Tuesday, March 31, 2015

More than you'd ever want to know

The Television Academy in association with the Writers Guild Foundation conduct a series of archive interviews with notable people in the TV industry.   My writing partner, David Isaacs, and I are honored to be included.  Last September we were both interviewed, and yesterday those interviews went on line.  There are three main parts -- solo interviews with each of us and one with the both of us.

Here's mine.  I hesitate to feature this because now I'll have nothing to write about myself.   But you're probably thinking "thank God."

And here are a couple of segments from the joint interview.  This is how we got our first assignment on MASH.

In this one we talk about our writing process.

And finally, since the last thing you want to do is spend an entire day watching us -- writing THE SIMPSONS.

Thanks again to the TV Academy and WGA Foundation.  Like I said, we're truly honored to be included with real television legends.  

Monday, March 30, 2015

Making an idiot of myself on the radio... yet again

Back from the B100 radio reunion, held somewhere in Afghanistan I think.  It was at the Pala Resort and Casino -- a spectacular complex situated in the middle of nowhere.  B100 was a Top 40 station that took San Diego by storm in 1975 and stayed on top for close to 15 years.  I don't know what the format is today -- probably All Polka Music or All Obama Bashing.

As part of the festivities, which included a dinner, nostalgia, much drinking, a pool party (although no one was stupid enough to wear a bathing suit), and appearance from Shotgun Tom Kelly -- the local radio station graciously allowed us recreate B100 as it was.

Back in March of '75 the station signed on with "the B100 hours" -- a hundred insane hours of no commercials and the jocks all rotating shift.  Tapes of some of those broadcasts have been circulating among radio people for years.  I'm both proud and humiliated to be a part of it.

Anyway, in addition to replaying some of those tapes and the music from that era, I was invited to do a live show for an hour.  It's the first time I've done a disc jockey show in ten years and only the third DJ show I've done since 1982.  So don't expect anything great.  But what the hell?  You can't think any less of me than you already do.  Here it is (minus the songs so it's not an hour, it's like five minutes).

The weekend was great fun. As one of the jocks, Danny Wilde said, "The reason there's no more fun in radio is because we used it all up."   He's right.   Danny became a surgeon, by the way.  And I thought I did well.

What struck me most about the experience was how fond I am of all these people, even though I rarely see them anymore.  Yes, there's the bond we share in making fools of ourselves on the radio, but beyond that -- they're great folks and hold a special place in my heart.

So thanks to John Fox, Paul Palmer, Gary Kelley, Mark Gleason, and all my friends at B100 for organizing this soiree.   And a special thanks to Bobby Rich.   Not only was he the mastermind of the station, he was the best program director I ever worked for.  Not to mention the only program director who never fired me.  And you just heard my act.  He had cause every week.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Maybe the most insane game show ever

This comes from the early 50s, the embryonic days of television, and a network (Dumont) that long since has disappeared. OKAY MOTHER starring Dennis James. He later went on to host a gazillion national game shows. But here he's on speed with a Red Bull chaser.  Thanks to friend of the blog, Mike McCann for finding this hilarious and appalling chestnut.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

My life from A-Z

One of those dumb personal quizzes circulating the net. I'm admitting things here even my shrink doesn't know. Of course, he doesn't care.

• A-Available/Single? Not according to my wife
• B-Best Friend? My partner. I'd be a lot poorer emotionally and financially without him.
• C-Cake or Pie? I'll have to go with Elvis and say cake.
• D-Drink Of Choice? Makers & ginger ale but only after 7 a.m.
• E-Essential Item You Use Everyday? My Pocket Fisherman.
• F-Favorite Color? Green. They asked me this for the Dewar's ad, too.
• G-Gummy Bears Or Worms? Whichever one is not banned from commercial flights.
• H-Hometown? Los Angeles
• I-Indulgence? Irene Jacob movies even though I can't understand them.• J-January Or February? February. Pitchers and catchers report.
• K-Kids & Their Names? Matt, Annie, and maybe some in Bakersfield.
• L-Life Is Incomplete Without? Laughter.
• M-Marriage Date? July 8. Same date that crime boss Soapy Smith was shot to death in 1898.
• N-Number Of Siblings? 1
• O-Oranges Or Apples? Apple, if we're talking pies or computers. Orange if we're talking women's prisons.
• P-Phobias/Fears? Mimes.
• Q-Favorite Quote? Enough is as good as a feast to an idiot.
• R-Reason to Smile? Linda Eder singing
• S-Season? Bob Gaudio
• T-Tag Three or Four People? I don't know four people.
• U-Unknown Fact About Me? I touched Jackie Kennedy's knee.
• V-Vegetable you don't like? Pat Robertson
• W-Worst Habit? Sweating the small stuff
• X-X-rays You've Had? Teeth, chest, and what kind of stupid question is that?
• Y-Your Favorite Food? Lobster...but must not still be alive.
• Z-Zodiac Sign? Aquarius man.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from the Pala Resort, somewhere in the middle of nowhere – site of tonight’s big B100 radio reunion. If you think high school reunions are scary, imagine former disc jockeys from the drug and alcohol era.  I'll be on the radio today from 5-6 PDT.  "Beaver Cleaver" returns.  Anyhoo, here are some Friday Questions:

Bradley is first:

Do you think sitcoms benefit more from the consistency of having a single director or the variety of using multiple directors? When I watch many episodes of, say, Will & Grace or The Big Bang Theory back to back, I start to see very predictable patterns in shot selection and staging. I imagine this is easier (and more efficient) for the actors and gives the audience exactly what they’ve come to expect. Yet when I watch a show that uses many directors, I see episodes from time to time that are shot quite differently from the others. Frasier is a good example of this. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

Well, first of all, it depends on the director. If you can get James Burrows or Andy Ackerman or Pam Fryman to direct every episode of your series DO IT. I’m assuming your question relates to sitcoms, and multi-camera in particular. (For single-camera shows directors need a few days of prep time so one director can’t do an entire season.) But for sitcoms…

Showrunners generally prefer to have one director they can rely on. And the cast prefers the consistency.

New directors always require a period of adjustment. It’s like a parade of substitute teachers.

On my first day of one show one of the stars took me aside and said, "So who the fuck are you?" 

Most important for a cast is to trust their director and that can take time.

