Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Checking in on MAD MEN


I found the key to enjoying MAD MEN this year!

The first few seasons I was blown away by it. The last couple of seasons were hit-and-miss. Mostly miss. And now I watch it because I’ve invested this much time into the series that I might as well see it through to the end. But I find I’m enjoying it more this season. So why? Are the storylines more compelling than in recent years? No. Are there surprising turns? No. It’s all pretty much more of the same. Don can't find happiness.  Pete is a dick.  Peggy's searching for her place in a man's world. Roger goes through life pickled.   Beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat. 

But here’s the big difference: my mindset. And if you’re disillusioned with MAD MEN too, I invite you to try this as well. Are you ready? Here we go:

Just think of MAD MEN as another show.

Simple as that. Don’t expect to be watching the most amazing drama you’ve ever seen. Don’t study each tiny moment and analyze each line for its hidden significance and major import. Don’t think you’re holding a mirror up to society. Don’t fret that the themes aren’t resonating and staying with you for days. Don’t feel guilty that your DVR is filling up with unseen episodes.

Just enjoy it. Just let the episodes unfold. It’s made a world of difference for me. Some storylines I find less interesting than others. So what? Last Sunday’s was not particularly spectacular. But it held my interest. I actually got a few laughs out of it.  Forty minutes well spent (I zap through the endless commercials).   Peggy is turning into a bitch, and I know steps are being painstakingly taken to explain why and how it’s the job and societal pressure on women, yada yada. Would I prefer the old Peggy? Should I examine my stance on workplace politics?  Whatever.  The new Peggy is adding conflict and that holds my interest. Good enough.

I doubt if I’ll be having many discussions around the water cooler this year. There is hidden meaning in almost every line that now goes cheerfully right over my head. I’m fine with that. I like most of the characters, I love the time period, the dialogue is always snappy, I appreciate the intelligence, there are some good tunes on the radio, and every so often we get a killer scene.

And I don’t need MAD MEN to be a great show. I have THE GOOD WIFE for that. I had HOUSE OF CARDS. I had TRUE DETECTIVES. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK returns very soon. I’m getting my superb television fix.

And now that I approach MAD MEN with this new mindset, it is once again a show I look forward to watching. Give it a try.  The scene in the season premiere where New York native/gentile Pete was raving to Don about how amazing the Jewish delis are in Los Angeles was a riot!  You don't get that on NCIS: LOS ANGELES. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Storytelling

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy storytelling venues. Give me a personal yarn with humor over a stand-up routine on taxicabs any day. Recently, I decided to try participating myself. Other than running off stage at a Kiss concert, I have never done stand up, nor have I had the desire. If I want thirty drunks to love me I can just buy them another round. I don’t need to craft a five-minute set.

But storytelling is different. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It requires description, it allows you to share genuine emotion. And it can be very funny or poignant. I tell personal stories all the time in this blog, why not give it a shot in front of actual people? And like the blog, storytelling offers no real financial gain, so that has me written all over it.

Anyway, I submitted a piece to Sit ‘n Spin. This is a once-a-month storytelling night at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood that’s associated somehow with Comedy Central. (Trust me, I have no illusions of being “discovered”) The readers tend to be working writers and their stories usually range from hilarious to deeply moving. Not having enough depth for the latter I strove for the former.

Many of the stories I’ve heard are autobiographical so I adapted a section from my book on growing up in the ‘60s (THE ME GENERATION… BY ME – available here). I submitted the chapter about my sort of first girlfriend, Eleanor.

Claudia
Happily, it was accepted and I made my maiden voyage last Thursday. I honestly did not know what to expect. I arrived at the theater dutifully an hour before the show. The other participants were all veteran readers – Jill Morley, Jeff Kahn, Ron Zimmerman, Claudia Lonow, and Taylor Negron. They also knew each other but made me feel very welcome. What struck me was how confident they all were. Completely at ease. They chatted, touched up their make up – this is how I imagine backstage at a strip club to be. An audience of a hundred people was expected but this fazed none of them. What this said to me was their stories must really be great. So I read over mine, suddenly second guessing every joke. They started glancing over theirs and wow, even their fonts were smaller. These folks had it down.

Jill, Ron, Taylor
Maggie Rowe, who runs the program, swept in offering pizza and drinks. She was followed soon after by fellow-reader Ron Zimmerman, now dressed in bloody rags with fake blood dripping off his face. And I was the only one who batted an eye. He casually asked if any of us had any hand sanitizer. Taylor Negron brought a guitarist. Did I under dress and under prepare for this? Was it too late to see if Cirque du Soleil was available?

