Friday, April 30, 2010

Replicants Are The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

Recently I DVRed this micro-budget oddity on AMC. Seeing the tacky color sets and that the leading man was B-western 2nd henchman Don Megowan (a dead ringer for B-western legend Rod Cameron -- did they ever play brothers? They should have), thinking it'd be good for a few laughs and decided to watch a couple of minutes.

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Instead I stayed with it to the end, fascinated. The plot deals with humans who have invented androids that are so perfect -- and lifelike -- that they threaten mankind's power and very existence. So paranoid humans set up a resistance movement.

Sound familiar? This is 1962 remember, a full 6 years before Philip K. Dick would publish his brilliant novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and two decades before that book would be filmed as Blade Runner.

COTH even shares that film's plot twist,
in which the robot-hating protagonist turns out to be a robot himself.

Philip K. Dick's was a fan of pulp science fiction and may have seen the film. Or maybe not. Perhaps COTH's premise was old-hat in SF literary circles of the 1950s (it owes a not inconsiderable debt to Karel Capek's 1920s play RUR). That doesn't alter the fact that it still predates Dick.

The film also bears a strong resemblance to the 1st season Star Trek episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" But whereas Star Trek regarded the idea of humans being transferred to "perfect" robot bodies for virual immortality as a horrifying and inhuman disaster which Kirk must stop at all costs, in COTH it is fascinatingly treated as a happy ending.

COTH's curious makeup -- in which several actors have Larry Semonish pasty-white faces, but unmade-up necks -- is by Jack Pierce, who in better days created Karloff's look for Frankenstein. The cinematography, incredibly, is by Oscar winner Hal Mohr (who in 1935 shot A Midsummer Night's Dream for Max Reinhardt). Perhaps Mohr's presence kept the film was stumbling into Ed Wood territory (despite the presence of Plan 9 vet Dudley Manlove, who's rather more restrained here).

An interesting side-note: This film was made in 1962. At one point the main character mentions opposing "integration" with robots, and the derogatory slur for androids is "clickers." It is not uncommon for science fiction to be used as social criticism, such as the apartheid parallels in the recent DISTRICT 9.

One last thing I noticed. This film uses the word "humanoid" as a combination of human and android (which I presume was the original meaning). By the latter half of the '60s Star Trek was using the word to describe human-like life-forms.

COTH should be seen by all Blade Runner fans, and by any movie buff intrigued by poverty row auteurs trying to do something different on a grade Z budget. It cries out for cult status.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Comedy Set-Ups: The Audition Scene

OR... Please leave your name at the desk, we'll call you if something comes up...

A comedy technique popular in recent years is the audition.

Its beginnings seemed harmless enough. The Marx Brothers did one in their breakthrough show, the 1924 revue I'll Say She Is!, which they would film in the early '30s for a Paramount promotional film:

The Three Stooges used the idea several times in their shorts, and there was a funny version in the 1976 Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Cook played a theatre director who visits a prison (to stage an all-inmate production of... Gigi!) Various convicts (played by the then little-known Not Ready For Prime Time Players) try out for the show. Clearly, the audition device was very convenient when you had a group of comedians -- it allowed you to let them do their things without requiring a lot of exposition.

But there had been a more significant version of the bit in 1968, in Mel Brooks' The Producers.

In 1931, all people did was laugh with the Marx Brothers and the crazy antics they pull on the producer. But by 1968, audiences were expected to laugh at the auditioners, and voyeuristically enjoy their humiliation. It may be no coincidence that 1968 also saw the premiere of the first mockumentary, Pat Paulsen For President.

These two forms, the audition and the mockumentary, would eventually become closely linked. In 1979 Albert Brooks did an audition scene in Real Life. Not surprisingly Brooks, who specialized in being an ironist rather than simply a comedian -- many of his standup bits were commentaries on comedy itself, and he even wrote a self-help parody for Esquire called "The Albert Brooks School For Comedians" -- chose to emphasize his own "weirdness", and let the audience identify with the "normal" people on the committee
judging him.

