The guest on this week's 3rd & Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America is Tim Doyle, who created the series The Kids Are Alright. His career includes working on the staff for such shows as Last Man Standing, Speechless, The Big Bang Theory, Rules of Engagement, Ellen (the sitcom, not the talk show...) and Roseanne, among many others.
The guest on this week's 3rd & Fairfax podcast is comedy writer Liz Feldman, who created the new Netflix series, Dead to Me, has also written for such series as 2 Broke Girls, The Great Indoors and the talk show Ellen. She talks here, in part, about blurring the lines between comedy and drama on her new show.
Several months back, after writing an article about the death of a famous screenwriter (sorry for leaving out the name, but that's part of the twist in the story. Bear with me, we'll get to it...), my friend Dr. Greg Van Buskirk posted a reply online asking me to tell the story tangentially related to that of my odd confrontation online with Alec Baldwin. I'd never told the full thing, and he was curious. I promised I would, but other news stories and interests got in the way. And the spirit didn't move me enough to delve back into it then. But enough time has passed -- since the request and the actual incident -- and it seems like a good respite from writing about Trump, who by comparison makes it all seem incredibly benign.
Also, I was reminded of it to a while back last year when the TV critic for Salon.com, Melanie McFarland, wrote a review in October for the new ABC talk show, The Alec Baldwin Show. What leaped out to me in fond remembrance were several passages she wrote --
Now, Baldwin is a case where we can differentiate between the actor and the person. When other people are putting lines in his mouth, he’s terrific — or at the very least entertaining. He’s not the best Trump impersonator, but by “Saturday Night Live” standards, where he plies his poor impression, he gets the job done.
As you will see, that review resonated with me.
By the way, I want to be clear about something right upfront. If anyone wonders why I am bringing out this tale publicly, please know -- that I'm not. The story is already public. As will be clear from the online links to articles, it has already been told. There's not even the slightest reason to "hide names" because they've already been written about -- by the participants themselves. Nor was anything about it ever secret. I'm just late in fulfilling my promise to retell the tale after that associated news story and am filling in some holes that wouldn't be otherwise clear, mostly from the distance of time.
And we dive in.
The tale had its beginnings 11 years ago during the 2008 Writers Guild Strike. During that time I had a column on the Huffington Post, and as a Guild member on strike I wrote a weekly "primer" of sorts, explaining the strike, what I thought were the important and valid reasons behind it, and the current status of things. Yes, I was biased. But I tried to be honest and as objective as possible. And I also should add, from my absolutely biased perspective, my analysis tended to be proved reasonably-correct in the end. Including coming with in days of predicting months earlier when I thought the strike would end. And why.
Needless-to-say, I wasn't the only person writing about the writers' strike against the AMTPT. There were many, on both sides. As a slight digression, but as background, among them were many entertainment lawyers. And what seemed bizarre is not just that entertainment lawyers all seemed wrong, but SO wrong that it was like they were clueless. One day I mentioned to a member of the WGA's negotiating team that it was my observation that of all the people writing about the strike -- AMPTP negotiators, studio executives, directors, actors, producers, journalists, even fans-on-the-street -- the group of people who were more-consistently wrong about more things with the strike were entertainment lawyers. The negotiating team member, who had read most-everything written about the strike and was intimately involved with the reality, laughed and said, "I think you're right."
Anyway, among those putting in their two-cents about the strike was Alec Baldwin, who in his own pieces on the Huffington Post tried to analyze what was going on, and was very critical of the writers. He would use the Directors Guild as the shining example to emulate, referencing that they had only had to strike once in their history, and that was just for 15 minutes. It should be noted that "not striking" is not always A Good Thing because it can mean capitulating before you get what you want. More to the point, the DGA rarely ever had to strike because they would negotiate weakly, settle, the WGA would fight hard, go on strike, get all these benefits, and then the DGA would come in and say "Wait, we want these, too." Indeed, that very thing happened just prior to the 2008 strike.
Every once in a while, I would write a few HuffPo columns refuting what I believes were errors in Mr. Baldwin's positions, and he would go on making errors. As far as I knew, he wasn't aware of my pieces, although they were all prominently featured on the Huffington Post's Entertainment section front page, so I guess it was possible.
