Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My first grandchild!

We have a new member of the Levine family – Rebecca, born last Thursday in Santa Clara, Ca. Congratulations to my son, Matt and daughter-in-law Kim (who did most of the heavy lifting). Rebecca is their first and my first grandchild.

I still can’t believe I’m a grandfather. Now I realize in West Virginia I’d be a great-great grandfather already, but here in California and still having the mindset of a fifteen year-old, it’s a little hard to grasp.

To me, “grandfathers” were Walter Brennan hobbling around as Grandpa McCoy or Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster. Will I now become Frank Barone? Zeb Walton? Abe Simpson? Moms Mabley?

I still don’t know what to call myself. For the moment I’m going with Big Papi (I’m a member of Red Sox Nation).

Matt & Kim live in Silicon Valley and her due date was over a week ago, so my wife and I have been on 24/7 alert. Picture the classic DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode where Rob practiced grabbing his hat from the headboard to he could get to the hospital eleven nanoseconds sooner.

We got the word from Matt at 6 A.M. on Thursday that they were in the hospital. We then grabbed the first flight to San Jose. (Forget about getting great airline deals when you book last minute. We could go to Yugoslavia in November for what the 300 mile flight to San Jose cost.)

We packed, bought tickets, made hotel reservations, and jumped in my car. By the time we got to LAX we got a text from our son that Rebecca had been born at 8:08 AM and that everyone was doing fine. Through the wonders of overpaying airlines, we arrived at the hospital at 11:00.

Kaiser-Permanente is the first hospital I’ve ever been to where the parking is free. You can’t find a space, but still. In Los Angeles, parking at hospitals cost more than heart operations.

One look at Rebecca and I was in love. They say that happens but no comedy writer believes that. Turns out it’s true! Who knew (besides the rest of the world)?

It’s the miracle of life. And covered by insurance. I will spare you the maudlin paragraph describing the profundity of this blessed event. That’s what Facebook and the Hallmark Channel are for.

I look forward to many days playing with her, bonding with her, drawing pictures, reading stories, and playing tapes of when I used to call Seattle Mariners games.

You know you’re in Silicon Valley when the guy who comes around getting information to fill out the birth certificate also asks a series of questions like what’s your profession, and when the answer is “Engineer” he follows up with “Hardware of Software?” (He was completely thrown when Kim said “Biomedical.”) Ask the same follow-up question in Kansas and it’s “Technical or train?”

My daughter, Annie and her fiancĂ©e Jon drove up on Friday. Firstborns always get so much attention, which, by the way, is fine with me. The first child you race up 300 miles; by the fourth child you’re on Skype.

My wife, Debby, who was an amazing mom and has such a knack for swaddling babies you’d think she made burritos at Taco Bell – stayed until yesterday. It’s always nice to have a little extra help when you first bring the baby home because when that door shuts you’re terrified out of your skull. I went home Saturday because, well… I’m useless. Rebecca will be able to connect with me much better when she starts watching MASH reruns. So in a year.

Annie & Jon drove back on Saturday so I hitched a ride with them. Saved that plane fare, which was the equivalent of a one-way first class ticket to Mars. Not a lot of traffic in the middle of the holiday weekend except around Gilroy. Yes, there’s congestion but also the promise of fruit stands. We took the shortest route, which goes through the Central Valley. 200 miles and the big highlight was seeing a cow.

We got hungry and decided to stop for lunch in Kettleman City, which to help you pinpoint exactly where that is – it's between Hanford and Fresno. Population: 1200. But there’s a rest stop with a bevy of franchise food outlets including In & Out. So of course that’s where we went. Us and everyone else in the entire Central Valley. The place was packed. But what’s the alternative? Carl’s Jr.?  I don’t care how many Kardashians eat there. Jon & Annie stopped at a Carl's Jr. near Bakersfield on their last trip and some dude was trying to figure out the push-button soft drink machine. In frustration he finally wailed, “I’m not a rocket scientist! I just want a soda!”

