Thursday, July 31, 2014

The comedy writing rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Laker tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. GOOD LUCK CHARLIE was a Disney Channel show but so clearly superior to other series on that network.

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The best burger

Okay, I admit it. I love a good burger. I don’t smoke, do crack, drink Absinthe before noon, order waffles with whipped cream, munch on cereal that is frosted or contains marshmallows, or eat carnival food (which is deep-fried-anything-edible). I do eat vegetables, salads, some healthy fish, and Grape Nuts (that’s still good for you, right?).

But like J. Wellington Wimpy I enjoy a good burger now and again. My all-time favorite burger place, Cassell’s has closed (although they promise to re-open… actually, they promised to re-open a year ago – not a good sign). Bob’s Big Boy, once a chain, now still exists in Toluca Lake, and I’m still a sucker for their double-decker. Partly it’s nostalgia and partly because the location is across the street from the theater that will be staging my play, A OR B?

Burger preference is a very personal and emotional topic. Religion and politics pale. I’m sure a lot of you will weigh-in with your favorites and I’m holding my breath it doesn’t get ugly.

But recently Consumer Reports did a survey on fast-food burger chains. The winner? A California franchise called the Habit Burger Grill. I’ve had some. They’re very good. In N’ Out placed second. They’re kind of the gold standard for quality – cold tomatoes and other major features. Interestingly, of the 21 chains tested, McDonalds finished DEAD LAST.

They sell the most, but no one seems to really like them. And the other big franchises didn't fare much better. Second-to-last was Jack In The Box, and they finished just ahead of Burger King. I mean, when White Castle and Wendy’s whip your ass, what does that say? Even A & W scores higher and you have to be reeeeally hungry to order one of their burgers.

The clear message is that mass production results in mass rejection. Other categories surveyed were sandwiches & subs, chicken, and burritos. Subway finished second-to-last in sandwiches, KFC was voted the worst chicken, and to no one’s surprise – the worst burrito went to Taco Bell.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t always that way (well, except for Taco Bell. That’s FEAR FACTOR cuisine wrapped in a tortilla). McDonalds used to be very tasty – we’re talking several lifetimes ago. Subway didn’t always put material in their bread that tire companies use to make rubber, and when Colonel Sanders was still alive, there was actually quality control officers who went from branch to branch to ensure the chicken was fresh, all eleven secret herbs and spices were prepared in the correct amount, and there was less grease in a bucket than in a 1967 Chevrolet Impala V-8 engine.

Fast food is obviously not great for you in the best of conditions. So if you’re going to indulge in a burger like me, or (God help you) a burrito – pick a good one. Don’t waste the calories and cholesterol on a Jumbo Jack for crissakes. Treat yourself to whatever you feel is the best. As for me? I might wander over to Five Guys.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Happy to report

Our house is on the other side of UCLA so was not affected by the water main breaking and subsequent flood.  You can imagine the traffic though.  All we need now is for Obama to come to town tonight for a fundraiser.  But thanks to all of you who expressed concern. 

Have we loved Lucy enough?

Neil Genzlinger, of the New York Times is one of my favorite critics. And I often disagree with him. What I like best is that from time to time he will take a position that clearly flies in the face of popular opinion. Sometimes I think he does this just to stir things up. It’s like if I wrote in this blog that I want Patricia Heaton to have my baby. The comments would be off the charts.

But in Mr. Genzlinger's case, whenever he does such an article (a la “sitcoms are dead”) he always backs it up with a persuasive argument (even if you don’t buy it). And he writes for the New York Times, so it’s not Cliff Clavin ranting in the Scientology Picayune-Intelligence.

On Sunday Mr. G. made the case that old vintage TV shows should essentially be put away forever. And tops on his list is I LOVE LUCY. Talk about spitting on the cross.

Before you get out the torches and pitchforks, here’s his take:

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and occasionally dipping into our past. But with all these retro cable channels it is now possible to go down the rabbit hole and watch nothing but these chestnuts. And in his opinion, a steady diet of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and GREEN ACRES will turn your brain to mush. Can you totally disagree with him?

In terms of Lucy, he reasons: In its time, it was defining. But today the broad humor draws only the occasional chuckle. The show is like your high school girlfriend: Just because you loved Lucy once doesn’t mean you still do.

Here’s where he gets in trouble. I LOVE LUCY continues to rerun endlessly because it continues to get amazing ratings and make people really laugh. Every generation seems to discover and embrace it. And some of the comic set pieces are timeless classics. I LOVE LUCY is truly in a class of its own. It could be retitled I BELOVE LUCY. That said, I’ve seen every episode a gazillion times and have no desire to personally seek one out.

A lot of those old classic shows don’t hold up when you watch them today. You realize your love for them is rooted primarily in nostalgia. There are old shows I remember liking as a kid that I see now and say “what was I thinking?” LAUGH-IN for one. In it’s heyday I thought this was the most hilarious show on television. Today I can’t watch two minutes without cringing and wanting to kill myself.

But I will say this:  When I taught my class on comedy last year at USC, the half-hour sitcom that got the biggest laughs from my one hundred college students was THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW.  Funny is funny.  

To his point about the danger of immersing yourself in these evergreens at the expense of watching anything else, I tend to agree. And I am sometimes an offender. But not in television. Radio.

My favorite era of music is the ‘60s. Thanks to Sirius/XM and internet stations I’m able to listen to ‘60s music 24/7. And at times I do. But after a few days I just have to listen to something else. For every Beatles record I could hear on an endless loop there’s also the 1910 Fruit Gum Company. Get me to the Reggae station. Where’s my Nicole Atkins playlist? I’ve even been known to flee to sportstalk radio in desperation.

The bottom line though is I’m thrilled that these retro networks exist and that these old shows are still available. And, like everything else, take in moderation.

What troubles me, and this is not a point that Mr. Genzlinger addressed, is that now some of MY shows are on these retro channels. Those nostalgia networks are for shows I watched when I was six.
What the fuck?

Monday, July 28, 2014

What can be done about stealing jokes?

Read a recent article on what recourse a comic or writer has if someone steals his jokes. The short answer: nothing. If you sue for copyright infringement it’ll cost all parties involved anywhere from $373,000 to $2.1 million. It better be one fucking great joke.

Stealing gags have been around since the beginning of time. The article cites an example. Milton Berle – notorious for stealing other people’s material – used this joke: “A man comes home and finds his best friend in bed with his wife. That man throws up his hands in disbelief and says, ‘Joe, I have to—but you?’ ”

Now compare that to this joke from the 4th century tome Philogelos, the world’s oldest-known joke book: “Someone needled a well-known wit: ‘I had your wife, without taking a penny,’ He replied, ‘It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?’ ”

Proof positive that Milton Berle was sixteen centuries old when he died. I will give him this; he improved the joke. The early version really explained the joke. What was with these people?

So if you can't take legal action, what’s to stop someone from pilfering jokes?

There is somewhat of a code between comedians (although enforcing it is probably laughable). If there’s a question of ownership over a particular joke, the comic that delivered it on TV first gets it. This seems unfair to me. Struggling comics don’t get on TV, while Robin Williams merely has to pick up the phone.

Comics tend to ostracize other comics who steal material. Jerry won’t let them ride in his car.

If the problem gets too severe some clubs blackball them. For poor Dane Cook that means he can only work in arenas.

