Thursday, April 27, 2017

NBC.commercials

I missed the premier of GREAT NEWS on NBC Tuesday night, and I was curious to see it. Anything with Tina Fey attached is worth a look-see. (My quick review of GREAT NEWS: It felt like a very promising spec script of 30 ROCK.)

So I went to NBC.COM figuring they would have the episode available for screening. And they did.

I don’t usually watch shows on NBC’s website. In fact, I believe this was the first. (If Tina Fey was attached to TAKEN I might have watched that when it debuted. But she wasn’t.) I have watched shows on other networks’ sites and on ON DEMAND but never the Peacock’s.

The “com” in NBC.COM should be for “commercials.” I couldn’t believe it. I was inundated with them. Usually, when you stream a show or watch ON DEMAND there’s a :30 spot that pops up a couple of times. I get it. It’s the price I pay for the convenience of being able to watch the show on my schedule.

But this was ridiculous. There were as many or more than a broadcast half-hour. The show itself felt like an intrusion. And at least with a broadcast show I can fast-forward through the commercials and any promos for CHICAGO FIRE. Not here.

I’ll be honest, if I wasn’t in the industry, if I didn’t feel I was obligated to watch the entire show – I would have bailed by the second spot break. Tina Fey or no.

If a major objective of streaming network shows is to increase their sampling, NBC is going out of its way to chase away potential viewers. Do they receive that much revenue that it’s worth it to them to bombard the potential audience with commercials and clutter? What you are left with (assuming you stick it out) is a very unpleasant experience.

One way around this of course is to charge for their content. CBS All Access now has a subscription website. To entice eyes the “Eye” features dedicated fare like THE GOOD FIGHT and next year a new STAR TREK franchise (DEEP SPACE 10?). But other than that it’s just a lot of CBS programming, random movies, and a library of shows people are dying to see again like CAROLINE IN THE CITY and NASH BRIDGES. And in some cases, they don’t even offer the complete series. Only 50 episodes of TAXI are available. They made way more than that. (Not to mention that some of these series can also be seen on other streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.)

I would hope that the one perk you get is no commercials, but I don’t subscribe to CBS.COM so I don’t know. Do they run commercials? My cynical guess is that they do. Less than NBC.COM but still, with CBS you’re paying for the service. So CBS would be hitting you twice. Again, that’s IF they have commercials. I’m just assuming they are. I would be very happy to be wrong.

I totally understand the need for commercials to support broadcast television. Commercials pay for the shows. But networks can be mortgaging their future by airing too many of them. And this becomes especially apparent while streaming because audiences are not conditioned to a heavy spot load. So there’s the danger that they’ll do more harm than good. What they think is GREAT NEWS might really be bad news.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Episode 17: How the Airlines Screw You and Why


“Travel” is the theme for this week’s episode. Ken tells how he survived a cyclone on a cruise ship and how bad the ship’s lounge show was that night. Also you’ll learn that airlines make your flying experience miserable on purpose. Ken tells you how and why they do this and whether there’s anything you can do to prevent it.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

G-g-g-groin Injury

It’s another catch-up-on-Friday Questions Day. I’m trying to answer as many as I can so I’m squeezing in extra Q-Days.

Joe starts us off:

I admire your whole body of work, but there's one scene of yours that's one of the funniest in TV history. When you were broadcasting baseball, were you ever tempted to do a Sam Malone rap talking about a player had a groin injury?

Tempted? I actually did it once on a Mariners broadcast.  (Maybe that's why I'm not still there.)  The episode Joe is referring to is “Eye on Sports” where Sam becomes a local sportscaster and feels he needs a shtick to go along with reading the scores.

From B Smith:

When shooting outdoors scenes for MASH out at the Malibu Ranch, you were presumably shooting as many bits and pieces for various episodes as you could to take advantage of light, climate etc. But since various episodes were directed by various directors, did you send a number of them simultaneously with you so they could shoot their episode parts? Or did you just go for one episode at a time, and if finishing early shot generic footage that could be edited in anywhere, or even knocked off early?

We would shoot one episode at a time. We tried to have 8 1/3 pages of exteriors to justify a day at the ranch. If an episode had much less we held it back until the fall and just filmed the whole show on the stage – even the exterior scenes.

That way only one director was required.

However, after every three episodes we planned a day of pick-ups on the stage. This was for tiny scenes that never got filmed, scenes we wanted redone, or new scenes we felt needed to be added. In that case, we did invite the different directors to come and do their scenes. But if they were unavailable, either Gene Reynolds or Burt Metcalfe filled in and directed the scenes.

Here’s a first – a reader question and another reader answered. The question is from -30- and the answer is from Andy Rose. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

How were the syndicated weekly Top 40 radio shows--Watermark, Casey Kasem, Dick Clark--produced? Were they completely scripted in advance? Was there any improv or spontaneity? Were they recorded in real time or were the voiceovers done separately and then put together with the records by an editor? I can't imagine Dick Clark hitting talkovers perfectly for 3 hours or, for that matter, taking half a day to record a show every week.

Re: the countdown shows... The narration was scripted and recorded all at one time, although Kasem sometimes asked his engineer to play the end of a record for him to make sure his segue matched the tone of the song.

In the pre-computer days, the reel with the host's lines had to be mixed with the music, jingles, and commercials in real time on a multitrack. Then the master was put on vinyl, and the show was mailed to each station on 33 1/3 records. Later on, they started shipping CDs instead. Now, they are distributed as computer files via FTP.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know all that. Thanks, Andy.

And finally, Greg Thompson has a question after listening to my baseball-themed podcast episode.

How were you able to simultaneously do baseball play-by-play AND be on a TV writing staff? During their seasons, both are full-time jobs with a lot of evening work. And how did you work it out with your writing partner?

By the way, I listened to your early-'90s snippet of play-by-play on your podcast and thought you were great. Wish you were doing the Angels right now.

Me too. That was great fun.  I could do the groin injury rap for Halo fans. 

But to answer your question...

When I was doing baseball fulltime I would write scripts on the road and send them in. The TV production season started late summer and went until March. Fortunately, I was on mostly bad teams so never had to worry about those pesky playoffs. I was back in LA to continue my TV career during the baseball offseason.

However, for my three years with the Padres I was just doing weekends for them. So that was easy. I’d either drive down to San Diego on Saturday morning, or grab a Friday night flight to wherever they were on the road. The entire week I’d be wearing my "TV" hat. 

There were a couple of times though when the Padres needed me last minute during the week. On several occasions I worked until 4:00 at Paramount. Drove to Burbank airport, hopped a flight to San Diego, got a cab to the ballpark, did the game, went to the hotel, got an early morning flight back to Burbank the next day and was back in the office at 9. That was a little nuts. But for the most part it all worked out fine.

David was supportive. I think it helps that he was a big sports fan too. We always structured our partnership so that there was room if either of us wanted to explore other things.

What’s your Friday Question? I may even get to it on a Friday.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The latest strike update

Just to get you up to speed, the WGA Strike Authorization vote is in and the sentiment is pretty clear.   96.3% voted YES.  And to all of you who did vote YES I say thank you. 

Obviously, the membership is united.  I've been through four strikes and several other potential work stoppages and I've never seen a number like 96.3.  Those percentages are reserved for Ken Griffey Jr. being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Negotiations resume today, but now the WGA committee has some leverage.  I love how a number of articles about yesterday's vote say, "the ball is now in the AMPTP's court."  The ball is ALWAYS in the AMPTP's court."  This deal will close when they want it to close.

