Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Why I didn't work on WKRP IN CINCINNATI

Here’s another of those days where I sneak in more Friday Questions since they’ve really stacked up and I want to get to as many as possible.

Chris Gumprich starts us off:

This may be a Friday Question that you've already answered a few times, but this post made me wonder -- you're an ex-disc jockey working for MTM on a show with Hugh Wilson. Why didn't you ever write for WKRP IN CINCINNATI? It seems natural.

I had left MTM and was on MASH at the time. I did call Hugh with an offer to be a technical consultant. There are a lot of radio inaccuracies in WKRP, but Hugh was quite happy with the show the way it was. And he obviously was right.

Although I never worked on the show, I remained a big fan. Even watched the new WKRP.

therealshell wonders:

Do you think that it's ever "too soon" to make jokes about tragic events?

It really depends on the event. There is now a hilarious SEINFELD spec about 9-11. A few years ago that would be unthinkable.

It also depends on the venue. You can say stuff on Howard Stern you can’t say on NPR.

But basically, if you have a joke and worry that it might be “too soon” then it probably is.

Graeme Perrow asks:

What's the reasoning behind many shows that now split the season into two, with a "fall finale", a two month break, and then a "spring premiere"? Is it just a way for them to get away with producing fewer episodes per season, or do they simply bunch all the rerun weeks together instead of spreading them out? Or are there other reasons behind this recent trend?

The thinking is that viewers would rather watch a batch of new episodes without interruptions or reruns, especially on serialized shows. And since cable channels have been breaking up series into 13 episode chunks (a la BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, SUITS, etc.), networks feel the audiences are conditioned for it.

But here’s the problem – if the audience watches a show but doesn’t really give a shit about it, they often times don’t return for the “second” season. And if too much time passes and the viewer realizes he’s existed quite happily without this show he too may not return. So networks are taking a risk.

I couldn’t wait for BETTER CALL SAUL and FARGO to return (that was before the FARGO finale last week). I don’t think I really care about QUANTICO.

And finally, from Mitchell Hundred:

I've noticed that when you talk about your days as a radio DJ, you tend to gloss over the actual music that you played (with a few exceptions). So my question is: How much attention do you pay to that stuff when you're on the job, and how much leeway are you given to be snarky about a song that's really obviously terrible?

I was very fortunate. I worked at stations and formats where I genuinely liked the music. Never had to play Mantovani or polka records. So quite often I would have the speakers up while I was playing the songs.

As for leeway in making fun of the music, that depended on the program director although most understood that when they hired me, snarkiness came as part of the bargain. Most of the PD’s gave me a lot of latitude. So thanks to Bob Whitney, Bobby Rich, Jimi Fox, Johnny Mitchell, Jhani Kaye, and Mike McVay. I’m no longer in radio but it’s not cause of you.

What’s your Whatever-Day Question?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Back back back back

Every post I’ve ever written is available in the archives. Close to 5,000. Very few people actually do go back and read through archives. Jesus, who has the time? But they're great for people Googling things. They're there if you need them.  

And with 11+ years in the books, a lot of the content is now dated. Not many readers are seeking old AMERICAN IDOL reviews (although some are pretty funny). But that’s okay. The point of this blog is to be topical. If I wanted to write something I know people will still be reading in fifty years I’d write a book on how bad AT&T is.   (And by the way, ABC is rebooting AMERICAN IDOL.)

However, now that I’ve been posting for over a decade, there is a nostalgia component that has crept in. Not that this was remotely my intent, but this blog has become a nice chronicle of pop culture and events during that period. The fun of course is when you read back the posts are in the present tense. I don’t know about you, but I love watching vintage television shows that still have their original commercials. The commercials are sometimes more entertaining than the shows. You really get that “time machine” feeling.

So too, with the archives. There are probably weeks or months from the past eleven years that you’d like to relive – happy events and memories. Hey, maybe you won AMERICAN IDOL one year. I bet if you picked a month and year and read those posts they would give you a good feeling. And I bet a good laugh or two might be hiding in these dated entries.

Now, more than ever, I personally am longing for the past. If you are too, a good way to immerse yourself (or distract yourself) might be to scroll through the archives. See how wrong my predictions were. Re-read award show reviews and marvel at how many winners have now disappeared. Skip the baseball posts like you did when they first appeared. Enjoy the many photos of Natalie Wood.

Hey, the alternative is the present. Enjoy.

Monday, June 26, 2017

WONDER WOMAN: My review

No SPOILER ALERT necessary. You know what you’re going to see.

The first half-hour (or maybe hour) of WONDER WOMAN was startling. It took place on Xanadu or Shangri-La or Lesbo or Neverland or Young Boys’ Fantasy Island – whatever it was called and it was shocking. Why?

