Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In defense of TV critics

The nation’s TV critics are here in Los Angeles for their bi-annual convention. My heart goes out to them. Three weeks of hourly seminars listening to actors and showrunners from new series gassing off on why their shows are so great, all the while knowing that 90% of them won’t survive and a few will not make it to Halloween. (In fairness, it’s no picnic for the showrunners and actors either – sitting on stage looking out at a sea of bored expressionless faces. Think Chris Rock performing for the Macon County Elks Club.)

But TV critics have a tough job that is only getting tougher. And lest you think I’m sucking up, I have no show for them to judge. They can review my blog and wardrobe and that’s about it.

The demands on them are greater and their security is not much better than the shows they critique. Newspapers are the UPN of media.

TV critics used to write for established newspapers founded before even Cher was born. They’d review new pilots, movies-of-the-week, do a few articles about the state of the industry, interview Tony Danza, and occasionally do follow-up pieces on series – usually when the show they called a stinkburger became the breakout hit of the season. There were primarily four networks. The fall and mid-seasons were clearly defined. Tony Danza always got a show so they could replay that interview every season.

Life was good.

Now many of them work for websites and start-ups. Unlike newspapers, these venues demand voluminous amounts of content. It’s not enough to review a pilot. Some critics like Alan Sepinwall from HitFix (pictured: left)  and Maureen Ryan from the Huffington Post (pictured: below) now critique every episode of dozens of shows. I can’t imagine watching every episode of THE CARRIE DIARIES much less analyzing them every week.

And these aren’t just blurbs or paragraphs. Sepinwall and Ryan write long term paper-length critiques. Law schools don’t give out that much homework.

That’s the tip of the iceberg though because they have to WATCH all this crap. Every year I get Emmy screeners and it’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the DVD’s just keep coming. Shows I’ve never heard of. Networks I’ve never heard of. How can anybody keep track of all this material? And yet, they have to watch it all and then some. Studies have shown that most people even get bored with porn if they watch too much of it. Imagine having to wade through THE JACKSONS: AN AMERICAN DREAM.

So if you’re in LA and sometime in the next few weeks you see a shell of a person sitting alone at a Starbucks, rocking back and forth, coffee dribbling out of his mouth, mumbling “TODDLERS AND TIARAS, season eight” over and over, show a little kindness. Remind him that BREAKING BAD is returning soon and SMASH has been cancelled. Another angel will get his wings. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

SITCOM ROOM registration is now open

My once-a-year weekend seminar is now open for registration.  The dates are October 26-27 in Los Angeles.  Only 20 slots are available and when they're gone, that's it. Already, a few are taken (people on the alert list knew about this yesterday).  HERE'S WHERE YOU GO FOR INFORMATION AND TO SIGN UP.  Trust me, if you're serious about comedy writing or ever wanted to just experience what it's like to be a professional comedy writer, this is the one seminar for you.   Lots of learning and lots of laugh.  Hope to see you there.  

UPDATE:  We are completely SOLD OUT.  Thanks to all of you for registering.  Get ready for an awesome weekend.  

Attention actors: Can you play a cab driver?

Note to struggling actors: driving a cab is still better than porn.

Lots of struggling actors, writers, and other industry hopefuls have gotten jobs lately here in LA driving for independent ride-sharing services. Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar are enjoying a brisk business since starting up within the last couple of years. I don’t know them all but Uber is a very cool service. You order a car via your smartphone. You register and then tell them where you are. They’ll track down the nearest car in your area and have someone there in usually about five minutes. No money changes hands. No tips. You get a bill at the end of the month. Done.

And the cars are generally very nice. Lyft, in particular, likes to hire aspiring actors so when your driver says “You talkin’ to me?” he might be a thespian not a psychopath who intends to kill you.

And they’re often cheaper than regular cabs.

Needless to say, all the licensed cab companies are up in arms. Most Angelinos first reaction to that is “What? You mean we have cabs in Los Angeles?” The taxi companies claim they have to go through hoops, their cars must meet stringent inspection standards, and must pay for business licenses. The rogue cabs say they’re operating legally under the California Public Utilities Commission. My only background on the law is watching SUITS and THE GOOD WIFE so I can’t really comment on which side is within its legal rights. Whoever Alcia Florrick represents is usually right.

But it’s hard not to root for Uber, Lyft, etc. When licensed cab companies say they screen drivers, how tough can they be when speaking English doesn’t seem to be one of the qualifications? And how well are their cars inspected? Have you ever been in a cab that didn’t have a red warning light on on the dashboard? And if you’re at LAX, good luck even getting one of these cabs. Three or four dribble in to each terminal every five minutes. It’s waaaay easier to get a cab at JFK, O’Hare, and even Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Most of the cab companies say you can pay by credit card. But when you do the driver acts as if you pulled out a wrench and announced you were going to yank his wisdom teeth. He then often tells you there’s an extra charge for this. And he pulls out some credit card contraption from 1967. Half the time your card comes back mangled.

“Licensed” cabbies generally work twelve-hour shifts or more. How alert can they be on hour eleven?

Now I understand it’s tough to make a living and I don’t want any cab drivers to lose fares or income. And give me a driver who doesn’t speak English over a guy bitching about how his agent won’t send him out on leading man roles any day. But the cab companies are being hit because someone else has come along and provided better service and a better experience. Instead of driving around city hall beeping your horns and protesting, how about improving YOUR service and experience?   And you might want to change that slogan.  "Would you ride with a stranger?"  Some of the strangest people I've ever seen are driving cabs. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

My first pitch

Back from a weekend in “the Land of Enchantment.” That’s what it says on all New Mexico license plates. I guess “the Land of Methamphetamine” was too long. But I could just be watching too much BREAKING BAD.

I was in Albuquerque to throw out the first pitch at an Isotopes game. Almost every word in that last sentence requires an explanation. My writing partner, David Isaacs and I wrote THE SIMPSONS episode that introduced Springfield’s minor league team. Since their big industry was the nuclear plant we named the team the Isotopes. It was the goofiest atomic particle we could think of on the way to lunch. A later episode had the team possibly moving to Albuquerque. When the city did get a team they decided to name it the Isotopes. It’s become a fan favorite and merchandising hit. And nothing strikes fear in the hearts of opponents like a chemical element.

Also, my KABC Dodger Talk partner, Josh Suchon (on Homer's right), is the new voice of the Topes so it was nice to hang out with someone who still has a job in baseball.

Stayed at the very decent Airport Sheraton but was originally given a wheelchair access room. The mirrors were at my waist (ideal for Anthony Weiner photo shoots) and the dresser drawers were on the floor. It was like reliving GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.

Headed right out to the ballpark. No time to visit the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, where his ashes have been mixed in with the concrete. Some say it’s a lovely tribute, others say the contractor was just cutting corners.
Isotopes Park is the Taj Mahal of minor league stadiums. Especially compared to the dumps I called games in during my AAA days. Tampa Bay or Oakland should just move there. Sure, capacity is only 16,000 but that’s still way more than those franchises are drawing now. The nickname for the park is “the Lab.” I guess I’m not the only one watching too much BREAKING BAD.

This was breast cancer awareness weekend so the Topes wore pink uniforms. Ty Cobb was spinning in his grave. D.H. Lawrence was spinning in his… walls.

They should have sold pink teddy bears at the team store. I’m telling you, BREAKING BAD is really big there.

Talk about a slow news day – I was the subject of a press conference. I’m not used to TV interviews so I just thought, “What would Gloria Allred do?” I gave my SIMPSONS spiel and vowed to repeal the latest abortion restrictions in Texas.

