Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

It always seems weird to me that a festive occasion should be called “Memorial Day.” The purpose of the day is to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces who have given their lives for our freedom. There is a national cemetery near my home and every Memorial Day American flags are posted in front of all the tombstone. It’s a startling sight – endless rows of matching white gravestones with American flags. When my kids were teenagers they helped plant the flags.

Having served in the Armed Forces Reserves, I've always considered myself incredibly lucky that I didn't have to fight in a war.  Back in those days we were drafted.  And it's all the more reason to give thanks to our current military personnel.  Not only are they there putting themselves in harm's way in awful hellholes, but they volunteered.  And they have a Commander-in-Chief who is out of his mind.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in the Veterans Retreat Weekend put on by the WGA.  Returning vets worked in small groups with professional writers who served as mentors.  It was amazing how talented these people were.  And the stories they had to tell -- wow.

Maybe a cool thing to do today is watch some war movies.   And they don't have to be horrifically gruesome (although SAVING PRIVATE RYAN should be on the top of your must-see list).  CASABLANCA is a war movie of sorts.  And there are comedies like MASH.  APOCALYPSE NOW really captures the absurdity of war (and has some amazing performances), and if you've never seen Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY you will be blown away.

Others worth seeing are FULL METAL JACKET, SGT. YORK, PATTON, THE HURT LOCKER, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THREE KINGS, DEER HUNTER, and a film with one of my favorite titles ever -- DUCK, YOU SUCKER.

All terrific, and I'm sure you have your own, but my all-time never-to-be-topped favorite war movie is BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.   It's David Lean's three-hour masterpiece starring Alec Guinness and William Holden.  It's not just one of the greatest war films ever made, it's one of the greatest movies PERIOD ever made.   And it's in Cinemascope!

Have a wonderful day. I plan to too. But I will be thinking about those flags.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Gary Burghoff explains Radar

As we approach Memorial Day...

I love when I can sometimes go to the source.  Reader Michael Rafferty submitted a Friday question.  Here's the question and the answer from the man himself, Gary Burghoff.  My EXTREME thanks to Gary for his time and very illuminating response. 

On MASH, first season, Gary Burghoff played Radar pretty much the same as he did in the movie version. But,over time, Radar was softened and became more gentle and naive. Was this a decision of Burghoff or was this a creative decision of Larry Gelbart et al.?

Here's Gary's answer:

In the original feature film MASH, I created Radar as a lone, darker and somewhat sardonic character; kind of a shadowy figure. I continued these qualities for a short time (review the Pilot) until I realized that the TV MASH characters were developing in a different direction from the film characters. It became a group of sophisticated, highly educated Doctors (and one head nurse) who would rather be anywhere else and who understood the nature of the "hell hole" they were stuck in.

With Gelbart's help, I began to mold Radar into more Innocent, naive character as contrast to the other characters, so that while the others might deplore the immorality and shame of war (from an intellectual and judgmental viewpoint), Radar could just REACT from a position of total innocence. This made RADAR super ACTIVE, free and very interesting on a primary "gut" level, which at times delivered the horror of war (as well as the dark humor we became known for) in an effective, universal way that anyone could understand.

Larry, in one interview, was quoted as saying that Radar was his favorite character to write for. I think he liked the fact that the character lacked guile and he could write from his own honest "child's-self" as apposed to having to create "clever" intellectual hyperbole.

ACTING IS RE-ACTING. LARRY gave Radar "permission" to REACT IN SPADES!! in a free, delightful and direct manner. Once these decisions were made, RADAR became PURE JOY to play!! God bless Larry Gelbart and his talented writers such as your most excellent SELF!

I hope this helps.

Love "Ya~ Gary

Love ya, too.  And P.S., Radar was one of my favorite characters to write as well.  It was a true honor to pen the "Goodbye Radar" episodes.  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A long lost Levine & Isaacs episode

This is one of my favorite episodes. It's from THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. David Isaacs and I wrote it in 1977. The premise stems from an article I saw in the paper. The scenario we present actually happened.

