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.

NEW YORK

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.

CLEVELAND

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.

GRAND RAPIDS

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.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Happy Father's Day

This is kind of a tough one for me since it's the first Father's Day I no longer have my father.  But I cherish the memories.  And send a special salute to my son Matt who has been a dad (and terrific one at that) for two years now. 

This is a perennial post, now updated.

Note to those wives and kids planning to celebrate: no brunches. That’s Mother’s Day stuff. Let the old man sit in front of the TV and watch the U.S. Open or the Arena football amateur draft in peace.

Or watch FIELD OF DREAMS.And now, as a public service, here are some movies NOT to watch on Father’s Day:

FEAR STRIKES OUT
CHINATOWN
SHINE
WALK THE LINE
OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
STAR WARS
THE GREAT SANTINI
THE SHINING

Some TV shows and telefilms NOT to watch:

THE MARVIN GAYE STORY
THE BEACH BOYS STORY
LOST
Any CBS family comedy

Some unfriendly father plays:

ALL MY SONS
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (any Arthur Miller, actually)
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Some books to avoid:

Any Bing Crosby biography
Any Frank Sinatra biography
Any Papa John Phillips biography 
Any Screaming Jay Hawkins biography
LOVE STORY (for so many reasons)

Records to skip:

PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE by the Temptations
BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash
MY DAD by Paul Peterson
CATS IN THE CRADLE by Harry Chapin

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Again, happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

At least I wasn't naked

This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved). It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday Questions

Welcome y’all to Friday Question Day.

Jim, UK starts us off:

What is your experience of trying to pitch films/shows that were completely different to anything you'd done before?

We tend to stay in our lane (comedy) when pitching, but there have been times we’ve been offered feature rewrites on genres we’ve never worked in.

Case in point was JEWEL OF THE NILE, which primarily was an action-adventure film. Honestly, we watched a ton of them and tried to glean what worked and what didn’t. To me that’s the best teacher. We learned more by studying GUNGA DIN than any screenwriting book.

From Janet Ybarra:

Ken, what is your opinion of TRAPPER JOHN MD? I personally never got into it because, to me, the Pernell Roberts portrayal never squared with the Trapper John we were introduced to on MASH.

They just used the name to gave the character a recognizable hook. But as portrayed in TRAPPER JOHN M.D. the character was nowhere close to either the TV or film version of Trapper. Frankly, I never watched it. It was just another formula hour doctor show back then.

I must say however that I have a hard time when characters change genres. I never could get into LOU GRANT even though I admired almost everyone associated with that show. The one hour drama Lou Grant was NOT Lou Grant. The fellow who was Mary Richard’s boss, THAT was Lou Grant.

J Lee asks:

When you were starting out on MASH, did you buttonhole any of the veteran writers who worked on the show (some with credits dating back to radio days) on how they handled script problems or how they worked with a writing partner?

No. We didn’t know any of them then. We met with Gene Reynolds to work out the story but we were on our own when writing our first draft. Later of course we worked with Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart, but at the time we started as freelance writers, we were in a vacuum.

What we did instead was load up on Gelbart scripts and study them for rhythm, tone, joke construction, everything. The only thing they didn’t teach us was how to be as brilliant as him.

And finally, from Michael:

How do you think the trend of Netflix and others to release all episodes simultaneously has changed day-to-day life in the writers' room?

Do writers have more time or less? Are more episodes complete before shooting begins? What about the lack of audience feedback and network input based on week-to-week viewing numbers?

The length of time devoted to producing these series depends on a lot of factors. What is the order? How much time have you been given? Does the platform need it right away or whenever you turn it in? What are the production requirements? How hard will it be to produce? Are there any restrictions on the actors’ availability? Do you lose your star to a movie in four months?

But all things considered, it’s certainly easier to make 13 a year as opposed to 22. You generally do have more time to really polish those 13 episodes. When you’re making 22 or more a season you’re just happy if you can knock ‘em all out on time.

The downside of course is often writers get paid by the episode. So 22 means a lot more moolah than a leisurely 8.

As for producing all episodes before they’re aired, yes, that can be a big problem if an audience doesn’t respond to a major character or story arc and you’re powerless to make mid-course corrections. That can positively kill a series.

Likewise, the audience can tell you which character will be the breakout hit, but if you can’t take advantage of that and suddenly steer towards “the Fonz” you’re killing a potential golden goose.