Just when I started to think I was a big deal, Josh told me I had to leave the radio booth in the third inning because Ronald McDonald was coming in. There’s nothing more humbling than being kicked out of a room for a clown.

We never got to the third inning, however. Rain started falling in the first. Josh said, “We can play in this.” A moment later the sky opened up and there was a monsoon. Wind gusts up to 90 m.p.h., lightning bolts slashing through the ink black clouds, and quarter-inch hail. “We can play in this.”
The storm was so ferocious that it lifted the giant tarpaulin off the field and blew it into the stands – thus creating the most unusual fan giveaway in the history of professional baseball. The temperature dropped from 91 to 59. I was getting emergency texts on my phone – flash flood warnings, power lines down. This is so different from L.A. where they warn you that Hollywood Blvd. is closed for the ESPY Awards.

Ironically, the Topes’ opponent was the dastardly New Orleans Zephyrs. A zephyr is a gentle breeze. I thought of that as the thousand pound tarpaulin blew into their dugout.

The Luke Bryan concert at the Isleta Amphitheater was interrupted when attendees were asked to flee for their lives. Bryan tweeted that he was “bummed.”

Woke up Saturday morning to partly sunny skies, flooding, and the power still out in parts of downtown. Walter White had to delay his daily shipment. Overheard in the hotel coffee shop as I picked the jalapeƱos out of my Frosted Flakes (they put them in everything there): GUEST ONE: “My G4 reception was really shitty last night.” GUEST TWO: “Fucking AT&T.”

Driving around, the “enchantment” continued. Gazing at all the uprooted hundred-year-old trees I was reminded of the Pelennor Fields battle scene from LORD OF THE RINGS.



Didn’t get to Santa Fe, home of many beautiful historical artifacts including Ali McGraw.

You can buy cheap turquoise jewelry in Albuquerque at any 7-Eleven, and there’s a Disco store for your next party. That’s probably where the Isotopes got their pink uniforms.

So the Friday night game was suspended after eleven minutes and resumed on Saturday as part of a doubleheader. Albuquerque won 8-5. Time of game: 23 hours, 11 minutes.

Now came the moment I was dreading. Throwing out the first pitch and completely humiliating myself in front of 10,000 onlookers and the entire world via YouTube. My only goal: Please don’t become the next Carly Rae Jepsen. Then, to add more pressure, Dodger pitcher Stephen Fife (who was there on a re-hab assignment) volunteered to be my catcher. Great! I’m going to hit him in the eye, he’ll be out for the season, and I personally will have cost the Los Angeles Dodgers the pennant. My idol, Vin Scully, will try to run me down with his car.
I had hoped to practice before the games, but the groundscrew needed every minute to transform the Okefenokee Swamp back into a playing field. I had played a little catch with my son, Matt, the week before, but who’s real really sharp on six days rest?

Since it was in between games of a doubleheader, I was actually throwing out the ceremonial 363rd pitch. Amazingly, astoundingly, “enchantedly”, I threw a strike. I didn’t throw that hard – the ball might not have torn through Kleenex – but I did hit Fife's target. I will take it, thank you. The last time I was that relieved was when Roseanne’s talk show was cancelled.

The Topes swept the twinbill, and the “Extreme Locust Warning” proved to be a false alarm.

Thanks to Josh, John, Orbit, and the Isotopes for your hospitality and team room rate. Anytime you survive a monsoon and don't become an international laughingstock it’s a great trip. And thanks to the baseball Gods for allowing my first pitch to cross the plate. After all, “breaking bad’ also applies to curveballs.

For more misadventures like this I invite you to check out my travelogue book.  Just click here.  Thanks!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

How'd you like to go to work here everyday?

Of the many movie lots I was fortunate to work at, 20th Century Fox was probably my favorite.

Especially during MASH.

Back then I drove into the studio past the New York street built for HELLO DOLLY. Today there are office buildings. Goodbye Dolly. I drove past the MASH stage (9) – actually I raced past the MASH stage so I wouldn’t be stopped by an actor who had a script question. My parking space was in the old western town square used for BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I was mere steps from the whorehouse.

Our office was in “the Old Writers Building”. And that was before I was one. It was a two story Swiss chalet, featured in BABES IN TOYLAND and any other film that had elves. Supposedly, our office on the second floor once belonged to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda’s empty gin bottles were still behind the couch so it must be true.

There was always filming going on. CHARLIE’S ANGELS were there every other week. I guess the angels broke up a lot Swiss drug rings. But I’d walk out of the building and there would be Jackie Smith in a tight jump suit pointing a gun at me. This is why I wanted to be a writer, by the way.

The Old Writers Building still exists but western town is a memory, replaced by trailers. Jackie Smith can still get into that jumpsuit so that’s pretty cool.

The commissary was in the PEYTON PLACE town square. Remember the white gazebo? That was still there. Not anymore. Replaced by a massive parking structure.

What is now Century City used to just be part of the 20th Century Fox lot. But they lost so much money on CLEOPATRA that they had to sell some of it off. But in the late 70s a good portion still remained. There was a private bridge over Olympic Blvd that led to a back lot where a ton of scenery was stored. My partner and I would walk to Century City for lunch past several of the original STAR WARS sets.

Today the bridge is gone as is the back lot. There is a large office building and a parking structure. (“Pave paradise, and put up a parking lot”) The STAR WAR sets are in the Smithsonian or some prop guy’s den. They would have been in my den if I were smart back then.

A trip to the prop building was like a day in the greatest Hollywood museum ever. Priceless props were just collecting dust. Yul Brynner’s belt buckle from THE KING AND I was even there! Why didn’t I steal that too?! I am such an idiot!

Every afternoon we could watch dailies. The screening room was right behind Commissioner Gordon’s office from the TV version of BATMAN. Remember how the Batmobile would park right in front of the building and Batman and Robin would bound up the stairs? On the other side of the faƧade was probably the producers watching the Julie Newmar in her cat suit from the day before.

And all of this was before even going on our set and watching them film scenes that are still being shown today.

It was a golden time that I cherish now and happy to say, recognized and appreciated at the time. Dream factories were more dreams and less factories. When I have occasion to drive onto the lot today I usually pass by the former site of the old western town and think of that great exchange in BUTCH CASSIDY.

BUTCH: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.
GUARD: People kept robbing it.
BUTCH: Small price to pay for beauty.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Have you ever seen this?

From last night's Albuquerque Isotopes game. No one told me it was "Monsoon Season." Watch the tarpaulin go flying. The fans did get to see eleven minutes of baseball though, before the storm hit. So it was a great night out.

Dancin' Homer

Hello from Albuquerque, New Mexico where I'm still recovering from last night's monsoon and tonight (weather permitting) I'll be throwing out the first pitch at an Isotopes game.  My partner, David Isaacs and I named the team as part of a SIMPSONS episode.   I get a lot of requests for reprints of our scripts. So here is a portion of the one in question --  “Dancin’ Homer”, dated 6/05/90.  It has the first ever mention of "Isotopes."   Notice that we had to be very detailed in our descriptions so the artists would have some sense of what we envisioned.

**********

EXT. STADIUM – EVENING

We open on a large stadium marquee that reads:

“SPRINGFIELD WAR MEMORIAL STADIUM, “ ‘TONIGHT BASEBALL, SPRINGFIELD ISOTOPES VS. SHELBYVILLE SHELBYVILLIANS, “ “NUCLEAR POWER PLANT FAMILY NIGHT, “ “SUNDAY AFTERNOON – COHEN BAR MITZVAH.”

