Tuesday, September 30, 2014

SELFIE: My review

SELFIE, which premiers tonight is ABC's blatant attempt to attract Millennial viewers and appear “hip” and “with it” or whatever it is that those young people say these days. The end result is they’ve managed to take some decent actors and a good writer and produce one God awful television show. WTF ABC? Sitcom by calculation. Is this comedy? NIMBY.

The premise is a modern day PYGMALION. Or a modern day MY FAIR LADY, which at the time was a modern PYGMALION. In MY FAIR LADY, Eliza Doolittle is this rough-edged Cockney girl. Refined Professor Henry Higgins takes it upon himself to transform her into a lady of culture and grace. But at heart, Eliza is a lovely person. For Crissakes, Julie Andrews played her on Broadway and Audrey Hepburn played her in the movie.  You could almost see the halos.

So imagine if Kathy Griffin played her. Or Chelsea Handler. Or Ann Coulter.

Normally likeable Karen Gillan is (wait for it) "Eliza Dooley," a buffoonish unbelievably self-absorbed bitch/slut. She has a gazillion social media friends but discovers that (OMG #tragic) that she has no real friends. Frowny Face. STBY.   (How did she get all these millions of followers?  #MakesNoSense)

But y’see, she gets sick on an airplane, fills two barf bags, and as she walks up the aisle both bags break at once (#how is that possible? SITD) drenching her in vomit. ROFL. Actually, this is the big joke in the pilot. #moronic #disgusting.

Five minutes of lame ironic lines that are supposed to serve as jokes later, she seeks out John Cho as “Henry Higgs” (#seriously?) to help transform her into someone likeable. He agrees to help because… well, that’s the plot. And what we have is Higgs trying to humanize Eliza and Eliza trying to loosen up Higgs. Will they eventually fall in love? WEG.

Some problems: Eliza’s self-absorption and blatant disregard for others is the only vein of humor in the entire series. And the objective is to rid her of that. And John Cho, who is a very nice actor, is an absolute enemy of comedy. As the expression goes – he couldn’t get a laugh if we were wearing ten chicken suits.

A romantic comedy requires chemistry (RTFM) and there is zero between these two leads. #Awkward.

Everything about this misfire feels manipulative, false, and created in a focus group. Style is valued way more than substance. Who cares if the characters are one-dimensional, the premise is deeply flawed, and the jokes are meh? Text messages pop up on the screen! #CuttingEdge.

I guess if you want to do a comedy today based on people that exist on the planet earth who wrestle with relatable issues in a way that respects the audience and doesn’t pander to them you are SOL. TBTS.

ABC should be ashamed of itSELFIE.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The process of a play: part 2

Here’s another installment of the process of producing my play, A OR B? which begins previews October 15th at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. Tickets you say? Here’s where you go.

After a week of table readings and analyzing the script it was time to get it on its feet.

I’m used to television where that means the cast rehearses in the show’s various sets. Not so in the thee-a-tah.  Since another show is currently on the Falcon stage we remained in the rehearsal hall. A tape outline of the stage was laid down on the floor and the actors and director worked from that.

I’m always amazed at the actor’s process. First off, it’s like snowflakes – no two actors have the same process. But I’ve witnessed this many times. A reading is one thing, but once an actor can actually get on his or her feet and use their body their performance just blossoms. Having the physicality (and soon the wardrobe) really helps the actor get into character. In our case, Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox have taken the words and started making them their own.

And when there are places where the dialogue doesn’t feel right, our actors have the playwright right there to say, “Who wrote this shit?” And “You’ll get new lines tomorrow.”

Having the playwright (i.e. ME) there for rehearsals has been advantageous. Most of the time I just sit and watch and let the director work with the cast. But every so often they hit a rough patch in the script and it’s good that I’m there to explain my intent. And I probably save them hours of discussion by saying, “The problem is it sucks. I’ll give you something else.”

What makes the rewriting easier is that now I can tailor it to our specific actors. Whenever I write an original piece I try to picture someone in the role, even if it’s an actor I know I’ll never get. I don’t think Meryl Streep will want to play the neighbor mom in a pilot. But at least if you’re basing the character on a specific movie star it’s that much easier for the casting director to find a similar type.

In the case of my play, however, I didn’t model the characters after anyone famous. Try telling a casting director the star is sort of like my cousin Milty.

You would think that once the actors had to memorize blocking in addition to the script it would make it that much harder. But the opposite is true. The blocking helps them by giving them constant signposts.

My play has only two actors and very sparse sets. Our director, Andrew Barnicle, was able to do the initial blocking in only two days, which he acknowledged was incredibly quick. I asked how long it usually takes him to block a play. Three days.

We’re still at the stage where we have to leave a lot to the imagination. Lighting design and cues play a large part in my play and we won’t see that aspect of the production until we’re on the main stage – a couple of weeks from now. It’s like filming a movie in front of green screen. You have to imagine what it’s ultimately going to look like.

This is another reason why I’m glad I’m not directing this play. My inexperience would be so glaring at every turn. Andrew said to me one day that he was quite pleased. The actors seemed ahead of schedule – which is great, except I have no idea what the schedule is. At what point should they have the play memorized? At what point should they be in wardrobe? How do you know when you’re over-rehearsing? When can you let them go to the bathroom?

So the rehearsing continues. Stay tuned for more installments. And again, hope you get to see the final result. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hey, weren't you "Jerk at the bar?"

A trainer in my gym is also an actor. (I know – knock you over with a feather). He recently appeared on the Showtime series CALIFORNICATION playing the fan favorite, “Hollywood Asshole”. And knowing him, I bet he was good in it. Some of his previous roles included “Jerk at the Bar”, “Thug #2”, and to prove he has range – “Jogger”.

An actress I know has these impressive credits: “Vegas Showgirl” on CSI. Also “Bikini Girl”, “Sheik Girl”, “Cute Girl”, and “Homewrecker”.

Another actress friend boasts these credits on imdb: “Waitress”, “Saleswoman”, “Assistant Candidate #1”, and the part she’s best known for -- “Desperate Woman”.

And one of the most talented comic actors I know lists these on his resume: “Caterer”, “Waiter”, “Delivery Boy”, “Great Great Grandfather” (he was in his 30’s at the time), “Husband”, “Exterminator”, and my personal favorite – “Squid”.

Forget being a star, most actors in Hollywood would be thrilled for a role that actually had a name.

Usually these parts are one or two lines, usually day player roles. But not always. Remember the old guy who used to sit at the bar at CHEERS. His name was Al Rosen. He became a semi-regular. He had lines in probably thirty episodes. His name on the show was “Man Who Said Sinatra”.

“Sinatra” was the first line he was assigned, he got a good laugh, and a few weeks later the writers were looking to give a line to a bar patron and someone suggested, “What about the man who said Sinatra?” And thus a legend was born.

It’s not easy being an actor. And for every one who gets a part as “Punk #2” and “Guy in the Sewer” just remember – there are five others who auditioned for those parts and didn’t get them.

Yours truly,

Schmuck with blog

This was a re-post from 5 1/2 years ago.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Farewell Derek Jeter

Okay, this is a baseball post. So for many of you, see you tomorrow. But I love baseball, have opinions, and have a blog. So here are some observations from the bleachers:

I love Derek Jeter.   There, I admit it.  Even with all the hype, even though I'm not a Yankee fan, I think Derek Jeter is one of the finest and classiest ballplayers in history.  How classy?  Even though he's out of work starting Monday I bet he doesn't file for unemployment insurance.  I tip my cap. 

