Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Questions

Friday Question time already? Where did the week go? (That’s not an official Friday Question.)

Kim T. Bené asks:

M*A*S*H had first rate acting, memorable characters, an unusual premise... and of course incredible scripts. However the audio was lousy. When they were shooting outside it was fine. But when they shot exterior scenes in the studio the audio was always echoy and sounded exactly like they were simply shooting film in a big metal warehouse. When they shot interiors in the studio the audio was OK because the "buildings" were all tents so the fabric muffled the echo but you can close your eyes and pick out every single scene shot as an exterior inside the studio. What gives?

Funny you should mention that Kim because that was always one of my pet peeves and drove me crazy.

We filmed MASH on Stage 9 at 20th. All of the tents were set up and a huge backdrop was erected allowing us to shoot exteriors. Normally we shot all exteriors out at the Malibu ranch. We shot one day per episode and to maximize the light, cameras rolled from sunup to sundown. That was fine in the summer when the sun went down at 8:15. But once we went to PST it was dark before 5:00. So for the remainder of the season we shot exteriors on the stage. Generally that meant the last six or seven shows.

Because of the audio problem (and the lighting difference – especially daytime scenes), when David and I were head writers we stayed clear of those scenes unless we absolutely had to have them. And if we did, the scenes were super brief. Lots of activity like triage or people running from one place to another.

I complained about the sound and was told nothing could be done due to the acoustics. I’m sure today you could equalize and fix the sound with an app you could buy on your phone for $0.99.

But I used to joke whenever we were forced to do an exterior scene on the stage that we were going to the Brady Bunch backyard.

Chris queries:

Is there a rule that says when you cut back and forth between two scenes, they have to be happening at the same time?

I was watching the second episode of HBO's "Looking" and they cut between a scene where a lawyer meets with his clients and one where one of the other characters was out clubbing at night. It felt weird that a lawyer would meet clients at 10 pm, but it also didn't feel right that the meeting was taking place during the day and the other scene was in the middle of the night, while they cut back and forth between them.

There’s not a rule but it’s generally accepted that when you cut between two scenes they’re in the same time frame. Woody Allen violated this in TO ROME WITH LOVE. He had multiple stories going. One was over three days, another was over one afternoon. The end result was that the movie was a confusing mess. If the audience can’t place the time or geography they’re taken out of the scene. Yes, directors could argue it’s a creative choice, but why do anything to take the audience out of the show? That said, I think Woody Allen has been accused of worse.

From Angry Gamer:

I have noticed that your blog posts seem to follow a familiar pattern.

Something like this:
Intro (general info)
Inside Scoop (details from the trenches)
Little Joke
Middle Exposition (marking time, biz story time, setup)
BAM - BIG JOKE
Last Story or Observation
End Credit or zinger one liner

So... is this deliberate? Is this the off the cuff organization of a genius comedic writer? What gives?

The genius part is correct. No, seriously, I consciously do the following:

Try to keep the posts fairly short. Maybe one page. People don’t want to read a seven-page article every day. Certainly not from me.

Sprinkle some humor in there somewhere.

Ask myself the question -- is this topic funny, interesting, or informative enough to consider?

End with a wrap up that ties things together.

Other than that, I have no idea what I’m doing.

And finally from Hamid:

When you made it as a successful writer and your name was on TV, did lots of people you hadn't seen or heard from in years, including any who gave you a hard time at school, start coming out of the woodwork wanting to hang out with you?

Not enough of them.

When David and I first started selling scripts, a number of my friends began writing specs as well. The message of course was: “If Levine could make it, anyone could.” Ironically, none of these friends could even finish their specs.

When I was on MASH I went to my 10 year high school reunion. Several people approached me at various times of the evening and said, “Is that you on MASH? We see your name every week and can’t believe it’s you.”

But generally, no. The people who had no use for me before I became successful still have no use for me. I have to admire their integrity.

However, for all the girls who told me to get lost when I asked them out, I hope when they see my credit this is what they see:

                                                Written by:
“The guy I should have gone out with and been nice to instead of the jerks I did date which is why I’m now divorced and living in a trailer park in the Mojave Desert”
                                                        &
                                                 David Isaacs

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

In honor of Jim Lange

Who passed away this week at 81, I'm reposting a section from my '60s book on how I was thrown off of THE DATING GAME (which he hosted).   Jim was a great guy.  I got to work with him at KMPC.  Easygoing and fun.  Later I became a disc jockey at KYA in San Francisco and would hang out with Jim and other local bay area radio greats at Perry's on Union Street.  Jim -- a big kiss goodbye, my friend.

It was in the late 60’s, I was in high school, and someone recommended I try out for THE DATING GAME. This was a popular game show on ABC at the time. Three bachelors would be asked inane questions by a girl who couldn't see them and based on the answers she'd select one for her "date".

I was a wise-ass even then (as opposed to say... now). So I called the show, was given an appointment to audition. The first thing I said when I got there was that my father worked for ABC radio and if that was a conflict let me know now and save us all a lot of time and trouble. They assured me that was no problem. In fact, they said members of their own staff have had to go on in emergency cases.

So I went through the audition process. They put 40 of us in a room and asked us random DATING GAME-type questions.

A week later they called and invited me to be on the show. Everyone wonders if bachelors are given a preview of the questions or get to see the girl in advance. The answer is no. They filmed three episodes at a time so nine of us reported to an assigned room. We were briefed, then ushered to the stage for a rehearsal. They walked us through it, where we sat, what to do after the girl made her selection, etc. Then it was back to this waiting room until we were called for the show.

I didn’t give a shit about winning the date. I just wanted to get big laughs. And I was lucky. Got some good questions, had some funny answers, called one of the other bachelors a blimp, just wreaked as much comic havoc as I could. Big surprise, I wasn’t selected. As a result I missed getting to go on a little cruise boat around the Newport Beach harbor with the Turtles. (I’ve since become friends with Howard Kaylan and he can’t even remember that event).

Two days after the show aired I got invited to go on again for their alumni show. Again I was apparently funny. I just remember doing an Elvis impression and trashing the institution of marriage. This girl didn’t pick me either. Instead I went home with 50 pairs of Ray-Ban sunglasses or something useless like that. I think the date I missed was to the Lancaster Date Festival. I’ve since gotten over my disappointment.

After that show aired they invited me to be on the night-time version. Now that was big stuff. Winners got trips to Europe and Hawaii, not Orange County. Oh yeah, and you’d be on national primetime television… but it was really the prizes.

Unfortunately, there was an engineers’ strike at ABC at the time and management had to man the cameras. During the rehearsal, one of the cameramen recognized me and mentioned casually that my father worked for ABC radio. Chuck Barris went ballistic. I was immediately thrown off the show. I said, “But what about when your own staff has to sub…?” Their answer was, “Get out!” So that was that. I was bumped from the show, they grabbed a guy in the audience who was wearing a suit, and he went on in my place. The selected bachelor got a trip to Paris. I got a roast beef sandwich at Arby’s.

A few years later when I was working as an intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles. Jim Lange was hired as a disc jockey. He spotted me down the hall and amazingly, remembered me. Even rattled off my blimp quip. Two days later at the station I get a call from THE DATING GAME. All was forgiven. They’d love to have me on again. I said, “Is this the night-time version?” They said no, I’d have to go back to daytime. So I told them to stick it. And thus ended my storied DATING GAME career.

Do I have regrets? Yes. I wish I had some of those sunglasses today. I could get a FORTUNE for that crap on ebay.

How NOT to pitch a pilot

Pitching pilots to networks is somewhat of an art. I mean, it’s not Adele singing or Linda Lovelace eating a cucumber, but it does take a certain skill. My writing partner, David Isaacs and I have been pitching pilots for years. We don’t sell them all but we have sold quite a few. So we have some sense as to what’s involved.  (And it's closer to what Linda Lovelace does.)

Generally, we keep our pitch down to about fifteen minutes. We never read. We may go in with a sheet of bullet points or no notes at all. We explain the premise, the theme, and what about the project excites us. We introduce the characters briefly, and offer possible story suggestions for down the line. Along the way we integrate a few jokes.