A bus driven by OTTO comes roaring by the screen as it enters the stadium parking lot and screeches to a stop. We hear a blaring police car go by.

OTTO
Oooh, well, I think we lost ‘em. (LOOKING AROUND) Hey, and we’re at the ball park. All right! Two birds with one stone. Okay, everybody out!

There’s a loud CHEER from the bus.

INT. BUS – CONTINUOUS

It is crammed with excited NUCLEAR POWER PLANT EMPLOYEES AND THEIR FAMILIES, all with hats, pennants, thermoses, flasks, gloves, etc. THE SIMPSONS are jammed into two rows. Everyone starts to disembark.

ON THE SIMPSONS

As they cross with other fans to the front gate. BART has a mitt, LISA a transistor radio; MAGGIE wears a little baseball cap and uniform jumper. They pass souvenir stands and PROGRAM VENDORS. All the EMPLOYEES who work at the ball park are rundown and toothless.

HOMER
You know, boy, some of the players you see tonight may make it to the big leagues, one day.

BART
What? Aren’t we going to see any washed-up major leaguers?

HOMER
Sure, we get a nice mix here.

LISA
I can’t think of a better place to spend a balmy summer’s night than the old ball yard. There’s just the green grass of the outfield, the crushed brick of the infield, and the white chalk lines that divide the man from the little boy.

HOMER
(CHUCKLES) Lisa, honey, you’re forgetting the beer. It comes in seventy-two ounce tubs here.

MARGE
I hope you’ll space out the tubs this year, Homer.

HOMER
(DEFENSIVE) What are you getting at?

MARGE
Well, last year you got a little rambunctious and mooned the poor umpire.

HOMER
Marge, (HOLDING UP THE TICKET) this ticket doesn’t just give me a seat, it also gives me the right – no, the duty, to make a complete ass of myself.

ENTRANCE TO STADIUM

MR. BURNS and SMITHERS, who holds 3x5 index “prompt” cards, are perched at the gate, greeting the employees and their families, including THE GAMMILLS from “No Disgrace Like Home”.

BURNS
Ah, the Gammills. Good to see you.

GAMMILL
You’re an inspiration to all of us in waste management, sir.

BURNS
(CHUCKLES) Well, take your mind off contaminates for one night and have a hot dog. (LAUGHS)

Gammill and his brood kow tow and move on.

BURNS
(TO SMITHERS) Put a little smile on his card, Smithers.

SMITHERS
Already there, sir.

Burns spots the Simpsons as they approach. Smithers grabs a card and whispers in Burns’ ear.

SMITHERS
The Simpsons, sir.

BURNS
Ah, well, if it isn’t the Simps.

HOMER
Uh… Simp-sons, sir.

BURNS
(CONSULTING CARD) Hmm, oh , yes… Homer and Marge Simpson. Oh, and these must be Bart, Lisa, and “Expecting”.

SMITHER
(SOTTO) The card needs to be updated, sir.

Burns grumbles.

HOMER
Oh, that’s okay. The baby’s name isn’t important. Let’s go, Marge.

BURNS
Very well. (CHUCKLES) Take your mind off contaminates for one night and have a hot dog. (LAUGHS)

The Simpsons enter the park.

EXT. PARK – CONTINUOUS

It’s a typical wooden bandbox minor league ball park, seating maybe five thousand. Ringing the outfield wall are the usual billboards filled with local advertisements: “Springfield Savings – Safe from 1890-1986, 1988-“; “His Royal Majesty Clothing for the Obese or Gangly Gentleman”; “Moe’s Tavern – Hit this sign and win a free well drink”.

The only concession to the modern era is the JumboVision board in left field, which dwarfs the rest of the stadium. The PLAYERS are on the field, leisurely taking batting and infield practice as the stadium organist plays “ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND”.

BART
Oh, wow – there’s Flash Bailor! I gotta get his autograph! He used to be a star.

FLASH BAILOR

He is playing catch. He’s 45, arrogant, and terribly out of shape. He looks like a giant pear. Bart leans over the railing, holding out a ball and a pen.

BART
Hey, Flash! Will ya sign my ball?

FLASH
No.

Bart rejoins the family.

BART
(MUMBLING) Lousy, washed-up, broken-down… old tub of guts… who does he think he is anyway?

HOMER
What’s the matter, boy?

BART
He wouldn’t sign my ball.

MARGE
Well, he’s a fine role model. Bart, give me that ball!

Bart flips her the ball and, with great resolve, she marches down the aisle to the field.

PLAYER #1
Hey, Flash, check out the mature quail heading this way.

FLASH
Hey there, little lady. What can Flash do for ya?

EXT. PARK – STANDS – A LITTLE LATER

Marge rejoins the family, holding the ball.

MARGE
Here you go, Bart.

She hands the ball to Bart.

BART
(READING) “Springfield Kozy Kort Motel, Room 26… How ‘bout it? – Flash.”

HOMER
Wow! Flash Bailor came on to my wife! (IMPRESSED) You’ve still got the magic, Marge.

MARGE
(SMALL GIGGLE)

EXT. BALL PARK – MOMENTS LATER

The plant employees are positioned way down the right field line in the bleachers. There’s a filled section of them… and just a mere sprinkling of other fans throughout the park. There are two empty seats next to the Simpsons. Lisa is holding up Maggie.

HOMER
(TO LISA) What are you doing?

LISA
Trying to get Maggie on the JumboVision.

SERIES OF QUICK CUTS – GRANDSTAND

We see that HUNDREDS OF BABIES are being held up.

BART
(POINTING) Hey, Dad, look!

Homer glances up.

HOMER
Whoa!

ON JUMBOVISION BOARD

Homer fills the screen. He stands up and waves with both hands.

HOMER
Hey, everybody! How you doing? Look at me! I’m Homer Simpson! Heh… heh.

Bart leans into frame and raises two fingers behind Homer’s head. The JumboVision camera starts to pull in on Homer’s open fly.

MARGE
(QUIETLY) Homer… Homer.. X.Y.Z.

HOMER
Examine my zipper? Why? (HOMER LOOKS DOWN) Whoops!

Homer, still on the screen, turns away, zips up his fly and receives a nice OVATION from the crowd.

P.A. ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
(HEAVILY ECHOED) Ladies and gentlemen, throwing out tonight’s first ball, the man whose name is synonymous with our nations’ safest and cleanest energy source, Mr. Montgomery Burns!

Burns and Smithers drive up to the mound in a golf cart that looks like a big baseball. Burns waves to the crowd. There is a slight SMATTERING OF APPLAUSE. As the golf cart brakes, divots of turf fly.

SMITHERS
Ah, they love you, sir.

BURNS
Heh, heh. As well they might. You know, Smithers, when I was a young buck, my patented fadeaway pitch was compared by many to the “trouble ball” of the great Satchel Paige. Spit on this for me, Smither.

Burns hands Smithers the ball.

SMITHERS
One hocker coming up, sir.

Burns rocks into his wind-up.

ON THE SIMPSONS

Who are heckling Burns from their very safe distance.

HOMER
Hey, Burns! Hey, “Rag Arm”!

BART
You throw like my sister, man!

LISA
Yeah, you throw like me!

They LAUGH conspiratorially.

BACK TO BURNS

He wheels and deals. He loses his balance and the ball goes maybe six feet before trickling to a stop.

SMITHERS
I think I could actually hear the air being torn, sir.

BURNS
Oh, shut up.