In the nineties, when the audition would be become a fixture in the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, the mockumentary form itself became more and more popular. It's easy to make and cheap to produce, so certain filmmakers liked it as well. Coming to prominence at the same time was something called "reality television", where viewers get to voyeuristicaly enjoy the humiliation of people being judged by a committee. Networks loved "reality", since It's easy to make and cheap to pro-- you get the idea.

This link had already been established in 1979, as Brooks' (Albert, that is) Real Life was a parody of the famous PBS series An American Family (yes, voyeurism and humiliation started on Public TV. So that's where my pledge money is going).

The cheerleading film BRING IT ON popularized the audition scene most recently. One wannabe cheerleader after another doing their failed attempt to make the squad. Easy set-up and provides a context to introduce a parade of colorful characters.

It was spoofed later in the underrated film NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE:

Take that set-up -- a number of colorful characters parade by in quick cuts -- and put it in a new setting and you've got the speed dating scene from 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN. (Written by Judd Apatow and Steve Carell.) Shows the formula can be used in other situations and generate big laughs.

Just another weapon in your comedy arsenal: The Audition.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The little-remembered film Luv was released in 1967. It was based on the 1964 play by Murray Schisgal that was half conventional comedy, half Theatre of the Absurd. So you can imagine how disastrous the film version is.

But the "Neil Simon" first half of the film is often pretty funny. Reviews claimed the direction is heavy handed (this is true -- it's New York material, so for some reason they chose an Englishman to direct) and the three leading roles were miscast. Admittedly the extremely whitebread Jack Lemmon isn't always comfortable in the lead (the role was originated on stage by Alan Arkin), but I thought Peter Falk was great and Elaine May was almost as good. The best parts come across as strung-together Nichols and May sketches.

The reason I bring it up is because of what IMO is the film's best scene (which I presume was in the original play), where Lemmon and Falk try to top each other on who had the more miserable childhood:

FALK: My father beat me.
LEMMON. Mine beat me too. What'd yours use?
FALK: (smugly) A strap!.
LEMMON: (quietly taking pride in his victory) Chains.

What legendary English comedy sketch does that remind you of?

While the movie version of Luv debuted in the summer of '67 and At Last The 1948 Show had premiered in February of that year, the play opened in 1964 and probably played in London at some point. Even if it hadn't, John Cleese was based in NY in 1964-5 and could have seen it. Intriguing, at the very least.

Also intriguing is the short story "Self Made Men" by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (a favorite writer of Robert Benchley, Groucho Marx and Jack Benny), published in 1910:

"Draught!" sneered the other man, with a provoking laugh,"draught! Don't talk to me about draughts. This box I speak of had a whole darned plank off it, right on the north side too. I used to sit there studying in the evenings, and the snow would blow in a foot deep. And yet, sir," he continued more quietly, "though I know you'll not believe it, I don't mind admitting that some of the happiest days of my life were spent in that same old box. Ah, those were good old times! Bright, innocent days, I can tell you. I'd wake up there in the mornings and fairly shout with high spirits. Of course, you may not be able to stand that kind of life--"

"Not stand it!" cried Robinson fiercely; "me not stand it! By gad! I'm made for it. I just wish I had a taste of the old life again for a while. And as for innocence! Well, I'll bet you you weren't one-tenth as innocent as I was; no, nor one-fifth, nor one-third! What a grand old life it was! You'll swear this is a darned lie and refuse to believe it--but I can remember evenings when I'd have two or three fellows in, and we'd sit round and play pedro by a candle half the night."

"Two or three!" laughed Jones; "why, my dear fellow, I've known half a dozen of us to sit down to supper in my piano box, and have a game of pedro afterwards; yes, and charades and forfeits, and every other darned thing Mighty good suppers they were too! By Jove, Robinson, you fellows round this town who have ruined your digestions with high living, have no notion of the zest with which a man can sit down to a few potato peelings, or a bit of broken pie crust, or--"

For those who prefer to look at things from a psycho-sociological perspective, "Self Made Men" and "Four Yorkshiremen" are bits of witty silliness and gradually increasing absurdity you don't take seriously, while in the New York variation of Luv you can actually feel the pain of childhood traumas and alienation... Both spoof the stock characters (their pomposity or self-pity increases the humor) but from a unique perspective.