So unless you have one of the A-Listers like Burrows you need to see which director clicks with the cast and showrunner and that may take four or five candidates to determine. And even once you've found that person, sometimes casts will fall out of love with certain directors.  Time to round up the usual suspects.

Back in the halcyon days when there was a glut of sitcoms, many directors preferred not being chained to one series. They enjoyed the variety of bouncing from show to show. But once the landscape shrunk they grabbed the opportunity to stay with one show. Musical Director Chairs.  So you see more consistency these days.

And yes, at times directors can get complacent and lazy.   But so can the actors.  It's one of the downsides of a long running hit series -- a problem that's really good to have. 

Johnny Walker is up next.

I just noted that "Goodbye Radar" was actually a Season 8 episode, technically after you, David and Gary had left. I assume this is because they were a "holdover" from Season 7. But can you explain: What IS a holdover? Why do they happen? I see that the same thing happened on The Simpsons quite frequently, too. I always imagine TV production as being several scripts behind, not several shows ahead. Could you explain more?

Gary Burghoff was supposed to leave at the end of season seven and David Isaacs and I were going to write the script.

However, CBS convinced Gary to stay on for the first few episodes of season eight and then do his farewell as a two-parter during November sweeps. So David and I agreed to come back and write the twofer, which we did.

With THE SIMPSONS, I can only guess that the long lead time needed for the animation to be completed can cause delays and some episodes slop into the next season.

From Ethan:

Why did you leave Frasier?

My wife and I are watching all of the episodes on Netflix and it jumped out at me that David Isaacs is credited as "creative consultant" without you in seasons 7 and 8 (possibly more?), unlike seasons 1 and 2.

You mean I was actually missed? 

I was freelance directing during that period. Those are the years I directed FRASIER, JUST SHOOT ME, DHARMA & GREG, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, and a bunch of shows that have long since been forgotten.  So I'll pop up on Netflix elsewhere.

Mark P. has a question about my recent trip.

Had you been to Korea before? What do they think of MASH?

No. First time. Most of the locals there are unfamiliar with the show. It’s not aired in Korea. I asked a couple of people and they had no idea what I was talking about.  And yes, they spoke English.

And finally, from Carson:

Why do you think the broadcast networks gave up on made-for-TV movies? It can't be that they were too expensive or unprofitable. Hallmark and Lifetime appear to have struck a gold mine with them.

I suppose they feel for their brand the audience would prefer existing shows and characters they know.   Movies of the Week are a wildcard. Since they feature new premises each week the audience can’t really build.  Networks need that traction.  They can't afford to start each week back at square one.

HALLMARK, LIFETIME, and a few other cable networks have used MOW’s to forge their brands. And the films are getting better. They used to all be Meredith Baxter Birney with the disease of the week.

Got a question?  Leave it in the comments section.  Thanks.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Short attention span blogging

Random stray thoughts.. in no particular order...

Which “Real Housewife” do you wish Robert Durst was married to?

When a ballplayer who has played for several teams goes into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown the big question is always which team’s hat will he wear? For comedy writers the question is which show jacket will he be buried in?

I still love JUSTIFIED but glad they’re wrapping it up. I think one more year and Boyd Crowder will be buying Acme explosives and setting a trap for Raylan Givens by offering “free food for U.S. Marshals.”

NBC scraped its Monica Potter pilot after a bad table reading and runthrough. They claim it “doesn’t live up to potential.” Don’t kid yourself. A network doesn’t pull the plug on a pilot two days into production unless it’s a fucking trainwreck. The pilot was produced by Ellen DeGeneres’ company. Guess it wasn’t as funny as MASH.

There have to be no less than six pilots where empty nest couples learn their kids or parents or grandkids or any combination of same move back in. Wasn’t that idea tired fifteen years ago? And networks wonder why audiences don't embrace their new comedies.

Always great to hear Verne Lunquist call March Madness. Old School is the Best School.

I don't see anyone beating Kentucky including the Lakers.  

The X-FILES is coming back to Fox. Could this mean the return of Alf?

Kathy Griffin has quit FASHION POLICE. Could this mean the return of Alf?

Will Ferrell is expected to make the Houston Astros’ 25 man roster.

HuffPost Headline: Vin Diesel Thinks 'Furious 7' Should Win Best Picture

On his premiere episode Monday night, James Corden and Tom Hanks re-enacted every one of his movies – except VOLUNTEERS.

Lots of ethnic casting this pilot season. Is it because the networks feel they have a moral obligation to promote diversity? Of course not. EMPIRE and BLACK-ISH are hits.

Frank Underwood’s approval rating is higher than Obama’s.

There’s a terrific movie about the studio musicians who backed all the hits in the ‘60s called THE WRECKING CREW. It’s playing in selected cities and available on iTunes. All those great rock songs were really done by 45-year-old former jazz and big band musicians. Check it out.

This year’s Oscarcast was the lowest rated since 2009. So the Board of Governors are in a panic. One solution discussed: going back to only five Best Picture nominees. Yeah, that’s the problem. I think they’re missing the real reason for viewership decline – the podium is a little low.

At what point does the media finally admit that nobody watches GIRLS? Its season four finale drew only 326,000 viewers in the key 18-49 demo. Seriously, for a nationally televised program in the United States that’s embarrassing. It’s not just Lena Dunham who has no clothes.

DANCING WITH THE MARGINAL CELEBRITIES rebounded in week two after its worst season debut. Could this mean the return of Alf?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Save L.A.'s theater scene

A TV writer friend of mine used to be an actor. I once asked why he switched. He said, “Writing I can do myself anytime. But as an actor, to practice my craft I have to be hired.” I hadn’t thought of that, but he’s right. It was never an issue for me because I can’t act my way out of a hard rain.

And then actors have the added hurdle of competition. There are always hundreds of other actors vying for the same few parts. It’s a blessing I’m a terrible actor.

Equity is a union that represents actors in the theater. As a member of the WGA and DGA you know I’m very pro union. Especially in the movie and TV business where major conglomerates are now in control and care only about making huge profits. Unions provide at least a modicum of protection for the little insignificant people who actually make the product.

Likewise, when there are big Broadway productions and theatergoers are paying hundreds of dollars for tickets, the actors deserve their fair share. Leaving it to the goodness of benevolent producers would ensure that these actors would starve. Equity provides a valuable service.

