Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Stan & Ollie

I loved the new movie, STAN & OLLIE about the longtime comedy team of Laurel & Hardy. In the '30s and '40s they were the biggest comedy movie stars in the world.  Steve Coogan was amazing as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly did a nice job capturing Oliver Hardy. The two recreated some of Laurel & Hardy’s classic bits and I found myself laughing out loud.

But the movie also made me very sad.

Why? Because I figure that 99% of people under 40 have no idea who Laurel & Hardy were. Not that I blame them. You rarely see their movies or shorts on TV anymore. And practically everything they did was in black-and-white and good luck getting a Millennial to watch something in black-and-white.

And it’s a shame because Laurel & Hardy were really funny. Yes, it was slapstick but the attitudes and timing was just priceless. And it was all Stan who wrote their material, essentially directed, and edited the films. Hardy would play golf and come in when Stan said they were ready to shoot. Both gentlemen made me laugh but Hardy was my favorite. His slow burn kills me. And his attempt at all times to preserve his dignity in the face of utter humiliation made him the perfect comic foil.

So I recommend the movie. But more than that, I recommend you see the real thing first. Even if you are loathe to watch black-and—white, if you are a serious student of comedy or even just someone who loves to laugh, I implore you to watch the following video and be introduced to Laurel & Hardy.

The short I'm featuring is famous. It won an Oscar. Please treat yourself to the Music Box by Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. Set aside a half-hour and enjoy.

Monday, January 21, 2019

My approach to writing movie reviews

There are college courses on film criticism. I never took one. If I did, I think I’d fail it. Having to write a long analysis of a movie, comparing it to Russian speculation fiction films and uncovering all the symbolism and providing overview and perspective and literary references is not what I do. God bless those who can.

I read some of these reviews and tip my hat while also saying, “What a bunch of shit?”

Reviews can get pretentious. Reviews can get precious. Reviews can be self-indulgent.

There are a few reviewers however, that I admire (even if I don’t always agree with them). Anthony Lane in THE NEW YORKER is one. He’s occasionally very droll and funny, and it’s clear he puts a lot of thought and effort and research into his weekly reviews.

Way more than I ever do. Or ever would.

Now that we’re in award season (God help us), I’ve been reviewing more movies for this blog. (Thank you studios for the screeners.) But I’m not a professional reviewer. (That’s probably clear by simply reading one of my reviews.)

So to better understand my reviews (for you to decide whether to give my opinions any credence at all), I thought you should know my approach.

It’s more a “take.” It’s more of a “reaction” to what I’m seeing. Did I like the damn movie? Yay or nay and why? How were the actors, director, writers, explosions? Would I recommend the movie to you and why?

But I try to write in broad strokes, with some laughs along the way. I have very definite tastes and generally will not see a movie I have no interest in just because it’s a “contender.” Life’s too fucking short. You could make the world greatest horror film. I’ll never review it because I’ll never see it. Sorry.

When I was young I felt almost an obligation to see every movie that came out. It was homework I needed to do. Now? If it looks like something that will bore the crap out of me I give it a pass. Will I miss seeing some good movies that I am stupidly avoiding? Sure. But so what? The good news is if I’m reviewing your movie it’s because I’m expecting to like it. The bad news is if I don’t, watch out.

But in any event, a few paragraphs should cover it. I read three page reviews for movies that can be distilled down to “formula comedy” or “avoid.” You should get the idea by paragraph three what my take is. I try to write them as soon as I can so the film is still fresh in my mind. And sometimes that’s 2:00 in the morning so factor that in.

My hope is that my reviews are somewhat unique in that they’re in my voice and style (if it turns out I happen to even have one – the jury’s still out). And they’re also an excuse to invite you to weigh in on your opinion. So this isn’t film criticism; it’s a cyber water cooler.

Thumbs up.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Weekend Post

This video made me laugh really hard.  A woman tries to put gas in a Tesla. 

Also, this video shows the value of some sort of laugh track.  When you watch the first time keep the sound on.  The guys' laughter is infectious.  Then watch it again on mute.  Not nearly as funny, is it?

I hate a laugh track as much as anybody, but I do have to concede the point that hearing laughter promotes laughter.

Enjoy.



MEANWHILE....

Rehearsals are going well on my play, UPFRONTS & PERSONAL that opens Thursday night at the Gallery Players Theatre in fabulous Brooklyn. I'll be there all weekend. Come for laughs and stay to say hi. After the show next Sunday there's a talkback where you can heckle. Here's where you go for info and tickets. Thanks. Hope to see you there.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Friday Questions

Hello from New York.  I'm very excited to announce that my first play gets a production next weekend in Brooklyn.  It's called UPFRONTS & PERSONAL is about the process of getting TV shows on network schedules.  (Right.  What do I know about that?)   Anyway, it's very funny and I'll be there to say hi (if you like it).   Here's where you go for info.   Please come.  It's one of my better efforts. 