Homer and Bart are roaring with LAUGHTER. They can barely contain themselves.

BART
What a lame-o!

P.A. ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
Ladies and Gentlemen:, to honor America, will you please rise for our National Anthem…

Homer quickly composes himself.

P.A. ANNOUNCER (V.O.)
…sung tonight by Springfield’s rhythm n’ blues sensation, “Bleeding Bums” Murphy.

BLEEDING GUMS MURPHY steps up to the microphone at home plate. We see the scoreboard clock behind him reads 7:30. Bleeding Gums launches into a wildly improvisational version of the National Anthem.

BLEEDING GUMS
(SINGS) “O-oo-hhhhhhhhh… Oh Saaaaayyyyyy can you…” -- I’m askin’ – “Can you s-e-e-e? … by the d-a-a-a-a-a-wn’s”

DISSOVLE TO:EXT. BALL PARK - NIGHT

Bleeding Gums is still singing. The clock on the scoreboard now reads 7:46.

BLEEDING GUMS
(SINGS) “…and the rocket’s red glareeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee …the bombs burstin’ … shoot it out… poppin’way up in the air… rrrrrrrrrrr.”

At this, there is mild SCATTERED APPLAUSE from the crowd.

BLEEDING GUMS
(SINGS) “And.. the home.. of the-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e … brave-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!”

We see the Simpsons amid the crowd. Exhausted the flop into their chairs.

INT. PRESS BOX - CONTINUOUS

DAN HOARD, wearing a loud multi-colored jacket, is at the mike.

DAN HOARD
Hi-de-hi, Springfield! Dan Hoard, mikeside. Tonight – our Isotopes take on the pesky Shelbyville Shelbyvillians. The ‘Topes are looking to snap that darn twenty-six game losing streak, longest in professional baseball. How ‘bout that? -- Our sleepy town is in the record book!

************
Trivia note: I played the voice of “Dan Hoard”. Dan Hoard was my broadcast partner in Syracuse when I was a minor league announcer. He's now the voice of the Cincinnati Bengals and University of  Cincinnati football and basketball. 

GO TOPES!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Questions

Heading to Albuquerque to hang out with the Isotopes this weekend. There’s something about minor league baseball that’s so pure. And there’s a Homer Simpson statue at the ballpark! But Friday Questions continue no matter where I am.

From Liggie:

When pitching a screenplay synopsis to an agent or studio, do you give away the ending or not?

Yes. Studios now want the story almost beat-by-beat. And if it’s a comedy then want lots of jokes, five big comic scenes, five trailer moments, and a description of what the poster would look like with the tagline included.

Years ago my partner and I wanted to write a movie about my experiences as a minor league baseball announcer. We sold the pitch to Columbia by saying merely this: BULL DURHAM meets GOOD MORNING VIET NAM. After the meeting we went to lunch to celebrate when a stray thought occurred to me: What’s the actual story? It took three years and five drafts to answer that little question.

But in general, you have to now pitch everything. And if you can hum the score that would be helpful too.

Kevin Kelton has a question on a similar topic:

Did you notice that jokes from the trailer (of THE HEAT) were not in the film. The scenes were, but the blows that were in the ads were outtakes from the glass cut scene, the jail cop scene, and others. Feels like cheating to me.

This happens all the time. The goal of trailers is to lure viewers, period.

I’ve told this story before, but my partner and I were once paid a lot of money to write a joke for a trailer after the movie had wrapped production. They assembled the trailer and realized there wasn’t one big joke. So they would go back and film the joke we provided, but they were very clear that it wouldn’t appear in the movie. Now, if you’re saying – if it was a great joke and the movie didn’t have any, why wouldn’t they use it? That’s a good question that we didn’t ask because we were too busy racing to the bank to cash the check.

Mitchell Hundred asks:

Considering that many shows take a season or so to find their feet/voice, at what point in the run would you recommend getting into a show?

I refer here to shows that are now off the air and available for purchase/streaming, not ones currently on TV (and obviously not serialized ones, which you'd have to watch in chronological order).

It depends on the show. I’ve always maintained that the first year of CHEERS was its best. Same with FRASIER and COSBY. But you’re right, shows usually need a season or two to really find its groove. For MASH I would say that was season three and four. SEINFELD’S first batch were very uneven. You might want to start a little into the run.

But even though most hit shows need a little time to develop, they’re still quite good right from the beginning. So I would say start from season one. Sometimes you can pick out the early episode where the light bulb went on and the producers said, “THAT’S what we need to do!”

And finally, from Future Friday:

Ken, what are your thoughts on British/foreign comedy and sitcoms? Have you encountered an obscure country that has such an outlandish sense of humor that our comedy pales in comparison? (I'd say Japan excluded since it's not obscure, but if you firmly believe it's Japan, go ahead and say Japan.)

I have not encountered such a country. It’s not like the Dominican Republic and baseball.  And I've never seen a Japanese sitcom.  The only imports from Japan seem to be really appalling reality game shows and Pink Lady.  If there's a great Japanese sitcom please steer me to it. 

Personally, I love British comedies. Some of my favorite sitcoms are from the U.K. BLACK ADDER, FAWLTY TOWERS, and COUPLING are all in my all-time top ten. If you haven’t seen them you’re in for a real treat.

Has anyone seen a Cambodian sitcom?  Maybe one from Bhutan?   What am I missing? 

What’s your question? Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My take on Spike Lee using Kickstarter to fund his latest movie

I was on HuffPostLive yesterday discussing Spike Lee's latest Kickstarter campaign. Based on my blog post about Zach Braff I've become a pundit on the subject. But if Braff aggravated me, Spike Lee really pissed me off.







The comedy Rules-of-Threes

This has been one of the staple of comedy for years. (It’s also been called the Comic Triple, which is different from when Prince Fielder gets a three-base-hit, like he miraculously did in the All-Star Game).

But how does it work?

The Rule-of-Threes establishes a pattern and then ends with something unexpected.

Lame example: “We serve lasagna, spaghetti, and poi.”

Usually two items are sufficient to establish the pattern. Three is overkill.

“We serve lasagna, spaghetti, linguini, and poi.” 

We get it with two. And we’re now so conditioned to the rhythm of threes that anything more seems wrong.

But there are some traps.

You must be very careful that the two first items clearly establishes the pattern you’re setting up. You don’t want the audience to have to work to make the connection.

Lame bad example: “The Giants, Detroit, and the Teamsters.”

Better would be “The Giants, the Tigers, and the Teamsters.”

In both cases you’re setting up major league baseball teams but the second version is clearer.

Another lame bad example: “The Reds, the Blues, and the Teamsters.”

Reds and Blues could be referring to how states line up politically, they could be two professional sports teams, they could be two drugs. Eliminate any confusion.

You hurt the punchline if one of the setups is funny.

“Linda, Moon Unit, and Mother Teresa.”

Some call that a joke-on-a-joke and while proponents argue it’s a laugh-on-a-laugh, more often the two jokes cancel each other out. It’s okay that the set up be straight. Save the funny for the payoff.

"Larry, Moe, and Shemp."
Don’t make your set up too convoluted.

“Women who work as nannies for children 10 years of age or younger on the Upper East during Tuesday mornings, men who lost their jobs in the recession and must get part time jobs teaching children 10 years of age or younger, and astronauts.”

By the time you get to the punchline you’re more lost than first ten minutes of CLOUD ATLAS.

Think rhythm, think timing.   This is comedy.

Okay, the set up is right, now for the punchline.

The payoff has to break the pattern but not so much so that it’s a non-sequitor.

