Emmy-nominated Ramy Youssef who talks about his journey from stand-up comic to co-creator, star and writer of his semi-autobiographical Hulu streaming series, as it goes into its second season.
On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is
Emmy-nominated Ramy Youssef who talks about his journey from stand-up comic to co-creator, star and writer of his semi-autobiographical Hulu streaming series, as it goes into its second season.
Bear with me, this is worth it.
Back around 1995, I attended one of the funniest evenings I've ever had in the theater. If it wasn't the funniest, the others competing with it were pretty special. This wasn't a stage play or musical, to be fair, but basically a group discussion. But it was in a theater, and it was about the world of entertainment, so it counts.
The evening was called Caesar's Writers, held at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. It was a reunion of the writers who had worked on the two variety TV shows lead by Sid Caesar -- Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hours. The series were pretty close to the same: the casts of Caesar, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris were the same, with Imogene Coca in the former having moved on with her own show and replaced by Nanette Fabray in the latter. And the writing staffs were very similar, with a few changes here and there.
And oh, what a writing staff it was. If you put together a list of the staff and showed it to someone without any other information, they'd probably think you had written down your Hall of Fame of comedy writers. And no, I'm not exaggerating. Among those who participated that evening were (and bear with me, because the list is long and the credentials longer...) --
Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart (hey, I told you i wasn't exaggerating -- and I'm even leaving out Woody Allen, because he wasn't there that night).
L-R: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, head writer Mel Tolkin and Sid Caesar
But those are just the names you know. Others on stage were each impressive in their own right (and write). They included Mel Tolkin (the show's head writer who was later the head-writer for All in the Family), Aaron Ruben (who co-created The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC), Gary Belkin (who wrote TV comedy for three decades, including several years writing on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), Sheldon Keller (whose 30+ years included writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show, M*A*S*H, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, and the movie comedies, Burena Sera, Mrs. Campbell and Movie, Movie which reteamed him with Larry Gelbart), and Danny Simon, Neil's older brother, who had his own 30-year career in TV and was considered one of the top comedy writing teachers in the industry.
And this doesn't include some other writers on the show's staff who weren't there, like Joseph Stein (who wrote the book to Fiddler on the Roof, as well as the musicals Take Me Along, Plain and Fancy, Zorba, and the play Enter Laughing, among others). Michael Stewart, who went on to write the books for such major hit musicals as Hello, Dolly!; Bye Bye Birdie; Carnival; 42nd Street, and Barnum. And two of the legendary, ground-breaking women writers in TV comedy, Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond.
So, yes, again, I wasn't exaggerating. This was an incredible writing staff. And the members who were there that night really were among the cream in comedy writing history.
It will not shock you to learn that the theater was packed. And laughing all night.
L-R: Front row -- Gary Belkin, Sheldon Keller, Michael Stewart, Mel Brooks.
Back row -- Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart.
There were two of these events held -- this at the Writers Guild Theatre, and one previously in New York that I believe Woody Allen may have participated in, though not all the others made it from Los Angeles. I'm told by those who attended both that as good as the the one in New York was, the evening in Los Angeles topped it. And if so, I can see why -- and it's not just because of a more complete group of participants. That clearly helped and was a big deal, but I think something else was at play. In New York, the event was open to the general public. At the Writers Guild Theatre they were in front of their fellow writers, and they weren't just telling stories, they were performing for their peers. And in performing, some of them were clearly competing, trying to "one-up" one another -- mostly, though not exclusively (but leading the way), this was centered around Mel Brooks, who was hysterical all night. But also, and this is is what made the evening so special, it's not just that the stories were so wonderful, and that they were trying to give their best in front of their compatriots, but when a classic sketch would get mentioned, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks -- and whoever else might have been involved -- who recreate the sketch there on stage. Or a favorite memory wouldn't just be told as a story, but performed like a classic comedy bit.
It was hilarious. It went on for close to 2-1/2 hours, and there was so much laughter and warmth and joy in the room the entire time. And as good a time as the audience was having -- and we were having a great time -- the writers and friends on stage seemed to be having an even better time.
And to put into perspective how remarkable that writing team was, and that it's not just me saying so, Neil Simon wrote a hit play about it, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which was turned into a pretty good TV movie, that starred Nathan Lane in the 'Sid Caesar' role. (Side note: Before I saw the play on stage, I asked Larry Gelbart which character was based on him. The one named 'Kenny,' he said. When 'Kenny' made his entrance, I almost burst out laughing. I hadn't had to ask. He looked like Larry, he dressed like Larry in the same style sportcoat, and he wore round spectacles like Larry.)
