Monday, September 30, 2013

Playing Sam Malone today: Ignatz Gloogdeberg

After a sitcom has been on the air for a number of years – like ten -- it’s understandable that the cast loses a certain amount of interest. They know their characters so well and they know the routine so well that they don't require as much rehearsal as in the early discovery years.

Also, they become big stars by year ten. They suddenly have movie careers. They front worthwhile charities. They start their own production companies and split their attention between the show and their various new projects. They buy homes on the east coast and have to let the painters in.

On CHEERS during the last two seasons the runthroughs were unlike anything I’d ever seen. First let me say that I adore the CHEERS cast – every one of ‘em. They’re great people, terrific actors, and very respectful of the writers and everyone on the crew.

But for those last few seasons they often had other obligations and would miss rehearsal. Like I said, they didn’t need it. The only problem was that we writers did need to see a runthrough to determine what worked and what didn't.

And there were times we would go down to the stage for a runthrough and it would be the first assistant director playing Sam, the script supervisor playing Rebecca, the prop guy playing Woody, the wardrobe girl playing Carla, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger. This is what I assume community productions of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA look like.

We’d go back to the room and have no idea what we had. Someone would say, “I don’t think this Sam joke works” and the rest of us would say, “How do we know? Ignatz Gloogdeberg played him.” It was insane.

The craziest was the time we cut a certain actor’s joke who wasn’t at the runthrough. The actor came in the next day, was annoyed that the line was gone, and chided the stand-in for not selling the joke sufficiently.

In fairness, runthroughs with 80% understudies didn’t happen every week, although it was not unusual to have at least one person out for a rehearsal. That the episodes held together so well is also a testament to how well we writers knew the show and could write for it.

The filming nights would be a little rocky because not everyone knew their lines perfectly. But they would always rise to the occasion and on the air CHEERS appeared as polished as ever.

Although… if I'm being 100% honest --  there were times we writers would be on the stage watching the filming and say, “Hey, Zelda did a better job of that joke.”

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Show parties

INSTANT MOM premieres tonight at 8:30 on Nick at Nite and 10 pm on the new Nick Mom network. This is the show my daughter Annie and her partner Jon are staff writers on. It stars Tia Mowry-Hardrict (the cuter of the identical twins on SISTER SISTER), Michael Boatman (you loved hating him in THE GOOD WIFE), and Sheryl Lee Ralph (one of the original DREAMGIRLS – Dreamgirl #2 I believe). Other than the BREAKING BAD series finale, this should be the TV event of the night. It’s a very cute show and I invite you to check it out.  Believe me, there are plenty of shows I would not be raving just 'cause Annie & Jon were on them. 

A television tradition is to gather the actors, writers, and directors and have a party to watch the premiere or season opener. Held at either someone’s house or a restaurant, you can finally celebrate all the hard work you’ve been doing for months. No matter how many times you’ve seen an edited cut, there’s something very special about seeing the show actually on TV.

Everybody cheers everybody’s credit. It’s great for bonding and show morale.

The episode always gets great laughs, but of course everyone is smashed by the time it airs so the Allstate commercials get big yucks. I always wonder if they have first night parties for dramas. How do you celebrate and hoot and holler during the pilot of THE FOLLOWING?

I remember the premier party for the 6th season of MASH and telling David Ogden Stiers (whose Charles character was first introduced) that his entire life was about to change that night. He sloughed it off but later realized I was right. The incredible impact of being on MASH caught him completely by surprise. That’s what 30,000,000 people watching at one time can do.

The CHEERS first night parties were always held at Chasen’s restaurant in Beverly Hills. This was a legendary Hollywood eatery that is now a Bristol Farms market. For some reason we always had chicken pies and everyone was required to give a toast. David Lloyd and Jerry Belson always had the funniest ones. Les Charles always had the most elegant one. And Kirstie was usually the first person to say fuck.

The one thing you don’t want to happen is for everyone to arrive only to learn your show has been pre-empted. This once happened to me. It was a lavish party at a Santa Monica hotel restaurant to celebrate the airing of the 100th episode of BECKER. Add to that, my partner David Isaacs and I wrote the episode and I directed it.

Unfortunately, BECKER that year was on Sunday nights. The football game went deep into overtime and we were bumped from the schedule. One of the producers brought a taped copy just in case. So we all saw it but I can honestly say that was the only time I really missed the commercials – because commercials signify that you’re really on the air. The episode finally did air the following week but with no major promotion or fanfare. It was the NFL Pro Bowl of television events.

But INSTANT MOM should air tonight as planned. (It helps being on two networks.)  My best to all concerned for a long and prosperous run. Hopefully you’ll have a 100th party too.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why I could never be in a musical -- even one that I wrote

These are pictures from the musical I co-wrote with Janet Brenner, THE 60s PROJECT. Just by looking at them you can tell it was a great show, right? Thanks to Janet for the pix.

The show was produced in 2006 at the Goodspeed Theater in Connecticut. It was theater summer camp except they never made us play basketball. Someday I hope there’s another production. It was very well received. Chris Berman from ESPN loved it. Not sure how many of the cast members even knew who Chris Berman is but still.

One night before a show I asked Andrew Rannells (who later went on to THE BOOK OF MORMON, THE NEW NORMAL, and GIRLS) just what it was like to be performing on stage and feeding off the reaction and energy of the audience? He said, “Well why don’t you just write a part for yourself in the show?” That was a lovely suggestion except for one thing – I have no talent. I can’t sing, I can’t dance, and I can’t act. You sort of need to have at least one of those skills to be in a musical.

I have had cameos in two TV shows I co-wrote with David Isaacs. One was OPEN ALL NIGHT. David and I played two swinging lawyers trying to pick up female mud wrestlers at a mace class. The producers added this stage direction: The two girls get tired of these idiots and flip them over their shoulders.

For a week we were getting tossed around. Finally, right after dress rehearsal on show night, after being bruised and battered, they cut they stunt.

My other appearance was on a very funny series called THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES. This time David and I played two gay guys at a Jewish wedding. I had two lines; one I had to deliver while actually walking!

Both of these series were quickly cancelled. You can understand why other producers aren’t checking my availability.

I have, however, made a number of appearances as a voice-over sportscaster. If a character is watching a sporting event on TV they always need an announcer’s voice playing underneath the scene. Observant fans of this blog noticed that I once did baseball play-by-play on a MODERN FAMILY episode. It was an early episode that now is being rerun a lot on USA and your local stations. These are great jobs. Usually they take fifteen minutes. I’ve done this for about twenty shows, most I’ve never seen. And of course, I played the Springfield Isotopes announcer on the “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS.

But that’s easy. I’m a play-by-play guy anyway and I can keep doing it over until everyone is happy. Not the same as stepping out on a live stage, having a million cues to remember, complicated dance numbers, jokes to sell, and playing a character that is real and believable even though you’re forced to yell every line and periodically break into song. Yes, this is Nathan Lane in real life, but for the rest of us it requires great discipline and talent.

So my hat’s off to theater people. All that skill, all that training, and still sometimes you have to appear in CATS.

Video you've GOT to see

This is Christina Bianco. She does uncanny impressions... of divas. Here she is singing "Total Eclipse of the Heart" as everybody from Adele to Barbra to Celine.  I love this girl.  Check her out.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Every tech commercial

Funny video from CollegeHumor on every tech commercial you see these days.

Yeah, I know Richard Castle

More Friday Questions and answers:

Duncan Randall has the first Q:

I was reading Naked Heat by "Richard Castle" when I noticed a reference to Levine and Isaacs Public Relations. I'm betting you know who the real ghostwriter is (and won't tell us, so I won't ask THAT). So, what do you think about this type of book? I think it's a hoot, even if they are not intended to be high art. Seems like a good thing for the fans of the show, and especially this show about a writer.