“The Giants, the Tigers, and poi.”

Huh? At least the Teamsters were a group of some kind. The punchline has to connect to the pattern. It’s not that it doesn’t belong, it’s that you don't expect it.  But something has to tie together.

Comedy writer Bob Ellison was in a late night rewrite once and pitched a joke. The showrunner said, “Too corny, too obvious” and Bob replied, tapping his wristwatch, “Two thirty.

The list doesn't have to be objects or names.  It can be words... like two.

The danger with the Rule-of-Threes is that it’s such a familiar form that audiences see it coming. Blame cavemen comedians.  They overused the device to death.  So extra pressure is now placed on your punchline. Try to find the best version of your payoff.

What’s funnier? “Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, or canned tuna” or “Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, and gefilte.” Gefilte is a funny word, and it’s not really a fish at all – it’s a jumble of different fish.

The more specific in comedy the better.

However, I will caution you that you need to know your audience. If you’re not Jewish you might never have heard of gefilte fish. First off, you’re lucky, but secondly, it’s a fallacy that funny words alone are enough to get a laugh. They may in some cases but don’t rely it.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a variation of the Rule-of-Threes. It’s the Stan Daniels’ Turn. Stan Daniels was a longtime writer on the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, TAXI, and at least a thousand others. He would pitch a form of joke so often that it stuck to him like an “Arnold Palmer.” His thing was that the punchline was the exact opposite of the first two.

“She’s hateful, she’s despicable, I’m in love.”

 Yes, it may seem formula but it works! 

So that's the Rule-of-Threes in comedy.  There’s also a “Rules-of-Threes” for survival, photography, and celebrity deaths, but those are for later posts. (See what I did there? I also could have used thoracic spines but went with celebrity deaths.)

This is the kind of territory I cover in my SITCOM ROOM seminar, the weekend of October 26/27 in Los Angeles.  Registration will open soon.   Here's where you go for details.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Only in LA

This is going to sound like a spoof but it’s not. It’s REAL. And it’s soooo very LA. There’s a coffee house in Santa Monica called Funnel Mill that sells a certain cup of coffee for $80 a cup.  And you can only get it by appointment.

“Oh, come on!” you’re saying. “Even in a town that boasts a coroner’s gift shop, no one would pay $80 for one cup of coffee.”

Well, they do. By appointment only.

And it gets better. What makes this coffee so special? Again, I swear to you this is true:

The coffee is called Kopi Luwak. It’s made in Sumatra with the help of an animal, the Luwak, which looks like a cross between a raccoon and a pig. The Luwak eats coffee cherries off a tree—bean and all. The beans are fermented as they pass through the Luwak’s digestive tract. Then he shits them out and they get harvested, cleaned, roasted, ground, and made available for any Kardashian or Laker.

Who was the first person I wonder, who saw a steaming load of Luwak shit and thought, “Hey, I bet if we processed this we could make great coffee?” His friends must've thought he was crazy for sure. “Who would buy such a ridiculous thing?” And then one enterprising farmer caught an episode of REAL HOUSEWIVES OF BEVERLY HILLS and said, “Eureka! We’re all going to be rich! We can charge $80 for what is essentially a FEAR FACTOR stunt!”

If this designer coffee catches on, pig farmers all over the world will be feeding their flock grapes hoping they’ll shit out a hearty Chablis. Or cola beans – COKE CAKA.

And the slogan possibilities are endless. “Good till the last plop.” I’m sure the TWO AND A HALF MEN staff could come up with fifty more in like twelve seconds.

I will not be paying $80 for one cup of coffee no matter how good it is. I don’t care if this is Los Angeles and status and exclusivity are everything. I personally find it incredibly self-indulgent and downright irresponsible to spend more on coffee than Botox. Someone has to show a little common sense. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Oh, THAT guy again

For all the thousands of actors out of work there seems to be a lucky few who seem to turn up on EVERYTHING. Not that they’re not good or deserving or lovely people, but Jesus, my pharmacist has a great demo reel.

I call it the “Oh THAT guy again” syndrome. Here are just a few recent examples:

Michael Kelly. Very solid. In the last month alone I’ve seen him in MAN OF STEEL, NOW YOU SEE ME, and HOUSE OF CARDS. Anytime the star turns to ask a subordinate a question it’s Kelly. I also remember him from PERSON OF INTEREST, CRIMINAL MINDS, THE SOPRANOS, and LAW & ORDER. It seems like Michael Kelly gets any role where they need a guy in a suit.

But when a bad guy is required Titus Welliver's phone rings. You booed him in LOST, jeered him in THE GOOD WIFE, hissed in WHITE COLLAR, and raised an angry fist in CSI. You’ve also seen him in TOUCH, GRIMM, ARGO, THE TOWN, SUITS, SONS OF ANARCHY, THE CLOSER, and MONK – probably this month.  He was a good guy in PROMISED LAND and it almost took me out of the movie. 

If you want to go more subtle you hire David Costabile . He’s more the cultured soft-spoken weasel, notably on SUITS. But he also was a lab assistant on BREAKING BAD. David has made a lot of one-shot guest appearances, notably on ELEMENTARY, PERSON OF INTEREST, ROYAL PAINS, LIE TO ME, HOUSE, THE GOOD WIFE, FRANKLIN & BASH, and a little film called LINCOLN.

For elegance, charm, and menace there’s Alan Dale. And he has that New Zealand quality that all producers are obviously clamoring after. I first noticed him as evil Charles Widmore in LOST then found him on BODY OF PROOF, ONCE UPON A TIME, HOT IN CLEVELAND, THE KILLING, HOUSE OF LIES, ENTROUAGE, PERSON OF INTEREST, UNDERCOVERS, SEA PATROL, 24, UGLY BETTY, THE O.C., JAG, WEST WING, THE PRACTICE, X-FILES, and ER. No wonder my father can’t get work.

Kim Raver has been on more series than any other actress who isn’t a star. Currently on REVOLUTION, she’s also been on NCIS: LOS ANGELES, GREY’S ANATOMY, LIPSTICK JUNGLE, THE NINE, THIRD WATCH, TRINITY, and of course 24. The only reason she wasn’t in KNOCKED UP and THIS IS 40 is because she’s not married to Judd Apatow.

Sonya Walger has also had a good run. COMMON LAW, LAW & ORDER, RECEPTION, IN TREATMENT, FLASH FORWARD, THE SARAH CONNER CHRONICLES, CSI: NEW YORK, SLEEPER CELL, COUPLING (American version although she has an accent), THE MIND OF THE MARRIED MAN, but she was best known as dear sweet “Penny” in LOST, and the wife who gave her husband a very graphic hand job on TELL ME YOU LOVE ME. (Sonya, that’s the scene I’d use to lead off my demo reel).

Also worth noting: Chi McBride. He seems to be the king of the “short-lived” series. GOLDEN BOY, HAWTHORNE, HUMAN TARGET, PUSHING DAISIES, THE NINE, KILLER INSTINCTS, BOSTON PUBLIC, THE JOHN LARROQUETTE SHOW, and the classic SECRET LIFE OF DESMOND PHEIFFER.

There are others I’m sure you can add. Again, I don’t begrudge any of them, and a few I’d hire myself depending on the role. And every celebrity other than Clint Eastwood and Ryan Seacrest knows that you only enjoy a brief window when you’re hot so take full advantage while you can. Because along with the success comes the danger of overexposure.

Ask Flo from Progressive Insurance.

