Thursday, May 25, 2017

C'mon, sitcom writers -- you can do better

This is pretty much a follow up to yesterday’s post. Two trends in comedy tropes I see emerging from watching the trailers of the upcoming new sitcoms. Irony and the quick flip. And my problem is that both are lazy and not particularly funny.

First – the quick flip. A character says something and the opposite immediately occurs. But most times it’s so obvious that he’s setting himself up for the quick flip. “I’m a great driver!” followed immediately by a CRASH. We’ve seen this trope so often that the audience is way ahead of you. So there’s zero surprise.

And instead of funny clever lines, characters now offer underplayed ironic comments that are supposed to serve as punch lines. But they’re not. They don’t get laughs. They get smiles at best. Shouldn’t comedy writers aspire for more?

Take the new ABC Zach Braff show, ALEX INC. He’s in a development lab. Someone shows him a gadget and says: “they’re developing a robot that rocks a baby to sleep.” Next thing – the gadget fires a doll across a room where it slams against the wall. Quick flip. Then Zach says: “Coming along, fellas.” Irony.

And here’s the thing – anyone can write irony. Anyone can write the twenty alternate versions of “going great,” “keep up the good work,” “you must be proud,” etc. But a skilled comedy writer should be able to come up with stuff not everyone can think of. That’s what you pay him for. A professional should look at “coming along, fellas” and say “Oh, hell. We can beat that.”

Yeah, it’s just one joke. But it’s in the TRAILER. Shouldn’t trailers trot out the best stuff? That’s their funniest stuff?

Later in the trailer Zach says, “This is the best day of my life.” Then he’s slammed against a car and handcuffed. Quick flip. Then he says, “Handcuffs? What am I going to do? Run away?” I’ll give you one guess as to what happens next.

LA to VEGAS from Fox is not much different. A flight attendant says: “Anyone who sits here gets free beers.” A pregnant woman stands up. Flight attendant says: “Not you.” That’s not even ironic.
Later the pilot says: “If I can’t have fun with the passengers why am I here? The flight attendant’s hilarious comeback: “To fly the plane. Go do that.” So laughs are supposed to come from characters stating the obvious with attitude. Again, comedy writers can’t beat those lines?  You think the writers of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would settle for those lines? 

The trailer continues. The pilot is in the passenger cabin and says: “This baby’s a technological miracle.” What happens next? He punctuates that by tapping an overhead bin and an oxygen masks falls. The quick flip that fools nobody.

In ABC’s SPLITTING UP TOGETHER Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson star as a married couple that has split up. Oliver is living in the garage. Jennifer is in the backyard talking to her girlfriends. She says: “I need sex in my life and Martin just doesn’t.” So of course, quick flip, the next shot is a hot babe entering the yard and asking where Martin is. You could see that coming from outer space. So Jenna calmly points her in the right direction and after she leaves Jenna turns to her friends and says: “What the (bleep) was that?” Explain the laugh. What am I missing? Jenna saying fuck although it was bleeped out? Jenna acting like she didn’t know what was going on when she obviously did? Or merely that’s the funniest reaction the writers could think of? “What the fuck was that?” No one, other than the sharpest, wittiest, most inventive brilliant comedy writers could come up with something as fresh and original and hilarious as “what the fuck was that?”

One final example although there are way many more – and these are just three show. Jenna tells Oliver the doctor says their son needs to masturbate. (Ooooh, edgy) Oliver points to a picture and says: “Is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg?” Jenna: “Yeah.” Oliver’s big comeback: “I really don’t think she’d appreciate this.” Ironic and stating the obvious.

Now I know I may sound like one of those old disgruntled geezers. But comedy I wrote decades ago is still being shown and still getting laughs so at least I’m a geezer with some street cred. I’m just saying to today's sitcom writers set the bar higher. And not just for us viewers (although, please DO) but for yourselves. Because the comedy writers who are indispensable are the ones that can produce big laughs. When a hundred or two hundred other guys can pitch the same lines you’re pitching you are easily replaced. And there’s nothing funny about that… or ironic.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Episode 21: Crazy People I've Hired & Other Tomfoolery


Not everyone in Hollywood is crazy. Just the people who worked for Ken. Laughs are the theme this week as he introduces you to some of the nuttiest writers’ assistants in Tinsel Town. Then he’ll relive some classic radio pranks and you'll meet one of America’s funniest disc jockeys.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Get ready for more silly shows

Nowadays networks post trailers for their new shows. It’s a great idea. Way more people are going to see the trailers on line than promos on the networks. And as opposed to :30 seconds you get to see several minutes of preview material.