Yankee broadcaster, Suzyn Waldman, had the perfect line after Derek Jeter’s spectacular final-at-bat at Yankee Stadium (when he singled in the winning run) – “The last YANKEE has left the building.” Amen.

Clayton Kershaw deserves to win the National League Cy Young Award, the MVP, a Golden Glove, and the Heisman Trophy.

Wednesday night the Dodgers clinched the NL West at Dodger Stadium by defeating the Giants. However, had Milwaukee lost that day the Giants would have clinched the second Wild Card spot. So both teams would have had champagne locker room celebrations. This just points out the absurdity of two Wild Card teams. When 10 of 30 teams make it into the postseason that really diminishes the accomplishment.

Yes, more teams remain in contention, which boosts attendance, but at one times teams had to be the best. But MLB now eliminates those great pennant races. No longer are two teams vying for the division (or, at one time, league) championship, where when team can win 100 games and if the other wins 101 you go home – now both teams are in because the loser gets one of the Wild Cards. So the real final weekend suspense is who gets the second Wild Card slot. Wow! That’s like the big suspense at the Oscars is which movie finishes fourth for Best Picture?

MLB wonders why the World Series isn’t as big an attraction anymore. First of all, there are three playoff series in each league that occur before we even get to the World Series. Plus, since there is so much interleague play now, there is no longer any novelty from the National League playing the American League.

I’m rooting for the Kansas City Royals.
I’m sure when the schedule makers arranged for the Yankees to end the season in Boston they just assumed it would be a big series. Who knew that both teams would be eliminated? Kansas City at Chicago and Oakland at Texas are big series.

Considering the Tigers’ pitching staff and lineup, they should have run away with the AL Central. Same with the Dodgers in the NL West.

Yasiel Puig is such an exciting player. But he may be the dumbest Dodger since Pedro Guerrero, although it will take way more idiocy to reach Pedro’s level. Guerrero was on trial for drug trafficking and his defense team argued that he was too stupid to know what was going on. He won. His IQ is listed as 70.

Corey Kluber of Cleveland could sneak in and win the AL Cy Young Award. King Felix pitches tomorrow. It behooves him to throw another no-hitter.

Bud Selig really is retiring, right? I mean, this isn’t like Cher? He’s really going?

How about for the World Series we make the losing team the Wild Card World Series champion so both teams can celebrate the final game of the season?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Questions

How can you enjoy a weekend without Friday Questions?  You can't.  So here they are:

MDHaines is up first.

Does bias have to be a bad thing in Hollywood? If a liberal slant attracts a large liberal audience, or vice-versa, isn't the bottom line still whether not money is being made? Are actors really black listed because of politics?

Depends on whether networks believe politics are in vogue. A left wing slant didn’t hurt ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, MAUDE, and WEST WING.

But for a long time networks avoided political-themed shows at all costs. I told this story before (I’ve been doing this blog long enough now that I’ve probably told everything before), but in 1980 my partner, David, and I had a pilot at ABC about the White House Press Corps. We were not allowed to divulge the president’s party affiliation or even allowed to give the president a fictitious name. Can you believe how absurd that is? Now that same network has a big hit with SCANDAL where a U.S. president (who is named) is committing adultery. (But it’s with Kerry Washington, so America says thumbs up.)

The bottom line is that if political shows get ratings there will be more of them. No matter how they lean.

Back in the '50s actors were blacklisted all the time.  Today, it's a matter of whether the public likes the actor despite his or her beliefs.   Patricia Heaton has very polarizing political views  but that hasn't stopped her from starring in several successful series.   The general belief is that Hollywood is very left wing.  And yet Kelsey Grammer gets one gig after another. 

Massimo asks:

Some repetitions of ideas over the life of a series, surely, represent not a lack of originality, but the deliberate exploration of a theme. I'm thinking of the many episodes of "Frasier" that take place in hotel rooms, where the characters involved experience a psychological breakthrough (or breakdown)—Frasier and Lilith, Frasier and Niles, and in one particularly brilliant episode all three. Many of these episodes were Levine/Isaacs creations. I'm curious to know how this idea developed.

David Isaacs and I drew a lot of episodes involving the return of CHEERS characters. Four with Lilith, one with Sam, and one cameo by Diane.

Since they were all visiting Seattle the stories just tended to end up in hotel rooms. And in the two-parter “Adventures in Paradise” (featuring Lilith) we did hotel room scenes in Bora Bora. I must say, though, I have a real fondness for the hotel room scenes. They were probably the best scenes we wrote for the show. But when you get to write for actors the caliber of Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, Ted Danson, JoBeth Williams, and Tea Leoni how can you go wrong?

Maybe I should put all of our hotel room scenes together. It’s the closest David and I will ever come to writing PLAZA SUITE.

Bradley wonders:

Is there a particular script from one of your shows that you knew going in was not up to par, but had to move into production anyway? I'm thinking a situation like this is more likely toward the end of a season, when time is running short and you have to deliver an episode even if the script is not the best.

On multi-camera shows you know you have the week of production to rewrite the script. And honestly, there are episodes that you know going in still needs work. The story still doesn’t feel right. For political reasons you haven’t rewritten the original writer’s draft enough and it needs more rewriting. And like you said, it’s the end of the year. You’re tired and say “we'll fix it when its on its feet.”

But you always pay for that. Long rewrites nights just when you need them the least. It’s like when you have a depleted bullpen and your team is now playing an extra inning game and you’ve just entered the 15th inning.

That said, once we tackle a troubled script we do our very best to fix it and turn it into a good show.  And most times we're successful.  It's just that we're a wreck.  

At the beginning of a full-season of 22 episodes I just assume there will be one or two scripts that are just snake bitten. You don’t know which ones. And those are the episodes you have faith in going to the stage. And then to add two or three that you know are still undercooked, you’re just digging yourself into a deeper hole. But we all do it.

For single-camera shows (like MASH), we spent way more time in pre-production because we knew we had little change to revise once they started filming. And still a few episodes will be disappointing. Sometimes it’s the script, the story, the director, acting, rushed production schedule, misinterpretation, budget shortcuts – you name it.

Every series turns out bad shows occasionally. The trick is to keep them to an absolute minimum. But not every episode will be a gem.

From Blinky:

Did Alan Alda's influence on the show gradually steer it away from the edgy,lots-of-drinking, womanizing Movie version to a more PC, feminist no-so-much drinking version?

Yes. But I will say this -- he was totally gracious and respectful of the writers. He was never the 800-pound gorilla. Everything he pitched was in a positive manner and his convictions were sincere. I never felt he had an “agenda” and was trying to commandeer the creative direction of the show. He was very collaborative.

There were times when I disagreed with him, but I would work with Alan Alda again in a second.

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why have there not been any hit sitcoms over the last few years?

There was a big front page article in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago on the state of sitcoms. The article accurately points out that sitcoms remain TV’s cash cow. They cost less to produce than one-hours, they do well in reruns and syndication, and cable networks rely on them to hold up their schedules.

But networks are bemoaning that they have been unable to launch any blockbuster sitcom hits for years now. BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY are the last legitimate hit sitcoms. Networks are introducing 18 new sitcoms this fall hoping that even one grabs the brass ring.

Needless to say, I’m rooting for them. That’s my genre. Most of the people I know working in television are in sitcoms. I want to see them all working – from writers to cameramen to warm up men.

And although no one can predict what will be a smash hit, early indications are that none of the debuting comedies are the panacea Hollywood is looking for. The word is just “more of the same.”