In case you're one of the two or three people in the entire world not familiar with THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, he played a judge in Philadelphia. The series was produced by MTM and created by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, who were the driving force behind THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and later BUFFALO BILL.

The episode features Zane Lasky as Mario Lanza and David Ogden Stiers just before he got a gig on another show you might have heard of.

So here, from the Pleistocene Era is our TONY RANDALL SHOW. Thanks to friend-of-the-blog, Jamie Weinman for unearthing it.

Case- The People Speak by carpalton

Friday, May 26, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody?

MikeN leads off:

What's the shortest amount of time you've had to rewrite your material?

South Park writers say they had to rewrite their episode starting Tuesday 8PM for an episode that would air Wednesday. Major rewrite as the first version was centered around laughing at Hillary cheerleaders that Bill would now be first gentleman.

They have an unusual schedule on SOUTH PARK that allows them to really serve it while it’s hot. For sitcoms the editing and post production process takes several days at least and usually more like weeks. An editor normally needs a few days. Then he gets notes from the showrunner. Then he re-edits. Once the cut is approved the show has to be color-corrected, sound and music added, any effects, credits. You just can’t do all of that in a couple of hours.

But when we were on BIG WAVE DAVE’S we had very little lead-time. So we were filming a show on Tuesday and airing it the following Monday. Trust me, for a sitcom that’s blazing speed.

Barry wonders:

Ken, you mention in the podcast about presenting Pilot episodes as stage productions. I think this is a fascinating and exciting idea, and I wonder if you think the idea of a theatrical company producing old Pilots, old episodes of classic sitcoms, maybe even recreations of live radio dramas would work on an ongoing basis. 

Have you ever known a professional company doing this with success? Are TV scripts available for rental, and are the rights relatively easy to obtain? I think presenting the productions as if the audience were watching the taping of an episode - complete with warm-up guy, maybe even APPLAUSE signs, etc - would be hoot.

I don’t see why it wouldn’t work – if you select good pilots. Remember a lot of pilots didn’t get on the air because they just sucked.

I don't know any professional theatre companies doing this on a regular basis. 

The problem is not every pilot can easily adapt to the stage. There are set limitations and number-of-actor limitations at some small theatres. You have to be creative. When I directed our pilot, UNDER ANDREA for the stage I had to rely a lot of lighting to sell the different sets.

In case you’re interested, here is a video of that pilot.

You might get into rights issues. Some studios may be more willing to release their projects than others. Scripts are not available for rental however.

But when we did it at the Whitefire Theatre it was a big success. So it’s sure worth a try.

Another Mike -- Mike Moody queries:

Friday question: do you think the stark political divisions in the country (literally, each side has their own news at this point) makes it more difficult to produce a TV show designed to appeal to the country as a whole?

Yes, but appealing to the whole country is no longer a prerequisite in this day and age of niche programming. And you can get sizable numbers by taking a stand. Look at Colbert and SNL.

On the other side (of the aisle), there are those who feel LAST MAN STANDING was cancelled by ABC because of its clearly Republican sentiment.  I still believe it was money. 

But I worry that if you try to appeal to everybody you might end up appealing to nobody.  

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

C'mon, sitcom writers -- you can do better

This is pretty much a follow up to yesterday’s post. Two trends in comedy tropes I see emerging from watching the trailers of the upcoming new sitcoms. Irony and the quick flip. And my problem is that both are lazy and not particularly funny.

First – the quick flip. A character says something and the opposite immediately occurs. But most times it’s so obvious that he’s setting himself up for the quick flip. “I’m a great driver!” followed immediately by a CRASH. We’ve seen this trope so often that the audience is way ahead of you. So there’s zero surprise.

And instead of funny clever lines, characters now offer underplayed ironic comments that are supposed to serve as punch lines. But they’re not. They don’t get laughs. They get smiles at best. Shouldn’t comedy writers aspire for more?

Take the new ABC Zach Braff show, ALEX INC. He’s in a development lab. Someone shows him a gadget and says: “they’re developing a robot that rocks a baby to sleep.” Next thing – the gadget fires a doll across a room where it slams against the wall. Quick flip. Then Zach says: “Coming along, fellas.” Irony.