You can always beat the shit out of the guy. Although, admittedly, not a lot of ex-Marines or former boxing champions go into comedy.

As a comic you can develop a persona that’s very unique to you. Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Emo Phillips, Steve Martin, Mitch Hedberg, Wendy Liebman (to name but a few) – their material is dependent as much on delivery and character as the written words themselves.

You can try to monitor your material and cut off the pipeline to plagiarists if you can find it. Before I had a blog I would review the Oscars and send it to everyone in my address book. One was a highly rated major market talk show host. I found out from several listeners that he was using my material the next morning and claiming it was his. That’s the last thing he ever received from me.

Sometimes people can get caught stealing material and look stupid as a result. I remember seeing a lounge performer at the Burlingame Hyatt who stole routines from Steve Martin. And this was when Martin was at the height of his popularity. Everyone in the room looked at each other and thought, “Is this guy an idiot?” (I then thought, “What the hell am I doing in a Burlingame Hyatt looking for entertainment?”)

A recent study has determined that there is less joke stealing among comics now than the old Milton Berle days (of the 4th-20th centuries) and they conclude this informal “code” has made the difference. Personally, I think it’s the internet. Up until a decade ago it was possible for a comic to play clubs, work the circuit for years and no one other than drunks and fellow comics knew who he was. Now every comic is on Twitter, has a website, and clips of their stand up act is on YouTube. And all entries are dated. It’s much easier now to point fingers.

But fear not, comedy warriors.  I have the answer. I know how to end joke stealing.   Just have an announcement at the start of every comedy show that lifting material is illegal and hurts artists. You may say, “C’mon, that’s not going to work.” Oh really? How do you think the big Hollywood studios put an end once and for all to film piracy? I rest my case.

And this is my idea. Don’t you go stealing it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

All-night radio -- hookers, brawls, and dead presidents

More on my ill-fated disc jockey career. 

In March 1973 I was hired by KMEN San Bernardino to do the all-night show. My salary was a whopping $650 a month to work the coveted midnight-six shift six nights a week. As with Bakersfield, I was not allowed to use my real name. Let’s just say Levine sounded too, uh… “New York”. So again I was Ken Stevens. Of course how do I complain that my name is too generic when my program director goes by Buddy Scott?

So I did all-nights and never got any sleep. The phone number I was assigned was the same as an LA hooker’s (just a 714 area code instead of 310). She advertised in the LA WEEKLY and a hundred times a day I’m getting calls saying, “Hey, man, is Jeannie there?”

On the air, talking to cows for six hours, I needed something to occupy my mind. So I started a friendly little rivalry with the evening jock, Doug DeRoo. Doug is amazingly talented. Imagine the character Robin Williams played in GOOD MORNING VIET NAM only funnier. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn was the big hit then. We wanted to see who could come up with the most one-liners while introducing it. For days this Titanic tug-of-war continued. One bad one-liner after another. Proud to say I won. Not proud that my winning quip involved urine.

Is it any wonder that the program director kept sending me memos to just shut up and stop trying to be funny?

KMEN’s promotion budget was zero. So we were sent out on appearances that wouldn’t cost the station. A favorite was the high school basketball game between the disc jockeys and the faculty. By “faculty” they pretty much meant gym teachers vs. six out-of-shape mostly drugged out radio nerds. It was an exhibition but invariably there’d be one Cro-Magnon teacher who thought he was Reggie Evans – throwing elbows, and clotheslining guys. I don’t think this is what the station had in mind – we got into a brawl with the Redland High faculty. So in addition to always being sleep deprived I did the show that night holding an ice pack to my head.

June meant school graduations so in the spirit I brought my high school annual from home and read the idiotic things people wrote about me or to me.  It was a good schtick.  If anyone was listening I'm sure they would have enjoyed it.    But as the records were playing at 3 in morning I began leafing thrugh the book, perusing the senior pictures.  All those girls I had a crush on, I thought they were probably sleeping in nice warm beds with loving former football stars/husbands leading a contented life.  And where was I?  In a fucking cow pasture in the middle of the night.  "Most Likely to Waste His Life".  That was more depressing than playing Elanor Rigby. 

Every morning from 4-4:15 I had to do a farm report. So I’d rip all this stuff off the teletype machine and read it verbatim, having no fucking idea what I was talking about. Giving sorghum updates, pork belly prices, and harvest predictions.  Let's just say guys with uh, New York last names know shit about farming. 

I also had to do an hourly newscast. And there again I’d race into the newsroom the last minute, rip off the headlines, and read them on the air. I never pre-read them. No disc jockey ever did. God knows if I ever pronounced all those Cambodian villages correctly. Of course, it’s not like I got any calls complaining. But hard to pronounce names were always the bane of our existence. One former KMEN disc jockey got around that once with what I believe to be the smoothest save EVER. This is how he reported the following news story:

“And in other news – the President of Brazil has just died. His name is being withheld until the family has been notified”.

Genius. Sheer genius. You gotta love radio.

By the way, I called the phone company, changed my number, and explained why.  A week later the guy I talked to called back to thank me. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The wackiest minor league stunt ever

Getting a prostate exam while singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."

Minor league teams are known for their goofy stunts. Cow milking contests, etc. But I think this one takes the cake. Andy Milovich is the GM of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Thursday's big promotion was Prostate Cancer Awareness Night. So to celebrate, Mr. Milovich had his prostate checked in the press box. A doctor donned a rubber glove and checked around while Milovich sang during the seventh inning stretch. This beats Speed Dating Night, Christmas in July Night, Political Correctness Night, Scientology Night, Noah Bobblehead Night, and even Toilet Seat Cushion Night.

You may now return to the Who, What, or Which Game.

The "Who, What, or Which?" game that I just made up

I did this originally as a Tweet but thought it might expand into a fun readership-participation post. This is the kind of crap you'll get if you follow me on Twitter. You don't have to answer them all.

Who, what or which?

Who is more famous? John Denver or Bob Denver

Who was better on CHEERS? Shelley Long or Kirstie Alley?

What's the best sequel? GODFATHER 2 or MANNEQUIN 2?

Which show was better? THE BOB NEWHART SHOW or NEWHART?

What show is better? MAD MEN or BREAKING BAD?

What show is worse? 2 BROKE GIRLS or GIRLS?

Who do you love to hate more? Simon Cowell or Ann Coulter?

What’s the most hated team in America? The New York Yankees or the U.S. Supreme Court?

What’s better? Coke or Pepsi?

Who’s the best Jr.? Ken Griffey or Cal Ripken?

Who has better original series? HBO or Showtime?


Who would get rustier going through a carwash? Robocop or a Transformer?

Who is more famous? Honey Boo Boo or the President of the United States?

Who’s more famous? Sweet Caroline or Caroline Kennedy?

What’s worse? Brussels sprouts or cauliflower?

Who’s better? Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?

Which is better? Mac or PC?

What's better? DQ or KFC?

Who’s scarier? Jason or Jigsaw?

Who’s scarier? Faye Dunaway or Liza Minnelli?

Who has the better cereal name? Coco Crisp or Sugar Bear Flyod Rayford?

Who’s more annoying? Flo from Progressive Insurance or the Geico lizard?

Who’s a better hitter? Mike Trout or Liza Minnelli?

Who’s the funnier Jimmy? Kimmell or Fallon.

Who has the best shitty pizza? Dominos or Pizza Hut?

Who is more famous? Marilu Henner or Mary Lou Retton?