Yes, we do know who the real writer is. Richard Castle’s friend, Jessica Fletcher introduced us.

As for the Castle books, I’ll be 100% honest – I like them way better than I like the show.  They stand on their own as terrific crime novels -- equal to or better than a lot of the work by best selling authors. 

mdv1959 asks:

Most of the highly regarded non-network shows you mention (The Wire, Sopranos, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, etc...) differ from standard network shows by doing 13 episodes per season instead of 20+ episodes. Do you think doing fewer episodes is a big factor in achieving a higher overall quality of the show? (Would CHEERS or MASH have been even better if you only did 13 episodes per year?) Do you think networks will gravitate to doing 13 episode seasons soon?

I do think it makes an enormous difference when a show like MAD MEN can take a year or more to make 13 episodes and a network show like THE GOOD WIFE has to churn out 24 in a year or less. They have to work twice as hard, produce twice as much, and deal with all the network restrictions and standards & practices.

To me it’s unfair that network shows have to vie with limited series shows for Best Drama Emmys. That’s like playing hockey where one team has six players and the other team has two. Emmy competition should not be decided by power plays.

As for comedies, sure it would be easier if we only had to make 13 instead of 24 – except everyone would get paid a lot less money.

Networks depend on hit shows and need to air as many of them as they can. And as long as people are watching, they’re happy. CBS is not going to let the producers of THE BIG BANG THEORY only make 13 because the quality will improve.  And from the studio standpoint, the more episodes they have, the sooner they can go into syndication.  That's where the real pot of gold is. 

Just think – there was a time in network television when shows made 39 original episodes a year. That’s over three seasons of MAD MEN in one year.  Of course all the writers of those early shows became basket cases but still! 

Jake Mabe touches on a sore subject:

You've probably been asked this before -- and I promise I'm not joking -- but why isn't "AfterMASH" available on DVD? I would like to see the series again and I think it would be a good companion to its daddy.

Is it a rights issue or does the company that holds the rights (is it FOX?) think it won't sell?

I’m sure Fox believes there’s not enough of a demand for it. Fox isn’t very big on rolling out their library anyway.

Meanwhile, I’m still desperately trying to get Viacom to release ALMOST PERFECT. It drives me insane to see THE DORIS DAY SHOW and THE CAPTAIN AND TENNILLE SHOW available (how many people are clamoring for those shows?) but not a smart sophisticated comedy starring Nancy Travis that went into syndication twice.

And finally, David has a question.

Does anybody know if its true that President Chester A. Arthur kept a whore in the White House?

David, I’m personally not qualified to answer that question. The whores I know don’t go back that far. But maybe one of you dear readers has the definitive answer. I’m surprised that wasn’t covered in LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER.

As you can see, I take all questions. Please leave yours in the comments section. Thanks much.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Good morning, Sydney

Tomorrow I’m going to co-host the morning show on 790 KABC with Doug McIntyre from 7-9. I’ve done morning shows from time to time during my less-than-celebrated radio career. They’re always fun. Morning drive is radio’s version of primetime. Folks are going to work or school, checking to see the day’s weather, catching up on overnight news and the listening audience is higher than any other time of the day.

Morning hosts generally have more freedom to be creative, there’s always stuff going on, and the money is way better than any other day part. You can actually support a family on morning show wages!

The only minor downside is that it destroys your health and shortens your life.  You have to get up at 3 AM and your entire existence becomes a losing battle to catch up on lost sleep. There’s not a Michael Bay explosion fest Transformer movie you can’t nod off in. You drink 5 Hour Energy as if it were Gatorade. Your idea of porn is a nap.

So although I enjoy actually doing the morning show I’ve turned down a few offers to do one permanently.

Still, I’d love to do one if I could just get up at 9. Now that might sound impossible, but in thinking it through I discovered it is very doable. You just have to be in a different time zone. With ISDN lines it’s possible to broadcast from your home anywhere in the world and sound like you’re in the studio. A number of radio personalities are already doing that. Bean from Kevin & Bean co-hosts the morning show for KROQ, Los Angeles from his home in Seattle. You listen to the byplay between Bean and his partner and you’d swear they were in the same room… or that Kevin was in Seattle and Bean was in LA.

So I did some figuring. If I were to the morning show for a station say in Honolulu I could just move to New York and the 6 AM show would start for me at 11 AM. I could awake at my leisure. Sweet!

Upon more careful examination however, I thought, why the hell am I braving snowstorms and hurricanes and oppressive heat when I’m on the radio in Honolulu? Wouldn’t I rather actually be in Hawaii?

But then I’d face the same sleep deprivation problem.

Unless…

I consulted my time zone converter and discovered when it’s 10 AM in Hawaii it’s 6 AM in Sydney. That’s the answer! Live in Hawaii and do the morning show for Australia. I could be the guy who has that delightful American accent. As long as I don’t have any personal appearances at local Sydney supermarkets I think I can pull this off. I should probably know Australian politics, but I’m sure if I just said the government was a collection of idiots I could pass for knowledgeable, maybe even expert. I’d have to keep my Outback Steakhouse jokes to a minimum and make no more cracks about Nicole Kidman’s face work, but I think I can manage that.
Maybe what I should do tomorrow morning is very slyly audition for Australia a little bit. Doug will be asking me about Syria and I can slip in that Hugh Jackman is a great actor. We can discuss congress trying to unfund Obamacare and I can casually mention that RSVP is Australia’s number one dating site. I'll give the temperature in Celsius.  Doug will never know what I’m doing.

Clear some space you Sydney stations.  Crocodile Kenny is coming!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Did Shelley Long try to get Kelsey Grammer fired?


I’m getting so many requests to respond to a recent Cracked.com article that I thought I’d just take a day and respond to it.

The article claims that when Kelsey Grammer first appeared on CHEERS, the only reason producers kept him on for more than the initial three episodes he was signed for was because Shelley Long hated him and the producers hated Shelley so much they retained him purely out of spite.

They weren't just fabricating a story. The article makes this claim based on Kelsey’s autobiography.

So with all due respect to Kelsey Grammer, whom I love and have worked with since his first day at CHEERS till his last day on FRASIER – let me categorically say that this is just not true. Not remotely true.

I don’t know where he got his misinformation. I suspect it was hearsay, but I can tell you unequivocally that it is wrong.

And in the process he does a disservice not only to Shelley but to himself.

Quite simply, he was retained because he was terrific and once everyone saw the dynamics between his character and the others in the bar it was clear that Frasier Crane was a keeper. For Kelsey to suggest anything other is not to give himself enough credit. He earned the promotion. 

Other points:

CHEERS would never ever ever carry a character they didn’t think added to the show. Especially such a pivotal character. Remember too, at the beginning of the third season CHEERS was still fighting for its ratings life. COSBY premiered that year and that’s when the show took off. But think about it -- CHEERS was finally starting to get big numbers. Why would they dilute their product with an unnecessary character just when they were on the verge of lasting success?

Now let me say a few words about Shelley’s behavior. She could be difficult.  She could be obstinate. She could over-think something to death.  But it was never out of spite. It was just her very exacting process. At times I will admit it was frustrating. And exhausting. But Shelley has a good heart. She is a sweet person. And in her defense, she had an incredibly complex difficult character to play. To make Diane Chambers loveable and funny while still maintaining her haughty attitude took a very special actress. It would be so easy to just hate Diane. Shelley did an extraordinary job. I can't think of a single actress who could have done the role better... or even as well.  So if it took her longer to find the moments and just the right shading then tough. The results were on the screen.

