Monthly Archives: February 2013

these are words that go together well

2/28/13

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my visualization of a theory by friend Josh Shenk

To clarify… After a couple of messages no doubt wondering if I was going to start designing posters for the Chi O game room, this comes from a conversation I had with Josh concerning his brilliant upcoming book about the magical transcendence of certain creative partnerships. Along with Dean Smith, Jim Henson and Morrissey, I use the Beatles to pamper life’s complexities.

The brilliance of John and Paul – and any true great partnership – is an inability to be completely pigeonholed. Paul may have been the sweet, melodic, gushy one… but he wrote “Helter Skelter”, ostensibly the precursor all metal, thrash and otherwise. John may have been the acidic, angry, belligerent one… but he wrote “In My Life”, the most honest, soul-bearing song of its time, and “Julia”, the saddest, most heartbreaking and beautiful lullaby of the Beatles’ oeuvre.

It was Josh who made the fascinating leap to the yin/yang symbol, with the dot inside each representing the essence of the other. All this to say, BUY JOSH’S BOOK WHEN IT COMES OUT NEXT YEAR.

 

a lannister always pays his debts

2/27/13

Many of you know David Petrarca, one of our best friends and virtual uncle to Lucy. He went down to Australia this week to give the keynote speech at the Perth Writers Festival, and though no actual transcript of his talk exists, a couple of sentences were taken out of context to set the entertainment blogosphere atwitter.

David has directed Studio City, “Big Love”, “Eli Stone”, “True Blood” and just about everything else. His highest-profile gig, however, were two of the best episodes of “Game of Thrones”, which prompted somebody in the crowd to ask him about illegal downloads.

I haven’t talked to him other than FB chatting over the last few days, but it sounds to me like he said something akin to “at this point, downloads can actually raise the profile of a show and create buzz.” I’ll take his logic further, to say that if you show isn’t being illegally downloaded, you haven’t really made it.

He further said that downloads had certainly not affected the success of the show, which by any measure, is most certainly true – even while being the most illegally downloaded show in modern torrent history.

Of course, these offhand comments got turned into headlines in the L.A. Times like ‘Game of Thrones’ Director Says Piracy Helps HBO Series Thrive, leading to a terse statement by HBO and then a clarifying salvo from David himself.

I don’t want to get into the ethical complications of this, because that’s an elephant in the room worth ignoring for now. But I’ll tell you this: nobody directs a show like Petrarca. I don’t know anybody more exacting, more professional, and with better taste.

Be a prima donna on set, be an asshole, be careless, and he will make your life hell. But if you’re working hard and hit your marks, you’ll have a friend for life. He brings gorgeous shows to bear, under the wire, and under budget. And if these silly, out-of-context comments lead somebody to second-guess him, it will truly be their loss.

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with Lucy, August 2006

 

too close for larry

2/26/13

GFWD asked some excellent questions about how TV is made, the sort of stuff you wouldn’t know unless you’ve been in the trenches a while. I’ll do my best to answer them without resorting to anything egregiously cynical! So here you go…

When you write a show, do you write for the particular network, or do you write the show and then try to shop it or tailor it? For example, was MODERN FAMILY written for ABC or just picked up by ABC?

Now we’re talking! First off, remember that each network has a certain “brand” that they feel defines their zeitgeist. Just like Porsche caters to a different customer than Volvo, the USA Network caters to a different audience than Showtime.

The three broadcast networks of our youth (now five, although that distinction is approaching irrelevance) all seemed the same when we were growing up, but they, too, have a brand identity. ABC goes for a younger, soapier audience for dramas (“Grey’s”, “Housewives”, “Revenge”), whereas CBS is more staid but arguably more solid (“The Good Wife”, “Blue Bloods” and all the NCIS’s).

In comedy, ABC is more single-camera and quirky (“The Middle”, “Modern Family”, “Suburgatory”) where CBS has those conventional sitcoms like “How I Met Your Mother”, “2 Broke Girls” and “Two and a Half Men”. Fox remains the only network that will get away with “The Simpsons”, “Glee” and “Fringe”.

Knowing that, let’s shift gears and define the two kinds of ideas that get bought: one is a pitch, meaning you go into a meeting with a network with a big idea and do a little dog-and-pony show; and the other is a spec, where you write a pilot script on your own and then shop it around.

A spec is great when you have an idea that simply can’t be pitched, or is odd enough that it has to be read to truly sing. The drawback is that networks don’t have a sense of ownership of the material – they didn’t get to help shape it, and there’s always plenty for them to say “no” to.

A pitch is more common. The drawback is that you, the writer – who ostensibly chose your career because you didn’t enjoy performing, and are more at home pulling the strings behind the curtain – have to razzle-dazzle a room full of execs who have already heard 7 pitches that day.

