Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Handing a monkey a gun

A couple of weeks ago during Friday Questions I wrote:

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a gun.

I also, in that post, talked about how I constantly try to beat jokes (i.e. come up with better ones).

One of the joys of this blog is the comments section and the contributions that you guys make every day. On this one day a reader, in the spirit of fun, tried to beat my monkey joke, suggesting it might be funnier if I used ferret or penguin.

Others wrote in saying ferrets and penguins don’t have hands. How would they hold a gun? That’s why I used monkey they speculated.

I try not to get in the middle of these discussions. I’d rather hear what you all have to say.

But let me weigh in here because I can use it as a lesson in comedy.

First, let me thank the original reader for his suggestion. Both ferret and penguin are funny animals. And in other circumstances they probably would work better than monkey.

But I did use monkey because a monkey has hands. For a joke to work, the image has to be instantly clear. If it suggests an ambiguous image then you’re in trouble. You can picture a monkey holding a gun instantly. But penguins and ferrets have no hands. What would that look like? If you have to squeeze an image into an unnatural pose you lose that immediate identification. And if your first reaction is “Huh?” Or if you have to take ten seconds to try to create the image – the moment is gone and you’ve lost the laugh.

And in that particular joke it’s not just the monkey that has to be right. What if I said this?

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a knife.

With a gun it’s crystal clear what he could do with it. He could shoot it. With a knife the monkey could stab someone. But he could also use it to cut bananas off a tree, or chop something, or cut off his other hand. Too many options. If he had a grenade he could throw it (which would make the joke work), but he could also hold it and blow himself up – and both of those possibilities only arise if he’s smart enough to pull the pin first. That’s a lot of steps.

Now you could say specificity is key in comedy. Why just use a gun? Why not a derringer? Or an AK-47? The question becomes, what do those add to the joke? In this case, any gun will do. Specifying a Baretta causes the listener to go “Why a Baretta? What is so special about that gun? Why did he pick that gun over another type?”

Most times specificity does add to the joke, but there are times it might cloud it.

It’s all about the set-up; in this case a visual one. The set up prepares the audience to think one very clear image, and then gives it a twist.

These kinds of questions go into every joke I write. On the one hand, I don’t try analyze every joke to death, but I’m always going “This is what I want the audience to think, have I prepared them properly? Is there a better word or image that would achieve that? Does it require too much effort on the audience’s part? Am I providing too much information?  Might there be other unwanted interpretations that send them in the wrong direction?”

So often when I say I try to beat a joke, I’m not just changing the punchline, I’m changing the set up.

And that’s class for today. Remember, your term papers are due next Wednesday.

Monday, July 22, 2019

In defense (again) of Sitcoms

The Dramatist Guild puts out an excellent magazine called “The Dramatist.” In the most current issue there is a roundtable discussion between playwrights Stacie Chaiken and Mildred Inez Lewis and moderator Josh Gershick. Ms. Chaiken and Ms. Lewis are both very accomplished dramatic playwrights.

At one point the discussion turned to comedy and this was the exchange:

Josh: You’re describing a form of comedy as “sitcom.” What are the elements of that?

Mildred: When the humor is too dialogue-based and there’s not enough richness built into the human comedy. When I see plays written by people who are crossing over from television, the dialogue is very funny, and then afterwards I feel that I’ve not been left with as much as I would have liked.

Josh: Sitcom writers often go for the laugh.

Mildred: Yes. And I think it’s possible to go for the laugh and have some depth as well. I think classics like (Norman Lear’s) ALL IN THE FAMILY show us that you can do both.

Josh: I’m thinking of classic plays that do both: BORN YESERDAY by Garson Kanin comes to mind.

Stacie: Sitcom comedy is kind of glib. But real comedy, deep comedy – that’s character based, where the stakes are life and death. That kind of comedy in a moment like this, is essential.

As a television writer who did cross over to write comedy plays I’d like to respond to those observations.

We all know that the theatre considers comedy to be second-class citizens. This goes back to ancient Greece. Everyone knows Sophocles. How many know Menander (and he was a funny guy)? But to these serious writers who churn out “important” plays, let me ask you this:

Do you have any idea how hard it is to make 200 strangers laugh for 90 straight minutes?

Let me tell you, very few writers can do it. Very few.

I invite you to try. Ask a comedy writer to write a drama. I bet he or she can.

Comedy writing is a unique skill-set that audiences appreciate even if serious “artists” don’t. Numerous articles have been written lately about how daring and provocative recent dramas are and that no one is going to see them. Comedies fill the seats. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is still playing on Broadway, long after Tony nominated plays have closed. 