The rest of the journey was uneventful.  Unfortunately, Annie & Jon couldn’t just drop me off at home. They had to take me to LAX to pick up my car. And, as usual, the 405 was packed. Why? It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon. There are not even fruit stands along the way.

Yes, this post was a somewhat transparent excuse to show some baby photos. Come to my house; I have a thousand more. But I’m thrilled to now have Rebecca in my life and I know she’s got the best parents in the world. She’s a very lucky little girl. I just hope when the time comes the other first graders don’t tease her too mercilessly because her “Big Papi” wrote AfterMASH.

Who knows what technical advances she will see in her lifetime? What morons run for president? How many times bell bottoms will be back in style? Those of us growing up in the last century figured we’d be living the life of the Jetsons by now. Maybe she’ll have a car that turns into a briefcase. But whatever the future holds she can assured that I LOVE LUCY reruns will still be available.

I love you, Rebecca. Have a healthy, happy, long, and wonderful life.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Radar as explained by Gary Burghoff

In honor of Memorial Day I felt I should have a military theme as we pay homage to those before  us who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy (and often take for granted).  

Reader Michael Rafferty submitted a Friday question.  Here's the question and the answer from the man himself, Gary Burghoff.  My EXTREME thanks to Gary for his time and very illuminating response. 

On MASH, first season, Gary Burghoff played Radar pretty much the same as he did in the movie version. But,over time, Radar was softened and became more gentle and naive. Was this a decision of Burghoff or was this a creative decision of Larry Gelbart et al.?

Here's Gary's answer:

In the original feature film MASH, I created Radar as a lone, darker and somewhat sardonic character; kind of a shadowy figure. I continued these qualities for a short time (review the Pilot) until I realized that the TV MASH characters were developing in a different direction from the film characters. It became a group of sophisticated, highly educated Doctors (and one head nurse) who would rather be anywhere else and who understood the nature of the "hell hole" they were stuck in.

With Gelbart's help, I began to mold Radar into more Innocent, naive character as contrast to the other characters, so that while the others might deplore the immorality and shame of war (from an intellectual and judgmental viewpoint), Radar could just REACT from a position of total innocence. This made RADAR super ACTIVE, free and very interesting on a primary "gut" level, which at times delivered the horror of war (as well as the dark humor we became known for) in an effective, universal way that anyone could understand.

Larry, in one interview, was quoted as saying that Radar was his favorite character to write for. I think he liked the fact that the character lacked guile and he could write from his own honest "child's-self" as apposed to having to create "clever" intellectual hyperbole.

ACTING IS RE-ACTING. LARRY gave Radar "permission" to REACT IN SPADES!! in a free, delightful and direct manner. Once these decisions were made, RADAR became PURE JOY to play!! God bless Larry Gelbart and his talented writers such as your most excellent SELF!

I hope this helps.

Love "Ya~ Gary

Love ya, too.  And P.S., Radar was one of my favorite characters to write as well.  It was a true honor to pen the "Goodbye Radar" episodes.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Spec Etiquette

I’ve had several people ask me what NOT to do when trying to get someone to read their spec. It’s a case by case basis of course but I’ll just share some of my own personal experiences or things I have witnessed.

I’ve had people give me spec scripts at high school reunions. Not a good idea unless it’s from the person you always had a crush on and they haven’t gained 300 pounds.

A well known comedy director was in temple during High Holiday services one year when a fellow congregant reached inside his tallis and pulled out a spec script. Not kosher.

When I was announcing for the Orioles I once got thrown out of Bobby Valentine’s office for asking tough questions. He was then the manager of the Texas Rangers. Fifteen minutes later I was summoned back, obviously to receive an apology. No. He had heard I was a writer and pitched me a movie. Try not to be an asshole first.

