Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Andy Ackerman's approach to directing

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that not only became a whole post, but required a guest blogger to answer it.

Andy (not Ackerman) asked:

What is it like for someone (such as Andy Ackerman) to work on two shows simultaneously with such different approaches to comedy?

Andy directed FRASIER and SEINFELD simultaneously, among others.

For those who don’t know, Andy Ackerman is an Emmy winning director who directed 87 episodes of SEINFELD. He has also directed pretty much everything else. He directed the pilots of both ALMOST PERFECT and BIG WAVE DAVE’S, and directed every episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S – all six of them.

Oh, and he was one of my mentors. I learned directing by watching him on WINGS.

Anyway, I reached out to Andy to see if he would answer the question and he graciously did. It’s a great answer and also tells you a lot about his personality and approach to life.  Here's his answer:

That's an interesting question from your reader. Here's a possible thought:

I've never really approached a given show as being that different, even though they are different. I suppose, for me, it would be akin to my approach as a parent. Meaning, I've four children, all with their own individual voices, sensibilities, tones, styles, personalities, etc. I may adjust to each one accordingly, when dealing with them one on one. But in the end, regardless of that individual child, I'm still the same parent/guide/coach/director. 

So, to very loosely use that analogy, I basically approach either given show the same way, because I am, well, me. In other words, I just jump in, be myself, and implement whatever contributions I can to help the script, actors, and final product be the best/ funniest it can hopefully be. Whether I'm a parent, or director, or just dealing with day to day life, I rely on my instincts. Frankly, your instincts can be your greatest tool.

It seems to have worked out. My kids are pretty funny.

Again, my thanks to Andy Ackerman. One day we’re going to reboot BIG WAVE DAVE’S and he’ll be my first call.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Uh oh, another rant

As I figured, yesterday’s post generated a lot of discussion. Let me respond to one comment, from reader Jim, that I thought was particularly well written and insightful. Jim wrote:

The scene you described struck me, when I saw it, as belonging to that contemporary school of comedy writing that has no use (for) gags in a comedy scene. In fact, this approach to comedy avoids anything that might make the audience laugh out loud. Anything that could be clearly identified as "a gag." That's old-fashioned and hackneyed. To write this kind of scene, you never have your characters say or do anything that might come off as funny. Instead, the laughs are supposed to be inherent in the situation itself, not in how the characters react to the situation or how they deal with it. This style of comedy writing is all set-up and no payoff.

I do understand that writers want to avoid having their characters speak in zingers and one-liners. Too many sitcoms fall into that trap, and it's annoying. (My wife has been working her way through THE GOLDEN GIRLS lately, and I swear, that show needed a drummer just offstage, playing rim shots.) But, you know, it's entirely possible to have your characters saying and doing funny things, in finding funny angles to your situation, without everyone coming off like Morey Amsterdam or your script like an episode of I MARRIED JOAN.

Thanks again, Jim. Very thoughtful comment. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to use it as a springboard for today’s old retro guy’s rant.

I totally agree that filling a script with zingers makes a show feel tired and old fashioned. And trust me, there’s nothing harder to write. When you have two characters sitting at the breakfast table and there’s nothing going on but you have to give each one funny line after funny line, it’s torture. And unreal. And forced.

But that isn’t to say funny lines are to be avoided. There were funny lines in SEINFELD and funny lines in FRIENDS, and FRASIER and ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA and 30 ROCK. There are funny lines in ARCHER and BROAD CITY. Millennials will, in the privacy of their own homes, laugh at funny lines.

To me, when a writer is justifying not making a scene funny it’s just a smokescreen for lazy writing. The message I get is that he is incapable of writing a funny scene. He doesn’t have the chops to make someone laugh.

Anyone can come up with “inherent” comic situations. Comedy writers make something of those situations. Prove to me you’re really funny first and then discuss style.

Here’s what I find really perplexing? Why would anyone want to become a comedy writer if he’s embarrassed at making people laugh? If he thinks that presenting something genuinely funny is somehow beneath him, somehow compromising his principles? Why go into boxing if you’re opposed to violence? If you think sugar is bad for people why become a sous chef?

I’m sorry but to me, self-aware characters who observe situations instead of being forced to act upon them are dull and uninteresting. Irony is worse than “gags.” Equating situations with pop culture references instead of reacting with strong attitudes and emotions is a crutch.

Call me old and a hack and out of touch – that’s fine. I’m proud to be a COMEDY writer. I’m proud to have made people laugh for many years. I’m not saving lives but it’s a noble profession. I’m providing joy to millions of people. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to apologize for.

Baseball analogy (oh no!): There are some hitters who have “warning track” power. That means they don’t have the strength and ability to hit the ball far enough to go over the fence for a home run. Instead they hit long fly outs. Imagine these players saying, “Home runs are passé. Sure I could hit them, but I don’t want to. Home runs are showy and seriously, haven’t we all seen enough home runs? Why should I stoop to that level?” Turn on many of these new TV comedies. That’s what you’re seeing – 300 foot fly ball outs, except instead of the hitter being shipped off to the minors where he belongs, he’s pumping his fist in triumph.

There is but one truism in comedy -- regardless of the style, year, or sensibility:


It is not:




Monday, September 28, 2015

How to begin a pilot

Let’s say I’m given a pilot to write. And for whatever reason, this has to be my first scene: Young guy brings the girl he’s recently dated back to her place. She invites him in the for the first time. He’s excited because he figures he’s going to get laid. But when they step inside he learns that her ex-fiancé is on the couch. He still lives there.

Okay. That could be funny.

Actually, it better be. Pilots are much harder to write than normal episodes and the first scenes of pilots are the hardest of all. Why? Here’s what you have to do: Establish the premise, introduce the characters, begin a story, forge the tone, and make it really funny. As the expression goes: You only have one chance to make a first impression. That first scene has to hook the audience. Viewers have to feel they’re in good hands; that they will be rewarded for spending their precious time sampling your pilot for thirty minutes.

So that’s my assignment.

First, a disclaimer. I realize I’m old school, retro, out of touch, whatever. My approach is based on experience, a certain sensibility, and principles I believe to be universal and timeless. Feel free to seek other approaches.

My initial thought is: who are these characters? How can I make them interesting? How can I give them traits or behavior that is fun, identifiable, and sets up an intriguing dynamic between them? For now I’ll call the young couple Matt and Colleen.

And in concert with that, how can I make the situation as funny as possible? Not just amusing, not just wry – this is the opening scene of my pilot, maybe the only scene a viewer will watch – I can’t afford for it to be anything other than laugh out loud funny. It’s always best to give characters strong attitudes or goals and for this particular situation I would think it would heighten things if Matt really needs to get laid. He hasn’t had sex in awhile so he is champing at the bit. Guys will go to great comic lengths to get sex (so I've been told).  Now the scene becomes one of frustration and my job is the construct the funniest cock blocking scenario.

So I consider possibilities. What if…?

What if they get in the house, the ex-fiancé is there, and he’s really belligerent? “This is the ferret you left me for?” The couple get into a fight and the poor Matt is in the middle, all the while being belittled. Maybe. Matt could be somewhat insecure and this feeds into his neurosis. But he still tries to work things out and get the ex-fiancé to leave.

Or they get in the house and the ex is crying? Matt has to console him.

Or the ex goes on an on about what a bitch Colleen is. He shatters any illusion. Matt is torn between wanting desperately to sleep with her and to run.

Or the ex is not there when they get to the house. Things heat up quickly. Matt is practically undressed on the couch when the ex comes home. Puts Matt in the most compromising position possible. (Comedy writers are evil, aren't we?)

Or it doesn’t appear that the ex is home. Matt & Colleen are in bed and Matt hears crying from the other room. Learns that the ex still has the adjacent bedroom. Matt desperately wants sex, but can he perform under these weird circumstances?

Or Matt & Colleen arrive to find the ex is there with another girl. How does Colleen react? How does Matt react? Is there a big fight? Does the ex want to do a four-way?

