Friday, May 22, 2015
kelly childress starts us off:
Thanks to you I found Fresh Off the Boat, the only funny new show on the air. And now I've looked up YOUR FAMILY OR MINE. It's one of those shows where I like the actors involved but don't like the characters. It also feels "forced". I hate that in comedies. That was never felt in Cheers or Frasier, where the actors had to deliver the punch line in such a noticeable way. Is this the director's fault? Are they being told to act like this?
A couple of reasons for this: One – the actors don’t trust the material. So they push and try to wring laughs out of tepid lines. I can spot actors working too hard almost immediately.
The second reason is merely stylistic choice. There are some shows that prefer heightened, more in-your-face performances. It’s not my personal taste but hey, it works for some shows.
What do you do with all the screeners you receive year after year? Is there some village in Africa or Central America that gets all the losers, like they do with the t-shirts and caps of the losing Super Bowl team?
No. You’re not allowed to pass them on. I take a scissors, cut them up, and recycle them.
I will admit that there have been a couple of occasions where I was curious to see a show so I kept the screener but didn’t get to it until months after the Emmys were awarded and I really liked the show and thought, “Shit. I would have voted for this.” Oops.
Mike opens up old wounds.
Reading Wikipedia, I see AfterMASH came in 10th in the ratings its first season on the air, when it aired in MASH's timeslot of Mondays at 9. For the second season, CBS moved it to Tuesdays at 8 to take on The A-Team (which had essentially killed off Happy Days the season before), the show got killed in the ratings, and was canceled in December. Given the show's success the first season, do you think it deserved more of a chance?
No. It should have been canceled after the first season. The ratings from week to week just kept falling (free falling actually). We were making midcourse corrections constantly in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding. I was shocked when it was picked up for year two. CBS comedy development that year must've really been God awful.
We returned the second season with more new cast changes, new opening titles, new time slot, new theme song, and even a new color scheme. But America had voted.
And finally, from CL:
With your background in both TV and sports, it seems like you'd be a natural to write/direct an episode of ESPN's 30 for 30 series. If they came calling (and they should!) what sports-related story would you like to tell?
They may have done this. I don't know. If they did, I didn't see it. But I would do a profile on what a scumbag owner Robert Irsay was for not only relocating the beloved Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis but for the cowardly way he did it. He just packed up the offices and moved unannounced in the middle of the night.
To this day I root against the Colts every game. And hey, I wasn’t even a Colts fan growing up. I was a Rams fan. But Baltimore got a raw deal.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Mere hours after David Letterman's last show and the myriad of tributes and tears that led up to it, his set was dismantled and is already being hauled away in dumpsters. Don't believe me? Take a look.
For all the "love" and gratitude, this is a tough business.
The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:
Ken, a favorite show of mine, Undateable, has been renewed, but according to NBC, all of its episodes will be broadcast live. While the Live episode the show recently had worked, what would you think (as either a director, writer or showrunner) if the network forced this on you? How would it change how you drafted scripts or blueprinted the series?
To me it’s just a gimmick, and the novelty will wear off quickly. What you’re then left with is a sub-quality product. Yes, there’s the fun of the unpredictability of watching a live performance. And there will be mistakes. But most of the time they won’t be major gaffes, there’ll be mangling lines or killing good jokes because they’re not told correctly. And a level of nerves that will permeate the performances.
The regular cast may get more proficient but the guest cast won’t. You might see two levels of acting going on. There also may be actors you’d like to hire for guest star roles who will pass because they don’t want to go on live.
Actors may not always hit their marks or cameras will be late in getting to shots resulting in some ragged on screen moments. Boom shadows and other technical problems may arise from time to time. A light blows out and suddenly an actor is in shadow in the middle of a room. Yeah, these are glitches but they’re not fun glitches.
On these live shows now the cast and crew are generally given more time to rehearse. And everyone is on their toes. What happens when you’re cranking them out every week? There will be many sloppy moments.
And good luck if someone gets sick. There are no understudies.
