Monday, August 31, 2015

A key to directing

Just finished directing another episode of INSTANT MOM that was written by that sparkling young writing team of Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson. I’d like to thank them for writing in stunts and a dog. But it was a terrific script and INSTANT MOM has a fabulous cast headed by Tia Mowry-Hardrict, Michael Boatman, and Sheryl Lee Ralph.

Beginning on September 19th it returns to TV LAND with all new episodes from 8-9 PM every Saturday.

Every TV director has a different approach. And every director has different strengths and weaknesses depending upon their background. An actor-turned-director can communicate more easily with actors than an editor-turned-director, but the former editor is probably more way more proficient with the cameras and technical side of the job.

I bring a writing background. As director emeritus Jim Burrows says, “if the script is good you can just point one camera at the stage and the show will work.” I’ve been directing now over twenty years and my skills have improved in both the technical and creative side.  I was able to tell the dog what his motivation was.   All of those aspects are essential, but there’s one other that I think is both key and rarely addressed in college directing classes or how-to books.

And that is this:

A director must set the tone of the stage.

There are a lot of people working on the production of a show. How does a director get the best work out of all of them? Here again, different approaches come into play.

Some directors are demanding, feeling that people perform best if they’re pushed. Others are very hands-on and feel they must control everything.

I think people do their best work when they’re in a comfortable supportive environment. There’s a lot of pressure on a set. You have to shoot difficult scenes with the clock always ticking. Many things are out of your control (how many takes will the dog need to hit his mark -- even if he knows his motivation?). If the director can create a calming tone I believe that’s a real plus. Relieving tension is as important a skill as knowing classic comic tropes, various acting techniques, and what lens goes with what shot.

Directing is a management job. It requires organizational skills, motivation skills, and leadership ability. For my money, a happy cast and crew will result in a better product. I mean, you’re making a TV show. How cool is that? Shouldn’t you WANT to go to work?

That's a wrap.

Thanks to Andrea Wachner, Kevin Corcoran, and Jake O'Flaherty for the cool photos.

Sunday, August 30, 2015


Today is my daughter Annie's birthday. So as a salute I thought I would reprise something she wrote for the blog a few years ago. Thanks for being such a wonderful daughter. And for being funny. I love you.
My daughter Annie recently attended the taping of THE PRICE IS RIGHT and along with her writing partner, Jon Emerson files this account of it:

Recently, a friend of mine came to visit and wanted to do something “touristy” in the city. I happen to live very close to where they tape THE PRICE IS RIGHT and my dad happens to enjoy getting a day off from blogging, so it didn't take long to put two and two together...

We got in line around six in the morning and were already behind a half-dozen people praying for the chance to “come on down.” A regular Algonquin Round Table. (IKEA round table; actual retail price: $199.)

There was the married couple from Utah who drove ten hours literally just for this taping. As soon as it was over they were headed right back. I didn't ask how he chose which wife to bring, but I assume she was the one who does the grocery shopping.

And Scott, the entrepreneur, whose real goal was to get on SHARK TANK. His latest stroke of genius was a combination watch and stun gun. (Mederma Scar Cream; actual retail price: $20.)

As the line grew behind us, I began to realize we were dressed like complete idiots. In that we were the only ones not dressed like complete idiots. A rainbow of t-shirts covered in blood, sweat, and Puffy Paint. (Dimensional Puffy Fabric Paint; actual retail price: $9.99 for a pack of six.) Each shirt featured witty turns of phrase like “Sock It Drew Me” and “Just Drew It!” I almost Drew my brains out.

In line at six in the morning and we finally got through the CBS gates around nine. Much to our chagrin, we were just put into another line. Our newest line companion was Michael Polosky. This was Michael's thirty-seventh taping of THE PRICE IS RIGHT. He knew every single thing I could have ever wondered about the show except what made me think coming to it was a good idea.

At last we were given the iconic price tag name badges. The show requires you put your full legal first name on the badge, meaning I had to be Diana. Nobody ever calls me Diana, so for all I know, they did call me down and I just ignored it. That'll make for a fun blooper reel. (Game Show Moments Gone Bananas (DVD); actual retail price: $13.)

Everyone in line was divided up into groups of twelve to sixteen people. Each group was interviewed so that the producers could find contestants for this particular episode. Personally, I thought I nailed my interview. I was charming, I was funny, I was a sure-fire TV sensation.

I was seated in the very back row.

We would have been closer to the stage if I sat on my couch at home.

I will say this, though... I don't know if it was the psychedelic set, the allure of winning a trampoline, or what, but as soon as I sat in that metal folding chair, I went from mumbling “I hate this” to screaming “PICK THE KAYAK!” in sixty-seconds flat. (Mark 1 Economy Stopwatch; actual retail price: $8.)

Drew Carey came out, the place went nuts, and only six hours from the time we got in line, we finally heard: “It's the Price is Riiiiiight!”

THE PRICE IS RIGHT is currently involved in a $7.7 million lawsuit. I think the producers might be worried they'll have to pay out because one of the big prizes of the show was a BBQ shaped like a pickle. Sure, people won cars, but I don't remember the old PRICE IS RIGHT requiring you to return those cars to the nearest Enterprise location with the same amount of gas in the tank as when you got it.
For most of the audience (read: old women) the biggest draw of the show was the raw sexual magnetism of Drew Carey...'s male model assistant “Hot Rob.” “Hot Rob” is the first male model the show has ever had. From the looks of him, he gets paid per ab. (Total Gym XLS; actual retail price: $999.)

At one point, Drew read the contestant's bids incorrectly and called the wrong person up to the stage. The audience felt terrible for her as she danced her way up to Drew and then had to walk back to her podium. Then Hot Rob gave her a hug and the audience wanted to kill her.

After the taping, they had us all stay behind to do pick-ups. It was mostly contestants having to recreate their psychotic sprinting from their seats to the stage. Can you imagine? “I'm so sorry you didn't win that trip, that car, any of the furniture, and you got beaten in the Showcase Showdown by only a dollar... But, hey, at least you got that hot dog cooker. Now run down here again and put a little more enthusiasm into it.”

They let us all go home and I have to admit I was thrilled with the experience. Sure, I didn't get called up to be a contestant, but I buy everything with coupons anyway, so how good could I have done?

This particular episode airs tomorrow. I'll be the one way in the back trying to stop a 200 year-old woman from rushing the stage to get at Hot Rob. (Trojan condoms; actual retail price: $14.)

That's the end of this blog post. Thanks for reading and don't forget to have your pets spayed or neutered.

Thanks again to Jon & Diana... I mean Annie.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Why I'm glad I got out of radio

I thank “Kung Fu Fighting.” I was a disc jockey in San Diego in 1974 working the 7-midnight shift. Although we were called a Top 40 station, our playlist was more like Top 20. Research suggested that repetition was the key to rating success so we played the same damn records over and over. The “power” rotation was like five records that played every 70 minutes or so.

There were nights when “Kung Fu Fighting” would come up four times a shift. It was like a drill to my head. I had been flirting with getting out of radio for about a year – maybe try my hand at TV writing if I was good enough and lucky enough to break in – but there was a tugging at my heart. Radio had always been my first love, ever since I was a kid.

