Thursday, April 19, 2018

Earning moments

Nothing elevates a sitcom episode like a big emotional moment.  It gives the show depth.  The audience doesn't just come for the jokes; they become invested in the characters.  They start to really care about them.   Their problems are meaningful and you root for them to succeed. 

Shows that can pull that off tend to have staying power with audiences.   Especially if the problems are universal.   That's why you can watch a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW from 50 years ago and still identify with it.   The issues are the same.  We're just no longer in black-and-white. 

But those emotional moments need to be earned.

Some sitcoms will do 20 minutes of broad burlesque and then take a huge left turn and have a super sappy moment.   And it feels bogus.  Your teeth rattle.  You throws shoes at the screen.  All it succeeds in doing is reinforcing that sitcoms can be lightweight and disposable.   In those cases, the moments only make the show worse. 

So how to avoid that?

You ground the show going in.   The tone has to be realistic throughout.  When a character says something and another character says something no normal human being would ever say but it gets a laugh, there goes your credibility.  When characters act like idiots or two-year-olds and sacrifice any shred of dignity for the sake of a joke you do so at the expense of true emotion. 

What world do your characters live in?   If it's heightened and cartoonish, fine.  Just don't switch gears and suddenly become WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?    At this point, some readers will race to the keyboard to point out exceptions.  Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this is the rule and it behooves a writer to try to do it right.

The litmus test we have in the writers room is that the moment must be earned

And as for the moment itself, generally speaking, the more economical the better.  Avoid cliches.  Avoid going over-the-top.   Often times the best moments are one or two sentences, not long overwrought speeches.   When David Isaacs and I wrote GOODBYE RADAR for MASH we purposely designed the story so that there were casualties arriving when Radar had to leave.  So his final goodbyes were all on the fly.   Each character got a sentence or two.  To me that was way more effective than long heart-to-heart speeches where each character revealed how much Radar meant to them.  

In short, beware of sentimentality.   Like a good spice, you need just a pinch. 

Usually I find the shows that do moments that aren't earned are also the shows that do the least artful moments, which is not surprising. 

Emotional moments, like I said, are worth striving for.  But they require effort.   Along the way, don't settle for jokes that compromise characters.  Don't do stories so silly that they can only be called sketches at best.  It's the difference in being a sitcom writer and a writer writer. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

EP68: Meet Nancy Travis

Ken talks with actress Nancy Travis about her career, her process, her ups and downs, and lots of fun stories along the way. Nancy is very candid and you’re going to love her. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Could this be the end of Oscar?

Don’t look now but the movie industry as we know it could well be going the way of newspapers and bookstores and Atari.

The movie industry’s target demographic (18-34) has been fleeing the Cineplex in alarming numbers. Double-digit defection. Other demographics have already abandoned the movie house – all in favor of staying home and watching on their own devices.

And why not? Ticket prices are absurd, popcorn is ridiculous, people around you are texting and talking, you have to sit through ten minutes of commercials before the show, and none of that includes the cost of parking, maybe dinner, a baby sitter, and online charges for reserving your seats.

Compare that with watching comfortably at home on a big screen TV with surround-sound and your own bathroom.

Yes, you miss the communal experience of seeing a film in a full theatre, and everyone is either laughing or screaming or cheering. But those experiences are happening less and less. Instead, we’re force-fed more TRANSFORMERS movies.

Studios are making fewer and fewer films and the ones they are making are expensive comic book action summer tent pole franchise flicks that hopefully will do well globally. The smaller budget films, like comedies and God forbid films for grown ups are being phased out. Again, do you want to spend $60 to see an Amy Schumer movie?

Streaming services are now picking up the slack. Netflix, and Amazon, etc. are making movies direct-to-TV and attracting top talent.

Pretty soon the only reason to see a film on the big screen is if it is a huge spectacle. No need to see LOVE SIMON in IMAX. Studios tried to sell 3-D but after a short while audiences found that meh. Now some theatres are offering waiter service, but that too is just a novelty (not to mention expensive). 

AMC stock dropped 70% last year. Mark Cuban is trying to unload Landmark Theatres. The writing is on the wall.

So my question is, if the movie industry essentially goes away, what happens to the Academy Awards? If they continue to insist that eligible films must be shown in theatres they’ll be left with DESPICABLE ME 9 vs. FAST & FURIOUS 17 for Best Picture. Vin Diesel will edge out the Rock for Best Actor.

And if they relax their eligibility to include movies made for Netflix et al, then what is the difference between the Oscars and the Emmys? Might the Academy Awards eventually become meaningless? Considering how ratings for the Academy Awards continue to dwindle year after year, we may just reach a point where they’re no longer relevant. Robert DeNiro’s statuette won’t mean as much when Vin Diesel has one too.