It’s the old story in Hollywood. First they say: "Who's Titus Welliver?"  Then they say:  “Get me Titus Welliver.” Then: “Get me a Titus Welliver type.” And then finally: “Who’s Titus Welliver?”

Monday, July 22, 2013

The geography of comedy

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?)  Recently we’ve had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Some random thoughts for the weekend...

A belated happy birthday to Natalie Wood, who would have been 75 yesterday if Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken weren't doing... God knows what. 

It didn’t take Dodger phenom Yasiel Puig long to go Hollywood. Up with the team for a month, he was spotted during the All-Star break at the Playboy Mansion hanging with Chris Brown. I guess the two were comparing hitting styles.

No, I’m not attending  Comic-Con nor do I plan to review the craziness. It’s just too easy.

Registration for this year’s SITCOM ROOM weekend seminar will open before the end of this month. But if you get on the alert list. I will let you know 24 hours before I announce it publicly. As before, only twenty slots are available and I only conduct this seminar once a year. Here’s where you go for info and to sign up for the alert list.

Piper Perabo, who stars in COVERT AFFAIRS was robbed of an Emmy nomination. I’d like to see Maggie Smith run in heels.

More people watched the home run derby the day before the All-Star game than any actual game of the NBA Finals. Chicks still dig the long ball.

The hardest job in America must be the person having to write the Closed-Captions for THE NEWSROOM.  But despite its flaws, I'm still on board.

Sorry to hear of the passing of longtime White House correspondent, Helen Thomas.  She helped arrange press credentials for my partner and I to join the corps in 1980 when we were doing an ABC pilot about the White House Press Corps.   She was lovely and classy and what a trailblazer for women. 

When series get nominated for Best Show but not Best Writing there’s a good chance they’ll lose.

The problem with reading an ebook is when you want to go back and look up something from several chapters ago. I can’t imagine reading a Russian novel on my Kindle. Every nine pages I’d be saying, “Who is Slovorkivavinovich again?”

How come the guest stars in MAD MEN get nominations but not the more deserving regular cast members?

I'm off the RAY DONOVAN train.  How about getting a Fixer to fix this show?   Someone who knows how to tell a story? 

BACKDOOR TEEN MOM, Farrah Abraham, on the "Matty P's Radio Happy Hour" show, was asked her thoughts on Trayvon Martin. This is actually what this moron answered: "I feel like I've met her or something. It sounds so familiar ... I don't know what she is so I can't picture the person with the name right now."   Helen Thomas is gone but this person is still with us.

Watch for a great new sitcom debuting in the Fall on Nick at Nite called INSTANT MOM. Just added to the writing staff are two very talented young scribes named Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson. I couldn't be more proud. And thanks to our son Matt for surprising his sister and flying down for the taping of their second produced script last Thursday. 

Talk about the torch being passed, that episode that Annie co-wrote was filmed on Stage 20 at Paramount and I've directed episodes on that same stage. 

There will be a crossover episode next year of THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY. Please let THE SIMPSONS writers write it.

Some readers have commented lately about PBS pledge breaks – why are they so long and how come they show the same damn doowop and British rock star reunions over and over? I agree the breaks are waaaay too long. We get it. But that’s not as horrifying as seeing these old chart toppers now. Gaaa! These former fresh-face kids now all look like Peter O’Toole. Gerry and the Pacemakers are wearing pacemakers.

But the shows PBS air are the ones their research says brings in the most viewers and contributions. Hey, I watch the black-and-white Roy Orbison every year. The key is to Tivo it.

I’ll be teaching a course at USC this fall on “the Foundations of Comedy.” Screening a lot of old movies and TV shows. Buster Keaton was a genius. If you don’t know who he is go to YouTube or ace your SAT’s, enroll in USC and take my course.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

44 years ago today

It was on this day in 1969 when we first landed a man on the moon.  Here's my account of that monumental event from my book THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) available here for a ridiculously low price.   Even more amazing than a human being walking on the moon is how I can sell the Kindle version so cheap. 
There was even more reason to feel pride at being an American later that summer. We landed a man on the moon. Even Walter Cronkite choked up on CBS reporting it. The weekend of July 20th the entire nation was glued to their televisions. President Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 that we would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade was about to take place. This was even bigger than “The History of Rock n’ Roll.”

As when JFK was assassinated, everybody remembers where they were at this moment. I watched at home in Woodland Hills with my family and grandparents. Taxi actress, Marilu Henner was busy losing her virginity standing up in the shower.

Americans had become used to space coverage in the ’60s. There was really nothing to see: shots of Mission Control in Houston, maps, and anchors at desks. We would hear the communication between Houston and the astronauts. By the Apollo missions, we sometimes got to see live fuzzy video of the crew, usually only for a few seconds. Still, the first time I saw a grainy astronaut let go of an apple and it remained suspended in mid-air I was enthralled. Forget action movies and spectacular stunts. Here was an apple bobbing up and down in outer space. That trick still kills me.

What I do know is this: 450 million people around the world watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. And they all saw it at the same time. For the first time in history the entire planet shared a monumental moment together. A moment of awe and disbelief. All the hardships of the world, the various wars, famines, poverty, social injustice, discrimination -- they were all put on hold, as if God pushed a pause button. What was more profound – man setting foot on the moon, or that moment of absolute global unity?

And Neil Armstrong – what a great line to mark the occasion: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." He wanted to say “one small step for A man” but inadvertently left out the “A.” It does sorta make more sense that way. But still, as a memorable line, it sure has more punch than – “THIS is American Idol!”

Grampy Sid had tears in his eyes. He was a teenager when he first heard that some huckleberries in Dayton, Ohio invented a contraption that actually flew in the air. And to go from that to a man landing on the moon all in his lifetime was completely overwhelming.

And it’s an even greater accomplishment than we realized at the time. The more sophisticated our computers have become the more we’ve begun to appreciate just how rudimentary and archaic the data and technology was back then. What we thought was state-of-the-art in 1969 was really the Flintstones build a rocket ship. And we blasted three human beings into outer space in that thing. Yikes!

My favorite schocky movie

A number of you have asked what is my favorite schlocky movie? That would have to be the Roger Corman 1975 masterpiece, DEATH RACE 2000. It's your typical low budget exploitation science fiction apocalyptic violent cross country auto race romp. The tagline:

IN THE YEAR 2000 HIT AND RUN DRIVING IS NO LONGER A FELONY. IT'S A NATIONAL SPORT!

I have to love a movie where the Real Don Steele's name is on the one-sheet but Sylvester Stallone's is not. (The above poster hangs in my office.)

The delightful confection of a story is that there is a cross country race in modified Batmobiles and the drivers get additional points for running down pedestrians. (Hey, don't laugh. It's still a better premise than GROWN UPS 2.)

Here is a sample.

Warning: Not for the squeamish -- and by that I mean anyone who can't bear to watch really bad cheesy special effects.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Questions

For everyone who looks forward to Friday (Questions):

Barefoot Billy Aloha asks:

Big Wave Dave's and Almost Perfect were built around people in very unique circumstances (Hawaii transplants; TV producers); yet, your bones were made on shows built around people in very common circumstances (military service; bar pals).

So, my question is: would your next new show stand a better chance of long term success if it were built around more common experience? Like a supermarket, DMV and similar places?

Very interesting question.  

Actually, both MASH and CHEERS were also about people in very unique circumstances – civilian doctors forced to practice meatball surgery in tents during a war and a pseudo-intellectual working in the unfamiliar confines of a sports bar.