And then there was the time I was in a funeral home with my father making final arrangements for my grandmother who had just passed away. At one point the mortician asked what I did. When my father said I was a writer the ghoul launched into a twenty minute movie pitch. If my dad wasn’t there no one would believe that story. But it’s true. Pick your spots.

What you need to do is first introduce yourself and try to establish a relationship. How intimate is up to you. But here’s my favorite story. Years ago I and another writer, Larry, were asked to speak at a UCLA extension class. I was a story editor on MASH at the time and he was story editor of RHODA. As we stood in front of the class lecturing, a friend overhead one young woman saying to another: “I think I’ll fuck Larry. I’d rather do a RHODA”.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Getting my start as a director

Sometimes a Friday Question is worthy of an entire post. Like this one by reader, Michael:

How did you get your start as a director? Was it on one of the shows you were a show runner on? If not, was it difficult convincing the producers to give you a chance?

I originally became a director out of necessity. Along with David Isaacs, I was showrunning MARY in 1985 – one of the comeback vehicles for Mary Tyler Moore.

This was maybe episode five. We got a call from the stage that Mary and the freelance director we had hired had had a major blow up and she no longer wanted to rehearse with him. I don't know if it was a clash of styles, a specific disagreement or who was right or wrong.  All I knew was -- we were fucked.  There was a stalemate and the show had completely shut down.  This is not a good thing on a first-time showrunner's watch. 

So we went down to the stage, and just to get everybody back to work I offered to direct it myself. Mary and the cast were fine with that. So I went to work blocking the scene.

Now understand that to this point I had never directed ANYTHING. Not a high school production, not a class, not a skit in camp, nothing. And here I was telling television royalty where to stand. It was positively surreal.

Once the show was blocked, the director we had hired did all the camera blocking (we knew even less about the technical aspects than the performance aspects). And on the screen he got full credit.  I went home and drank heavily. 

Unlike in features, in television the showrunners have final say on the directing. And frequently over the years, on shows I was showrunning, I would ask for scenes to be reblocked or tweaked during runthroughs. I would give performance notes.  Little by little I was familiarizing myself with that process.

And then in editing I would ask for certain shots only to learn that the director didn’t get them.   Example: One character is commenting on another character’s dress and we don’t have a head-to-toe shot of her in the dress. All we have is her close-up. Well, that’s worthless. Or I’d ask for a reaction shot. Sorry, there were none. So there too I learned how to cover a show. It wasn’t enough to have the person delivering a line on camera, you also needed a reaction shot, or a wide shot on occasion.

Eventually, I wanted to try directing myself. It looked like fun, it was a different challenge, and what better way for a writer to protect his material than directing it himself? So for a couple of years I audited James Burrows, Andy Ackerman, Jeff Melman, David Lee and a few other top multi-camera directors.

Once, when I asked Jim Burrows what advice he could give me in preparation he said, “Get the job.” He was right. Until you are thrown into the fire you don’t really know what it’s like.

I was extremely fortunate. I had been consulting and writing on WINGS since the show’s beginning. Showrunners Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell graciously gave me my first assignment. I obviously knew the show very well and had a good relationship with the cast.

So that was my first.  But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of David Lee. By then David was already an accomplished director. He would go on to win Emmys. Camera blocking was Monday. He gave up his Saturday to sit with me and help me plan out the camera assignments. A better and more patient teacher you will never find. Looking back, without that day, I would probably still be camera blocking that episode... that first scene actually.  

It was a frantic week but I loved the experience. And some 50+ episodes later I still enjoy directing.

“Getting that first job” is the key and admittedly it’s very hard to do. Some come up through the writing ranks. Others come up through the technical side. Former editors, first assistant directors, technical coordinators, post production supervisors. A number enter the field through an acting background. And then there are stage directors or directors of short films or music videos that break through. Also, AFI and student intern programs provide an occasional “in”.

It’s not easy but it’s worth it. How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?

