Friday, September 30, 2016

Friday Questions

Friday Questions on the last night of previews. Hope you come see my play. It opens officially tomorrow night.

Mark gets us started with a question about GOING GOING GONE:

Can you tell us about the audition process? How did you find the actors and how did you select them? What were you looking for? I sort of have a limited sense of how it happens for tv and movies but not for theater.

We hired a terrific casting director, Michael Donovan. I met with him and discussed how I envisioned the characters. He then reached out to agents, managers, and I think listed the qualifications in breakdown services and selected a group of actors for each part he thought would be right.

We then had casting sessions at the theatre with me, the director, and producers. Michael did an amazing job. We cast the whole play in only two casting sessions.

One difference between casting theatre and television is that for TV the actor stands only a few feet from the people doing the casting. For theatre the casting people sit way back in one of the back rows. They want a better sense of how the actor will project. Projection isn’t important on film. Everyone is miked.

From -30-:

Why don't you direct your own play? It's not like you have no experience.

At some point I will, and I have directed one acts. But entire plays are a different animal and I find I’m learning a ton from Andy Barnicle.

In TV everything has to move quickly.  You block the show the first day and by mid-afternoon have to be ready for a runthrough.  Four days later you shoot the show.  For plays you generally have a month of rehearsals   So there are time management issues, dealing with all the tech demands – I’m sure I could do it, but would probably make mistakes that would hurt the play. Better to let someone who really knows what he’s doing direct it than myself.  Plus, it's nice to have an outside eye evaluating the material. 

My technical skill set is dealing with cameras. I’m sure if Andy had a multi-cam pilot that needed directing, he would ask me to step in.

Peter asks:

Is there any movie that you hated the first time you saw it but grew on you in subsequent viewings to the point it became a favorite? I hated Rosemary's Baby the first time I watched it. I thought it was slow and dull. But it's now one of my all time favorites?

THE CAINE MUTINY. Saw it as a kid and was bored out of my mind. Boring talk talk talk. Then I saw it again as an adult, and whoa! What a great picture and an absolutely riveting performance by Humphrey Bogart.  (He played this insane ship captain who has a meltdown on the witness stand. Very similar to Trump's debate performance.)

Same for THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY. It’s Paddy Chayefsky at his best, but I was too young to appreciate that when I first saw it as a kid.

And a third is THE TIME MACHINE. Meh at first; super cool thereafter.

More often however, movies that I originally loved don’t hold up upon later viewing. The Blake Edwards PINK PANTHER movies leap to mind.

What movies do you guys love that you originally didn’t care for?

Joe has a Vin Scully question on this, his final weekend of calling Dodger baseball.

Since you love sitcoms and Vin Scully, what did you think about Vin's sitcom narration career on the immortal "Occasional Wife"?

Since most people are not familiar with OCCASIONAL WIFE, it was a romantic comedy sitcom in the mid-‘60s. Michael Callan needed to have a wife to impress people in his office so worked out a financial deal with neighbor Patricia Harty to pose as his wife. Scully was the narrator.

I watched the show when it was on because of Vin Scully and remember enjoying it. Recently, I re-watched the pilot and was pleasantly surprised. It had sort of a faux Neil Simon feel to it. Here’s the pilot. See for yourself.

What is your Friday Question? Now it’s off to the theatre.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The current state of TV comedy

This is all you need to know.

I’m teaching another graduate television comedy writing seminar at UCLA. I have eight super-bright students. They’re all funny and extremely passionate about the business. They know every show on every platform. And they watch inordinate amounts of television (although rarely on their TV’s). The fact that a series is on some relatively obscure streaming service makes it just as accessible to them as if it were on NBC.

I began a discussion about which current sitcoms did they like? The results were eye-opening. There was little or no consensus on anything. Two people would love a certain show; three others would hate it. This was true for almost every show that was mentioned.

And remember, these are Millennials – the prime target the industry is trying anything to reach.

Comedy has become so niche that’s it hard to build a large following even among the desired audience.

On the one hand I applaud that creators are not trying to program to the lowest common denominator. They’re willing to take creative chances even if it means alienating a certain portion of the population.

But on the other, shouldn’t there be some middle ground? Shouldn’t there be some comedies that appeal to a broad base of Millennials? You might say, well, that’s what the broadcast networks are providing. But rarely in the conversation with my students was a network comedy even mentioned. BIG BANG THEORY was acknowledged as was THE GOOD PLACE (which many had sampled and had split opinions). But not MODERN FAMILY, BLACKISH, THE GOLDBERGS, LIFE IN PIECES, 2 BROKE GIRLS, CARMICHAEL, SUPER STORE, MOM, etc.

The viewers that networks are chasing are the viewers that have abandoned them. Clearly this year networks are trying to go more quirky, but it feels desperate, like they’re shooting wildly at a moving target.

So can it be done? Can you mount a series that is contemporary and attracts a large following? Do you have to settle for small but loyal audiences? Are Millennials even capable of agreeing on anything?

The answer of course is YES. What’s the most popular sitcom currently in syndication – not just in the US but around the world? It’s not even close. FRIENDS. Could there be a more retro multi-camera 20 year-old show than that? And yet, the reruns remain insanely popular. The group did have consensus on FRIENDS. And ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. And (of all things) GOLDEN GIRLS.

I guess what I’m saying is that making your new show too niche could be a trap. People still want to laugh. Yes, even Millennials. Maybe the way to reach them is not some bizarre edgy show that breaks all the rules but appeals to .000001 of the population. Maybe the key is to go back to the essence of what made those iconic shows work. Genuinely caring about the characters and their predicaments. Placing a high priority on making the show actually funny. Dealing with universal relatable issues and themes.

Hey, it couldn’t hurt. The industry is trying everything else.

Until eight whip-smart funny graduate students can agree on a show I think there’s work still to be done.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

"We'll get to it."

The first preview of my new comedy play, GOING GOING GONE is tomorrow night. A few seats are still available at discount prices for tomorrow night’s preview. We open Saturday night (and are sold out). But a few discount seats still remain for Sunday’s matinee. For the past several weeks I’ve been reporting on the ongoing process of rehearsing a play.

Last weekend was tech.

That’s when all the technical aspects of the play have to be worked out and assigned. In other words, all the stuff we've been saying "we'll get to it,"  well, now we have to actually get to it.   Because my play takes place in the pressbox of a baseball stadium there needs to be crowd background, cheering and booing at various times. In short, there are over 100 sound cues and 47 light cues.

Cricket, our sound designer, built all the cues on her laptop. How did they do this for OKLAHOMA? All of the sound and light cues get built into one computer program and during the performance our stage manager, Emyli just plays the cues in order. What this requires of course is someone with experience and great concentration. I must say, I’ve been super impressed by the craftsmanship and dedication of everybody on the production staff. This is a small theatre. No one is getting rich. And yet everyone is pouring their hearts and souls into the production. There really are still people who do it for the art. I’m even more touched because I’m reading the book on CAA where no one does anything for the art. It’s all about money, power, and fame. (I’m enjoying the book but have to take a shower after each chapter.)

These were two long days. At 10 AM the set, sound, and lighting designers came in to tweak and prepare. The actors arrived at noon. We then went from cue to cue – getting in and out of each scene, setting any sound cues (like phones ringing or the crowd cheering), making sure any props were in place, etc. You don’t realize it but there are a thousand little details. We have food being eaten in the play. So a microwave has been set up backstage. Media guides and statistic packs are at each reporter’s workspace. The laminated media passes each journalist wears have been custom made. The costumes are carefully selected. And this is just for four actors and one set with no costume changes. Again, how the fuck did they do OKLAHOMA?