The idea is to spark their interest in a way that they can actually picture the show on their network. We answer any questions and keep the dialogue going for as long as we can. The more they talk about it, usually the more interested they are.

Generally the whole process is over in a half hour and we leave. Networks tend to bunch their pilot pitch meetings together so we know they already heard three pitches this morning and two more are scheduled after us. It must get very tedious hearing all these pitches back to back. I don’t envy them.

But that’s what we do. And like I said, we’ve had a fair amount of success.

A few years ago we met with a non-writing producer who told us he had a pilot sold at Fox but needed it developed. The money was good, the timing was right, the idea was decent enough that we said we’d attach ourselves to the project.

We crafted characters and developed the pilot. Then this producer, we’ll call him Slick Sam, told us we had to pitch it to Fox. Why? They already bought it. Well, it seems they hadn't already bought it. They just liked the area. Strike one.

Okay, we’ll pitch the pilot.

Slick Sam wanted us to come in so we could rehearse and refine our pitch in front of him. We said that wasn’t necessary. We knew how to pitch. A family loved one was in the hospital at the time so I was also spending a lot of time there.

A date was set for the pitch and the day before Slick Sam calls. He’s nervous. He really wants us to come in and rehearse the pitch. I say no. At the time I’m in a hospital room. He asks me to then do the pitch on the phone. I reassure him that we’ll be fine and hang up. Strike two.

The pitch was at 2:00 at Fox, right after lunch. We met with Slick Sam a few minutes before. The premise involved food. Two minutes before we were going to go upstairs for the meeting his assistant arrives with giant grease-soaked bags. Slick Sam, ever the showman, had brought food for everybody to liven up the pitch. Greasy, disgusting BBQ food.

We told him to leave all this shit outside. This was a bad idea. But he was the master showman and insisted. We troop into the Comedy VP’s office and Slick Sam’s assistant starts laying out the food. Thick gloppy ribs, congealed brisket, beans, sauce, hot links – you name it. The Fox execs were repulsed. Plus, it was right after lunch. I would bet money that office still smells of BBQ food to this day.

Needless to say, it was the worst pitch ever. They couldn’t wait for us to finish so they could clear that lethal shit out of there. The pilot didn’t sell.  Strike three.

We walked out of that meaning and immediately told Slick Sam we were done. “But we have three other networks to pitch,” he pleaded. “Not with us,” we said.  We were out of there like the Road Runner.

Stunts don’t sell pilots. Nor do flashy power point presentations. Ideas sell. Ideas that fall within the parameters of what they’re looking for at that moment. If you have so little confidence in your idea or your ability to pitch that you have to resort to St. Louis style ribs then you don’t belong in a network VP’s office wasting her time. Unless you’re prepared to hand out half slabs to 10 million viewers, concentrate on the idea, not the catering.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

If I wrote for THE AMERICANS

THE AMERICANS return tonight at 10 pm on FX for their second season. Yay!  Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Russian spies in the ‘80s who are posing as a typical American married couple in the ‘burbs outside of Washington DC. Some of the storylines are very far fetched, but the show is so much fun that the absurdities are easy to forgive. So to whet the appetite of fellow fans or introduce possible new fans, here’s a scene from THE AMERICANS if I wrote the show.  (I fully expect the producers to hire me on the spot to write an episode once they've read this sample.)

INT. JENNINGS HOUSE – DAY

Elizabeth is in the kitchen making Chicken Kiev and playing with a Rubik’s Cube. Phillip enters.

PHIL: We just got our latest assignment from Moscow.

ELIZ: I hope it’s something elaborate and dangerous and we can be done by 3:00 to pick the kids up from school.

PHIL: There are very few details. It just says, “Moose and squirrel must die.”

ELIZ: Moose and squirrel? That could only mean Rocket J. Squirrel, head of the CIA, and Bullwinkle J. Moose, mascot for the Seattle Mariners.

PHIL: The KGB has always suspected that that is just a cover and Squirrel is just posing as the CIA Director when in fact he’s the mascot for the Houston Astros.

ELIZ: Might they be on to the fact that the Cincinnati Reds are all KGB agents? I thought we hid the fact that the Reds were a Communist front very well. 

PHIL: Former spy/player, Pete Rosbouchinska was caught wagering on the St. Petersburg-Yekaterinburg Rhythmic Gymnastics tournament.

ELIZ: How will we get to them?

PHIL: As luck would have it, they’re both in town for the Tolstoy Comedy Festival.

There’s a knock at the door. They both freeze. Phillip pulls a gun from his holster, Elizabeth pulls a gun from the cavity of the chicken. There’s another knock.

ELIZ: Maybe one of us should answer the door.

PHIL: Yes. That is exactly would Americans do.

ELIZ: I forget – do we get in disguise for this?

PHIL: What disguise were you thinking of?

ELIZ: My innocent young college girl look. The character I call Felicity.

PHIL: I think you can go as you are.

ELIZ: Fine. (hands him the gun) Put this back and inject the melted butter.

Elizabeth crosses to the door and answers it. It’s Stan.

STAN: Hi. I’m your new neighbor, Stan. We just moved in across the street.

ELIZ: Nice to meet you. Won’t you come in and have some shchi?

STAN: Thanks.

ELIZ: So what do you do, Stan?

STAN: I’m an FBI agent assigned to root out Russian spies who pose as Americans.

ELIZ: Did I say shchi? I meant Beans and Bacon.

STAN: Anything is fine.

ELIZ: Are there a lot of you in that department?

STAN: No. Just two. Me and Moose Malone.

ELIZ: I didn’t catch your last name.

STAN: Squirrel.

Phil comes out of the kitchen.

PHIL: I took the pirozhki out of the oven.

ELIZ: Phillip, this is Stan Squirrel. He’s an FBI agent working with Moose Malone.

PHIL: Oh. Nice to meet you. Listen, we gotta run. We got to get over to the Tolstoy Comedy Festival.

ELIZ: Right. There are some people we need to see.

STAN: Sure. Listen, before I go, can I ask you a couple of questions about your neighbors?

ELIZ: Sure. Why?

STAN: Well, to be honest. They’re acting very strange. They try so hard to assimilate. I don’t think there’s an ‘80s fad or toy they don’t have. There’s not an ‘80s fashion at least one of them doesn’t wear. Their son is always taking home movies, the grandfather is forever exhibiting bizarre behavior, and the mother is overbearing and never shuts up. What do you think?

PHIL: Oh, you mean The Goldbergs. They just moved in in September. Definitely. They’re Russian spies. Keep an eye out for them.

STAN: Thanks. (handing them his card). If you ever see anything suspicious, just give one of us a call – Moose & Squirrel.

ELIZ: Will do. But we really have to run. There are two people we need to meet.

STAN: No problem. So long.

ELIZ: Do svidaniya.

FADE OUT.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My thoughts on Harold Ramis

I wonder if he knew. Harold Ramis passed away yesterday and the internet tom toms are ablaze with tributes and an outpouring of love from his many fans. I wonder if he realized how beloved he was and how much his work meant to so many people. Our paths never crossed. I never met him. But the sense I get is that he didn’t.

Other names garnered way more attention. John Hughes. Judd Apatow. The Ferrelly Brothers. But in his quiet, unassuming way Harold Ramis was a giant who contributed to some of the finest screen comedy of the last half-century. From MEATBALLS to ANIMAL HOUSE to GHOSTBUSTERS to STRIPES to CADDYSHACK to one of the great romcoms of all-time, GROUNDHOG DAY – Ramis either co-wrote, directed, and acted in all of them. Wow. Even just one of those credits would be enough to lift someone up to the top of the comedy pantheon.

I always loved Harold Ramis comedies. He had this amazing ability to mix broad outlandish comedy with real emotional moments. No matter how absurd and extreme his scenarios could be, there was always an underlying layer of humanity. The goal was to make you laugh, not shock you. He was never mean-spirited.

His comedies were always smart, even when they were silly. And you got the sense he had great affection for his characters – all of his characters – even the gopher.

Screenwriters and directors of today’s screen comedies could take a lesson from Harold Ramis. When I compare them, the current crop don’t have the inspired lunacy, underlying themes, and playfulness of Ramis' fare. He had been sick for several years. I wondered what had happened to him. I’d see one of these current forced slapdash formula comedies and hope he’d someday make his return.