L-R: Mel Tolkin, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Aaron Reuben, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks
Anyway, the good news in all this is not just that there's a DVD of Neil Simon's play or that I've described a fun evening -- but that evening was recorded and edited down for a two-hour DVD...and then re-edited down further into a one-hour TV special that PBS ran during Pledge Week. And I have a copy of that PBS broadcast here which I've embedded below.
I told you it was worth it to bear with me.
A few final notes:
The video quality is not the greatest, but it's the material that shines through. Also, it's interrupted a few time with pledge breaks, so you can fast-forward through those. And it's divided into two videos. Also, a reminder that the actual evening was almost an hour-and-a-half longer than this. And it's not that this is The Best Material -- it was all wonderful. This is just the great material that fit best together for a one-hour special.
A word too about why you won't see as much of Neil Simon as you might like. First, he is famously quiet.. If you ever saw the movie, My Favorite Year, which is also based on this group and Your Show of Shows, there is character who is always whispering his joke suggestions at the writers table to the person who is sitting next to him. That character is based on Neil Simon. (Usually he would be seated next to Carl Reiner and telling his jokes to him.) The other reason is more specific. About halfway through the evening, his older brother Danny started feeling unwell and left the stage. A minute or so later, Neil was clearly concerned, so he left to be with him. Happily, he ended up being fine, though the two were gone for the rest of the evening.
Okay, here's everyone at the evening -- a sort of scorecard so you can perhaps follow them on the video.
L-R: Mel Tolkin, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Aaron Reuben, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Sheldon Keller, Gary Belkin
For meaningless perspective's sake, just so that you can have an idea where I was so-thoroughly enjoying myself, as you are looking at the stage, I was about halfway back and off to the left against the wall. My recollection is that I perhaps briefly can be seen, but as a sort of heads-up -- I'll be the one laughing.
On this week’s episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, the guest is Ian Brennan, who co-created the series The Politician, Scream Queens, Glee and Netflix’s alt-history limited series Hollywood talks about his show and also how rewriting the past may impact the future.
It's been a while since we've had an episode of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, so it's time we headed back to the intersection there. On this week's episode, the guest is Lee Eisenberg – who wrote for The Office, Hello Ladies and Good Boys – and who co-developed the Apple TV+ anthology series Little America that tells immigrant stories, taking the specific tales and making them universal.
A moment of personal privilege today.
I found out yesterday that my friend Jeff Wright passed away on Monday. It wasn't from the coronavirus -- Jeff had gotten pounded by cancer 2-1/2 years ago and battled strongly against it, going through lots of procedures, having it come back, and fighting it again, but ultimately it was just too much.
I knew Jeff for 30 years. We weren't in close, regular contact -- we spoke or sent emails a couple times a year, and every once in a while we would have lunch...though it was a treasured friendship that lasted for 30 years, well-worth keeping up for three decades specifically because he was an absolutely wonderful guy. Truly nice, just gentle and selfless, decent almost to a fault. Really.
No, really -- so decent that it genuinely was almost to a fault. Sometimes you'd almost have to shake him silly to stop being so freaking decent. Really. Jeff was a very talented writer. Years back, in the very early days of his career, he co-wrote the first draft of a screenplay with another guy I know (who we'll call Ralph). Ralph had a touch more experience and credits, and told Jeff that it would be far beneficial to both their careers if he, Ralph, took sole credit on their draft so that when he and another highly-established writer did the second draft, Ralph's stock would rise more separately than as a team and allow him to bring Jeff along when they did their next script together. Jeff knew it would be important for him to get credit, but with his ethereally good, selfless nature didn't want to stand in the way of the insistence of his slightly-more experienced partner, didn't want to block the project which was moving forward when the new writer got involved, and agreed on the future benefit. (I found all this out after the fact.) The movie got made, was moderately successful, and Jeff was paid, but deeply warm-hearted Jeff never got that boost on their next "we're partners" script together, since it never occurred, But whenever I see the movie every time it shows up on TV -- and it periodically does -- I think of it as Jeff's script, as much as anyone's.
Okay, another screenwriting story on his decency almost to a fault, though fortunately with a better ending. Jeff had written a lovely children's adventure screenplay and gave co-story credit to the person who typed the script. I couldn't understand -- Jeff explained that he didn't have enough money to pay her in full what she deserved but she'd given him some feedback on the script, so he said he'd give her co-story credit. He knew full-well that giving feedback was not even remotely writing, but...he'd given his word. However, when I made clear that he'd never be able to use the script as a sample of his work with someone else's name also on it and kept pounding that in relentlessly against his insistence that he'd promised, he'd promised, "but I promised," he finally agreed to change the title page, worked things out with the typist and thank goodness took his proper full credit.