Because the sun was shining.

Ohmygod, there was a blue sky, and shadows, and everything. The fight scenes (girl on girl so that’s an extra $100mil at the boxoffice right there) were, dare I say it, bright. Pleasant to look at even.

But once Wonder Woman crosses into the real world everything goes typically grey and stays that way. Can DC superheroes only use their powers when there’s a cloud cover? Okay, London I can buy. But Belgium has Seattle weather?

DC must stand for Dreary Cinema.

Still, Gal Gadot was so luminous and radiant that even the DC Universe couldn’t darken this movie. Yes, she was hot in the Wonder Woman costume. But she also rocked that blue ballroom gown with the giant sword tastefully semi-hidden behind her back.
Sidenote: Robin Wright in Amazon armor was a nice look too. I can see President Underwood asking her to put that on one night in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Sidenote 2: All the women on the island speak in clunky Israeli accents to justify why Wonder Woman speaks that way. The Amazon women supposedly speak thousands of languages. All with slight accents?

WONDER WOMAN is a fun ride. Great action sequences, ridiculous story that at least you can follow some of the time. And when Gal is crushing the entire German army if you’re asking logic questions you’re in the wrong theater.

Chris Pine is the co-star basically playing Captain Kirk. As much cash as WONDER WOMAN is going to bring in, it could make even more if it was billed as a crossover with the STAR TREK franchise.

My only problem with the movie was that it was waaaaaay too long. You could cut forty-five minutes EASY. There’s no reason a summer popcorn movie should be 2:21. Yes, they needed to show the origin, but it was done with shameless exposition. “Come here Diana, and let me explain jumbled mythology for ten minutes.”

But these are quibbles. The bottom line is Wonder Woman may not save the world, but she sure is saving Hollywood this summer. And she can save me any day.  (Please bring the lasso.) 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Being on Instagram

This has become my new time suck -- checking out everyone's photos.   Most social media sites invite people to stay in their chair and just keep browsing.  But Instagram prompts me to get out there and take pictures and do stuff.   It's not going to get me a job or get me elected as president, but Instagram is a fun diversion when I'm waiting in line to get into the Boiling Crab.  You're welcome to follow me.  Hollywoodandlevine. 

Here's a sample of the crap I post.

Writing problem: What to do if you get stuck?

This happens often as you write your script or novel. You come to a point where you think you’ve written yourself into a corner. A plot point requires something and you just can’t get there. Wait a minute, he can’t swim to safety; he’s in a wheelchair. Exactly how is she going to get to the Pope to sell him Girl Scout cookies?

This is one of the benefits of a being in a partnership – sometimes he can solve it.

But when working alone, here are four handy tips:

First, don’t be afraid to go back. Yes, you spent an hour on the last page and there’s a great joke about renal failure but if it drops you off at a dead end replace it with something that works. Once you have it you’ll probably be able to make up for lost time and more.

So now that you’ve freed yourself, let your mind wander. Come at the problem from different angles. What if he doesn’t get drunk? What if she gets drunk instead? What if he kills the cable repairman tomorrow and not today (right away that makes more sense because the cable repairman is always a day late)? Way too often we get stuck thinking there’s only one way to solve a problem. There’s not. On LOST once there was some crisis and the solution was to “move the island”. Now that’s not the first thing you normally think of. Look for other options. They’re out there.

Second, go past it if you can. If it’s a joke you just can’t find, stick a pin in it and move on. Do the heavy lifting first and then come. It’s a lot easier to tackle the problem when you know it’s the final thing you need to do. But I say “if you can” because if the issue is a major plot point or character definition it’s usually better to solve it now. You don’t want to have to go back and rewrite six pages before the problem and then sixty pages after the problem once you’ve solved it. Or that could just be me. However, long speeches, specific jokes, finding the perfect paragraph to describe a setting – save that crap for later.

Third. Don’t panic. You’ll get it. It might not be in five minutes but you will. My partner and I always joke when we come to a bump that “that’s it. A thirty year career comes to end because we can’t figure how to get Daphne out of the room.” Yes, it’s frustrating but you’re a writer. You welcome pain.

And finally, just walk away. Take a break. Do anything else but write. For some this is hard. They don’t like to stop until they’ve finished a scene or a certain number of pages or NCIS comes on. But it’s okay to stop in the middle of a scene, the middle of a speech, the middle of a word. Clear your head. Go for a walk. Go see a movie. Go to bed. Let your subconscious mull over the dilemma. It will, trust me. Many times I’ll go to sleep with a pad and pen by my bed. In the morning the solution is somehow there. I also do a lot of problem solving in the shower. It’s hard to read back later because the pad is wet, but letting your mind drift while you’re in a relaxed state often unlocks the lock.

Let me show you an example. I don’t really know how to end this post. So for now I’m ju

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here's my really angry rant for the month

WARNING! SPOILER ALERT! DANGER!

This post discusses the season three finale of FARGO that aired earlier this week. So if you haven’t seen it yet, come back when you do. Or you don’t watch FARGO and don’t care, stick around if you want to read an angry rant.

Last chance. The next paragraph I begin.

Okay.

Readers of this blog know I am a fan of FARGO. Especially season two, which I thought was extraordinary. This season has had its moments and I even did a post about how clever they introduced exposition.

Over the last few weeks the season seemed to go off the rails. There was the police chief who was the cliché cockblocker every time Officer Gloria came to him with a plausible case. Then there was all the metaphysical mystical bullshit and if they weren’t trying enough to be TWIN PEAKS, they hired Ray Wise (from TWIN PEAKS) to deliver the nonsense spiritual babble.

But then came the finale. That ended on a cliffhanger or (worse) ambiguity (we'll never know the outcome). My reaction (which you can probably guess) in a second.

But out of curiosity I read a number of respected TV critics’ to see what they thought. One said the ambiguity “plays into exactly what this season has been about: the fluid nature of truth.” Another defined the two main storylines: “One is an act of capitalist savagery. The other is the culmination of personal animus.” And yet a third praised the storytelling that up until the finale he had issues with. All was forgiven as he gleefully stated: “The weird hiccups and sideways jerks of the narrative, the structure that never entirely coalesced into anything coherent — was on purpose.”   That's a good thing I suppose. 

Now may I offer my opinion – and granted I’m not as enlightened or perceptive as these professional television reviewers – I’m just a schmuck with a blog and podcast? But here’s what I thought:

The ending was a fucking cheat! I sat through ten hours for THAT? Ten hours of watching cast members just pick each other off and speak with accents that get more fake each year? And then we’re left with -- NOTHING? Does Varga get put away or doesn’t he?   Really?  Ooooh, that's for me to decide.

On serialized shows the audience puts trust in the showrunner that the time and effort they expend will be rewarded at the end.  It’s a huge burden and if not handled properly ruins the entire experience.  Look at LOST or HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.  Not only do you need to make a choice, you need to make the right one (whatever that is for your particular show) otherwise you destroy all the good will you’ve built up over the years.  So to present an ambiguous ending is avoiding that decision.  To me that’s chickenshit.

Noah Hawley, in an excellent interview with Alan Sepinwall, admits that the "This is a true story" was lying to the audience.  You know what?  I get enough lies from my fucking president. 

I know it’s currently chic to embrace ambiguity and complexity and existentialism – hour dramas are so DEEP with so many LAYERS.  “Oh, the real world is messy. There are no neat conclusions.” But fuck that. Someone gives you ten hours; give them a fucking ending. The open-ended finale is not even original or fresh. THE SOPRANOS did it so much better.  And at least they were groundbreaking.   Plus, it was the end of the series.  David Chase did not ask the audience to continue taking the ride with him.   I wonder how many FARGO viewers feel like me.  

I'm certainly not saying you have to have a happy ending. It can be unsettling, sad, horrific, shocking, surprising, hopeful, weird, wistful – whatever. And you don’t have to tie up every loose end. You don’t have to wrap everything up in a pretty package. But give us SOMETHING. And I’m sorry but characters killing each other off like ducks in a shooting gallery is not SOMETHING.

Sometimes you can be just too artsy, too quirky, too clever for your own good.

They just lost one viewer.   And Emmy vote.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions comin’ at ya.

John Leader leads off.

Occasionally I’ll spot an “Easter Egg” in a show I’m watching…something that may or may not be obvious enough for everyone to notice, but it’s there for some (comedic?) purpose. An example would be Les Nessman, the News Director on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” always wearing a bandage somewhere on his person. Week-to-week, the bandage would be in different places, but it was never referred to…it was just there.

Have you and David ever stashed such “Easter Eggs” in any of your creations? And, what do you think of the whole idea of doing so?

On a couple of occasions if a character is reading a book on one of our shows, he’ll be reading my book, “It’s Gone… No, wait a minute” (and we make sure it gets on camera).

On ALMOST PERFECT, anytime Nancy’s character was watching TV at home she was watching CHEERS.

In THE BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot we needed a bar so called it “Matt’s” for my son Matt. In the ALMOST PERFECT pilot we needed a restaurant and called it “Annie's” for my daughter Annie. She got the better of the deal. ALMOST PERFECT lasted 34 episodes and that set (with her name prominently featured) got used in probably 30 of them.

