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Arts and Entertainment

Meet Rob Long: KCRW's 'Martini' Shooter

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KCRW’s “Martini Shot” is TV writer/producer Rob Long's weekly peek into showbiz. Told from his experiences, Long's four-minute commentaries explore Hollywood's inherently humorous dualities, and eccentricities.

With one foot planted on the lot, and the other far from it, Long's perspective is as unique as it is humble. "Martini Shot" is a definite highlight of the lauded FM station's schedule.

Long’s first taste of Hollywood came at 23, when the young writer was hired on a little show called "Cheers." This legendary sitcom not only pumped his hometown (Boston) full of reputational Botox, it also cluttered his mantle with Emmys. By 27, he was one of the show's executive producers. As old media turns new, many pilots and pitches later, Long continues to find success and maintain sanity.

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LAist recently had a chat with Long, dog Illy at his side, about the television business, life in Los Angeles, and the great food that fuels his life.

LAist: Where did “Martini Shot” come from?

Rob Long: It came from my friend Toby Young, who is an English journalist. He ran a little literary magazine in London, and now he’s a judge on "Top Chef" -- quite the career trajectory. He had this magazine called “Modern Review,” and he called me up and said "would you write a little piece." Eventually I started writing some, really, diary entries, because it was in London, and no one I knew read this thing. I just started writing the truth, or a version of the truth.

Before long I wrote enough of them that a literary agent in London called me up and said we should put this into a book, and we did. Then another book. That’s when KCRW said "why don’t you do this for us weekly and read it." At first I said I’ll just do it for a few moths, then I kind of liked it.

Where does Martini Shot's perspective originate?

When you’ve been here long enough you start seeing patterns emerge. Everyone in Hollywood plays their part. No one’s trying to make life difficult for you. You can’t really get mad at anyone. People start doing foolish things, but people do foolish things in every business. Sometimes they do great things.

I’m still here. I haven’t left. It’s been great to me. It’s not that hard, you don’t have to get up early.

After graduating Yale you attended the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television, but didn’t finish. What made you leave early?

I got a job. I remember calling Richard Walter, who was running the program. He was a great writer’s mentor. He said "get out of here, go work.” I just started working and I didn’t stop. "Cheers" was my first real job in life. It was completely bananas. I remember standing at the first table reading thinking “I don’t even know where to sit. I don’t know what to say.” The truth is, sit anywhere in the back, and don’t say any thing. That was the career advice: just listen; just shut up.

Did you have a favorite “Cheers” character to write?

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The thing about that show was everybody was so relaxed and easy. Everybody on that show was really nice -- it’s such a cliche to say it, but I’ve never worked on a show in which everybody wasn’t really nice.

As a writer you always want to work with someone like Kelsey [Grammer] or Ted [Danson.] Ted, because he’s so authentic. Writing a joke for Ted was really hard because it just didn’t seem real coming from him. But you could write a line that seemed real, that he made super funny because he had this weird effortless way of doing it. And Kelsey, because Kelsey could say anything funny. In run-throughs he’d do it ten different ways, and he could say "which one do you like?" You could say “I like #4 and #8”, and he would know exactly what you meant.

For TV comedy what is more important: strong comedic chops or the ability to tell a story?

I’m sure a million people disagree, but it always seems to me, whenever I find myself talking about the story -- “the story doesn’t work here, the story doesn’t work there” -- what I’m really saying is I feel bored in this scene and I don’t know why. It’s because the thing isn’t funny, nothing interesting is happening in it.

If something funny happens twice a page, in a half-hour script, that’s all the thinking you should be doing about it, it seems to me. The jokes are really important -- that’s the deal you’re giving the audience. If I’m hiring people, I want them to be funny, first and foremost. The funny people get you home faster. Every decent person’s career goal is to go back home.

The story craft is something you can kind of learn after a few months. “Okay, we have an act two, so something has to happen in that act. And something has to happen in act one that makes you want to watch act two” -- that’s pretty much the only thing that story is.

What’s some advice for young writers?

When I started the idea was: you work on a show, you work your way up to showrunner, you leave, then you get a gigantic development deal, then you pitch a show, you sell it, and you run that show. Then you’re done. That was the plan and everybody was on the same plan. Then that plan collapsed. If you’re starting out now, you can’t start with those expectations. There’s really no career plan.

I think this is a great time to start out in the business. You have very few expectations, and you can live in a crappy apartment in West LA with cottage cheese ceilings and eat ramen for a while. You might as well lever off the fact that you’re just starting out, you don’t need so much, and you should keep writing.

If you’re a writer you have to be writing always.

What advice do you have for more experienced writers?

I think the one thing is that you need to get out of LA regularly. You can’t get your ideas from watching other people’s TV shows, or going to the Brentwood County Mart. You’ve got to travel a little bit, and always be writing. You also have to be willing to walk away. If you’re a writer the only power you have is the power of the alternative, the power to say no. And if you can’t say "no," you’re sort of SOL. That’s kind of a bad position to be in, I think in general.

What’s it like to be a regularly working writer who isn't currently on a show that's been around for a while?

I hate to sound like an old man, but those days are gone where you can have a studio deal and they pay you a lot of money to come up with an idea. There are few of them who are my age, or my year, who sort of scooted in just as the gate was coming down. A lot of people expected the ‘90s to last forever and they have spent the past five years thinking “this’ll come back right? The studios will start hiring again, giving these three-year development contracts?” That’s never going to happen.

What about Hollywood still boggles you mind after all these years?

I’m always surprised at studios and networks. They’ll send out the message “we’re going to need projects based on the things we want.” They end up getting 100 scripts of one bad idea. They’ll make five of those, and of the five versions they get one which isn’t bad. This is where they step on the hose so early and they end up getting nothing. It’s very strange, but it’s like this legacy of the way they do business. “We have to pretend we can reverse-engineer a hit.” You can’t.

