Tuesday, January 28, 2020

All about Maris

There was an article in the Atlantic by Megan Garber assigning much significance to "Maris jokes" in FRASIER. 

Here is the article.  

I read it and decided to respond by emailing her.  This is what I wrote:

Hi Megan,

As a contributing writer of FRASIER and author of some of those Maris jokes, I must say I quite enjoyed your article but respectfully feel you over-thought the significance of them. If there are reflections of society and veiled commentaries on '90s era women in Maris jokes I can assure you they were not intentional. At least in my case. I’m not that deep. :)

I was not one of the creators or showrunners but my understanding was that they were simply jokes written at a time when America was less sensitive to offending any single viewer. If anything we wanted to clear the way for Niles to lust secretly after Daphne without the audience resenting him for it or feeling sorry for Maris. Beyond that, I for one was going for the laugh.

All that said, I’m so proud to have been a part of a 20 year-old sitcom that is still appreciated and discussed today. So in that regard, thanks again for your thoughtful article.

Happiest of holidays,

Ken Levine

This was several weeks ago.  I was hoping she'd write back so I could include her response, but she never did.   

What do you think? 

Monday, January 27, 2020

Kobe Bryant and "passengers"

Like everyone else, I am heartsick over the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and eight others who died in a helicopter crash yesterday.  Among the victims was his daughter and one or two more children.

This isn't a post about Kobe, his accomplishments, etc.  But it's about the "passengers."

When first reported yesterday the story was Kobe Bryant and 5 other passengers perished.  Later it turned out there were more victims and their names slowly were revealed.  And even then they were generally a footnote at the end of the story.

And the truth of course is that no life is more important just because the person is famous.   And yet, that's how it's always been reported.

I almost was a victim of that myself. 

I was broadcasting for the San Diego Padres. We were in New York to play the Mets. Superstar Tony Gwynn and I shared a cab out to Shea Stadium. At one point in Queens the driver hit an oil slick, lost control of the car and we spun into a 360 degree turn. He was finally able to bring the cab to a stop, no one was hurt, but we were all quite shaken up. (Tony was so rattled that he only went 3-5 that night).

As we resumed our commute I said to Tony, “You realize if we had crashed there would have been news bulletins breaking into every network, huge front page headlines the next day and they all would say, ‘Baseball star, Tony Gwynn and a passenger were killed in a auto accident’.

My entire life would be reduced to “passenger”.

Tony felt bad. And mind you, this was not a ploy to get him to pay the fare (although it worked). He felt it was wrong that one person should be valued over another just because they’re famous. It was sweet of him to say but I was still feeling bummed out. You can’t change the way the world operates, yes it’s unfair, but some people are special and others are just considered nothing. And I fell into the latter category.

We arrived at the stadium. Tony paid the fare and the driver said there was an additional charge. Why? Because he had a passenger. Yes! It turns out my life is not without value! It’s worth $3.50!

My blessings and deepest condolences to the passengers. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Weekend Post

This is one of those “please indulge me” posts. Like most scriptwriters, I’ve got a drawer full of unproduced screenplays. But now I also have a blog. So if I can’t sell these scripts I can at least occasionally share some of my favorite scenes. Here’s one from a movie I originally wrote in the late 90’s, and have been rewriting ever since. It’s a bittersweet comedy called SATISFACTION and it’s set in the exotic world of Bakersfield radio. (I know what you’re thinking – with that topic and locale how could it NOT sell??? I wonder the same thing.)
 
Here’s the set up: Barry (picture Jason Alexander) and Jimmy Lizard (picture Zach Galifianakis) were DJ’s together in Bakersfield 30 years ago. Barry left town and the industry and finds himself aimless and depressed. Lizard remained a jock in Bakersfield, playing the same goddamn ten oldies all these years but has a much better attitude about the world…even though he’s now in the hospital battling Leukemia. Barry comes to visit and they have a heart-to-heart.

LIZARD
Y'know, Barry, you lie in bed all day facing your own mortality and listening to oldies, and you start to do a lot of thinking. Stuff you never even worried about before. The existence of God, the meaning of life, that sort of crap. And hopefully you come to some conclusion, something that gives your world a little order. And I'm happy to say I have reached just such a conclusion.