This is a re-post from many years ago.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Questions

I prepare for the Memorial Day Weekend by answering some Friday Questions.

The Bumble Bee Pendant starts us off:

Ken, as you know British shows do not have Writers Rooms, mostly because they have shorter series runs, and the penchant for Sorkin-type showrunners, plus a couple of freelancers to write everything. However, BBC is considering it. Would you prefer something like this if you had a limited Netflix type series or do you feel that comedy has to be done by the Writers Room?

I’d like a combination of both. I would like to write all of the scripts (along with my partner David Isaacs), but then when the show is in production I’d like a few writers on staff to help rewrite and fix the mess we had made. I also really enjoy the camaraderie of a writing staff. So I would not choose to go it alone even if I could.

From Liggie:

Is the age of the classic miniseries like "Roots" and "The Winds of War" long gone? Or is the format still alive today in a different look, like a 10- episode season like "Better Call Saul" our "Agent Carter" have had?

I wouldn’t call those two shows miniseries. They’re “series.” (AGENT CARTER is a former series. It was cancelled.)

To me, miniseries are stand-alones. There used to be more of them on networks because they were considered big event programming and were carted out during sweeps. In some cases they were huge home runs (like ROOTS), but they’re risky. And expensive.

Networks still do them, but more on a limited basis. And now there are so many other avenues for miniseries. But they’re around. Every year on the Emmys there are five nominees and I’ve never heard of any of them.

Neal Grinnell asks:

I see that a stage adaption of "Cheers" is coming to Boston in September. Were you or David Isaacs involved at all?

No. We also don’t know if any of our scripts are being used. But we are looking into it. Or should I say our representatives are looking into it? 

Justin Russo queries:

Can you choose a favorite joke or scene that you wrote (from any series) that you are most proud of writing?

It’s hard. Not because there are so many, but because I forgot most of them. But in the first season of CHEERS there was an episode called “Boys In The Bar,” in which the patrons worried that the bar might go gay because Sam came out in support of his former roommate who announced that he was gay.

Sam is in the poolroom with Diane and says something to the effect of: “I should have known. One time on the road we were in a piano bar and he requested a show tune.”

For some reason that got a five-minute laugh. The laugh was so long that the director ordered the cameras to stop rolling. We were wasting too much film. For a comedy writer that’s a walk-off home run in a World Series game.

And finally, Stoney wonders”

Allright Ken; let's say your phone rings. You open it and see that it's James Brooks calling. "Hi Jim" "Hi Ken; we've decided it's time to end THE SIMPSONS and we need you to write a finale for us." Well?

I would have the characters wake up and suddenly be their real ages. And I would have the episode dedicated to Sam Simon.

What’s your Friday Question? Have a great and safe holiday weekend.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

LA prepares for summer

As summer approaches with the Memorial Day Weekend just ahead, here’s how we in LA are gearing up for the season:

There are already billboards for Emmy consideration. Obscure shows on networks you’ve never heard of have giant billboards on Sunset.   More people will see the billboards than the shows themselves. 

Billboards for the upcoming Fall TV season are already starting to pop up. 

Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a single billboard, bus board, newspaper ad, TV or radio commercial for the Rams. You would think by now the Rams returning to Los Angeles after twenty years would be a big fucking deal but apparently it doesn’t warrant the attention that Starz mini-series get.

Freeway traffic is beginning to ease somewhat when school is out for the summer. You’ll be able to drive the 405 Freeway at 3 AM with no problems.

“Back to School” displays are already being erected.

Movie premiers are happening in Westwood every week. Barriers are set up to hold back the crowds, desperately hoping to catch a brief glimpse of the stars of SAUSAGE PARTY.

Hollywood sightseeing buses are everywhere. What stars are these tourists going to see in San Pedro?

Sports talk radio is discussing the Lakers 24/7.

Residents brace themselves for June Gloom, that treacherous weather season where there’s cloud cover until early afternoon.

