Tuesday, June 22, 2021

IN THE HEIGHTS and WEST SIDE STORY

Hollywood is scratching its head.  All indications were that IN THE HEIGHTS was supposed to be a blockbuster hit.  Surveys showed it was the one movie that would actually get people back into their local cineplex.  Its creative force was golden boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  

And then it opened… to meh.  

It underperformed in both theaters and on HBO Max. Prospects for a rebound are slim.  

So now comes the blame game.  There was no recognizable star.  The musical wasn’t well-known enough.  COVID.  Wrong weekend to open.  Mercury in retrograde.

But there was one factor they didn’t list, and I suspect it’s because of how PC-charged the world is now.  Could it be that a certain portion of the audience just didn’t want to see it?  A musical about inclusion set in New York — in these here Divided States of America, is not a big attraction for everyone.  

I did want to see it.  And I have to say I was disappointed.  It’s waaaaaaay too long.  I also had story problems. There were some high points certainly and a few great songs, but in general it was just a slog.  That’s just me.  Your results may vary.  But maybe that’s a factor Hollywood should also consider — not everyone loved it.  And in this social media universe, negative feedback is available to all from all.  

Finally, there is the stupid controversy.  The skin shades are not accurate enough for some vocal groups.  Things have gotten so absurd that even Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created HAMILTON casting African-American and Latinx actors as our founding fathers, gets accused of being insensitive.  So now you have a film that some people feel is too inclusive and others who claim it’s not inclusive enough.  Where does this madness end?  

We’re talking a musical here.  Giant production numbers with huge crowds dancing in unison on the streets and in a public pool — that’s not an accurate portrayal of Washington Heights either… if you want to nit pick.  Nor is unseen orchestras and dancers defying gravity by dancing on building walls.  But I don’t see any scientists who are outraged.  

Repeat after me:  It’s a MUSICAL.  

I’ll be interested to see how the upcoming new WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg does.  It is a well-known musical although will kids care about seeing a 60 year-old musical?  Will the songs play as classics or anachronistic?   No big stars in this reboot.  Yeah, in the original Natalie Wood couldn’t sing but she was Natalie Wood.  Looking at the trailers of WEST SIDE STORY and IN THE HEIGHTS, they look very similar.  WEST SIDE STORY has more depth but also more cobwebs.   Time will tell, but if I were Spielberg I’d be saying, “Is there time to do some additional filming and add ET?”   Of course, now there would be groups saying ET wasn’t tall enough and the movie should be pulled.  

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Monday, June 21, 2021

What the theatre needs to do to survive (in my humble opinion)

Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be a controversial post.  But in today’s woke world it is.  So be it.  

Like many other industries legitimate theatre has really been thrown for a loop due to the pandemic.  Most theatres, from Broadway to small Community barely hang on in good times.  Lots of people lose money.  I’m pretty sure that’s always the way it’s been.  And theatres close.  One or two bad seasons is enough to sink a theatre.  Okay, that’s background.  

Most theatres are being allowed to re-open after more than a year of the pandemic, and as you can imagine, they’re reeling.  If they have trouble making ends meet if only half the seats are filled, imagine 18 months of no one in the seats.  

So here’s my radical, controversial, hot-button suggestion:  Schedule COMEDIES.  Lots and lots of COMEDIES.  

Why is that so controversial?  Because theatres are under enormous pressure to present material more inclusive, more socially relevant, unheard voices, challenging work, etc.  And that’s great, and theatres should embrace those areas; in some cases they are areas too long ignored.  

But this year, it’s less a matter of artistic choice and more a matter of survival.  Theatres need people in the seats.  Lots of people.  Every performance.  And the surest way to do that is to schedule COMEDIES.  

I believe that in this moment of time, audiences want to escape.  They’re still going to be a little shaky sitting indoors with a crowd of people.  They’re not going to do it unless they feel they’re going to be entertained.   Audiences have to want to be challenged, open to new ideas and voices.  If they’re not, they just don’t come.  

Certainly a theatre season should include one such play.  I think theatre has an obligation to introduce people to new ideas and worlds.  But in 2021 their primary need is self-preservation.  And the way to achieve that is through COMEDIES.  

Yes, this might sound a little self-serving since I write comedy plays and am always trying to land as many productions as I can.  But theatres have other fine options.  Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, Terrence McNally, Michael Frayn, Neil Simon (of course), and many others.  Oh, and that Shakespeare guy.   So it’s not about me (entirely).  

I think there will always be a place for comedy on the stage.  But for now there is a huge appetite for it.  In two years, things may be very different.  Going to the theatre to be thrilled and challenged and shaken to the core might be the number one trend, but for the moment — TRAGEDY TOMORROW, COMEDY TONIGHT. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Happy Fathers Day

Happy Fathers Day to all you daddios. 

Here's me and my dad.  I had just questioned the validity of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 


 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Weekend Post

 

Lots of discussion about multi-cam shows this week.  So why not one more?

When you do a show multi-camera in front of an audience you always run the risk that unforeseen circumstances will affect the crowd’s reactions.

