Sunday, September 21, 2014

The story behind the CHEERS theme

I get asked about the CHEERS theme a lot.  So I am re-posting my post about it.

1981. Songwriter Gary Portnoy had just been fired as a staff writer from a major music publisher. His friend Judy Hart Angelo happened to meet a Broadway producer at dinner one night who needed a score written for a new musical he was producing. They decided to team up. Gary had never written for the theater, Judy had never written a song.

Somehow a tape of one of their demo songs found its way to Hollywood and the Charles Brothers. They thought it would be perfect for the theme of the new show they were developing, CHEERS.

But that’s not the song you know.

When the Broadway producer found out one of his songs was to be a TV theme he had a fit and legally blocked Paramount from using it. Crushed, Gary and Judy wrote new songs for CHEERS. But none of them connected the way the old one did.

Finally, after four or five rejected tunes they submitted “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” and that one struck a chord.

But even that’s not the song you know.

The original opening lyrics were changed to give it a more universal appeal. These are those original opening lines:

Singing the blues when the Red Sox lose
It’s a crisis in your life

On the run ‘cause all your girlfriends

Want to be your wife

And the laundry ticket’s in the wash


Once the song was written and approved there came the issue of who was going to sing it? Gary had sung the demo. There were those who wanted a big name and others who liked Gary’s rendition. With less than a month to go before the premiere it was decided that Gary would sing it and the arrangement would be simple just like the demo. Surprisingly, the Charles Brothers did not attend the recording session. We were all in the room writing one day when Glen Charles casually mentioned that they were doing the theme on one of the scoring stages. But their faith in Gary was rewarded.

The Portnoy-Angelo theme for CHEERS is one of the most memorable in TV history. Several weeks after the premiere Gary went back into the studio to record a full-length version of the song that actually made the pop charts.

Here’s that expanded version. To my knowledge it only aired on the show once, during the 200th
episode.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who needs France when you can have Vegas?

I've gotten a number of emails from readers asking for more travelogues.   The problem is I haven't traveled much this year.   But to fill your request (and plug my book of travelogues,  WHERE THE HELL AM I?   TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED, available here) I am reposting one from 2003.  This was the time a bunch of us idiots went to Vegas for the first week of March Madness.
March Madness has arrived again -- the NCAA basketball tournament. Thus the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for me and three of my middle aged sports nerd television executive buddies. Slater, the Banger, and Mr. Syracuse. Slater brought his girlfriend (who goes by either Karen or Valerie -- long story) thus increasing his chances of "getting lucky" by maybe 1%. Mr. Syracuse brought his wife thus decreasing his chances. My son, Matt flew in from Boston. He's now 21 so what better way to see Las Vegas for the first time than with his dad and three guys who look like the Pep Boys?

We stayed this year at the Paris Hotel. The theme is French hospitality (an oxymoron). I'm sure I would have been given a nicer room if I registered as Himmler. The casino features a low ceiling that is painted to look like the sky, a la the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. It's an odd shade of blue however, one that suggests nuclear winter. There are cobblestone streets and carpeting. A replica LePont Alendre III bridge overlooks the nickel slot machines, and there is an Eiffel Tower that is fifty stories high. Tours are offered. There is a sign at the entrance that reads "No food, beverages, smoking, weddings" (true story).

I don't know why these hotels opt for these elaborate themes. The truth is: NO ONE CARES. People schlepp around in t-shirts and shorts and flip flops. If I ever put up a hotel in Las Vegas I would use as my theme the HOME DEPOT.

There was an Anti-Aging conference in town. Am I the only one who finds it odd to hold an Anti-Aging conference in the one place where people stay up all hours drinking, gorging, smoking, and enduring the enormous stress of losing their money? I guess it's held there out of respect for Joan Rivers. My feeling is if the President of the Anti-Aging organization isn't 117 then it's a sham.

Matt and I went to Le Cafe for breakfast. They said "inside or outside?" What??? Outside of course meant under the sky painted ceiling. We chanced that it wouldn't rain and took the outside.

The in-house cable had a channel that spelled out emergency exit procedures. Leave it the French to provide a surrender strategy.

Remember when Frank Sinatra used to play Vegas? This weekend it was Carrot Top and (at the Riviera) "America's Tribute to Neil Diamond". Not even the real Neil Diamond, an impersonator. In two weeks the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (true) will be appearing. I'd love to see Shecky Green open for them.

Of course you could always pay a gazillion dollars to see Celine Dion screech out five songs a night. Or is that just a Barbra Streisand impersonator??

