Thursday, April 24, 2014

My favorite new super power

I’ll be filling in for Marilu Henner again tomorrow on her nationally syndicated radio show. (You can hear it here.)  Marilu has this almost freakish ability to remember every day of her life in detail. I’ve tested her. She's the real deal.   I’ll pick a day out of the past – say the day my son was born – and she’ll instantly say, “That was a Tuesday. Election Day.” And then she’ll rattle off who was elected that day. (This was maybe a month ago and I’ve already forgotten who those election winners were.)

It’s called Supeior Autobiographical Memory, and it’s a legitimate thing. I know because 60 MINUTES once did a piece on it. (That’s how we determine legitimacy these days. INSIDE EDITION – I’m still iffy, 60 MINUTES – must be real, anything on FOX NEWS – not true.)

In the 60 MINUTES piece they found a number of people who have this skill/super power. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten of them identified (at least in the United States). They were all given MRI’s and it was determined that a specific portion of their brains was larger. In the case of the guys, their penises were bigger. (Okay, that was a joke but I just couldn’t resist.) But studying this phenomenon might unlock some of the mysteries of improving everyone’s memory or reversing Alzheimer’s Disease.

I asked Marilu the obvious questions. Is this ability a blessing or a curse? Can you still lose your keys? She said it was a blessing, like having her own private Google search engine. All of the other SAM people agreed. Except one. For her it was a curse because every bad or sad thing that ever occurred in her life never left her. Imagine being able to replay exactly how you felt when you were dumped, humiliated at work, or a loved one died? The expression “time heals all wounds” doesn’t apply.

But the others deal with that by putting the bad events in perspective and realizing they are surrounded by many good days. They can relive those too. The euphoria of first love, landing that big job, seeing VOLUNTEERS for the first time.

Leave it to television to take this fascinating skill and turn it into a goofy procedural (UNFORGETTABLE… original working title: THE REMEMBERER). “Wait a minute. He couldn’t be a Vegan. On Wednesday, August 3rd, 1976 I was on a nature hike with my church group and he jumped out of the bushes, killed Lenny Masterson, and started eating him.” “God, you’re amazing. How do you even remember that?”

Can you picture someone with this skill who is a habitual poster on Facebook? Throwback Thursday. “On March 18, 1983 I woke up at 7:15, put on my blue blouse that I got for my birthday on July 24, 1980 from my friend Marcy who hasn’t called since Sunday, November 4th, 2003, and had a bowl of Cheerios and milk that expired on March 21st. Then I took the 56 bus into town, arriving at…” You get the idea.  UN-friend. 

I personally think this would be a cool super power to have… until…

you got old.

Just imagine, being on your deathbed, knowing you only have a few precious moments left. You think back on your life. On September 16, 2014 you spent the whole afternoon reading through Ken Levine’s blog archives, on February 26th, 1998 you waited in line for two hours to see TITANIC, on April 16, 2016 you binge-watched every episode of UNFORGETTABLE. On June 8th, 2020 you went to the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

The moral here is simple.  Get out and make this a day worth remembering.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Do we need Linkedin?

I’m on Linkedin and I don’t know why. Someone suggested I join so I did. Maybe I was drunk that night. Thank God he suggested Linkedin and not meth. But for my purposes Linkedin is utterly useless.

In theory, it’s a social network disguised as a professional network. It will help you find jobs, survey applicants, and facilitate connections. And maybe it’s a godsend if you’re a lawyer or in some business-related profession. I don’t know any comedy writers who got staff work because thirty-five colleagues endorsed him as funny.

Endorsements are a key feature of the site. When I’m on Linkedin, boxes will pop up inviting me to endorse people for specific areas of expertise. Half the people I don’t even know. And they keep popping up day after day. “Please love me. Please love me.” If I see a friend pop up I will always endorse him for… whatever. It just takes one click.

In turn, people I’ve never met have endorsed me. Over a hundred people have endorsed me for Voice Over work. That’s very flattering considering I’ve never done Voice Over work. More people endorse me for that than screenwriting. Eighteen people endorse me for Adobe Audition. I don’t even know what that is. Eleven think I do a great job in Copywriting. I’ve never written one piece of copy in my life.

Only seven say I’m good in play-by-play, five praise me as a published author, and my sense of humor is endorsed by five. But forty-seven admire my video production. I don’t even know how to download a video production app.

But the best of all is that three people endorse me for Thai Massage. (Only three?)

Do employers really take this stuff seriously?

I have a friend on Linkedin, who as a goof, listed her profession as “farmer.” Sure enough, she has all these endorsements for bailing, irrigation, and cattle rustling.