I remember when CHEERS premiered there were people who turned in the first week and were disappointed because from the title they thought the show was about cheerleaders. We could have used a trailer – or more promos on a network that anybody watched at the time.

Of course you can’t really accurately tell what a show is going to be based solely on a three-minute trailer. But you can get an idea.

Watching the trailers for the new sitcoms the general impression I get is that they’re very broad. Especially the Fox sitcoms. Lots of physical stunts and CGI, parodies of other genres (including a STAR TREK send up starring Seth MacFarlane. How many times are we going to have Seth MacFarlane shoved down our throats? Enough already!).

And the characters in these new shows are primarily idiots. Bungling buffoons and dorks who think they’re way cooler/smarter/better looking than they are. All played at a heightened reality. The dialog is all wisecracks and irony. Fifty variations of “Gee, THAT worked out well.”

(I suppose everyone got the memo to be "edgy."  Practically all of the CBS comedy trailers have testicle jokes -- multiple testicle jokes, and the Jenna Fischer ABC show has a bunch of them too.)  

What’s wrong with comedies about real people? Comedies that aren’t just live cartoons? The audience grows to care, you save a fortune in CGI, and your show isn’t just as good as your last joke. Do networks feel that Millennials can’t relate to real people and so in order to justify that form of comedy they have to reboot old shows? If so, they’re really selling Millennials short – to the point of insult.

Or is it that those shows are harder to write and networks don’t trust the current crop to pull it off? There too, I guarantee you there are wonderful funny writers with great insight and fresh voices that are relegated to writing pratfalls because those are the only jobs they can get.

TV dramas continue to get more complex and layered, and TV comedies get sillier and sillier.  

Note to networks:  The new development season begins soon. This year how about trying something really daring and out of the box – two or three shows (or even one) that are intelligent aimed at viewers who recognize and appreciate quality? And you might be surprised – those viewers will be your coveted Millennials.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

My commencement speech to the Class of '17

May and June are the graduation times of year. I guess a hundred years ago those commencement speakers were inspiring and offered thoughts and insights that were new and fresh. But now, Jesus! Be your own person. Never give up. You have a responsibility to society. Success comes from within. Show courage. You can make a difference. Set aside time to smell the roses. Let faith be your guide. Blablablablabla.

I’ve never been asked to be a commencement speaker and that’s probably a good thing because here’s some of the advice I might give:

Live at home with your parents as long as you can. Otherwise you’ll have to find a job. Rents are high. And then there’s laundry, food, and the family big screen.

Know that the music you think is so cool now will be laughed at by future generations.

Same with clothes.

And don’t follow your current favorite group around the country for the next thirty years. That becomes sad year one.

If you are going to honor your dear departed kitty Fluffy with a tattoo make sure all your subsequent pets are also named Fluffy.

Eat bad foods. You’re at an age when you can get away with it. And eat them at midnight. There’s plenty of time in the future for watching your carbs, eating your vegetables, avoiding red meat, and laying off the Yodels and Ring Dings. Soon enough you won’t be able to eat a bite after 8:00 without spending the night in the porcelain canyon . Do you want fries with that? Damn right you do!

Don’t buy SUV’s.

Practice safe and frequent sex. Have many romances and then fall in love when you’re 30.

Go back and study the history of your chosen field. Things actually happened before 1990.

Don’t blame your parents for everything. Your peers screwed you up just as much.

Sleep. It’s better for you than Red Bull.

You can no longer take an "incomplete".

Prepare yourselves. There will come a day – in your lifetime – that they will stop making original episodes of THE SIMPSONS. I know you don't believe me but it's true.

There’s a special bond having shared the school experience together. Stay in touch with your classmates. Even the ones you’ve slept with.

Don’t invest money in video stores.