But the point I want to reiterate is that she is a lovely person. I know actors who are just mean-spirited monsters -- unhappy miserable people who want everyone around them to be as unhappy as they are. That’s not Shelley. She would never think to ask producers to fire someone just because she didn’t get along with him.

I should also mention that Kelsey was nothing but gracious, professional, prepared, and kind (as he remained throughout both CHEERS and FRASIER) on the set. It’s not like he was disruptive or unreliable in any way or gave anyone any cause to want to show him the door.

And one final point: Let’s say you have an actress who’s a real problem. What’s the best way to make her even MORE of a problem? Force someone on her that she’s told you she hates. If you think your life was a living hell BEFORE? Just watch. Trust me, producers know this. And the ones that don't are in the cardiac ward at Cedars. 

Shelley was invited to be on FRASIER twice. The first time was for an episode that David Isaacs and I wrote called “Adventures in Paradise” Part 2. She was on camera for maybe thirty seconds. She was the punchline to one joke. And I’ve told the story before, the producers kept her appearance a secret even to the network so they wouldn’t spoil the joke by promoting her. So Shelley was getting no publicity, very little exposure, very little pay and still did it anyway – more as a favor to Kelsey. Granted, this was before the book came out, but even after it did, she was asked to do another episode of FRASIER – this one more substantial – and she agreed to do it. So they couldn’t hate each other that much.

One downside to the internet is that people can write anything and it potentially can get spread around the world as fact. I’m happy to be able to set the record straight (not that I’m any more believable than anyone else on the internet). But I’m right about this one.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Orange is the New Black: my review

From the first moment there was pay cable there were women-in-prison movies. It’s almost as if the delivery system was invented just for that purpose. They came on late at night and were ridiculously gratuitous. After all, since you could now show naked women on TV, why not show them naked all the time? Like reading their mail while showering.

These movies were all singularly awful, filled with sadistic lesbian prison guards and showgirls gone bad.  There was so much silicone the prison could float.  In every film the girls plotted their escape, carving guns out of soap and turning nail files into knives. Of course, where were they going to hide them since they were always naked?

When I saw that Netflix announced a new original series based on a woman’s prison I thought, hey, I’ll give this a chance. After all, I’m a red blooded heterosexual male. I like watching women carve soap.

And what was the first scene of the pilot? Naked women prisoners showering. But something was different. Off. Shocking even. The breasts were real. They were in proportion to their bodies. What’s going on here? It was then I knew – this was like no women-in-prison movie I had ever seen. In fact, as I continued to watch I realized that ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK may just be the best new show of the year (Sorry DADS).

What a revelation! A prison drama where you care about everybody, even the scumbags. Jenji Kohan has taken a book by Piper Kerman and turned it into a riveting drama that will have you at times gasping, crying, and laughing out loud. You totally forgive the episodes where there is no nudity.

What Ms. Kohan has brilliantly done is create a fascinating world and populated it with wonderful, rich characters. These were all the girls in high school who went with the shop majors so I generally gave them a wide berth, but by episode four I wanted to adopt half of them, or at least rescind the restraining order.

Leading you through this world is Piper “Chapman,” a reckless young yuppie who falls for lesbian hottie Alex Vause, and as any good girlfriend would do, helps Alex smuggle drugs across international borders.

Now it’s ten years later and this white, privileged willowy blond is thrown in the slammer with 250 of Mike Tyson’s former girlfriends.

Chapman is played by relative newcomer Taylor Schilling. She could be the next Meryl Streep or Claire Danes. If this was a network show you know they’d have to hire Kim Raver. But credit to Netflix and Jenji Kohan for going with someone fresh and so talented. The show really puts Chapman through the wringer and Schilling soars through every emotion.

And then there’s Laura Prepon as super cool manipulative bitch/girlfriend, Alex. I have to admit, I had only seen Laura in sitcoms and always thought she was an enemy of comedy. That Chelsea Handler NBC show alone should have gotten her thrown into solitary with no hope of parole. But in this role she’s fabulous. You see the vulnerability underneath her too-cool-for-school hipness. When not doing drunk jokes or pubic hair jokes there’s a real talent there. Who knew?
Kate Mulgrew was another very pleasant surprise. She’s light years away from STAR TREK VOYAGER in both appearance and performance. She’s the inmate who essentially runs the place; the Russian czar of the cafeteria who proudly dispenses prison justice and pudding from Desert Storm. “Red” is a formidable opponent with high standards, which unfortunately don’t extend to menus.

All the inmates are awesome. Two standouts for me were Laverne Cox as the transgender hairdresser/former fire fighter, and Taryn Manning as a wigged out Jesus freak. It’s as if Boyd Crowder from JUSTIFIED and Sarah Palin had a child.

The prison staff also shines, notably Pablo Schneider who plays a sleaze ball guard with a mustache and attitude right out of BOOGIE NIGHTS. And I laughed every time they introduced the assistant warden played by Alysia Reiner. The camera would always start on her foot and slowly go up her long shapely leg. They missed a bet not just calling her Jessica Rabbit.

On the home front there’s Chapman’s fiancĂ©e Jason Biggs. With the love of his life behind bars he’s faced with the prospect that if he wants sex he better get out the ol’ apple pies again. But the guy who almost steals the series is Michael Chermus, who plays Chapman’s bizarre brother who lives in a trailer 100 miles from civilization and in his folksy, stoner way doles out marvelous perceptive observations, as if he were in a Coen Brothers movie.

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is really DRAMA IS THE COMEDY. Make no mistake, the prison is gritty and at times horrific – Shutter Island meets Sorority Girls – but there is delicious dark humor sprinkled throughout. The laughs come from the absurdity of the situation, a la MASH. Red tape, incompetence, ignorance, and people trying to make the best of a horrendous situation.  You know you're in for a special prison series when during visitation Chapman pleads with her fiancee to not watch MAD MEN without her.   And a scene where two black inmates imitate white girls is vintage Richard Pryor. 

I know it’s tough to recommend a show that many of you can’t get. For now you have to be Netflix subscribers, but the series DVD will be coming out soon. I can't recommend it enough.   And it's not just me.  ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is a big hit. More folks have downloaded it than HOUSE OF CARDS and even the hyper-hyped ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

Season two is currently in production. The only thing I could possibly suggest to improve the show would be to have the girls read their mail in the shower.  If Kevin Spacey had done that he might've beaten Jeff Daniels last night.  (By the way, a friend watching the Emmys said this:  ORANGE IS THE NEW JEFF DANIELS.)  

UPDATE: To everyone who asked my reaction to the Cracked.com article claiming that Shelley Long tried to get Kelsey Grammer fired off of CHEERS and he was only retained because the producers so hated Shelley, I will address and answer this in tomorrow's post.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

The 2013 Emmy Awards: My review

Someone told the Emmy producers that the “In Memoriam” segment always got a ratings spike. So this year they presented the most maudlin award show ever. It was one long funeral interspersed with production numbers. In addition to the normal obit montage there were individual tributes, musical tributes, presidential tributes, and we even got to see Lee Harvey Oswald shot again. Why not just hold the festivities at Arlington National Cemetery?

Neil Patrick Harris was the host so there were high expectations based on his previous hosting triumphs. What a letdown. Instead of coming out and blowing everyone away with a spectacular musical number (like he does on the Tonys), he did a tepid filmed bit about binge-watching (I thought we were back in the hatch on LOST), then a monologue that scored as often as the Houston Astros (Paula Deen jokes? Really?), and finally a lame bit where former Emmy hosts offered advice. In keeping with the theme of the evening, the opening died.

