Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Some final Emmy thoughts

A follow-up to yesterday's review of the Emmys.

The ratings were about the same as last year. So congratulations to the Chabad telethon.

In response to my comment about winner Jim Parsons I received a nice note from David Hyde Pierce reminding me that HE is the young David Hyde Pierce.

MAD MEN’S Matt Weiner also emailed to say that his co-writer Erin Levy was being hugged by her father out of camera view and that’s why she lagged so far behind him bounding up to the stage. Thanks Matt. There should be walk-off music for winners who hug too long in the aisles.

The three-hour show finished on time although I’m sure the producers were worried that the minute they got off the air they’d realize, “Shit! We forgot to give out Best Actor”.

One reason the Emmys didn’t get stellar ratings is that a lot of people (most everyone I talked to) found themselves saying, “Who’s that?” fifty times during the broadcast. That’s the good and bad news of all the new faces now on the TV scene.

Jimmy Fallon generally got very positive reviews. Of course, after the year the five reality show emcees hosted, Manny Ramirez could do a better job.

How many A-list parties will Temple Grandin be invited to NEXT year? She’s this year’s Roberto Benigni.

What does the Academy have against serial killers?

Please Academy: no more lame bits introducing the accountants, don’t strive for class and elegance and then feature Kim Kardashian, don’t have washed-up pop stars sing their own dreary compositions for the “In Memoriam” feature. Think of the dear departed themselves. Do you think Soupy Sales would have okayed that Jewel song for his funeral?

I couldn’t tell. There’s a rumor going around that for the “In Memoriam” tribute they showed a shot of Fred Savage and identified him as Corey Haim.

BREAKING BAD won’t have their new season on the air soon enough to be eligible for next year’s Emmys. So Hugh Laurie will lose to Jon Hamm instead of Bryan Cranston next year.

The most beautiful girl of the night was never shown on camera. Brook Burke of (judging by the just-announced contestants) DANCING WITH THE FREAK SHOW.

How soon until the major networks dump the Emmys and they’ll start rotating between cable networks? So one year they’re on LOGO, then BOOMERANG, then the Home Shopping Channel.

Comedy writing staffs for every show spent at least two hours this morning ripping the shit out of every single person who won. An hour just on Julia Ormond alone. But all the winners were ingrates, lucky, talentless, undeserving, fat. All except Betty White. She'll be spared.

Thanks for all the nice comments on my Emmy review. It was much harder to write this year because the show wasn’t that bad. I think Fox has it next year so that shouldn’t be a problem. Tim McCarver will make the perfect host.

Monday, August 30, 2010

My 2010 Emmys Review

Shorter than the Oscars and gayer than the Tonys – it’s the 62nd annual Emmy Awards! This year starring Betty White and Temple Grandin.

For the first time ever the Emmys were shown live in Los Angeles. NBC recognized they were up against very stiff competition this year -- the Chabad Telethon.

What an inconvenience that three-hour tape delay used to be. Every year my wife would have to excuse herself in the middle of the show, call home, and say, “Daddy lost. Go to bed.”

Jimmy Fallon was this year’s host. He was amusing at times. But my choice would have been Joel McHale. Or Rabbi Boruch Schlomo Cunin who killed at the Chabad telethon!

The opening production number was great fun. And they established right away, if you need a laugh – go to Betty White. She was in skits, promos, film clips. I was surprised she didn’t appear in a scene from THE PACIFIC blasting the shit out of the Japs. But Betty coaching Jon Hamm on dance moves was hilarious, and in general the number got the show off to a spirited start.

NBC is now so afraid of defecting viewers that during winners’ speeches they alert you to upcoming star appearances. How’d you like to be on stage, maybe celebrating the single greatest moment of your life and on the screen they flash: “In Memoriam in 4 1/2 minutes”?

Lots of surprises this year: Aaron Paul won for BREAKING BAD. He starred in one of our failed pilots a couple of years ago and I just knew if he ever got attached to decent material his career would take off!

A big shocker was Archie Panjabi from THE GOOD WIFE. She's the researcher. So she won an Emmy for, “I was able to retrieve his phone records for the last three years”?

More surprises: Kyra Sedgwick, TOP CHEF beating perennial winner THE AMAZING RACE (they shouldn’t have cut corners by having the teams race through “It’s a Small World” this season), the scarcity of Conan jokes (the over/under was fifty), and the discovery that Julia Osmond is certifiably insane.

Otherwise, was anybody shocked that Kim Kardashian can’t sing or that THE PACIFIC won for Best Mini-Series? It was the only nominee and she has no talent at all.

What was with that set? Every time they went to a tribute to Comedy or Drama or whatever it was like the Caesar’s Palace Sports Book exploded.

I was thrilled that MODERN FAMILY copped Best Comedy, thus keeping the tradition of comedic excellence alive for ABC. First TAXI in 1978, then THE WONDER YEARS in 1988 and now this.

MAD MEN again deserved Best Drama. It’s still the best show on television. Although a note to Matthew Weiner – when you win for writing, it’s usually good form to wait for your co-writer to join you and not trample her on your way to the stage.

This was a bittersweet night for Matt. Yes, he won two Emmys but Temple Grandin got more attention.

Jane Lynch was even more of a lock than THE PACIFIC. And she looked fabulous. She could even get girl parts.

But what was with Lauren Graham? Did she leave a napkin in her dress? It looked like she was wearing a black gown and a white lobster bib.

Eric Stonestreet’s acceptance speech was heartfelt and lovely. And it was his first time. Al Pacino’s won a million awards and his speech was like your uncle Lou’s just before the paramedics came.

It was clearly MODERN FAMILY’S night. Congratulations to Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd for best script. Great speech by Steve but where was Chris? Was there a Clippers game last night?

How could they do a tribute to the year in Drama and not include DEFYING GRAVITY? Or a Comedy tribute and omit HANK?

Edie Falco may be the only actress to win a Best Comedy and a Best Drama Emmy. Gotta applaud her honesty. “I’m not funny!” she exclaimed. Neither was that running Twitter bit.

January Jones wore a giant blue drink umbrella. Why have her present the award for Best Mini-Series when she can’t even pronounce Mini-Series?

You realize of course that you watch a lot more television than the people who made these decisions? If it weren't for screener DVD's, many Academy members would still be voting for HILL STREET BLUES.

It’s about time that Jim Parsons won for BIG BANG THEORY. He’s the young David Hyde-Pierce.

Did you notice that not one winner all night, any category, thanked a network or studio for notes?

Sofia Vergara came dressed as an Emmy.

Equally as stunning was Clair Danes – and she did it without cleavage.

Meanwhile, Lea Michele was quite fetching in her tailored Glad bag.

Hugh Laurie will never win. And Bryan Cranston will never lose.

George Clooney received the Bob Hope Award for Major Movie Star who agreed to appear on the Emmys.

Best line of the night: Writer Adam Mazer, winner for YOU DON’T KNOW JACK: "Jack Kevorkian, I'm so grateful you're my friend. But I'm even more grateful you're not my physician."

Jack Kevorkian was in attendance although at first I thought it was David Caruso.

Anna Pacquin came as King Tut.

What was that hideous song Jewel sang? I hate to say it but it really brought down the “In Memoriam” section.

DEXTER’S John Lithgow, winner of best guest actor in a drama series (even though he was in 13 of 13 episodes) thanked HBO, which is gracious except DEXTER is on Showtime.

Did anybody else notice that host network NBC didn’t win a single Emmy during the broadcast? Again, how does Jeff Zucker keep his job???