Read novels that aren’t graphic.

Join communities that aren't virtual.

Save your journal or private diary. In twenty years you’re going to get such laughs.

Dream big but always have contingency plans. And then have contingency plans for your contingency plans.

Keep your student ID card. Use it to get into movies cheaper.

Guys, don’t wear hats. You’ll have plenty of time for that later once you’ve lost your hair.

Don’t sweat it if you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life. There’s a good chance the job you'll eventually want hasn’t been invented yet.

Never take comedy traffic school.

Buy your alcoholic beverages by the glass or bottle, not the keg.

And finally -- Be careful when you say you want your generation to change the world. My generation said that and did – we made it worse.

Congratulations to the class of '17. Now get out there and don’t fuck up my Social Security.

Monday, May 22, 2017

My review of the new TWIN PEAKS

When TWIN PEAKS first premiered in 1990 it truly was mind-blowing. There had NEVER been a show like that. Utterly spellbinding. David Lynch was at the height of his popularity. BLUE VELVET brought new meaning to the phrase “ear to the ground” and Dennis Hopper was maybe the creepiest villain ever... until Dean Stockwell showed up in the same movie.

Right from the first night TWIN PEAKS was an absolute sensation – a breakout hit for ABC. The entire country was speculating over who killed Laura Palmer and can a log really talk? The series was filled with riddles, and imagery, and horrific images, and the same crummy furniture from BLUE VELVET apartments. (Were Ralph & Alice Kramden the set dressers?)  Coffee and cherry pie became our national dessert.

Sound played a big role as well with eerie music and winds that only seemed to howl when characters were indoors.  There must be horrible insulation in the Pacific Northwest.  Where other shows hire orchestras to provide the soundtrack, Lynch seemed to use a guy breathing heavily into an oxygen mask.

TWIN PEAKS began as a midseason series and was riveting... until they revealed who actually killed Laura Palmer – well, sort of. After that it was never the same.  Everything after that felt unfocused. I just pictured writers Lynch and Mark Frost constantly saying “Now what do we do?” In short order, the series lost its magic and eventually was cancelled.

A few years later there was a TWIN PEAKS prequel movie that dealt with the Laura Palmer storyline in much greater detail. And the movie did… meh. Since I was a fan of the show I saw the movie. But the more I got to know Laura Palmer the less I liked her and the less I cared that someone was about to bump her off.

Then a few years ago word came down that Lynch and Frost were reviving TWIN PEAKS for SHOWTIME. Was I excited? No. Not really. Was I curious? Sure. Would Lynch be able to catch lightening in a bottle twice? Certainly worth a look.

I must say I was a little surprised by the level of anticipation as the premier date drew near. I guess there were a lot more diehard TWIN PEAKS fans than I thought. So I was in front of my TV last night at 9:00.

What did I think?

Well…

I remember back in college living in the dorm.  I would get together with a bunch of friends, we would gather in one room, put tin foil over the window, sit in the dark, and the only illumination was from the Snoopy blacklight poster. We’d pass around joints, drink Red Mountain wine that came in gallon jugs, listen to Moby Grapes albums, soak up the far out psychedelic vibes, and really think we were cool. It was all so deep and meaningful. Today I look back and think, “What an idiot!”

THAT’S how I felt watching last night’s TWIN PEAK debut. All that imagery and those spooky moody sequences that I once found so mind-blowing in 1990 felt repetitive and silly in 2017. I know that may not be the popular reaction, but I’m sorry. What the fuck was I watching?

I never found it scary. I fully expect the reboot of ROSEANNE to be scarier.

And not only was it very derivative of itself, it was derivative of LOST and FARGO as well. SPOILER ALERT – That big glass box – didn’t the Others put Jack in one just like it? And those stark landscape shots of snowy terrain and scenes where folksy folks talked folksy was FARGO without the humor.

For me the initial attraction of the original TWIN PEAKS was that you had this seemingly normal town but under the surface was all this evil and strangeness. Now everything is so completely whack that any shred of normalcy seems greatly out of place.