Which is better? Facebook or actually having friends?

Thanks in advance.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Questions

Here are some Friday Questions since it's, y'know... Friday.

RockGolf leads off:

Who do you consider to be the best COMIC actor on a current DRAMA series? I'd suggest Tim Kang on The Mentalist, whose deadpan 6-year Sgt. Friday imitation slays me.

I don’t think of Tim as a comic character. I suspect he doesn’t either. I’d be surprised if anyone on the staff does.  And Miguel Ferrer does a way better Sgt. Friday.  Check him out in TWIN PEAKS and the original ROBOCOP. 

No, for my money, I’d have to go with Damon Herriman as Dewey Crow on JUSTIFIED. Not just as the best comic character in a drama but the funniest comic character on television period. No one on any sitcom makes me laugh as hard as Dewey.

Julian Brown has a question on a post I wrote about the need for a theme and the importance of your show being about something.

This really resonates with me; I'm grinding away at a making an album, and this week I'm trying to determine what it's about.

If you feel like it, I'd be interested in what, if any, process you go thru to get to the bottom of yr premise/story/what have you.

Well, the first thing is I do is determine what the theme is before writing. The story, or in your case, album, should reflect that. Taking a finished product and sifting through it looking for gold is rather counter-productive.

This is a question I get a lot (and answer a lot).  It's an important point that needs to be repeated.   Sort of like a "theme." 

When people tell me they just want to start writing and see where the story takes them, I tell them most often it leads to Death Valley.

Put in the time and effort to determine your theme first. And yes, I know – it’s HARD. The hardest part actually. But once you have it, the rest falls into place and it’s much easier to determine if you’re on track or straying. The theme is your compass.

Bottom line: what is it you want to say? And if you don’t have anything, then why are you even bothering?

And finally, from Jay:

Hi Ken,

I've heard and read all about how rough writers' rooms can be, and that if one wants to be a working TV comedy writer, one needs to have a thick skin and be prepared for anything. What's been your experience with a fellow writer (or, maybe it's been you) who's going through a rough time (read: depressed) and may be a little more sensitive to things? Did his or her fellow staffers been sympathetic or just see this more fodder to throw around the room?

I ask because I am going through a rough time right now and am prone to depression from time to time. I'm not a working TV writer but one of those aspiring types. I know me, and I know that when I'm feeling good and confident in myself and my abilities as a writer, I'm sharp and on the ball with a good balance of being amiable but with an edge. But during my downturns, I'm much more sensitive and distracted than I'd like. So this makes me question, do I have the personality to make it in a comedy writers' room.

Thanks for your time!

First off, Jay, my heart goes out to you. Battling those demons are rough.

What I would suggest, in your best interest, is that staff work might not be for you. You may get a supportive room; you may not. It depends on the personalities in the room, the pressure they’re all under, how well the show is working, etc.

I would suggest you concentrate on your drafts. Time was you could make a living in TV as a freelance writer. No more really. But if you write great drafts you may get a show to give you multiple assignments.

And a better avenue might be to write screenplays. Or stage plays (although there’s not a lot of money in that).

There are a lot of terrific comedy writers who just don’t have the temperament for staff work. Guys like Neil Simon. Yes, it’s harder to break in, but once you do you can create a working environment more to your comfort level. And the more comfortable you are, the better the work will be.

One last point – comedy writers who suffer from depression is more common than athletes who drink Gatorade. It needs to be addressed, but there’s no reason why you can’t ultimately enjoy a long successful career. You’re already ahead of the game by recognizing your condition. Again, best of luck to you.

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comments section. I do try to get to as many as I can.  Thanks.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Katherine Heigl is at it again

In a move that further cheapens what REAL executive producers do, Katherine Heigl’s mother Nancy is an executive producer on Katherine’s upcoming new series, STATE OF AFFAIRS.

I get the question all the time: What do executive producers do? In theory they set the creative direction of the series, oversee the writing, cast the show, hire the director and crew, supervise editing and post production, deal with the network, studio, media, and generally put out fires. It's a hundred hour a week job.  Maybe more. 

As an executive producer, what will Nancy Heigl do? When asked this at a TV critics panel recently, her daughter Katherine said, “She bakes us cookies.” When a critic suggested Nancy only got the position because she's Katherine's mother she answered: “I am her mother for sure, so, of course I care about her, but I am just learning about exec producing, and am learning from those who really know….I’m a newcomer to it.”

So in other words, she will do nothing. She will get a handsome salary. She will (hopefully) wrangle her daughter. She will get the network credit that many writers who have toiled for years working their way up the staff ladder never receive, and I’m sure she’ll have a nice office with a decorating budget.

Bottom line: she’ll be taking the job away from a qualified deserving professional.

But let the spin and the justification continue.

NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke said that Katherine and mom Nancy both pitched the pilot idea. She said she found Nancy: “incredibly smart through this process” and added: “She is someone who has strong opinions, but we found her to be nothing but additive.”

First of all, is “additive” really a word used in that context? It sounds like a joke from EPISODES. And secondly, what the fuck does all of that mean?

Let me just say in fairness that this is not an isolated incident. Stars’ managers will often attach themselves as executive producers while they too do nothing. Their big contribution was one time sending over the pilot script to their client. It’s a form of extortion, plain and simple. “If you want my client you have to pay for protection.” They’re the partner you don’t need.

But at least in Nancy Heigl's case she'll bake cookies. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

They've closed WHAT?

Are there support groups for people who have lost restaurants? If so, I need to join one. Yes, I know, it seems silly to mourn the closing of a KooKooRoo but local eateries almost become like friends. You seek them out for comfort, familiarity, nourishment, and they generally cost you money. And it’s gratifying to know they’ll always be there – welcoming you in until 10 on weeknights, validating your parking, and serving that special corned beef hash that is so good you forget it’s out of a can. Think CHEERS with patty melts.

Lately, a number of reliable local establishments have closed their doors for good and it has totally bummed me out. In some cases, I never even loved their food, but loved that they were always there. And unlike favorite cancelled TV show that you can just watch again on DVD or Netflix, there’s no LaBarbera’s pizza On-Demand, or Anna’s minestrone soup, or Kelbo’s Hawaiian ribs (although those would probably kill me today).

What’s even sadder is that most of these restaurants have gone under because their landlords have squeezed them out with unreasonable lease increases. Many of these establishments have long histories. Some of your all-time favorite stars have gotten drunk or been thrown out of these iconic eateries.

Among the recent fallen:

Kate Matallini’s – for over twenty years this spacious upscale comfort food diner has been an LA staple at Wilshire and Doheny. Lots of tables, high ceiling, giant photos of MAD MEN, walking distance to the WGA theatre and my car mechanic, and for years it was open late, which for Los Angeles means after 9 PM. Cause of death: Jacked up rent.
Hamburger Hamlet – This was a killer because it’s a part of my childhood snuffed out. At one time this popular chain had locations all over the city. In addition to burgers, they were famous for their Lobster Bisque, which was probably 7,000 calories a spoonful. I used to like their fried chicken wings appetizer back when fried meant "tasty" not "heart attack." A couple of years ago their Sunset Strip location closed. It was there that Dean Martin and Bette Davis used to hold court, and David Isaacs and I formed our writing partnership. Since the Hamlet’s 50 year run there it’s been a failed nightclub, failed high end Chinese restaurant, and soon to be another Chinese restaurant.