But in an uncertain time in our economy and with memories of the hardships of the previous strike ten years ago, for the WGA members to vote 96.3% in favor of a strike, that tells you the issues we are fighting for are damn IMPORTANT to us. 

I always felt that the AMPTP was waiting until the vote to see just how united and committed we were.  I don't blame them.  Why make concessions when you don't have to?   But now they know.  It's an entire union of Norma Rae's. 

Hopefully now, with the strike looming a week from today, the AMPTP will finally set aside the bullshit and begin meaningful negotiations.   My feeling is the ultimate deal that will be struck will be exact same whether it's this weekend or in three months.   So why not do it now?

Make 100% of the movie and TV viewers happy. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

We get it!

There’s a new trend in comedy that annoys me. Of course, considering the state of the world and the number of things that piss the living shit out of me, this is somewhat minor, but it’s a blog on comedy so I’m bringing it up. And who knows? Maybe I’ll get enraged by the end. I doubt it, but we can see.

Here’s my problem: comedians and late night talk show hosts now have this annoying habit of acting out a joke after telling it. They get the laugh on the punchline and then do a thirty-second bit over-dramatizing it. “She didn’t go out because it was raining” is then followed by “AAAA! AAAAA! I’m getting wet. Oh no. I’m melting. My hair. AAAAA! AAAAA!”

WE GET IT.

I was always taught to get the laugh then move on.  Never belabor a joke.  

John Oliver does this to distraction. As much as I enjoy his program, usually fifteen-minute chunks is all I can handle. Stephen Colbert, who is totally crushing it these days, has fallen into this habit as well. And on the recent Louis C.K. special I just watched, he too resorts to this on occasion.

It’s one thing if the punchline sets up a bit and there are new jokes in the dramatization, but most of the time these just explain the joke you’ve just seen. So the monologues feel padded. It’s like putting filler in hamburger. “Hey, what’s going on? This Big Mac tastes like sawdust. Yuch. And they charge the same price. Next time I’m going to Burger King.” (See what I did there?)

Okay, that’s my rant. Let me check. Nope. My blood pressure has not gone up. I have no desire to break any furniture. But you are welcome to have a meltdown over this. Or at least recognize it the next time you watch John Oliver. And hey, reading this just meant five less minutes you were watching the real news. So you’re welcome.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

One of my favorite scenes

Of those that remember a movie my partner David Isaacs and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS, the scene most recall is the “what is time again?” scene. So here it is.

To refresh, it’s 1962 and Tom Hanks plays Lawrence, a spoiled preppy who takes his roommate’s place in the Peace Corps in Thailand to avoid a gambling debt. He befriends At Toon, a Thai villager. They’re kidnapped and brought to the lair of Chung Mee, a fierce warlord. To spoof all those characters who spoke so cryptically in these types of movies we decided to have Chung Mee speak exclusively in cryptic double-speak.

INT. CHUNG MEE’S DINING ROOM – DAY

A spacious atrium. Chung Mee, financed by the CIA, has loads of household gadgets – blenders, air conditioners, etc., none of which work on account of there’s no electricity. It’s the thought that counts. Instead of air conditioning, an AGED MAN pulls the rope for an overhead fan.

Chung Mee is feeding fish raw meat as At Toon and Lawrence are brought in by the huge sumo guards. Chung Mee has an unlit cigar in his mouth. He dips the end in a brandy snifter.

LAWRENCE
This is nothing. My parents have friends who are twice this pretentious.

CHUNG MEE
The bridge you are building. When will it be completed?

LAWRENCE
The bridge? You’re interested in our bridge. Here you go –

He takes a wooden match and strikes it along the stubble of one of the monster sumo guards presenting Chung Mee with a light. A frantic scuffle ensues, but Chung Mee stays cool and accepts the light, eyeing Lawrence shrewdly through the smoke.

LAWRENCE
We’ve got a fine young man working on it, but it’s hard to say. Why do you want to know?

CHUNG MEE
Opium is my business. The bridge means more traffic. More traffic means more business. More business means more money. More money means more power.

LAWRENCE
Before I commit that to memory, would there be anything in this for me?

CHUNG MEE
Speed is important in business. Time is money.

LAWRENCE
No, you said opium is money.

CHUNG MEE
Money is money. And money is my objective.

LAWRENCE
Then what is time again?

CHUNG MEE
When the bridge is completed, you can have whatever you need.

LAWRENCE
Got it. (to At) And they told me to go on those interviews at Yale. (to Chung Mee) Well, gosh. Of course, for now, I’d want to run things in Loong Ta. And then, when I’m ready to leave, passage to Bangkok and a plane ticket to America. And – it’s hardly worth mentioning – twenty-eight thousand dollars in cash. I have some library books overdue.

AT TOON
Nice knowin’ you.

CHUNG MEE
I want the bridge finished in six weeks or you are finished in seven.

AT TOON
(to Chung Mee) You’re goin’ along with that?

LAWRENCE
No problem, commander. The bridge is yours.

CHUNG MEE
And you are mine.

LAWRENCE
It’s only fair.

A door opens and a beautiful Eurasian WOMAN enters. She wears a slinky low-cut dress and gloves. She is obviously the most enchanting creature Lawrence has ever seen.

CHUNG MEE
Business is completed. After business comes pleasure. Pleasure is also my business.

LAWRENCE
For me?

CHUNG MEE
If I say “yes” and not “no.”

AT TOON
You want me to translate?

LAWRENCE
Got it. (to Chung Mee) A little incentive. You’re a sly boots. (walking to the woman) Lawrence Bourne the Third, junior partner. And you, of course, would be…

LUCILLE
My name is Lucille.

NOTE: Lucille speaks English with a very thick Chinese accent. It’s indecipherable, so her words are always SUBTITLED.

LAWRENCE
Pardon me?

LUCILLE
My name is Lucille.

LAWRENCE
What?

CHUNG MEE
Lucille! Her name is Lucille!

LAWRENCE
Oh, Lucille. That’s highly erotic. How did you get a name like that?

LUCILLE
My mother was English.

LAWRENCE
What?

CHUNG MEE
(losing patience) That is her name!

LAWRENCE
She’s staying for dinner, of course.

CHUNG MEE
Yes, but you are leaving.

LAWRENCE
Right now? I just got here. (sidles closer to Lucille, sotto) What do you see in him? Are you a chubby chaser?

Lucille grabs Lawrence’s hand and bends the fingers back. He winces in pain.

CHUNG MEE
Lucille is my bodyguard. She doesn’t like it when my orders are questioned.

Chung Mee snaps his fingers and Lucille releases Lawrence.

LAWRENCE
Thank God my fly was zipped.

Chung Mee snaps his fingers again. The two henchmen grab Lawrence and At, leading them out.

LAWRENCE
Glad to be aboard.

AT TOON
Thank you for dinner and not killing us.

LAWRENCE
I’m free any night. Lucille… Did I mention that back home I own a Corvette?

The group exits.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Where were you in 1991?

I recently came upon the baseball play-by-play demo I made while with the Baltimore Orioles.  This is the demo that got me the job with the Seattle Mariners.   It's somewhat unique so I thought I'd share it.  Most people back then (1991) just sent cassette tapes, usually of a half-inning.   And some began with a few highlights. 

I thought, to be different, I would make a video presentation.  I would marry my radio call to the TV picture so the viewer could see how well I called the action along with hearing me.   Also, I figured if they had something to watch they might not get bored.  I imagine after the tenth audio tape the listener just zoned out.