And here’s the thing – anyone can write irony. Anyone can write the twenty alternate versions of “going great,” “keep up the good work,” “you must be proud,” etc. But a skilled comedy writer should be able to come up with stuff not everyone can think of. That’s what you pay him for. A professional should look at “coming along, fellas” and say “Oh, hell. We can beat that.”

Yeah, it’s just one joke. But it’s in the TRAILER. Shouldn’t trailers trot out the best stuff? That’s their funniest stuff?

Later in the trailer Zach says, “This is the best day of my life.” Then he’s slammed against a car and handcuffed. Quick flip. Then he says, “Handcuffs? What am I going to do? Run away?” I’ll give you one guess as to what happens next.

LA to VEGAS from Fox is not much different. A flight attendant says: “Anyone who sits here gets free beers.” A pregnant woman stands up. Flight attendant says: “Not you.” That’s not even ironic.
Later the pilot says: “If I can’t have fun with the passengers why am I here? The flight attendant’s hilarious comeback: “To fly the plane. Go do that.” So laughs are supposed to come from characters stating the obvious with attitude. Again, comedy writers can’t beat those lines?  You think the writers of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would settle for those lines? 

The trailer continues. The pilot is in the passenger cabin and says: “This baby’s a technological miracle.” What happens next? He punctuates that by tapping an overhead bin and an oxygen masks falls. The quick flip that fools nobody.

In ABC’s SPLITTING UP TOGETHER Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson star as a married couple that has split up. Oliver is living in the garage. Jennifer is in the backyard talking to her girlfriends. She says: “I need sex in my life and Martin just doesn’t.” So of course, quick flip, the next shot is a hot babe entering the yard and asking where Martin is. You could see that coming from outer space. So Jenna calmly points her in the right direction and after she leaves Jenna turns to her friends and says: “What the (bleep) was that?” Explain the laugh. What am I missing? Jenna saying fuck although it was bleeped out? Jenna acting like she didn’t know what was going on when she obviously did? Or merely that’s the funniest reaction the writers could think of? “What the fuck was that?” No one, other than the sharpest, wittiest, most inventive brilliant comedy writers could come up with something as fresh and original and hilarious as “what the fuck was that?”

One final example although there are way many more – and these are just three show. Jenna tells Oliver the doctor says their son needs to masturbate. (Ooooh, edgy) Oliver points to a picture and says: “Is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg?” Jenna: “Yeah.” Oliver’s big comeback: “I really don’t think she’d appreciate this.” Ironic and stating the obvious.

Now I know I may sound like one of those old disgruntled geezers. But comedy I wrote decades ago is still being shown and still getting laughs so at least I’m a geezer with some street cred. I’m just saying to today's sitcom writers set the bar higher. And not just for us viewers (although, please DO) but for yourselves. Because the comedy writers who are indispensable are the ones that can produce big laughs. When a hundred or two hundred other guys can pitch the same lines you’re pitching you are easily replaced. And there’s nothing funny about that… or ironic.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Episode 21: Crazy People I've Hired & Other Tomfoolery

Not everyone in Hollywood is crazy. Just the people who worked for Ken. Laughs are the theme this week as he introduces you to some of the nuttiest writers’ assistants in Tinsel Town. Then he’ll relive some classic radio pranks and you'll meet one of America’s funniest disc jockeys.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Get ready for more silly shows

Nowadays networks post trailers for their new shows. It’s a great idea. Way more people are going to see the trailers on line than promos on the networks. And as opposed to :30 seconds you get to see several minutes of preview material.

I remember when CHEERS premiered there were people who turned in the first week and were disappointed because from the title they thought the show was about cheerleaders. We could have used a trailer – or more promos on a network that anybody watched at the time.

Of course you can’t really accurately tell what a show is going to be based solely on a three-minute trailer. But you can get an idea.

