Wednesday, March 21, 2018

EP64: Surviving Hollywood Rejections

Everyone in show business gets rejected. Ken shares some of his most memorable rejections and offers tips to help you rise above them. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

I miss comic strips

There are fewer and fewer comic strips these days. Not surprising considering there are fewer and fewer newspapers. And the one still hanging on are shrinking.

Yet fans of comic strips are DIEHARD fans. Whenever I bring up the topic on this blog I get a flood of comments; most very passionate. And I think that’s great. Keep 'em coming.

There is something about comic strips that instills fierce loyalty. Next to politics I think our country is most divided over Calvin & Hobbs.  But TV series can only dream of such loyalty. 

Since I no longer get a daily paper (I used to for years but they just started stacking up unread – I followed the news through the internet like everybody else), I rarely see the comic page. But when I do I’m usually disappointed. The jokes just aren’t that funny.

Were they funnier when I was a kid and there were way more strips? Probably not. My sense of humor was less than razor-sharp when I was 10. But I loved them. I loved the draftsmanship. I also loved the link to the past. Most of these strips were created before I was born. There was a sense of history and legacy to them. It was kind of cool that my dad and I both loved Popeye as a kid.

At one time, when I was in high school, I thought having a nationally syndicated comic strip would be a nifty way to make a living. I was a pretty fair cartoonist back then. In researching it more closely I learned that it was extremely hard to enter the field. Very very few new strips broke through.

But that wasn’t my biggest deterrent. It was the fact that I would have to come up with seven new jokes a week. Every week. Who could possibly survive under that pressure? Now of course, in television, I had to come up with seven jokes every fifteen minutes and do it for decades. But at the time it was a daunting task.

I did however get a comic strip into one paper. It was the local Woodland Hills weekly paper and this is when I was in high school. My strip was about teenagers (duh!), and I delivered a finished panel (all in pen & ink just like the big boys) every week. The strip ran for maybe three months. But then I was downsized. The paper was cutting back and my strip was a real luxury. I was making $5 a month.

Ultimately, I think I made the smarter choice to go into screenwriting. But it breaks my heart to see the slow decline of comic strips. At its best it’s a wonderful art, and today more than ever, we need all the creative outlets we can find.  Good Grief! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A writers' dirty little secret for actors

There are numerous situations on television series where the actors are at odds with the writers. Usually over the way actors treat the scripts.

But here’s what these actors don’t understand:

If you are respectful of the writers, if you present your concerns in a positive way, if you don’t antagonize them you will only be helping YOURSELF.

I’ve been in both situations — casts that were lovely and casts that were nightmares. Usually in those latter cases it’s one monster (no names but see the picture) who poisons it for everybody.

On the shows where the actors were lovely the writers bent over backwards to give them great stuff. They were also incredibly protective of the actors and their characters. More protective sometimes than the actors were themselves. We made sure characters didn’t come off too stupid or insensitive. We made sure every actor was being serviced. We’d say so-and-so has gone three pages with really nothing to do. Let’s give her a big joke.

Listen actors — we don’t need YOU to tell us you need more jokes. We don’t need YOU to tell us your character is being unnecessarily heartless. But if you do, if you throw the script back in our face, if you just tank scenes you don’t like you do so at your own peril. Yes, we may fix something you screamed about. But in the room you’ll have no advocates. No one will want to stay one minute later to see if we might give you a better joke. We’re professionals and we’ll turn out professional product. But don’t expect any allegiance. Don’t expect anyone to fight on your behalf. Don’t expect one of the writers to be bothered by a story point and have it keep him awake for one minute.

On the other hand, treat us with respect, consider our feelings, think of us as partners not enemies, and we’ll walk through walls for you. Like I said, YOU’RE the one who most benefits. And all it takes is simple human decency. Well, simple for some actors.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Will the real David Letterman please stand up?

It’s been a Letterman weekend. The OPEN ALL NIGHT clip I posted Saturday and then I watched his new Netflix series where he conducts in depth interviews. The one I watched (of course) was the one with Barack Obama.

Obama, of course, was magnificent. Charming, funny, articulate, smart, and caring. But what struck me was Letterman. I thought to myself, “Who is this guy?” It’s like he’s adopted a new public persona.