BARRY
Yeah....?

LIZARD
We all spend most of our lives doing stupid shit.

BARRY
(after a long beat)
That's it?

LIZARD
That's it.

BARRY
So what's the point?

LIZARD
There's no point. It's just a conclusion. If you take the time we use to do something productive versus the time we spend chasing some girl who doesn't exist or watching "the Amazing Race" the ratio is probably 10-1 Race. Why we're programmed like that? I don't know. I was kinda hopin' being on my deathbed would make me smarter.

BARRY
C'mon, man, you're not on your deathbed.

LIZARD
Yeah, I know. Just trying to evoke a little sympathy. When I really do go I want it to be at home. On my death futon.

BARRY
So the point here is to do more with your life. Cut down on the stupid shit.

LIZARD
No, that's not it. Because the stupid shit seems to account for all the fun in life.
(beat)
But you want a point? Here's a point. Do what makes you happy. I've used my one precious existence to be a fucking disc jockey in Bakerspatch for 32 years, and you know what? I've had a blast. I'm never going to achieve great deeds, or leave a lasting legacy, or even bang those few select women I've always longed for, but Christ, how many of us do? The odds gotta be worse than Leukemia. So you might as well dig on the stupid shit.

BARRY
(with a smile and nod)
Okay. That's good. Real good.

LIZARD
Maybe the most important words ever written are on that billboard outside of town. "Sun, fun, stay, play".

BARRY
Deep.

They sit quietly for a beat. Then:

BARRY
So who are they?

LIZARD
Who?

BARRY
Those select women you want to nail.

LIZARD
Well, that's a little personal, but...

Lizard lies back and smiles, almost picturing them.

LIZARD
Jessica Alba and Halle Berry.

BARRY
Alright! Two of the very best.

LIZARD
Jennifer Love Hewitt..

BARRY
There's more?

LIZARD
Ann Coulter, Jenna Fischer, Linda in accounting...

BARRY
Linda in accounting?

LIZARD
Bob Harlow's wife, Bonnie Bernstein from ESPN, Cousin Ruth, both Gilmore Girls...

BARRY
Okay, I think I got it.

LIZARD
Ellen DeGeneres just to see if I can, Sister Mary from church...

And Lizard continues what is sure to be a long long list.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions? Leave yours in the comments section. Thanks.

Tommy Raiko starts us off.

One recent rom-com success story folks point to is Crazy Rich Asians. It did very well in many international markets, but based on its domestic box office alone it'd certainly be considered a success. What do you think Crazy Rich Asians had going for it, that other recent modern rom-coms lack, that contributed to its success?

Some movies just hit the zeitgeist at the right moment. I couldn’t tell you why because I didn’t love the movie. The same with MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. Huge sleeper boxoffice hit. I always hated it.

I could speculate, but those conjectures would be based on nothing . So I’ll just say luck, timing, and they must’ve done something really right (although I don’t know what it was).

marka asks:

Say I appear on a tv show as a guest star. I get paid for that. Two seasons later my scenes are used in a flashback episode. Do I get paid again for the second use of my work? Still later my scenes are used on a "funniest moments in tv" show. Do I get paid for that use as well?

It depends on how many seconds of your episode they use, and I don’t know the formula.

But the short answer is, YES. You do get paid – for flashbacks, for retro episodes, for Dick Clark specials.

When Dick Clark was doing his blooper show, I made a nice chunk of change because they used several bloopers from episodes I either co-wrote or directed. It was a beautiful thing.  Crystal Bernard dropping a whole cake on WINGS made me a lot of money. 

And when CHEERS and MASH did their retrospective episodes -- Ka-ching!

Now… I don’t know how it works in streaming. Although I imagine if they use part of your episode on another episode as a flashback you still get paid. But streaming is the Wild West.

From Blogger Terry:

I was watching "Goodbye Radar" the other day and I noticed, particularly in Part 2, that Gary Burghoff's voice sounded different. It sounded deeper and gruffer. It didn't sound like the innocent kid Radar that we had come to know and love. Do you know if that was a deliberate choice, either on Gary's part or the part of the director, to make Radar sound older as he was growing up and going back home? Or did Gary just have a cold that day?

Not so much the voice but he refused to wear his hat. And we felt that made him look too old. Obviously the goal was to show that Radar had matured as a result of his MASH experience but without the hat we felt he went from 20 to 40.

Still, I think the episode worked well and Gary was great in it.

And finally, from Mike Bloodworth:

You've mentioned in the past how being in the army helped you write for M*A*S*H. You've also talked about you and other writers using real life situations in their scripts. But surely there were times when you had to write about something with which you were NOT familiar. e.g. I've never heard you mention a sibling. (Maybe you did and I missed it) But, if you don't have a brother how did create such brilliant dialog between Frasier and Niles? I seriously doubt that you're an alcoholic, ex-jock, yet you were able to successfully write for Sam Malone. You're not an asshole, but you wrote dialog for Becker. Etc.

Bottom line: What tips do you have for dealing with subjects you don't know about?

Research. Learn as much as you can about whatever arena you’re writing about.

And even then sometimes you have to let your imagination be your guide. You can’t interview any former Jedi warriors. If you’re writing TOY STORY 5 you can’t interview toys. When we wrote MANNEQUIN we studied a department store but did not bring a mannequin home with us on a motorcycle.

Do the best you can. And then, As James L. Brooks always says, “At some point you’ve got to become a writer.”

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

EP158: Concerts I’ve Attended: Seeing the great and not so great


Ken recalls some of the music concerts he’s attended down through the years.  From Sinatra to the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band he’s seen ‘em all, or at least some of ‘em.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Don't eat at La Scala

There’s a restaurant in Beverly Hills called La Scala. They’ve been there a million years. It’s an Italian place. Nothing special about the pastas or main courses. But they offer this chopped salad that is very popular. It’s very finely chopped and if you go at lunch you’ll see 9 out of 10 people order it. Like I said, it’s very good, but it’s just a salad. I don’t think you’d need ten chemists to break down its ingredients in order to recreate it. Chop finely, add items, and drench with dressing, put one olive on top. In fact, if you want to make it yourself, here's the recipe. 

But La Scala is one of those chic Beverly Hills eateries that is very status conscious. How you are treated, especially by the host, depends on how important they think you are. I must say that has always bothered me. I never feel I’m considered important enough for them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone and was offered the worst table in the place, despite the fact that the room was half-empty at the time. Either I get push-back that the other tables were reserved or they begrudgingly move me.

No attempt is ever made to make me feel comfortable. And I often think to myself, “It’s just a fucking chopped salad. I can buy a Vegematic and make one just like it myself.”

They have a seating policy where they will only seat you when all members of your party are present. That’s kind of bullshit but okay. If you say another person is coming then 99% of the time they actually do. Why inconvenience the person who arrived first by having to stand in their tiny crowded waiting area? Who knows?  He may even order a drink or appetizer while he's waiting.  But that’s their policy. Whatever.

It’s not a large restaurant. One long room with comfortable booths along the walls and two rows of small tables down the center of the room. Obviously, the booths are coveted. When I go I always get there at noon so they’re still available – and then have to plead with the host who instead wants to seat me next to the host stand where seven people can stand over me while I eat.

Recently, a writer friend and I were taking our friend Liz there for her birthday. Liz arrived first, said it was a party of three. I arrived a few minutes later and Liz asked if we could be seated? It was her birthday. The martinet host pointed to their “policy.” Even the other waiting customers gave him shit. “Come on, it’s her birthday. Set her up.” Bowing to pressure the host begrudgingly sat us at a booth. A few minutes later our third party arrived and joined us. The waiter announced that he wouldn’t serve him.

WHAT?!

They don’t serve “guests” and we were a party of two. We said, no, we were a party of three. He said that was impossible because they never seat incomplete parties. We explained the circumstances. It should be down on his list that we’re a party of three. He checked, the host hadn’t entered it so we were obviously liars.

He also kept insisting it wasn’t him, it was the “policy.” I said that was bullshit. These aren’t FAA safety rules. It was a matter of accommodating customers. He would have none of it.

