Michael Markowitz [Interview]

 

Hello Folks! Welcome back to our wonderful “Week of Becker“. We have yet another incredible interview to share with you all, from another wonderful writer and producer who worked on the incredible series Becker for a number of years, and contributed to some of the show’s finest moments. It’s Michael Markowitz, Everyone! Michael is credited for writing/producing 90 episodes of this show that we know and love so much, and we are honored to have him grace our digital pages.

As is the theme here at Trainwreck’d Society, we wanted to learn a bit more about Mr. Markowitz, and his accomplishments beyond the world of Becker. And hot damn if there aren’t many! Michael is actually one of the folks responsible for another program I adored a great deal prior to Becker (as well as the ensuing disfunction that would occur later) known as Duckman! It was a revolutionary program in my eyes. I was but a young boy when the program was airing (as we will discuss below), but the show took my eternal love for a show like The Simpsons, and just took it down a bit darker (yet still extremely jovial path) and truly opened my eyes as a youth.

And in more recent years, Markowitz is the man who brought us one of the most hilarious comedic films in the last decade, the absolutely amazing film Horrible Bosses. This film remains to this day remains to be the best work of both Charlie Day and Colin Farrell. In fact, everyone was amazing in it thanks to a beautifully written story by Markowitz himself, but these two were the absolute most memorable roles in my personal opinion.

We are so excited to share some amazing words from this absolutely brilliant individual. We talk a lot about Becker obviously, but we also dive into the other aforementioned projects and so much more. So Folks, please enjoy some wonderful words from the incredible Michael Markowitz!

 

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When did you first discover that you wanted to join the world of entertainment, especially when it comes to writing? Was it an early aspiration that you have had since a youth, or did you happen to find yourself in this world one day?

I actually always wanted to be an actor. I was in all the plays in schools growing up, but I didn’t see it as a career. I had always enjoyed writing, and I showed enough promise that I thought I would be a journalist. I went to Northwestern University to major in journalism, but freshman year I auditioned, on a whim, for the Mee-Ow Show, Northwestern’s improv comedy group. I didn’t know anything about improv, but it looked like fun. 

I got in, and it was life-changing. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in the group, and she and the other members were so amazing, inspired me in whole new ways. The director of the show, Dana Olsen, took me under his wing and taught me so much about comedy. He was head writer for Waa-Mu, the big campus variety show, and he encouraged me to write for Waa-Mu and audition. I got a lot of sketches in the show, and ended up making the cast. I realized journalism wasn’t for me, so sophomore year I switched majors to Theatre. I acted and wrote all through college and loved it, and decided to become an actor. 

After college, I knocked around Los Angeles, trying to be an actor. It’s tough. I decided to go back to Chicago, to study improv at Second City. I was there for three years, loved it, and thought I’d pursue a career there. 

What was your very first paid gig as a writer that you can remember getting? And where there any sort of lessons learned from this experience that still affect your work today?

I didn’t know it, but while I was in Chicago things I’d written years earlier were getting out there back in L.A. One of my best friends from college, Steve Stark, was an executive at Paramount, and he gave my stuff to Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn, legendary writer/producers of Moonlighting, who were creating a new animated series. I can never thank Steve enough for that. They flew me out from Chicago for an interview, and I got the job as staff writer for Duckman. That was my first paying job as a writer, and it changed my life. 

I was so lucky to start my career in that environment. Jeff and Ron always kept a very small staff, no writers room, just constant writing and rewriting. They encouraged us to participate in every aspect: directing actors, doing the Avid and the mix, writing PR and ad materials… It was like a crash education in TV production. I was one of the first TV writers to do weekly online chats with fans after episodes aired. Back then it was on Compuserve, which makes me feel so old just to say!

Thanks to that extraordinary environment, I was able to go from staff writer in season one to one of the showrunners in season four. I never could have done that on another show. Ron and Jeff taught me so much.

 

 

When I was a kid, you could not make me miss an episode of  Duckman. I may have been slightly too young to watch it at the time, but thanks to a wild imagination and poor parental supervision, I was fortunate to really love this show from about ages 9 to 12 years of age, and even many years after. I haven’t watched the show in quite some time, but I am left with fond memories. With that being said, what do believe is the Duckman legacy? And could you foresee a resurgence in this cult classic show?

You have no idea how happy that makes me to hear. If we could play some small part in corrupting a kid, job well done. We had so much fun doing that show. It was hard work — we had a very low budget and animation back then was expensive, so creative solutions were always needed for so many unforeseen problems — but it was the best experience of my life. We always had a small writing staff but the writers were phenomenally talented. We got so little real interference from the network, USA, in part because we were only their first or second original show. Also we had an amazing network executive, Paula Rosenthal, who was so smart and supportive, just the best. When a writer praises a network exec, who is usually “the enemy”, you know she must have been special. And of course we had a phenomenal cast. Tim Curry is one of the loveliest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with, just a joy. 

And I can’t say enough about the talent of Jason Alexander. He made Duckman what he is. It’s a very difficult part to play, because it ranges from the broadest comedy to the most delicate emotion. But Jason always nailed it. Whatever acting challenge we threw at him, he exceeded our expectations. 

We always wrote just to make ourselves laugh, and then always tried to top ourselves. We kept attracting bigger and bigger guests. We would sometimes just write a show for a guest star that we really wanted to meet, no other reason. I wrote Joe Walsh into an episode because, come on, who doesn’t want to meet Joe Walsh? He was so great that we had him back for another episode, one I love called “Love, Anger, Kvetching!”  For that show, Joe recorded “Life’s Been Good” with my new lyrics! What a thrill. 