During that season ESPN did a profile feature on me. That served as the perfect introduction plus it included some pretty nifty highlights.   

Disclaimer:  I'm a better announcer today.  This was my first year.   And big glasses were the style back then.  I have no excuse for the helmet hair.

Enjoy and please be kind.
 

Ken Levine Demo by stusshow

Friday, April 21, 2017

My S.I. article on Dave Niehaus

I wrote an article for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED recently on Hall of Fame Broadcaster, Dave Niehaus. He was my partner with the Seattle Mariners and a great friend.   In the Northwest he is beloved.  Recently it went up on line so I thought I would share it with you.   You can find it here.   "My oh my" I miss that guy.

Friday Questions

The tradition continues. Here are more Friday Questions.

John asks:

When an audience sitcom does a double-length episode - like Frasier's 'Three Dates and a Break Up' or 'Shutout In Seattle' - are both parts recorded in the same night, or does it still take two weeks to shoot?

Thanks!

Sometimes they are. You need a quick director and a good cast willing to learn twice as much dialogue. Jim Burrows used to do two-parters on CHEERS in one night. Andy Fickman recently did a two-parter of KEVIN CAN WAIT in one night.

Other times the shows will be filmed in two weeks. As a director I’ve never filmed two shows in one night. But I’m sure not Mr. Burrows or Mr. Fickman.

There is another method called a Wrap Around. You break down one episode into scenes and after filming an episode in front of the audience you piggyback one additional scene from that other script. After six or seven weeks you’ve cobbled together an extra show.

TAXI used to do this. There would be wrap around scenes at the beginning and end where the characters would be at a bar. Example: They all got fired, all got new jobs, and reconnected to catch up on each other’s lives. Then each vignette was shown. That way only one actor per week had an additional scene to rehearse and learn. Eventually that story was put together as a two-parter.

Anthony wonders:

How do multicamera sitcoms handle the use of recurring sets that are used over and over again, although infrequently? For instance, Frasier's bedroom looks almost the same both early in the show's run and later. Others that come to mind are Melville's on Cheers and Nemo's restuarant on Everybody Loves Raymond. Are these sets that are created once and recycled back onto the stage, as needed? Or are they created new every time the script calls for it?

The studio has a warehouse where these sets are stored. They’re folded up and transferred to these cavernous structures. Paramount’s was way up in Valencia somewhere. Trucks transport the sets in the wee small hours.

Certain sets, like restaurants, get redressed. So the Italian restaurant you see on NCIS becomes a French restaurant on NCIS: LOS ANGELES.

Johnny Walker has a question after listening to my podcast.  Have you listened?  Right under the masthead is a big gold arrow.  Just click on it.  Thanks Johnny, I was able to sneak in a plug. 

Just listened to episode 14, and now I have some Friday Questions :)

- Have you ever had any blowback from a comment you made on the air? Was the wife of one of the players listening while you slagged off her husband and it got back to them? (Sorry if you've answered that before!)

In the minors once I had a pitcher approach me furious over what I had said about him the night before. He claimed I announced his age was 30. He was right. I did do that. But it was because he WAS 30. Still, he shouted, I had no business telling people that. The irony of this story is that he became my best friend on the team.

There have been stories in the minors of players so pissed at announcers that they actually go up to the booth, in uniform, to beat the shit out of them. In almost all cases, sanity returned and the announcer escaped serious injury. But still. Yikes.

My first year with the Mariners I was calling the third inning and noticed we hadn’t scored a run in the third inning in weeks. So I started calling it the “third inning of death.” Ken Griffey Jr. heard about it and one day at the batting cage he was giving me shit. I said I would stop doing it when they scored a run. He said they were going to score six runs that night in the third inning. But if they did I had to shave my head. I happily took that bet, got Kenny to record a bit for it that I played on the air and then told my audience about it at the start of the inning.

The first two Mariners get on base. Jr. pops out of the dugout and points up at the booth at me. Then the next guy strikes out and guy after him hits into a doubleplay. End of inning. As Kenny took his position in centerfield I stood up and ran my fingers through my long hair.

I don’t think they ever scored six runs in the third inning.

And finally, from Ed:

Bob Miller, long-time LA Kings broadcaster, ended his career on (this month). I know you're not a "hockey guy" but are a sports fan and have been connected to the LA sports broadcasting scene. Any comments on his career? It's not just the end of his era - it's the end of an era where your market had Vin Scully, Chick Hearn and Bob Miller all serving as the broadcast voices of LA teams.

Bob Miller was a wonderful hockey announcer, but more than that he is the nicest most down-to-earth guy you’d ever want to meet. Besides doing a spectacular job of calling hockey play-by-play (at that dizzying pace), he is also so genuine on the air. I know him a little from being in the Southern California Sportscasters Association and that’s the real him. Cheerful, warm, and extremely talented – Kings’ fans were so fortunate to have Bob Miller for the last 44 seasons. And he got to parade around the Stanley Cup twice.

I’m sure he’ll approach retirement like everything else – with zeal and vigor. Thanks, Bob, for thrilling calls and warm companionship.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Vote YES for Strike Authorization

I know it sounds strange, but the best way for WGA members to AVOID a strike is to vote YES to authorize it. 

Huh? you may be saying.

Here's why:  Management is just waiting to see how committed the WGA is to strike.   If the Guild sends a resounding message that it is solidly behind our negotiating committee the producers will be way more willing to hammer out a deal and be done with it.   They don't really want a strike either.  They're making $51 billion in profit a year -- why throw a monkey wrench into that? 

If however, the Guild does not give Strike Authorization, or even tepid support, then the producers will let us go on strike, let us suffer, and then give us nothing -- knowing the membership is apt to cave.    The worst of both worlds. 

The only leverage our negotiating committee has is the threat of a strike.  Take that away and we're screwed. 

Young writers might be saying, "But I'm just starting out.  This is a bad time for me to go on strike."  Well, first of all, it's never a good time.  But I feel your pain.  I really do.  I was once in that position myself.   And yes, it requires sacrifice and stalls career momentum.   But think of this:  All of the things that current writers receive -- residuals, decent minimums, credit protection, health & welfare -- those only became reality because writers before you were willing to go out on strike.   We all owe them a great debt.  Believe me, studios would pay $50 an episode if they could get away with it.  $75 for a full screenplay.  So it's time for the current membership to do their part.  

And for you young writers -- who will ultimately get the benefit of a good contract in 2017?   You will. 

Look, I've been through four strikes.  They suck.  They're a hardship on everybody.  But the alternative is losing our health coverage, any previous gains, mega-corporations making billions off of our work and not sharing in any of it, and no protection against bad pay, negligible royalties, and exclusivity clauses that force writers out of work.   You think striking for a month or so is bad?  How about being held to an exclusive contract and not working for a year? 

I've read some comments on industry websites from writers who say if you don't want a strike vote no.   That's idiotic.  Or extremely selfish.  Or cowardice.  Or all three.   

And for you members who say, "Hey, I'm just one vote.  What difference does one vote make?"  I say to you: remember last November? 

Even if you don't really care, even if you passionately don't want a strike, even if you normally don't vote -- this time VOTE.   And vote YES.    We're facing a bully, and how's the only way to deal with one?  By standing up to the son of a bitch.    This is a critical moment in our industry's future.  Do the right thing, the responsible thing, the smart thing:   VOTE YES on Strike Authorization.

