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.


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.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Weekend Post: RIP Frank Robinson

So sorry to hear of baseball great, Frank Robinson’s passing this week. He was 83. There are lots of tributes to Frank on the net, praising his many on-field accomplishments and the barriers that he broke. I want to talk more about Frank Robinson as a person.

Frank was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles when I joined the team as one of their announcers. I had heard that Frank could be, uh… prickly. I had only met him once before. When I got the job I flew back to Baltimore for a press conference and had dinner with him and a few other Orioles officials. He was very pleasant, somewhat low-key. Hardly a volatile figure.

One of my responsibilities was hosting the manager segment of the daily pre-game show. I would huddle with the manager and lob questions for five minutes. It was early in spring training, maybe the third or fourth day. We were in Dunedin to play the Blue Jays. I wandered into his office about two hours before game time with my trusty tape recorder. The door was open, he was finishing up a conversation about hockey with some people I didn’t know. I sat patiently on the couch and waited until they finished their conversation and left and said to Frank, “Hi, wanna do the manager’s show?”

At that point he exploded. “You’re so pushy!” he yelled at me. “Joe Angel (my predecessor) was never that pushy! What’s so goddamn important that I’m keeping you from that we have to do this NOW?” I said, “Lunch.” He instantly dropped the anger and then said, “Oh, then let’s do this.” Clearly, he was just testing the rookie. I guess three years in the minor leagues taught me not to be intimidated by players and managers.

From that point on we got along great. A few weeks later, on Opening Day in Baltimore I arrived at the park way early to get the manager’s show. I knew it would be a media circus. And I was right. We did the interview, I brought it up to the booth, and got the bad news about an hour later that something had gone wrong with the recording. It was unusable. I had to go back down and re-do the manager’s show. Now understand that Frank didn’t love doing the manager’s show in the first place. I thought, “He’s going to kill me.” But nope, he couldn’t have been nicer and even pushed off some other interviews to do mine.

And those manager’s shows were always good because Frank was very candid. I could ask him any question and he’d answer honestly. And this was during a period where the club was terrible and fans were lobbying for his head. He would take the blame for mistakes and not sugar-coat the club’s performance. Most managers would just deflect and speak in a series of clich├ęs. Not Frank Robinson.

One reason Frank and I got along was our shared sense of humor. A side of Frank that most people didn’t know was that he could be very funny. He had a terrific dry wit. So just shooting the shit with him was very entertaining. (By the way, one night he and I went to dinner on the road, he paid for the meal with his credit card, and I said to him “You realize your signature on the slip is worth more than the cost of the meal?”)

Another thing you didn’t know (unless of course you read my book, IT’S GONE… NO, WAIT A MINUTE! – available on Amazon for like one cent), Frank was antsy on flights. So to kill time he would become essentially a flight attendant. He would go up and down the aisle and ask if you wanted anything to eat or drink. Just imagine, the great Frank Robinson, Hall of Famer, MVP in both leagues, was bringing me a Coke and sandwich.

A couple of months into the season Frank was fired as manager but hired to work in the front office. I’m not sure what his responsibilities were, but let’s just say he had a lot of time on his hands. My family was still back in LA (they moved out later in the summer) so I had nothing to do all day when the team was home. One day I decided to get to the park real early and noticed that Frank was in his office. I popped my head in to say hello and he invited me in. We talked baseball for about an hour before I had to go. He said “Stop by anytime,” and to make a long story short – for the next month or so I stopped by practically every day. I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned during those sessions or how fascinating it was to hear his war stories. And a day didn’t go by when I didn’t think to myself, “Holy shit! I’m sitting here talking to Frank Robinson.”

He was a brilliant, fearless, complex, passionate, kind, and funny. He was a gifted athlete. He was the ultimate competitor. And if I ever needed honey roasted peanuts on a flight I could always count on him.

RIP Frank Robinson, although I prefer to forever think of him as MVP Frank Robinson.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody?

J Lee has the first one.

Since you've just gotten back from New York, anything that stuck out for you about the logistics of staging a play (or for that matter, a TV show) in New York, versus doing the same thing in Los Angeles?

There’s not much difference staging plays. Some union rules are different but the process is pretty much the same.

However, doing a multi-camera sitcom in front of a studio audience in New York is like reinventing the wheel. I’ve talked about this before in posts about my time directing the Al Franken sitcom LATELINE in Astoria-Queens.

Camera crews are not used to working multi-camera shows. The crew I had worked Mets baseball for WOR, Channel 9. They would whip the cameras around as if following a shortstop. That took adjusting.

As did construction crews striking sets during rehearsal. In LA all of that is done in the middle of the night before the next day’s rehearsal. Not so in Gotham. These were all lovely people, by the way – they just weren’t used to this format.

