Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday Questions

Closing out a rather soggy week in Tinsel Town, here are this week’s FQ’s.

Xmastime is up first.

Thanks! My question: what are your thoughts on British sitcoms? Thanks to streaming services I've discovered dozens over the last few years, including the greatest of all, "Only Fools and Horses." Would love to know if you've ever had any favorites.

I love British sitcoms. They never write down to the audience. And yet they often manage to combine sophisticated comedy with sheer silliness.  They're allowed to be political, historical, deal honestly with sexuality, and feature age groups over 27. 

Another thing I appreciate about British sitcoms is that great actors will do them without feeling like they’re “slumming.” Judi Dench can go from an Oscar winning movie to AS TIME GOES BY, a sitcom.

My three all-time favorites are COUPLING by Steven Moffat, BLACKADDER by Richard Curtis and Rowen Atkinson, and YES, MINISTER by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.

UPDATE: Make that four.  How could I forget FAWLTY TOWERS?  That's maybe my number one.  

I must confess, I haven’t seen the current crop. Feel free to recommend some.

Steve Hoffman has a question regarding my recent post on pilot updates.

The article you posted here describes the premise of this new pilot, and I'm struck by how this reads as the same exact premise as "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Does this happen often? Wouldn't networks want to green light pilots that don't sound like exact duplicates of something that's already out there and is reasonably successful? Or do they really not care?

It baffles me too, but that happens more frequently than you would expect. Sometimes the same network will develop projects similar. Remember when NBC had STUDIO 60 and 30 ROCK? Both were behind-the-scenes looks at SNL. Usually though, the network will pick just one of the two contenders. In this case NBC ordered them both.

This also happens in features. Suddenly you’ll have two Snow White movies or Wyatt Earp movies that come out around the same time. And in both cases – why????

From ODJennings:

How common is it for actors to get stuck on a show they hate? The reason I'm asking is that the Steppenwolf Theatre comment reminded me of a story I once heard from someone in Chicago who was in a position to know.

He swore that a supporting actor on a popular sitcom only took the part because they were 110% certain that the show would be a flop. They bragged to their friends and coworkers that the money would pay for their home remodeling, and they'd be back in Chicago before anyone even noticed they were gone. The show became a hit and they were stuck in LA for 6 seasons hating every minute of it. (And no, it wasn't John Mahoney although I've read that he didn't think much of LA either.)

John didn’t love LA (he was a Chicago boy), but he did love working of FRASIER.

As for the Steppenwolf actor – Fuck him.

You know how many actors would KILL to be on a hit series? You know what a privilege it is to be on a hit series?

If an actor thinks a part is wrong for him or the series is beneath him then don’t take the role. Make way for an actor who will appreciate the opportunity.

Sometimes actors will grow unhappy during the course of a series, but in most cases the producers are happy to let them out of their contracts. Who needs that cancer hanging around?

But I see how hard actors try to get on series, how few openings there are, and when I hear of one who took a pilot just for the money, hoping it would fail I again say Fuck You!

Liz asks:

Jennifer Lawrence says that she is gonna take a year off to educate young people about politics. What's your take on that? 

God bless her. A whole giant subculture is reaching voting age. Let them get involved and begin carving out a better world for themselves. And cleaning up the one we left them.  Unlike 2016, Millennials can now really make a difference.


And finally, from Kirby:

I recently saw a "Wings" episode where David Schramm appeared in the background but had no lines. I seem to recall a similar situation on "Cheers," where Kelsey Grammer could be seen sitting at the bar, but Frasier didn't speak the entire episode. In these instances, would the characters have had lines that were cut during editing? Or are there occasions where there isn't room for a main character to speak, but the actor is called in anyway just to be present in the background?

Almost ALWAYS, when that occurs it’s because their lines were edited out for time. On both of those shows we would NEVER ask an actor to appear in a scene where he didn’t have lines and contributed.

There’s the common misconception that all actors want as much screen time as possible, but that’s not true. Most actors would much prefer to not be in a scene rather than having little to do with it other than lobbing in a line. And I have to say, I absolutely agree with them. It’s hugely disrespectful to ask an actor to just sit in a scene and do nothing.

What’s your Friday Question? I answer as many as I can.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A modest question

I’ve been watching THE GOOD FIGHT on CBS All Access. (It’s even better than the GOOD WIFE … at least since Will was killed.) And since it’s not on a broadcast network, they’re able to get away with language and nudity they never could before. And it’s somewhat startling to hear a character you’ve watched for seven years suddenly say, “Fuck you!” (Startling and refreshing.)