WGA members -- here's where you go.  Just click this link.

Thanks and here's to a peaceful and FAIR settlement. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Episode 16: Misc-Takes: Avoiding the Casting Couch & Hollywood Parties


Ken shares five different stories this week – how to avoid the “casting couch,” how to rewrite Neil Simon (if you dare), Hollywood screenings, what not to do at Hollywood parties (a painful but hilarious lesson), and Ken’s most memorable home run call (that he’s still hearing about 25 years later).


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sorry. I don't know soap opera stars

Whenever my writing partner, David, and I had a pilot we always tried to weasel a trip to New York to do some casting. There are many reasons for this. A free trip. Nice hotel. Per diem. Oh, and some of the best actors in the world live there.  Hopefully, a lot of them will be in Broadway productions we get tickets for. 

The joke about Los Angeles is that we have two seasons: summer and pilot. Even a lot of New York actors migrate to LA for the five/six weeks of casting frenzy.

But not all. Some are doing LAW & ORDER and can’t get away. Or they’re in a Broadway show. Or a soap opera.

Confession: I don’t watch soap operas. Never have. But it’s always awkward when one of these soap stars comes in to read. The casting director announces their name and ushers them into the room. I politely say hello. And they strike a pose as if to say, “Yep. It’s me.” Then they’re hurt or angry that I have no fucking idea who they are. A few have even actually said, “Don’t you recognize me?” I have to shake my head no. They then say, “I play Chad on THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.” I apologize. Sorry, dude. He can’t believe it. I’m sure soap stars in New York are recognized everywhere they go. The readings usually don’t go well because they’re still thrown that we didn’t immediately ask for a selfie.

It’s getting harder to talk the network/studio into these New York sojourns. Budgets are tighter and actors can easily be put on tape and emailed to LA. But it’s not the same. You don’t have the luxury of directing them, giving them some notes that might make the difference between being on a network series and singing and busing tables at Ellen's Stardust Diner. New York actors are really shooting at a moving target when they just go on tape.

That said, we’ve hired several actors based on New York tapes. And I wonder how many more we would have hired had we had the chance to see some adjustments. We’d see a performance; it wasn’t great but there was something there. But was it worth flying him out to see? Or even asking him to go back to the casting office and re-do the tape? Generally, you find other candidates so that actor is out of luck. It’s unfortunate for him, and unfortunate for us if it turns out we missed something. Casting is an inexact science, and they’re the most important decisions a showrunner will ever have to make. Everything else can be fixed, but if you have a bad actor, no amount of rewriting, make up or back-lighting is going to save you.

That’s why it’s still valuable to go to New York and see for yourself who’s out there. And get to see HAMILTON on someone else’s dime.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The answer: Jeopardy. The question: What is a word I can't spell?

Are there words you just can’t spell? There are a few that always give me fits. And now, of course, with spellcheck I just type an approximation of the word and it fixes it. So there’s no real imperative to learn except that it bugs me.   This isn't the final round of the international Spelling Bee.  These are words high schoolers should know how to spell.

One of those words is privilege. I put e’s where i‘s should go, or vice versa, or drop letters, or sometimes add a d. Let’s just say it – I have no idea how to spell that word.

Jeopardy is another one. And you’d think after seeing the damn word on television for all these years – in big block letters, that I’d know where the vowels go.

Graffiti – double f’s or double t’s or double both? I spell it differently every time. Same with assassin. How many s’s both times?

Even though I know better, I will sometimes write perscription instead of prescription.

I always want to include a d in alleged.   Or an e in unbelievable.  Or drop the e in judgement

UPDATE:  And now commenters are saying the e is optional in judgement.  That's how all words should be spelled -- with at least two correct versions.  
 
And forget about Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, other words that people have problems with – like satellite and subconscious – I spell those correctly with ease.

Like I said, we all have these words we can’t spell. What are some of yours?

Monday, April 17, 2017

FRIENDS: THE MUSICAL -- Really???

As a playwright I can tell you that it’s hard to get a play produced. And especially hard to get a musical on the boards. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had both. But it’s like winning the lottery.

The competition is fierce. A theater group might put on a season of five productions a year and one of them will be Christmas-related and one will be a revival of PAJAMA GAME. So that leaves only two or maybe three slots for original material. And they receive thousands of submissions.

There are producers that fund projects so you can imagine the number of submissions they get.  It must be like THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE but with scripts instead of buckets of water.

Submitting plays is also frustrating because you can go a year before hearing back. You get a faster response if you put a note in a bottle and drop it in the Atlantic Ocean.

Theater companies also put restrictions on the kinds of material they’ll accept. They must be plays about diversity, or plays by women, or agriculture-themed. They must be no longer than 70 minutes or have no more than three characters or not require more than one set or must have the word “Strudel” in the title.

And then there are the layers. Theater companies will offer a staged reading, which could lead to a workshop, which could ultimately lead to a full production. But there is competition at each level of that process.

You can also self-produce and fund the play or musical yourself. But that’s expensive. You almost never break even. And in Los Angeles, with the new Equity rules in place it’s so expensive that fewer shows are being put up.

And yet, like I said, there are thousands of plays and musicals being written on spec. Why? Because we love the theater. Because it’s intimate. Because it’s experimental. Because there’s a genuine camaraderie. Because we can write about things that matter to us even if there are no superheroes. Because Michael Bay can never ruin our work.

So we put up with the competition, and budget restrictions, and theaters that are in urban war zones.

But now comes another hurdle – stage musicals based on sitcoms. Several years ago there was HAPPY DAYS: THE MUSICAL (at least that was written by its original creator Garry Marshall), and then GOLDEN GIRLS, SAVED BY THE BELL (dear God!), and last year a CHEERS stage play where they just cobbled together pieces of existing CHEERS scripts. And now comes word that the Off Broadway Triad Theatre will stage a musical version of FRIENDS. Really?

It’s bad enough that Disney is mounting stage versions of everything they’ve ever done. I fully expect to see “The Making of Disneyland: The Musical.” And other movies are getting stage treatments. But musicals based on sitcoms? Other than a money grab, what could possibly be the point? You’re watching other actors imitate iconic characters, singing for reasons that will need to be explained, acting out either scenes you’ve already seen done better or new scenes probably not written by legitimate FRIENDS writers.

And here’s the ultimate irony – when TV writers write for the theater they are usually buried by critics. Why? What is their biggest sin? “This play felt like a sitcom.” “The writing was merely sitcom.”

Well excuse us for not writing Chekov or having songs.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Who remembers FRIDAYS?

After SATURDAY NIGHT premiered on NBC, ABC soon followed with FRIDAYS.  It was always considered an SNL knockoff but had some pretty inspired stuff and some amazing talent.  Larry David was in the cast.  So was Michael Richards.  Here's a cool very meta sketch back when no one was doing meta sketches.   Michael Richards and Mary Edith Burrell play the parents and Melanie Chartoff is the little girl.   Check out FRIDAYS.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

In appreciation of Elizabeth Montgomery

I know I've done this before, but it's much nicer to remember April 15th as Elizabeth Montgomery's birthday rather than your taxes are due (although this year we get a couple of days reprieve).    She would have been 84 today. 

I know this because I have had a crush on Elizabeth Montgomery for &^%# years (gee, something must have gone wrong. The number didn’t print.) Let’s just say since BEWITCHED. There were a lot of TV actresses who were hot back then. But Samantha Stephens was the only one I wanted to marry. And not just because she could turn my math teacher into a Chia Pet. Sam truly was adorable. And funny in that unassuming way you rarely see in witches and genies.