Scriptwise, you are very restricted. Stories must be plotted that can be shot in real time. Wardrobe changes must be finessed. You must design the scripts so that you can add or subtract in the last five minutes. It’s not like SNL where they just feature silly skits. One story has to carry through the entire episode. And the actors must never break character. If there is a flub that’s noticeable it can take the audience right out of the show. Or if an actor accidentally drops an important piece of information then the audience will be confused as the story unfolds.
Writers won’t have as many opportunities to tweak the script in live situations. You need to give the actors sufficient time to learn their lines – especially if they have only one chance to get them right (or two if they do a separate version for the west coast, which they should otherwise it’s not live to them). Normally on a multi-camera show, we’ll give actors new lines right before they go on camera. But we can always shoot it again if the actor flubs.
You can’t fall behind on scripts either. You can’t just juggle the production schedule to add a hiatus week. And in this day and age, networks note you to death. Do you think that will change just because the show will be live? No. Showrunners will still have the logjam when network notes on outlines and story notions and drafts are late in arriving. Everything will be a mad scramble. Not the best way to mount a show.
Here’s the good news for showrunners – no pick ups, no post production, no editing, no network editing notes. The show’s over – you go home. But that’s the only good news.
At the end of the day, you’re going to turn out a product that’s less than your best. Showrunners are going to cringe when watching it back. There will be fifty little things the showrunner would want to correct if he could. If the show was filmed he could correct forty of them.
To me, the only reason to do it would be if you had a series that was extremely topical. That way the jokes could reflect news events or pop culture events in a timely fashion.
For UNDATEABLE, it’s the Faustian contract they signed. Without the “live” gimmick they most likely never would have gotten renewed. But they’ll be paying the price. It’s a bitch to do a decent sitcom even when you have time. This just adds a whole extra layer of pressure.
Is it worth it? We’ll see when the ratings come out. I sincerely wish everyone concerned the best of luck.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
... this morning after Howard's show on Sirius/XM Channel 100. Probably around 11:00 EDT/ 8:00 PDT. This was an unexpected surprise. Howard apparently read the article I wrote on him last week and invited me to do this. Should be fun. If you're not already a subscriber, the best way to hear me is to buy a new car in the next half hour that has a three-month free trial of Sirius/XM. Thanks.
With tonight being Dave's historic last show, I thought I would re-post my thoughts on his retirement when it was announced last April. Like everyone, I will be watching at 11:30 (after watching INSTANT MOM at 11:00 on TV LAND -- tonight's new episode written by Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson). I'm posting this today while there's still some perspective and not tomorrow when everyone will be swept up in the emotion of the moment. Please feel free to share your thoughts as well.
I think you have to be of a certain age to really appreciate Letterman’s brilliance. For the last ten years he’s just been this cranky guy, quick with a one-liner, but primarily resting on his laurels. The Top Ten, Vegas lounge banter with Paul, monologue.
(Remember, this is a re-post)
Then something happened along the way. He went from “you and me against them” to “me against all of you.” It’s almost as if he got tired of his act before we did. But a meanness crept in, and the bits and remotes were phased out. From time to time something could energize him and he was once again fantastic. Unfortunately, those instances became few and far between.
And now that he’s announced his retirement you’re not reading an outcry of people saying, “No! Don’t leave us! You still got ten good years left!” Just the thought that Vin Scully is going to retire from announcing Dodger games already has the city of Los Angeles in deep mourning. Letterman’s announcement was met with “thanks for a job well done.”
I’m sure Letterman would hope his legacy will be up there with Johnny Carson, but that’s not going to happen. One thing to keep in mind – ever since Dave went to CBS he’s lost. Jay Leno and NBC always beat him. For twenty years. Johnny Carson trounced all competition. Carson’s numbers were larger than all three late night talk shows combined. And Carson was better. His class, relatability, sense of humor, and interview skills were unmatched. Letterman may have been funnier, but Carson’s humanity trumped him.