Why has it been so difficult to hatch a monster hit sitcom lately? Everyone has opinions. Mine is just one… although I have written and produced many shows that were giant hits so I do have a certain familiarity with the subject.

Here are my thoughts:

1.  Networks have no plan. They are just shooting at moving targets. For years multi-camera shows were out. Now, suddenly, they’re back in vogue. Why? Because they discovered that the few high rated sitcoms were from Chuck Lorre and they were all multi-camera. Uh, his shows have been hits for years. Networks are just discovering NOW that multi-cam is a viable format?

For the last few years they stubbornly developed primarily single-camera shows. And with the exception of MODERN FAMILY (which was produced by the best writers of multi-cam comedies over the last twenty years) none have really clicked. So why keep making them exclusively?

2.  What’s worse than the networks not having a clue is that they are now micromanaging every aspect of development. They dictate the casting, the script, even the wardrobe and set dressing. It’s absurd. The fact that anything good can come from this system is a miracle.

3.  Recent sitcoms are not funny. This is a long time pet peeve of mine. MODERN FAMILY is funny. THE BIG BANG THEORY is funny. Who gives a shit how many cameras there are?

But it almost seems as if producers are purposely avoiding big laughs, as if they’re embarrassed by jokes. You want to be the next SEINFELD or CHEERS or FRIENDS? Stop looking down your nose at laughs.  Stop being ironic and quirky.  Be FUNNY.

4.  Sitcoms today are created for niche audiences – in other words, 18-34. So a large segment of the audience feels excluded. Yes, that’s the demographic Madison Avenue covets but it’s possible to cater to them without alienating the rest of your audience. Big ratings result in syndication deals, more exposure, and quite possibly a hit.

Kevin Reilly, recently fired as head of Fox, maintained that niche shows like THE MINDY PROJECT that were getting appalling ratings were successful because they could sell them. That’s nonsense. If your goal is to develop shows that get a 1 share that’s all you’ll get. And in no universe anywhere is a 1 share a hit sitcom in America.

5.   Cast funny people not good-looking people. I’ve seen the trailer to most new sitcoms and especially in the romantic comedies, there are a number of real pretty people who are not funny for a second. God forbid an actress has a large nose or an actor is prematurely balding. Even if they are gifted comedians, at best they are relegated to “friends” of the blow-dried mannequins the network fight over to star in these shows. Again, you want the next SEINFELD? That cast picture will never be mistaken for a J-Crew ad.
6.   Another trend I see is networks hiring actors and inexperienced writers to write pilots. Pilot writing is a fucking art. Very few can do it well. Even writers who can churn out good episodes fall short when they have to step up to the demands of a pilot. So big surprise when an actor the network likes turns in an amateurish draft. Hire writers who can deliver for you. Of course the problem here is that networks avoid many of them became they’re no longer 25, and writers who are in demand would rather explore cable networks or other delivery systems where there is at least the potential of more freedom.

So what we’re left with is safe fare and fifteen versions of whatever subject matter all the networks think will be in. This year we have a bunch of upscale urban romantic comedies and families. Might one of them shine above all the rest? Sure. Again, I hope so. One of the romantic comedies could give us the next Sam & Diane. One of the family shows could be the next COSBY. But with networks pulling ALL the strings, what do you think the chances are of that happening?

In success, situation comedies remain the bedrock of television. Since we’ve gone several years without a hit, how about changing the game plan? How about doing something radical? How about hiring writers who know what they’re doing and have proven they can make audiences laugh and then just get out of the way? You might snare that elusive monster hit that makes everybody rich. Or is protecting your job more important?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Who's your favorite?

I watched the movie of THE ODD COUPLE recently starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. A lot of it still holds up, but when I first saw it as a kid I was hysterical. I couldn’t imagine any better casting than Matthau & Lemmon.

Seeing it again, after many many years, one thing struck me – I now greatly prefer Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as Oscar and Felix. Sure, part of it is familiarity, but Randall really WAS Felix Unger. Jack Lemmon was a gifted comic actor who played the part very well. And Klugman’s Oscar was the equal to Matthau’s, plus he played better off of Randall as Felix. To me. You may prefer Matthau & Lemmon. Or you may have seen the original Broadway production with Matthau and Art Carney and to you that’s the real Odd Couple.

Or even Morris Fishbine and Larry Crellman, who played them in a local community theatre in your town and to you those are the guys.

Probably the only thing that everyone can agree on is that when there was a revival on Broadway a few years ago and Nathan Lane played Oscar that was absurd.

But for most of us, it’s who you grew up with. Same with James Bonds. It used to be that there was no contest. Sean Connery was James Bond. But to younger generations Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and most recently, Daniel Craig is THE real 007.  If you went through the '60s completely drugged out you might think David Niven was the penultimate James Bond.  But you would be wrong (you'd probably be dead). 

Same with Superman. To baby boomers there’s only one: George Reeves, even though he had a gut and thinning hairline. For most of you however, I imagine Christopher Reeve is the one and only Man of Steel. If your favorite is Brandon Routh seek help.

When my partner and I took our first meeting at MASH, producer Gene Reynolds loaded us down with research and invited us to come back with stories. (We sold one and that was the beginning of our four-year association with MASH). But amongst the reading material was the novel of MASH. The 1969 movie starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould was very faithful to the book. So reading it was very strange. I kept trying to picture Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers in the roles performing the scenes, but in my head was the movie. And the character of Hawkeye is quite different in the Sutherland vs. Alda version. It was very schitzo.  Ultimately, I preferred Alan's Hawkeye, but I have to be honest -- it took about a season of the TV show to change my allegiance. 

So now, as a friendly blog survey, let me ask you, dear reader and pop culture maven..

Who is your favorite Felix & Oscar?

James Bond?

Superman?

Batman? (Michael Keaton? Really?)

Lois Lane?

Sherlock Holmes?

Dr. Who?

Darrin Stephens?

Hawkeye? 

Host of THE PRICE IS RIGHT? 

Thanks in advance for playing the game. I look forward to your feedback.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Barbra Streisand

I have a love-hate relationship with Barbra Streisand – as a performer. I’ve never met the woman. She’s never invited me to shop at the mall she had built in her house. But there are moments I think she’s the greatest singer of all-time and others when I want to put my fist through the speaker – all within the same song.

Lately, Babs has been making the rounds, hawking her new duets album. TANGENT RANT: Does every singer have to do a duet album now? Usually they’re old established crooners who now struggle to hit notes they once sang with ease. And Stevie Wonder. It’s as if a publicist said to these icons, “You gotta appeal to the kids. Let’s see if that Gaga person is available.” There have been enough of these albums now that the duet partners should all pair off and make their own albums. That way we could hear “It Had To Be You” by every combination of artists who ever made the Billboard charts in the last fifty years.

In Barbra’s case, the album is called PARTNERS. It should be called UPSTAGING. In most tracks she just wipes the floor with whomever she’s singing with. John Mayer had no shot. Only Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli had a fighting chance. And of course, Stevie Wonder.

Last week she was on THE TONIGHT SHOW… as the only guest. A lot of the things I give her credit for are also the things that piss me off. She’s very effectively positioned herself as a larger-than-life personality. For her to appear anywhere is a major event. That’s great career management. When she was on THE TONIGHT SHOW she was the only guest. When she performs in Vegas tickets are more than your house is worth. But a part of me resents that. I want to say, “Hey, who the fuck are you? So you sing well and are talented?”