I said I wanted to speak to the manager. This high-strung very young waiter said he was the floor manager. I told him they were going to lose a longtime customer over this to which he replied, “I don’t take kindly to threats!” Things got heated quickly after that and I said we were leaving. People at other tables were cheering us. Guess I’m not their only customers who finds their attitude off-putting.

Before leaving I asked for the real manager’s card. I was given the number of the corporate office. We went down the street to Porta Via, one of the ten other restaurants on the same block and had a lovely meal.

When I got home I called the number, got some woman who intercepted my call and wanted to know the nature of my complaint. I said I wanted to speak to the head guy myself, not have her relay it. She took down my contact info and said he would call me.

That was about a week ago. He’s never called. So I say, FUCK THEM. How many times over fifteen years of doing this blog have I specifically suggested you avoid a restaurant or hotel or anywhere? Answer: This is the first.

Telling this story to a friend last night he said, when his father-in-law was near death but felt well enough to go out for the first time in months they took him to La Scala where not only did they not seat him, they made him stand – an 80 year old man with stage four cancer. Needless to say, my friend now also boycotts the place.

Judging by all the one star reviews in Yelp, we're obviously not alone.  

So to repeat:AVOID LA SCALA.  Tell your friends and have them avoid La Scala.

There are twenty other Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills. And it's just a fucking chopped salad. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

BOMBSHELL: My review

It seems every year Hollywood comes out with another David & Goliath “underdog brings down the reprehensible person or system” movie for your enjoyment (and award consideration). Kick ass Erin Brockovich! Give ‘em hell, Woodward & Bernstein! Bring down the church, whoever the guy Michael Keaton played!

BOMBSHELL is one of this year’s entries. (There are actually a few others.) It’s a very watchable movie with enough star power to light the marquee. Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and John Lithgow are all wonderful. And the movie’s heart is in the right place (these movies always are). Sexual harassment in the workplace has gone unchecked for decades and victims have suffered with no recourse. Happily, the tide is beginning to turn. But this movie fails to score a bullseye.

First off, it would have been better if Aaron Sorkin wrote it. Charles Randolph’s screenplay was fine but never really popped. There were never any scenes where verbal fireworks occurred. Very smart people in power is Sorkin’s wheelhouse and he’s pretty much set the bar for what crackling dialogue in that arena should be. This screenplay was serviceable but never fun. And never surprising. I don’t think I learned anything I didn’t already know.

The thing that makes this genre so satisfying is when the bad guys really lose. Woodward & Bernstein brought down a corrupt US President. But in BOMBSHELL, Trump is portrayed as a scumbag, FOX NEWS is unconscionable, and Rupert Murdoch is evil personified. And at the end of the movie they’re all still there. They’re all still in place. So Roger Ailes is brought down. That’s nice, but FOX NEWS continues just as loathsome as before. The women we’re supposed to be rooting for – Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly – they were happy to spread the insidious Fox propaganda for their own fame and fortune. So it’s hard to stand up and loudly cheer for them.

Seems to me a more effective movie would be to show the damage that sexual harassment in the workplace causes. What are the residual effects? How do the victims cope? What is the collateral damage? All of that is glossed over.

Gretchen Carlson was courageous for blowing the whistle on Roger Ailes. After she would not comply with his sexual overtures she was exiled to a crappy time slot. But what if Ailes hadn't demoted her? What if she knew this Ailes behavior was rampant but she kept her coveted time slot? Would she still have come forward?  So was this lawsuit to stop sexual harassment or payback for ultimately being fired?   

SPOILER ALERT (but you know the story): Megyn Kelly only goes public when she determines it’s safe for her to do so. (So in a sense she WAS Gretchen Carlson if Carlson wasn’t demoted. She said nothing for years. At least one character does call her on that.)

And these were the HEROINES! Not exactly Erin Brockovich.

Jay Roach’s direction is slick and well-paced. But BOMBSHELL was like watching IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE without the final reel so the movie ends with everyone miserable in Pottersville.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Astrogate

I know a lot of readers log out the minute they see “baseball” in one of my posts, but I do feel the recent Houston Astros scandal deserves some mention.

