Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Thanksgiving Plans

 It’s downright surreal listening to the two distinct realities that various news outlets are spouting.  With Thanksgiving just days away and COVID cases skyrocketing in America at an alarming rate, you would think everyone in the country would be scared shitless and heeding the CDC’s warnings to not travel and not have large gatherings on Thursday.

But instead you have Fox News mocking the CDC’s warnings.  Meanwhile, over at MSNBC you have Rachel Maddow relaying the horrific story of her partner’s battle with COVID and telling viewers to re-calibrate their risk acceptance because “you do NOT want to get this thing.”  

Two diametric opposites.  It’s mind-boggling to me.  

The states that are getting hit hardest are the states that believe the threat the least.  Utterly mystifying. This isn’t a debate over whether zombies are real.  Actual footage (even on Fox) of hospitals being overrun are dominating news coverage.  CNN keeps a running total of cases and deaths on the screen at all times.   By now, practically everybody knows someone who has it or has had it.   Soon we all know someone who died of it.

So you’d think, at the very least, people would take this pandemic seriously.  And news outlets would not politicize it for the sake of appeasing a deranged madman.  Folks would err on the side of caution.   We’re just talking common sense.   Wearing a mask does not qualify you for Mensa. 

But you know how this will play out.  Millions will ignore the warnings, get horribly sick, and some will die.  Needlessly.  To have one stupid meal.  

It won’t be many of my friends.  They take this seriously.  They social distance.  They wear masks.  They don’t travel through crowded airports and sit on packed airplanes that keep their ventilation systems turned off until they’re taxiing.  They live without Aunt Carol’s jello mold (which isn't very good anyway).  

So two realities.  One where people stay healthy, and the other where people get gravely sick and die by their own choosing.  

What are YOUR Thanksgiving plans? 

Monday, November 23, 2020

RIP Charlie Hauck


So sorry to hear of the passing of comedy writer, Charlie Hauck.  He was 79.  One of the funniest people I knew.  

Here’s how I first met Charlie.  My partner, David Isaacs and I pitched him story ideas when he was the story editor of MAUDE.  He rejected us fifty times.  

In fairness, it was the show runners above him.  We’d bring in ten ideas.  He’d like two, send ‘em upstairs, they’d get rejected, and Charlie would ask us to come in with ten more.  I really liked him.  And if you can like someone who rejected you fifty times he has to be a pretty decent guy.  

We worked together on FRASIER and ENCORE ENCORE (the Nathan Lane sitcom).  Some comedy writers are loud and brash and desperately want to be Mel Brooks.  Charlie was soft-spoken, erudite, laid back, and funny, insightful, and deliciously sarcastic lines would come out of his mouth effortlessly.  If I had to pick one colleague who deserved a seat at the Algonquin Round Table it would be Charlie Hauck.  

And don’t take my word for it.  Charlie wrote a comic novel called ARTISTIC DIFFERENCES that is the best satire on the TV industry ever.  And I say that having also written a satire on the TV industry.  If you only have time to read one, read Charlie’s.  

Worth sharing: On one page of his book he explains how you can tell a bad sitcom.   Simple rules, worth repeating here.

Any show in which any character at any time during the life of the series says the words “Ta da!” is a bad sitcom.

Any show in which one character says to another, “What are friends for?” is a bad sitcom.

Any show in which a character says “Bingo!” in the sense of “Eureka!” is a bad sitcom.

Any show in which an actor or actress under the age of seven says cute things in close-up is a bad sitcom.

Any show in which an actor or actress over the age of seventy-five says vulgar things in close-up is a bad sitcom.

Any show that resorts to the use of Dr. Zarkov dialogue (named for the villain in the FLASH GORGON series, where one character tells another character something they both already know, for the benefit of the audience) is a bad sitcom.

Any show in which a character, in the closing minutes, says, “I guess we’ve all learned a lesson,” and then goes on to explain what that lesson is, is a bad sitcom.  

He’s also helped launch careers, including Michael Keaton’s.  

I will miss him always, but particularly this time of year.  Charlie used to send Christmas cards with his yearly “update.”  They were always spectacularly funny.  The two things I will miss about Christmas are the Andy Williams/Claudine Longet TV specials and Charlie’s annual card.  