We are top-heavy with decision makers, and not top-heavy with makers. They used to run these networks with five or six people, now they have five or six hundred people -- all of them up in it. They believe that the reason network television is in such decline is because it has been insufficiently supervised. The reason network TV has gotten so bad is because it’s been too manipulated.

Why would you make a great network executive?

I would be network President of Entertainment for a dollar a year. I’d be great. Here’s why, I would call up 20 writers I know, and I would say: “write me a pilot, I’ll pay you very little (scale,) but I’m not going to give you notes, I’m not going to tell you what to write. I’m going to tell you to look at what’s on TV, look at what’s on my network, and you decide what you think is going to be a big hit. Surprise me.”

Then I’d fire everybody at the network and I’d use all the money to buy scripts. Sometime in January, I’d lock myself up with five people I really trust, whose taste is really interesting, and we’d read all the scripts and we’d pick a bunch. We’d develop those really quickly, and make pilots super cheap -- maybe even not even film them, maybe do a play. And of those I’d order three episodes of that, six episodes of that -- I’d have choices. The only way you can win is to have choices. But if you buy two shows, only two, and those shows represent ideas and demands you made a year before, you’ve totally screwed yourself. I don’t know how you run a business like that.

Why would you make a terrible network executive?

I would probably fail, but you have to fail to succeed. I would do exactly that, probably lose all the money, and everybody would hate me. I don’t know how you do the other way around, but if they shrunk everything, it gives them flexibility. They wouldn’t be trapped.

What’s some recent TV you've enjoyed?

There was absolutely nothing better than “The Wire.” It was the best show ever without a doubt. It was totally riveting. I like anything David Milch does, “Deadwood.” I like “The Simpsons." I was a huge “Malcolm in the Middle Fan.” I thought that was a really, really great show. I watch “Top Chef.” A little bit of everything.

You live in Venice. What keeps you there?

I’ve lived west of Lincoln since 1990. I just like it. I like the light, I like the beach, I like the ocean, and I like the fact that you can walk to dinner. The houses are close to the street, so I can sit on my front porch and have a drink, or smoke a cigar, and my neighbors will come around. It’s a very Southern kind of feeling. Sometimes on nice days it feels like Charleston, where at four in the afternoon everybody’s basically said “okay, no more work,” and we’ll sit and have a glass of wine.

When I moved here in ‘97 it was still emerging. Put it this way -- you couldn’t buy a $75 candle. Now you throw a rock, you hit a $75 candle.

What is your favorite restaurant if you’re paying?

I have to admit I like Osteria Mozza a lot. I love Campanile. I haven’t had a bad meal there. It’s a wonderful restaurant, often overlooked. If you’re going to go out, you’re going to go out.

What’s your favorite restaurant if your agent is paying?

My agent takes me to breakfast at John O’Groats, so that’s not really a very good indication of my worth as a client. I love Sasabune in Brentwood. LA has the best sushi in the country. But I'd probably ask my agent to take me to Mike Ovitz's spot, Kumo on Melrose, which would have special meaning for all of us. Also, there is good sushi for those of us who are AWOL (Always West of Lincoln): Shima on Abbott Kinney.

What’s one random place you love?

The Buggy Whip on La Tijera. It’s not pretend kitsch -- it really is. They haven’t changed it in 50 years. They don’t know that Johnson’s not president. It’s a big piano bar and the guy’s playing Radiohead covers. They don’t know that they’re cool or hip. They’re just a steakhouse.

Where can you find one of your favorite dishes?

There’s a great taco truck, Taco Zone. At night it’s at Alvarado and Montana, a block in from Sunset [Echo Park.] They have a cabeza mulita that’s unbelievably good. Taco trucks are a great think we did in this culture. The good ones are great.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Asia. How do you rate LA’s Chinese food?

I travel to China a lot and I’ve never eaten better Chinese food than I have in San Gabriel. The quality, the cleanliness, and the freshness is so much higher.

Would you change anything about Angelenos?

The downside to LA is when people get home, they just stay home. “I’ve driven all the way home, I’m tired.” Which is too bad. I feel like people in LA, especially younger people, should be more diligent about going out.

It seems your politics are right-leaning. Do you label yourself a “conservative?”

I totally don’t, unfortunately for all my friends. A “Hollywood skeptic,” I would call myself.

What do you think of Hollywood as a political place?

We’re in this frivolous business, we’re the clowns, we’re at the kid’s table -- we forget that all the time. But we really are. When some serious stuff goes down nobody comes to us. When the financial markets collapse, and everything falls apart, nobody says “I wonder what Rob Reiner has to say about this.” As decent a man as he is, it’s not where we go first.

You do charity work with My Friend’s Place. What does the organization do?

It’s a homeless youth agency in Hollywood, at the 101 and Hollywood Blvd. I’ve been involved for fifteen years. There are thousands of kids living on the street, and some of them are having kids themselves. We do drug and alcohol counseling, job training, GED stuff, pre-natal care, and basic medical stuff. It’s an incredibly effective, incredible place.

We have really serious money problems. Our donations are way down. If there are any zillionaires wondering what they can do with an extra $100,000, they can save some lives of kids on the street. There’s nobody else picking up the slack, it’s not like anybody else is open. We’re about $300,000 short for this year and I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’ve got to hope the economy turns around so we can keep the doors open.

How can readers get involved?

We need volunteers always, especially now because we have a lot of people we can’t pay. It’s an absolutely fantastic organization that’s having a very rough time.

Photos courtesy Rob Long (Twitter) / used with permission

Follow Caleb Bacon on Twitter @thecalebbacon.

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