Or Matt & Colleen are making out on the couch and then the ex arrives with another girl. Is Colleen mad?  Jealous?  Is there fun in her double-standard attitude?

Or Matt knows the ex.

Or Matt knows the other girl the ex is with.

Or Colleen knows the other girl the ex is with.

Or the other girl is Matt’s sister.

Or the other girl is Matt’s ex-fiancé.

Or something else. You may have a better one.

And then some specifics. What’s the funniest Matt reaction to learning the ex is still in the house? It could be a great “What the fuck” moment. Colleen obviously knows there’s the complication of the ex still living in the place. How does she explain it? How did she think she was going to finesse the situation?

You get the idea.

I would bat around all of these ideas and see which one gave me the absolute most bang for my buck. I’m always imagining the audience and saying to myself, “Would they laugh at that? Would they REALLY laugh at that?” A lot of times I might say, “No. They’d smile, maybe they’d chuckle, but they wouldn’t laugh.” So how can I make it funnier so they would laugh? (Note: I may be wrong in my prediction but at least in my best professional judgment I’m striving for the maximum reaction.) So I would arrive at the scenario that was most promising, would even have a number of sample big laugh moments or jokes and then try to write the best scene I could.

That’s me.  Old veteran me.

LIFE IN PIECES premiered last week on CBS. It has a likable cast and slick look. I wish it well. I missed the debut on the air but caught up with it a few days later ON DEMAND. Since it was on  ON DEMAND, a lot of my remote features didn’t work and I had to watch it straight through. So I only saw this scene once and am describing it by memory (which may be as faulty as my computer ability).

But here was the opening scene:

Matt (Thomas Sadoski from NEWSROOM) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral from ENLISTED) come home from a date. She invites him up to her place. Once there they find her ex-fiancé sitting on the couch. Matt is just kind of frozen. The ex is mildly annoyed. The ex still thinks he has a chance with Colleen. It’s just an awkward moment. And the characters are AWARE they’re in an awkward moment. (Again, this is “me” thinking – this isn’t funny enough. This is really tepid. And I’m also wondering -- do the writers think this is hysterical? Do they think an audience is really in stitches over this? Or do they not even put the scene to that mental test?)

So what does Matt do? Characters need to actively address a situation. Matt does nothing. What does Colleen do? She offers some wine. There’s a little cutesy banter. The ex comments that they’re “bantering.” Everyone in this scene is totally AWARE of the conventions they’re using. It’s like they’re all too cool to have any strong emotions or reactions. The humor has to come from them merely realizing they’re in a potential comic situation. As a result there’s a real distance. And for me the scene loses its comic edge.

The scene ends with them deciding to go to his place instead. The big joke then is that his place is occupied… by his nutty parents. Awk-ward.

Old school, retro Ken believes if you’re doing a comedy you’ve got to own it. Characters finding themselves in awkward comic situations have been a staple for years. We find ourselves in awkward comic situations in our real lives.

They really happen.

But we don’t step back and observe; we ACT. I’m hoping that LIFE IN PIECES succeeds. It’s just the pilot and they’re finding their way. And I present this post as a learning exercise, not a knock on them. It’s a way to illustrate other possibilities. And a lot of you are aspiring writers currently crafting your spec pilots. Think of the audience and ask yourself the hard question. “Is this FUNNY enough?” And if not, no matter what your age or sensibility, or how cool you are, go back and make it funnier. And don’t apologize.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Can greatness be duplicated?

There is a podcast called TomHanksgiving.  Elvis Kunesh and Cody Camp discuss Tom Hanks movies and then recreate scenes (as cheaply as they can).  This week their subject was VOLUNTEERS.  Here is the original scene (about 5:30 in) and then their recreation.  I defy you to tell the difference.

Thanks guys. Maybe you can do the sequel.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Should you keep a joke that only three people in America will get?

Here's a question I'm often asked:  Should you put obscure jokes in your script?  I wrote a post on this almost five years ago so it's time to re-post it.  I mention that upfront because obscure jokes often are very topical and in five years contemporary references become historical ones.  So keep that in mind as you read.  But the points are still valid.  Or at least, I still agree with them. 

Comedy writing legend Jerry Belson once pitched a very obscure joke during a CHEERS rewrite. One of the Charles Brothers said, “Jerry, only three people in America are going to get that” to which Jerry said, “That’s good enough for me!”

A common question that all comedy writers ask from time to time is whether a particular reference is too obscure to get a laugh. The downside of course is that the joke bombs; the good side is that if it works it really works because the reference is so out of leftfield.

On MASH we called them “Three percenters”. We would make mention of an arcane actor from the ‘40s knowing most people would have no idea who he is (or was). But our thinking was this: a) we crammed so many jokes into an episode that if you didn’t get it, another one was coming two seconds later, b) we sprinkled in very few of these, and c) they added to the ambience and helped set the time period (much the same way as vintage wardrobe and hairstyles do).

I notice “Three percenters” from time to time on COMMUNITY. There will be quick pop culture references or lines of dialog from movies slipped in. Not everyone will get them. My sense is the producers know that and don’t care. They’re writing for a very specific audience. But here’s the key: specific but large.

Or at least large enough.  HOT IN CLEVELAND is designed for baby boomers.  TV LAND doesn't expect as large an audience as NBC but they do want a specific demographic.   And if you're 55 and have trouble with COMMUNITY and not get that an episode is spoofing RESERVOIR DOGS, you'll so welcome a show that makes a Twiggy joke.   

As always, it comes down to “know your target audience”. If you’re writing a spec it’s easier with an existing show. By watching astutely you can determine the level of their references. A Charlie Sheen joke might work on 30 ROCK but I wouldn’t do one on MIKE & MOLLY.

But what happens when you’re writing a pilot?  All bets are off.  Now there are no guidelines. Should you do that Sarah Clarke/TWILIGHT gag?   In general I would say this: agents, managers, executives – the people who will be reading your pilot – are by and large in their thirties. I think that gives you a lot of leeway – way more than you had when they were all in their forties and fifties. They probably know who Sarah Clarke is and they certainly know what TWILIGHT is.  So I wouldn’t self-censor yourself too much. Yes, you always run the risk that a reader might not get a reference and feel you’re belittling them (doing a joke that’s over their head), and to load your script with obtuse gags is insane, but comedy is about taking chances. So go for it. Maybe Jerry Belson was right. If the three people that get the joke are agents you’re submitting to, that is good enough for you.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Questions

Friday Questions back on Friday.

Peter asks:

Horror is one of my favorite genres but I've noticed you almost never mention horror. Are they just not your thing or are there some horror films you like?

No. Never liked horror films. There’s enough real horrors to be scared about like politics.

At first, as a kid, I thought they were fun. Frankenstein and Dracula and Vincent Price in spooky haunted houses.

Then one day at a Saturday matinee I saw a sci-fi/horror film called THE 27th DAY. It was one of those black-and-white cheesy B-movies that were popular in Drive-Ins back then. Who knows if it’s even available these days? I remember it starred Gene Barry and there was an alien from outer space and that film scared the living shit out me. I couldn’t sleep for a week.

Maybe forty years later I saw it on the Late Show and could almost tell you what scene was next and what was going to happen next – it had left that much of an indelible impression on me.

Seeing it again, I finally understood what terrified me. The film was a metaphor for the Cold War and the US and Russia were squaring off to destroy the whole world. A blood sucking vampire who over acted and spoke with a funny foreign accent did not keep me up at night. The threat of being dead myself at any moment did.

Never liked horror films since. I should probably seek therapy, huh?

James wonders:

Have you ever written a script that you would have hated to direct?