(One of the amusing things about my column-responses were all the reader comments I would receive from worshipful Alec Baldwin fans, blisteringly outraged that I would dare criticize their beloved hero and shred me for it. I tended to skim them and let such things be, but what I really wanted to write back was, "Please know that Alec Baldwin is not going to invite you to his house for dinner, no matter how much you suck up to him.")
Anyway, one day Mr. Baldwin wrote an analysis that I thought was especially wrong-headed and particularly divisive given the then-status of negotiations. And I knew the kind of commentary I wanted to write in response.
Not long before that article, the Screen Actors Guild had graciously joined the WGA in solidarity and organized a day when SAG members were encouraged to join the Writers Guild picket line. A great many did (at my picket line, I recall that Debra Messing and Emily Deschanel were there, which only added to why I was a big fan of them both), and it was extremely generous and the joint-effort got a great deal of attention in the news. It was this that I decided to write a column about of appreciation.
In making clear with this event was so important, I knew it was important to put this unity in perspective. I explained that writers and actors were often natural enemies -- largely based on "I created the characters and they're not doing the lines right" and "I brought the characters to life and therefore they're mine" -- and I included some examples of the antipathy, one of which was an infamous tale of two unnamed actors on a movie set ridiculing a famous, unnamed Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy writer who had written the screenplay, as they shouted out a stream of deprecating remarks (knowing the writer was nearby and could hear), most notably, "Doesn't anyone here know how to write comedy?!!!!." And yet, as I went on to note, despite actors and writers having this lifelong battle, my point was that it was so incredibly magnanimous of the actors to come to the support of the writers during the strike. And which showed the importance of what was being struck for.
You can read that article here.
I intentionally left out the name of the actors and famous comedy writer and even the movie, because I didn't want that to be the point of the honorific. But I also knew that if Alec Baldwin ever read the piece, he would know the story and people involved I was referring to. Not because it was a well-known story in movie circles...but because the actors in question were himself and his then-girlfriend Kim Basinger. And the famous comedy writer was indeed incredibly famous -- Neil Simon. (Again, "Does anyone here know how to write comedy?!!!") The movie was the flop, The Marrying Man. More on that in a moment.
I also wrote the piece the way I did for another reason. I didn't want to slam Alec Baldwin publicly, but since I knew he would of course know all the details, if he ever did read the column I wanted him to know very clearly that in our HuffPo disagreements on the strike I wasn't some little ignorant sap to be lectured to, but knew exactly what I was talking about. (Indeed, as I noted above, I had friends on the negotiating committee, as well as on the WGA board, and actually did know what I was talking about. Rather an being an outsider pontificating. I may have been biased, but I was biased based on facts.)
It turned out that Mr. Baldwin saw the column. I know this because his next article was titled, "Quips are Killing Me" -- and the opening two lines of it were, "That Robert Elisberg keeps putting out funnier and funnier stuff. His 'quips; are killing me." So, that was the first hint that he had read it. He went on to make a number of criticisms about what I had written that I didn't think were remotely supported by reality, but personal opinion aside that's not what most caught my attention. That's because the most bizarre and silly thing was -- for reasons unknown to man, he decided to out himself!!! Inexplicably, he repeated the Marrying Man story, took credit, defended it, and insisted that it was ludicrous of me to suggest that even the great Neil Simon couldn't ever dare be criticized. (Fun fact: That was something which doesn't remotely exist in my article. More on that in a moment, too...)
And yes, for those interested in if this is true, you can read his Quip article here, in all its self-aggrandizing glory.
Again, to reiterate, this story is already public. I have told absolutely nothing new here about the articles, nor remotely secret. The links are to articles long-since printed.
Back to the tale. As you can imagine, I was utterly flabbergasted that he chose to reveal his own participation in the event, especially after I had taken great pains to hide it all. The best I can figure is that some actors really do just want to see their name in print, even if it makes them look like churlish. Just make sure you spell my name right.
Most everything he wrote was so off that it was the world's easiest set-up to correct, like a grade school t-ball sitting on its perch just waiting to be aimed, leveled, and then knocked out of the park. I SO much wanted to take it apart, line by line -- my typing fingers were aching -- but -- but -- I also knew that if I did, he'd reply. And then I'd reply. And he, and me and he and...and...and what I remembered was one of my favorite expressions from my good friend Nell Minow -- "Sometimes you have to be the adult in the room."