Again, that’s why I’m such a fan of multi-camera shows. You’re held accountable and you can learn the night of the filming whether an audience responds or not. You don’t have to wait a year until the series airs to learn you went in the wrong direction.

What’s your FQ?

Another Opening Another show

If you're anywhere near Grand Rapids tonight and tomorrow, my full-length comedy OUR TIME is playing.  I'll be there both nights.  Swing by.  Say hi and laugh.  Here's where you go for details. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

John Mulaney vs. Amy Schumer

Today’s post concerns television specials you might not be able to see. If you have Netflix you’re golden. But even if you don’t, you’ll be able to get the gist. And I’m sure you’ve seen similar TV specials in other places.

The ones I want to focus on are the stand-up comedy specials. Usually about an hour, a big name comic performs in a huge packed auditorium to delirious fans who laugh at everything they say, even if it’s Kevin James doing tired airport people mover jokes. Generally the comics will record two or three shows and cobble together the best performances or reaction (should anyone pee in their pants over airport people mover jokes).

I enjoy watching them. A few big name stand-ups who were comedy darlings at one time are starting to seem a little creaky. Their best specials are behind them. But there are usually flashes of what made them great so it’s time well-spent.

I used to be a big fan of Amy Schumer. Loved her Comedy Central show, thought her early specials were terrific. Then last year I saw her “Leather” special on Netflix. It was atrocious. Lazy, unfunny, just an endless collection of raunchy sex jokes – the kind you hear in frat houses just before everyone pukes. My position on sex jokes is the same as Carl Reiner’s: I don’t mind a sex joke, no matter how raunchy, as long as it’s FUNNY. But sex jokes just for the supposed shock value leaves me flat. And apparently, the Netflix audience agreed. It’s gotten horrible reviews and very few stars in the rating system.

I go back to the “lazy” factor. The entire routine seemed slapped together. Some comics reach a sweet spot where audiences laugh at everything. They don’t have to earn the laughs. You listen to some of Steve Martin’s old comedy albums and if you’re too young to get his tongue-in-cheek persona, you very well may be saying, “What the hell are they laughing at? A guy saying ‘Excuuuuuuuse me’ brings down the house? What the fuck?” Amy must’ve felt she had arrived at that pinnacle and just doing slut jokes and obvious blowjob jokes were enough to keep the flock fed.

But the material was so bad that even many diehards were turned off. And I say that fully expecting a flurry of angry commenters saying “She was fucking hilarious and you don’t know shit!” If you thought the “Leather Special” was great, I’m happy for you and glad you were entertained for an hour. But I bring up the “Leather” special to make a point.

Compare that to the latest John Mulaney Netflix special, “Kid Gorgeous.” He’s had others but I’m choosing that one because it’s a better equivalent in terms of where he and Amy are in their careers. The thing that struck me about this special is that it is packed, every second with good material. You can see how well-crafted it is. Filmed at Radio City in February, he had spent the better part of last year touring. And it shows. I’m guessing that for the hour of material that made it there was probably an hour that didn’t.

It was also refreshing to see that he wrote everything himself. There were some big laughs and wonderfully astute observations. Was it the funniest comedy special of all-time? No. But it was pretty great and one has to admire his professionalism. Is John Mulaney at the point in his career where he doesn’t have to earn every laugh? Considering he filled Radio City Music Hall I’d say he’s getting there. But the fact that he earned them anyway made him all the more impressive.

There are a gazillion stand-up comics out there. The night I did my one (and only) open mic night there were probably forty on that bill alone. Everyone got only five minutes. And I was shocked by how sloppy and lazy most of these young hopefuls were. Jesus. Five minutes. If they can’t do a tight very funny five minutes how do they ever expect to have a career in comedy? They should be studying Mulaney. But his comedy takes a lot of work and effort. My guess is they’re studying Schumer. And my other guess is you’ll never see a Netflix special starring one of them.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

EP76: The Worst of Levine & Isaacs


Ken Levine discusses AfterMASH and MANNEQUIN 2, two of his least
successful projects. You’ll learn what went wrong, how he dealt with it, and ways to find the good in bad situations. There’s also a great karma story you will love.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Yet more praise for Ted Danson

Okay, here's another one of those ten year old Friday Questions re-post.  Resurfaced  because readers rarely go back through the archives (especially posts from many years ago) and I'm preparing for nine play productions.  My guess is this post is new to you.  Enjoy.