Most deserved Emmy: Jeff Greenberg for casting MODERN FAMILY.

The musical salute to 24/LAW & ORDER/LOST was good but I dunno, over at the Chabad telethon Avraham Fried was kicking ass.

Why did they have to ruin director Mick Jackson’s big night by mentioning he also directed VOLCANO?

As Emmy shows go I thought this was a pretty good one. It was nice balance of new blood and Betty White. Thanks to my daughter Annie for helping with the snark. Happy birthday, kiddo.


I can’t let an Emmy review go by without a nod to KTLA’s inane Red Carpet arrival show hosted by the “footstool of the footlights”, Sam Rubin and his bimbo de jour, this year – Jessica Holmes, whose qualifications for this assignment was helicopter traffic reporter.

When Paula Abdul told Sam that Simon Cowell will always be in her heart, he’s like a fungus, Sam sought clarification: “So (he’s) like toe jam?” What does it say when Sam Rubin is in a conversation with Paula Abdul and she comes off the smart one?

Not that Jessica is a Mensa candidate. To Jesse Brandt of BREAKING BAD she asked: “So does everybody in Hollywood know each other?” I guess when you cover the industry from 20,000 feet you might think that.

In discussing DEXTER with two of its cast members, she said, “It’s so funny that he’s a serial killer.”

And just when you thought they couldn’t be any more self-congratulatory they add this new little wrinkle: a running crawl at the bottom of the screen with text messages from the audience repeatedly telling Jessica and Sam how beautiful they look. I sent a text: “Sam & Jessica are insipid” and KTLA didn’t air it. But with just a $30 donation, the Chabad telethon did.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

One of my favorite Emmy moments

Big surprise it's Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. I hope I have something this funny to review tonight.

Emmy acceptance speech tips

As a public service for those lucky nominees, here are some Emmy acceptance speech tips. My review of tonight's Emmycast will appear tomorrow. Good luck to all the people I like and bad luck to the ones I hate.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Best of the "Worst of" the Emmys

Every year I review the Emmy Awards. To get you ready, and for any new readers of this blog, here are selected samples of my Emmy reviews from 2006-2009. You'll find this year's edition on Monday morning.

The people in the first ten rows you don’t recognize are called “seat fillers”. When the seat fillers have to go to the bathroom they’re replaced by the “nominated writers”.

Great questions on E!’s red carpet show. Isiah Washington was asked his porn name. Ryan Seacrest asked Steven Colbert if Jon Stewart was a prick? Class-eeee. He then asked Hugh Laurie: “Do you find that you’re less clever with the American accent?” Bring back Sam Rubin and Mindy Barbano! At least they gave out Altoids.

First Emmy article in the LA TIMES Sunday CALENDAR section: Page six. Page one story: “Gidget gone global”.

Sandra Oh was wearing Conan the Barbarian’s jewelry.

Had to replay several times Barry Manilow’s final comment to Mr. Clark. He said, “all right, Dick” not “I love Dick” as I first suspected (and hoped).

Cheryl Hines looked like she backed into a chandelier and took some of it with her.

Cloris Leachman won again. I guess SPLANGLISH wasn’t a career-ender for everyone.

This isn’t the first time Alan Alda beat out a more deserving nominee. But I’ve gotten over it.

Best line of the night: Steve Colbert, “I lost to Barry Manilow?!”

Trust me, if O.J. knew how easy it was to steal an Emmy he and his gunmen would be on stage thanking their parole officers.

You could tell Robert Duvall won for a cowboy movie. Even while standing he looked like he was riding a horse.

Nominating Minnie Driver and not Eddie Izzard for THE RICHES is like nominating Pam Dawber and not Robin Williams for MORK & MINDY.

Can ANYONE remember last year's Movie of Week winner? And that includes the winners themselves?

In sixty years there’s never been worse co-hosts than Heidi Klum, Jeff Probst, Howie Mandel, Ryan Seacrest, and Tom Bergeron. (Snow White and the four dwarfs) Suffering through that excruciating opening where they vamped about nothing was like reliving my Uncle Lou’s 75th birthday party at Sr. George’s Smorgasbord.

And letting Heidi Klum do comedy is like giving a squirrel a grenade.

The evening started on a high note for me since KTLA Channel 5 once again rolled out their red carpet show. Hosted of course by celebrity footstool Sam Rubin and a random bimbo. This year’s tomato was Victoria Recano, who I learned is their evening news anchor. These two lovable chuckleheads are always good for a few idiotic questions and comments. Also present was Tom O’Neill (a so-called Emmys expert). Sam asked him for a preview of the show and he said, “The highlight will be the In Memoriam feature”.

Very elegant comedy montage – pratfalls, sex jokes, and Tina Fey on the toilet. Doesn’t it seem like FRASIER’S been off the air for a hundred years?

The Reality Show montage: five minutes of angry people being bleeped. This is the “excellence in television” we’re celebrating tonight.

How is Jimmy Smits considered a “Guest” actor on DEXTER? He was in 12 of the 13 episodes.

After Ken Howard thanked someone for giving him a kidney, isn’t it a little hard for the next winner to go up and thank Lorne Michaels?

You’re going to think I’m making this up but I’m not. While the winners of the best song were giving their acceptance speech a promo crawl appeared that read, “In Memoriam in 11 minutes”.

Will all the “improvements” and Neil Patrick Harris be enough to turn the tide? It’s hard to say. They certainly made some strides. But the WEATHER CHANNEL had a special on hail storms in Kansas. I’m not optimistic.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Once you get Klinger out of his dress, then what???

What happened to the summer? That’s the first Friday question. Here are others. Thanks for asking yours.

benson wonders:

Many series have clip show episodes with some new material to tie together all the reminiscences. Do you keep an audience from a regular taping, or if there is something in need of a audience reaction, do you just sweeten with taped reactions?

I never had a show of my own on long enough to have a clip show. Did one on MASH, which took more time pouring through footage than if we had written a six new episodes.

Note to showrunners: CLIP SHOWS ARE A PAIN IN THE ASS. At first you’ll think it’s a freebie, but it’s NOT. It’s a time suck like you wouldn’t believe.

If a show does not heed my advice they usually will shoot the wrap-arounds after a show if filmed and just before the audience is released. How many people stick around? That depends on how long the filming was? If they kept for five hours then there will be a stampede when the director yells “cut!” If they're kept for three they’ll probably hang in there. It helps to provide pizza.

On TAXI they did an interesting thing: to save money because each week of production was expensive, they put together a two-part episode where each character went off to find a new job. And every week they filmed one of these scenes after the regular show. Each actor only had one week where they really had extra duty. They also filmed the wrap-arounds after completing an episode.

This saved Paramount two weeks of production costs. And by the way, they were two of the best episodes that season.

Alan Sepinwall, TV critic extraordinaire (who you should read on his new site) asks this MASH question:

In hindsight, do you think it was a mistake that when Radar left "M*A*S*H," his replacement was the pre-existing Klinger? Or did Klinger's role and persona change enough with the promotion that it felt like the show had added a new character?

I wasn’t on the show at the time. The last episodes my partner and I wrote were “Goodbye Radar” but that never stops me from answering questions as if I were there.

I believe the decision to make Klinger the company clerk was to kill two birds -- cover that job assignment and give Klinger something else to do. The producers (rightly so) determined that we had gone as far as we could with the dresses and Section 8 schemes. Having used every gown in the vast 20th wardrobe department that covered over 10,000 pictures probably was a clue.

I think the trouble they encountered though was that without that schtick it was hard to make Klinger really funny.