But just 'cause I'm out of town doesn't mean the Friday Questions stop.  No sir.  Here they are.

Jen from Jersey has a question about the FRASIER set:

Did you make any changes to the set as the show progressed? I noticed that the lighting in the radio studio was much darker during season 1.

The Director of Photography (cinematographer) is always tweaking. FRASIER stayed pretty consistent.

On the other hand, look at CHEERS. Notice how different the bar looked on the pilot to later seasons. Lighting can really change a set’s appearance.

The problem with lighting multi-camera shows is that they have to accommodate actors walking all around the set so everything needs to be lit well enough that actors don’t disappear in shadows.

Boomska316 asks:

I was wondering if you were a fan of old fashioned radio and if so what some of your favorites were? I'm partial to the old Sherlock Holmes shows starring Rathbone.

First let me establish that old time radio was before my time.

I did love the comedies. THE JACK BENNY SHOW and THE FRED ALLEN SHOW. EDGAR BERGEN (Candice’s dad) & CHARLIE MCCARTHY were also funny, although how bizarre to have a ventriloquist on the radio? That’s like a magician hosting a radio show doing card tricks. Oh, and it’s not PC anymore but the old AMOS & ANDY SHOW always made me laugh.

As for the dramas, I liked old episodes of THE SHADOW. And SUPERMAN.

Michael has another FRASIER question.

Do you know why Daphne's psychic abilities were dropped on FRASIER? Was it based on network or audience feedback or just something the writers decided to discontinue on their own?

The writers decided the bit had pretty much run its course. And they were always trying to give the characters more dimension – and it’s one of the reasons FRASIER was such a cut above – instead of just going to the same well over and over they sought to find other aspects of her character to explore.

And finally, from Matt:

You said it is easier to find jokes now than when you were younger. Do you ever go back to your earlier work and think to yourself, “what idiot wrote that?” Do you think your comedy style has changed as you have aged?

ALL the time.

I can only watch maybe three of the MASH episodes I wrote. As for the rest, just give me one more day to rewrite each one of them. There are better jokes, story turns, speeches, etc.

I don’t know if my comedy style has changed per se but I think I’ve honed it. I’m more skilled and write with more assurance. So the improvement is more a matter of craft.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

EP106: Ken’s writing partner, David Isaacs defends himself


Ken welcomes his long-time writing partner, David Isaacs to the podcast. We discuss how we broke in, how we work, writing together vs. separately, script problem solving, and David tells his side of the prank I pulled on him.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Guest blogger: Abraham Lincoln

Hello, this is Abraham Lincoln. Ken is letting me guest blog today. I asked if I could just lob in some random thoughts and he said sure.

The difference between my White House and the current one is that the crazy spouse wasn’t the one who was president.

I don’t believe in labels. For instance – I’m way more than just a “vampire hunter.”

Note to current Commander-in-Chief: Stay out of my bedroom.

Why is it always the South?

Of all the actors who portrayed me in movies, my favorite was Gilbert Gottfried in A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST.

How many of you knew that Hannibal Hamlin was my Veep?

People remember speeches, not tweets.

Come to my monument. Bring the kiddies.

They used to call me Honest Abe. That’s one nickname they’ll never give the current guy.

I want to be remembered for two things: Being the greatest president in U.S. history, and Lincoln Logs. Those things are really fun!

If I had it to do all over, I’d lose the beard.

Boy was I right when I said “you can fool some of the people some of the time.”  Jesus! Do you people have eyes?

Everyone asks what I thought of Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN. Meh. I only saw the screener. I suppose it’s better on the big screen but you know me and theaters.

I also said, “Those who look for the bad in people will surely find it.” That’s right, Robert Mueller, I’m talking to you.

Lincoln Town Cars have more room. I’m just sayin’. 

And finally, subscribe to Ken’s podcast.

Sincerely,

Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

I Love Eve

Someone asked who my favorite TV comedienne was, fully expecting me to say Lucy. He was shocked when I told him Lucy was number three. Number two is Audrey Meadows who played Alice on THE HONEYMOONERS, and number one is someone you might never have heard of.

Eve Arden.

Who?

Eve Arden. 

Yes, you have to be a certain age to remember Eve Arden, but mid-century she was a comic star of stage, screen (big and little), and radio.   No one could deliver a line with better deadpan delivery than Eve Arden. Her voice, her attitude, her timing – she was impeccable. Bea Arthur and Betty White are close, and Carol Burnett is hysterical but in a different broader way – yet for sheer delivery of a pithy line, no one could touch Eve Arden.

She’s been on my mind lately because there’s a character in my new play that I thought, “Ohmygod, Eve Arden would have KILLED in this part.”

In movies she often played the droll wise-cracking best friend, but she was probably most famous for starring in a radio show and then TV series called OUR MISS BROOKS. It was produced by Desilu which also produced I LOVE LUCY. Like I LOVE LUCY, it was done in the multi-camera format in front of a live studio audience that Desi Arnaz originated. In fact, both shows shared the same crew. As a result, OUR MISS BROOKS was recorded on film and copies of all the episodes still exist (as opposed to all the shows done on Kinescope that are either gone or not of broadcast quality).

I remember liking OUR MISS BROOKS when I was a kid and saw the show in syndication. But it was more of a distant memory.  She played a High School teacher in a small midwestern town. 

Now, with Eve Arden in my head I looked on YouTube and sure enough, there were some episodes available. They were from 1953. That’s even before my time in front of the tube. I figured the show would be really musty, but there might be some nostalgia value to it so I clicked on one at random.

I was stunned at how good it was. I even laughed out loud a few times. I haven’t laughed out loud at a current network sitcom in years. And this was an episode produced over 60 years ago.  The story was clever, the character actors were all pitch perfect, and there was a plethora of sharp funny lines. Oh, and Eve Arden was awesome.

Some amazing things about how good that show was: They made 39 episodes a year. And the same man co-wrote and directed them – Al Lewis (not the actor Al Lewis who played Grandpa Munster). Where did he find the time? I then watched a couple more and those stories were all clever and well-constructed – way better storytelling than any episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY ever. Lewis wrote the episodes with Joe Quillian, and a lot of what they did still holds up.

And then I thought to myself, this must be what it’s like when a Millennial discovers CHEERS for the first time. He or she is probably amazed that an ancient show written by old guys could actually still be funny.  Who knew?  /And guess what -- there are lots of gems out there that are still great and just waiting to be discovered (or rediscovered). What an enormous treat is in store for anyone willing to seek them out.

If you’re 20 I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t respond to OUR MISS BROOKS. It’s just too far back and is in black-and-white. You may or may not appreciate Eve Arden’s brilliance. But classic sitcoms from the 70s and 80’s (some of which I never wrote for) are out there and available. Believe me, it’s a gift. Take advantage. Your own Eve Arden may be out there waiting.

Monday, January 14, 2019

TOO FUNNY TO FAIL

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I always have my finger on the pulse of popular culture. Something comes out – you can bet I’m on it instantly. And so this weekend I focus on the Hulu documentary, TOO FUNNY TO FAIL. What? It premiered October 21, 2017? Yes, but it never caught the zeitgeist until yesterday.

In any event, it’s terrific! Check it out.

In 1996 Dana Carvey, who was white hot coming off of SNL made a deal with ABC for a primetime variety show (after a bidding war). He enlisted the help of brilliant writer, Robert Smigel (Triumph the insult comic dog) and assembled a cast of players that included then-unknown Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. For good measure throw in then-hireable Louis C.K. Writers included Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock who went on to guide 30 ROCK and KIMMY SCHMIDT, Bob Odenkirk (“Saul Goodman”), Spike Feresten (coming off of SEINFELD), and Greg Daniels (creator of the US version of THE OFFICE).

You would think that with that line-up of All-Star talent the show would be a huge hit.

It bombed. Horribly. Disastrously.

Placed in ABC’s best time slot at the time (following HOME IMPROVEMENT) the minute-by-minute ratings showed that within the first five minutes 6,000,000 people tuned out. The opening sketch was Bill Clinton breast-feeding and managed to completely alienate an entire nation.

The ratings were a disaster. The reviews were brutal.

And from there it was like a battleship trying to make a U-Turn in a river. They made eight episodes. Only seven aired.

But I have to say, based on the segments and sketches they showed, the show was really funny. Clearly it was in the wrong time slot on the wrong network. And yes, that first sketch was a bad miscalculation, but the show deserved a better fate.

At first when I started watching this documentary I was intrigued at how so many extraordinary talented people could turn out such a trainwreck. But like I said, they did not turn out a bad product. If SEINFELD had premiered on the Trinity Broadcasting Network I don’t think it would have been a hit either.

But the interviews are all great and very candid. Everyone admits to mistakes and yet has a tremendous fondness and pride for the show. Interestingly, a few of the sketches were later aired on SNL and KILLED. Dana Carvey as Tom Brokaw pre-recording obits for Gerald Ford doing many alternate insane causes of death was hysterical.

For a TV show to become a big hit all the planets have to line up. But to me the takeaway of THE DANA CARVEY SHOW is that cream rises to the top, and real talent will somehow emerge and blossom. Ask Michael Keaton, Swoosie Kurtz, Merrill Markoe, and David Letterman – cast members of the MARY TYLER MOORE VARIETY SHOW (cancelled after three episodes).