Here in Los Angeles we have two tiers of theaters. Large theaters like the Taper Forum and Pantages, and small theaters of 99 seats or less. There are not that many large theaters in LA. And of those, many feature roadshow productions of big Broadway hits. WICKED was here recently. I’m surprised THE SOUND OF MUSIC isn’t playing. The point is there are not a lot of parts for actors.

A second-tier is the 99-seat theater. These are small neighborhood theaters in the valley, or West Hollywood, or Atwater Village that often are next door to furniture stores or massage parlors. David Isaacs and I once had series of One Acts that were performed at a theater above a pizza parlor in a part of the city that gang members wouldn’t enter.

No one really makes money in these theaters. You’re lucky if you break even. People put a tremendous amount of time and effort into shows that will be seen by a precious few or fewer. Even if you sell out every seat for twenty performances at $20 a ticket you’ll probably still lose money.  We're not talking Time-Warner.

So why do we do it? Because we love the theater. Because we can practice our craft. Because of the camaraderie. For actors, it’s a showcase. And many intimate shows have gone on to bigger venues or even Broadway keeping the original casts. For playwrights, it’s a chance to present your vision without network or studio interference. Trust me, if you’re a writer and you want to make money – you write spec screenplays or TV pilots. You don’t write a play for God sakes!

Up until now there has been an Equity Waiver that has allowed these 99-seat theaters to mount plays without having to pay actors more than car fare. On the other hand, it means more chances to “be hired.” And again, it’s not like everyone is getting rich but them. Viacom does not own 99-seat theaters in NoHo. 

Also, the actors have a choice. If they don’t want to take low or no paying jobs that's their prerogative. This isn’t jury duty.

Now Equity wants to eliminate the waiver. There is a referendum that would force these small theaters to pay minimum wage for every hour of rehearsal and performance. You could make the argument that that’s reasonable. And I think we all could agree that no one, actors especially, should be taken advantage of.

But producers claim that those concessions would add so much to the cost of productions that they would not be worth doing. They’re losing money as it is.

So the end result might be this: 99-seat productions go away. Theaters close. And then who benefits? Equity actors are getting minimum wage of nothing. Potential roles will no longer exist. If you’re an Equity actor you better get cast in PIPPIN or you’re out of luck.

To me this is shortsighted. There is the real danger that if this referendum passes it will kill the small theater scene in Los Angeles. Or producers will only seek non-Equity actors. And you might want to be a non-Equity actor in that case because suddenly your competition for parts might go down from 100 to 10.

Actors themselves don't want this.  On Monday a large group of them picketed their own union.  

I’m a playwright so I have a horse in this race. I’d love to have 99-seat theaters as options for mounting one of my plays.   But that's not my only option.

My greater concern is for the actors themselves. Casting directors go to these Equity Waiver Theaters. These productions provide the opportunity to do the thing you love. The theater scene is shrinking already. Even Equity theaters primarily want plays with only two to four actors now. Twenty years ago plays would routinely have eight to ten parts.

Equity actors will get a chance to vote, although I’m told the Board ultimately will decide. So essentially they could ignore the wishes of its membership. The scuttlebutt is that’s what they plan to do. They want to adopt this referendum. Ballots should be received by members today. The only way to get the Board’s attention is to resoundingly vote NO.
I hope this referendum is defeated. And by the way, should the status quo remain and a play of mine gets produced at a local Equity Waiver venue, I’m happy to make just as much (or little) as the actors. After all, it’s the thee-ah-tuh… unless the referendum passes, and then it’s the 7-Eleven.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

FRESH OFF THE BOAT -- my review

FRESH OFF THE BOAT just keeps getting better. And how refreshing to find a new sitcom with some genuine laughs.

Created by Nahnatchka Khan, who also pumped some good laughs in DON’T TRUST THE B______ IN APT. 23, FRESH OFF THE BOAT is on ABC (so it’s obviously a family show) and deals with the culture clash of a Chinese family trying to make sense of Orlando, Florida (as if anyone could). It’s based on the memoir by Eddie Huang and set in 1995. So it’s WONDER YEARS, THE GOLDBERGS – a formula ABC is comfortable with – but more deliciously subversive.

I must admit I’m a sucker for Americana. Goofy-themed restaurants, fads, franchises, fashions, slogans – that’s what makes America great. And FRESH OFF THE BOAT explores all that nonsense, but through the unique perspective of foreign eyes. There’s actual social commentary going on here. It is possible to get yucks without crass vagina jokes. Who knew?

Just the fact that the show goes for laughs and doesn’t settle for smiles, low road humor, pop culture rhetoric, or tired irony separates it from the pack.

The pilot had some good moments but with each subsequent episode the series is really finding its stride. The stories are clever and offbeat. Centered primarily around 11-year-old, Eddie, one features his pubescent doofus friends getting all aroused over a sexual harassment video. In another they covet a new Shaquille O’Neal video game and one of the kids’ mother instead buys him a video game based on the Dolly Parton/Jane Fonda feminist workplace comedy, 9 TO 5. And it turns out to be better.

As mentioned, the show is focused on Eddie, played nicely by Hudson Yang but the actress who absolutely steals the show is Constance Wu, who plays his mother, Jessica. She’s a comic revelation. Can play attitude, cluelessness, and physical comedy at just the right pitch and level of dryness so it never looks like she sees the joke coming. No matter how broad or absurd the situation her character never knows she’s in a comedy. She deserves an Emmy nomination although I’m sure the Academy will fill that category with women who are not funny and not even in a comedy.

FRESH OFF THE BOAT airs tonight at 8:00 (for the six people who still actually watch TV shows live and in real time). And you can get access to past episodes on probably forty different streaming sites, On Demand channels, websites, or fish-out-of-water-comedy apps. Nahnatchka Khan is a funny writer, Constance Wu is a funny actress, and FRESH OFF THE BOAT is a funny show getting funnier.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How important are TV titles?

Here's the short answer:  Very.   Especially now when there are so many choices… and so many titles. A good title might not lure viewers but a bad one will surely drive them away.