Still, in fairness, he did the best with what he was given. And throughout the night he did have a couple of good quips. I’d just make him the permanent host and move on.

But before we get to the show itself, no major award ceremony would be complete without a look-in at the KTLA Channel 5 Red Carpet coverage with Hollywood Fawn Correspondent Sam Rubin and his booblehead doll, Jessica Holmes. They were in rare form this year! They interviewed all the big stars, like six-year-old Aubrey Anderson-Emmons who plays Lily on MODERN FAMILY. Sam asked what was in her purse? Later, Sam asked fourteen-year-old Nolan Gould, who plays Luke on the show: “Do you think the grown-ups are going to be excited about this?”

Jessica asked Matt LaBlanc why he thought he’s lost so many Emmys?

Sam to Jeff Daniels, who plays an anchor on THE NEWSROOM: “Would you ever want to be the big anchor?” to which Daniels replied: “First of all, I’m fictional.”

Jessica to Linda Cardellini: “Did anyone famous step on your train?”

But the best was Sam with Kunal Nayyar. Kunal had been wearing Google Glass and said it will take a picture of what you see. Sam then asked: “Can it capture your thoughts?” I swear, I'm not making this up.

Once they started handing out the actual hardware, the show became the Cable Ace Awards. Or, this year – the Liber-ace Awards.

I was thrilled that BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA got best TV movie. Same with Michael Douglas winning Best Actor. Weren’t you curious as to who his date was going to be? His ‘two-hander” remark was a highlight or lowlight of the evening depending upon which state you're in.

For Best Comedy the choices were shows that used to be better vs. shows you wish were better. But I was glad that MODERN FAMILY won although when Steve Levitan, the most handsome writer in the history of the WGA and one of the most charming people you’ll ever meet says he’s a ‘loser” I have to go, “Huh????” If he's a loser then the rest of us are serving life sentences in Papillon

BREAKING BAD was also a very worthy choice. HOUSE OF CARDS might have won if it had actually been on TV. Of course, no fan of BREAKING BAD saw them win since they were watching BREAKING BAD instead.

There were a few surprises but none bigger than Jeff Daniels winning Best Actor in a Drama over Kevin Spacey, Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, and some other guys. Note to him and a lot of actors last night: ease up on the spray tan. There’s something wrong when Jeff Daniels is darker than Mindy Kaling.

And what’s with the beard, Jon Hamm? Have you joined the Boston Red Sox?

Didn’t expect Merritt Wever to win but cheered when she did. Neil Patrick Harris was right. Best speech ever. Here’s what she said: “I gotta go. Bye.”

Connie Britton looked like she was wearing the showroom curtain from Caesar’s Palace.

Bob Newhart’s Emmy win was only 51 years overdue. I loved the spontaneous standing ovation he received. It was so nice to see someone saluted who was still alive.

So Rob Reiner does a heartfelt tribute to Jean Stapleton and then they cut to dufus Shermar Moore backstage saying they’ve got “a party goin’ on!” Nice segue. At least they didn’t have anyone twerking while Reiner spoke.

Elton John, who has nothing to do with television, did a tribute to Liberace. I forget the title. “Candelabra in the Wind” I think. He was wearing a sparkly blue jumpsuit and I was worried there would be a fashion faux pas and Jane Lynch would be wearing the same outfit. Fortunately, she wore her Ming the Magnificent pantsuit instead.

Here’s how important the Emmys are to Hollywood: In the LA Times entertainment section yesterday, Emmy coverage began on page 9. Page 6 featured a big article on Wong Kar Wai.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a comedy goddess. And I loved Tony Hale standing right behind her as he does on VEEP. His win was a nice surprise. (Was it a make-good for ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT?)

I’m surprised DOWNTON ABBEY didn’t win more awards since they killed off half their cast this year.

Betty White and Ryan Seacrest competed in the same category and it wasn’t “Most hours on television over a lifetime.” Ryan would have won that award.

Which brings me to that painful mock public service announcement for “excessive hosting disorder” featuring the cast of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and twelve bad dick jokes. I couldn’t wait for the next eulogy segment.

And when Neil Patrick Harris finally did do a production number in the middle of the show it looked like a bad version of that Sam Horowitz Bar Mitzvah video that went viral on YouTube.

The WHITNEY Emmy screener makes a really nifty coaster.

Funniest moment was Tina Fey and Amy Poehler crawling onto the stage. Second funniest: the Oscar Meyer luncheon meat commercial.

CBS took this opportunity to trot out as many of their “stars” as possible as presenters, which explains why many Time-Warner cable subscribers didn’t know who they were.

Morena Baccarin still looked gorgeous even though she’s fifteen months pregnant.

And for downright stunning, I’ve got to acknowledge Kerry Washington, Robin Wright, Cobie Smulders, Sofia Vergara, Zooey Deschanel, her sister, Tina Fey, Anna Gunn, and Kate Mara who gets extra points for the side boobs (to see the rest go to Netflix).

THE VOICE beat perennial winner THE AMAZING RACE for best Reality Competition Series. People would rather watch Adam Levine than couples fighting drug mules for the last two seats on a flight out of Colombia.

And finally, finally! THE COLBERT REPORT knocked off THE DAILY SHOW. That’ll teach Jon Stewart to take the summer off.

The personal tributes were lovely except for Robin Williams, who took the occasion of a eulogy to trot out his tired shtick, but how do you determine whose death deserves a personal tribute over someone else’s? With all due respect, why was Cory Monteith’s so honored and not Jack Klugman? Or Larry Hagman? Or Annette? Why Gary David Goldberg and not Alan Kirschenbaum? By the way, Reinhold Weege, who created NIGHT COURT and produced BARNEY MILLER wasn’t even included in the overall “In Memoriam” montage. And just so you know: Cory Monteith never won an Emmy. Jack Klugman won three. Annette hosted the Emmys one year.

Everyone says Lena Dunham is courageous for always walking around naked. Far more courageous was wearing that hideous green schmatah.

The Academy sent out a pretty clear message. Louis C.K. – not yet. Lena Dunham – not happening. Chuck Lorre – never.

What does it say when Bill Maher is now 0-32 and most Emmy voters are Democrats?

Wow! Diahann Carroll said she’d be royally pissed if Kerry Washington didn’t win (She didn’t. Claire Danes deservedly did.) and then took a gratuitous shot at actor Lloyd Nolan who’s been dead for almost thirty years. Oh wait, maybe that was another eulogy.

Anna Faris looked like a big yellow Easter Peep.

Odd that MODERN FAMILY won for Best Comedy without a single writing nomination. That said, yay Tina Fey and Tracy Wigfield! Nice to see women win this award. And nice to see a woman win Best Director for a Comedy.  Kudos  to Gail Mancuso, whom I’ve hired several times so I’m going to just claim I discovered her.

One of my favorite moments was when Kevin Spacey shooed the camera away when they took a close up of him for no reason. I’m only sorry he lost because I would have loved to have heard him blast network television the way he’s been doing at every luncheon from here to Kiwanis’s Chapter 345.

If Zosia Mamet’s dress was the result of another Kickstarter campaign she must’ve only raised eleven dollars.

Note to the Academy: Presenters should be able to pronounce the name of their category. Heidi Klum can’t say choreography.

What a loss writer Henry Bromell was. His “Q & A” script for HOMELAND was truly brilliant. Claire Danes gave a touching tribute, but since he wasn’t a former cast member of GLEE she got the walk-off music halfway through it.

Claire looked scrumptious in that suggestion of a dress. Looking at that sheer gown I thought, “this is the closest I’m ever going to come to having X-Ray vision.”