For the actors it’s a lonnnnng day. Noon till 8:00 with a dinner break. Unlike previous rehearsals where they were doing scenes straight through; now they’re starting and stopping random segments multiple times. For a large percentage of the day they just stood in place as the lighting and sound was constructed around them. Acting is HARD. Then you add memorization and the tedious process of tech. It’s a real good bet you’ll never see me star in one of my plays.

And for the director, Andy Barnicle, he has to tie it all together, convey his personal vision, and keep a constant eye on the clock. You’d be shocked how fast five hours go by during tech.

On Sunday the cast did two full run-throughs with all the sounds and cues, along with notes in between. We’re almost there.

And now the part where unexpected things happen. Arnold Palmer passed away on Sunday. And in the play there are two pages of jokes about Arnold Palmer and his drink. Not derogatory jokes mind you, but still, in light of his just passing I didn’t feel it was appropriate to do any jokes. “Too soon” as they say. So I had to go home Sunday night, scramble, and write a whole new two page scene. I think it works, but I haven’t seen it in front of an audience yet. You come and decide.

This week the set is being painted and final touches are being applied in all departments.  Last night and tonight are Dress Rehearsals. Next up, YOU. Thanks for coming along on this journey. It’s not Moss Hart saving a play in New Haven (see the book ACT ONE), but it is the process and very exhilarating.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My tribute to Vin Scully Part Two

Here's Part Two of my two-part personal tribute to Vin Scully, who is retiring after Sunday's game in San Francisco.  Part One was yesterday.   To give you a better profile of the man I'm sharing some stories dealing with my interactions with him.  

When major league teams travel they take charter flights.  Buses bring the club right to the plane on the tarmac.  So we're never in terminals.   As such, the TSA screening is very minimal.   It's essentially what TSA Pre-Check is now.  You throw your keys and phone in a bowl and go through.  One time we were flying from LA to Denver and for whatever reason Vinny was singled out.  He had to take off his shoes and belt and hold his arms out while they ran the wand up and down his body.  Seriously?  They suspected Vin Scully of being a terrorist? 

All announcer score games. By that, I mean we keep track of what each player does throughout the game, inning by inning. We have little symbols to denote outcomes. A “K” for a strikeout. “W” for a walk, etc.

SIDEBAR: Phil Rizzuto for many years was one of the Yankees announcers. One day his broadcast partner Bill White came back into the booth after being away for an inning. He looked at Phil’s scorecard to catch himself up. He noted that for one player Phil had written “WW.” White had never seen that desingnation. He asked what “WW” meant? Rizzuto said, “Wasn’t watching.”

Every announcer has a somewhat different method of scoring. And usually over time you modify it to suit your needs. No one has to know what you mean except you. I’ve always been fascinated by how people score. And usually I can quickly figure out the gist of their system.

Except Vin's.

He has lines going in different directions and dots. His scorecard looks like a player piano roll. I have no idea what anything means. He also does his scorecard in ink, which is braver than doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in ink.

Here’s something that will make you groan. I asked if he kept all of his scorebooks down through the years and he said no. At the end of each season he just chucked them. To me that’s like throwing away the Ten Commandments. (Happily, other longtime announcers have kept their scorebooks. Ernie Harwell had every one, God bless him.)

In 2009 the Dodgers got into the National League Championship Series. I got to travel with the club. The games were televised nationally but Scully would do the local radio. My broadcast partner, Josh Suchon and I would do our pre-game show from the visiting radio booth in Philadelphia. So that meant I had to sit in Scully’s seat. We were doing the show and Vin was in the second row continuing his preparation. I said something funny on the air and could hear Vinny laugh. And my reaction was: “OHMYGOD! I MADE VIN SCULLY LAUGH!"  I'm sure jokes of mine in MASH and CHEERS have made 30,000,000 people laugh, but this was VIN SCULLY! 

One of the (many) amazing things Vin could do is recall plays and moments from games he saw 60 years ago. He then recounts them naming the specific players and game situations. He’s a walking baseball Google. And of course, no one else has that link with the past. No one else can tell Jackie Robinson anecdotes. I once asked him how he remembered all that stuff. He said he couldn’t just recall it at random, but something will occur in a game that triggers a memory. I said, “It’s very impressive. But how do we know you’re right?” He laughed and said, “You don’t.” I told him it didn’t matter. Just hearing those forgotten names of ballplayers from the past was a real treat.

There was some guy on the internet selling full game broadcasts from the ‘50s-‘60s. He had some Dodger games so I bought them. I’m driving to the stadium one night listening to Vin call a game at Wrigley Field from 1966. I get so caught up in the drama of his description that when Ron Fairly hit a long fly ball down the rightfield line that just missed being a home run by inches I slammed my hand down on the dashboard in disgust. Then I thought, “This is insane. This game has been over for decades.” I told the story to Scully later that day and he said with mock urgency: “Oh, I hope we won.”

At home he always ate in a private dining room with the rest of the Dodger announcers, but on the road he chowed down in the press dining room with everyone else. On numerous occasions I had bad enchiladas and dry turkey with Vin. And of course he would tell great stories. One of my favorites was the day he co-hosted the Rose Parade with Elizabeth Montgomery for ABC. She was apparently afraid of heights and they were to broadcast from a tower that was erected for the occasion.  The only way to get to the broadcast position was to climb up a ladder.  She was freaked.  So Vin had Liz wrap her arms and legs around him tightly and he climbed them both up the ladder.  I said, "Whoa!  That's a greater thrill than calling the only perfect game in the history of the World Series!"

Another time he mentioned he was having computer troubles and spent an hour on the phone with some IT guy (probably in India). The techie didn’t know who he was talking to. Imagine getting to spend an hour on the phone with Vin Scully.

I could make this a five-parter because I just keep thinking of other Scully tales. But at the risk of wearing out my welcome I’ll start wrapping it up.

Two last stories. Both about spring training in Arizona. A few years ago Scully and I both flew home together from Phoenix one Sunday night. He had called the game that day and by the time we arrived at LAX he was pretty tired. We entered the terminal area where people wait for passengers, and of course the crowd spotted Vinny and their eyes lit up. They mobbed him for autographs and pictures. Like I said, he was exhausted. But he stayed and honored everyone’s request. No one would have blamed him had he said he was tired, he was sorry but he had to get home. Still, he took the time to accommodate the fans.

And finally, people ask me my greatest thrill in broadcasting. I’ve been very fortunate. I broadcast baseball around the world on the CBS radio network. I’ve been a disc jockey on major market stations like WLS. But all of that pales in comparison to one spring training game in 2009. I filled in and did the radio play-by-play. It was a TV game and Vin Scully did the first three innings simulcasting on both radio and TV and then did the remaining six on television while I did those six innings on the radio. So think of it – as an eight-year-old kid who wanted to be a baseball announcer, for one shining day Dodger baseball on the Los Angeles Dodgers Radio Network was broadcast by Vin Scully and me. I even saved the tape of him introducing me. I get Goosebumps every time I hear it.  I've it included it below. 

At the end of every season I would go into his booth and thank him for another year. I now thank him for a lifetime. And hope he has a long and enjoyable retirement. Maybe 67 years worth.