The “Point of View” episode of MASH. That’s the one where the 4077th is seen through the eyes of a patient. I talked about it in a recent post.  As proud as I am of that episode I can never mention it without heaping enormous praise on director, Charles Dubin (pictured: right)

Adding to the difficulty of creating this first-person look and getting remarkable performances out of actors not used to talking directly into the camera, Dubin was severely hampered by the bulkiness of the equipment. It’s not like today where you can literally shoot a movie with your iPhone. The cameras were big and heavy and not easily maneuvered.

Oh, and the whole show was shot in only four days.

We owe the success of that episode to Charles Dubin and the fact that I did not direct it.

Here’s a sugar free question from Splenda:

Lets say that a network greenlit a remake of Almost Perfect, under the condition that you use all new actors (can't bring back Nancy Travis, etc.). Who do you cast (assuming they are available and interested)?

Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox who starred in my play, A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre last year.
jcs queries:

You have mentioned many times that being a TV writer requires putting in long hours, sometimes until dawn. Is it possible to have some kind of semi-normal family life when working in such a profession?

Absolutely. But it takes organization, preparation, the willingness to make decisions, and not having a showrunner who is going through a divorce and would rather spend his nights in the office than alone at the Oakwood Gardens Apartments.

Time management is the key. Even on a multi-camera show it is possible to go home at 6:00 or 7:00 and still turn out an excellent product. EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND writers were almost always home for dinner.

On the other hand, there are some truly dreadful shows where the writers worked around the clock. And for what?

But if you have a showrunner who keeps changing his mind, or takes forever to decide which new line to add, or just has nowhere else to go because he’s got an unhappy home life, you could be checked into the Hotel California.

You want a happily married showrunner or one who has Lakers season tickets.

From Jeff :)

I have a baseball question Ken. Who is your favorite player both currently and of all time. Also, your pick to win the World Series for this year?

All-time: Sandy Koufax. All-time that I had the pleasure of working with: Tony Gwynn. Currently: A. J. Ellis (he used to actually listen to Dodger Talk when I hosted it.)

Who will win the World Series? Whoever is not favored.  Or whoever I pick. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

How BLINDSPOT got on the air

I have obtained the transcription from the NBC pitch meeting for BLINDSPOT:

WRITER/CREATOR: We got this totally cool idea. It’s like a mix between the Bourne movies, PRISON BREAK, MEMENTO, the old game show CAMOUFLAGE, and what shows do you like?


W/C: It’s also like BLACKLIST.

NBC: We’ve been looking for another BLACKLIST. And another HEROES.

W/C: Ours is that too.

NBC: That’s okay. We’re remaking HEROES.

W/C: Well, if you ever want to remake THE BIONIC WOMAN ours is also like that show.


W/C: Wait. I forgot. We took out THE BIONIC WOMAN elements.

NBC: So what’s the series?

W/C: Well, we don’t actually have a concept yet – what’s it about, what happens every week, who all the characters are – we still need to tackle those details.

NBC: So what are you bringing us?

W/C: An opening scene.

NBC: An opening scene? That’s it?

W/C: Yep. Something with sizzle that you can promote all summer. Who cares if it has legs?

NBC: Well, like I said, we’re looking for another BLACKLIST. And that’s BLACKLIST. We’re sort of hoping they’ll figure something out this season.  What’s your first scene?

W/C: We’re in Times Square. It’s night. Crowded. And someone discovers a duffel bag. Just sitting in the street. And it has a tag that says CALL THE FBI.

NBC: Wouldn’t they call the FBI anyway?

W/C: You know that. And I know that. But NBC’s audience doesn’t know that.

NBC: You think they’re that dense?


NBC: Good point. Go on.

W/C: So what’s in the bag? A bomb? Dirty laundry? No. It’s a hot girl.

NBC: Wouldn’t she suffocate in the bag?

W/C: What? There are air holes.

NBC: But then couldn’t someone see what was inside?

W/C: Small holes. Tiny holes.

NBC: Who is she?

W/C: We don’t know.

NBC: I assume the audience doesn’t know but who is she?

W/C: We don’t know either.

NBC: Who put her in there?

W/C: No idea.

NBC: And why?

W/C: Couldn’t tell you.

NBC: Gee, you’ve really thought this thing through.

W/C: Easy fixes. But wait – she is covered in tattoos.

NBC: Oh, so we could do product placement. I’m starting to like this.

W/C: No. They’re all clues.

NBC: To what?

W/C: We still have to figure that out.

NBC: So then what happens?

W/C: The girl comes out of the bag.

NBC: How?

W/C: She upzips the bag and slithers out.

NBC: What duffel bag upzips from the inside? Why would they ever make that?

W/C: Uh… it’s a custom bag. They want her to open it.

NBC: Who does?

W/C: We don’t know.

NBC: Can she even see the zipper if it’s on the inside?

W/C: Yes. There’s a tiny light. So she comes out of the bag. And on her back is the name of an FBI agent. So they bring him in on the case. We do a scene where he’s breaking up a hostage situation in Kentucky and a helicopter arrives to take him to Manhattan.

NBC: Why do you need a helicopter? Can’t they just call him?

W/C: We don’t know.

NBC: And they’re calling him to do what?

W/C: Again, don’t know.

NBC: So who is this FBI agent?

W/C: Sorry, can’t help you.

NBC: Could he be like RAY DONOVAN? We’re also looking to do something like that.

W/C: Yes. Exactly. How about this for a character profile?  A knock off Liev Schreiber.

NBC: Okay. I totally see that character.  Brooding.  Charmless. But I’m still hazy on the girl.

W/C: So is she. She has no memory.

NBC: How’d that happen? And please, don’t say you don’t know. Just make something up if you have to.

W/C: She was given this drug that wipes out your past memory.

NBC: Does such a drug exist?

W/C: Maybe.

NBC: Okay. She has no memory. Then how does she function?

W/C: Oh, she can speak foreign languages and is an expert in martial arts.

NBC: What?

W/C: This drug is selective based on what we need for future episodes.

NBC: Which you haven’t thought of yet.

W/C: Right.

NBC: So what happens in the pilot after that first scene? What’s the plot?

W/C: We could go procedural, we could go action-adventure, espionage, the door is even open to sci-fi if you like.

NBC: I have to tell you – this is a mess. What you have here is the first scene of a movie, maybe. But a long-running television show? It’s downright insulting that you seriously think we would buy something so half-baked.

W/C: Wait. One more thing: the girl is naked.

NBC: What?

W/C: She’s incredibly hot. Someone like Jaimie Alexander. And when she comes out of the bag she’s completely naked.

NBC: So you think we’d spend five million dollars on a pilot just because there’s one nude scene?

W/C: No. Don’t be ridiculous. There are several nude scenes. When she’s alone in her room she stares at herself in the mirror, naked. She goes into a fetal position, naked. When they photograph her, she’s naked. And then we have all these photos the FBI will post – of her naked.

NBC: Forget the pilot. Go right to series.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Telling broadcasters to shut up

This is a broadcasting story and amusing anecdote, not a baseball story – although it involves broadcasting baseball. Does that make sense?  (It is also dedicated to the passing of Yogi Berra.  Number 8 will always be number one.)

Broadcast conditions for minor league announcers are rarely ideal. Especially in older stadiums. You’re in a little shack up on the roof, often in tin afterthoughts. You’re trying to call a game during a lightening storm in a metal box surrounded by electronic equipment. Or a tornado.  Or blizzard.  Or swarm of bees.  Or fireworks night when the guy has bad aim. 

Sometimes you have no roof at all so good luck in the rain. And blazing sun. 

On the other hand, at the old Toledo stadium we were completely enclosed in Plexiglas. On the air it sounded like we were in an echo chamber. And if the air conditioning stopped working, we were in a George Foreman grill.

At old Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines, whenever a home team player hit a home run a deafening siren would blast. You could hear it all the way to Ottumwa. The speaker was right underneath the visiting broadcasters. Every time a ball sailed over the fence it practically knocked us out of the booth. My ears are still ringing and this was 1988.