This week’s episode featured a storyline where a young woman contestant on a BIG BROTHER-type show was drugged and had sex without her consent. As expected with the creative team headed by Robert & Michelle King, the story was handled very responsibly and very elegantly. The nudity was not overtly gratuitous. It wasn’t like CALIFORNICATION where women take off their clothes to read their mail.

But a young woman had to be topless for more than a few fleeting seconds and even completely naked although in a long shot and not full-frontal.

I’m sure the casting office has to declare that there will be partial nudity required in the initial breakdown. It’s not something they just spring on the actress during the audition, or worse, after she’s agreed to the part. But there must be times it’s very hard for an actress to decide whether the nude scene is worth it. THE GOOD FIGHT is a classy show. But what if some sleazy cable show demands it? Assuming you even consider it in the first place, are there personal boundaries? Example: CBS All Access and HBO yes, FX and Cinemax no.

An actress friend of mine said she loved going on auditions where being topless was required for a scene. “They’re just tits,” she used to say and it meant most of her competition for the part dropped out. She got more gigs as a result.

Other actress friends contend that especially now, with things staying on the internet forever, it makes no difference whether you’re doing it for a classy show or soft-core porn, the world can and WILL at some point see you. Your topless shot, although it occupied only five seconds of screen time, could be the wallpaper on the president’s computer.

So my question, in this era of #MeToo, social media, but jobs-are-hard-to-come-by, what is your position on partial nudity? Do you have boundaries? Has your position changed due to any social sea changes or financial pressures? And this is one time you’re welcome to post anonymously. Reminder: I moderate all comments so anything juvenile or inappropriate to a legitimate grown-up discussion will be deleted. But this question comes from me watching THE GOOD FIGHT episode and wondering, would I do that? It was a good part and the actress had lots to do including a couple of wonderful speeches. Would it have been worth it to me? I honestly don’t know.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

EP64: Surviving Hollywood Rejections

Everyone in show business gets rejected. Ken shares some of his most memorable rejections and offers tips to help you rise above them. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

I miss comic strips

There are fewer and fewer comic strips these days. Not surprising considering there are fewer and fewer newspapers. And the one still hanging on are shrinking.

Yet fans of comic strips are DIEHARD fans. Whenever I bring up the topic on this blog I get a flood of comments; most very passionate. And I think that’s great. Keep 'em coming.

There is something about comic strips that instills fierce loyalty. Next to politics I think our country is most divided over Calvin & Hobbs.  But TV series can only dream of such loyalty. 

Since I no longer get a daily paper (I used to for years but they just started stacking up unread – I followed the news through the internet like everybody else), I rarely see the comic page. But when I do I’m usually disappointed. The jokes just aren’t that funny.

Were they funnier when I was a kid and there were way more strips? Probably not. My sense of humor was less than razor-sharp when I was 10. But I loved them. I loved the draftsmanship. I also loved the link to the past. Most of these strips were created before I was born. There was a sense of history and legacy to them. It was kind of cool that my dad and I both loved Popeye as a kid.

At one time, when I was in high school, I thought having a nationally syndicated comic strip would be a nifty way to make a living. I was a pretty fair cartoonist back then. In researching it more closely I learned that it was extremely hard to enter the field. Very very few new strips broke through.

But that wasn’t my biggest deterrent. It was the fact that I would have to come up with seven new jokes a week. Every week. Who could possibly survive under that pressure? Now of course, in television, I had to come up with seven jokes every fifteen minutes and do it for decades. But at the time it was a daunting task.

I did however get a comic strip into one paper. It was the local Woodland Hills weekly paper and this is when I was in high school. My strip was about teenagers (duh!), and I delivered a finished panel (all in pen & ink just like the big boys) every week. The strip ran for maybe three months. But then I was downsized. The paper was cutting back and my strip was a real luxury. I was making $5 a month.

Ultimately, I think I made the smarter choice to go into screenwriting. But it breaks my heart to see the slow decline of comic strips. At its best it’s a wonderful art, and today more than ever, we need all the creative outlets we can find.  Good Grief! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A writers' dirty little secret for actors

There are numerous situations on television series where the actors are at odds with the writers. Usually over the way actors treat the scripts.

But here’s what these actors don’t understand:

If you are respectful of the writers, if you present your concerns in a positive way, if you don’t antagonize them you will only be helping YOURSELF.