Monday, September 26, 2016

My tribute to Vin Scully

Okay, this is part one of a two-parter. It didn’t start out a two-parter but I just had so much to share I couldn’t stop writing. Even the two parts are a little long. But the subject matter deserves it. My tribute to the great Vin Scully.

I can’t imagine not having Vin Scully. It’s like… what if there was suddenly no color red? Or (for you Millennials) no more computers?

Growing up in Los Angeles, Vin Scully calling Dodger games has been a constant. His voice has been a reassurance that no matter what craziness goes on in the world or my life, everything was going to be okay. Listening to Vin Scully was the ultimate comfort food; the quintessential Linus blanket.

This has been going on here in LA since 1958. For folks in Brooklyn, even longer. For an overwhelming part of the population, that’s longer than they’ve been alive.

And it all ends next Sunday.

Vin Scully is retiring after Sunday’s final game with the Giants. He’ll turn 89 in a few weeks. After broadcasting for 67 years he’s certainly entitled. But the void he will leave is incalculable.

Everyone in the world is writing tributes to him this month (as they should be). I won’t dwell on just how great an announcer he is. He is Mozart. No one will ever be better. Period. No announcer will ever have as much impact on a community. Never again will 50,000 people bring radios to a sports venue to hear an announcer describe the game they’re watching. There must be a hundred sites that are featuring his highlight calls. But I want to talk about the impact he had on me personally and my relationship with him.

Quite simply, no one besides my parents have had a greater influence on me. My love for baseball, broadcasting, and storytelling all stem from being enraptured by Vin Scully calling countless baseball games. His use of language, his sense of drama, his humanity, even his comic timing inspired me to chart my course. From the time I was eight years-old I wanted to be a baseball announcer. (Most kids want to be players, but I knew even then I was a klutz.)

When I was nine I organized a Vin Scully fan club. Me and several friends would meet in our garage at 7:30 on nights the Dodgers were playing. Back then home games began at 8:00. We listened to the warm-up show (brought to you by Draft Brewed Blatz Beer), stood up during the National Anthem, and listened to the first inning. After that the meeting broke up and we all had to go to bed. (Of course I listened to the rest of the game on a transistor radio under my pillow.)
This was a post card of Vin Scully & Jerry Doggett that I sent away for in 1962
When I was thirty-five I decided if I really wanted to be a baseball announcer it was now or never, so I went to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium and began broadcasting games into a tape recorder. Two years later I sent around tapes, got a job in the minors and that launched my play-by-play career that would take me to Baltimore, Seattle, and San Diego.

My first year in Baltimore, we were in spring training in Florida. One day we traveled to Vero Beach to play the Dodgers. Scully happened to be there that day. I introduced myself and we sat for fifteen minutes trading information about our teams. And the thought struck me, “Holy shit! Vin Scully is treating me like a PEER.” That’s when I knew I had arrived.

Years later I became the host of Dodger Talk (the Dodgers’ pre and post game shows) and got to see Vinny in the booth every night. Every time he would cheerfully say, “Hi, Kenny!” I was like, “Ohmygod! The prettiest girl in school knows my name!” Vin was always approachable, always willing to answer questions or share a story.

I did some traveling with the Dodgers and in 2000 we opened the season in Montreal then went on to New York. I always got out to the park very early. On Sunday, April 9th I arrived at Shea Stadium and it looked like Christmas morning. It had snowed during the night and the field was white. No game that day. The only other person in the pressbox was Vinny. So he and I went to the press dining room for warm coffee, and for two magic hours it was just he and I sitting at a table talking. Any time he asked questions about me I wanted to say, “Who gives a shit about me. Let’s talk about YOU.” Having been a fan since the day the team arrived, I was able to ask him questions about those early days, how difficult it was to call games in the Coliseum, what he and longtime partner, Jerry Dogget would do on the road, etc.  If ever in my life I wanted time to stand still...

He revealed something I never knew, and something he never made public until just a few years ago. After several seasons in Los Angeles he was offered the number one job with the Yankees. Vin was still a little homesick for New York at the time, and as a New Yorker recognized that lead voice of the Yankees was the pinnacle of baseball broadcasting. So he almost took it. Yikes.  At the last moment something in his gut told him to stick it out in Los Angeles. But I had no idea that we came that close to losing him and how different my life might’ve been as a result.

We didn’t only discuss baseball. He loves Broadway musicals. For the last few seasons he’s had a driver, but for many years he’d drive himself to the park and sing along with showtunes. Wouldn’t you love to be in THAT car?   Fans got a glimpse yesterday when he sang "Wind Beneath My Wings" after his final home game.   Big surprise -- he's a terrific singer.  Even at 88. 

My other memory of that East Coast trip is coming home one night in Montreal. There is a subway line that goes straight from the stadium to a block from our hotel. It was a much faster and easier option than taking the team bus. So Vin and the other broadcasters took the subway. One night we’re sitting on the train and some tipsy baseball fans enter the car, see Vinny and just about plotz. I’m sure it’s the same reaction when someone sees Barbra Streisand at the 99-Cent store.

Doing Dodger Talk from 2008-2010, I would get out to the park very early. Usually around 3:00; partly because I loved how still and peaceful Dodger Stadium was at that hour. And it was so quiet that I could hear Vin chatting in the next booth. Again, just hearing that voice was a source of great comfort.

My new play that opens this Thursday is dedicated to Vin Scully.  

Part Two is tomorrow.  Hope you'll join us and "pull up a chair." 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Me as a newscaster

Here’s another chapter from my misguided radio career:

As a Top 40 disc jockey in the early ‘70s, I often had to fill multiple roles. In addition to humming the hits,  I was also the engineer on duty. I would have to take the transmitter readings every few hours. To qualify for that job I needed an FCC First Class Radio License. This required five weeks in a school in Glendale cramming five years of electronics courses into one month. The truth is if a transmitter ever did shut off we were fucked because I knew shit. But you couldn’t get a job as a DJ in these medium market stations unless you had your “first ticket” as the license was called.

My other job responsibility was being the newsman. Rock stations in San Bernardino and Bakersfield didn’t have “newsrooms.” News was a turn-off. The news would come on and half the audience hit the car button for another station. The only reason there were newscasts in the first place was because the FCC insisted on it.

Most of the time I had the evening or late night shifts. I was more your “teen jock”. Translation: higher voice and mildly inappropriate jokes. So another of my responsibilities was reading a five minute newscast every few hours.

The news came over teletype machines. Two minutes before scheduled newscasts I would quickly scan the copy as  the teletype machine coughed it out, I would grab a few stories, and go back in to the control room and read it cold over the air. This is called “rip and read.” I can only imagine the number of Vietnamese names I butchered. The newscasts had a format that everyone followed and that included signing off with your name. Since I didn’t want to use my disc jockey name I reported the news as Barely Read (a name I stole from fellow jock Tom Maule).

When I finally made it to KYA, San Francisco in 1974 I was assigned the 10 pm-2 am shift. And much to my surprise, I was expected to do a ten minute newscast at 1:20 every morning. Now this station did have a news department but the last man left at midnight.

At the time I was using the air-name Beaver Cleaver. I figured, I couldn’t call myself that when I read the news. That’s hardly dignified. And this was a major market heritage radio station.  So at 1:00 each morning I looked to see who Tom Snyder’s guest was on THE TOMORROW SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER on NBC and that’s who delivered KYA People Power News at 1:20. So it could be Charles Manson, it could be George Will, it could be Soupy Sales. It could be Betsy Palmer.

