Monday, February 08, 2016

The Super Bowl and Super Bowl commercials

Super Bowl 50 is history. During the game I decided to live tweet. This is the kind of crap I write on Twitter. You’re welcome to follow me. Here are my most liked and re-tweeted tweets. Most are about the commercials because, well… the game pretty much sucked (unless you were a Broncos fan, and even then). Some of these will make no sense if you weren’t watching the game. In those cases please just assume they were amusing.

Trending: I hate Joe Buck -- even though he's not doing the game and the game hasn't even started.

If the Super Bowl were on Fox, Seth MacFarlane would be singing America the Beautiful.

Nantz: Temperature 76 BUT there are breezes. I hate Joe Buck.

A white guy singing the Jefferson's Theme? I'm boycotting the Oscars.

New drinking game: commercials with bears.

Must there be an animal in every commercial?

No commercial for CONCUSSION so far.

Finally! A talking razor!

Mortgage by phone -- see THE BIG SHORT at a theater near you.

Amy Schumer stole her material from Spuds McKenzie.

Best part of the super bowl -- pitchers and catchers report in about a week.

This is where you ask "what would Pete Carroll do?"

Is there ever NECESSARY roughness?

That's a hospital with all beautiful people. CODE BLACK. For when the Kardashians need an ER.

During half-time, which was billed as celebrating the old, now, and future.

Since the game is on CBS I'm surprised Julie Chen isn't part of the halftime panel.

It's not the Orange Bowl halftime show but it's getting there. They just need floats.

Love Bruno Mars. He can do anything. Sing in a gold suit. Sing in a black suit.

I'd let Bruno receive kickoffs. He can bust some moves.

There's the old. Music acts for the CBS audience.

They should re-show the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.

Alec Baldwin is the next William Shatner.

LOVED the halftime show. I feel guilty I'm drinking a Coke.

More pie charts!

When Graham Gano missed a key field goal:

Hook 'em Gano.

So I'm eating Doritos, watching the commercial and thinking, "Am I eating dog food?"

Death Wish coffee and diarrhea medicine within two commercial breaks. Bring back the Bud Bowl.

El Nino just caused another turnover.

Two more commercials with cute animals. I hate Joe Buck.

Highlight of the third quarter: singing sheep.

The sheep sang better than the super bowl babies.

I'm more upset that this is the last year for THE GOOD WIFE than Peyton Manning.

My vote for MVP: that spastic colon character in the diarrhea commercial.

A thrilling finish could lift this super bowl all the way up to mediocre.

Hey, Carolina. According to Donald Trump, finishing second is as good as winning. So congratulations.

Maybe Jim Nantz's newborn son Jamison will become a sportscaster so people can tweet "I hate Jamison Nantz."

On to baseball! This was more fun than live tweeting DOWNTON ABBEY. Thanks for following!

Sunday, February 07, 2016

I will be Super Bowl live tweeting

Since no one invited me to a Super Bowl party, I plan on just staying home and watching the game myself.  But what good is watching the Super Bowl if you can't make snarky comments?  So assuming my internet or cable doesn't crap out, I will be live tweeting throughout the game.  If you're not following me, now's your chance.   @KenLevine.  

The "lost" CHEERS scene

A yearly tradition...

For several years I've been talking about the "Lost" CHEERS scene. David and I wrote it for the 1983 Super Bowl Pre-game show to promote our fledgling series. They ran it just before game time and it was seen by 80,000,000 people. Nothing we've ever written before or since has been seen by that many eyeballs at one time. But the scene was never repeated. It never appeared on any DVD's. It just disappeared.

Until a couple of years ago.

Sportswriter supreme, Joe Resnick has taped every Super Bowl including that one. And since the scene aired so close to the game, it was on the tape. Thanks to friend of the blog, Howard Hoffman, he was able to digitize it and post it on YouTube.  Here's the text of the scene.

So here it is. The Super Bowl is next.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Writing advice you might not want to hear

Since I can't think of an appropriate photo...
I'm currently teaching a graduate seminar in pilot writing at UCLA.  My students will have to write a pilot for the course.   We're now at the outline stage.   So I thought it would be a good time to reprise a post I wrote four or five years ago answering a Friday Question on the subject.  It’s from Chad (even though he admits that that is not his real name).  