I’ve been in both situations — casts that were lovely and casts that were nightmares. Usually in those latter cases it’s one monster (no names but see the picture) who poisons it for everybody.

On the shows where the actors were lovely the writers bent over backwards to give them great stuff. They were also incredibly protective of the actors and their characters. More protective sometimes than the actors were themselves. We made sure characters didn’t come off too stupid or insensitive. We made sure every actor was being serviced. We’d say so-and-so has gone three pages with really nothing to do. Let’s give her a big joke.

Listen actors — we don’t need YOU to tell us you need more jokes. We don’t need YOU to tell us your character is being unnecessarily heartless. But if you do, if you throw the script back in our face, if you just tank scenes you don’t like you do so at your own peril. Yes, we may fix something you screamed about. But in the room you’ll have no advocates. No one will want to stay one minute later to see if we might give you a better joke. We’re professionals and we’ll turn out professional product. But don’t expect any allegiance. Don’t expect anyone to fight on your behalf. Don’t expect one of the writers to be bothered by a story point and have it keep him awake for one minute.

On the other hand, treat us with respect, consider our feelings, think of us as partners not enemies, and we’ll walk through walls for you. Like I said, YOU’RE the one who most benefits. And all it takes is simple human decency. Well, simple for some actors.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Will the real David Letterman please stand up?

It’s been a Letterman weekend. The OPEN ALL NIGHT clip I posted Saturday and then I watched his new Netflix series where he conducts in depth interviews. The one I watched (of course) was the one with Barack Obama.

Obama, of course, was magnificent. Charming, funny, articulate, smart, and caring. But what struck me was Letterman. I thought to myself, “Who is this guy?” It’s like he’s adopted a new public persona.

This David Letterman has grown a ridiculous gray beard, let himself go, and now seems to pass himself off as a man of great conscience and concern for humanity. Huh? We see him walking the bridge in Selma with John Lewis and at one point to Obama he makes this confession that when the Civil Rights marchers were there originally he was on a cruise to the Bahamas, and he almost mists up when he says, “Why wasn’t I in Selma?” WTF? David Letterman a freedom fighter? He made it sound like he’s been haunted by this guilt his entire life. That’s a lovely sentiment, but I’m sorry, I don’t believe it for a second.

I have been a fan of David Letterman’s dating back to when I first knew him as an aspiring stand-up at the Comedy Store in the mid-‘70s. I LOVED his NBC morning show, also loved his NBC late night show, and thought his CBS show was… okay. But in every case he was playing a “character.” Originally the wholesome kid from the Midwest who had a mischievous edge eventually morphing into a cranky curmudgeon and now an… I dunno, national treasure? But none of those are really Dave.

At first he was a very ambitious young man. Eventually he became very sullen, very bitter (why I don’t know), very closed off.

But all the years I’ve watched him, both on stage and on television I never feel I’m seeing a genuine person. And it's one thing if you’re a comic and do your one hour set. Steve Martin is not a wild & crazy guy. But if you’re going to be on television for an hour a night for thirty years I would like to think I’m getting to actually know you. Jimmy Kimmel feels more genuine to me. So does Jon Stewart. Even John Oliver. Yes, he’s revved up but I get the sense that’s the real him.

David Letterman keeps trying on characters. Maybe the problem is HE doesn’t really know who he is. But I'll become a much bigger fan when he figures it out. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

If you have no plans for tonight

And in you're in the LA magnificent megalopolis, come see a Cafe Play I wrote for the Ruskin Theatre Group in Santa Monica.   These are plays we wrote this morning, are being rehearsed now, and performed tonight at 7:30 and 9:00.  Here are details.  It's always a fun night.  Say hello if you come.  I'll be there for both shows. 

The comedy rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Lakers tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. 

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Here's a TV rarity

There was a very short-lived show called OPEN ALL NIGHT.  I believe it was 1981.  It lasted 13 weeks on ABC.  David Isaacs and I wrote two of the episodes and appeared in one.  Shockingly, we were nominated for a WGA Award for one of our OPEN ALL NIGHT episodes.  (Yes, we lost. The show was off the air by then and the company disbanded.)   But it was a very funny show about an all-night convenience store created and ran by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, who produced the best years of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.

The show was very nutty.  And from time to time they had bizarre cameos.  Here's one of strangest.  David Letterman on OPEN ALL NIGHT.