One night while delivering the news on KYA I got the hiccups. I decided to just keep going as if nothing was wrong. My engineer (yes, we had engineers there) was doubled-over in laughter. Let’s be real -- I made a travesty of the news department.

Fortunately, no one was listening.

My favorite disc jockey-as-newsman story is this: A jock in San Bernardino was reading the news cold. He reported that the president of Bolivia had just died. Then he saw the name, which was a long tongue-twister. No way would he come close to pronouncing it correctly. So instead he said, “the president’s name is being withheld pending notification of his family.”

You gotta love the fun days of radio.

This is Barely Read reporting.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is there laughter in the writers' room?


A lot of it.

There is a misconception that comedy writers never laugh.  Although we frequently do just nod and say, “That’s funny, put it in” there is also a ton of laughter.

Being able to laugh all day is the one saving grace of sitting in a pressure-filled room night after night after night. Well, that and junk food.

True that most of the laughs stem from jokes that don’t get in the script. No comedy writer would ever win a Humanitas Award or Peabody if any outsiders heard him for five minutes during a rewrite session. And when you consider the jokes that do get into 2 BROKE GIRLS (I caught a few minutes of an episode while on a plane recently where two characters were having sex in a dumpster), you can only imagine what didn’t get in.

You need laughter to keep the energy level up. And raunchy, totally appalling material sparks that. If you’re loose and having fun you’re more apt to come up with that great line that will get in the script. Even the California courts agreed when a disgruntled writers assistant tried to sue the staff of FRIENDS for sexual harassment. She lost. Courtney Cox vagina jokes won.

The tone of sitcom writers room differ depending on the showrunner and staff. Our first staff job, as I mentioned at one time, was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW run by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. I’ve never been to a comedy club where I laughed even half as much as I did during any one rewrite night on that show. Don’t tell anybody but I would hope for bad runthroughs so the rewrite nights were longer. I was young, single, had nowhere else to go, and they had Almond Joy minis.

As a showrunner I prefer a raucous room. And I like good laughers. But that isn’t to say you have to have a boisterous atmosphere to write funny scripts. The quietest, most subdued room I’ve ever been in was FRASIER. It was like rewriting in a library. And yet look at the results. Pure magic. But there were long periods of silence. If there was a Daphne joke that didn’t work we could be there for an hour.

I have a rule. If someone pitches a joke (for the script) and it gets a big laugh in the room the joke goes in just the way it was pitched. So often someone will pitch something and someone else will suggest an alternate version. Then it gets tossed around and after awhile you don’t remember the original or why you laughed in the first place. This is called “Stabbing the Frog.” You have a bouncy little frog in Biology class. You dissect it and see what makes it tick. But now you have a dead frog. (I know one showrunner who pathologically had to change at least one or two words of every pitch so he could put his own stamp on it. Yes, he was infuriating.) So my policy – if a pitch got a huge laugh, even if its structured weirdly – it goes in as is.

So yes, there is laughter in the writers room. I would hope in drama writing rooms too, although I can’t picture a real party atmosphere in the CRIMINAL MINDS room (well, maybe now that Thomas Gibson has been booted). Laughter is a great release, a great indicator, and all you have left when the Almond Joy minis are all gone.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Questions

Who’s ready for some Friday Questions?

Justin Russo begins:

What does a show do if the lead actor becomes sick (not gravely ill where a character can be written out) but perhaps just a flu? Are they written around? What would "30 Rock" be without Liz Lemon in an episode? I recall one "Cheers" episode where Sam has the chicken pox, which excused Ted Danson from the remainder of the episode. In other instances, Joey once had a broken arm on "Friends" (which was added to the story) and I've noticed on "30 Rock" again Alex Baldwin with a stye in a few episodes.

You work around it. If it’s your star sometimes you have to shut down production. Tina Fey would qualify.  Studios take out insurance for just such occurrences.

Occasionally, you have to write an actor out of an episode. On CHEERS the first season, Nick Colasanto was rushed to the hospital with pleurisy mid-week. We stayed up quite late writing him out of that week’s show. Then on show night he was back so we had to write him back in.

But you have to be creative sometimes in finding ways to explain away absences, broken arms, and especially pregnancies.

That said, I am often in awe of how actors will persevere through ailments and injuries to do a show as planned. They are troupers.

When my play, A OR B? was at the Falcon Theatre in Los Angeles, one night our star Jules Willcox had the stomach flu. There were buckets just offstage. I had no idea about this until after the show. This was a two-character play so she was on stage the entire time. And yet, you’d never know from her performance that night that she was green. Amazing.

Dhruv from India asks a really long questions and I have a really short answer.

Recently (past few years) lot of Hollywood icons like Spielberg, Scorsese, DeNiro, others have been coming to India? [They don’t have anything to sell. But still they just come here and go on TV channels where fawning assholes and shitty audience ask inane questions of what they think of India? Its movies? Culture?]. They on their part give condescending answers and smugly go on and on about their past glory.

Since you are an acute observer of Hollywood and its people, do you think that these are icons who are fading away in America's memory, so to massage their ego and self-worth, they are coming to India for the adulation they receive here? [India being a needy country for attention from Hollywood and Indian media always looking for bones (praise) thrown by the American media and its personalities].


Did Hollywood as a whole, recently discover that India is the largest English speaking country in the world (outside USA), so are they angling to connect with newer audience?
(Hence patronizing oscars to crappy movies like Slumdog Millionaire instead of Dark Knight, one Indian character with fake Apu-like Indian accents in new sitcoms etc….)


Larry Commons wonders:

You said on your blog the first season of "Cheers" is the best season. I think so too, and as I re-watch it now I'm struck by how professionally done it is, especially compared to most other sitcoms from 1982 (think: cheap videotape). Why do you say it's the best season? And were the ratings really as poor as we've heard?

The sexual tension between Sam and Diane was delicious. And very unique for a situation comedy at that time  (now every sitcom does it). Once they were in any kind of relationship it just wasn’t as sparkling. The writing was just as good, but the circumstances weren’t as ideal… in my opinion.

From cd1515:

Why were spinoffs so big back in the day but almost nonexistent today?
even on 1 of the Seinfeld DVD extras I remember Jason Alexander saying they missed a big spinoff possibility with Jerry & George's parents in Florida.

There were more spinoffs because there were more legitimate hit sitcoms that commanded large audiences. Niche hit sitcoms don’t have the same potential.

But in the feature world – sequels (the sort of equivalent of spinoffs) – is very much alive. There is so much product being introduced to audiences that having a known franchise is a big leg up. You see that on Broadway too. They’re making musicals from movies or plays from TV shows (like for instance that show about a bar in Boston).

Spinoffs are also hard to pull off (says someone who worked on AfterMASH). WHO you spinoff and what the new situation is is key. Second bananas often can’t carry shows. And characters that are funny in small doses rarely work when they have to do the heavy lifting. George’s parents from SEINFELD to me would have a tough time sustaining a series.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The process continues

Getting closer now!  My new play, GOING GOING GONE! opens for previews ONE WEEK FROM TONIGHT. Tickets are discounted. Here's where you go for discount tickets. It’s a very funny play set in a baseball pressbox. And I've got a great cast. 

I’ve been taking you through the rehearsal process each week (my version of HBO’s HARD KNOCKS except without the violence). And today is another chapter.