And so I chose to be the adult in the room, and let it slide. And let all the reader comments from adoring Alec Baldwin acolytes sit un-replied to. Instead, I moved on and for my next column about the WGA strike I covered it from another angle entirely.
And so 11 years have passed. I think the statute of limitations have run out. Even still, as before, I have no intention of dissecting his original article line-by-line. I do admit there were a few things in it so egregiously wrong that to this day I've remembered then with wearily-shaking head. And since it's no longer part of a "back-and-forth," with miniscule chance of it becoming one, I do think it's time to correct at least one aspect of the incredibly foolish record, especially since Neil Simon passed away last year at the age of 91. As one writer to another (albeit that other typing on a higher plane), I feel it's his due. And by the way, it was Neil Simon's passing that prompted my friend asking me to retell this tale.
In all Alec Baldwin's criticism and blame of Neil Simon for The Marrying Man, nowhere did Mr. Baldwin make note of some of the most obvious realities. As much as he wanted to blame the script and did so repeatedly and at length -- he and Ms. Basinger had read the script and clearly liked it enough to sign a contract, get paid, and star in the movie of it.
Also, while the movie did flop, and likely the script did need additional work, Neil Simon was renowned throughout his acclaimed career for rewriting and rewriting and rewriting his material until he got it right. And as the culture knows, Neil Simon got it incredibly right A Whole Lot. (When I went to UCLA grad school, Neil Simon received an lifetime achievement award and gave a speech after. I recall him talking about The Odd Couple, one of the great, and most successful comedies in the American theater, and how he still sees things in it he wishes he could fix. The audience burst into disbelieving laughter.) But as much as Neil Simon loved to rewrite and get everything as correct as he could, after being slammed on the set by the movie's two stars, he didn't need the aggravation, left the set and didn't do anymore work on it, letting the screenplay exist as it was. And being a Neil Simon project, no one else could work on the script either. So, the outburst didn't fix anything, it only served to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And nail the coffin lid closed.
It should noted, as well, that in all the blame he heaped on Neil Simon for the film's failure, nowhere did Mr. Baldwin suggest that just maybe, possibly, the actors didn't give performances that were totally strong and could have at least perhaps been one conceivable reason the film fell flat.
And in the end, as I said above, nowhere in my article did I suggest that Neil Simon -- or any writer -- can't be criticized. Indeed, the favorite sport of Hollywood has long been to criticize writers. Or "Schmucks with Underwoods," as studio mogul Louis B. Mayer called screenwriters and their typewriters. "I have some notes..." is a phrase all screenwriters likely consider having chiseled on their gravestones. The thing is, as we all know -- and by "all" I include all mature adults around the world whatever their profession and even many immature children -- there are good ways of criticizing and inane ways. With a screenplay, a good way is sitting down with the writer and telling them what you don't think is working and why. A very bad way is to yell out insults to the entire cast and crew about the most successful comedy playwright in the history of the theater, knowing that he can hear you, and topping that by shouting out, "Doesn't anybody here know how to write comedy?!!!!"
I think that over time Alec Baldwin has developed into a very good character actor. He was an absolute joy on the TV series, 30 Rock. Tina Fey and her writing staff gave him brilliant material, and nailed it most every time.
Hey, y'know, we all have flaws. Some people just have more of them public than others. And in the end, I've left out some of the tale because as interesting as some tangents may be, they're still just tangents. And also because, speaking personally, one of my own many flaws is that I often type for far too long. But rest assured I'm almost done here... And finishing, I'm quite certain that Mr. Baldwin couldn't care one single whit for what I think about this, or anything -- and far more likely doesn't have even the most-tenuous clue who I am. Which is fine in the Grand Scheme of things.
And if he did have a clue, I'm pretty certain he'd think I was just a few steps below a slug. Which is fine, as well, to each their own. Me, I'm glad that I have people like Greg Van Buskirk in my life. If ever I need a chemist to develop a formula for a new detergent, or take apart my motorcycle (if I had one), I know he'll be there for me.
And so, for those who don't remember it from the first time around, that's the tale my friend asked about...