I look forward to reading other reviews. I’ll be interested to see whether the general consensus is that the new TWIN PEAKS was the work of genius and anyone who couldn’t see that was just dense, or whether they’ll agree with me that just random weirdness isn’t deep, it’s a college film student’s thesis movie.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Multi-cams require multi-skills

Lots of TV-related posts these last few weeks since it's the Upfronts time of the year. Here's another one:

As discussed, there are not that many multi-camera shows on at the moment. And a lot of young sitcom writers have never worked on a multi-cam. So the question is, can those young writers adapt and write in the multi-camera format?

And the answer is: of course they can... IF -- and it’s a big “if” – IF they are really good writers and really funny. Yes, there may be some adjustments in style but so what? Talent is talent.

However, for a multi-cam to succeed you need experience at the top. You need someone who has been through the wars. And for young writers, you need these mentors. “Why?” you might ask. “If I have the talent and a fresh voice and all the Red Bull I could drink why couldn’t I just run a multi-camera show?” Maybe you can. But can you answer yes to all of these questions?

When you and your young staff are at a runthrough and something doesn’t work can you identify just what that something is?

And how to fix it?

Can you and your young staff rewrite an entire script overnight?

Can you come up with that big joke at 3:30 AM that gets you out of the act?

Do you know how to deal with temperamental actors (although this skill or masochistic tendency applies to any format)?

If you know your show is going to be long can you watch the quad split and know if you have the proper coverage to make the necessary lifts?

Can you budget your time between the writing, editing, casting, politics, and the hand-holding required to turn out 22 episodes in about 30 weeks?

And finally, can you turn out a product that you’re proud of? That doesn’t depend on canned laughter?

That’s a lot of stuff. Unless you’re a writer, did you even realize how many requirements went into that job? I’ll be honest, when David Isaacs and I joined the Charles Brothers to produce the first year of CHEERS, our background had been primarily single camera (MASH). Theirs was multi-cam (TAXI and various MTM shows). And they were solving problems we didn’t even recognize as problems. A couple of years before that we had a multi-cam pilot for NBC that didn’t get picked up. Once we saw what it really took to pull off showrunning a multi-cam we thought to ourselves, “We would have been buried if NBC had picked up that show. We were nowhere near being ready.” It was a humbling experience (one of many in our long career).

All young writers have growing pains and need to learn their craft. But I do think that young writers schooled in multi-cam have a steeper learning curve. And as a result are better equipped to take on anything. Those horrible late nights may be worth it after all. (Keep this post on file for when it’s 4:00 AM and you’re stringing Red Vines together to hang yourself.)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Join me on Instagram

Yes, I'm now on Instagram.   Please follow me at  Hollywoodandlevine.  I promise not to post any photos of food or cats.  Thanks. 

UPDATE:  Okay, you shamed me into it.  I just posted a "cat" photo.  

Now that the networks have set their Fall schedules...

...here are a few things to look for:

ABC is really going to challenge NBC in February with AMERICAN IDOL, ROSEANNE, and THE BACHELOR. NBC will have the Winter Olympics. Usually any Olympics obliterates the competition, but the ratings three years ago from the Sochi games were meh at best. Of course, it doesn’t help that the USA wins maybe five medals total.

Tuesday night will have a flood of comedy. ABC, NBC, and Fox all have competing sitcoms.

WILL & GRACE will go up against THE BIG BANG THEORY when CBS no longer has Thursday Night Football. Good luck to WILL & GRACE.

On Thursday night, SCANDAL takes on THIS IS US. There’s enough real scandal in the White House. I expect THIS IS US to kick ass. And the Seth MacFarlane vanity Fox series goes against them both. That way Fox services the very few who think Seth MacFarlane is talented enough to warrant his own series (like he was talented enough to star in major motion pictures and talented enough to host the Academy Awards) and also satisfy the vast majority of viewers who don’t.

CBS has the most stable schedule. And stability has its advantages.

The CW is the all-Super Hero network. Unless your series star wears a cape you have no chance. How soon until they do a live version of Mighty Mouse? Fox and ABC only have half their schedules devoted to comic book characters.
AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS is still on the air. How is that even possible?

Is ABC giving up on Sunday night? I guess they feel they can’t compete against NBC Sunday Night Football. So they have TO TELL THE TRUTH and SHARK TANK. Their logo should be a white flag.

