WGA vs. Talent Agents – The WGA-Agencies Dispute & WGA election

A few words from one of television’s – and the interweb’s – best writers.

Ken Levine of Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, Ken Levine’s Blog, etc., etc.,etc. had the War Between The Writers Guild of America & The Association of Talent Agents on his mind over the weekend, especially in terms of how it impacts the current WGA Board of Directors election campaign.

And vice versa.


Weekend Post
by Ken Levine

A number of you have asked what my position is on the dispute between the WGA and talent/literary agencies. Also my thoughts on the current election of WGA officers – an election that will be decided based on the members feelings of that standoff and the way it’s being handled.

So here’s my position.

The Guild is trying to do a heroic thing – get major agencies to stop making more money off their writer clients than the writers are making themselves. By cleverly instituting “package deals” the agencies get a bigger share of the pie than writers despite the fact that the writers do all the work. And some agencies have formed their own production companies. Can you see where that might be a huge conflict of interest? If an agent is negotiating a deal for you at their production company the agent is negotiating against himself.

Writers now work for agencies instead of the other way around.

A similar situation occurred in the 1960’s when talent agency MCA also owned Universal. Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy said that was illegal and broke it up. (The company chose to keep the studio and unload the agency — a wise choice.) The WGA is going to Federal Court to try to get the same result. I believe they have a good case. But it might take some time.

What’s happened so far? First, let me back up. When whatever form of “management” there is in show business – either the studios, networks, or in this case agencies – WANTS to make a deal then deals get done. And they get done quickly. When they don’t want a deal and think freezing out the writers will force them to cave then there is no deal. Negotiations in that case are a sham. And that’s what these negotiations have been so far. Sabre rattling, blaming the other side, stonewalling….

Read it all at Ken Levine’s outstanding blog

Fox Network To Try Something *New*…If They Can Make Themselves Go Thru With It

Or, as Ken Levine puts it:

Fox announces “ShortComs”
by Ken Levine

Fox has announced an experimental series for the summer called “Shortcoms.” These will be hour shows split into four segments. Each segment will be a multi-camera sitcom starring and written by a stand-up comic. Fox claims they will give the comics great freedom.

First off, I applaud any attempt to do comedy, especially an innovative one.

But I have some concerns:

Last year Fox picked up no multi-camera shows. The distinct impression was that they thought single-camera comedy was the only way to go and that multi-cams were too old fashioned. Now they’re saying they’ve always loved multi-cam shows?

On the surface giving these comics free reign sounds great in theory but are they really going to allow them that much leeway? Networks today are incredibly hands-on. Story areas, outlines, and scripts all must be approved.

And if they are going to give these comics freedom why don’t they do that with real writers? Especially since real writers know what they’re doing and comics are just feeling their way around the form.

I can’t think of another industry where experience is considered a detriment.

Lastly, this sounds like a transparent attempt to find the next LOUIE. But Louis C.K. is special and has a distinct vision. Will these 6-9 comics have true unique voices?   I listen to the comedy channels on Sirius/XM and I’d be hard-pressed to find nine truly original performers.  Most of them trot out an endless parade of bad tech help, women are bitches, men are assholes, kids are nightmares, Facebook sucksjokes.   (Unfortunately for all of us, the most original creative stand up comedian of the last ten years, Mitch Hedberg, is no longer with us.)

15 minute multi-cam segments are not sitcoms. They’re elongated sketches. And again, that’s fine. I’ll try it out. I hope they’re great. I hope I laugh my ass off. But successful sitcoms are the ones where the audience connects with the characters and have an emotional investment in them. It’s hard to create that in fifteen-minute chunks. It’s hard to do any story with depth in fifteen minutes. And to me what makes LOUIE so great is that it does have depth. Louis C.K. has time to let his stories breathe. And it’s never the number of cameras – it’s the content.

The argument can be made that with webisodes, shorter bite-sized (or byte-sized) sitcoms are being made every day.  True.  And some are quite good like HUSBANDS.  But if you ask the creators of these webisodes what their ultimate goal is many will admit it’s to get their show picked up by a network where they can expand them to a half hour.