I guess the only hope movie studios have in turning things around is making better pictures, but I’m sure their analysts are working overtime to find solutions that don’t involve that. In which case, would the last person out of the door please turn off the lights.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

RIP Harry Anderson

I can't believe this isn't just one of his ingenious hustles. Come on Harry, show yourself.   There's so much that doesn't make sense.  Harry was only 65.  He can't be gone.  This must be a trick.

I first met Harry during pre-production of the first season of CHEERS.  So June or July 1982.  He came into the office wearing the full Harry the Hat outfit.   We were looking to sprinkle in some colorful characters and boy did he fit the bill.  A few weeks later Harry invited us all to the Magic Castle to see his act.  Sure, the magic was dazzling, but what impressed us the most was how FUNNY he was. 

And authentic.  All of the little hustles Harry did that first season were things he contributed.  He was a fun character and the audience loved him, but we worried if we used him too often he wouldn't be as special.   I was so thrilled when he then got the starring role in NIGHT COURT.  He was getting the spotlight he deserved. 

We used Harry again the final season of CHEERS.  David Isaacs and I were assigned to write the final Bar Wars episode.  We thought this would be a perfect time to bring Harry back one last time. In all previous Bar Wars chapters David and I concocted the story.   This time Harry was the mastermind.   We called him and said we really wanted to put a final exclamation point on the Bar Wars saga.  For once we wanted CHEERS to win and we wanted them to win big.  We even thought, "What if somehow Gary's Old Towne tavern gets destroyed?"   Harry came up with the sting.

He was a lovely guy, mischievous as hell, and just naturally hilarious.

Okay, Harry, you had your fun.  Show yourself.   It's too sad otherwise. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Is that your line?

Here's a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It is from Rob:

How do you handle it when someone compliments you on a line from a particular episode from a particular show that you didn't happen to write? Has that ever happened to you?

It’s happened quite often. I always thank them and say a lot of people contributed to the writing of that script. Which is usually accurate.

I’ve written with a partner for my entire career. Often someone will say to me, “I saw your show last night and that joke about (whatever), that was yours, wasn’t it? It was so you. It had to be your joke.” Invariably they’re wrong. It was David’s joke.

Or they’ll say, “Y’know that joke about not being able to get it up? That had to be your joke. It had you written all over it.” What? You think I’m impotent?

Most of the time I will tell people that I don’t remember who wrote what joke. And that’s not being coy, it’s the truth. David and I volley jokes back and forth. One of us will pitch something, the other will say, “Okay, but what if we changed this word?” Before you know it the line changes five times until we arrive at the final version. And both of our fingerprints are on it.

When you’re on staff you learn to check your ego at the door. The best joke you write all year might be for someone else’s script. And likewise, one or two gems may come your way.

On year three of CHEERS to hide Shelley Long’s pregnancy they created a story arc whereby she and Frasier go to Europe. All of the scenes were filmed at once and shown the end of the season when Shelley was showing. So I’m watching an episode on the air one night and this scene appears. Diane and Frasier are shown into a hotel room and Frasier overtips the bellboy. I thought, wow, this sounds so familiar. Is this a re-run? No, because I haven’t seen the rest of the show. And then it hits me – David and I wrote that scene. It got lifted from our episode for time and was inserted into someone else’s show.

Lots of sitcoms today are room written (“gang banged” as the delightful expression goes) and writing credits are just arbitrarily assigned. So you may be complimented on a script you didn’t even know you supposedly wrote.

So the bottom line is to be gracious, just thank the person for the compliment, and in my case remind them I’m not impotent.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Diagnosing problem scripts

This is a repost from five years ago.  But it's a Friday Question worth an entire post and an encore:

It’s from Charles H. Bryan:

Are there times when you look at a script (yours or someone else's) and think "There's something missing, but I don't know what?" Or can you always pretty specifically nail down the problem?

I only wish in my dreams that I could detect all script problems and what the fixes are. But the truth is, there are plenty of times something’s not working and I’m completely stumped as to why.

This is another reason it’s good to have partners or a writing staff. And I’ll be honest, there have been many times during a rewrite when as a group we arrive at what we think is the problem, spend six hours rewriting, and then send the script to the stage not having a clue whether we really solved the problem or just did an alternate version. Generally, we’re right about 75% of the time. But once or twice a season we find ourselves right back at square one the next night.

Why do we find ourselves in these pickles? Because we strive to be original, tell stories in a fresh inventive way. If you just follow the same story structure week after week you rarely have these problems. Personally, I think the trade off is worth it. (Of course I say that now. Sitting in a rewrite at 5 A.M. I may not be such an artiste.)

On one show I worked on early in my career we would have a scene that didn’t work in a runthrough or a story that was problematic and one of our producers would say “Don’t worry. I got the fix.” So we would just move on to the next scene. Then we'd get back to room and say, “What’s the fix?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was just saying that so we could move along. I didn’t to stand on the stage debating this all day with the actors there.” We wanted to kill him… and then ourselves for letting him fool us again.

But if you find yourself in this situation, you can take great comfort in knowing you are not alone. Practically all writers face this, even the great ones.