Other than that, just slipping in names of people we knew for an inside joke. Example: One of the happiest married couples I knew was Bill & Sherry Grand. So in a CHEERS we wrote, Diane was on jury duty about a married couple trying to kill each other. They were named Bill & Sherry Grand. Maybe six people in America got that joke. 

Paul Dushkind asks:

How did it come to be that Admiral Crowe, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became a guest star on Cheers? That has to be the strangest choice of a guest appearance on a TV show ever.

Oh, it goes beyond that. In the first draft, we originally wrote it for Larry Bird. He initially said he’d be interested. But then backed out. So then we thought, who would be the single most unlikely replacement? The premise was that Rebecca thinks he stole her earrings. Absurd choices were batted around and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came up. I think we had a list of four or five crazy options. Our casting director inquired and the good Chairman agreed to do it. We then wrote the second draft making the necessary adjustments.

How often was Larry Bird and William J. Crowe offered the same role?

Admiral Crowe did a great job. There was even talk of a spinoff.

From David C:

I wrote a spec of Kimmy Schmidt a while ago and the newest season did some things very similar, joke setups, themes, in one case a specific plot point. It's not close enough for people to think I stole specifics just close enough that someone may see it as lazy if they were unaware of when it was written. I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time. Should I make a note on my script to say it was written before the latest season or should I not say anything?

No. Just leave it. That will be only one aspect of the script. You’ll be judged for your comedy chops, ability to capture the characters’ voices, and storytelling skills. Let your script stand on its own.

Also, you probably will have some readers who are not so familiar with KIMMY SCHMIDT that they'll notice the similarities. Why alert them?

Best of luck.

And finally, Andrew Radford wonders:

You said some young writers "maybe can’t write multi-cameras". Since you've written for both single and multi camera shows, can you explain the difference in how to write for each format?

For multi-camera shows you have to write more hard jokes. You have 250 strangers in the audience you need to make audibly laugh. And believe me, they’ll tell you whether something is funny or NOT. You can’t just rely on irony or smiles.

On single-camera shows you’re not held accountable. If the showrunner thinks something is funny it stays in. The problem is he won’t always know. And that’s not a knock at him or single-camera shows. Some are very funny. But I’ve been doing this a long time and there are plenty of instances when things I thought would kill died in front of the audience. But at least I then had a chance to fix them, to replace the jokes that didn’t work. Or edit them out.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Remember, you're always ON THE AIR

Wow. This is odd. Some public figure made an innocuous off-colored remark in this ultra-PC climate and he wasn’t buried on Twitter. In fact, people seem to take it in stride. Thank you Mets fans. The reaction (at least from what I’ve seen) has been amusement. Besides, there’s enough real shit to get furious over that it’s stupid to waste your outrage on something like this.

We're talking about a comment Mets’ TV analyst Keith Hernandez said during the Mets-Dodger game on Monday night. Oh, by the way, he didn’t say it on the air. He said it during a commercial break but his mic was still hot and if you had a satellite receiver you were able to hear it. So to 99% of the audience, it went unnoticed. More reason why this should be a non-story… although it’s not. Deadspin and the Huffington Post both had stories on it.

So what did Keith actually say?

He was talking to his broadcast partner, Gary Cohen about a pitcher who has been getting hit hard lately. And he casually remarked: “Roark’s been getting his tits lit.”

That’s it.

First off, “getting his tits lit” is a baseball expression. And sorry PC’ers, it’s a fairly common baseball expression. And not that dissimilar to “colder than a witch's tit.

Again, what I’m heartened by is that Mets fans took Keith’s comment for what it was (nothing) and laughed it off.

But it does again remind us that anytime a mic is hot, or anytime we post anything on the internet we are essentially broadcasting. We all live in a giant fishbowl. Remember Al Michaels said some things between innings of the 1987 World Series that pissed a few satellite watchers off and caused a bit of a shitstorm. When I was doing Mariner telecasts I asked people between innings to send in a postcard and I got a bunch from around the country. They’re out there. (They were especially out there for our telecasts because between innings our director would often focus on hot girls in the stands.)

Still, the point remains – when you post a photo of yourself in a Speedo on Instagram or angry tweet when you’re shit-faced, you might as well have a microphone and camera open to the world. And it could get scary. Potential employers Google you and when that 2011 toga party comes up that you were tagged in and you’re seen French kissing a sump pump this does not bode well for you getting that job.

So be careful. You might not get off as easily as Keith Hernandez. You might really get your tits caught in the ringer.