This is yet another approach for the comedy writer to consider: Create an upside down world. Characters topping each other based on how low their pasts were is a reversal of the norm. Take the audience's expectations and... do the opposite. This is the first rule of comedy. And the second for some reason.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Comedy Techniques: The Immediate Reverse

a/k/a Reversal Of Fortune

Stan Daniels (1934-2007) was a comedy writer and producer, best-remembered for his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.

From Daniels' Wikipedia page:

Daniels' influence in comedy is noted by the joke setup credited to him ("Stan Daniels turn") wherein, "a character says something and then does an immediate 180-degree shift on what he just said," according to The Simpsons producer Al Jean. An example of this may be Tony Blair claiming that the Good Friday Agreement is not a day for soundbites, then, immediately going on to say that he, "feel[s] the hand of history on [his] shoulders."

When I was a college student, studying comedy in my spare time and going through various joke structures, I noticed this structure and labeled it the "Instant Reverse" or "Immediate Reverse."

The joke that was a real eye-opener for me is from a 1976 Mary Tyler Moore Show episode where Ted has recently auditioned to host a game show in New York. Thinking he's lost the job, and smiling through tears, he tells Mary and Murray that they are like family to him, and he could never leave this small Minneapolis TV station. It's his home.

The phone rings -- Mary answers. "Ted, it's for you. New York calling"

Ted immediately switches from tear-filled joy to deadly serious determination: "Good, maybe that's my ticket out of this dump".

The first time I saw this episode in re-runs, when I was very young, I literally laughed until my sides hurt. Baxter was a great character and Ted Knight's delivery flawless. Perhaps it was because this joke structure:

1. Heartfelt sincerity from A.
2. Influencing action.
3. A is revealed to feel completely the opposite of #1.

... was so rare at the time. It was rare - maybe that's how it ended up named after Stan Daniels. But it was not unknown.

I can think of examples from Get Smart, the 1969 British spy spoof and cult film Otley, and even 1776. There's a version as early as The Paleface (1948):

BOB HOPE: (Smugly proud of himself): "Before we go on I'd like to say a few words."
OLD-TIMER: "We better get out of here before them murderin' Injuns come back."
BOB HOPE: (suddenly realistic and unsmiling): "Those are the words."

There were some done on Daniels' later series Taxi -- one in "Tony The Boxing Manager" recycles a variant that had been used in the 1972 Burt Reynolds private-eye movie Shamus.

BURT (indignantly): "You think you can buy me??"
GANGSTER: "I'll pay you $25,000 cash."
BURT: "Congratulations. You just bought me."

And of course Cheers -- an MTM show in all but name -- would do one every episode:

FRASIER (pompously): "A psychiatrist must always be there for his patients."
(His beeper goes off)
FRASIER (grumpily sarcastic): "Great. I bet this is important..."

Eventually some sitcoms began doing 4 or 5 a show -- especially after the Frasier character made "The Pompous Guy" a fixture on sitcoms -- and weakened the effectiveness of the joke through overuse.

Too bad Daniels didn't get a royalty.

Used sparingly and in the proper situation the Immediate Reverse can get a huge laugh... and maybe it'll be my ticket out of this dump.

Monday, April 26, 2010

New Sheriff In Town

"Sheriff Who?" was a failed sitcom pilot that was broadcast precisely once, on September 5, 1967. To the best of my knowledge, it has not been shown publicly since then.

The rather whacked-out premise was -- get this: Evil Roy Slade, the meanest outlaw in the west, rules over a small western town. Every week some passerby gets suckered into taming the town and bringing Roy to justice -- and every week Roy runs him out of town.

This is what I call a "3 AM idea" -- it sounds brilliant after a long night of writing, but when you wake up the next day you realize it's unworkable.