The Paris had "Arabian Nights Spectacular", something else to make the Jews feel comfortable.

Next morning before the games, Matt and I hit the beach. Mandalay Bay has it's own beach. Unfortunately, the ocean was turned off. No waves. But we took a long walk along the grid that serves as the shore and gazed out at the horizon to see the Lance Burton Magician billboard on Las Vegas Avenue.

Somewhere in the great beyond Bugsy Siegal is saying “If this is what I ultimately created I deserved to be shot.”

From the Mandalay Bay we hotel hopped. Had to stop in at the Excalibur -- a casino in Sleeping Beauty's castle. This is home to the black socks, shorts, and wife beater shirt crowd. You know you're in trouble when they have a special parking lot just for motorhomes. Handing a pair of dice to one of these idiots is like handing a gun to a monkey.

Then it was on to the Bellagio, where Matt and I checked out the Monet exhibit at their fine arts gallery. (How can you go to Vegas and not stop in a museum??) I imagine when most of the tourists saw the ad for the exhibit they said, "Hey, they spelled money wrong!"

One thing you can say about Vegas, it has the most amazingly beautiful women in the world. And so where did we spend 90% of our time? At the Sportsbook, the one place that none of them would ever be caught dead in. There were 48 games in four days. At times four were going on simultaneously. I'm betting on teams I've never heard of. The place was packed with rowdy men and good old boys chugging long neck beers. We ordered White Russians, Tequila Sunrises, and Rusty Nails. No one fucked with us!

One hazard: you see the same commercial seventeen thousand times. Especially the one for "Cialis", designed to keep a man ready for 36 hours. Too bad I'm not single. One of those magic pills would be perfect for me. 35 1/2 hours to find a woman then a half hour to perform.

The Banger bet on exhibition baseball. Even Pete Rose never did that.

In keeping with the theme, French accordion music came out of the urinals. Finally, the correct venue for that music.

Elegant dining = no Keno boards.

Slater's girlfriend Valerie/Karen is vegan, which means there are only six things she can eat and she's allergic to four of them. She and Slater are the two nicest people on the planet but I have dubbed them "America's Waiter Killer Couple". Slater switches every table and sends back every order while Valerie/Karen has the kitchen prepare items not on the menu every meal. I’m afraid to eat with them. The cook or waiter might spit in my food.

Valerie/Karen's back was bothering her so she toted around a pillow to make sitting more comfortable. But a hot girl walking through the casino with a pillow -- she looked like a hooker who advertised.

You're not allowed to use your cellphone in the Sportsbook. And I so wanted to make reservations for the “Curt Kobain on Ice” show at the Aladdin.

Featured at the Paris Hotel: drinks in plastic Eiffel Tower glasses. $12.50 (true). There was a line. I wonder how many of those people thought they were buying the "actual" Eiffel Tower?

What is Pai Gow poker???

At the end of the weekend all of us either made a little money or broke even, Stanford and Kentucky got eliminated, and the waiters at the Paris hotel got together and paid for Slater's cab to the airport. It was great great fun. And I picked up a new name:

Kenny "the OTHER gambler" Levine

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Questions

Even rehearsals for my play won’t keep me from answering Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Snoskred asks:

Did you ever listen to the official podcasts for Breaking Bad? Do people in the industry see these kinds of things as ways to engage fans, or as an annoyance?

Would you consider doing a similar podcast for a show you are involved in, even if it meant you had to organize it?

I personally don’t listen to any show podcasts, but if I had a show I would absolutely create a podcast. I would use every social media outlet I could to generate more fan interest in my show. Podcasts, live Tweeting, Facebook groups, Instagram, you name it. This is a resource showrunners never had before. We were always at the mercy of the network and studio to publicize our show. We’d live and die based on the number of promos we got and in which shows they were placed.

Now showrunners have other channels to reach their fans directly. I think you’re an idiot if you don’t take advantage.

That said, I would stop short though of naked pictures of my stars on the iCloud.

Mark B wants to know:

Is there a show you didn't like in the beginning but warned up to it and now think it's a great sitcom?

Avery queries:

You say that The Cosby Show hasn't aged well and I agree. And it seems shows that were shot on tape as opposed to film don't age as well in general. The first season of Newhart was shot on tape and to me it just stands out like a sore thumb. Would you agree?

Absolutely. Taped shows always looked cheap to me. Filmed shows looked rich and were way more pleasing to the eye. Whenever my partner and I had a series we always insisted it be on film. That was non-negotiable.