That same year I was broadcasting Syracuse Chiefs games with Dan Hoard. We went into Denver to play the dreaded Zephyrs. Most minor league parks are intimate and seat maybe 10,000. That’s one of the beauties of going to minor league games – the intimacy; you’re close to the players and close to the action. The Zephyrs played in Mile High Stadium, which sat 70 or 80 or 150,000 (I forget which). Even if attendance was 15,000, which normally would mean S.R.O., it looked like maybe six people were there scattered about.

They had no dedicated baseball pressbox per se. They just converted a few of the luxury suites behind the home plate area. At first I thought, “this is great!” The booth was roomy. We had a counter, good view, air conditioning, running distance to a bathroom. The only quirk was that there were two rows of seats behind us accommodating maybe fifteen spectators.

We thought nothing of it until people started filing into our booth. Apparently those were paid seats. Okay. A little weird – I’m not used to calling games with a studio audience -- but what the hell?

The game begins, we call the action, and we can hear in the background people telling us to shut up. At the half inning mark we turned back to them and said, “Hey, we’re broadcasting here!” They said, “We don’t care. We paid primo money for these seats and we don’t want to hear two idiots announcing all night.”

We had to go to one of the team executives to straighten things out. I think they moved them.  It's not like there were no other seats.  There was room in the dugouts. 

The next night the seats in our booth were sold again, but this was a good crowd. They enjoyed our broadcast and even offered to buy us some beers. We graciously declined, explaining how we only drank beer before games.

I thought things would improve drastically when I got to the majors, and they did – mostly. Spring Training facilities in the ‘90s were not as spiffy as they are today. The Angels still played in an old ballpark in Palm Springs. There were only two broadcast booths and if the Angels were televising as well as doing radio then the visiting broadcasters were put into the stands.

A counter was set up in one of the back rows. My first year with Seattle we had to do a game from that location. I sat on the aisle, Kevin the engineer to my left, and to his left was my partner, the great Dave Niehaus. If anyone stood up in front of us we were screwed.

I’m on the air, it’s the seventh inning, I feel a tapping on my shoulder. It’s a vendor with malts. Would I pass them down the row to the skeesix ten seats over? I did, while calling the game. Suddenly there is a big play. Runners scampering around the bases, the ball going every which way. Kevin hands me the money for the malt that had been passed from hand to hand. I give it to the vendor, all the while continuing to call this goofy play.  I feel another tap. The vendor.  Would I pass the change back? This on a fifty station radio network.

But I don’t feel bad. Vin Scully of the Dodgers recalls that when the team first moved out west with the Giants in 1958, the Giants played at a minor league park, Seal Stadium.  Scully and his partner, Jerry Doggett, were banished to broadcast from the stands like us. Even in those early days, Giant fans hated anything Dodgers. Scully had to do live commercials between innings for some beer. For the rest of the game fans around him were shouting the names of competing beer brands while he was doing the play-by-play.   All of this got on the air.  

Hey, maybe I should put a few rows of seats in my office and charge people to watch me write. “Shut up! We can’t sleep with that incessant keyboard clacking!”

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Emmy After thoughts

Since I was not invited to any Emmy After Parties...

I always write my reviews immediately after the show. Several reasons: Post it while it’s hot. By Wednesday everyone will forget the Emmys even occurred (except for those who lost – they’ll be bitter until Friday). Also, by posting early no one can accuse me of stealing someone else's material. And face it, how many two-headed Sarah Paulson jokes are there out there?

I never read any other reviews until I’ve posted mine. I don’t want to be influenced by them (not that the Hollywood Reporter is going to change my opinion about anything). So much to my surprise when I did check out the critical reaction this morning, most TV critics loved Andy Samberg. I don’t know what show they were watching, but ohhhh-kay. I decided to re-screen the opening monologue. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I was too harsh.

Nope. It was terrible.

This is the second time in two weeks I’ve disagreed with the critics. I was underwhelmed by the first Colbert late night talk show and many of them raved as if he was Jesus Christ Himself or Jon Stewart. I stand by my stands, but now worry – I’m really looking forward to SUPERGIRL. What if they love it? Will I be switching over to MNF by the first commercial? It’s gotten good buzz, which concerns me. But there is also some pushback because it’s SuperGIRL and not SuperWOMAN or SuperOPRAH  So there’s a chance, and I've got to take it.

Believe it or not, I go into these award show reviews hoping I will love them. And sometimes I do. Tina Fey & Amy Poehler’s hosting of the Golden Globes was a delight. It is possible to deliver a killer monologue. Award shows aren’t required to have Seth MacFarlane or Heidi Klum host. What’s more thrilling than sharing in someone’s ultimate moment of triumph and getting swept up in their genuine emotion?  All all before the play-off music. 
Remember, if you hate the show you can always switch to SNF, but since I’m reviewing them I have to stick it out till the bitter end. I would much rather be entertained than tortured. Unfortunately, the latter is true more often than not. And by the way, if you ever do attend a Primetime Emmys ceremony you’ll notice that by hour two half the industry is in the lobby.  Attendees don't like the show either.  Trust me, the OLIVE KITTRIDGE winners were giving their acceptance speeches to seat fillers. (Hey, here’s an idea: let TV critics be seat fillers. They’re the only ones who seem to like the show anyway.)

Yes, bad shows are easier targets. And they generally lead to funnier recaps. But I personally, would be happier to report that I loved the show. And even in reviews that are pans I still try to be fair and point out things I thought worked or moved me.

Some readers thought I was too snarky. Um, I’m always too snarky. As the great Larry Gelbart used to say, “If you write something that offends no one go back and do it over.” Like I said, I try to be fair, but come on people, this is a HUMOR blog. I’m trying to provide laughs here. And perhaps an observation or two that you hadn’t thought of.

If I’m not entirely politically correct, that’s by choice. I warned you in the first line of my review that snark was on the way. You were welcome to click over to the recap of SNF.

I mean, let’s get real. Whenever there is an Emmy or Oscar party, what do people do the entire night? Of course! Make ass fun of every dress, scream at winners to get the hell off already, and generally take potshots at any actor who uses the words “genius,” “journey,” “courage,” or “management team.”

You don't even have to go to a party anymore.  You can just sit home and live tweet. 

This year’s Emmy broadcast received the lowest ratings in the show’s history. Whoever produces the show next year, please make it better. Nothing would tickle me more than to write how much I loved it, and don’t worry that I won’t have enough funny stuff to write. There’s always the KTLA Red Carpet show.

Monday, September 21, 2015

My 2015 Emmy Review

Time for my annual snarky Emmycast review.

Last night’s show was not as bad as the year the five reality hosts presided over the Emmys (asking Heidi Klum to do comedy is like asking your dog to program your DVR), but it wasn’t as good as the SAG strike year when local KNBC news anchor Kelly Lange emceed the show.

I like Andy Samberg but thought his monologue was painful. After every horrifying feces, Bill Cosby, and Kim Davis joke they’d cut to someone in the audience totally bewildered. Why Andy Samberg? Because the Emmys were on Fox. That’s the biggest star on the network? No, but Harold Reynolds was busy.

Samberg began with a clichéd song-and-dance routine that only made us long for Neil Patrick Harris or the cruise director from Carnival.

For me, the only truly moving moments of the evening were the appearance of Tracy Morgan and Kerry Washington’s metal mesh dress. (which she cleans by going through a car wash)

GAME OF THRONES won Best Drama. Clearly, the Academy is tired of honoring Matthew Weiner.

He was certainly snubbed. Even when Jon Hamm finally won for Best Actor Other Than Bryan Cranston, he did not thank Weiner. Instead he thanked anyone who gave him a home cooked meal.

Happy that VEEP won for several reasons. First of all it’s an actual comedy. TRANSPARENT is a lovely show but it is not a comedy. Nor is it even that original. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT did the exact same storyline last season with the exact same star. And it was funny.

And if the Academy was going to give the Best Comedy award to a family show I would have picked THE MIDDLE. Or FRESH OFF THE BOAT. Or BLACKISH.