For several years the Houston Astros were stealing their opponents signs and relaying them to their hitters. Knowing what pitch is coming gives the batter a big advantage. The Astros won the World Series a few years ago while employing this scam and almost won again last year. The bench coach of the Astros at the time then became the manager of the Boston Red Sox and they won the World Series. Was this sign stealing the reason both teams won? No. Not entirely. But it sure helped.

First let me say, both the Astros and Red Sox won their World Series championships against the Dodgers. And Dodger fans are now claiming they were robbed and deserve to have the titles given to them. A) It’s not going to happen, and B) the Dodgers lost because of poor managerial decisions and big star players choking and not delivering. If Clayton Kershaw pitched like a Cy Young pitcher, if Cody Bellinger hit like an MVP, if Corey Seagar hit at all, if manager Dave Roberts didn’t bungle match-ups and substitutions the Bums might have won even if they told their opponents what pitch was coming.

So why is this sign stealing affair such a big deal? Simply this: The one thing baseball can not compromise is the integrity of the game and the perception that the game is not rigged. Period. That’s why everyone even remotely involved in the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal were banned for life. That’s why Pete Rose will never be in the Hall of Fame. That’s why steroid use is so prohibited. If Major League Baseball loses its credibility it’s dead. Everything else – overshifting, an over-reliance of statistical data, bad umpiring, increasing length of the games, inflated ticket prices, the juiced ball (every team deals with that equally), inequities in arbitration and free agent signing, the “Wave” -- all these the game can handle. But the minute the fans think MLB is as fake as TV wrestling you can turn off the stadium lights.

Here’s what the Astros did. They had a monitor in the corner of the dugout and a camera from centerfield trained on home plate so it could see the catchers’ signs. It’s the angle you see most of the time when watching a game. They would decode the catcher’s sign (players are sophisticated enough to do that) and then a player would relay what sign was coming by banging on a trashcan. Nothing meant a fastball, one bang meant a breaking ball, two meant a change up. Very high tech.

The end result: The Astros General Manager and Manager were suspended for a year, the team loses its top draft picks for the next two years, and they were fined $5 million (the highest penalty baseball could issue). Supposedly, this was a player scheme, but the bench coach knew about it and maybe even was the one who concocted it. And the manager certainly knew.   He could have said "We don't do that" but didn't. 

Here’s the fall out: The Astros fired their GM and manager. That bench coach became the manager of the Red Sox and he too was fired. Both managers – A.J. Hinch of Houston and Alex Cora of Boston – were rising managerial stars. Both were young, popular with players, and the media. I’ll be interested to see whether they ever get another managerial job or at least how many years go by before this scandal blows over. Mark McGwire, who took steroids to inflate his home run total became a hitting coach in later years. (Think about that.)

Some thoughts: MLB has become so competitive and cutthroat that every tiny edge is exploited. Analytics now drive the game. Teams are crunching numbers and doing anything they can to gain even the tiniest advantage. Payroll numbers are so high, and team profits are so high that the stakes have been raised to an insane amount.  Still, does that justify cheating?  I say no.

And interestingly, so do the players.

You'll notice that players weren't punished by MLB.  The Players Union would have to sign-off.  At first I thought the union would take a hands-off stance.  But I've seen numerous players tweet their disgust with the cheating players.  To me this is unprecedented.  Will Astro players be disciplined?  I don't know.  They certainly should.  And I suspect this will get ugly as more details are revealed.

And trust me, players have a long memory.  Those few players who were scabs during the last strike were never ever accepted by their teammates.  Brendan Donnelly was a key pitcher for the Angels in 2002 when they won the World Series and yet his teammates did not vote him a full World Series share.  

And finally, how in the hell did they think they would get away with it? Especially today when players move from team to team like musical chairs. How long before the Astros traded a player to another team and he spilled the beans? Even Rudy Giuliani might have said this plan was folly.

The investigation continues from what I understand and more shenanigans from more teams might be uncovered. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Personally, I long for the days when baseball was a simpler game. We’ve gone from BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY to BANG THE TRASHCAN LOUDLY.