This David Letterman has grown a ridiculous gray beard, let himself go, and now seems to pass himself off as a man of great conscience and concern for humanity. Huh? We see him walking the bridge in Selma with John Lewis and at one point to Obama he makes this confession that when the Civil Rights marchers were there originally he was on a cruise to the Bahamas, and he almost mists up when he says, “Why wasn’t I in Selma?” WTF? David Letterman a freedom fighter? He made it sound like he’s been haunted by this guilt his entire life. That’s a lovely sentiment, but I’m sorry, I don’t believe it for a second.

I have been a fan of David Letterman’s dating back to when I first knew him as an aspiring stand-up at the Comedy Store in the mid-‘70s. I LOVED his NBC morning show, also loved his NBC late night show, and thought his CBS show was… okay. But in every case he was playing a “character.” Originally the wholesome kid from the Midwest who had a mischievous edge eventually morphing into a cranky curmudgeon and now an… I dunno, national treasure? But none of those are really Dave.

At first he was a very ambitious young man. Eventually he became very sullen, very bitter (why I don’t know), very closed off.

But all the years I’ve watched him, both on stage and on television I never feel I’m seeing a genuine person. And it's one thing if you’re a comic and do your one hour set. Steve Martin is not a wild & crazy guy. But if you’re going to be on television for an hour a night for thirty years I would like to think I’m getting to actually know you. Jimmy Kimmel feels more genuine to me. So does Jon Stewart. Even John Oliver. Yes, he’s revved up but I get the sense that’s the real him.

David Letterman keeps trying on characters. Maybe the problem is HE doesn’t really know who he is. But I'll become a much bigger fan when he figures it out. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

If you have no plans for tonight

And in you're in the LA magnificent megalopolis, come see a Cafe Play I wrote for the Ruskin Theatre Group in Santa Monica.   These are plays we wrote this morning, are being rehearsed now, and performed tonight at 7:30 and 9:00.  Here are details.  It's always a fun night.  Say hello if you come.  I'll be there for both shows. 

The comedy rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Lakers tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. 

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Here's a TV rarity

There was a very short-lived show called OPEN ALL NIGHT.  I believe it was 1981.  It lasted 13 weeks on ABC.  David Isaacs and I wrote two of the episodes and appeared in one.  Shockingly, we were nominated for a WGA Award for one of our OPEN ALL NIGHT episodes.  (Yes, we lost. The show was off the air by then and the company disbanded.)   But it was a very funny show about an all-night convenience store created and ran by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, who produced the best years of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.

The show was very nutty.  And from time to time they had bizarre cameos.  Here's one of strangest.  David Letterman on OPEN ALL NIGHT. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday Questions

This turned out to be an all MASH Friday Question day.

Joe starts with a question about the MASH article that ran in the Hollywood Reporter a few weeks ago.

Great article, but I have one question, Ken. They said Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart both left after season 4, but Gene stayed another year, right?

Also, he was listed as a creative consultant for the rest of the show. How much was he involved when you and David were running the writers room?

Yes, Gene stayed for season five and was the showrunner. He left after that to run LOU GRANT for MTM. But he remained a consultant.

Once a week, David Isaacs, Burt Metcalfe, and I would go up to Gene’s house with outlines. Gene would go over them and make suggestions for improvements. It was a weekly master class on story structure. I can’t begin to calculate how much I learned from those sessions. Gene has the uncanny ability to hear a story and almost instantly know what’s wrong with it and what would make it better.

To this day, when I’m stuck on a story I think to myself: What would Gene do?  He's the best I ever worked with in that department. 

From Pete Grossman:

The show was peppered with Yiddish words - Hawkeye yelling "Dreck!" (Shit) during the river of liver and ocean of fish scene; "Mazel Tov" (Good Luck [said with a congratulatory tone] uttered from Pat Morita's character; Col. Potter responding with "Emis" [truth] later in the show's run. For the last one, I remember watching it with my father when it first aired and my dad asking me, "How does Col. Potter know Yiddish?" Sure, there's a certain conceit, but wondering how much it was discussed if at all, as most of the population isn't quite up on their "farshtand" (understanding) of the language. Thanks!

I suspect that was Larry Gelbart’s sensibility. And I think it stems not so much from Larry trying to make the characters more Jewish but from his love of words and language. Larry was always looking for colorful words and expressions you might not expect. It’s one of the many reasons his writing was so sharp and layered.

