Wednesday, October 18, 2017

EP42: Charlize Theron and Other Dreams

Ken talks to writer Avin Das about the Charlize Theron sex tape that he wrote and co-starred in for Funny Or Die.  He also reveals what it’s really like to be a production assistant on a hit situation comedy.  Plus, Ken shares some of his more wacky insane dreams. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A "me too" story I've never shared

Here’s a sexual harassment story where a woman stood up.

This was the first season of CHEERS. We had a script where Diane enters the Miss Boston Barmaid of the Year competition. “No Contest” was the title. Remember that one?   It was actually a very pro-feminist story with Diane entering solely to publicly denounce the competition for objectifying women. The script was written by Heide Perlman and was terrific.

After a writer completes their second draft the staff does whatever rewriting is necessary to arrive at a script for production. That script gets circulated to the network, cast, studio, and various departments of the crew (including casting director).

Glen & Les Charles and David Isaacs and I did the polish for the production draft. We changed very little. Like I said, Heide had crushed it.

We inadvertently left in most of the stage direction as well. I say “inadvertently” because there was one line that slipped through that shouldn’t have. In describing one of the barmaids, Heide, with tongue-in-cheek, wrote she had “state-of-the-art tits.” It’s the kind of thing we all do – write little jokes in the stage direction as an incentive for people to read them. Lots of readers see a block of direction and just skip it. Anyway, no big deal. These jokes are for the room and generally removed before the production draft.

Well, that one stayed in. For all I know it was my fault. I might have been proofing that day and missed it. Who can remember?  It was 35 years ago.   

Anyway, the following day we have our casting session for barmaids. A number of actresses come in and audition. It’s a typical session. Me and David, Glen and Les, Jim Burrows, and our casting director are in the room.

After several candidates, one young woman walks in, points to her breasts and says, “Okay, boys, here they are.” We were all taken a little aback. That was a strange thing to do. We said, “What?” And then she pointed to them again, “Here are my state-of-the-art tits!”

Needless to say, we all were mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.

We all apologized profusely (and no, I don’t remember if we hired her or not – at the end of the day it was still acting ability). But I think back now and really applaud her (no, I don’t remember her name either). That was an inappropriate description in the script and I suspect the other actresses weren’t too keen on it either but this one stood up.

Obviously there was no disrespect intended, but it just points out the number of indignities – intentionally or unintentionally – that women face.  I've always prided myself on my conduct but even I contributed to a "me too" moment.  Hopefully things will change… even a little. We guys need to be more sensitive to this… and proof better.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I love Bill Nighy

In a recent article, actor Bill Nighy (you’ve seen him in everything) called out actors who didn’t bother to memorize their lines. Not only that, he said it’s become fashionable for actors to show up on a set or rehearsal hall unprepared. The bullshit rationalization is that knowing your lines ahead of time stifles discovery. Nighy says:

“Rehearsal is not the enemy of spontaneity. The idea is the process is you say the lines over and over and over and over and over again until you can give the impression that you’ve never said them before and it’s just occurred to you. That’s the gig.”

Thank you, Mr. Nighy.

Just this weekend I wrote a post on how the CHEERS cast got lazy towards the end. But that’s after ten years and over 200 episodes. I don’t condone it, but I can understand that the show had become a grind and the actors were looking for ways to deal with it. Also, scripts on CHEERS changed practically daily so it really made no sense to commit them to memory until after the third day of rehearsal (day three of a five day production week).

But if you’re an actor in a play, or you have scenes in a movie – and the script is locked – it’s your job to be off-book as soon as possible.

Yes, it’s hard. It’s one of the reasons I never became an actor (that and lack of talent). I marvel at people who can memorize two hours of dialogue word for word. I don’t know how they do it. But as Mr. Nighy says, “It’s the gig.”

I must say this is a real pet peeve of mine. I work very hard on my scripts, shaping every single line. Lines are worded very specifically to get the biggest laughs. There is also a rhythm and flow. All that goes away when the actors are halting, groping for lines.

Just know that the time you take to learn a line is probably a third of the time it took for me to write that line.

So when I hear, “well, I feel restricted by knowing the words, my spontaneity is cut off by memorizing the script” what I really hear is “I’m just lazy and unprofessional.”

And aside from how disrespectful that is to the writer, it’s also a slap in the face to the other actors who have taken the time to learn their parts. Not to mention the director.

Look, as an actor so much in this industry is out of your control. It’s such a subjective business. Unfair, infuriating, illogical. But the only thing you can control is your professionalism. Believe me, I find professionalism a way more impressive "special skill" than ballroom dancing.

Oh, and by the way, postscript on CHEERS: Remember in the series finale there’s that wonderful lengthy scene of everyone sitting around the bar late at night reflecting on their lives? Beautifully written by Glen & Les Charles and directed by James Burrows, that was all filmed in one take. Every actor had their lines down perfectly.

It can be done. And since it can, why not do it? Even if it means bucking a fashionable trend.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"Did you watch SNL this week?"

Have you noticed that now every week people really look forward to SNL? Industry websites immediately post the opening and any stand-out sketches. It’s weekly overnight ratings are posted as soon as they’re available. Certain sketches go viral. People talk about it on Monday morning around the watercooler at work (instead of being at their desks reading blogs like they should be).

In other words it’s become a “thing.”

I’ve been lucky enough to work on a couple of hit shows and I can’t tell you how utterly intoxicating it was to be a part of a “thing.” There were years on MASH and CHEERS where I knew that each episode was highly anticipated and had an impact. We got letter every week. Most were nice; some were outraged. Fewer trolls because they had to pay for postage. But viewers were paying attention.

How many shows today are produced and aired in relative obscurity? And it takes the same amount of time and effort to produce a show only relatives watch on a network no one has ever heard of than to produce THIS IS US.

Even the first year of CHEERS, when we THOUGHT no one was watching, we averaged 20 million people a week. The show was slowly starting to catch on to where we thought we were an underground hit. 20 million viewers was considered “under the radar” back then. Now the landscape has become so fractured that certain shows on certain platforms shown nationally are seen by 100,000 people. I don’t understand the economics. How can they afford to shell out millions for shows that get way fewer views than cats coughing up fur balls on YouTube?

Happily, I can say I never took riding the zeitgeist for granted. Maybe it was because of my radio background where listeners only paid attention when you gave out contest information, but I appreciated and savored every moment of being on hit shows.

For everybody working on SNL – I’m sure it’s a grind, and with higher expectations comes additional pressure – but you’re in a moment of time here. It will pass. Enjoy every second of it while you can. (And keep going after that fat fuck – both of ‘em.)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Playing the part of Sam Malone today: Ignatz Gloogdeberg

After a sitcom has been on the air for a number of years – like ten -- it’s understandable that the cast loses a certain amount of interest. They know their characters so well and they know the routine so well that they don't require as much rehearsal as in the early discovery years.

Also, they become big stars by year ten. They suddenly have movie careers. They front worthwhile charities. They start their own production companies and split their attention between the show and their various new projects. They buy homes on the east coast and have to let the painters in.

On CHEERS during the last two seasons the runthroughs were unlike anything I’d ever seen. First let me say that I adore the CHEERS cast – every one of ‘em. They’re great people, terrific actors, and very respectful of the writers and everyone on the crew.

But for those last few seasons they often had other obligations and would miss rehearsal. Like I said, they didn’t need it. The only problem was that we writers did need to see a runthrough to determine what worked and what didn't.

And there were times we would go down to the stage for a runthrough and it would be the first assistant director playing Sam, the script supervisor playing Rebecca, the prop guy playing Woody, the wardrobe girl playing Carla, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger. This is what I assume community productions of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA look like.

We’d go back to the room and have no idea what we had. Someone would say, “I don’t think this Sam joke works” and the rest of us would say, “How do we know? Ignatz Gloogdeberg played him.” It was insane.

The craziest was the time we cut a certain actor’s joke who wasn’t at the runthrough. The actor came in the next day, was annoyed that the line was gone, and chided the stand-in for not selling the joke sufficiently.

