Saturday, November 18, 2017

Comedy Geography

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?) A few years ago we  had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Questions

Happy St. Patricks Day.  Oh wait.  That's MARCH 17th.   But Friday Questions come every week. 

Gazzoo starts us off:

Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) till the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

No one had any special requests, but David and I were very adamant that we didn’t want a sappy ending. That’s why we constructed the final sequence so that all of the final goodbyes were during triage and the farewells had to be quick and on the run.

I’m a big fan of “little touches”. Hawkeye discovering Radar’s teddy bear on his bed says more about how Radar matured from the MASH experience than any speech could have ever done, no matter how eloquently it was written.

We also wanted to send Radar home happy. Henry Blake was killed and Frank went bonkers. We wanted Radar to return home having benefited somewhat from the experience. He grew up and found love in Korea.

Originally it was a just a single episode but when CBS decided to push it back into the 8th season they asked that it be expanded into a two-parter.

The new staff rewrote very very little of our draft (thanks for that, guys). I don’t believe a line was changed from the entire final act. One day I’ll get Gary Burghoff to write about the episode from his perspective.

Mirror James (from England) wonders:

Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, his predecessor on Doctor Who, often seem to be the targets of abuse from people who claim to be fans. Everything from saying they can't write to accusations of running a so-called "gay agenda", in which the mere acknowledgement that gay people exist is apparently "shoving it down their throats".

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan who claims to love a show yet can't seem to do anything other than hurl insults?

Only all the time. Fans are passionate about their shows. I got a hate letter on MASH from someone who thought Hawkeye was being too mean to Radar. Other loyal MASH viewers claimed in profanity-laced missives that I was a liberal Commie dupe hell bent on destroying America.

The "gay agenda" complaint was a staple on FRASIER.  Referring to this and the "we're too liberal" charge on MASH, I like to think we had an "open minded agenda". 

My favorite was a letter I received when David and I were showrunning the MARY series. It started out like this:

Dear Producers,

Recently I read an article in TV GUIDE that spoke of the growing cocaine problem in the television industry. At first I thought they were grossly exaggerating, but then I watched an episode of your show…

And of course Roseanne called me an “asshat”.

And finally, from Chris:

How do they shoot/do those scenes when the audience laughs just when the camera zooms on something, like a silent opening with the camera zooming on what a character is reading and just then the audience starts to laugh?

I assume you mean a studio audience. There are always monitors overhead and they will be invited to watch them for particular scenes or moments. Often special scenes will be pre-shot and just shown to the audience. What they see is what you’ll see at home so they receive the same surprise.

What’s your Friday Question?  I think I'm going to eat corned beef today anyway. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sitcoms could be better

Here’s a Friday Question worth a whole rant (I mean "post".)

Sean S. asks:

In her book IN SUCH GOOD COMPANY Carol Burnett repeats the following from a conversation she had with Larry Gelbart.

BURNETT: I don't know, but when I watch a comedy show on TV today, I know exactly what's coming so far as the writing goes. No surprises. No originality. Usually it's the 'setup' first, and then comes the obvious joke, and then you hear that awful laugh track. It's as if all the shows are alike and repeating themselves.

GELBART: I think it's because most of the writers today grew up watching television. That was their childhood, so they're writing about life once removed.

BURNETT: What do you mean?

GELBART: They never played stickball in the street.

Thought that was an interesting observation from Gelbart and wondered if you had any thoughts on it.

I agree with him. And right away I know that makes me seem a hundred years old. But there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying.

It’s evidenced by the pop culture references that fill sitcoms today. For many young writers their frame of reference is television, not life.

Not that my generation worked on oil rigs and pretended to be Jack London until we were 30, but our references came from literature. Most writers my age didn’t start out wanting to be comedy writers. We all sought something else. For me it was radio. Once we hit our middle to late 20’s we decided we wanted to go in another direction and that’s when TV writing called to us.

So when we started we already had some other background to draw from. As a disc jockey I bounced around the country so got to live in different cities and associate with people outside of LA. Heaven help me, I lived in “flyover” states. Also, being in the Army I was introduced to a whole new world. No way could I have written MASH without that personal experience.

As for TV itself, I turned to comedy writing back when sitcoms were enjoying a golden era. Smart, sophisticated, adult shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE, RHODA, and THE ODD COUPLE provided a high bar to shoot for. You had to really know social issues. You had to really delve into human relationships. You couldn’t get away with wry irony or Kardashian jokes.

Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, Alan Burns, James L. Brooks, Gene Reynolds, Garry Marshall and other showrunners of that era had extremely high standards – including the fact that their shows needed to be really funny. The jokes had to land. Audiences, not machines, had to LAUGH. The story telling had to be fresh. They were very tough on the material. And YOU.

So I think back then we fledgling comedy writers felt we needed a lot in our arsenals just to survive. We needed a formal education, life experience, and talent.

Today I think you can get by a little easier.