I loved the amazing creative disc jockeys like Dick Whittington, Robert W. Morgan, Don MacKinnon, Gary Owens, Dan Ingram, Lohman & Barkley, Bob & Ray, Larry Lujack, Emperor Hudson, Dave Diamond, and of course the incomparable Real Don Steele. Tuning down the dial for non music stations I had Vin Scully calling Dodger games, Chick Hearn calling the Lakers, Bill King describing the Raiders, and dynamic news personalities like Paul Harvey (even I wanted to buy a tractor, he made them sound so inviting).

But I bailed, went into TV and moved on with my dreams. Over the years I’ve kept my hand in radio – weekend disc jockey here, talk show host there, and eventually baseball announcer – but it has always broken my heart to see how the industry has changed, and never for the better.

Once major conglomerates were able to gobble up more than a couple of stations in every market things went from bad to calamitous. Thousands of jobs were eliminated, every corner that could be cut was, commercial loads increased to insane amounts, and the listener was completely disregarded.  Profits.  Profits.  That's all the mattered.  Mortgage any future to make a buck today!

What few precious on air personalities we still have are quickly dwindling. And there’s no one new coming up because who in their right mind would want to begin a career in radio now? That’s like hoping to go into the typewriter manufacturing business.

There were a few more casualties last week. KRTH in Los Angeles, a CBS station, after reaching ratings heights with its ‘80s oldies format, just fired three major reasons why people listened to the station. Shotgun Tom Kelly got left go after 15 years or more. The guy has a fucking star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also dumped were longtime nighttime jock, Christina Kelley (a wonderful talent), and radio icon Charlie Tuna.

Shotgun was given some bullshit title of “ambassador” and will make personal appearances but that’s just nonsense. He won’t be on the air doing afternoons anymore. And by the way, he sounds as good now as he ever did.

Who will replace them? Actually, the question should be “what” will replace them? Generic voice tracks? Or will they splurge and hire some nobody and pay him minimum wage?

It’s disgraceful and it’s an epidemic. Internet radio and satellite radio and podcasts can’t come fast enough. I recently did the Kevin Smith podcast and I bet ten times as many people heard me than if I were on KRTH – and KRTH gets good ratings. And when you did hear me, you didn’t have to suffer through twenty minutes of horrendous commercials, annoying promos, and idiotic contests.

In the past when a great disc jockey got fired he would simply show up elsewhere. But who knows today? Nobody is hiring. They’re all just firing.

It breaks my heart for so many reasons. It’s like, I’m glad I left my girlfriend when I did, but how tragic that she ended up Krysten Ritter on BREAKING BAD.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday Questions

Yes, it’s that time of the week again.

Ted O'Hara with the first Friday Question:

Have you ever found that you've boxed yourself in on future stories due to some plot detail in a past show that seem innocuous at the time? And if so, how did you get out of it?

Yes, it's happened.  You generally try to let time pass and hope no one notices. And yes, that's the chicken shit solution.  In only the second episode of CHEERS we introduced Sam’s ex-wife, primarily for one joke. Later we all thought, why did we do that? We don’t want the added complication of Sam being married before.

So we just ignored that beat as if it never happened. Great storytelling? No. But functional. We've convinced ourselves that it is. 

Sometimes you just ignore the complication and other times you try to explain it away. An example of each:

In an early episode of MASH Harry Morgan appeared as a crazy general (“The General Flipped at Dawn”). Later, of course, he re-appeared as Colonel Potter. Nothing was ever said.

On CHEERS we once established that Frasier’s father was dead. Oops. Tell that to John Mahoney. Later, on the FRASIER episode where Sam Malone visited (written by me and David Isaacs) we explained that Frasier had just said that out of anger.

The truth is there are inconsistencies on most long-running series. It’s understandable. New writers come aboard and don’t know the intricate details of all that went before. Especially before the internet. 

From Andrew:

Have you consciously altered your comedy style over the years? Do you mainly think in single-cam joke form now instead of multi-cam?

We never alter our style to appeal to a certain age group. We write what we think is funny for an intelligent audience. We don’t buy into the thinking that Millennials only want sex jokes or pop culture references.

As for single vs. multi-cam, last year David and I had a pilot at USA (before they shut down their comedy department completely – not our fault, by the way). It was pitched as a single-camera show. They asked if we could change it to multi-cam. I facetiously said, “Sure. In First Draft you can easily just change the template from single to multi-camera. One click and it’s done.”

But seriously, the styles are somewhat different as are the tones. We adjust our approach accordingly.

Since multi-camera shows are filmed before a live studio audience they are constructed more like plays. Dialogue is key and there are more set-up/jokes. The single camera format is more realistic. Laughs come from visual situations as well as witty banter.

Each format has its pluses and minuses. I’ve worked extensively in both. Which one I prefer depends entirely on the premise of the series. Which format lends itself the best to telling the story? MASH in front of an audience would be ridiculous. CHEERS on an empty soundstage would be a waste.  So it varies from project to project.

Anthony asks:

Yesterday's 'Now I Know' email newsletter talked about Jay Winsten bringing the "designated driver" concept to the US and how he worked with tv executives and "convinced many prominent TV shows of the era -- Cheers, the Cosby Show, L.A. Law, and Roseanne are mentioned in various press reports -- to make a positive, story-relevant reference to the designated driver program in various episodes."

How did you feel having to write certain things in? Were there other times you were told to deal with particular issues and how does it change the writing process?

I was never forced to write anything in. But my shows were always on major broadcast networks. In addition to being a writer and producer I consider myself a responsible broadcaster.

I have been privileged to be given an audience of millions of people. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.

So along the way, if I can champion causes such as “designated drivers” or the danger of smoking and do it organically within the fabric of my show, I am happy to do so.

I come from an era where broadcast stations were obligated to program in the public’s best interest.  Otherwise they could lose their license. Those laws are relaxed today to where they’re utterly meaningless, and there are so many other delivery systems that I think the public’s best interest is now a total non-factor.

But television is the greatest form of mass communication the world has ever known. Why not use it for good?

And finally, from Bill Avena:

OK nobody's around so here's my question: did you ever meet the "Richard Hooker" who wrote the original novel?

No. Richard Hooker, whose real name was Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, had sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox for only a few thousand dollars. So needless to say, he was bitter that the franchise went on to earn billions and he got nothing. You could certainly understand why he had no desire to cooperate with us. Also, Dr. Hornberger was a staunch conservative and disapproved of Alan Alda’s very liberal take on the Hawkeye character. According to Dr. Hornberger’s son, he rarely even watched the series. Again, I can’t blame him.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Actors breaking up in the middle of a scene

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post.

It’s from Tyler:

Do sitcom directors tend to be more amused or irritated by repeated takes being blown by one or more actors in a scene laughing and giggling? Have you worked with any actors who got irked by co-stars who repeatedly did so? I've just been re-watching all the Seinfeld blooper reels (often as funny as the show itself) and Michael Richards at times gets clearly annoyed with blown takes.

Actors infrequently get the giggles so when it happens it’s generally amusing to all concerned. And studio audiences LOVE it. When I direct and it happens I just give the actors a few minutes to regain their composure, well aware that it will still take a few more takes before they can get through the line.