For this special edition of 3rd & Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, we have a panel event, Beyond Words, featuring .WGA Award-nominated (& winning) screenwriters. These include -- Eric Roth (A Star is Born); Kevin Willmott (Blackkklansman); Bryan Woods & Scott Beck (A Quiet Place), Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther); Brian Currie & Peter Farrelly (Green Book); Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?); Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade); Lauren Greenfield (Generation Wealth); Ozzy Inguanzo & Dava Whisenant (the documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway); and Gabe Polsky (In Search of Greatness);
On this week's 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is screenwriter and multiple Oscar & WGA nominee, David Magee, who wrote Mary Poppins Returns, as well as such films as Life of Pi and Finding Neverland.
On this episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, we have an interview with screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman who talks about his screenplay for the feature film, On the Basis of Sex, about the early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
We have a double-header for you today. On this week's 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, Barry Jenkins (who wrote and directed the acclaimed film, If Beale Street Could Talk) and Adam McKay (who wrote and directed the acclaimed film, Vice) discuss their acclaimed movies and careers.
On this week's episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman talks about his film, On the Basis of Sex, that deals with the early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The guests on this week's 3rd & Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America are actors Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano -- who wrote the upcoming film, Wildlife, based on the novel by Richard Ford. Previously, Kazan -- whose parents are both acclaimed screenwriters, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord -- wrote the screenplay for the movie, Ruby Sparks. This is Dano's first screenplay, and he directs the film, as well.
Very sorry to read about the passing of screenwriter William Goldman at the age of 87. His list of screenplays is voluminous, just touching on them includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, (which both won Oscars for Best Screenplay), The Princess Bride (based on his novel), Misery, A Bridge Too Far, Marathon Man, Absolute Power, The Hot Rock, Maverick, Chaplin, The Great Waldo Pepper -- and remarkably much more. He also wrote more than a dozen novels, including the book No Way to Treat a Lady (written under a pseudonym, Harry Longbaugh -- oddly enough, the real name of the Sundance Kid -- on which the wonderful movie was based, written before his screenwriting career. And among his non-fiction work, he most-famously wrote the classic book about screenwriting and Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, which included the now-famous, regularly-quoted line, "No one knows anything." Its sequel is pretty good, too, with the great title, Which Lie Did I Tell? (That's a quote from a movie producer he was in a meeting with, when the guy put a phone caller on holder, buzzed his secretary and asked her the question.) And a great book on Broadway, The Season.
His brother James was an extremely talented writer, as well, with works that include the play and movie, A Lion in Winter, for which he too won a Best Screenplay Oscar, and the the book for the Stephen Sondheim musical, Follies.
This may now seem like a pointless digression, but trust me, it's not.
I've mentioned on these pages attending a summer camp in Wisconsin, Camp Nebagamon, for many years, as a very young family-camper, doctor's son, camper and counselor. Many decades ago, during my counselor phase, some friends picked me up after camp ended one year and we all went on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. That winter, I was talking with one of them on the phone when we both away at college, and he mentioned he'd just finished reading a novel, Your Turn to Curtsy, My Turn to Bow, which takes place at a summer camp, and he said that it reminded him so much of Camp Nebagamon, which he had seen for about a total of 90 minutes, especially the drive in along the lake front. After I noted that the book was by William Goldman, I asked him to guess what summer camp Goldman had gone to. Yes, Camp Nebagamon. In fact, when I went to the library shortly after and found the book the passage where the main character enters the camp is a near-exact description of the lakefront path into the camp.
Little known fun-fact. There was an unsuccessful musical written in the early 1960s, A Family Affair, that nonetheless had quite a wonderful pedigree. It was written by three young mn near the beginnings of their respective careers -- William Goldman, James Goldman and composer John Kander, (who went on to write Cabaret and Chicago, among a great many others, but with a different partner, Fred Ebb). What most people wouldn't know, though, is that the three all met at Camp Nebagamon. (Well, okay, Bill and Jim knew each other before...)
Other than that tangential overlap with Goldman, I actually had a couple of real-life overlaps.