Whenever she’s a guest she portrays herself as just a folksy down-to-earth Jewish girl from Brooklyn. But you KNOW that’s not who she really is. What Jewish girl from Brooklyn builds a shopping arcade in her home? At one time Barbra gave free concerts in Central Park. Now she charges the national debt of Canada to see one of her rare Vegas shows. So only the super rich and super famous can attend. Way to reward your loyal fans.

I hear she’s very difficult to work with, but I don’t know that first hand. I’ve heard that about Kristin Chenoweth, yet I directed three episodes of her sitcom and found her to be an absolute delight. She was kind to everybody, an uber hard-worker, and a total pro. So I give Barbra a pass on that one.

My real issue comes from her singing, and this was exacerbated by listening to that dedicated Streisand channel on satellite radio. When she wants to be, she is, in my humble non-professional estimation, the greatest living singer on the planet. Sorry Miley. When she chooses to, she can elevate a song to unimagined heights. It’s like she swallowed at Stradivarius.

But way too often she over sings the shit out of songs. She launches into vocal gymnastics that obliterates the meaning of many of her tunes. It’s like she doesn’t trust the material. A gorgeous melody and heartfelt lyrics aren’t enough. She has to put her stamp on everything. And often, it’s more like a “stomp.”

For me, this is infuriating because I love her voice so much. I often feel cheated. You may disagree. You may love everything she sings. The louder the note; the longer the note – the better. And that’s great. But for this simpleton, less is more.

You don’t have to work that hard, Barbra. You don’t. LeBron James doesn’t have to take every shot from half court. Tom Brady doesn’t have to throw a Hail Mary pass every play. Just sing the songs. Nice. Easy. Follow the melody. And I need new shoes. Any chance I could swing by your mall and see what you’ve got? I’ll just be there a half hour. I swear. Oh…and do you take all major credit cards?

Okay, so after all that Barbra bashing, here's an example of why I keep tuning back to the Streisand channel.   God, is she unbelievable when she wants to be.   Wow.

Monday, September 22, 2014

What I'm up to these days

I thought it might be fun to chronicle the process of having my play produced at the Falcon Theatre. (Obligatory plug for tickets: Here’s where you go.  They're going fast.  Seriously.)

The play is a two-character romantic comedy exploring the relationship if the same couple had been lovers or co-workers.

Work really began when our director, Andrew Barnicle, came aboard. Even though I’ve directed a lot of TV, I’ve never directed a stage play and since this will be a full Equity production I didn’t want to screw it up due to my inexperience.   Your crew loses a little confidence when their director says, "What's a tech rehearsal?" 

Andrew has directed hundreds of plays and I’m learning a ton just watching him. So if anyone is looking for a director for LES MISERABLES I think I’m ready.

First order of business was discussions on the script. As opposed to television, what a luxury that all notes were merely suggestions and not direct orders. I find I’m more open to changing the script if I have the option not to. Anyway, I assembled the notes from him and my producers and did another draft.

Earlier this year I had a staged reading of the play for an audience of about fifty. As a result of that and their feedback, I went back and did some major rewriting. I threw out two whole scenes and replaced them with new ones. I took twelve pages out of the first act. I adjusted attitudes throughout. And of course there were those pesky jokes that just laid there like a dead carcass in the sun. I probably changed 35% of the play based on that reading. I can’t recommend them enough (although I wasn’t saying that the night of).

Next up was casting. Again, I’m used to television. Auditions are held in the showrunner’s office. There are usually four to six people in the room sitting behind a table. Actors come in, shake your hand, stand two feet away from you and do their audition.

In the theatre, our first casting session was held in a rehearsal hall. We all sat at one end of the big room and the actors auditioned from the way over on the other side. At first this seemed strange, but it hit me – this is the theatre. Actors have to project. How do they sound and look from far away? There are no close ups, Mr. DeMille.

We saw some great people. Who knew there were a lot of actors in Los Angeles? Thanks to our casting director, Sandi Logan, for finding them. (She has three DVR's and has season passes for every show except HONEY BOO BOO.  She must sleep an hour a month.)   Since much of the play will hinge on the chemistry of the couple, for the final casting we brought back our finalists and mixed and matched. Like I said, we had a lot of awesome candidates, but one couple just seemed to leap out at us.

I couldn’t be more thrilled that Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert will play the couple.

We also needed to cast understudies and got lucky there with Lori Eve Marinacci and Josh Covitt. In many ways, they have the toughest job of all. They have to learn the play and the blocking and are on call for every performance. But who knows? I recently saw the understudy for Jessie Mueller in BEAUTIFUL and she was fantastic. It’s a crapshoot but one way to be discovered.

Rehearsals began last Tuesday. A table reading of the full play in front of the production team kicked things off. I’m reminded of that great scene in the movie ALL THAT JAZZ when there was the table reading for the musical that Roy Scheider's character was directing. You heard no sound other than him snapping his pencil. But as he looked around the room everyone was laughing hysterically. It’s like he was the only one who realized it sucked. I always respond to good table readings with reserved optimism. In this case, happily, it was a very good table reading. Oh sure there were clunker moments when I just couldn’t wait to scurry home and start making revisions. But it was fun to hear the words come alive and the story seemed to make sense.

For the first few weeks we will be in the rehearsal hall while the current show is on the stage. The first few days were spent reading the script aloud and pretty much dissecting the play line by line. Let’s just say that every ambiguous moment or tiny motivation problem I tried to sweep under the rug with a good joke got flagged. I never mind notes of clarification. If something isn’t clear or the meaning is misinterpreted that has to be addressed. My staged reading was very helpful in that regard. I was getting questions like “How long have they been together at this point?” and “So what happened to Claire?”

These are far different notes than the usual network “Could you make her more likable” mandates.

But in these few days the director and actors really found the moments and attitudes and the play was starting to come alive. I’d go home every night and rewrite (which was not easy on Thursday when the power went out in my neighborhood for ten hours).

What I find interesting is that each line was broken down for its intent, subtext, and purpose. And the director was quite right in his interpretations. But honestly, when I write, I’m not thinking of any of that. I guess it’s just intuitive. I’m in the heads of the characters thinking “Okay, so what would he say here that feels honest?” Nice to know my subconscious is on the case and not just still lamenting that girl who dumped me in high school.

But I think most writers work that way. If you really intellectually analyzed every line and bit of punctuation while composing I suspect your draft would feel very “written.” You gotta go by “feel” as much as anything else.

On Saturday they read through the entire script start to finish.  Way better than the table reading of Tuesday.   So now at least I know I’ve got a real good radio play.

Today it goes on its feet. Stay tuned for more installments over the next few weeks.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The story behind the CHEERS theme

I get asked about the CHEERS theme a lot.  So I am re-posting my post about it.

1981. Songwriter Gary Portnoy had just been fired as a staff writer from a major music publisher. His friend Judy Hart Angelo happened to meet a Broadway producer at dinner one night who needed a score written for a new musical he was producing. They decided to team up. Gary had never written for the theater, Judy had never written a song.

Somehow a tape of one of their demo songs found its way to Hollywood and the Charles Brothers. They thought it would be perfect for the theme of the new show they were developing, CHEERS.

But that’s not the song you know.

When the Broadway producer found out one of his songs was to be a TV theme he had a fit and legally blocked Paramount from using it. Crushed, Gary and Judy wrote new songs for CHEERS. But none of them connected the way the old one did.

Finally, after four or five rejected tunes they submitted “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” and that one struck a chord.

