Thursday, October 02, 2014

Great advice for all writers (not just young ones)

This quote from Oscar, Tony, and probably Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Nichols:

Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

Now you could say he’s stretching it, and you could argue that at times seductions are negotiations, but the real point here is that every effective scene needs some dynamic.

Two baseball fans in the stands just talking about the weather isn’t interesting. Umpires trying to decide whether the rain is coming down hard enough to stop a World Series game is.

A couple agreeing on what color to paint the house is boring. A couple throwing paint at each other is not.

Your scene needs some conflict, or one of the characters has a specific goal. There’s a dramatic reason for the scene.

It may be subtle. People are always looking for that little edge, couples are consciously or subconsciously trying to be in the power position in their relationship. Although a union contract might not be the topic on the table, this is still negotiation. Trying to get someone to agree with you is a form of seduction. The truth is in our daily lives we use most of these conventions all the time in our interactions; we just don’t recognize it. But for writers, they're the fuel that makes the engine go.

Rule of thumb: if you can just lift a scene out of a screenplay or TV show, or whatever without anyone missing it then it didn’t belong in the first place. We’re in a golden age of TV drama. Watch the good shows. See how every scene, every moment has a purpose, and is integral to the narrative.

A fight, seduction, or negotiation may be a little simplistic. But it gives you a good starting point. If you’ve written a scene that is just flat you can check it against those three dynamics. If it has none, or one but very mild, suddenly it’s no longer a mystery why your scene doesn’t work. Pick one or two or strengthen one or two.

Use Nichols’ quote as a guide. It may not be perfect, but it’s much more eloquent than mine.

A scene has to have… stuff.

And that’s why he is who he is and I am who I am.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Did I really say that?


Natalie Wood -- since I can't find an appropriate photo
Radio program directors always preach preparation for air talent. Spend the time, put in the effort, and know what you’re going to say before going on the air. Make sure beforehand that when you turn that mic on you’re going to say something entertaining, informative, or at the very least, of specific interest to the listener.

I did none of that when I was a disc jockey. No preparation whatsoever. I always felt that the prepared jocks lacked spontaneity. Their material seemed forced and lame. I always wanted to be in the moment. I always felt that if I couldn’t come up with one funny thing to say when given three minutes (the time of most records) there was something wrong. So I lived on the edge. But I felt extremely comfortable working this way.

I never had a program director scold me for being lazy or unprepared. Sometimes they told me to just shut up because I wasn’t funny, but no one ever accused me of phoning it in.

Once I said a funny line I never wrote it down. A few I have used more than once (always on different stations – I got fired a lot), but most of the time I’d say something and never give it another thought.

Recently I uncovered a tape of one of my shows from TenQ in Los Angeles from 1977 (when I was going by the distinguished moniker Beaver Cleaver). I hadn’t listened to this tape in damn near forty years.

I was floored by what I heard.

It’s like I was listening to someone I had never met. I didn’t remember any of the jokes I told. In some cases they were pretty good and I thought to myself, “Wow. Where did that come from?” Full disclosure: there were also some terrible jokes and one-liners of very questionable taste.

But it was very disconcerting to encounter yourself in a younger state and not even recognize that person. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of memory. What we selectively choose to remember and what we forget (whether we choose to or not). I pride myself on having a very good memory. Lots of it useless. I can tell you artist, titles, and record labels from most records that made the charts from 1959-1979. I remember baseball games and players and plays that stretch back years. I watch a rerun of CHEERS and can remember how late the rewrite night went and who pitched specific jokes. But as I listened to that TenQ broadcast, the “me” I recall from that period was clearly not the “me” coming out of that speaker.

I’m sure a number of you have had essentially the same experience. How many of you kept diaries and journals when you were young and you revisit them now and are appalled.  

But if you’re like me, you also miss that person a little. “Beaver Cleaver” was more fearless than I am. He was brimming with passion for what he was doing. He was silly. He was tapped into what was cool.

And yet, a lot of his characteristics wouldn’t fit today. Just as wearing clothes from that period wouldn’t.

Like I said, he was a different person. Looking back, I liked “Beaver Cleaver” and would hope that if he could look into the future he’d like me too. Although I imagine he’d say, “What’s with the fucking Natalie Wood fixation? What are you? Thirteen?”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

SELFIE: My review

SELFIE, which premiers tonight is ABC's blatant attempt to attract Millennial viewers and appear “hip” and “with it” or whatever it is that those young people say these days. The end result is they’ve managed to take some decent actors and a good writer and produce one God awful television show. WTF ABC? Sitcom by calculation. Is this comedy? NIMBY.