Last Saturday we had a “Designers’ Runthrough.” All of the technical people involved in the production watch a full runthrough of the play. This includes our set designer, costumer, lighting director, sound director, prop master, stage manager, producers, etc.

I personally find Designer Runthroughs hard to sit through, especially with a comedy, because rarely does anyone laugh. They’re all viewing the play in relationship to their own department’s involvement with it.

Following the runthrough, our director, Andy Barnicle presided over a production meeting. Questions and concerns were discussed along with timetables and when dinner breaks would be.

This week, for the first time, the actors are rehearsing in our actual theatre.  It seems it makes a difference performing on your actual stage and not a chalked out outline.  Who knew?

The thesps pretty much got the play memorized and I’ve stopped torturing them with new pages after every rehearsal. This is the week when it’s all starting to really come together. Actors no longer are holding scripts, and they’ve really started to make the piece their own. And the sense I get is that they’re having more fun.

This weekend the tech rehearsals begin. Less fun will be had. More on that next week.

Again, come join us for previews and opening weekend. I’ll be there pacing.

Note: The photos of our cast (Annie Abrams, David Babich, Troy Metcalf, and Dennis Pearson) were taken by Ed Krieger.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Do you scream at the TV?

Even though we all know they can’t hear you inside the screen (you do know that, right?), how many of you still scream at your television? How many of you have “Living Room Rage?”

And I don’t mean sporting events. All proud sports fanatics do that. It’s either scream or break lamps. We scream at ballgames knowing the players won’t hear us (except at Oakland A’s games in September).

I’m talking about entertainment programs. What brought this to mind was Sunday night’s Emmys. During long acceptance speeches I find myself yelling at the screen, “Get off! Shut up! Where’s the music?” And “Fuck your agent at CAA!”

Do you do that too?

Do you yell at the screen over some absolutely idiotic story turn? Or vile 2 BROKE GIRLS vagina joke?

My father once threw a shoe at the TV.

Elvis was once so upset seeing Robert Goulet on the screen that he shot his television set.

Tell me you didn’t curse loudly at the monitor or throw something during the finale of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

I don’t believe it’s possible to watch THE PRICE IS RIGHT without screaming out prices. Or WHEEL OF FORTUNE without screaming out vowels. And if you’re with friends, it’s fun to play along with JEOPARDY (until you look like an idiot for not knowing Hawaii is a state).

I’m guessing way more people scream at their TV’s (or computers or tablets or phones) than ever before. Hate watching shows has become a national pastime and what good is sitting through some cringeworthy piece of shit if you can’t let them have it?

I don’t think “Living Room Rage” is a bad thing. It’s a crazy thing and a futile thing, but not harmful. And generally it’s in the privacy of your own home so who’s going to know except your neighbors, but they already hate you?

So rejoice TV screamers. What you’re doing is totally natural and won’t cause you to go blind. And if you don’t yell at your TV screen, if you have more self control than that, if you recognize that it’s a pointless exercise, if you are restricted by religious beliefs -- I say to you: Wait until the Presidential Debates.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How do you handle breasts?

How’s that for a subject heading? My traffic should explode today. Actually, that was a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Igor:

Friday question: How do you handle breasts?

I mean as a director. I thought of this when I recently saw an episode of Taxi in which Marilu Henner in a silk top was clearly braless. (No, at that moment this question is not all I thought of.) Certainly that was a different time. Today, if an actress's top is too tight or there's too much cleavage I assume it's easy to request less. But what if you as an (honorable) sitcom director want more? "Could you undo one more button?" "I think this scene would be better if you didn't wear a bra." Have you had to do that? Awkward? Changed over the years?

I know men everywhere are going to hate me for this answer, but as a director (and writer) I don’t want anything to distract from the comedy. Even if it’s a seduction scene, I would rather focus on the person being seduced and his reactions.  So, to borrow an expression, breasts get in the way. 

I’ve never directed a cable or streaming show where I had the freedom to show exposed breasts, and I’m sure some shows like CALIFORNICATION required partial nudity, but personally I’m way more interested in making the story and comedy work than titillating viewers.

Even directing episodes for Fox I’ve never had an executive or showrunner tell me to have an actress unbutton a button or push up her breasts. Maybe it happens. Just never personally encountered it… although restrictions are much looser now than in the past.  I'll never be accused of being the next Russ Meyer.

Back in the AfterMASH days (I can’t believe I’m telling an AfterMASH story), we had an episode introducing a new doctor. This was 1983. David Ackroyd was a brash doctor. And we wanted to show that doctor Wendy Girard was even brasher. So we did a scene where Wendy was supposedly naked in a whirlpool and David comes into the room. He starts flirting and we wanted her to stand up and basically say, “You want to see a naked woman? Is that it? Are you happy now?” The point is to shock and embarrass him.

Our plan was to show Wendy from the back, and focus on David’s reaction. We would see her bare back but costume her so she wasn’t really topless. And even then, after she stands up and we establish that, we cut to a close-up of David’s initial surprise, and then a close-up of Wendy delivering her speech, back to a close up of David reacting.

So we’re talking three seconds on her back, maybe four?

CBS wouldn’t let us do it.

We said, okay, what if we comprise? Show the top half of her back. Mostly we’d be seeing David over her shoulder.

Sorry. “Half” was too much. We had to literally negotiate how many inches of Wendy’s back we could show.

At one point we said, instead of showing her back, what if we showed the back of her bare legs?


The back of knees was apparently too racy for the Tiffany Network.

Through it all I might add that Wendy was a terrific sport.

Today on CBS I bet the argument would be reversed. We’d want to show less and they’d be saying, “Can we see her entire back?” “Can we play the whole scene on her back?” And then they’d use it for the promo.

I’m sure network standards have relaxed because of the competition with other delivery services that can show much more. But only to a point. The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction was ridiculously a huge deal. There is much more leeway with language than actually showing something risqué. Hence, 2 BROKE GIRLS can get away with saying “vagina,” which they do twelve times an episode.

But if someone wants to see nudity, it’s there in unlimited quantities on the internet. Less easy to access is decent comedy.

If you want to see that AfterMASH scene, it's 15:06 in and the quality of the print is pretty bad.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Thoughts on last night's Emmys

No actual Emmy review because I was flying back from New York during the ceremony. I thought, perhaps I’d be in luck because I was flying JetBlue and they have DirectTV. But the ONLY channel they didn’t carry was ABC. 17 Fox news and sports channels, 12 ESPN’s, 4 Nickelodeon channels but not the American Broadcast Company.

However, they had a CW affiliate that did air the Sam Rubin red carpet show. Without sound it’s just this tuxedoed elf and malnourished former Miss Pacoima shamelessly fawning and drooling over everyone they come in contact with. The woman next to me watched for three minutes then turned to the Food Channel where they were cutting up beets.

Here’s the only thing I saw of the actual ceremony: We landed at Burbank Airport at the farthest gate. As we were walking through the terminal there were monitors along the route. We noticed that Jeffrey Tambor was giving his acceptance speech. Five minutes later we’re still walking and Jeffrey Tambor was still giving his speech.

Even though VEEP is not my favorite comedy I was thrilled it won because it is a COMEDY and sets out to make people LAUGH.

Glad Tatiana Maslany won. I’ve been lobbying for her for three years. Now I know how long it takes the Academy to react to this blog.

It’s shocking how many winning shows and actors I don’t watch. Is it just me?

