Wednesday, November 14, 2018

EP98: My 15 Seconds of Fame: Me on Camera

Ken talks about the various times he’s appeared on camera either
as an actor, sportscaster, host, or dancer (if you can believe it). You’ll hear some amusing tales and learn why he’s not on camera more often.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Don Draper would be proud

This is my favorite advertising story.

So much of advertising is perception. Positioning yourself in the minds of the consumers.  And the rest is competition. It's not enough to be good, you have to either be better than your competition or make the consumer believe your competitor is bad.   Today there are so many products (not to mention political ads that are currently flooding the airwaves) and so many slogans that it’s hard for any one message to really hit home, but in Don Draper’s day when there were only three networks and three or four primary magazines a good slogan would have a greater impact.

Back in the ‘50s all canned tuna was pink. Then “Chicken of the Sea” came along with white tuna. It wasn’t selling. They tried to promote it as tasting like chicken (hence the name). The public wasn’t buying it. White tuna looked weird.

Along came Mad Men to the rescue. And this ingenious slogan:

“Chicken of the Sea” – guaranteed never to turn pink.

Within about a year pink tuna was completely off the market.

Now THAT’S advertising.

Ironically, "Chicken of the Sea" now also sells pink salmon.  I wonder if their campaign should be "Guaranteed never to turn white."  

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is a movie that critics hate but audiences love. There are many things to pick apart in this film should you wish to, but if you loved the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen you won’t want your money back.

The sense I got was that Hollywood looked at Freddie’s life and said, “Too dark for a holiday release.” So they spruced up this very complicated figure and made him more Cineplex-friendly.

But the music is great.

Rami Malek (MR. ROBOT) did an admirable job capturing Freddie’s moves and swagger. He was fitted with ridiculous teeth. Supposedly Freddie had four extra teeth, which meant his mouth was larger and accounted for his additional range. If this were true then Wink Martindale is the greatest singer of the last hundred years.

Did I mention the music is swell?

Once Freddie cuts his hair and becomes the image we’re most familiar with then Rami looked like Rowan Atkinson with clown teeth. I will admit it took me out of some emotional scenes because all I could picture was Mr. Bean trying to eat an apple.

But then there were those songs.

Story-wise, it followed the Hollywood studio biopic formula. Parents don’t understand, falls in love with a local, gets discovered, career takes off, dumps the local flame, fame and fortune take its toll, uh oh, things start turning bad, relationships break apart, things get worse, but there’s a feel-good ending to send everyone home on a high note. Sometimes it works and is Ray Charles and other times it doesn’t and it’s James Brown, Johnny Cash, or (God help us) Bobby Darin. Things wrap up as they always do -- fences mended, family harmony restored, a spectacular farewell performance.

I will say this: Anytime they try to have the scene where the fictional rock star wows the crowd and whips them into an orgasmic frenzy it always feels bogus. Like Gwyneth Paltrow could raise the roof with her singing. But in the final Live-Aid scene you totally believe it (oh don’t say SPOILER ALERT, you know in the first minute of the film that that was gong to be the big denouement).

And that section alone is worth the price of admission.

Sure, they could have mounted a more nuanced, deeper study of this brilliant artist and how success and sex turned his life into a Shakespearean tragedy. But that’s shooting for Oscars. This movie aimed at pleasing audiences and making a shit-ton more money than any art house film could. Ending BOHAMIAN RHAPSODY with that recreation of the Live-Aid concert was a definite crowd pleaser.

So if you go into BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with low expectations and you’re not a reviewer for the New York Times you should enjoy this movie. And for the next three days you’ll be listening to nothing but Queen. What music!

Monday, November 12, 2018


This is clearly my favorite project currently in development – KEVIN CAN F*** HIMSELF. Created by Valerie Armstrong and executive produced by Rashida Jones, this is a half-hour comedy pilot for AMC.

With a healthy dollop of meta, this sitcom was obviously inspired by the recent CBS series, KEVIN CAN WAIT starring Kevin James.

Some background. KEVIN CAN WAIT premiered two years ago and was an instant hit. It was the most successful new comedy of the season. It received a full-season order for the second season months before season one was even over. And CBS initially so wanted Kevin James that they agreed to build a soundstage for him in Long Island so he could do the show practically from home. To say he was the 800 pound gorilla was an understatement. Of course, you build the guy a studio what do you expect when he flexes his creative muscles?

From day one James ran the show. The original creator/show runner quit halfway through season one. James was notorious for rewriting every script.

One of his problems was the chemistry between him and his TV wife, Erinn Hayes. Admittedly, Hayes is not a gifted comedienne. She’s more of a dramatic actress. Anyway, the decision was made to drop her at the end of season one and replace her with Leah Remini. Remini and James were together on KING OF QUEENS. And Remini is much more facile when it comes to comedy. So there definitely were reasons for making the switch. It was a decision approved by CBS and the studio producing the show. Casting changes are not uncommon. We were forced by CBS to let Kevin Kilner go from ALMOST PERFECT (a stupid decision that ultimately killed the show – thanks, CBS).