KooKooRoo Santa Monica – I don’t get it. A few years ago KooKooRoo was the biggest thing. They were the Starbucks of fowl. People suddenly stopped eating chicken?

The Daily Grill Brentwood – Couldn’t pay the new lease. At one time you had to know someone to get a booth there. You’d be standing in its entrance waiting for tables along with Neil Simon, Bob Newhart, and Dustin Hoffman. You’d still be standing there after they had all been seated but still.
Asuka Westwood – It stood for over thirty years -- the sushi place next door to the glorious Crest Theatre, which also closed. Instead of super-cool hipsters, Mel Brooks was usually in a booth. They proudly posted a signed headshot of some beauty queen named Porntip. If you ordered teriyaki chicken they charged more for white meat. So by all rights, they should have made a lot of money.

Part of what makes any area unique is it’s long-standing restaurants. I’m sure wherever you live you’re missing a few of your once favorite hangouts. Here in Los Angeles you’ll see restaurants with signs that proudly proclaim “Established 1998.” Sadly, in this town, that is a big accomplishment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We all have to start somewhere

I was hoping the CNN documentary series THE SIXTIES would cause a huge national craze for that decade, and my book, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) would start selling like Beatles records.  I was counting on it, actually.  But alas, so far sales have been more like Freddy and the Dreamer records.  Obviously, I must do something about that.  So as an excuse to get you to pick up a copy and support this free blog (guilt guilt guilt), I am featuring a summer excerpt.  Travel back to 1966 and my first theater experience.  

No family vacation that year, not that we could go very far anyway. 35,000 airline workers from five major carriers went on strike, crippling the industry. From July 8th to August 19th, the peak summer travel season, 60% of U.S. commercial flights were grounded. And it was still easier to fly than it is today.

I had my part-time job at Wallichs and got another part-time gig as well. This one ushering at the Valley Music Theater.

The Valley Music Theater on Ventura Blvd. was a huge concrete white shell, very modernistic, very JFK airport terminal.
The big musical theater fad in Los Angeles in 1966 was theater-in-the-round. Who needed Broadway when Angelinos could be treated to smash hit musicals of the past with knock-off casts, no sets, and no piece of scenery taller than their ankles? In the LA area there were three venues – the Melodyland Theater in Anaheim (across from the Dopey section of the Disneyland parking lot), the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills (later to become the home of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Carousel Theater in glamorous West Covina (gateway to the Inland Empire). The productions would bicycle this circuit, usually for two-week runs.

I showed people to their seats at the Valley Music Theater and could not wait for each new show to bring jaw-dropping performances by miscast actors. Dance numbers tended not to be very elaborate since the stage was the size of a conference table. (If they had lasted long enough to do The Lord Of The Dance, they would use three guys.)

Headliners tended to be of the B variety. Instead of Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Julie Andrews we got Dennis Day, Frank Gorshin, and Betsy Palmer (best known as a perky game show panelist and knife-wielding crazy in Friday the 13th: Part One).

After several years of burning through the Broadway catalog the trend petered out. By 1968 they were down to It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman starring local TV news anchors.

Still, I was able to see beyond the game show-celebrity-guest-caliber casts and really appreciate the writing. That summer I also read Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One and was intrigued by the notion of being a New York playwright. It all sounded so romantic to me – writing all night in a hotel room in exotic New Haven, getting a brainstorm, and saving a play at the last minute, opening on Broadway, having a hit…and someday seeing my work performed at the Valley Music Theater by Barbara Walter.

Ironically, my new play A or B? will be performed in the Valley, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank this fall.  I would get Betsy Palmer is she could pass for 29. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

RIP James Garner

So sorry to hear of the passing of James Garner Saturday night. He was 86. I never met him but never heard one bad thing from anyone who did. And you know this town – ten people will tell you Mother Teresa was a nightmare.

But James Garner was the actor every comedy writer coveted. A handsome fella who was charming, could play comedy with ease, was self-deprecating, smart, and could act. Every TV sitcom pilot has that guy. I’m looking for that guy for my play. And there are sadly, very few. They’re harder to find than white truffles. And they make all the difference in the world.

Imagine CHEERS without Ted Danson. Imagine MASH without Alan Alda. Imagine any Cary Grant movie without Cary Grant.

And Jim's talent extended to commercials too. You have to be of a certain age, but in the late ‘70s he was the pitchman for Polaroid cameras. He had such warmth and sincerity that those cameras were flying off the shelf. He did the same as the spokesman for beef but was dropped from the campaign after he needed open heart surgery.

James Garner made it all look effortless. Probably because he was that guy. He was well-intentioned, supported causes for the public good, and was awarded two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

He is best known, of course, for his roles in THE ROCKFORD FILES and MAVERICK. But he also appeared in quite a few movies. Since comedy is never taken seriously, Garner was only nominated once for an Academy Award – for the 1985 movie, MURPHY’S ROMANCE. Some of his movies worth seeing are THE GREAT ESCAPE, DUEL AT DIABLO, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERRIF, and VICTOR/VICTORIA.

But there’s one movie he starred in I’d like to recommend. If you haven’t seen this movie, rent it or stream it tonight. THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY from 1964. He gives the performance of a lifetime as a wheeler-dealer in the Navy just before D-Day. The screenplay is by the great Paddy Chayefsky. He delivers a powerful speech on the idiocy of glorifying war that says in three minutes what we took eleven years to say in MASH. Here it is:

James Garner was very self-effacing. On acting he once said: “I’m a Methodist, but not as an actor.” In his memoir he wrote: “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something that it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”

From that last line alone you can see why I loved him.

The legacy of James Garner will live on. At least in my writing. I generally create two types of characters – one who is similar to who I am and the other is someone I wish I were. That’s James Garner.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Inside story on the CHEERS "Jeopardy episode

Sometimes a Friday question requires its own post. And someone other than me answering it. Dan O'Shannon and his partner Tom Anderson wrote the Jeopardy episode of CHEERS. When a blog reader asked about it I sought out Dan for the answer.

Dan O'Shannon became a show runner on CHEERS, FRASIER, and has executive produced MODERN FAMILY. He also wrote the definitive book on comedy analysis.    Many thanks to Dan for writing back and writing the episode in the first place. If he ever writes a blog and someone asks a question about MANNEQUIN 2 I'm happy to return the favor.

From Ed:

I loved the Cliff blows the Jeopardy show ep. I'm curious as to how much back and forth there may have been amongst all y'all in deciding categories and what questions would be asked - and most especially, the Final Jeopardy question. Any anecdotes would be much appreciated.

The idea of Cliff trying out for Jeopardy started with Tom Anderson. It was the B story in our spec script, which eventually got us on the show. (Cheers, not Jeopardy). Once it was decided to use the story in an episode, we needed to expand what we had.

As we pitched on it in the room, I came up with the notion to fill the board with Cliff's dream categories. I'd scribbled down four or five possible examples, like "bar trivia" and ending with "celibacy." Once the idea was pitched, we batted categories around the room, which was great fun. I remember us all shouting out ideas and laughing like crazy.

The final Jeopardy question came from something I'd observed back when I was doing stand-up. Anyone could win all the money on Jeopardy every night if they wanted, because for each answer given on the show, there are an infinite number of technically correct questions. The final exchange (the names of the three celebrities, and "who are three people who have never been in my kitchen") came directly from that.