Letterman will be remembered fondly, as he should, and who’s to say what he’ll do in the future? I don’t think he’ll just disappear from the airwaves like Carson. My hope is that he finds another project that reignites that fire and passion. Again, Letterman at his best is a comic force of nature.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
A few years ago, to promote the book (BUY the damn thing already!) my pal, Howard, Great Big Radio, Hoffman and I set out to Woodland Hills to make a book trailer for YouTube. I thought it would be fun to tour the old house. The lovely 150 year-old woman who owned it practically chased us off the property with her cane. It was literally “You kids get off my lawn!” So we filmed a segment on the sidewalk before she called the SWAT team. (The trailer is included at the bottom of the post.)
Recently, my childhood friend, Wende, who spent many carefree hours in my house pleading with her mother, “Can we GO?” noticed there was a estate sale. So naturally I barreled down there. It was my one chance to walk through my house again and maybe buy some shower curtain rings.
Needless to say it was strange to walk through the house after all these years. Everything seemed smaller, which I hear is quite common. I was smaller then, and as everyone knows, houses shrink.
I must’ve spent a half hour walking through the house. Each room unleashed a flood of memories. Happy times, life lessons (most learned the hard way), and remembering loved ones who were so alive then and now are gone.
I left feeling very wistful. I can’t imagine ever walking in there again (unless to return the stapler I bought for a dollar if it doesn’t work). At one time it was my home. Now I felt like I didn’t belong. On the other hand, being back, I symbolically revisited that kid who grew up there and hopefully took some of “him” home with me. It’s amazing the things you find at estate sales.
Monday, May 18, 2015
I’m sure there are a gazillion reviews (all in 140 characters or less), but here’s mine:
Backstory: I’ve been a huge fan of MAD MEN since Matt Weiner showed me his original script years before it was made. The concept was brilliant – a man living a lie in an industry built on selling lies. And my favorite era is the ‘60s (as evidenced by my book, which you need to buy immediately even if you already have one). I saw a rough cut of the pilot even before titles and music was added. It was clear from day one that this was something special. I thought the first season was the second greatest first season of a drama ever (behind the SOPRANOS – it’s hard to top Tony’s mother putting a hit out on him). Every episode was a little masterpiece, filled with fascinating characters all doing surprising and compelling things. Betty shooting pigeons with a cigarette dangling from her lips was enough to qualify the series for Hall of Fame status.
After that the series shifted for me. It became a show about disgruntled people who were never satisfied no matter what they had. It also started introducing subliminal references to past moments. You really had to be an expert in the MAD MEN universe to fully appreciate every nuance. I would watch an episode then read Alan Sepinwall to find out what I just saw. Eventually I wasn’t interested enough to do even that.
And yet, along the way, there were still spectacular episodes or scenes. The “suitcase” chapter with Don and Peggy was exceptional. Even though the series had become somewhat uneven I always tuned in. It’s like in baseball – every time Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan took the mound you knew you had a chance to see a no-hitter.
So I was eagerly anticipating the finale. The only thing I was certain of was that Matthew Weiner would find an ending no one expected. I was right.
But what I saw was essentially a 1:17 minute shaggy dog story. Interspersed with neat wrap ups of the other characters (in some cases through lovely scenes) was this winding tale of Don Draper going to an Esalen retreat (popular in California during those hippy-dippy times), experiencing enlightenment, having his emotions stripped bare, discovering inner peace only to learn that his takeaway from all that was to create the “Buy the world a Coke” ad campaign. (That is if I interpreted it correctly.) What a cynical but wickedly funny ending. And what a relief. I was wondering, does Matt really believe all that psycho-bullshit was going to change Don Draper? (That said, I’m sure there are those viewers who believe that that was the ending and maybe the Coke commercial was just in Don’s mind. I so hope those people are wrong.)
But it took a long time to get there. Was the payoff big enough? Yeah… I guess… maybe. But I will say this: the JUSTIFIED finale was better and way more satisfying. Sorry. I know I’m spitting on the cross.
Even though Sally and Betty told Don not to come back and take care of the kids and it appeared he was ceding to their wishes, I’d like to think that part of his decision to return to the world of advertising was to have more of a role in his children’s lives after Betty passed on. (I loved how Betty continued to smoke.)
As a writer, it bothered me, that Weiner attributed an actual campaign to his fictional character when in fact, a real person other than Weiner or a MAD MEN writer came up with it.