There was no one like him. And it’s our great loss.  When you want a classic new comedy, now who are you gonna call…?

RIP Harold Ramis.  If they remake GHOSTBUSTERS (and there is talk of that), I hope you'll play one of the ghosts.  

Monday, February 24, 2014

Another crazy secretary story

And yes, back in the ‘90s they were still called secretaries. We’ve had several that proved to be total loons. Sweet people but seriously bonkers.

One of the bat-shit carziest was Sally. This is when we had a development deal at Paramount. We had our own production company and the mandate was to sell pilots and get shows on the air.

Sally lived in a modest apartment in Brentwood, a half-hour drive to Paramount. One morning her pet parakeet got out of its cage, flew out the window, and perched in a nearby tree.

When this happens, what do you do? Call the fire department? Yes, that’s what you or I or anyone sane might do. But not Sally.

She called the Paramount Special Effects department and ordered that two stuntmen to come out to her apartment to retrieve the bird.

I got awoken by a call from the Special Effects department. They wanted my okay for this. How much would be charged against our production deal? $20,000. “Fuck no!” I said and told them to cancel the assignment.

Sally called me moments later, frantic because Paramount gave her the bad news. What was she going to do? This was essentially our conversation:

ME: Did you call the fire department?

HER: Why would I call the fie department?

ME: To get your bird down.

HER: There’s no fire.

ME: They also rescue animals. You’ve never heard of fireman raising ladders up against trees and saving cats?

HER: This is a bird.

ME: So what?

HER: Do they have nets?

ME: How would I know?

HER: Well, how will they capture him?

ME: They’ll send up the Dalmatian. He’ll put it in his mouth. I don’t know.

HER: Maybe I can pay some kids to climb the tree.

ME: Just call the fucking fire department!

HER:  Can I tell them I'm a producer.

ME:  No!

HER:  But I want them to come here first.

ME:  You think they go out on calls based on your status in Hollywood?

HER:  Well, maybe they're actors.

ME:  So if they think you're a producer they'll recite a monologue from King Lear as they shimmy up the ladder?

HER:   Well how else can I get them to come here first?

ME:  Tell him the bird is the Maltese Falcon. 

After that the conversation got weird.  She eventually phoned the LAFD.   The bird was rescued. It took all morning. And we got no work done. Hey,  I’m just glad she didn’t call for the corporate jet to fly her the ten miles from Brentwood to Paramount in Hollywood.

Sally was one of our better secretaries by the way.  So that gives you some idea. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Happy Ending

Yesterday I told you about losing a radio gig because my “friend” stole my material. Now flash forward four years. I’m writing on MASH and doing a Saturday night disc jockey show on KTNQ (Ten-Q) in Los Angeles. Yes, I finally got to be on the radio in my own hometown. The station wasn’t in a high rise, it was in an abandoned mortuary in Koreatown but still!

I’m on the air for about six months when I get a call on the station hot line. It’s Rick Carroll, who was the program director of KKDJ. He asked if I remembered being thrown out of his office. I said, “Yes, I still have the tic.” He went on to say he owed me a big apology. He had been listening to me every week on Ten-Q and clearly his DJ, Bobby had stolen the material from me, not the other way around. It was a lovely gesture on his part and I appreciated it greatly.

The truth is, the only way I could get respect in radio was by leaving it. Before I became a writer I was always being told by my program directors to stop trying to do schtick. Just shut up and play the damn records. I can’t tell you how many memos I got insisting I was not remotely funny.

And then a strange thing happened. I sold a couple of scripts, quit radio full-time, and suddenly I was a comic genius. My content was fresh and original and hilarious.

It was the same schtick. In some cases the exact same jokes.

The point is this: don’t let other people tell you you’re not funny. What the hell do they know? Yes, your material and/or delivery might need a bit of polish, but the first step to success is believing in yourself. All you gotta do is find one person who likes you. Then the ones who didn’t will start going around telling people they “discovered” you. Trust me, it’s a beautiful thing not to take their calls.

And maybe if you're lucky, the first guy to recognize your talent, won't steal all your material. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Stealing jokes

If there’s one thing that all writers and comedians hate it’s people stealing their material. It’s certainly an occupational hazard but there should be a place in hell for those who steal jokes. You can shovel coal for all eternity with Milton Berle. I’ve had it happen to me on numerous occasions but none more egregious than this:

In the mid 70s I was an all-night disc jockey in San Bernardino. Trying to be funny every three minutes for the eight 7-11 night managers and half of them were probably tied up in the back. My dream was to someday be on the radio in LA, my hometown. Considering my voice I always figured it was a longshot. Meanwhile, one of my college campus radio buddies rocketed up the radio ladder of success and was a jock on KKDJ, the first top 40 FM station in Los Angeles. Their studios were in a skyscraper in Hollywood and their studio looked out over the entire city. This WAS the big time! I heard through the grapevine that there was an opening for weekend all-nights (clearly the worst shift in broadcast history). Still, for me it was the brass ring, primetime, and the pimp spot all rolled into one. Just think, I’d be talking to 7-11 night managers in Downey and City of Industry!

I called my friend (we’ll call him “Bobby”) and asked if he’d arrange a meeting with the program director, Rick Carroll. He did and I got a appointment the following day. When I got off the air that morning I took a bunch a tapes of recent shows and cobbled together an audition tape, featuring some of my best lines of the week.

I caught an hour’s sleep, put on my only decent clothes, and barreled up to Los Angeles. Rick Carroll ushered me into his office, we had some charming chit chat, and then he said, “So let’s see what you sound like.” He put on my tape and after two sets turned off the recorder. He turned to me and said, “Are you fucking crazy?” “Wha?” I was stunned. He continued: “How can you come into my office and give me a tape and steal all of Bobby’s material?” Now I was flabbergasted. “But it’s not… this is my stuff” I pleaded. Cutting to the chase he threw me out of his office.

I ran to a phone to call Bobby. Oh, he was apologetic. He was such a fan he used to listen to me in the middle of the night and subconsciously he guessed, he “borrowed” my material without realizing it.

Yeah. Right. It was an “homage”.

Then tell Rick Carroll the truth, I said. Well, that he didn’t want to do because he thought it might jeopardize his job.

He and I are not close today.

So I didn’t get the job and at the time thought I had missed my only opportunity to ever be on the radio in Los Angeles.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Tell you tomorrow.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Questions

Here are Friday Questions:

willieb starts us off:

I see where they're mounting a play about Carole King on Broadway. I always thought Nancy Travis would be perfect to play Carole -- I always saw a remarkable resemblance. As someone who's familiar with Carole and Nancy, what do you think?

It’s actually a musical called BEAUTIFUL that got terrific reviews and is playing to delighted audiences. The storyline centers on the young Carole King and from what I hear, Jessie Mueller is spectacular as Carole.

Nancy is prettier than Carole (my opinion) but singing is not really her greatest gift. And I imagine she’d tell you the same thing. I was actually glad when I learned this. She does everything else so well. When she had trouble singing on ALMOST PERFECT we said, “She’s HUMAN!”

I’m looking forward to seeing the Carole King musical. I adore her and her music.

Brian Warrick asks:

After a story idea or outline have been approved, how common is it to deviate from the original premise when writing the script (you know, if inspiration strikes and you head off in a different direction)?

This becomes a stickier issue now that networks and studios demand approval of very detailed outlines. But I’ve always felt that once you start writing, the writer has an obligation to make it the best script he can, and if deviating is necessary then as long as it’s within reason, I say do it.

David and I always do. But we always say “we tried it the way it is in the outline and it just didn’t work.” If you deviate you should have a reason to justify it. "The muse hit me" will generally not suffice.

When David and I write pilots, we tend to veer from the outline frequently as we discover just who these characters are and go where they take us.

When writers go through hoops trying to satisfy a rigid outline the end product is almost always stilted and forced.

James L. Brooks had a great line that I always use. “At some point you’ve got to be a writer.”