Watching the trailers for the new sitcoms the general impression I get is that they’re very broad. Especially the Fox sitcoms. Lots of physical stunts and CGI, parodies of other genres (including a STAR TREK send up starring Seth MacFarlane. How many times are we going to have Seth MacFarlane shoved down our throats? Enough already!).

And the characters in these new shows are primarily idiots. Bungling buffoons and dorks who think they’re way cooler/smarter/better looking than they are. All played at a heightened reality. The dialog is all wisecracks and irony. Fifty variations of “Gee, THAT worked out well.”

(I suppose everyone got the memo to be "edgy."  Practically all of the CBS comedy trailers have testicle jokes -- multiple testicle jokes, and the Jenna Fischer ABC show has a bunch of them too.)  

What’s wrong with comedies about real people? Comedies that aren’t just live cartoons? The audience grows to care, you save a fortune in CGI, and your show isn’t just as good as your last joke. Do networks feel that Millennials can’t relate to real people and so in order to justify that form of comedy they have to reboot old shows? If so, they’re really selling Millennials short – to the point of insult.

Or is it that those shows are harder to write and networks don’t trust the current crop to pull it off? There too, I guarantee you there are wonderful funny writers with great insight and fresh voices that are relegated to writing pratfalls because those are the only jobs they can get.

TV dramas continue to get more complex and layered, and TV comedies get sillier and sillier.  

Note to networks:  The new development season begins soon. This year how about trying something really daring and out of the box – two or three shows (or even one) that are intelligent aimed at viewers who recognize and appreciate quality? And you might be surprised – those viewers will be your coveted Millennials.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

My commencement speech to the Class of '17

May and June are the graduation times of year. I guess a hundred years ago those commencement speakers were inspiring and offered thoughts and insights that were new and fresh. But now, Jesus! Be your own person. Never give up. You have a responsibility to society. Success comes from within. Show courage. You can make a difference. Set aside time to smell the roses. Let faith be your guide. Blablablablabla.

I’ve never been asked to be a commencement speaker and that’s probably a good thing because here’s some of the advice I might give:

Live at home with your parents as long as you can. Otherwise you’ll have to find a job. Rents are high. And then there’s laundry, food, and the family big screen.

Know that the music you think is so cool now will be laughed at by future generations.

Same with clothes.

And don’t follow your current favorite group around the country for the next thirty years. That becomes sad year one.

If you are going to honor your dear departed kitty Fluffy with a tattoo make sure all your subsequent pets are also named Fluffy.

Eat bad foods. You’re at an age when you can get away with it. And eat them at midnight. There’s plenty of time in the future for watching your carbs, eating your vegetables, avoiding red meat, and laying off the Yodels and Ring Dings. Soon enough you won’t be able to eat a bite after 8:00 without spending the night in the porcelain canyon . Do you want fries with that? Damn right you do!

Don’t buy SUV’s.

Practice safe and frequent sex. Have many romances and then fall in love when you’re 30.

Go back and study the history of your chosen field. Things actually happened before 1990.

Don’t blame your parents for everything. Your peers screwed you up just as much.

Sleep. It’s better for you than Red Bull.

You can no longer take an "incomplete".

Prepare yourselves. There will come a day – in your lifetime – that they will stop making original episodes of THE SIMPSONS. I know you don't believe me but it's true.

There’s a special bond having shared the school experience together. Stay in touch with your classmates. Even the ones you’ve slept with.

Don’t invest money in video stores.

Read novels that aren’t graphic.

Join communities that aren't virtual.

Save your journal or private diary. In twenty years you’re going to get such laughs.

Dream big but always have contingency plans. And then have contingency plans for your contingency plans.

Keep your student ID card. Use it to get into movies cheaper.

Guys, don’t wear hats. You’ll have plenty of time for that later once you’ve lost your hair.

Don’t sweat it if you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life. There’s a good chance the job you'll eventually want hasn’t been invented yet.

Never take comedy traffic school.

Buy your alcoholic beverages by the glass or bottle, not the keg.

And finally -- Be careful when you say you want your generation to change the world. My generation said that and did – we made it worse.

Congratulations to the class of '17. Now get out there and don’t fuck up my Social Security.