The premise is a modern day PYGMALION. Or a modern day MY FAIR LADY, which at the time was a modern PYGMALION. In MY FAIR LADY, Eliza Doolittle is this rough-edged Cockney girl. Refined Professor Henry Higgins takes it upon himself to transform her into a lady of culture and grace. But at heart, Eliza is a lovely person. For Crissakes, Julie Andrews played her on Broadway and Audrey Hepburn played her in the movie.  You could almost see the halos.

So imagine if Kathy Griffin played her. Or Chelsea Handler. Or Ann Coulter.

Normally likeable Karen Gillan is (wait for it) "Eliza Dooley," a buffoonish unbelievably self-absorbed bitch/slut. She has a gazillion social media friends but discovers that (OMG #tragic) that she has no real friends. Frowny Face. STBY.   (How did she get all these millions of followers?  #MakesNoSense)

But y’see, she gets sick on an airplane, fills two barf bags, and as she walks up the aisle both bags break at once (#how is that possible? SITD) drenching her in vomit. ROFL. Actually, this is the big joke in the pilot. #moronic #disgusting.

Five minutes of lame ironic lines that are supposed to serve as jokes later, she seeks out John Cho as “Henry Higgs” (#seriously?) to help transform her into someone likeable. He agrees to help because… well, that’s the plot. And what we have is Higgs trying to humanize Eliza and Eliza trying to loosen up Higgs. Will they eventually fall in love? WEG.

Some problems: Eliza’s self-absorption and blatant disregard for others is the only vein of humor in the entire series. And the objective is to rid her of that. And John Cho, who is a very nice actor, is an absolute enemy of comedy. As the expression goes – he couldn’t get a laugh if we were wearing ten chicken suits.

A romantic comedy requires chemistry (RTFM) and there is zero between these two leads. #Awkward.

Everything about this misfire feels manipulative, false, and created in a focus group. Style is valued way more than substance. Who cares if the characters are one-dimensional, the premise is deeply flawed, and the jokes are meh? Text messages pop up on the screen! #CuttingEdge.

I guess if you want to do a comedy today based on people that exist on the planet earth who wrestle with relatable issues in a way that respects the audience and doesn’t pander to them you are SOL. TBTS.

ABC should be ashamed of itSELFIE.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The process of a play: part 2

Here’s another installment of the process of producing my play, A OR B? which begins previews October 15th at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. Tickets you say? Here’s where you go.

After a week of table readings and analyzing the script it was time to get it on its feet.

I’m used to television where that means the cast rehearses in the show’s various sets. Not so in the thee-a-tah.  Since another show is currently on the Falcon stage we remained in the rehearsal hall. A tape outline of the stage was laid down on the floor and the actors and director worked from that.

I’m always amazed at the actor’s process. First off, it’s like snowflakes – no two actors have the same process. But I’ve witnessed this many times. A reading is one thing, but once an actor can actually get on his or her feet and use their body their performance just blossoms. Having the physicality (and soon the wardrobe) really helps the actor get into character. In our case, Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox have taken the words and started making them their own.

And when there are places where the dialogue doesn’t feel right, our actors have the playwright right there to say, “Who wrote this shit?” And “You’ll get new lines tomorrow.”

Having the playwright (i.e. ME) there for rehearsals has been advantageous. Most of the time I just sit and watch and let the director work with the cast. But every so often they hit a rough patch in the script and it’s good that I’m there to explain my intent. And I probably save them hours of discussion by saying, “The problem is it sucks. I’ll give you something else.”

What makes the rewriting easier is that now I can tailor it to our specific actors. Whenever I write an original piece I try to picture someone in the role, even if it’s an actor I know I’ll never get. I don’t think Meryl Streep will want to play the neighbor mom in a pilot. But at least if you’re basing the character on a specific movie star it’s that much easier for the casting director to find a similar type.

In the case of my play, however, I didn’t model the characters after anyone famous. Try telling a casting director the star is sort of like my cousin Milty.

You would think that once the actors had to memorize blocking in addition to the script it would make it that much harder. But the opposite is true. The blocking helps them by giving them constant signposts.

My play has only two actors and very sparse sets. Our director, Andrew Barnicle, was able to do the initial blocking in only two days, which he acknowledged was incredibly quick. I asked how long it usually takes him to block a play. Three days.

We’re still at the stage where we have to leave a lot to the imagination. Lighting design and cues play a large part in my play and we won’t see that aspect of the production until we’re on the main stage – a couple of weeks from now. It’s like filming a movie in front of green screen. You have to imagine what it’s ultimately going to look like.