A happy ending of Don finding peace is not a happy ending. The guy was fascinating and had glimmers of kindness, but let’s be real -- he was a giant asshole. Joan and Peggy deserved happy endings.
Pete’s going to love it in Kansas City. With access to private jets he’ll be home four days a year. If that.
It bothered me that so much of the episode was played over phone calls. They’re static. And I think they undercut the big one – between Don and Peggy.
You know it's a very special episode of MAD MEN when Bobby has some lines.
Poor Gene. Every time something happens he gets sent out of the room. In forty years he’ll be the guy at the Esalen retreat whining that no one chooses him in the refrigerator.
When Don broke down crying I was so relieved he didn’t confess to killing a Korean baby to avoid detection.
I bet Coke sales spike today. And cigarette sales go up.
I didn't read Alan Sepinwall's recap. I hope I got even some of my interpretations right.
I look forward to Matt’s next project. And I look forward to your thoughts on the finale.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
I know what you’re thinking – what a cliffhanger!! To refresh, I’m writing an action-drama pilot utilizing all the great writing conventions they employ on these shows. Part one was yesterday. And part two is right now. Drama is welcome and we know characters.
GUNS & EMO
By Ken Levine
Previously on “Guns & Emo”…
SUPER QUICK CUTS TO PAST EPISODES.
This wasn’t in the brochure.
I haven’t eaten all day.
Let me pull up the blueprints.
I speak Turkish. Why?
This room is fine. Does the window open?
I need some new shirts. Do you think you could get me an employee discount?
EXT. ASHTIYAN, IRAN – DAY
FINAL SHOT OF PART ONE: LIBBY AT A CAFÉ THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER OF A SNIPER’S RIFLE.
The sniper is just about to squeeze the trigger….
When the WAITER approaches with Libby’s coffee. The viewfinder shifts to the waiter and a shot is fired.
BACK TO SCENE
The waiter drops to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
Libby ducks under the table for cover. Rodney is already there, crouched.
Didn’t I tell you? This is why you always get a table inside.
Hey, gimme a break. I skipped GIA training because they needed someone with my body type to double for a double agent in Dublin. That’s always the risk the G.I.A. has sending me into the field on these dangerous assignments but it never seems to stop them from assigning me anyway.
THEIR POV -- HOTEL ACROSS THE WAY
There must be twenty identical windows.
Over there! That window.
BACK TO SCENE
This is a bad angle.
Awkwardly, Libby fires one shot.
THEIR POV – HOTEL
The sniper falls out of the window and crashes to the ground below.
Well, there goes his Hilton Honor points.
(breaking into smile)
They race to the scene. Fortunately, no one else is interested and people just cross by the body paying it no mind.
Libby and Rodney crouch down and check him out.
Herbert? Who is he?
INT. G.I.A. COMMAND CENTER – SAME
Monitors show every street from every angle. This town too must have 10,000 cameras in place.
HERBERT’S COMPUTER SCREEN – A satellite view of the planet earth. It zooms right in to the dead sniper’s face. One second later this word appear on the screen: MATCH.
BACK TO SCENE
His name was Abdolreza Ghazanfari – “Cooter” to his friends. Professional sniper. His services have been used by Al Queda, the Russian Mob, and the California Highway Patrol. The number 34th most wanted terrorist in the world. Up from 57.
So why has no one ever take him out?
We think he also works for us.
Rodney begins patting him down.
No incriminating or classified documents here.
Let’s check his room. Maybe we can find out who hired him and who his target was.
Wouldn’t it be funny if it was the waiter?
(breaking into a smile)
Libby begins climbing a hedge to begin scaling the wall in her heels. Rodney fishes around the guy’s pocket and pulls out his room key.
INT. HOTEL ROOM – MOMENTS LATER
Libby and Rodney are going through the sniper’s things. There are photos of his targets, including Libby. There are also files and folders strewn about with the words TOP SECRET on them.
What a break that he has Al Queda’s plans for the next five years.
(showing her a document)
Look at this. His boss, the mysterious head of this entire operation, the man we’ve been unsuccessfully tracking for over three years is planning to meet him here in his room tonight at 10.