In addition to whatever other problems it had, SELFIE was a truly terrible title. It just sounded so faux hip and trendy, and frankly “so five minutes ago.” Shows with negative connotations fight a real uphill battle. COUGAR TOWN just screamed “creepy.” Good luck getting women over 40 to watch a show called TROPHY WIFE.

TERRIERS was a good show with a bad title.  No one knew what it meant.  

My current favorite show is THE GOOD WIFE but honestly, that title kept me from watching the show when it debuted. I thought it was going to be a soap opera disguised as a lawyer show. Happily, it’s a classic disguised as a network show.

Some titles can confuse audiences. HAPPY ENDINGS. If you’re a pervert like me that suggests massage parlors and handjobs. Imagine my disappointment when that wasn’t what the show was about. Other more innocent people might have thought HAPPY ENDINGS was another fairy tale show like ONCE UPON A TIME. And since they never did a story where Little Red Riding Hood met urban hipsters those expectations were not met. When you see that a show is named MANHATTAN don’t you sort of think it’s about New York? The Manhattan Project is not your first association. A more appropriate title might be KABOOM. Just a suggestion.

We even had a little trouble with CHEERS at first. Before the show caught on there were those who assumed by the title the series was about high school cheerleaders. Seeing Norm must’ve really befuddled them then.

One of the worst titles in recent years is HALT AND CATCH FIRE. What the fuck does that mean? It just sounds like a random command. FREEZE AND MAKE BLINTZES.

And then there was EXTANT. That was always my fear on becoming a contestant on PASSWORD. The word I would get is “extant” and everyone in America would know I had no idea what that word meant. If your show title could be mistaken for one of those eye-chart sounding arthritis drugs then it’s a bad title.

Or just using initials when they mean nothing to us. GCB. The real title was Good Christian Bitches but ABC was skittish. So they went to initials which told the audience nothing.

Producers sometime go the opposite way though, and make their titles too generic. THE JOB, GO ON, TURN, MOMS AND DADS, and GIRLS are examples. Or just stringing words together to create phrases like FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES. They sound generic even if they’re not.

And then there are titles that sound alike. BAD TEACHER and BAD JUDGE. I guess by putting “Bad” in the title networks think they’re edgy. Along the same lines, another trend I feel has backfired is putting profanity in the title but not saying the words. DON’T TRUST THE B**** IN APT 23 or $#@& MY DAD SAYS. It’s bad enough networks can’t say those words. Why promote that you can’t by using this B**$@% tactic?

Other similar titled shows tend to have city names. CHICAGO P.D., CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO HOPE, CHICAGO CODE. And then there are the R shows. RESURRECTION, REDEMPTION, REVOLUTION, REVENGE, RECKLESS. Really?

A couple of years ago there was a sitcom called PARTNERS that not only had the same title as an earlier series named PARTNERS but also stole the premise. Classy.

Another danger is making your title too long. Yes, you want to stand out but HOW TO LIVE WITH YOUR PARENTS (FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE) is a mouthful. Who’s going to say, “Hey, did you see HOW TO LIVE WITH YOUR PARENTS (FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE) last night?” You’ll never have a water cooler show if it takes the length of the office break just to say the title of the show. And good luck getting that on the back of a show jacket. 

I tend to prefer short titles; one word preferably. SCANDAL is a great title. Simple, eye catching, and intriguing. HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER? also gets your attention although it's a big long. But Shonda Rhimes knows what she’s doing. THE BLACKLIST is another personal favorite. What’s yours?

Titles make a difference. Make yours short, snappy, and to play it safe tack on STAR WARS to the front of it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The most fun I ever had in radio

Next weekend there will be a 40 year reunion of San Diego radio station, B100.  I can't wait.  Lots of the original staff members will attend, which should be great fun and horrifying.   We're also going back on the air to recreate the station live.  You'll be able to hear it here.  In honor of the event, I'm reposting the following piece:

Here’s another look back at my disc jockey career – when radio was great and I was passable. One thing that the industry was back then was FUN. Not so today certainly. And it’s a shame – both for the talent and the listeners.

Everything was live and local. You were encouraged to show some personality. Most radio markets had two competing stations playing the exact some music. So the only way to really distinguish yourself was in the presentation. Who had the crazier DJ’s? Who had the wildest contests? Who staged the best concerts? Who had the sluttiest girls call the request line? (Oh wait, that was just for the jocks, not the listeners)

You don’t have that competition today when the same company owns both competing stations (and seven others in the market) and to save money, one guy voice-tracks shows for all of them, they air some syndicated service out of Saugus, California, and the slutty girls are just emailing rock bands.

But the 70s were sweet. The pay was crap, there was zero job security, you had to play “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” six times a night, you usually needed a penicillin shot, and half your annual salary was lost to apartment security deposits because you skipped town so often – but we made up for it in fun.

And if I had to select the single MOST fun experience it would be the launch of KFMB-FM (B100) in March 1975.

Bobby Rich was hired to create an exciting FM Top 40 station for San Diego. SD was a tough market. There already was a juggernaut AM station – KCBQ, and FM rock had already failed once before with KSEA (a station I was on and helped kill).

But Bobby was a showman. He understood that you hire really talented people, give them all the support elements they need to succeed, and then just let them do their thing. The result was a cooking radio station that sounded like pure adrenaline mixed with laughing gas.

And to set the tone right off the bat, Bobby devised the B100 Hours to kick off the format. Here’s Bobby himself, explaining the concept:

Getting the station started I was looking for ways to promote the "100" with slogans, contests and other image branding. So having a 100 hour "Boogie-a-thon" with no commercials and giving away "B-100 Dollar Bills" every 100 minutes just worked.

The real magic came when we started bringing in guest dj's from all over the country for the party. It was a reunion of something that hadn't even happened yet. All of our talent was encouraged to invite jock buddies (like you did with Billy Pearl) who would want to "play radio" with our gang of wacko and wild Boogiemasters.

Oh, doing the math it turns out that is FOUR DAYS and FOUR HOURS. So that required much complicated back timing. To say nothing of the jocks being required to start each hour with the countup "and this is hour 78 of 100 hours of Better Boogie", etc.

Tapes of that insane weekend went viral in the radio industry. I still encounter people who say they have airchecks of me and Billy Pearl (at the time a jock for KHJ Los Angeles) on the air together, doing a limerick competition while we kept re-starting the record over and over.