We did a walk-through on stage. I was second up. I was assigned a music stand stage right. To get to it I would wait backstage in the corner until Jill Morely finished. There would be applause, the lights would dim, and I would go through the split in the side curtain and maneuver my way past some risers to my spot. When I was done, there would (hopefully) be applause, the lights would go down again, and I would exit the stage through the same curtain opening. Piece ‘o cake.

The show started. I took my position backstage. Jill read a very funny piece about receiving lesbian love letters from prison. She was getting good laughs. I felt relieved. This audience was responding to smart jokes about statutory rape.

Finally, she finished, there was enthusiastic applause, the lights dimmed, and I groped my way out to my waiting music stand. I was hit by a spotlight. AAAAGH! It occurred to me: I had never been hit by a spotlight before that wasn’t emanating from a police helicopter. I looked out at the audience and just saw blackness. I had no idea how many of them were on their phones or leaving.

I launched into my piece and thankfully started getting good laughs. Nothing relaxes you like laughter. In a few places they were laughing at straight lines. That’s when you know you’re scoring. I discovered where everyone’s confidence came from. When reading a personal story, who better than you delivering it?

I finished to warm applause, acknowledged with a nod, and the lights went out. This time they really went out. Not like the rehearsal. It was black. I staggered back to the curtain, somehow avoiding clocking myself on one of the risers.

I reached the back curtain but couldn’t find the opening. So I’m groping along, now terrified that the lights were going to come back up and there I will be on full display, spread-eagled, feeling my way along the curtain. What an exit that would be!

Fortunately, I found the slit and slipped through just as the lights went back up. Whewwwww!

Jesus
I was so glad to get it over with early. I retreated to the dressing room. One by one the rest of the readers took their turns. We couldn’t really hear the performers backstage but we could hear the audience laughter. Everyone’s piece seemed to go well. The bloody rag guy, Ron, was supposed to be Jesus Christ. So I don’t think his essay was personal. Ron has one of the truly great inventive minds in the business.

We all ran out to take a curtain call. I hadn’t taken a curtain call since I was in the 8th Grade production of OKLAHOMA playing Curly in the dream sequence. Jill had to reach over and grab my hand. Oh, that’s right. Everybody holds hands. And bows. And acts humble. I have to say, the curtain call was the weirdest part of the night. I just don’t think of myself as a “performer.” When I had co-written that musical performed at the Goodspeed Theater I asked one of our stars, Andrew Rannells, what it feel like to be out there on stage feeding off the energy of the audience? He said, “Why don’t you just write yourself a part?” and I said, “Because I can’t sing, dance, or act.” But read my own words; that I can do. So the answer to my question to Andrew: it was very cool to feed off the audience’s energy. Cool enough that I plan to do it again in the future.

I have an idea for another story, but first I’ll have to see if Ron will loan me his rags and fake blood.

Thanks to Maggie Rowe, Jill, Jeff, Ron, Claudia, Taylor, and everyone at Sit ‘n Spin. You all made sure my story had a happy ending.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

This is very funny

This is Nina Conti, a very funny (and quite accomplished) ventriloquist. One of her bits is to take people from the audience and turn them into puppets. Here's an example. And for you trivia fans, she is actor Tom Conti's daughter.

Let's play JEOPARDY!

And you are under no obligation to say VOLUNTEERS. 

For me, some would be:

What is THE GODFATHER?
What is  THE GODFATHER Part 2?
What is AMERICAN GRAFFITI?
What is CASABLANCA?
What is PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM?
What is BLAZING SADDLES?
What is NETWORK?
What is GUNGA DIN?
What is BANANAS?
What is ARTHUR?
What is SOME LIKE IT HOT?
What is THE LADY EVE?
What is YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN?
What is GOLDFINGER?
What is DR. NO?
What is GIDGET?
What is TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN?
What is ANNIE HALL?
What is DR. STRANGELOVE?
What is STAR WARS?
What is THE LITTLE MERMAID?
What is SUNSET BOULEVARD?
What is PALM BEACH STORY?
What is MY MAN GODFREY?
What is VALLEY OF THE DOLLS?
What is CHINATOWN?
What is THE BIG SLEEP?
What is LOVE AND DEATH?
What is MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE?
What is BULL DURHAM?
What is HOOSIERS?
What is FRENCH CONNECTION?
What is BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID?
What is ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN?