A couple of weeks ago I saw an improv show starring a group called OFF THE WALL (pictured above). They’ve been together for over 40 years, and they were phenomenal. And the thing I noticed was how literate their humor was. They knew author styles, classic dramatic forms, world history, current events, Shakespeare. And as a result their show was not only hilarious but so smart (and timely). Does UCB do any of that? I wonder.

Our society today is much more insular. We don’t hang out with friends, we follow them on social media. We spend more time looking at pictures of places than visiting them. And it shows in the shows.

Yes, I know. I’m ancient and you kids are on my lawn without permission, but isn’t it always better to strive for something higher? Pop culture references are easy. Crutches are easy. Why bust your ass to come up with a really witty joke when you can just say “vagina?”

I’m not saying go back to the style of Larry Gelbart, James Brooks, et al – just the standards.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EP46: Thanksgiving for the Memories

Ken gets you into the holiday spirit with tales of Thanksgiving – how to survive the travel, the hell that is writing Thanksgiving episodes, the Macy’s Parade, an even tackier one, and what Ken is thankful for.  Hint:  You’re included.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Email etiquette

First off, thanks to all of you who responded to my request yesterday. Great to meet you and thanks for the kind words. You can still weigh in. The more the merrier (I just made that statement up). Now to today's post:

Is this just me?

I’m emailing someone. Or texting someone. We’re going back and forth. And eventually either the thread gets pretty thin or I have other things to do. I always find it awkward signing off. I want to disengage without being rude.

Sometimes of course I can just say, “I gotta run” but if you do that too often I’m sure the other person is going to feel like I’m just blowing them off.

It’s somewhat easier when I’m bantering with some comedy writer pals. Once one of us has the topper the other acknowledges. We always go out on the best joke. (And usually it’s the other guy who has it.)

But I find myself at times reading an email (after we’ve volleyed a few times) and trying to decide, “is this a good place to just not answer?”

Sometimes I worry that I’m being unintentionally rude. I email a person. I don’t get a response for five or ten minutes. I assume he cut if off. Then I leave the computer to do something else. Two minutes after I’ve gone they respond. And of course there’s no subsequent response from me. Are they thinking, “Jesus, this guy is an asshole. I tell him I thought his play was great and he doesn’t even answer?”

And then there’s the other side to this. I’m corresponding back and forth and suddenly radio silence from their end. Did they just get tired of me? Did something I wrote piss them off?  Is this something I should be concerned about?   Just how insecure am I? 

Nothing drives me crazier on the phone than when the other person doesn’t say goodbye. When they just hang up after they’ve said what they want to say. This is a convention that is used ALL the time in TV and movies. I get it. It’s wasted screen time with people saying goodbye to each other, but in real life it’s incredibly rude. Do you feel that way about email correspondence?

I’m bothered less during texting. It’s kind of understood you’re trying to be as brief as possible. In many cases you’re delivering messages. But email conversations tend to be longer (at least mine do).

The solution might be out there but I just don’t know it. Is there an emoji for “nothing personal but I’m done with you now?” That would solve everything. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

12th year anniversary

The end of this month marks the 12 year anniversary of this blog. I still can’t believe it. Daily postings for 12 years. Over 5200 posts and over 30,000,000 page views.

For my ten-year anniversary I had a party. For 12 I’m just going to have a drink.

But I always like to know who’s out there, where they’re from, how long they’ve been reading, how they found the blog, how old they are, what subjects they liked and which (besides baseball) they didn’t? So periodically I take a day and let you guys do the heavy lifting. If you would be so kind, could you take a moment to write a comment and answer some of those questions? Your feedback helps me present a better product.  One thing I know you like is Natalie Wood photos. Note:  I moderate the comments so there may be a lag time between when you write it and it's posted.  Popularity has its trolls. 

Since this blog is, and always will be, free – a question I often receive is “How can I repay you?” I would say listen to and subscribe to my podcast (which is also free). I’m really proud of it and am trying to build a sizable audience for that too.  Got some real good shows lined up.  (Subscribe on iTunes, listen via podcast apps, this link, or just click on the big gold arrow above.)  

Thanks much. Hope to hear from you, and (if you check out my podcast) you hear from me. 


Monday, November 13, 2017

Letter, we get letters

Here’s a question that went from “possible” Friday to entire post.

It’s from Glenn:

Ken, possible Friday question, regarding viewer mail: Do you have any letters you might be able to share here (after removing names and addresses, of course)? I'd love to see what MASH fans were writing in about at the height of the show ("Where can I find that dress Klinger wore last night?")

I didn’t save the letters. I sure wish I did.

On MASH we would get angry letters saying we were anti-American, Commies, that sort of thing. If we received a letter without a return address it was a good bet it was from a troll or idiot.

The network would also get angry letters about our show and they would graciously forward them to us.

But most of the mail we received was complimentary. Sometimes a viewer had a question or wondered if we were going to bring Colonel Flagg back.  And yes, we got inquiries all the time about Klinger's wardrobe. 

We also received unsolicited scripts, which for legal purposes, we had to send back unopened.