The walk-off music in general was way too quick. Any time anyone had a genuine moment, like Stephen Colbert thanking his mother, out came the musical hook. Producers needed that time for a random bloated production number highlighting choreography. Nothing salutes grim dramas better than Rockettes.

Carrie Preston looked like the Little Mermaid. So did Alyson Hannigan.

For some unfathomable reason other than an excuse to show the Kennedy funeral (because the show wasn’t dreary enough), they had a musical salute to the year 1963. Carrie Underwood sang “Yesterday”, which was a song from 1965. By the way, Paul McCartney is in town. He’s doing the Jimmy Kimmell Show tonight. Wouldn’t it have been a wacky idea to ask him to sing the song instead of a country singer who was born in 1983? Two of the Beatles are still with us, y'know?

All in all, this year’s Emmycast was a somewhat muted affair. Black is the new Orange. I’m sure the 6,000 in attendance couldn’t wait to get to their Emmy parties, or as they’re calling them this year – shiva calls.

I gotta go. Bye.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Confessions of an Emmy winner

The 65th annual primetime Emmy Awards are tonight. As usual, I shall be reviewing them tomorrow. I’ve reviewed them quite a few years now, which means I haven’t been nominated for an Emmy in quite a few years.

To be quite honest, unless you win one, it’s not really that much fun to attend. The only thing worse than losing is losing early. Then you have to sit there for three hours and watch other people bound up to the stage. If you’re not nominated then it’s a little better because – truth be told – you spend a lot of time in the lobby schmoozing with other non-nominees.

But when you win, it is SWEET. You come back to your seat clutching your gleaming statue. Everyone around you congratulates you (even if they don’t mean it), and you’re in such a good mood you don’t even mind sitting through the big musical production number saluting disaster coverage.

Some other things about winning – it takes the pressure off. By that I mean everyone actually in the business knows that from time to time some real assholes win Emmys. At least now you could say, “Well, okay, I’ve got one too.” Even if they have more than you, it doesn’t count. You’ve been in the winner’s circle.

Along those lines, when you’re making your acceptance speech, all the shit heads who beat the crap out of you in high school, all the girls who wouldn’t go out with you, all the employers who wouldn’t hire you, and all the agents who wouldn’t take your call (even though you're their client) – they’re staring at the screen going, “What the FUCK!?”

As statuettes go Emmys are impressive. Large size, good heft, and very cool design. Some of these other awards look like paperweights or doorstops. And Emmys are not just decorative; they’re functional. Chris killed a guy on THE SOPRANOS by clubbing him to death with an Emmy.

And finally – this I didn’t expect – you carry the handle “Emmy winner” with you the rest of your life. It’s mentioned in every introduction, listed anytime your name appears in an article. Very few distinctions stay with you like that. Rarely are you introduced as “West Valley League Bowling Champ” (although, depending on your score, that might be an even more difficult feat than winning an Emmy). But you wanna talk about something that looks good on a resume? Emmy winner is right up there with “former Prince of Liechtenstein.”

So good luck tonight to all the nominees. May you win early or at least lose late. Be nice to the seat fillers. And say hi to the people in the lobby for me. Talk to you tomorrow.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Louis CK's take on Twitter

This will either lose me followers or gain me followers but here's Louis CK's very funny take on Twitter. RT it.

And the thousand Emmy winners are...


Who deserves an Emmy for producing a comedy or drama? It used to be easy. There were four or five of them – the show runner and those few writers who have worked their way up the ranks to producer. Now every show has more producers than West Virginia has registered voters. Stars get producer credits, in-explicitly, so do their managers, non writing executives jump on the band wagon, studio executives horn-in on the credit, punch-up guys are now “consulting” producers, series directors join the act, and in lieu of studios giving writers bumps in salary they now just hand out producing titles. Yes, they’re making story editor money but they’re co-producers.

As a result, when a show wins Best Comedy or Drama it looks like the Normandy invasion as half the audience invades the stage to pick up their hardware. In an attempt to not deplete the world’s gold reserve the Academy has revised the rules and will now only allow eleven producers to be eligible for best comedy show Emmys and ten for dramas.

But then comes the question of which eleven of the say, twenty or fifty producers should be eligible?

Here are my thoughts. NO non-writing producers. These are all executive, not creative positions. Not saying that they don't have a role in the process but it's not in this area. Studio development people? Development is their JOB. They make calls. They come to meetings and just sit. They offer "support". And there's no "Best Supporting Producer" category. Directors? Sorry, this is the one medium you are not the king. And as for managers -- if the sum total of a manager's contribution is one time handing a pilot script to his client he does not deserve an Emmy (or the money he’s skimming off the show for doing nothing but that’s another story).

This is the bottom line: During a rewrite at 2 a.m., look around the room. Whoever is not there automatically should be eliminated (with one exception -- the line producer. He/she works harder than anybody, usually under the most impossible of conditions.) The non-writing producer who waltzes out at 6 to get to the Laker game? Disqualified. The actor who has no idea where the writers room is? Application denied. The studio exec whose only talent is doing a good Ari Gold impression? Not a chance.

Hopefully, when it’s just down to writers, ten or eleven slots will be enough. Consultants, by the way, don’t qualify. Full-time only. If the issue still isn’t settled then there’s only one way writers can resolve it, equitably -- taking into consideration seniority, contribution, loyalty – and throwing all that shit out. Nerf basketball! One-on-one. Round robin eliminations.

It's how writers make all major life decisions -- marriage, whether to go out on strike, which religion to believe in, etc.

I know what some of you are thinking -- isn't that a frivolous and irresponsible way to make important decisions? No. Not at all. But if you are concerned and want to settle these things in a more, shall we say, mature manner -- then I recommend Foosball.

Good luck to all the nominees who actually qualified. I'll be reviewing the EMMYS Monday morning.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Who's your favorite Darren Stevens?

Here are this week’s Friday Questions comin’ attcha:

Hamid gets us started:

Who's your favorite Bond?

Sean Connery. I know it’s usually the Bond you grew up with he also established the template. There are no other Bonds if he didn’t make the character a worldwide screen sensation. And he could do things none of the others could. No one could pronounce “Poosie Galore” like Sean Connery. The man is a genius.

I think the bigger more important question is: Who’s your favorite Darren Stevens?

Courtney asks:

Been watching a lot of Everybody Loves Raymond lately, and marveling that, as no show since perhaps The Jack Benny Program, it makes such frequent use of deadpan reactions, often to extraordinary lengths, always to maximum laughter. How can you possibly time your script when you never how long it'll take the audience to stop laughing at Brad Garrett's slightly elevated eyebrow?

You can’t accurately time your script. You have a rough idea based on the number of pages. And the script coordinator on the set will time all runthroughs. But for a show filmed live (like RAYMOND) there’s usually an audience laugh spread. Generally it’s two to four minutes. On the BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot we had a laugh spread of ten minutes. That’s great until you get into editing.

Ideally, you plan well (we did not with BIG WAVE DAVE’S – we were shocked it got such big sustained laughs), and your first cut after editing is two or three minutes long. Then you can go back and trim and fine-tune and really whip the show into shape.

But there are so many factors. Sometimes you get better audiences than others. Sometimes the air conditioning doesn’t work as well. There could be technical problems which delay shooting and dissipate the audience’s energy. You just never know.

The cast of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND was extraordinary. They all had expert comic timing. They knew how to wait for the audience laughter to die down and they knew how to always react. It’s just a comic sense I believe you have to be born with. I bet Brad Garrett was getting laughs off his reactions when he was five.

