Sunday, June 24, 2018

Slipping inside jokes into shows

A reader’s question will sometimes spark an entire post and that’s the case today. Richard Y. wanted to know about inside references and jokes writers slip into shows. Did we do it on purpose? How often did we do it, etc.? He perceptively noticed that on an episode of WINGS, Steven Weber walks by a magazine rack that features an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY with his likeness and real name on the cover.

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone but I’d imagine that all writers slip these little nuggets in from time to time. What good is writing a show for 30,000,000 people if you can’t have a joke or two aimed at only six?

In some cases, writers do this to reward the audience for paying strict attention. I think LOST did that 500 times an episode. There are historical, literate, and spiritual references galore. We didn’t do that on ALMOST PERFECT. But any time Nancy Travis or any character was watching TV they were always watching CHEERS.

Hey, I’ll be honest. We do it for our own amusement. We do it because we can.

There’s a very famous episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S where Adam Arkin keeps commuting back and forth between Hawaii and Chicago. I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about. Well, we show him on a plane four or five times and every time he’s reading my book, “It’s Gone…No, Wait a Minute!” (This did not result in the huge spike in sales I was counting on, however.)

Animated shows are perfect vehicles for slipping in private jokes. The “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS that David Isaacs and I wrote is chock-full of names of actual people I encountered broadcasting baseball in the minor leagues. I play the Springfield Isotopes announcer, “Dan Hoard”. Dan was my partner in Syracuse and is a prominent sportscaster today.

There are often cartoon character likenesses of the writers that show up in THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY. You’d think they’d be more flattering.

It’s always a pain-in-the-ass coming up with names for characters. But this is an ideal way to slip in names of people you know. A lot of my former girlfriends show up as nurses on MASH. One became Charles’ sister, “Honoria”. Yes, I went out with a Honoria. It seems that anytime 24 needed a villain who wasn’t Russian or Persian (so that means twice in nine years) they used the name of a Fox network or studio executive.

Growing up, our family dog was named Babette. My mother named her. Can’t say I was ever crazy about the name. So in an episode of MASH that we wrote, Radar loses his hamster, which he named Babette. Then throughout the show everyone gave him a raft of shit for naming her that. After the episode aired my mom called and said, “Very funny.” But again, what’s the point of producing a primetime network television show if you can’t use it expressly to needle your mother?

Anytime I directed a show and there was a scene in a nice restaurant my dad became the maitre ‘d. That turned into a regular gig on ALMOST PERFECT when the show got picked up and “Annie’s” (named for my daughter) became a permanent set.

I used to love in MAD magazine there were sometimes cartoon panels that were just loaded with little bonus gags in the margins and background. Let’s just say there’s a lot of MAD in MASH.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

What words kan't you spell?

Thank God for spellcheck. There are some words I just can’t spell. For whatever reason my brain refuses to learn the correct spelling of a few words – words that are fairly common and you dear readers have no problem with at all.

One is jeopardy. Even as I typed it just now the squiggly red line appeared underneath. I keep putting a’s where there should be o’s or o’s where there should be a’s. And again, it’s not an obscure word. I watch the TV show all the time. The word is displayed in giant letters.

Another is privilege. I don’t even come close on this word. At any given time I may write privlige, priviledge, priveledge, privlige, privelige. None of these look any more wrong that the actual spelling.

For a long time I wrestled with guarantee. Somehow I mastered it. And I’m afraid to list the ways I misspelled it for fear that that will confuse me again and I’ll be back at square one.

In the case of pigeon, I want to always write pidgeon. And don’t get me started on pidgin.

I’d like to think I’m not alone in this brain cramp. So let me ask you – what are words that you can’t spell?

Imagine losing the final round of the National Spelling Bee over jeopardy?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Questions

Summer is officially here. So are Friday Questions.

Don Rosnel starts us off.

When he first joined Cheers, could you foresee Woody Harrelson’s future?

Honestly? No. Not that he wasn’t a terrific actor, but I will say this – he deserves all the success he’s received. He has great range, is so likeable, and I’m personally happy for him because he’s such a good person.

From Gary:

An old sitcom staple is for one character to believe he or she is a talented writer, and could be a great success at it. But when you hear a sample of what they've written, of course it is hilariously bad. The DICK VAN DYKE SHOW did this with Laura taking a night course in creative writing, and so did THE ODD COUPLE with Felix writing a series of terrible poems.

My question is, have you ever had to write something into an episode that is intentionally bad, as if done by an amateur? And for a professional writer is it easier or harder to write something that is supposed to sound bad?

Yes. The second episode of MASH we ever wrote was called “The Most Unforgettable Characters” and in it Radar took a correspondence writing course. It was great fun writing badly.

By the way, that DICK VAN DYKE episode you referenced is one of my favorite. Written by the great Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson.

From Robert Foreman:

Have you ever done any writing for advertising? Is that considered a whole different world? Is there much crossover from advertising writing to television and vice-versa?

I once applied to J. Walter Thompson and submitted some copywriting, but fortunately for me I was rejected. It is a different world.