From Kath:

Ever since advertisers discovered that they could get specific audience info rather than as a block for everyone, networks have targeted their decisions to the 18 - 49 demo. It doesn't matter how many people overall watch a show as long as the 18-49 or better yet 18-35 demo loves it.

Do you think this has affected the quality of programming?

Good God, YES!!

It seems to me that comedy shows especially were funnier before the Friends model began to control everything. Not to mention a number of shows that I enjoyed that were pulled because even though the total viewership numbers were decent, they didn't do well in the 18-49 demo.

I don’t know if they were funnier but comedies used to be more sophisticated. They were written by adults for adults.

Oh no!! This is going to make me sound like one of those "you kids get off my lawn" old guys. But...

What I don’t understand is this: why do networks feel the only way to attract younger viewers is to do shows featuring teenagers and twentysomethings exclusively? I think that's insulting to the viewers you’re trying to reach. In today’s world the following shows would never get sold: MASH, FRASIER, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE ODD COUPLE, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, CHEERS, WINGS, TAXI, BARNEY MILLER, and ALL IN THE FAMILY. None of these shows had zany teenagers or were about high school and yet all these shows had huge 18-34 numbers.

I wish the networks would give young viewers more credit.

And finally, from Dana Gabbard:

Ken, how do you and your partner come up with titles for the scripts you co-write? Any rule you tend to follow? Does it make a difference whether it is for a show that displays titles on air as to how much effort is invested in coming up with a title?

Even if a show doesn’t display the title on the air it's usually listed it in your channel menu. So be careful not to give away any plot secrets.

Sometimes to soothe an actor’s ego we’ll put the name of the character somewhere in the title.

Otherwise we generally just do variations of movie titles or puns. “Death Takes a Holiday on Ice” was the CHEERS title in the episode where we killed Eddie LeBec with a rogue Zamboni machine. When Norm staged an office toga party we titled the show, “Friends, Romans, Accountants”. Nothing too elaborate. It's not like you're being asked to come up with episode titles for Rocky & Bullwinkle.

I love how on FRIENDS they just titled every episode “The one that…” How many brain cells were saved as a result of that time saver?

On OPEN ALL NIGHT we wrote an episode we called “Missing One Geek”. It got filmed with that title and I dunno, someone objected so it got changed to “Terry Runs Away”. When we were nominated for a WGA Award for it the Guild didn’t know what the official title was. Fortunately, all confused was erased when we lost. What a break!

What's your question???

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Netflix Pick of the Month

I know this is going to sound incredibly self-serving but hear me out. This month’s Netflix pick is VOLUNTEERS. Yes, my partner David Isaacs and I wrote it but that’s not why I’m recommending it – well, not the only reason.

I always thought the movie was good but uneven. And there were artistic decisions made that I didn’t (and still don’t) agree with. Breaking the fourth wall for the sake of a joke is the one that really sticks in my craw. For the sake of one laugh you completely undercut the jeopardy of the third act.

And the tone is very inconsistent. There’s a bridge building sequence that is extremely well done but looks like a National Geographic film. And then a chase scene through the drug lord’s lair that is some of the cheesiest slapstick this side of the Disney Channel (again, not my call).

So far you must be thinking, this is his pick? All he’s done is rip the film. Again, bear with me.

Recently I decided to screen it. I hadn’t actually watched the movie front-to-back in maybe three home video formats. And I must say, even with its faults, I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. I like it much better now than I did when it came out in 1985. Usually it's the opposite. Usually I see something I remember really being proud of at the time and go "Jesus! What the hell were we thinking? This is the dog's breakfast!" Not so with VOLUNTEERS.

First off, since it’s a period piece set in the early 60s, it doesn’t look dated the way other movies of the 80s do. There’s no “look at those pants we used to wear” and “did we really think Boy George was cool?” moments. And the comic style is different from today – much more reliance on witty dialogue and storytelling than “block comedy scenes”, “trailer moments”, and shock humor.

But it’s kind of refreshing. Objectively speaking, there are a lot of funny lines that still work. And the premise remains very solid. Tom Hanks as a preppy asshole joins the Peace Corps to avoid a huge gambling debt. In the process he gets involved with wide-eyed idealists, a foreign culture that doesn’t want our help, the CIA, Chinese war lords, Communists, and the looming Viet Nam War. It all builds to a loose parody of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Along the way there’s also romance, brainwashing, political satire, adventure, send-ups of classic films, sex, and big 60s hits like “Wolverton Mountain.”

It’s got a terrific cast. Tom Hanks and John Candy are hilarious and if you love Gedde Wataabe, this is the picture to see!

Like I said, I was surprised.

If everyone on the planet rents or buys this movie I will still probably make less than seven cents, so this isn’t a ploy to fill my coffers. I just think it merits your attention or second look.

Ads for movies today like to include endorsements and raves from critics. So if I may be allowed to do the same…

“VOLUNTEERS… it’s better than I thought.”

“The political incorrectness still holds up!”

“Real good in parts!”

“In the right hands this movie will make a great re-make!”

“Way funnier than THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE”!

“Rita Wilson is half-dressed and sweaty in much of this film!”

and finally…

“If you don’t like it you can send it back”.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Another "How I was almost fired" radio story

Here’s another censorship story – and also one of my early days in radio stories. Except this time I was the censor.

In late ‘72/early ’73 I was a board op (glorified name for engineer) at KLOS, Los Angeles. You know today’s “Classic Rock” stations that play Layla and everything ever recorded by the Allman Brothers? That’s what they played then, when it was just considered music to get stoned by.

The disc jockeys and engineers sat in booths facing each other, separated by glass. We communicated through an intercom. As an engineer, it was my job to play the music and commercials. Back then we still played “records” – these round vinyl thingys. There must be one in a museum somewhere.

But on Sunday nights KLOS abandoned its format of being your “Emerson, Lake & Palmer station" for public service programs (required by the FCC). One of these was “Impacto” hosted by Joe Ortiz -- a call-in show centering on Hispanic issues. I was the engineer.

A lot of the callers were unaware I assume that you were not allowed to swear on the air. I was forever diving for the kill button. I kept telling Joe he had to remind his callers not to use profanity but he refused. He didn’t mind the barrage of f-bombs and he accused me of censorship. Even my pleading that we could lose our license fell on deaf ears.

So needless to say, things became very tense between us.

If he wasn’t getting calls he’d signal me to play a record. I would just grab one off our playlist. This was an important fact: the ONLY records you were allowed to play were those on the playlist. Disc jockeys (or engineers) could not just bring in albums from home.

So one Sunday night the calls were light. Joe gave me the signal, I reached over to our rack of 45’s, selected one completely at random and cued it up. For reasons I don’t know to this day, he introduced it by saying, “Now here’s a song that expresses the state of the barrio.”

With that I let this record fly.

Ortiz went nuts! Screaming at me. I wish there was a kill button on the intercom. After the show he filed an official union grievance against me. I had to go before the Chief Engineer and a union board for a hearing. The charges were dropped of course. They reacted the way you probably did when you heard the song.

My good name was cleared. I was given a new shift. But then I wound up with two people hating me -- Joe Ortiz and the poor engineer who took my place.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

One of my favorite network censor stories

Yeah, this one's a dandy. It occurred on MAUDE, a big hit show from the 70s. Remember last month my post on CBS Standards & Practices having a list of unacceptable words? They were even worse in the 70s.

MAUDE was a spinoff of ALL IN THE FAMILY and had that same biting edge to it. Censors were always having fits. Hey, they had an abortion episode on MAUDE. Meanwhile, Marcia Brady struggled with split ends.