Scrolling through the home page, the posts are more professional in nature than Facebook. Lots of links to articles and videos interwoven with blatant self-promotion, which is fine with me. Blatant self promotion is the only reason I’m ON social media. And Linkedin has its own version of cute cat pictures and adorable children photos. It’s called “quotes.” People share inspirational sayings like:

"You can neither win nor lose if you don't run the race." - Singer, David Bowie

“Failure will never overtake me if my determination to win is strong enough” ~Og Mandino

"Comparison is the thief of joy. " ~Theodore Roosevelt

Give me kittens hugging stuffed teddy bears.

The truth is, if Linkedin subscribers really believed any of that they’d be working instead of killing time scrolling through a social network.

But maybe that’s the saving grace of Linkedin. You can go on it at work and still feel like you’re engaging in a professional endeavor. I find the site interesting on a human behavior level. And I’m not so enamored that my massage clients complain that I’m late for appointments.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Checking in on MAD MEN

I found the key to enjoying MAD MEN this year!

The first few seasons I was blown away by it. The last couple of seasons were hit-and-miss. Mostly miss. And now I watch it because I’ve invested this much time into the series that I might as well see it through to the end. But I find I’m enjoying it more this season. So why? Are the storylines more compelling than in recent years? No. Are there surprising turns? No. It’s all pretty much more of the same. Don can't find happiness.  Pete is a dick.  Peggy's searching for her place in a man's world. Roger goes through life pickled.   Beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat, beenthere/donethat. 

But here’s the big difference: my mindset. And if you’re disillusioned with MAD MEN too, I invite you to try this as well. Are you ready? Here we go:

Just think of MAD MEN as another show.

Simple as that. Don’t expect to be watching the most amazing drama you’ve ever seen. Don’t study each tiny moment and analyze each line for its hidden significance and major import. Don’t think you’re holding a mirror up to society. Don’t fret that the themes aren’t resonating and staying with you for days. Don’t feel guilty that your DVR is filling up with unseen episodes.

Just enjoy it. Just let the episodes unfold. It’s made a world of difference for me. Some storylines I find less interesting than others. So what? Last Sunday’s was not particularly spectacular. But it held my interest. I actually got a few laughs out of it.  Forty minutes well spent (I zap through the endless commercials).   Peggy is turning into a bitch, and I know steps are being painstakingly taken to explain why and how it’s the job and societal pressure on women, yada yada. Would I prefer the old Peggy? Should I examine my stance on workplace politics?  Whatever.  The new Peggy is adding conflict and that holds my interest. Good enough.

I doubt if I’ll be having many discussions around the water cooler this year. There is hidden meaning in almost every line that now goes cheerfully right over my head. I’m fine with that. I like most of the characters, I love the time period, the dialogue is always snappy, I appreciate the intelligence, there are some good tunes on the radio, and every so often we get a killer scene.

And I don’t need MAD MEN to be a great show. I have THE GOOD WIFE for that. I had HOUSE OF CARDS. I had TRUE DETECTIVES. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK returns very soon. I’m getting my superb television fix.

And now that I approach MAD MEN with this new mindset, it is once again a show I look forward to watching. Give it a try.  The scene in the season premiere where New York native/gentile Pete was raving to Don about how amazing the Jewish delis are in Los Angeles was a riot!  You don't get that on NCIS: LOS ANGELES. 

Monday, April 21, 2014


I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy storytelling venues. Give me a personal yarn with humor over a stand-up routine on taxicabs any day. Recently, I decided to try participating myself. Other than running off stage at a Kiss concert, I have never done stand up, nor have I had the desire. If I want thirty drunks to love me I can just buy them another round. I don’t need to craft a five-minute set.

But storytelling is different. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It requires description, it allows you to share genuine emotion. And it can be very funny or poignant. I tell personal stories all the time in this blog, why not give it a shot in front of actual people? And like the blog, storytelling offers no real financial gain, so that has me written all over it.

Anyway, I submitted a piece to Sit ‘n Spin. This is a once-a-month storytelling night at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood that’s associated somehow with Comedy Central. (Trust me, I have no illusions of being “discovered”) The readers tend to be working writers and their stories usually range from hilarious to deeply moving. Not having enough depth for the latter I strove for the former.

Many of the stories I’ve heard are autobiographical so I adapted a section from my book on growing up in the ‘60s (THE ME GENERATION… BY ME – available here). I submitted the chapter about my sort of first girlfriend, Eleanor.

Happily, it was accepted and I made my maiden voyage last Thursday. I honestly did not know what to expect. I arrived at the theater dutifully an hour before the show. The other participants were all veteran readers – Jill Morley, Jeff Kahn, Ron Zimmerman, Claudia Lonow, and Taylor Negron. They also knew each other but made me feel very welcome. What struck me was how confident they all were. Completely at ease. They chatted, touched up their make up – this is how I imagine backstage at a strip club to be. An audience of a hundred people was expected but this fazed none of them. What this said to me was their stories must really be great. So I read over mine, suddenly second guessing every joke. They started glancing over theirs and wow, even their fonts were smaller. These folks had it down.

Jill, Ron, Taylor
Maggie Rowe, who runs the program, swept in offering pizza and drinks. She was followed soon after by fellow-reader Ron Zimmerman, now dressed in bloody rags with fake blood dripping off his face. And I was the only one who batted an eye. He casually asked if any of us had any hand sanitizer. Taylor Negron brought a guitarist. Did I under dress and under prepare for this? Was it too late to see if Cirque du Soleil was available?

We did a walk-through on stage. I was second up. I was assigned a music stand stage right. To get to it I would wait backstage in the corner until Jill Morely finished. There would be applause, the lights would dim, and I would go through the split in the side curtain and maneuver my way past some risers to my spot. When I was done, there would (hopefully) be applause, the lights would go down again, and I would exit the stage through the same curtain opening. Piece ‘o cake.

The show started. I took my position backstage. Jill read a very funny piece about receiving lesbian love letters from prison. She was getting good laughs. I felt relieved. This audience was responding to smart jokes about statutory rape.

Finally, she finished, there was enthusiastic applause, the lights dimmed, and I groped my way out to my waiting music stand. I was hit by a spotlight. AAAAGH! It occurred to me: I had never been hit by a spotlight before that wasn’t emanating from a police helicopter. I looked out at the audience and just saw blackness. I had no idea how many of them were on their phones or leaving.

I launched into my piece and thankfully started getting good laughs. Nothing relaxes you like laughter. In a few places they were laughing at straight lines. That’s when you know you’re scoring. I discovered where everyone’s confidence came from. When reading a personal story, who better than you delivering it?

I finished to warm applause, acknowledged with a nod, and the lights went out. This time they really went out. Not like the rehearsal. It was black. I staggered back to the curtain, somehow avoiding clocking myself on one of the risers.

I reached the back curtain but couldn’t find the opening. So I’m groping along, now terrified that the lights were going to come back up and there I will be on full display, spread-eagled, feeling my way along the curtain. What an exit that would be!

Fortunately, I found the slit and slipped through just as the lights went back up. Whewwwww!

I was so glad to get it over with early. I retreated to the dressing room. One by one the rest of the readers took their turns. We couldn’t really hear the performers backstage but we could hear the audience laughter. Everyone’s piece seemed to go well. The bloody rag guy, Ron, was supposed to be Jesus Christ. So I don’t think his essay was personal. Ron has one of the truly great inventive minds in the business.

We all ran out to take a curtain call. I hadn’t taken a curtain call since I was in the 8th Grade production of OKLAHOMA playing Curly in the dream sequence. Jill had to reach over and grab my hand. Oh, that’s right. Everybody holds hands. And bows. And acts humble. I have to say, the curtain call was the weirdest part of the night. I just don’t think of myself as a “performer.” When I had co-written that musical performed at the Goodspeed Theater I asked one of our stars, Andrew Rannells, what it feel like to be out there on stage feeding off the energy of the audience? He said, “Why don’t you just write yourself a part?” and I said, “Because I can’t sing, dance, or act.” But read my own words; that I can do. So the answer to my question to Andrew: it was very cool to feed off the audience’s energy. Cool enough that I plan to do it again in the future.

I have an idea for another story, but first I’ll have to see if Ron will loan me his rags and fake blood.

Thanks to Maggie Rowe, Jill, Jeff, Ron, Claudia, Taylor, and everyone at Sit ‘n Spin. You all made sure my story had a happy ending.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

This is very funny

This is Nina Conti, a very funny (and quite accomplished) ventriloquist. One of her bits is to take people from the audience and turn them into puppets. Here's an example. And for you trivia fans, she is actor Tom Conti's daughter.

Let's play JEOPARDY!

And you are under no obligation to say VOLUNTEERS. 

For me, some would be:

What is  THE GODFATHER Part 2?
What is NETWORK?
What is GUNGA DIN?
What is BANANAS?
What is ARTHUR?
What is DR. NO?
What is GIDGET?
What is STAR WARS?

So what are some of yours? 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My TCA speech

My post on Thursday on why I really became a comedy writer prompted a number of readers to ask if I could share the acceptance speech I delivered at that TCA dinner.  Kind blogger that I am, I used that request to blackmail you into buying more copies of my book.  It worked.  So thanks very much, and here is the speech.  If you don't like it, please don't return the books.  

There were also a couple of ad libs that got laughs, but I don't remember what they were.  I know I made fun of some of the other acceptance speeches but don't recall the exact lines.  (Maybe Alan Sepinwall or Maureen Ryan or one of the other critics there that night does?)   All I know is Claire Danes laughed.   Here's what I said.

On behalf of Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows and all the writers and crew, I want to thank you for this prestigious honor. I was fortunate enough to be with CHEERS since the beginning and trust me, it meant a lot to us that you embraced our show initially. Critics were very important, especially since critics were the only people who watched the show. That first year, not only were we getting trounced by SIMON & SIMON, but something on ABC called TUCKER’S WITCH was kicking our ass.

But thanks to your support, and the fact that NBC had nothing else – which is kind of like today -- they decided to stick with us. Truly, it was us or PINK LADY & JEFF. (That won the TCA Heritage Award in 2006, didn’t it?).

But it was a great run. Who knew it would last eleven years? Who knew Woody would be the cast member to become a movie star? Who knew our modest little theme song would one day be used to sell auto insurance?

It was an honor to be associated with CHEERS. Writers from today’s shows tell me all the time how much CHEERS influenced them and then won’t hire me. But knowing I’ve inspired others, and will still get royalties long after their shows have been cancelled is satisfaction enough. (That got applause) So again, on behalf of the Glen & Les Charles and Jim Burrows, thanks so much. CHEERS is a great example that quality can ultimately win out, and that critics do make a difference.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Questions

A whole bunch of 'em. What’s yours?

Johnny Walker starts us off:

Ken, of the many TV shows about the behind-the-scenes of television (e.g. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Buffalo Bill, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock, something called "Almost Perfect" - whatever that is), which do you feel portrayed the trials, tribulations, stresses and strains of a real TV show most accurately? I.e. Which make you smart in recognition and go, "That's SO true"?

No contest. THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. So realistic it was painfully funny. ALMOST PERFECT is second of course.  Okay... third. 

Cody asks:

Would you ever consider doing a drama that contained a fair amount of humor? 
Sure. If the right idea came along. I very much enjoyed writing the dramatic aspects of MASH. But still, there would be a lot of humor. I actually laugh more at certain dramas than I do current sitcoms. By far the funniest character on television in the last ten years is Dewey Crow from JUSTIFIED.

David Chase, by the way, always contended that THE SOPRANOS was a comedy.  I think that's stretching it, but there's room for humor in all dramas (except maybe CRIMINAL MINDS). 

Carol has a question based on the Friday Question a few weeks ago about profanity.

Do you think being handcuffed to not being able to use profanity, even when it would make sense to do so forced you to be even more clever with phrasing and jokes and things?

Absolutely. Our goal has always been to write jokes that are clever and elegant. It’s why you hire us and not kids on street corners.   There's a certain challenge to writing a joke that is both low and high road. 

From Mork. (Good to see you back on earth.)

Ken—what’s the cheapest thing you’ve ever seen a studio do?

I told this story before but it’s worth repeating.

From Angry Gamer:

Did you ever end up in a situation (script, outline etc) where the reviewer would reject the product but not give you any useful feedback? In my business we call this "polishing the rock"... you know where the guy says "not right" but can't tell you what is "right". (slushpile question probably :)

Yes. There was a network executive (who I’m very fond of) who used to give notes like “the script is here but needs to be here.” Or “you have the meat and potatoes, but it needs more dessert.”


We would turn in our rewrites and have no idea whether we satisfied the notes.  Much time was spent by me and David arguing over whether to include apple pie or lemon chiffon cake? 

And finally, from Frank from Campbell in NorCal:

I was talking to a friend who is a major M*A*S*H head and he said Gary Burghoff was the only actor to be in all iterations of M*A*S*H including the pilot of a show called Walter. Does that pilot exist in the You Tube world and did you have anything to do with it?

I don’t know if it’s available on line, but it was called W*A*L*T*E*R and was written by Everett Greenbaum and Elliott Reid. I had nothing to do with it.

Gary was also in the movie MASH and guested on AfterMASH.

Have a great Easter weekend.   


Getting close.  Only 5 more books have to be sold for me to post the speech from yesterday's essay.