On every show I worked on I received mail from people saying “I look just like so-and-so. You should do an episode where I play her sister.” They would always include a picture and NEVER once did they look even remotely like the actor they thought was their doppelganger. Oh, the laughs we had in the writers room passing around those photos. Imagine Mick Jagger thinking he’s Suzanne Pleshette’s identical twin.

The majority of viewer mail went directly to the actors. And in many cases they were addressed to the characters’ names. The post office knew to send letters addressed to “Hawkeye Pierce, 4077th MASH, Korea” to 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles. They knew to send Paramount all correspondence addressed to “Diane Chambers, Cheers bar, Boston, Ma.”

You’d think this would happen two or three times a year. Try hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Sometimes "Hawkeye" would be asked for medical advice.  Or "Frasier" would be asked for relationship advice.  

Actors receive lots of marriage proposals. And fan mail from prisons. Writers don’t get any of that.

Usually if someone sends a letter to an actor on a show he will receive some response. Most of the time it’s from a staff member. Generally a thank you with a photo. Occasionally the star will write back himself. Some are very good about providing autographs, others just send printed autographed photos.

We writers get requests for scripts from time to time. I always try to accommodate them. Now if a young writer wants a script from a show I suspect they can just email the request to the show and if granted, they receive a pdf. And that’s cool except there’s nothing like getting a package in the mail with the logo of the show or studio.

I don’t know whether shows get as much mail today as they once did. Before the internet and social media the only way to express your opinion of a show, yay or nay, was to write letters. Now you can just go on a fan site and chances are the writing staff will read it.

Of course how many letters these days are not getting delivered because, unlike the postal service, the internet doesn’t know how to deliver email sent to or

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why is poker night like rewrite night

Got invited to a poker game recently. A friend plays in a regular game and needed an extra body. Poker is an ingenious game. It involves both skill and luck. If only I had either.

I hadn’t played poker in probably fifteen years so I pretty much had forgotten everything other than I always lose.

Still, I enjoyed myself.  The players were usually a group of comedy writers or improv chums so there were always more laughs than chips (especially in front of me). I likened it to a rewrite night where you didn’t have to address network notes.

This time the only person I knew going in was my friend. But it was a low stakes game so I figured what the hell? The guys all turned out to be fun, and they all came from other branches of the industry so I got to hear all-new horror stories. Nothing breaks the ice like getting fucked over in Hollywood.

I was worried that these dudes would hate me. Since I didn’t know what I was doing I would surely test their patience. And if I won they’d really despise me. Fortunately, they were tolerant, and fortunately they took all my money. So my fears were for naught.

I needed one of those little cheat sheets that told you that a royal flush beats a pair of threes. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to watch an episode of THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER and one of the finalists has the same cheat sheet next to his chips?

Remembering what beats what is hard enough for someone who needs a cheat sheet to retrieve his messages from voicemail, but we rotated dealing and the dealer got to select the game. Holy shit!

Seven card night baseball with the next card after a queen is a wild card

Hi-lo – 5 ½ or 21

Three chip buy-in pass your garbage

Seven card elevator (not to be confused with seven card crisscross)

Seven card Texas hold ‘em, 3’s are wild and 4's entitled you to buy another card if you wanted

On and on. They know you’re not a savvy player when it’s your turn and they say, “What are we playin’?” and you begin your answer with “What’s the one where…?” As the deal was going around the table I was getting progressively more anxious. What to do when it came to me?

Finally, I was up. I decided to just fake it. “Okay, five card double-draw hi-lo Taj Mahal, pig fives are wild, threes are sevens, sevens are tens, face cards are a half, and Jews get six cards instead of five.” Everyone laughed, but one guy who asked what Taj Mahal was.

The night moved along but required a lot of concentration. More than I could muster after a couple of hours. Again, it was like a rewrite night where you just zone out. “What page are we on again?” “Who’s asking who to stop doing what when?” “Has the food arrived yet?”

The food was another reason poker night is like rewrite night. Delivered pizza that you eat off of paper plates while standing . All we needed were Red Vines for me to feel really nostalgic.

You’d think as the night went along I’d get better. But actually, I got worse. I knew I was in trouble when I won a pot with nothing in my hand. Everyone complimented me on how well I bluffed. But I wasn’t bluffing. I actually thought I had a winning hand.

They should also have a cheat sheet for poker slang. Clubs were puppy paws. Pocket aces were American Airlines. Full houses are full boats. If you have a nine and a five that’s a Dolly Parton. But why do they call kings “cowboys?” When I think of cowboys I rarely imagine Richard Burton.

But it never fails.  The minute any six guys sit down to play poker they all start talking like they're in GUYS AND DOLLS.    The Pope and his cardinals get together and the Pope is dealing saying, "No help. crabs, Kojak, bitch in the bleachers.  Pony up gents."

All in all, it was a fun night, I made some new friends, now am aware of more industry shitheads, and I think after all this time I finally figured out how to win at poker. Have Jennifer Tilly play for me while I drive around for four hours picking up the pizza.