We Are All Political Writers Now

Like many of my colleagues in the pop culture writing business, I had a career crisis after the election: What, exactly, was I doing with my life? Was it enough to write about TV, music, and pop culture history? Should I be breaking important political stories instead, or at least writing scathing commentary about the state of our society?

By the time I emerged from my post-election stupor/denial/insomnia nightmare, however, it was clear that what I do for a living is just fine. Because any subject matter, at least now, can become a scathing commentary. Every subject matter bends back toward the black hole that is now our U.S. government. Maybe it’s because our incoming president is an “entertainer” that I find myself quite able to write about him while staying in my expertise lane; after all, I covered the man for a few years when The Apprentice was a hit. But maybe it’s just because literally everything seems tainted by the mood of the country.

My first three assignments of 2017 have all been about Trump-related issues in comedy, television history, and pop music. Meanwhile, there was that great Vanity Fair review of Trump Tower Grill that had our future president fuming—and absolutely serves as both a thorough restaurant review and a political piece for the ages. And now there’s this delightfully snide TV listing (!) for Trump’s inauguration, which ran in the Scottish Sunday Herald and treats it like a dystopian drama that couldn’t possibly be real life. We are all political writers now.

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Drake’s Real Rap Debut (on ‘Degrassi’)

Before Drake was Drake, he was Canadian actor Aubrey Graham, best known for depicting Jimmy Brooks on the excellent Degrassi: The Next Generation. This totally addictive teen show, which continues with yet another generation of young characters on Netflix, hit its first heyday in the ’80s as a cult favorite after-school special, and another one in the 2000s with The Next Generation, which aired on The N in America, a now-defunct teen network.

Out of nowhere and for no actual reason besides Degrassi‘s awesomeness (and Drake’s current blossoming romance with Jennifer Lopez), I had a passionate online discussion about Degrassi, and specifically Drake’s time on it, with some friends (thanks, Pamela!) and my sister, Julie, who got me into the show back when she was in her early 20s and I was … older than that. But being in my early 30s did not make me immune to this show’s charms, and I wasn’t the only adult watching. Because it was Canadian, it dealt more honestly than American teen shows with major issues like gun violence (Jimmy was paralyzed in a school shooting), sex, drinking, sexual assault, class differences, and abortion (The N originally refused to air a character’s decision to get one). The actors were playing closer to their age than most American teen shows, which tended to employ actors pushing 30 to play high schoolers. They were also far more diverse. And this all made the show very compelling to watch.

One of my favorite set visits ever when I worked for Entertainment Weekly was to Degrassi. I spent several days there, roaming the halls of the actual former school building that served as the set. Most sets are sets—they have no fourth wall. But Degrassi was actually in a school building and felt like school. The halls had lockers. We ate in a school lunchroom. I sat on the steps of the school to interview the erstwhile Aubrey Graham—already Drake-charming and uncomfortably flirty at just 17.

To honor Drake’s rise, I give you his first rap performance on Degrassi. The show had a lot of music (there’s an epic Battle of the Bands episode pitting the boys—Downtown Sasquatch—versus the girls—Hell Hath No Fury), and the kids were all legit talented. But Julie and I both remember watching this and going, Whoa. I think he might be really good.

R.I.P. Grant Tinker, a Goddamn Legend of the TV Biz (Who Actually Deserved to Be a Goddamn Legend)

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I looove this pic of Mary and Grant at the Emmy Awards. ’70s Glamorous.

TV executive Grant Tinker died this week, but I hate describing him with such a generic, dismissive label. He was an advertising man and a producer, the guy at the head of MTM Enterprises and later NBC. But none of these descriptions do him justice, either. So let’s try one more time: His rare combination of business acumen, creative instincts, respect for writing and vision, and his old-fashioned decency made him a goddamn legend who deserved to be a goddamn legend. There. That’s at least a little closer.

You could go your whole life enjoying many of the products of Grant Tinker’s genius without ever knowing who Grant Tinker was. He was a vice president at Twentieth Century Fox Television in 1969 when his then-wife, actress Mary Tyler Moore, was putting together a new show for CBS. He spotted the talent of writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who were running the innovative high school drama Room 222, produced by Twentieth Century. He asked the two to take a crack at whipping up something for Moore—the result was the beautifully crafted Mary Tyler Moore Show.

“I hired you because you did stuff that seemed to be in the real world,” he told Brooks and Burns. “And that’s what I want this to be.” Tinker would have to fight CBS executives to secure his producers the right to do (mostly) what they wanted with the show: They pitched Moore as a divorced woman starting over. CBS balked and even asked Tinker to fire Brooks and Burns. (Divorce was still a big deal in 1969.) He refused to do so, but the team-MTM worked out a relatively harmless compromise by making her character a single, professional woman getting over a breakup. The divorce didn’t have to be the point, per se. They made a show that was not only a classic, but also a watershed moment for women on television—she may not have been divorced, but she was a professional, single woman who took birth control, stayed out all night sometimes, and never bothered to get married in the seven-year run of the show.