So we’ll see. I’m approaching this experiment with some reservations but all good wishes.  I hope it works. I hope they find the next Mitch Hedberg (who, by the way, shortly before his death had a deal to develop a show… for FOX.   And how refreshing to hear a network want to use the summer to develop comedy rather than just more reality shows.

Writers Wanted Dept: Comedy Writers for Siri

As usual, Ken Levine tells the story best:

by Ken Levine 

Apparently this is real. According to an article in MacRumors, Apple is looking for people to write comedic answers for Siri. Siri is the personal assistant feature that talks back to you in newer iPhones. At first she was friendly and humble, but Apple is now looking to give her a little edge.

You know what this means, don’t you? It means that now even Dane Cook’s phone will be funnier than he is.

It also means a job for someone or a group of people.

What they need is witty responses to user questions. I’m sure the first funny response they’ll have to settle on is an answer to what I’m sure is her most asked question:

“Siri, will you fuck me?

If you ask that now she says, “There is no need for profanity.” Still funnier than Dane Cook but pithier lines are out there.

If you ask her: “Should I get a Droid?” she currently says, “I can’t answer that.” A good comedy writer could beat that joke.

Ask her, “Do you like oral sex?” she will say: “I don’t know what oral sex is. Would you like a web search for it?” So Siri’s going to need a little tutoring too.

I wonder if the writers they hire will get notes? Will one have a joke red lined with the note: “Siri wouldn’t say that?” Or “Disembodied voices have been doing that joke for years?”

Might this open up a whole new marketplace for comedy writers? Punching up GPS systems. Jokes for automated phone operators.

If anyone applies for this job, please let me know what the process is.  It’s probably worth taking the gig just for the Apple employee discount alone.

Ken Levine Asks: What comedy spec to write in 2013?

Is Ken Levine comedy writing’s Larry Brody? What would either of them think if they were asked?

Oh dear. If we had to ask that second question, that means we’re worried that the answer wouldn’t go down well. And if we’re worried about it, then it probably won’t. So forget we said anything. No comparisons from here, no sir. Just, you know, read:

by Ken Levine

Here’s a question I get (and am happy to answer) every year.

Beardly Mustachington asks:

Will you again grace us with your comedy spec recommendations for 2013? Program deadlines are fast approaching and I’m struggling between a few choice shows. I value your insight, as I suspect many readers do. Thanks!

I always preface this by saying (a) this is just one person’s opinion, and (b) the most important factor is what show do you feel best shows off your strengths?

If you are great at jokes write shows with lots of jokes like BIG BANG THEORY. If you’re more of an irony fan, go for something like PARKS AND RECREATION. Is your sense of humor primarily dark? Go for a SHAMELESS. Wry and caustic? CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM.

What are producers and agents looking for? Ask ten and you’ll get ten different answers. For existing series I would say show that you can really write their characters and their rhythms. And make the script is FUNNY. Everything else can be taught.  But a writer is either funny or he’s not.

There is one thing all producers/networks/readers all agree on – make sure your script is in the correct format and there are no spelling errors.  A sloppy presentation will surely result in a rejection. You can usually find script formats for specific shows on the internet. Or see if the show will send you a script. It’s worth the effort to do it right.

Okay, so which show should you do?

If there is one rule I would say don’t do a spec for a show that is at the end of its run. Don’t write an OFFICE. Don’t write a 30 ROCK. Or a TWO AND A HALF MEN. They’ll be obsolete by the time you’re done. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is coming back for one more season but still, you’ll have a very short shelf life with a HIMYM. Ditto RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.

Probably MODERN FAMILY is the spec de jour. There are big pluses and minuses to MODERN FAMILY. Plus: it’s very character-based and funny. It wins Emmys every year. The standards are high. Minus: It is also a trap. The stories on MODERN FAMILY tend to be very intricate and clever. If you can pull it off your script will really stand out, but if your storytelling falls short it will sink you.

The other popular spec is BIG BANG THEORY. The stories are thin at best, but the jokes are solid and plentiful. If you attempt a BBT load it up with jokes. Then go back and add fifteen more.

2 BROKE GIRLS is broad and crass. But it’s popular. The trap here is that a lot of the jokes on the show are obvious and easy (when stuck for any punch line they just have a character say vagina). But that’s not to say you can’t write better, funnier jokes than they do. Now the 2 BROKE GIRLS producers will think their vagina jokes are the most hilarious lines on television. But trust me, producers of other shows don’t hold those jokes in such high esteem.

