Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions comin’ at ya.

John Leader leads off.

Occasionally I’ll spot an “Easter Egg” in a show I’m watching…something that may or may not be obvious enough for everyone to notice, but it’s there for some (comedic?) purpose. An example would be Les Nessman, the News Director on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” always wearing a bandage somewhere on his person. Week-to-week, the bandage would be in different places, but it was never referred to…it was just there.

Have you and David ever stashed such “Easter Eggs” in any of your creations? And, what do you think of the whole idea of doing so?

On a couple of occasions if a character is reading a book on one of our shows, he’ll be reading my book, “It’s Gone… No, wait a minute” (and we make sure it gets on camera).

On ALMOST PERFECT, anytime Nancy’s character was watching TV at home she was watching CHEERS.

In THE BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot we needed a bar so called it “Matt’s” for my son Matt. In the ALMOST PERFECT pilot we needed a restaurant and called it “Annie's” for my daughter Annie. She got the better of the deal. ALMOST PERFECT lasted 34 episodes and that set (with her name prominently featured) got used in probably 30 of them.

Other than that, just slipping in names of people we knew for an inside joke. Example: One of the happiest married couples I knew was Bill & Sherry Grand. So in a CHEERS we wrote, Diane was on jury duty about a married couple trying to kill each other. They were named Bill & Sherry Grand. Maybe six people in America got that joke. 

Paul Dushkind asks:

How did it come to be that Admiral Crowe, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became a guest star on Cheers? That has to be the strangest choice of a guest appearance on a TV show ever.

Oh, it goes beyond that. In the first draft, we originally wrote it for Larry Bird. He initially said he’d be interested. But then backed out. So then we thought, who would be the single most unlikely replacement? The premise was that Rebecca thinks he stole her earrings. Absurd choices were batted around and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came up. I think we had a list of four or five crazy options. Our casting director inquired and the good Chairman agreed to do it. We then wrote the second draft making the necessary adjustments.

How often was Larry Bird and William J. Crowe offered the same role?

Admiral Crowe did a great job. There was even talk of a spinoff.

From David C:

I wrote a spec of Kimmy Schmidt a while ago and the newest season did some things very similar, joke setups, themes, in one case a specific plot point. It's not close enough for people to think I stole specifics just close enough that someone may see it as lazy if they were unaware of when it was written. I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time. Should I make a note on my script to say it was written before the latest season or should I not say anything?

No. Just leave it. That will be only one aspect of the script. You’ll be judged for your comedy chops, ability to capture the characters’ voices, and storytelling skills. Let your script stand on its own.

Also, you probably will have some readers who are not so familiar with KIMMY SCHMIDT that they'll notice the similarities. Why alert them?

Best of luck.

And finally, Andrew Radford wonders:

You said some young writers "maybe can’t write multi-cameras". Since you've written for both single and multi camera shows, can you explain the difference in how to write for each format?

For multi-camera shows you have to write more hard jokes. You have 250 strangers in the audience you need to make audibly laugh. And believe me, they’ll tell you whether something is funny or NOT. You can’t just rely on irony or smiles.

On single-camera shows you’re not held accountable. If the showrunner thinks something is funny it stays in. The problem is he won’t always know. And that’s not a knock at him or single-camera shows. Some are very funny. But I’ve been doing this a long time and there are plenty of instances when things I thought would kill died in front of the audience. But at least I then had a chance to fix them, to replace the jokes that didn’t work. Or edit them out.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Remember, you're always ON THE AIR

Wow. This is odd. Some public figure made an innocuous off-colored remark in this ultra-PC climate and he wasn’t buried on Twitter. In fact, people seem to take it in stride. Thank you Mets fans. The reaction (at least from what I’ve seen) has been amusement. Besides, there’s enough real shit to get furious over that it’s stupid to waste your outrage on something like this.

We're talking about a comment Mets’ TV analyst Keith Hernandez said during the Mets-Dodger game on Monday night. Oh, by the way, he didn’t say it on the air. He said it during a commercial break but his mic was still hot and if you had a satellite receiver you were able to hear it. So to 99% of the audience, it went unnoticed. More reason why this should be a non-story… although it’s not. Deadspin and the Huffington Post both had stories on it.

So what did Keith actually say?

He was talking to his broadcast partner, Gary Cohen about a pitcher who has been getting hit hard lately. And he casually remarked: “Roark’s been getting his tits lit.”

That’s it.

First off, “getting his tits lit” is a baseball expression. And sorry PC’ers, it’s a fairly common baseball expression. And not that dissimilar to “colder than a witch's tit.

Again, what I’m heartened by is that Mets fans took Keith’s comment for what it was (nothing) and laughed it off.