A few noted comedy writers have come from the Mad Men ranks. Three off the top of my head are Howard Gould, Allan Katz, and Steve Gordon.

Karan G. wonders:

Can you think of serendipitous moments in your career….right place, right time….the universe giving you a helping hand? (As an example: In the 1950’s, the conservative New York Times book reviewer would never have selected Jack Kerouac’s first novel to review. As it happens, the reviewer went on vacation, and a more liberal leaning substitute selected the book and gave it a great review, displeasing the main book reviewer, who never allowed the substitute to review again. Nevertheless, Kerouac’s writing career was well underway……..serendipity.)

Too many to count. Meeting David Isaacs, my mother playing golf one day with the Story Editor of THE JEFFERSONS, the showrunner of MASH looking for young writers just when we were available.

Even having to serve in the army. I never would have met David nor could I have ever really written MASH with any authority if I didn’t have that personal experience in the military.

So many times the stars have to line up, and sometimes you don’t think they’re lucky stars but they are. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Something I need to say

Sorry. Nothing funny today.  There IS nothing funny today. 

It is utterly incomprehensible to me that anyone, regardless of political leanings, could support this truly despicable practice of separating children from families. At what point does compassion and simple human decency supersede politics?

These are not terrorists. These are CHILDREN. My God!

Seriously, if in fact you do condone this barbaric practice that goes against everything America and DECENT human beings stand for, please go away.  I mean it.  Please stop reading this blog. If you’re a friend on Facebook please unfriend me. Stop following me on Twitter. If you comment in support of caging innocent children I’ll delete your comment and ban you for life. (I also don't want you guys turning on each other, so no name calling.  Thanks.)

You just can’t believe how furious I am. And heartbroken.

What has this fucking world come to? I would never have believed something like this could ever happen in the United States. And furthermore, I can’t fathom why everybody, 100% of the population isn’t outraged by this, isn’t completely up in arms. This isn’t a debate about school vouchers or how much of the budget should go to defense – this is the most shameful detestable policy this country has ever had.

And FUCK YOU FOX NEWS for trying to sell this atrocity to gullible idiots. Yeah, your family is going to be so much safer when toddlers are rounded up. May all the FOX NEWS commentators who spoke out in support of it rot in hell for eternity and beyond.

Here’s something you probably thought you’d never see in this blog – God bless Seth MacFarlane. He was the first showrunner to speak out against FOX. Also kudos to Steve Levitan.

People, it’s time to take our country back. Step one is being a caring loving human being. And if you’re not, please go away – forever.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

EP77: How do you know if something is funny?

Ken discusses how top comedy writers determine whether things are funny or not, and offers some helpful tips on how to make your writing and content much funnier. It’s another behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood… and Broadway.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

INCREDIBLES 2: My review

Those of us who loved THE INCREDIBLES had to wait 14 years for the sequel. It was worth the wait. Even if it had been 15 years (16 might’ve been stretching it). But the sequel is incredible too.

Having the same creative voice writing and directing was a huge factor. I’m in awe of Brad Bird. How can one person be that great a writer AND animator? INCREDIBLES 2 is visually stunning, there’s fun at every turn, and none of the superheroes brood!

Since THE INCREDIBLES is my all-time favorite animated movie (sorry RAINBOW BRITE), it was hard for the sequel to live up to the original. But it’s certainly risen to my top five. The story itself is similar in structure to the original but there are enough surprises and new elements that you don’t feel you’re watching ROCKY VII.  And no songs!  Yay!

INCREDIBES 2 sure spoiled me for superhero movies. You can pair the Avengers with the Justice League of America and the X-Men and I’d still yawn at this point.

Now let me save you some angst. You’ll be watching a new character, Evelyn Deavor and go nuts trying to guess who does the voice. It’s Catherine Keener. You’re welcome.

Another thing I loved:  In the closing credits, all of the animators and other department heads got billing before the actors.   That Pixar animation team WERE the stars.  

I’ll be seeing INCREDIBLES 2 again. There’s so much going on and the pace really moves so I’m sure there are more things I’ll pick up that I missed upon the first viewing. Contrast that with the new AVENGERS movie. You couldn’t pay me to sit through that exercise in excess again.

I don’t want to hype INCREDIBLES 2 too much because there’s always the danger you might go, “Huh? He loved THIS?” But it’s well worth seeing. Several times even.

What did you guys think? 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My Top 8 performers of SNL

Been watching the new David Letterman Netflix interview series, GRIZZLY ADAMS & GUESTS and quite enjoyed the episode featuring Tina Fey. (Can I stop a moment to confess I LOVE Tina Fey? Going to New York this week and already have my tickets for her MEAN GIRLS musical.) Anyway, the episode is well worth seeing.

At one point Dave asks her to name her all-time top eight performers of SNL. Considering the enormous talent pool from the 156 years it's been on the air I thought that’s a Herculean challenge. So I decided to name mine. You’re welcome to name yours.

Narrowing it down to eight was tough. There are at least that many or more who could easily replace the ones I picked. But here they are:

John Belushi
Kate McKinnon
Will Ferrell
Gilda Radner
Eddie Murphy
Phil Hartman
Tina Fey
Bill Murray

Tina included Maya Rudolph, Jan Hooks, and I think Amy Poehler. I only watched once and was too lazy to go back and double-check.