BIG WAVE DAVE’S and ALMOST PERFECT were ultimately about the characters and relationships and each series was grounded in a real theme. BWD’s was a series exploring mid-life crises, and AP was about a woman trying to have it all (personally and professionally).

That said, to sell a sitcom today you need an even higher-concept premise than say a CHEERS. Shows like SUPER FUN NIGHT and THE NEIGHBORS are more in vogue.

But we design shows around characters, relationships, and themes first.  Some sell and some don't.   More important to us than high vs. low concepts are "Is the show really about something?"

Steve Pepoon wonders:

Do you think George Wendt and John Ratzenberger were pinheads or had a legitimate beef, suing that company that put Cheers bars in airports because they had lifesize statues of their characters? What's the harm of having people fondly recall their characters and pose for pictures with them?

I think they had a legitimate beef because they were using their likenesses. In a sense it appears that George and John were endorsing those bars. You can’t use an actor’s likeness without their permission. Otherwise you could just George Wendt, CGI a Budweiser in his hand and air that as a commercial.

I personally feel George and John were entitled to royalties for use of their likenesses. So did the judge.

From Michael Rae:

Ken, I have a question for an aspiring TV writer like me. What is the best college program that I could take that can relate to television writing?

There is no clear-cut answer. Certainly my alma matter, UCLA has a great program. So does crosstown USC. My partner, David Isaacs is a professor there and this fall I’ll be teaching a lecture class at USC on the Foundations of Comedy. So I may be a little partial to USC too.

NYU has an excellent program too. Otherwise, to be honest, it depends more on the instructors. My daughter, Annie got a great education from the screenwriting department of Northwestern. But you could go to Bo Crowder Junior College in Harlan County, Kentucky and if your teacher is fantastic you’ll learn more than four years at a renown film school.

And finally, from Malinda Hackett:

I just watched the premiere of the new Meredith Stiehm series THE BRIDGE, and it got me thinking...lately I've noticed that new shows have a tendency to introduce several story threads which remain unresolved by the end of the episode. I understand you want certain stories to arc over the entire season or series but, what's happening to the idea of a self-contained story specific to the pilot episode? Shows like "The Wire," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "The Sopranos" all had a great story in the pilot, which was resolved at the end of the episode and that story helped set up the series as a whole. Why are some new shows choosing to stray away from this kind of structure? I watch mostly drama so I don't know how it is on the comedy side...

Serialization does appear to be the trend. The thinking is that the un-resolved stories will hook you in and motivate you to keep returning. But the downside is it’s very hard to jump in in the middle of a series. Studios and networks however, say viewers today are willing to go back and watch series from the beginning if they hear good buzz.

Maybe that’s true, but I think you can have your cake and eat it too with pilot stories that primarily resolve themselves but still leave a few open threads (a la THE SOPRANOS or MAD MEN).

Ultimately serialization is a risk. If the audience doesn’t catch on, these dramas tend to die quick and horrible deaths.

CHEERS was really the first sitcom to have over-all season arcs but those were broad and each episode had a self-contained resolution.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, on the other hand, was very serialized and trailblazing, and that resulted in a constant fight with Fox, who wanted more self-contained episodes. Left to their own devices for the Netflix season AD took continuous unresolved storylines to new heights (or lows, depending on your viewpoint).

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comment section. Thanks!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

My thoughts on today's #Emmy nominations

Phil Spector is the big man in his prison today. His TV biopic received 11 nominations, a staggering amount considering there’s no “Worst Movie or Mini-Series” category. The guys must be congratulating him in the yard; I wouldn’t be surprised if the cook doesn’t give him an extra dollop of beans tonight. To the victor go the spoils!

This may be the only day of the year when Phil Spector is happier than Matt Weiner. For the first time, there’s not a single MAD MEN writing nomination. Considering how MAD MEN campaigned harder for Emmy consideration than Mitt Romney in Ohio last October I’d say that’s a clear message that the torch is being passed, even if it has to be wrestled out of his hands.

Some surprises this year, some not. I would not have bet that AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM would lead all shows with 17 nominations. I would predict that GAME OF THRONES racked up the noms – 16 in all. That PHIL SPECTOR would get as many as HOMELAND still has me scratching my head. Next year I wonder if all the actors on MAD MEN will wear giant fright wigs.

Other wacky things: Betty White got nominated for reality show host. Robert Morse got nominated for best guest actor in a drama for MAD MEN even though he’s a series regular. ROBOT CHICKEN got as many nominations as THE AMERICANS. 2 BROKE GIRLS even got one.

In the Best Comedy category GIRLS got nominated again. I think of all those times I got shot down at CHEERS for pitching forced anal sex and now I feel vindicated. The other nominees (who even tried to be funny): MODERN FAMILY, 30 ROCK, THE BIG BANG THEORY, LOUIE, and VEEP. Usually a long running show will get a nod for its last season – not so with THE OFFICE. VEEP might just be a dark horse.

Noticeably absent: ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, COMMUNITY, PARKS AND RECREATION, THE MIDDLE, and anything on Fox.  Expect Mindy Kalin to be sodomized next year. 

In the Best Drama category, MAD MEN got a token nod joined by DOWNTON ABBEY. HOMELAND, BREAKING BAD, GAME OF THRONES, and HOUSE OF CARDS. All are worthy contenders (in other words: Best Dramas that attempted to be dramatic), but it’s hard to believe that THE GOOD WIFE didn’t make the cut. Is being on a major broadcast network and having to make 24 episodes instead of 13 that much of a detriment? FX also got shut out. JUSTIFIED, THE AMERICANS, and SONS OF ANARCHY got no Emmy love. Both JUSTIFIED and THE GOOD WIFE were funnier this year than GIRLS.

In the acting categories, both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were nominated for BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA.  Interesting race there.  Happy to see that Robin Wright was nominated for HOUSE OF CARDS. Also, Vera Farmiga as sweet mama Bates. Shoo-ins were Claire Danes and Kerry Washington. There are a lot of people pissed that Monica Potter didn’t get recognized for PARENTHOOD.

Wouldn’t it have been a riot if Chevy Chase had been nominated for COMMUNITY?

A glaring Emmy snub was Melissa McCarthy. Does the academy hate Chuck Lorre that much?

For best lead actress in a comedy it’s winner Julia Louis-Drefus and everybody else.

For best actor and actress in a movie or mini-series it’s always whichever feature actor is eligible. Congratulations to Helen Mirren and Al Pacino for your nominations.

Now for major snubs: THE NEWSROOM. Aaron Sorkin didn’t realize how many Tea Party members were also members of the Television Academy. Jon Cryer. Even past winners on Chuck Lorre shows can’t get nominations. BOARDWALK EMPIRE and Steve Buscemi. And all non-nominated actors are now one degree of Kevin Bacon.

There are so many networks vying for coveted spots that snubs are inevitable. Hell, your show doesn’t even have to be on a network anymore. Netflix shows count. And you throw in the usual vendettas and undeserving academy darlings and what you’re left with is a fairly, sorta decent representation of the best in television. It should be a very competitive year and as always, I look forward to reviewing it. And for the first time in years, the fellas in maximum security prisons have someone to root for.

Here's a full list of nominees.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Was Elvis Jewish?

According to a book by Elaine Dundy, ELVIS AND GLADYS, he was. I always suspected. The obsession with karate, the white jumpsuits, his love of the traditional Jewish meal of peanut butter and banana sandwiches – he might as well have been Larry David with sideburns.

The book claims that Elvis’ grandmother on his mother’s side was Jewish. So his mother, Gladys, was Jewish, and thus, following the birth line according to Jewish law, so was the King.