Podcast listener Chris Dellecese asks:

Why did Henry Blake get a huge goodbye episode on MASH but nothing for Trapper John? Did it involve the timing of who left when?

The producers knew ahead of time that McLean was leaving the end of season three. So they had time to plan his exit.

Wayne decided not to come back after the season wrapped. So Gelbart & Reynolds just had to explain away his disappearance. Whether he was asked to come back and do a farewell show or not, that I don’t know. That all happened a year before David and I came aboard.

But when Larry Linville left after season five we invited him back for the season six opener to explain away Frank Burn’s departure, but he chose not to return.

And finally, from Cedric Hohnstadt:

You've written before that flaws are what make characters interesting and entertaining. During a recent bout of insomnia I was lying in bed trying to think through the flaws of various MASH characters. I got stuck when I came to BJ. Hawkeye could be idealistic, impulsive, mischievous, womanizing, and a bit self-righteous. BJ, on the other hand, was mostly just a warm, friendly family man - intelligent and funny but (aside from an occasional mischievous streak) he was overall a very balanced and grounded guy. I'm sure that made him a good compliment to Hawkeye but I would think there was also a real danger of him becoming a "vanilla" character. How did you get around that problem?

There was a huge distinction between Hawkeye and B.J.   B.J. had a mustache. 

But seriously, it was a problem. We tried to make him more stubborn than Hawkeye, more obsessive with patients, a practical joker, and we gave him a higher moral standard than Hawkeye. There were times when B.J. and Hawkeye would clash over medical treatment. Still, we felt somewhat handcuffed by B.J.’s lack of flaws. Mike Farrell is such a wonderful actor and if I'm being honest, there were times he was not well served. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Levine & Isaacs partnership process

Here’s a three-part Friday Question that takes up a whole post. It’s from Mike Bloodworth and is about my longtime partnership with David Isaacs.

I know some writers prefer to write alone, but previously you've stated that there are advantages to having a partner. However, did you always agree on scripts? Did you ever feel reluctant to compromise on a line? How often, if ever was there conflict?

No, we don’t always agree. And sometimes the arguments have gotten spirited. But the key is we never make it personal. We can argue tooth-and-nail over some story point and then break for lunch and talk about baseball.

When it comes to specific lines, we have a rule. If one of us pitches a joke the other doesn’t spark to and can’t convince him in like two minutes we just throw the line out completely and go for something entirely different. Usually it takes less time to come up with something new than to argue over a line and ultimately one person is unhappy.

All that said, for the most part we're in agreement.  

The key to this and the partnership in general is that you have to have respect for your partner’s opinion and talent. So if I pitch a joke and David thinks we can do better I trust his judgment.

Do you guys have specialties? Having worked with you I know that you're a great "straight man." Is one of you better at set ups, punch lines, story, exposition, etc.?

No, we’re surprisingly similar. Normally we work head-to-head. But early in our career we would take one script assignment a year and break it up. I would write one act and David would write the other. We would then put them together and do the polish together. I swear, you couldn’t tell who wrote which act.

One difference is that very early on I tended to go to fast and David tended to go too slow. We were each a good influence on each other.

Eventually we fell into a groove and write together at a good comfortable clip.

And as for jokes, people always ask if I wrote a certain joke and I tell them I don’t remember. It sounds like I’m being coy, but the truth is one of us will pitch a joke, the other will modify it, and together we will further shape it. So I really don’t remember.

Not all Lennon and McCartney songs were written by both John and Paul together, especially toward the end of the Beatles. Was every Levine & Isaacs written by both of you? Or is that billing just part of your agreement?

Every Levine & Isaacs script was written by both of us. In some cases one more than the other, but that’s the value of a partnership. If one of us had the flu and the script had to be in by Friday the healthy one would do the lion’s share of the work on that draft. Or if I was off doing baseball, one of us would take the first draft and the other would then do the second draft. Then we always did the final polish together.

But the overwhelming majority of our scripts were written with me and David in a room together dictating to a writers’ assistant.

Every partnership is different. There is no right or wrong way to collaborate. It depends on you. But this is our process and I’d say it works for us since we’ve been partners for over 120 years.