Happily, Jeff did get a co-writing credit on a fairly-high profile movie that made it to the theaters, though it didn't do well (long story about that...), the comedy BASEketball from David Zucker that starred Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park. That was back in my dark days of PR and I did the publicity on the film -- the screenplay was a lot of fun, unfortunately the filmmakers just mucked it up trying to make a sweet PG movie into something R-rated, which they acknowledged later.
Aside from being so nice and decent, Jeff also loved baseball. So, he gets a double-bonus on being an absolutely wonderful guy. As I said, we didn't get together often or talk often, but it added up to a lot over 30 years, and every time we did I just felt better afterwards. I'm just better for knowing Jeff.
The last time I saw Jeff was last year when we met for dinner at a restaurant in the Silverlake district that made Chicago-style deep dish pizza. It also gave me the chance to finally meet his wife Laurie. They'd married a few years back, but schedules never worked out. Boy, did he marry well. Just an absolutely lovely woman who Jeff adored, and who was a total, impressive, loving Rock of Gibraltar during his last very difficult couple of years. It wasn't the proper ending, but -- sorry, I've got to use the pun because it fits too well -- it was the Wright life.
I'd met Jeff when I was hired to be the publicist on the Naked Gun films, and Jeff was working with the Zucker Bros. company. And since they tended to put people around them in small roles of their films, Jeff was in a bunch of them. In fact, because he'd started out as an aspiring actor before becoming a writer, he actually got lines!
And so, here he is in Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear. Jeff plays a stock boy who comes in around the 30-second mark.
However, the walk-on role that Jeff got the most attention for came in the original The Naked Gun film -- because it involved the famous, hugely-popular sequence when Leslie Nielsen pretends to be opera singer Enrico Pallazzo and destroys singing the National Anthem. Jeff played the Dodger Stadium usher who has to go get Signor Pallazo and bring him to the field. That's Jeff coming down the hallway at the 2-minute mark.
So, happily, Jeff Wright will live on in film. But of course SO far, far, far more he will live on for his profound decency, warmth and glowing kindness in all those people who so-dearly admired and appreciated him.
We haven't had an episode in a while of 3rd and Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, so let's rectify that with a good one that's timely. The guest is Greg Daniels, who co-created with Steve Carell the new Netflix series Space Force that premiered just yesterday. He also developed The Office for American television, and created Parks and Recreation, King of the Kill, and the new Amazon Prime series, Upload. He talks here about his writing, TV, his career and his two new shows.
Last week, the NBC series Parks & Recreation had a reunion episode of sorts, done with all the cast members participating from home in a fun, fairly clever premise of Leslie Knope (played by Amy Pohler) trying to stay in touch with everyone on a regular basis during the stay-at-home pandemic to make sure everyone was all right. It wasn't plot-heavy, but enjoyable, particularly seeing all the cast members back together.
Tonight, the current CBS series, All Rise, is returning to the air with a new episode -- also done remotely at home. The Writers Guild of America had an interesting article about how the episode all came about, and I thought I'd repost it here below.
(There was no credit line with the article, so alas I can't tell you who wrote it.)
The CBS legal drama All Rise has been one of the first primetime network scripted series to resume production, with a special remotely produced episode set to air this Monday, May 4 at 9 p.m. The show’s creative team, headed by co-EPs Greg Spottiswood and Dee Harris-Lawrence, virtually wrote and produced the topical episode, which addresses the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on criminal justice and the LA County jail system.
"It's a unique chance for our All Rise family to band together—in our different homes, even cities—to tell a story about resilience, justice, and the power of community," said Spottiswood.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only reflected in the upcoming episode’s narrative content, but it impacted how the episode was shot and produced as well. Inspired by current events and penned via a virtual writers’ room, the episode, entitled “Dancing at Los Angeles” (co-written by Spottiswood & Gregory Nelson), was filmed using Zoom, Webex, Facebook, and other social media and tech platforms. When production was cut short in mid-March, there was an unusually quick turnaround time from when the show’s writer-producers first conceived and pitched the idea, to the writing, filming, and air date. It will be the final original episode to air during the series’ first season run.
The All Rise writers’ room operated remotely via Zoom sessions to work on the episode: “We had a virtual writers’ room with a virtual white board, and we had virtual cards, which we shared, and we put up the collaborative function on Final Draft, and wrote and edited each other’s work together in real time on the same document while we were writing,” said Spottiswood. “Neither of us had ever worked that way before, but because Greg [Nelson] and I have worked together for a long time, not only on this season of television but on other shows we’ve done, we had a shorthand, which made the transition into the ‘virtual’ world a lot smoother than it would be for writers who may be just getting to know each other.”