We wrote a song and James Brown came in to record it. David Duchovny, Carl Reiner, Ben Stiller, dozens and dozens of dream guest stars. We did a Star Trek episode with James Doohan and Leonard Nimoy! 

I’ve always been a Simpsons superfan, and for one episode (“Haunted Society Plumbers”) I got it into my head that I wanted Homer Simpson to have a cameo. Everyone said it was impossible, that 20th Century Fox would never allow Paramount to have Homer. But I figured, what the hell, and I wrote Matt Groening a letter explaining what we wanted to do. To my shock, he called me and said he loved Duckman and he’d make it happen. And sure enough they sent over the Homer character models and arranged for Dan Castellaneta to record Homer’s voice. That day was my biggest thrill in show business. And I learned a lot from the generosity and kindness of the folks at The Simpsons. 

We always tried to do something better than the week before, to try a new way of storytelling, to play with the traditional form. That’s why I think the show kept getting better and better. We had about a million viewers a week, which was a healthy audience for cable. But we never received the media attention that was given to shows with much smaller audiences. We might have been ahead of our time, who knows? You can see a lot of Duckman’s DNA in animated shows today. The idea of playing with format, breaking the fourth wall, and so on. We did an episode that was a salute to Bob Hope’s and Bing Crosby’s Road movies, and years later Family Guy did the same thing. That doesn’t make me angry, it makes me proud.

There’s been so much renewed interest in animated shows from the 90’s and I don’t really know why Duckman hasn’t gotten more love. All us writers are still in touch, and we still always talk about our dream of doing the show again. We have so many great ideas. I know Jason Alexander is on board. This year is the 25th anniversary of the show’s premiere, so it would be a great time. We always keep our fingers crossed for a Duckman resurgence. I love that there are still fans out there, both from back in the day and people rediscovering it.

 

 

We recently spoke with a former co-worker of yours, Ian Gurvitz, as well as numerous other folks who have worked on what I have always hailed as my favorite half hour sitcom of all time, the incredible and underrated series Becker. I will always this show to be an absolute classic. As a resident expert on the subject, what do you believe it is about Becker that made it special? What set this series apart from other shows that you have worked on?

Thank you, that is amazing to hear. When you talk about what made Becker special, you have to start with Ted Danson. Ted is a brilliant actor, of course, everyone knows that. But he is the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever met. A joy to work with and know, every day you’re with him.

That show also had an incredible writers room, the best I’ve ever been in. In addition to Ian and the showrunner, Dave Hackel, you had this incredible group of writers: Dana Klein, Kate Angelo, Russ Woody, Matthew Weiner. Matt remains the funniest writer I’ve ever worked with. And there were veterans like David Isaacs and Bob Ellison who both taught me so much. 

Also, a lot of credit goes to the great Andy Ackerman, who directed a lot of our episodes. He had just finished years of directing Seinfeld, and he brought a lot of his Seinfeld crew over to Becker, so across every technical department on Becker you had people who were just at the top of their game. It was a fun set to be on, because you had Ted at the top setting the tone, and a crew full of really creative professionals, all working together. 

And if you watch Becker carefully, there’s a Duckman Easter egg: on the piano in his office waiting room are plush toys of Duckman and Cornfed.

The very funny and wildly successful 2011 film, Horrible Bosses, is another fine project in your resume. I am curious to know what drew you to this project? What made you want to tell this story. And what are your thoughts on the final product that would eventually make its way into theatres?

Thank you. After twelve years working on TV shows for Paramount, I got the sense that the studio was edging out of the TV comedy business. I knew the time was right to try screenwriting. And the story I wanted to tell was about the horrible bosses I’d had in real life. And not just in TV. I’d worked in a number of different industries before writing, and I’d collected quite a few horror stories about bosses. 

As a huge fan of Law & Order, I wanted to make it a crime story with twists. I loved Columbo, so I loved stories about planning a perfect murder. So I mixed all these elements together, and the story of Horrible Bosses became a fun puzzle to solve: could the mere act of planning a murder somehow create a series of events that would result in the murder? And the story all fell into place for me. 

I was very lucky that the script sold quickly, and Frank Oz came onboard to direct. What a pleasure to work with a filmmaker I idolize, just a brilliant, warm man. I worked with Frank on the script for about 18 months, and it was the best education I could have asked for. Ultimately, the casting of the movie never came together, and Frank finally had to leave the project to do Death at a Funeral, so what followed then was a long period of development, with actors and directors coming and going, and I did rewrite after rewrite.

 

 

I rewrote Horrible Bosses for about six years until all the pieces fell into place. We did a small writers table for the script, and then the studio had another team incorporate those ideas into the final rewrite — which was good, since I’d frankly run out of ways to rewrite it! — and they did a great job. From then on, things moved quickly. The perfect director, the perfect cast. It varied from my original script, of course, but I was thrilled by how much it was like the movie I’d first imagined. I was so proud of the story and the tone, and the final product was faithful to both. I loved it. 

Interesting side note, I wrote the part of Julia with Jennifer Aniston in mind, but never told anyone because the idea of her playing this filthy role was, I thought, just a farfetched joke in my mind. I was stunned that she did it, and that she was as great as I thought she’d be!

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers

My best friend in the world is Mary Gallagher, a phenomenally talented actress and stand-up. She recently did stand-up on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. We’ve been friends since Second City, thirty years ago. Recently we started writing together, first time I’ve ever had a writing partner, and for me it brings a whole new joy to writing. We are working on a couple of screenplays and pilots, so I hope you’ll be seeing those someday!

What was the last thing that made you smile?

I get to work with my best friend. That makes me smile every day. 

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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