On show nights MAUDE had two tapings. One at 5:30 and the other at 8:00. They then edited together the best performances. And in between the writers fixed jokes that clunked.

One week there was a joke the censor objected to. I don't know specifically what the joke was. The producers fought vehemently that the line was acceptable. Finally the censor offered a compromise.

They could do the joke during the 5:30 taping.

But if it got a laugh it had to come out.

What??!! How the hell do you even respond to that????

That’s the kind of thing we had to deal with. I think if that censor were assigned to TWO AND A HALF MEN his head would explode by week two.

Tomorrow: another censorship story...but this one almost got me fired.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Poster for #INCEPTION sequel

Many thanks to blog reader Michael for creating the poster to the sequel of INCEPTION. This goes back to my previous post -- Studio notes for INCEPTION. Thanks Mike!

Studio Notes on INCEPTION

I submitted this originally to the New Yorker but they never responded so what the hell? I'll run it here. No spoiler alert necessary because there's nothing in here that's not already in the trailer. And hopefully by now, most of you will have seen the movie anyway.
Memo to Christopher Nolan:

From: Wendee Geldorfman-O’Day
Studio creative junior executive

Re: Rough cut of INCEPTION

Dear Christopher,

First let me say you have made an amazing film, maybe the most amazing film this studio has produced since SEX AND THE CITY 2. We’re all very proud of it and glad we could be there to help guide you in its development.

Having seen the rough cut I have a few thoughts and questions I’d like to share with you.

There was no music and the color didn’t match. That’s because it’s a rough cut, right? If not, you may have overlooked these elements.

Good news: Our research has shown that people in your target audience do in fact dream. So heave a big sigh of relief.

Less good news (but not bad news): I must admit I found some of your film confusing. And it wasn’t just me. My intern, Chloe-Caitlin was also befuddled in parts. And Chloe-Caitlin just finished tops in her class at the Texas A & M film school so you know she’s sharp as a whip. In maybe a sentence or two, could you tell me just what is going on? Sometimes a filmmaker can get too close to his masterpiece and virgin eyes can be most helpful. The one thing that is virgin about Chloe-Caitlin is her eyes.

What threw us the most was this dream within a dream device. We believe you would have a much stronger movie if you didn’t cut from one to the other. In other words, do all of dream one first, then dream two second, and dream three third. This would help us track the story and honestly, there were times I’d be watching something, it would get real exciting, and then whoosh! You take me somewhere else. And now I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happened. Is this really the reaction you want?

When you think about it, the running time is a wee bit long. Do you really need all three dreams? I mean, we get it after two. Just think about it. That’s all I ask. And maybe prepare an alternate cut just for fun.

Point of clarification: In the sequence where they’re flying weightless in the hotel hallway – that’s one of the dreams, right?

I worry that some of the dreams don’t look realistic enough. For example: Leo DiCaprio is in my dreams a lot. But he’s always naked. Any chance we could reshoot a few scenes to incorporate that? Chloe-Caitlin agrees.

Now if you want to go more surrealistic, I think you could lift that whole winter action sequence dream (sorry, but it’s very FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) and replace it with something more groundbreaking. Are you familiar with the Aha video? A girl goes into a comic book. I’m sure our animation department can spare a few weeks. It’s not like they’re making Bugs Bunny cartoons anymore. And I would even use that Aha song.

Marketing idea: That portable machine that allows people to enter other peoples’ dreams -- could we have a few of those at some of the major cineplexes? I think it would be fun for the moviegoers to experience just what it’s like to enter their friends’ dreams.

Question: Was that the girl from JUNO? She looks familiar. Chloe-Caitlin can’t place her.

When Juno, or whoever she is (she’s not the daughter from MODERN FAMILY is she?) agrees to be on Leo’s team it is never specified how much he is going to pay her. I think we need to know this to enjoy her role in the film.

And finally, the title. I worry that INCEPTION is too ambiguous. Chloe-Caitlin had to look up the word. And again, this is a girl who got into Texas A & M. When you think of “inception” – unless you’re a Roads Scholar – you think of what? Birth control. I fear we’ll lose the Catholics. And the south.

So what about this instead? WHO’S THAT IN MY HEAD? There’s something very elegant about WHO’S THAT IN MY HEAD? And it tells you exactly what the movie is about. It’s like HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS. Had they gone by its original title -- MINIMIZATION, I don’t think it would have been the home run that it was. At best it would have been an infield single or even fielder’s choice depending on the official scorer.

I’m taking the liberty of having our art department draw up some one sheets of WHO’S THAT IN MY HEAD? I know it’s a radical change but don’t say no until you’ve seen the T-shirts.

Bad news: I have no more suggestions. Ha ha ha. Again, all of us here, not just interns, are very excited about your film. The word genius is overused so I won’t use it. But I look forward to the revised cut incorporating all these minor changes and believe from the depths of my bones that you don’t only have a remarkable film on your hands, you have a franchise! Summer 2011 – WHO ELSE IS IN MY HEAD? Christmas 2012 – NOW WHO’S IN MY HEAD? And summer 2014 – FRED, IS THAT YOU IN MY HEAD? Are there three sequels? Well, one can dream.

-- Wendee

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Overwriting and why it's bad to write more than you need to make the same point

When reading a spec, one of the most common traps I see young writers falling into is overwriting.

First thing I do when receiving a spec check its length. If I get a hernia lifting it, that’s not good. A comedy screenplay should be no more than 120 pages and that’s stretching it. Sitcoms vary depending on the rhythm and format of the show. But if you write a spec COUGAR TOWN and it’s 50 pages, I can tell you sight unseen it’s waaaay too long. HOT IN CLEVELAND scripts (multi-camera) generally topped out in the low 40’s. When I was consulting on WINGS we had a writer who routinely turned in 65 page drafts. His rationale was that he gave us choices. We could whittle it down to the best 42 pages. Fine and dandy except THAT’S HIS JOB!!! If you can’t tell your story in the allotted time then maybe you’re not telling the story right. Or there’s too much story and that has to be addressed.

The only thing worse than a TV script or screenplay that’s overwritten is a stage play. Plays have no length requirement so the playwright has free reign to torture us long into next month. When a two character piece about what to pack for a vacation is longer than NICHOLAS NICKLEBY that should be a clue.

And then there’s the dialogue.

This may sound obvious but worth stating anyway: Always remember that actors have to perform your script.

Soooo many times I’ll see full page speeches with sentences so long and complicated that no human being on earth could ever deliver them. And certainly not in one breath. Read your script out loud. If you need CPR by the end of a speech, rethink. Dialogue has to sound natural, conversational. And rarely do we speak in big whoppin’ speeches.

When writing a TV spec, writers often go overboard on character quirks. They’ll hear Sheldo utter something a little technical and think that every word out of his mouth has to be quantum theory. In fairness, shows themselves get caught up in that trap. On MASH the tendency to give every line a spin evolved into absurdity. In a later season (after I had left the series) Potter once said to Klinger, “It was curiosity that KO’d the feline.” WTF?? Who would ever say that? And why?

There is a tendency to want to impress by working in all kinds of complex themes and philosophies – show how you’re the next Paddy Chayefsky. In truth, it’s your inexperience not intellect that’s being put on display. If long intricate theories and complicated Byzantine ideas are your cup of tea, write a book.

More often than not these long speeches have characters express in detail their emotions and attitudes. Not only is it taxing to listen to this balloon juice it also gives the actor nothing to play. Might as well go on to the next scene. Sometimes a look or a gesture can say volumes more a two page speech that James Joyce would find too convoluted.