HOUSE OF CARDS lost pretty much everything. At least the Television Academy knows not to vote for an asshole president who views the public with nothing but contempt.

I see Jill Soloway won for directing. It’s like the Academy wants to recognize TRANSPARENT but doesn’t know where to put it, so they give Jill a directing Emmy. I’m sure she deserves it, but it’s kinda like giving Barbra Streisand a Grammy for Best Album Cover.

Fortunately, there are now two non-televised Emmy ceremonies to go along with the Primetime show. They probably needed the extra time on the televised show just for Jeffrey Tambor’s speech. I wonder if he was still talking when we got in the cab.

Happy for all the winners but did wish that FARGO won more. Ted Danson deserved an Emmy for his FARGO performance. Oh well, Ted. Now we know. You’ll receive it in three years.

John Oliver is the new Jon Stewart.

Another flame out year for the big broadcast networks. Forget HBO, FX now kicks their asses. And CBS, don’t expect to reverse that trend with KEVIN CAN WAIT.

Glad THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. won, and especially glad that Sarah Paulson won. If she had tried the case instead of Marcia Clark she might’ve won.

Congratulations to Steven Moffat and SHERLOCK.

I’m glad Jimmy Fallon lost. And after that shameful interview with Donald Trump last week I hope he never wins. (Actually I hope they both never win).

I think to increase interest among the industry, the TV Academy decided to nominate EVERYONE in television this year.   Let's see how the ratings are.  If it worked and they went up, then next year maybe EVERYONE in television will WIN an Emmy.   Congratulations to those few thousand who did win this year.

I'm still on East Coast time and have been up now for almost 24 hours.  I'm going to bed.  If I missed anyone, I'll catch you next year.    What did you guys all think of the show? 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What it's like to win an Emmy

The Emmy Awards are tonight!  Unfortunately, I will not be reviewing them this year.  I am in New York and will be flying home during the ceremony.   I'm sure there are some of you who are thrilled I'm not reviewing the Emmys.  Sam Rubin for one. 

But since "Emmys" are in the air, I thought I'd take advantage of that to tell you what it's like to actually win one.  And it puts winning in perspective.

You're in the audience suffering through the show. Finally it's your category. You wake up. The envelope is ripped open, your name is read, you can’t believe it, and you race up to the stage. You stand at the podium.

What’s going through your mind at a monumental moment like this? For me, honestly, I thought of all the assholes I went through basic training with in the army who thought I was such a fuck up. I was hoping they were watching and having heart attacks from shock. I was also aware that everyone in the audience was glaring at me. I saw the red light of the camera, knew that yes, this was my one big moment on national television. But I also knew that if I didn’t get the hell off quick – I mean REAL quick -- millions of people I didn’t know were going to hate my guts.

So I rushed through my prepared speech, thanked my wife, son, and I think Drill Sgt. Miller then was led off.

Backstage, you take photos with your presenters. In our case, Arthur & Kathryn Murray. Who knew they were even still alive? Then we were led from one interview room to the next. National TV, national radio, local press, national press, foreign press, magazines, food product surveys, I dunno. Light bulbs flashing. Questions coming from all sides. Microphones shoved in my face. And after a few minutes we’re ushered into the next room because the next winners are breathing down our necks. We were in a daze. We just went where they told us. Finally we were told to go through “that door”. We did. It closed and locked behind us.

And we found ourselves outside. In the alley. Next to the garbage dump, surrounded by buzzing flies. In our tuxedos, holding our shiny new Emmys. What the fuck?! We banged on the door to get back in. Nothing. We walked along the side of the building, trying other doors. All closed. I thought of maybe using the Emmy to jimmy one of the locks. No dice. It took us fifteen minutes to finally get back into the hall.

Which more than matched the fifteen minutes of fame.

Good luck to all of the nominees tonight.   I'll save up my snark for next year. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Use me when playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"

You’re familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, right?  Kevin has worked with pretty much everyone in Hollywood.  Even more people than Heidi Fleiss.   In no more than six projects you can usually trace any performer back to Kevin Bacon.  Well, for the serious “Kevin Bacon” player, let me add a few more links based on my involvement with him.

Granted, it’s not a big involvement. On FRASIER, whenever Dr. Crane spoke to a listener on his radio show they got a celebrity to play the caller. Kevin Bacon did one for a show my partner David and I wrote.

So you can now link Kevin to any of the other unlikely celebrities I wrote for or directed.

Dr. Timothy Leary did a FRASIER phone call for one of our shows. That’s right. We wrote for Dr. Timothy Leary.  You'd think that would be good for some complimentary LSD at the Free Clinic, wouldn't you?

Also, we wrote jokes for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe. He did a CHEERS we scripted.  See, aren’t I a name dropper?

Craig Ferguson guested on an episode of ALMOST PERFECT. So it’s just a few steps from Kevin Bacon to Craig Ferguson’s robot. Amaze your friends!

Then there are the athletes. We wrote for Wade Boggs (later to learn in his mistress’ tell-all in Playboy that he only took the job for a free trip to LA to bang her), Kevin McHale (who was sensational!), and Luis Tiant. (who also would have been great if only you could understand one single solitary thing he was saying – even after sixty takes).

So in only two steps you can get from Kevin Bacon to Luis Tiant. There’s a huge bar bet waiting to be won.

As a director, I had the pleasure of coaxing comic brilliance out of Karl Malone (in this case “the Mail Man” did not deliver – oy!), funnyman Mike Ditka (“a little more energy, Mike”), and Terry Bradshaw (“a little less energy, Terry. In fact, a LOT less energy. In fact, just stand there.”)

Oh sure, I’ve worked with a lot of top flight actors but you know all of them and could probably get to Kevin Bacon through other paths. The real challenge comes when someone throws Art Garfunkel at you (FRASIER caller), or you’re at the national finals and for the world’s championship you’re given the name Bombo the orangutan (did a JUST SHOOT ME I directed).

So use me. Be my guest. It’s my little way of Paying It Forward. The only thing disconcerting about providing this useful public service is that all these celebrities that I worked with so intimately over the years – I bet not one remembers me and knows who I am.  But that's okay.  I'm sure Bombo doesn't know who Kevin Bacon is either.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday Questions

First off, Happy Birthday to my father, who is a young 89 today! Love you, Dad.

Now to some Friday Questions.

Mark starts us off.

What happens to the actors who play regular characters (like Norm or Cliff or Roz or Klinger) who aren't in an episode? Do they get paid even though they're not on that week?

Like all things in Hollywood, it all depends on their deal.

Each deal encompasses one season. Most cast regulars are signed for “all episodes produced.” So yes, if they’re not in an episode they do get paid. But the key is all episodes PRODUCED. If the studio has an order for 13 but the network cancels the show after only 6 were produced, the actor gets paid for the 6 and that’s it.

But if the actor’s deal says “all episodes ORDERED” then he would be paid for all 13 even if they only produced 6. The big stars get that deal. 

All of this is negotiable. There are some actors who are signed for say “10 of 13.” Producers have the option of not using them for those three episodes… although they can.

Usually you make those reduced episodes deals if you have very large casts, or say a character is a bartender at a bar the regulars usually frequent but the producers don’t want to go there every week. Or a new character is starting to catch on and producers would like to increase his use but not be committed to a full season.  Over time they work their way up.  That was the case with Lilith on CHEERS. 

