Today's Video Link

From the Academy Awards ceremony in 1972: Charlie Chaplin, after years of exile from America, finally returns to pick up an Honorary Oscar. This was the only video I could find online that didn't involve someone dumping a bucket of ice water on their head.

Go Read It!

Ten years ago, I read a great article online about ketchup, made a mental note to link to it…and forgot. I just came across it again so here it is. This is Malcolm Gladwell and Jerry Adler explaining why there are so many options for mustard and so few for ketchup. I believe a lot of new variations of the latter have since emerged but it's still an interesting piece.

From the E-Mailbag…

In the spirit of "Better late than never," I just realized that I never shared this great message I received from Frank Buxton upon the passing of Robin Williams. Frank worked with Robin on Mork & Mindy and knows as much about comedy as anyone I've ever met…

As always, thanks for your unique perspective on things, in this case Robin Williams.

One thing that hasn't been talked about much is that Robin pretty much brought improv into the main stream, a contribution that has led to improv groups, improv clubs and improv training that thrive today around the world. There was precedent for creating-on-the-fly, of course; Sid Caesar and his cohorts come to mind. In fact, I used to watch Caesar's rehearsals from the darkness of the balcony in New York and the performers really were extraordinarily inventive.

But prior to Mork and Mindy, sitcoms were pretty much word-for-word as written. There was always room for improvement as we filmed but very little of it was contributed by the performers. That's why there were (and are) writers. The legend that the writers on Mork and Mindy once handed in a script with blank pages titled "Robin does his thing" is really apocryphal, although it may have been done as an inside joke. When directing Robin and Jonathan I was always prepared to let them improvise but made sure that we eventually got back on script so that we'd have something to show on TV. I am grateful for my experiences with Robin (and Jonathan) and indebted to them for making it possible for us to be creative as improvisers.

If anything comes of the tragedy of Robin's death I hope that it's a heightened awareness of mental health issues. Robin's demons were evident, even back in the early days, and I am not only saddened by his loss but also by the fact that nothing seemed to help him when he was in the depths. There's got to be more than just medication and therapy but what that is I don't know. I hope someone finds out.

I don't recall if Frank said this to me but I was always under the impression that the bulk of Mr. Williams' improvisations on that series were of great amusement to the studio audience but went unheard by the home audience after the show was edited.

On a three-camera film show like that, not only do the actors rehearse the lines they'll speak but they rehearse where they'll be standing when they say them, and the camerapeople rehearse pointing the cameras at them when they're in their proper places. There's a limit to how much the performers can stray and still have the boom mikes hear them and the cameras frame the shot correctly. There's also a limit to how much the star can ad-lib and reasonably expect the other actors to ad-lib along with him and get to the story points that need to be said.

Most directors would probably say that improvisation can be a boon during rehearsals but a problem during the final filming. A director's number one responsibility on the set — the one most likely to get him fired if he fails at it — is to get all the necessary shots. He's in trouble if they get into editing and realize they don't have a vital line or close-up. Frank and another friend of mine, Howard Storm, each directed a lot of Mork & Mindy episodes. I'll bet they both made sure on the set that they got at least one good take of every line in the script.

Today's Video Link

Here's a candid 1999 interview with Elaine Stritch. Actually, all interviews with Elaine Stritch were pretty candid…

Recommended Reading

What's going on with the Market Basket chain in Boston is an interesting discussion point for how American business should be run. There are plenty of big companies that prosper while still treating their employees well. Many of them seem to serve their customers better because of it. Why aren't there more?

Friday Evening

I spent some time today on tech stuff relating to this blog, getting set for moving to a new hosting company next week. The new location should be faster for you and cheaper for me. I'm not sure when we'll migrate but when we do, we might be offline for a few hours.

I've been remiss in not thanking the legions of folks who write in when I typo. The four fastest seem to be, in no particular order, Mark Thorson, Ron Bauerle, Rephah Berg and Gordon Kent. One thing that amazes me is that some typos draw twenty or thirty immediate corrections…and then every so often, I myself look at an old post and spot a faulty bit of spelling that went unreported for ten years.