But even that’s not the song you know.

The original opening lyrics were changed to give it a more universal appeal. These are those original opening lines:

Singing the blues when the Red Sox lose
It’s a crisis in your life

On the run ‘cause all your girlfriends

Want to be your wife

And the laundry ticket’s in the wash


Once the song was written and approved there came the issue of who was going to sing it? Gary had sung the demo. There were those who wanted a big name and others who liked Gary’s rendition. With less than a month to go before the premiere it was decided that Gary would sing it and the arrangement would be simple just like the demo. Surprisingly, the Charles Brothers did not attend the recording session. We were all in the room writing one day when Glen Charles casually mentioned that they were doing the theme on one of the scoring stages. But their faith in Gary was rewarded.

The Portnoy-Angelo theme for CHEERS is one of the most memorable in TV history. Several weeks after the premiere Gary went back into the studio to record a full-length version of the song that actually made the pop charts.

Here’s that expanded version. To my knowledge it only aired on the show once, during the 200th
episode.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who needs France when you can have Vegas?

I've gotten a number of emails from readers asking for more travelogues.   The problem is I haven't traveled much this year.   But to fill your request (and plug my book of travelogues,  WHERE THE HELL AM I?   TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED, available here) I am reposting one from 2003.  This was the time a bunch of us idiots went to Vegas for the first week of March Madness.
March Madness has arrived again -- the NCAA basketball tournament. Thus the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for me and three of my middle aged sports nerd television executive buddies. Slater, the Banger, and Mr. Syracuse. Slater brought his girlfriend (who goes by either Karen or Valerie -- long story) thus increasing his chances of "getting lucky" by maybe 1%. Mr. Syracuse brought his wife thus decreasing his chances. My son, Matt flew in from Boston. He's now 21 so what better way to see Las Vegas for the first time than with his dad and three guys who look like the Pep Boys?

We stayed this year at the Paris Hotel. The theme is French hospitality (an oxymoron). I'm sure I would have been given a nicer room if I registered as Himmler. The casino features a low ceiling that is painted to look like the sky, a la the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. It's an odd shade of blue however, one that suggests nuclear winter. There are cobblestone streets and carpeting. A replica LePont Alendre III bridge overlooks the nickel slot machines, and there is an Eiffel Tower that is fifty stories high. Tours are offered. There is a sign at the entrance that reads "No food, beverages, smoking, weddings" (true story).

I don't know why these hotels opt for these elaborate themes. The truth is: NO ONE CARES. People schlepp around in t-shirts and shorts and flip flops. If I ever put up a hotel in Las Vegas I would use as my theme the HOME DEPOT.

There was an Anti-Aging conference in town. Am I the only one who finds it odd to hold an Anti-Aging conference in the one place where people stay up all hours drinking, gorging, smoking, and enduring the enormous stress of losing their money? I guess it's held there out of respect for Joan Rivers. My feeling is if the President of the Anti-Aging organization isn't 117 then it's a sham.

Matt and I went to Le Cafe for breakfast. They said "inside or outside?" What??? Outside of course meant under the sky painted ceiling. We chanced that it wouldn't rain and took the outside.

The in-house cable had a channel that spelled out emergency exit procedures. Leave it the French to provide a surrender strategy.

Remember when Frank Sinatra used to play Vegas? This weekend it was Carrot Top and (at the Riviera) "America's Tribute to Neil Diamond". Not even the real Neil Diamond, an impersonator. In two weeks the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (true) will be appearing. I'd love to see Shecky Green open for them.

Of course you could always pay a gazillion dollars to see Celine Dion screech out five songs a night. Or is that just a Barbra Streisand impersonator??

The Paris had "Arabian Nights Spectacular", something else to make the Jews feel comfortable.

Next morning before the games, Matt and I hit the beach. Mandalay Bay has it's own beach. Unfortunately, the ocean was turned off. No waves. But we took a long walk along the grid that serves as the shore and gazed out at the horizon to see the Lance Burton Magician billboard on Las Vegas Avenue.

Somewhere in the great beyond Bugsy Siegal is saying “If this is what I ultimately created I deserved to be shot.”

From the Mandalay Bay we hotel hopped. Had to stop in at the Excalibur -- a casino in Sleeping Beauty's castle. This is home to the black socks, shorts, and wife beater shirt crowd. You know you're in trouble when they have a special parking lot just for motorhomes. Handing a pair of dice to one of these idiots is like handing a gun to a monkey.

Then it was on to the Bellagio, where Matt and I checked out the Monet exhibit at their fine arts gallery. (How can you go to Vegas and not stop in a museum??) I imagine when most of the tourists saw the ad for the exhibit they said, "Hey, they spelled money wrong!"

One thing you can say about Vegas, it has the most amazingly beautiful women in the world. And so where did we spend 90% of our time? At the Sportsbook, the one place that none of them would ever be caught dead in. There were 48 games in four days. At times four were going on simultaneously. I'm betting on teams I've never heard of. The place was packed with rowdy men and good old boys chugging long neck beers. We ordered White Russians, Tequila Sunrises, and Rusty Nails. No one fucked with us!

One hazard: you see the same commercial seventeen thousand times. Especially the one for "Cialis", designed to keep a man ready for 36 hours. Too bad I'm not single. One of those magic pills would be perfect for me. 35 1/2 hours to find a woman then a half hour to perform.

The Banger bet on exhibition baseball. Even Pete Rose never did that.

In keeping with the theme, French accordion music came out of the urinals. Finally, the correct venue for that music.

Elegant dining = no Keno boards.

Slater's girlfriend Valerie/Karen is vegan, which means there are only six things she can eat and she's allergic to four of them. She and Slater are the two nicest people on the planet but I have dubbed them "America's Waiter Killer Couple". Slater switches every table and sends back every order while Valerie/Karen has the kitchen prepare items not on the menu every meal. I’m afraid to eat with them. The cook or waiter might spit in my food.

Valerie/Karen's back was bothering her so she toted around a pillow to make sitting more comfortable. But a hot girl walking through the casino with a pillow -- she looked like a hooker who advertised.

You're not allowed to use your cellphone in the Sportsbook. And I so wanted to make reservations for the “Curt Kobain on Ice” show at the Aladdin.

Featured at the Paris Hotel: drinks in plastic Eiffel Tower glasses. $12.50 (true). There was a line. I wonder how many of those people thought they were buying the "actual" Eiffel Tower?

What is Pai Gow poker???

At the end of the weekend all of us either made a little money or broke even, Stanford and Kentucky got eliminated, and the waiters at the Paris hotel got together and paid for Slater's cab to the airport. It was great great fun. And I picked up a new name:

Kenny "the OTHER gambler" Levine

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Questions

Even rehearsals for my play won’t keep me from answering Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Snoskred asks:

Did you ever listen to the official podcasts for Breaking Bad? Do people in the industry see these kinds of things as ways to engage fans, or as an annoyance?

Would you consider doing a similar podcast for a show you are involved in, even if it meant you had to organize it?

I personally don’t listen to any show podcasts, but if I had a show I would absolutely create a podcast. I would use every social media outlet I could to generate more fan interest in my show. Podcasts, live Tweeting, Facebook groups, Instagram, you name it. This is a resource showrunners never had before. We were always at the mercy of the network and studio to publicize our show. We’d live and die based on the number of promos we got and in which shows they were placed.

Now showrunners have other channels to reach their fans directly. I think you’re an idiot if you don’t take advantage.

That said, I would stop short though of naked pictures of my stars on the iCloud.