Whenever my partner, David and I go back to polish a draft we thin out the big speeches. If the speech is 14 lines we make it 11, if it’s 11 lines we make it 9. There are ALWAYS trims.

Same is true in stage direction. A reader sees a big block of stage direction I GUARANTEE he will not read it. You could describe a sex act in detail and he’ll flip the page.

As a rule it’s better to underwrite than overwrite. We have an expression. We like “open pages”. Much more white than type. This may sound obvious too but: You don’t get paid by the word.

Writer/blogger Earl Pomerantz contends you could always lose page 8. He's usually right.

So go back through your script. I bet you could lose two pages. Page 8 and one other.

As always, very best of luck.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dick Van Dyke at his very best

When I was a kid growing up the sitcom that influenced me the most was THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I wanted to be a comedy writer after seeing how much fun they all had on that show. Aw, who am I kidding? I wanted Laura Petrie. But comedy writing did seem like a cool profession.

People think of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW as a sophisticated comedy and it certainly was. But the show also featured plenty of inspired slapstick. For all his many gifts, Dick Van Dyke is a truly brilliant physical comedian. And Mary Tyler Moore ain't bad either.

Here's a montage from "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW REMEMBERED" that aired in 1994. You'll marvel at this.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What should THE OFFICE do?

This is why television should not base all of their programming decisions on research: Based on your comments my “Friday Questions” is by far the most popular feature of the blog. It also consistently attracts the lowest traffic of the week.

But don’t worry. I’m not canceling it. It’s not like I’m developing “Friday Poetry Corner” in case the demos don’t improve.

Kevin Laseau gets us started:

What advice would you give to THE OFFICE as they go about trying to find a replacement for Steve Carell?

Straight-laced like Rebecca started out? Lovable curmudgeon a la Colonel Potter?

I would say just go for something completely different from Michael Scott. When Ricky Gervais originated the character for the British OFFICE I was in awe. We’ve all seen asshole bosses and incompetent bosses and screaming bosses but I had never seen that guy. Who else, what other type haven’t I seen? That’s what they should be striving for. Yes, it’s a Herculean task, but if anyone can handle it it’s Greg Daniels and his terrific staff.

The good news is if they do find this fresh new character it will energize the show, change the chemistry, and probably keep the series on the air two years longer than it would have been.

Jaime J. Weinman has a question about filming night in front of a live audience:

If you shoot a scene after the audience has gone home, what do you do about the soundtrack? Do you add pre-recorded laughs or show the completed scene to another audience later?

Depending on the situation, both. If we pick-up a scene after the audience leaves we borrow laughs from that night’s audience or “sweeten” with a laugh track.

However, if there’s a difficult scene or an outdoor scene we will usually pre-shoot it the day before the audience filming. In those cases we’ll show the scene to the crowd and record their reaction.

But here’s the odd thing about audience filmings: they will generally laugh harder at anything they are seeing live as opposed to on monitors. So a couple of times when I’ve directed BECKER and there have been scenes in cars I will pre-shoot them but on show night just set up two chairs and have the actors perform the scene live. Even with the complete suspension of reality, those scenes play far better than when we just screen the scenes that will actually be seen on the air.

We’ll then use the laughs from the live performance and put them in the pre-shot version.

From Alyson:

Two of my favorite shows, THE OFFICE and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, did not have the best season. I've read interviews with showrunners from both shows, and there is a marked difference. The HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER guys basically acknowledged it was not their strongest year, said they were trying to do something different, and that it didn't work. Conversely, THE OFFICE showrunner defended the past season, said he liked what they did and considered it a successful year.

My question is: Obviously shows have off years. That's to be expected after a show goes several seasons. But what's the best way to handle it? Do you try and save face and defend it, or admit to taking missteps?

If THE OFFICE staff truly believes they had a good year then yes, they should defend it. You may look back in a few years and find you like this year’s episodes way more than you did originally.

But I really applaud the producers of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER for (a) admitting that they missed the mark this year, but even more importantly (b) that they were willing to take a chance creatively. I love that they place such a high premium on telling stories in a fresh way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t -- but it’s the mark of a true artist that he tries.

Have you or any show you've worked on had to do this, and if so, how was it handled?

I’d have a real hard time convincing people that AfterMASH was a great show. So yeah, I admit we kind of struck out with that one.

And finally, from Steve Currie:

Do you have a queue of articles waiting to be posted or do you write up your posts just a day or so in advance?

I try to have a few in the bank in case I need them but a lot of times I’ll bang them out the day or night before. I wrote this yesterday. I try to stay as topical as I can, which means writing close to publishing. It would have been hard for me to write my rant on the presidential visit a month before he actually arrived. Not impossible but hard.

What’s your question?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

MAD MEN so far

My thoughts on MAD MEN so far this season… not that anyone asked.

I guess I should say SPOILER ALERT although for Godsakes it’s Thursday. Watch it already.

First off, this is one of the best seasons so far. Usually they take three or four weeks to leisurely just set things up. This year they were off like a shot and every episode is packed with surprising events, wonderful moments, and this week they added nudes.

Don Draper under pressure is compelling to watch. And thankfully we’re seeing him deal with new pressures. The “will I be discovered for who I really am?” stuff was great season one, and “do I want to go through life living a lie?” was fascinating seasons two and three, but “will I get so shitfaced I take off all my clothes, put a rubber glove on my head, and parade around Sterling-Cooper yelling ‘Hey I’m a squid!”? is much more fun.

They’re systematically taking away all of his support systems and isn’t it interesting to watch a golden boy go bad? It’s like the realization of all our high school fantasies! Usually Don is so savvy in handling people but now the old tricks aren’t working. It’s a new world now that Bobby Dylan has replaced Bobby Darin.

And I don’t know if it’s all the drinking, or just shifting attitudes but Don Draper, who used to be Fonzie in a suit, has suddenly become clueless when it comes to dealing with women. Giving his secretary her bonus in cash after sleeping with her and asking her to write her own recommendation when she quit – Jesus, those are Pottsy moves, not the Fonz.

On the other hand, it’s such a delight to think that in some cases even I know more about women than Don Draper!

The brilliance of the show is that you are enthralled with this character, damaged and at times even hateful, and you can’t wait to see what he does next.

If there’s a unified theme for the rest of the work gang its’ “Be careful what you wish for”. Peggy has her independence but is being pulled to settle down with Ralph Bellamy. Joan is unhappily married to a young mediocre doctor who enlisted in the army and is destined to become Viet Nam’s Frank Burns. He's pressuring her to start a family but here's how bad a doctor he is -- he still thinks a stork brings the babies. Meanwhile, she’s the Wendy to Don & Roger & Pete and all the other Lost Boys of the agency (or, considering how much they all hit the booze -- the Lost Weekend Boys).

Roger has his young trophy trollop but still lusts after Joan. I’d always like to see more of Roger but I assume his episodes are coming. He’s the most charming lush since Arthur.

Yes, Pete is a weasel but a first-class one. When he used his father’s death to help get him the American Airlines account you knew you were in the presence of smarmy greatness. He’s going to be father although something might still happen (depending on whether he ultimately wants a kid -- why do bad things or good things happen to bad people?). And I love his wife Trudy. Wouldn’t it be great though if it turns out the father is really Jeff from COMMUNITY?

I’m hoping we’ll see Sal return at some point. Maybe he can introduce Don to his new “friend” Truman Capote.