So what are some of yours? 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My TCA speech

My post on Thursday on why I really became a comedy writer prompted a number of readers to ask if I could share the acceptance speech I delivered at that TCA dinner.  Kind blogger that I am, I used that request to blackmail you into buying more copies of my book.  It worked.  So thanks very much, and here is the speech.  If you don't like it, please don't return the books.  

There were also a couple of ad libs that got laughs, but I don't remember what they were.  I know I made fun of some of the other acceptance speeches but don't recall the exact lines.  (Maybe Alan Sepinwall or Maureen Ryan or one of the other critics there that night does?)   All I know is Claire Danes laughed.   Here's what I said.


On behalf of Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows and all the writers and crew, I want to thank you for this prestigious honor. I was fortunate enough to be with CHEERS since the beginning and trust me, it meant a lot to us that you embraced our show initially. Critics were very important, especially since critics were the only people who watched the show. That first year, not only were we getting trounced by SIMON & SIMON, but something on ABC called TUCKER’S WITCH was kicking our ass.

But thanks to your support, and the fact that NBC had nothing else – which is kind of like today -- they decided to stick with us. Truly, it was us or PINK LADY & JEFF. (That won the TCA Heritage Award in 2006, didn’t it?).

But it was a great run. Who knew it would last eleven years? Who knew Woody would be the cast member to become a movie star? Who knew our modest little theme song would one day be used to sell auto insurance?

It was an honor to be associated with CHEERS. Writers from today’s shows tell me all the time how much CHEERS influenced them and then won’t hire me. But knowing I’ve inspired others, and will still get royalties long after their shows have been cancelled is satisfaction enough. (That got applause) So again, on behalf of the Glen & Les Charles and Jim Burrows, thanks so much. CHEERS is a great example that quality can ultimately win out, and that critics do make a difference.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Questions

A whole bunch of 'em. What’s yours?

Johnny Walker starts us off:

Ken, of the many TV shows about the behind-the-scenes of television (e.g. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Buffalo Bill, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock, something called "Almost Perfect" - whatever that is), which do you feel portrayed the trials, tribulations, stresses and strains of a real TV show most accurately? I.e. Which make you smart in recognition and go, "That's SO true"?

No contest. THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. So realistic it was painfully funny. ALMOST PERFECT is second of course.  Okay... third. 

Cody asks:

Would you ever consider doing a drama that contained a fair amount of humor? 
 
Sure. If the right idea came along. I very much enjoyed writing the dramatic aspects of MASH. But still, there would be a lot of humor. I actually laugh more at certain dramas than I do current sitcoms. By far the funniest character on television in the last ten years is Dewey Crow from JUSTIFIED.

David Chase, by the way, always contended that THE SOPRANOS was a comedy.  I think that's stretching it, but there's room for humor in all dramas (except maybe CRIMINAL MINDS). 

Carol has a question based on the Friday Question a few weeks ago about profanity.

Do you think being handcuffed to not being able to use profanity, even when it would make sense to do so forced you to be even more clever with phrasing and jokes and things?

Absolutely. Our goal has always been to write jokes that are clever and elegant. It’s why you hire us and not kids on street corners.   There's a certain challenge to writing a joke that is both low and high road. 

From Mork. (Good to see you back on earth.)

Ken—what’s the cheapest thing you’ve ever seen a studio do?

I told this story before but it’s worth repeating.

From Angry Gamer:

Did you ever end up in a situation (script, outline etc) where the reviewer would reject the product but not give you any useful feedback? In my business we call this "polishing the rock"... you know where the guy says "not right" but can't tell you what is "right". (slushpile question probably :)

Yes. There was a network executive (who I’m very fond of) who used to give notes like “the script is here but needs to be here.” Or “you have the meat and potatoes, but it needs more dessert.”

Huh???? 

We would turn in our rewrites and have no idea whether we satisfied the notes.  Much time was spent by me and David arguing over whether to include apple pie or lemon chiffon cake? 

And finally, from Frank from Campbell in NorCal:

I was talking to a friend who is a major M*A*S*H head and he said Gary Burghoff was the only actor to be in all iterations of M*A*S*H including the pilot of a show called Walter. Does that pilot exist in the You Tube world and did you have anything to do with it?

I don’t know if it’s available on line, but it was called W*A*L*T*E*R and was written by Everett Greenbaum and Elliott Reid. I had nothing to do with it.

Gary was also in the movie MASH and guested on AfterMASH.