You never knew who was going to be on the air at any hour, and often disc jockeys were paired off. I got to do an hour with the legendary Chuck Browning – maybe the most caustic human being that ever lived. Great jocks from all over the country would come in, sit down, and just blast. One or two were even sober.

The line-up was crazy. I was there all weekend. I’d work 8-9 PM, then come back and do 4-5 AM, 11-noon, 7-8 PM, etc. No one got any sleep.

I recall doing a morning show with Rich Brother Robbin, and at the time there was a syndicated program going around that basically was a fantasy Woodstock. All these live performances from various albums were woven together as if this amazing rock festival actually took place. We did a mock version. Doing my Ed Sullivan impression, we hosted the Concert for Rock n’ Roll Heaven and played all these dead artists. What we lacked in taste we made up for in audacity.

The launch was a huge success. The entire town was talking about it. And within months B100 dethroned longtime stalwart, KCBQ.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Wolfgang Putz?

Okay, is it just me or does this luck like Wolfgang Putz instead of Wolfgang Puck?

Writers' torture: Waiting for your script to be read

For a writer it never gets easier.


You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

This was a re-post from 84 years ago. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Questions

Rolling out the weekend with some Friday Questions. What’s yours?

VP81955 starts us off with a screenplay FQ:

I've been told that when you're suggesting musical or song & dance segments, you should not specifically list the song (and certainly not play choreographer -- that's why God made Toni Basil!), but write "in the style of 'Pump It Up' by Elvis Costello (or whatever)." At the same time, I understand the screenwriter for "Guardians of the Galaxy" -- whom I'm guessing is far more experienced regarding this stuff than I am -- insisted on several '70s songs for the soundtrack. How would you suggest a neophyte screenwriter handle this situation?

The issue about specific songs is that the studio will need to secure the rights. And that can get complicated and expensive.   Good luck getting a Beatles or Springsteen song.  It’s generally better to leave yourself some options.

In the case of GUARDIANS, ‘70s music was key to the character. But they had enough wiggle room that if they couldn’t get “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries they’d be able to get clearance for something comparable.

For your screenplay you could suggest a specific song and add:  or something like it that the studio could clear without needing to sell off the backlot.

As for choreography, be sparing for several reasons. It’s hard to convey and the last thing you want to do is bog down your reader with extensive stage direction. As you said, it’s Toni Basil Magic.

David wonders:

John Astin so under-rated. Have a question - I remember that MTM series (short as it was) and remember the Astin character had a thing where he always said the full name of Mary's character. When you develop a character do you also develop those "hooks" (is that the industry word?) or does it evolve during the creation of the show, as you hear the characters interacting in real time?

You do look for quirks that help define a character. The best of these come from observing real behavior from real people.  When David Isaacs and I are creating a character we'll often say, "What about that thing that Fred does?"    (Poor Fred, we use him all the time.) 

But again, the point is to help inform the audience as to who the character is. It’s not just giving him a funny catch phrase or goofy walk just to have him stand out.

Actors are always looking for these “hooks” to lock onto a character. Sometimes it’s a speech pattern, a physical quirk, a piece of wardrobe, or even a certain music genre preference a la GUARDIANS.

As a writer, the more specific I can make a character the easier it will be for the actor and the audience to get what I’m going for.

Another helpful hint for writers -- take acting classes and improv workshops.  Learn to develop characters for yourself.    I always recommend Andy Goldberg's improv class.  It's the one I'm in.

Micah queries:

Ken, you've diversified so much of late with playwrighting (a word?), TCM hosting. I'm curious if you've thought about doing a podcast? Given your broadcasting chops, storytelling and showbiz connections, I'd think you would be pretty successful with it. Have you considered that at all?

I have. I would like to do a podcast. I just need the equipment and someone to show me how to use it, how to upload it, how to link to it from my blog. I am not computer savvy (a nice way of saying I’m a blithering idiot). I also worry a little about the time and obligation a podcast would require.

Oh… and just what the hell I’d say on one of these things?

But I’m definitely interested.

From Allan V:

Like yourself, I have also called games on-air (high school, not MLB), and like yourself, I like to use the occasional profanity in my casual, everyday speech. What approach did you use to keep from accidentally blurting out an f-bomb or similar word when things get exciting during a game? Frankly, I was always a bit worried that I might let one fly during the heat of the moment.

I can only speak for myself. I am always conscious of the fact that I am “on the air.” Usually I’m listening to headphones so my voice sounds a little amplified and that provides a constant reminder that I’m in broadcast mode.

I have been known to drop a profanity or two during my daily life. But when I’m in the booth I try to curtail the casual use of such language. However, I know announcers who take great delight in saying the most disgusting things between pitches – clicking the mic on and off. That’s a high wire act I choose to avoid. All you need is one slip up.

Back in the ‘90s when announcers were calling a game on TV it was carried by satellite to the station and anyone who had a dish could access it. The mic was always on and there have been instances where announcers have sworn a blue streak or been extremely candid assessing a player’s lack of talent during commercial breaks only to have a few thousand listeners (including the kid's parents) scattered around the country eavesdropping. Oops. I forget the particulars but Al Michaels once got in trouble during a World Series by saying something between innings that was not meant to be broadcast. Double oops.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ellen DeGeneres should shut the fuck up

ONE BIG HAPPY is a new NBC comedy that premiered this past Tuesday night.  As you'll see from this trailer, it's Ellen DeGeneres' company that's producing it.  So naturally she's the spokesperson.  As you'll also see she says this show is "like MASH but funny."

Oh really?

Oh yeah, Larry Gelbart would be humbled by great jokes like:

"What is so unusual about a Lesbian and a fighter pilot having a baby?"  
"He is not a fighter pilot."  

And then a cock joke.   This is the TRAILER. 

Now let's look at some of the reviews:

Telling a blended family tale that I feel like we’ve heard many times before, and in far better ways, One Big Happy delivers stereotypes galore where a script should be. With frat-boy-level pee jokes and unfunny quips about lesbians, straight guys and Brits all over the place, it creaks along like the worst aspects of Three’s Company – and that’s just in the first few minutes.
-- Deadline Hollywood

One Big Happy, an amateurish bungle of a comedy, has a single idea that's impossible to miss: the script hammers it home so strenuously, the writers must think we're as dimwitted as their creations.