Sometimes these laughing fits come as a result of something so funny in the script or a performance so hilarious that the other actors just can’t hold it.  That's a good thing!

I remember once on CHEERS we used Tony Shaloub as a waiter and he just pulverized everybody. Yes, it resulted in delays but boy was it worth it.

In an episode of FRASIER I directed, two characters came to dinner who had huge noses. I told my camera operators to stay with whoever they were shooting if they were about to lose it. Some of the shots we ended up using were priceless. No actor I’ve ever worked with had more concentration than David Hyde Pierce, and even he was about to explode.

Ray Romano, on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, was so quick and every so often would toss in a hilarious ad lib that would crack up Patty Heaton. But that was on purpose.

I imagine if an actor breaks up habitually it can get old to his fellow cast mates, but I haven’t seen any instance of the cast getting annoyed (although it sounds like Michael Richards did get annoyed.  

Here’s a sheepish confession: There used to be network specials that aired G-rated bloopers. The director would get a nice royalty if a clip from his episode was used. I was the happy recipient of a few of these checks. So when something goofy occurred like an actor with the chronic giggles, one of my first thoughts was “Ka-ching!”

Harvey Korman was a gifted comic actor who was part of the ensemble of THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. Fellow cast member Tim Conway could always break him up. I’m going to leave you now with one of the funniest sketches ever on television. Conway is the dentist, Korman is the patient. Watch Korman. This has me in stitches every time even though I’ve seen it twenty times.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Are "stories" still important?

A lot of Millineals say no. They point out that webisodes are very popular and a recent survey claimed that 2:26 is the optimum length. So who needs to kill themselves coming up with stories? They’re a royal pain in the ass to concoct and audiences prefer their entertainment in bite-sized portions. Who needs an ingenious beginning, middle, and end when you can show a cat trying to climb a greased pole?

Here’s the problem with that theory (besides the fact that it’s incredibly lazy) – two minute webisodes are like pieces of candy. There’s no real nourishment, nothing really satisfying or long lasting about them. You watch, you maybe chuckle, and you move on. It’s a little novelty. You never get really invested in the characters.

And that’s the key. Once you care about a character the interest level goes way up. And you need time to create that connection between the character and the viewer.

There have been myriads of entertainment forms down through the ages – from live theater to literature to filmed works of various lengths designed for various screens. But the principle of good drama remains the same. People want to be engrossed, surprised, delighted, taken to new worlds,  scared shitless, aroused, and involved. They want the subject matter to resonate, they want to maybe learn a thing or two along the way, and they want a certain amount of complexity. You can’t live on a diet of mini-Snickers bars (although I am this week directing INSTANT MOM) .

And two-minute programs may happily exist on websites, but networks, movie studios, and premium streaming delivery systems have way more time than two-minute blips to fill.

We live in a world where audiences watch two-minute shows and binge-watch others for six hours at a time.  People binge-watch because they want to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.   That's the result of story

Like I ranted about yesterday in my MAN FROM UNCLE pan, good drama is storytelling and the foundation of storytelling has not changed in thousands of years. Like I said, it’s a bitch to break stories. You hit roadblocks, you wrestle with logic, you fight the temptation to do something familiar or clichéd, you search for ways to hide exposition, you constantly question whether the stakes are high enough, the turns are surprising enough, and whether you’ve chosen the correct length to tell the story. And if it’s a comedy, how to do all that and still have the show be funny. Yes, it’s a tall order.

But it’s worth it.

Webisodes are the new thing, yet there’s still room for classic dramatic structure – or, as the ancient Greeks used to call it – old school.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

THE MAN FROM UNCLE -- THRUSH couldn't kill him but Guy Richie did

THE MAN FROM UNCLE wasn’t just bad. It was downright insulting. I shouldn’t be surprised. It was done by Guy Richie who is the king of style over substance. But this screenplay was so incomprehensible that it was clear Richie didn’t care. There wasn’t even an attempt to fill the audience in or plug up ridiculous logic holes.  

Instead, the screen was filled with slick, glossy, absurd action sequences, and ‘60s tropes. What he was saying was, “as long as I dazzle you with cool shots, fun vintage costumes, and video trickery you're so fucking stupid you will eat it up.” In Richie's estimation we’re just cats who can be entertained by a ball on a string.

I am a huge fan of the television series. I own the box set. I even watched THE GIRL FROM UNCLE (okay, for a different reason but still). As regular readers know, I’m also a major ‘60s freak. (I'll refrain from plugging my book... sorta.) And who doesn’t enjoy things being blown up? So I went in ready to love it.


I’m sorry. First and foremost a filmmaker’s obligation to the audience is to be a storyteller. It is not to fill the screen with almost two hours of retro chic bullshit. Caring about the characters, tracking the narrative is important. Duplicating Twiggy’s wardrobe is not.

Practically every decision Richie made was wrong. By veering so far away from the TV show all he did was alienate fans of the series. So there go the Baby Boomers. And Millennials could give a shit about ‘60s mod style and period detail.  Then for good measure, he does away with the iconic theme song. So he has crafted this multi-million dollar dog’s breakfast that appeals to no one.

The supervillain was as scary and convincing as Kellie Pickler. Henry Cavill was solo -- not Napoleon Solo per se but solo in that he played only one attitude – insouciance… and delivered every line the exact same way. Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin had two attitudes – controlled and rage. Rage was demonstrated by his hand shaking.

My hand was shaking as I left the theater. It’s one thing to make a movie with sincere intentions that falls short. We all fail sometimes. But this was something else. This was a filmmaker who has no regard or respect for his audience. This was a patronizing jerk who believes if you wrap a turd in a piece of shiny paper we’ll eat it and think it’s a Tootsie Roll.

Instead of wasting your time and money with this travesty, go watch the first season of THE MAN FROM UNCLE. Better characters (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum rock), better adventures, better look even – and it was made in black-and-white for probably $2500 an episode.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How I make my final Emmy decisions

We’re in the final round of Emmy voting. As a proud TV Academy Member I have some very difficult choices to make. Forget all the snubs, there are so many worthy nominees that my head is starting to explode.

So how to decide?

I could watch all of the shows. Most are available on line. But Jesus, that takes forever. And then I’ll have more factors swimming around in my head. He was surprisingly compelling here. Once I gave this show twelve episodes I really got into it. Ugh! Excedrin Headache 2015. 

There has to be a better way.

Well, there is.

I just get in my car, drive around Los Angeles, and look for billboards. After all, only the BEST shows and actors get billboards, right? If I’m on the fence and see a “For Your Consideration” billboard for one of the candidates, that clearly tips it.

I applaud the studios and networks. They must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on billboards but it’s certainly money well spent.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on Ventura and come across a fellow Emmy voter cruising the boulevard doing the same thing. We usually give each other a “thumbs up,” knowing that we’re the smart ones.

Oh, it’s not a perfect system. Gas prices have gone up lately. And I got stuck in traffic in Culver City once. That was a nightmare. But anything worth doing is worth doing right.