Friday night is now officially the dumping ground for hour-long series that have lost their luster. It’s hospice care for dramas.

YOUNG SHELDON will be the new hit comedy of the year. It’s also very funny.

Fox hopes that Lee Daniels becomes Shonda Rhimes as they’ve devoted all of Wednesday to his shows. By the way, I’m rooting for STAR.

Lots of military dramas on the schedule this year.  Green is the new Orange.

There are also a few religious-themed shows.   If you don't watch them this administration may just deport you.  

SURVIVOR is back. The only island they haven’t been to is Gilligan’s.

Throw in the intangibles like the World Series, two shows tanking and being cancelled right away, and it is still anybody’s guess how many episodes of ROSEANNE they’ll make before that thing implodes.

Next week I’ll talk about the types of sitcoms that were picked up and what to expect. Should be fun.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions.

The Bumble Bee Pendant has a question about the recent cancellation of LAST MAN STANDING:

Ken, so Tim Allen went on Twitter today (Tuesday) and said, "Stunned and blindsided by the network I called home for the last six years. "

We all know it's business, and its about money, but why would ABC burn a bridge, especially of an A List Star like Tim Allen? Why not be upfront, etc, and at least giving him some bullshit, rather than blindside him?

The Next time he or someone else has a product to share, ABC won't be their first choice.

Two truths: 1) Tim Allen is not an A-list star. Not anymore. Tina Fey is an A-list star. 2) Networks don’t care that they treat people poorly. Not anymore. Once they’re done with you they move on. I would not be surprised if some of the LAST MAN STANDING cast and writing staff found out about the cancellation on social media sites, not from phone calls from the network. You work on a show for six years and learn you’ve been dumped on Twitter.

And trust me, ABC is not alone. When a network wants to be in business with you you’re their best friend. They can’t do enough for you. HAMILTON tickets? You’ve got it. Room on the corporate jet? What time do you wanna leave?

Then they cancel your show and you have to walk home from New York.

Melissa Agar wonders:

I read today that Fox is bring New Girl back for an abbreviated season and that it will involve a time jump. Several shows in recent years have utilized this device -- Parks and Recreation, Jane the Virgin. I'm wondering what you think of the device. What challenges does it pose to a cast and staff?

I think it’s an interesting idea because it shakes up the show a little, and hopefully opens the door to new stories. It’s sure better than the reverse. On MASH we were stuck in this cosmic limbo where we couldn’t really do any time jumps. And trust me, by season seven it was very difficult to keep coming up with fresh stories that hadn’t been done.

Another advantage to the time jump:  If you want to make some cast changes they're easy to explain away. A line or two to cover the character’s exit and that’s it. You don’t have to do an episode showing his departure.

From suek2001:

I listened to your podcast through my ROKU device on my TV..through the TUNE IN app...works great! I did have a random question...how much did you have to pay to make your own theme song for the Podcast?

You mean my jingles? It helps to have a close friend who owns the largest and best jingle company in the world, Jam Creative Productions. We worked out a deal. A big thanks to Jon and Mary Lyn Wolfert.  The singers were amazing and here I am with them:
John E. Williams has a CHEERS FQ:

Was there ever an episode where Norm entered the bar and the writers forgot to add the "NORM" greeting?

There have been episodes where Norm entered with other people and on those occasions we didn’t do an official “Norm entrance.”  Usually they sang the theme from "the Magnificent Seven."

There may have also been a time or two when the bar was empty when he entered – so no, no “Norm entrance” on those.

Brad Apling wants to know:

It seems that bringing a TV show to the tube is complicated and getting more so in respect to, say, 30 years ago (which really isn't that long ago). So, it begs the question: Is there any encouragement for new writers to pursue the TV industry or is it a matter of numbers [some live, some die so might as well keep writing and trying]?

It is way easier to get a show picked up now than when I broke in. Back then there were three networks. If your pilot didn’t get on you were toast.

Now there are many networks, and streaming platforms, and premium cable channels. Shows can now be niche. So I would think for a writer this is a way more exciting time. Lot more buyers and opportunities. 

What’s your Friday Question?