This is another reason why I’m glad I’m not directing this play. My inexperience would be so glaring at every turn. Andrew said to me one day that he was quite pleased. The actors seemed ahead of schedule – which is great, except I have no idea what the schedule is. At what point should they have the play memorized? At what point should they be in wardrobe? How do you know when you’re over-rehearsing? When can you let them go to the bathroom?

So the rehearsing continues. Stay tuned for more installments. And again, hope you get to see the final result. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hey, weren't you "Jerk at the bar?"

A trainer in my gym is also an actor. (I know – knock you over with a feather). He recently appeared on the Showtime series CALIFORNICATION playing the fan favorite, “Hollywood Asshole”. And knowing him, I bet he was good in it. Some of his previous roles included “Jerk at the Bar”, “Thug #2”, and to prove he has range – “Jogger”.

An actress I know has these impressive credits: “Vegas Showgirl” on CSI. Also “Bikini Girl”, “Sheik Girl”, “Cute Girl”, and “Homewrecker”.

Another actress friend boasts these credits on imdb: “Waitress”, “Saleswoman”, “Assistant Candidate #1”, and the part she’s best known for -- “Desperate Woman”.

And one of the most talented comic actors I know lists these on his resume: “Caterer”, “Waiter”, “Delivery Boy”, “Great Great Grandfather” (he was in his 30’s at the time), “Husband”, “Exterminator”, and my personal favorite – “Squid”.

Forget being a star, most actors in Hollywood would be thrilled for a role that actually had a name.

Usually these parts are one or two lines, usually day player roles. But not always. Remember the old guy who used to sit at the bar at CHEERS. His name was Al Rosen. He became a semi-regular. He had lines in probably thirty episodes. His name on the show was “Man Who Said Sinatra”.

“Sinatra” was the first line he was assigned, he got a good laugh, and a few weeks later the writers were looking to give a line to a bar patron and someone suggested, “What about the man who said Sinatra?” And thus a legend was born.

It’s not easy being an actor. And for every one who gets a part as “Punk #2” and “Guy in the Sewer” just remember – there are five others who auditioned for those parts and didn’t get them.

Yours truly,

Schmuck with blog

This was a re-post from 5 1/2 years ago.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Farewell Derek Jeter

Okay, this is a baseball post. So for many of you, see you tomorrow. But I love baseball, have opinions, and have a blog. So here are some observations from the bleachers:

I love Derek Jeter.   There, I admit it.  Even with all the hype, even though I'm not a Yankee fan, I think Derek Jeter is one of the finest and classiest ballplayers in history.  How classy?  Even though he's out of work starting Monday I bet he doesn't file for unemployment insurance.  I tip my cap. 

Yankee broadcaster, Suzyn Waldman, had the perfect line after Derek Jeter’s spectacular final-at-bat at Yankee Stadium (when he singled in the winning run) – “The last YANKEE has left the building.” Amen.

Clayton Kershaw deserves to win the National League Cy Young Award, the MVP, a Golden Glove, and the Heisman Trophy.

Wednesday night the Dodgers clinched the NL West at Dodger Stadium by defeating the Giants. However, had Milwaukee lost that day the Giants would have clinched the second Wild Card spot. So both teams would have had champagne locker room celebrations. This just points out the absurdity of two Wild Card teams. When 10 of 30 teams make it into the postseason that really diminishes the accomplishment.

Yes, more teams remain in contention, which boosts attendance, but at one times teams had to be the best. But MLB now eliminates those great pennant races. No longer are two teams vying for the division (or, at one time, league) championship, where when team can win 100 games and if the other wins 101 you go home – now both teams are in because the loser gets one of the Wild Cards. So the real final weekend suspense is who gets the second Wild Card slot. Wow! That’s like the big suspense at the Oscars is which movie finishes fourth for Best Picture?

MLB wonders why the World Series isn’t as big an attraction anymore. First of all, there are three playoff series in each league that occur before we even get to the World Series. Plus, since there is so much interleague play now, there is no longer any novelty from the National League playing the American League.

I’m rooting for the Kansas City Royals.
I’m sure when the schedule makers arranged for the Yankees to end the season in Boston they just assumed it would be a big series. Who knew that both teams would be eliminated? Kansas City at Chicago and Oakland at Texas are big series.

Considering the Tigers’ pitching staff and lineup, they should have run away with the AL Central. Same with the Dodgers in the NL West.

Yasiel Puig is such an exciting player. But he may be the dumbest Dodger since Pedro Guerrero, although it will take way more idiocy to reach Pedro’s level. Guerrero was on trial for drug trafficking and his defense team argued that he was too stupid to know what was going on. He won. His IQ is listed as 70.

Corey Kluber of Cleveland could sneak in and win the AL Cy Young Award. King Felix pitches tomorrow. It behooves him to throw another no-hitter.