And my heart goes out to the studios. Not only do they have to worry about time slots, they now must contend with street locations. If Elisabeth Moss loses for MAD MEN it can only be because her billboard was in West Covina (and maybe the fact that her name isn’t even listed on the billboard).
The Emmys are September 20th. I’ll be reviewing them. And I’ll be driving to San Pedro tonight. It’s important I make the most informed choices.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

One of my writing pet peeves

This is a re-post from four years ago, but the condition still exists.

I saw MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which I liked but didn’t love (even if all the critics tell me I'm supposed to love it). There were some nice moments in it, I enjoyed the fantasy aspects but ultimately thought it would have made a better Woody Allen short story. (If you’re not familiar with his collection of short stories, treat yourself. They’re hilarious and wildly imaginative. Get Without Feathers or Getting Even.) But I digress as usual…

One aspect of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS really bothered me -- all the wasted dialogue. Woody Allen isn't the only culprit, I see it in other movies and shows too. And it's just a personal pet peeve. But if you’re a young writer-hopeful (I like that term so much better than wannabe. Wannabe sounds like an Indian Guides troop.), you might want to give this rant some consideration.

You only have a certain amount of time to tell a story. Every word needs to count. In MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (warning: scene spoiler alert but it won't effect your enjoyment of the movie), there's a potentially funny sequence when Owen Wilson (picture Woody Allen but young and Gentile) is trapped in a hotel room with earrings he took from his fiancé (for a reason I won't divulge). On FRASIER we would do this type of scene every other week. And it would be packed with funny lines, whopper lies, great reactions. I'm sure Neil Simon, if given the same comic premise, would do the same.

But not here. Here the scene is filled with,

"My earrings are gone!"
"Really? You sure?"
"Did you check everywhere?"
"Yes. They're missing."
"Really?" Did you even bring them?"
"Yes I brought them."
"I don't know that you did".
"I did."
“I don’t remember seeing them.”
“I brought them. I saw them this morning.”
“You did?”

You get the point.

Sorry but to me that's just lazy writing. You may say, "well, that's the way people talk.". And I would say absolutely -- but it's not interesting. It's sure not funny and this is a block comedy scene. As a writer it's your job to do better. Anyone can write the exchange I presented above. Your job is to make it funnier or more compelling or more thought-provoking or…more whatever.

Can people stammer? Sure. Do they talk ungrammatically? Every sentence. They also hedge and hem and haw and talk in circles. And you can use those qualities and still be engrossing. I refer you to any David Mamet play. Naturalistic dialogue doesn't have to be boring. But it takes skill to make it sing. At least attempt to do that.

Some would say that promotes dialogue that is too stylized. And often times they're right. Just as bad as boring conversation is the "no human being would ever say that" charge. But I'd rather err on the side of style, on the side of trying too hard rather than not enough.

I can hear some of you now. What about Aaron Sorkin? He uses a lot of short sentences and characters repeating other characters’ lines. What about him? I know. I’ve even spoofed him myself. But there is a definite flow to Sorkin’s dialogue. There’s a rhythm. Everything is carefully designed. It’s not just idle chit-chat, it’s lyrics.

I'll stop just short of saying you're making art because that always sounds incredibly pretentious so I'll just say you’re making diversions worthy of our time and even our money. Make every word count.

Maybe Woody should have traveled back to Paris in the 1920s – and spent more time with Hemingway.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Snap, Crackle, Pop, Good Morning

Not often you hear the Rolling Stones sing a jingle.  But here are Mick and the boys for Rice Krispies.   Maybe it should be SNAP, CRACK, SNORT.

Or  SNAP, CRACKLE, OW!  Here's TV's "Walter White" for Preparation H...

And if we're doing celebrity commercials, how can I not feature you-know-who?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Congratulations to Annie & Jon

Let me put on my proud father hat for a moment.  My daughter Annie and her writing partner Jonathan Emerson just announced their engagement.   If they can write comedy together without killing each other then marriage should be a breeze.   Congratulations.  I love you both.
Friday Questions below.

Friday Questions

TGIFriday Questions (and the second Natalie photo of the week):

David P is up first.

Have you ever considered posting pictures of Bebe Neuwirth on occasion instead of (or in addition to) pictures of Natalie Wood?


From Steve B:

Ken, I was wondering about your process for writing your DVD spec. How long total did it take to write, and how much time did you devote to breaking the story and writing the actual script? Plus, when was the last previous TV spec script you wrote, and how did it feel to be writing another one?

It’s hard to say because I worked on it while writing other things (like this blog). But it probably took four or five days of breaking the story, another day to write the outline, four or five days to write the draft, a couple of days to let it sit, then another day to polish. And I’m sure if I didn’t play Tetris I  could have shaved at least two days off the process.

I actually write a lot on spec – mostly plays these days. But the last time I wrote a spec episode for an existing show I believe Chester A. Arthur was president.

Dan Ball asks:

Have you ever done below-the-writer's-line work on a show where you were actually pushing buttons, adjusting dimmers, editing a sequence (film or video, linear or non-linear editing), adjusting a fresnel light, creating a graphic, or white-balancing a camera? Don't you step on union toes doing that? I just didn't know if you ever found yourself learning or having to do those things or if you'd be shot dead for it by the unions.

Unions do take a somewhat dim view of that. So no, I’ve never adjusted a light or got an actress into her wardrobe. The truth is, all of these crew members do a much better job at any of these tasks than I ever could. I’m forever amazed at how remarkable these dedicated men and women are. Plus, I need to call in a guy at home to change a lightbulb.

But there have been a few instances where I have dabbled in areas below-the-line. As a showrunner, I involve myself heavily in editing, but only to sit with the editor and give notes. I never touch a button.

There was an episode of ALMOST PERFECT where we needed an offstage couple to loudly make love. The couple we used on the stage weren’t very good so in post fellow showrunner Robin Schiff and I did the scene. We were quite good if I say so myself.

And on a SIMPSONS episode that David Isaacs and I wrote, I drafted the character design for the Capitol City Goofball. That was very cool. As an amateur cartoonist, I had never created a cartoon character before (or since).

powers wonders:

I enjoy watching Jack Webb's 60s Dragnet TV series. Having read a book about Jack & all of his productions I see that he insisted that a teleprompter be used on his Dragnet show.

Did you ever resort to utilizing a teleprompter on any show you worked on? Do shows today utilize teleprompters at all? What are your thoughts on using them?

For a scripted show I wouldn’t allow it for one second. Actors need to be in the moment and need to relate to each other. They also need sufficient rehearsal time to find the best performance. You can’t do any of that with teleprompters.

Do any current scripted shows employ teleprompters? I honestly don’t know but would be surprised if one does.

Jack Webb was very lazy. He cut as many corners as he could in the production of his shows. He liked to be done shooting by 4:30 every day.

You’ll notice that he and Harry Morgan wore the exact same suits every single episode? That way he was able to shoot stock footage of them going in and out of the police station and other buildings only once. He could use the same footage every week.

The irony is that Harry Morgan could read a page of dialogue once and have it memorized. If there was any actor who never needed a teleprompter it was Harry.

Unknown has a question following my post on Bob Crane.

Living in the Midwest, I didn't know Mr. Crane did radio, and how good he was. Who do you like now? I know everything is corporate now, but anyone up and coming?

