My Quotable Family

Coming from a family chock full of writers and journalists means we all know how to give a good quote to a reporter. My Uncle Stan Barer, a University of Washington regent, was asked by the Seattle Post Intelligencer to comment on the severe funding cutbacks the university is facing from the state.

"We take better care of our prisoners than of our students," UW Regent Stanley Barer said Thursday. "Maybe we ought to have prisoners stay here at night so that we can get the money."

How NOT To Get People to Watch Your Show

Insulting your viewers probably isn't the best way to get them to watch your show. But that didn't stop HEROES showrunner Tim Kring from laying the blame for the ratings decline of his show on serialized storylines and the limited intelligence of his audience. 

The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is related to the saps and the dipshits who can't figure out how to watch it in a superior way." 

A superior way? Why is it "superior" to watch the show on your iPod or your computer instead of on TV? Isn't it a TV show? How does the medium you choose to watch HEROES with make the stories and characters any more or less compelling?

I'm sure that heavy serialization is part of the problem with HEROES. But the bigger problem is that the show is a confusing, uninvolving mess that isn't compelling or entertaining enough to get the viewer to make the necessary commitment. At least not this viewer, one of the "saps and dipshits."

I watched all of season the "superior way" on my iPod on plane flights while traveling back-and-forth to Europe. And I really liked it. I saw the first four or five episodes of season two on TV. And gave up on the show.  I guess if I'd watched the season two episodes on my iPod I would have liked them. (Or is he saying the opposite, that TV is the "superior way" and other platforms are for saps and dispshits? He's not too clear. Either way, it's the stories and characters that matter, not whether you watch it on TV, a computer, or a DVR).

Now Kring is planning to make his stories less serialized…or not serialized at all. That could work, but I'm not sure that he's attacking the real problem, or as Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik puts it:

Yes, you can blame technology for siphoning all the smart viewers away from your series. You could try revamping your show so that it becomes the complete opposite of what it was conceived as. Or you could try, you know, not sucking. A story arc or two that doesn't inspire ridicule could go a long way with the saps and dips***s, is all I'm saying. […]Whatever problems Heroes has, the fault lies not in its DVRs but in itself.

UPDATE 11-25-08
: Poniewozik reports that Kring has apologized for his comments in an open letter to fans, which reads in part:

I was making the point that these platforms now offer a superior way to watch the show (without commercials, with extra content, commentary, at the audience's convenience, etc.) … It was a boneheaded attempt at being cute and making a point. Instead, it turned out to be just plain insulting and stupid. I know now how it sounded, but I truly never meant to suggest anything bad about our audience. 

Unconvincing As Myself

Writer Joel Stein was working out at the gym when he was approached by producer Max Mutchnick (of WILL & GRACE) to audition for the starring role in an ABC sitcom pilot. The problem was, Joel wasn't an actor and had never acted before. 

Max insisted I come in, and even though I was well aware that I cannot act, I agreed. As soon as he sent me the script, I started figuring out how to deal with my upcoming money and fame. Within minutes, I pictured myself usurping Max's authority and threatening to leave the show unless they made the writing darker and artsier. This was despite the fact that the script was way better than anything I've ever written, none of which is at all dark and artsy. 

He did the audition but didn't get the part.

The part wound up going to Josh Cooke, who had the advantage of being an actor. And ABC didn't wind up putting it on the air anyway. But I still needed to find out how I did, so I called Max. "You're too cerebral," he said. "You thought about what you were doing. Actors are dumb for a reason. They don't think, they just be. It's like when you make love. You just have to do it." It's as if Max has been secretly talking to my wife.

Stein's story reminded me of the time I also was approached to act in a pilot…though I didn't know at first I was expected to perform in a part.  Let me explain…

Five years ago, a friend of mine at TVLand called me up to say they were doing a talkshow pilot called TV KITSCHEN starring Martin Mull & Fred Willard, who were brilliant in the classic talkshow spoof FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT.  My friend wanted me to be a guest and to talk about one of the worst unsold pilots ever. And if the series went, my "unsold pilot" report would be a regular feature.

It sounded like fun. So I picked a pilot, the horrific TARZAN IN MANHATTAN (Tarzan befriends a cab driver named Jane and teams up with her Dad, a private eye played by Tony Curtis, to fight crime). The idea was that I'd screen some clips and chat about the show with Mull & Willard. I'm pretty comfortable being on camera, and in front of a studio audience, so I wasn't too nervous about it.

Two days before shooting a script arrived at my house…and I discovered that TV KITSCHEN shared more in common with FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT than its two stars and talkshow format.  It was an entirely scripted show, written like a sitcom, and I had dialogue to memorize.  I would be, in effect, playing a character named "Lee Goldberg."  

The problem was that I'm not an actor and I would have to hold my own with Mull & Willard, who are not only professional actors, they are comic geniuses. I was terrified. 

I quickly called up the producer, who convinced me not worry, that it would be fun, and that all I had to do was be myself…as long as I stuck to the script, of course. 

My fear was outweighed by my curiosity. What would it be like to act? Besides, I knew I was perfect for the part. Even if it was a disaster, it would be a memorable experience. So I decided to do it. I spent the next two days running my lines with my wife and my writing staff on MISSING, trying to say them naturally, as if I was me just being me. I was a very unconvincing me. 