I imagine it’s like popular music. Just as people tend to prefer the music they grew up with I suspect there’s a greater affection for the cast you watched when you first got hooked on SNL. Your lists will be a good test of that theory.

Thanks for playing and unless you pick Ann Risley there are no wrong answers.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On the road again

When Romcoms Go Bad
Just back from a couple of weeks in New York, Cleveland, and Grand Rapids – the typical east coast swing. In no particular order, here are some observations and thoughts along the way.


No, I did not see CAROUSEL. I know it’s a classic but I hate CAROUSEL.

Unless you want to spend a fortune, see plays that are 8 hours long (but worth it) or musical adaptations of movies, there’s not a lot on Broadway these days.

That said, do see THE BAND’S VISIT. It just won the Tony for Best Musical and proves that heart and characters can beat out glitzy LED sets and overblown production numbers.

Had dinner with Broadway Bill Lee from CBS-FM, one of the last actual disc jockeys with personality. Keep the flame lit, Bill.

Everybody on the subway is checking their phone. Even the crazy people.

With Uber and Lyft the traffic is even worse in Manhattan, if that's possible.

Ocean Prime on 52nd St. – my best meal in New York. Better even then the Original Ray’s First Ray’s Only Real Ray’s pizza.

Thanks to the Gallery Players Theatre in Brooklyn for including my play, WHEN ROMCOMS GO BAD in their outstanding festival. I participated in a talkback after the Sunday performance and when asked what I was doing next I said, “I have to catch the F-Train for Rockefeller Center by 7. I’m nominated for a Tony.”

June is the month to go to New York. You can walk everywhere and eat outside.

Every building in Manhattan has scaffolding.

Certainly a highlight for me was getting lunch with Rob Long. Rob is a terrific writer/producer/commentator and does the preeminent entertainment podcast MARTINI SHOT on KCRW, Los Angeles. We went to the Union Square CafĂ© without a reservation at 1:00. The place was hopping. We thought we might have to eat at the bar. But we went up to the host stand to try our luck. The host looked up and said, “Ken Levine! Ohmygod! I’ve been reading your blog for years!” We got a table and this gentleman made my entire trip.

My daughter Annie and her husband Jon were in New York to move out of their Long Island apartment back to Los Angeles. They are driving back to LA even as you read. Since I planned to be in Grand Rapids, Michigan this past weekend to see my play OUR TIME they offered to give me a ride on the way. Thus began a four-day road trip that was great great fun.


Got there around 4:00 after a long day of driving through Pennsylvania and hitting construction every 30 miles.

Cleveland was fantastic. The weather was actually “nice.” Whenever I went to Cleveland with the Mariners or Orioles it was either snowing, raining, or a 1000 degrees with a million tiny swarming bugs called Midges. Wait, that’s not true. One trip with the Mariners we had a gorgeous day. But during the game there was an earthquake.

Last Thursday night was ideal. We of course hit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So much to see including Taylor Swift’s two piece chandelier dress.

At the gift shop (of course the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had a gift shop) the clerk asked why I had come to Cleveland. I said for the R&R HOF. “Why else do people go to Cleveland?” I asked. “For the sports,” she said, “And our hospital.” Now Cleveland does have one of the premier Cardiac hospitals in the world, still – a “hospital” seems like an odd third most popular attraction.

People were walking and eating outside in Cleveland too.

Mabel’s BBQ – pork ribs almost as good as Gates BBQ in KC.  And it might explain the need for the hospital. 

We left Cleveland on Friday morning.  LeBron will not be far behind.


Driving through Michigan and Ohio I’ve never seen so many billboards for fireworks… or rifles.

Grand Rapids is known for making office furniture and was the boyhood home of President Gerald Ford. There’s a Gerald Ford Museum, which we didn’t see since no Taylor Swift costumes were on display.

Our Time
My play OUR TIME is at the Lowell Arts Theatre in picturesque Lowell. There’s a river and even a paddleboat. Both Friday and Saturday nights were sold out and both performances played great. My thanks to Brent Ailes, the cast and crew for really doing my play proud. It’s on again this weekend. If you’re in the area, you like to laugh, and you’ve already purchased your fireworks, swing by. Here’s where you go for info.

Annie & Jon continue their drive west and I flew home yesterday. Had to change planes at O’Hare. I got in my 10,000 steps and then some. Why does United put their video controls on the armrests right where you put your elbows? So to avoid changing my seat mate’s channels every five seconds I had to sit with my arms pulled in, thus feeling really squished into the seat.

Also, why do people in window seats keep the windows closed the entire time? I can understand when you want the cabin dark to see movies better or sleep, but in the middle of the day – especially right after takeoff and right before landing – I never get over the thrill of being in the air and seeing cities from above. You pay big money to simulate that at amusement parks. It seems weird that people are so blasĂ© that they’d rather close the window and play video games on their phones.

Now I’m home and the best part of yesterday was gaining three hours. So my Father’s Day was 27 hours. As it should be.