This now explains all the Cadillacs.

And why he was “Crying in the Chapel.”

Elvis’ middle name was Aron, which the book suggests was just a misspelling of Aaron, the brother of Moses in the Bible. Jews are usually better at spelling so I question that claim.

Elvis had uncles named Sidney and Jerome. That alone does not make them Jewish, but if they annoyed young Elvis at Thanksgiving and told endless stories about going to high school with Milton Berle then you can confirm it.

Gladys was proud of her Jewish ancestry, the book attests. The fact that this was not mentioned in any of the five hundred other books about Elvis must mean her pride did not extend to two separate sets of dishes.

When she died, Elvis put a Star of David on her tombstone to honor her Jewish heritage.
Apparently, his parents told him to downplay his Jewish ancestry because of all the anti-Semitism. (In the South? Really?) I imagine his record company probably felt the same way, although it was okay for the public to think he was black.

The book says at one point he lived in an apartment below a rabbi and he would confer with him on occasion. Religious ethical questions like should he sleep with Delores Hart?


Elvis wore a piece of jewelry called a “Chai” which contained Hebrew words and the Star of David. Here too, this was not a convincing argument for his Jewishness because everyone who wore a gaudy jumpsuit in the ‘70s wore a Chai. It was just part of the look.

A stronger argument would be that he had no chemistry with Mary Tyler Moore who played a nun in his movie CHANGE OF HABIT. And the tagline for that classic was “When the King of Rock meets the Queen of Comedy romance rules.” Well, it didn’t. ‘Nuff said.

Jewish numerology is very significant. There is a Jewish holiday called Lag BaOmer. Literally, the name of the holiday means the "33rd day of the Omer." Elvis made 33 movies. That’s both eerie and conclusive.

By the way, ELVIS AND GLADYS is not the only book to contend the King was Jewish. (Note: ELVIS AND GLADYS is not to be confused with PETE AND GLADYS, a sitcom from the ‘60s starring gentiles.) There’s a book called SCHMELVIS: IN SEARCH OF ELVIS PRESLEY'S JEWISH ROOTS by Jonathan Goldstein & Max Wallace. But unlike Dundy’s book and this post, they don’t take the subject seriously.

So was Elvis actually Jewish? Throughout history Jewish scholars have argued over everything else, why not this too? I’d like to think he was, if for no other reason than Nixon would be spinning in his grave for befriending him.

UPDATE:  Tomorrow's post will appear a little later than usual.  I'll scribble down my first thoughts on the Emmy nominations, which will be announced tomorrow morning. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My network notes for UNDER THE DOME

I don’t get it. Every time we've done a series we’ve gotten a shit-ton of network notes. And usually they were very specific.

“Where’s the cat? Wouldn’t the cat be in the bedroom at night?”

“Is there something healthier than cookies she can pack in her kids’ lunch boxes?”

“Did they eat the pizza? They had that big fight in Shakeys but no one ate the pizza they ordered.” (We once got that actual note)

We’d get twenty of these an episode. For a pilot I once had a network guy open an on-set refrigerator to approve the contents.

But, as they say, “that’s the business we chose.” It’s part of the process, and we deal with it.

And then I started watching UNDER THE DOME. Holy shit! This is the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen. This is all okay with everybody? No notes? Well, as someone who had to substitute an apple for cookies and stick a cat in the bedroom, please allow me to give UNDER THE DOME some notes the network apparently felt were too minor to mention.

How do people breathe encased in a dome?

Wouldn’t it get a little hot under the dome? "Big Jim" wears that 1978 brown leather jacket he got at Monkey Wards all day long.

Since the dome is invisible can’t the town communicate with the outside world by just holding up notes? And the outside world could brief them the same way. Chester Mill doesn’t have to use a scratchy ham radio to get info. You'd think they were tracking Amelia Earhart.

"Junior" is afraid his girlfriend, Angie is going to break up with him so his solution is to kidnap her and chain her to a bed in a fallout shelter. First off, they’re under a dome. It’s not like she can leave town. Secondly, that’s your best plan?

And third – how does she go to the bathroom? She’s chained to a bed for three days.

Okay, fourth – isn’t anyone in the town concerned that she’s missing?

Wait – fifth – if you’re being held captive by a psycho, the best way to disarm him might not be to lie and say you fucked some other guy and loved it. In the eight times that Jack Bauer’s daughter was kidnapped in 24 she never did that.

Along those lines, the crazy cop who accidentally shoots his partner when the bullet ricochets off the dome (oops on that one), but breaks out of jail and flees. To where? What’s he thinking? Even in the forest there’s only so much real estate. It’s easier to get lost in the BIG BROTHER backyard.

There’s no mass panic?  You've just been sealed in by something unknown for an unknown period of time.  Just one rogue cop finds this disturbing? There’s no looting or runs on grocery stores? Even the diner stays open. People sit at the counter and sip their coffee and enjoy their pie just like it’s just another sleepy Thursday.  Order that special of the day now because when they're out of it they are OUT of it.   

Two townsfolk are in the diner when the African-American woman looking for her white daughter shows them a picture. The redneck says condescendingly, “How can that be?” The woman explains she and another woman are the parents. He’s very bemused and dismissive. Did anyone notice that his buddy sitting next to him is also African-American? And might that gentleman react? 

Does every DJ on CBS have to look like Venus Fly Trap?

Wouldn’t this dome be sort of a national story? Wouldn’t it be just an absolute circus outside the dome with news and camera crews reporting constantly? 12,000 TV trucks converge on the Zimmerman trial but not one is outside a giant dome that has enclosed an entire town?

There’s a big house fire. Smoke seen for miles. A day after the fire is put out the smoke is completely gone. Wouldn’t it be trapped in the dome and the whole town would be smoky?

Would someone in town, even one person, realize that they’re in for a calamitous water shortage since rain from the sky would bounce off the top of the dome?

The reverend accidentally starts this fire by lighting a document and throwing it in a wastebasket next to drapes. Within five seconds the entire room is engulfed in flames and the reverend is too. We see fire on him. A half-hour later the house is still burning. The reverend is rescued (he’s still alive?), and miraculously he’s not seriously burned. Are you saying that if you spread the word of Jesus you are fire retardant?


When smoking hot redhead, Julia starts to suspect the mysterious stranger (with the mysterious name), Barbie is maybe ominous and scary, is it a good idea to still let him stay in your house?

Julia goes through his backpack when he’s taking a shower (you townies might want to ration that water) and finds the marked map of the town in like a second.  That's like bank robbers walking around with schematics of a Wells Fargo in their pocket.   You think he might hide the map a little better?

Barbie finds his missing dog tags. Julia asks where they were. Instead of the thousand-and-one places he could have said, he picks the bathroom in her house where she could easily catch him on his lie.

So all the teens decide to go to the one kid’s house with a generator so they could party?

And is one of the kids just a tad too stupid when he thinks he can squeeze through the dome because it’s water-soluble and we’re all 70% water?

The idea that there’s this invisible force field and people can’t leave the town – didn’t they already do that on ONCE UPON A TIME? And LOST? And THE SIMPSONS MOVIE?

Since the Chief of Police knew his pacemaker fluttered when he even got near the dome, why did he touch it? Of course it exploded.

That was a great effect when the dome came down and split a cow in half. Did they eat the half of cow?

UPDATE:  Thursday morning I'll post my thoughts on the Emmy nominations.  I'm not expecting one so I won't be biter. Okay... maybe just a little.