One Big Happy is a loud, frantic sitcom so eager to please, you may want to avert your eyes. That’s assuming you continue watching past an early punchline, which I will now quote in full: “Vagina, right on the chair!” 
-- Yahoo TV

As a sitcom, it’s as retrograde as it gets—a Three’s Company retread where instead of getting starkly different personalities, the characters get different sexualities. (Or, in Prudence’s case, an accent.) Hijinks barely even ensue, replaced instead by broad lesbian clichés and stereotypes that are only recognized as jokes when the unsettling, maniacal laugh track kicks in.
-- The Daily Beast

It’s no longer unusual to find nontraditional families on television and for people in those families to be having babies. Apparently the makers of "One Big Happy" an intelligence-insulting sitcom that begins Tuesday night on NBC, haven’t noticed, because every minute of their show screams: “Hey! We’ve got a pregnant lesbian! Bet you’ve never seen that before!”
-- NY Times

Basically every punchline involving Cuthbert's character revolves around her being a lesbian and having lesbian footwear and clothes and interests.

What the fuck was Ellen thinking?  Not only is her comparison to MASH absurd, insulting, and makes her look like an idiot, it also throws her writer/creator Liz Feldman right under the bus.  Granted, Ms Feldman does herself no favors by filling her show with crass vagina, pee, and cock jokes, but still -- I don't think her goal was to eclipse the comedy of an iconic series set in a war zone.

I think the best you could say is that she meant the line as a joke.   Y'know, she was trying to be Ellen but funny. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Turning Japanese

Here's the final chapter of my trip to the Far East.  Parts one and two were posted earlier this week.

Once we were allowed to enter it was great. But immigration in Japan was even worse than China. Disclosure forms, passports, plus they took our photos, fingerprints, and temperatures (via some thermal camera). Still better than Carnival where they take your temperature rectally.

After two weeks in Mao Tse-Tungland, it was a pleasure to be in a country where the people were warm, friendly, and relatively happy, Pink Lady still performed, and you could use a bathroom without having to be deloused.

First stop was Kagoshima, home of many cows. And I’m told an active volcano. Couldn’t see it through the rain and fog. The cruise director was calling out buses for the tours and instead of Kagoshima said, “Bus four ready for Highlights of Iwo Jima.”

But Kagoshima was so welcoming. Serenading us from the dock was a brass band of preteen girls in pleated uniforms who called themselves “the Little Cherries.” Not the name I might have chosen but they were completely adorable and the ceremony was very touching.

And when we arrived in Kobe there was another band to greet us. But they kept playing “It’s a Small World” so I don’t know if they were being hospitable or just passive-aggressive.

Went to Osaka Castle, first erected 4,000 years ago. Then it was destroyed in a war and rebuilt, then it was hit by lightening and burned down, then I think Godzilla stepped on it, and now it’s been rebuilt yet again. This was a pattern on the trip – going to ancient castles and temples that were reconstructed in 1975.

Dusk found us strolling through the Dotonbori District with its colorful street vendors and buildings that all had dragon and crab statues over their entrances. It was like going to Toon Town.

We ducked into a place for some sake and maybe some genuine Japanese sushi. But that meant large intestine, first stomach, third stomach, fourth stomach, and aorta. Besides, how authentic could they be if they didn’t serve California Rolls?

Kobe beef is not allowed to be exported. So don’t believe it when the Sizzler serves “Kobe” beef.

Dined in one of the ships fancy specialty restaurants, Signatures. This was also my muster station in case we hit an iceberg. Jackets were required – either sports or life. We had a table of nine. Entrees are delivered with a flare. Nine waiters arrive with dishes under silver covers and they all remove them at once. I set it up so that when the domes were proudly lifted everybody said, “Wait, I didn’t order that,” “I think you have my order,” “Does anyone have my scallops?” The poor waiters were totally confused. I’ll probably never be allowed back on the ship.

Met up with friend-of-the-blog, John Doodigian, who is now an English professor in Kobe. He graciously offered to show us around town. Wound up on the Moto Machi shopping street. Fortunately it’s covered since once again it was cold and raining. This was another trip highlight – seeing how the real people lived and shopped. Not many tourists buy family tombs.

Kobe oddities: The Mafia headquarters is around the corner from the police station. There are cat cafes where you can dine and pet kittens, there is a KISS-FM (like every other city in the world), skulls are very popular as is Audrey Hepburn (there is a ROMAN HOLIDAY fortune machine in the mall), they have a Costco, and the former governor of California was also the spokesman for Cup of Noodles (I hope the Japanese could understand him better than we could).

Said goodbye to Kobe (oh, if only the Lakers could) and ventured to the open seas. On my last cruise I hit a cyclone with 120 m.p.h. winds. This time only 70 m.p.h. gusts. All that was missing was the Captain and Tunesia singing “My Heart Will Go On.”

Arrived in Tokyo on the 70th anniversary of the day we bombed them. No welcoming brass band at that port.

I absolutely fell in love with Tokyo. It’s everything a major city should be. Actually it’s everything six major cities all jammed into one should be. 12,000,000 people live there (practically on top of each other) and I’m relieved to report not one of them dressed as idiotically as Ichiro. Fortunately, the ‘Pee Wee Herman in Scotch-plaid with pork pie hat’ look did not catch on. (Of course, now that he’s in Miami he’ll blend right in.)

I couldn’t believe how clean Tokyo was. The streets were spotless. If they did a Japanese version of THE ODD COUPLE it would be Felix and Felix.

Rain, wind, cold, and even sleet our first day in Tokyo. Day two (our last), was glorious however. The sun came out and it was a perfect day. Overslept and missed the tuna auction at the Fish Market, even though I still needed souvenirs to bring back home.

Our tour guide that final day was awesome. Masashi knew the city, the history, the customs, and spoke very good English (having graduated from Oklahoma State).

He took us to my favorite sacred shrine – the Tokyo Dome, home of the pesky Yomiuri Giants. Screw the fact that we were too early for the cherry blossoms to blossom – I couldn’t see a baseball game! Oh yeah, we saw the Imperial Palace – home of emperors and shoguns, lots of significant history, yada yada, but the baseball season hasn’t started yet. Other stadiums in the league include the Yahoo Dome and Kleenex Miyagi.