My question is about crafting and selling scripts. You mention that story credit goes to the person who submits the episode outline. I realize this is a necessary part of the process in getting each story told...but I'm not really an outline kind of writer. I jot down some relevant notes/lines/jokes and then head into the first draft, which is where the story really takes shape. Writing the entire story in advance always throws me off because I know that when I get in the groove, it's gonna shift directions easily. So the basic question is, is this practice frowned upon and if so what's your advice on how to amend it?

Chad (or whoever you are) – how can I say this nicely? If you want a career writing for television throw out that shit and become an “outline kind of writer”. Outlines are mandatory.

Let me walk you through the process.

First off, you only have a limited amount of time to tell your story. And you have to tell another story next week. And the week after, and the week after that. You have no time for seeing where the Muse might want to take you.

TV episodes are highly structured. As a showrunner, this is my method and thinking:

Working with the staff, we arrive at a notion we feel would make a good story. We then construct the beats – usually not in a linear way (first this happens, then this, then this, then that, the end). I want to know the act breaks first. I want to know the ending. I want to know where the fun of the story is. I want to know the characters' attitudes.  Then we work back from there and fill in the rest.

Then we revise. Is there a better act break? Is there a more inventive ending? Are we getting the most bang for our buck comedy-wise? Is the show too plot driven? Are all the characters well served? Does part of the story work but part still feel undercooked?

In the interest of efficiency and good story telling, I make sure all these questions are answered before someone goes off to write the draft.

Once we’re all happy with the story I ask the writer to give me an outline. Each show is different but I like detailed outlines. 8-12 pages, complete with a lot of suggested jokes.

I give the writer notes on the outline. Sometimes minor, sometimes throwing out whole sections or subplots. If the story changes significantly I request a new outline.

Once the outline has been approved then the writer goes off and does the first draft. Usually under time constraints. But he’s got the story all worked out, the block comedy scenes all in place, and a lot of good jokes.

When my partner and I set out to write an episode, even if we’re the showrunners, we take the time to write an outline for ourselves. We just don’t have the time to feel our way around blind alleys. We can’t count on finding “our groove”.

And now more than ever, outlines are mandatory. Because now stories have to be approved not only by showrunners but by the studio and network as well. I’m not saying that’s a good thing (in fact, it’s not) but hey, that’s the new reality.

I don’t know how Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley (pictured right) work. I know they’re very prolific and write scripts very quickly. I suspect they may not work off outlines as lengthy as ours but (a) they still work out the story in some detail first, and (b) they’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve developed internal mechanisms to guide any mid-course corrections. But that comes after years of experience and extraordinary God given talent.

Look, here’s the bottom line: constructing stories is the hardest part of the process. It’s much easier and more fun to just go off writing. So human nature would suggest that if you can skip the hard part why not do it?

Because that method is fraught with traps. It’s inefficient, it’s unreliable, and it’s not collaborative in an industry that is built on collaboration.

So my advice? Learn to outline, and more than that – accept the process. It’s here to stay. And you know what? It’s a bitch, but it works.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Friday Questions

I never stand down from answering Friday Questions, even on holidays. Today is Constitution Day in Mexico. Still, I’m here for you.

YEKIMI asks:

In the later seasons of M*A*S*H* it seems that Klinger just suddenly stopped wearing dresses in an attempt to get out of the Army. Was this because of a pushback by certain segments of society or did they just decide they had gone as far as they could with the joke? Or was Jamie Farr getting tired of this plot device?

This started season eight, the year David Isaacs and I left the show. By that time we had gone through every dress in the 20th Century Fox wardrobe department.

The feeling was that that bit had been done to death. I wasn’t part of that decision but I whole-hardheartedly supported it.

In season seven we were struggling with it and looked for alternate schemes to get Klinger out of the army. We had him dress as a businessman selling aluminum siding one week. We had him in furs during a heat wave another week. Clearly, we were reaching. How long can you keep whipping the same horse (meaning the bit, not Jamie)?

From Nick:

Under the new Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences rules regarding eligibility to vote - does this mean you are no longer eligible to vote Ken? I notice that according to IMDB you have two film credits from the 1980's and one from the 1990's. I don't mean this as a criticism - it just occurred to me that you might be one of the members caught by the change in the rules?

I was never “in” the Motion Picture Academy. You needed more credits than I had, you needed to be sponsored by a member. It was a very closed organization – and that was BEFORE they offered movie screeners.

It sounds like they’re changing the eligibility requirements to allow for more diversity. I don’t get involved. I just watch the Oscars and offer a snarky review.

Jeff :) wonders:

I've read on your blog several times that writers looking to break in to television writing need to submit two spec scripts, one of an existing show and one original. My question is about the original script. Are there any rules against adapting an existing piece of work? Is this frowned upon? Do you need the authors permission given that your script is more so a showcase of your writing talent as opposed to a legitimate script to be sold?

You absolutely need permission to adapt existing literary material. I believe there are some shows that allow for fan fiction, but play it safe. You’re playing with fire if you tinker with existing work without permission – not just from the author but whoever owns that literary property. It could be a studio, or a production company that’s optioned it. Tread very carefully, my friend.

Better that your original material be original from you. 

From Frank Beans:

How much does single vs. multi-camera production affect casting choices, if at all? I mean, are there different skill sets actors need to have to work in one format or the other more effectively, and do writers and producers take that into explicit consideration?

Theater-trained actors are obviously more comfortable doing multi-camera shows. And there are some actors who just don’t like performing in front of live audiences.

It depends on the actor and the role. Some actors are very interior. They talk softly; they emote through subtle expression changes. They tend not to thrive in multi-camera.

The only time I get nervous is if I have an actor who has never done multi-camera before. Some adjust better than others. But for the most part, there hasn’t been problems.

The truth is multi-camera sitcoms are the greatest gigs EVER for actors. They’re never on location. After every three weeks they get a week off. They never have 17 hour days. They never have to shoot all night. They hear their laughter and get applause. They’re off half the year, and they make a boatload of money. How sweet a deal is that?

Chris asks:

Curb Your Enthusiasm is, to my knowledge, the only series I know of which challenges another show's universe so explicitly. We watch Seinfeld, we assume it's a real universe, then Larry David comes along saying "that was actually a fictitious show, which I wrote, here's the reality, here's me and the real Jerry Seinfeld, not the character with the same name."

Have you ever seen THE BURNS & ALLEN SHOW? It hails from the very early days of television. That show not only had two universes, but they both existed within the same show. The characters went about their business as if they were in the real world. Series star, George Burns would go up to his office on occasion, break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, then – and this was the mind blower – turn on a television and watch everyone else as if they were in a sitcom that was airing but they didn’t know that. George would then go downstairs and interact with them. Freaky, no?

Everyone talks about trying to do sitcoms “out of the box” but the most original groundbreaking idea ever was done in 1950.

Here's an example. Just go to the 8:15 mark. Not only can George watch his show, he can watch other shows and interact with them. Check this out.

Thursday, February 04, 2016


Carrie Havel was the Associate Director on GREASE LIVE.  This is what she posted on Facebook.  What you'll then see is the scene on the left and Carrie in the control room calling the shots on the right.  Remember, this is LIVE.  Truly incredible.

Here's what she posted.  Enjoy.

A lot of people have asked what it means to be the Associate Director on a show like Grease Live. Here's a peek behind the curtain. Every shot in the show was designed and scripted by our director Alex Rudzinski. My job was to execute that plan. You hear me calling shot numbers and camera moves carefully coordinated with the music. My head stays in the script and Alex, to my right, keeps an eye on cameras to adjust framing and pacing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

THE PEOPLE vs. O.J. SIMPSON: My verdict

What? What do you mean I have to wait until next week to see the second episode? What the hell? You mean I can’t just watch the whole series in one night?

How am I supposed to binge on one episode?

I guess I really liked the opening installment of THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON because I will be back next Tuesday to watch episode two.