Art imitates life, as the series' main characters manage their new daily routines at home. In the episode, Judge Benner (Marg Helgenberger) authorizes Judge Lola Carmichael (Simone Missick) to virtually preside over a trial, while other characters attempt to maintain relationships under quarantine. One character deals with the struggle of working as a food delivery driver to make ends meet. The episode’s plotline has real-life parallels, as some US courts are currently using Zoom to hear, try, and rule on cases while courtrooms are closed. The show's consulting producer, former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, was on hand to provide insight into how the justice system continues in LA, even during a pandemic.
Compelled by both the unprecedented circumstances and logistical limitations of shooting remotely, the series’ production team had to get creative: Using Webex to create their own private network to dial in to shoot specific scenes, virtual footage was shot in each of the series regulars' homes, adding VFX to create necessary backgrounds. In addition, a lone cinematographer operating solo captured exterior footage that reflects the desolate environment that currently exists on the streets of LA. Surprisingly, the show’s team shot 64 pages in six ten-hour days, a faster pace than most one-hour series productions.
While CBS has yet to determine if the freshman series will be renewed for a second season, the show’s creative team would continue to incorporate some of these themes and production techniques going forward: “From a storytelling standpoint, I think that COVID-19 is going to affect all of our lives certainly into next year, and it’s going to affect how everyone does their jobs, so it’s going to become a part of our storytelling,” said Spottiswood. “We’ll take our lead from how the justice system itself is dealing with it, and how our characters are dealing with it, so some aspects of this special episode are going to carry over [to next season].”
But are audiences ready to watch scripted fare that mirrors the grim daily reality many people look to TV to escape from?
“It was a huge consideration, as we talk about tone all the time,” explained Spottiswood. “All Rise is an aspirational show, a hopeful show, that takes very real dynamics in the justice system and sees them through a specific lens of Lola and our characters, so it was something we talked about conceptually, and something Greg and I talked about every day when we were writing. We tried to focus on what our characters were experiencing in that moment, and to be honest to those characters and their situations.
“Many of our characters are essential workers, so they have to find a way to do their jobs. The justice system does not close down. It slows down to a dangerous pace, and people are in jeopardy or vulnerable as a consequence, and their Constitutional rights are at stake, so we focused in on the story and the relationships between characters and their ability, or inability, to find a way to connect. The movement, for us as writers in this episode, is one from isolation to connection, and that was our guiding principal.”
Continues Spottiswood, “Here are some people who feel as isolated as all of us do during this crisis, and what story can we tell to find them just a simple moment of connection with another human being so they feel less alone. Our hope is the audience will identify with that. Whatever their specific circumstance is, whether living in fortune or misfortune, a story about finding moments of connection and a quest for justice in an unusual circumstance is something that we hope, and believe, will resonate with our audience.”
Just in time for the Oscars, we have a special edition of 3rd & Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America. Recently, the WGA and Writers Guild Foundation held its 2020 Beyond Words special event. The WGA Awards-nominated screenwriters gathered to discuss their acclaimed films, and the group included Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), Greta Gerwig (Little Women), Steven Zaillian (The Irishman), Rian Johnson (Knives Out), and Micah Fitzerman-Blue & Noah Harpster (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), among others.
The guest on this episode of 3rd & Fairfax, the official podcast of the Writers Guild of America is screenwriter/director Noah Baumbach, whose movie Marriage Story just received a Best Picture nomination, as well as a Best Original Screenplay nomination – as well as a Writers Guild nomination. His films also include, Frances Ha, Greenberg, The Meyerowitz Stories, and The Squid and the Whale, along with the screenplay for such movies as Madagascar 3 and The Corrections. ). He talks here about creative process and career.
Big congrats to the inveterate Chris Dunn winning yet another Writers Guild Award as a member of the writing staff for The Young and the Restless. I believe this is something like his 37th WGA Award, though it may be less.
Little Known Tidbit: He is who the "Restless" is named after because he is of nomad heritage. Also, he's won so many WGA Awards that he now gives them away to Trick-or-Treaters on Halloween. (In fairness, he doesn't get all that many since he yells, "You kids get off my lawn!", so they now tend to avoid his house. He's had maybe three Trick-or-Treaters over the past five years.
Mr. Dunn has informed the press that he was out grocery shopping when he learned he was won -- yet again. No word yet on (as the obligatory Awards red carpet question goes) "Who were you wearing?" At the moment, the leading contender for Correct Answer is between --
Whatever Cathy would let me leave the house in
Everything was Cardinals Red
My lucky Awards shirt
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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