I’ve discussed my dislike for Betty. I don’t know what creepy Glenn saw in her. I see from the previews that she’s back next week. My fingers are crossed that poor little Sally didn’t use any wire hangers.

As always there is symbolism aplenty and subtext by the bushel, and of course I pick up on every little subtlety as I'm sure you do too, I mean, that goes without saying, right? But aside from that, MAD MEN continues to be the best drama on television. I'm most happy for series creator Matthew Weiner. All these stories for MAD MEN he wanted to do while on staff of THE NAKED TRUTH. Glad he finally got to do them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I don't care if he's president, I gotta get to work!

Wow. I am overwhelmed by your responses to yesterday’s blog post. A far cry from when Opie & Anthony fans took issue with something I said and flooded my comments section with death threats. But just know I really appreciate your kind words. Since I’m not making any money off this folly, the satisfaction is knowing I’m reaching a few people.

And your lovely comments were especially welcomed yesterday because I was reeeeally pissed at our president.

Not for any policy he proposed or speech he gave. Not for any program he wants to institute. It’s because…

HE WAS HERE! In Los Angeles.

Completely fucking up the traffic. The entire Westside of the city from Hancock Park to the beach was in complete gridlock so one guy could zip around and make campaign appearances. LAX was closed last night thus diverting flights to Ontario and probably Portland.

And this morning he completely snarled up the Westside yet again, this time during morning rush hour as he made his way back to LAX, causing major inconvenience, half a million people late for work or appointments – and here’s the worst part:


He was in a fucking helicopter! So why the hell were the streets all closed? Roads leading to the Staples Center aren’t blocked when Kobe Bryant helicopters in for Laker games. Does Obama want the option of landing along the route if he sees an In & Out Burger so everything has to be cleared for fifty miles?? Here’s a news flash Mr. President, the kids making the In & Out burgers aren’t there because they can’t get to work because the fucking streets are all closed!

Nixon used to come to town – it was never like this. Reagan was here all the time – no problem. Clinton would show up and as long as you didn’t live on Barbra Streisand’s block or near the Playboy Mansion you weren’t inconvenienced. But Obama literally caused a traffic jam of epic proportions. And it’s not like he was in LA to attend a crucial summit that would end the war in Afghanistan. No. He was going to producer John Wells house for a fund raiser.

So in the future here’s my stand: Other than Sarah Palin (because I will never vote for Sarah Palin ever for anything, even if she’s running for hall monitor) I will now vote for whatever candidate (Democrat or Republican) promises to NEVER COME TO LOS ANGELES during the length of his term.

That’s it. Save the rhetoric. Skip the debates. You want my vote? Do whatever the hell you want in Washington just stay out of my town. How's this for a slogan? Forget NO NEW TAXES. How about NO BARRICADES WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO DRIVE TWO BLOCKS TO PICK UP A FUCKING LOAF OF BREAD?

As much as it would be a thrill to meet the President of the United States, more important is knowing I can get to In & Out.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My 2000th blog post

When I started this blog in November of 2005 my daughter Annie was horrified. Was this going to be one of those “I had Fruit Loops for breakfast and then brushed my teeth” kind of blogs -- writing shit no one remotely cared about? I assured her that’s not what I was planning to do. (Now we have FACEBOOK and Twitter for that.) “Then what are you going to write about?” she asked.

“Entertaining stuff. Fun stuff,” I answered.

“Like what?”

I thought for a moment and finally said, “Go to your room!”

I really hadn’t thought it out that far.

So I experimented. Comic essays, writing advice, anecdotes, reviews, rants, travelogues, recommendations, contests, profiles, book excerpts, answering questions. I figured at some point a defining direction would emerge.

And what I’ve found is this: no direction is my direction.

And that’s fine. I don’t know if I could have made it to 2000 otherwise, especially posting new content every day. I certainly don’t have 2000 pieces of advice. And I doubt I could wring out 2000 reviews of HOUSE HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD.

The joy of this blog is having the freedom to write whatever the hell I want without some recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence telling me I need to “up the stakes”. The even greater joy is meeting all of you.

So for today I’d like to turn things around. I'd like to hear from you. Especially you lurkers. I’m always curious – how did you stumble upon this blog in the first place? How long have you been here? Where are you from? And what types of posts do you like or not like?

Thanks so much for your continued indulgence of my creative fancy. And thanks in advance for writing me back.

On to the next 2000! Oy. That sounds like a lot.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Do not try this at home!

I have read some bad specs in my time and now offer some suggestions of what not to do based on actual scripts I have read…or at least attempted to read.

Don’t view the show from the perspective of a fly. I once read a WINGS spec as seen by a buzzing fly. I offer this as the first example because I know so many young writers fall into this same trap.

Don’t put yourself into the show and make yourself the lead character. I once read a CHEERS where Alan had more lines than Sam & Diane combined. Alan? Who’s Alan? Alan was one of the extras. And so he remained.

And just because people tell you you look like Kaley Cuoco (pictured above) doesn’t mean you should write a BIG BANG THEORY entitled “Penny’s Sister”. If I get a script with a photo attached I know I’m in trouble.

Don't submit specs for canceled series. You are not going to get a job off your spec OLD CHRISTINE or I MARRIED JOAN.

Don’t hand write your script, no matter how good your penmanship. Send your spec in a UCLA blue book and you’ll get an F.

Don’t invent a format.

Know the characters. I read a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW where Mary wondered what to get her husband for his birthday. Her “husband”???!

Keep in mind the production parameters. A MASH I once read featured this:


Hawkeye is on the mound during the World Series. 60,000 people

Huh????? Ask yourself the following question: Can anybody other than Peter Jackson or James Cameron make this? And if the answer is no, especially for a multi-camera show that takes place in a living room, then don’t do it.

Similarly, avoid dream sequences. THE MIDDLE is not looking for the next Fellini.

Don't require 3D or IMAX for your sitcom pilot to work.

Don’t hinge your show on stunt casting. I read a BECKER where former President Jimmy Carter came in for a check-up and offered dating advice. Yeah, President Carter gets his physicals in the Bronx. And yeah, President Carter is always available to guest on a sitcom and advise a character to say whatever is necessary to get laid.

I was going to recommend you don’t do like one aspiring writer and make a joke in a CHEERS about Diane’s pussy because it’s crude, offensive, and inappropriate, but I saw the same joke two weeks ago on TWO AND A HALF MEN.

Still, I’d like to think there is some line of decorum and taste left. I once read a NEWSRADIO where the story was the Dave Foley character comes into his office in the morning and discovers a semen stain on his couch. Then the episode went downhill.

Don’t marry off any of the main characters.

Don’t kill off any of the main characters.

Don’t go the first ten pages before doing a joke. This even applies to many drama specs.

Don’t do the “supersize” hour episode.

The last sentence in your script should not be “To Be Continued”.

Don’t change the characters’ reality to fit your story. Tracy Jordan is not Jewish. THAT’S why he can’t have a bar mitzvah.

Don’t include a cover letter telling the producer that you sent him a copy of the script months ago and that he was shirking his responsibility by not reading it. Our agent did this once and trust me, David Lloyd was not amused.

And finally, avoid this ploy: I once received a spec MASH with a note that read “This script was written by my brother. On his way to the post office to mail it he was hit by a car and killed. I’m sure he would have wanted you to read it anyway. P.S. If you want any changes I can make them.” He received a touching rejection sympathy card.