God knows what we had for lunch but it was good and I’m still alive. I wanted to get to the Maid Café. The gimmick here is that the waitresses all dress in cute little maid outfits and say things like “Nice to have you back my master.” Way better greeting than “Welcome to Subway!”

The Akihabara district must be nerd paradise. Shops sell electronics, figurines, comic books, retro video games, and anime costumes. And the front of every skyscraper has an opaque mural of an anime Japanese girl with giant bazooms. There’s an actual name for these cartoon women. I think it’s “girlfriends.”

Here’s a fun game to play with the kiddies in Tokyo – see how many Fords they can spot.

There are so many active volcanoes in Japan that Space Mountain at Tokyo Disneyland has been known to erupt.

Flew home on American Airlines. In Business Class they hand out little cloth bags of toiletries. On the inside flap it said TWA. My first thought was I hope the plane engine doesn’t say Braniff.

All in all, this was an amazing trip that will leave me with cherished memories and respiratory problems for years. Thanks again to Regent cruise lines, Artful Travelers, and the Little Cherries. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sleep for four days.

For more travelogues, check out my book, WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED.  Just go here.   It's the only travel guide you'll ever need.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bonus post

Along the way I took some photos of signs. 

This was at a Chinese restaurant in Beijing.  Do they have unlevened bad fish for Passover?
You thought I was kidding.  They do sell insurance at the Great Wall.
We needed a sign to point the way because the Great Wall is so inconspicuous. 
An NBA store in Shanghai.  They're big Brooklyn Net fans there. 
After praying to the Jade Buddha stop by for some java.  
Last call everybody.
Typical China.  It begs the question:  If not the toilet then where? 
That's good advice anywhere.
There's always a KISS-FM.    Miley Cyrus must be heard!
Not Frogs diner.

No, it's not a sex shop. 

Big Noses

Here's part two of my trip to the Far East.  Part one was yesterday

Took the “Shanghai by Rumor” tour once we had arrived. Rain, fog, and steamed-up windows in our bus. Shanghai is now very modern (I understand). There are over 3,000 skyscrapers (I was told).

Apparently, the Chinese call all Westerners “Big Noses.” (It’s not just “us” for once.) This we learned from our delightful Chinese tour guide. I’m sure it’s a sign of affection, as is harassing us in immigration and blocking the internet. I constantly felt I was the center of attraction. First of all, I do have a schnoz, plus I’m 6’ 2”, which made me a giant. People were constantly staring – the way you would if you saw Kim Kardashian in a library.

We went up to the Jin Mao Observatory on the 88th floor and saw… nothing. The town was completely sopped in. Save your money. For the same experience visit Visalia during Tulie Fog.

Day two was better. Granite grey but no rain. Debby, Lauren, Bonnie, and I set out to explore Shanghai. We strolled the Bund along the riverside, visited a Jade Buddhist temple (the incense was so thick I thought I was back in my dorm room), scarfed down delicious dumplings at Din Tai Fung (very authentic and even better than their branch in Arcadia, California), and shopped at a local marketplace. “No, I don’t want to buy a fucking watch! Or matching Hello Kitty luggage!”

Miscellaneous observed oddities of Shanghai: There’s a wedding chapel in one of the subway stations. People hang their laundry and pork products on the same clothesline. The symbol for “don’t honk your horn” is a bugle with a line through it. So it looks like “no trumpet playing in Shanghai!” There’s an NBA store. Next to the Buddhist temple is a sign for “Zen Coffee.” Latest fashion craze for young women is glasses frames with no glass in them. (What’s next? Contact lenses with no lenses?)

There should be an app for clean bathrooms in China.

Every night in every lounge aboard the ship the same musical act seemed to appear. A lithe singer was a foreign accent and a keyboard player who looked like Stan Freberg. I called them Captain and Tunesia.

Next up was Xiamen (pronounced: I have no idea and was there for two days.) Happily, Chinese immigration did not subject us to cavity searches. Xiamen was one of the highlights of the trip. First of all, it was 70 degrees and sunny. We scrambled off the ship like Chilean miners. Xiamen is known as the Miami of China. Judging by the number of people wearing long pants on the beach I’d say Miami is the perfect comparison. This was a lovely resort town – pearl white beaches framed by palm trees and giant skyscrapers that are probably 80% vacant.

There are high-rise apartments with spectacular oceanfront views, and Porsche dealerships. How is it that Communists are making more money than me?

Went to a teahouse for an authentic sales pitch (I mean “ceremony”). One tea boasted that it “relieves your freckles.”

According to the Xiamen travel guide: “West Hexiang business street is named as a petty bourgeois street with kinds of brand shops.” What Big Nose can resist knock-off Old Navy outlets?

Loved Hong Kong! Skyscrapers and temples are wedged between mountains and waterways, and they have a restaurant with robot waiters. Boarded a cable car up to Victoria Peak and saw – ready for it – nothing. Fogged in again. At least I hope it was fog. Some days the pollution is so bad they put masks on the statues.

Took a sampan boat ride around the Aberdeen harbor. These are the small wooden fishing vessels that you’ve seen in APOCALYPSE NOW. Many have dogs that ride along with the fishermen. It’s certainly not a great environment for pooches but I’m sure they’re grateful every time they pass those jumbo floating restaurants.

A MUST-see is Hong Kong’s “Symphony of Lights.” For twelve minutes every night at 8:00 the skyline comes alive with multi-colored lights, laser beams, and searchlights all synchronized to music. (For some reason “Stars & Stripes Forever” was left off the program.) Even in the mist of carbon emissions it was phenomenal.

Excellent urban planning. There’s a 118-story building on a landfill. I guess the one word not in the Cantonese vocabulary is “permit.

If I’m ever on death row, for my last meal I want the roast duck at Yung Kee. And then I’ll probably send them back for more of that dipping sauce. Warning: They don’t take the Diner’s Club Card.

There’s a scene in the movie WHERE’S POPPA? where an African-American is trying to hail a cab in New York and is bypassed for a guy in a gorilla suit. That’s how I felt in Hong Kong. A Chinese person could be two blocks away and still get my cab. One word that IS in the English vocabulary: “Uber.”