There have been a number of times in my erstwhile career when shows that should have played through the roof played through the floor. Here’s why.

The most common enemy of all multi-cam shows: the air conditioning going out. I've have had this happen a number of times. And with all the blazing hot lights and no cross-ventilation a sound stage becomes Satan's rumpus room in ten minutes. Comedy evaporates at 80 degrees.

Power failures can also curtail things. I’ve found that audiences do not enjoy sitting in pitch-black darkness. Who knew???   Generally generators restore the electricity pretty quickly, but the audience is still unnerved. Anxiety is not the best warm up for promoting laughter.

And when the power goes out, so does the air conditioning. See paragraph three.

Rain is a problem. Usually an audience is asked to line up outside the stage before being let in. There are no retractable roofs over movie studios. Sometimes you can find shelter for the two hundred brave souls or let them in earlier, but more times than not they’re exposed to the elements. It’s hard to really yuck it up when your sweater smells like a dead raccoon and your socks are soaked.

There are companies that help fill audiences, especially for new shows. Once a show is a hit there’s a big demand for tickets. (FRIENDS used to have two audiences for every taping. They took forever to do that show. The first audience would come in at about 4:00. By 8:00 they were burned out and the show was only half done. So they were mercifully released and a new audience took their place. Fans were just so excited to be at a FRIENDS taping they didn’t care. Good luck pulling that on a new show that hasn’t even premiered.) These companies arrange for buses and in some cases even pay people to attend the tapings. (Considering some of the shows I’ve seen lately that’s a hard way to earn a buck.) They are not always conscientious when it comes to selecting groups for specific shows. Imagine a hundred 80 year-olds attending a UNITED STATES OF AL taping.

One time we had a group of convicts. Who did they kill in the yard to warrant that punishment? Again, there’s that unnerving factor for the rest of the audience seeing armed prison guards. And then at 9:00 they were herded out – right in the middle of a scene. Then we were left with a half-empty house. 

I’ve told this story before but a script my partner David and I thought was very solid died on the stage. And only later did we learn that half the audience couldn’t speak English. 

But the worst audience I ever had was for an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore comeback show David and I created. And this was no one’s fault but ours. We had a terrific show. One of our funniest. We were very excited.

And then the morning of the filming the Challenger disaster occurred. Seven brave astronauts perished. Our first instinct was to cancel the filming, but the studio (protecting its investment) argued that we should film anyway. Their reasoning: after a full day of inescapable sorrow, people would gladly welcome the diversion. They would love the opportunity to just laugh for a few hours.

So we gave in. After all, we had a good episode. Sometimes the release of laughter is a Godsend in times of grief and this show was funny.

We filmed as planned. And the show absolutely died. Silence. Crickets. Tumbleweeds. DEATH. I don’t think there were three laughs the entire night. Even the audience that couldn’t speak English laughed at a few things. Not this group. If someone dropped a coin on the floor you could tell by the sound whether it was a quarter or dime – that’s how quiet it was.

As they were filing out I happened to glance at the set and suddenly it all made sense. This was a large newspaper bullpen set along the wall most prominent to the audience was photos of current events. Right in the middle, in plain view of everyone, was a photo of the Challenger.

Oops.

Still, part of the fun of shooting in front of a live studio audience is the unpredictability. Each filming night is different. And the pros outweigh the cons. Plus, the cons leave at 9.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Friday Questions

Ready for some Friday Questions?

Joel Keller starts us off:

Here's a Friday Question for you, Ken, something that has had me curious for almost 40 years (I saw these episodes in reruns):

Did Mike Farrell grow a mustache on his own between seasons 6 and 7 or did you and David ask him to do it? It seems to have come with a change in BJ's character, where the clean-cut guy from Mill Valley is showing cracks in the armor due to all the horrors he's seen since he came to Korea. So it could have been part of a purposeful shift in his character.

Or he grew the 'stache over the break, didn't want to shave it, and you and the staff found an opportunity there. The irony is that Mike was stuck with the lip hair until the end of the series, even though it got fainter and shorter as time went on.

He was requested to grow the ‘stache to give him a different look.  We had read in research that lots of folks in MASH units grew mustaches and beards out of boredom.  And you're right, since Mike was so clean-cut, we all thought it might be fun.  And he could cut it at any time. 

But like I said, it was just a request.  Mike could have said no and the issue would have been dropped.   As always, Mike was a good sport.   And it looked good on him.

From Steve:


Is there a point in a series where lead actors/actresses are expected to take control of their characters? (For example, whether their character would say—or react to—something as written in the script.) Is it a source of frustration when they start exerting that control? Conversely, are there situations where showrunners / writing staff feel the need to encourage feedback from an actor to ensure they are capturing the essence of the character properly?

Steven Bochco used to say, “The first year the actors work for you, the second year you work together, and the third year you work for them.”  

