Tuesday, February 19, 2019

My suggestion to save theatre as we know it

Scene from my ten-minute play, THE FUGITIVE with Penny Peyser & Andy Goldberg
It’s probably half urban legend, but the concept of Top 40 radio supposedly began when radio station owner Todd Storz was in a restaurant/bar with some friends in the mid ‘50s. There was a juke box and as new customers arrived they all seemed to play the same three songs. At the end of the night the restaurant staff was cleaning up, putting chairs on the tables, etc. and they too selected those same three songs to listen to. Now it’s one thing for the customers. They come in, hear the song once then leave. But the staff must’ve heard those same songs twenty times and yet they STILL chose to select them.

A lightbulb went on over Storz’s head. People want to hear their favorite songs over and over. So his station began playing the big hits of the day over and over, and the ratings skyrocketed.

Sure, people wanted to hear new music too, but just sprinkled in. Most of all they wanted the hits.

This applies to other forms of entertainment as well. How many cable channels are playing multiple daily episodes of MASH, I LOVE LUCY, LAW & ORDER, NCIS, and THE BIG BANG THEORY? People want to hear (and see) the hits.

Unfortunately, for us playwrights it’s the same thing in the theatre. Why take a chance with a new play by me when you can just schedule THE ODD COUPLE by Neil Simon? It makes it hard to get a new play produced if you don’t have a Tony.

And lots of theatres who do accept new material want to make sure the play has never been produced. They want the “World Premier.” It’s a big deal to them. They can ask for subsidiary rights for taking the risk of mounting your untried material. And if the play goes on to be a big hit they have bragging rights that they were the first one to discover it.

Okay, I get that. I’m not happy about it, but I can see their point.

What I don’t get is when theatres want unproduced material only for ten-minute play festivals. I submit a lot of ten-minute plays to festivals (been very lucky in some and not so much in others) and it frustrates me how many of them only want unproduced plays. Why? What’s the advantage? You can crow about a ten-minute play that goes on to other competitions? There’s no subsidiary rights. And what the artistic director and his staff are left with is a blizzard of terrible plays to go along with the few good ones. Happy sifting. Part of the reasons so many of these plays are bad is because the writer never had a chance to see and fix it once it was on its feet.

And the audience doesn’t give a shit that they’re watching a “World Premier.” In fact, brand new work might make them leery. If you think it’s tough sitting in a movie theatre watching some stink burger, imagine how much harder it is when the performance is live and the actors can watch you.

Seems to me it would be better to mount plays that have proven to be successful. If I were running a ten-minute festival I would require two things: 1) They play must have already been produced, and 2) The play must’ve WON something (“Best Play,” “Audience Favorite,” etc.)

Instead of 600 submission for ten slots I’d have 150 (and let’s get real, those are the same 150 that are really in competition even if there are 600 submission). It’s just simple logic –

PLAY THE HITS.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hey, Alexa!

You know how paranoid I am about Alexa. It scares me to have an open microphone in my home.  I'll walk the extra three steps to turn on the light or adjust the thermostat myself.

Of course “they” say Alexa is perfectly safe, there are firewalls galore, and your privacy is guaranteed. Alexa only responds to specific commands and knows the difference between casual conversation and a request.

And if you believe that there’s a certain real estate training university you should sign up for.

Meet Rocco the African grey parrot. He’s already somewhat infamous. He was kicked out of an animal sanctuary in the UK for swearing too much. (This, by the way, is true.) His previous owner must’ve been a writer for DEADWOOD (that is not true).

So now he’s home with his new owner, Marion Wischnewski. And when Marion is away Rocco engages in conversations with Alexa.

And orders things.

So far the parrot has ordered strawberries, watermelon, raisins, broccoli, ice cream, and (it gets better) a kite, kettle, and light bulbs. If only he’d order one of my books.

Every night Marion has to cancel all of these orders.

The point is, someone is listening. How do we know for sure it’s not just Alexa?

“Polly want a hacker.”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Weekend Post

Writers.  Do you think ageism is a new thing?   Here's an article from 1927.  Thanks to reader Ron Rettig for sharing it. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Questions

Did you survive Valentine’s Day? Here are some FQ’s as a reward.

First question is from T.K.D. Sandberg.  And comes all the way from Sweden.

I was wondering whether you could talk about how sitcoms and certain other shows have to retain the status quo, meaning how each episode (usually) must end with nothing essential being altered even if the episode might foreshadow some possible change in character or even a location change. Is real change usually saved for "end of season?" Do you have some good examples of reasons for this and reasons why it may or may not be a good idea to make a drastic change to a show in this manner?