In fairness, runthroughs with 80% understudies didn’t happen every week, although it was not unusual to have at least one person out for a rehearsal. That the episodes held together so well is also a testament to how well we writers knew the show and could write for it.

The filming nights would be a little rocky because not everyone knew their lines perfectly. But they would always rise to the occasion and on the air CHEERS appeared as polished as ever.

Although… if I'm being 100% honest --  there were times we writers would be on the stage watching the filming and say, “Hey, Zelda did a better job of that joke.”

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Two krazy rabbits

Well, first of all a huge THANKS to everyone who weighed in with their favorite cartoon character. (You're still welcome to tell us yours.)  Part of the fun of doing a blog is creating a little community and finding ways for you to interact.  So thanks for playing along. 

On to the results.

Yep, you guys agreed with the EW poll. Not much suspense here since you could all read through the comments yourself, but it was clear that Bugs Bunny was your overwhelming choice for favorite cartoon character. And I can’t disagree at all.

What was surprising to me, and somewhat heartening, is that the winning character hails from the 1940’s, not just someone on a cartoon show that came out in January. I say that because when I was a disc jockey back in the era of Top 40, stations would occasionally put together their “all-time Top 300” songs and invite listeners to send in postcards with their all-time favorite three songs. Invariably they would choose the songs currently in the top ten. (What we had to do was just throw out all the cards and tabulate a list ourselves.)

As for my choice, only one other person (a commenter on Facebook) shared my favorite. But mine is a little obscure, especially to younger generations since it was a TV cartoon from the ‘50’s and probably hasn’t been seen on television in God knows how many years. It was a tough choice because I too love Bugs, along with Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Popeye (the Fleisher cartoons, not the Paramount cartoons), Foghorn Leghorn, Top Cat (how can you not? He’s Bilko), Snagglepuss, Homer Simpson, Mr. Burns, Mr. Peabody, Mr. Magoo, Goofy, Dan Hoard (voice of the Springfield Isotopes – okay, you got me. It’s me), Tom Terrific, Mighty Mouse, and Pepe LePew – but my all-time favorite would have to be Crusader Rabbit. (I can just hear you saying “Who???”)

Crusader Rabbit was a forerunner of Rocky & Bullwinkle – serialized cartoons that were irreverent, sprinkled in adult humor, were the first to feature longform stories, and in addition to the usual cartoon slapstick utilized wordplay humor. Each episode had funny titles that were usually puns like “I can row a boat, canoe?” As a 7 year old that killed me.

Crusader Rabbit was the first cartoon show made exclusively for television. Prior to that cartoons were designed for theatrical release. There were actually two sets of Crusader Rabbit cartoons. The first around 1950 with some of the worst primitive animation ever, and then a new batch in color in the late ‘50s which were a big improvement in design, animation (although all TV animation was pretty cheesy back then), and leaned in even more on the irreverence and wordplay. The writer, Chris Hayward, went on to write and co-run BARNEY MILLER.

One final note: Going through your picks I couldn’t help but notice there were very few Disney characters. For all the dazzling animation, when it came to laughs there was something more subversive and delicious about the Warner Brothers, Jay Ward, Max Fleisher cartoons, Terrytoons, and even Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

Finally, a “Donald” that no one voted for.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Spooky. Friday the 13th AND Halloween the same month. Ooooooh. Here are some Friday (the 13th) Questions:

mbk starts us off:

Love your blog, and even though I think I've read all your pieces, I don't remember that you've ever commented on "Episodes" on Showtime. It seems like something you would relate to, with commentary on writing TV comedy, showrunning, dealing with network suits, actors and their egos, agents, hack writers, backstabbing, Hollywood hypocrisy, and on and on.

What's your take on Episodes?

I loved it the first season until Matt LeBlanc slept with the showrunner. That crossed a line for me and I didn’t buy it (from either side). Before that the LeBlanc character was great fun. After that he was just an asshole.

I tried watching the second season and the satire seemed very broad. The network president was a cartoon. Gave up after that. I hear it’s better. Maybe at some point I’ll revisit it.

Cliff asks:

What happened to the TV practice of 1/2 hour dramatic shows? Have Gun Will Travel, (many other Westerns), Adam-12, Dragnet, Twilight Zone, etc. etc. I enjoy re-watching these on the available old show channels, but was curious why the 1/2 non-comedy format has died.

I think in the same way VHS beat out Betamax and Final Draft beat out Movie Magic, hour dramas just became the standard. I think it’s much easier to tell a dramatic story in an hour, especially if you have returning characters. And yet, I look back at some of those TWILIGHT ZONE half-hour episodes and marvel at how great, how complete, and how satisfying they were.

People forget that in the early days of television, yes there were half-hour dramas, but there were also fifteen-minute sitcoms.

Kyle Burress wonders:

What are your thoughts on shows that have a character that is around for a while and then just suddenly disappears with no explanation, or treated as if they had never even been there in the first place? Examples that come to mind are Chuck Cunningham from 'Happy Days', Judy Winslow from 'Family Matters' and Mandy Hampton from 'The West Wing', just to name a couple. Other shows such as 'Law & Order' do it all the time.

It’s not ideal, but as a writer I know that shows take on a life of their own. And certain things work while others don’t. Especially the first season, a series is really a work-in-progress.

Sometimes that works to your advantage. A character may break out that you didn’t expect like the Fonz or Alex Keaton or (God help me) Urkel.

But other times you realize that certain aspects of your series or certain relationships just aren’t clicking. And it’s not like a movie where you can just go back and reshoot or edit. These missteps have now aired. So one solution is to just move on and hope that most people don’t notice. Another is to explain away those characters, but that sometimes really draws undue attention to them.

Again, it’s not a perfect way to go, but it can be the lesser of all evils.

And finally, from YEKIMI:

Do the producers, studio, etc. have any say so in how their show is advertised? I've seen some ads where I thought "there's no way in hell that looks interesting to watch" only to find out in re-runs or a couple of years down the road that it's actually was a pretty good show I had been missing. Or do the producers, studios, etc. just scream in silent anguish about how the networks are promoting their show?

Well, in most cases now the studio is owned by the network. I suppose they can offer their opinions. Most producers don’t have any say. Maybe if you’re Dick Wolf or Chuck Lorre you have a little more influence, but by and large the network has a promo department and a mandate sent down by the higher-ups as to who and how to promote and for how much.

Every producer I know thinks they get short-changed, even if there are billboards on every city bus.  

What’s your Friday Question? Stay away from black cats.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Who's your favorite cartoon character?

I was listening to the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY radio channel on Sirius/XM yesterday (still hoping they do an hour-long salute to Levine & Isaacs – I’m losing faith), and the hosts got into a discussion of their “favorite cartoon character.” Listeners then chimed in their picks.

Since I haven’t watched cartoons for many years some of the names people brought up were unknown to me. On the other hand, when one person said Heckle & Jeckle, one of the co-hosts had no idea who they were. (thereby making me feel like a hundred.)

Interestingly, one particular character was the overwhelming choice. I was surprised but not surprised. It's a popular character sure, but I didn’t realize it was that beloved. So I wondered if my readers results would be consistent with theirs.

Thus, I’ll throw the question out to you. Who is your all-time favorite cartoon character?

They seemed to limit the question to short cartoons or TV shows, so no one from a feature (like Ariel from LITTLE MERMAID or Rina in A JEWISH GIRL IN SHANGHAI) qualified. But if characters primarily used in shorts or TV shows eventually got a movie (a la THE SIMPSONS, PEANUTS, SOUTH PARK) that was okay.  (Hey, they're their rules.)

On Saturday I’ll tell you your results, EW’s results, and my pick.

Thanks for playing. I look forward to hearing from you.

A-ba-dee, a-ba-dee, a-ba-dee, that’s all folks!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

EP41: “The Lunch Bit Sucks!” and Other Colorful Stories

Ken tells crazy stories that touch on aspects of his career.  Getting bad script notes, being shunned at a radio convention, a Hollywood ending to be cherished, and classic baseball bloopers. Lots of fun, embarrassment, and pain.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Bob Schiller

Sorry to hear of the passing of Bob Schiller. He was only 98. Along with his partner, Bob Weiskopf, he was one of the greatest comedy writers in the history of television.

Among his many credits, co-writing 53 episodes of I LOVE LUCY including the John Wayne episode and the “stomping grapes” episode.

If he never did another thing after that he would still be in the TV Hall of Fame. But he and his partner went on to write and/or produce many sitcoms and variety shows and wound up writing on ALL OF THE FAMILY then being the showrunners of MAUDE. Throw in writing for THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW too.

It’s just a staggering body of work. As comedy writing teams go, my partner and I considered them Babe Ruth.

We got to know the Bobs in the late ‘70s when we had a deal at 20th Century Fox and so did they. Both were extremely nice to a couple of young worshiping scribes. We had lunch with them numerous times. Weiskopf was the more boisterous one. Schiller was sneaky funny.

I only worked with them once. It was back in 1988 when I was consulting a Witt-Thomas NBC show called MAMA’S BOY starring Bruce Weitz and Nancy Walker. They were full-time. I was one night a week. I always thought “What the hell do they need me for when they have the two Bobs?”

And indeed they were amazing. It was a thrill to watch them work. Plus, we were on the small lot where they used to make I LOVE LUCY so they would point out landmarks like which stage was theirs and where their offices were back then. To me this was hallowed ground and I couldn’t believe I was (a) talking to the writers of I LOVE LUCY, and (b) they were treating me like a peer.

Bob Weiskopf died in early 2001 at the age of 86. There was a memorial service for him at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Lots of comedy writers spoke, telling stories. One was better and more hilarious than the next. But the very best was Bob Schiller. Babe Ruth.

I last saw Bob Schiller a few years ago at a wedding. He was well into his 90’s but that sly smile and twinkle in his eye was still there. I just sort of figured if he had lived this long then surely he would live forever. And in a way he will. Yes, he’s gone at the tender age of 98 but a hundred years from now people will still be watching I LOVE LUCY and laughing thanks to Bob Schiller. Everyone talks about the “last laugh.” He found the “laugh that lasts.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


In no order of importance, relevance, or worthiness…

TV ratings across the board took a big dip week two of the season. Even sure-fire hits like BIG BANG THEORY dropped millions of people. Not good for shows premiering that week.

THE GOOD DOCTOR so far is proving to be the only new breakout hit.

Although CBS is touting that YOUNG SHELDON is a breakout hit, even though it’s only been on once, it followed BIG BANG THEORY, and no one I know who saw it liked it at all.

Revised: I stupidly asked a political question so had to cut it.   My bad for thinking I could have a civil discussion but instead just opened up the can of haters.  I suspect the haters will quickly write back outraged but I'll delete those comments as well.  Carry on.

Who else watched 13 hours of baseball yesterday?   So 45 pitching changes. 

Tomorrow night’s Indians-Yankees game should be epic.  I hope you get FS1. 

So let me get this straight – the Weinstein Company knew nothing about Harvey’s behavior. They’re shocked and aghast. But all those sexual harassment suits they settled – Harvey paid out of his own pocket? Uh… I don’t think so. And if not that means they knew all along. The whole lot of them should be fired, including his brother. (Not that the company could survive without Harvey anyway.)

Networks are starting to commission scripts for their new development season. Medical dramas, family dramas, legal dramas, and comedies from actors based on their lives. Boy, they’re really thinking out of the box this year.

At least TBS, in their baseball coverage, didn’t bombard us with 10,000 promos for Conan last past painful seasons. In fact, there have been none.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 was a giant bomb at the boxoffice. This could put the brakes to BUCKAROO BANZAI 3012.

The Steven Spielberg HBO documentary is worth seeing even though it’s 2 1/2 hours long. Did you know he directed HOOK? You still might not if you watch the documentary.

Trump is soooo sensitive. Just because his Secretary of State called him a fucking moron? Sticks and stones, Donald.

Jon Stewart was on Colbert last night. Every time I see him I cry out at the television: “WHY DID YOU LEAVE US? COME BACK!” They can hear us through the TV screen, right?

So far my prediction for movie of the year is LOGAN. But that might change when other studios send me screeners.

And finally, guys – if you want to take your girl somewhere where you can be alone, take her to a Los Angeles Chargers game.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Do I know Harvey Weinstein?

I’ve gotten a lot of readers asking if I know Harvey Weinstein. Nope. Never met him. I'm not nearly important enough.  At one time I had a feature career and was on the B-List.  Now I'm the C-List and the problem with that is: there IS no C-List." 

Harvey is embroiled in a big sexual harassment scandal that is likely to derail his career and tarnish his reputation – only leaving him with the untold millions he’s made over the years and whatever continued profits he earns from his shares of the company.    Gee, don't you feel sorry for him???   He was officially fired from the Weinstein Company yesterday (leaving his brother to run the company -- Hmmm, that doesn't sound remotely fishy, does it?). 

Hollywood is “shocked,” which of course is a giant joke. The only shock is that he was allowed to get away with this reprehensible behavior for so long.

Now come the army of attorneys and spin doctors. The current official response is for the transgressor to plead that he’s “sick” and wants to take steps to be a better person. He’s soooo sorry for what he did.

He’s only soooooo sorry he was caught.

Now he's off to "rehab" -- probably his villa in Italy.  

But this tact seems to have replaced outright denial (at least for the moment).

Meanwhile, a legal team I’m sure is setting about trying to discredit the women who blew the whistle (no pun intended but I’ll take it).

And I’m sure high-powered Hollywood chieftains are frantically meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel to discuss this stain on their cherished industry. Their big concern is probably that half of them could be exposed too.

Am I too cynical? I don’t think so because even I wouldn’t have thought Harvey Weinstein would ask Ashley Judd to watch him shower.

I mean, you figure bigshots like Weinstein and Roger Ailes probably cheat on their wives, and even have multiple mistresses, or call thousand dollar hookers, or go in chat rooms as “Tad from Pasadena.” But masturbating in hallways in front of TV reporters? These are sick fucks.

I’m sure this is nothing new. God knows what movie moguls and power agents did in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Starlets were probably passed around like joints. They were just more powerful then and there wasn’t the scrutiny and ability to break a story globally with one click. Dick pics had to be processed in studio photo labs.

But maybe now things will change – even a little. As these sex scandals continue to make headlines, blowing up longtime prestigious careers and shattering harassment firewalls, maybe one or two (or hopefully ten) of these lowlifes will not subject these women to this abuse.   And maybe women who have been abused will feel safe enough to finally come forward. 

The shame is, and it’s me being cynical again, that these lowlifes will stop this practice not because “they know it’s wrong,” but because now they’ll get caught. Still, I’ll cheerfully take it.

By the way, Harvey Weinstein will start a new company.  So far it doesn't seem like he's going to jail.  So because he makes money for investors he will get backers.   He will be back.  And I'm sure he'll be staying at nice hotels with showers.  Beware, ladies -- despite his "rehab." 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Come see my new play

Happy to announce that my new play, OUR TIME will be performed at the Saratoga Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY.  later this month.

OUR TIME is a loosely autobiographical comedy about breaking into the world of comedy in
1975 Los Angeles during a golden era for comedy.

Four young Baby Boomers come of age and try to find their place in this inspiring new world.

They face levels of talent, degrees of desire, jealousy, confusion, competition, the sexual
revolution, parental pressure, ego, insecurity, religion, discrimination, luck, struggle, and decisions
that will affect the rest of their lives. Who will make it and who won’t?

If you're in the state of New York, or even Georgia and you want to take a drive, come see it.   The address is 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY.  And for reservations you can call 518-393-3496.  Tickets are $15.  I'll be there for the Friday night performance.  If you can't see HAMILTON, see this.

Thanks much.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Play-offs are here

Some thoughts on the playoffs. (Yes, I know – a “baseball” post. See most of you tomorrow.)

The Wild Card games always seem to be spectacular and this year was no exception. I’m convinced part of the reason is that it’s a one-game winner-take-all series. So every play is heightened, every moment is exciting.

Personally, I think there are too many playoff games. It’s ridiculous that the World Series practically ends at Thanksgiving.

The World Series is also watered down by interleague-play, so it’s no big whoop anymore to see a National League team play an American League team. Also, the World Series games start so late in the East that kids (the game’s future) are usually in bed by the third inning.

If I were commissioner here’s what I would do: One-game playoffs for the Wild Card. Three-game series for the Division. Five for the Championship Series. And the only series that goes seven is the World Series. Also, only one travel day per series. If the teams have to travel a second time they can do it in the middle of night like they do during the season. Do all of that and each game becomes more important and dramatic, and you cut out a week. You can watch the World Series and still have a few days to decorate your house for Halloween (instead of Christmas).

I’d make it easier for the fans to find the games. They’re currently on Fox, FS-1, ESPN, ESPN-2, TBS, TNT, MLB Network. And in a number of cases different networks cover the same series. And it doesn't stop there.  Your game could be listed on TBS but if the game before runs long (which they all do) the start of your game may be on TNT.  Good luck setting your DVR.

But wait -- there's more.   Beyond the first few games, the start times of future games aren't even announced.  The networks decide last minute who should go where -- meaning: if you're the Yankees, Dodgers, or Cubs you're probably playing in primetime.  If you're Houston you're not.  The casual fan is not going to go to the effort of finding these games. And it’s the casual fan you need to attract – the person who only follows baseball during the post-season.

Keep Harold Reynolds away from any broadcast booth. He’s the current Joe Morgan.

Bring Jon Miller back.

And ESPN – find a place for Jason Benetti (pictured above). You have the best young baseball announcer in the country in your fold. Use him.  Instead, ESPN has Chris Berman calling a series on the radio.  He's maybe the worst radio baseball play-by-play man ever.

If you have the MLB app or Sirius/XM and you want to follow the Cleveland-New York game, listen to the Indians radio broadcast.  Tom Hamilton is exceptional.  

Have you ever seen so many first inning home runs as in these playoff games so far?  Off of pitching aces no less. 

Jose Altuve is the single best player in baseball.  Disagree all you want.  

What World Series match-up do you think Fox is rooting for? Dodgers vs. Yankees or Diamondbacks vs. Astros?

Best of luck to YOUR team.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions, shall we?

Donald Benson gets us started.

Were there ever jokes that had to go because they were TOO funny? Not because of actors' egos or anything like that, but because they broke the pace of a scene or diminished a climax?

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating.

One of the biggest laughs we ever got on CHEERS was taken out when the show aired. Not that big laughs are so easy to get that it’s no big whoop to just toss one, but in this case we felt it ruined the show. Here’s the backstory.

First season. The episode was called “The Coach’s Daughter” (written by Ken Estin and directed by James Burrows). The Coach’s somewhat plain daughter introduces her fiancĂ© Roy to her dad and the gang at Cheers and he’s a real boorish lout. (He sold flame retardant reversible suits and yet he wasn’t reputable.)

Late in the episode there’s a lovely scene where the Coach has a heart-to-heart with his daughter, Lisa in Sam’s office. It’s clear to everyone (but the Coach of course) that she’s marrying this clown out of insecurity not love. Lisa tells her dad that Roy thinks she’s beautiful. The Coach says, “You are beautiful. You look just like your mother.” It was meant to touch Lisa’s heart.

We were holding our breaths hoping it didn’t get a big gooey “Awwwwwwww!” Instead it got this thunderous laugh. Applause even. Everyone on the stage was stunned. We shot the scene again, thinking this time they’ll see it differently. Nope. Huge laugh the SECOND time.

Still, when we assembled the show we all felt it hurt the scene and ultimately the story. Kudos to the Charles Brothers for being willing to lift the episode’s biggest laugh to preserve the emotional core of the show.

Sometimes jokes can also sacrifice the integrity of your characters -- make them too stupid, too insensitive, etc. When that even becomes a borderline call my vote is to dump the joke. Same with jokes of questionable taste. Take the high road.  Even today. 

As hard as it is to write big jokes, it's always much harder to discard them. But the rewards are greater and you'll like yourself in the morining.

Joe asks a question about Frank Burns:

Do you think, in a way, you and David were lucky that Larry Linville left MASH before you took over as great writers?

Larry Linville was a great actor, but it seemed like the character became more creepy and even disturbing in some Season 5 episodes. The Frank of the first four seasons were great, but I felt the character jumped the shark in Season 5.

And it opened the door for Charles Emerson Winchester, who might have been the best -- and certainly most complex -- character in the show.

I had very mixed feelings. No one made me laugh harder than Larry Linville as Frank Burns in those early “Gelbart” years. We came aboard season five and got to write three episodes with Frank. And it was great fun.

But a fair criticism of the character was that he was too broad and it strained the credibility of the series that someone that dim could be a doctor. So when Larry chose to leave after season five we made a conscious effort to replace him with a character that was the opposite. Charles Winchester was smarter than Hawkeye and BJ, not just a punching bag.

That character was also fun to write and I think it energized the show and created a different chemistry. And 90% of the credit goes to David Ogden Stiers for playing the character so brilliantly.

And finally, from Gary:

When watching NBC's big hit THIS IS US (and enjoying it as much as anyone), I've noticed the show's writers break one of your cardinal rules: they often have the characters delivering long, long speeches during their conversations. The speeches are beautifully written, and the acting is excellent, but once you're aware of it, it seems unrealistic -- these people never say "um...", they never stumble over their words, they never lose their train of thought, etc. It's just total eloquence. Exactly like real life, right? I'm wondering if you've also noticed this, and whether it affects your enjoyment of the show.

This to me is where you can justifiably claim creative license. Paddy Chayefsky’s characters had long speeches, so do Aaron Sorkin’s. Playwrights have employed them for years. They key, as you said, is that they’re beautifully written.

Similarly, in comedies when characters have just the right comeback. Yeah, it’s stylized but I think the audience will overlook that if they appreciate the line.

Actors will sometimes throw in “uh’s” and stumbles and they think that makes them sound more natural. It actually makes them seem like they don’t really know the line.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Maybe the most thankless role in televison

What's the most thankless role in television?

Ask any actress. They’ll tell you in a heartbeat. Playing the TV wife in a sitcom.

In most cases the show is built around the husband. He’s usually a dolt, and it’s the wife’s job to tolerate him, to be amused by him, or worse, be the wet blanket.

She’s the one always saying, “Don’t do that!” She’s the one always refusing to go storm chasing. He’s the fun one. She’s the “grown up.” She’s the rational one. There’s no greater vein of comedy gold than rationality.

Also, it’s difficult to establish chemistry when in many cases, let’s get real, the wife is so much prettier and/or younger than her husband. So you don’t believe them as a couple for a second. And on top of everything else, the actress has to somehow try to make it believable that she would be married to this clown.

Yeah, like Courtney Thorne-Smith would be married to Jim Belushi.

And this is after years of TV evolution.

Originally TV wives were dingbats. Lucy, Joan (I MARRIED JOAN), Gladys (PETE & GLADYS). Okay, you’ve probably never heard of those last two but trust me, they were knock-off Lucy’s. The only exception (and she was a phenomenal exception) was Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden on THE HONEYMOONERS. She was the smart one, the savvy one, and got laughs from her dignity not shenanigans.

With the ‘60s came Laura Petrie from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Here the wife was an equal partner. But she was still a housewife, and still did goofy things like dye her dark hair blonde, and get her toe stuck in a bathtub nozzle. And there was still resistance to her getting a job or even taking a night class.

70’s wives ran the spectrum. Emily was truly a partner on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. She worked, but there was no need for her to be a stay-at-home mom because they had no children. ALL IN THE FAMILY’S Edith was a complete dingbat, but then came Maude. She was the powerhouse and her husband was a limp noodle. Louise Jefferson took no shit as well.

Roseanne was in the Maude mold (although with a very different sensibility), but slowly family shows gravitated to stand-up comedians doing versions of their act and wives were relegated to cockblockers.

Kudos to the few who broke through that. Patty Heaton on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND had a lot of Alice Kramden in her, Leah Remini was every bit Kevin James’ equal on KING OF QUEENS, and Julie Bowen elevates MODERN FAMILY’S Claire despite being saddled with another man-child husband. (Sofia Vergara remains a sketch.)

And again, it’s not because these actresses in thankless roles aren’t capable of much more and delivering way more comedy; it’s that they aren’t given the material necessary to shine.

So my heart goes out to Patricia Richardson, Nancy Travis, Jamie Gertz, Liza Snyder, Courtney-Thorne Smith, Marion Ross, Phylicia Rashad, Meredith Baxter, Joely Fisher, Wanda McCullough, Betty Rubble, and all the rest.

Obviously, there are more examples for all of these, and exceptions to all as well. And I suspect the comments section will remind me of all of them. But again, ask a working actress what her least favorite roles have been and I’ll bet they tell you TV wives. And it’s not like they can seek counseling.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

EP40: The State of the (WGA) Union.

Ken talks with the President of the WGA West, David Goodman about the state of the industry – strikes and near strikes, issues the Guild hopes to address, diversity, opportunities, the health plan, and navigating this new world of entertainment options. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Bad reviews

Interesting article by playwright/blogger, Donna Hoke about bad reviews (and how to survive them). Basically she says as difficult as it may be, the writer needs to be open to the criticism. (I half expected her piece of weathering bad reviews to be a survey on which drugs and alcoholic beverages were the most effective.) Anyway, it’s well worth reading.

Let me chime in my two cents.

First of all, if you’re a writer for any length of time you’re going to get some bad reviews. They’re inevitable. It’s one of the prices you pay to stick your neck out there and go public with your work.

I’ve had my share of bad reviews. One critic said MANNEQUIN 2 was like “stepping in something.” The review went downhill from there. Tom Shayles, the longtime TV reviewer of the Washington Post hated BIG WAVE DAVE’S so much he blamed my partner and me for the downfall of the television industry. (Okay, he was right.) 

Obviously, bad reviews are no fun. And they sting. But they can also be helpful. Sometimes I’ll read a bad review and be mad at myself. Why didn’t I see that story flaw or whatever the criticism was? If the reviewer was confused about something I have to decide whether I wasn’t clear enough or the reviewer was just dense. Like Donna points out, critics often get details wrong on shows they liked. You get a rave even though they missed the whole point.

There are times when you know going in that your show is bad. And it might not be your fault. Your play was horribly cast and directed. Your screenplay was re-written by six hacks and the result is a piece of shit. And in those cases you just have to hold onto something and take your beating.

It’s important to take into consideration who is critiquing you and whether they have their own agenda. For my play A OR B? (pictured above: me with stars Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox) when it was produced at the Falcon Theatre a few years ago I enjoyed fabulous reviews – except for one. This guy so hated every single thing about it that he even panned the props. Far from being hurt I found the review hilarious.

Another time I received a rave review for ALMOST PERFECT (the Nancy Travis CBS show I co-created) from the Baltimore Sun and in the middle of it the critic said I was a shitty baseball announcer. Huh? Where did that come from?  I had been gone from Baltimore for four years. He needed to get in that gratuitous slam in a review about a TV show?

When you come to playwrighting from a TV comedy background you can almost bet some theatre critics are going to call your play a “sitcom.” Christopher Durang writes the same play and he’s a comic genius. That’s just the nature of the beast. I always take comfort in a 1991 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. interview when he said: “I would rather have written CHEERS than anything I've written.”

Some critics are nasty and you have to take that into account. Some may just not like your work. You’re just not their cup of tea. Some have a certain point-of-view and if your piece goes against it you’re going to get slammed. On the other hand, there may be critics who just adore everything you do and will give you glowing reviews you don’t really deserve.

And that’s another key – you have to weigh the good and bad reviews equally. Just as you might not agree with a certain criticism, you have to discard effusive praise. Your project is probably not as good or bad as they say.

At the end of the day you have to take what you can from them and move on. Al Michaels, a great sportscaster, used to keep in his pocket a review that slammed Vin Scully. Even Vin Scully got blasted. Michaels kept it merely as a reminder that no matter who you are there are going to be people who don’t like you. So do the best you can and don’t worry about it. Al, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome to carry around my Baltimore Sun ALMOST PERFECT review as well.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

One of my quirks

We all have our little quirks. Here’s one of mine:

I hate to keep people waiting.

I am almost always on time. I’d much rather be early than late. And yes, today people are rarely bored. If they have to wait at a restaurant they have their phones to amuse them. But I don’t care. The fact that I’M keeping them waiting drives me crazy.

I’m one of those crazy people that will text saying I’m running two minutes behind.

But it extends beyond that. When I get on a plane I can’t throw my bag in the overhead compartment and take my seat fast enough. Knowing I’m holding up thirty people while I adjust my carry-on makes my heart palpitate.  Turbulence I can handle.  A line of people in the aisle I can't.

Additionally, if I have to make a left turn, I can’t stand that I’m holding up four cars while waiting for the daylight to make the turn. I have been known to drive out of my way, make a bunch of right turns to avoid inconveniencing four strangers behind me.

When I’m at a checkout stand, I don’t take five minutes to count my change, rearrange the credit cards in my wallet, etc. I get my shit and move on.

If I’m at a fast-foods place I don’t wait until I get to the counter to look at the menu and decide what I want. And when there’s a long line at the bank I don’t ask the teller to show me the new designs they have available for checks.

When the light is green I GO. When I’m in TSA lines I take my computer out before I get to the conveyor belt. And I have my ID and boarding pass ready.   I root around my pocket for change before I get to the tollbooth with seventeen cars behind me. 

I don’t know whether it’s common courtesy, or an unhealthy obsession. But I do know this: I wish more people had it.

Monday, October 02, 2017

The take-away from WILL & GRACE

Whether you like WILL & GRACE, that’s not the point.

But it premiered last week to impressive numbers. 10.2 million in the coveted 18-49 demo. NBC is doing cartwheels. You’d think it got Cosby numbers (back in the day when that show was getting 40 shares).

So let’s say 10 million is the gold standard in this marketplace. What other sitcoms got 10 million viewers this week? KEVIN CAN WAIT got 10.2 million. And BIG BANG THEORY got 17 million. What’s the common denominator?


And yet...

Everyone continues to claim that multi-camera shows are dead. It’s a tired form. Viewers are more sophisticated.

When I’ve taught TV writing classes at UCLA and USC none of my students wanted to write a multi-camera show. And yet they all went home and watched FRIENDS.

And still the belief persists that multi-camera shows are passé and no one watches them.

Except everyone who does. The 10-17 million people.

It’s like – imagine a baseball team saying they don’t need power hitters in their lineup. “Yeah, the guy hits 40 home runs but he also strikes out a lot.” 40 home runs is a lot! You win games thanks to 40 home runs. And by the way, the guy who hits for average still makes out 70% of the time.

Yes, there are bad multi-camera shows and they don’t do the genre any good. But there are also lots and lots of single-camera sitcoms that were terrible and died quick deserved deaths.

Genres generally go in cycles in television, although some eventually die out. Everyone said Westerns were dead. And they were. But when they said that ratings for Westerns were through the floor. No one said Westerns were dead when BONANZA was the number one show in America. But that’s what they keep saying about multi-camera shows.

Some executives are starting to get it. FOX has a couple in development. And CBS has always known they have value. Even forward-thinking NETFLIX has a couple of multi-camera shows. They’re not particularly good. So far they’re mostly your standard retro sitcoms except the characters can say fuck.   But ONE DAY AT A TIME certainly stands above. 

So again, why the reluctance? They joke rhythms are too familiar? Hire better writers. No one ever complained about the joke rhythms in CHEERS or FRASIER or SEINFELD or FRIENDS. They feel too retro? Perhaps. In some cases. But is that such a bad thing? If there’s a comfort level might that not be a plus? The laugh track is intrusive? Again, hire better writers so the laughs are genuine.

My personal preference would be to find new multi-camera shows that speak to today. I’d rather watch 30 year-olds acting like 30 year-olds than 50 year-olds acting like 30-year-olds. But that’s just me.

Yet if nostalgia is what’s needed to resurrect a genre of comedy that has produced most of the greatest sitcoms in TV history, then reminisce away. I’ll take that tradeoff.

And I’ll leave you with this. Who watches the most network television? What demographic do networks covet most? Women 25-49. And what are the two genres that women 25-49 prefer the most?


Uh…isn’t this a no-brainer?

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Take a knee

Usually I try not to get political on this blog but some vital world issues come up that must be addressed. And this is one of them.

The NFL.

I mean, North Korea, a cold shoulder to hurricane and earthquake victims in need, attempt to destroy our Health Care system, tax reform that will only help the rich, misuse of power, and the Russian investigation – those one can live with. But now he’s messing with the National Football League.

Specifically this whole protest crisis – NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem. Our president is against it. He says owners should fire the “son of a bitches” who take a knee, but he seems to have no problem with the “good people” who happen to be Nazis marching freely in the streets.

Apparently America is split on this knee issue. And there are not enough real problems in the world so this one becomes paramount.

The result is people against these protests are boycotting the NFL. Ooooooooooh. They’re not watching the games today. Some have opted out of their Red Zone season pass offered by Direct TV. Others have stopped going to NFL games (and it couldn’t be because ticket prices are ridiculous – nope, it’s this).

Before the NFL bows to pressure and fires the son of a bitches (leaving like 200 players left to play all the games), remember this:

The fans will be back.

All of them. Every one.

Here’s what happens anytime I write a political piece: I get angry comments from listeners. “This is not why I log onto this blog.” “I don’t care what you think?” “You’re just an elite sheltered Hollywood elite (yes they repeat elite).” And they always end with “That’s it. I am never reading this blog again. Goodbye forever!”

Two weeks later they’re all back commenting as if nothing ever happened.

Come playoff time the TV ratings will be huge. The Super Bowl will get massive numbers. Attendance will rise as we get later into the season and the games have more import. NFL jerseys will fly off the shelf. Direct TV subscribers will renew their Red Zone packages.

So don’t kid anybody about this boycott. We’re not talking the flag. We’re talking FOOTBALL.

So if you want to take a knee, take a knee.   What you're doing is pissing off the REAL son of a bitch.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

RIP Anne Jeffreys

So sorry to hear of Anne Jeffreys passing. God love her, she was 94. Many of you know her from GENERAL HOSPITAL. She appeared on that soap quite a bit in the 2000’s. But for me she will always be Marion Kirby, the “ghostess with the mostest” on TOPPER from the ‘50s. (Trivia note: Do you know who wrote eleven episodes of that series?  Stephen Sondheim.  No.  Really.  You can look it up.)

Anne Jeffreys was my very first crush. I was five.

In 1979 my partner David Isaacs and I tried to hire her for a pilot we were doing. (The whole crazy tale of that pilot was the subject of one of my recent podcast episodes. You can find it here.) I was so blown away when she came in to read. She was in her 50’s and not only did she look great, she was really FUNNY. We were so thrilled. She didn’t get the part only because the casting bitch at NBC insisted she read for her to be approved and Ms. Jeffrey’s said, “I’ll read for you guys because you need to know if I’m right for your part. But NBC knows me and my body of work.” She was right of course, but NBC still wouldn’t budge. One of the many disappointments of that pilot experience.

Anne Jeffreys exuded class and southern sophistication, and like I said, was gifted in comedy. 94 is a good run. And she worked well into her 80’s. If there is such a thing as ghosts, I hope Marion Kirby will haunt me.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Questions

Welcome again to that weekly treat --  Friday Questions.

Steve S. starts us off:

Did the writing staff on season five of MASH know going in that Larry Linville was leaving after that year? If so, was that the reason for Hot Lips getting married?

No. This all happened just before I joined the staff, but my understanding was that Hot Lips being married would just provide more frustration for Frank. And it would give Hot Lips something else to play.

The truth is Hot Lips being married, especially to someone off camera, did not give us much to work with, and we split them up in short order. Loretta was not unhappy about that.

From Brian:

After looking at an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show, I noticed that the writers were always credited at the end. Now, they almost always seem to be credited at the beginning. Is that union standard or can a show make a choice when to credit writers?

Networks pretty much dictate the format and writing and directing credits now usually come at the beginning. The only union mandate is that the director’s credit must come either last if credits are in the front of the show or first if the credits are in the back. And whenever that is, the writers credit must be included at the same time. You can’t put the director’s credit at the front of the show and the writer’s at the end.

RyderDA asks:

You have repeatedly written how TV comedy writers do re-writes of weak material during the show's actual taping. You have not commented whether that happens in movies (that I can remember). I occasionally watch awful, unfunny movies and wonder how they ended up on screen being unfunny and awful (did no one notice this coming?).

Movies do get rewritten during production. Sometimes writers are right there on the set. Other times re-writers are there on the set and the original writer banished.

My partner and I were offered a rewrite job one time for a movie being filmed in NY. They wanted us for five weeks to be on set and help punch it up. And they wanted us on a plane that night. The only thing is, they wouldn’t send a script for us to look at first.

So we figured (correctly), that the script must be a giant piece of shit and we would be locked in an office 24/7 furiously trying to save this turdburger. So we passed. If they weren’t even willing to show us the script there was no way we were jumping off that cliff.

The movie came out about a year later and was predictably terrible. Who they got to fix it and how much better they made it I have no idea.

And no, I’m not going to tell you the name of the movie, except to say it was a romantic comedy.

Finally, from ADmin:

Just an observation that kinda leads to a question :) The other day, watching an old rerun of Married with Children, (a show I used to like when it was running) I realized that the jokes, in my opinion, weren't all that funny. And yet, I found myself enjoying it. Then it dawned on me that it was the deft and humorous execution of Ed O'Neill. What are your thoughts on actors who have the remarkable talent to elevate or even carry a script? (I'm getting the same inkling from The Orville.)

It’s always great when that happens, but as a writer I never ever depend on the actor to make something funny just because of his gift. I try to write him the funniest material I possibly can. And if he can get a few bonus laughs on straight lines or behavior, all the better. But never do I coast hoping an actor will make something work through his sheer will. Call it a point of pride, but I want my laughs to be earned.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

I finally saw HAMILTON

There’s no need to really review it. (“Hey, Ken Levine said it was good so maybe we should see it after all.”) By now you’ve been told that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, the production is spectacular, and let’s just say it – it’s brilliant, groundbreaking, original, and the merchandise is very handsome. According to some critics it will change your life (not sure how though, you might swear off dueling?).

The reviews are right.

Especially at a time when Broadway musicals tend to be revivals, stunt cast driven, or live versions of Disney movies (Coming soon: “Donald Duck vs. Chip & Dale – the musical), it’s refreshing to see something bold and not about Millennial angst.

So for all those reasons I recognize and appreciate HAMILTON as a phenomenal work of art. A thrilling theater-going experience.

I just wished on a visceral level I loved it.

I know what my problem is – I just don’t love hip-hop. And although the lyrics are so amazingly clever, the booming sync beat and the sheer amount of it felt relentless to me. I suppose I could listen to the soundtrack album a hundred times (like I’m sure half this audience had done) but short of that it was hard to hear and process at times. I’m sure there was wonderful stuff I just didn’t catch. And it doesn’t help that the performance I saw was at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, which seats the entire population of Rhode Island AND lower Maine. The acoustics were okay… for an airplane hanger. But a lot of the subtle intricate word twists I know went right by me, which is frustrating. And I’ve found that frustration is not a good emotion to have when enjoying a Broadway musical.

But that’s just me.

Part of this theater-going experience was that the audience treated the show like a rock concert. They cheered and shrieked deliriously throughout the show. That part was fun. You really felt like you were at an “event.” I had never seen that before during a musical. You don’t get that for WAR PAINT or MISS SAIGON.

HAMILTON has received so much praise and hype that it’s hard for any show to live up to those accolades. And I also think it’s reached that level of the stratosphere where people are afraid to admit they didn’t love it for fear of being ridiculed, called an uncultured oaf, or challenged to take ten paces at dawn.

But I’ll come out. I’ll take that bold step. Despite the repercussions I am sure to face, despite the vicious hate mail I will surely receive from trolls, I will admit that I only thought HAMILTON was terrific.

Unlike Aaron Burr, I’m willing to take a stand.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

EP39: The Making of FAMILY GUY

Ken talks to the new WGA President, David Goodman who was also the showrunner of FAMILY GUY.  David shares the process of making that show along with touching on his other credits which includes STAR TREK ENTERPRISE, FUTURAMA, THE ORVILLE, and GOLDEN GIRLS.   Part 1 of a 2 part interview.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Favorite forgotten shows

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

Joe in DC asks:

Recently, a guy named Kieran Fisher (@HairEverywhere) wrote: “Name a forgotten TV show you really enjoyed.” He lives in Scotland so a lot of his replies were names of UK shows I’d never heard of, but I was gratified to see Peter Sagal (of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me) list Quark and Buffalo Bill. (I myself threw out Grand and Doctor Doctor.) Curious what some of your forgotten/enjoyed shows might be.

Besides the ones I created?

BUFFALO BILL would definitely be on my list. Created by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses and brilliantly played by Dabney Coleman, this was really the first sitcom where the lead character was a giant asshole. And boy, was it refreshing. BUFFALO BILL was way ahead of its time.

Then two series by the same writer, Richard Rosenstock: THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES for ABC and FLYING BLIND for Fox. Super smart writing and hilarious Jewish characters (although those were probably the two main reasons why those shows didn’t last).

GOODTIME HARRY is another I’d choose. Created by Steve Gordon, who wrote and directed ARTHUR, it had some of the sharpest dialogue you’ll ever hear.

UNITED STATES by Larry Gelbart was a fascinating experiment. NBC never gave it a chance. This was more of a dramady in that it really explored the inner dynamics of a marriage, both the light and dark aspects of it.   But how does a half-hour comedy succeed at 10:30 at night?

Then there’s ALL IS FORGIVEN. Howard Gewirtz & Ian Praiser created this series under the Charles Brothers banner. It was a backstage look at a soap opera starring the very under-appreciated Bess Armstrong. Lots of very funny episodes.

PIG STY by Rob Long & Dan Staley was a very funny show ahead of its time about slothy Seth Rogen-type characters. It was the first show the old UPN picked up so it never got the exposure it deserved.

LATELINE. Okay, I directed a bunch so I’m not exactly unbiased, but this show created by John Markus and Al Franken was a fresh look at politics in a sitcom format.

FAY was a wonderful show from the mid ‘70s. Created by Susan Harris, it starred Lee Grant as a woman in her 40’s trying to date. Funny, real, a true gem. NBC screwed them by scheduling it at 8:00. Should have been Susan Harris’ MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

If you want to go way back, MY WORLD AND WELCOME TO IT from the ‘60s was a funny and affectionate take on Thurber cartoons. Danny Arnold created this one.

Also from the ‘60s, HEY LANDLORD by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson.

I very much enjoyed THE DUCK FACTORY created by Allan Burns & Herbert Klynn. It was a single-camera look at the goofiness of an animation studio. The star was some guy named Jim Carrey.

So there are a few. I’m sure there are others… besides mine of course.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Why we really watch THE DEUCE

Longtime readers of this blog know I have great fondness for the ‘60s. I even wrote a book about it. (Shameless plug: you can buy it here.) But I have no real nostalgia for the ‘70s.

Yet, Hollywood thinks the ‘70s are in. And I’m not sure why.

The ‘60s was a time of hope and optimism. The ‘70s was a period of anger, drugs, disillusionment, and really bad fashions.

There have been three series over the last few years set in the early ‘70s. VINYL, I’M DYING UP HERE, and now HBO’s THE DEUCE. They all feature rampant drug and alcohol use, angry fucked up people, the seedy underbelly of urban society, and leisure suits.

The sexual revolution has been reduced to prostitutes, one-night stands, and couples using sex as a power ploy. Where’s the romance? Where’s even the breakfast after?

I eagerly watched THE DEUCE. David Simon who did THE WIRE is writing and the reviews were spectacular. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I always like is in it, James Franco, who I also like, is in it twice (he plays two brothers – hey, it worked for Ewan McGregor in FARGO), and graphic sex, which I like even more than specific actors.

So I thought the pilot was… good. But it didn’t knock me out. There was that world that I had no real desire to revisit. Yes, Times Square was seedy. Yes, pimps wore flashy purple velvet suits and Super Fly hats and terrorized their flock. Drugs were everywhere. People were down on their luck. Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose records played in the background. Ridiculous afros were in style -- shirt collars over brown leather jackets, bell-bottom pants, mini skirts and boots. Oh, and everyone smoked. Everything. Throw in some violence and sex scenes and the show was exactly what I expected. The writing was good and the dialogue was crisp, but I learned nothing new.

The one ‘70s project I really loved was BOOGIE NIGHTS. But that was years ago and introduced me to the inner-workings of a world that was completely foreign to me. THE DEUCE is, at least so far, familiar territory.

But I watched BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE DEUCE for the same reason: the subject matter. Sex – all dressed up in a classy way as a “period piece” or “study of society” or “exploration of feminism” – whatever bullshit explanation you wish to give it. If Masters & Johnson studied peoples’ driving habits Showtime would never have built a series around them. So for all the production values, and attention to ‘70s detail, THE DEUCE is an acceptable way to watch a series about sex featuring lots of nudity. It’s like when we guys used to buy Playboy Magazine for its interview with Gore Vidal. My point is: let’s just be honest and admit that. The fact that THE DEUCE is well done and gets good reviews just helps justify our decision to watch it... and maybe go back and watch certain sections again. Y’know, just in case we missed some of those Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose lyrics.

Monday, September 25, 2017

First night parties

New shows are premiering on network television, and returning shows are starting their new seasons. As a writer or producer on staff one of my favorite events of the year was the “first night party.”

This is when the writing staff, directors, and cast would get together to watch the first episode on the air. On MASH we would meet at Gene Reynolds' house (one of the two creators of the series along with Larry Gelbart), and on other shows the party would be held at a restaurant. There was dinner, lots of drinking, watching the episode (I had probably seen ten times already), and then going home.

My favorite first night party was the original premier of CHEERS in 1982. First off, it was at a swanky place, Chasen’s. Back in the 40’s and 50’s Chasen’s was THE Hollywood hotspot. You could expect to see Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, you-name-it dining on the Hobo Steak (not on the menu), Dave Chasen’s world-famous chili, or the ice mountain of seafood appetizer. Okay, so we had chicken pies, but also had a private room. TV’s were set up. We all dressed nice. It was an elegant affair.

What made this one so special was that we were finally taking the wraps off the show. We all had been working on it since the spring. By September we had filmed probably six or seven episodes. I had seen the pilot no less than twenty times. But there’s something about it actually being on the air.

A few weeks before I caught a promo. It was maybe 15 seconds, but there was the bar – for the first time ON TELEVISION.

So the night was very festive. Dinner was good (why chicken pies were ordered for everyone I do not know, but they appeared every year). Drinks were flowing. Earlier in the day we had received mostly positive reviews from critics. There was also an idiotic two-page ad (the one shown here). The best way to sell a sophisticated comedy is not with a page of HA HA HA HA’s.

Several people at the party had heard from friends and family back east who had seen the show three hours earlier. Thumbs up from them (but that was to be expected). Director James Burrows’ dad liked it, and that meant something. His dad was Abe Burrows. My father-in-law in Brooklyn said the waitress and bartender should get together. I had to agree.

As 9:00 approached things got quiet. The monitors were turned on and the sound was turned up at 8:58. There was an NBC News Break (remember those?) and for me the kicker, right before the show, was the station ID. “This is KNBC, Channel 4.” Holy shit! It really IS going out over the air. And then the show began. I can’t begin to tell you the sense of pride I had being a part of it. Everyone cheered at everyone’s credits – especially the Charles Brothers and Jimmy. And the show seemed to whiz by in five minutes.

When it was over there was a lot of hugging. The next day we would learn that the ratings were truly abysmal (so much for the huge impact of TV critics), but that night was euphoric.

Then began another CHEERS tradition. Speeches. More like toasts, they could be short. But everyone on the writing staff was called upon to say a few words. Wish I had known ahead of time. I don’t recall what I said but I think I got a laugh. My favorite speech was from Jerry Belson. Jerry was one of the funniest writers ever. He was an uncredited consultant. After everyone praised the show and each other, Jerry stood up, said, “Thanks for the money” and sat back down.

What a contrast between that party – a small group of unknowns meeting in a backroom to the ultimate finale, held in Boston, where we had probably 600 people inside the building and 20,000 outside on the Commons watching on giant Jumbotron Boards in a light rain.

So for some premiering shows, this is just the start of hopefully a long exciting journey. And for all shows it’s the culmination of months of hard work.  Congratulations.  Enjoy every minute of it.

That is, if they still have first night parties.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

My celebrated "Hippie" period

Here's another excerpt from my book THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60).  It's been forever since I plugged that.  I'm going to keep doing these until I sell enough books to get in the Amazon top 10... or at least 10,000.   Here's where you go to get your ebook copyAnd here's where you go to get the handsome paperback.  Read the reviews.  Many are from people I don't even know. 

By 1967 I had been as far south as San Diego, far north as Santa Barbara, far east as Las Vegas, and far west as the end of the Santa Monica pier. But that was about to change. My dad announced that we were going up to San Francisco.

Oh. My. Fucking. God.

I had wanted to go to San Francisco more than anyplace else in the world. I was intrigued by all the buzz about the music scene there, Haight-Ashbury, the Summer of Love, and okay, I’ll be honest – I just wanted to see a Giants game at Candlestick Park.

As always, we drove. I still had not been inside an airplane. Our family trips tended to be on the frugal side. We stayed at a Travelodge motel on Lombard St. in the Marina district. We should have slept in the Impala. It had more room.

But I didn’t care. I was just thrilled to finally be there. We saw the sights, traveled the bridges, dined at Kans in Chinatown, hopped cable cars, slurped crab cocktails at Fisherman’s Wharf, and gawked at the basketball-sized bazooms on Carol Doda whose image was proudly and largely displayed at the topless Condor club in North Beach where she jiggled them three times nightly.

Side note: Carol had risen to prominence in 1964 when many delegates from the Republican National Convention went to see her act.

I also got my first glimpse of the Haight-Ashbury district. This was hippie Mecca, the epicenter of the counter-culture revolution. Love was free and the drugs were reasonable. With Scott MacKenzie’s “San Francisco” as their anthem, young people from all over the country migrated to the Haight. Harvard Professor Dr. Timothy Leary, the noted advocate of psychedelic drug research (LSD) coined the catchphrase: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. (That same year Leary would marry his third wife. Hard to tell whether the bride was really beautiful that day; all the guests were on acid.) This was a Utopian society, an oasis where you were free of the shackles of expectation and civilization. A haven for spiritual awakenings, creative inspiration, and yes, even consciousness expanding.

Haight-Ashbury looked exactly as you’ve seen it in documentaries and movies of the 60s. Loads of hippies in colorful garb (some with face paint) milling about, rolling joints, playing guitars and tambourines. Murals on the sides of buildings, head stores and ma & pa markets. And vivid kaleidoscopic color everywhere – from Tie Dyed clothes to rainbow store signs to a blue building with a yellow door. Imagine Jimi Hendrix as the art director of SESAME STREET. But it was festive and fun.

And as we drove through this idyllic world I thought to myself, “Ugggh! How the hell can anyone live here? It’s so dirty and crowded. What happens if you get sick? What kind of privacy would you get in one of these cramped apartments? How clean are the bathrooms? What’s the TV reception like?”

I had zero desire to turn, tune, drop, or whatever else was necessary to move to Haight-Ashbury and join this freaky scene.

It's one thing to be a hippie. It's another to give up creature comforts.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Somewhere Shari Lewis is smiling

As many of you know, I'm a ol' curmudgeon.  I've never been a big fan of AMERICA'S GOT TALENT.  To me it's just a way to do a TV variety show where you don't have to pay the performers.

But one act in particular attracted my attention.   Darci Lynne.  I've featured her before.  This is the 12 year ventriloquist that is absolutely amazing.  Her puppets sing -- well enough to win THE VOICE.  I must admit she has even melted this cynic's heart.

She just won this year's AMERICA'S GOT TALENT and I found myself cheering.  She's also funny and amazingly poised.  For those not familiar with her, or those that want to see her again, this was her performance in the finals.  She upped the ante by having two puppets singing (in very different styles).  Yeah, call me an old softie but I love this kid.    And she doesn't work blue.  Check her out.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Questions

 First off, thank you all for the supportive comments yesterday.   Mel Brooks said in a recent article: 

'Stupidly politically correct society is the death of comedy'

I love Mel Brooks!!!

Okay, moving on.

You KNOW it’s the weekend when…

I’m answering Friday Questions. The first one comes from Matt in my hometown, Westwood CA:

The Emmys. For series actors when they are nominated or win in a given year, how do you find out the episode it is for? You've mentioned in a post Bebe Neuwirth won for the RAT GIRL episode. What about her other win? I think the assumption out there is it's for the whole year when in fact they ultimately win based on a single episode submitted, right? Would love to know if there is a reference guide for this, a book on the Emmy's many years ago had several examples of shocking wins/upsets that really came down to the episodes that were submitted that provided insight to the win. Classic example? Lindsay Wagner won for THE BIONIC WOMAN to the shock of many, but the actresses more likely to win submitted sub par episodes while Wagner’s was a knockout.

To my knowledge there is no reference guide for which episodes actors submit.  You can't even find it on that interweb the kids all talk about. But the actors (or their reps) try to pick their best episodes. And yes, I’m sure some lose because they choose the wrong episode to submit.

And Lindsay Wagner could submit any episode and I would vote for her.

Next up, Mr. Anonymous (please give a name):

I've read that a good package for TV writing is a spec of an established show plus a pilot script. Should they be in the same format, though? For instance, a spec of a sitcom and a pilot for a one-hour comedy/drama? Or would it be better to do two half-hour sitcom scripts and two hour-long scripts?

Most agents would stay pick a lane and stay in it. So I would say have a spec and pilot in the same genre. They both don’t have to be single or multi-camera but they both should be comedies or dramas.

But this is not a hard and fast rule. And I would certainly encourage you to write scripts in both genres, if for no other reason then to discover which genre you really excel in. Sometimes it might surprise you. Shawn Ryan told me he wanted to be a comedy writer and wrote several CHEERS specs. When those failed to set the world on fire he turned to drama. Shawn created THE SHIELD then later TERRIERS and TIMELESS (which according to several commenters has been renewed).

Alan Gollom asks:

Ken, is it more difficult to write comedy for movies than it is for tv? For example the writers for two tv sitcoms, Modern Family and Fresh Off the Boat seem to consistently come up with great scripts week after week. Would it be a lot more difficult for those same writers to write funny movies?

To keep people laughing for 90 minutes is a Herculean task. But the advantage screenwriters have is only one story to tell. So they can devise a very funny premise, squeeze every joke they can out of it, and build to an ending.

In sitcoms your characters and situation are pretty much running in place. So to keep finding laughs in the same situation week after week, year after year is, to me, about equal to screenplays on the difficulty scale.

I once wrote a spec screenplay that I thought would be a breeze. I wanted to write just a balls-out comedy. Turns out it was an extremely hard script to write. To keep the laughs coming and building at a lightening pace was way tougher than I thought it would be.

That’s why I bristle when I get notes and the person says, “Yeah, it’s FUNNY, but…” Do you know how hard it is to make something FUNNY?

Buttermilk Sky wonders:

Alan Alda and Mike Farrell wrote and/or directed several episodes of MASH. Have you ever had to deal with stars who thought they possessed these skills but were simply mistaken? That must be a tough meeting to take.

Sometimes actors will get it in their deal that they get to direct one episode a season. And you just have to suck it up and do what you can in editing.

You try to give those directors the least complicated shows. Although, I must admit, when you know someone is a bad director you don’t want to waste a good script on him. So he starts out with a weaker script, which further limits his possibility of success.

Switching gears, I will tell you a few more actors I’ve worked with who are TERRIFIC directors. Adam Arkin and Kelsey Grammer.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.