Ms. Chaiken claims that comedies need to be about “life and death.” That is “essential” to use her word. So there are levels of comedy now? MASH is a better comedy than CHEERS because it deals with the horrors of war? I was the head writer of MASH and find that statement laughable.

“Sitcom” is a derogatory term in the theatre. Make no mistake; whenever a review uses the term “sitcom” it’s a negative review. Theatre critics use “sitcom” the way music critics use “bubblegum.”

But name me a comedy on Broadway any better written than FRASIER (and no one died in that series). They did flat-out farces. When Kurt Vonnegut said: “I’d rather have written CHEERS than anything I’ve written” doesn’t that say something for the art form (and it is indeed an art form)? And hey, “Sugar Sugar” is not a bad song.

Ms. Lewis acknowledges there are some classics like ALL IN THE FAMILY, but she claims it’s because it has “depth.” So SEINFELD is not a classic? Nor is I LOVE LUCY? Or THE BIG BANG THEORY? For all its “depth,” ALL IN THE FAMILY is now dated and rarely shown. Lucy is stomping on grapes right this minute on someone’s TV screen.

Does every play have to “leave you” with something as Ms. Lewis suggests? Is an evening of sheer entertainment ultimately just an empty experience? Are dialogue laughs not as worthy as reaction laughs? And what percentage of dialogue laughs are acceptable? 40% is okay but 51% is a sitcom?

TV comedy writers learn to write on-demand. They are constantly fighting deadlines. They must turn out product every week, not once a year or so. They know how to rewrite and solve script problems because their rehearsal process is eight straight months year after year, not an occasional four-week workshop. There is no greater training ground for comedy playwrights than being on staff of a situation comedy. Neil Simon wrote for SERGEANT BILKO (another classic sitcom that featured an episode where a chimpanzee joined the army).

The truth is this: Almost ALL former TV writers/now-playwrights derive their comedy from characters. It’s the amateurs who load up their plays with a barrage of glib “jokes.” The crossover crowd knows that comedy comes from character and human foibles. But to maximize the comic potential you need to apply great pressure on these characters and take them out of their comfort zone. It’s the exact same principle with serious drama. But that means that true character comedy comes out of, heaven forbid, situations.

It always rankles me when someone says “Yes, it’s funny BUT…” Again, do you know how incredibly difficult it is to write something that is genuinely funny? Please don’t consider it a “given” when critiquing a comedy. Menander really hated that too. Have we not progressed from the Hellenic world?

The theatre should be encouraging TV writers to crossover, not look down their noses at them. A major reason there is so little good comedy in theatre is because those who have the rare ability to do it abandon the stage for television. And why not? They make way more money in TV. More of their stuff gets produced. Top-flight actors do their material. Literally millions of people see and appreciate their work. And there are far more Emmy categories than Tonys. So welcome and embrace the few who forgo all of that to return to the theatre.

I feel like Gordon Gekko. “Sitcoms are good.”

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Weekend Post

This is how the story goes.  I never confirmed it with either of the players but Vin Scully once told it on a Dodger broadcast so I assume it's true.  And even if it's not, it's a great story.

The San Diego Padres were playing the Braves in Atlanta.  Nate Colbert of the Padres was having a big day.  He got hits his first three at-bats.  His name was announced for his fourth at-bat and the crowd leapt to its feet and started cheering wildly. 

Colbert was so touched he returned to the on-deck circle now occupied by teammate Cito Gaston.  Colbert said, "Cito, I can't believe it.  These are the most amazing baseball fans I've ever seen.  I mean, here I am, an opposing playing, and they give me a standing ovation."

Gaston said, "Look up at the message board."

Colbert glanced up at the big stadium message board and it said, "We have landed a man on the moon."  

It's been 50 years, but those of us who were alive to see it will never forget those spectacular few days when "the Eagle had landed."  What an extraordinary achievement -- especially in hindsight when we see how primitive all the equipment and computers were. 

I remember my grandfather was so choked up he cried.  He was born before the Wright Brothers lifted off the ground.  To go from no flight at all to landing on the moon in his lifetime was overwhelming. 

When my son graduated from Tufts, the commencement speaker was Neil Armstrong.  I generally don't get star struck, but HOLY SHIT!   There he was.  In person!  I was in awe.  

Congratulations to everyone who made this monumental achievement possible.   Oh, for the days I was sooooo proud to be an American. 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Friday Questions

Time for sunscreen and Friday Questions.

Bears, Beets, and Battlstar Galactica start us off.

This Friday Question is inspired by my recent YouTube viewing of successful and failed auditions for roles in The Office (US). 

I was amazed to see how, right from the audition, right from word one, Rainn Wilson had the whole character of Dwight Schrute down. Meanwhile, I've seen audition tapes of other actors who ultimately got the role and they didn't even seem like necessarily great actors in the audition, though they ultimately won the role and went on to be great in it. 