Several reasons. Networks like to air shows out of order on occasion (they may feel one episode is stronger than another) and they can’t do that if the show is serialized. It would be like showing reels of a movie out of order.

Also, the real endgame for sitcoms is to have enough episodes to go into syndication. If you’re planning on 100 or 200 episodes you’d be wise not to be making drastic changes constantly. People tune into these shows frankly, because they’re comfort food. When they turn on an episode of FRIENDS they don’t want to spend ten minutes trying to figure out where in the course of the series this episode lies. So in general sitcom storytelling is baby steps at best.

And yes, it does make it hard.  How many times can you tell essentially the same story in a different way?  

From Jen from Jersey:

Why aren’t networks consistent as to when they air their shows? For instance, The Good Place had a “fall finale” so it wasn’t on air during the holiday season. Then in January they only aired two episodes. The show hasn’t been on in a few weeks. How is a struggling show supposed to build an audience when they show isn’t consistently shown? Fox also did this with Last Man on Earth.

That’s the problem with short order series. In the case of THE GOOD PLACE, it was agreed upon between the network and producers to make just 13 new episodes a season. It’s a lot easier to have continuity if you have 22 or 24 episodes a year.

So it’s a scheduling dance the networks must go through to try to maintain audience interest while only having a few episodes to dole out.  Do you play them all in order, take short breaks, take long breaks?  I don't envy network schedulers these days. 

Janet Ybarra wonders:

Have politics (I don't mean office politics, but politics politics) on the part of actors ever become a serious barrier on any projects you and David have worked on?

No. In fact one of my favorite actresses to work with is Patricia Heaton and I am 180 degrees from her politically.

I’ve worked with other actors whose politics I disagree with and so far it’s never been an issue.

But I should point out those are philosophical differences. If I came across an actor who was openly racist or homophobic or wore a MAGA hat I would steer very clear of him or her. Life’s too fucking short.

And finally, from Jim S:

The process of solving story problems has always interested me.

Have you ever sweated a story logjam trying to figure out a solution, only to have someone walk in and solve the problem by saying "why don't you do X?"

Oh yes. And it’s why you have partners, and script doctors (consultants) and colleagues.

For some reason it is infinitely easier to solve other writers’ story problems than your own. Probably because you’re not as close to the story as he is. You can see the overview. You’re also more relaxed. The writer has been wrestling with this thorny problem for hours or days or weeks. You come swooping in and see other possibilities.

And remember, story problems are going to happen. If you never have story problems it means you’re not working hard enough to tell stories in an original surprising unexpected way.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

EP110: TV in the age of Ageism


Ken discusses the realities of the television industry and how he has faced and learned to cope with ageism. It’s a candid personal look into longevity in Hollywood. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Whatever happend to Romantic Comedies?

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day and also my birthday.  I turn 39.   America celebrates my birthday by jacking up prices at all nice restaurants.

For those not celebrating their birthday, it's supposed to be a day of romance.  And it got me thinking, whatever happened to Romantic Comedies?

Time was Hollywood made tons of them -- and they were both romantic and FUNNY.

And now the few that we still have are by-the-numbers studio formula pictures.  It's shocking to me the praise for CRAZY RICH ASIANS as a Romantic Comedy.   The celebration of a culture -- great.  But as a Romcom, a typical predictable trifle that at best was a date night movie.

Compare that with FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ANNIE HALL, GROUNDHOG DAY, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, PHILADELPHIA STORY, THE LADY EVE, THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, MOONSTRUCK, CHASING AMY, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, PALM BEACH STORY, PAT & MIKE, BRINGING UP BABY, THE GOODBYE GIRL, ENCHANTED, HEAD OVER HEELS, KISSING JESSICA STEIN, DOC HOLLYWOOD, WHAT'S UP DOC, ROXANNE, L.A. STORY, ARTHUR, PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, FOREIGN AFFAIR, THE WEDDING SINGER, SAY ANYTHING, NIGHT SHIFT, ADAM'S RIB, HOLIDAY, ROMANCING THE STONE, SPLASH, LOVE ACTUALLY, TOOTSIE, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, GOODBYE COLUMBUS, A NEW LEAF, THE GRADUATE, BROADCAST NEWS, and I'm sure you can come up with ten more.

Today we get these Nancy Meyers paint-by-the-numbers snooze-a-thons, or R-rated raunch-fests with unearned emotional moments tacked on.   It's sad but romantic comedies are becoming a lost art.  And there are so few of them that the bar has been so lowered that the producers of CRAZY RICH ASIANS actually thought they had an Oscar contender.