From spmsmith:

On last night's The Big Bang Theory, there was a seminal moment 3 years in the making (trying not to be too spoilerish) that had the audience whooping and hollering. Having worked on a number of shows taped live in front of a studio audience, what moments of intense audience reaction stick out in your mind? (Happy, sad, mad, whatever.) Thanks Ken!

When Sam and Diane first kissed on the first season finale of CHEERS, written by Glen & Les Charles,  they got a thunderous reaction from the audience. I turned to my writing partner and said, “I think we’ve peaked. Nothing we can ever do with these characters will top this.”  I was right. 

There was a CHEERS episode David Isaacs and I wrote where a joke of mine got such a loud and sustained laugh they had to turn the cameras off. That’s like hitting a walk-off grand slam home run.

The pilot filming of FRASIER was electric. The audience went crazy over the first two jokes. Everyone on the stage knew they were riding on a rocket.

But for me, the greatest moment I personally witnessed was the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, written by David Lloyd. That funeral scene was amazing and Mary did it flawlessly – twice. It was thrilling to be on hand to see that. But as a budding young scribe, I walked out of that stage not knowing whether to be incredibly inspired or crushed because I’ll never be able to write anything that good.
And finally, from Dan Ball:

Ken, I'd be interested to know how you handled directing dramatic scenes. On a sitcom, it seems like you've got to stop a freight train of comic momentum to get a mood conducive to drama established. Is it really that tough or is it better when you're working with 'trained professionals'?

The key is the dramatic moment needs to be earned. You can’t do 20 minutes of cheap burlesque jokes and then jam on the brakes to do a touching moment. It just feels bogus and manipulative.

When I direct a dramatic scene I’m just looking to bring out the truth of the moment and the emotion. How heavy it gets depends on how heavy it deserves to be. And if the scene is truly earned then getting to it will feel very natural.

I’ve also been spoiled, having worked with wonderful actors. In many cases my directing approach is to just get out of their way.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section.  Thanks so much!  

PROGRAM NOTE:  I am again filling in for Marilu Henner on her nationally syndicated radio show from 9 AM-noon PST.  It also streams live and replays all day here.   Like Marilu, I will dazzle you with my memory. I can tell you what I had for dinner every Thanksgiving for the last twenty years. Join me.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How to audition for pilots

This is the time of year when actors are auditioning for TV pilots. It’s Hollywood's answer to musical chairs, but the music is sped up. 90% of the pilots that networks commission are made in the spring. So actors are scurrying from audition to audition.

Producers are also scrambling. It used to be if you saw an actor you liked you brought him back in for a callback after you’ve seen a sizable number of applicants. Now you may see an actor you like at 11 AM and learn he’s going in to be tested for another network pilot at 4 PM. If you want him, make a deal and get him in to see your network before 4. If not, you might lose him. On the other hand, you might be pressured into hiring someone you might not be totally sold on. And there’s always the chance you let the actor test for the other network and he doesn’t get the part. He’s suddenly available again. But it’s a game of high stake poker.

Among the many acting courses that are taught here in LA are classes that specifically teach you how to audition. I suppose they’re helpful. I’ve never cast someone who took one of those courses, but that could be coincidence. How these instructors think they know what I’m looking for in an audition is beyond me. On the other hand, there are wonderful actors who just freeze up during auditions and as a result don’t get hired. I could see where one of these courses might be very valuable for these people.

One danger in racing from audition to audition is that you go up for so many roles that after awhile you forget what you did where. When a producer hires an actor he expects him to give the same performance he saw in the room, but actor friends of mine have said there are many times they get hired and have no idea what they did to get that particular role. “Was this the one I was laid back and cool, or was this the one I was real intense?”

Every producer has his own style of casting. And every producer has his own expectations. I can just tell you my tips based on years of casting.

Don’t come in with a schtick. I’ve heard theories that actors should do something crazy to be noticed. 99% of the time you’ll be noticed in a bad way. Just come in, very professional., say hello, shake hands if the producers extend theirs (I always do; a lot of producers don’t), do the scene, thank everybody, and leave.

Don’t spend the first five minutes telling us how hard it was to park or how hard it was to find the office.

If you have questions about the scene or the character or the intent, ask. We’re happy to point you in the right direction, or at least steer you away from the wrong. It’s also quite acceptable and even encouraged to ask, “Is there anything I should know?”

After you do the scene, offer to do it again with any adjustments the producers might have.

Don’t be all “actory.” Don’t face the wall and come out swinging like a boxer. Don’t stare off into space for two minutes while you try to locate your emotional center. Don’t let out a war chant to psyche yourself up before beginning the scene.

Don’t come in wearing an elaborate costume or drenched in blood (unless it’s yours).

Don’t memorize the scene. Read from the script. You get no points for memorizing and most of the time you’ll forget words, paraphrase, or make shit up. I want you to concentrate on your performance, not memorization. Hold the script in your hand and sell it.

Don’t make up dialogue, and especially don’t make up monologues. This happened once to us. I should also add at this point – don’t audition when you’re stinkin’ drunk. Especially at 9:30 AM. This was for BIG WAVE DAVE’S. The character was a colorful free spirit who migrated to Hawaii. This plastered actor starting reading the scene and then stopped right in the middle. That sure caught our attention. What the hell was he doing, just staring at us? Finally he spoke. “Pussy!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. David and I were taken aback. Neither of us could remember writing “Pussy!” into the script. The actor then launched into a long monologue about Hawaiian women and how to get them into the sack. None of it was useable – not that we were looking for ways to get our actors to randomly scream out “Pussy!”

Don’t tell the producers what’s wrong with the script?

Don’t tolerate any inappropriate behavior from the producers. This is not some “indie” project. This is a major network pilot casting legitimate SAG members. If the audition process is anything less that totally professional, you have a right to complain to your agent, manager, or whomever.

Don’t be late.

Don’t just assume we recognize you from the soap opera you’re on or the Flomax commercial you’ve done.

And finally, remember that we WANT you to succeed. Every person who walks through the door we’re hoping is the one we’ve been looking for. So take a little of the pressure off yourself.

Best of luck, and if this is all the stuff they tell you in those audition classes I want $150.

I'm hosting the Marilu Henner show today...

It's Marilu's nationally syndicated radio program where we talk lifestyle issues, pop culture, TV, movies, and what Marilu had for lunch on August 7, 1993.  It's on from 9-12 PST and it streams live here.    I'll be on tomorrow as well. Check it out.  (Marilu had an egg salad sandwich that day.)

Today's post follows soon. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

THE TONIGHT SHOW starring the new guy

Okay, so I’ve been sampling THE TONIGHT SHOW with Jimmy Fallon this week. And my verdict? It’s fine.

NBC’s strategic move to attract a younger audience will probably payoff to some degree. Watching the final Jay Leno show with Billy Crystal, who’s had as much work done as Joan Rivers, talking about old variety shows from the ‘60s, I could see why NBC made the switch. No one under 50 knew what they were talking about or cared. Compare that to Fallon’s premier where he and Will Smith did a medley of hip hop dances. Garth Brooks vs. U2 as musical guests. The times, they have a changed.
Was Fallon the right choice? My answer is: as opposed to who? He’s very sweet and likeable, which will be a nice contrast to Jimmy Kimmel, who I like but can come off smug, and Dave who has just become an old crank. And Fallon's very talented – he can sing, do impressions, dance, etc. Kimmel and Letterman can stand in place and sit.  Period.   So Fallon will have a leg up there. But for me, Jimmy Fallon lacks a certain presence, a gravitas. The host of THE TONIGHT SHOW used to be a commanding figure. Now it’s the shy nerd.

Fallon I’m sure will grow into the job. He’s come a long way since he started his latenight show. And a lot will depend on the quality of his writers. For the moment, when he does his monologue with his hands in his pockets he looks like Ed Sullivan. Has there ever been a stiffer human being in front of a camera than Ed Sullivan?

Of course, in time Jimmy Kimmel will improve too. Dave will just get worse. He’s already phoning it in and has been since the Bush Administration. 

Tom Shales, the one TV reviewer I hate more than any other, gave THE TONIGHT SHOW an unqualified rave based on the first night. Among the silly platitudes, he said that Fallon had risen to the pinnacle of television by being named host of THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Pinnacle of television? Really? Maybe thirty years ago when Johnny Carson owned latenight. When all the other competition combined was still just a fraction of his numbers. If Fallon beats Letterman by one point, NBC will be thrilled. Carson beat all comers by forty. Saying THE TONIGHT SHOW host is the pinnacle of television is like saying UCLA is the pinnacle of college basketball. Very few undergraduates of UCLA were even alive the last time they won the National Championship.

To me the bigger problem is this: the format itself is tired and musty. It’s another desk, and another backdrop of the city at night, and the couch, and the band, and the goofball announcer, and the monologue, and the celebrity guests just there to hawk their upcoming releases. The host wears a suit, the bandleader is a hipster, the interviews are tepid, and the second half of the show is almost all commercials.  Been there, done that... for sixty years.

Then you have Conan and Arsenio doing the same show with different desks on other channels. And THE DAILY SHOW and COLBERT REPORT, which is funnier and fresher than all of them.

Here’s my only real prediction: Jimmy Fallon will not host THE TONIGHT SHOW for the next twenty years. In twenty years there probably won’t be network television and NBC as we know it will exist as something else. THE VIEW will become the pinnacle of television.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In praise of Woody Harrelson


Who would have thought?

When CHEERS ended its run in 1993, if you had asked me which cast member was going to become a big movie star I would not have said Woody Harrelson. Not that he wasn’t extremely talented, charming, and a pleasure to work with – it’s just that I thought of him as more of a character actor.

All of the actors from CHEERS have gone on to have nice careers… as well they all should. They’re either starring in TV series, doing theater, guesting on top sitcoms, or doing Radio Shack commercials.

And Woody has become a bonafide movie star. He’s been nominated twice for Academy Awards. This is the same guy I made eat a whole Hostess Snowball in one bite. (My writing partner and I wondered if it could be done so we wrote it into a script for Woody and sure enough he did it.)

When you see his performances you know his success is not because he’s a member of the “Fucking Lucky Club.” The Oscar nods were well deserved. What was surprising to me was the enormous range he has. Everyone knows he can play the sweet-natured goofball. But watch him in SEVEN POUNDS. He is one scary motherfucker. Check him out in GAME CHANGE. He’s as savvy and wily as any Kevin Spacey you could find.

And now in TRUE DETECTIVES on HBO I think he’s doing his best work ever. He brings such depth to what could so easily be just a cliché role. And it’s a tough role. Matthew McConaughey has the much showier part. (He too is off-the-charts spectacular in this.) And yet Woody never tries to compete with him. As such, he brings a strength to the role and a balance to the dynamic that, for my money, makes the whole series work. By underplaying and not taking a sharp right turn into Al Pacino Land, Woody shows the confidence and skill of a truly accomplished actor. And I’m not just writing this because I feel guilty we made him eat an entire Hostess Snowball. I don’t. I do feel a little bad he had to do several takes, but hey, that’s why they get paid the big money.

If you’re going to be a fan of one Woody this year, pick the one who doesn’t play the same character in every film, has been married to the same woman for 27 years, and whose kids will speak to him.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Perfect for Presidents' Day: THE HOUSE OF CARDS

Some random thoughts today. If I’m not coherent and there are a lot of spelling errors it’s only because I’ve had very little sleep this weekend. Binging on HOUSE OF CARDS. Fortunately, I still have some chapters to go.


I may just pull an all-nighter and then look for a rib joint that’s open at dawn. The best ones always are.

Lots of my middle-aged pals would love to have sex with Claire Underwood. I would love her to be my agent.

If I have withdrawals after finishing this season of HOUSE OF CARDS, I can always watch MITT.

Charlie Sheen is engaged to a porn star. What does she see in him?

Shirley Temple Black was a former U.S. Ambassador. Why aren’t flags at half-mast for her?

Thanks to everybody for taking advantage of my book offer this weekend. It was kinda bizarre being in the Amazon top ten ahead of Tina Fey but behind Mindy Kalin. Three people returned the book I see. How much does someone have to truly hate a book that cost $0.99 to want to return it?

Now that pitchers and catchers have reported I find myself reading endless stories about workouts. I must be really starved for baseball. Or have no life.

Happy Chinese New Year. I understand this is the year of the Whores.

There’s a channel on Sirius/XM called “Love.” It’s the all “Beauty & the Beast” station. Every song sounds exactly like “Beauty & the Beast.”

Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera are both doing a spectacular job filling in for Bob Costas. Not an easy role to fill. It’s always a pleasure to watch true pros. If only I really cared about the Winter Olympics. According to the ratings, I’m not the only one.

Bob is scheduled to return tonight. He may wear glasses. If you enjoy Bob Costas conjunctivitis updates don’t make fun of me for reading articles about pitchers throwing off practice mounds. Welcome back, Bob. Keep taking the drops and stay off your eyes the next few days.

For some reason, my wife’s server believes that any email she receives from me is junk.

More Americans would relate to the Winter Olympics if one of the events was snow shoveling.

As my friend Howard Hoffman observed, every Olympic hockey game is another NHL All-Star game.

By the way, Howard is now live from 4-6 pm EST every day on GREAT BIG RADIO.  He's as good or better now than he was when he was rocking on 77/WABC.   Check him out.  It may bring back memories of a thing called "radio."

Now with Global Warming, if the groundhog sees his own shadow New England gets buried.  

Just bought the new iPhone 5S. For the first four days, every time I turned it on it wanted another password. Why it needs the password to my storage locker is beyond me.

Congratulations to everyone at GOOD LUCK CHARLIE, which finished its hugely successful four-year run on the Disney Channel last night. The writing was always a cut above. Each episode will only be rerun another 6,000 times so if you missed any, better catch up now.

There is a plan to adapt PUSHING DAISIES for Broadway. It’ll be the anti-SWEENEY TODD.

I hear THE LEGO MOVIE is really good. How soon until a porno company comes out with the ERECTOR SET MOVIE?

Hopefully, after tonight, radio stations will stop playing Presidents’ Day music and go back to regular programming.

Someone told me AMERICAN IDOL is back on. Is that true?

Happy Birthday tomorrow to my lovely wife, Debby. How come I’m the only one who gets older?

Here in Los Angeles a major freeway is under re-construction and causing huge traffic problems. So it really IS like the President is here. Hope you’re having a happy, traffic-free holiday.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

My thoughts on Sid Caesar

The great Sid Caesar passed away last week and lots of you have asked why I haven’t written about him; why I haven’t done one of my tributes. It’s because my tributes tend to be glowing and they’re always from the heart. As much as I admired Sid Caesar, I did not feel that way about him. For my tributes to mean anything they must be sincere, and truth be told, I was not a big fan of Sid Caesar personally.

You’ve all been to funerals of people who were uh… difficult, and sat through eulogies that portrayed him as a saint. All the while you’re thinking, “Who is he kidding?” I didn’t want to be that guy.

Side note: There was a longtime Hollywood actor/personality named George Jessel. He was probably most famous for delivering eulogies at funerals. One time, as the story goes, he was waxing poetic, glanced down at the open casket, stopped and said, “Hey, I know this man!”

Sid Caesar’s talent was extraordinary. His influence on television can not be overstated. He was a one-man SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. When I taught my comedy class at USC I devoted a large portion of one session to Sid Caesar. I showed clips and discussed his greatness and importance in length. You’ve doubtless been seeing and reading tributes all week. They’re all terrific. Billy Crystal, in particular, wrote a lovely one.

So the only thing I could add would be any personal experience I had with the gentleman. And since that wasn’t good I had planned to just let it pass. But my silence was apparently more noticeable than I had assumed.

So here’s my encounter with Sid Caesar, and I will say this – it taught me a very valuable lesson so I do have him to thank for that. In 1980 I was hosting a Saturday night talk show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. Sid agreed to be my guest one night. I couldn’t be more excited. I cleared an entire hour for him, prepared lots of questions, and figured we’d get tons of calls from adoring listeners. I promoted the show for weeks. Like I said, this was a huge deal for me. I was not used to meeting Comedy Gods.  This was going to be a love fest and I knew he'd enjoy it. 