But it does again remind us that anytime a mic is hot, or anytime we post anything on the internet we are essentially broadcasting. We all live in a giant fishbowl. Remember Al Michaels said some things between innings of the 1987 World Series that pissed a few satellite watchers off and caused a bit of a shitstorm. When I was doing Mariner telecasts I asked people between innings to send in a postcard and I got a bunch from around the country. They’re out there. (They were especially out there for our telecasts because between innings our director would often focus on hot girls in the stands.)

Still, the point remains – when you post a photo of yourself in a Speedo on Instagram or angry tweet when you’re shit-faced, you might as well have a microphone and camera open to the world. And it could get scary. Potential employers Google you and when that 2011 toga party comes up that you were tagged in and you’re seen French kissing a sump pump this does not bode well for you getting that job.

So be careful. You might not get off as easily as Keith Hernandez. You might really get your tits caught in the ringer.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Episode 25: Adventures in Television Directing


Ken shares stories of directing sitcoms. He describes what it's like to be challenged by actors, how to win them over, and almost killing an actor. Then he discusses the many times he got fired in radio and how he went out in a blaze of glory on several of those occasions.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What is a "Bono?"

One of my Friday Question Jeopardy answers was  "What is a Bono?"   Enough readers wondered what that was so I thought I'd explain it today. 

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Make sure your response is in the form of a question

I’m always looking for ways to involve my readers in the blog and yesterday’s post was a case in point. Based on a reader’s suggestion I played “Friday Questions Jeopardy” where I gave you the answers and you had to fill in the questions.  Some of them you got, some you missed (but were funny), and some you didn't even try. 

So here are the questions. How did you do?

A rotating joke, a restaurant, and a congressman.

What’s a “Bono?”

William Devane and a former Ram.

Who were the other two finalists for the role of Sam Malone on CHEERS?

VIPness.

What’s a word that Levine & Isaacs tried to slip past the CBS censors?

ALL IS FORGIVEN and THE TORTELLIS.

What are two failed series under the Charles/Burrows/Charles banner?

The dialogue coach on FLIPPER.

What is one of the erroneous jobs IMDB claimed Ken Levine had?

Molly Ringwald and Darryl Hannah.

Who turned down the Julia Roberts role in PRETTY WOMAN? Or… Who are still kicking themselves today?

Would have stayed in Sacramento if they had only given him a small raise.

What would have kept Rush Limbaugh from accepting an offer to go to New York and host a national radio show?

The “Abby Singer Shot.”

What’s the second-to-the-last shot during any one filming day?

55 share, 19 share.

What were AfterMASH’s ratings the first night of the 1983/84 season and the last night?

An “Up and Back.”

What’s a funny joke run that doesn’t advance the plot?

Hope Lange.

Who played Dick Van Dyke’s wife on THE NEW DICK VAN DYKE SHOW?

Starred in a TV movie about herself.

Who is Ann Jillian?

Schmuck bait.

What’s a plot point that only an idiot would buy?

Paper partners.

What is the insidious practice where scumbag showrunners hire two baby writers and force them to become partners, thus cutting each of their salaries in half?

Charlie Haid and Walton Goggins.

Who were two actors who played characters that got killed in pilots but were so good the producers decided to bring them back from the dead and reinstate them?

HAPPY DAYS and THE ODD COUPLE.

What are two sitcoms that started out as single-camera shows and converted to multi-camera shows?

Camelot.

What was the nickname writers had for MTM Enterprises during the golden comedy age of the ‘70s?

Studio 25 at the NBC Burbank Studios is named in his honor.

Who is Art Fleming, the original host of JEOPARDY?

Thanks for playing. WHEEL OF FORTUNE is next.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Let's all play FRIDAY QUESTIONS JEOPARDY!

Reader bobgassel had an interesting thought:

How about a "Friday Jeopardy" where you post the answers and we try and guess the questions?

Okay, I’ll bite. Try your luck.

A rotating joke, a restaurant, and a congressman.

William Devane and a former Ram.

VIPness.

ALL IS FORGIVEN and THE TORTELLIS.

The dialogue coach on FLIPPER.

Molly Ringwald and Darryl Hannah.

Would have stayed in Sacramento if they had only given him a small raise.

The “Abby Singer Shot.”

55 share, 19 share.

An “Up and Back.”

Hope Lange.

Starred in a TV movie about herself.

Schmuck bait.

Paper partners.

Charlie Haid and Walton Goggins.

HAPPY DAYS and THE ODD COUPLE.

Camelot.

Studio 25 at the NBC Burbank Studios is named in his honor.

The “Questions” tomorrow. Good luck.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day

On this Father’s Day (the most sacred holiday of the year) I’d like to wish a happy one to my dad, who also happens to be my hero, mentor, and best friend. I love you, Dad.  I'm in therapy for other reasons. 