It's hard to believe this premise even got to the writing-the-pilot stage. Even in a zany sitcom, I can't see it working. It's a bit like making Siegfried the star of a sitcom called "KAOS!" and having him kill a new Control agent every week.

The closest equivalent I can think of in a series would be Police Squad always killing off their "Special Guest Star" in the credits. But that was irrelevant to the plot, and we all know how long PS lasted anyway.

The thing is, those fortunate few who saw "Sheriff Who?" in its only airing claim it is one of the funniest half-hours of all time. Dick Shawn plays Crawford Offwhite, "The fastest interior decorator in the West", who is conned into becoming sheriff. John Astin is Evil Roy Slade and the script is by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson.

Marshall and Belson would try again a few years later, making two hour long pilots with Astin as Evil Roy Slade. Shawn is back but plays a different character, sort of a combination of Roy Rogers and Paladin. These pilots were edited into a two hour movie and aired in 1972. This version is now available on DVD. It has some classic gags and Shawn is hilarious.">

There are some slow spots (inevitable given its editing) and frankly, I would've preferred casting a real western villain as Slade rather than Astin. Perhaps Neville Brand. Still, there are enough great moments to make it must viewing for comedy fans.

And someday maybe, just maybe, we will get the chance to see "Sheriff Who?"

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Written by

Screenplay, Novel & Career Consultant


     Every agent is waiting for you to bring them the next big saleable screenplay that will knock the business off its axis. They want you to show them that piece that will have producers and studios panting at their doors with huge offers of money and multiple deals of future movies. Agents want the best for you, because it means the best for them. I happen to believe that this relationship is a great one. It is an honest quid pro quo - if you are successful…I am successful. How bad is that?
     OK, so how do you make that happen? How do you deliver the perfectly written project that will make the town sit up and take notice? It’s not as difficult as it sounds. The first thing you have to do is STOP thinking that you have to write the most unusual script of all time. This kind of thinking will destroy your chances of not only selling the script, but of keeping your agent. I’ve found that new writers often have the tendency to try to impress people by “thinking outside the box”. Well folks, the “box” is there for a reason, it works. Throughout movie history, audiences have loved certain types of films. They go to see them over and over again. When you are working to get in to the business, go with the flow. Perhaps, after you’ve established yourself as a player, you might be able to expand your horizons, but it’s not the way to get into your chosen field.

Insofar as your early spec scripts are concerned, here are some rules to live by:

     1. No Togas. By this I mean to say period pieces. Keep your early scripts contemporary. Period pieces are extremely difficult to sell. They go in and out of favor with the studios by the minute. You never know whether you are too early or too late with your piece. They are not good as writing samples since they are too specifically time/era dependent. This means manners, customs, morals, societal relationships, styles of speech, etc… . Oh, and by the way, try to stay on this planet.

     2. Keep it simple. Stay away from twins. Don’t make a script too complicated to produce. As soon as a development executive or producer sees this they will toss it into the “circular file”. It is too much of a pain in the neck. Try not to write a script that is so complicated that it would make the casting a horror. Another example, besides twins, is a multi-generational story of the entire cast. This means a nightmare of casting as well as costume and set changes that are a financial pain. Don’t go there. Besides, no one really wants to watch Brad Pitt or Ashton Kutcher age before their eyes.

     3. Keep ‘em young. If you really want to kick start your writing career, try to have your early scripts feature a fairly young cast. In my mind the term “young” means any age up to 29 years old. Not one minute older. The youth market is what is the most viable today. Actually if you can write a script for 9 year old boys, you are really in good shape. The research shows that those boys will return to see the same film over and over again with different friends and family members. Recidivism is the word. Let’s not forget our little friend, Harry Potter.

     4. Location, location, location. This is not simply a rule in real estate. This is a real consideration in movie making. A studio never has a problem putting their money in a viable movie star who can “open” a movie. That means that any movie starring a particularly huge actor is guaranteed a certain bottom line of huge dollars at the box office in its opening weekend. Foreign or multiple locations do not promise this type of money for the film and they are very expensive. It is not a hard and fast rule to keep everything set in one location but simply something to keep in mind. You always want to be realistic in your writing. Think bottom line.