Plus... guys, back me on this – how sexy was that nose twitch? It’s like, if she could do that, what else could she do?

When I became a weekend disc jockey at KERN in Bakersfield I turned my love for Liz into a running bit. The KERN Top 30 survey distributed at record stores featured Ms. Montgomery on the cover every week. That’s what they get for having me design it.

In the early 70s when my partner David and I were writing spec scripts David worked in the film department of ABC. Elizabeth Montgomery starred in a Movie of Week as Lizzie Borden. David called and said “get your ass down here!” Turns out for European release there was a nude scene. I practically drove on sidewalks to get to the studio where we screened then re-screened (and re-screened again) the scene in question. Ohmygod! Samantha Stephens, naked, blood all over her, holding an ax. Be still my heart!

I only saw her in person one time. And I never actually met her. It was about ten years later. There was a restaurant in Santa Monica called the Maryland Crab House, which featured the whole Chesapeake crab experience – butcher paper, a pile of spiced crabs on the table, wooden mallets, buckets. Liz and her husband Robert Foxworth came in and sat right across from me. Ironically, I would direct Robert years later on LATELINE. (He’s the one I thought should run for the senate). So picture this. The goddess I’ve adored forever… chomping on crabs, ripping them apart, contorting her face, sucking claws, swilling beer, juice running down her arm. And I was STILL ENTRANCED.

Anyone I’ve ever talked to who worked with her said she was a dream. Professional and kind and giving as an actress. She made everyone on the set feel comfortable from fellow actors to the lowliest crew member.

Most of her work was in television although she did a few movies, most of them forgettable like one with Dean Martin and a cameo in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI. But if you can find JOHNNY COOL with Telly Savalas, that’s a good B-movie pot boiler. I imagine some of her TV movies survive. If so, A CASE OF RAPE shows just how good a dramatic actress she was. And her episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE was killer. For sheer camp check out A KILLING AFFAIR in which she has an interracial affair with O.J. Simpson.

She was outspoken against the Vietnam War when that was not a popular position. She was a volunteer for the Los Angeles Unit of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, a non-profit organization which records educational books for disabled people.

Elizabeth Montgomery was only 62 when she passed away. But she’ll remain forever young, forever Bewitching, and generation after generation will continue to fall under her magic spell.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday Questions

They’re stacking up so let’s get to some Friday Questions, shall we?

Rob W. starts us off:

I recently had the distinct pleasure of watching the "Frasier" episode, "The Show Where Sam Shows Up," written by you and David (and directed by Jim Burrows). I was blown away by the remarkable sequence where you guys filled in the major inconsistencies of Frasier's backstory that carried over from "Cheers" to the new show. A number of fantastic lines also brought us up to date on life in Boston. That says nothing of the incredible payoff to Sam and Tea Leoni's storyline. I'm curious what it was like to write this episode-how you balanced the backstories and the payoffs for fans of both shows.

The amazing thing about that episode is that they pretty much left it to us to fill-in the CHEERS backstory. We knew we had to cover CHEERS establishing that Frasier’s father was dead and he had no brother. But we also figured we needed to update the audience on what was going on with the other Cheers regulars. And to that end, there was not a lot of discussion. So David and I just made up what we thought might happen and turned it in, figuring the FRASIER producers were welcome to change it or run it by the Charles Brothers, or whatever. But for the most part, they kept it.

I also remember we had to write the episode quickly. The producers approached us during the Christmas party. Ted had signed on but NBC wanted the episode ready to air for February Sweeps so they needed the script pronto. We were all too happy to oblige. The chance to write Sam Malone one more time was a great incentive. And we always loved writing FRASIER episodes.  How could you not?

I was also thrilled that they cast Tea Leoni. She’s wonderful in comedy. I’ve been a fan of hers since FLYING BLIND, where she really shined.

J Lee asks:

Ken -- When you were show-running in Season 6 on MASH, there were two guest-stars -- Bernard Fox and George Lindsey -- who were extremely well-known for their supporting roles on previous sitcoms, who were asked to play more serious roles here (Fox's as the taciturn major a little more than Lindsey's surgeon). Is there ever a concern when casting that the viewers aren't going to be able to see that actor in a different, and more serious role, than what they had been used to seeing them in for 5-10 years or so, and that's going to impact the ability to get the story across as best as possible?

No. It’s quite the opposite. We like casting actors in roles they’re not known for. First off, they are good actors with more range than people give them credit for. And secondly, it’s much fresher to see George Lindsey when he’s not playing Goober.

To me the best example of this is Margo Martindale in JUSTIFIED. For years she was always cast as the sweet frumpy housewife. In JUSTIFIED she played the most delicious evil villain since Alan Rickman in DIE HARD. Who knew? Casting against type may not be the safe choice, but at times it’s the inspired choice.

Adam Chase queries:

How do you feel about shows that are on the "bubble" ending with a cliffhanger? Do producers, knowing full well their show is in a precarious situation, do this hoping it will put pressure on the network to renew? From a fan perspective it's really annoying because we are sometimes left never knowing what happened.

That’s the problem with all serialized shows. You get invested in them, the networks cancel them, and you’re left hanging. Frankly, that’s why I now prefer to wait on new serialized shows until I know they’ll be around next Tuesday and then binge watch them if I’m interested enough.

Cliffhangers are a tricky subject because a show must be in some contention or the network won’t approve the story. So if a network lets a show that’s on the bubble do a cliffhanger then a lot of weight is placed on how well that episode does in the ratings. That’s the REAL cliffhanger.

And finally, Jahn Ghalt has a couple of FQ's after listening to last week’s podcast about my baseball career. (Have you heard it yet? What are you waiting for?)

Loved this podcast, Ken (I like all of them, actually). I would tune in, with notice, if you could do a guest spot for an M's at Angels game with the M's announcers - radio, TV, streaming, whatever.

Would it be gauche to sic your agent on this?

I would be happy to do it if they ask and my schedule is free.  I guess I should get an agent too.

You left out a good minute on this one (maybe three) - how did you get the Mariner's job?

When I was broadcasting for the Orioles there was a night we finished a road trip in Kansas City and the Mariners flew into Baltimore for our upcoming series. As the M’s were busing in from the airport, their announcer Dave Niehaus was listening to me call the play-by-play on his transistor radio. When I saw him the next night he was very complimentary, which blew me away. Dave Niehaus was one of my radio idols.

After the season, the Mariners’ number two guy, Rick Rizzs accepted a job replacing Ernie Harwell in Detroit so there was an opening. Niehaus remembered me and called. I then submitted my tape, was brought in for an interview, and happily was offered the job. So I owe it all to luck and Dave Niehaus.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Vote YES on the WGA Strike Authorization vote

The WGA just released this video to reach out to members asking for a YES vote on Strike Authorization.  I'm happy to pass it along in the hopes that more writers see it.  Thanks.

My single most asked question

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that is (a) the most frequently asked, and (b) worth an entire post. So here goes.

Janine asks:

Hi! Big fan! So I'm 17 and I really feel like I have the ability to write my own sitcom, this may be a stupid question but once I have a finished screenplay of my pilot, how do I actually go about getting it on air?

The sad truth is, Janine, it’s next to impossible. But that doesn’t mean the script can’t help launch your career.  So read on. 