From Michael:

It looks like David Hyde Pierce has largely avoided TV since FRASIER ended, except for a short stint on THE GOOD WIFE. I would assume an actor of his talents would be in high demand - any insights as to whether he is no longer interested in TV or is it a case he hasn't been offered the right part? If Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc can come back, there has to be a place for Pierce.

David was asked a few years ago if television comedy has changed and he said, “Yes, and when it changes back give me a call.” I suspect he’s not interested in returning to a weekly series these days.

Meanwhile, he has a wonderful theater career, both as an actor and director. He’s done many Broadway shows and soon will be seen in the revival of HELLO DOLLY. So he’s okay for now.

kpj asks:

With your radio background I'm interested to know if there was ever any behind the scenes discussion on Frasier about his lifestyle not matching up to his probable salary. Yes he worked in a major market but a hosting gig on a am station most likely wouldn't support his apartment ,car and clothes as well as his social life with wine clubs, fancy restaurant, etc. I love the show and know most people wouldn't even notice but curious if there were talks about it.

We talk about EVERYTHING.  

But that’s simply creative license. It’s the same reason that Mary Richards, working as a lowly assistant on a second-rate local newscast in Minneapolis, never wore the same outfit twice. And each of her outfits probably cost double her salary.

Unless it’s too absurd, the audience is willing to buy the added affluence.

And for the record, if anyone knows you can't make a fortune in radio it's me.

And finally, from Covarr:

I have a question about purely visual gags. In the 30 ROCK episode "Winter Madness", Tracy can be seen wearing a shirt that says "Impeach George W. Ashington". It's never referenced or acknowledged in dialogue and certainly not plot-necessary, but it's definitely plot-relevant. My question is, would this sort of joke or others of a similar nature typically be written by a show's writing staff and in the script, or is would this be something done by someone else such as costume designers (or set designers, or actors, depending on the type of joke)?

Either way. Sometimes directors add bits of business. James Burrows is famous for that. And yes, wardrobe and prop people can get into the act.

And other times these little nuggets are written into the script. For the “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS that David Isaacs and I wrote, we put in all kinds of signage jokes for the outfield walls. What you see on the screen (if you look carefully and hit pause) was all in our script.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to make a 90 minute movie seem like three hours

There is a small indie movie that’s been showing up in theaters in various areas. And I’m sure if it’s not on VOD it will be in eleven seconds. It’s called SPACEMAN and it stars Josh Duhamel as the legendary pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Lee had quite a career in the ‘70s. He was a genuine character – uncommonly literate for a baseball player (he read books that had no pictures), a big stoner and drinker, into meditation, outspoken, colorful – in general: a loose cannon. But he was a terrific pitcher and enjoyed success for many years. He even started Game 7 of the 1975 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.

So you figure a movie about this lovable goofball, clashing with management, getting high, always walking a tightrope would make a great movie. Didn’t Bill Murray make seven of these?

You’d see Lee pitching a big game totally zonked out of his mind, the manager’s attempts to keep him in line, bizarre antics, great sequences at Fenway Park and other venues. Yeah, baby. I’m there!

But that’s not what this movie was.

I suppose I should say SPOILER ALERT here although most baseball fans already know the story and a quick peek at Wikipedia will fill in the rest.

Eventually the Montreal Expos got tired of his bullshit, released him, and no other major league team would pick him up. He was already 35 (which meant one year away from 50) and not worth the trouble.

And THAT was the movie. He’s released and for the rest of the film just tries to reconcile with that.

So if you want to make a 90 minute movie that feels like three hours, follow the following steps:

STRETCH OUT A PAPER-THIN STORY – For 90 minutes we see Lee applying for major league positions, getting rejected for major league positions, and finally he decides he’s okay with that. Period. That’s ten minutes in a good movie; an hour and a half in this one.

HAVE ZERO SUSPENSE – We know the story. And worse, it’s not a very exciting story. It’s a guy floundering. And then he stops. WOW!  This is especially egregious when the part they left out (his big league career) was the good stuff.   It's like doing a James Bond movie after he saves the world and he's in bed recovering from the flu for 90 minutes. 

DO NOTHING INSPIRING – No big comeback, no returning from the depths of despair to the top of the mountain. No taking a different direction and finding success elsewhere. No making a difference in anyone’s lives other than a bunch of rag-tag guys on a beer league team. No out-smarting anyone.  The big movie moment here is that he decides not to coach a minor league team in Tucson. Destined to be a classic.

REPEAT SCENES AT LEAST SEVEN TIMES – He thinks he’ll get another big league job. He gets rejected. He drinks and gets high. This sequence repeats over and over and over and over again.

HAVE A LINEAR STORY – Don’t do anything inventive in the storytelling. Just chronicle the turn of events. This is what happened in May. Then this is what happened in June. Then July, August, September, zzzzzzzzzzz.

MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NO SURPRISES – Do nothing unexpected. Just let the audience watch things they already know play out.

USE TIRED MOVIE TROPES – He falls in with a bad crowd and ends up hosting drug and beer parties at his house. He wakes up and his place is a mess with all these stoners passed out. How many times have we seen that? Hasn’t Seth Rogen made that movie seven times?

Lee winds up playing for a “Bad News Bears” team of middle-aged lovable misfits. Didn’t Walter Matthau make that film six times?

PLAY YOUR LEAD CHARACTER AT ONE NOTE – Josh Duhamel is charming and boyish as Bill Lee and stays that way in every single scene. Part of the problem in this case is I believe the real Bill Lee was involved creatively. So the Bill Lee we saw on the screen was I’m sure an air brushed version of the real dude.

GIVE YOUR LEAD CHARACTER ONLY ONE ATTITUDE – and let him play it for the entire movie.

And finally…

MAKE SURE YOUR MOVIE IS NEVER VISUALLY INTERESTING – Scenes in bars, scenes in the house, scenes in offices, driving through boring deserts, sandlot ballgames, spring training batting practice, and when you finally see a major league stadium all you're shown is nothing but loading docks, empty seats, service corridors, cramped locker rooms, and offices. Yes, it was a low budget movie, but there are plenty of films on shoestring budgets that manage to turn out eye-popping images.

In fairness, SPACEMAN did try to cover some backstory with animation, but it came out of nowhere, was stylistically jarring, and looked like it was made by a high school student on his father’s old Dell computer.

A 90-minute movie should fly. Especially when most movies, even trifle comedies, are well over two hours. If it doesn’t, my guess is the filmmaker fell into one of these ten traps. In the case of SPACEMAN, he fell into all ten.

If this movie is playing in your area, save your money and go watch a Little League game. At least you’re outdoors for 90 minutes.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The $5000 name change

Names used in television shows have to be cleared for legal purposes. Either it’s a unique name or one where there are enough people who share that name that no one person could be identified with it. (How many Walter Whites are there out there? Or Olivia Pope’s? I bet they don’t have this problem on GAME OF THRONES.)

The trick is clear the names before you go into production. In 1985 when David Isaacs and I created a comeback series for Mary Tyler Moore, we had her play a columnist at a tabloid Chicago newspaper. James Farentino played the editor. We named him Frank Luciano (or something kind of Italian). We didn’t hear back from the research firm so we figured we were fine.

For the door to his office we had a frosted window with his name embossed.

Then we heard from research that the name didn’t clear. We came up with another one. Once it was in the script the art department redid the door.

And that name didn’t clear. We proposed a new name, a new door was built, and guess what? (I know. You’re way ahead of me.)