Bud Selig really is retiring, right? I mean, this isn’t like Cher? He’s really going?

How about for the World Series we make the losing team the Wild Card World Series champion so both teams can celebrate the final game of the season?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Questions

How can you enjoy a weekend without Friday Questions?  You can't.  So here they are:

MDHaines is up first.

Does bias have to be a bad thing in Hollywood? If a liberal slant attracts a large liberal audience, or vice-versa, isn't the bottom line still whether not money is being made? Are actors really black listed because of politics?

Depends on whether networks believe politics are in vogue. A left wing slant didn’t hurt ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, MAUDE, and WEST WING.

But for a long time networks avoided political-themed shows at all costs. I told this story before (I’ve been doing this blog long enough now that I’ve probably told everything before), but in 1980 my partner, David, and I had a pilot at ABC about the White House Press Corps. We were not allowed to divulge the president’s party affiliation or even allowed to give the president a fictitious name. Can you believe how absurd that is? Now that same network has a big hit with SCANDAL where a U.S. president (who is named) is committing adultery. (But it’s with Kerry Washington, so America says thumbs up.)

The bottom line is that if political shows get ratings there will be more of them. No matter how they lean.

Back in the '50s actors were blacklisted all the time.  Today, it's a matter of whether the public likes the actor despite his or her beliefs.   Patricia Heaton has very polarizing political views  but that hasn't stopped her from starring in several successful series.   The general belief is that Hollywood is very left wing.  And yet Kelsey Grammer gets one gig after another. 

Massimo asks:

Some repetitions of ideas over the life of a series, surely, represent not a lack of originality, but the deliberate exploration of a theme. I'm thinking of the many episodes of "Frasier" that take place in hotel rooms, where the characters involved experience a psychological breakthrough (or breakdown)—Frasier and Lilith, Frasier and Niles, and in one particularly brilliant episode all three. Many of these episodes were Levine/Isaacs creations. I'm curious to know how this idea developed.

David Isaacs and I drew a lot of episodes involving the return of CHEERS characters. Four with Lilith, one with Sam, and one cameo by Diane.

Since they were all visiting Seattle the stories just tended to end up in hotel rooms. And in the two-parter “Adventures in Paradise” (featuring Lilith) we did hotel room scenes in Bora Bora. I must say, though, I have a real fondness for the hotel room scenes. They were probably the best scenes we wrote for the show. But when you get to write for actors the caliber of Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Bebe Neuwirth, Ted Danson, JoBeth Williams, and Tea Leoni how can you go wrong?

Maybe I should put all of our hotel room scenes together. It’s the closest David and I will ever come to writing PLAZA SUITE.

Bradley wonders:

Is there a particular script from one of your shows that you knew going in was not up to par, but had to move into production anyway? I'm thinking a situation like this is more likely toward the end of a season, when time is running short and you have to deliver an episode even if the script is not the best.

On multi-camera shows you know you have the week of production to rewrite the script. And honestly, there are episodes that you know going in still needs work. The story still doesn’t feel right. For political reasons you haven’t rewritten the original writer’s draft enough and it needs more rewriting. And like you said, it’s the end of the year. You’re tired and say “we'll fix it when its on its feet.”

But you always pay for that. Long rewrites nights just when you need them the least. It’s like when you have a depleted bullpen and your team is now playing an extra inning game and you’ve just entered the 15th inning.

That said, once we tackle a troubled script we do our very best to fix it and turn it into a good show.  And most times we're successful.  It's just that we're a wreck.  

At the beginning of a full-season of 22 episodes I just assume there will be one or two scripts that are just snake bitten. You don’t know which ones. And those are the episodes you have faith in going to the stage. And then to add two or three that you know are still undercooked, you’re just digging yourself into a deeper hole. But we all do it.

For single-camera shows (like MASH), we spent way more time in pre-production because we knew we had little change to revise once they started filming. And still a few episodes will be disappointing. Sometimes it’s the script, the story, the director, acting, rushed production schedule, misinterpretation, budget shortcuts – you name it.

Every series turns out bad shows occasionally. The trick is to keep them to an absolute minimum. But not every episode will be a gem.

From Blinky:

Did Alan Alda's influence on the show gradually steer it away from the edgy,lots-of-drinking, womanizing Movie version to a more PC, feminist no-so-much drinking version?

Yes. But I will say this -- he was totally gracious and respectful of the writers. He was never the 800-pound gorilla. Everything he pitched was in a positive manner and his convictions were sincere. I never felt he had an “agenda” and was trying to commandeer the creative direction of the show. He was very collaborative.

There were times when I disagreed with him, but I would work with Alan Alda again in a second.

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