Then won’t he be surprised when he finds us instead of him?
Yeah. I’d love to see his face.
Oh wait, I will see his face.
(breaking into a smile)
(dialing her cellphone)
Hi Craig. Listen, honey, I won’t be able to pick the kids up from school today. I’m sorry. Surprise inventory. They do that from time to time… Okay, twice a week. Don’t wait up. I’ll be in late. Tell Ally I rescued her favorite dress. I sewed on a new sleeve. Love you.
She hangs up and sighs.
It’s tough when you’ve got a family.
How do you manage this?
That’s right. We have seven hours. A good chance for us to sit back for a few minutes and reveal personal information about ourselves.
Then I’m going on a break.
Okay. I’ll start I guess. I was abused by my uncle at a family party when I was seven. Whoa! I’ve never told anyone that before.
INT. HOTEL ROOM – SEVEN HOURS LATER
…So when I hold this gun in my hand, it’s like…this is what my husband’s penis was supposed to be. Not some little pathetic ladies’ derringer. Know what I mean?
Yeah, well, it’s almost ten.
Gee, we didn’t get around to talking about you.
Next week in Zurich.
There’s a knock at the door. They both aim their weapons. A long beat, then:
Uh, one of you should answer it.
Libby opens the door. It’s SKIP, the man with the laptop in Bogotá is standing there. Libby and Rodney are surprised.
Have you ever seen Cooter before?
Libby invites him in and points to Rodney.
This is Cooter.
No, it’s not. It’s Rodney. He escorted me back to the U.S. yesterday.
You’d know this if you didn’t just split right in the middle of a mission.
That is bad form.
Yeah, where were you?
Do you all mind?!
You can put the gun down.
(lowers it, then points it again)
Wait a minute. If you’re here to see the sniper who was supposed to kill me then you’re a bad guy.
But the sniper could be one of ours, which means he’s on our side.
(lowers gun, then points it again at Skip)
Hey. But if he was going to kill me and you’re on his side then everyone is against me.
Or any one of them could be double-agents.
Remember what I said? You can’t trust anybody.
You never said that.
You said you were frustrated by the lack of trust in this business and he said “Never lose that”. It’s the same thing.
No, it’s not.
Yes, it is.
Hey, you’re supposed to back me. You’re my partner.
(points his gun at her)
Yeah, well… about that.
What?! You?! You’re with them?
Which still could be us.
Libby is completely confused. Rodney is just about to shoot her when…
A flurry of bullets enter from the window and kills Skip and Rodney instantly. Libby is unharmed.
The gunfire ends. Libby goes to the window.
LIBBY’S POV – the manager from Seattle’s Finest stands at the café holding an M-16, waving up at her.
No one messes with my help!
(breaks into a smile)
Oh… Seattle’s Finest Manager.
I’m represented by UTA. They’re now accepting bids. Who says writers can’t change genres?
Saturday, May 16, 2015
I know it’s a guilty pleasure but I watch all those action-adventure shows on USA and TNT. And like most people who watch TV, I thought: “Hey, I could do that.” So I decided to knock out a pilot for my own action-adventure series. After studying the genre carefully, I think I’ve artfully woven in all the standard conventions. So what do you think?
GUNS & EMO
By Ken Levine
EXT. BOGOTA, COLOMBIA – DAY
(Actually New York Street, Paramount but some trucks and a well-placed burro accurately create the desired effect.) Crowded (within reason).
There’s a commotion. Someone is being chased. It’s beautiful, athletic, resourceful, tough-but-vulnerable LIBBY LANGER, dressed in clingy summer dress, toting a pistol, hauling ass.
Running alongside is RODNEY her young, good-looking, charming, self-deprecating, slightly-ethnic-but-we-don’t-know-from-where partner who is always available for a quick quip or another gun clip.
They’re being hotly pursued by THREE ANGRY GUNMEN with M-16’s. Thousands of rounds are fired at our heroes, just missing them.
While running, Libby turns back for a split-second. She fires one round and kills one of the gunmen.