It was only on the day before shooting that the name (DeMarco) was finally approved and the door survived. Each door probably cost $5,000. (In real life maybe $50 but that was what the production was charged.)

I don’t recall what our contingency plan was if that name wasn’t cleared and cameras were about to roll. Of course, now that I think of it, all of this could have easily been avoided if we just (a) not used a frosted glass window door, (b) left the door open, or (c) changed his name to Tony Soprano.

Oh well. It was Mary’s money; not mine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Actors to your feet!

This is part two of “How a play is staged.” Part one was here. Quick backstory: My new play GOING GOING GONE opens October 1st at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. It’s a comedy set in the pressbox of a big league ballpark. I’ve got a great cast of Annie Abrams, Troy Metcalf, David Babich, and Dennis Pearson (with special appearances by Harry S. Murphy, Howard Hoffman, and Darlene Koldenhoven). And I really lucked out directorwise. Andy Barnicle is doing a way better job of directing this than I would – and I’m a director.

The first phase was Table Work. Phase two was getting it on its feet and blocking the play.

In most productions the actual theatre isn’t available for rehearsal. They have something else playing there. So you’re forced to rehearse in a temporary location. This can be a rehearsal hall, empty ballroom, another theatre space, or someone’s living room. You tape off the dimensions of the real stage and do the best you can to simulate the real thing.

In our case, we’re rehearsing in theatres that aren’t being used at the moment.

The set itself will look very cool once it’s constructed and in, but for now, a couple of long tables are representing the pressbox counters.

One of the problems with staging this play is that for the most part these four reporters sit in their respective spots. And that can get very static. You don’t want actors moving all the time – it will look like a square dance – but you also don’t want them planted in one spot for any extended periods of time. Ever notice that on the CARMICHAEL show everybody just sits in the living room in one spot and talks for five minutes? No one gets up. No one moves around. I’m sure that’s a conscious creative choice but it drives me crazy. Most actors like to have some movement. (But not all. Bob Newhart on NEWHART would just stand behind the counter and everyone else would come in and out of the Inn.)

Notice the next time you watch a sitcom that characters are always going to the refrigerator for water or folding laundry or hanging up their coats.

So the task for our director, Andy was to find reasons for my cast to get up and move around from time to time. But here’s the key: Any move must be justified. There has to be a reason to get up, and to cross the set, and to sit down. People don’t just arbitrarily float around. Actors legitimately say, “Why am I’m going to the refrigerator?” A good answer is not: “Because I need you on that side of the room for a line you have to deliver in half a page.” That may indeed be why you want him there, but a much better answer is: “You want a bottle of water.”

So Andy has been finding ways to create some movement and variety. And the actors are helping by making suggestions. It’s collaboration at its best.

And it’s amazing how much more the play comes alive when the actors are actually performing it, relating to each other. And the sight gags work better I've discovered. 

You would think that learning blocking on top of memorizing a script would make things harder for the actors, but in fact the opposite is true. They find it much easier to memorize the words when they have physical cues.

The blocking took a couple of days, and once the actors are in the real set on the stage things may change a little. But for now the play is blocked and the actors are just rehearsing, refining, and making it their own.

Next up: Tech.

Again, for tickets, here’s where you go. You’re going to want to be there, if for no other reason than to see a few of the actors’ crossing the set!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why did I watch a show every week I didn't really like?

BRAINDEAD has concluded its summer run. I ended up watching the whole thing. But the suspense for me was not wondering what was going to happen, it was whether or not I figured out why I just couldn’t get into this show. I felt like Dr. House wrestling with why a patient suddenly spoke French and his thumbs turned into ping-pong paddles.

I certainly give the show props for being ambitious. Trying to be a comedy/drama/satire/romance/political/sci-fi/farce/procedural/titillating/horror/thriller is not easy. The creators are Robert & Michelle King who will forever be in the TV writers’ Hall of Fame (as if there was such a thing) for THE GOOD WIFE alone. (Did Kirk Gibson ever have to do more than hit that dramatic home run in the 1988 World Series? Or Sharon Stone having to… you know … in BASIC INSTINCT?)

There were moments when BRAINDEAD was inspired fun. Unfortunately, the show was an hour.

So what went wrong? Or what went right but didn’t last?

I don’t have any definitive answers, just some theories. But here goes.

I think the show needed to declare just what it was. THE GOOD WIFE was clearly a drama with touches of comedy sprinkled in from time to time. But comedy did not have do any heavy lifting. MASH was a comedy with dramatic underpinnings. For hour comedies, I dunno, maybe ALLY MCBEAL?

The tone would shift on BRAINDEAD from moment to moment and you just had no idea what you were watching.

For me, the best part of the show (by a mile) was the musical recaps by singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. They were hilarious. During one episode he also did a recap of a GUNSMOKE episode. This device clearly tells you you’re watching a quirky comedy. Then the show begins and there’s long discussions about senate appropriation bills and a hidden plan to install internment camps. Huh? For several weeks the thrust of episodes would be swarms of alien ants entering peoples’ brains in delicious horror flick fashion. Then the last few episodes someone must’ve discovered RAID because that storyline disappeared.

Now it’s not unusual for a show to find its groove several episodes in. The producers see what works and steer towards that. Part of why I stick with BRAINDEAD is that I feel sooner or later they will. It’s uneven now but they’ll find the right direction.
Another issue, the characters aren’t in the same show. Tony Shalhoub is clearly in a comedy. And it’s soooo obvious he’s having a ball playing this deranged senator. Series star Mary Elizabeth Winstead is in a drama. I find her lovely and real, but Mary Liz is not naturally funny. Or so it seems from this show. What’s developed is that the characters who are infiltrated by the ants are in a comedy and the ones who are ant-free are in a drama. And the scenes between them tend to be awkward.

Also, the main character isn’t very active. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is primarily a reactor. People say weird things to her or act out in strange ways and she’s required to give them a look of “Okay, THAT was unexpected.” You could play a drinking game with how many times she's asked to do that during the course of one episode. Yes, she’s trying to get to the bottom of this conspir-ant-cy, but most of the time she is content to sit at her desk and wait for the next crisis to rear its evil antennae.

The visual tone is also a little schitzo. This too is understandable. Different directors come in and bring different strengths. At its best, the show tries to be somewhat Coen Brothers-esque. Odd angles, push ins and push outs, actors looking directly into the camera. Some directors pull it off better than others. On movies you have the advantage of one director with a consistent vision. Not so in TV, which is why networks want to hire movie directors to direct pilots. They establish a look and tone and hopefully the series directors can copy it. I suspect BRAINDEAD is hard on directors for all the problems I have with the show. Is this scene dramatic or tongue-in-cheek? Do bizarre angles enhance or detract from this moment?

I hope BRAINDEAD figures it out (assuming it comes back – a big assumption). Creatively, they’re walking a real tightrope that few can maneuver. I think of DR. STRANGELOVE as being one vehicle that did masterfully. But all of the characters, although deadly serious, had wacky points-of-view, and despite its extremely dramatic subject matter, the satire and absurdity of the situation hung over everything. As directed by Stanley Kubrick, DR. STRANGELOVE was definitely a comedy. Every so often the Coen Brothers can also strike a perfect “Fargo” balance.

So that's why I hung in there until the bitter end.  And if it ever resurfaces I'll give it another chance.  Maybe they'll figure it out.  Personally, I hope they veer more towards comedy, if for no other reason than to keep doing  the Jonathan Coulton recaps.