In case anyone's interested, there are currently 20,485 posts on this blog, including this one. Contrary to popular assumption, less than half are about where Frank Ferrante is playing, baby pandas or why the serving of cole slaw should be treated as a capital offense.

Mushroom Soup Thursday


Too much to do today so I've decided to declare a rare Mushroom Soup Thursday. For the uninitiated: This means that while there may be posting here today, there may not be much.

This blog may be down tonight for a while because its hosting company is doing maintenance. And it may be down now and then over the next week or two at some point because I'm planning on changing hosting companies.

A couple folks have written to ask why I haven't posted anything about the goings-on in Ferguson, Missouri. It's because I haven't thought of anything to say beyond the obvious. But let's not hear that there is no more racism in America. If there wasn't some in the killing of Michael Brown, there sure is plenty in the argument over what happened and what should change because of it.

And before I go: A couple of folks wrote to ask why I posted no personal remembrances and anecdotes about the late Lauren Bacall. That's because I have no personal remembrances and anecdotes about the late Lauren Bacall. She sure was pretty, though.

Recommended Reading

Fred Kaplan on Obama's next move (maybe) against ISIS. Why do I have the feeling that we're not looking for the best plan here but for the least bad?

Today's Video Link

When Don Pardo reached his sixtieth year in the business, there was a private party for him at NBC. This is the video that was shown there in tribute…

End of an Era?

My pal Leonard Maltin is about to bring out the 2015 (and, they're saying, final) edition of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. As he explains in this report, sales on the book are down due to competition from the Internet. He told me about this at Comic-Con and I offered to bet him there'd be another print edition before long. But it is true that there are no plans for any additional volumes after this one.

It's been an amazing effort, especially when you consider that Leonard and his wife Alice had to assemble it for the longest time without benefit of computers…and no easy way to gather the information. (Full Disclosure: Many years ago, I wrote about ten listings for the book, though I don't think Leonard used them all.) And it's been a very valuable book.

You can order this last (for now) paperback right here. But if you have the right hardware to handle it, you might prefer the Kindle edition. It's handier. I get the paperback for free but I'm paying for the Kindle so I have it, easily searchable, on my iPad.

And I haven't seen the new edition yet but I sure hope it still has my favorite sequence of one of the greatest movies ever made followed directly by one of the worst. I'm talking about Gone With the Wind being followed by Gong Show Movie, The.

Recommended Reading

Robert Reich believes corporations are undermining American democracy.

Alan Landsburg, R.I.P.


Alan Landsburg, the prolific TV producer, died last Thursday of natural causes at the age of 81. In his day, he produced — and sometimes wrote and/or directed — thousands of hours of television programming. He was famous as a documentarian but his company was responsible for dozens of TV movies and dramatic specials, and occasionally dabbled in feature films. Among his more popular programs were In Search Of… and That's Incredible!

I worked for him for three years on the latter and I'll say this as nicely as I can: We did not get along. I did not like a lot of his business practices. He did not like a lot of things I said about them in his presence. To his credit, he was the kind of employer you could criticize in front of others and not lose your job. The show at the time was extremely profitable for him, earning him six figures a week, and I guess at those rates, you can endure a certain amount of snide remarks.

I'll say this for the man: He knew how to produce a TV show cheaper than anyone else. That can be good and bad. One of his producers once said, "Alan can take the impossible deal and make money on it." In the earliest days of cable TV, he agreed to produce some programming for budgets that others had rejected as absurd. On a lot of his TV Movies, he sold the project by paying top dollar for a script or to land a huge star, then made up for it by producing the film for nine dollars. Some of them were pretty good.

He was on a hot streak when I worked for him, selling new shows and projects every day. This meant that he was always hiring and always had work for those who'd demonstrated competence and/or loyalty. An awful lot of people broke into the business on Landsburg productions and worked for him for years. I never worked with a happier "family" of employees…and for that alone, I'm now inclined to think well of him. I hope his passing receives the proper respect because he really was as amazing as anything we featured on That's Incredible!

From the E-Mailbag…

Peter Locke and several other folks sent me an observation. Here's Peter…

A month or two ago I noticed at the beginning of Colbert, the taped intro everyday with the eagle, etc., there was a number that had been added and that counted down. For example if it was 81 on Monday, it would be 80 on Tuesday etc. I'm trying to find a screen shot the intro that shows the number, but not having luck at the Comedy Central website.