PS -- I like to think that a young Ken Jennings caught my act in Warren, Ohio in 1983 and now owes me -- at the very least -- a big thank you.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Have studio comedies really sunk THIS low?

Seriously? In a trailer yet? With so-called "movie stars?"

WARNING:  THIS POST CONTAINS DISGUSTING MATERIAL -- all from the studio approved trailer.

There's a segment in this preview of HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 not to be believed. Jason Bateman tells "movie star" Jennifer Aniston that he has to go to the bathroom. She says, "You're welcome to do that on me." He signals that it's number two. And she says "And?" In other words, unless I missed the subtlety, "movie star" Jennifer Aniston is telling Jason Bateman she's okay if he takes a shit on her. Class-eee.    And oh so hilarious. 

Remember, the best jokes are usually in the trailer.

Now I don't want to sound like I'm a hundred but has American screen comedy really sunk to that level?   Those are the best and funniest comedy writers Hollywood can employ?    Any twelve year old on the playground can write that joke.

The original HORRIBLE BOSSES was a spec screenplay by Michael Markowitz that sold.  His script was sharp, sophisticated, and hilarious.  The studio thanked him and hired other writers.  Any resemblance to his vision and characters in both films have been completely obliterated by different writers, studio notes, directors, actors, etc.  Such is the studio "process" of improving a comedy. 

I guess I won't be writing any mainstream Hollywood comedies in the near future.  I have no desire to write for children.  I have no desire to have my name associated with Jennifer Aniston defecation jokes.   And the fact that she does, is to me even more appalling.  Some "movie star." 

Creative license in technology

One of my favorite bullshit TV conventions is when the cop/detective/investigator/president/terrorist/curious bystander asks the technician to enhance the screen. Somehow they can zoom in and get crystal clear images.  Zowie!  They can see mirror reflections, read fortune cookies sticking out of pockets, identify hair follicles. If only this technology actually existed.  Here is a fun montage Duncan Robson made of all these moments.  Hopefully, it will enhance your enjoyment of procedurals... and mirrors.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

A great New Yorker cartoon

... from J. C. Duffy. 

Friday Questions

Who ordered the “Friday Questions?”

Bill starts us off:

What are the responsibilities of the creative consultants and how does it differ from being the writer and were you the creative consultants on the shows you are credited with writing?

Generally, creative consultants are writers who come in once or twice a week to help out on rewrites for whatever episode is being produced that week. They're not on staff full-time.  Their day usually begins with the afternoon runthrough and they stay through the rewrite. They provide another set of eyes, can offer story suggestions, but primarily they’re there to help pump in jokes.

It’s a position that has pretty much been phased out because studios don’t want to pay, but good creative consultants can be invaluable. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best. David Lloyd and Jerry Belson were amazing, but the best of all-time was (and is) Bob Ellison (pictured right). Bob is a joke machine and tireless. It could be 4 in the morning, everyone on the staff is totally gassed, and Bob is still firing in great jokes like an AK-47.   During the '80s and '90s Bob would sometime work on four different series a week.  Whenever we got a show picked up, our first call was to see if Bob Ellison was available. 

At some point I was a creative consultant on CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, BECKER, and about six other shows that came and quickly went. (We wrote episodes for most of those shows.)

This is a practice that dates well back into the American theater. Plays would tryout out of town and playwrights would enlist the help of “script doctors” like Abe Burrows who would help fix troubled projects. At least we didn't have to go to New Haven every week.

From Steve:

A couple days ago, you mentioned that you gave overuse of names a pass in the case of pilots, where the writer needs to establish who everyone is. It occurred to me that most of your viewers aren't going to start with the pilot; they'll get into the show after it been on the air for weeks or years, or even in syndication. How much do sitcom writers think about the fact that every episode is someone's first? Is any attempt made to make sure each episode works without prior knowledge?

The second episode is in many ways harder to write than the pilot. Because you have to re-tell the pilot for all those who are coming to the show for the first time, and you have to provide a new story for those who saw the pilot.  And you have two weeks to write it, not six months. 

Over the first four shows we try to keep rebooting the premise, but after that we feel viewers can either pick up on what’s going on, or go back to find the previous episodes online or On-Demand. Why should we do all the work?

Michael wonders:

Other than THE SIMPSONS, I am not aware of any shows you wrote for that included kids. Did you and David ever try to develop family-oriented sitcoms or was this something that didn't interest you?

We’ve written other shows that have had kids and we’ve done a few family pilots that didn’t get picked up. Earlier in our career we got asked to write a family pilot, but we were committed to another show so we had to pass. That family show was COSBY.  Not that I'm still bitter.

OrangeTom asks:

When a show is on air as long as Frasier do the network executives start paying less attention; i.e., is there more the writers can get away with which might be considered too offensive or "out there" in the first couple years of a show's run? "Tonight on Frasier Daphne's true identity as a KGB operative is revealed after she's caught trying to blow up the Space Needle"

Yes, once a show has established itself as a hit networks tend to back off. But not entirely. Networks still want to know what stories you have planned and if you want to do something very different or jarring you still might have a fight on your hands. You may win that fight but it won’t just be rubber stamped because you have millions of Twitter followers.

Still, it’s quite a contrast from when we were doing MASH. CBS wanted us to submit loglines of the stories we were doing. We would send in six or seven at a time. Of course, by the time we got around to submitting them the episodes had already been filmed.  That's a great way of getting around notes, by the way. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

BEGIN AGAIN -- my review

Here’s another movie I really liked that hopefully your town has room for even with TRANSFORMERS 4 playing on every other screen. BEGIN AGAIN was written by John Carney who also gave us ONCE.

ONCE was a charming little movie that spawned an Oscar-winning song and Broadway musical. It was an indie darling. BEGIN AGAIN is his follow-up, also about the music scene, and also charming. But unlike every critic I’ve read, I liked it better than ONCE.

I know I’m in the minority of one, but I got so sick of that song in ONCE I could plotz.

BEGIN AGAIN is set in New York and is one of those idyllic “Manhattan is a cool place if you’re young, artistic, in love, and conveniently there are no blizzards, garbage strikes, heat waves, or Lena Dunham characters” movies. So it’s Times Square on warm summer evenings, cafes late at night, nightclubs, views from the Empire State Building, boat rides in the East River, '60s music, clean subway cars, and of course – Central Park. It’s street musicians, ice cream cones, funky apartments, Sinatra, big breaks, dreams coming true, and rain-slicked streets but never any rain.
But I love all that shit. If I lived in Dublin I would feel that way about ONCE... although I still would be tired of that incessant “Falling Slowly."

BEGIN AGAIN'S narrative is very straight-forward and the film is designed to make you feel good the way a well-produced pop song does. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Are there shocking plot twists? Does it say something new about the human condition? Will it shake some sense into Putin? No. But there are also no diarrhea jokes, angst-ridden super-heroes, or Adam Sandler. If you’re looking for a sweet warm-hearted movie with a few laughs, a couple of heartstring tugs, and music right out of THE VOICE, then BEGIN AGAIN might be for you.

It stars Keira Knightley who is so adorable you’re willing to believe she can actually sing, and Mark Ruffalo as his usual laidback nice guy self who squints more than any other actor in history.

The big surprise was how good Adam Levine was. He has a very natural quality. Yes, he was playing a rock star asshole, but I think he has range. He could play a tech mogul asshole or a Wall Street asshole. Seriously, he can act. I actually liked his acting better than his singing, but again that’s me. And all through the movie I was holding my breath that he wouldn’t sing “Falling Slowly.”
Then there was Catherine Keener – who’s become the Eve Arden of sarcastic middle-aged contemporary indie spirit women, CeeLo Green (yo, he’s funny), and my favorite cameo in the film – Rob Morrow as the record company CEO. He channeled every CAA agent, providing just the perfect blend of realism and character assassination.

You can’t review a music movie without acknowledging the person responsible for the music so kudos to Gregg Alexander. He did an especially nice job of writing to Keira Knightley’s range, which is three notes.

The movie was a little long but that may be because there were like seventeen vanity logos before the damn thing even started. Everyone in the cast included uncredited “cheering girl”, Erika Wester must’ve had a production company.  The title of the movie should be BEGIN ALREADY. 

In fairness, I know this movie has gotten mixed reviews. This will not be the sleeper hit that ONCE was. If I’m Harvey Fierstein I’m not furiously writing the libretto for the BEGIN AGAIN musical just yet. But for a smart, fun, summer diversion I can’t think of many other films to see. And in this marketplace, that’s a ringing endorsement.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My take on the All-Star Game

Yes, this is a baseball post. See many of you tomorrow. But the combination of last night's All-Star Game and my warped sense of humor – it was a blog post that wrote itself.

I love the All-Star Game. I never miss it. I once traveled halfway across the country to see one in person. But who are we kidding that the outcome really means something? Talk about schmuck bait. The winning league gets home field advantage for the World Series. I’m sure the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs players played extra hard.

Clayton Kershaw should have started the game for the National League, not Adam Wainwright. Cardinal manager Mike Matheny clearly picked his own guy. But if the game really “meant” something he would have started the best pitcher in baseball.

Besides, wouldn’t it have been great to have the first American League batter – Derek Jeter – face Clayton Kershaw?

To me baseball has the only All-Star Game where the defense plays as hard as the offense. Compare that to the NBA All-Star Game where the final score is usually 189-174 and the NFL Pro Bowl Game where… do they still even have the NFL Pro Bowl Game?

Target Field in Minnesota is one of the most magnificent ballparks I’ve ever seen. Bring snow plows most of the year, but if you’re a baseball fan it’s worth a trip.

Nice to see Rod Carew throw out the first pitch. Who says there aren’t great Jews in baseball?

Shame on Fox for not once mentioning Tony Gwynn. Nor Don Zimmer. Nor Bob Welch. Nor Jerry Coleman. 

But they took time out to show Terry Crews sitting in the stands and smiling like a Cheshire cat. Note to Fox: When you feature one of your “stars” and have to identify who he is and what show he’s on, he’s not a “star.”

The home run hitting contest is boring. Three hours of batting practice and rules that seem like they’re making them up as they go along. Here’s how you fix it: Put ESPN’s Chris Berman in a booth just beyond the centerfield fence. First home run to hit him wins.

The Derek Jeter tributes were lovely because the affection and admiration everyone has for him is genuine and earned. Compare that to any Hollywood function honoring Harvey Weinstein.

It was a great moment when Jeter left the game and received a huge standing ovation. However, I feel he deserved a bigger gesture. I would have had Jesus Christ rise and present him with a Chevy Tahoe.

Very cool having the late Bob Shepherd deliver the PA announcement for Derek Jeter.

And Jeter does have a flair for the dramatic. Two more hits last night. Those may be the only two hits on Fox this summer.

Note to field reporters:  Don't ask players what "emotions" they're feeling right now.  It's a stupid question.  What do you think their emotions are?   No ballplayer has ever answered that question without seven cliches -- even the ones who can't speak English.  

Tom Verducci is a welcome addition to the Fox broadcast crew. And Harold Reynolds is… a nice guy. Still, it was just a pleasure not hearing Tim McCarver confuse Barry Bonds with Barry Manilow.

Let the hate begin but I'm a Joe Buck fan. 

God, I’m getting tired of Idina Menzel just belting the shit out of every song. It’s not the home run hitting contest for singers.

Glad Mike Trout won the MVP award. Attention Dodger fans: the best, most exciting outfielder in Southern California is not Yasiel Puig.

Spiffy beards, guys. Half the players looked like the French prisoners chained to walls in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK. Tell me girls, does that look do it for you?

Late in the game when there were substitutions in the field, Fox never bothered to show them. For many of these guys it was their one moment in the sun. Instead, Joe Buck would have to say “ground ball to Starlin Castro, who’s the new shortstop…”

David Price didn’t get into the game. I was hoping he’d come in with a big “For Sale” sign on the back of his Rays uniform.

Nice that commissioner Bud Selig said his legacy is that baseball is now making way more money. Of course only 30% of Dodger fans can watch the games now, playoffs last until Christmas, and cheater Alex Rodriguez is practically a billionaire, but yeah, owners can all give you change for a ten.

The last time Minnesota had the All-Star Game was 1985, the first year Bud Selig wore that suit. Considering he's worn it every day since, it still looks pretty good. 

Not shown on TV:  A protester jumped from a parking ramp, scaled a ladder, and hung a banner on the Diamondvision Board that said LOVE WATER, NOT OIL.   Instead we saw Derek Jeter's parents for the millionth time. 
If this were a regular game, how many of those calls would be challenged? And overturned?

Has an umpire ever thrown anyone out of an All-Star Game?  

I marvel at how great these athletes are.

Seriously, I can’t get over them not once mentioning Tony Gwynn. Truly disgraceful.

Since each team must have at least one representative there were a couple of All-Stars that wouldn’t even make some of the other team’s major league rosters. All-Star Tyson Ross of San Diego has 10 losses and only 2 wins in his last 10 starts.

Meanwhile, Garrett Richards of the Angels is 10-2 and didn’t make the All-Star cut.

It pissed me off that ballplayers negotiate bonuses in their contracts for making the All-Star team. For the multi-millions they’re being paid they’re SUPPOSED to make the All-Star team. They should give back half their salary if they DON'T make the All-Star tam. 

Once you get down to the end of the game the All-Stars are people most casual fans have never heard of. Charlie Blackmon? Devin Mesoraco? Terry Crews? Oh wait. One of those is the Fox star.

Congratulations to the American League for winning. We’ll see you back at Target Field in November when the Twins get in the World Series and have the home field advantage.  Bring a sweater.

And now that there have been a gazillion tributes to Derek Jeter, if you want to use Idina Menzel, let her sing "Let It Go."  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My current guilty pleasure

… is COVERT AFFAIRS. And I admit I watch it for all the wrong reasons. I like seeing Piper Perabo running in high heels shooting people. This is hardly a reason to recommend a show to people. Especially in this era of extraordinary television drama. When you only have so much time and it seems every other day a friend is alerting you to an amazing drama you’ve never heard of (“Have you you checked out LUTHER?” “Have you gotten into ORPHAN BLACK?”) it’s tough to say, “There’s this show with a hot blonde who drives fast that you really have to see!”

But I watch it every week. I still haven’t gotten around to LUTHER.

Another plus for COVERT AFFAIRS is that they actually go to foreign locations. So Piper is running in Stockholm not the Paramount backlot. You get the theme here? COVERT AFFAIRS is a total visual experience.

It's also TOP GUN for middle-aged men, if you know what I mean.