The only one I can think of is John Phillips on KABC. Whip smart, funny, and very versatile. He’ll be a national personality very soon, I have no doubt. And I don’t agree with him politically. But he’s a great personality.  There's a young sportscaster for Westwood One and ESPN named Jason Benetti who is also terrific. 

Otherwise, as you said, talent is no longer being groomed. Three or four major companies own 90% of the radio stations and are working overtime to kill and bury the industry. I frankly don’t know why a young creative person would even want to get into radio these days. That’s like wanting to be a typewriter repairman.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Join me and Kevin Smith on a podcast

I was the guest on Kevin Smith & Matt Mira's podcast.   It was great fun.  I got to gas off about myself and swear for 90 minutes!   A narcissist's dream.   Here's where you can go to hear it.  Thanks again to Kevin and Matt for having me on and hopefully you will still have an audience next week.  

Watch one of our unsold pilots!

For many years the major networks would air their unsold pilots during the summer. The industry nickname for this practice was FAILURE THEATER. But it used to be great fun to watch the pilots that didn’t get series orders. Some were better than what got on, and a few were jaw-droppingly atrocious.

Today my blog reprises this summer programming highlight with a pilot David Isaacs and I wrote called UNDER ANDREA.

We adapted it earlier this summer for THE DEAD PILOTS SOCIETY at the Whitefire Theatre in Studio City, California. These were three passed over TV pilots adapted for the stage. It was a great experience. Everyone associated with this first-rate 99-seat theatre was terrific.

I was very fortunate that my friends Kevin Gershan and Rob Phillips graciously taped one of the performances. Obviously this is not broadcast quality (it’s not FOR broadcast) and the cameras were placed in locations that wouldn’t obstruct the audience’s view. Still, you’ll get a good idea of what went on there.

Briefly, UNDER ANDREA is about three ambitious young assistants who go to work for a sleek Devil Wears Prada-type woman who controls a magazine empire. It was originally developed for Fox in 2003 and NBC in 2005. For more background on the pilot and process please go here.

The cast is: Jules Wilcox (Andrea), Suzanne Mayes (Jill), Jack Zullo (Walter), Sterling Sulieman (Ernie), Paul Lauden (Neil), Paul Culos (Bugeater), Julie Meyer (Lana), and David Svengalis (Eric). I directed it.

Now, you’ll notice there are no comments today. That’s by design. It’s one thing when I post a script and the trolls come after me, but there are actors involved here who generously gave of their time and talent to be in this production. They don’t need to be critiqued. So for today only, I’m not seeking feedback. Thanks for understanding.

Hope you enjoy it. Here, for the first time is UNDER ANDREA. MY NAME IS EARL will return next week in its normal slot.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What to do on your first TV writing gig?

Regular readers of this blog know that when I can't find an appropriate photo to accompany a post I feature photos of Natalie Wood.  This is now one of my favorites. 

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that thanks to long-winded me now becomes an entire post.

It’s from Sarah.

You've written about how to get that first TV writing gig (all of which has been tremendously helpful, thank you!) but I can't seem to find anything you've written about what to do AFTER you've landed that first job. I'll be starting my first staff writer job on a mid-season comedy really soon and I'm a bit nervous.

What did you expect from the baby writers on your staff?

What advice would you give a first time staff writer?

Great question and first off, congratulations on the new gig, Sarah.

The first piece of advice would be to LISTEN. Become a sponge. Soak up everything. How does the showrunner break stories? What are the actors’ strengths and weaknesses? What kind of jokes do or don’t work? How tolerant is the showrunner on arguing story points? How can you best contribute?

If there’s a lot of room writing, get a sense of the room dynamic. There will usually be a few writers who drive it. Study them. Get into their thought processes if you can. And don’t get in their way. Learn when to slide in with your own pitches.

Room etiquette is something else to learn and observe. Rule number one: Pitch something ONCE. If the showrunner rejects it for any reason move on. Do not keep lobbying for it. And don’t sulk or become resentful. I worked with a truly hilarious writer on a couple of shows; maybe one of the funniest room people I’ve ever met. There were times I was in awe. But he was very moody. If he pitched something he thought should go in and was rejected he would clam up the rest of the night. Eventually, he wasn’t asked back despite his brilliance. Play nice with others.

Don’t text in the room unless you’re on a break. Don’t check email unless you’re on a break.

And if others do it, don’t YOU. If others are breaking these rules, don’t YOU.

Don’t be the grammar police. Don’t just pitch that things don’t work. Offer a possible fix or better way to go. Anyone can say “this doesn’t work.” Writers solve the problems.

What happens in the room STAYS in the room.

Understand that the showrunner steers the boat. You just row in that direction. You may not agree with the direction but be a good team player and row like crazy. Someday you’ll become a showrunner and others can row in your direction and inwardly bitch.

Be professional. Always show up on time, always be prepared (read the outline or script you’ll be working on beforehand), and bathe.

Be supportive of other staff members. Yes, you’re in competition to a degree – all hoping to get your jokes in. But acknowledge and appreciate when your fellow writers lob in something good. Make friends.

Since you are the baby writer you will not be expected to shoulder the burden of the show. Showrunners would rather you hang back and listen then to try to dazzle everybody by pitching incessantly. The more you get comfortable the more you will be able pitch good stuff. That said, don’t just sit in the room the entire season like a lox and say nothing.

And finally, have fun. Don’t constantly be grading yourself. “Did I pitch enough today?” “Was I funny enough?” “How do I stack up to the story editor?” “Am I falling behind on Donald Trump jokes?” etc. You worked very hard to get there, allow yourself to enjoy the experience. Again, congratulations.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Okay, I’ve given it over a month so I’m assuming most people have seen TRAINWRECK. If not, SPOILER ALERT. Come back tomorrow.

Like I said before, it’s waaaaay too long. Lots of scenes that don’t advance the story. And the audience is way ahead of you through most of the movie. When that happens, get to it already.

But there were a lot of funny moments and a few hilarious scenes, and LeBron James is now the funniest actor in Hollywood.

I love Amy Schumer. She has elevated slut to a high comic art. Her material is sharp, her delivery is pitch-perfect, and she is currently the queen of the zeitgeist. I don’t know why anyone thinks Lena Dunham is the voice of her generation when Amy Schumer exists on the same planet.

But I had a problem with the relationship in the movie. And it may just be me. If it is, I’m sure I’ll hear from you.

My problem is this: In any romantic relationship I need to know why each person is attracted to the other. They can be opposites, come from different backgrounds, huge age difference (except in a Woody Allen movie, it's creepy already), but I need to believe there’s something each person is getting from the other that is so great they fall in love.

I totally get why Amy falls for Bill Hader’s character. Here is the first real decent guy she’s met. He goes with her to see her father, provides medical care, doesn’t play mind games, puts up with her bullshit, has a personality (isn’t just a nice slug like her brother-in-law), and apparently the sex is good. (Her big complaint was that when he went down on her he… I forget what her big complaint was, but so did she.)

On other hand, why does he fall for her? Now step back for a moment. Forget that Amy Schumer is enjoying a massive pop culture glow and is clearly the current flavor-of-the-month. Don’t think of Amy Schumer, think of “Amy” the character. She pushes Hader away, doesn’t even want him breathing next to her in bed (a very funny scene), jumps down his throat when he says her loves her (not his fault it came at a funeral), refuses to say she loves him, is forever guarded, is constantly selfish, dresses inappropriately, and the one time he wanted her presence she ducked out to take a phone call. And the reality is, all the cute little quirks that are so endearing in the beginning of relationships become so fucking annoying you want to kill them after three years.