I did a little math in my head and divided the number by 4 shows a week and deducted the numerous weeks (deserved) they have for vacation, and it seemed like it was counting down the number of new shows left. Then in July or August, the numbers stopped appearing. That makes me wonder if there will be new episodes into 2015.

Makes me think it's at least being discussed, though I don't think it's likely. It may depend on when The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore will be ready to air. If I were at Comedy Central, I'd be intrigued by the idea of extending Colbert's run for a bit and airing a ninety-minute block of The Daily Show, The Minority Report and The Colbert Report — preferably in that order. That may be too expensive, to say nothing of the fact that they have a rather successful show on at Midnight. It's called @Midnight.

Michael Hoey, R.I.P.


That's my pal Michael Hoey on the left, posing with actress Michele Carey and some guy named Elvis Something on the set of Live A Little, Love A Little. Michael wrote that movie and one other for Mr. Presley, and he wrote, produced, directed and/or edited many other motion pictures and television shows in a very long, successful career.

He was born in London in 1934, the son of English actor Dennis Hoey, who played the clueless Inspector Lestrade in the Sherlock Holmes pictures which starred Basil Rathbone in the title role. That was how his family happened to move to Hollywood and there, he broke into the business as a film editor, cutting for — among many other famous directors — George Cukor, John Ford and Fred Zinnemann. From there, it was on to producing and writing and directing and he didn't stop working for the longest time. Late in his career, he went back to editing for the TV series, Fame, and scored two Emmy nominations for that work.

I met Michael when we were on a Writers Guild strike. I forget which one…there have been so many. But we were on a planning committee together and we wound up becoming friends and lunching together after the strike, discussing a mutual project that, alas, never happened. I forget if it was because he got too busy with work or I did but for me, the project was secondary to hanging out with Mike and hearing of his experiences. He'd worked with everyone. He knew everybody. He knew everything there was to know about putting together a movie or a television show.

Michael died last Sunday of cancer at the age of 79. He was a good man with a great sense of humor.

From the E-Mailbag…

Regarding the Comedy Store lineup photo I posted, Douglas McEwan writes…

Mark, I spent two and a half years of my life as an employee of The Comedy Store, being a doorman and emcee, during its golden years. I can assure you that neither Robin Williams, nor anyone else, went on at 2 AM. (Especially not on a Tuesday, when the club would be deserted by 1 AM or 1:30 AM at the latest.)

The Comedy Store has a liquor license to protect, and they are closed at 2 AM. Oh, there may be comics inside after 2AM, hanging out, doing drugs, partying, or there may not (Because if the doormen wanted to go home, it was "Everybody out!"), but the doors are locked and the public is gone. The unfortunate framing of the photo makes it look like Robin went on at 2, but he was actually going on at Midnight.

My good friend, the late Charlie Hill, was batting clean up, and everyone would be done and gone most usually by 1:30 AM at the latest. Tuesdays, as it happens were my emceeing night, and we were home or somewhere else partying by 2 AM.

Incidentally, those hand-written line-ups were called "Mae Wests." I do not remember why. I used to have a "Mae West" for an evening when I was the emcee, my comedy troupe was on the bill, as was Robin Williams, framed on my living room wall. (This was 30 years ago. I don't still have it.) Never ever was The Comedy Store still open and putting comics onstage at 2 AM. The bar was a huge part of their income, and Mitzi would never have risked her liquor license.

Thanks. It was a trip to see that Mae West. I knew every person on that line-up.

You're right, Doug. Maybe because I don't drink, I forgot about the liquor license.

I do recall being there well after 2 AM some nights but probably not in the club after that time. I do remember hanging out in the parking lot, being uncomfy with the occasional drug deal going on around me…and down the street at Carney's Hamburgers, which was then open 24 hours on the weekend and seemed like the commissary for the Comedy Store. If Carney's was closed, a bunch of us would caravan down to Canter's Delicatessen. I only did that a few times and now regret I didn't make it up there more often and sooner.

David Letterman remembered those days last night on his show as he remembered Robin Williams…