The other actors do their best to believe they’re in a series where the stories really matter. Christopher Gorham, in particular, plays her blind handler/former lover with just the right amount of conviction and perspective. Sometimes they have him out in the field and those episodes are ridiculous. How bad are these terrorists when a blind man is beating the shit out of them, or worse, chasing them?

There is a subplot that continues throughout the series – the inner politics of the CIA. Fast forward through these. It’s all gobbledygook about who runs DSIT and who runs DSST – people are forever getting promoted and demoted from divisions with letters – and none of it means anything. Kate Machett always seems to be in the middle of these storylines and here’s the best way I can describe her character: She never wears a dress with sleeves.

COVERT AFFAIRS is a familiar format. Female James Bond. In the ‘60s they did it as THE GIRL FROM UNCLE , more recently as ALIAS. Hot bad ass girl thwarts evil organizations and super villains who’ve created Doomsday machines or have plans to fluoridate our water. And they’re usually home for dinner.
Today’s mayhem has been updated to include terrorists, drug cartels, and Eurotrash. There are plot holes (assuming you can even follow the plot) that you can drive aircraft carriers through, but if you’re paying attention to that then you’re watching for the wrong reason. Piper knows Karate moves. Piper swims. Piper looks great in a sleek red dress at some Romanian State Dinner.

The show takes itself very seriously, which makes it that much more fun when Piper overpowers seven thugs who are all as big as the Michelin Man.

This year they’re giving her some heart ailment, I suspect in an attempt to humanize her. So now she’s got to act in addition to wearing tight black leather pants? And so far she’s handled it quite well. In none of her “acting” scenes have they had to go to a double.

I poke fun, but Piper Perabo is very likable and watchable in a very physically demanding role. Action heroes require a unique set of skills. Agility, credibility, stamina, and cool. I remember the old WONDER WOMAN series with Lynda Carter, God bless her – she’d put on that costume and become the world’s sexiest Clydesdale. Piper pulls it off.

So I’m a regular viewer of COVERT AFFAIRS. I’ll never impress anybody by saying I watch it. I’d never include it in the list of great dramas from this Golden Era. But so what? I also watch distinguished Emmy-worthy shows. In fact, just this week MASTERS OF SEX returns with Lizzie Caplan. If only she could shoot a gun.

Monday, July 14, 2014


It all began with FRIENDS, nearly twenty years ago – a sitcom starring a group of fun lovin’ twentysomethings trying to find their place in the world. FRIENDS was an enormous hit (meaning the right demographic watched) so networks have been desperately trying to copy it for years. COUPLING (based on the British version where they hired comic actors and not J. Crew models), HAPPY ENDINGS, A GUY, A GIRL, AND WHATEVER, HIMYM – the list is endless. So many in fact that with the latest one, FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES they’re even recycling “Friends” in the title.

And these are just the shows that got on the air. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of pilots that either died at the script stage or on the stage stage.

This is a concept that in the right hands with the right cast can be a killer series. You’re watching people you identify with, struggling to make sense of their lives, love, sex, future, and the World Cup. As each generation enters that age group there are new sensibilities and issues unique to them to go along with all the other hurdles. It’s an arena ripe for comedy.

It’s also a no-brainer for young scribes who need to write a pilot to break in. I suspect that 80% of the specs today are (a) versions of FRIENDS or (b) moving back in with your parents.

I’ve read many of these “FRIENDS” pilots (both spec and actually developed for networks) and most fall way short. There are a number of crutches that have emerged. Allow me to point some out so you might avoid them yourself.

There’s generally one character who is roaring drunk. That’s where the big “comedy” comes from. Vomiting in the car, doing outrageous stunts, saying appalling things because he has no filter. That’s all well and good, but if you need your character to be shit-faced for him to be funny you haven’t developed him correctly.

There’s always the man-child Seth Rogen character. The comedy here comes from a character who is completely immature and often borderline brain dead. Long a staple of Judd Apatow movies, this character has now become a tiresome cliché. And yet every pilot season – there he is – burping, playing video games, calling everyone “bro”, not bathing, still collecting toys, and annoying everyone he meets until they inexplicably fall for his childlike charm.

At least one of the women will be a hateful mean girl. That’s almost a guarantee. Self-centered, bitchy, demanding, condescending, and supposedly funny. Maybe they were twenty years ago but today they’re a stereotype.

Everyone speaks in pop culture references. In truth, young people today DO speak in pop culture references but not every other sentence. Be judicious. You’re wielding a double-edged sword. The pop references may make the show sound very authentic, but too many may date it beyond recognition long before its expiration date.

And then of course, the issue I’ve harped on before, characters speak in dripping irony, which is not a substitute for comedy. “Well THAT went well” is not a laugh. A great zinger is not “Seriously?”

So here’s what I suggest: Work harder. Dig deeper. You all have friends who have comic characteristics. Create characters that are fresh, derive their comedy from a warped worldview, have a unique style. Have them like things you wouldn’t expect. Make them real, not a sketch. Take time to consider how they relate to each other. How do they clash? How do they bond? Why do they bond? What do they want? Believe it or not, guys want more than to get laid.

And what's the hook?  Why is this particular group of people together... other than 'cause you say so?

One thing about Millineals – they tend to be smart. Sometimes they think they’re smarter than they are. But their dialogue can be organically bright, sharp, and funny. Take advantage of that. It's always best to play characters to the top of their intelligence and it's a big plus when they are intelligent.

Let the comedy come out of character and stress the comedy more. Don’t shy away from it as if getting laughs is “not cool.” You’re in a highly competitive field. For your spec or sold pilot to rise above all the rest you have to be better. A real good way to do that is to be funnier.

Young writers may argue that irony is the style now, and I say, “It’s your script, your career. Do whatever you feel is right. And if you truly believe that, fine.” But I also wonder, is that a cop out? Are you not making the script funnier because you just don’t have the comic chops or might you be lazy? Again, this is all your call.  There are hundreds of other writers out there banging on keyboards just like you. 

Networks are dying for the next FRIENDS. If yours hits the mark it could be a home run -- a walk off home run. I want to see you get every advantage, avoid every pot hole. It’s your age group, it’s your time – crush it. Just give me all the credit when you’re a success. Best of luck.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

How my partner and I met, part 2

Part one was yesterday.

Following summer camp, David and I went back to our respective jobs… although his was still waiting for him. During my two-week stint keeping America safe the radio station changed program directors. I came back. The new guy hated me. I was gone. That’s the thanks I get for keeping the Viet Cong out of Colorado.

So I moved back in with my parents in Marina Del Rey and sent around tapes trying to get another disc jockey job. Turns out a lot of program directors hated me.

But in the interim I called David and said I wanted to try writing a script. Would he want to write it with me? I’ll never forget his answer: “Who is this again?”

We met the next night at the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset and decided to give it a try.  Sadly, not only is that Hamburger Hamlet gone, but with the closing of the one in Van Nuys a couple of weeks ago, all of them are gone.   (RIP Lobster Bisque.) 

There was only one problem with teaming up. Neither of us had a fucking clue what to do. I had to go to a bookstore in Hollywood and buy an old ODD COUPLE script off their remainder table for $2 and use that as our guide. I didn’t even know the format. Int. Madison Apartment – Day… oh, that’s how they do it.

We had an idea to write a pilot about two kids in a dorm, thus drawing upon the only life experience either of us had had up to that point.

