Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Thanksgiving tradition

We all have our own cherished Thanksgiving traditions. Enjoying Grandma’s famous stuffing recipe (which oddly tastes a lot like Stove Top), the game of touch football on the lawn (they still talk about the year Uncle Ed’s stitches came loose), weird cousin Marla’s holiday decorations (festive paper turkeys with hatchets), everyone bringing their favorite dish, renewing the argument over whether cousin Marla should be hospitalized, etc. My fondest tradition was watching THE HOONEYMOONERS marathon on one of the local LA channels. The last few years it’s been discontinued but thanks to DVD’s, I now own all 39 classic episodes and can gleefully watch them again for the nine millionth time.  I assume Netflix or one of them also offers the show for streaming.

Produced in 1955 for one season only, THE HONEYMOONERS remains my favorite all-time sitcom. I don’t think there’s ever been a more inspired cast than Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. And Joyce Randolph was okay too.

I wonder what people in their 20’s would think of the show. Would it seem too retro? Would the black-and-white cause a disconnect? Would the comedy still hold up? I’d like to think it would. I’d like to think any generation would marvel at Art Carney demonstrating a golf swing, or Jackie Gleason learning to mambo.  Happily, my USC class seemed amused. 

If you’ve never seen THE HONEYMOONERS, or haven’t in a long time, I invite you to get the DVD collection or go on Netflix or Hulu and have your own Thanksgiving marathon. But JUST the classic 39 episodes. The collected sketches from Gleason’s variety show or the “lost episodes” don’t hold up. But those 39, for my money, are sitcom perfection. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Some of my favorite episodes are:

The Golfer
Better Living Through TV (the one I show to my USC class)
Oh, my Aching Back
The $99,000 Answer
Young at Heart
Unconventional Behavior
Hello, Mom

I bet as you read this I’m watching one of them right now.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYBODY!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bill Cosby -- mentor?

Not to just pile on, but this is an article I wrote about Bill Cosby for this blog a couple of years ago that was picked up by Gawker recently, resulting in a lot of traffic.  So I thought I would share it again for my regular readers. 

I’ve always been a big fan of Bill Cosby. Loved his comedy albums as a kid, took my wife to Las Vegas to see his stand-up act (more like a sit-down act. He just sat in a chair, smoked a cigar, and held a giant audience in the palm of his hand), and admired THE COSBY SHOW (at least when it started). He was a true original and his comedy came out of reality. You laughed because you related.  He was also a damn good spokesman for Jello. So I respect his work. We’re clear on that, right?

Recently, WRITTEN BY, the WGA’s monthly magazine did an article where they referred to Bill Cosby as a writer’s mentor. I think they were being a little overly generous. I wouldn’t call him a mentor.

I’d call him an egotist who worked his writers as if they were pack mules.

I know. You say potato and I say potato.

There’s no question that there was much to be learned from Bill Cosby, and those writers who survived did take lessons that helped them in their future work. But what a cost.

The article explains how the process worked on THE COSBY SHOW. The staff worked out a very rough story area on Wednesday, then wrote an entire script over the weekend. Cosby would shit on it at the table reading on Monday. If there were lines he didn’t like he would read them in funny voices. Rather rude to the writers who killed themselves all weekend to service you. Then would come the hours of notes, Cosby would tear the whole script apart.  Often, with his big cigar, he would literally blow smoke into the writers' faces.  And then the staff went back to now write a completely new script and cough. Those rewrites, even in the article, were termed grueling.

And this went on week after week. Hundred hour weeks were common. Month after month. At least he didn't smoke $2 Tiparillos.

Oh, and did I mention, at the end, Cosby ad libbed stuff?  I’m sure it was funny but why put everybody through that just to ultimately do it yourself?

Talented showrunners would understandably bolt after a season or even a few weeks of this. One writer was so fried after she quit that she spent six months working at the Coney Island Aquarium.

Are there shows with long hours? Absolutely. Is it difficult to write for a comedian who has a very strong voice? You betcha. But you know that going in.

However, to have a star just arbitrarily toss out draft after draft and force his staff to write around the clock for seven months is unfair and highly disrespectful.

I don’t know why the staff bothered to do anything for the table draft. Why work hard crafting jokes and scenes and moments when everything's just going to be dismissed? Just write down the first thing that comes to your mind and head for the train. The fact that the staff didn’t do that (and never did that) says something about how admirable and professional they were.

Fact: Writers burn out. Fact: Writers do not do their best work at 4:00 AM after being in the room for fifteen hours. How would an actor like it if he were asked to strenuously rehearse every day from 7:00 AM until 11:00 PM and then an audience would be brought in and he'd be asked to perform NOISES OFF for two hours?

The fact that Cosby established this grueling schedule and maintained it shows, to me, a lack of consideration and compassion. Yes, the show was a smash hit, and he was the 800 pound gorilla, but I will never be convinced it would have been any worse had the writers not spent 70% of their time writing material that everyone knew was gong to get thrown out. I could however, make an argument that the shows would have been even better had the staff not been walking zombies.  And if some of the better writers had not quit.

But that’s the way they did it. A number of people made fortunes of money (including sweater manufacturers). And the show is a classic.

Call Cosby brilliant, call him the man who saved sitcoms, call him a game-changer, a visionary, a titan in the world of comedy. But mentor? I was fortunate that I had mentors who didn’t send me screaming to an aquarium.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A riot photo that is a riot

I teach a class Monday nights at USC, which is in downtown Los Angeles.  As a result of the Ferguson protests the campus was under lockdown.  No one was allowed to enter or leave.  Scary times with helicopters hovering overhead and lots of sirens and flashing blue lights.  But that doesn't mean you can't get hungry.   Here are students getting a pizza delivered during lockdown.  I had to take this photo.  I bet you won't see anything similar in the paper. 


The Macy's Parade

I have no desire to go to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’ve been in New York several times during Thanksgiving and just my luck, every year it’s been cold. Maybe if they held it indoors one year… Perhaps down in the subway? Nah, it might be tough wedging Sponge Bob through a tunnel.

Brutal weather conditions aside, the parade is spectacular and organizers do an amazing job. It’s quite a spectacle and well worth seeing if you’re not a princess like me. But hey, I don’t go to football games in the winter either. Do fans realize these games are on television?  Or are they just looking for an excuse to use those flasks? 

In Manhattan in January I’ve been known to hail a cab to take me across the street.

I only attended the parade once. And that was because James L. Brooks had a condo along the parade route and had a bunch of people over for a viewing party. So I watched from the window while sipping my hot chocolate. Jim, and a few others were calling down to the passing celebrities. It helped that he actually knew these people.

More fun than going to the parade is watching them blow up the balloons the night before. I do recommend that. They do it near the Natural History Museum. Wear a sweater.

To me the Macy’s Parade is a TV event anyway, even when I’m in Manhattan. It signals the official beginning of the holiday season and gives us a chance to see all the “stars” of the midseason NBC shows that will be cancelled by every St. Paddy’s Day Parade. Al Roker will be interviewing these recycled sitcom actors and fawning all over them. Such excitement lay ahead when these new NBC shows premier. Remember GROWING UP FISHER? 1600 PENN? SMASH?

THE TODAY SHOW anchors always host. Matt Lauer pretends he’s really enjoying himself, but he has the same look as when they make him do the red carpet show for the Golden Globes. It must be the one day of the year Ann Curry is sitting by a cozy fire saying, "Ha ha bitches!" 

The advantage of viewing the parade on TV is you get to see the Broadway production numbers. My heart always goes out to those poor frozen kids in skimpy show outfits dancing and singing in 20 degree temperatures, sometimes being rained or snowed upon. Equity is such a strong union. Why isn’t there a rule that Broadway dancers are not allowed to perform if they can see their own breath? How many Rockettes blow out hamstrings?

And then the parade starts and I’m always wondering why certain celebrities got stuck on certain floats. “There’s Allison Janney on the foot care float.” Singers stop and lip sync the first chorus of their songs before they’re cut off by six Black Friday commercials. Balloons are the big attraction and Matt must act like he’s seeing the Snoopy balloon for the first time, even though he’s seen it thirty.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t enjoy a parade unless I’m also provided commentary. Instead of listening to a marching band I want to hear how many pancake breakfasts they held in order to finance this trip. I need to know how much helium is in Bullwinkle. And why is Allison Janney on that float shaped like a giant foot?

And then afterward, that big decision, that tough decision – football or the dog show?

Hope you have a great holiday season. And if you’re going to the parade, try to get a selfie with Kermit. Thanks. And again, wear a sweater.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Attention Cumberbitches!

And everyone else. There’s an awesome new movie coming out.  It's called THE IMITATION GAME and it's the best film I’ve seen so far this year (although in fairness, I’ve yet to see MOM’S NIGHT OUT). It stars Benedict Cumberbatch and open the 28th, hopefully in more than four theaters nationwide.

THE IMITATION GAME tells the true story of a British mathematician (guess who) who broke the code of the Nazi Enigma machine that essentially allowed us to defeat the Germans in World War II. So Cumberbatch is sort of the John Wayne of nerds. Also on hand are Keira Knightley (can I be a Knightleybitch?), and two Sunday night quality TV faves – the guy who plays Finn on THE GOOD WIFE and the guy who plays Tom on DOWNTON ABBEY.
The movie is thoroughly engrossing – the perfect blend of character study and thriller. For my money it’s way better that BEAUTIFUL MIND so I wonder if it will get the Oscar love I think it deserves. It’s also superior to THE KING’S SPEECH if you ask me (and it has a character who stutters).

The Weinstein Company produces it so it has a shot. But believe me, if it were directed by Spielberg there would be handsome glossy programs handed out at all industry screenings and we would be bludgeoned into making this the frontrunner. We would be told in no uncertain terms that it’s “important.” A smart, entertaining movie isn’t enough. And getting director Morten Tyldum to go on Charlie Rose is not a big whoop.

Whether THE IMITATION GAME is sexy enough for an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY exclusive behind-the-scenes on-the-set profile (Cumberbatch’s stock has probably plummeted now that he’s engaged) or an ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT exclusive behind-the-scenes on-the-set featurette remains to be seen. But fortunately, Spielberg isn’t coming out with some three-hour epic starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Winston Churchill so there may be hope.

If you think encrypting a code with 159,000,000,000,000 possibilities is hard, just try making a riveting screenplay out of it. Kudos to Graham Moore. Cumberbatch and Knightley are worth listening to as well as looking at. And director Mortem Tyldum (sure to become a household name) turned what could have been a two-hour eye chart into a cinematic delight.

THE IMITATION GAME – all it needs is a catchy tagline. How about…?

WAR IS HELL… TO THE THIRD POWER

or

GOD IS MY COSINE 

Update:  A reader made an excellent point.  I write a wonderful review about a hero mathematician whose name has been ignored and then I never mentioned his name.  Alan Turing.    My extreme bad.   His name deserves to be over the title.   Alan Turing. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Hollywood Tradition -- My Thanksgiving Travel Tips


The Thanksgiving holiday is the peak travel weekend of the year (in America. The rest of the world could give a rat’s ass about Thanksgiving.) So as a public service, here again -- and with a few additions -- are some travel tips:

Leave for the airport NOW.

Bring no luggage. Wearing the same clothes for a week is a small price to pay. Plus, the airlines now charge you for check-in luggage AND blankets. Pretty soon pressurized air will also be extra.

Southwest has no reserved seating. Get in one of the latter groups boarding. You don’t want to be one of the first to sit then watch as fifty people glance at the empty seat next to you, then to you, and decide to sit somewhere else. Even in the last row.

If you have children under the age of five tell your relatives one has an earache and make everyone come to YOU.

Those people in the Stand-By line – those are the same people who think they can get rich selling Amway products, and the Tooth Fairy really exists. Don’t fly Stand-By unless you like sleeping in airport terminals for five days.

If you rent from Hertz plan on a two hour wait just to get your car. Unless you’re one of their “preferred” customers in which case allow only one hour.

When rental car companies recommend you use premium gasoline put in regular. It’s cheaper, it’ll run just fine, and it’s not your car.

Before you pull off the road to a Chuck E. Cheese for lunch, remember their namesake is a rat.

Air travelers: avoid O’Hare. Better to land in Dallas, even if your destination is Chicago.

If you’re dropping someone off at the airport don’t even think you’ll be able to stop. Have your travelers practice the tuck and roll from a moving car. The first couple of times they’ll bounce but by the fourth or fifth try they should have it down.

Watch the DVD of HOSTEL on your laptop. The bigger the screen, the better.

There’s more legroom in Exit rows. When the flight attendants ask if you are willing to help out in case of emergency just say yes. Like it’s going to make a big difference anyway if you crash.

There are NO bargains in the Sky Mall magazine.

When you’re stuck in St. Louis and all flights are grounded (and trust me, you WILL be), grab lunch at JBucks.

Never pay to see an in-flight movie starring Debra Messing.

Put a big strip of duct tape on your luggage so you’ll recognize it easily. And it makes a nice fashion statement.

If you’re flying with small children see if there’s such a thing as “Flintstones Valium”.

In-flight alcoholic beverages are expensive. Better to drink heavily at the airport before boarding.

And finally, watch PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES again and think of it as a “best” case scenario.

Happy trails to you all.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanks...

... to everyone who honored my request and told me where you're from, how you found the blog, etc.   And also for all the kind things you said about me & my little blog.  Thanks for letting me into your life.    Oh... I need a photo.  Wait.   Okay, here ya go.


Mike Nichols & Elaine May

With the passing of Mike Nichols this week, the world lost a superstar talent. He'd won Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, everything. But many younger people might not know that in the late '50s/early '60s he and Elaine May were a comedy team. They both came out of an improv background in Chicago, and the scenes they did together just clicked in a magic way. As a comedy team they were a sensation. Number one selling albums, numerous TV appearances, and even a stint on Broadway.

So I thought today I would show some of their routines. They're dry, subtle, but very funny and very character based. Enjoy watching two budding geniuses.

Now the first one is from the 1959 Emmys and begins with Richard Nixon of all people. Stay with it though.



Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Questions

First off, so sorry to hear about the passing of Mike Nichols.  I never met him personally and don't know what I could add to all the other heartfelt tributes, but he was a giant.  There damn well better be a special salute at the Oscars next year.   Anyway, I'm back from Atlanta with some Friday Questions.  

Marianne gets us started.

I was watching Madam Secretary last night and I noticed that Bebe Neuwirth plays quite a similar character to that of Lilith. How difficult is it for actors to avoid falling victim to typecasting?

Actors can certainly get pigeonholed. It’s up to them to not accept those similar roles (if they can), or break out and play something different.

One of the reasons Ted Danson took the role of BECKER was that he would play such a different character from Sam Malone.

This is why you see a lot of known actors doing independent films. They don’t get paid much but they get to show off other sides of themselves.

On the other hand, there are actors who don’t mind playing essentially the same part over and over. They’re working.

When I was showrunning and an agent said a certain actor I was inquiring about didn’t do episodic television I always asked, “Who else is paying him $5,000 this week?” You’d be surprised how often that worked.

On a similar note, Michael wants to know:

Some supporting actors from TV shows disappear after their show ends while others continue to pop up in new shows in varying degrees. In your opinion, which factor is most important in determining this - talent, a good agent, simple luck?

All of the above. How identified they were with their character is also a factor. How versatile they can be comes into play (again, Ted Danson).

An actor’s TV-Q becomes a factor. That’s research that determines how well-known an actor is and more importantly, how popular they are. Yes, it is pretty heartless and cutthroat. Welcome to Glitter City.

But there are some TV actors that the public just loves. Dylan McDermott is one of those guys. You’ll notice he gets a series every year. Chris Noth is another. Julia Louis-Dreyfus also tops that list.

And then there are actors from hit shows that just cash in their winnings and walk away from the table. They do theatre, they paint, the move away and live happy lives. David Schramm from WINGS would be an example of that. He’s quite content not guesting on television shows. Yes, there is life after sitcoms.

Lou H. asks:

When a multi-camera sitcom episode needs to use multiple sets, is it still shot in sequence, with everybody moving from set to set, or are things optimized a bit so that, say, all the scenes on one set are shot in a single batch, even if that makes the story a bit harder for the studio audience to follow?

It’s shot in sequence so the audience can follow it. Yes, this causes delays due to costume changes, but if the audience can’t follow the story there’s really no point. And the time it takes for the cameras to roll from one set to another is maybe three minutes.

Single camera shows (shot like movies) will shoot out of sequence. They’ll film all the scenes in one location then move to the next. Not being an actor myself I’ve always felt that had to be difficult on actors – having to adjust their attitudes based on what the scene requires. “Okay, in this one you’re distraught.” “Now you’re hopeful.” I don’t know how they can just turn on and off emotions that quickly and still keep the whole piece in their heads. But that’s why they get the big bucks and their sex tapes go viral.

And finally, from Jim S:

How do you know if an actor has "it" that x factor that makes actor A better than actor B?

There is no formula.  It's just a sense you have.  If two actors are auditioning and you can't take your eyes off of one of them, that's a good sign.

In some cases you just "know."  They have an ease, a charisma, a presence.  Almost instantly you can tell.

On the other hand, some X-factor actors can go unnoticed.   George Clooney knocked around for years.  NBC once passed on Tom Cruise for a pilot.  Madonna also got turned down.   I helped out on a short-lived series in the '80s (doing punch up one day a week).  The actress who starred in the show was God awful.  I later learned she was chosen over Annette Bening.  

So the answer is:  you never know, but you do.

What’s your Friday Question? You know you have one.