The actual answer is it depends on the actor and the character.  I’ve mostly been very lucky in that I’ve worked in collaborative environments.  The actors’ input is invaluable.  They’re the ones playing the character, they generally gave way more thought to them.  Good actors can bring things to the characters and their lines that you never thought of.  On the other hand, characters are the vision of the writer.  

But with mutual respect you can usually come up with a script that incorporates the best of both camps.   Again, I’ve been verrrry lucky.  There are a lot of contentious actor-writer situations.  I've been in very few. 

Brian asks:

Have you ever written or thought about writing a play for radio?


No.  Very few radio plays are performed in front of an audience and since I write comedies, I prefer to hear the laughter.  I have featured some of my plays on my podcast, and a number of my short plays could easily be adapted to radio (they’re very dialogue heavy), but I’ve never set out to write a “radio” play.   

I wish there were more done here (with an audience).  This still seems to be a viable in the UK.  And of course, longtime readers know I love all forms of radio.  

And finally, from jcs:


I recently watched a blooper reel from "THAT '70S SHOW". Ashton Kutcher was shown having several small onstage accidents. Kutcher - to his credit - ignored the pain, stayed in character and played right through them.

Did you ever a witness an unforseen event onstage that resulted in a decent take which was later aired?

When I was directing LATELINE, starring Al Franken we had a scene we shot in Griffith Park where Al and Robert Foxworth ride horses.  It was one shot, they each had a couple of lines.  

Robert had been in Westerns and was very adept at riding.  Al, to be charitable, was not.

We rehearsed the scene a couple of times then shot it.  

On the first take, just after he got out of camera range, Foxworth screamed.  His back went out on him.  We had to have paramedics physically lift him off the horse onto a gurney.  

Fortunately we got the shot because there was no way we’d ever get a retake.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

EP229: Meet ESPN/NBC’s Jason Benetti


Jason Benetti is a rising sportscasting star. He calls baseball, football, and basketball for ESPN, is the TV voice of the Chicago White Sox, and will be calling Olympic baseball this summer for NBC. But more than that, he announced Korean League Baseball last summer on ESPN — from his apartment… during a riot. He and Ken swap crazy stories.

Get Honey for FREE at https://joinhoney.com/LEVINE

More podcasts at WAVE: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/artist/wave-podcast-network/1437831426


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Oh no! Mike Myers is back.

Is it just me?  

I find Mike Myers incredibly unfunny.  And what’s worse is, HE thinks everything he does is pulverizingly funny.  The disconnect is Grand Canyon-wide.  

He’s had enough flops like THE LOVE GURU that we’ve been mercifully spared Mike Myers for the last few years.  

But now comes word that he’s making a new Netflix “comedy” series.  As if that wasn’t enough to make me almost cancel my subscription, he plays seven parts.  

“NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

So we get seven un-funny cartoonish characters probably in ridiculous make-up.   Gallagher is more subtle.

I think back to the plot of THE PRODUCERS when they were intentionally trying to make the worst musical ever so the show would flop and investors would be be screwed.  Thus “Springtime for Hitler.”   In that case it backfired.  With this project they’re taking no chances.

Because to ensure this show will be unfunny they’ve now hired Ken Jeong to be in it.  Why not just give Mike Pence a stand-up comedy special?  

Hopefully, this is like the Mister Mxyzptlk storyline in Superman where every six months he appears and Superman has to get rid of him.  This new sitcom could be another LOVE GURU and Mike Myerszptlk goes away for six more years.  One can only hope. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Setting the record straight

Since we seem to be on the subject of multi-camera sitcoms this week....

No one hates phony laugh tracks more than me.   Longtime readers of this blog (all six of them) know this.  But I must set the record straight.

Number one:  There is a big difference between genuine audience laughter and the phony canned laughter you so often hear, which to me is like taking a new car and tagging it. 

A reader recently commented on a sitcom being given the “Charley Douglass treatment.”  Charley was the man with the laugh box.   Many of the laughs in that box were compiled from shows as far back as the ‘50s.  There are people laughing on your television who have been dead for 30/40 years (talk about getting the last laugh).  Some tracks have been used so frequently on so many shows that they’re actually identifiable. 

But here’s the thing —

There is no “Charley Douglass treatment.” 

Let me be very clear. 

It is the show runner or someone representing the show that makes all the decisions.  They’re the ones who determine when there should be a laugh, how big a laugh, whether to go with the dead woman’s guffaw.  Charley just pushed the buttons. 

So when you watch a show and cringe at how the laugh track is going crazy for every stupid lame line, don’t blame the box.  Blame the insecure or deluded show representative who felt the need to create bogus hysterical laughter where none was justified. 

I watched an episode of TAXI recently and was struck by the fact that several jokes didn’t work.  And there was no effort made to hide that with fake laughter.  You’d hear the line clank and then silence for a beat until the next line was spoken.  It was so refreshing.  And it made the lines that did get laughs seem funnier and more genuine. 

As we ease out of the pandemic, multi-camera shows will again start filming in front of live audiences.  Let’s hope producers write funny enough shows that no “Charley Douglass treatment” is ever needed.