For the most part I was pleased with the results. No one I hate won. Viola Davis gave a moving speech (and I love how fellow nominee and next year’s winner Taraji P. Henson gave her a standing O), Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a comedy goddess, and the Academy loves Allison Janney so much they give her Emmys even knowing she’ll thank Chuck Lorre.

Jeffrey Tambor was a lock. He was great in TRANSPARENT and this might have been a make-good for not giving it to him for playing the same role on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

Before the show, I always catch the KTLA Red Carpet show hosted by fawning floormat Sam Rubin and rocket scientist, Jessica Holmes. Holmes is eleven months pregnant (“who are you bearing?”), but considering how shocked she always is at anything any celebrity says, I’m guessing she just found out about her pregnancy last Friday.

She opened the broadcast by saying: “The stars are getting here early, which is really interesting because you never know!”  Two seconds in and already I'm laughing.

The big red carpet story was the heat. The stars had to walk from their air conditioned limos, under a shaded canopy, to an air conditioned auditorium. Based on Sam & Jessica’s concern, you’d think Edie Falco had just crossed the Sahara.

Jessica mentioned to DOWNTON ABBEY creator, Julian Fellowes that Queen Elizabeth liked to pick out inaccuracies in his show. He hadn’t heard that. Jessica said it was in PEOPLE magazine, to which Mr. Fellows responded: “Oh, wellllll.”

Sam was interviewing Ariel Winter and Anthony Anderson. He said to Ariel (who is 17) “You’ve been through this a million times. Tell Anthony (who’s had a 20 year career) how to deal with it.”

Sam asked Alan Cumming to handicap his nomination. Cumming said, “I think Jonathan Banks is going to win, don’t you?” Sam responded: “He’s terrific in that show.” Way to make the guest feel good.

And finally, MAD MEN’S Kiernan Shipka said she was six when the show began and now she’s sixteen. Mother-to-be Jessica wisely stated, “There’s a lot of growing in those years.” Please write a book on parenting, Jessica.

Meanwhile, Fox’s red carpet show was hosted by football analyst, Terry Bradshaw (the network’s second biggest star). Sorry I missed that. I bet his question to every actor was, “Who are you again?”

Hollywood cares. It’s always championing some worthy humanitarian cause. They do this by wearing ribbons at award shows. This year, lots of stars were wearing green ribbons. These were in support of Jill Soloway negotiating a better overall deal.

The set looked like the casino of Circus Circus only not as tasteful.

Lea DeLaria came dressed as Drew Carey.

Who better than Lady Gaga to present a Best Actor award?

How come EMPIRE wasn’t nominated for Best Drama? Oh, that’s right. People actually WATCH it.

Did you notice the winning writers for VEEP were all middle-aged? Enjoy your Emmys, fellas. You’ll never get another job.

Congrats to Regina King. I thought Sarah Paulson was going to win but I think her two heads canceled each other out.

Emma Roberts wore a white dress that had more color than her skin.

“In Memoriam” gets tougher for me every year as more and more of my peers and friends pass. This year my mentor, Gary Owens, friend Taylor Negron, and dear friend and colleague Sam Simon were among the many who left us too soon.

I thought there would be more of a tribute to David Letterman. He got lumped into the “Not Returning Shows” montage (“In Memoriam 2”) and received as much airtime as COUGAR TOWN. And somehow they omitted 19 KIDS AND COUNTING.

The key word this year was “genius.” Everybody was a “genius.” With all these “geniuses” how come shows now get a 1 share? 

Seeing Jon Stewart, I miss him all over again. Oh, how I wish it was Ricky Gervais and not Jon Stewart who said, “You’ll never see me again.”

Wouldn’t you love just once to see an actor fire his agent during his acceptance speech? “You told me OLIVE KITTRIDGE was a piece of crap. I should take BAD JUDGE. Thank God I didn’t listen to you.”

Sophie Turner wore a blue top and black slacks, perfect for formal occasions or selling cars at Jim Falk Lexus.

My daughter’s writing partner, Jonathan Emerson tossed in some observations. He noted that ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is the first series to lose as Best Comedy and Best Drama.

Amy Schumer is in. Louis C.K. is out. Lena Dunham is a trivia answer.

Claire Danes came as the Phantom. 

Amy Schumer looked like a fullback. Hopefully it was just the dress.
How upset do you think Jane Fonda was when co-star Lily Tomlin lost?

So Alex Trebek sits down after a hard day to relax and watch the Emmy Awards, and BAM! Out of nowhere John Oliver takes gratuitous shots at him. Don’t be surprised if one of Monday’s JEOPARDY categories is “Smug British Talk Show Hosts Who Can Kiss My Ass.”

But Alex couldn’t have been any more uncomfortable than I was suffering through those lame bits like Tatiana Maslany eating beans on the red carpet, Lorne Michaels getting a “World’s Best Boss” mug, and Samberg’s MAD MEN parody.  It all felt like filler.  This is the level of comedy you find in prison skits.

The only winner who swore and had to be bleeped was a writer. Thanks GAME OF THRONES guy. You represent us all so well.

Zoe Kazan looked like a melted candy cane.
Actors often give afterthought tributes to their fellow nominees. But Peter Dinklage is the first to insult most of them. He acknowledged “Jonathan Banks… and the rest.” Nice.

Glad to see Mel Brooks got a standing ovation. Jon Emerson wondered how many in the audience pretended to know who he is? Since he was presenting one of the major awards of the night, I wondered why Lady Gaga didn’t have the honor?

Congratulations to all the winners. Your screeners had the biggest effect.

And finally -- aren’t the Emmys supposed to be classy? Isn’t this a night to celebrate excellence in television? To showcase those individuals and shows that rise above the fray and make the industry proud? Instead, we have the Emmy host doing a motorboarding joke on a replica of the statuette itself. Yeah, we’re all “geniuses” in television.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Emmy flashbacks

I’ll be reviewing tonight’s Emmy Awards. Check back tomorrow. But to get you in the mood, here are a few snarky inappropriate highlights from past Emmy reviews. Enjoy.

Note to Jeff Daniels and a lot of actors last night: ease up on the spray tan. There’s something wrong when Jeff Daniels is darker than Mindy Kaling.

Elton John, who has nothing to do with television, did a tribute to Liberace. I forget the title. “Candelabra in the Wind” I think.

The WHITNEY Emmy screener makes a really nifty coaster.

The Academy sent out a pretty clear message. Louis C.K. – not yet. Lena Dunham – not happening. Chuck Lorre – never.

What does it say when Bill Maher is now 0-32 and most Emmy voters are Democrats?

If Zosia Mamet’s dress was the result of another Kickstarter campaign she must’ve only raised eleven dollars.

GAME CHANGE won so Hollywood finally voted for Sarah Palin.

Kevin Costner won for playing a cowboy, which is what he should be playing. His days of portraying a baseball player are over unless they do a screen version of CHEERS and hire him as the Coach.

Christine Baranski, in a gold plated gown, looked like C-3PO caught cross-dressing.

Producer Mark Burnett has said that the “In Memoriam” segment doesn’t have to be such a downer. Really??? To that end, the song under the clips was “Where Dem Girls At”.

Six winners told their kids to go to bed. Five thanked Jesus. One told Jesus to go to bed.

Gray ribbons this year as Hollywood rallies to provide relief to the hurricane victims in the Hamptons whose guest homes and tennis courts sustained water damage.

Kate Winslet and Martin Scorsese won Emmys for having already won Oscars. When you win an Academy Award they should just throw an Emmy in the swag bag.

At least one Red Carpet interviewer asked Margo Martindale if she was coming back next year on JUSTIFIED (note: her character was killed) and another said how much she loved Margo's dad, Wink. Still another was hoping the "real" Mildred Pierce would be there for the ceremony.

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

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

Al Pacino’s won a million awards and his speech was like your uncle Lou’s just before the paramedics came.