Just remember this, when producers read your script they want to like it. They want to discover the next Larry Gelbart. It only helps them. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by doing something stupid like relying on Jimmy Carter to get your laughs.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

That swingin' Man from UNCLE

Some shows would update their opening titles every season. This was great if you loved the theme. One of my favorites was THE MAN FROM UNCLE, a James Bond-type spy show, composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Here are several versions. If you can listen to these and not want to foil the latest THRUSH plot then there's something wrong with you.

Not all TV theme songs were great

Even though I had a crush on Sally Field and watched this show religiously, the main title theme song always made me want to vomit. It is sooo cloying and syrupy, and...ugh!!! I know one commenter thought it was his favorite so I may get some flack here but still...ugh!!!

Two cool animated opening titles

There have been some great animated opening titles too. One of my recent favorites is from the British show HUSTLE. The new USA network program COVERT AFFAIRS also has slick animated titles. I wonder if they were made by the same company or at the very least the COVERT producers used HUSTLE as their template.


Note: the worst 60s teen theme is next.

"A hot dog makes her lose control"

Sitcoms about crazy kooky teenagers were the rage in the 60s. Best opening titles of the bunch was THE PATTY DUKE SHOW. If you're a baby boomer you can probably still sing the words. My favorite lyric of course is "A hot dog makes her lose control". Hmmm? What hidden meaning could that have in 1965 to a generation of adolescents?

Later today, the worst 60s teen show opening titles. Get ready to cringe.

An insane TV opening and theme

Here's another TV opening from the late 50s -- 77 SUNSET STRIP. Believe it or not, this was a drama show. I only wish THE SHIELD had done this.

More later today...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

One of my favorite old TV theme songs

Last week I went on my "bring back TV openings" rant. Thanks to so many of you who posted your favorites. It occurred to me that many of my readers may not have heard of some of these shows if they were from the 50s and 60s. So I thought throughout the day tomorrow I'd share some of my favorites (and not-so-favorites). Enjoy them again or for the first time.

As a tease, this is THE AVENGERS from 1965. It was a British spy series with a real style. A lot more tomorrow.

Stan Chambers

I can’t imagine Channel 5 without Stan Chambers. That’s like New York without Times Square, Paris without the Eiffel Tower, the post office without lines. For 63 years Stan has reported the news on KTLA. In his mild-mannered way, Stan has been on the scene for every major local story. Imagine Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood during a riot, brush fire, or earthquake.

The good news is that Stan, at 87, is still in relatively good health. This was his decision. It’s not like he was fired to make room for some young 75 year-old reporter. I’m sure he’d like to travel. I doubt if he’s ever seen an oil spill or tsunami.

But it just won’t be the same watching Channel 5. In 1949 (before I was born, by the way. Television is actually older than I am), a three-year-old girl tragically fell down a well shaft and Stan stayed on the air for 27 hours ad libbing and describing rescue efforts. Let’s see Bianna Golodryga do that.

He’s really the last link to a time in journalism when facts were important and objectivity was valued. He saw his job as providing information not turning you against a political party.

And he was ours. He never left us to go national. Los Angeles was his home, Los Angeles was his beat. I can’t begin to count the number of news anchors and reporters who came and went from the LA airways during Stan’s tenure. Carpetbaggers looking to climb that next rung. A constant parade of Ted Baxters, future game show hosts, former models and Miss Americas (yes you, Tawny Little). And through it all, there was Stan – pronouncing street names correctly, tapping into personal fire department and city hall sources he’s known for fifty years. Let’s see Jillian Reynolds do that.

A couple of times over the past year I’ve anchored KABC radio’s disaster coverage on major brush fires and storms. I once quipped on the air that if you hear my voice and it’s not Dodger baseball people are evacuating their homes. But my role model was Stan Chambers. I kept thinking “How would Stan handle this?” Of course I wasn’t Stan. No one was. But that’s okay because for 63 years we Angelinos were blessed to have the real Stan.

Have a great retirement. As far as all of us in Los Angeles are concerned, that old expression is wrong.

We LOVE the messenger!

Friday, August 13, 2010

One of the greatest catches EVER

Who knew Spider-Man played baseball in Japan? Wow!

How we write

Only two Friday questions because they require long answers and in one case, a visual aid. The theme is how we write. What’s your question?

To start us off, here's Matt:

What is your process of writing a script with David? You once posted that during the writing of a Cheers episode you had an assistant write everything out on a steno-pad while you dictated to him.

Is this the way you and David work most times?

Yes. Writing teams all work differently but we write head to head and as you said, we dictate the script to a secretary who takes great shorthand. There are advantages to this method, at least for us.

We never actually see the script while we’re writing it. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. It forces us not to obsess over a line. It frees us to pitch out a whole run knowing we can just go back and clean it up. We can juggle beats, move things around more easily. This process also allows us to volley lines back and forth. When people ask if a particular joke was mine and I say I don’t remember I’m not being coy. We shape practically every line together.

It now takes us four or five days to write a half hour. Two or three if we have to. When we started it took two weeks. That’s where many years of experience comes in handy.

We work off of an outline, talk out what we’re going to do then just take a shot at it. Next day we see the typed version of what we wrote, proof it, blame the medication, and keep going. After the rough draft is finished we each take a copy, make notes, joke suggestions, cuts, etc. and reconvene for one more pass. Once that’s completed, more often than not we turn it in.

Lou H. wonders:

I imagine you pretty well hash through all the story's bits during the table reads - Cheers, especially, seemed very well polished - but did you ever make any last-minute changes to the script based on the audience reaction at the rehearsal or taping because something you thought would work didn't?

Only all the time. I’m speaking of multi-camera shows shot in front of a live audience. They’re there for feedback and it behooves us to listen to it.

We will always do at least two takes of every scene. Often times between takes we will replace jokes that died horrible deaths with new ones that hopefully evoke actual human laughter.

There’s a lot of huddling that takes place between the writers, frantically searching for new better lines.

If too much of a scene doesn’t work we’ll huddle in the corner, rewrite the whole scene, and then shoot it during pick-ups once the audience leaves.

We’ll also go back the following week sometimes to reshoot something that either didn’t work or shoot a whole new scene.

We’ll substitute new lines in post production. The only time we don’t tinker with the script is when it’s on the air. And even then, we’ll come in the next day and have thought of a better joke to button scene B.

Here’s an example. From the first season of CHEERS. This is an episode David and I wrote called “Any Friend of Diane’s”. The last scene fell flat. I don’t remember what the original scene was but we came up with something completely different two days later. We wrote it and they shot it after the following week’s show, keeping the audience. The new scene worked like a charm. It got big laughs even though the audience didn’t know the set up. Here’s the final eight minutes of the show:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR: BUNNY HOUSE -- My new favorite idiotic reality show

You know me, always on the lookout for truly jaw dropping reality shows. Well, last night I came across a great one: THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR: BUNNY HOUSE on E!

You’re all invited to swing by the Playboy Mansion and meet the former Playmates who inhabit this on-site dormitory called The Bunny House. Inside you’ll find nine or ten of the dumbest female creatures ever to inhabit the earth and their far-more-intelligent little doggies. Never before has so much silicone and so little brains been assembled under one roof.

I assume this is all just part of the Mansion’s zoo, which also includes peacocks, rabbits and spider monkeys.

Here’s the level of conversation: A bunch of these airheads are in the pool. One asks the following deep philosophical question: “For a million dollars would you have a three-inch penis on your head and you can never conceal it?” The consensus: Yes. One girl said she’d just get a collection of hats thus clearly not understanding the meaning of “you can never conceal it”.

Question two: “Would you ever get a dude’s name tattooed on you?” Overwhelming majority: No! That’s obviously far more objectionable than a penis on your head.