Again, this is just my pet peeve. Lots of times I see screen romances where we’re supposed to believe the couple is in love purely because the writer says they are.  Yes, casting is 80% and chemistry is key, but so is the writer’s obligation to justify just what the attraction is and what positive tangible element each person gets from the relationship. Being the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY comic of the year isn’t enough. At least for me.

But it’s been said that if a studio comedy has four really funny scenes then it’s a good movie. I think the bar is a little low but okay. Using that yardstick, there were at least four (and probably closer to six), so TRAINWRECK delivers the goods.  But it’s not a home run. More like a double, although with Amy Schumer you can probably get to third base.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The latest fad

What an idiot! When I was nine I threw away my unfinished Crusader Rabbit coloring book. I thought I had outgrown it. And this is my problem. I can never guess trends, even ones as obvious as this. According to a recent article in the NY TIMES (so it has to be true), the latest fad is adult coloring books.

They’ve occupied as many as eight of twenty spots on Amazon’s Best Seller List. 1.3 million adult coloring books have been sold. Just think how many more books I would have sold if I had drawn my memoir instead of written it! All that effort trying to make it funny and weave in current events when people would rather just color in a page of me attempting to folk dance or the Watts Riots.

Why are adult coloring books so popular? They relieve stress. At least that’s the theory (probably first discovered by the Crayon company). It’s a distraction, it’s fun, and you can post your finished product on the refrigerator. I’d like to think that as middle-agers your drawings will kick ass over your five-year-olds’. You can finally take down that crappy Spongebob scrawling and replace it with an eye-popping rendition of Ned Stark being beheaded from GAME OF THRONES. (Have plenty of red.)

I am course am being a facetious blogger (and jealous author), but does this method work? Do any of you color? I will say this, adult coloring books are a lot cheaper than Xanex (I assume you can buy them without a prescription), safer than alcohol (I’ve yet to see any signs that say: “Don’t drink and color.”), and you don’t need your kid to install it and teach you how it works.

This fad has really taken off. There are coloring clubs, coloring contests, and if you’re an AARP member you can probably get senior discounts on crayons.

So what are examples of adult coloring books? “Creative Cats,” “Game of Thrones” (you thought I was joking), “Stress Relieving Patterns,” and landscapes. I wonder if restaurants that provide coloring books for kids will now also have adult selections. “What would you like? We have the Adventures of Chuck E. Cheese or Scenes from Guantanamo.”

I’ll tell you where adult coloring books would really come in handy – sitcom writing rooms. Practically every writer I know doodles in the margins on his script. Usually they’re angry renderings. And in most rooms there are three or four writers who don’t contribute. At least if they’re coloring in Prague Ghettos they’re not chiming in with stupid punctuation corrections.

So my question again is: does this art therapy work? Is it an inexpensive fun way to relieve anxiety or another one of those chic fads like water bars or toilet cafes? Weigh in, dear readers. And if any of you happen to have an unused Crusader Rabbit coloring book please send it to me. Thanks.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What NOT to wear at a music award show

A couple of weeks ago I told the story of how cool I looked in the GQ profile (thanks to borrowing someone else's clothes).  Here's what happens when I was left to my own devices. 

In the late '70s my partner and I were writing a pilot for the very flamboyant film producer, Alan Carr.  He had just produced the film adaptation of GREASE.  The pilot was about a girl who booked rock acts for a live music show like THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (which ran on Friday nights in the swinging 70s). One day Allan calls and says for research purposes we should attend the DON KIRSCHNER ROCK AWARDS. This was a bullshit network made-up award show, a predecessor to the AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS or MTV AWARDS, or FRED’S AWARDS if Fred could get someone to televise it. We were to mingle with the stars, get a feel of the world, etc. The tickets were free so what the hell?

It was broadcast live from the Hollywood Palladium at 5 p.m. (8 p.m. in the east). We were given house seats and told to dress black tie. So we had to hit the rental store. When the salesman learned the occasion he said, “You can’t just get black tuxedos. Not for the ROCK AWARDS. Are you nuts? You’ve got to wear something much hipper than that.” Considering we were the two un-hippest guys on the planet that made sense. We wanted to fit in. Didn’t want Peter Frampton thinking we were not happening. So we said, “What do you got?”

The day of the show we picked up our dates at about 3:00. They got one look at our outfits and both almost bust a gut. Like two complete idiots we were wearing matching brown tuxedos with peach colored ruffled shirts. All that was missing was paisley cummerbund.

Obviously, it was too late to do anything about it so off we went to the Palladium. And big surprise, we were the only two people there in brown tuxedos with peach ruffled shirts. Our dates were still laughing. Actually, the sound of snickering seemed to follow us wherever we went. Gone were my fantasies of Olivia Newton-John slipping me her number.

To save face I took off my glasses and tried to pass myself off as Prince.

It’s now 4:45. We’re seated. The stage P.A. calls out, “Chaka Khan? Is Chaka Khan here?” I don’t know why but I raised my hand and said, “Here!” The woman sitting right in front of me whirled around and said, “Hey, Fuckhead! I’m Chaka Khan!” So much for my mingling with the stars. (Chaka pictured right with sort of the warm expression she gave me.)

After suffering through the show (“Oh wow, man. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to receive this, uh…what is this again?”), we got out at about 7:30. Unbelievably, we weren’t invited to any of the post show parties. When Alice Cooper laughs at your outfit, you know you look like an imbecile. So now we had to get dinner. Where do you go on a Tuesday night in Hollywood dressed like the groomsmen of Liberace’s wedding?

Thank God for Kelbos!
Longtime Angelinos know what I’m talking about. Kelbos was a super tacky Polynesian themed restaurant with several L.A. locations. Picture Trader Vic’s for Homer Simpson. They’re gone now but back then there was one right across the street from CBS Television City.

(Side note: CBS Television City is in the heart of the Fairfax district, a decidedly Jewish section of town. The joke is to get to CBS just drive down Fairfax Ave. And the first window that doesn’t have a chicken in it is CBS.)

We walk into Kelbos, two Jerry Vale impersonators and their dates, and the host doesn’t even bat an eye. Shows us to a booth and even offers us complimentary drinks in skulls. We all must’ve laughed for an hour at how stupid we looked. But at least no one saw us.

Then I get home and watch the tape-delayed replay of the show. Chaka Khan wins an award. Jumps up. And there we are, in a lovely two shot, on national television. And it was an extra good idea to sit right next to each other.

I think Allan Carr was embarrassed. And this from a man who wore caftans and cold cream.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Writing our first script... at Fort Ord

It’s one thing to get a break, but it’s another to take advantage of it. If you’re lucky enough to get your first script assignment it really behooves you to hit it out of the park. A possible staff job could be yours if your script impresses the powers-that-be. And your agent will have a much easier time getting you more work with a killer script that’s been produced. All of a sudden you start building momentum.  So there is a certain amount of pressure attached. 