Tinker wanted his wife to have the career she wanted, a sadly remarkable trait for the time. CBS’s then-vice president of development, Fred Silverman, told me in my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted that Moore and Tinker were a formidable business team: “They knew exactly what they wanted to do and they were going to do it. After that the network threw its hands up.”

MTM Enterprises became a gold standard for TV studios over the next two decades. Their series included The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart. The studio lot on Radford Avenue was known as “Camelot” because of Tinker’s insistence on creative autonomy for his producers.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Tinker is that even though I talked to dozens of people about him for my book, not one said one even slightly negative thing about the guy. This is in Hollywood, mind you. All they had were tales of generosity, goodness, fairness, and principles. When I talked to the man himself, he was a forthcoming gentleman, the real deal. He will be missed, but his influence lives on in every great show you see today.

‘Saturday Night Live’ Wakes Up With the Rest of Us

Saturday Night Live opened its first post-election show with a moment that grows only more extraordinary with thought (and, in my case at least, repeated viewing): Kate McKinnon, dressed in her familiar Hillary Clinton character, played the piano and sang the recently departed Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah.” When I first saw her at the piano, I assumed she’d be performing a parody song that, even if respectful, would also make us laugh. In fact, I spent the first half of the song still sort-of waiting for it to take that turn, even though that would be a questionable choice in light of Cohen’s death; the comedic turn never came.

As the comedy-free trajectory sunk in, its brilliance shone: It gave me, and presumably the rest of the half of the nation that supported Clinton/cannot sleep at the thought of a Trump regime, an image we didn’t know we wanted, but felt like the perfect catharsis. It served as a far more memorable tribute to Cohen, one that will be remembered for years, than some basic musical performance would. It opened the show on what had to be the most somber note ever in the show’s history following an election result. It kept any image of our new president, even a lampooning one, out of our sight at this raw time. And it was only improved by McKinnon’s in-tune but modest singing voice, more earnest than technically beautiful. Who knew the world could even stand another cover version of “Hallelujah,” let alone desperately need it?

The performance also flowed well into the opening monologue from host Dave Chappelle, who was booked for the appearance before the election but served as the perfect transition into a new time for America, and thus the show. He dropped N-bombs, as is his wont, as well as some brutal commentary on Black Lives Matter, ISIS/mass shooting jokes (yep, it worked), a stunning story about visiting the White House for an all-black (except for Bradley Cooper) party recently, and a genuine wish for Trump’s presidency. (“I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m gonna give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.”) Chappelle was at his finest, deploying beautifully phrased stories and jokes and gut punches as spontaneously as if they had just occurred to him.

It was great to see Chappelle back in the national-television game at a time when we need gutsier, more pointed satire of the kind he used to do on his Comedy Central sketch show. (No doubt whom his blind, black white supremacist character would vote for this year.) I hope this signals a bolder direction for SNL as we move into uncharted territory. As Saturday’s show proved, comedy can be a serious force if it wants to be.

Why ‘Saturday Night Live’ Needs to Update Its Act Before It’s Too Late

This weekend, Saturday Night Live debuted its new Trump for election season, played by Alec Baldwin. Naturally, Baldwin nailed the character like he would if he were playing him in a serious biopic, and the fake-tan game was next-level. But some Sunday-morning critics like Yahoo!’s Ken Tucker were quick to point out that Trump is no usual politician; simply making fun of his obviously eccentric mannerisms, and equating those quirks with those of Hillary Clinton or other candidates, is offensive at this stage.

It is offensive. It’s also just lazy comedy. And Saturday Night Live needs to rethink its approach, with a mere 36 days to go before Election Day.

SNL can and should go way, way deeper on this one. Not because they are our only hope against electing a racist, unstable narcissist — believe me (as he’d say), the SNL powers that be guarded themselves well against that expectation in the press leading up to Saturday’s season premiere, denying that their little comedy show could have any real impact on elections. “I think it has an effect,” creator/executive producer Lorne Michaels said in a great analysis piece in The Washington Post“but we don’t influence people in how to vote.”

Of course, they could, and have, affected elections, Tina Fey’s devastating Sarah Palin portrayal being the prime example. (We all know by now that it was Fey-as-Palin, not Palin, who said, “I can see Russia from my house.” Right?) But there are ways SNL could still give The Daily Show and its descendants (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) a run for their political cachet. To do that, SNL has to get over the way it’s done things for 41 years.