So if you’re pitching, your agent will send you to the network most likely to have a kind ear. Have a crazy, young, weird procedural with a high concept? They might send you over to Fox to wow ’em.

If you have a spec script, your agent will send the script over to the place that will appreciate it. Have an intense, funny drama about a tortured individual with dark secrets? Your script might land on a desk over at USA.

So to answer GFWD’s question, the answer is “both”. Getting your idea bought, then made into a pilot, is a whole other political animal. As for “Modern Family”, the creators had a long and storied track record featuring too many shows to mention – but they still had to pitch to all the networks, and ABC got the timing right.

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Is it harder to write for or get picked up by cable networks? It sounds like cable allows shows to breathe and get their footing, instead of making a snap judgment after only two episodes. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t more folks want to write for them?

That is a fascinating question, one that many writers ask themselves daily. I’ll try to make it simple.

• In general, non-premium cable channels (meaning not HBO, Showtime, etc.) have a lot less money to spend than the networks. This disincentivizes agents and managers to have their writers pitch there, because it’s not as profitable.

• In some ways, it’s much harder to sell something to a cable network because they don’t buy 60 scripts a year like the networks do. Cable companies tend to buy only a handful of scripts, and then actually make them.

• Although this is changing, cable shows – even successful ones – have tiny audiences compared to the networks. For instance, the finale of last season’s “Mad Men” was seen by 2.7 million people. Last week’s episode of NCIS was seen by 21 million people.

That said, once you get a show on cable, your world opens up considerably. Tessa and I would be over the moon if we got a cable show.

How many shows are filmed or shot before a show gets on the air and where do the ones that never get seen go?

Typically, a network buys 60-ish scripts (depending on their needs), will actually shoot 8-12 pilots, and put three on the air (one as a mid-season replacement). Those numbers vary wildly, but even a cursory glance shows you a vast graveyard of unseen pilots.

Those pilots live on in three places: YouTube (such as the oft-lamented Heat Vision and Jack), infamy, and on lonely hard drives missing power cords in closets. Given that many pilots cost millions to make, it might well be the least-efficient business model in modern capitalism. To which we all say, THANK GOD.

Do writers write the entire season or just a few episodes and then make it up as they go once a show gets going?

Ah, the “LOST” question. Well, if you’re writing a procedural (“CSI”, etc.) there’s no need, because the nature of the show writes itself. But if it’s a drama, particularly one with constant mystery, you really had better have a decent idea about the arc of season one. Which leads to great first seasons of shows like “Heroes”.

Everyone lives with cancellation hanging over their heads, so network showrunners are likely to throw everything into the stew at once, and let the future take care of itself. But that always comes at a price. I’ll let you guys think of the shows that have paced themselves well, and those that have burned bright and flickered out.

For the scripts that you’ve written, do you get the same amount of money whether it’s put on the air or not?

Every writer – or writing team like me and Tessa – have a “quote”, which is your going rate for writing a script. This increases over time, and especially when you’ve become a proven commodity. Interestingly, you don’t get very much money if the script is made into a pilot – but if that pilot actually airs and becomes a fixture on the schedule, then you can make actual bank.

What’s the longest wait time between when a TV show script is picked up and then put on the air?

This is part of why TV felt so refreshing to us: they actually make decisions and act on them. They have hours they need to fill, and they either say yes or no. It’s in stark contrast to the movie business, which can be an immediate greenlight or 17 years of dicking around.

In TV, the schedule usually looks like this:

• summer = pitch season

• most pitches bought by October/November

• script due just after New Year’s

• decision made to make pilot around February (“pilot season” for actors)

• decision to air the pilot made at the end of May (the “up fronts”)

• show premieres in the fall

So the quick version takes about 14 months. If you’re a mid-season replacement, it’s about 18-20 months. And everyone keeps threatening to get rid of this schedule and have year-round development, but it for now, it still seems to hew to this schedule.

Still reading? That wasn’t EGREGIOUSLY boring, was it? Ask more questions if you so desire!

 

immanuel kant

2/25/13

I had a whole blog post written in my head about the Onion using the “c-word” during the Oscars, and how I wish there was something in our culture that could remain beyond reproach, beneath contempt, and above board… but then I realized something. As much as I think the tweet was the perfect encapsulation of my generation’s post-everything sense of humor (and therefore perfect in its depravity), there are some things I don’t get to have an opinion about.

I may have a perspective, but being who I am, a dude, a white dude, a white dude of privilege, the philosophy behind the Onion’s tweet also inherently dictates that I have no business defending it. And thus.

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the hippocratic boast

2/24/13

This week’s entry for WRITER MONDAY: Why Some TV Shows Fail Before They Start

I’m going to try and stick with my original idea about making Monday a day to discuss the cooler aspects of writing, because, well, that’s how we provide bacon for our table, and I’m the only one who might use enough unnecessary profanity to make it interesting.

Something vaguely historic happened in TV a couple of weeks ago: a show called “Do No Harm” was reported to have the “lowest rated in-season premiere ever of any scripted show on the any of the Big Four networks.” Full disclosure: I’m not only friendly with the show’s creator, but also some of the higher-up execs that made the show possible.

I’ve made a concerted effort not to discuss our work lives on the blog for obvious reasons, and I can state that all the folks involved here are awesome, unfailingly nice, and have great track records. But it’s worth looking at how “Do No Harm” had a big problem before it was ever broadcast.

Lots of industry insiders talk about “lead-ins”, or the show that comes before the show. When we were kids, “All in the Family” was the established lead-in for “M*A*S*H” on Saturday night, which was also the perfect lead-in for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”. Then came “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Carol Burnett”. Totally perfect programming.

I’ll also add ABC’s Tuesday night line-up in the late 70s just to pique y’all’s collective memory:

8pm “Happy Days”

8:30 “Laverne and Shirley”

9pm “Three’s Company”

9:30 “Soap”

10pm “Family”

Get it? Now forget it, because that had nothing to do with “Do No Harm”, and in fact, the whole concept of a “lead-in” will soon seem as antiquated as haberdasheries and nightsoil collectors. Other proscribed DNH’s failure to an unknown lead, but many huge TV shows had totally unknown actors.

No, I’m going to go against my usual prissy intellectualism and ask that you go further into your reptilian hindbrain, to that unconscious part of yourself that makes snap decisions a million times a day based on instinct and fairy dust. The kind of decisions you don’t even know you’re making, and if asked, you’d respond, “oh, um, I dunno, it just seemed right.”

This is the world, in some ways, where I live. Given that there are so many different ways to be distracted or entertained, the ideas we come up with have to have that instant, ineffable appeal. Three or four seconds into the description of our projects, I want any normal TV or movie lover to reach effortlessly into their childlike love of their favorite shows and say “oh, I’d totally want to have 2 or 3 of those waiting for me on the DVR.”

If we find ourselves working on something that seems nice and clever, but doesn’t have that “eyes-slightly-widening” factor at first breath, I know it’s done for. We’ll still get paid to write it, but that’s a quirk of the inefficiency of the process. Tessa and I both know when we’re really on to something, as well as when we’re not.

And herein lay the problem with “Do No Harm”. Here’s the poster for the show, emblazoned on many buses and billboards across Southern California:

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In an instant, there’s slight confusion (is the person on his hands the same person as him?) along with a sense of lunacy at a hospital. If you guess, correctly, that it’s about a surgeon with a Jekyll and Hyde multiple personality, you see the inherent pickle and outcome of every episode.

In that split second, you have decided not to watch it, no matter how good it is. There is nothing about the concept, even without the poster, that engages that childlike sense of wonder, and makes you excited for the next one. It’s something of an immediate bummer.

I’m not saying every show has to have an undeniable hook; after all, “ER” was a show about a Chicago emergency room, “Friends” was a show about friends, and “Seinfeld” was a show about four people obsessing over the picayune. Word of mouth can overcome a “bummer” concept, if it’s on cable and allowed time to grow (“Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”).

But some ideas just hit you the wrong way. In many respects, it’s not that far from Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis in Blink, where he talks about “thin-slicing” a judgment from very little information. While “Blink” has not aged well in many fields, it’s dead-on here, since you’ve got one chance to entice a network TV viewer, and if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

My caveat is this: the person making the snap judgment has to love the thing being judged. Only the people who know the feeling of being excited about a show, or looking forward to a movie as a kid – that’s who you want. Tessa and I may have our flaws, we may have odd tastes and prefer complications to tidy bows, but we love stories, and we usually know within 3 microseconds if you will too.

 

lit out a-grinnin’ to follow the sun

2/21/13

Like you, I find people’s tales of their vacation to be more boring than watching meat cure, but I get a little antsy if I haven’t talked to you in a few days, so I’ll keep it manageable with bullet points.

• We’re in San Antonio, TX, home of the Alamo, which does not have a basement. We’re here visiting Tessa’a mom Sandy, whom many of you know as a source of endless good taste and delight. I’m very lucky with in-laws; I’ve only got one, and she’s great.

• Yesterday we went to the San Antonio Stock & Show Rodeo. We watched the younger girls’ barrel competition, and Lucy also became obsessed with roping. Like every other kid there, we bought a bunch of ropes, and she is spending her days roping random things in Sandy’s house.