Here are some pithy Father’s Day quotes:

“To be a successful father… there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.” -- Ernest Hemingway

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.” -- Bill Cosby (always great to get parenting advice from this sleazeball)

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” -- William Shakespeare

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." – Mark Twain

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.” -- Charles Wadsworth

And finally, a salute to Screaming Jay Hawkins. Screaming Jay was a r&b/blues singer. His big hit was “I Put a Spell on You” in which he came out of a coffin. The man was a crowd pleaser. And also a lady pleaser it seems. Upon his death when it was time to divvy up the estate it was discovered he had 57 children. Screaming Jay will not be saluted on Planned Parenthood day.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.  Note to my family:  I hate power tools.  I'm more of a "free trip to Hawaii" kind of guy. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

My day with Johnny Carson (for those who remember Johnny Carson)

 On the Tony Awards last week (that no one watched), host Kevin Spacey did a Johnny Carson impression.  Sitting in the audience my first thought was "how many people even remember Johnny Carson?"   Probably very few, certainly very few Millennials.   Carson hosted THE TONIGHT SHOW for close to thirty years.  The Tony Awards drew an audience of just over 6 million.  In the '70s, every single night, Johnny Carson drew 17 million... at midnight.  But he's been off the air for over twenty years.  That's a long time.   And unfortunately, he's passed away, so it's not like he could guest on THE TALK. 

When he was the King of Television he rarely appeared on sitcoms.  He did a cameo in a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode, but you just heard his voice.   And yet, he agreed to be in a CHEERS episode that my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote (called "Heeeeeeere's Cliffy!").

Networks love stunt casting and this was catching the biggest fish of all.

The premise of our episode: Cliff's ultimate goal in life was to have Johnny Carson read one of his jokes during a monologue. The man reached for the stars! Alas, his endless submissions kept getting rejected. Finally, as a goof, Norm intercepts one and turns it into an acceptance letter. Things get out of hand when Cliff flies to Burbank to be in the audience the night of his big triumph. And he brings his mother. Norm must tag along for damage control.

Norm bribes the cue card guy to include Cliff's joke. Johnny reads it in his monologue, it bombs, Cliff stands up and corrects his delivery. He winds up in custody while mom ends up on the couch with Johnny.

Come on. It could happen!

We wrote the script, sent it to Carson, who approved it. We arranged to film it right after a TONIGHT SHOW taping. The audience was asked if they'd like to stay for an extra half hour and be on CHEERS. Nice folks that they were, they were willing to make that sacrifice.

The crew and I arrived at the studio at 3 (my partner was out of town). The TONIGHT SHOW taped from 5:30 - 6:30. I introduced myself to Mr. Carson and said I'd be happy to make any adjustments he would like. He said, no, he thought the script was great. He'd do it just as written. I almost fainted.

During the TONIGHT SHOW taping I sat in the green room and kibitzed for an hour with that night's guest -- Elizabeth Taylor. She could not have been more approachable and fun. It was almost surreal to be chatting about life with Elizabeth Taylor.

After the taping, director Jim Burrows set up our four cameras and blocked the scenes. Not only is Jimmy the best multi-camera director, he's also the fastest. All of this rather complicated stuff was accomplished in fifteen minutes in front of the audience. Indy Pit Crews could learn a thing or two from Jim Burrows.

We had hoped to also get Ed McMahon but he wasn't interested in sticking around (a whole half hour) so we wrote him out. Guess he had to get to that Budweiser.

Now the filming began. Four film cameras were positioned on the stage. I was standing next to one, essentially between the curtain and the band. Jimmy calls action, the band (right behind me) struck up the familiar theme and Johnny Carson steps through the curtains. He's maybe five feet from me. He begins delivering our monologue. This was maybe a month before his final TONIGHT SHOW so I knew this was a precious experience that would never come again.

We tried to write jokes that would get solid laughs so that when Johnny got to Cliff's it would be noticeably bad. Much to my sheer delight, our jokes worked. The King of Late Night was getting laughs doing our material. This was more surreal than Elizabeth Taylor asking me which Disneyland ride was my favorite.

The scene played great. We shot it a couple of times. And Johnny was the ultimate professional. Happy to do re-takes, whatever we needed. So often legends and idols disappoint if and when you actually meet them but the reverse was true here. I wound up even more in awe of Johnny Carson.

After we wrapped I got a picture sitting at Johnny's desk interviewing John Ratzenberger.
Woody Allen made a movie called ZELIG where he played a normal guy who somehow managed to mingle with every important figure of his day.

Well, Zelig had nothing on me, certainly that night -- a night that will live in my memory forever... and hopefully in reruns.

Hey-ohhhh!