When the show premiered in 1975, simply poking fun at the mannerisms and speaking patterns of a president or potential president was a radical act. Moving from the JFK days of grave respect for our leaders to the era of Nixon, this represented a genuine shift. So re-enacting the week’s events — press conferences, debates, and interviews most of us had seen in real life — with the SNL satirical twist was enough. Ha, ha, we said to ourselves. That was what he really meant. 

Now, the show must go far beyond sending up politicians the same way it sends up pop stars. It needs to skip the debate re-enactment — by the time it airs, the Internet has chewed up every moment and spit it out via memes, recaps, and tweets anyway. You knew Kate McKinnon was going to do Hillary’s debate shimmy, but it was funnier when Internet memes compared her to Shaq, and we’d seen a billion other iterations by Saturday.

I’m loathe to start pitching sketch ideas to the professionals, but as a general starting point, why not imagine scenarios Trump’s insane policies might bring about? He builds his precious wall, but refuses to pay the workers, as he’s done so many times in his own business, so he has to finish it himself with his tiny hands. He finds himself in office with no actual plan besides, “Believe me, it’s gonna be huge. We’re gonna win.” He fills his cabinet the only way he knows how, via Celebrity Apprentice, only to find his mid-list celebrities are taking the job more seriously than he is. He stars in a terrifying buddy comedy with Putin. Baldwin and Fey play Trump and Palin in a Very Dark 30 Rock about supposed leaders who can’t seem to form complete sentences.

As I said, I’m not an SNL writer, so I’m not pretending these are the ideas that will save us. Just examples of new ways to think beyond impressions and lazy re-enactments. Maybe they won’t save us. But it might even be good for comedy if they try.

Some SEINFELDIA Press

People like to talk about Seinfeld! Here are some places it has been recently:

I talked Seinfeldia with my smart friends at Vulture.

Particularly great excerpt (i.e. I like the bits they chose) about “The Junior Mint,” “The Contest,” and others in The Guardian.

I also talked Seinfeldia with fellow Seinfeld geek Jim Turano at WGN (in my hometown, Chicago!). 

A Salon.com discussion about the antiheroes of Seinfeld.

And ‘How Seinfeld Became About Something,’ from NBC online.

SEINFELDIA Preview: An Interview with NBC Executive Jeremiah Bosgang

SEINFELDIAJeremiah Bosgang was on Seinfeld duty as a staffer at NBC from the show’s earliest days, when it was still called The Seinfeld Chronicles. For my upcoming book Seinfeldia, I interviewed him about how his boss Rick Ludwin, the network’s senior VP of specials, variety, and latenight, nurtured the strange little show that was about little more than a comedian talking to his friends.

It’s unusual for a sitcom to be developed in the latenight department. How did that happen?

That department is really like the step child. The really cool places are comedy and drama development. I joined Rick as a program associate, which is this special program that NBC had where they bring people in as development executives. You have maybe two years and they see if you’re somebody who can go on to become an executive. I joined in the late ’80s. Rick Ludwin had identified Jerry Seinfeld as this up and coming comedian. He thought this guy is the next thing to really break through. He called Jerry and his managers in for a meeting and asked what he wanted to do. Jerry was like, “I don’t know.” They came up with this idea that Seinfeld was supposed to be a hybrid show. The idea became: I’m going to do these three pods of standup, and then after those standup pieces, we’ll have these little scenes that show how I got the idea. And the pilot was very heavy on that. The first four to six episodes were like that.

How were you involved with the show?

I came in when the pilot was done. I had really always wanted to write and perform comedy. He said, “You’re gonna be the point person.” It was my first job as a network executive. I was probably 28 years old. After we’d do a table reading of the show, I was one of the guys giving Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld notes. What the hell did I know? They were always really very nice to me.

How did it change from The Seinfeld Chronicles for the first episode to Seinfeld after that?

I still remember [NBC President] Brandon Tartikoff talking about how Jerry was unhappy with the title of the show. at the time the show was not any huge success. There were strong advocates for the show at the network, chiefly Rick Ludwin and myself. I remember Brandon coming down to Rick Ludwin’s office when I was in there. He said, “I caved to Seinfeld, it’s gonna be called Seinfeld now.”

What was the relationship like between the network and the show then?

One of the the things that I learned from Rick Ludwin was that Rick really empowered Jerry and Larry to do the kind of show that they wanted to do. Even if there were times when we were scratching our heads at those early episodes, what I learned was this was their show. NBC hired a real voice and talent and vision and then created an environment so they could do what they do. Rick and I had to fight internally to give Seinfeld its due. At the time the show that was supposed to be the big show was Wings. The people at NBC really believed in Wings and the creative people behind Wings. Seinfeld was this thing where even when it wasn’t a perfect episode, you’d go, Wow, that was kind of cool.