But in this case, the real problem was how KEVIN CAN WAIT handled it. They decided to kill off the character. That’s pretty severe. They couldn’t say she had to care for her sick mother in California and keep the door open for guest appearances to keep her in the series? Erinn Hayes had fans and the general consensus was that killing her off was excessive and needlessly hostile.

And then in season two her death was completely swept under the rug. There were a few mentions in passing (mostly as jokes).  So it was handled in a very callous manner.  I don’t have to tell you who made those creative decisions. James dug in his heels and guided the show in season two, deaf to any network, studio, or staff concerns. The result: the ratings went down and CBS cancelled the show after season two.

It takes some doing to go from most successful new comedy to cancellation in one year. (Although Roseanne managed the same feat in the length of time it took to write and post one tweet.)

If you watch a lot of network family sitcoms you’ll see a convention that always strains credibility. There’s always a schlub unattractive dim husband and a hot wife (usually younger) who in real life wouldn’t piss on these dolts if their hair was on fire. Jami Gertz & Mark Addy, Courtney Thorne-Smith & Jim Belushi, Nancy Travis & Tim Allen, and certainly Erinn Hayes & Kevin James (just to name a few).

Actresses will tell you it’s the most thankless role ever. You’re the wet blanket, rarely do you get great jokes, and you have to somehow try to sell that you’re in love with these obnoxious idiots.

So that’s what KEVIN CAN F*** HIMSELF is about. In their words it “explores the secret life of a woman we all grew up watching: the sitcom wife. A beauty paired with a less attractive, dismissive, caveman-like husband who gets to be a jerk because she’s a nag and he’s ‘funny.' What happens when this supporting character is presented as a real person? And what if that person is pissed?”

Should be fun. I know an actress and writing staff who might enjoy working on this show.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Weekend Post

My heart goes out to anyone in the path of the many horrendous brushfires roaring through California. Wildfires have always been a threat in these areas but it seems this year things have gotten worse. So many homes; so many lives. People in canyons and in Malibu face these dangers every few years. But a lot of these fires are sweeping through suburbs.

Again, my hopes and prayers for everyone’s safety.

I don’t know what the coverage is like where you are, but here in Los Angeles, it is geared very much to the entertainment industry. And representative of just how myopic this town is.

Lots of headlines are about which celebrities had to evacuate – as if Kim Kardashian evacuating is any more important than anyone else. Alyssa Milano is safe we’re told. An industry website featured the headline proclaiming Caitlyn Jenner safe. Whew! Like in the midst of all this destruction and heartbreak I give one shit about Caitlyn Jenner.

The big news was the loss of the Paramount Ranch. Oh no. The sets for WESTWORLD were destroyed. Yes, that’s unfortunate, but it seems to me it pales compared to people losing their homes. Oh, and the hospital that burned down. The mansion used for THE BACHELOR and THE BACHELORETTE was damaged we’re told. And the industry report added that neither show was currently in production. Thank God! Seriously, when you look at the scope of these fires who gives a fuck about THE BACHELOR’S possible production setbacks?

Hollywood has never been one for perspective. The day President Reagan was shot it was the scheduled night of the Academy Awards. They were postponed as a result, and one of the trades had the large blazing headline: OSCARCAST POSTPONED. And then underneath, in much smaller letters: The President Shot.

My sincerest hope and prayer is that if you’re personally affected by these fires that YOU’RE safe, your animals are safe, and YOUR home is spared. The sets for WESTWORLD will be rebuilt. THE BACHELOR can rent a different mansion. I know it’s a hard thing to ask in this town, but seriously, let’s get real.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day. Remember, a new post tomorrow to carry you through the weekend.

Bryan Price starts us off:

Was watching and enjoying a first-season CHEERS you wrote - the episode Now Pitching, Sam Malone where Sam is "convinced" to make a commercial. Can you tell us about any complications from designing a fake commercial within a real TV show and any anecdotes in working with Luis Tiant.

Doing the fake commercial was easy. We based it on an actual campaign. It was pre-filmed (so not in front of the audience) and James Burrows directed it as if he were directing any commercial.

It took forever to film however, and the reason was Luis Tiant. Now I love Luis. He’s a totally sweet guy. But his English, especially his diction when speaking English, was somewhat, uh… lacking. He tried his best and was a pleasure to work with, but OY. God knows how many takes it took.

I think we still looped him after the filming. 

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

I'm always intrigued by how a writer of a show/screenplay/whatever can simply say, "I am going to write a totally new draft and not include anything from the old script."

How does someone's previous version not influence a new version?
How do you pretend that anything you thought worked in the previous iteration, not make it into the new one?

If a script requires a page-one rewrite I will either go back to the outline and not even work off the draft, or change the story significantly and write a new outline.

There may be a line or beat in the original draft worth keeping and I’m happy to. Less work for me. But I won’t shoehorn anything in from the original draft.

And usually the reason for a total rewrite is the original writer didn’t have a good sense of the characters. So none of their dialogue will be useful.

But look, I once threw out a whole act of a full-length script that I wrote. There were some wonderful jokes but the story didn’t work so I threw it all out and came up with something else (that proved to be way better).  Writing is rewriting. 

From ReticentRabbit:

Julia Louis-Dreyfus will accept the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor later this month. Keeping in mind that they typically only present the award to those who are living and never repeat winners (making this something of a Lifetime Achievement award), who would get your vote?

Can I vote for myself? Oh well. In that case, Mel Brooks.

And finally, from DyHrdMET:

I'm sure you've answered this already, but why did you want to get into directing TV sitcoms?

It’s not for the reason you would think. It’s not because I felt the need to protect my words.

After years of being on staff or consulting on shows I got to the point where I hated to go to the stage. I would dread run-throughs and hold my breath that the script worked and I wouldn’t be in the writing room until 3 a.m.

And one day I thought to myself, this is nuts. The whole reason for being a TV writer was to see my work done. I should be looking forward to going to the stage, not dreading it. So I thought, how could I recapture that desire to be on the stage? And the answer was directing.

That was where the fun was. You were playing with the actors and trying to make a show, and if it didn’t work and had to be rewritten you could still make dinner reservations. Directing was way more social, you got to play with cameras, and trust me the days just fly. There’s never enough time.

That was my initial motivation and I have to say it worked. I love directing. Don’t tell anybody but it’s waaaaay easier than writing.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

EP97: Behind the Scenes: Another CHEERS commentary!

Ken provides a commentary track to an episode of CHEERS he co-wrote. “Any Friend of Diane’s,” Season 1, EP6. Lots of great inside stuff. You can either just listen or follow along as you watch the episode!

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

THIS is the job I want

HBO has hired an “intimacy coordinator.” Her job is to supervise the filming of any sex scenes in HBO shows and ensure that the actors are comfortable doing what they’re asked to do. Imagine being paid to watch sex scenes. And I thought Phil Rosenthal gallivanting around the world dining in the world’s greatest restaurants was the best job ever. Give me this and a tuna sandwich off the craft service’s table and I’d be happy.

At first blush this “intimacy coordinator” position sounds like a fancy title for “Standards & Practices”, which itself is a fancy title for “censor.” But now with #MeToo I can certainly see the justification for it.

HBO has a couple of series with pretty graphic sex scenes. THE DEUCE and WESTWORLD. Apparently last year on WESTWORLD background actors had to sign a waiver agreeing to participate in “graphic sexual situations” including genital-to-genital touching. At least when TSA agents touch your genitals you then get to go on a plane trip.

I’ll be interested to see how producers react to this new policy. Yes, it’s intrusive and some corporate “suit” having to approve your scenes, but on my set I wouldn’t want any actor doing something they’d be uncomfortable with. Personally, I think it’s a lot to ask an actor to agree to nudity in the first place. Especially these days where any mouth breather can do a screen shot and your nude scene winds up on fifteen websites to live forever.

Many actors, especially when starting out, are afraid to object for fear of being replaced. I would hate to think that even inadvertently I was making an actor do something they found really distasteful. So having this “Intimacy Coordinator” gives all actors an advocate and they can speak up on the actor’s behalf.

I’m okay with that. I would hope that the “Intimacy Coordinator” would have nothing to do on my set, but if an issue should arise I would address it. And I imagine those conversations would be one for the book.

 “I don’t know if my character would give blowjobs to Amway salesmen.” “Do I really need to strip naked for this doctor’s appointment? I’m having my eyes checked.” “I’m okay with having sex with sheep… it’s just that I’m allergic.” (And in that case there should also be a “Livestock Coordinator.”)

This is just another shining example that HOLLYWOOD CARES… when they’re forced to.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018


It's been two years of lying, cheating, racism, destroying human rights, disrespecting women, condoning Nazis, separating toddlers from their families, mass shootings involving innocent people and children, lining pockets of the rich, obstructing justice, pissing on the Constitution, advocating violence, cutting your health care, raping the environment, jeopardizing your Social Security and Medicare, treason, and felony crimes -- today at least we have a chance to DO SOMETHING.

Please vote.  Please restore decency and kindness and ethics and justice and everything America really stands for.   Especially you Millennials.  As it is it will probably take 20 years to undo all of the damage done in the last two years.   The future is YOUR world.   You will be the ones suffering the most if all of this continues.  And trust me, you WILL suffer.  For your own sake, for the security of your family, vote these monsters out.

And if not, God help you... because I won't.