First, it’s very difficult to get networks or studios to even read unsolicited material. They’re protecting themselves against lawsuits. And even if you’re lucky enough to get an agent or manager, networks generally won’t consider original material from writers who don’t have a track record. But hang in there because there is good news later in this post. 

It’s possible that a producer will respond to your pilot and he can get it up the food chain and possibly into production. But, in a case like that he will probably offer to just buy the script from you, pay you off, and then he will own it outright. He will then hire established writers to run with your show.

Is that a good thing? Well, considering how few shows get on the air and become hits, yes. You could walk away with $5000 or $10,000 and the project could go nowhere. You come out smelling like a rose. But what if it turns out to be that rare exception? What if it turns out to be the next FRIENDS? Everyone will make a fortune but you.  Yes, it's a problem but a nice problem to have. 

Now comes the good news part.

You can make the pilot yourself. You could shoot it on your iPhone. If you could find ways to make it for very little money (use actor friends, edit off your laptop, film it in your house or a location owned by a friend) you can put it up on YouTube. If it’s good it might get noticed. BROAD CITY began as a web series. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson created and starred in it. A few years later Comedy Central came calling. So Ilana and Abbi completely skipped the network submission process. There are other examples as well. And even if a network doesn’t want to pick up your pilot, if you’ve impressed them they might be willing to consider something else, or putting you on staff of a series.

The other good news: Original pilots are now what everyone demands as a writing sample. So you may not get your pilot produced, but the script could be your golden ticket to staff work. Networks tend to only work with writers who have had a few years of experience. (Well, that or actors who have no experience and don’t know the first thing about writing a pilot but the network wants to be in business with them. That’s another way to get your script produced, Janine. Become a star.)

If you think of your pilot as a writing sample then anything good that happens to it beyond that is gravy.

But I would tell you this: Your next pilot script is going to be better than this one. And the one after will be better than both of them. If I were you I would concentrate most of my time and effort on writing more scripts. The better you are as a writer the better your chances of grabbing that brass ring.

Good luck to Janine and all the Janines out there.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Episode 15: Behind the Scenes at the Academy Awards


Ken’s guest is Randy Thomas, one of the premier live event voice over artists in the country. She has been the voice of the Oscars, Tonys, and Emmys. She tells what really happened during that colossal snafu at this year’s Academy Awards. She also discusses her career, what it takes to be a VO artist, how to break in, do’s and don’ts, and of course “Hooked On Phonics.” For anyone wanting to make a living with their voice, this episode is for YOU.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What the hell is "Donuts?"

Remember a few months ago I did a post showing survey results of American viewers, which shows they watched, etc.? You can find it here.

It was shocking how little awareness most people had about most shows. 66% of the population has never even heard of TRANSPARENT, despite all the hype. 56% has never heard of VEEP even with all the Emmy wins and the fact that it’s been on for years.

On the other hand, there are some shows that are so well-known, so popular, that just a nickname suffices. AMERICAN IDOL became known as simply “IDOL.” A typical promo would start: “Tonight, on a new IDOL…” People at the watercooler would say, “Did you see ABBEY (for DOWNTON ABBEY) or THRONES last night? Or “HOUSEWIVES?”

In some cases it makes sense if the show has a long title. IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA has sort of just become SUNNY. It’s a shorthand that big hit shows have the luxury of employing.

But it has to be a hit. It almost signifies that the show has become an actual “thing.” A pop culture darling. So many people know the show (and fondly) that you don’t even have to say the entire title. There can be only one IDOL and there’s no confusion that it’s referring to a certain television show.

Okay. Recently, I saw a promo on CBS for their Monday comedies. And the promo ended with “And an all-new DONUTS.” Do you know what DONUTS is?

It’s referencing a midseason show introduced just a couple of months ago called SUPERIOR DONUTS. I imagine a lot of you are still scratching your heads. Considering how few people have ever heard of VEEP, and that’s been on for six years, what is the awareness level of SUPERIOR DONUTS? Yes, VEEP is on HBO, but it’s also won Emmys on CBS. If there’s one cable channel people know it’s HBO and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a pretty recognizable star. (I always hate mentioning Julia Louis-Dreyfus because I always have to look up the spelling of her name. I absolutely adore her but she would get way more blog mentions if her name was Julia Hall. Just sayin’.)

This is not to knock SUPERIOR DONUTS. It’s the promo department. I guess they think that by using the shorthand version of the title they are trying to convince the audience that it’s more popular or zeitgeisty than it is. But they’re doing the show a disservice. It’s hard enough to get on promos. Especially these days when viewers are bombarded with shows and titles. This is the most common complaint showrunners have with networks. And even if they get airtime they still sometimes get gyped.  I used to see :30 promos on ABC that hyped MODERN FAMILY for :25 of it and then tagged it with, “followed by a new episode of THE MIDDLE.” Gee thanks.

But my point, regarding SUPERIOR DONUTS is this: Why waste their precious few seconds by identifying the show by an ambiguous word? When people think of “donuts” they don’t automatically think of Judd Hirsch. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

It also makes CBS look like some 70 year-old trying to act like a hipster.

New shows need all the help they can get. They’re no longer allowed to have opening titles. They’re no longer allowed to have theme songs. All they have is their title. The least network promos can do is say their complete title – even if that title is two whole words.

And it gets worse.  Here's an ad that doesn't say the title at all:

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

My enthusiasm for CURB

I’m getting a backlog of Friday Questions so I thought over the next few weeks I’d sprinkle in extra editions. You keep askin’ ‘em and I’ll keep answerin’ ‘em.

Brian leads off:

I don't remember you having mentioned any opinions about Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm". In particular, I wonder what you think about making a show with only outlines and no script.

I love CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, and I love Larry David even though every time he sees me he brings up how pissed he is that I beat him for a Writers Guild Award in 1992.  Get over it, Larry!

Those shows aren’t scripted per se, but Larry works out the story to great detail. And often he and the actors rehearse scenes over and over while he sharpens lines and basically scripts it on the fly. He thus achieves the best of both worlds – the actors sound natural and not scripted but the desired jokes are all in place. 

From Thomas:

Do you have a "one that got away" writing job? Like, a job that you didn't quite land and always wish you had?

I always wanted to write a script for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and one of the producers liked our work. But they had given a freelance assignment to a team who turned in a terrible draft and the other producer decided that that was it for freelance scripts that season. And unfortunately, it was the last season.

We were also offered the COSBY pilot to write but were under contract to do the second season of AfterMASH and couldn’t accept it. That haunted me, but for some reason not so much the last two or three years.

After listening to my podcast, Andy Rose has a question about my baseball announcing:

One thing I've been curious about that didn't get mentioned in the broadcast... why'd you stop doing baseball? 

Short answer:  Because no one has hired me. 

When I was doing play-by-play for the Padres in the ‘90s I was just doing every weekend, thus allowing Jerry Coleman to go off and do the CBS radio Game of the Week. It was the perfect gig for me. I was producing ALMOST PERFECT during the week and calling major league baseball on the weekends. But after three years CBS lost the radio rights to ESPN and Jerry was back full-time.

I did part-time play-by-play for the Mariners a few years ago after Dave Niehaus passed away, but then they decided to hire a young announcer fulltime.

I would love to do more baseball. Someone just has to call.

And finally, B Smith wonders:

I watched the "Abyssinia Henry" episode of MASH last night (one watches it again, and hopes that maybe _this_ time, Henry's plane won't go down), and wondered if, as a screenwriter yourself, you're able to detach yourself from the nuts and bolts of writing and view it as we "civilians" do, or are you constantly analyzing it in your head, seeing how the writers went from A to B, considering how you might have written it, etc?