And at the time we weren’t even thinking about the preservation issue. Videotape does suffer over the years we have since learned. Is there a process that will restore taped shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s to their original sharper-but-still-cheesy-looking selves? That I don’t know. I also don’t know if it’s worth it.

Stoney is up next.

This question is for Beaver Cleaver, the D.J.: Do you agree with Gene Simmons that rock is dead?

Yeah, like KISS kept it alive.

No. Simmons is confusing death with music that just isn’t meant to speak to him. Each generation creates music that is relevant to that generation. The fact that Gene Simmons is not feeling the same emotions or dealing with the same issues as today’s teenager doesn’t mean the current music is any worse than when he was giving the world classics like “Love Gun” and “Christine Sixteen.”

Another "that said" -- I like Gene Simmons.  I find him amusing.  He's a showman and sure knows how to self promote. 

And finally, from Chris:

As far as I know, there's no high definition transfer of M*A*S*H* yet. What did you guys edit the show on, was it film or tape? If it's film, it should be fairly easy to just scan it and re-master. With tape, it's more complicated and we might never see it in HD.

We did it the old fashioned way, editing on film. Stan Tischler was our editor and we’d troop up to his office to watch something on the old moviologa with a screen the size of your iPhone. Meanwhile, there were little strips of film (like confetti) attached to hooks all over the place. The film was edited and a master was then cut from the negative.

Whether a HD transfer is in the works, I have no idea.  I hope so, though.  That would be cool.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

My sort of cousin Vinny

Vincent Price was a major movie star. You’ve seen him in dozens of horror films. He often played villains. And he had an amazing voice.

As scary and sinister as his persona was, in person he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. Gentle, sweet, gracious.  And sort of... kind of... a distant relative.

In the early ‘40s he lived in the same duplex on Canfield Dr. as my mom’s family when she was a teenager growing up in Los Angeles.

Whenever Vincent was preparing for a movie he would hang out in my grandparents’ kitchen running lines with my grandfather. In THE SONG OF BERNADETTE Grandpa was Jennifer Jones. In LAURA gramps was Gene Tierney. You get the idea. Vincent would bring a bottle and he and my grandfather would run lines late into the night.  Talk about idyllic -- that kitchen was filled with the smell of blintzes and the richness of that voice. 

To repay the favor, Vincent often gave my mom and her sister a ride home from Hamilton High.

Eventually he moved and our family lost touch with him. And then about thirty years later he bumped into my mom at a bank. He recognized her immediately, even though so many years had passed and recalled her name instantly as well.  He couldn’t be more excited to see her. They spent about a half hour catching up. It was a celebrity sighting in reverse.

We always considered Vincent Price a distant member of our family – who doesn’t have that urbane cousin who lives in a haunted house, kills people, drinks blood, robs graves, and dresses in capes? As time marches on Vincent’s brilliance slowly fades into the mist. So I thought I would share a TCM tributes voiced by John Waters to one of the greats of all-time – Vincent Leonard Price Jr.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hey, wanna see my new play?

Individual tickets go on sale today!  Here’s where.  Or you can call 1-818-955-8101.   I know this means a whole lot to you folks in Norway or Tuscaloosa. But if you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area or God forbid you live in the Los Angeles area, would love for you to check it out. I’ll be there most nights (I’m the one in the back sweating) so it’s a good chance to meet.

Rehearsals have begun and so far it’s looking great! (Okay, first rehearsal was yesterday… but still.) It’s a two-character romantic comedy that explores the difference between the same two couple if they were lovers or co-workers. Sex, office politics, passion, ambition and lots of laughs along the way. Writing Sam & Diane for all those years on CHEERS was good prep work for this.

I must say, I love playwriting. (Let’s see if I still say that after opening night but…) I love writing dialogue and the theatre values that the most. Words are more important. Movies are more visually oriented and television is … whatever some network executive says it should be.

What excites me as a writer is exploring human behavior and interaction. Jokes that stem from character and advance the story. Moving the audience through emotional moments not orgasmic special effects. And for me, as the writer, actually hearing the laughter and seeing if the poignant moments land.

Other reasons why I prefer to write for the stage:

I enjoy the freedom in storytelling. With features and certainly television, you need to outline the story in a very detailed fashion. In television you’re always confined by the clock. Movie outlines can be so extensive that storyboards are drawn to show shot-by-shot. I work off a much simpler outline when writing plays. I know where I’m going (generally) but allow the characters to tell me where they want to go. Sometimes wonderful unexpected surprises come about as a result.