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

When Jessica Lange was thanking everyone in the world I was hoping for a promo crawl underneath her to say, “Jessica Lange speech over in 8 minutes.”

Letting Heidi Klum do comedy is like giving a squirrel a grenade.

Anyone who says Jewish girls don’t know how to dress didn’t see Sarah Silverman tonight in her Catholic Girl’s uniform.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Check out these amazing singers

A little musical post for you today.  The group is Cubanos Acapella, the song is Hotel California (played to death on oldies stations), and wait'll you see what the guy in the red shirt does.  There must be some reality show these guys could win?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday Questions

So what’s yours?  I answer as many as I can. 

Richard starts us off this week:

While many sit-coms are entertaining with their yuck-yucks, some go above and beyond. Both MASH and Scrubs come to mind as shows that bring death into the mix and let things get real.

My question is, how does a writer's room decide to put the hammer down for such an episode? Having a half-hour of in-law jokes is an ocean away from having someone pass away.

The in-law jokes may get ratings, but the death episodes (not to get too dark) are the ones I remember years down the road.

The key to doing dramatic scenes is that you have to earn them. A tone of reality must be established. Otherwise, the dramatic moment seems jarring and false.

Same for sentimental and emotional moments. WILL & GRACE was a terrible offender of this. 20 minutes of burlesque jokes (many very funny) but then suddenly a big sappy moment that came out of nowhere and always felt bogus.

Shows need to be grounded in enough reality to have the audience believe dramatic moments are possible in that world. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t do a totally silly show, or establish that the biggest crisis your characters ever face is not getting laid and then deal with genuine grief or heartache.

From Steve B.:

Ken, what are the right and wrong ways to give notes to friends on their scripts? Are you ever concerned about being too easy or critical on them? Conversely, what are the rules to accepting notes from friends?

First off, don’t ask me to critique your script if you don’t want me to be honest. If you’re just looking for someone to tell you how brilliant you are, have your mom read your script. I'm doing you no favors by saying your script is great and you go out with it and get rejected all over town. 

When I give notes the first thing I do is point out the things I liked, the areas I thought they did well.   Believe me, when I read someone's script I want to love it.  It's so much easier giving good news.

Next, when I point out problems, I try to explain why I thought they were problematic and if possible offer alternatives or suggestions. Just saying you don’t like something doesn’t do anyone any good.

I try to be as diplomatic as possible and yes, sometimes it’s tough if I really thought the script sucked.

If I start giving notes and the person is defensive, after this happens two or three times I just stop and say, “Well, good luck with it” and that’s it.

I have a small group of writer friends who I really trust, and whenever I write a screenplay or play on spec I always give it to them. And they, in turn, give me work they’ve written on spec.

I value their judgment and appreciate their honesty. I don’t always take their suggestions but I always give them serious consideration. And conversely, when they like something I know they’re not just blowing smoke up my ass.

For my play A OR B? I threw out the entire second act based on a reader’s reaction. And she was right.

As the writer you have to be willing to at least be open to criticism and re-writing. As the person giving notes, you want to frame them in such a way that the writer will be excited about going back in and making his script better.

Cap'n Bob asks:

There was a show called ROLL OUT, starring Stu Gilliam, "from the producers of M*A*S*H." It was about a group of black soldiers in WWII. Did you have anything to do with it? Not the war, the show.

No. That was before my time. Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart were the creative team behind that. You never see those episodes pop up anywhere and I’d really like to. Any show written by Larry Gelbart commands my attention.

And finally, as the baseball regular season winds down, Liggie has a FQ.

The minor leagues have instituted a "pitch clock", where the pitcher has 20 seconds within receiving the ball to set for the pitch. If he's not in the set position in that time, it's an automatic ball. Yea or nay on this concept?

Yea on any restriction that will speed up the game. Eliminate bullshit walk-up music too.

But if MLB was really serious about speeding up the game they could do it in one rule change. Cut out a minute from each inning break. Instead of 2:30 or more of commercials only allow 1:30. Teams could charge more for the commercials and easily make up the difference. And advertisers would be happy because their message won’t just be buried in a long spot break. Bam! You shorten every game by eighteen minutes. Most games would then finish in under three hours.

But will MLB institute that change? What do you think?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Click bait

Is the purpose of a late night talk to get ratings or merely to serve as click bait? Is the real objective now the number of online viewings for various segments? Get enough eyeballs and you can sponsor the clips.

Les Moonves of CBS, at a recent session at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference, called online clip viewing a “great secondary source of revenue.”

He also acknowledged that Letterman wasn’t into that. I’m guessing that’s one of the reasons Dave was pushed out the door. (And I’m sorry, no matter what he or anyone publicly says, I believe Dave was “asked” to leave for a younger host.) In discussing Colbert’s appeal versus Letterman's, Moonves said: “It’s a younger demographic and a hipper demographic. So Colbert could be a significant profit center.”

Profit center, source of income. Yeah, Dave, don't let the door hit you on the way out. 

I have no problem with late night clips being available online. I watch them too. But I worry, will the programming of these late night shows change in order to maximize click bait? There used to be a flow to these nocturnal programs, there used to be a rhythm. I suspect one reason Dave was less excited about carving up his segments for online bite-sized viewing was that he often had running jokes through his show. Those callbacks would mean nothing if taken out of context.

Continuity used to be a big part of these shows. “Remember last night when we…?” Well, continuity is gone when viewers can watch clips from any day.

Now segments need to be flashy. Now each one needs a hook. NBC getting Fallon was a brilliant stroke if click bait is the goal. Playing games with celebrities, singing with them, karaoke – perfect programming for attracting online viewers.
Will Stephen and the other Jimmy be pushed to do more of that themselves? Will monologues give way because they don’t draw as many clicks? Will guests be selected based on their internet popularity? Will late night shows become the networks’ version of Monty Python’s “Now For Something Completely Different?”

My fear is that a little of the spontaneity and unpredictable nature of late night talk shows will give way to pre-packaged bits and promotable segments. I worry that the producers will forget that first and foremost they’re making a TELEVISION show. There are times I almost yell at the screen, “Hey, instead of programming for people who aren’t watching, how about programming for the people like me who ARE?” It’s kind of disconcerting to realize then networks don’t want me even when I am watching.

And warning: The major broadcast networks have a big edge on the late night audience because they deliver the most affiliates and are the big guns. But if click bait is the goal then it’s a level playing field. Conan on TBS can out click you. Or anyone who comes along on any network.  Roseanne are you listening?  Come back! 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Happy Birthday to my hero

If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to devote today’s post to wishing my father, Cliff the happiest of birthdays. Since he’s not on Facebook he won’t receive the flood of birthday greetings that everyone receives so he’ll have to make do celebrating old school – reading a blog post.

Dad turns 88 today. Happy to say he’s as sharp and feisty as ever. He lives in a retirement community and tells the women residents he’s a pornography director looking for new talent. He’ll excuse himself from breakfast saying he has to speak at the UN later. He’ll challenge residents in walkers to a race.

Gee, where do I get my sense of humor?

He once started a whipped cream fight at the dinner table when I was a kid. As a teenager, he took me to see Jack Benny, Bob Newhart, and Danny Thomas perform in Las Vegas. He introduced me to Laurel & Hardy, Jackie Gleason & Art Carney, Bilko, Looney Tunes, and the Three Stooges. He told me there was this new TV show he thought I’d like. It was THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

He worked as a radio executive for many years, first as the sales manager of KABC in Los Angeles and eventually the General Manager of 50,000 watt WLS in Chicago. John Records Landecker, on his last show a few weeks ago acknowledged my father.

But more than that, my dad is my hero. For all his many accomplishments, I am proudest of how highly regarded he is by all who have worked with him and all who know him. He treats everyone with respect and conducts business with grace and integrity. Could a kid have a better role model?

So Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. And I think a whipped cream fight in the main dining room is long overdue. Just sayin’.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The 20th Century lot... back in the 20th Century

One of the many perks of writing MASH in the late ‘70s was going to work every day at the 20th Century Fox lot. At that time it was Disneyland for TV geeks.

We worked in the Old Writers Building, which was a Swiss chalet. I was told our office was once F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s. There were some empty gin bottles behind the couch so that's probably true.

We parked in the western town used in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. We drove onto the lot past the New York street from HELLO DOLLY. Near the commissary was the famous gazebo from TV’s PEYTON PLACE (okay, you have to be a certain age to give a shit about that one.).

There was still a foot bridge over Olympic Blvd. and a backlot. David and I would walk through the backlot on the way to lunch at Century City. There we’d see STAR WARS sets just collecting dust.

We used to watch dailies in a screening room that was behind the facade for the Gotham police department from the TV BATMAN.

Mel Brooks made his movies at 20th which usually meant extras walking around in Nazi uniforms.

CHARLIE’S ANGELS was filmed on the lot and you’d bump into one of those girls at least once a week. Even more if you hung around their trailers.

For some reason Evil Knieval, the daredevil who would try to ride motorcycles over the Grand Canyon and spent most of his life in hospitals, had a production deal and was always around.

But the best other show that filmed on the lot was THE LOVE BOAT. First off, there were always gorgeous 6’ 9’’ showgirls wandering all over the lot. But that was nothing.

Every sitcom star and second banana from that era and prior eras guested on THE LOVE BOAT. And we would see them all the time at the commissary. It was liking going to the world’s greatest nostalgia show every day except the celebrities still looked recognizable and you weren’t charged $20 to get in.

Among the “stars” I got to see up close and personal were: Carol Channing (Hello Dolly), Connie Stevens (Hello Cricket), Erin Moran (Hello Joanie), Charo (although I saw her just two weeks ago on the Paramount lot), Arte Johnson, Ethel Merman, Dick Van Patton, Ted Knight, Betty White (she’s been in everything), Nancy Kulp, Florence Henderson & Robert Reed (Tom isn't the only Brady), Alexis Smith, Don Adams, Elaine Joyce (pre J.D. Salinger and Neil Simon), Phyllis Diller, Lyle Waggoner, Cesar Romero, and if you can believe it – Jimmy Osmond. And that’s just scratching the guest star surface. For me it was awesome – my childhood flashing before my eyes, all these icons of my youth eating Chinese chicken salads.

And then there are the ghosts of years gone by that you know walked the same streets, although when I saw Ethel Merman I wasn’t sure if she was real or one of those ghosts.

Being on a major Hollywood studio lot was a real privilege in those days. Today, to save money, lots of shows are filmed in rented warehouses in Valencia or the City of Industry. Gone is the mystique when you have to drive halfway to Bakersfield to get to your soundstage.

Hollywood really was a magic town at one time. But that was when filmmakers and showmen were in charge, not CEO’s and mega-conglomerates. There won’t be many ghosts in Valencia (especially in the summer when it get sooooo damn hot).

Monday, September 14, 2015

My favorite scripts

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post. Once I start writing about myself things naturally just get lengthy.

David (not Isaacs) asks:

What do you feel is the best stuff you've ever written or been apart of? Produced or otherwise. What are you proudest of? What would you consider to be the essential viewing for a fan of Ken Levine & David Isaacs?

Were someone to stage a Levine & Isaacs film festival (like that’s ever going to happen), here are the episodes I would have them show (in no particular order or ranking):

MASH – “Point of View” – An entire episode shown through the eyes of a patient. Clearly our most unique work. But I can’t mention it without acknowledging the extraordinary job that director Charles Dubin did. We visualized it; he realized it. Nominated for several Emmys. Sorry we didn’t win but still furious that Charles didn’t win.

MASH – “Out of Sight/Out of Mind” – Our first MASH and the script that really launched our career. The speech that Hawkeye delivers explaining what it’s like to be blind was word-for-word from our first draft. It’s the best single speech we’ve ever written.

MASH – “Goodbye Radar, Part 2” – Our swan song was Radar’s as well. I think what made this episode so powerful was that we didn’t give anybody a big speech. The tag still chokes me up. Nominated for an Emmy.

THE TONY RANDALL SHOW – “The People Speak” – Most of you are saying “What’s the Tony Randall Show?” This was an MTM series produced by the same people who did THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. Tony Randall played a judge. In this episode he runs for superior court justice and loses to a dead man. There are some big laughs in it.

CHEERS – “Boys in the Bar” – From season one. Sam defends his old roommate who came out of the closet and the regulars worry that the bar will go gay. Sensitive subject matter for 1982 but it came out great. We received the WGA and GLAAD award and were nominated for an Emmy.

CHEERS – “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” – Frasier’s bachelor party. What I love so much about this episode is that we broke from tradition and wrote it without any outline. Strictly free form. We wanted to create the feel of a real bar experience where conversations were varied and fragmented. The only “story” we had going in was that Frasier would question whether he wanted to go through with the wedding and decides by the end that he does. Wasn’t nominated for anything.

CHEERS – “The Big Kiss-Off” – There’s nothing socially redeeming about this one at all. It was just really funny. Sam and Woody make a bet to see who can kiss Rebecca first.  Just silly fun.  Not even considered for a Peabody. 

CHEERS – “Rat Girl” – Lilith keeps a dead rat in her purse. We won the WGA award for this one, beating out a SEINFELD episode. Every time I see Larry David to this day he grouses about it.

CHEERS – “Death Takes a Holiday on Ice” – Eddie LeBec is killed by a Zamboni machine and Carla learns her late husband was a bigamist. Nominated for an Emmy (and told by members of the blue ribbon committee that we had won, but we didn’t).

FRASIER – “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” – First season, first appearance by Lilith. Lost another Emmy but in this case we were just happy to be nominated. The FRASIER pilot won, as it should have.

FRASIER – “Adventures in Paradise Part 2” – Might be our single funniest episode ever. Frasier faking an orgasm still kills me.

FRASIER – “Room Service” – Niles sleeps with Lilith. As a comedy writer you dream that just once you write a script that comes out this well.

ALMOST PERFECT – “Pilot” – Written by me, David, and Robin Schiff. I still think it’s a helluva pilot.

BIG WAVE DAVE’S – “Pilot” – We have never written any half hour before or since that got a ten-minute laugh spread.

BIG WAVE DAVE’S – “Him” – Aired once and never seen again (although it’s up on YouTube). The lead character experiences what it’s like to go through childbirth by trying to catch a marlin. How often do you see that storyline on a series?

THE SIMPSONS – “Dancin’ Homer” – Our first foray into animation. I also got to do a voice and create a character (the Capitol City Goofball – I still have my original drawing of it somewhere). This is probably the only credit many of my younger readers know.

Okay, there’s 8 fun-filled hours. If you have other favorites I’d love to hear ‘em and why. Thanks. As for producing, I have no favorites. Just thrilled that I was associated with so many great series.

Happy binging.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jewish New Year Jingle

In honor of the Jewish New Year, here is an actual radio jingle KMPC Los Angeles had made for the occasion.  These are the Anita Kerr Singers.  I'm sure they got a lot of play out of it.

More great unsold pilots

Here are more great unsold pilots. Yesterday I also had a bunch.   From the unsold pilot book by Lee Goldberg.  You can find it here.  Remember, these are all for real.

TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER    ABC-1964 -- Two aliens from Venus come to earth, meet an inventor, and go into business with him selling to unknowing earthlings products created for another planet.

13 THIRTEENTH AVENUE    CBS-1983 – Similar to one of yesterday’s entries, this one features a widower and his son who move into a Greenwich Village apartment building inhabited by a model who’s a witch, a C.P.A. who’s a werewolf, a lawyer who’s a vampire, a superintendent who’s a troll, and their psychiatrist.