It’s Friday Question Day – my most popular feature, even if it’s my only feature. Leave your questions in the Comments section. Thanks.
Brian Phillips starts us off:

I recently heard the "Fresh Air" interview on NPR with Terry Gross. Ted Danson said that it took him over a year to play Sam properly. Within that year, I would argue, Sam and Diane worked well off of each other. On the shows you have worked on do you find that the cast "chemistry" is something that is pretty much in place near the beginning of the show ("Friends" creators felt this way about their cast) or does it tend to develop over time?

I found it’s often more rare that the chemistry is present right from the beginning. Usually both the acting and the writing evolves as everyone gropes to find that perfect formula for success. Frequently series will need one or even two years before they really hit their stride. I felt that about THE OFFICE and BIG BANG THEORY.

It sometimes is a trial-and-error process in the early going. Eventually you sift through and find the gold (hopefully).

Ironically, I thought Ted played Sam the best that first season. Part of it is our (writers collectively) fault. I think at times in the course of the run we made Sam too dumb. Granted, that made it easier to mine comedy from the character but I love how cool and together Sam Malone was in those early episodes. But that could just be me.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is another example of a show I believe had sensational chemistry right from the pilot.

From Fred:

I was in college in the 80s and had a friend at William and Mary who told a story about a classmate who wrote a spec script for M*A*S*H, submitted it and had it produced. This writer, the story went, wrote at least a few scripts while still a student at William and Mary, and eventually became a regular writer for M*A*S*H.

Is there any truth to this story, and if so is it something that could never happen now?

No truth to that story. Sorry. Of course, I've known of guys who happen to share my name who have taken credit for writing my shows. When someone says they wrote for a hit show ask to see a residual check.

It could happen that you sell a spec but it’s highly unlikely. If your script gets you meetings or an agent or an assignment then you've hit it out of the park.

But there are, from time to time, instances when a show will buy a spec script and produce it. That’s what happened to Sam Simon and TAXI. It’s very rare, but who knows? Producers are always scrambling for good stories.

John queries:

Ken have there been any shows you've written for/been employed by and have left that you looked at in their ensuing episodes/seasons and wondered "Why are they doing that?" or "Why are they taking the show in that direction?"

Yes. But there have also been times when I’d see a future episode of a series I worked on and think, “Damn! That’s a great story. Why didn’t we think of that?”

Gottacook wonders:

Do you see any hope for the return of the anthology series?

Probably not but you never know. Anthologies are very expensive to produce. You need a new cast every week, new sets, new stories. In this economy especially, I don’t think networks are looking to take on that kind of ambitious project.

Plus, audiences become attached to characters. Anthologies introduce you to new ones every week. You have to figure out who they are, whether you like them – that’s way too much work for most people. Much easier to just turn on the TV, there’s Monk, he’s afraid of germs again, I’m happy.

There have been variations of anthologies. One is to have one leading character anchoring the series. QUANTUM LEAP and THE FUGITIVE are examples. The series star meets new people and finds himself in new situations but still, the show is centered around him. To some degree MY NAME IS EARL is structured along those lines (but that show had several recurring characters).

And finally, from Joey:

Episodes are edited for syndication or cable to allow more commercial time than when they were first run. Do writers anticipate this and write scenes that are not crucial to the A story that are, in effect, designed to be edited out.

Generally not. If there’s a free floating tag, that’s easily removed. But here’s the thing – even if we wrote scenes that could clearly be lifted, whoever is editing the shows for syndication would select something else. Some MASH episodes are hacked up so poorly that the stories no longer make sense. Or invariably editors will cut out the best jokes of the show. They have a sixth sense for that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Conceptual Blending

Heard a great term recently. Conceptual Blending.

It means borrowing from one creative property to another.

Another term that is similarly used is Homage.  Paying tribute to a former work by copying it. 

In music there’s the term Sampling. Sampling is when a rap musician lifts an existing part of a previous record and weaves it into his song.

I have another term. STEALING.

It is not an homage to take a story or style from one show and re-use it as your own. It is not conceptual blending to rip off someone else’s jokes in your stand-up routine. Nor is it sampling to use Motown tracks in your hip hop song.

There's a term called permission.  You need permission to use someone else’s material. And if you don’t receive it and use the material anyway you are liable for damages. Good luck to the defense attorney who argues to a jury on behalf of conceptual blending.

We now live in an age of spin, of Alternate Facts. But there’s one term that never seems to need a pretty euphemism:

BULLSHIT.

That’s the term that exists in my vocabulary, especially when referring to these others.