Friday, August 23, 2019

Friday Questions

One of my favorite features I’m told, here are more Friday Questions.

Bryan Thomas starts us off:

How did Bebe Neuwirth get discovered for Lilith? She was obviously a real find and became one of my favorite characters and actresses. She is immensely talented with immense range and great instincts, but before Cheers I had never heard of her.

Bebe had a big career in Broadway as an actress/dancer prior to CHEERS. She won a Tony in 1984. That year she was in LA and to my knowledge just auditioned for the role of Lilith. But it was only supposed to be a one-shot in a teaser. Which was fine with her; she planned to return to Broadway.

But the character worked and the Charles Brothers brought her back a few times and it became clear the Frasier-Lilith relationship was lightening in a bottle.

Jasper asks:

I used to read books on screenwriting and they always made a point of saying to never include anything that isn't absolutely necessary, which in theory makes sense. But what I find from years of watching TV and movies is that following that rule also tends to give away the story, because you hear a seemingly unnecessary detail and you say, okay, well, now I know what's going to happen, because they wouldn't have included that detail unless it was to set up this plot point.

I'm interested in your thoughts on following this rule on necessary information only while preventing it from giving away the course of the story.

That rule discounts the value of “red herrings.” Those are basically facts and plot points meant to throw the reader off the scent, especially in mysteries. If the clues only lead to one suspect there’s no suspense. So red herrings serve a purpose.

But otherwise, adding plot points that have no bearing on the story only clutter it up. I do see the rationale that if it’s not something necessary it shouldn’t be included.

From ScottyB:

I have a scriptwriting/partnership question. To make a long question short, how is someone out in total rural cowtown with half-done scripts that have hit a brick wall (because working by yourself in a vacuum runs its course sooner or later) find someone of like mind? (And really, that’s my problem here.) A middle of nowhere place where there’s no community college/night creative class courses to hook into, etc etc etc day a good 50+ miles away from the closest Craigslist outlet, at best.

Nowadays there are script programs that allow two people to work on the same script from different locations. And with Skype and Facetime you could also communicate with your partner.

So it’s possible to carry on a long-distance partnership.

Now, the issue becomes FINDING that partner. Here I’m just speculating but I imagine there are Facebook groups on writing and other social media sites where wannabe writers congregate. Go on several of those and announce you’re looking for a partner. Who knows? You might get lucky.

But make sure your new partner knows that if someone wants to buy one of your scripts that you’ll move to LA or New York or wherever the show is being made. Even if you have to fly in for a meeting, you need to make the commitment.

And finally, from Michael:

I have seen articles that THE OFFICE is by far the most viewed program on streaming services, but I rarely see it's reruns on broadcast or mainstream cable channels these days - seems like it is relegated to hard-to-find channels like COZI TV. Do you think that this is deliberate to get people to watch it on Netflix or do you think it's repeats failed to draw decent ratings when they were shown on broadcast or mainstream cable channels? Are only 'cord-cutters' interested in watching it?

I think when people can binge-watch with no commercials, why watch a series in syndication all hacked up with 10 minute commercial breaks for drugs with side effects that can kill you?

AS A REMINDER:  For the next week I am working on a big project and will not have as much internet access as I normally do.  So it will take longer to moderate comments.  Hang in there and continue to ask your Friday Questions.  I will get to them eventually.   Thanks much.  Ken

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

EP137: Jobs I Didn’t Get

For all the jobs that writers, even successful writers, get – there is always a long list of jobs they didn’t get.  This week Ken shares his.  Hopefully this will inspire you to keep pushing. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

10 1/2 years ago today

I did this last month and it got good response.  Since very few read the archives (and I'm occasionally lazy), here's a Friday Question post from March of 2009.   Let me deep dive so you don't have to. 

First up, Joe:

What's it like when a guest star comes in and wants to "help" in the episode he or she will be acting. I'm specifically thinking of John Cleese on Cheers.

That episode was brilliantly written by Peter Casey & David Lee. They just perfectly captured his voice and during the week of production Cleese might have offered some minor suggestions and tweaks but what you see is what Peter & David wrote.

When David Isaacs and I wrote the CHEERS episode with Johnny Carson I went to Mr. Carson before the filming and offered to change anything he didn’t feel was right and he said, “Nope. This is great.” And he did it word for word. I love that man.

Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill guested on CHEERS season one. The original scene had him at a urinal next to Norm. He didn’t think that was appropriate (congressmen actually were worthy of respect back then) so we adjusted the scene.

I do seem to recall directing Mike Ditka once and he suggested a couple of joke fixes. I then gave him some coaching tips.

John wonders:

Ken, with the more permissive (and HBO-inspired) rules the networks have adopted for their show content in the past 10-15 years, are there any episodes you and David did from the 70s and 80s that you look back at now and think it could have been done better if some of the gags allowed today would have been permitted by Standards and Practices back then (or would looser rules resulted in the network folks forcing more shows to gratuitously sexual innuendo-up their dialogue and plot lines because they thought it would add a rating point or two)?

It really depends on the episode and subject matter. Yes, there are a lot of shows we wrote that more license would have been appreciated. But there is also something to be said for being able to be funny and sophisticated without having to resort to profanity. Sometimes that added license leads to easy but cheap laughs. It takes a little skill and elegance to come up with a genuine funny response instead of just having the character say “What the fuck?!” Both will get a laugh. Especially if Johnny Carson says it.

Rogers Motley of Richmond Virginia asks:

With all of the hubbub surrounding the changing of the guard at the NBC late night talk shows, what do you think makes a good late night television talk show host?

Most talk show hosts can be funny and spontaneous (to some degree) but the big question is can they connect with the audience? Is there a likeability? Can viewers really relate to this person? It’s a real X factor that doesn’t depend on age or even nationality.

The humor can be biting, gentle, sly, topical, whatever – but the key element is this: The audience has to get the feeling that it’s the host and them against the world, not the host against them. I personally find Letterman much funnier than Leno but at times I feel he crosses that line and the jibes are at the audience’s expense. Leno never does that. And for my money, that’s why he beats Letterman even though David has the far superior show.

And then there’s Tyra Banks. What the fuck?!

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Editing shows for syndication

When shows are edited for syndication I never know who exactly does the editing. All I know is that they usually do a piss-poor job.

MASH in particular. That’s because we had two and sometimes three storylines all dovetailing. Each episode was intricately plotted. Editors will often just lift entire scenes. As a result one or two stories suddenly stop making sense. I suppose it’s a lot easier to just lift a 2:30 scene than going through the whole show and painstakingly edit lines that won’t be missed.

And after these shows are edited I don’t believe there’s anyone overseeing the process and screening the episodes to make sure they still make sense.

In a first season CHEERS David Isaacs and I wrote, Carla made a joke about her children being adopted. An adoption agency was horribly offended, contacted the president of NBC and the joke was removed for the first rerun. It was in the teaser so an easy lift.

However, when the show went into syndication the offending joke was back and has remained ever since. And no further complaints were ever filed (at least that I’m aware of). Something else was taken out instead.

And now of course, there’s another insidious process – digitally speeding up the show. Some are done deftly and others make the cast sound like Minnie Mouse.

You would think that independent stations who paid fortunes for these syndicated packages would insist that the episodes at least could be comprehended. But I guess not. The studios make their money, the stations get their ratings, and the only losers are (as always) the viewers.

That said, years ago KTLA, Channel 5 in Los Angeles aired the movie David and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS. They (or someone) edited it to squeeze  in more commercials. And I can honestly say it’s the first time I ever thought they didn’t take out enough. It was better with the edits and could have been better still with a few more judicious trims.

MASH is on a number of cable networks. One (I don’t remember which) plays the full versions of the episodes and just runs long. I thought that was ingenious. Who says a show has to end exactly at the top of the hour? Especially now when most people record the shows for later playback. As I recall, they were aired in the middle of the night. To me that was smart programming. If you know a network is going to air the unedited version, wouldn’t you make the effort to record it? More people probably watch those episodes, even though they might air at 3 AM, than if they were on at 7 PM but hacked to shit.

Also, when these shows are on a variety of platforms, why watch a cut-up version of an episode when you can go to Netflix or Hulu or get the DVD and watch it in its original form?

MASH used to be only in syndication on local stations. Those stations had exclusivity. You were stuck with the chopped versions. But now there are so many other options for watching. So if your network is airing it – or CHEERS or GOLDEN GIRLS or REBA if that’s what they have in their library – why not take that extra time to show the show right? Believe me, people watching at 3 in the morning have no idea what time it is. Some aren’t sure of the day. So the next episode starts at 3:06 – who cares?

I know this post seems long. I’ll make trims for any reprints.

Monday, August 19, 2019

You never know who you'll find

Remember phone books?

I think they still exist to a certain degree, but there was a time (pre-Google) where to find someone’s phone number you had to go to this real thick book that weighed a ton and look them up. I know – how quaint.

You could have an unlisted number, but most people didn’t bother. And there was no robo-calling in the pre-Google era. Celebrities had unlisted numbers but not all. Stan Laurel was in the phone book.

In 1973 I was on vacation in New York. As some of you know, I also dabble in cartooning. My idol was Al Hirschfeld, who did caricatures for the NY Times for like 70 years. (He’s the one who wrote his daughter’s name, Nina, into every drawing.)

On a whim, I looked in the phone book one afternoon and found an Albert Hirschfeld. I decided to call. A gentleman answered. I introduced myself and asked if he was the Al Hirschfeld who did the caricatures. He said yes. I told him I was an amateur cartoonist and would love to meet him. To my astonishment, he said “Sure, come on over.” He had to give me directions, which subway to take, where to get off, etc.

An hour later I was knocking on his door. He welcomed me into his brownstone, ushered me upstairs to his studio (where he made the magic), and I spent the afternoon watching him work and discussing drawing (how to draw hands, how to draw hair, shadowing, etc.)


Hirschfeld died in 2003 at age 99. His last day was spent drawing. He had dinner, went up to bed, and just slipped away. Talk about the way to go!

Just before I left he took out a piece of paper and did this for me:

What an incredible day.  I miss phone books.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Weekend Post

Before we had #MeToo, before we had PC, we had these ACTUAL ads.    Noted without comment except to say, JESUS EFFIN' CHRIST!!?"

Friday, August 16, 2019

Friday Questions

Heading into the “Dog Days of Summer” with some Friday Questions. You ready?

Vincent Saia is.

D.C. Fontana said that when she was teaching screenwriting at AFI she knew the students who had been working on the same script for years were probably not going to become professional writers and Tom Wolf said, "It only takes six to eight weeks to write anything. The rest of the time you're just dancing around the project." Do you also feel the ability to write quickly and on demand necessarily separates the professional writer from the amateur?

I agree with William Goldman.  Writers should go at their own speed but write as much and as quickly as they can. The danger of going too slow is you tend to obsess and try to make every word perfect, which results in stilted scripts. But if you go too fast you miss things.

The distinction between professional and amateur has more to do with the ability to be creative on demand.

From John Schrank:

I really like the two posts on wording and the importance of setup! In Dick Cavett's first book, after some very interesting sections about writing for other comedians, he tells about some of the material he wrote for his own act. He says the right wording is almost always the way it comes to you first. Tweaking it sometimes weakens it. 

Have you found that to be true? His major example was his joke about wedding that was done on the cheap. "I don't know much about caviar, but I do know you're not supposed to get pictures of ballplayers with it." Then he wondered if "cards" was better than "pictures"... or if there needed to be some reference to trading cards in the line before to set it up. He finally decided it was good the way it was.

I disagree with him. Often times the first thought is the most obvious. When David Isaacs and I are writing we often bat around lines back and forth until truly, we can’t remember who came up with it.

However a caveat (to Cavett): In the writers room if someone pitches a joke and everyone laughs it goes in exactly as pitched. Even if it had a funky construction, if it got a laugh it goes in untouched.

To fool with those lines is when you start to over-analyze and kill the joke.

But there is value to tweaking. We’re not Mozart.

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

You've written before about "Good-bye, Radar" originally being written as a single episode to close Season 7, but it was the network that insisted it a two-parter for sweeps, and that when you and David Isaacs re-wrote it as such, you added the subplot about the generator to pad it out with filler for the extra time. So, does that mean everything else about your original script for the episode was still the same? Radar meeting Patty Haven? The circumstance of Uncle Ed passing away? The sudden arrival of wounded canceling Radar's farewell party?

Yes, the whole Radar storyline was in place the end of season 7.

We may have added a couple of new steps to go along with the generator story (which was there for padding), but after Henry’s death we wanted a character to leave and have a happy ending. Giving Radar a possible love interest seemed interesting and showed a side of him we’ve never seen.

The overall theme was his maturity and we felt he now was ready to have a real relationship.  Leaving his teddy bear behind was also our idea.  It seemed the perfect symbol for his having grown up. 

And finally, from JS:

Why when shows get desperate they bring in a baby? It never works. It is the sign of death.

Yep and amen. An argument can be made that a baby opens up a whole new vein of stories, but especially for a romantic comedy, it forces you to put the romance on the back burner while your couple is managing an infant. And those stories are just not as fun and interesting in my opinion.

However, if it’s a supporting character, like say Frasier then the baby really doesn’t alter the series. Frasier’s bar habits didn’t change (although they should have).

A REMINDERFor the next two weeks I am working on a big project and will not have as much internet access as I normally do.  So it will take longer to moderate comments.  Hang in there and continue to comment and ask Friday Questions.  I will get to them eventually.   Thanks much.  Ken

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

EP136: Howard Michael Gould Part 2

Ken and Howard discuss their writing process and how it applies to teleplays, features, stage plays, and novels.  And probably whatever task you’re undertaking.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Shocking revelation! The internet got it wrong!

I’ve touched on this before, but a recent on-line article has prompted me to revisit it in more detail.

It concerns a 7th season episode of MASH when David Isaacs and I were the head writers called “Preventative Medicine.” This is one of my least favorite episodes, but it’s not for the reason you may think.

The premise was that to prevent a reckless field commander from sending his unit to battle Hawkeye and B.J. performed an unnecessary operation and removed his healthy appendix. That kept him in post op for several days and seemingly prevented some of his men from dying in combat.  Like most stories on MASH, this one came from our research. This incident actually happened.

In our original script, Hawkeye and B.J. were both on board for this operation. At the table reading, Mike Farrell had an issue with it and didn’t think B.J. would cross that moral line.

Now the article seemed to suggest that this disagreement caused some friction between Alan and Mike. It said that Mike “refused” to do the episode as written. And he “fought the production team.” They go on to call this a “tiny rift” between Alan & Mike and eventually “they reconciled.”

This is how things get blown out of proportion and nonsense is spread on the internet.

So here’s the real story:

Yes, after the table reading Mike balked at having B.J. go along with this operation. But there was no tension whatsoever. He and Alan debated the point for a couple of minutes and right there we all decided that this debate would be great for the script.

Here’s how contentious it got: We thanked Mike.

Far from being angry or even annoyed, Alan was energized. After rehearsing the scenes from the other story in the episode, Alan came up to the room and we all did the rewrite together.

Alan found the rewrite to be such a positive experience that he wrote about it at the time in an article for TV Guide. In the piece, he mentioned that after the rewrite we all went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant called Anna’s (which sadly is no longer there). The owners of Anna’s were so thrilled that I was treated like a VIP for the next 20 years there.

The episode clearly benefited from Mike’s objection and I’m proud of the result.

So why is it one of my least favorites?

At the time, MASH had not yet gone into syndication. Episodes from the first six seasons were never aired after their year ended. CBS during season seven began airing one episode a week Friday nights at 11:30. We had just completed shooting “Preventive Medicine.” David happened to watch the late night rerun that Friday and called me in a panic. “They already DID that episode!” he exclaimed.

Sure enough, there was an early episode called “White Gold” that had the exact same storyline, although in that case Hawkeye and Trapper were on the same side. Obviously, they got it from the same research.

I was mortified to think we’d repeat a story on our watch. That’s why that episode always bothers me. Many fans think ours is better than the first. I don’t care. (I also don’t agree. Nothing we ever wrote was as good as what Larry Gelbart wrote.) But what amazes me to this day is that numerous people on the staff and crew were at MASH during the production of “White Gold.” NOBODY, not ONE PERSON said “Hey, didn’t we already do this story?”

I would think that had someone said THAT at the reading, vs. Mike’s objection we might have just thrown out the whole script and written something else entirely.

After that we told the cast and crew, “If there is ever ANYTHING in a script that you think looks familiar and you might have done in the past, tell us IMMEDIATELY. We will check it out and if indeed you had done it before we will remove it and do something else, even if it means throwing out an entire episode.”

But back to the original point, there was no animosity, no rift, no clash with the production team, no disgruntled rewrite, and it was certainly not an incident worthy of a whole article. But I get it. Click bait. I’m sure more people would rather read an article where Alan Alda & Mike Farrell were at each other’s throats than one where a genuine collaboration led to a better product.

Gee, I wonder if there’s other misinformation on the internet as well.