All of that was in the back of our minds when my partner David and I got our first assignment – an episode of THE JEFFERSONS.

We worked out the outline with the story editors, Gordon Mitchell & Lloyd Turner. It was early June. This was episode seven for that season and production wasn’t scheduled to begin for another two months. We figured we’d have plenty of time to really turn in a gem, polished to within an inch of its life.

And we were going to need that time. David and I were in the same Army Reserve Unit. In fact, that’s where we met. Part of our obligation was serving two weeks of active duty every summer. That year’s summer camp began the following Monday. So we wouldn’t be able to even begin the script for two weeks.

Gordon and Lloyd wished us luck, and as we were leaving Gordon casually said, “By the way, we need it in two weeks.”


“Yeah, “ Gordon said, “The producers like this story and we’re going to move it way up. So we need it in two weeks. That’s not a problem, is it?”

“No, not at all” we both said. “Piece of cake.”

With great élan we strolled out of their office, made it to our cars, and practically collapsed. At that point in our career we had never written a script in only two weeks. And that’s sitting in a quiet room for ten hours every day. I seriously doubted whether Fort Ord provided such amenities. And there was another problem: the way we worked back then, David took down the script in longhand and I then typed it. Where were we going to get an IBM Selectric typewriter (the script had to look professional. We couldn’t just use some beat up old army Royal typewriter from World War II)?

I made some calls to people I worked with in San Francisco when I was a disc jockey at KYA. One had a Selectric. Now all we had to do was somehow get from Fort Ord in Monterrey to San Francisco, and trickier still –  get one-day passes for a Friday. I think my conversation with our company commander went like this:

Me: We need to go up to San Francisco next Friday.
Him: Alright, well, then you’re going to have to work one of the weekend days.
Me: Oh. Well, see, we really need that time to write. We were really kind of hoping to get the whole weekend off, too.
Him: Excuse me?
Me: And maybe if we could skip a few afternoons during the week, that would be great.

In most units I would have been court martialed by then. But this was an Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit and the company commander worked at NBC and understood our predicament. So he gave us as much leeway as he could, as long as we still performed whatever duties we were assigned.

Now came the matter of just where to write. The base commander was not about to let us use his office. Our entire unit was in one barrack. So imagine FULL METAL JACKET. Forty soldiers sitting around in their underwear, talking, yelling, listening to radios, playing cards, clipping their toenails, smoking, and two idiots sitting on a bunk trying to write the most important script of their lives while the guy in the top bunk drank beer and let his feet dangle in their faces. And then when everyone went to bed, they had to huddle in a corner with a flashlight and whisper because if they spoke in even a stage whisper fifteen guys would tell them to shut the fuck up.

During the day we’d sneak back to the barracks for a couple of what-we-thought were going to be quiet hours. Unfortunately, we were right next to a basic training parade ground. All day long troops would be marching and singing and Drill Sergeants would be screaming at them. Despite what the army may think, jokes don’t come any faster when someone is yelling, “Move your fucking ass, you pussy!”

Because we had to go to San Francisco, we didn’t even have two full weeks. Somehow we finished a draft. We rented a car (which cost us a fortune), raced up to San Francisco, typed all day, and raced back.

The unit bussed back Sunday afternoon, and on Monday morning we called Gordon Mitchell to proudly tell him the script was done. He was pleased.

Him: Great. When can I get it?
Me:Well, it’s 10:00 now. We have to go the Writers Guild to register it, so I guess about noon or 1:00. Him: Schmuck! You don’t have to register it. You’re protecting yourself against me. I BOUGHT the script.

Oops. Our naiveté was showing. He had the draft in a half hour.

So how was the script? We were heavily rewritten by THE JEFFERSONS although in fairness, we were told they did that routinely.

However, it was our draft, that we wrote in Fort Ord that got us our first MASH assignment. So how bad could it have been?

And yes, I see the irony.

And no, we didn’t go back to Fort Ord to write our next assignment even though the first one worked out so well.

This is a re-post from almost five years ago. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Friday Questions

Would it be Friday without Friday Questions?

Ike Iszany starts us off:

Why do sit com set often have so many angled walls? The rooms seem to have 7 to 10 walls and no 90 degree angles in them. And often have little alcoves that never get used for anything.

Two reasons. The first is to allow cameras more access. Remember on shows shot with an audience you have four cameras. You want the sets to be wide enough to accommodate them all. Even small sets like Sam’s office on CHEERS have the walls at an angle.

Reason two is just to give the set some depth and make it look interesting. In some cases those alcoves off to the side are really ports. You can bring a camera way up behind the alcove and shoot through a sliding window.

As a director you’re always looking to get good “eyes” on the actors. You try to avoid profiles. These ports help.

From John:

When you say "Problems arise when characters are so undefined no one really knows how they’ll react in a given situation," is there ever a situation on a long-running show where the problem might go the other way -- i.e. the audience is so locked into who the characters are there's little room for exploration, based on the idea (or the network's idea) or not tampering with what works? And at the other end, do you have a little more leeway to try and add on little things to a character when a show is relatively new simply because the character has yet to become locked into a certain persona?

You make some excellent points, John. One of the reasons David Isaacs and I left MASH in the 8th season was because the characters were so entrenched we felt there was nothing they could do that could surprise us. Especially on that show where we were locked into time and space. It’s not like we could give Hawkeye a new job. That’s why it was always such a blessing when we could introduce a new character.

And to the last part of your question, yes, early on you’re still “developing” the characters – inventing new layers and also shaping them to the strengths and weaknesses of the actors.  It can be exciting.  Every so often you tap into an unexpected vein of gold. 

Smitty asks:

Louis CK and FX have a basic agreement: LCK gets complete creative control, FX's budget for his show is peanuts (in show biz terms) and as long as the show gets eyeballs/retains its quality, FX leaves LCK alone. Do you think most showrunners would take trade no network inference for a reduced budget?


And when artists like Louis CK fulfills his promise and turns out great work it only makes it easier for others to get the same deal. So thank you, Louis.

And finally, from Peter:

What's your opinion on prank based comedy like Bad Grandpa, Borat and Bruno? Are they your cup of tea? Do you think comedy is comedy, whether it's fully scripted or whether it relies on playing a prank on the public?

It’s just personal taste but my problem with this brand of comedy is that it relies on mortifying people to derive its laughs. A lot of it is mean spirited. There are laughs but at what cost? I prefer more humanity in my comedy. (Although, I must admit I did find parts of BORAT funny. Perhaps it was the political satire aspect of it. Or I’m just more shallow than I’m willing to admit.)

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Doctor and the Emperor

I know I bemoan this a lot, but I really miss the days when radio was fun. Recently I did a post on Bob Crane. Morning radio especially was the playground for wildly creative and funny entertainers. Some of my earliest comic influences were disc jockeys – Dick Whittington, Robert W. Morgan, Bob & Ray, Lohman & Barkley, Dan Ingram, Gary Burbank, Don McKinnon, Larry Lujack, Gary Owens, Dale Dorman, and the two gentlemen I’m highlighting today – Dr. Don Rose and Emperor Bob Hudson.

These two jocks could not have been more different in style, approach, delivery, and content.