The LA FRINGE FESTIVAL arrives with fun live theater events all over the city. Pull yourself away from the premier of TEENAGE NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS and go see real actors performing for the love of it.

Disneyland probably raises prices.  Take out a loan or refinance your house. 

Six Flags Magic Mountain unveils a new rollercoaster. It seems like they do that every year. They seem to name them after superheroes. Batman, Superman, etc. By now they’re down to Culligan Man.

Now that the LA METRO RAIL goes all the way down to Santa Monica Beach, locals will be thrilled until they realize there is limited parking at most of the stops beforehand.

Stars move into their Malibu Colony homes for the summer.  Streisand still won't let any of them shop at her private mall. 

Some version of the Beach Boys without Brian Wilson will appear. 70 year-old guys singing “When I Grow Up To Be a Man.”

In anticipation of the 2021 Super Bowl, hotels are jacking up their room rates.  

The Hollywood Bowl and Greek Theater schedules come out and you decide whether seeing certain attractions are worth the parking nightmare.

More sound stages are empty as the production exodus to Vancouver continues. One of these shows should actually be set in Vancouver.

People stop watching television. Except for the lucky few who can still see Vin Scully call his last season of Dodger baseball. That’ll be me this summer. Hope you have a great one wherever you are.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

HORACE AND PETE: My review

First, let me say I’m a huge admirer of Louis CK. I love his comedy, think he’s a terrific actor, and love that creatively he’s willing to take big chances. If I’m being honest, I have mixed feelings about LOUIE. There are episodes that are brilliant and others that feel very self indulgent to me.

Recently he took his biggest risk (so far). He completely wrote, directed, stars, and financed a ten episode limited series called HORACE AND PETE. It’s not on any network. You plunk your $5 down per episode and screen it on his website. Now that’s a way to get around ABC network notes.

HORACE AND PETE is a dramedy set in a Brooklyn bar and features an astounding cast. Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Rebecca Hall, and a host of the best character actors you see every night on LAW & ORDER reruns.

For weeks you readers have asked what I thought of it.

There’s a lot I applaud. It’s ambitious, it’s out of the box, Edie Falco is sensational, and Alan Alda’s foul-mouth angry character is the best thing he’s done since Hawkeye.  (I missed a golden opportunity not writing in seven "fucks" in his dialogue every week.)

But Jesus, it's a grim show.

Imagine CHEERS with Eugene O’Neill as the showrunner.

There are parts of HORACE AND PETE that are fascinating (although I’m totally confused by all the generations of Horace and Pete’s over the last hundred years and who’s related to who), and other parts that have me scratching my head.

And part one had an intermission.  An intermission?  I'm sorry but how fucking pretentious is that???

The most remarkable achievement is that Louis CK managed to produce a whole star-studded television series in secret. How does that happen in this day and age when Jennifer Lawrence peeing makes social network headlines?

The second most remarkable achievement is getting Alan Alda and Jessica Lange to drop C-bombs at will.

Louis CK has announced that he has lost millions on this show. (Of course he can just go out on tour for three months and make it all back. It’s not like he mortgaged and lost Downton Abbey.) But still, that’s a considerable amount of money and creative commitment. The sense I get from seeing him on interview shows is that he’s somewhat disappointed in the results.

To me the problem is that it’s not a comedy, which is fine, but his fan base – the ones who would shell out $5 – want to pay for a comedy. That’s his “brand.” When he put a concert on line and charged for it he got a lot of takers. They paid to see his stand-up act. But this is like Woody Allen, after ANNIE HALL and a host of inspired comedies, charged people to see INTERIORS.

Still, what excites me about Louis CK is that he’s always willing to take a big swing at bat. So who knows what brilliant, groundbreaking, or even really funny projects are yet to come? Give me that over the next Seth Rogen NEIGHBORS film any day.  But don't have an intermission.  An intermission???