PARKS AND RECREATION is smart, funny, and places a premium on character development. Don’t make the mistake of just making them all cartoons. They’re exaggerated but still straddle the line of reality.

If mainstream is your wheelhouse then consider a LAST MAN STANDING,THE MIDDLE, MIKE & MOLLY, and maybe GO ON. And by the way, don’t feel defensive about wanting to write mainstream. Just because a show isn’t edgy doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, you may enjoy a longer career if you write mainstream. There will always be more need for writers who can write all age groups and not just twentysomethings.

That said, a lot of young writers do want to establish themselves ascool. HAPPY ENDINGS is too cool for school. But there’s a trap with that show. They rely a lot on catch phrases for their humor. First off, they’re easy un-earned laughs, and secondly, if the reader is not totally into that show a lot of your jokes will just read like straight lines.

There are the Fox comedies, but again – beware. You want to write a show that’s fresh and on the upswing. But despite its pick up for a full season, THE MINDY PROJECT is not a hit show. Same with NBC’s NEW NORMAL. Their networks are saying all the right things but there’s no guarantee either will be back. Same with WHITNEY, THE B IN APT 23, and COMMUNITY.

UP ALL NIGHT is going through a transformation from single to multi camera. Until they figure out what they want and what their show is, I’d give it a wide berth. And chances are these changes are just a Hail Mary and the show is gone after this year.

If you want to write a spec for a show a little more off-center then I would think about SHAMELESS and RAISING HOPE.

And then there’s GIRLS. Write a great GIRLS and it could be a home run. But if it’s not great you’re dead. And my guess is most of the GIRLS specs miss the mark. They’re very exact and hard to write.  Another thing about GIRLS – realize that there are a number of producers who actively dislike the show. You’re toast there. But you could argue that if GIRLS is your sensibility and a producer doesn’t like it then he’s not the producer for you. Still, if you’re going to write a GIRLS I suggest you also have another spec in the drawer. I don’t want to see you rejected even before the producer opens your script.

So there you have it. And as always, things change. If I do this post again in six months all the recommendations might be completely different. Again, write the show you write best regardless of what I or anybody else says.

Also, remember, today you also need a piece of original material. But that’s another conversation.

Best of luck with your specs. Someone has to make it. Why not YOU?

Ken Levine Sees LIZ AND DICK

…So we, thank God, don’t have to:

#LizAndDick: My review – by Ken Levine

Oh my fucking God! 

I only hope that when they do the Lindsay Lohan TV biopic – and they will – that it’s as jaw droppingly atrocious as LIZ AND DICK. They will need to find the worst actress in America to play Lindsay, if only to do the same justice to her as she did to Ms. Taylor. Although I don’t know if a worse actress can be found. Lindsay might have to play herself – assuming she’s still with us and not locked up somewhere.

LIZ AND DICK (by the way, never, not once are they referred to as Liz and Dick in the movie – it’s always Elizabeth and Richard) is the cheese-rich schlock film of the year. Imagine Ed Wood directing a screenplay by a 7th grader and starring, well… Lindsay Lohan.

The only question was: yeah, it’s fun watching a trainwreck for awhile. But could I stick it out until the very end? So I wrote this review in real time knowing that at any point I might just have to shut it off and plunge an ice pick in my head.   These were my impressions as the movie unraveled.

Oh… SPOILER ALERT. I spoil everything. So if you don’t want to know what happens, I’ll see you tomorrow. But I believe in this case you’re going to want to know what happened. Either you’re not going to see this tripe anyway or once you read this you’ll be compelled to see it because you think I’m making all this up.   Further WARNING – this is the type of movie that brings out the snark in me in a big big way. Ready? Here goes:

This guy is Richard Burton? He’s like Jim from THE OFFICE with a phony accent. (Grant Bowler is his name. He should fire his agent.)

When was Richard Burton blonde?  Or am I just being too picky about minor details?

Read it all

Best TV movie review ever. And, really, what is with Burton’s blonde hair?

But to answer Ken’s question: Burton was blonde when he played Alexander the Great. Goldfinger-type blonde. It was, well, kinda like Lindsay’s voice: