Monday, December 11, 2017

Only in LA

I love LA but have to admit, some bizarre shit goes on out here.   No wonder people in the rest of the country shake their heads.  Maybe it's the combination of money, sunshine, and Laker Girls but there is a disproportionate amount of lunacy in "Tinsel Town."    We're the home of life coaches and chakra parlors and Life Springs. 

And now comes something new.   And I'm almost embarrassed to write this.

Concierge firemen.

Things are still touch-and-go in certain areas in Southern California with regards to the recent horrific brush fires.  The winds have died down and containment is more within the fire department's grasp, but there are still flare-ups.  (Where's the Justice League when we need 'em?) 

We've all seen footage of heroic homeowners who have ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind to vigilantly protect their homes.  They're on their roofs with hoses.  They're single-handedly slaying  fire breathing dragons, risking their very lives in the process.

Well, now there's a better way it seems.

Concierge firemen.

Last week many residents of the chic LA neighborhood of Bel Air were forced to evacuate.   It was a boon for luxury hotels in the area.  But as everyone held their collective breath some of these wealthy residents breathed a little easier.   Why?  Because they had concierge firemen, freelancers hired to guard and battle blazes that might affect their homes specifically.   I suppose in a town where there are dog psychiatrists, why not?

Still, it seems a little weird and uh... entitled to me.   But my big fear is someone in Congress is going to hear of this and say, "instead of the government providing this service why don't we encourage people to hire their own firemen and we'll give them vouchers?"    You laugh but today -- nothing would surprise me. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

For those who hate theatre

We all talk about how great the theatre is. I'm writing for the theatre. I love it. But in the interest of fairness, I present the opposing view. From British comedienne Sara Pascoe:

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jobs I wish I had

Starting a new feature I’ll do from time to time. “Jobs I Wish I Had.” We all have them. We grow out of most of them, but not all. Secretly, don’t you still wish you could be a ballerina or Navy Seal?

And then there are the jobs you’d love to have but no longer exist. Big band crooner, flapper, Czar of Russia.
 
There's such a thing as the BUZZR network.  They show old black-and-white episodes of I’VE GOT A SECRET and WHAT’S MY LINE?  These were old musty game shows from the ‘50s and ‘60s. By today’s standard they are positively archaic. A panel of four personalities must guess the contestants’ job or secret.  That's it.  There was zero production value and if a contestant stumped the panel they won the whopping sum of $50. The shows were aired live (for the east coast anyway). Today they're great fun to watch.

WHAT’S MY LINE? was originally on CBS at (I believe) 10:30 p.m. The panelists all wore tuxedos and formal gowns. The host, John Daly was the most erudite emcee in the history of television. If there are 500,000 words in the English language, he knew and used 469,000 of them – each week. Everyone was very formal. Ms. Francis. Mr. Cerf. Ms. Kilgallen.

When little kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up they’ll often say fireman, or actress, or cowboy, or fashion model. I wanted to be a panelist. And you know what? I still do. Too bad those gigs have gone the way of the 8-Track tape.

Think about it. Sunday night. You go out and have a nice dinner in Manhattan. Roll into CBS at 10:00. Don your tuxedo and get made up. There’s nothing to prepare. You’re not supposed to know what will be on the show. You do the show live at 10:30. You play this parlor game and (in my case) say a few witty lines and get a couple of laughs. At 11:00 you’re done. No pick ups. No alternate takes.   By 11:15 you’re in a bar. For this you are handsomely paid, you’re famous, and these shows lasted upwards of fifteen years. You have job security.

You parlay this into appearing on other panels. Ka-ching!! You trade on your fame and write books (or have others ghost write them for you), speak at events for absurd fees, score lucrative commercial endorsements (“Hi, this is Ken Levine for Studerbaker!”), and be invited to all the A-list society parties. Judy Garland could pass out in my lap. 

I was always amused when one of these panelists missed a show because he was on vacation. Vacation from WHAT? A half-hour a week?

There are very few panelist opportunities today.  Bill Maher’s HBO show, a few others. But slim pickings for sure. What few celebrity game shows there are require you must be a has-been from some ‘70s sitcom. Rarely does the casting call go out for never-beens. So I’m at a distinct disadvantage there.

But that’s one of the jobs I wish I had had. What about you? What’s Your Fantasy Line?

Friday, December 08, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Question time has rolled around again. What’s yours?

Here’s a long FQ from Jeff :)

Hi Ken, not sure if you've heard of the Masked Scheduler or not. He is apparently a former Hollywood executive and he has been posting his 12 Commandments of TV. I have a beef with one of them and wanted to hear your thoughts.

He argues that a show should be simple enough that it is easily digested in a 30 second promo. He used some examples of recent shows such as The Leftovers, Legion, etc. as shows that were discussed heavily on social media but didn't necessarily have great ratings. The takeaway seemingly being that simpler shows that are easily understood are better.

I use Game of Thrones as a counter example. Game of Thrones is a deep, political, complicated show. It would be very difficult to explain Game of Thrones in a 30 second spot. And yet it's ratings continually go up and part of it is because people talk about it constantly. Meanwhile I've seen promos for SWAT, and I understand fully what the show is about yet have not only never watched it, I've never heard of anyone who has. And even if you did watch it, what are you going to discuss about it? "Did you see how they caught that killer on SWAT last night? I didn't think they were going to catch him but then they did. So that's nice". Wouldn't you rather have a deep shows that takes actual thought to comprehend than being spoon fed the same old drivel?

Someone on the internet described GAME OF THRONES as:

Noble families across the realm of Westeros compete for control of the Iron Throne.

Even complicated shows can be distilled down to loglines.

There is so much product out there on so many platforms that to get your show noticed I think it’s a big advantage to be able to convey the premise and hook in thirty seconds. And then you can make your show as complicated as you want.

A mob boss is torn between his killer instincts and his conscience.

That’s THE SOPRANOS. Hardly a simple show.

I do believe that whatever your genre, you need to be able to articulate your show in just a few sentences.

Mike Bloodworth asks:

What is the easiest way to access your archives? As I've said before I've only been reading your blog for a short time. There must be a gold mine of information I've missed.

Look on the right column. You’ll find a section called “Blog Archive” along with years and months. Just click on a year and it will show you months. Click on a month and it will show you the posts from that month. Click on the post. Or click on the month itself and all the posts from that month will come up. A few are actually good. 

David A. Mackey wonders:

What do you think it was about Nancy Travis that made working with her so special? I always hear a lot of great things about her and the work that she is done.

She’s a lovely person, super talented, and a real cheerleader on the stage. A total pro, always prepared, very unselfish as an actress. And when she has a problem with a script she presents it in an intelligent respectful way.

She’s a good sport and will try things. There’s something so warm about her. You want to be married to her or have her as your girlfriend or best friend.

And the camera just loves her.

Had the pleasure to work with her on two series.  I would work with her again in a second.  

Finally, from Stuart Best:

You said you left MASH because all the good ideas had been used up and wrung out. But the show continued for four more years. Did you think the writers after you added fresh ideas, or did they continue to bludgeon the same horse? I respect that you probably don't want to say anything negative about other writers, but I wonder how you think it was a mistake to keep going all those extra years.

I think they did the best they could with what they had to work with, which was not a lot. We pretty much picked over all those bones.

There were some stories where I thought they were really reaching, but others where I said, “Damn, why didn’t WE come up with that?”

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Coping with the Skirball Fire

First off, thanks to everyone for showing concern. I love you guys.  Now to the post...
Yesterday was sure fun.

Awakened to a call stating there was a fire of close enough proximity that it might be good to pack up in case we had to evacuate.  Holy shit!  That’ll send you scurrying to the TV.

The blaze was the Skirball Fire that began just after 5:00 AM across the 405 Freeway from the Skirball Museum in the Sepulveda Pass that is the main artery between West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Due to the fire the 405 was closed completely.... during morning rush hour traffic.  I imagine commuters from yesterday still haven't arrived.  

The path of the fire was headed towards Bel Air, a very chic hillside community. I live farther east and south near UCLA. The local elementary school two blocks from my home remained in session so that was a good sign.

The big X-factor was the wind. We’re in the throes of Santa Ana winds that at times are fierce. Adding to that we’ve had very little rain this year. And this is just one major fire. There are five scorching the Southern California region. Homes have been lost and fires have jumped freeways. But the greatest concern was that Rupert Murdoch’s mansion and vineyard was in jeopardy due to the Skirball skirmish. Those MUST be saved. 

We were generally confident that we were safe but heeded the warning and gathered some precious items like documents, photographs, and my daughter’s Pez collection. Have you ever had to evacuate your home? Or even had to give some thought as to what items you might take in that emergency situation and what you could live without?

There was a ballplayer on the Dodgers in the ‘80s named Pedro Guerrero. During an earthquake he strained his back lifting his big screen TV into his car. That was the one irreplaceable item he owned? (Of course this was the same ballplayer tried for selling cocaine and the defense was that he was too stupid to know what was going on… and he won.)

So we basically hung around the house, watching TV updates, and staying indoors. Ash from the fire turned the entire city into the bottom of an ashtray. And the sky had this weird FAHRENHEIT 451 glow. You could smell it. You could also taste it. 500 miles of a mesquite BBQ that needed cleaning.

In the past I anchored fire coverage for KABC radio. My goal was to be accurate, reassuring, and when I had guests on the line (like a spokesman for the fire department, evacuation centers, etc.) I simply asked the questions that I as a listener would want to know. I then took down any pertinent information and relayed it back to the audience during my frequent “here’s what we know” recaps.

Since this fire occurred in the morning hours, most local TV stations had their morning news anchors handle the coverage. That’s when you learn the men from the boys. A few were excellent but others were just dunderheads. Their idea of coverage is to just tell you everything you’re seeing on the screen. “There’s a helicopter. And now it’s circling. And there’s some people standing on their lawns looking at the smoke. Can we see the smoke? Yes, there it is. That fire looks pretty bad.” Great analysis. Of course stations generally put their B or even C-teams on the early morning newscasts. Same with the field reporters. They should wrap up their reports by saying: “Just graduated from Chapman College, this is Suzy Creamcheese, Channel 2 News." 

One station meteorologist said don't breathe in the ashes because that could cause "premature death." Forget that hike I was going to take.   

If you log onto an industry trade paper online version you’ll see such fire coverage headlines as “SWAT forced to postpone production for second day. Or: "among the evacuees is Chelsea Handler.” Oh yeah, and people are losing their homes.

Facebook and Twitter came in handy for me.  I was able to update my concerned friends all at once.

At 11:00 PM I watched the local Channel 2 KCBS News.  The winds were really kicking up.  And I'm writing this four hours before posting and at this moment the Skirball Fire is not any worse.  (Some of the others are unfortunately.  My prayers to all involved.)  But as I watched the local news I thought things have really changed.

When I was a kid there was the big Bel Air Fire in 1961.  I vividly remember reporter Clete Roberts (the same Clete Roberts who was in the famous MASH "Interview" episode) giving a live comprehensive report while HIS house was burning in the background.  Last night the KCBS field reporters were mostly attractive young women.  And one was even named Crystal Cruz.   Really?  How do you have any journalistic credibility with a name like Crystal Cruz?  I wonder if her sisters, Princess and Carnival are working at competing stations. 

The wind and dry conditions are expected to last until the weekend so who knows how long these fires will last and to what extent will be the damage? My eternal gratitude to the first responders and emergency crews. My heart goes out to anyone who lost his or her house in this tragedy.

Now I fully expect to see our beloved President arrive on the scene and toss Wet Naps to displaced homeowners.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

EP49: Celebrity Dish Part 2


More with entertainment reporter Arlen Peters who has interviewed hundreds of major Hollywood stars.This week they discuss Robin Williams, Meryl Streep, Richard Pryor, Miss Piggy (who has her own hair and make-up person), Quentin Tarantino, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin who walked on the moon. Lots of good, bad, and strange behavior. But in Hollywood would you expect anything less?

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

How to be a good showrunner

Here's a Friday Question that became an entire post.  I know the WGA has seminars on this and some colleges offer courses in this, but the following points are pretty much everything you need to know.   (Reminder: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

The question is from Brian Hennessy.

Hey Ken - can I ask you what are mistakes that first time showrunners make?

1. Not communicating with your staff. It’s not enough to have your vision for the show; you need to clearly share it with your other writers. Don’t just assume. It’ll be hard enough for them without trying to figure out what’s in your head. Same is true with your editor and directors.

2. Be very organized. Time will go by much faster than you think. From day one lay out a plan. You want so many outlines by this date, so many first drafts by that date, etc.

3. Don’t squander that period before production begins. It’s easy to knock off early or move meetings back. But this is golden time before the crunch when actors arrive, cameras roll, and a thousand additional details require your attention.

4. Accept the fact that the first draft of the first script you receive from every staff member will look like a script from the last show they were on. It will take them time to adapt to your show.

5. Remember that every writer is not a “five-tool player” as they say in baseball. By that I mean, some may be strong at story but not jokes, or punch-up but not drafts. Not everybody is good at everything.  Consider that when putting together your staff.

6. Hire the best writers not your best friends.

7. Hire at least one experienced writer. Otherwise, on top of everything else you're doing, you're re-inventing the wheel. 

8. Don’t show favoritism to some writers over others. It destroys morale and no one loves a teacher’s pet.

9. Pick your fights with the network and studio. Don’t go to war over every little note. Antagonizing everyone all the time is a good way to ensure this will be your only showrunning gig. Yes, you’re an artist and you’re trying to protect your vision. And yes, a lot of the notes are moronic, but you have to hear them out. You have to consider them. You have to do the ones you can live with. The best way to get your way is to get them on your side.

10. Don’t overwork your staff. This goes back to being organized. There’s only so many times you can whip the same horse. Your people are dedicated to the show but not to the extent you are. They’re not getting any back end deals. They’re not getting interviewed by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. This show may be your whole life but they want to go home.

11. Praise your staff. If they turn in a good draft, let ‘em know. This sounds like such a simple thing but you’d be surprised how many showrunners don’t do it.

12. Respect the crew and learn their names. When you walk onto the set, greet them.  They’re not just a bunch of convicts picking up litter along the side of the expressway. They’re dedicated highly-trained professionals who never get any recognition. Take the time to know who they are.

13. Take care of yourself. On the weekends get plenty of sleep. Eat right. Relax. It’s a long haul.

14. Never make your staff work late nights if you’re not there with them.

15. Don’t get so caught up in the work and the grind that you forget to have some fun. You’re running your own show. That’s a rare opportunity. Enjoy it… or at least as much as you can before you have to put out another fire.

16. A good way to completely destroy any morale is to automatically put your name on every script and share credit with every writer. You may win in arbitration but you lose your troops. The trade off is not worth it. You’re getting paid more money than anybody already. Let your writers receive full credit and residuals.

17. Accept responsibility. When things go wrong (and they will) ultimately you’re the one in charge. Not saying you can’t make changes in personnel if someone doesn’t work out, but don’t be constantly playing the blame game. You’re the showrunner. You take the hit.

18. On the other hand, don’t take all the credit. When ideas and scripts and jokes come from other people, publicly acknowledge their contribution.

The bottom line is a showrunner has to develop people skills and management skills as well as writing skills. You may have enormous talent but that will do you no good when your staff firebombs your car with you in it. Good luck. The work is hard but the rewards are enormous.  Wasn't Natalie gorgeous? 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Don't cry!

I don’t watch many reality shows. Very few. Almost none. I used to watch more scouring for ridiculous ones to review and make fun of.  Sadly, there are less of those. Where are the new PREGNANT IN HEELS or INSTANT BEAUTY PAGEANTS?

One of the shows I do watch is SHARK TANK. I like it, and my friend Harry’s wife works on it. But one thing drives me crazy.

Is it possible to do a reality show without having someone cry? It’s gotten beyond ridiculous. In the early days of television there was a game show called QUEEN FOR A DAY. Women would compete for the saddest sob stories. It was one icky tear-jerker after another. Finally, a winner was crowned “Queen for a Day.” Destitute housewives were given washer-dryers and blenders.

Those contestants were amateurs compared to today. People have complete breakdowns over cake decorating. Men wail like little girls if they’re not selected for dates.

Clearly, most or all of it is for show. America is a sucker for weep porn. The problem, of course, is that reality has become the “Genre that Cried Wolf.” There’s so much emotion that none of it lands. And the result is that these shows all seem manipulative, bogus, and quite frankly insulting.

I now hate ANYONE who cries on a reality show. More than that I fast-forward through them. So if you go on one of these programs and want a total stranger to hate you just start weeping on national television.

Come on, you people. Man up. It’s just a blender. A fucking blender.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Breaking my silence

Readers have been asking me to share my views on all the recent Sexual Harassment Scandals and wondering why I’ve been relatively silent so far.

Here’s the reason: I don’t need the aggravation.

First: to be clear – I absolutely condemn those who commit these acts. And it’s not even a matter of misuse of power. These predators are sick fucks.

But when I write anything that is even mildly controversial I leave myself open to a blizzard of angry comments. I’m called a racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. And that could be over “what’s the best hamburger?”

I was actually in the middle of writing a post about sexual harassment and how it related to the writing room from an insider’s perspective when yesterday’s Woody Allen post went up. And the amount of shit I took for it was unbelievable. As if I’m condoning rape by showing a YouTube video of an AFI Tribute.  

So I said the hell with it and scrapped the writers room post. Life’s too short. The subject matter is too charged to have a civil conversation today. People are way less willing to consider viewpoints that might not be 100% consistent with their own.

So why bother?

No one’s paying me to write this blog. I’m not beholden to any sponsors to produce ratings.

So I’m saving myself the trouble. There are plenty of other writers discussing this topic. You’re welcome to read and denounce them.

Photo from ABC News

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Woody Allen is still funny

There was a time when Woody Allen was the funniest guy in show business.  Yes, it was a long time ago, but his stand up act was brilliant and his early movies were hysterical.  The films he makes now that are alleged comedies are tepid at best, and honestly I've been very disappointed.  Woody Allen was an early idol of mine and today I can't bring myself to see his current movies.

But recently he roasted Diane Keaton who was honored with an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award and damn, the guy's still got it.   Listen to the quality of these jokes.   Where have you been, Woody?  I've missed you.

UPDATE:  Just to be clear because I'm already getting angry comments.  I do not in ANY way condone his behavior and there was a time I refused to see his movies just on principle.   What I'm focusing on in this post is his talent.   If you loathe Woody Allen and are not interested in anything he does then fine.  I totally understand that.  Hopefully I'll see you tomorrow.  

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Come see my plays this weekend!

I have two (count ‘em – TWO) ten-minute one act comedies playing this weekend off Broadway. And by off Broadway I mean the San Fernando Valley. They’re part of an evening of one-acts at the Eclectic Company Theatre – at 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd. in historic Valley Village. The other plays are terrific.

For tickets you can go here.

Tonight's show starts at 8:00 PM.  Sunday's showtime is 7:00 PM. I’ll be there for both performances.

My two plays are THE CAN’T MISS GIRL (which I also directed -- so think: Spiderman the Musical) and MAKE IT STOP: A CHRISTMAS PLAY.

It’s a fun night of live original theatre and it gets you out of the house. Hope to see you there tonight or tomorrow night. Or both. 

Thanks.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Friday Questions

Don’t you find yourself at the beginning of every month saying “I can’t believe it’s ______________ already?” I do. Insert: December. Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

Poochie gets us started.

You talk a lot about plays on your blog. You talk a lot about Cheers (obviously). So maybe I missed it, but have you ever discussed Cheers: Live on Stage. It sounds like it came straight out of Diane Chamber's guest stint on Frasier. My mind is blown that such a thing exists. I'd love to see it, but apparently they canceled plans for a national tour and the reviews were mediocre, putting it kindly.

Can you comment on this? Had you seen it or read a script? What did you think about the show itself or even just the concept of a bunch of look a likes recreating snippets from Cheers? Were there royalties?

I thought it was a terrible idea.  Just a Paramount money-grab.  The TV characters are so ingrained in your mind that the best these actors could do would be to mimic their TV counterparts. I felt bad for the actors. They were in a complete no-win situation.

And none of the CHEERS writers were involved. What I understand they did was cobble together a story using sections from actual scripts from the first season. Now this really pissed me off. If they were using any of my dialogue or my storylines I should have been paid and given credit. I wasn't.

Understandably, when my agent asked for a copy of the script Paramount would not provide it.

I am not brokenhearted it's not going forward.  If you want to see CHEERS at its best, watch the TV show.

Edward asks:

You mentioned on one of your podcasts that while on MASH staff, you and David replicated an episode that already aired years earlier (unnecessary surgery). As a writer, I am sure you felt horrible from a creative perspective (and maybe there were WGA/plagiarism issues), but if you are the Exec Producer, is repeating a similar storyline that bad if its 4-5 seasons later and it involves different characters? There are many new viewers to the show that likely missed a few seasons or long-time viewers that missed a few episodes for whatever reason.

I feel it is bad to knowingly repeat yourself. And with the way people binge-watch today, it’s not five seasons later it’s two days later.

That said, I’m way more forgiving for shows that turned out 39 episodes a year instead of 22. We're talking the '50s and '60s.  And shows weren’t quickly in syndication back then so four or five years could go by before an early episode was ever shown again. Look at the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. There are a couple of episodes in its final season that are direct copies from episodes in their first. But like I said, they made almost twice as many episodes a year as we do now. I don’t know how they did it – especially the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW which was so well-written and smart.

From angel:

My question is in regard to the helicopter story lines on M*A*S*H. I have heard that it cost a lot of money to call in a helicopter. Were you restricted as to how many stories could involve the helicopter each season?

I never dealt with the budget. Our showrunner, Burt Metcalfe handled that. But we knew if there was an episode with a lot of production one week we needed a “bottle” show the next. A “bottle” show is one that is generally very contained and under budget. An example might be an episode that centers around a poker game in the Swamp or an all-night OR session.

But I don’t recall Burt ever telling us we couldn’t do something. He and the production staff were great at making things happen. And we did our part by balancing the expensive episodes with the inexpensive ones.

Terry has another MASH production question.

I'm watching the MASH episode "Point of View" right now and I was wondering if the way it was shot required the construction of any additional sets (e.g. putting walls where the 4th wall would normally be) or was it all done with camera angles?

Camera angles although mounting a camera in a helicopter was no easy feat and orchestrating that great shot where the patient sees everyone running up to the chopper pad and landing was pretty spectacular. I can never mention the POV episode without giving a lion’s share of the credit to director Charles Dubin. These were the days before hand-held cameras. He did a remarkable job of pulling off a potential technical nightmare.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Where have all the executives gone? Long time passing

Whenever I read the industry trades (which is now various websites instead of daily magazines), there are always daily articles about executive job changes. This person is out as “Head of Scripted” for some company, and that person has been named “VP of Development” for that studio, etc.

With the incoming announcements come press releases praising the new hire as the second coming. For exit articles the organization thanks the person very much for their service and the ousted party is quoted as saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

By the way, “more time with his family” is confirmation that the person was fired.

But what has amazed me over the years is how many executives come and go. It truly is the revolving door of Hollywood. Names pop up in important positions and you wonder “who are they and where did they come from?”

And then… where did they go? Because being a mid-level executive has about the same shelf-life as a porn star. I think back over my career at all the people I took meetings with – network execs, D-girls, studio honchos – and most of them are now gone. They’ve disappeared. How do you go from VP of Development for a major broadcast network to out of the business completely in a year? And this was BEFORE sexual harassment claims.

My longtime agent, Bob Broder put it best. When we had a project we were hoping to sell, he said, “You pitch the chair not the person.” He's right.

It’s just the mercurial nature of the business, and yes, writers make a lot of fun of suits, but I’ll be honest. I miss a lot of these folks. They were smart passionate people, and I hope that wherever they are now they can finally buy a house, or at least not live in one that’s on wheels.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

EP48: Dishing The Dirt On Celebrities - Part 1


Ken grills entertainment reporter Arlen Peters who has interviewed hundreds of major Hollywood stars.  In Part 1 they discuss Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, Lucy, John Belushi, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Kelly and more. Lots of craziness behind-the-scenes and many stories I promise you’ve never heard.   If you like gossip and dish this one’s for you.  And we’re just getting started.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Meghan Markle is leaving SUITS?

Just because she’s engaged to a prince?
Oh sure, leave the security of a hit TV series for the chaos that has always been the British monarchy.

What kind of agent does Meghan have? Doesn’t she know that leaving a series might make it hard for her to book a role on a coveted LIFETIME movie about teen pregnancy?

It just seems like a real step down after being on the USA network.

And there are so many hungry actors out there. Landing a part on a hit series is way harder than marrying into a royal family. Get real!

Meghan obviously doesn’t know how good she had it. Oh sure, she’ll have servants, but they’re amateurs compared to PA’s. When Duchess Meghan wants a donut she’ll have to ring a bell, the servant will have to cross to the kitchen, wait for the donut to come out of the oven, prepare the silver service, and cross the length of the palace to deliver it. On set, Mergan says “where’s my fucking donut?” two seconds later the Second AD is on the wireless saying: “Donut flying in!” and a PHD in Literature from NYU appears one second later with two donuts, just in case she wants a second one. PA’s anticipate!

But I guess she’ll learn the hard way. And wait till the prince has to cut the budget to pay for exterminators at the summer castle. Meghan will really wish she had those season eight residuals (excuse me -- "royalties").

But it’s her life.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

From the small stage to the small screen

Photo from LA Times
There was an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times recently about playwrights who transitioned into TV. You can find it here.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve been fortunate enough to be in both worlds (although WAY more successful at TV than the theatre).

The current trend in television now is that studios, agents, showrunners, etc. are looking for original material. It used to be they wanted spec scripts of existing shows. Those are now just supplementary writing samples. Original fare is what they seek.

That often means spec pilots but playwrights have drawers full of plays. And playwrights are in demand. Why? A number of reasons.

They tend to be prolific. Someone writes a pilot and the executive doesn’t know whether this is the only thing he's ever written or the tenth thing. But playwrights stick with it. Most playwrights I know have written at least three full-length plays.

Playwrights do it for the craft and need to tell stories. It’s almost impossible to make a living being a playwright. And this news comes as no surprise to them. They live in one room studios in Brooklyn with four other playwrights.  So executives know these are “writers.”

They've studied story structure and character and theme.  They know the power of dialogue.  

Playwrights often have the advantage of seeing or at least hearing their work. There are readings and workshops and I can’t begin to tell you how invaluable those are for the growth of a writer. So showrunners are hiring baby writers who already have experience.

And finally, in Hollywood’s quest to increase diversity, the theatre offers a great talent pool.

So kudos to the playwrights who have made the move over to television.

One thing struck me about the article though. 24 young playwrights were featured. And along with lovely photos, each offered their perspective. Many went to great lengths to justify the move. Some acknowledged that TV “paid the bills.” I kinda got the sense many of them were defensive – worried that they’d be accused of selling out.

So let me just say this. You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to justify. Playwrights starve; TV writers make good money. Embrace that. You’re getting paid handsomely for the thing you love to do. And all the playwrights who scoff and say you’re selling out – half of them would trade positions with you in a New York minute.

Your stuff is being seen by way more people than might see your plays. Yes, it’s not as intimate and not live, but more people will see an episode of THIS IS US that you wrote than all your plays combined. Hey, I’m writing plays. I’m thrilled to have productions in 99-seat theatres. It’s a great experience. Writing for the theatre is my favorite thing. But way more people are watching a rerun of one of my MASH episodes at 4:00 in the morning, and God bless each and every one of ‘em.

Also, we no longer have to apologize for the content on television. We’re in a golden age. There are better, more brilliant and complex dramas on TV than in the movies. There is more experimentation and breaking the form.  No longer is TV the second-class citizen to films.

And… you can always continue to write plays. They will probably improve as a result of your experience in television.

So congratulations again. Now you can finally get an apartment of your own with two or more rooms. Ain’t TV grand?!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

I LOVE LUCY in REAL color

During the Christmas holidays CBS colorizes old classic sitcom episodes and airs them in prime time.  It started with I LOVE LUCY.  Last year they aired two colorized DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episodes and this year they're colorizing two more.   They always look awful.  And of course they're cut down to accommodate the larger number of commercials networks now inflict upon us.

But I thought you'd like to see what I LOVE LUCY looked like in REAL color.  

This is an amazing video. Someone in the audience of a 1951 taping of I LOVE LUCY took color home movies. Because of the sprockets I'm guessing he only shot when there was a lot of other noise on the set, or between takes. But anyway, here are scenes of the Copa nightclub and the Ricardo apartment, intercut with clips from the actual episode. This was the first time in my entire life that I saw the color scheme for the Richardo apartment. If you're a TV historian (or geek like me) you'll love this video.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Binge watching began at Thanksgiving

Why do I say that? Because one of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions was always the TV marathons. One station would show TWILIGHT EPISODES all day long. Another would air THE HONEYMOONERS (happily, WPIX in New York still does!). And depending on your local market, stations might trot out I LOVE LUCY marathons or DICK VAN DYKE SHOW marathons or ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW marathons. I kept hoping one station in Los Angeles would show an I’M DICKENS/HE’S FENSTER marathon but alas it was not to be.

Personally, I had no trouble watching six TWILIGHT ZONES in a row. And neither did a lot of people because these marathons were repeated year after year.

Now of course, with Netflix and Hulu and the others, you can have Thanksgiving every day. You can create your own GILLIGAN’S ISLAND marathon if you want to (although why would you?)

TV pundits wondered whether viewers would take to binging. Well, gee, we’ve been doing it for twenty-five years.

The only problem is, why watch the Thanksgiving marathons at all now? Now you can watch the same TWILIGHT ZONE episodes without the annoying Kohl’s commercials.

But it’s sad to see a tradition die. Oh well. Now I must get back. I just started season three of THE EQUALIZER.

Friday, November 24, 2017

(Black) Friday Questions

While you’re standing in long checkout lines, amuse yourself with some (Black) Friday Questions.

Stylus is up first.

My question: years ago, I was watching Frasier via a mirror (in the days before smartphones, it was a way to see the TV while having a bath), and I noticed how odd it was to have everything flipped: the front door on the right of the screen etc. Thinking on it, I can't remember a multi-camera sitcom where the main 'point of entry' wasn't on the left side. Is this deliberate design, so the joke 'flows' from left to right, the same way we read? Are there any other common set designs that you would expect to use as a writer?
Thanks,

There were a lot of shows where the entrance was on the right. ALL IN THE FAMILY, Mary’s first apartment on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (along with the WJM Newsroom), Penny’s apartment on BIG BANG THEORY, Jerry’s apartment on SEINFELD, Ray's house on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, Grace's apartment on WILL & GRACE, the JEFFERSONS' apartment, etc. To my knowledge there’s not a conscious decision to place the entrance on the left.

Sometimes it has to do more with the way the stage is structured and which side is easier to get to the dressing rooms. I have no idea whether that’s remotely true but it could be, right?

cd1515 asks:

How far in advance do writers plan story arcs for smaller characters (ie, non-stars)?

For example, would you introduce someone’s father in season 2 because you plan to give him cancer or something in season 3?

Or do you not even know what you’re gonna do with him when you introduce him?

More the latter. The truth is we only bring back guest-star characters (like a regular’s “father”) if he really scores.

You sure don’t want to get locked into anything set for the future. Unless you pay the actor to keep a hold on him he is free to seek other work. So when you come back to him a season later he may be unavailable, working on something else.

THE GOOD WIFE had this problem all the time. They created a rich stable of guest-star characters. The good news is they were all terrific actors. The bad news was they were all terrific actors. Numerous times they’d check on an actor’s availability for a cool storyline they’d developed only to learn he was in Rangoon filming a mini-series.

Longtime reader of the blog, Wendy M. Grossman has a FQ.

It's been reported that Jill Soloway and Amazon Studios have been hit with fines for not crediting directors when their material ended up in I LOVE DICK episodes other than the one they were credited for. The story is here:

I understand the points about credit and compensation, and even the directors' complaints that Soloway (apparently) gave notes directly to cast.

But it's an interesting situation because Soloway's shows seem, more than usually for a TV series, like lengthy movies. So which needs to change: Soloway or the rules?

Boy, that’s an easy one. Soloway needs to change. I’ve seen this before. A show receives some recognition and suddenly the creator believes he or she is God. Union rules don’t apply to them. They’re special. They’re creating brilliance.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Katz Television Group found that only 2% of Americans have ever seen a single episode of TRANSPARENT – even with all the hype. So she’s like the power-hungry dictator of a country the size of Lichtenstein.

And finally, from Theo:

Ken here's an article about how writers are working overtime because of one sleazebag.

Friday Question: Will writers, cast and crew get paid extra or will some other compensation be paid to them because of this one scum. Can they sue him or the network for shutting down the show/their livelihood?

My guess is no. The writers are indeed working like mad to find a new direction and salvage the season, but the sad fact is there is a lot of collateral damage to the Kevin Spacey debacle. On the one hand you could say that it was because of Kevin Spacey that all of these people have jobs on the show in the first place because without him there was no show originally. But there’s no question his behavior has caused a lot of heartache for a lot of people who have worked very hard on his behalf.

And unfortunately, collateral damage of a fact of life in Hollywood because jobs are so transient. An industry strike, a quick cancellation, a new studio regime, an actor getting injured or sick, production moved to Vancouver to save money – all of these can cause financial hardship for lots of workers.

What’s your Friday Question? And have a safe holiday weekend.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

Probably half the plays about families and half the family-themed movies in your neighborhood art house take place on Thanksgiving.

Relatives fly in from wherever just to have a dinner that blows up into a huge family fight. Secrets are revealed, longtime resentments bubble to the surface, hurt feeling abound. It’s WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF with stuffing and yams.

With that in mind, try to make sure that your family feast doesn’t fall into this trap. And now that Black Friday sales begin Thursday evening, you have a great excuse for getting the hell out of the house before it’s revealed that your uncle sent dick pix to all the Rocketettes.

I’m in New York this year – mostly thankful that the year is almost over. There’s this large parade going on outside making it hard to sleep.

Have a happy, safe, and conflict-free Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

EP47: Leftover turkeys and tales from the Hollywood front


Ken tells more crazy anecdotes of pitching projects, wants to know more about you, and serves some turkeys that are both hilarious and hard to digest. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Thus begins the Holiday Season

Okay, you can put up your Christmas lights now.

Allright, you can start playing Christmas music on the radio.

It’s safe to cart out Charlie Brown’s Christmas again.

Studios are free to unleash their big holiday tentpole releases.

Take that bottle away from Santa and send him out to the center of the mall.

The tree can go up at Rockefeller Center.

You can open the ice skating rink now.

The Radio City Holiday Show can now officially open. Please close it by March.

Bring on the baseball winter meetings.

It’s still not okay for CBS to colorize and air classic black-and-white sitcoms, but that’s another story.

Networks prepare for their live musicals. Too bad the novelty has worn off. And Christopher Walken isn’t playing the dad in A CHRISTMAS STORY for Fox.

Hollywood officially shuts down until January. The only business that gets done now is firing known celebrities and executives charged with sexual harassment. And of course their shocked reactions.

Travel today becomes an absolute nightmare. If it happens to snow a quarter-inch in Seattle, all flights in and out of O’Hare are cancelled till January. 

Frantic cooking is taking place. People all over America are making that string bean casserole with Campbell’s Mushroom Soup. (“Why?” I ask.)

And finally, it’s time to stop and give thanks to all the people and things in your life that you’re grateful for. In my case, I start with you.

Travel safe this holiday weekend.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In search of great burgers

My name might as well be Wimpy. I love me a good burger. And they’re healthy too! (They have lettuce in them, right?) So today I thought I’d survey some burger places. The opinions expressed are my own and you might disagree. Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Getting it out of the way right off the bat, McDonalds’ burgers are awful. Unless you have kids and you’re trying to get them toys from Happy Meals there’s no reason to ever go to McDonalds.

Maybe you have to be from the east coast to appreciate them, but I also think White Castle is disgusting. I need a shower just walking in there.

Burger King to me is airport food court fare. Not terrible and you can customize.  I wouldn't bring one on a plane and eat it four hours later though.

Carl’s Jr./Hardees and Wendy’s are for when you’re on a cross-country driving trip, you’re hungry, and it’s the last rest stop before New Mexico.

Of the more upscale fast-food burgers, there’s much debate on the west coast between Five Guys and In ‘N Out. I like ‘em both. In N’ Out used to be more of a treat when there were fewer of them. But they’re always made to order, the burger is hot and the lettuce and tomatoes are fresh and crispy cold. The fries are meh.

I think I prefer Five Guys. I like when you order a bacon burger the bacon is broken up so you get bacon in every bite. People rave about their fries. I’ve never tried them. They offer free peanuts so I eat those.

In LA we also have Fat Burger and they have their fans. My daughter Annie has a rule: Never eat in an establishment where the consequences are right in the title. So that would disqualify Fat Burger, In N’ Out, and probably Tombstone Pizza. Fat Burger is not as greasy as it sounds. Just order the burger broiled and you’re good to go.

Fuddruckers has two things going for it. Big buns (easy to eat) and a condiment aisle so you can customize it yourself. Last time I was there Jay Leno was right in front of me. So it’s the place to go to see stars.

Do you have The Counter where you live? Might just be a west coast thing. Partially owned by Jon Favreau I’m told, but very good quality beef, lots of condiment options, and somehow they always cook it just right. You order medium rare it comes out medium rare.

We’re now starting to get Shake Shacks out here. I must say the very first time I had a Shake Shack burger I was knocked out by it. Each subsequent time I’ve liked it a little less. Not sure why. Nice soft buns and the fries are tasty. Am I spitting on the cross not saying these are the greatest burgers ever?

Umami Burgers are popular out west. I had one I quite enjoyed and one that was so bad I returned it and got my money back. I’m not hipster enough to appreciate Umami Burgers.

Tommy’s at Beverly & Rampart in LA has yummy chiliburgers, but only if you’re young or have a cast-iron stomach. And whatever you do, don’t eat one in your car. You will NEVER get rid of that chili smell.

Moving up to sit down restaurants, there once was a chain called Hamburger Hamlet. Mostly LA but sprinkled throughout Chicago, Washington DC, and a few other eastern haunts. Their burgers were a cut above and their #11, their “greatest burger” with cheese, bacon, etc. and thousand island dressing was pretty great. The chain went out of business but in LA the one in Van Nuys has re-opened under new management and although they’ve done an okay job of recreating the old menu, their #11 is not even “the goodest.”

A delicious burger can be found at the Apple Pan in West Los Angeles. Only problem there is it’s one horseshoe counter with people standing behind you waiting to take your seat. To me that’s unnerving and I always feel compelled to just shovel down my food.. But if you go off-hours things are more relaxed. The service is spectacular. These waiters have been there for forty years. I once saw Warren Beatty munching at the counter. Not as big a star as Jay Leno but still considered a celebrity I suppose.

I’m told the Burger joint at the Parker-Meridian is supposed to be spectacular. I’m flying to New York today so plan to check it out this trip.

Speaking of New York, I haven’t been there in ages, but I remember a place called Jackson Hole. Their burger was so huge you couldn’t eat it. They must grind an entire cow for every patty. Too big. If I can’t get my mouth around a burger it loses points.

Boll Weevil hamburgers in San Diego were half-pound, real cheap, and surprisingly good.

Call me sentimental, but I still love Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Bob’s was the originator of the double deck hamburger and I enjoy it as much now as I did when I was nine. Some nights they still have car service.

Mel’s Drive-In is another ‘50s throwback diner. Remember them from AMERICAN GRAFFITTI? Decent burgers and more big Hollywood stars. I saw Andy Kindler once in Mel’s.

And finally, my all-time favorite burger place has re-opened but don’t be fooled. Cassell’s now sucks. This breaks my heart. Cassell’s used to be in a corner dumpy spot in the Wilshire district. The grill was on a slant so the grease rolled off. The buns were large, and they had a condiment bar that included homemade potato salad that was out of this world. Now it’s re-opened down the block in a Hotel on Normandy and the condiment bar is gone, the potato salad isn’t nearly as good and it’s no longer free, the buns are different, and it seems to me the quality of the meat has gone downhill. A great burger is more than just a name.

Depending on where you live I’m sure there are awesome burger places I have no knowledge of. If the TRAVEL CHANNEL would let me do a show where I go around the country sampling them, I would be more than happy to give yours a try.

As Wimpy used to say, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Wait a minute. It IS Tuesday. Never mind.

Note:  Since I will airborne most of the day and I moderate the comments there may be a lag before yours is posted.  But I will get to it.  So comment away.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nothing's changed

Here's a helpful writer tip:

Even though people change, there are traits that always stay the same. You see this a lot at high school reunions. Someone may now be a big hotshot lawyer but he still slouches and wears a pocket protector hidden under the jacket of his $1000 suit. 

When people ask I tell them I’m still 13.  I'm only half-joking.

When I was 13 I used to repair to my room, sit at my desk, and draw comic books. I don’t even think I ever showed them to anybody. But they were fun to draw and fun to create the elaborate stories for them. (Think: Rocky & Bullwinkle) God knows if they were any good.

Also, I would be listening to KFWB Channel 98 “Color Radio.” They played the hits of the day straight off the “Fabulous 40” survey.

Flash forward to today, and I’m in my office, at my desk, writing a new play. Meanwhile, my speakers are blaring Richbroradio.com – bar none the best oldies station on the internet – and I thought to myself, “Ohmygod. Nothing’s changed. Only the jokes are different.”

When creating characters for your screenplay or pilot or novel, one thing to keep in mind is “who they were.” You can often take character traits of your youth or others and apply them to help define characters in adulthood. It’s just another great tool. Your bratty annoying sister might have just done you a favor by being bratty and annoying.
And by the way, let me double back and recommend Richbroradio.com.  It’s programmed by Rich Brother Robbin, one of the great jocks and PD’s of the golden Top 40 era. If you like oldies from the ‘50s-‘70s this is the station for you. Primarily because he has a deep playlist. Unlike terrestrial stations that play the same 100 tunes (How many times can you hear “Proud Mary?” Ugh!), you’ll hear songs you haven’t heard in years. Also vintage radio jingles and NO COMMERCIALS. I listen on iTunes but you can find it here. Who knows? Maybe it’ll help you write a great play. Or comic book.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

My daughter the pole dancer

This is a re-post from January 2013.    My daughter Annie taking a pole dancing class.  Flash-forward and she and her now husband/partner Jon are co-producers on KEVIN CAN WAIT.  One of their episodes (co-written with Dan Staley) airs tomorrow night at 8 on CBS. But as you'll see, she and Jon were already funnier than me four years ago. 
My daughter, Annie recently took a pole dancing class. Here's her account of it (with help from her writing partner, Jon). As a father I couldn't be more proud.

Everyone likes to think their coworkers respect them…

Mine bought me a Groupon to a pole dancing class for my birthday. (Based on the average age of my coworkers, I chose to take this as a sign of admiration for my functional hips.)

I didn't plan to actually use the thing until my dad demanded I do a blog post about it. Most parents tend to discourage their children entering the world of erotic dancing. Mine bought me kneepads and offered to drive.

I'm lucky to have found the place at all. There was no sign out front, no mention on any directory, absolutely no distinguishing marks of any kind. Areola 51.

I finally discovered the way in and was rewarded for my perseverance with a dimly lit studio whose windows were blacked out by feather boas. It was like stumbling into RuPaul's doomsday bunker.

The class was called Pole Diva (Level 1) and the teacher was a pocket-sized Latina woman who kept criticizing everybody's "sexy pushups."

For the uninitiated, "sexy pushups" are when you caress your body before Shamu sliding along the hardwood and pulling yourself back up. Making sure to rub your hips again for good measure. Based on how my classmates looked doing them, I think "sexy pushup" is meant to be one of those ironic terms like "FOX comedy."

Not that everyone was bad at it. The woman in front of me was clearly the star pupil, and by the end of class even I was throwing her a few singles.

The humiliation of the "sexy pushup" (thoughtfully enhanced by the floor to ceiling mirrors we performed in front of) finally came to an end. It was time to strap on our kneepads (thanks again, Dad!) and pick our pole.

They offered us bottles of alcohol to disinfect the poles before use. I requested penicillin.

We learned a few different spins over the course of the hour. They all had fun names like "the sunburst" and "the firefly." Each one a new way to wind up with my ass on the floor and legs spread wide. The actual spinning was fun, though, until my teacher scolded me for yelling, "Wheeee!"

A large part of pole dancing seems to be walking around the pole, doing a sort of Igor foot drag. I pictured Martha Graham spinning in her grave every time this was referred to as choreography.

I did find one maneuver especially difficult, but was assured it would be much easier once I performed it in high heels. Pole dancing has to be the only physical activity in the world where that's true. "The Lakers are down fifty in the fourth quarter! Get Kobe his stilettos!"

By the end of class, I was so black and blue my dancer name would have been Hematoma. (In actuality, I would choose something a little more exotic if I ever entered the profession. Right now the top candidate is Treif Magnifique.)

The staff knew most of us were only in it for the one class. Still, they kept pressuring us to come back. On our way out, they made sure we knew that they were available for parties. I'm still not clear if they were talking about the studio or the instructors.

I'm sure if I kept at it, I could graduate to Pole Vixen (Level 2). I would love to see that ceremony. No gowns or mortarboards; just the tassels.

That said, I think it's safe to say pole dancing is not going to be added to my list of hobbies. I'd much rather bake the cake than jump out of it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Comedy Geography

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?) A few years ago we  had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Questions

Happy St. Patricks Day.  Oh wait.  That's MARCH 17th.   But Friday Questions come every week. 

Gazzoo starts us off:

Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) till the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

No one had any special requests, but David and I were very adamant that we didn’t want a sappy ending. That’s why we constructed the final sequence so that all of the final goodbyes were during triage and the farewells had to be quick and on the run.

I’m a big fan of “little touches”. Hawkeye discovering Radar’s teddy bear on his bed says more about how Radar matured from the MASH experience than any speech could have ever done, no matter how eloquently it was written.

We also wanted to send Radar home happy. Henry Blake was killed and Frank went bonkers. We wanted Radar to return home having benefited somewhat from the experience. He grew up and found love in Korea.

Originally it was a just a single episode but when CBS decided to push it back into the 8th season they asked that it be expanded into a two-parter.

The new staff rewrote very very little of our draft (thanks for that, guys). I don’t believe a line was changed from the entire final act. One day I’ll get Gary Burghoff to write about the episode from his perspective.

Mirror James (from England) wonders:

Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, his predecessor on Doctor Who, often seem to be the targets of abuse from people who claim to be fans. Everything from saying they can't write to accusations of running a so-called "gay agenda", in which the mere acknowledgement that gay people exist is apparently "shoving it down their throats".

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan who claims to love a show yet can't seem to do anything other than hurl insults?

Only all the time. Fans are passionate about their shows. I got a hate letter on MASH from someone who thought Hawkeye was being too mean to Radar. Other loyal MASH viewers claimed in profanity-laced missives that I was a liberal Commie dupe hell bent on destroying America.

The "gay agenda" complaint was a staple on FRASIER.  Referring to this and the "we're too liberal" charge on MASH, I like to think we had an "open minded agenda". 

My favorite was a letter I received when David and I were showrunning the MARY series. It started out like this:

Dear Producers,

Recently I read an article in TV GUIDE that spoke of the growing cocaine problem in the television industry. At first I thought they were grossly exaggerating, but then I watched an episode of your show…


And of course Roseanne called me an “asshat”.

And finally, from Chris:

How do they shoot/do those scenes when the audience laughs just when the camera zooms on something, like a silent opening with the camera zooming on what a character is reading and just then the audience starts to laugh?

I assume you mean a studio audience. There are always monitors overhead and they will be invited to watch them for particular scenes or moments. Often special scenes will be pre-shot and just shown to the audience. What they see is what you’ll see at home so they receive the same surprise.

What’s your Friday Question?  I think I'm going to eat corned beef today anyway. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sitcoms could be better

Here’s a Friday Question worth a whole rant (I mean "post".)

Sean S. asks:

In her book IN SUCH GOOD COMPANY Carol Burnett repeats the following from a conversation she had with Larry Gelbart.

BURNETT: I don't know, but when I watch a comedy show on TV today, I know exactly what's coming so far as the writing goes. No surprises. No originality. Usually it's the 'setup' first, and then comes the obvious joke, and then you hear that awful laugh track. It's as if all the shows are alike and repeating themselves.

GELBART: I think it's because most of the writers today grew up watching television. That was their childhood, so they're writing about life once removed.

BURNETT: What do you mean?

GELBART: They never played stickball in the street.

Thought that was an interesting observation from Gelbart and wondered if you had any thoughts on it.

I agree with him. And right away I know that makes me seem a hundred years old. But there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying.

It’s evidenced by the pop culture references that fill sitcoms today. For many young writers their frame of reference is television, not life.

Not that my generation worked on oil rigs and pretended to be Jack London until we were 30, but our references came from literature. Most writers my age didn’t start out wanting to be comedy writers. We all sought something else. For me it was radio. Once we hit our middle to late 20’s we decided we wanted to go in another direction and that’s when TV writing called to us.

So when we started we already had some other background to draw from. As a disc jockey I bounced around the country so got to live in different cities and associate with people outside of LA. Heaven help me, I lived in “flyover” states. Also, being in the Army I was introduced to a whole new world. No way could I have written MASH without that personal experience.

As for TV itself, I turned to comedy writing back when sitcoms were enjoying a golden era. Smart, sophisticated, adult shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE, RHODA, and THE ODD COUPLE provided a high bar to shoot for. You had to really know social issues. You had to really delve into human relationships. You couldn’t get away with wry irony or Kardashian jokes.

Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, Alan Burns, James L. Brooks, Gene Reynolds, Garry Marshall and other showrunners of that era had extremely high standards – including the fact that their shows needed to be really funny. The jokes had to land. Audiences, not machines, had to LAUGH. The story telling had to be fresh. They were very tough on the material. And YOU.

So I think back then we fledgling comedy writers felt we needed a lot in our arsenals just to survive. We needed a formal education, life experience, and talent.

Today I think you can get by a little easier.

A couple of weeks ago I saw an improv show starring a group called OFF THE WALL (pictured above). They’ve been together for over 40 years, and they were phenomenal. And the thing I noticed was how literate their humor was. They knew author styles, classic dramatic forms, world history, current events, Shakespeare. And as a result their show was not only hilarious but so smart (and timely). Does UCB do any of that? I wonder.

Our society today is much more insular. We don’t hang out with friends, we follow them on social media. We spend more time looking at pictures of places than visiting them. And it shows in the shows.

Yes, I know. I’m ancient and you kids are on my lawn without permission, but isn’t it always better to strive for something higher? Pop culture references are easy. Crutches are easy. Why bust your ass to come up with a really witty joke when you can just say “vagina?”

I’m not saying go back to the style of Larry Gelbart, James Brooks, et al – just the standards.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EP46: Thanksgiving for the Memories


Ken gets you into the holiday spirit with tales of Thanksgiving – how to survive the travel, the hell that is writing Thanksgiving episodes, the Macy’s Parade, an even tackier one, and what Ken is thankful for.  Hint:  You’re included.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Email etiquette

First off, thanks to all of you who responded to my request yesterday. Great to meet you and thanks for the kind words. You can still weigh in. The more the merrier (I just made that statement up). Now to today's post:

Is this just me?

I’m emailing someone. Or texting someone. We’re going back and forth. And eventually either the thread gets pretty thin or I have other things to do. I always find it awkward signing off. I want to disengage without being rude.

Sometimes of course I can just say, “I gotta run” but if you do that too often I’m sure the other person is going to feel like I’m just blowing them off.

It’s somewhat easier when I’m bantering with some comedy writer pals. Once one of us has the topper the other acknowledges. We always go out on the best joke. (And usually it’s the other guy who has it.)

But I find myself at times reading an email (after we’ve volleyed a few times) and trying to decide, “is this a good place to just not answer?”

Sometimes I worry that I’m being unintentionally rude. I email a person. I don’t get a response for five or ten minutes. I assume he cut if off. Then I leave the computer to do something else. Two minutes after I’ve gone they respond. And of course there’s no subsequent response from me. Are they thinking, “Jesus, this guy is an asshole. I tell him I thought his play was great and he doesn’t even answer?”

And then there’s the other side to this. I’m corresponding back and forth and suddenly radio silence from their end. Did they just get tired of me? Did something I wrote piss them off?  Is this something I should be concerned about?   Just how insecure am I? 

Nothing drives me crazier on the phone than when the other person doesn’t say goodbye. When they just hang up after they’ve said what they want to say. This is a convention that is used ALL the time in TV and movies. I get it. It’s wasted screen time with people saying goodbye to each other, but in real life it’s incredibly rude. Do you feel that way about email correspondence?

I’m bothered less during texting. It’s kind of understood you’re trying to be as brief as possible. In many cases you’re delivering messages. But email conversations tend to be longer (at least mine do).

The solution might be out there but I just don’t know it. Is there an emoji for “nothing personal but I’m done with you now?” That would solve everything. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

12th year anniversary

The end of this month marks the 12 year anniversary of this blog. I still can’t believe it. Daily postings for 12 years. Over 5200 posts and over 30,000,000 page views.

For my ten-year anniversary I had a party. For 12 I’m just going to have a drink.

But I always like to know who’s out there, where they’re from, how long they’ve been reading, how they found the blog, how old they are, what subjects they liked and which (besides baseball) they didn’t? So periodically I take a day and let you guys do the heavy lifting. If you would be so kind, could you take a moment to write a comment and answer some of those questions? Your feedback helps me present a better product.  One thing I know you like is Natalie Wood photos. Note:  I moderate the comments so there may be a lag time between when you write it and it's posted.  Popularity has its trolls. 

Since this blog is, and always will be, free – a question I often receive is “How can I repay you?” I would say listen to and subscribe to my podcast (which is also free). I’m really proud of it and am trying to build a sizable audience for that too.  Got some real good shows lined up.  (Subscribe on iTunes, listen via podcast apps, this link, or just click on the big gold arrow above.)  

Thanks much. Hope to hear from you, and (if you check out my podcast) you hear from me. 

Ken