We’d meet on the weekends at David’s apartment on Arch Drive in Studio City (don’t look for a shrine or anything). To get us revved up, first we listened to a side of the Woody Allen stand-up album (still one of the most brilliant comedy albums EVER). Then we’d sit down at the kitchen table to write. No outline. Nothing. We didn’t know from outlines. Or structure. Or technique.

But so what? We were having a blast.

David took down the script in longhand in a college binder. I was the typist when it was finished.

After several weeks of writing I said to David, “What page do you think we’re on here?” David leafed through the binder and guestimated about 35. I held up the ODD COUPLE script and said, “Y’know, they start wrapping it up pretty quick.”

This gave us pause. We stopped writing, came up with an ending that would have cost $10,000,000 in 1973 money, wrote it in about ten minutes and that was that. We were officially writers. Ten minutes later we were in El Toritos’ pounding down tequila.

To the surprise of no one but us at the time, the script didn’t sell. But we had a great time writing it. And equally important – we made each other laugh.

There were a few funny things in the script. Enough that we decided to keep writing together.

And now I have a play that will be produced this fall at the Falcon Theatre that ironically is right around the corner from that El Torito's. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

How my partner and I met

Thanks again to David Isaacs for posting earlier this week.  A dear reader asked how we met.  It's not exactly a meet-cute and it involves the army. 

Anyway, here’s how we met. Summer 1973. Jack in the Box rolled out their first Breakfast Jacks. DEEP THROAT was charming theatergoers. SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS debuted on NBC. It was a great time to be alive.

David had recently moved to Los Angeles from South Florida where he had dreams of being in the industry. Doing what he didn’t know but he felt there were more entertainment opportunities in Hollywood than Ft. Lauderdale.

After the usual litany of odd jobs (security guard, etc.) he finally landed at ABC – in the film shipping department. He would send out film cans of shows to Hawaii and other network outposts. This is a department that no longer exists in any form. But that’s due to technology, not David.

I was a Top 40 disc jockey doing the all-night show at KMEN in San Bernardino. I was on from midnight to six every goddamn night trying to be funny after every record even though my only listeners were ten 7-11 clerks and half of them were tied up in the back after being robbed.

And for good measure, every other day I would get a memo from the program director saying, “JUST SHUT UP AND PLAY THE RECORDS. YOU’RE NOT FUNNY. JUST PLAY THE GODDAMN HITS!”

Neither of us had a bright future.

I was in an Armed Forces Radio Reserve unit back then. My draft number was 4, which meant if eligible I’d be drafted in one nanosecond. So I managed to get into this unit, although it meant a commitment of six full years.

After completing regular Basic Training and Advanced Training my obligation was 16 hours a month and two weeks every summer. It was during one of those summer camps that I first met Pvt. Isaacs.

Through a friend of his he was able to transfer into the unit upon his arrival to California. He had no broadcast training nor any desire to become a broadcaster but this was the army, so he was approved immediately by the unit. It’s amazing they didn’t try to recruit him.

So now I’m in Ft. Carson, Colorado, in the barracks, enjoying my first Breakfast Jack and hoping to see DEEP THROAT for a third time when I notice a guy reading the biography of George S. Kaufman (famous comedy playwright from the 20s-50s). Kaufman was an idol of mine (read MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU) and I was surprised to see someone reading it on an army base. Actually, I was surprised to see anybody on an army base reading any book.

So I introduced myself, we seemed to hit it off, and we discovered we both had this love for comedy.

Tomorrow: How we decided to team up and become a writing team.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Questions

It’s the rolling craps edition of Friday Questions (7-11).

Covarr asks:

What is a laugh spread?

This applies primarily to sitcoms filmed in front of studio audiences. When a joke gets a laugh the actor with the next line holds so the laugh can play out. Otherwise the audience won’t hear his next line. You put all these pauses for laughs together and you get the laugh spread.

You’ll hopefully get two to four minutes additional minutes of laugh spread. That way you’ll have time to play with in editing to cut out things that didn’t work, trim some things to pick up the pace, etc.

On the BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot, our laugh spread was ten minutes, which was fantastic until we tried to edit 32 minutes down to 22.

Eduardo Jencarelli has a credits question:

When multiple writers get credited on the same script, they usually get divided by usage of the "&" ampersand, but I've seen cases where the actual "and" word is used, and sometimes even both with three writers or more.

Ex: Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs

Ex2: Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs

Ex3: Teleplay by Jane Espenson and David Benioff & D B Weiss

Is there a criteria involved in separating multiple writers which requires using both cases? Is there a reason? Were they writing separate scripts that got joined together somehow?

In short, an & means the writers wrote it together. An “and” means two writers wrote it separately. Okay, what’s the difference? The WGA allows for only two writing entities (a team counts as one entity) on any teleplay or story credit (unless there’s a waiver). So let’s say David Isaacs and I and Jane Espenson wrote a script together. If the credit was

                                        Written by
                                       Ken Levine
                                      David Isaacs
                                     Jane Espenson

Then David and I would split half and Jane would get half herself. We had this problem on ALMOST PERFECT when there were three partners – me, David, and Robin Schiff. How would we all get paid equally? We had to get a waiver from the WGA, which they would only grant if the studio paid 150% for the script so we each made essentially half of a normal script assignment.

And in the case of “and,” this occurs when another writer is assigned to rewrite the first and changes enough to warrant credit according to WGA arbitration rules.

An interesting note: You would think a writing team (with names separated by an &) would automatically split their salary 50/50. But that’s not always the case. Again, you have to notify the Guild you’re doing this but you can divide the money any way you choose. Why wouldn’t a team split everything evenly? There’s a husband/wife team that splits their take 90/10. That way the husband makes enough to qualify for health insurance (which covers his wife) and the two share in the money anyway. Pretty clever, no?

From Donald:

I saw 22 Jump Street and laughed, as far as that goes. But a preponderance of the jokes were all pop-culture based; specific references to other movies, TV shows, actors, etc. What's your take on this? Is it lazy? Isn't there a concern that these will date the film?

In their case, I guess that's not a concern. I imagine they wanted to make as much money in its initial release as they could and so what if in ten years the movie is a relic?

Pop culture references are easy laughs but do date a project. At the moment it is a style that is in, and if the jokes are funny and the movie is enjoyable what the hell? 

But it can become a crutch and as a comedy writer, if you're big strength is pop culture jokes you’re going to have a fairly short career. References change and newer, younger writers will have a better handle on them than you, at which point you become merely a reference.  Plus, it is lazy writing. 

The best comedy writing, the most enduring comedy writing comes out of character. Reference real life, not the Kardashians.

And finally, Rod queries:

Have you ever directed a hald hour comedy that did not involve a studio audience and multi cameras? It seems to be popular right now, with Modern Family, The Middle, and The Goldbergs, to name 3. Thanks

Not an entire episode but single camera scenes in numerous show. For DHARAMA & GREG I did a whole crowd scene at Ghiradelli Square and a car chase. For other shows I’ve had blizzard scenes and chase scenes on Paramount’s New York street, horseback riding scenes at Griffith Park, a dog chase scene through the woods, and news crews stand-up reports on the streets of New York and the Paramount, 20th, and Radford streets of New York.

My next directing assignment will be in a couple of weeks. It’s another multi-cam show – an episode of INSTANT MOM written by Annie Levine & Jon Emerson. Please don’t add a skydiving scene.

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