I try very hard not to do that. And nothing pleases me more than when a show engages me and I can just go along for the ride.

More than the writing, however, I watch with a more critical eye as a director. If shots aren’t matched, or a shot is not well composed it will bump me. Conversely, I’ll see a great shot or well-constructed sequence and tip my cap to the director.

I hate to see bad stage play comedies, because for me it’s like going to a terrible runthrough except it lasts two hours. And in my head I’m going, “You can cut this whole scene.” “There’s a missed opportunity for a joke,” etc.

What’s your Friday Question (or in this case, Tuesday Question)?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Strike update

Negotiations resume today between the WGA and AMPTP (the producers). And just to be clear, by “producers” we mean the mega conglomerate companies that control the industry and world. We’re not talking Shonda Rhimes. We’re talking Comcast-Universal.

A strike authorization vote will be taken next week and it’s important to show solidarity if the WGA hopes to get anything at all. I’m guessing the AMPTP is letting this play out to see if the Guild membership really will commit to a strike. They will find that the answer is yes. And to repeat, the AMPTP controls the situation. The very second they decide it’s time to make an agreement there will be one.

But for now there’s a lot of sabre-rattling on both sides. Accusations and threats will volley back and forth. That’s part of the game. Ignore most of it. Also ignore dire predictions. No one other than the AMPTP knows if there will be a strike, or more accurately, if they orchestrate a strike, but I bet they don’t even know. Let’s see how this week of negotiations go.

Talking to a writer about my last strike post, he said, “Who cares what the public thinks? This is a private matter.” I don’t think that’s true. Because of all the rhetoric and mud that will be slung, another element must be addressed – saving face. It ultimately won’t be enough to strike a deal. A deal must be struck that doesn’t look like either side has given in. Believe me, that becomes a major factor.

Now to offset any balloon juice about how greedy those ungrateful writers are, here are some of their demands (with comments by me). Please bear in mind the industry profits are now $51 billion, double what they were just a decade ago. It’s not like they can cry poor. The WGA maintains that just a one percent fraction of that would provide the WGA its fair share.

So here are some issues the WGA has on the table. 

· Increase minimum compensation in all areas
Writers are actually making less now than they did ten years ago (while profits have doubled).

· Increase residuals for undercompensated reuse markets
Many writers rely on residuals because work is sparse. Networks are airing fewer reruns. Lots of cable stations are running episodes multiple times on multiple platforms. The writers are getting screwed.

· Expand types of made-for new media programs subject to MBA minimums Increase contributions to Pension Plan and Health Fund
Trust me, replenishing the Health Fund is the one issue that every writer will strike for and will stay out for as long as it takes.

· Strengthen economic and workplace protections for television and new media writers employed and compensated on per episode basis
When networks all had full seasons of 22, writers worked on a show all year. And they knew within a couple of months whether they would be picked up or not. With all these other platforms there is no time imperative. Nor do they order 22 shows. So they can be produced at a more leisurely pace. That’s fine except most writers get paid by the episode. So they’re working a lot of extra weeks for basically nothing. How fair is that?

· Strengthen regulation of options and exclusivity provisions in television and new media employment contracts
Let’s say you’re on staff of a Hulu show. You make thirteen. Then you wait to see if you’ll be picked up for more. But Hulu can take its sweet time in deciding that. It’s not like they have to announce a fall schedule by May 5th. They might not make that decision for a year. Yes, a year. And the writers are held to exclusive contracts – meaning, that they are not allowed to take other staff work during that waiting period. So do the math. Instead of 22 episodes, they do 13 (or 10 or 8), take more time to produce them, which dilutes their fee, and then they could be forced out of work for a year. The WGA is trying to eliminate those exclusivity provisions. I’d say that’s reasonable, wouldn’t you?

· Address inequities in compensation of writing teams employed under term deals for television and new media series
This deals with “paper partners” where studios pair entry level writers so they can get two writers for the price of one. And these young writers are forced to take it or they get no work at all.  Some baby writers work fulltime on shows and still don’t earn enough to qualify for health insurance. I’m sorry, that’s wrong on every level.

· Provide paid family leave for writers employed under term deals for television and new media series
Y’know, like other corporations (large and small) offer.

· Amend definition of a professional writer to include writing for new media Increase funding for Showrunner Training Program and Tri-Guild Audit Program
This is just a smart use of money. An untrained showrunner is going to cost the production. Budgets are tight, and inefficiently results in spiraling costs and overruns. Way better to prepare him going in to do the job. Again, does this seem greedy to you?

There are other issues but these are the ones in the forefront. Writers just want a fair deal.  And they would love to get one without having to strike. 

And finally, I’ll say this: I imagine the public perception of a screenwriter is Hank in CALIFORNICATION. It’s way more like Jim in THE OFFICE.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Diagnosing problem scripts

Here’s a Friday Question worth an entire post:

It’s from Charles H. Bryan:

Are there times when you look at a script (yours or someone else's) and think "There's something missing, but I don't know what?" Or can you always pretty specifically nail down the problem?

I only wish in my dreams that I could detect all script problems and what the fixes are. But the truth is, there are plenty of times something’s not working and I’m completely stumped as to why.

This is another reason it’s good to have partners or a writing staff. And I’ll be honest, there have been many times during a rewrite when as a group we arrive at what we think is the problem, spend six hours rewriting, and then send the script to the stage not having a clue whether we really solved the problem or just did an alternate version. Generally, we’re right about 75% of the time. But once or twice a season we find ourselves right back at square one the next night.

Why do we find ourselves in these pickles? Because we strive to be original, tell stories in a fresh inventive way. If you just follow the same story structure week after week you rarely have these problems. Personally, I think the trade off is worth it. (Of course I say that now. Sitting in a rewrite at 5 A.M. I may not be such an artiste.)

On one show I worked on early in my career we would have a scene that didn’t work in a runthrough or a story that was problematic and one of our producers would say “Don’t worry. I got the fix.” So we would just move on to the next scene. Then we'd get back to room and say, “What’s the fix?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was just saying that so we could move along. I didn’t want to stand on the stage debating this all day with the actors there.” We wanted to kill him… and then ourselves for letting him fool us again.

But if you find yourself in this situation, you can take great comfort in knowing you are not alone. Practically all writers face this, even the great ones.

In his autobiography, the great Neil Simon talks about mounting his classic play, THE ODD COUPLE. They had their original table reading before the first rehearsal and the first act played like gangbusters. Huge laughs all the way through. Same with the second. During the break before the third act, Walter Matthau (one of the stars) pledged to invest a lot of money in the play. it was a can't miss!  Then came the third act. Big laughs until the last scene and then it just died. Playwright Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols (no slouch himself) were stymied. Neil rewrote and they took the show out of town for tryouts.

Night after night the same thing would occur. Monster laughs until the last fifteen minutes. Neil and Mike would then sit in the hotel lobby staring at each other. They would decide on a course of action, Neil would sit up all night rewriting, and the next evening the new version would be presented to the audience. And the cycle would be repeated. Night after night after night.

Finally, a Boston critic casually mentioned he really liked the Pigeon sisters – two characters that appeared in a second act scene. He wished they had come back. A lightbulb went on. Yes! Bring the Pigeon sisters back.

Neil wrote them into the last scene and suddenly THE ODD COUPLE played through the roof. The rest is (Broadway, motion picture, and television) history.