I’ve worked with some great ones in that regard. Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce would be two more.

From Charles H. Bryan:

Have you ever worked with people who are funny in the room but not on the page? Or vice versa? Where there's a marked difference, where the script has people crying with laughter but the personal presence is sort of a dud? I have to imagine that there are those who operate better in one environment instead of the other. What do you do with such people?

There are definitely writers who are primarily “room funny” as we call it. Great jokes and they help keep the energy in the room up. But when asked to write a draft and include a little depth they’re out of their league. Their scripts come back very jokey and generally need a lot of work.

On the other hand, there are some writers who are quiet and shy but turn in wonderful drafts. We call them “Neil Simon writers.”

Sure, you’d love to have writers who are both funny in the room and on the page, but each of these specialists can be of great value if you use them correctly. As a showrunner it’s like building a basketball team. You have guys who can shoot and guys who can play great defense.

We won’t give a lot of script assignments to the room funny guys and we’ll let the quiet ones go to their offices and churn out scripts.

Brian has a Friday MASH question:

Did the cast and crew enjoy the days when they got to leave the soundstage and head to Malibu to shoot exteriors or did they view it as a chore? I've heard that the facilities out there weren't exactly considered...modern.

No. They did not like it. First off, they were further away from me and that always unnerved them.  It was a million degrees out there. And the location was in the Malibu Canyon, which was near to nowhere. They shot from sun up to sundown. So the cast had to be there at 5:00 AM to get into make up – meaning they probably had to wake up at 3:00 to get there by 5.

And then they shot in the punishing summer sun until 8:15. We were on a very tight production schedule and they would be expected to shoot eight pages every location day. In contrast, a movie might shoot two.

As for the facilities, well... you wouldn't want the Queen of England to use one of the restrooms.

We allotted one location day per script until the fall when it started getting dark early and was impossible to film more than five pages on any given day. If you have the DVD’s you’ll notice that rarely will you see a location scene in the last six or seven episodes. All those shows were shot strictly on Stage 9 at Twentieth Century Fox and they featured a lot of late night poker games.

What’s your Friday Question? And favorite Darren Stevens?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Different structures for different genres


Here’s one of those Friday Questions that ended up being an entire post. It’s from Sitcom Room alum, Wendy Grossman:

You've talked separately about the various things you've written - screenplay, stage play, TV scripts. What, to you, are the most significant differences in how the scripts for those three different media need to be structured?

Each has its own challenges.

The length is a big determining factor.

TV scripts need to be carefully outlined because you only have 22 minutes to tell a story. You have to work within the existing format (2 acts or 3), service every cast member, plot out a story, and find the humor. If it’s a pilot you also have to set up the premise, introduce the characters, and give an indication of where the series will be going in subsequent weeks.

In plotting out the story for an existing show you have to consider what has gone before and what is to come. Example: if there is sexual tension between two characters, just where in the relationship are they? If there are season long story arcs, how does this episode service them?

Is there more than one story in your script? Is there an A story and a B story? If so, do they connect and how?

In a screenplay you have more of a self-contained story. Your character needs to have some growth, unlike in TV where. for the most part, sitcom characters stay the same.

I find in screenplays that beginnings are easy (you set up the world and premise) and endings are manageable because you can build to a finite conclusion. You’re not worried about what happens next week? So you can devise a cool climax on Mt. Rushmore or the lovers can ride off into the sunset.

The real tough part is the middle. And that’s 60% of your movie. How do you keep the action going, the story going, the characters moving forward, and the jokes coming without running out of steam? Trust me, most rewriting takes place in the middle. 

You also need to bring your screenplay in at about 110 pages. That takes planning and outlining. When you’ve determined all the steps of your story, how much time can you allot to say...the two leads falling in love? Let’s say it’s only ten pages. You might come up with completely different sequences if you have twenty pages instead of ten. So you have to find the best device to service the amount of time you have.

For things to pay off you need to set them up along the way. Where exactly do you do that? And how many times? And how do you do it in such a way that’s it’s not obvious you’re setting something up?

I don’t actually start writing the screenplay until I have a solid outline and that can take weeks or even months.

And then when I’m writing the dialogue I find that the characters take me in places I didn’t expect so I’m forever adjusting the story and outline.

For a play, there really are no length requirements although you need to keep it in the ballpark of a couple of hours.

Plays are more dialogue driven. I tend to work off a very loose outline for a play. I know the premise, know the ending I’m heading towards, and know the theme. That’s generally enough for me to start writing.

And finally, musicals are tough because to write the libretto of a musical you’re really providing connective material between songs.

Musicals are very stylized. An argument you’d devote ten pages to in a play must be done in seven lines. So every line, every word is crucial. And if you change a single line, it usually sets off a chain reaction. The arranger has to adjust, the choreographer has to adjust, the cast has to adjust, the lighting people have to adjust, cues could change as a result. And once you’re in production you have a very limited amount of time you’re allowed to rehearse. So you have to be very judicious with your rewrites. I personally found this to be the hardest pill to swallow. Coming from television, if I wanted to change something I just did. If that meant new lines, even a new scene, we would write them and the actors would do them the next performance. God love those actors because at times those rewrites could get hairy, and they had to memorize massive amounts of new material. Try that on an Equity production musical and they come after you with bayonets.

So each one is different and comes with its own brand of frustration, but each is also incredibly rewarding and well worth the aggravation. Even musicals , Okay, some musicals, but the others for sure.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The trouble with binging

No, this is not about eating disorders (in case you found your way here through a search engine or activist group that didn’t bother to read the post before linking to it). It’s about television binging. It’s about watching a hundred episodes of DEXTER at one sitting and then never being able to sleep with the light off.

Binging is the new way we’re watching television. Viewers now have to make a tough choice. Wait a week for the next installment of your favorite show? Or send the kids to boarding school so you’ll have time to finally catch up on SONS OF ANARCHY?

I have binge-watched on occasion. It is addicting. I think I burned through HOUSE OF CARDS in two nights. I found myself saying: “What time is it? 2:30 am? Okay. I can watch one more.”

There are however, a number of drawbacks to binging.

You can’t just hop aboard the moving train. You hear great things about a show but you really have to start from the beginning. So if a couple of seasons have gone by chances are you’ll just skip it and thus deny yourself a terrific show.

This is how I feel about THE WIRE. Never watched it when it was on.  I have all the DVD’s just sitting, waiting for me. People say it’s the greatest show in the history of television. But they also say it takes about a season to get into it and it’s hard to pick up the dialogue. You have to train your ear. But they say, “Fight through that and it’s worth it.” I’m sure it is. But the prospect of all that effort and all the hours required just seems so daunting. Instead I watch baseball plays-of-the-week.

Another problem: these shows do very poorly in syndication. Once you know how they end you tend to move onto other things. And again, new fans don’t tune in midstream because they’ll be totally lost (especially with LOST). There’s something definitely wrong when THE SOPRANOS does way worse in syndication than THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW.

The easiest thing for viewers to do of course is jump right on board when a new series premieres. But a lot of them fizzle out. You devote seven hours to FLASH FORWARD and it’s cancelled. You’re saying, “Wait a minute? They never explained how this all happened?” Tough shit. You’re screwed.

So it becomes harder for networks to gauge which new shows are catching on because even if a show is promising, many viewers will hold off watching until they’re sure their time won’t be wasted. This is less of a problem with premium cable because they’re just looking to keep subscribers. They’re more concerned about buzz rather than ratings.   Not so with CBS.

Binging also eliminates the shared experience we used to have when a big event was on television.   There's something magical about the whole country coming together as one to participate in a television program.  Now the only time that happens is for major sporting events and O.J. trials.

I also worry that when you binge you don’t take the time to really savor and think about each episode. MAD MEN has always resonated because I had the time to contemplate each episode. As a result I got way more out of it. I appreciated the nuances, allowed the themes to reverberate. When you binge-watch you say, “Okay, that was a good one. Next!” It’s like when you go to a fine restaurant and bring home some leftover prime steak. You give it to your dog and he gulps it down in three bites. You want to say, “Hey, that cost $5 an ounce!”

And my final beef (tying it in the with last sentence and confusing the activists) with binging: when I was writing MASH we would usually do one hour-long episode a season. And I always hated them. Why? Because we packed so much into each half hour I felt that thirty-minute increments were how the show was meant to be watched. We’d include the same amount into hour episodes, but I felt the audience started getting weary about forty-five minutes in. The rhythm, story-telling, and pace were designed for the half-hour format. Now I know viewing habits have changed. Especially with Netflix and Hulu people binge on MASH and CHEERS all the time. And that’s great. I love the fact that new viewers are discovering our shows – as long as they understand that they were originally designed not to be seen all at once, but to be seen over and over again.

With Netflix you are encouraged to binge since all episodes of a new series are available at once. But that means you also have the chance to be a network programmer (which is something I'm sure you've always to be). Instead of watching ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK in marathon fashion, you can program a time slot to watch it each week. Then you move that time slot. Then you pre-empt it two weeks for The World Series. Then you decide you enjoyed the nudity in one episode so much you replay it on Saturday night. Then you get tired of it and stop watching but burn off the final four episodes next June.  Doesn't that sound like fun?

For you proponents of binging I offer the ultimate challenge. Grab some snacks, make yourself comfy. Now watch all 530 episodes of THE SIMPSONS in one sitting.  If nothing else, you'll shame me into watching THE WIRE. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Uncovered: a lost gem from Levine & Isaacs

In 1980, David Isaacs and I wrote a series of one-act plays called CITY OF ANGLES.  It was an exercise to write in four different comic styles.    They were performed at the Fifth Street Studio Theater at 5th and Western downtown over a pizza parlor.  Theatergoers took their lives in their hands by attending.

One performance was videotaped for posterity and promptly buried.  Only recently did I find it and get it digitized.   One of the four one acts still seems to work. 555-GIVE.  This was our attempt at writing a funny monologue.   Thanks to friend of the blog GreatBigRadioGuy, it's now on YouTube.   So today I thought I'd share it.

The play is clearly a parody of Dr. Gene Scott, a charismatic televangelist who owned a TV and radio station in LA until the FCC took them both away (something about his refusing to disclose income).  Dr. Scott would be on the air live for at least twelve hours a day.  Of those, eleven would be fundraising.  He'd sit on a big throne and ask for money all day every day using a variety of techniques.  The man was a master salesman.

So we decided to distill his sales pitches down.  In our play he has 30 minutes to raise $30,000.  And he tries every trick in the book to accomplish that.

Playing the part was the wonderful John Ericson.  You've seen him in a million things.  He's probably best known for co-starring in HONEY WEST with Anne Francis.  He also played Elizabeth Taylor's love interest in the movie RHAPSODY.   You clearly need a special actor to play a Gene Scott type larger-than-life character and John was perfect! 

A couple of quick things...

The screen is black for the first 12 seconds while the intro music plays.

It was shot on a camcorder so the quality and sound is not exactly "broadcast."

There are maybe thirty people in the audience. 

It was early in our career. 

Okay, so here we go.  For the first time in 33 years, here's 555-GIVE. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

You can CALL me, Al.

Now that the NFL season has begun (this is week three or twelve – I dunno. Los Angeles is too small a town to have an NFL team so I don’t follow as closely.), Al Michaels is back for another year on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. So to get you in the mood, thought I’d share a nice Al Michaels story.

Personally, I think Al is the best all-around play-by-play guy in the business. He of course, will be forever remembered for the US Olympic hockey team’s victory over the heavily-favored USSR in 1980 (“Do you believe in miracles? YES!”) That’s way better than my signature home run call: “It’s gone!...No, wait a minute.”

Now he’s the number one sportscaster in the country. But back in 1974 he was the radio voice of the San Francisco Giants. At the time I was in the bay area as a disc jockey on KYA.  As much as I hated the Giants, I loved Al's broadcasts. 

I got fired of course, and a year later was back in Los Angeles writing spec scripts with David Isaacs trying to break into television writing. I heard that the Dodgers were looking to add a third voice to their broadcast team of Vin Scully & Jerry Doggett. So I wrote a letter to Peter O’Malley, the president of the Dodgers, recommending Al Michaels. Now I had no idea whether he’d even want to give up being the number one guy on the Giants to become the number three guy on the Dodgers, but that was his problem.

In my letter I said I had never met Al Michaels (which was true) and had no idea whether he’d even be interested, but I thought he was a terrific young talent and should be considered.

About a month later I received a very nice note back from Mr. O’Malley thanking me and saying he would look into it. (I had included my contact information so that my letter might be taken seriously. When you get a letter with no return address it’s usually from Cliff Clavin.)

They didn’t hire him. They hired Ross Porter instead.

The following year, David and I had broken in. We were in my apartment one day writing our first MASH script when the phone rang. This was before all the robo-calls and people actually answered their phones.

I said, “Hello?” and a voice asked if this was Ken Levine? I said yes and the person identified himself as Al Michaels. Somehow he had received a copy of my letter and called out of the blue to thank me. It was a very cool gesture, and quite frankly, it floored me.

Over the years I’ve met him several times. We were even booked on the same Roy Firestone interview program on ESPN once. He’s always gracious, always treats me like a peer even though on the food chain he’s the king of the jungle and I’m a titmouse.

So there you have it. Do you believe in mensches? YES!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Happy birthday, Cliff Levine

Tomorrow marks my father’s 86th birthday. How can this be? He’s not that old. He still attends classes, travels, surfs the net, and is on Facebook (although he's not sure why). He has a natural curiosity and zest for life that makes him far younger than his years. And when he was young, he had a maturity far greater than his years. He was a parent in his early 20’s. I think back to myself at that age and I was a complete idiot. Feeding a plant was too much responsibility. Yet he raised a family.

He's pictured above with his granddaughter, Annie. He took her out to lunch for her birthday.

I could spend three paragraphs telling you about his career – for years he was the sales manager of KABC radio in Los Angeles and then the General Manager of WLS radio in Chicago. He broke sales records, mentored many of today’s broadcasting titans, yada yada. But more important, his colleagues and co-workers loved him. He was (and is) collaborative, respectful, creative, positive, and fair. All the admirable qualities politicians say they have but of course not a single one does.

If you're looking for a role model, he's your guy. In the market for an idol? Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood combined can't touch him.

Happy birthday, Dad.  I love you.  

A handy writing tip

Just saw one of my favorite DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episodes, “100 Terrible Hours”. It’s the one where Rob was a disc jockey and had to stay on the air for 100 straight hours just before interviewing with Alan Brady for a writing job. I love that episode for many reasons but first and foremost is the structure. I imagine Carl Reiner and the staff thought it would be fun to see Rob’s initial job interview and of course it had to be a disaster. But how?

The obvious ways: he was drunk, he got in an accident and was all disheveled, he spilled something on his crotch, he had laryngitis, he had a bad cold and Alan Brady was a germ freak, he barged in at the wrong time, etc. You get the idea.

But they found a totally fresh device instead. Have him loopy because he’s sleep deprived. And concoct the best comic way to get him sleep deprived. Radio marathons were a staple of early Top 40 radio so making him a disc jockey was not only ingenious, it was also real. The best comedy always comes from reality. Plus, it gave Van Dyke a lot to play as you saw him get progressively goofier.