How do you know when an auditioning actor is right for the role? Is it all gut feeling, or are there boxes you check? 

There’s no checklist. It’s all subjective. You’re looking for certain qualities, you’re looking for something a little fresh, you’re trying to keep in mind the entire ensemble and how this actor will fit in, you’re looking for someone funny (if it’s a comedy), and yet all of that is thrown out the window if an actor comes in and does something completely different and unexpected and you say, “That’s the guy!”

There are times you know instantly if someone is right. Other times you’re not sure and need the actor to come back several times. Maybe he has certain qualities you like but needs adjustments to really hit the mark. Like I said, it’s really a big crap shoot.

And sometimes we make mistakes, which is why casting is so crucial — because everything else you can fix. You can rewrite scripts or digitally improve camera angles, but if the actor isn’t right you’re screwed.

Mike Doran wonders:

Lately, I'm hearing this old phrase more and more - and never correctly:

"If you think that things are as bad as they can get - then you've got another THINK coming!"

NOT "another thing coming".
"Another think coming."

Think first as a verb, then as a noun.
Because that's the only way it makes sense.

It's been driving me nuts for years.
Just had to say so.

Well, Mike, I hate to tell you, but I’ve always heard the expression as “Another THINK coming.” Grammatically it might be wrong, and I don’t know the derivation, but that’s the way people say it.

The expression that drives me insane is when a baseball player leaps in the air to try to catch a ball, most announcers will say he “Left his feet.” He didn’t leave his feet. He left the ground.

This is why I need to be the Commissioner of Baseball so I can correct egregious wrongs like that.

From PodFan:

Who are the people you thank at the end of the podcast each week and what are you thanking them for? The mysterious Adam and Susie Meister-Butler and so forth.

My podcast is on the Wave Podcast Network. That’s Adam & Susie Meister’s company, and I couldn’t be in better hands.

Howard Hoffman provided the opening theme and did all the graphics for me.

Jon Wolfert is the president of JAM Creative Productions. He graciously made my singing jingles.

And Bruce & Jason Miller chipped in my bumper music.

Yes, it takes a village. I happen to have a great village.

Chris asks:

How about a Friday question about Friday Questions? Have you ever considered recording Friday Questions as a weekly “bonus mini episode” for your wildly entertaining podcast “Hollywood and Levine”? I think for some questions hearing the answer from you directly could provide additional insight.

I’ve answered a few from time to time, but that’s a good suggestion. I don't want to do bonus episodes per se, but will consider devoting an entire episode to FQ's.  

Now if I could just get Alex Trebek to ask the questions.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

EP132: Legendary Director Jim Burrows, Part 2


This week in part two of the interview, Ken and Jim Burrows discuss the technical aspects of directing, the challenges of filming a live show, and the unique requirements of sitcom pilots. They also discuss some very interesting stories about the huge hit sitcom Friends. Some of Jim's credits include; Cheers, Friends, Wings, Will & Grace and many more.  


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

I will not be reviewing the Emmys this year

I’m sorry. They’re just too absurd. Nominations came out yesterday and I throw my hands up at the whole affair.

RUSSIAN DOLL nominated as Best Comedy? I liked RUSSIAN DOLL, but shouldn’t a comedy be funny… for at least one second?

Christina Applegate as Lead Actress in a Comedy Series? Again, funny for one fucking second? Just one? How is Christina Applegate, who played this sour one-note widow on DEAD TO ME in the same category as Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Catherine O’Hara?

BETTER CALL SAUL, which does have very funny moments in it, is nominated for Best Drama Series while RUSSIAN DOLL is nominated for Best Comedy.

And of course THE BIG BANG THEORY and MOM and MODERN FAMILY and SUPER STORE and YOUNG SHELDON and KIMMY SCHMIDT and BROOKLYN 99 and half a dozen other series that ARE comedies and do try to make people laugh are shut out. But shows like RUSSIAN DOLL and DEAD TO ME are getting Emmy love.

Meanwhile, there were more laugh-out-loud moments on THE GOOD FIGHT than any drama or comedy this season. They got zilch. 

Look, there are now so many shows on so many platforms and so much overlap in style that the Emmys in its current form is a joke. Practically every category is now comparing apples to oranges.

And TV ratings will continue to plummet because most people will not have watched these show, or even know what they’re about or how to find them. Not to mention the shows behind pay walls that they can’t watch.

The Academy still doesn’t know if it’s going to hire a host. Like that will make the difference.

Well, I’m done.

And I’m guessing America is too so why review something no one has seen? What ballgame is on that night?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Has it really been ten years?