If anyone’s reading this from the Great Beyond, do yourself a favor, invite Charlie Hauck to your next dinner party.  You can contact him at the Algonquin Round Table. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Weekend Post

When my partner and I started out we would lock ourselves in a room whenever we wrote. We couldn’t have any distractions. Most of the time that meant working in one of our apartments so it was easy to do… except for the neighbor across the courtyard who kept playing the Jethro Tull WAR CHILD album over and over. But we eventually killed him so that problem was solved.

When we finally went on staff of a show and got our first office we would always keep the door closed. Just the idea of people going by or our secretary answering a phone was too distracting. How could we be funny if we saw two people walking down the hall?

Then we got a job on MASH.   By then we had worked on staff of a show and were somewhat used to being in a writers room... with other writers.  It's a different form of writing, everybody pitching at once.  You learn to fit in.  

But it was still a writers room.  And a writers assistant sat in the outer office keeping anyone from disturbing us.  Genius at work -- that sort of thing.

The first day of filming every episode was a rehearsal day. The cast would move from set to set on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox and rehearse their scenes. Once they were satisfied, David and I were summoned to come watch the scene and then go off and do any rewriting that was necessary. But since it made no sense to keep schlepping back and forth between our office and the stage every half hour, we just did our rewrites right there on the stage. We commandeered a table in the mess tent and that’s where we worked – with actors, crew people, extras, God-knows-who walking by. And in some cases just sitting down and joining us. We’re trying to fix a scene and some extra plops himself down at the table and begins eating a burrito. We eventually killed his character.

Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn.  A lot of writers prefer working in public, like Starbucks.  There was a lot more of that before the pandemic.  So for them, I'm sure the Mess Tent would not present a problem.  

What you realize when you're lucky enough to enter the business is that a big reason TV writers are paid more than police dogs is that they're not only talented, but they can create on demand.  We couldn't afford the luxury of isolating ourselves because we felt more comfortable that way.   You work when you're sick, you work when you're tired, you work when you're aggravated, and you work on a soundstage.

On multi-camera shows in front of an audience, writers will huddle to fix jokes that didn't work.  So there's a hundred member crew and two-hundred member audience staring at you.   Oh, for the halcyon days when it was only the Mess Tent. 


Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday Questions


It’s the Friday between Friday the 13th and Black Friday.  Here are some FQ’s.

Marka starts us off:

When stars come into the commissary do they have to wait in line? If not, how do they cut the line? And, what level of star is able to get away with that.

A lot of studios have two sides to their commissary.  One is more cafeteria style and one is more a sit down restaurant where they take reservations.  Stars generally have reservations.  That said, usually at 1 PM (everyone makes reservations for 1 PM) there can be a brief line while the parties are seated and the stars generally stand in line.  

Star treatment is more in evidence at regular restaurants.  Many stars do require special treatment, but not all. 

I was in an Italian restaurant in Brentwood a few years ago.  There were no reservations.  The line was about seven deep.  Harrison Ford came in and asked how long the wait would be.  The maitre ‘d said, “Oh no, we will take you in right away,” and Ford, to his credit, said, “No.  I’m happy to wait.”  And he did.  

You gotta love Indiana Jones.

Bradley wonders:

I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole, watching random episodes from one season sitcoms. Among them was an episode of "Pearl" that you directed. It's certainly not a beloved series, but I remember enjoying it at the time. It was a good episode that still made me laugh. Does any one memory from the set while you were there come to mind?

Yes.  I was talking to a writer friend the night before I was supposed to start directing.  I told him I was a little intimidated.  Malcolm McDowell was in the cast.  I’d be directing Malcolm McDowell.  I said to my friend, “This guy starred in CLOCKWORK ORANGE.”  And he said, "Yeah, but he also starred in CALIGULA.”   

Suddenly, the intimidation was gone.  And by the way, Malcolm was perfectly charming and a pleasure to direct.  

My other memory is talking to one of the supporting cast members who had very little to do.  Lucy Liu.   Whatever happened to her?  

From Sparks:

When a show gets rerun or put into syndication, who gets residual payments? I assume it depends to some degree on one's agent, but generally, who? Stars, director, writers?

Not just stars — all actors with a speaking role.  Residuals are negotiated with the unions.  Agents are not involved.  In fact, agents do not receive commission on residuals.

However, “created by” and “developed by” credits are negotiated within the guidelines of the WGA credits manual.  