Lauren and Bonnie left us in Hong Kong, but we were joined by another fun PBS crew – Steve Johnson, Mark Bailey, and Rory Kennedy. Her documentary THE LAST DAYS OF VIETNAM had just lost an Oscar, so we had a lot to commiserate about since I lost a Writers Guild Award in 1981 for our “Terry Runs Away” episode of OPEN ALL NIGHT. The pain never goes away, Rory.

If Xiamen is the Miami of China then Kaohsiung is the Havana of Taiwan. It’s where the squalor meets the sea. Rundown shoddy housing, old industrial plants, seedy marketplaces – and this was the SCENIC tour. They get 20,000 earthquakes a year, but only 40 are of any significance. The other threat to structures is sneezing.
Some great business enterprises though. One joint sold “Stupid Ice Tea.” We passed by the “Seizure Warehouse” and “Wine and Champagne Monopoly Store.” Also “Shark Bites Toast” and “Judy Wu’s Regal Beagle.” All of them – coming to a petty bourgeois street near you.

Our voyage headed north to Taipei. And the Foul Weather Frolics continued. Rain, fog, cold. By then I was templed-out. Waved to the tour buses then went to the taco bar. So for Taipei I got nothing.

The final chapter follows tomorrow.  My book of travelogues, WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED is still available on Amazon.  Get yours today!  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Slow boat to China

Okay, it's travelogue week.   Here's the account of my recent sojourn to the Far East.  The highlights: No one caught SARS, or Ebola.   Enjoy.

My wife, Debby and I staggered into Beijing after 28 hours of traveling. We arrived on the Chinese New Year. To celebrate, everybody sets off fireworks (I’m surprised Chinese people don’t all have seven fingers), and their primary TV network aired a five-hour variety show (no, not the Oscars) that was seen by literally one billion people. When NBC learns this there will be dancing bears on HANNIBAL next season.

China blocks out much of the internet – like gmail, Google, my blog, and really subversive sites like THE WEATHER CHANNEL. Okay, I could see the government not wanting its citizens to know if they should dress warm, but really, censoring my LAST FIVE YEARS review?

Met up with our traveling party that included Kevin Corcoran and Josh Murray from Artful Travelers (who arranged this great cruise), Lauren Prestileo (from PBS’ AMERICAN EXPERIENCE), her Claire Danes-look-alike cool friend Bonnie, and my longtime colleague and chum, David Lee, the co-creator of FRASIER.

In the summer, the pollution in Beijing is so bad you have to wear a mask. The sky is the color of Matthew Perry's spray tan. No such air quality problem for us. Instead, it snowed.

That made sightseeing a bit of an adventure. Our little group strolled around Tienanmen Square (riot free I’m happy to report – they didn’t want to get the tanks rusty) and the Forbidden City (the emperor’s summer home). Pagodas galore along with unlimited gardens and courtyards. Just when you think you’ve come to the end you’ve got a dozen more. Think: Derek Jeter’s Florida home but less opulent.

There are 9,999 1/2 rooms. I have to assume the ½ is a half bath. Back in the day many of the rooms were filled with the emperor’s concubines. Again, think: Derek Jeter. After awhile I could just hear the emperor saying, “Jesus. Any chance I could get a blonde? Just once?”

We decided on Chinese food for lunch. You can’t swing a dead cat in Beijing without hitting a Chinese restaurant and then having it served to you. Among the menu items we did not select was “levened bad fish.” No one spoke English, which made it very difficult to use our Open Table coupon to pay for part of the bill.

I’ve been accused of being blasé and I suppose that’s true. Take for example the Great Wall of China. It was certainly a “good” wall, very impressive. But “great?” The jury’s still out. Of course it was completely fogged in the day we saw it and the snow had turned to ice so every step was treacherous. This apparently is not unusual. At the ticket window they actually sell insurance.

Beijing is not right on the ocean. I wondered how a cruise liner could dock there – unless it was the world’s largest Duck Tour. Turns out the ocean is a two-hour drive. Unless there’s fog. The soup was so thick they shut down the highway. We turned back and an hour later pulled into a rest stop. The driver said there may ultimately be traffic so we should use the bathroom. How much traffic? Two to five hours. Yikes! I don’t know where this Godforsaken rest stop was but I can say with complete assurance I was the first Jew to EVER use their facility. Israeli Mossad agents aren’t put through anything that rigorous. Ugh!  Eventual time of trip: four hours. I’m really starting to re-think buying that vacation condo in Beijing.

Was thrilled to finally board the Seven Seas Regent Voyager. Generally, there are two kinds of cruises – first class and floating trailer park. If you are going to cruise, Regent is the line you want.

Once we set sail and headed up the Yalu Sea I wanted to call our Chinese restaurant in Beijing and ask if they delivered.

First stop was Dalian -- 36 balmy degrees and sunny, but “sunny” there meant nuclear winter. An eerie haze hung over the city. Everyone on the ship had to be transported to immigration for a face-to-face security check.  We had to show passports and a few people were detained while their walkers were scanned.    

“Hey, it’s China, Jake.”

There is a large city square surrounded by modern high-rise hotels, beautiful architecture – and no one in the street. Completely deserted. Picture a Bill Cosby concert on the senior quad of Wellesley.

Next stop was Korea, which was very meaningful to me because of my years on MASH. We tried to get a tour of the DMZ but were told it’s closed to tourists on Monday. Huh? The gift shop workers have the day off?

North Korea was only twenty minutes away, but they’re closed to tourists too.

Checked out Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. Very no frills. It’s how I imagine the Forbidden City if it was built by New Jersey contractors. They also featured a folk art museum, which had one room devoted entirely to Levi jeans in Korea. The king was a relaxed-fit man.

Shopping in downtown Seoul was very vibrant and fun.  The country has really grown and is thriving. Agriculturally, their chief export is Hyundais.

Meanwhile, two pedestrians were swallowed by a sinkhole. They vanished down a crater that was reportedly 10-feet deep. (They were rescued and are okay.) Maybe New Jersey contractors DID rebuild the city.

Tuesday was a sea day and I gave my first presentation. The following morning a passenger paid me the ultimate compliment: “We really enjoyed it,” she said. “We were soooo surprised.”

All conversations on the ship included the words Boca, Obama, and meniscus.

Part two is tomorrow.  And more travelogues can be found in my book, WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED.   Don't leave home without it.