     5. The Star. Here are the rules for your main character and they are hard and fast. These points apply to all genres. Do not try to change them for any reason.

a. The Star’s character is on every page.

b. The Star’s character resolves the problem

c. The Star’s character has the most lines

d. The Star’s character gets the girl (or the guy)

e. The Star’s character is the smartest person in the cast

f. The Star’s character has the last word in the film

g. The Star’s character must grow as a person

h. The Star’s character must learn something about him/herself

     6. Coincidences. They only complicate the plot. Coincidences never, ever resolve the problems. When you have a coincidence resolve a plot point the audience feels cheated.

     7. Depressing/Dramas? There is a fine line between being depressing and being dramatic. You need to understand the difference in your early writing career of dramatic film writing. I love a good dramatic relationship film. I hate depressing movies that have no other saving grace but to be sad. “HUD” was a great drama starring the late Paul Newman, another great drama was the 1957 film titled “A FACE IN THE CROWD” starring Patricia Neal and Andy Griffith. These are films that must be seen by serious film writers. As an agent, some years ago a client brought in a brand new script that he had never discussed with me. He proudly handed over a large box of them, with leatherette covers with gold embossed titles. This sent a clear message that I was not to give him any notes and that he wanted them to be sent out just the way they were. The story in those scripts was about the murders of elderly, helpless people in an old age home. It was so depressing that I could barely read it. Not only couldn’t I submit this well-written script, but I had to let the client go.

     8. Choices. Write a contemporary drama, comedy, suspense, thriller, murder/mystery, teen-comedy, romance, etc… . Keep your characters interesting and believable- make us care what happens to them. Try to write “up” to the audiences’ intellect and emotions. We want to leave the movie theater feeling like we were entertained and that we learned just a little bit about the human condition. The movie studios like this too.

Michele Wallerstein is a former Literary Agent who now works as a Screenplay and Novel Consultant.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Today's guest blog is by Michele Wallerstein.

Michele Wallerstein

     An agent works very hard to guide a writer’s career. We help them with their material, we set up important meetings for them, and we see that their material is read by the right people, we negotiate their deals, we share information with them and we even listen to their personal problems. Is that enough? OK, we also show an interest in their spouses and children, we try not to hurt their feelings when their work is rejected; we are loyal and often very caring. We keep our eye on the ball and an ear to the ground. We know what’s going on in the business and who’s buying what. Is that enough?
     But……then we must let the writers go out into the world by themselves and we pray that they do not do themselves harm. This is the most daunting of our tasks.

Here are ten (10) things that clients mustn’t do:

1. Getting stuck on one idea. I’ve had clients that have written the same basic story in novel, screenplay and theatrical play form. This is an incredibly huge waste of time.

2. Thinking everyone is wrong, except you. When your project has been turned down by more than five (5) companies, chances are it won’t sell. This can happen with a pitch or a completed novel or screenplay. Right or wrong, they aren’t buying and there’s nothing you or your agent can do about it.

3. Ruining a meeting. Are you talking too much or not enough? Are you listening to the principal person in the meeting? Did you arrive late? Did you dress inappropriately? Did you argue too much? Did you stay too long?

4. Missing your big chance. I’ve represented many writers who really wanted to direct. In one specific case the writer became a producer on various TV series over the years. I kept telling him to direct some episodes, but he said that he was too busy. He never became a director.

5. Calling your agent too often or not often enough. If you don’t seem interested in your career, why should your agent. If you are calling every day without new material or ideas, you are nagging. Big no-no.

6. Not showing appreciation to your agent, manager, and lawyer. Yes we all get paid, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Everyone wants to feel approval. We all want someone to simply thank us for a job well done. Take them to lunch; buy them a simple birthday or Christmas gift. Say “thanks.”

7. Changing agents. Most of the time when clients change agents it’s because they aren’t getting work or selling their material. Is that really your agent’s fault or are you not doing your job very well? Have you brought in new ideas and scripts? Are you keeping up relationships with people you’ve met via your agent? Are you doing everything you can to further your own career? Remember, you get to keep 90% of the money.