He showed up at the station very surly. This was during his notorious “drinking” phase I was later to learn. I figured, “Okay, that’s what he’s like off-the-air. I’m sure he’ll turn on the charm once the red light goes on.”

I was wrong.

From the minute he turned on the mic he was nasty, rude, and bitter. I started taking phone calls. The board lit up like a Christmas tree. But after he dismissed and belittled the first two callers the lines went dead. Who wants to subject themselves to that kind of abuse? I looked on the clock. It’s was 8:10. I had :50 minutes to go (and very few commercials). They were the longest fifty minutes of my life. Sid basically just beat the shit out of me on the radio.

The next morning I called my friend, Ronn Owens, who is the top talk show host in San Francisco on KGO. I laid out my tale of woes and when I was finished he said, “It was your fault.” “MY fault? How could it possibly be my fault?” “It’s your show,” he said. “When you have a bad guest you just dump him at the next break and move on.” “Yeah, but this was Sid Caesar. He drove all the way to the station. I promoted this. I couldn’t just blow off Sid Caesar,” I said. “So what?” was his reply. “If you have a bad guest, whoever it is, dump him. You should have enough prepared material that for any emergency you can just go to another topic and keep the show rolling.” Since that day I have never done a talk show where I wasn’t prepared to the teeth.

Like I said, this was during a bad phase in Sid Caesar's life. Had I known him at a different time, or had I worked with him in his halcyon days (okay, I would have been 2 but I was funny even then), I might have a completely different impression of the man. He was a true giant who, like all of us, was plagued with demons. So I celebrate his legacy and invite you to celebrate it as well. If you’re not really familiar with his work, go to YouTube and watch some of his sketches. He was truly remarkable. Remember him for that.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My worst birthday EVER

Thanks to everyone for your lovely birthday wishes.  I not only survived it but had a nice day.    MUCH better than my birthday several years ago. 

But first, this is your last chance to get the Kindle version of my memoir, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) for only $0.99.  Here's where you go to order yours.   Learn how I became the demented person I am and which rock star I threw out of a record store listening booth.   This offer ends at midnight.  

Okay, now to the post...

This is an absolute true story.

I was just about to turn 55 (which is traumatic enough). It was 11:15 at night. I was watching this documentary series on HBO about the Porn industry. Hey, it just happened to be on.

They were asking various porn stars a series of questions. One of the questions was “What WON’T you do?”

One by one they listed all manner of depraved acts. No double-penetration. No triple-penetration. No groups more than ten. No animals. No S & M. No vegetables. They were rattling off kinky and disgusting acts I didn’t even know were possible. The most humiliating, degrading sexual requests you could ever imagine.

Finally, they get to one girl who says, “Hey, whatever. They’re paying me. I’ll do just about anything…” and then she added, “As long as it’s not with a guy who’s like 55.”

That was it. My life was over. Torture was fine. Goats were fine. But sex with a 55 year old, that’s where you draw the line.

I spent that birthday in a fetal position under my desk familiarizing myself with what benefits I was entitled to under Medicare.

Big book sale ends today

This is the final day you can buy the Kindle version of my book, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) for only $0.99.   Normally it's $4.99.   Here's where you go to get yours.

You need more incentive?  ($0.99 isn't incentive enough?).  Here is the book trailer I made. 
 

Get yours today!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday Questions

What better way to spend my birthday than to answer Friday Questions? Oh yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day too. Good luck getting a dinner reservation.  

And in case you missed my last post, I am selling my memoir -- THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) for only $0.99 today and tomorrow only.  Here's where you go to order yours. 

B Smith has a question from down under:

Ken....the new series of So You Think You Can Dance Australia commences shortly, and a lot of the publicity centers on one of the new judges: Paula Abdul.

Is there anything we should look out for when she's on?

Well, she’s nuts. But that’s the good news. She will often appear drunk or stoned. She will make absurd comments and her critiques will be jaw dropping (even though she does know choreography). If there’s a hot young guy she’ll practically throw herself at him.

AMERICAN IDOL was never as good after she left.

But I fully expect her to say at some point, “How come you people all talk funny?”

Chris asks:

When you go outside with a multi-cam show, does the setup turn into single camera or do you still shoot with 4 cameras? Have you ever directed an episode where you had to shoot outside?

You shoot it single camera. I’ve done many outside shoots. My very first one was for the Al Franken sitcom, LATELINE. We went out to Griffith Park to film a scene of the senator and fellow cast member, Robert Foxworth horseback riding. On the first take Foxworth threw out his back. We had to summon an ambulance and it took three paramedics a half hour to gingerly get him off the horse. "that's a wrap, everybody."

Every studio seems to have a New York street and I’ve filmed on the one at Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and CBS Radford.

I filmed a scene once in a crowded movie theater. But my favorite was a scene from a DHARMA & GREG I directed. We shot it at Ghiradelli Square at night. I had a crane, a tower, and one hundred extras. That was great fun. Then we shot a car speeding through the streets of San Francisco. FAST & FURIOUS ½.

From Dan Bell:

What are some of the most classic, funniest moments in TV history that you've witnessed as they were performed on the set, while the tapes were rolling? Is there a top moment that ranks as the best in your memory?

I was on the stage at CHEERS when Sam and Diane had their first kiss. The audience went nuts, and I still say that was the peak moment of the series, even though they made 200+ more episodes.

Watching our first MASH being filmed was pretty breathtaking. Hearing Alan Alda and Harry Morgan say our words was almost surrealistic.

Same with seeing Johnny Carson do a monologue that we had written getting big laughs from a TONIGHT SHOW audience. That was the filming of the CHEERS episode we wrote where Cliff gets a joke on THE TONIGHT SHOW.

I was there for the first and last episodes of CHEERS, WINGS, and FRASIER.

But if I had to pick one – it would clearly be being in the audience during the filming of the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. From the first scene we knew we were witness to something extraordinary.

Jeff Hysen has a MASH question:

Tell us about how you crafted Lt. Patty Haven. I've always loved her two scenes with Radar. When After-MASH was on, I was hoping that she would be Radar's wife. Was that considered?

We wanted Radar to find love and send him back home with something to look forward to. Also, as originally conceived “Goodbye Radar” was supposed to be the final episode of season 7. CBS asked if we could make two episodes and save it for November sweeps the next season. So that’s what we did. And in expanding the story we added the romantic subplot. (How's that for a Valentine's Day tie-in?)

By the way, a former girlfriend of mine was Patty Haven.

Gary Burghoff did not want to do AfterMASH so there were no discussions, although he did guest in one episode. Can I be honest? David and I wrote that episode and I don’t remember anything about it, except that the great Larry Gelbart directed it.

Again, Happy VD.

My Valentine's Day Gift to You

To commemorate Valentine's Day and my birthday, for the next two days I am selling THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) Kindle version for only $0.99.   It's my humorous look back at the decade of the Beatles, the California Myth, California Meth, hippies, sex (for others), radio, records, the Sunset Strip, ridiculous fashions, three networks, cool cars, love ins and drive ins, and more. 

Normally $4.99, today it's less than a buck.  Here's where you go to order yours.  

Seriously, I'm very proud of this book, and if you're a fan of my writing -- no matter what decade you're from -- you will enjoy this book.  And get some laughs.   Thanks.  Peace, love, you can't beat this price.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Attending a TV taping

Tonight I get an early birthday present (my birthday is tomorrow – Valentine’s Day birthdays suck, but that’s another post) – I’ll be going to Paramount Studios to watch the taping of a show written by that talented young team of Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson. It’s an episode of INSTANT MOM, starring Tia Mowry (Sundays at 8:30 on Nick @ Nite). Actually, it’s a “special” episode with a Mother’s Day theme and  will include famous TV moms like Florence Henderson, Marion Ross, Meredith Baxter, and Jackee. (Annie's in the middle.  Jon is in the top row, light blue shirt.)  It’ll air in May. Don’t worry. I’ll let you know when.

But if you’ve never been to a taping of a TV sitcom, it’s something to add to your Bucket List. It’s free, first of all. And tickets are generally available. The only possible hard part is you’ve got to get to Los Angeles. Write the show, the network, or if you’re in LA there are places that distribute tickets (like the Grove).