I already Facebooked my snobbery about this particular event, noting that they misspelled both “Thanks” and “Ya’ll”, but I had to include this bit of older-brother tomfoolery, something I would definitely have done to Sean:

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• Much has been made of America’s obesity epidemic, particularly in “flyover country”, but the crowds at the Stock & Show Rodeo were massive, and oddly IN SHAPE. This was not Disneyland or the DMV; all of us were struck how everyone working with the land – and its animals – stayed remarkably fit. Take that as you may.

• Personally, I could do without much of Southwestern American art; in my book, if you’ve seen one turquoise belt buckle or one oil painting of a majestic stallion, you’ve seen ’em all. Likewise with the Hispanic folk art, which has devolved into the fetishization of Frida Kahlo and endless variation of skeletons from Día de los Muertos.

But one shop had just the right mixture of antiques and kooky little tchotchkes to make the ladies take notice. In fact, Lucy tried her first pair of earrings, clip-ons from the 1940s:

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• We head over to the lands just north of Houston tomorrow to see more of Tessa’s family, but San Antonio has been a wonderful respite yet again. And proof that waiting for BBQ in a parking lot has its own kind of beauty.

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keepin’ every promise since 1793

2/14/13

Happy President’s Day Weekend!

As Presidents go, Carolina gave us one of the best. Kept every campaign promise, stretched America to the Pacific Ocean, married a hot prep school girl from Winston-Salem, and showed Murrica how Presidentin’ is DONE.

Screw UVA and their Jefferson fetish. Gimme JKP every day and twice on Tuesday.

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best in the world

2/13/13

For the occasion of the Dook game, Lucy and I hung some paracord from the stairs, draped a canvas over it, and routed the satellite box through the projector. After some excellent cheers she invented herself, she decided she was tired of seeing “Duke” on the screen all the time.

So she blocked it with her hand. I told her, “Sweetie, that’s awesome, but you’re going to get tired standing there doing that.”

So she put two books on a stool, sat on them, and continued to hold her hand over “Duke” until the next commercial break. I don’t think it’s possible to love a creature more.

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since you ask, you are a flatulent pain in the ass

2/12/13

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As statements of purpose go, it’s hard to argue with the above; if “Duke Hater” is written on my tombstone, it’ll give denizens of the 24th century something to mull over (although I’d prefer the more proper “dook” spelling).

Last year somebody told me I was the perfect mouthpiece for hating Koach K’s Klown Kollege because it was obviously visceral. Having been traumatized as a kid by the douchebags of Eastern Iowa, Dook was the adult manifestation of a childhood nightmare, and who better to spurt forth about it? Thing is, I am not the author of the best anti-Dook moment.

That honor belongs to my old Grimes Dorm roommate – and now brother-in-law – Jon Vaden. In the winter of 1986 when we were but teenage freshmen, one of our sophomore friends drove us over to Dook to see Kris Richardson, a girl who had gone to Carolina in the fall, awaiting transfer as a Dookie “J-Frosh”.

Kris was (and is) awesome – (Kristin Kay Richardson, where the hell are you?) – which is why we dared hold our noses and venture into the belly of the beast. Once we got to her dorm room, a bunch of other Dook students dropped by, because that’s what you do when foreign objects appear on your hallway.

There were about 10 folks in there, including Kris’ suitemate, who liked to appear smart by masking her half-baked notions with a lot of belligerent dialogue. After a lengthy philippic about how awful dating in college can be, I could see Jon getting restless.

“The problem is,” she went on, “All guys under 21 are still total mama’s boys. They have no original thoughts, and are just waiting for their mom to come clean their room.”

Both of us having gone through our parents’ divorces – mine mere weeks before – Jon and I found that line of reasoning sort of stupid and reductionist.

“Not all guys are like that,” I said, “We’re not all infantile.”

She went on undeterred. “Show me one. I’m convinced that there is nobody worth dating for another three years.”

Then Jon announced, “That’s because you go to school with 10,000 assholes.”

Now, if you know Jon, you know he doesn’t say things quietly. This might as well have been on the public address system. Being still all Holden Caulfield and shy, I covered my open mouth with my sweater, eyes wide in delight. I can’t TELL you how inappropriate this was in a room full of Dookies in 1986.

The girl sputtered “I… I can’t believe you would label… I think you owe us all an apology…” and Jon said something like, “Well, I’ll apologize if you want me to, but…” and the next thing I knew, we were all being shuffled off to the parking lot so we could escape down 15-501 back to safety.

I may have written that article four years later – hell, I might’ve also tried chewing tobacco for the first time in Durham and thrown up all over the Dook Student Union in 1993 (true), but Jon laid it out there first. He did it when we were skinny and outnumbered, and sitting on the enemy’s bed, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.

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a windy farmscape with The Budster, Jon, and yours truly, June 1986 near Henryville, Quebec