And pilot directors sometimes command a royalty on all future episodes.  That’s negotiated by an agent.  

And finally, from Jim S.:

Are there any genres you'd like to tackle. For example, Alexa Junge wrote for both Friends and The West Wing. Two very different styles of shows.

So, say, someone you knew said "we're bringing back Columbo and looking for writers with all different kinds of experience, would you care to take a crack?"

Would you? Are there genres you would wish to avoid?

I’d be happy to write a COLUMBO.  Among current fare I’d love to write an episode of THE GOOD FIGHT, BARRY, or BETTER CALL SAUL.  

Having written MASH for so many years, I have no interest in writing a medical show.   I also hate horror shows, disaster shows, zombie shows, and I'm the wrong guy to write something like THIS IS US. 

Shows I would have liked to have written on in their day — THE SOPRANOS, JUSTIFIED, SUITS, THE SHIELD, THE ROCKFORD FILES, LOST, BREAKING BAD, 24, PERRY MASON (the original), HILL STREET BLUES, MIAMI VICE, SPORTS NIGHT, LOU GRANT, DEXTER, THE PRACTICE, LA LAW, and THE FUGITIVE.   And THE WEST WING now that democracy has been restored.  

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

EP201: Author! Author!

Ken takes you through the world of publishing and self-publishing as he discusses the four books he’s written and his adventures in trying to sell them.   You can publish your own books and make money! Ken shows you how. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Is this carton of eggs okay?

In 2003 or 2004 (the years blend together), David Isaacs and I did a half-hour multi-cam pilot for Fox.  One day during rehearsal I got a call from the stage that a network person was snooping around.  This seemed odd.  The network run-through wasn’t until much later in the day.  So I decided to go down to the stage and investigate.

I arrived and found this mild-mannered young man poking around on the set.  I introduced myself and asked what he was doing?  He said he was there to “approve” the set.  Approve the SET?!  

I wanted to be diplomatic so I nodded and asked him to follow me to the kitchen set.  I then opened the refrigerator.  I said, sometimes a character may open the refrigerator door and for a split second you might see what’s inside it so you need to approve that too.  I was hoping that the absurdity of that would send a message to him, but it didn’t.  He actually looked around inside and said it was fine.

At that point I told him we were not changing anything on the set.  They also wanted photo choices of wardrobe and I said that wasn’t happening either.  I was the show runner; I approve the set and wardrobe.  And the make-up, and stage food, and any props. 

He shuffled off and that was the last I heard of it.  Whether it meant I had earned a network demerit of some kind I do not know.  Nor care.  We had the network run-through later in the day and the network president loved the script.  She had no notes on the furniture. 

The point is, the level of interference has just gotten more and more intrusive.  And remember, that was 16/17 years ago.   From what I understand, it’s only gotten worse.  My heart goes out to writer/creators today trying to protect their vision. 

Postscript:  Our pilot did not get on the air.  The problem:  the star, who the network forced us to take.  Meanwhile, the refrigerator tested great. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Like a Jokes

There’s an expression we have in the writers room — Like a Joke.  

A “Like a joke” has the rhythms of a joke but is not funny.  It’s just a straight sentence delivered as a joke line.  “I’m so hungry I could eat a meal.”  

It’s the equivalent of playing an air guitar.  

Remember a few years ago there was a Robin Williams series, THE CRAZY ONES?  It was near the end of his life.  In his prime, Robin would just fire off hilarious jokes like a machine gun.  His ad libs were amazing.  I knew there was something wrong when in this show he delivered a steady stream of “Like a jokes.”

For some reason I hear “Like a jokes” on quite a few “dramadies.”  Maybe they think that by delivering a line in a comic rhythm it will pass for comedy.  But when I hear them I think either they’re not trying, or (more likely) they aren’t really funny.  Real comedy writers are always trying to beat jokes.  Is there something funnier?  Is there a sharper way of phrasing this?  

Now some may argue that they’re not going for a hard laugh.  They’re going for irony.  Okay, you can convince yourself of that.  But you can’t fool the audience.  If something is not funny, if something is on the nose, or tepid it will fall flat no matter how dazzling the rhythm is.  

Just something to keep in mind when you’re writing a comedy script.  When someone orders an In & Out Burger he knows if you’re trying to slip him tofu.