The Goldman family was from Highland Park, Illinois, which is the town that borders Glencoe, where I grew up, and where my dad had his medical office. I think possibly my grandparents may have slightly known William Goldman's parents, though I know that my parents did, since they both belonged to Northmoor Country Club there. One summer, after getting my Masters degree in screenwriting my UCLA, I was home, and stopped by the pool where my mother was sitting with Goldman's mother. My mom introduced us and explained I had just got my post-graduated degree in screenwriting, and Mrs. Goldman said that I "should write Billy" and gave me his address in New York City.
After returning to Los Angeles, I did write him, and got back one of my most cherished letters, which I still have. It was a one-page typed note, complete with cross-outs that was as thoughtful, interesting and bluntly curmudgeonly as was William Goldman's reputation. (See photo above...) It also was virtually a one-page version of Adventures in the Screen Trade many years before that book was written -- and even includes the line, "No one knows anything." There are two other favorite passages in the letter. One is when he writes that he can be of absolutely no help to me in any way, shape or form, not even with a contact to his agent who is getting on in years and not taking on new clients, but that "You should use all the contacts you have (like my mother)". I still laugh when I think of that line. And the letter concludes with, "It is a mean, nasty, brutish business, but no one made you go into it." About as Goldmanesque as you can get. The very end of the letter says that with any luck I'll be in hock on a house and car and he wishes me luck.
The other path-crossing came when I was a very minor executive at Universal Pictures. I had read the novel of The Princess Bride a few years before, and loved it, recommended by my friend Adam Bezark, but it was still a lesser-known work, the movie not having been made yet, nor would be for years. I was curious though if a screenplay had ever been written and it turns out that Goldman had indeed done so, and I tracked down a copy. Not shockingly, it was very good, though being a movie it only could tell the story on two levels (the main adventure and the one with the young boy with his grandfather, which in the book is his father) -- the third level, with Goldman talking directly to the reader about him supposedly adapting the "original book" by S. Morgenstern (which is not real) is hilarious, but totally literally and not something you could do in a movie. Anyway, I had my secretary find Goldman himself, and I called him to discuss making a movie of the book. (What can I say, I was years ahead of my time. Again...)
It was a fascinating, and odd conversation. He was crusty (see photo above...), and had dealt with far too many studio executives at that point to care deeply about one more, let alone a punk kid. Out of semi-desperation I broke the ice a bit by noting that I'd written to him years before through his mother, and our Camp Nebagamon connection. That helped, though only a small bit. What what did break through was when I mentioned I was friends with another Nebagamonite, Adam Bezark (also like the Goldmans from Highland Park), whose father Bud had gone to camp with the Goldman brothers, and I knew they had stayed friends. That helped with a connection being made. But then the memorable exchange occurred.
One of the reasons why I wanted to talk with him before pitching the project to my direct boss, who was the head of the studio, was that "third level" which wasn't in the screenplay, the author talking to the reader. I wanted to know anything about it being left out, or if he'd ever done something with that in any other draft? But being young, and a little in awe, I didn't phrase it well, and any goodwill I'd built up was instantly gone. Instantly. He got immediately snarky and said something like, "No, when I wrote the script, I decided not to do the best job I could and didn't include what would I knew would make it even better." As I began to panic, though, The Miracle occurred, and the gods stepped in and saved me. The phone line actually went dead in mid-sentence. I had my secretary reconnect us, but during that interim of relief I quickly tried desperately to figure out what I could say to save myself. And I came up with something. When we got connected again, I profusely apologized for my lack of clarity and said that what I really was trying to ask was whether or not he'd written other versions of the script for another medium -- like the theater or as a TV mini-series -- where he could use the narrator that was so wonderful in the book? (Okay, that wasn't precisely what I really had been asking, only tangentially, but I figured it was close enough and a far better explanation than how I had bumbled through.) The explanation happily placated him, he even seemed to appreciate it, and said no, he'd only written it as a screenplay. The call concluded well, but unfortunately my bosses did not follow-up and make a movie of The Princess Bride. And about five years later, someone else did.
Fun side note: About five years ago, I read an article that Goldman was involved with adapting The Princess Bride for...the theater!!!! Perhaps as a musical. Nothing came of it -- yet at least, so who knows? -- but once again: years ahead of my time.
Very sorry to read about William Goldman's passing. Very happy for all the great work he left behind.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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