And if you do go to a TV taping, here are some things to look for:

There will be monitors overhead. You have the option of either watching the monitors or the action down on the stage. The problem with watching it on the stage is that sometimes you’re blocked by moving cameras. Here’s what I suggest. They always shoot scenes at least twice. Watch the monitor the first take. That way you follow the story and can laugh at the jokes. On the second take, watch the action on the stage.

Some little things to observe: There are tiny strips of tape all over the floor. These are the actor’s marks. When an actor moves and then stops he has to stop right on his mark. Finding your mark without looking down at your feet or being self conscious about it is a real art. Watch how seamlessly most of the actors do this. Watch the boom mike swing from actor to actor. When actors move so do the camera. Check out how they are continuously in motion. It’s kind of a ballet.

After the first take you may see a huddle down on the stage. Chances are that’s the writing staff pitching alternate jokes for one that didn’t work. When you see that huddle you can almost bet a new line or two will introduced in the next take. Dazzle your friends.

Watch the director. Does he seem in control? Is he a little frazzled? How much interaction does he have with the cast and the crew between takes? You can get a sense – are the actors comfortable with him? You can tell by body language. Is the director easy going? Tense? Supportive? Distracted?  At times Jim Burrows would literally kick cameras during the scene to move them over. 

Between takes you’ll notice make up and hair people rushing onto the stage to do touch up work. I’m here to tell you, 90% of the time it’s not necessary.

The warm up man can greatly enhance the experience. He’s got a hard job. He’s got to keep you entertained for long stretches. I did warm up the first year of CHEERS. One time the air conditioning went out. It was the longest night of my life. But a lot of warm up guys will take questions from the audience. If there are things about the process you want to know, don’t hesitate to ask.

Go to the bathroom before the show.

Many shows provide snacks during the taping (candy bars, pretzels, nuts) but not all so you can’t count on it. Plan to eat either before or after.

Bring a sweater or light jacket because sound stages tend to be on the cold side. Once the show starts actually taping it will warm up slightly due to the hot lights on the stage.

Don’t expect autographs.

Sometimes certain scenes are pre-shot. They’ll be shown back to you on the monitors. At first you may think you’re being gyped, but as the evening unfolds you’ll find yourself glad for those pre-shot scenes. They move the night along. And trust me, you’ll see enough actual “show’ being taped, even with the pre-shoots.

Depending on the show, tapings can drag on. The studio generally doesn't want you to leave before the end of the show, but if you have to go then go. I feel it’s the obligation of the show to keep things moving for the audience’s benefit. Do pick ups after they leave. Preshoot difficult scenes. Ask actors to change wardrobe quickly between scenes. I even like to provide a small band to play between scenes to keep the folks involved. Many shows (certainly ones that I produced) take great effort in making the experience a pleasurable one for the audience. It’s a win/win. A happier audience will stay longer and laugh louder. But there are a few shows that practically ignore the audience. They take forever and don’t seem to care. Studios will probably hate that I’m saying this but if you’re bored, tired, hungry, have spent hours just to get the first two scenes, feel free to leave. Don't feel guilty.  You don’t owe them anything. Like I said, it’s the production’s obligation to make YOU feel comfortable.

You may not realize it but you, as an audience member, are making a major contribution to the show. Actors feed off your energy and laughter. A good audience will lead to better performances and ultimately a better show. You’re not just spectators, you’re an important part of the creative process.

Thanks to everybody who ever attended one of my tapings.  

And if you come to the taping of INSTANT MOM tonight, say hello. I’ll be the one looking really proud.

NOTE:  Tomorrow for blog readers, a Valentine's gift for you.  Check back in the morning.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sam Rubin responds on my blog

I have to say, the man is a mensch.  Sam recently left a comment on my blog regarding the dueling Sams incident.  It would have been so easy to just say, "Yeah, I meant the CAPTAIN AMERICA commercial," but Sam told the truth.  And he's being a great sport about this whole thing.  

As you might imagine, humor has always been held in high regard in my family.  Both of my kids are funny.  But the one thing I always stressed is that if you dish it out you have to be able to take it.  There will be times when the target is you, and you have to take it with good grace.  That's what Sam is doing.  So I tip my cap and am reprinting Sam's comment.   Thanks so much for posting it. 

That mistake was all my own. And to be honest, I think I confused about five different things. There WAS a Captain American clip that DID run during the Super Bowl, although I don't know if [Samuel L Jackson] was featured in that clip. There are those credit card commercials, and then of course there was the Laurence Fishburne car commercial.

So I kind of put it out there vaguely. Er, I really wasn't certain, and obviously that was the wrong thing to do.

The minute I realised it, I said to [Samuel L Jackson] I was sorry for it.

I really pride myself on the fact that unlike a lot of people who do this kind of work, more often than not I really do know what I'm talking about, but I didn't [during that segment] and I'm really embarrassed about it, and I very much apologize to Samuel L. Jackson and anyone else who was offended for what was a very amateur mistake.

My favorite romantic movie scene of all-time

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching (too fast for most guys), our thoughts turn to romance or execution-like gang slayings in Chicago.

Love stories are the driving force of most movies. DIE HARD is essentially a love story. So is KING KONG. And SHREK. (I still can’t tell you what INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is). We’ve all been moved at one time or another by a romantic scene on the silver screen. So my question for today: what is yours?

And I’m talking romance not what is your favorite steamy scene? William Hurt throwing a chair through a window to get to Kathleen Turner in BODY HEAT was pretty smoking, but the charge you got was in your loins not your heart. I’m talking romance. I don’t know of any hearts that melted when Hurt later took Turner from behind.

My favorite romantic scene is somewhat unconventional I would say. I’m not a big fan of schmaltz. Sweeping music builds to a crescendo; two starry-eyed lovers embrace in the rain and breathlessly confess their undying love for each other. Ugh. Or anything from TITANIC. Call me a cynic but in JERRY MCGUIRE they lost me at “Hello.”

(In general, I’m not a big fan of catch phrases. “You make me a better me.” “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” “Stella!!!)

So there are many great ones to choose from. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meeting on the Empire State Building in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Practically any scene from CASABLANCA. Jon Cusack holding up the boombox in SAY ANYTHING. Lady and the Tramp eating the same piece of spaghetti.

To me the perfect scene is one that is…

Short
Deeply heartfelt
Doesn’t take itself too seriously
Original
Something I wish I had done

So this is my pick. It’s from LOVE ACTUALLY. This poor schlepp has been trying to tell Keira Knightley that he loves her the whole movie. She’s now married to his best friend. He finally has the courage to declare his love. Here’s how he does it:

Damn!  It kills me every time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is the theatre really dead? NO!

Allow me to respond, sir. This is a comment I received last week on my “Tips For Young Playwrights” post. It’s by Angry Gamer. He writes:

Writing a theater play to me seems so oh I don't know... so 1500s.

I don't mean this as a slam or anything. I am saying this seriously. Why do a play in a time when TV and Film is getting overtaken by new media?

For art?
For challenge?
For fun?

All of these might be relevant back in 1562 when Bill was being born. But today?

Spiderman The Play! is a cautionary tale and it's interesting someone already commented on it.

Perhaps I am too cynical but why would anyone really spend the time and effort to gestate a play to be appreciated with the polite applause of a few hundred? When that same creative talent could be projected to millions via new media?

I am a bit biased I DO work in technology... But still the best advice I ever got about being obsolete was this pithy statement:  "You never want to be in the buggy whip business when a Henry Ford turns 20."

Okay, my first reaction is: “Really? You really have to ask? You really don’t know?”

Ohhh-kay. 

Here’s the short answer: The day that human beings are obsolete is the day we’re all in serious trouble. Worse than DUCK DYNASTY being a hit television show.

No technology can match the experience of being in a theater watching actual people perform live. When it works the audience and performers feed off of each other and it takes the experience to a whole higher level. It’s thrilling. It’s magic. For all the impressive special effects and scope, no one has ever been transported by MEN OF STEEL.

Barbara Cook is an extraordinary singer. Talk to professional singers and they’ll tell you she’s the Joe DiMaggio of warbling. She’s 86. She’s still performing. And she still sounds amazing. I’ve seen her in concert numerous times, dating back to when she was a spring chicken at 80. And the woman knows how to do an encore. For her final song she sets down the microphone and just sings acapella. Hearing her pure voice, without amplification and equalization was absolutely thrilling. Unprotected sex for the senses.

Only a live performance can create such a feeling. And it’s that feeling that is its own reward for all involved – the audience, the actors, and the playwright.

I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve written hundreds of episodes of multi-camera shows – all performed live for a studio audience. Yes, it’s great that 20,000,000 people will see it on TV, but not nearly as exciting as hearing 200 people laugh loudly at the taping. I mean, if you want to write material that is meant to be performed, don’t you want to be there when an audience is seeing it performed? Peering over someone’s shoulder when he’s watching on an iPad Mini does not stack up. If you are trying to move people or make them laugh, don’t you want to be in the room to see your objectives realized? Yes, you get that to a degree if you go to a Cineplex and see your movie on the big screen, but it isn’t the same. It just isn’t.

The line is attributed to Larry Gelbart – he may or may not be the person who said it – but someone supposedly asked him if you could make a living in the theater. His response was: “You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.” If you write a big hit play or musical it’s a gold mine. But that’s like winning the lottery. Most playwrights know going in they’re not going to make gobs of money. That’s why most, for practical reasons, gravitate to TV and film. I did. There’s way more money in Hollywood (although not as much as there used to be). And yes, more people will see one episode of DADS than all the productions combined of your off-Broadway play even if it runs five years.

But that’s not why we wanted to become writers… or actors… or directors. So if I write a play that really transports an audience, even if it’s only 49 people in a small theater, I’m happy.

I also think it’s easier to challenge an audience in the theater, to have your words resonate long after your show is over.  The goal for most television shows is to keep you in front of the screen for the next commercial.

Low technology means no animated promos in the bottom of the screen, no annoying trailers to sit through, and a play never pauses while it’s being re-buffered.

The other perk for a playwright is that the stage is the only medium where the word is king. No one can change your dialogue without your permission. A director can’t trample it, a studio can’t replace you, actors can’t ad lib. After years of network notes, standards and practice notes, mandatory changes based on testing, it’s liberating to write what YOU want, to write from your heart not your testing data.

And actors like to act. Unless you’re a big star or on a hit series, how often do you get the chance to practice your craft? Thank God for the theater. And thank God for actors who choose roles based on the part not the medium.

And finally, don’t knock 1562. I wrote some very funny one acts that year.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Funniest interview I've seen in ten years

Get ready to fall down laughing. Readers of my blog know how I tee off on KTLA entertainment reporter Sam Rubin for his moronic questions on red carpet shows. Truth is, I like Sam personally. He's a nice guy, but JEEZUZ! Here he is live on KTLA's morning show interviewing Samuel L. Jackson... except he confuses him with someone else. This is a new instant classic.


"The Night That Changed America" -- my review

79,000,000 watched the Beatles on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW fifty years ago. I’m sure CBS would be thrilled if 9,000,000 tuned in to last night’s 2 1/2 hour tribute, “The Night That Changed America.” It was up against stiff competition. “Holiday on Ice” on NBC and INSTANT MOM on Nick @ Nite. Fortunately, I DVR’d the Beatles special so was able to watch the 150 minute program in 90 minutes. 

Recorded a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles, various rock stars performed cover versions of Beatles classics for Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, both of whom were in attendance. The evening built to a rare reunion of Paul and Ringo that brought back memories of Super Bowl halftime shows.

Shoehorned in were clips from that historic ED SULLIVAN appearance along with very cool interviews with some of the production crew members who worked that show. One guy had to fill in for George Harrison during a rehearsal. There’s a great shot of Paul, John, Ringo, and this yutz on the familiar stage.

In taped segments, Paul and Ringo went back to the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, now the home of LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN.  Letterman interviewed them about that night and could not be more disinterested if he were interviewing me.   He made it seem like he was sent to Detention. They should have gotten Jay Leno.  He was available. 

But most of the night was the glorious music. And endless crowd shots. All you saw were either the principles (and Yoko, who either aged well or always looked old), celebrities like Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and hot young women. Go to a real Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr concert. Everyone has grey hair or is bald. 14,000 aged hippies. Not one of them was in view at this concert. In its heyday, I don’t think the guard at the door of Studio 54 was as picky as whoever admitted this charmed crowd. It looked more like an open casting call for a CW show. If you were as old as one of the Beatles but weren’t one of the Beatles, good luck.

The presenters were a complete random group. LL Cool J. (who’s on a CBS show), Sean Penn and Johnny Depp (could they possibly have come off more pompous and self-absorbed?), Anna Kendrick and Kate Beckinsale, who both looked amazing (which is undoubtedly why they were chosen), and Eric Idle for much needed humor, even though it led to the one cringeworthy moment of the night. In his monologue at one point he said, “Oh, John is dead” and they cut to an audience shot of smiling people seemingly delighted with that statement. Now I can understand that “oops” moment if it was live, but this was taped. That reaction shot was intended.

Most of the performances were terrific The guitar playing, in particular, was thrilling all night. . Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison killed doing “Something.” Keith Urban and John Mayer rocked out on "Don't Let Me Down." And my favorite was David Grohl, Gary Clark Jr. and Joe Walsh doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” When Peter Frampton is just a backup guitarist, you know you’re in rarified surroundings.

Brentwood High's own Adam Levine continues to prove he’s more than just a rock band front man and reality show mentor. He’s a terrific singer who really did justice to “Ticket to Ride.” I keep wanting to hate him because he’s so talented and good-looking, but I just love the guy. Best singer of the night was John Legend. His duet with Alicia Keyes on “Let It Be” was for me, the absolute highlights of the evening.

Stevie Wonder sang his funky rendition of “We Can Work It Out.” I always thought his version was better than the Beatles, and he sang it as well last night as he did 40 years ago.

Katy Perry is gorgeous to look at. The Imagine Dragons had lovely harmonies on “Revolution” but it was weird hearing it turned into a Four Freshman tune.

As Ed Sullivan himself would say, “And now, for you youngsters…” Cirque du Soleil was employed during “Here Comes the Sun” but you rarely saw them. They also did an encore at the end of the concert, but by then so many elements were being thrown in it looked like the Radio Shack Super Bowl ad.

Biggest disappointment for me was Annie Lennox. You may disagree, but I thought she massacred “Fool On The Hill.” There were some notes that made my teeth rattle.

At one point they showed Sean Lennon in the audience taking a photo of the stage on his iPhone. If I were in that crowd I’d be doing the same thing – although I’d have fifty shots of Victoria Secrets models and Paul's new wife.

Finally, it was time for the men of the hour. Ringo performed first. He always seems like comic relief. And you get the feeling he’s the only one in the room who doesn’t know that. Still, I love his goofy spirit and as long as he doesn’t sing “You’re 16, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine” I’m happy. I’ve seen him in concert with his All-Star band twice and he puts on a great show.

But he’s no Paul McCartney. Sir Paul followed with three numbers and even though I was worried he’d have a hernia every time he really wailed, he sounded great and there’s something very comforting about knowing an original Beatle can still bring it fifty years later.

The night concluded with the mini-reunion. Paul sang “Sgt. Pepper” and Ringo followed with “A Little Help From My Friends.” They concluded with “Hey Jude” and as they scanned the beautiful people of this hand-picked audience I wondered how many of these girls were hearing these songs for the very first time.
Depending on how you look at it, by cramming the show with contemporary artists, celebrities, and an audience that looked like a USC 10 year reunion, CBS was either trying to introduce this brilliant music to younger generations, or it was doing everything it could to program to a young demographic, and the people old enough to remember and really appreciate the Beatles were no longer a priority… except when they aired the Flomax spots. I hope it was the former.

I know a lot of young people don’t love the Beatles, and I get that. We can say they changed America, we can point to the innovative music they created and how they influenced everything culturally in the ‘60s. But to some extent, you had to be there. Or read my book about growing up in the ‘60s – available on Amazon now. (Was that subtle enough?)