This is called getting “the most bang for your buck”. Find a good comic premise for a scene and then maximize the possibilities. In this case, not only was the payoff great but the set-up scenes leading up to it were terrific as well.

Give this some thought when plotting out your spec script. Once the wakeathon story was laid out I’m sure it was much easier for the writers (Sam Denoff & Bill Persky) to fill in the funny dialogue. They had so much to work with.

The hardest comedy writing in the world is when you have characters just standing around with nothing really dynamic happening. You have to manufacture jokes out of nothing. The characters start talking in forced one-liners. When viewers say that sitcoms sound predictable and bogus that’s usually what they’re referring to.

So do the heavy lifting first. Construct a story that lends itself to great comic possibilities. Easier said than done, you say? Yep, but that’s why YOUR spec might sell and the others don’t.

By the way, in the early 60s a San Bernardino radio station held one of these wakeathons. By the end the disc jockey was hallucinating, thinking that a giant Mickey Mouse was coming to eat him. I don’t know whether it was the city that had to issue a permit or the union, but somebody insisted that medical supervision be provided to lend assistance and monitor the d.j. throughout. He would be on the air for 50 minutes each hour and get ten minutes to use the bathroom, stretch his legs, eat, whatever. The medical staff would check his vital signs and ensure he was in no health danger.

A tent was set up near the broadcasting site (a store window I believe, just like in the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW). Every hour the disc jockey would disappear into it to get his examination. What the city or the union or whomever didn’t know was that the around-the-clock nurses that were hired were actually hookers. That probably kept him going another twenty-four hours.

Now if they had done that on the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW the title of the episode might have been changed to “95 Terrible Hours and 5 Great Ones”.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

My recommended reading list

 A number of you have asked what books/articles/plays I'm having my USC comedy class read.   So here's the list.  I recommend these to you too. 

Required Reading---

John Kennedy Toole – Confederacy of Dunces
Neil Simon – Odd Couple (play)

Recommended Reading --

John Vorhaus – The Comic Toolbox
Dan O’Shannon – What Are You Laughing At?
Ken Levine – Blog: KenLevine.blogspot.com  (archives)
Woody Allen – Without Feathers
Woody Allen – Getting Even
Tad Friend - “What’s So Funny?”
John Morreall – “Historical Theories of Laughter”
Henri Bergson – Laughter, An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
Steve Martin – Born Standing Up
Douglas McKwan -- My Lush Life
Tina Fey – Bossypants
Marc Maron – Attempting Normal
Andy Goldberg – Improv Comedy

What I expect to happen is this:  You'll recommend a bunch of other ones.  That's great.  Some of your suggestions you may feel are be better than what's listed above, but I have reasons for each selection.   In any event, you can't go wrong.  And I'm not making anyone read Beowulf

In the year 5774

Today is the Jewish High Holiday. It's the day of atonement. A chance to reflect and ask forgiveness for our sins and transgressions over the past year. In my case, all my Whitney Cummings cracks. It's a day of fasting (Jewish tradition has it that on all holidays you either fast or eat way too much), spiritual reconnection, and taking a break from your daily responsibilities (I will not be hosting SNL tonight out of respect to my faith and because no one asked me to.)

Staying out of work and school is not always easy or convenient.

I'm reminded of Sandy Koufax not pitching the first game of the 1965 World Series because it was Yom Kippur. Don Drysdale pitched instead. The Minnesota Twins bombed him. He was lifted in the third inning. As Dodger manager, Walter Alston came out to the mound to get him, Drysdale said, "Yeah, Skip, I know what you're thinking. Why couldn't HE be Jewish?"

To all who observe: Happy 5774 (which means Mel Brook's 2000 year-old man is now really 3764).

Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Read if you dare.

willieb leads off:

On a recent road trip I saw a Frasier from the last season that was "Written By David Issacs" -- no Ken Levine! Was there a definite point where you went your separate ways as writers, or did you just drift apart? Did you write any scripts solo or did you concentrate on baseball and directing?

First off, we’re still partners and have written a number of things together after FRASIER went off the air.  The most fun I have writing is when I'm doing a script with David.

But we have always been a partnership out of choice not dependence. During that FRASIER period I was doing a lot of directing and we each wrote a couple of episodes on our own.

Partnerships stay together if the members allow each other to grow. I wanted to get into directing. David had no desire to direct. When asked why he facetiously says, “Because I never want to make more than two decisions in any one day.”

His FRASIER episodes are terrific, by the way.  He wrote a two-parter called "Shutdown in Seattle."  Check 'em out.  

Joseph M. asks:

Would you please explain the difference between Christopher Lloyd the actor and Christopher Lloyd, the writer?

Christopher Lloyd the writer (pictured: left) is writer David Lloyd’s son. He is the co-creator of MODERN FAMILY after being a showrunner of FRASIER for many years and Emmys.

Christopher Lloyd the actor played Reverend Jim on TAXI and Dr. Emmett Brown in BACK TO THE FUTURE.

They’re not related.  I'm sure they get each others mail.

From Damien Galeone:

Mr Levine, prolific comedy writer William Froug said that "If you can write hard comedy, you'll need a skiploader to haul your millions away, and soft comedy and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee."

I was wondering if you might answer what the difference is between 'soft' and 'hard' comedy?

Hard comedy evokes outright laughter. Soft comedy evokes warm smiles of recognition.

Hard comedy tends to be jokes and physical bits; soft comedy is often observational or small bits of relatable behavior.

Looking at most of today’s comedies that are single-camera and rely more of irony and behavior I’d say the soft comedy writer can treat everybody at Starbucks these days.

But the bottom line is this:  fewer people can write hard comedy than soft.  

Simon queries:

When you worked on Cheers and Dharma & Greg, did Kirstie Alley or Jenna Elfman try to recruit you or any of the cast and crew into their creepy brainwashing cult? You know what I'm referring to. The cult of ... watching reality TV. I hear they're big fans of the genre.


What did you think I was referring to?

Yes, I know what you are referring to and the answer is no.

Neither Jenna nor Kirstie nor any actor has ever tried to convert me to anything.  I had a ballplayer try to convert me in a big way and I might've listened if the fucking guy could hit. 

But I have worked with a number of thespians who I don’t see eye to eye with on religion or politics or anything, and I’ve never had a problem. Putting our differences aside, they’re lovely people and wonderful actors. What they do on their own time is their business.

DwWashburn asks:

Ia there ever animosity between members of a writing staff or other people that work "behind the scenes" as to the pay of actors on successful shows? Without the writers they would have nothing to say, without the directors they would have no place to stand, without the camera people they would not be able to be seen, without lighting they couldn't be seen, etc.

I can't speak for everybody but being realistic -- yeah, sure.  It's human nature.  

Honestly, I’m only resentful if they’re not good actors. If they’re wildly successful simply due to luck or their looks than yes, that pisses me off.

But here’s the thing – the hoops actors have to go through to reach that pinnacle is staggering. The odds of winning a state lottery are better. The amount of rejection they endure, the uncertainty and lack of security they face is practically paralyzing. God bless the very few who beat the odds.

Also, when I see the skill and craft and technique that goes into giving a good performance I know I could never do that. So it’s not like these actors are taking money away from me.

Let’s be real – networks and studios don’t pay actors big money unless they bring in bigger money. Either they can open a movie or attract a big television audience. And the minute they can’t, their salaries plummet. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when times change and the audience is always looking for the next big thing.

So I save my resentment for other people.

What’s your question?