8. Moving from a small agency to a very big one. Bad idea. If a small agency has worked hard to build your career, you can bet a larger one will come along and make tremendous promises to lure you over to their client list. Invariably, you will be ignored, forgotten, mistreated and overlooked.

9. Demanding too much. This can mean time from your agent, producer, development person, manager or lawyer. It can mean money for your project that may not warrant as big a deal as you want. Once you earn it….you’ll get it all.

10. Drugs and alcohol. They will ruin your career.

     Getting into the world of screenwriters and published authors is difficult enough. Making the mistakes listed above is a sure-fire way of losing any toe-hold that you may gain, at any time. All too often I’ve seen successful writers fall off the “hot writer” list in Hollywood because of any of the above errors. Don’t let it happen to you.

Web site:
Copyright 2009 Michele Wallerstein. Not be used without written permission from Author.

Michele Wallerstein’s new book titled:
Mind Your Business:  A Hollywood Literary Agent’s
Guide To Your Writing Career”

Will be in book stores on July 1, 2010.  The book covers all you need to know about the business side of your writing career.  It includes chapters on the agent/client relationship, how to network successfully, the differences between agents, personal managers, business managers and lawyers, the right query letter and much, much more.  There is no other book on the market that covers the insider information that you need to know to have a successful career as a film and television writer. 

Pre-order now at:
Email Michele at:

Friday, April 16, 2010


For screenwriters who use the latest version of Final Draft ® to help write their script, one nifty feature is the ability to register the screenplay with the WGA-West Intellectual Property Online Registry with the touch of a button. Many (if not most) screenwriters register all of their scripts with the WGA Registry, and, believing that they have done all that is necessary to protect their script, they neglect to register the script with the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress (

Imagine their surprise when someone steals their screenplay and they learn for the first time that, other than establishing a date of creation, the WGA registration gives them almost no benefits at all. In fact, relying solely on the WGA registration can prove extremely costly for the following reasons. 

First, although copyright protection exists at the moment of creation, registration with the Copyright Office is required before a lawsuit can be brought. Because it can take up to six months from the time the application is mailed to the Copyright Office until the application is processed and returned, if the writer needs to immediately file a lawsuit (i.e., in order to enjoin the movie's distribution), he must apply for an expedited registration, for which the Copyright Office charges an additional $760.

Second, if the writer registers the script with the Copyright Office only after the infringement has taken place, he will be barred from recovering attorneys fees or statutory damages in the lawsuit.

Third, if the script is registered prior to or within five years of its publication, the registration acts as prima facie proof of ownership of the script in the event of a trial. There is no such benefit from the WGA registration. 

The only real advantage of the WGA registration is that, in the event of a lawsuit or a credit arbitration, the WGA will have an employee appear and testify concerning the date of the registration. But this is rarely an issue during litigation. 

Therefore, if you are a screenwriter wondering whether to register with the WGA or the Copyright Office, the answer should be clear - always register your script with the Copyright Office, and, if you have the extra $10 or $20, register with the WGA as well. And if you have scripts in your drawer that you registered in the past with the WGA, but never bothered to register with the Copyright Office, now is the time to do so. Before the work is infringed. . 

WGA Registration

Copyright Registration


$10 WGA members
$20 non-members


Duration of Protection

5 years, but renewable for additional 5 year

If author is a natural person – author’s
life plus 70 years; If author is a corporation, anonymous or
pseudonymous, then 95 years from publication or 120 years from
creation, whichever is shorter.

Allows Immediate Access to Court?



Allows for Attorney’s Fees If


Yes, if registered prior to infringement or
within 90 days of publication

Allows for Statutory Damages If Infringed?


Yes, if registered prior to infringement or
within 90 days of publication

Will Accept Submissions Over The Internet?



Acts as prima facie proof of ownership?



Will have employee appear in court to
testify about date of submission?



Larry Zerner is an entertainment attorney in Los Angeles who specializes in copyright infringement litigation. He can be reached by email at or by phone at 310-203-2299.