In the searing episode last night a new girl was invited to the house for a bar-b-que. She was so nervous. I was nervous that the bunny who was grilling burgers would put her hand on the grill not comprehending the concept of “hot”.

The big moment was when Hef arrived. Picture the Crypt Keeper in a red bathrobe and sailor’s hat. He must’ve weighed less than any of the girl’s breasts. It was Popeye at 200.

Hef had a big decision to make – which two girls were going to share the master bedroom? One girl needed it because she required all the closet space for her wardrobe. They showed the closet. It’s the size of the Kennedy Center. How many thongs and short shorts must this girl have?

“How do you get invited to live in the Bunny House?” the newbie asked. Well, you have to be a Playmate (Drat! That leaves out Nancy Pelosi.). Unsaid was you must have bazooms the size of Macy’s Parade balloons and the IQ of a pencil box. The newest tenant said she wrote Hef a letter telling him she had no friends or family and nowhere really to go. How long did it take to get back to her? Six months.

Six months??? Then where the hell was she living in the meantime? My guess is Mr. Superfly’s Pimp House. Look for that show on Court TV.

For part two of this episode they all went to Vegas for the gala Playmate of the Year formal introduction. Hope (the winner) and her zany bunny friend Jade went the night before to get a good night’s sleep. Yeah, right. Jade was a baaad influence. She convinced Hope to go out, party, get shit faced, and then accompany her to a tattoo parlor to try to get her ex-boyfriend’s initials removed from her lip. His name was Brody Jenner so that’s right – she had B.J. tattooed to her lip. If I were her I would have kept it. Just as Sarah Palin (who would make a great den mother to this sorority) wrote crib notes on her hand, this way Jade could look in the mirror and always remember what her lips were for.

Poor Playmate of the Year, Hope. She had to write a speech for the big event. All she could come up with was a half page of incoherent scribbling on a crumpled sheet of legal paper. She must’ve been working on it for a month. Thankfully her best friend Jade came to her rescue, telling her to just speak from the heart then ripping up the speech and eating (yes eating) it.

The big show the next night was a huge hit you’ll be relieved to hear. Hef, now in clothes (looking like a well-dressed camp survivor) beamed as Hope vowed to make him proud. That means what? Do anything short of having John Edwards’ baby?

Miss Fresh Meat and her little yapping mutt were invited to move into the Bunny House and all was right with the world.

But wait!

We see Hef in bed (with his little pooch) and he’s still not sure just who should occupy the master bedroom. Uh oh! Hellzapoppin’ next week! Talk about a cliffhanger! Expect things to turn really ugly as these girls gouge each others eyes out for that extra closet space.

THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR: BUNNY HOUSE – just like a three-inch penis on your head; it’s useless but you just can’t take your eyes off of it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Don't forget Neil Simon

A few years ago at the Daily Grill in Brentwood I was waiting at the valet for my car and there was Neil Simon waiting for his (a nicer one by the way). I mentioned to my kids, who were quite young then, that Mr. Simon was one of greatest writers in America and my son said, “Then how come we’ve never of him?” I laughed of course. Everyone knew who he was. Then.

But now I wonder: how many people today do know who he is? From the 60s through the end of the centry Neil Simon was the king. Name me a comedy writer who got his name above the title of any play or movie he wrote. Or a screenwriter who the studios and directors were forbidden to rewrite. You’ve got to be pretty good and pretty successful to achieve that kind of clout. For God sakes, the man has a Broadway theatre named after him.

Today Neil is in his advancing years and his output of material has slowed considerably. Thus it’s quite conceivable that many young people don’t know who Neil Simon is.

So for young writers hoping to break in and just fans of mirth in general, I say don’t forget Neil Simon. Yes, he’s from another era. And I can’t imagine him ever writing SUPERBAD or FAMILY GUY. But any serious student of comedy will find much to learn (and enjoy) from studying the work of Neil Simon.

His jokes are all so well-crafted and all come out of character. Just once in my life I’d like to write a joke this good: From THE ODD COUPLE when slovenly Oscar confronts fastidious Felix –

“I can't take it anymore, Felix, I'm cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. "We're all out of cornflakes. F.U." Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!”

There are two soft-cover collections of Neil Simon plays. Even though they may seem dated (since they are from the ancient 60s when dinosaurs still roamed the earth ), check out the early ones. BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, COME BLOW YOUR HORN (his first play), and the incomparable ODD COUPLE. Notice the rhythm, the pace, how each joke moves the story forward, and how each joke just seamlessly flows into the next.

His later work adds drama and depth and of those plays I would suggest BILOXI BLUES, LOST IN YONKERS, and THE SUNSHINE BOYS but there are two or three others you might like even better. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his more serious work but hey, that’s the cross all of us yuckmeisters have to bear.

And again, read the plays. Sometimes the movies don’t do the properties justice. Obviously, aspiring scribes should inhale every script of COMMUNITY and 30 ROCK and MODERN FAMILY that they can find, but also add some Neil Simon. There’s pearls to glean from a guy who can write…

Oscar Madison: I know him. He'll kill himself just to spite me. Then his ghost will come back, following me around the apartment, haunting and cleaning, haunting and cleaning, haunting and cleaning...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I had a bizarre dream last night

I was at some party and bumped into Allan Burns, one of the co-creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It was the final year of the show (in my dream). I asked if David and I could write one of the last episodes. Our dream had always been to write a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. He was thrilled we wanted to do one. I guess in the altered world of my dream we had a track record (or I just have the world’s most inflated ego).

Now we flash to the filming of our show. David and I are on the floor. That’s the beauty of dreams – you can skip the actual “writing” part. In INCEPTION everyone dreams elaborate action sequences and fantastical adventures. I dream filming nights.

The episode we came up with, I have to say, was pretty damn good. Someone filed a sexual harassment suit against Murray. So to prove his innocence he came out of the closet. This set up some fun reactions from his co-workers. Mary couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe she sat right next to a person for years and couldn’t detect that he was gay. Lou was unfazed. He knew it all along. Ted started asking Murray questions about what it was like. Too many questions and way too detailed to just be out of curiosity. Sue Ann came in and said something so offensive I can’t even repeat it but it did get a big laugh and clearly there were no CBS censors in my dream world.

What struck me afterwards was this: how different the storytelling is in sitcoms now as opposed to back then. No, this isn’t one of those “back in MY day we knew how to tell a story. Not like these young pissants today” rants. Just an observation. Comedies today are much faster paced. They’re usually jammed with story. Quick scenes, multiple plots. Or in the case of BIG BANG THEORY – just a barrage of jokes.

Storytelling in the 70s and 80s was generally a little more leisurely. I say “generally” because MASH was just as fast paced as today’s shows (or faster) and maybe that’s one reason why it still holds up so well.

But as a rule series used to be constructed differently. You’d have a collection of colorful characters that all had very disparate points of view. You would toss some issue into the middle of the room and watch as they all had their takes and interacted with each other. You allowed room for the characters to breathe, to just have discussions. The downside was the stories moved slower but the upside was you got to really learn more about these characters. And hopefully you would make a connection and start to truly care about them. So their plight in stories took on an added importance.

Now that’s great when it works. When it doesn’t you’re left with a boring half hour where nothing happens and nothing’s funny. Even that the industry got away with for awhile, renaming them “dramedies”.

Anyway, that was my dream. And it was a refreshing change-of-pace. Usually when I dream about Mary Tyler Moore she has big fangs and is trying to run me over with the car from DEATH RACE 2000.