Dr. Don ruled mornings for years in the ‘70s and ‘80s at KFRC, San Francisco and his show was organized chaos. Highly produced with sound effects, wild tracks, kazoos, and a constant barrage of the worst jokes EVER. And yet, by sheer volume, and his presence, which was so upbeat and infectious, you found yourself laughing. Ironically, he himself battled numerous serious health issues. In the video I’m showing you’ll notice crutches off to the side. But despite the darkness and pain he continually experienced, if anyone ever had the gift of lifting other peoples’ moods it was the good doctor.

In contrast, Emperor Bob Hudson was your strange uncle who always seemed hungover and couldn’t wait to bolt from Thanksgiving dinner. Emperor Hudson toiled (and that is the right word) in the morning at a variety of Los Angeles stations in the ‘60s – KRLA, KBLA, and KFWB. He was the W.C. Fields of Top Forty radio. 

Unlike, Dr. Don, Hudson’s show was completely off-the-cuff. Nothing was ever prepared. But that was the beauty of it. He could spin amazing imagery and nonsense right off the top of his head. Along the way would come hilarious sarcastic or outrageous remarks. You never knew what he was going to say or do next because he didn’t. In many ways, it was word jazz. (Bob later teamed with fellow D.J. Rob Landry to become the comedy team of Hudson & Landry that enjoyed some success on TV, clubs, and records.)

The one thing the Dr. and the Emperor had in common however, was their ability to really create a world of imagination on the air. Sadly, that appears to be a lost art.

I’m going to show you samples of their brilliance along with behind-the-scenes profiles. Both were made as student films. Both were extremely well done. Oh, the one about Emperor Hudson – that was George Lucas’ student film at USC. Yes, that George Lucas.

Enjoy a couple of true comic artists.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Taking out laughs can make a comedy funnier

There’s an old theater expression: “Take out twenty minutes; run two years longer.” Most dramatic efforts would benefit by being twenty minutes shorter.

Movies, for sure.

Comedies in particular.

Sceen comedies should run about 90 minutes. Once you drift into two-hours a feature comedy becomes indulgent, bloated, and needlessly self-important. This is always my complaint with Judd Apatow movies. They’re always too long. Always. He knows this; even acknowledges so in his book. But he still insists on keeping his movies over two-hours. They are that difficult to cut? Uh… I could take at least twenty minutes out of every one of his films and still make it to Nate & Al’s for the Early Bird Special (assuming I don’t also have to chase kids off my lawn).

Here’s the truth: he could edit them too. Judd has a keen eye for comedy. The jokes in his movies work because he knows what’s funny and he knows how to construct humorous moments to get the most bang for his buck. He also knows story and story structure. But somewhere along the line he just falls so in love with everything that he can’t bear to part with it.

Yes, I’m sure the first cuts of his films are three-hours and he did a lot of trimming already, but as the other expression goes: “Sometimes you have to kill your babies.”

The comment I hear the most about TRAINWRECK is “really funny but too long.” It would be even FUNNIER if it weren’t too long.  That's absolutely how I felt.  I could have cut 45 minutes from that movie without missing a beat.  15 of those minutes would have come from the last half hour. 

And Judd isn’t the only offender. Most screen comedies have ten pratfalls too many. Meanwhile, INSIDE OUT runs 94 minutes and is the hit of the season. Pixar has figured it out. Why can’t others?

Audience viewing habits have changed. This could be due to emerging technology, new shorter forms of entertainment, or simple human evolution – our bladders apparently are getting smaller. But whatever the reason, we have little patience these days for filler, red herrings, sweeping panoramas, and more than six semen jokes in any one film.

Here’s the bottom line – for comedies or any genre, ask yourself this: Is the story big enough and strong enough that you need two hours (or more) to tell it? “Need” being the operative word here. The minute the moviegoer checks his watch the answer is “No.” Even taking out laughs can make a comedy funnier.

Now, in the spirit of fairness, I welcome all opposing views. If you feel movies are too short, that seven battle sequences are not enough, that diarrhea scenes must be played out in their entirety, that Adam Sandler doesn’t get enough screen time, that there are still one or two structures in Metropolis still left standing after a Superman altercation, that BOYHOOD should have been over a twenty year span, that there was too much still left unsaid in TRANSFORMERS then I want to hear from you.

I’d say more but… well, why not follow my own advice?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Hollywood tours

Tourism is always big in Los Angeles, especially during the summer. Local residents on the Westside are used to seeing kids stand out on Sunset Blvd. selling maps to the stars’ homes. Hollywood locals take it for granted that a thousand nimrods in Bermuda shorts will be milling about Grauman’s Chinese Theater and getting selfies with Spiderman or a guy dressed like Marilyn Monroe. And double-decked tour buses clogging up left hand lanes is a city staple.

But this year, for some reason, I am seeing way more tour buses. It’s almost one-to-one Hollywood Tour vans and parking enforcement vehicles. Why there are so many more tour buses these days I do not know. Especially since…

There is nothing to see.

Not really.

One tour takes you by the homes of the stars. But stars don’t live in Beverly Hills anymore. They used to. You could drive by Jack Benny’s house, and Lucille Ball’s, and Ronald Colman’s but the chances of actually seeing them have breakfast or watering the lawn is rather slim since they’re dead. And how many of you even know who Ronald Colman was? You’re driving by lawyers’ homes and guys who own furniture warehouses.

Stars live secluded in canyons and beach colonies and Upper Manhattan. Their compounds are gated. And would you even know the difference? If a tour guide took you to Bel Air, pointed to a gate, and said this is where Tom Cruise lives, how would you know it’s not really where the owner of Starlight Tours lives? Or a military academy?

As for stars’ hangouts – you don’t need a tour bus. Just go to Maestro’s or Spago’s or any super expensive chic eatery. The classic Hollywood haunts like Chasen’s, Perino’s, the Brown Derby, Scandia, Le Dome, Morton’s – they’re long gone. Sure, you can still go to Pink’s Hot Dogs as Orson Welles frequently did, but you’ll suffer the same fate as him. Musso & Frank’s is still open, and it’s worth seeing, but the only movie stars you’ll see there now are celebrating their 105th birthdays. Over the years I’ve seen dozens of big stars in LA restaurants, but they’ve all closed. Perhaps I should start a tour: “Where Robert Duvall, LaToya Jackson, and Dustin Hoffman used to eat.”

Will you see stars shopping in Beverly Hills? Maybe. You’ll more likely see their personal assistants.

These tours also show you “locations” from movies and TV shows. The truth is after a hundred years of movie making, every street and location has been used at least once. So the Coffee Bean you’re in right now was once a hamburger stand used in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. The street you just crossed was seen in an Allstate commercial back in 1967. The actual house used on BLESS THIS HOUSE might be right around the corner. Just assume it is.

LA is a great vacation destination.  Lots of fun things to see and do.   Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, the Venice Beach walk, Universal, the Grove, Farmer's Market, LACMA, Costco. If you want to see television shows you can write to the networks.  TV tickets are free.  And there are kiosks in tourist locations like the Grove that offer these tickets.  You can see Ellen.   

But the bottom line is this: You want to see big movie stars? You want to see A-list celebrities? Come back in the winter and go to a Lakers game.