Mark B wants to know:

Is there a show you didn't like in the beginning but warned up to it and now think it's a great sitcom?

Avery queries:

You say that The Cosby Show hasn't aged well and I agree. And it seems shows that were shot on tape as opposed to film don't age as well in general. The first season of Newhart was shot on tape and to me it just stands out like a sore thumb. Would you agree?

Absolutely. Taped shows always looked cheap to me. Filmed shows looked rich and were way more pleasing to the eye. Whenever my partner and I had a series we always insisted it be on film. That was non-negotiable.

And at the time we weren’t even thinking about the preservation issue. Videotape does suffer over the years we have since learned. Is there a process that will restore taped shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s to their original sharper-but-still-cheesy-looking selves? That I don’t know. I also don’t know if it’s worth it.

Stoney is up next.

This question is for Beaver Cleaver, the D.J.: Do you agree with Gene Simmons that rock is dead?

Yeah, like KISS kept it alive.

No. Simmons is confusing death with music that just isn’t meant to speak to him. Each generation creates music that is relevant to that generation. The fact that Gene Simmons is not feeling the same emotions or dealing with the same issues as today’s teenager doesn’t mean the current music is any worse than when he was giving the world classics like “Love Gun” and “Christine Sixteen.”

Another "that said" -- I like Gene Simmons.  I find him amusing.  He's a showman and sure knows how to self promote. 

And finally, from Chris:

As far as I know, there's no high definition transfer of M*A*S*H* yet. What did you guys edit the show on, was it film or tape? If it's film, it should be fairly easy to just scan it and re-master. With tape, it's more complicated and we might never see it in HD.

We did it the old fashioned way, editing on film. Stan Tischler was our editor and we’d troop up to his office to watch something on the old moviologa with a screen the size of your iPhone. Meanwhile, there were little strips of film (like confetti) attached to hooks all over the place. The film was edited and a master was then cut from the negative.

Whether a HD transfer is in the works, I have no idea.  I hope so, though.  That would be cool.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My sort of cousin Vinny

Vincent Price was a major movie star. You’ve seen him in dozens of horror films. He often played villains. And he had an amazing voice.

As scary and sinister as his persona was, in person he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. Gentle, sweet, gracious.  And sort of... kind of... a distant relative.

In the early ‘40s he lived in the same duplex on Canfield Dr. as my mom’s family when she was a teenager growing up in Los Angeles.

Whenever Vincent was preparing for a movie he would hang out in my grandparents’ kitchen running lines with my grandfather. In THE SONG OF BERNADETTE Grandpa was Jennifer Jones. In LAURA gramps was Gene Tierney. You get the idea. Vincent would bring a bottle and he and my grandfather would run lines late into the night.  Talk about idyllic -- that kitchen was filled with the smell of blintzes and the richness of that voice. 

To repay the favor, Vincent often gave my mom and her sister a ride home from Hamilton High.

Eventually he moved and our family lost touch with him. And then about thirty years later he bumped into my mom at a bank. He recognized her immediately, even though so many years had passed and recalled her name instantly as well.  He couldn’t be more excited to see her. They spent about a half hour catching up. It was a celebrity sighting in reverse.

We always considered Vincent Price a distant member of our family – who doesn’t have that urbane cousin who lives in a haunted house, kills people, drinks blood, robs graves, and dresses in capes? As time marches on Vincent’s brilliance slowly fades into the mist. So I thought I would share a TCM tributes voiced by John Waters to one of the greats of all-time – Vincent Leonard Price Jr.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hey, wanna see my new play?

Individual tickets go on sale today!  Here’s where.  Or you can call 1-818-955-8101.   I know this means a whole lot to you folks in Norway or Tuscaloosa. But if you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area or God forbid you live in the Los Angeles area, would love for you to check it out. I’ll be there most nights (I’m the one in the back sweating) so it’s a good chance to meet.

Rehearsals have begun and so far it’s looking great! (Okay, first rehearsal was yesterday… but still.) It’s a two-character romantic comedy that explores the difference between the same two couple if they were lovers or co-workers. Sex, office politics, passion, ambition and lots of laughs along the way. Writing Sam & Diane for all those years on CHEERS was good prep work for this.

I must say, I love playwriting. (Let’s see if I still say that after opening night but…) I love writing dialogue and the theatre values that the most. Words are more important. Movies are more visually oriented and television is … whatever some network executive says it should be.

What excites me as a writer is exploring human behavior and interaction. Jokes that stem from character and advance the story. Moving the audience through emotional moments not orgasmic special effects. And for me, as the writer, actually hearing the laughter and seeing if the poignant moments land.

Other reasons why I prefer to write for the stage:

I enjoy the freedom in storytelling. With features and certainly television, you need to outline the story in a very detailed fashion. In television you’re always confined by the clock. Movie outlines can be so extensive that storyboards are drawn to show shot-by-shot. I work off a much simpler outline when writing plays. I know where I’m going (generally) but allow the characters to tell me where they want to go. Sometimes wonderful unexpected surprises come about as a result.

Of course, in my case, that also means a lot of blind alleys and writing tons of pages that I toss out. But even the discarded pages are beneficial. The more I write the characters the more I learn about them. It’s all part of the process. Never feel that the stuff you don’t use was time wasted. It’s most certainly not.

The first draft of my new play A OR B? is considerably different from my current draft. For one thing, I threw out the entire second act and started again. Then I had a reading and from that I replaced two whole scenes and made extensive changes throughout. What’s exciting now is hearing it on its feet, getting director and audience feedback, and continuing to fine tune.

Now I just have to figure out how to do revised pages with Final Draft.

Subscriptions still available!
The other great thing about writing for the theatre – actually, the GREATEST thing – is that no one can change a word without the playwright’s permission. This is in marked contrast to films where the writer is just below the honey wagon maintenance crew in the pecking order. Anybody and everybody can manhandle the screenplay. In television the showrunner can change your script, the staff can change your script, the network, studio, standards & practices, and lawyers can change your script. Even Chuck Lorre doesn’t have final say. At the end of the day, Les Moonves does. But a playwright makes the call in the theatre. Imagine getting notes you don’t HAVE TO take! It’s very liberating.

Yes, there are downsides. You make practically nothing. Submissions to theatres or companies take as long as a year to receive a response. And if no one wants to produce your play you might have to produce it yourself, which could get expensive. But come on, that’s quibbling.

The final argument for live theatre is just that – it’s LIVE. Real people performing for a real audience. A one-to-one connection. And when it works, it’s thrilling… for all concerned – the actors, the audience members, and even that poor guy sweating buckets in the back.

As Neil Simon puts it:

I always feel more like a writer when I'm writing a play because of the tradition of the theater ... there is no tradition of the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, which makes him an auteur. So I really feel that I'm writing for posterity with plays, which have been around since the Greek times.

My play plays from Oct. 15-Novembe 16.  Lots of tickets have already been sold to subscribers.  So don't wait.   Come see it so I don’t have to write teen coming-of-age movies on spec. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mission Impossible meets Top Cat

This is another crazy story that happened along the way in our career. This was on a pilot rewrite.

In 1976 there was a somewhat popular movie called MOTHER, JUGS, & SPEED about ambulance drivers starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch (as Jugs of course), and Harvey Keitel.

Two years later ABC commissioned a TV pilot of the movie. They changed Jugs to Juggs so it would sound (or at least read) less sexual… although unless you’re from the hills of Kentucky there is no other meaning for “jugs.” Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay, was hired to write the pilot.