How did being involved in Seinfeld help your career?

The big upstart then was Fox. I ended up leaving NBC to become the head of comedy development at Fox largely due to the halo effect of Seinfeld. Even though there were lots of other successful sitcoms built around a comedian, there was nothing that had the kind of storytelling and pacing that Jerry and Larry created.

 

SEINFELDIA Preview: An Interview with Writer Peter Mehlman

la-et-jc-seinfeld-writer-peter-mehlman-on-his-novel-it-wont-always-be-this-great-20141107Peter Mehlman was the first writer hired for Seinfeld outside the core production staff, starting with the 13-episode season that was basically the show’s second. (It began with one episode in July 1989, four episodes the next summer, and 13 the following year.) He was also one of the rare Seinfeld writers who stuck around for multiple seasons—in fact, he didn’t leave until the penultimate season, when he left to develop his own show, the gone-too-soon It’s Like, You Know …Here, some highlights of my interview with Mehlman for my upcoming book Seinfeldia (out July 5, available for pre-order now!).

 

So what was that like, being there for most of the show’s run?

It was so amazing to be on that ride. The show was so good, it was like I couldn’t believe the show could possibly fail. After my first script, when we shot it, Larry said, “If by some off chance we get picked up, you’ve got the job.” And it was like, there was no doubt in my mind that this was going to get picked up. It was just so good. I didn’t realize, of course, that being good is actually a detriment to your chances. At that time, I didn’t realize all that.

 

Did your life change as the show got popular?

Not so much in day-to-day work life. But you could feel things changing. Like all of a sudden the show started getting a little bit of notice and tons of agents started showing up. And none of us knew what we were doing. Larry and Jerry hadn’t even done a sitcom before so we would just let the agents hang out on the floor. So the floor of the Seinfeld set got to be this weekly party. It was like a mob scene.

They were trying to sign writers, especially me because I was with a boutique agency. I would say almost more like a bodega agency. I later found out that CAA and ICM, they literally had agents assigned to me, to try to get me to leave my agency.

Did you ever?

Not until about two years ago.

How did you initially get your agent?

I wrote one spec script for The Wonder Years, not even really planning on getting into the business. I was a freelance magazine writer at the time. So I moved to Los Angeles and I’d seen a few episodes of The Wonder Years and I thought, “Oh, you know what I should do? I should write a freelance script for them and make all this money!” I thought it would really help me out because moving is expensive. I had no idea that your chances of having a script bought on a freelance basis like that are basically next to zero. And obviously it never got anywhere near the show, but somebody passed it on to somebody who passed it on to somebody and it got to my agent. And then somebody met with me and I had an agent!

Did he help you get Seinfeld then?

No, he had nothing to do with it. Agents never really get anybody any jobs. They negotiate when something falls in their lap.

So how did Seinfeld happen?

I met Larry in New York a couple of times. And then I moved out [to L.A.] in ’89. I was still just freelance magazine writing. And the year I moved here, I bumped into Larry. He was doing this little show with Jerry Seinfeld. And maybe I could write a script? He had no idea that I’d never written dialog, really. And so I gave him a writing sample. It was an article from The New York Times, an “About Men” column that was kind of a bittersweet, funny essay. And he passed it on to Jerry. And Jerry just liked it, so… they gave me a chance to write a script.

For more, check out Seinfeldia, on sale July 5.

 

My Favorite ‘Seinfeld’ Scene: George’s Whale Monologue

I have a book about Seinfeld, called Seinfeldia, coming out July 5 (and available for pre-order now), and I’ve already done a handful of interviews about it. The natural question that comes up is: What is your favorite episode? I think I answer this differently depending on my mood because there are so many good ones. If I’m feeling geeky, it’s “The Chinese Restaurant” because that represented the show’s first risky departure from sitcom conventions. If I’m feeling feminist, I go for Elaine’s “spongeworthy” plotline. If I’m feeling indecisive, I start rambling about how I really love the entire arc in which George and Jerry make a sitcom called Jerry, which ultimately fails. If I’m feeling contrary, I go for the much-hated finale, which I’ve loved upon re-watch.

I do, however, know my favorite scene, and that’s George’s monologue explaining how he saved a whale after pretending to be a marine biologist while on a date. (“The sea was angry that day, my friends …”) If I were an actor who had to do auditions, this would be my go-to material. It displays Jason Alexander’s special skill as an actor that made this character so great—the dramatic talent he brings to comedy. He plays George as a guy who’s quite serious about the cosmic joke he knows life is. I also remember this scene as possibly the first time, during the show’s original run, that I as a young viewer really got how brilliant Seinfeld was, the way it brought all the crazy plotlines together at the end of an episode in one comic quadruple-pirouette. Let’s enjoy: