled half the road games I did calling the Mariners in 1992 when we lost 99 games. Just be as informative and entertaining as I could. And not yelling over a home run because it always annoyed the outfielders when they could hear it.

From David:

So after a lot of work I have finally completed both a an original pilot and a spec of an existing show. Is that enough to submit to agents or should I have more? I'm also concerned of my spec going stale since in my Veep Selina is still the Vice President. Any advice?

Yes, a spec from an existing show plus a sample of original work is all that’s required. BUT, the more scripts you write the more you improve your odds. The next spec you write will be better than the one you have now.

And it wouldn’t hurt to have specs from two existing shows – maybe a single camera and a multi-cam.

I wouldn’t worry about your VEEP for about a year. Producers understand that you have no way of knowing what story sea-changes a series may make. But after about a year when producers start getting VEEP scripts where Selina has been established as the president then your script may seem dated. But for the moment you should be okay.

Ken asks:

Has the ability to "binge watch" shows exposed some plotting/ scripting weaknesses that were not conspicuous when people had to wait a week between shows and perhaps years to see on rerun?

An example of what I mean is that recently I binged on "New Tricks" ( very good British cop show) While watching I started to notice how much family dysfunction played out in many of the episodes/ cases they worked on.   I don't know if I would have noticed this watching one show a week.

It certainly is easier to pick out patterns when you binge watch a show. For aspiring writers planning to write a spec that’s a good thing. But for the casual viewer, it gives them a chance to see the seams.

I’ve never written on a series that I knew could be binge watched. Would I alter my storytelling if I did know? Somewhat... perhaps. I’d do less exposition. I wouldn’t feel the need to remind the audience of certain things because weeks are not passing between episodes; hours are.

And still it would depend on the platform. If my show was on NETFLIX then I would assume there is a lot of binge watching. But if my show was on a network I would have to assume that most of my audience is still not binge watching.

This is a question I have for you guys: I personally find it easier to binge watch dramas. Comedies have a rhythm and a pace and for me it’s harder to watch four straight half hours than two hours of drama. Is that just me? And a second question: when you binge watch, how many hours at a time? If I watch thirteen episodes of a series in a one week period, to me that’s binge watching. There are others who watch thirteen episodes in one or maybe two days.

Again, this is personal, but when there’s a sitcom I really love I don’t like to watch too many episodes at one time because I want to savor them.

And finally, from Glenn E:

Knowing your appreciation for “The Good Wife”, do you find the urge as a writer to try your hand on a script for the show? If the Kings came calling one day with an offer to do so, would you want to create lines for characters like Eli Gold and Howard Lyman?

I would love to write an episode of THE GOOD WIFE, but only on assignment. I have no desire to write a spec. This might surprise you but the one character on that show I would most want to write is Alicia Florrick. I find her fascinating and in many ways the strongest smartest character on television. And Julianna Margulies plays her perfectly. (My next favorite is not Eli Gold but his daughter, Marissa.)

What’s your Friday Question:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Just too funny not to share

Girls, don't let this happen to YOU!

Oh, the humanity!  The heartbreak!  Imagine if she had slept with a roadie.  Or worse -- a writer

Let this be a cautionary tale.  Never sleep with a celebrity until you've determined he's important enough.   Now this poor girl has to go through life with the shame of knowing she only slept with a bass player.    Let the years of therapy begin. 

My favorite related concerns a certain character from the '60s and '70s.  He was in a series of commercials for a gasoline company.   At the same time he was acting in dinner theater.  One night he goes to bed with one of the ushers.  They're in the throes of passion and she yells out, "I'm fucking Mr. Dirt!" 

You gotta love show business! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Richard Dreyfuss is in a sitcom?

Did you know there is a sitcom starring Richard Dreyfuss? It’s on the air now. It’s been on the air for a couple of weeks. Yes, Richard Dreyfuss, the Oscar winner. The show is called YOUR FAMILY OR MINE and it’s on TBS. Other cast members include JoBeth Williams, Kat Foster, and Kyle Howard. Greg Malins, a terrific writer from FRIENDS and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is behind it.

Is it a good show? I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. I didn’t even know about it until a friend mentioned it. Guess I’m not a big TBS viewer – I don’t feel the need to watch THE BIG BANG THEORY eight hours a day. But I’ve seen no ads, no billboards, no radio commercials, no nothing. How is anyone who doesn’t watch TBBT and Conan supposed to know?

In fairness, maybe there have been ads. They just didn’t register. But it points out a bigger problem. There is so much product out there on so many platforms that it’s hard to keep track. Even with an Oscar winner in the cast. Time was a TV producer would inquire about Richard Dreyfuss for a pilot and the agent would laugh. Now he’s in a sitcom that’s in the Witness Protection Program.

Recently, FX aired the JUSTIFIED finale. It was masterful. For all the hoopla surrounding MAD MEN I defy them to do a more emotionally satisfying finale than the one JUSTIFIED just did. MAD MEN will certain generate more media attention, but for sheer execution and elegance my money is on JUSTIFIED. Matt Weiner will get an Emmy nomination and Graham Yost and the other JUSTIFIED writers will be shut out.

Why? Because JUSTIFIED is a cult hit. MAD MEN is a critics’ darling. Credit where credit is due, MAD MEN cut through all the rabble and distinguished itself with superb quality and originality. But there are a lot of other deserving shows that don’t get the love, and one reason is that most people have never even heard of them. (like ORPHAN BLACK)

And it gets worse than that. Not only do I not know many current shows, in some cases I’ve never heard of the networks they’re on. There are sub-networks. Did you know there is an offshoot of BET? Or several variations of NICKELODEON? There is FXX, or is it FXXXX? And there are more Disney Channels than kids in North Dakota.

The show my daughter Annie and her partner Jon is on, INSTANT MOM starring Tia Mowry, is beginning its third full season. It’s currently on five networks including NICK @ NITE and TV LAND. And creatively it’s a damn good show. In its orbit it's a huge hit.  But there are still millions of viewers who are unfamiliar with it.

Broadcast networks are not immune to this. Who can tell me what network WEIRD LONERS was on? Or IN AN INSTANT?

The only saving grace, as I see it, is that there is this whole subculture of production going on. Thousands of talented people lending their craft and expertise to make shows that are as well-written or better written than shows you know. Same goes for directing, acting, set decoration, wardrobe, you name it. It’s unfortunate their efforts are not better appreciated, but at least they’re working. I just don’t want to be the poor guy who bumps into Richard Dreyfuss at a Starbucks and says, “So are you still acting?”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Where is Howard Beale when we need him?

This is a RANT.  A real angry one.  

What’s the point of having a union if it goes against the overwhelming wishes of its members? That’s exactly what happened last week when Los Angeles Actors Equity members voted over 2-1 to keep things status quo in the small theater (99 seats or fewer) LA scene; to not demand they be paid minimum wage per hour for all performances and rehearsals – and the New York board completely dismissed their vote and implemented it anyway.

This is unconscionable!

What I don’t understand is why the LA Equity members aren’t revolting.   Hopefully they will.

Your national board just told you members to go fuck yourselves. The message is clear: They don’t give a shit what you think. And we’re only talking about your careers.

Why even conduct a vote if you completely ignore the results? Jesus! Elections in Iran are more legitimate.

My hope is that the LA branch breaks off from Actors Equity. Or files such a blizzard of lawsuits against the union that it completely strangles its ability to govern.

Here’s the issue: Small theaters make no money. For the most part they lose money. Everyone concerned does it for the love of theater. No one really gets paid – not actors, playwrights, directors, crews. The Whitefire Theatre in Studio City will be doing a one act play in June my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote. I’m also directing it. We’re making nothing. Not $9.00 an hour. Not $.09 an hour. But we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to see our work performed. We’re also employing eight actors. That means eight actors get to work on their craft, have a nice showcase, and perhaps get discovered.

And the evening will feature three one acts. Both the others also have casts of about eight. So do the math. Twenty-four actors, all the hours of rehearsal and performances – even at $9.00 an hour that adds up pretty quickly. Especially for a production where we have to buy our own props. If this ruling had already been in effect we simply would not do the production.

And this is what’s going to happen all over town. Producers will stop staging shows, small theaters will close, actors won’t work, and everybody loses (but Actors Equity). 

LA actors understand this. They make their living in TV or films or commercials. And again, they voted 2-1 to not implement new restrictions.  That's a mandate, folks. 
As it is, theaters have a tough time making ends meet. They’re all about saving costs. Plays now have to have four characters AT THE MOST and preferably two. This is why I wrote A OR B? for only two actors. Compare that to a few years ago. Even a simple play like THE ODD COUPLE, which is primarily a two-hander has a cast of seven. If written today, it would just be Felix and Oscar. That’s five more actors out of work. Now you add these new requirements and the future is clear – there is no future.

But your union clearly doesn’t care. So what if they destroy the LA theater scene? As long as they maintain their control.

At your expense.

And by the way, I’m very pro-union. I’m a proud member of the WGA, DGA, AFTRA-SAG. I totally understand that without unions the studios and networks would pay us all less than a janitor makes in Cuba while raking in billions on the wings of our work. But no one is making money in small theaters.

So now it’s time for actors to take action. Your union is supposed to represent YOU. Actors Equity most definitely does NOT. Are you going to stand for that? Are you going to let a board with its own agenda dictate your career path? Send the message. Your vote COUNTS.

It’s bad enough actors face rejection every day, but to be rejected by its own union is, to me, intolerable.

And so I ask you, even though I can’t pay you $9.00 an hour to do it, to perform one of the great acting scenes in film history. It’s from Howard Beale in NETWORK.  I think you know it.

I want you to get mad!

I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot. I don't want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

All I know is that first, you've got to get mad.

You've gotta say, "I'm a human being, goddammit! My life has value!"

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell...

"I'm as mad as hell,

and I'm not going to take this anymore!!"

You may not win an Oscar, but you might get your theaters back.