CLOSE UP – Libby’s feet, running. Her high heels are a blur.
BACK TO SCENE
(into her ear bud)
Talk to me!
INT. G.I.A. (GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY) COMMAND CENTER – SAME
Hundreds of monitors line the walls of this high-tech monitoring station. Fortunately there are video cameras on every corner in Bogota.
HERBERT, nerdy-but-handsome, skinny-but-athletic surveys the monitors.
Okay, Libby. In about 100 feet you’re going to come to dilapidated shack and then a Seattle’s Finest Coffee. Make a left.
See it. Thanks.
I’ll have a half-caff with cream.
(smiling and shooting)
Libby and Rodney turn the corner, still dodging a relentless barrage of bullets.
Remember Libby. You and Rodney have to get that thumb drive of the secret formula of the undetectable nerve gas to your contact within the next 90 seconds otherwise the additional chip that’s been planted in it will detonate a dirty bomb releasing the gas that will kill everyone within a thousand miles.
Then they better make your half-caff quick.
(breaking into a smile)
I see the contact!
A MAN with a laptop strapped to his back hangs precariously from a fourth story building.
I’m pulling up the blueprint now.
I’d say that dress does that sufficiently.
(breaks into a smile)
Libby leaps up on a café table, hurtles onto the café awning, which serves as a trampoline springing her high into the air where she grabs hold of a clothes line and uses it to swing up to the exact spot where the man is holding on for dear life.
The winter morn is cold.
But the spring night is warm.
Okay. Just had to make sure.
You can’t be too careful. Not in this business.
Know what you mean. Guns and bullets I can handle. But this lack of trust… I dunno.
Never lose that.
Libby bounds into the window, turns and offers her hand.
Here. Grab it.
He reaches up and even though he’s 250 pounds and she’s 100 she manages to hoist him inside easily. They tumble into the room.
INT. ROOM -- SAME
Good thing they make those laptop lighter.
(breaks into a smile)
I don’t know your name.
Ten seconds. Libby, if you don’t disarm that thumb drive it will set off a gas that will…
Yeah, yeah. Got it.
She hands the thumb drive to the man who inserts it into the USB port. Libby holds her breath, bracing for the worst. But nothing happens.
Done. It’s disarmed.
Libby collapses in relief.
Good job, Libby.
The door bursts open and Rodney enters.
Okay, they’re all dead.
I don’t know your name either.
It’s better that way.
Oh hell, his name is Skip.
Your job now is to escort him back to headquarters. If he’s abducted by the wrong people they could use his expertise to recreate another formula he was working on that would cause half the population of the planet to fall asleep and the other half to tuck them in.
(checking her watch)
Oh. Rodney. Could you do this? There’s someplace I’ve got to be.
This really is a two-person job.
She gives him a quick peck on the cheek. He swoons.
I owe ya.
She climbs out the window, grabs the clothesline, and swings out of view.
EXT. NEW YORK STREET (PARMAMOUNT) -- NIGHT
Dressed to look like a New York street.
INT. KITCHEN – SAME
CRAIG, boring-but-handsome, is emptying the dishwasher as Libby bursts in.
Hi, Craig. Sorry I missed dinner.
She kisses him.
They make you work too many hours at the Nordstrom Rack.
Why are you covered in dirt and smell like manure?
Uh… we’re decorating the loading dock.
(buying it completely)
(in her ear)
Nothing. Thanks for doing the dishes.
No, problem. Hey, you free for lunch tomorrow?
Tomorrow? Hmmm. Not sure. Let’s talk in the morning.
EXT. ASHTIYAN, IRAN – NEXT DAY
(New York Street on Paramount lot. Sand and some bazaar tents should do the trick. Same extras re-dressed.) Libby sits at the Seattle’s Finest outdoor patio. She’s on her cellphone.
Hey, Craig. Something came up. Afraid I won’t be able to make it for lunch.
ANOTHER SHOT – LIBBY THROUGH THE VIEWFINDER OF A SNIPER’S RIFLE.
SUPER: TO BE CONTINUED
CUT TO BLACK.
Tomorrow: Part two. Are you at the edge of your seat?