When geniuses like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols can't put their fingers on a problem, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

So when you get stuck just know, there is no Dr. House for writing. At times we’re all Frank Burns.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The laugh that almost cost me my career

It was our first staff job. My partner, David Isaacs and I had been hired on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW as “term writers.” That’s the lowest rung on the ladder. Term writers didn’t even get a credit. I don’t think there are term writers today. Anyway, we didn’t care. We were thrilled. Not only were we on an actual show but it was an MTM show. This was the mid ‘70’s and MTM back then was Camelot. The best shows (MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, BOB NEWHART) and the best writers with the ultimate mensch, Grant Tinker serving as King Arthur. We felt special and honored just driving on the lot.

We were hired by showrunners Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. They are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met. The rest of the staff was Gary David Goldberg (who created FAMILY TIES) and Hugh Wilson (who created WKRP IN CINCINNATI and directed FIRST WIVES CLUB). We were very green and understood that our main function the first few weeks was to just hang back and learn.

THE TONY RANDALL SHOW was a multi-camera sitcom, shot before a live studio audience. So the process was the actors would rehearse all day, the writers would come down to the stage at about 4:00, watch a runthrough, scribble notes, and return to the office to rewrite.

I found the first few runthroughs somewhat daunting. I was dutifully marking up my script, trying to size up what worked and what didn’t on the fly – a skill I had never needed before.

After a couple of runthroughs Tom took me aside and gently suggested I should laugh during the actors’ performances. It helps the cast know what’s funny. I had been concentrating on the script so intently I never even thought about that. I thanked him and assured him I would laugh in the future.

Tony Randall played a judge in the show and the next week’s script was about a convict he had sentenced to prison who was now released. There was reason to believe he might want to take revenge on Tony. It was a funny script written by Earl Pomerantz.

Side bar: Among the many things I learned from Earl over the years was sprinkling funny things in the stage direction from time to time. I had never seen that before. In this script there was a scene in his home and to be safe he had beefed up security. This is what Earl wrote: “You wanna see locks? Look at that door.” Readers tend to skip over stage direction, but if you reward them with a joke or two they’re more likely to stay with it. The great Billy Wilder was once asked, “should directors also be writers?” to which he said, “No. They should be readers.” End of side bar.

We went down for the runthrough. For the first few scenes I laughed along with the other writers, getting into the swing of it. But then came that scene in his house. Zane Lasky, who played uber earnest law clerk Mario Lanza took it upon himself to be Tony’s bodyguard. There was a noise and overzealous Zane was supposed to pull out a gun. The gun he produced was a cannon. Larger than Dirty Harry’s.

Well, that just slayed me. I didn’t just laugh; I was in hysterics. You know how something strikes you so funny that you just can’t stop laughing? That was me over this one small sight gag. The actors stopped acting, everyone on the set was looking at me quizzically. I was terribly embarrassed and yet I still could not stop laughing. Tom and Jay were glaring at me. There were tears rolling down my face and my sides hurt. Eventually I calmed down and the scene resumed. Now I was afraid to laugh at anything for fear that it would set me off again. So picture this funny scene, all the writers are laughing and enjoying and I’m sitting there like a statue biting my lip. And you know how infectious laughter is. I was sweating trying to hold it in.

As we walked back to the office (in silence) I decided I better kick ass during the rewrite. After that display I was on very thin ice. So I became a joke machine that night, pitching lines left and right. A lot of them actually made it into the script and I redeemed myself (for another week). When people ask what motivates writers and where does the humor come from – the answer is often FEAR.

The night that episode was filmed the gun gag got a huge laugh from the audience. I wanted to turn to Tom Patchett and say, “See?” but decided I really liked this job.

The moral here to all young writers: When going to runthroughs laugh unless you find something really funny.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Friday Questions

TGIF-Q’s.

Brian has the first:

Ken do you think Matthew Perry will be good in serious roles (he does look serious with that double chin ;)) as Ted Kennedy?

I think Matthew Perry is an even better dramatic actor than he is a comedic actor. I’ve seen him in things like THE GOOD WIFE and have been super impressed. In comedies he is always Chandler, but in dramas he sheds all of those familiar crutches and really “becomes” whatever character he’s playing.

Mark wonders:

When a show has a cliff hanger episode that spans the last episode of one year and the first of the next do they film them together and then take an extra week off before starting up again? Or do they just film the last one and then do the first one on schedule and hope the continuity works out.

Usually they film the resolution episode as the first one back in the next season. Sometimes they’ll do a cliffhanger without knowing yet how to resolve it.

One time on WINGS we had a cliffhanger to end the season and when the cast returned six months later Steven Weber had changed his hairstyle. They had to use a wig to cover.

But at least they could cover. I’ve seen cliffhangers where part two is supposed to be continuous and one of the actors has suddenly gained twenty pounds. Even fudge brownies don't work that fast.

Brad Apling queries:

In the beginning days, when you and Isaacs would get together at night or weekends to write your spec scripts, were you working on separate ones or together on just one? As a follow-up, what kept either of you cemented to finishing a spec script (being as they're not exactly 'flash fiction' in length) and not jumping off to another idea either of you had?

We always worked on the same script. And we always worked together in the room. Lots of teams will divide up scenes, write separately, then return to either polish it together or rewrite each other's scenes on their own.  We wrote head-to-head.  To us the value of a partnership is to get immediate feedback from someone you trust, and more importantly, have someone to go to lunch with. 

Nothing gets done unless both team members are committed to it. Once we began to write a spec there was never any discussion of just junking or tabling it to work on something else. We would struggle at times with the story or certain jokes but we always fought our way through it.  Wrestling scripts to the ground is excellent training for when you do go on staff. 

And finally, from VincentS:

When a producer, writer, or cast member of a show directs an episode do they get paid extra?

Yes, they do. The Directors Guild sort of demands it.

However, if you have a studio development deal it's a little different.  Usually you will be paid an annual guarantee and any services you provide go against that guarantee until you reach it.  If you surpass it you make the additional money.   So let's say a writer/producer has a development deal.  The studio pays a director's fee, but it just goes against the deal so technically he doesn't make extra.  Does that make sense?  

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks!

Thursday, April 06, 2017

RIP Don Rickles

So sorry to hear of the passing of Don Rickles.  He was 90 years young.  Saw him in concert just a year ago and was surprised and delighted by how many young people were in attendance.  True comic brilliance is timeless.  I never worked with him but always admired him.

Don Rickles was a true original.  As a comic he was utterly fearless.  Talk about non-PC, Rickles was an equal opportunity offender.  And no one else was doing the shtick he did, primarily because they weren't as fast or as funny at it as he was.   It was quite a trick being insulting and lovable at the same time.  The fact that Sinatra didn't have him killed speaks for his ability to walk that fine line. 

The other trick is that even though you hated yourself for laughing, he made you feel it was okay to laugh anyway. 

Underneath you just knew this was just an act and offstage he was a kind lovely man.  Which he was.

Every shock jock and insult comedian can thank Don Rickles. 

Those of a certain age remember what a special treat it was those nights when Rickles guested on THE TONIGHT SHOW with Johnny Carson.  He'd sit on the couch and just take gratuitous potshots at Johnny and his guests.   Made no difference who.  I only wish the Pope would have guested during one of his appearances. 

He led a long life, performed right up until the end, influenced many, provided laughter for millions, and would say I'm being too sentimental and that I'm a hockey puck.

RIP Don Rickles.   I'll miss seeing you in Vegas and at High Holiday Services.