Of course, in my case, that also means a lot of blind alleys and writing tons of pages that I toss out. But even the discarded pages are beneficial. The more I write the characters the more I learn about them. It’s all part of the process. Never feel that the stuff you don’t use was time wasted. It’s most certainly not.

The first draft of my new play A OR B? is considerably different from my current draft. For one thing, I threw out the entire second act and started again. Then I had a reading and from that I replaced two whole scenes and made extensive changes throughout. What’s exciting now is hearing it on its feet, getting director and audience feedback, and continuing to fine tune.

Now I just have to figure out how to do revised pages with Final Draft.

Subscriptions still available!
The other great thing about writing for the theatre – actually, the GREATEST thing – is that no one can change a word without the playwright’s permission. This is in marked contrast to films where the writer is just below the honey wagon maintenance crew in the pecking order. Anybody and everybody can manhandle the screenplay. In television the showrunner can change your script, the staff can change your script, the network, studio, standards & practices, and lawyers can change your script. Even Chuck Lorre doesn’t have final say. At the end of the day, Les Moonves does. But a playwright makes the call in the theatre. Imagine getting notes you don’t HAVE TO take! It’s very liberating.

Yes, there are downsides. You make practically nothing. Submissions to theatres or companies take as long as a year to receive a response. And if no one wants to produce your play you might have to produce it yourself, which could get expensive. But come on, that’s quibbling.

The final argument for live theatre is just that – it’s LIVE. Real people performing for a real audience. A one-to-one connection. And when it works, it’s thrilling… for all concerned – the actors, the audience members, and even that poor guy sweating buckets in the back.

As Neil Simon puts it:

I always feel more like a writer when I'm writing a play because of the tradition of the theater ... there is no tradition of the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, which makes him an auteur. So I really feel that I'm writing for posterity with plays, which have been around since the Greek times.

My play plays from Oct. 15-Novembe 16.  Lots of tickets have already been sold to subscribers.  So don't wait.   Come see it so I don’t have to write teen coming-of-age movies on spec. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mission Impossible meets Top Cat

This is another crazy story that happened along the way in our career. This was on a pilot rewrite.

In 1976 there was a somewhat popular movie called MOTHER, JUGS, & SPEED about ambulance drivers starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch (as Jugs of course), and Harvey Keitel.

Two years later ABC commissioned a TV pilot of the movie. They changed Jugs to Juggs so it would sound (or at least read) less sexual… although unless you’re from the hills of Kentucky there is no other meaning for “jugs.” Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay, was hired to write the pilot.

For whatever reason, ABC greenlit the project but wasn’t happy with the script. David Isaacs and I were recruited to do a rewrite. We were on MASH at the time, this was a project about funny medicos, produced for the same studio (20th) -- so we got the call. Whether seventeen other writers had gotten the call before us and turned it down, we’ll never know.

We accepted the assignment and met with the executive producers. Here’s where it got a little weird. The two executive producers were Bruce Geller (who created MISSION IMPOSIBLE) and Joseph Barbera (one half of Hanna-Barbera, the animation mill that turned out Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Jetsons, etc.). Kind of an odd pairing. Apparently the idea for the original movie was Barbera’s so that’s how he got involved. Bruce Geller’s involvement? I have no idea.

They met with us and told us what they wanted. The realism of MASH. It shouldn’t feel sitcommy. The humor had to come out of attitudes and real situations. We were to think of this as a drama with comedic touches. Okay. That was fine with us.

Then Joe Barbera pitched a possible beat.  And I swear to you this is true.  The ambulance is at the top of a hill. The back door flies open and a guy on a gurney rolls out and barrels down the hill. He hits a fire hydrant, which flips the gurney, sending the patient airborne where he lands in an open garbage can. Joe even made a “boing!” sound as he described the patient landing in the trash can. We sat there totally gobsmacked. This was “real?” Maybe in Quick Draw McGraw’s world.

Everyone was pleased with our rewrite (despite not doing the gurney gag), and the show was filmed. No actors from the movie participated. Ray Vitte, Joanne Nail, and Joe Penny got the lead roles. I never saw it. The show was not picked up. But that figures because in our entire career we’ve never gotten a show picked up by ABC – we’re talking 30 years, 50 regimes, and three owners.) It aired that year in August on Failure Theater, but I was either busy or just didn’t care. We were uncredited (which was fine).