Instead of going out to some overpriced prix fix dinner, stay home with your certain someone special, watch one of those movies I listed, or the first season of CHEERS.   And you can use all that money you save on a present for me.

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Fair Laura

When I was in New York I saw the recent revival of MY FAIR LADY. It’s my all-time favorite musical. I just think the music is spectacular beyond belief. If a musical has one song that ultimately rises to the pantheon of American Standard it’s considered a triumph. MY FAIR LADY has like six.

And the truth is I had never seen a really first-rate production of it. Jane Powell at the Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills, California done on a stage the size of a manhole cover didn’t really cut it. But even then, if you can get people who can sing and an orchestra that’s a grade above middle school the magic is still there.

The current production at Lincoln Center is gorgeous with all the Broadway bells and whistles you now come to expect when tickets cost what you paid for your first house. Rotating stages, elaborate sets, terrific cast, a multitude of dancers, and in the case of MY FAIR LADY — street lamps.

But the highlight was seeing Laura Benanti star as Eliza. One of the true thrills of live theatre is seeing an extraordinary performance, one you remember, and that’s what this production offers with Laura Benanti. (If you’re unfamiliar with her, she’s a Broadway mainstay, has done a lot of television — was Supergirl’s mom for one — and appears frequently on COLBERT as Melania Trump.).

My only problem with the show was that they changed the ending. I’m not going to spoil it but will just say it’s more in line with current sensibilities. And although I agree with those sensibilities I don’t see the need to alter something that was of its time so it could be more PC today. And looking around at the audience, I was probably the youngest person there. I submit that 90% or more of the audience knew the story and knew the ending. No one had a problem with the original ending going in. And to accomplish this they had to adjust Henry Higgin’s character, making him a little less sympathetic. To me it was a case of don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.   Yes, this was the original ending in Shaw's play PYGMALION, but it's not Lerner & Lowe's vision and MY FAIR LADY is their take. 


Fortunately, no one leaves a theatre humming the ending. And as long as they didn’t mess with the songs (which they didn’t — no “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Facebook”) I can heartily recommend you see MY FAIR LADY if you’re in New York. Who knew Melania Trump could sing so well?

Monday, February 11, 2019

Why I didn't watch the Grammys

People always ask why I don’t review the Grammys. Well, mainly because I don’t watch them. I know my “hip factor” is going to take a hit here, but the problem is I don’t know most of these acts.

At one time I was a rock n’ roll D.J. and I knew everybody. I followed the trends, who were the hot new bands, what were the latest underground movements, etc. Which group used which drug -- that sort of informed thing.  The Grammys were must-see. I was even rooting for people in various categories. I knew all the performers and loved hearing them do live versions of their hit songs. Whitney Houston – Wow. Aretha Franklin stepping in and doing opera – WOW.

But as I got older I found it harder and harder to stay current. I would really make the effort. I’d listen to the hot rock stations and try to familiarize myself with the new artists. I watched MTV when they actually played music.   Eventually it got to be too much work, and I had a realization. None of these songs resonated with me. And that’s because none of them were meant to. They were geared to a younger generation – which is how it should be. But at that point I got off the train.

Now I like what I like, regardless of era or style, and am just fine with that. And if there’s a contemporary singer that knocks me out – like the year of Adele – I watched. Otherwise, I have no idea who most of these artists are. Also, (my “hip factor” is about to take another huge ding), I don’t enjoy Hip Hop. Yes, some of it is very clever poetry, but give me Otis Redding and Darlene Love.

About fifteen years ago I was doing research for a project on the music industry and got to attend Dick Clark’s AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS. Afterwards I was invited to the post-show party. Most (not all but most) of these artists were incredibly full of themselves and arrogant. I remember thinking at the time, “Who the fuck are you? In another year you’ll be out of the business and completely forgotten.” Sure enough, that’s what happened to 90% of them. Even the winners.

Another thing I noticed about the Grammys – every year there seems to be an artist or group that is the Academy’s darling and they win nine Grammys. Two years later they’re often an afterthought.

So I didn’t watch last night. If there were memorable moments – if Miley Cyrus twerked with Ringo Starr I’ll see it on YouTube. But truthfully, I still can’t get the image of last week's horrific Super Bowl halftime show out of my mind and figure the Grammys could be three hours of this. Better to use the time writing about it rather than watching it.

Oh, and congratulations to all the winners, whoever you are.