In his autobiography, the great Neil Simon talks about mounting his classic play, THE ODD COUPLE. They had their original table reading before the first rehearsal and the first act played like gangbusters. Huge laughs all the way through. Same with the second. During the break before the third act, Walter Matthau (one of the stars) pledged to invest a lot of money in the play. it was a can't miss!  Then came the third act. Big laughs until the last scene and then it just died. Playwright Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols (no slouch himself) were stymied. Neil rewrote and they took the show out of town for tryouts.

Night after night the same thing would occur. Monster laughs until the last fifteen minutes. Neil and Mike would then sit in the hotel lobby staring at each other. They would decide on a course of action, Neil would sit up all night rewriting, and the next evening the new version would be presented to the audience. And the cycle would be repeated. Night after night after night.

Finally, a Boston critic casually mentioned he really liked the Pigeon sisters – two characters that appeared in a second act scene. He wished they had come back. A lightbulb went on. Yes! Bring the Pigeon sisters back.

Neil wrote them into the last scene and suddenly THE ODD COUPLE played through the roof. The rest is (Broadway, motion picture, and television) history.

When geniuses like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols can't put their fingers on a problem, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

So when you get stuck just know, there is no Dr. House for writing. At times we’re all Frank Burns.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

75 years of Superman in 2 minutes

Cool animated video that celebrates Superman through his many looks and reboots. What more can I say other than, "Great Caesar's Ghost!"?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Friday Questions

Here are NEW Friday Questions. Friday the 13th Questions.  What’s yours?

Sean Savage starts us off:

Might you pull back the curtain a bit on your podcast, specifically the retro theme and bumper music? Where do you find those angelic radio jingle voices? Is there stock library music involved? (Somehow I doubt you hired an orchestra.) And is it matter of cashing in some favors on the production of it? In short, it's very slick and impressive.


The jingles were done by JAM Productions in Dallas. They are far and away the best radio and commercial jingle company in the world and they have been for decades. Pictured above are the singers from my session.

Most of the radio station jingles you hear come from three or four companies.

JAM also will do jingles for podcasts. Just get in touch with Jon Wolfert. And they also own the former PAMS jingle company that made most of the classic jingle packages in the ‘60s. So JAM can make you retro jingles that sound just like the ones you loved on your favorite station growing up.

The instrumentals are from a 1969 package performed by studio musicians.

Glad you like my jingles. They’re my nod to the golden days when radio was fun and hopefully my podcast is too.

Matt asks:

The interior M*A*S*H set was on Stage 9. Did the set stay up all eleven seasons, or was it taken down between seasons and used for other productions?

No. The sets stayed up all year. The cost of striking everything and then putting everything back five months later was way more than rental income for the use of the stage during MASH’s downtime.

Fun fact: The sets for CHEERS and FRASIER stayed up for their entire runs too on Stage 25 at Paramount.

From Chris:

How much ownership do networks retain over series they've aired after the initial run concludes? In other words, could NBC re-run Cheers or Seinfeld nowadays with at no additional cost besides the residuals or do new contracts have to be drawn up? Is that a reason why this virtually never happens? Unless it's some sort of anniversary or eulogy, networks never re-run their old shows, no matter how popular they used to be (and in some cases still are, such as Friends).

Once upon a time networks couldn’t own shows. They’d pay a license fee to the production company (like Warner Brothers) allowing them to air the show twice. If they wanted to rerun it more they had to pay extra for it. But the network got all the money from the commercials. The studios owned the shows but never shared in the advertising revenue.

Then laws were relaxed and networks now can own their own shows. So now they can do whatever they damn well please with them. They also have complete creative control over these shows. It’s one of the reasons why network shows tend to be generic and uninteresting. When the creative “voice” of a show is a corporate committee the end result is usually uninspiring.

And finally, from Sam,

How does camera switching work when filming a multi camera sitcom? Does the director choose which angle to show the audience? Is he physically pressing a button for Camera 1, 2, 3, 4? He is calling out the switch to someone else like during a live sports event?

Also is the multi camera edit used during the edit of the show or do they start over?

In a multi-camera show, all four cameras are recording simultaneously. They’re synced up in the editing bay and then the shots are selected. It’s not done on the fly like tape shows used to be in the 70’s. In those cases the director did sit up in the control room and either called the shots himself or had an assistant director do it.  Normally, multi-cam directors remain on the floor, usually at the bank of monitors showing all four cameras.

But with film and now HD, all of the actual editing is done after the show is in the can.

That said, on any sitcom where there’s a live audience, several monitors are provided so they can see over the heads of the cameramen, crew people, etc. There is a switcher who IS cutting the show on the fly to show to the audience. But that is completely separate. In editing, we never even look at that cut.  And the show director rarely confers with the switcher person. 

I have to say that a few of these switchers are pretty damn good and can cut the show on the fly to where you could air it.