Saturday, June 12, 2021

Weekend Post


Here’s one of those questions worthy of a Weekend Post.

It’s from Nancy Knechtel:

You have captured the history of the studios you have worked at so well - Did you ever find out who occupied your offices at the studios in the past? Rumor has it that some writers have worked in Shirley Temple's old dressing room bungalow at Fox. Were your offices old dressing rooms or writers buildings? Any great writers occupy your space before you?

For history you can’t beat the Fox lot on Pico. I never had an office in the building that was Shirley Temple’s dressing room, but I was in it frequently since at one time it served as the headquarters for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW and my partner David and I wrote several episodes.  Shirley had nice digs for a six-year-old. 

But for years on MASH and AfterMASH David and I had offices in the Old Writers Building (back before we were old writers). It’s a gorgeous Swiss chalet, and to this day it was my favorite office.

You’ve seen it in many movies and TV shows. BABES IN TOYLAND with Laurel & Hardy for one. Could you ask for better ghosts when trying to create comedy than Stan & Ollie?

They were always filming CHARLIE’S ANGELS and STARSKY & HUTCH outside our office. It was always fun to look out the window and see either Jackie Smith in a tight jumpsuit or a drug dealer being gunned down in a hail of bullets.

In our time there we had three offices. The first was supposedly once F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. We found a few of Zelda’s empty gin bottles behind the couch so we have confirmation.

More impressive to me was when we became head writers of MASH and moved into Larry Gelbart’s old office. That was like having Babe Ruth’s locker.

We used that as our main writers room and one afternoon I noticed several people in the nearby apartment building looking in at us. I didn’t think four guys sitting around a table writing a Radar speech was much of a show but who knows? Later I learned that the Hello Dolly New York set was on fire across the lot. That’s what the apartment dwellers were looking at. Now I feel like an schmuck for waving at them.

Both of those offices were on the second floor. For AfterMASH we took over the entire first floor. Larry Gelbart didn’t have an office but we said whenever he was there he could use ours. The only thing better than having Larry Gelbart’s old office was actually SHARING an office with Larry Gelbart. Babe Ruth using your locker.

Back in the MASH days we parked behind the building and the old Western town from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was still up. My spot was right in front of the saloon (which explains why I was often late).

For several years we had a development deal at Fox and this was our office. Since it fronts a street it is always used as a location. I’ve seen it at least two dozen times on shows. And I’m always yelling, “Hey, get the fuck out of my office!”

Friday, June 11, 2021

Friday Questions

If you haven’t already, this is the time to get vaccinated.  Our president and the CDC is being very diplomatic, but let me just say if you’re not getting vaccinated you’re just stupid.  And maybe in needless danger of your life.   And with that public service announcement, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

An unknown reader (who submitted this before I banned unknown and anonymous readers) asks:

How do you feel about studio audiences that go "Awwww!" when something sweet happens, or "Woooo!" when one character insults another or a hot woman walks in? Do any warmup guys try to discourage such behavior?

I hate it and will eliminate it from the audience track.  Emotions need to be earned, not prodded by the audience.  “Wooo’s” are distracting and in some cases rude.

I do tell my warm up people to ask the audience not to do that.  

I also hate applause when actors make their first appearance.  It takes the audience out of the show and it’s self-congratulatory.  

Personal bias but I go to great lengths to avoid any hint of self-congratulations.   Like I said, everything has to be earned.  YOU decide whether the show is good. 

DougG. wonders:

Would you like to have been a writer for Johnny Carson on THE TONIGHT SHOW?

No.  I never had any desire to do that and never applied.

I like writing stories and having my humor come out of characters and attitudes.  I don’t enjoy just writing “jokes.”  

Having to sit in a room and bang out fifty one-liners hoping I get one in is not why I became a writer.  

My first "writing" job was coming up with jokes for Joan Rivers.  I think I got $5 for every one she used.  So basically $5 for every twenty jokes. 

Not for me.  

Mike Reiss, on my podcast, also said that THE TONIGHT SHOW was a revolving door, and that it was not uncommon to get fired once or maybe twice.  

Not for me.

That said, there were some brilliant comedy writers who did work on THE TONIGHT SHOW, several who are friends.  I greatly admire what they did.  It just wasn’t my strength.  Or interest.  

From Yakimi:

A radio question: In all your radio travels, did you ever work at a station that had horribly outdated equipment? I mean, consoles that Fred Flintstone would have been using long before you got there?

Oh yes.  My first job in radio.  KERN, Bakersfield.  I think it said “Hail to the Kaiser!” on the transmitter.  

But here’s the irony: The station also had the best Chief Engineer in John Barcroft.  So even though everything was old and outdated, the station ran like a top.   And it sounded fantastic on the air.  

I’ll take that over new state-of-the-art equipment that breaks down, needs to be rebooted, has glitches, and sounds lousy.  

And finally, from Buttermilk Sky:

Friday question: Commercials. As someone who has written for movies and stage as well as TV, do you find it difficult to remember to break down scripts into ten-minute segments because of the ads? Or does it help you to structure the show?

It helps to structure the show.  When I construct a story I’m always mindful of act breaks and the best, most suspenseful way of telling the story.   Even if I did a show for a streaming platform with no commercials I would still create my own act breaks.

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

EP228: Another Free-Association Episode

Ken riffs from topic to topic; everything from Jean Smart’s new show “Hacks,” to Toronto, Kurtwood Smith, Gal Gadot, a power failure, making Claire Danes laugh, advice from Red Barber, and getting smacked by Wayne Newton.

More podcasts at WAVE:

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


In no particular order of importance…

It was announced yesterday that HACKS has been picked up for a second season by HBO Max.  I guess my review really did the trick.  You're welcome.

Sure glad I’m not competing in the Olympics this year (I just missed out).  NBC will be televising 500 hours of what could be the last major super spreader.  

I ate indoors at a restaurant for the first time in 16 months this week.  I was going to eat outside but it was cold and rainy.  I always say I’m very diligent about my own safety unless it inconveniences me.  

But I’m still not ready for stadiums.   I already risked my life once going to a stadium — that was when the Raiders played at the LA Coliseum.  

Mayim Bialik is my current pick for new JEOPARDY host.  I don't care how she dresses. Ken Jennings & Buzzy Cohen are tied for second.   Mayim has a great voice, poise, kept the game moving, and really looked like she was having fun.   

Bill Whittaker from CBS looked like a guy who won a school raffle to host JEOPARDY.  

Ironically, Anderson Cooper was the smoothest, most polished guest host, but his ratings were the worst.  Ken Jennings still has the highest (non Tournament of Champions).

THE CHASE is a half-hour game show stretched to an hour.  

Apple announced a new operating system.  Every time they do that I cringe.  When I update things suddenly programs and apps that used to work fine now don't.  Stop "improving!" 

What will get people back into movie theaters?  IN THE HEIGHTS.  It’s supposed to be great and in a recent Fandango poll of over 1300 moviegoers, 96% said that would be the first movie they’d go to see in a theater.   Surprisingly, PETER RABBIT 2 did not score as high.  

Another reminder:  I no longer post comments by "Anonymous" or "Unknown" readers.

I still contend that last year's baseball season was a joke.  Teams played 60 games against weird divisions.  Take the standings this year at 60 games and compare them with the final standings later this fall.  How many teams that qualified at 60 games won't by season's end?  And how many teams that didn't by game 60 ultimately will by game 162?  How much of an advantage did the Dodgers have playing all their postseason games in Texas last year versus Tampa Bay that spent time in San Diego?  Everything about the 2020 MLB season deserves a big asterisk. 

TV sitcoms will be funnier this year, if for no other reason than writers will be together in one room again and not on Zoom.  Zoom is the ice bucket challenge of comedy.  

Please get vaccinated.  Or move to Mississippi. 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Ten years ago...


I do this from time to time.  I've answered over 3,000 Friday Questions.  It's one of the most popular features of this blog.  But rarely do readers go way back into the archives.  So occasionally I'll pull out a FQ post from ten years ago, knowing 99% of you haven't read it, and the few that have have long forgotten it.  As NBC once said, "If you haven't seen a rerun it's new to you."  So here are Friday Questions from 2011.  Feel free to dive into the archives.  There's some good stuff buried in there somewhere. 

First up is John Trumbull:

I'm doing a caricature of Danny Devito tonight and it got me to wondering: Was there ever any discussion of having Danny guest star on Cheers? Considering that he's Rhea Perlman's husband in real life, it seems kind of strange that he never even did a cameo in all the years that the show was on.

There was some talk about it the first season but nothing really serious. At one point we thought of including Danny in the Superbowl scene as a lark but ultimately it was decided the objective of the scene was to promote CHEERS and it would just confuse people with TAXI. Were they watching Louie & Zena?

But if you listen carefully, you can hear Danny laughing offstage. He was there when we filmed it.

The first season of CHEERS proved to be the final season of TAXI, and Danny went off to have a hugely successful feature career. I once said to him, “Now that you’re a big star, I hope you won’t forget us little people.”

Joe Pontillo asks:

Here's a different Netflix question - When I click to stream an episode you wrote, does any money filter your way? If not, is that because of the age of the show, or because the writer's strike didn't quite accomplish its goal?

We’re supposed to see some tiny fraction of money. And I’m sure we will because the studios are dedicated to making sure that writers are never screwed.

From Pat Quinn:

When someone pitches a show to a network, and one or all of them pass on it ... is that show/idea for a show dead forever? That is, can that same person come back next year, with tweaks and changes but the same basic idea to pitch to the same networks?

You can but you already have two strikes against you. But sometimes network agendas change. One year they’re looking for urban buddy comedies and you pitch a rural family comedy. They pass but the next year they’re looking for rural family comedies. So you run back in only to learn they bought the exact same idea from someone else three days before.

There are instances where a network will pass on your idea and then during the course of the season decide they really want to be in business with you. So they invite you in and ask what you’ve got. You say all you have is the idea you pitched last year. Suddenly they love it and buy it.

I also find if you wait long enough (two years) you can sometimes re-pitch an idea because the entire development department has turned over. Note: this isn’t true at CBS. Wendi and Julie and that group has been there quite some time now. And to their extreme credit, if they decide months after passing on your idea that now it makes sense for them they will call you back in.

We once wrote a pilot for FOX that was ultimately passed on because they said it felt too much like an NBC project. A couple of years later, one of the development people at FOX during that time moved over to NBC and remembered the project. It was a better fit for NBC and she bought the project. That’s really the perfect scenario.  The late great Jerry Belson wrote the movie SMILE and it was later turned into a Broadway musical.  In his Playbill bio he wrote, "SMILE fulfills a lifelong dream for Mr. Belson -- to be paid twice for the same script". 

Johnny now asks:

Do writing teams get paid half as much as solo writers? (I.e. A normal writing salary halved?) And could having a partner work against you if you're both going to cost more than a single writer?

In terms of scripts, yes. You split the fee. Unless you rise to a position where you can negotiate a fee beyond that. Same with producing. But in those cases you usually do negotiate the terms. Showrunners rarely work for scale. 

Splitting money is certainly a downside to partnerships. However, I always felt that half of something was worth more than a lot of nothing. I don’t think my career would have been as successful if I weren’t partnered with David Isaacs. So it’s a trade off. But that’s my situation. Yours may be different.

One good thing about splitting money – in today’s marketplace teams are more coveted because shows can get two writers for the price of roughly one. So you might make less but at least you get the job.

There are many instances of partnerships breaking up after they’ve reached a certain level of success and can each carve out a good career on their own.

I think the key to maintaining a good partnership is that there is enough flexibility in the relationship that each member is free to take projects on their own as well as together. For instance, I branched out into directing and sportscasting. David is now a tenured professor at USC. Hey, it just occurred to me, his side profession is way more prestigious than mine. That bastard!

Monday, June 07, 2021

HACKS -- My review

I have a new favorite show.  HACKS on HBO Max.

It’s that rare comedy-drama that actually delivers on both.  The funny parts are genuinely funny, and the drama is real, earned, engrossing, and surprising.  

And that’s not even the best part.

The best part is Jean Smart.  She’s always good in everything she does, which is admirable considering she’s done everything.  But HACKS is her tour de-force.  She has my vote for the Emmy right now.   She plays a famous stand-up comedian, now relegated to a showroom in Las Vegas and hawking crap on QVC.  She’s part Joan Rivers, part Wayne Newton, part Shelley Winters.  Her character is so layered that you find yourself really rooting for her, even though she occasionally will do appalling things.  On top of everything else, Smart is fearless, and all too happy to be shown in a less than favorable light. 

And unlike “Midge Maizel” we’re not asked to believe that every lame joke she tells just pulverizes audiences. To be honest, I find Deborah Vance’s (Smart) material to be way funnier than Midge’s.  

HACKS is a character study of a fascinating, complex woman played to perfection by Jean Smart.  

But wait!  There’s more.

Young Hannah Einbinder (Laraine Newman’s daughter), plays a Millennial sitcom writer who tweets something deemed objectionable and her career is kaput.  The only job she can get is writing fresh material for Deborah Vance.  Their relationship and chemistry is gold.   The job interview scene in the pilot alone is enough to start binging. 

The supporting characters are all terrific, and after watching all these shows shot during the pandemic with no scope and no energy, it’s such a pleasure to watch a show with crowds, and large casinos, and people eating in restaurants.  They make great use of Las Vegas.  HACKS almost makes me want to go there.  I said “almost,” I’m still not ready and when I see the all the house trailers in hotel parking lots, I think: “Probably half of these people aren’t vaccinated and yet they’re indoors, and eating at big buffets” — I’ll let them get COVID, lose all their money gambling, and lose their mobile homes while I get my Vegas fix by watching the series.  

Each episode gets better and better and you learn more and more about each character.  HBO Max drops two episodes every Thursday.  I believe eight are available.  I invite you to get on the train.   I know everyone raves about TED LASSO, and it’s a damn fine show, but for my money (which I’m not spending on KENO) HACKS is better.  

It’s that super rarity — a Las Vegas winner. 

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Weekend Post


You’re familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, right?  Kevin has worked with pretty much everyone in Hollywood.  Even more people than Heidi Fleiss.   In no more than six projects you can usually trace any performer back to Kevin Bacon.  Well, for the serious “Kevin Bacon” player, let me add a few more links based on my involvement with him.
Granted, it’s not a big involvement. On FRASIER, whenever Dr. Crane spoke to a listener on his radio show they got a celebrity to play the caller. Kevin Bacon did one for a show my partner David and I wrote. 
And recently my daughter and her husband wrote on CALL YOUR MOTHER starring Kyra Sedgwick who is married to Kevin Bacon.  So I'm two degrees from that end. 

And you can now link Kevin to any of the other unlikely celebrities I wrote for or directed.

Dr. Timothy Leary did a FRASIER phone call for one of our shows. That’s right. We wrote for Dr. Timothy Leary.  You'd think that would be good for some complimentary LSD at the Free Clinic, wouldn't you?

Also, we wrote jokes for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe. He did a CHEERS we scripted.  See, aren’t I a name dropper?

Craig Ferguson guested on an episode of ALMOST PERFECT. So it’s just a few steps from Kevin Bacon to Craig Ferguson’s robot. Amaze your friends!

Then there are the athletes. We wrote for Wade Boggs (later to learn in his mistress’ tell-all in Playboy that he only took the job for a free trip to LA to bang her), Kevin McHale (who was sensational!), and Luis Tiant. (who also would have been great if only you could understand one single solitary thing he was saying – even after sixty takes).

So in only two steps you can get from Kevin Bacon to Luis Tiant. There’s a huge bar bet waiting to be won.

As a director, I had the pleasure of coaxing comic brilliance out of Karl Malone (in this case “the Mail Man” did not deliver – oy!), funnyman Mike Ditka (“a little more energy, Mike”), and Terry Bradshaw (“a little less energy, Terry. In fact, a LOT less energy. In fact, just stand there.”)

Oh sure, I’ve worked with a lot of top flight actors but you know all of them and could probably get to Kevin Bacon through other paths. The real challenge comes when someone throws Art Garfunkel at you (FRASIER caller), or you’re at the national finals and for the world’s championship you’re given the name Bombo the orangutan (did a JUST SHOOT ME I directed).

So use me. Be my guest. It’s my little way of Paying It Forward. The only thing disconcerting about providing this useful public service is that all these celebrities that I worked with so intimately over the years – I bet not one remembers me and knows who I am.  But that's okay.  I'm sure Bombo doesn't know who Kevin Bacon is either.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Friday Questions

Starting to feel like summer.  Vax so you can enjoy it.  Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

Jeff leads off.

Ken, when you watch episodes of sitcoms you were involved with, do you sometimes recognize certain laughs coming from the audience?

Yes.  I recognize Jim Brooks (pictured above) on TAXI and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  He sounds almost like a donkey braying.  

Two distinct laughers on CHEERS were Phoef Sutton and the cackle of Bill Steinkellner.  I occasionally hear Jim Burrows’ laugh as well.  

Chuck Lorre’s laugh is somewhat distinctive and I can pick it out from time to time on one of his shows.

Alas, I am not a loud laugher.  Especially at my own jokes. 

Matt wants to know:

Who is on your Mt Rushmore of announcers. I know you will say Vin Scully (who wouldn’t) and you have just said Marc Albert. Who are the other two?

Vin Scully, Marv Albert, Chick Hearn (of the Lakers), and Bill King (Raiders, Warriors, A’s).    

I don’t think anyone has ever called a better, more exciting football game on the radio than Bill King.  He gave you chills.

Same for Chick Hearn and basketball on the radio.  Most basketball expressions (like slam dunk) were invented by “Chicky baby.”

And while we’re on the subject of sportscasters, Jahn Ghalt wonders:

Where do you stand on broadcasters as they start to lose it, even the legends? Should they be allowed to stay on forever or should someone nudge them to the door at some point, and if so, how do you do that respectfully?

I think to protect them and their legacy, when iconic sportscasters start to lose it they should gracefully retire.   It’s harder for broadcasters who have been with one team for many decades.  Phasing them out might be one answer.  Or if the announcer is really incapable of calling a game, someone has to make the hard call.   

Hey, it's not a Supreme Court Justice.  You're not entitled to these jobs for life. 

I think you appeal to his pride.  You want him to go out with dignity and remain beloved.  

As the old saying goes, it’s better to leave a year too early than a year too late.

That said, I bet Vin Scully, (at 92) could still call a better game than 90% of the announcers out there.

And finally, from Brian:

I enjoyed your episode on writing. Have you ever been plagiarized? If so, what steps did you take?

Not any TV writing that I know of.  Had that been the case I would consulted my attorney. 

Before I had this blog, I would write snarky Oscar reviews and send them to my contact list.  I found out that one radio talk show host on my list would go on the air and steal all of my material as if it was his own.  Once I learned that he was promptly off my list.  

In my disc jockey days, there was an LA DJ who listened to me in San Bernardino and stole my material.  I learned this when I applied for a job at his station and the program director accused me of stealing his jock's material.  That resulted in a very angry phone call from me.  

Flash forward a few years and I’m on TenQ in Los Angeles every Saturday night.  After six months on the air I got a call from that program director apologizing.  He said, after listening to me and the quality and amount of my content it was clear I was the original and his disc jockey had stolen from me.  

What’s your Friday Question?