For whatever reason, ABC greenlit the project but wasn’t happy with the script. David Isaacs and I were recruited to do a rewrite. We were on MASH at the time, this was a project about funny medicos, produced for the same studio (20th) -- so we got the call. Whether seventeen other writers had gotten the call before us and turned it down, we’ll never know.

We accepted the assignment and met with the executive producers. Here’s where it got a little weird. The two executive producers were Bruce Geller (who created MISSION IMPOSIBLE) and Joseph Barbera (one half of Hanna-Barbera, the animation mill that turned out Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Jetsons, etc.). Kind of an odd pairing. Apparently the idea for the original movie was Barbera’s so that’s how he got involved. Bruce Geller’s involvement? I have no idea.

They met with us and told us what they wanted. The realism of MASH. It shouldn’t feel sitcommy. The humor had to come out of attitudes and real situations. We were to think of this as a drama with comedic touches. Okay. That was fine with us.

Then Joe Barbera pitched a possible beat.  And I swear to you this is true.  The ambulance is at the top of a hill. The back door flies open and a guy on a gurney rolls out and barrels down the hill. He hits a fire hydrant, which flips the gurney, sending the patient airborne where he lands in an open garbage can. Joe even made a “boing!” sound as he described the patient landing in the trash can. We sat there totally gobsmacked. This was “real?” Maybe in Quick Draw McGraw’s world.

Everyone was pleased with our rewrite (despite not doing the gurney gag), and the show was filmed. No actors from the movie participated. Ray Vitte, Joanne Nail, and Joe Penny got the lead roles. I never saw it. The show was not picked up. But that figures because in our entire career we’ve never gotten a show picked up by ABC – we’re talking 30 years, 50 regimes, and three owners.) It aired that year in August on Failure Theater, but I was either busy or just didn’t care. We were uncredited (which was fine).

The real kick for me was being in a story session with Joe Barbera. Yeah, his gag was absurd. But as a kid I loved Hanna-Barbera cartoons (I still do). I would drive by their complex on West Cahuenga Boulevard in the valley and wish that I could work there. Or even get a tour. And now I was in a room with the man himself. And he was pitching me Top Cat. Dreams sometimes do come true.

Monday, September 15, 2014

10 feet from stardom

Last Thursday night was one of the highlights of my career. I got to direct a show my daughter Annie co-wrote along with her terrific partner, Jonathan Emerson. I’ll spare you seven paragraphs of sentimentality that would make IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE seem hard-edged (that’s what Facebook is for), but suffice it to say it was a very special occasion and I’m still kvelling (Jewish expression for bursting with pride).  I'll just sprinkle a couple of photos in this post. 

Instead, I want to focus on some unsung heroes of multi-camera television production – the camera operators. Have you seen the documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM? If not, WHY? It’s great and even won an Academy Award. The subject was backup singers. You learned how utterly amazing these background invisible performers are. Such is the case with TV camera operators. If their names even appear in the closing credits (and I’m not sure they do) they go by so fast and there are so many names on the same card that you can’t even hit pause fast enough on your remote to freeze their names to where they’re legible.
Me and the kid taking a curtain call
But here’s what they do on multi-camera shows. The actors are performing live before a studio audience, a la a stage play. During their scenes the cameras are constantly moving, getting different shots. It is all carefully choreographed so that anytime any actor moves all the action is covered in masters, group shots, and close ups. Let’s say you have a scene with six people in it. Six people/four cameras – do the math.

The director has to figure out who goes where when, but that’s for another post.

For many years each camera was a three-man operation. Shows were shot on 35 mm film and you needed a trio to schlep around those large camera mounts. As each camera was given a mark a piece of tape was set on the floor. After a half hour show had been blocked the floor looked like the remnants of a ticker-tape parade. But now, with HD cameras that are way lighter and Hollywood always looking to save money, that three-man crew has been reduced to one. No more marks. The camera operator has no time to glance down at the floor. So now he must swing the camera around himself and get all of his shots, guided only by some quick notes he’s jotted down.

Here's the process:  The camera operator sees a scene once, then is given his shot list, then does it once, maybe twice with the stand ins, and once maybe twice with the cast (the “reallys” as they are called). Some fine tuning then the show is shot. Not a lot of rehearsal time for a super complicated process. 

And yet, by show night, he (or she) is ready to go and damn near flawless.

Here are the kinds of assignments they’re given:

“When Tia crosses left, let her out, drop down and give me Michael over Trey.”

“Set for Sydney’s entrance. Bring her to a master. Land her, give me a beat then get a two-shot right.”

“When Sheryl says ‘did anyone see my shoe’ kick right and give me a single of Tia. And then when Michael says ‘I’ve had enough of this’ swing right back and give me Trey. It’ll be a quick move.”

“When the Coco Puffs start flying go to the door.” (Yes, I gave a Coco Puff cue this week.)

Depending on the shot the operator might have to move to his next precise mark or change lens, or both. And sometimes there may be three or four scenes that take place in the same location (like the kitchen). Different blocking, different cast members, and yet they still have to keep everything straight.

One of the camera operators on INSTANT MOM this week didn’t even take notes. He just kept it in his head. I was confused and I was giving him the notes, which were carefully written out on my script.

And during the actual taping, actors might be off their marks from time to time. A good camera operator will adjust to get the shot he wants and not wind up with the back of a head blocking the person who’s speaking.

When taping night comes, if you ever attend one, it looks like a well-oiled machine. Cameras are gliding around, every shot is falling effortlessly into place. Anytime you need a reaction shot it’s there. The scene is never interrupted by two cameras crashing into each other. You’d think everyone had two weeks to rehearse this. The camera operators had maybe twenty minutes a scene.

A quick shout-out to the actors too. At the last minute we will often ask them to turn a little one way or another (to “cheat out”) or step back a half a step to allow us a better shot. They have to incorporate these tiny technical instructions in with their performances. I don’t know how they do it. I’d be glancing down every two seconds for my mark.

So the next time you watch a multi-camera episode, take note of all the camera angles, and just try to imagine what’s going on down on the floor as these four guys are constantly scrambling – swinging cameras around, setting sizes, adjusting shots. It’s truly amazing to watch. These ladies and gentlemen have my undying respect and gratitude.

I’d suggest making a documentary like 20 FEET FROM STARDOM but all these guys would rather be behind the camera shooting it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Worst designed jerseys ever! Or maybe the best?

The Colombia's women cycling team's jerseys should sell well in concession stands and sporting good stores.  Yikes.

This would send me into therapy for fifty years

From a 70s sex education film. Guys, don'tcha hate it when this happens??

Yeah. Knock, mom. And take acting lessons.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Maybe the weirdest story you'll hear all year

WARNING:  This is a re-post from four years ago.  Not sure if this place is still thriving but boy, wouldn't you like to see the mastermind pitch this on SHARK TANK?

Remember those songs like “Lonesome Town” and “Heartbreak Hotel”, metaphoric destinations for the lost and lonely? Imaginary havens for love’s refuse. Well, it turns out one such place actually exists!!

There is a seaside resort town in Japan named Atami. It used to be a romantic getaway for young lovebirds. Well, either business was bad the women were stealing too many hair dryers but the town decided to go in a different direction. Atami now caters to a new clientele – the world’s most pathetic losers.

To increase tourism, the town has become the destination for male enthusiasts of Love Plus, a dating simulation game. This is according to Discovery News.