The real kick for me was being in a story session with Joe Barbera. Yeah, his gag was absurd. But as a kid I loved Hanna-Barbera cartoons (I still do). I would drive by their complex on West Cahuenga Boulevard in the valley and wish that I could work there. Or even get a tour. And now I was in a room with the man himself. And he was pitching me Top Cat. Dreams sometimes do come true.

Monday, September 15, 2014

10 feet from stardom

Last Thursday night was one of the highlights of my career. I got to direct a show my daughter Annie co-wrote along with her terrific partner, Jonathan Emerson. I’ll spare you seven paragraphs of sentimentality that would make IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE seem hard-edged (that’s what Facebook is for), but suffice it to say it was a very special occasion and I’m still kvelling (Jewish expression for bursting with pride).  I'll just sprinkle a couple of photos in this post. 

Instead, I want to focus on some unsung heroes of multi-camera television production – the camera operators. Have you seen the documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM? If not, WHY? It’s great and even won an Academy Award. The subject was backup singers. You learned how utterly amazing these background invisible performers are. Such is the case with TV camera operators. If their names even appear in the closing credits (and I’m not sure they do) they go by so fast and there are so many names on the same card that you can’t even hit pause fast enough on your remote to freeze their names to where they’re legible.
Me and the kid taking a curtain call
But here’s what they do on multi-camera shows. The actors are performing live before a studio audience, a la a stage play. During their scenes the cameras are constantly moving, getting different shots. It is all carefully choreographed so that anytime any actor moves all the action is covered in masters, group shots, and close ups. Let’s say you have a scene with six people in it. Six people/four cameras – do the math.

The director has to figure out who goes where when, but that’s for another post.

For many years each camera was a three-man operation. Shows were shot on 35 mm film and you needed a trio to schlep around those large camera mounts. As each camera was given a mark a piece of tape was set on the floor. After a half hour show had been blocked the floor looked like the remnants of a ticker-tape parade. But now, with HD cameras that are way lighter and Hollywood always looking to save money, that three-man crew has been reduced to one. No more marks. The camera operator has no time to glance down at the floor. So now he must swing the camera around himself and get all of his shots, guided only by some quick notes he’s jotted down.

Here's the process:  The camera operator sees a scene once, then is given his shot list, then does it once, maybe twice with the stand ins, and once maybe twice with the cast (the “reallys” as they are called). Some fine tuning then the show is shot. Not a lot of rehearsal time for a super complicated process. 

And yet, by show night, he (or she) is ready to go and damn near flawless.

Here are the kinds of assignments they’re given:

“When Tia crosses left, let her out, drop down and give me Michael over Trey.”

“Set for Sydney’s entrance. Bring her to a master. Land her, give me a beat then get a two-shot right.”

“When Sheryl says ‘did anyone see my shoe’ kick right and give me a single of Tia. And then when Michael says ‘I’ve had enough of this’ swing right back and give me Trey. It’ll be a quick move.”

“When the Coco Puffs start flying go to the door.” (Yes, I gave a Coco Puff cue this week.)

Depending on the shot the operator might have to move to his next precise mark or change lens, or both. And sometimes there may be three or four scenes that take place in the same location (like the kitchen). Different blocking, different cast members, and yet they still have to keep everything straight.

One of the camera operators on INSTANT MOM this week didn’t even take notes. He just kept it in his head. I was confused and I was giving him the notes, which were carefully written out on my script.

And during the actual taping, actors might be off their marks from time to time. A good camera operator will adjust to get the shot he wants and not wind up with the back of a head blocking the person who’s speaking.

When taping night comes, if you ever attend one, it looks like a well-oiled machine. Cameras are gliding around, every shot is falling effortlessly into place. Anytime you need a reaction shot it’s there. The scene is never interrupted by two cameras crashing into each other. You’d think everyone had two weeks to rehearse this. The camera operators had maybe twenty minutes a scene.

A quick shout-out to the actors too. At the last minute we will often ask them to turn a little one way or another (to “cheat out”) or step back a half a step to allow us a better shot. They have to incorporate these tiny technical instructions in with their performances. I don’t know how they do it. I’d be glancing down every two seconds for my mark.

So the next time you watch a multi-camera episode, take note of all the camera angles, and just try to imagine what’s going on down on the floor as these four guys are constantly scrambling – swinging cameras around, setting sizes, adjusting shots. It’s truly amazing to watch. These ladies and gentlemen have my undying respect and gratitude.

I’d suggest making a documentary like 20 FEET FROM STARDOM but all these guys would rather be behind the camera shooting it.