The shooting day arrived.  The set looked like the kitchen in a suburban home with a few TVs scattered around it. I was greeted warmly by my friend, the writer/producer, who immediately took me over to the director, Ted Lange, who is best-known for playing the bartender on THE LOVE BOAT. Lange immediately decided I was dressed all wrong for the part and sent me to wardrobe, where they tried to make me look like a college professor. I suggested that a cardigan sweater might be a cliche and that it wasn't something I felt that Lee Goldberg would wear. We had a short discussion about the Lee Goldberg character and I won the cardigan battle. 

I was then sent to make-up, where I met Fred Willard, who I'd met before when he did a guest-shot for me on DIAGNOSIS MURDER. Much to my surprise, he remembered me and the episode and we had a very nice chat. He also told me not to be nervous because he and Mull weren't going to stick to the script anyway.

I spent the next several hours sitting in the bleachers (the studio audience, really a bunch of hired "extras," had already left after recording their reactions, applause and laughter) watching them shoot. Each time Mull & Willard deviated from the script, Lange made them do it again, as written. As a writer, I appreciated it. But as an objective third party, it was obvious that the improv stuff was much better than what was on the page and played more naturally, too. And Mull clearly knew it. His discussions with Lange were getting more and more tense. Don't get me wrong, Mull was polite and professional, but his anger and frustration were clear.

Then it came time for my scene. We did a rehearsal, where I was stilted, awkward, and horrible. At least, I felt that I was. Lange had no notes on my "performance," just instructions regarding blocking  (where I would be and when and where the cameras would be). Mull & Willard were very nice. While they lit everything, I chatted with Mull & Willard, who expressed to me their frustration with the script, and then we discussed unsold pilots that they had done, FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT and other stuff.

When it came time to shoot, I felt much more relaxed with them and the scene played much better (from my POV) than I thought it would. And I know it was because of the chat we had. Our "fictional" conversation became an extension of the one we were having off-camera. They put me completely at ease. I've often wondered if they did that on purpose or if things just worked out that way.

I saw the pilot a few weeks later and didn't cringe with embarrassment when I saw myself. I wasn't great, but I wasn't awful, either. I would have preferred to be myself rather than play myself, but all things considered, the bit played okay. 

But the pilot didn't get picked up and with it the likelihood of me developing a cult following and my own wildly successful LEE GOLDBERG SHOW spin-off died as well. 

Oh well.

Dreams Coming True

Illustrating Stories has posted an interview with my sister Linda Woods, who shares a frequent lament I hear from writers…

"The challenge for me is balancing the business side of my career with the creative side. There doesn't seem to be enough time to ever get caught up!" 

On the other hand, like many writers I know, she also talks about how lucky she is to be doing what she loves.

"I'm really fortunate that a lot of my creative dreams have come true already. There have been many moments in my career when I have thought OK, I CAN DIE NOW! "

That has been so true for me and for my brother Tod, with whom I've enjoyed many of those "dream come true moments"  chatting together with one of our literary idols. I'm so glad that it's happening for Linda, too.


I loved this line in the LA Times review of 24:

"Meanwhile, back in the states, a senator so vile that he is played by Jon Voight is funding the rebels."

Speaking of 24, it's amazing to me how many former showrunners they have working under Howard Gordon in their producing ranks, which includes Steve Kronish (THE COMMISH), Brannon Braga (STAR TREK),  Evan Katz (THREE), Manny Coto (ODYSSEY FIVE) and Alex Gansa (DAWSON'S CREEK),  who is Howards former writer partner from their days on BEAUTY & THE BEAST and X-FILES. It just shows how hard it is to find a job in TV these days that Howard could get such an A-list roster of talent.

I Am Developing a Very Intimate Relationship with my Keyboard

Sorry I have been largely absent from the blog this week…I've been concentrating most of my energy on researching my next MONK book and writing the "sample" chapters of a stand-alone crime novel. 

My goal is to give my agent a good, representative chunk of the standalone book — about 25-30,000 words — and a breezy outline of the rest after Thanksgiving so she can shop it around while I work on my next MONK (that's assuming that she thinks the spec chapters and the premise of the standalone are any good).

I've had a couple of pilot pitches over the last two weeks — neither of which panned out. But in both cases I met with executives who were new to me, so I see the experiences as a plus. It's always good to make new contacts. 

Speaking of which, I attended a seminar on Tuesday night sponsored by MediaXChange and CapGemini that explored the future of TV drama. Attendees included studio execs, showrunners, broadcasters, media consultants, and web pioneers. It was a very thought-provoking evening that I enjoyed a great deal. They also circulated an interesting report on the Future of Television that you can download here.

They are The Champions

TheChampionsOpening (1)
Variety reports that Guillermo Del Toro and Christopher McQuarrie are teaming up to write United Artists' movie version of the 1960s UK series THE CHAMPIONS, which starred Stuart Damon as one of three spies who develop super powers after crashlanding in the Himalayas and being rescued by a secret civilization. Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner will produce. 

The Mail I Get

I get a lot of interview requests from students doing papers and reports. I usually answer their questions. But this request, which came on Tuesday night, was an exception:

I am a student, who is
writing a report on Science Fiction Novelists. I would really appreciate it if you responded
ASAP, considering the fact that my paper is due Wed (tomorrow).  Can I ask you these questions? If they are too personal, I
completely understand. But, they MUST be included in my paper.
  • What is your salary?
  • What is your typical day like when working?
  • What college is recomended for writers/science fiction writers?
Also, it would be very helpful if you could
tell me where I could contact other writers ASAP.

I told him that a) I don't write science fiction novels, b) he shouldn't have waited until the last minute to contact the writers that he needed to talk to and c) that no, I wouldn't give him any contact information so that he could impose on my friends.