The series benefits from terrific writers in Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. They wrote ED WOOD, the Larry Flynt movie, BIG EYES, and the underrated Andy Kaufman story, MAN ON THE MOON (among others). They’re the A-list biopic guys, and trust me, those are not easy to do. Most biopics end up looking like cheesy Lifetime movies. For God sakes, Ozzie & Harriet got a TV biopic (and I’m sure many of you are saying, “Who are Ozzie & Harriet?”)

But Scott & Larry do exhaustive research and have a knack for presenting factual material in a compelling riveting way. And they find the madness and absurdities of their larger-than-life subjects which give their scripts a slightly surreal quality. Producer-director Ryan Murphy hired the perfect guys. There’s enough bizarre shit in this case to fill two mini-series and a Coen Brothers’ movie.

THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON has a cast of thousands (they weren’t kidding when they said the “people”). And casting is always key. I’ve only seen the premier (I still can’t get over not being able to see the whole thing at once – what are we, in the Stone Age?), but there appear to be some great performances.

Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden is dead on. Courtney Vance kills as Johnnie Cochran, and it would be so easy to make that character a cartoon. I totally buy David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian. And so far, Sarah Paulson, as Marcia Clark, steals the show. She’s the Meryl Streep of TV as far as I’m concerned.

On the other hand, Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. is a stretch for me. And I’ve read in pre-show hoopla that Ryan Murphy thought it was a major coup to get John Travolta to play Robert Shapiro but he is absolutely ridiculous. I haven’t seen such bad makeup since John Wayne played Genghis Khan in THE CONQUEROR. Every minute that Travolta is on the screen takes me out of the story. I keep wondering, is he wearing a rubber mask? Does the makeup person think he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or Rocky Balboa?  Or someone from Fraggle Rock?

I love Travolta in the right thing (like PULP FICTION or GET SHORTY) but as Robert Shapiro? Puhhleeze. There are no Jews in this town who could play him? Yes, I know Travolta is a “name,” but get real – he was a name. I guarantee that any Millennial watching this mini-series who is not familiar with the OJ case will also have no clue who John Travolta is.

Oh well. At least Ryan Murphy didn’t get Lady Gaga to play Marcia Clark.

Those quibbles aside, THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON (Tuesday nights at 10 on FX) is off to a very promising start. When you can be completely engrossed in a ten-hour story in which you already know the ending, THAT’S filmmaking. Congratulations to all concerned.

Now if Robert Shapiro would just represent Steve Avery…

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Back when TV was fun

Now that networks own most studios you have more corporate types running things, everyone answering to someone else even more corporate. But just as there used to be larger-than-life movie moguls back in the day, TV studios were once piloted by more colorful personalities.

They were blustery, opinionated, candid, and very savvy. Decisions were made on instinct not research. And they made quick decisions. You may not have liked their rulings, but I’ve always believed that the next best thing to a “Yes” is a quick “No.”

David Isaacs and I got to work with a few of these cigar chomping Foghorn Leghorns during our career. Maybe tops among them was Lee Rich. Rich had come from the MAD MEN world of NY advertising in the '50s and early '60s (he had a big hand in saving THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW from cancellation) and along with Merv Adelson (another interesting personality) had formed Lorimar Productions. We had a development deal with them for a couple of years. At the time Lorimar was riding high. They were the studio behind DALLAS and FALCON CREST.

Another thing about these small screen czars, they were great salesmen. And Lee was the best of the best. Whenever we went into a network to pitch a pilot we knew we were golden if Lee was in the meeting.

One of those meetings in particular stands out. We went to CBS to pitch a family show. Lee tagged along. He began the meeting by saying to the head of CBS programming, “In all my years, this is the best goddamn idea for a series I have ever heard. Ever!  And if you don’t buy it – right now, in the room – you are fucking idiots. You hear me? Fucking moron idiots! And if you don’t buy it, I’m calling NBC and we’ll have a sale by the end of the fucking day.”

Wow, we thought. Lee has never been this effusive before. We might just have a home run. So with that he turned it over to us, we pitched it, and CBS bought it on the spot.

As we were walking to the elevator Lee said, “Hey, you know what guys? You do have a pretty good idea there.”

That, ladies and gentleman, is a SALESMAN.

Who’s to say whether television was better back then? But it was sure a lot more fun.