From J. Lee to Leen:

What I was wondering is if you have ever worked with Craig T Nelson. I loved him in Coach and re-watch it all the time on Antenna TV. He seems like such a nice guy and would be an awesome person to talk to. Thanks!

Nope. Never worked with him. He was also great as the voice of Mr. Incredible.

Interesting factoid you might not have known:  Early on in his career he did improv with the Groundlings in Los Angeles and formed a comedy team with now-director Barry Levinson.

Bob Gassel is next.

More of a Friday "comment" than question...would love to your thoughts: I fear we will soon arrive at the day when no quality shows have seasons longer than 10-13 episodes. So many great moments and supporting character explorations come when they need to do 22.

Networks need product and if they have a hit show they need as many episodes as they can get. So I suspect we’ll be seeing 22 episodes or more for some time now.

Yes, they’re harder to do, but you get paid a lot more money. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Also, the more episodes you amass the better the syndication deal you can make.  And syndication is really the Clampetts hitting oil

Finally, Dhruv has a question for me and my writing partner, David Isaacs:

Did you guys think of creating an animated series like The Simpsons?

No. For me the fun of television is serving it while it’s hot. Even the best run animated shows take months and months to produce the final product.

That said, I love animated shows. My daughter and her husband are working on one for Apple TV and it seems very exciting.

But I like dealing with actors and seeing my words come to life on a stage. And most of all, hearing a live audience respond. Laughter is a big reward for me. (Not as big as money but still very close.)

What’s your Friday Question? You can leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

EP109: The Art of Magic, w/ Bruce Kalver

Ken talks to master magician Bruce Kalver. Learn about the world of magic and how to get out of handcuffs. It’s a fascinating and fun look at the artists who amaze and delight us. No rabbits or doves were harmed during this interview.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Duking it with Earl

If you’re not reading Earl Pomerantz’s blog, you should. Earl is a terrific comedy writer who views the world with a fresh, often hilarious, perspective. He was a guest on my podcast last year and it’s an episode well worth checking out.

On January 29th I posted a rant about multi-camera sitcoms – how recent ones were not funny and worse, were pumped full of canned laughter. On February 1st Earl weighed in, contesting some of my points. This is his piece.

What you’re seeing here is very unique – two people who disagree on something but still manage to carry on a civilized discussion while never personally attacking the other person or those who have similar beliefs. In fact, this might be the only such debate you’ll find on the internet dated after 2015.

Earl maintains, if I’m paraphrasing him correctly, that the heightened laughter from studio audiences is more genuine because they are fans of the show and are thrilled to be there. And that is certainly valid. (Seriously, if you’re looking for mud slinging this isn’t the place.) I always maintained the latter years of CHEERS we didn’t have to earn the laughs because the studio audience was so crazy excited to be there they laughed at safety instructions.

Add to that a warm up guy who TELLS you to laugh and react. Ironically, both Earl and I did the warm-up for CHEERS during various seasons. So the heightened laughter might be real but it’s somewhat artificial.

And I can tell you, as a freelance director, I worked a lot of different shows – not all of them beloved hits. And whereas there is the novelty factor of attending a TV taping that wears off in a half hour. The freebie laughs stop. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s when you have to really earn the laughs. And I contend that most of today’s multi-camera shows don’t. Instead they rely on the laugh machine. And news flash: they’re fooling NOBODY.

Earl claims that sex jokes almost always work with studio audiences but less so with home audiences. I totally agree. And there’s a real danger to try to please the studio audience first as opposed to the nebulous home audience. But that’s catering to 200 people at the expense of several million. I’m a firm believer in jokes that come out of characters and behavior and that might make it harder to coax laughs from the studio audience but to me it’s worth it. Shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS or TWO AND A HALF MEN would disagree.

Earl points out something else that’s very true. Just because a studio audience goes wild over an episode doesn’t mean it’s automatically good when all assembled. And by the same token, shows that might play a little flat to the audience turn out to be terrific shows at times.

You’d like to think you’re a genius when the audience is in convulsions but there have been times I’ve watched the first edit of one of these love fests and said, “What the hell are they laughing at? This is not very good.” And other times the performances are fabulous but maybe too subtle for folks in the bleachers but at home they really emerge. Now in those cases the showrunner has a dilemma. Clearly the episode is funnier than the audience reaction would lead you to believe. Do you boost the laughter with the machine? Personally I don’t. I’d rather the audience appreciate the show and maybe feel they’re smarter than the tepid audience.

Ultimately Earl says it’s less important what veteran sitcom writers think about today’s crop of sitcoms than what young audiences think. These shows, after all, are meant for them. I would agree with that too. But how do we measure? Ratings are down for these shows but is it because they’re bad or just that Millennials have way more choices and being on CBS is no more an incentive than being on epix!

The way to find out is for someone to do a really GOOD multi-camera sitcom and see if the numbers go up. I think Earl and I would agree that at least we’d be watching.