Have a great Easter weekend.   

P.S.

Getting close.  Only 5 more books have to be sold for me to post the speech from yesterday's essay.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why I became a comedy writer

A couple of years ago CHEERS won the heritage award from the Television Critics. Neither the Charles Brothers nor James Burrows were available to accept so I was asked to do so on their behalf at the big TCA Awards Dinner. It’s as close as I’m ever going to come personally to winning a TCA Award and there was alcohol so I said sure.

The event was held in the glittering Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hiltons, same venue as the Golden Globes. Same alcohol too. The place was packed. Lots of industry folks and cast members from your favorite high quality shows. Aaron Paul even remembered me from the pilot he did for us back in the ‘00s. And Jonathan Banks vaguely remembered I directed him in FIRED UP. (To be fair, he vaguely remembered FIRED UP.)

Louis CK was not there, which was very disappointing since I was assigned to the LOUIE table. Also absent was Morena Baccarin from HOMELAND, but the rest of the cast was there including Claire Danes. I love Claire Danes.

I had a prepared speech (it helps to know you’ve already won) and I just killed. I happened to glance down to the HOMELAND table and I could see that Claire Danes was laughing really hard. I was beyond thrilled. The thousand other people who were laughing including executives who could give me work or critics who could increase my stature? Fine, whatever, but Claire Danes was in stitches.

And as I walked back to my seat it occurred to me: I’m still 14. It was all about making the pretty girl laugh.

That’s why I got into comedy writing – to impress pretty girls. And I bet if most male comedy writers were being honest they’d say that’s why they got into the field too. It wasn’t the money, or the need to express themselves, it was having Claire Danes like me for 1:40 (I kept my speech short).

God, that's sad.  But ultimately rewarding.

If I could play football in high school I’d probably be selling plumbing supplies today. So do I have regrets? My awkward teenage years led me to where I am today. So no. Except for one. Why didn’t I take up playing the goddamn guitar? Those guys really scored. I was an idiot!

UPDATE:  Several of you have asked me to post the speech itself.  Sleazy opportunist that I am, I will be happy to...

IF... 

I sell 20 more copies of MUST KILL TV, the Kindle version going for only $2.99.    I know.  What a creep.  But it's a very funny book, deals with award dinners, I'm very proud of it and want as many people to read it as possible.   (I can't believe book promotion has come to this.)  Thanks in advance.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Maybe We'll Have You Back

Today I’m plugging a book that’s not mine. MAYBE WE’LL HAVE YOU BACK by Fred Stoller. He presents a hilarious first-person account of what it’s like to be a long-time character actor on sitcoms.

You’ve seen him on a million shows, from FRIENDS to EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND to SEINFELD to DOG WITH A BLOG. Fred is tall, thin, nerdy and usually plays Annoying Guy, or Obnoxious Guy, or Pathetic Guy or worse, Pathetic Guy #2.   He was punched out in DUMB AND DUMBER.

He’s also very funny, which is why he gets all of these roles over other tall, thin, nerdy actors who are scrambling for the same parts.  How funny?   Fred was also a writer on SEINFELD for a season.

The bottom line: show business is a lot easier if you look like Simon Baker.

The brass ring for guest actors is that one of their characters break out and eventually become series regulars. Christopher Lloyd on TAXI and Bebe Neuwirth on CHEERS are two examples. But more often they deliver three lines (two of which get cut in editing) and have to park off the lot.

And if fighting for show biz scraps wasn't hardship enough, Fred once slept with Kathy Griffin. 

For reasons I’ve never understood, there are some casts that ignore or shun guest actors. It’s not like their series won’t end in two years and they’ll be guest actors themselves.

SIDE NOTE: And then there’s Ted Danson. One day on BECKER he was talking about a new Prius he had just gotten. One of the guest actors was curious about it, and Ted handed him his keys and said, “It’s right out front. Drive it around.” The man is a mensch (who gets great mileage).

I found Fred’s book hilarious and illuminating. Imagine a SEINFELD writer conducting a Starline Tour of Hollywood.

His section on SEINFELD was particularly interesting. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld ran a writing room unlike any I’ve ever seen before or after. It sounded more like hanging around Elvis Presley and bringing him cakes when he was hungry.

There are so many aspects of show business that go unrecognized. To my knowledge this is the first book about those brave thespians who play roles that are numbered instead of named. Instead of reading the 400th star autobiography (as told to 400 ghost writers), check out this unique perspective of television production.

And then buy my book.