WHERE’S EVERETT?    CBS-1966 -- Alan Alda (of all people) as a young father who goes to get the morning paper and finds that aliens have left an invisible baby on his doorstep. (Oooh, if only I knew about this when I worked with him on MASH…)

YAZOO   NBC-1984 -- William Conrad (the Fat Man from Jake &) is a widowed journalist who goes fishing one day, falls asleep in the boat, and wakes up in a magical world called Yazoo, populated by the Peppercorn Puppets. (I can't believe this one didn't go.) 

AFTER GEORGE   CBS-1983 – Susan Saint James as a widow who discovers her late husband programmed his personality into the computer that operates their house. (MY HUSBAND THE HARD DRIVE)

JUSTIN CASE   ABC-1988 – One of the 12,000 ghost pilots but this one featured the great George Carlin as a ghost private eye.

WHO GOES THERE?   CBS-1965 – Two troublesome ghosts haunting a southern California tract house materialize as General Custer and Indian Chief Running Dog.  (Tract house or crack house?)

IT'S A DOG'S LIFE  NBC-1979 – From the people who brought you ALL IN THE FAMILY comes this tale (tail?) of actors dressed as dogs. (Long before WILFRED)

K-9000   Fox-1989 – A loose cannon on the LAPD has a microchip implanted in his brain by a hot woman scientist allowing him to talk telepathically with his new partner, a genetically-enhanced German shepherd.

POOCHINSKI   NBC-1990 – Dog pilots were also big.  Stanley Poochinski is a tough, ill-mannered cop who has been gunned down in the line of duty and reincarnated as a talking, flatulent English bulldog.

THE ELIZABETH McQUEENY STORY  NBC-1959 – Bette Davis as the leader of an all-female dance troupe that travels through the Old West.

MURDER IN MUSIC CITY  NBC-1979 – I saved the best for last.  Sonny Bono as a Nashville songwriter who becomes a detective. (When he caught the bad guy did he say, “I got you, babe!”?)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Hilarious unsold pilots

You think some of today’s shows are strange? Friend of the blog and writer extraordinaire, Lee Goldberg once wrote a book listing unsold TV pilots from 1955-1990.  He has recently updated it.  You can buy it here.  I recommend it.  Some of these are priceless.  These are actual projects.  Writers pitched them with a straight face and sold them.  Scripts were commissioned and then networks said, "Sure, we'll shell out millions of dollar to make these".   Can you imagine what didn't get picked up?   Anyway, with the new development season in full swing, let's go back and relive past gems. 
DANGER TEAM ABC-1990 – Kathleen Beller plays a bookkeeper-turned-private eye who solves crimes with the help of three animated clay figures. (Whatever happened to Kathleen Beller (pictured above)? She was soooo hot.)

GOOD AGAINST EVIL ABC-1977 -- Dack Rambo is a writer who happens to fall in love with Satan’s girlfriend.  (Don't you hate it when that happens?)

HIGH RISK ABC-1976 -- Six former circus performers team up to solve crimes. (A better title might have been JUSTICE DU SOLEIL.  Notice how many of these delightful dramas were developed by ABC?)

JUDGE DEE ABC-1974 -- Khigh Dhiegh is a roving judge in seventh century China, deciding right and wrong and solving crimes. (We had an idea for a show but it was set in the eighth century and no one wants that era.)

MADAME SIN ABC-1972 – Maybe my favorite of all of them. Bette Davis as an all-powerful dragon lady who kidnaps a former C.I.A. agent (Robert Wagner), brainwashes him with a special ray gun, and enlists him in her high-tech global intelligence agency that operates out of her Scottish castle. (Again, I'm not making these up. I couldn't.)

McCLONE NBC-1988 – Master thespian, Howie Long is pursued by evil clones.

MOMMA THE DETECTIVE CBS-1981 – Esther Rolle (from GOOD TIMES) as a maid who solves crimes.

NICK KNIGHT CBS-1989 – I bet we see a new version of this in like five minutes. Rick Springfield is a crimefighting vampire on the San Francisco police force.

HURRICANE ISLAND & STRANDED – two of the many “people are shipwrecked on a remote island” pilots. But none of them had the hatch.

ETHEL IS AN ELEPHANT CBS-1980 -- A New York photographer who shares his apartment with a baby elephant.

GREAT DAY ABC-1977 -- As described: “This pilot was supposed to illustrate how fun life is as a skid row bum in New York’s bowery.” Featured in the cast: Billy Barty and Spo-De-Odee.

A LITTLE BIT STRANGE NBC-1989 – A widower raising a bizarre family. He and his son are warlocks, his daughter is a witch, his mother-in-law is psychic, his brother a soul-singing bat (yes, a bat), and his nephew is made of mud. A “normal” girl marries into this family.

MARS: BASE ONE CBS-1988 -- A family adjusting to life on Mars, where they live next door to a Soviet technician and his American-stripper wife. (Note: the 1988 WGA strike forced cancellation of this project. I think part of the problem was that they wanted to shoot on location.)

MIXED NUTS ABC-1977 – (not to be confused with MIXED NUTS -- one of the worst movies of all time) The lives and hilarious misadventures of the doctors and psychiatric patients of a mental institution.

MR. AND MRS. DRACULA ABC-1980, 1981 -- The Dracula family moves to a New York apartment. In the second version they live in the South Bronx. Okay, now that makes sense.

SGT. T.K. YU NBC-1979 – Korean stand-up comic Johnny Yune is a Korean LAPD detective/stand-up comic. (This pilot was in competition with one of ours, about a guy-girl comedy team. And neither got on the schedule. Instead, NBC picked up PINK LADY AND JEFF, a comedy-variety show starring a stand-up comic and Japanese girl group who couldn’t speak English.  Sometimes the most absurd pilot gets on the air.)

Tomorrow: More pilots include one with Alan Alda raising an invisible baby and Sonny Bono fighting crime.  You're gonna wanna be here!

Friday, September 11, 2015

9-11 and David & Lynn Angell

I re-post this every year on this date and always will. 

9/11 affected us all, profoundly and in many cases personally. Two of my dear friends were on flight 11. David and Lynn Angell. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of them, missed them, and not felt grateful that they were in my life.

David and I worked together on CHEERS, WINGS, and FRASIER (the latter two he co-created). We used to call him the “dean”. In his quiet way he was the one we always looked to for final approval of a line or a story direction. He brought a warmth and humanity to his writing that hopefully rubbed off on the rest of us “schickmeisters”. And he could be funny – sneaky funny. During long rewrite sessions he tended to be quiet. Maybe two or three times a night he’d pitch a joke – but they were always the funniest jokes of the script.

For those of you hoping to become comedy writers yourselves, let David Angell be your inspiration. Before breaking in he worked in the U.S. Army, the Pentagon, an insurance firm, an engineering company, and then when he finally moved out to L.A. he did “virtually every temp job known to man” for five years. Sometimes even the greatest talents take awhile to be recognized.

I first met David the first season of CHEERS. He came in to pitch some stories. He had been recommended after writing a good NEWHART episode. This shy quiet man who looked more like a quantum physics professor than a comedy writer, slinked into the room, mumbled through his story pitches, and we all thought, “is this the right guy? He sure doesn’t seem funny.” Still, he was given an assignment (“Pick a con…any con”) and when the script came back everyone was just blown away. He was quickly given a second assignment (“Someone single, someone blue”) and that draft came back even better. I think the first order of business for the next season was to hire David Angell on staff.

After 9/11, David’s partners Peter Casey & David Lee called me and my partner into their office. There was a FRASIER script David Angell was about to write. (It was the one where Lilith’s brother arrived in a wheelchair and became an evangelist. Michael Keaton played the part.) Peter & David asked if we would write it and for me that was a greater honor than even winning an Emmy.

David’s wife, Lynn, was also an inspiration. She devoted her life to helping others – tirelessly working on creating a children’s library and a center that serves abused children.

My heart goes out to their families. To all of the families.

I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

So tragic, so senseless, and even fourteen years later, so inconceivable.