I've been answering Friday Questions for over twelve years.  That's probably close to 3,000 questions.   And since very few people actually go back and read the archives I occasionally will repost a Friday Questions segment.  I bet it's new to you.  This is from February 26, 2009.

Randall has some questions about end credits:

1. In recent years a lot of television stations have shrunk the end credits in order to show promos for their upcoming shows. Did the stations have to be union approval for this?

2. Some credits go by so fast I don't know how anybody can read them. Conversely, sometimes on talk shows the end credits will stop for a few seconds, apparently to highlight the name of a staff member or company that has provided a product. Are there any rules / restrictions that regulate how fast or slow credits can crawl?

3. Are stations that show movies or stripped television shows required by contract to show the credits in their entirety?

No, there are no restrictions, which is why networks and stations get away with it. Trust me, if there were union rules this deplorable practice would cease immediately. The trouble is, with there being so many more pressing issues for unions to deal with during contract negotiations this indignity gets lost in the shuffle. Not too many members are going to strike over this.

But it is a huge insult to the thousands of people who work tirelessly to make television shows as good as they are. And it’s bad enough these people have to share a card with thirty others and are up there for maybe a fraction of a second, but they’re expected to go that extra mile and really take pride in what they do while the networks can’t give them so much as a full screen. I say a network executive's name on his parking space should be as large as the smallest credit on his network. That would change things instantly.

From Zach Haldeman:

What is the typical relationship between writers and actors? Naturally the show runner gets to know the actors, but is Star #2 gonna be friends with Staff Writer #5, or even know Staff Writer #5?

Depends on the cast, depends on the staff. But usually the staff writers and the supporting cast tend to gravitate towards each other. Sometimes the cast members are a little intimidated by the show runner or the star of the show is a huge time and energy suck so these supporting players will cozy up to the lower tier writers to get their suggestions and concerns heard.

The ideal situation is when everyone in the cast and on the writing staff feel comfortable talking with each other. And that usually stems from show runners who are receptive to actors’ input and actors who view writers as colleagues not waiters.

And finally: D. McEwan has a M*A*S*H question.

In the movie, The Swamp had 4 residents, who were the primary characters: Hawkeye, Trapper, Frank Burns, and Duke Forrest, played by Tom Skerritt. Duke was as important a character as Hawkeye & Trapper John.

So why was Duke conspicuous by his utter absence from the TV series? I've been curious about this for over 30 years.

Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds felt the need to pare down the number of characters since they only had a half hour to work with. Duke was odd man out. In the original TV pilot there was also a Spearchucker but he too faded into the mist.

Another casualty of war was the lovely Marcia Strassman. She was a regular the first season as Nurse Cutler. She of course went on to play Kotter’s wife, Julie and had to look amused anytime Gabe Kaplan spoke.

Strassman is best known however for her hit record, “the Flower Children” in the late 60s.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Interesting Facts (if they're true)

Since nobody actually fact-checks anymore or when they do people ignore the facts, I thought I would post this.

There’s a diner in West LA called “CafĂ© 50’s.” It’s a very cool retro eatery plastered with posters and memorabilia from the last time we hated Russia. They also hand out a monthly newsletter that has fun trivia and reprints old ads from the era. (Buy a GIANT TALKING CLOWN for only $1 that’s a whopping 42” tall!)

One feature they have is “Interesting & Useless Facts!”

And they are, except who knows if they’re accurate? But, for fun purposes, I thought I’d share some of them with you. You are welcome to take them at face value or do the fact-checking yourself. The parentheticals are me.

Men get hiccups more often than women. (does this have anything to do with drinking?)

Men can read smaller print than women; women can hear better.

Chances that an American lives within 50 miles where he/she grew up: 1 in 2. (numbers probably vary in Hawaii)

State with the highest percentage of people who walk to work: Alaska. (Makes sense, the weather is always great.)

Percentage of American men who say they would marry the same woman if they had to do it all over again: 80. (My wife guessed 30.)

Chances that a burglary in the US will be solved: 1 in 7.(And it's probably the same idiot multiple times.) 

Only first lady to carry a loaded revolver: Eleanor Roosevelt. (Melania is not allowed because she’s on suicide watch.)

They have square watermelons in Japan. They stack better. (Okay, this one is true, so maybe the others are as well – I wonder if Eleanor was a good shot.)

Iceland consumes more Coca-Cola per capita than any other nation. (There are rednecks in Iceland?)

The phone book in Iceland is alphabetic… by first name.

In the Caribbean there are oysters that can climb trees. (usually right before Happy Hour)

And there you have ‘em. Feel free to impress your friends at parties, unless these nuggets are all bullshit, in which case – what are you quoting a stupid blog for in the first place?