The town has partnered with gaming company Konami Digital Entertainment, the creators of Love Plus, to establish a resort that brings together the virtual girlfriend and her real-world boyfriend in a beach-side setting.

Yes. Yikes. Hang on. It gets worse.

Love Plus is an extended scenario in which the real-life "beau" plays a high school boy character in a relationship with a virtual girl. "The goal is to see how good you can be to her [the virtual girlfriend] and to build a relationship." And what better way to capture the heart of a screen cartoon image than by whisking her away for a romantic weekend by the sea?

Wow! And I thought the Burning Man festival was weird.

Now I know I shouldn’t be judgmental here. No one’s getting hurt (although some of the virtual girls might get their hearts broken or fail Algebra 2 because they’re spending too much time with their beaus), it’s all in good fun, but I’m sorry – middle-aged guys acting out fantasies with high school girls… in public – that’s a Sunday drive into some serious dementia.

The Discovery article explains how it works:

In 13 locations around the town, players can find 2D barcodes to scan and call up images of the young women in the game. The girls wear different clothing from their typical in-game looks. One hotel has gone as far as putting a barcode in its rooms, allowing players to see their "girlfriends" in a more private setting wearing summer kimonos.

Double yikes! Triple yikes!

Over 2,000 guys made this their summer vacation this year. I wonder if the iPad has a virtual condom app.


Again, my apologies but this is a giant cry for help. Please, somebody, create virtual therapists!

And here's what scares me. I’m sure there are congressmen reading this right now and booking their trip to Japan for fact-finding expeditions. At least four Florida beach towns and one Six Flags will flip to this next summer. The Fox reality series should hit the air right after the World Series. And worst of all, people will confuse me with the Ken Levine who created Bioshock and think that I created this game.

But the good news is this: You can now go to Comic-Com, wear whatever ridiculous tin foil superhero costume you want, and you're still the well-adjusted one.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Questions

Coming at ya every Friday.

Rob Larkin is up first.

When you and your writing partner began as story editors on M*A*S*H how was it dealing with veteran writers for the show such as Laurence Marks, Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum? Were they open to story suggestions? Or were they, "Who are you kids telling us what to do?"

That’s a great question. Jim & Everett could not have been nicer or more respectful. They were the most open to suggestions and rewriting. And ironically, their scripts required the least amount of rewriting. You could almost just shoot one of their first drafts.

We were such admirers of theirs and remained friends with them for the rest of their lives. I even did a blog post about them years ago.

The other veterans ranged from tolerating us to being downright rude. No names, but clearly they resented dealing with a couple of twentysomethings. And even then I’d forgive them if their drafts had come back better.

From Charles H. Bryan”

I was thinking today, a little, about THE COSBY SHOW of the 80s. I think if you mention the show to someone who was watching TV then, they'll say they liked it and think well of it, but it won't pop up on a list without the prompt. I think people more likely remember SEINFELD, or FRIENDS, or CHEERS as being part of NBC Thursday. I think more people would recall the Keatons than the Huxtables. Do you think THE COSBY SHOW gets the discussion that it should?

THE COSBY SHOW was one of the most influential television programs in the history of the medium. At the time it premiered in 1984 there was a lot of talk that sitcoms were an endangered species. That one show changed everything. The ratings were spectacular and no show in today’s landscape will ever have the impact THE COSBY SHOW had. CHEERS and FAMILY TIES only became smash hits because they followed THE COSBY SHOW.

Creatively, however, I don’t think THE COSBY SHOW aged well. And it’s not just because of those sweaters. In fairness, the first year was wonderful. Funny, fresh, and with attitudes that were real. And it had one of the best pilots ever.  I show it to my USC Comedy class every semester. 

But as the series progressed and Bill assumed more creative control the show became way more preachy. Scripts were routinely just thrown out by Bill so the poor writing staff was churning out material night and day. Not surprisingly, he would burn them out. And the end result reflected that.  Some terrific writers were reduced to galley slaves.  So you never got the advantage of seeing them at their best. 

Today the show feels dated and somewhat overbearing. But again, give it its due. THE COSBY SHOW must go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of TV.

Cpl. Clegg asks:

It appears that you are a veteran of many pitch meetings. From those, I assume, you must have formed some opinions on studio/network executives. What background makes the best executive? Former actor like Les Moonves? Long-term network employee like Fred Silverman? Or something else?

Taste, perspective, intelligence, showmanship, and courage. Courage to trust their instincts and make decisions out of conviction and not fear. And if they’re in comedy development it would help if they had a sense of humor. (Not all do.)

There are executives who have a great passion for television and always did. Then there are  executives that come from a strictly business background who are there simply to make money. They might as well be in banking or soft drink bottling.

A good executive can enhance a project and by establishing good relationships with top writers can attract the best people to their network. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with some of these very talented men and women.

And finally, VincentS wants to know:

Although the "pilot" for THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW - which was actually an episode of THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW - was multi-camera, when the show proper was green-lit Andy Griffith insisted that it be single camera, his reasoning being that if the actors were performing in front of a studio audience they would be pushing for laughs. What's your take on that, Ken, especially since you're a director as well?

I think it depends on the premise and tone of the show. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW had a more naturalistic easygoing tone – much like Andy himself. Other shows like BIG BANG THEORY really go for the big laughs, and in that case, a studio audience feeds the energy.

I can’t see MASH as a multi-camera show and I can’t see CHEERS as a single-camera show.



What’s your Friday Question? I’ll get to as many as I can. Thanks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 and David & Lynn Angell

I re-post this every year on this date and always will. 

9/11 affected us all, profoundly and in many cases personally. Two of my dear friends were on flight 11. David and Lynn Angell. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of them, missed them, and not felt grateful that they were in my life.

David and I worked together on CHEERS, WINGS, and FRASIER (the latter two he co-created). We used to call him the “dean”. In his quiet way he was the one we always looked to for final approval of a line or a story direction. He brought a warmth and humanity to his writing that hopefully rubbed off on the rest of us “schickmeisters”. And he could be funny – sneaky funny. During long rewrite sessions he tended to be quiet. Maybe two or three times a night he’d pitch a joke – but they were always the funniest jokes of the script.

For those of you hoping to become comedy writers yourselves, let David Angell be your inspiration. Before breaking in he worked in the U.S. Army, the Pentagon, an insurance firm, an engineering company, and then when he finally moved out to L.A. he did “virtually every temp job known to man” for five years. Sometimes even the greatest talents take awhile to be recognized.

I first met David the first season of CHEERS. He came in to pitch some stories. He had been recommended after writing a good NEWHART episode. This shy quiet man who looked more like a quantum physics professor than a comedy writer, slinked into the room, mumbled through his story pitches, and we all thought, “is this the right guy? He sure doesn’t seem funny.” Still, he was given an assignment (“Pick a con…any con”) and when the script came back everyone was just blown away. He was quickly given a second assignment (“Someone single, someone blue”) and that draft came back even better. I think the first order of business for the next season was to hire David Angell on staff.

After 9/11, David’s partners Peter Casey & David Lee called me and my partner into their office. There was a FRASIER script David Angell was about to write. (It was the one where Lilith’s brother arrived in a wheelchair and became an evangelist. Michael Keaton played the part.) Peter & David asked if we would write it and for me that was a greater honor than even winning an Emmy.

David’s wife, Lynn, was also an inspiration. She devoted her life to helping others – tirelessly working on creating a children’s library and a center that serves abused children.

My heart goes out to their families. To all of the families.

I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

So tragic, so senseless, and even thirteen years later, so inconceivable.