Saturday, September 26, 2020

Weekend Post

 Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, NY recently did a Zoom reading of one of my ten-minute plays (updated to become a Zoom play), and it came out pretty well.  So I thought I'd share.  Enjoy. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Friday Questions

 Hi kids.  Time for more Friday Questions.


Kendall Rivers starts us off:


With this current reboot trend I HATE but for some crazy reason is still going on, would you be down with a MTM reboot or even a live stage revival like Norman Lear did? Or would you be completely opposed to it due to the chance they would screw it up and make it shrill, mean, preachy and frankly much less funny like most sitcoms now?


I’m completely opposed to it because – why bother doing it?  You’re not going to improve on the original cast.  The dated wardrobe and flimsy sets are going to really stick out.  The actors are going to be doing impressions of the real cast. 


So other than for a ratings stunt and a money grab, what’s the upside?  It’s the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW not the MARISSA TOMEI FILLING IN SHOW. 


Cedricstudio asks: 


Neil Simon Is constantly praised as a great playwright. I’ve never seen any of his work performed on stage but I’ve seen two movies based on his work. The Odd Couple (starring Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau) was enjoyable enough but did not blow me away. Last night I watched Murder By Death and was disappointed. The premise was promising (it’s a murder mystery spoof where five of the world’s most famous detectives—caricatures of Sam Spade, Hercules Poirot, Miss Marple, etc.—are locked in a castle and challenged to solve a murder. Then it is their host who winds up dead.) With an all-star cast and a Neil Simon script my hopes were high but I found it corny and ridiculous with most jokes falling flat. I’m not a writer so this might be sacrilege but I would take one of your MASH episodes over either of these films any day. Can you help me understand why Simon is so revered? What am I missing?


Okay, you know I love Neil Simon, but I agree about MURDER BY DEATH.  


But for his hugely successful plays: 


What you’re missing is context.  What you’re missing is being in a live theatre, hearing the dialogue crackle and the audience laughing at almost every line.  You can’t capture that in a filmed version.  You just can’t.


BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, although dated, is a joy to see on stage done right – even today.   But the movie version with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda is just a slog.  And Redford starred in it on Broadway. He was funny on stage.  In the film he's a mannequin. 


Once this fucking pandemic is over, find a decent theatre doing THE ODD COUPLE or some other highly regarded Neil Simon play, allow for the passing of time, and just let yourself go.  I bet you’ll laugh your ass off. 


From Chuck:


I'm curious what your opinion is concerning Baseball Players/Managers being "microphoned" during a game. As I'm writing this I'm watching my team, the Cubs taking on the Cardinals on ESPN. (Not as bad as watching a FOX broadcast.) During game play, the announcers spoke to David Ross, Manager of the Cubs. They then spoke to the Manager of the Cardinals, Mike Shildt. He actually cut the conversation short saying he needed "to manage." (I say, Good for him!)


After that, ESPN had Cardinals Short Stop, Paul DeJong on microphone. They gabbed back and forth during game play. Cubs batter David Bote then hit a ball that went straight to the gabbing Paul DeJong. He got the ball and threw to first, but Bote was safe. (Good for the Cubs!) In my view, DeJong messed up this play because he wasn't paying as close attention to the game as he should have been. ESPN should not have been bothering him - or any other player/manager - during game play!


So, your opinion? And if you happen to agree with me, how do we put a stop to this thoroughly irritating ESPN (and FOX) practice? I say, LET THEM PLAY THE GAME!


This is another case of the tail wagging the dog.  MLB has allowed TV networks to dictate how they want to cover it.  Mic’ing players is for the benefit of the TV broadcast at the expense of the game.   But do you think Fox and ESPN give a shit?  Of course not. 


And especially now, where MLB is JUST a TV game (with no fans allowed in the stands), the networks call the shots.  All these additional playoffs, and match-up announcement shows – none of that improves the actual game and if anything, erodes its integrity. 


But MLB is taking the money.  And really, isn’t that all that matters? 


And finally, from WB Jax:


At what point of episode scripting are titles usually conceived? For you and David did such titles as "Death Takes A Holiday On Ice" come easily to you and were there times when either a story editor or fellow writer suggested an alternative (perhaps better, perhaps not) title for one of your scripts?


Just before you turn in the outline (although sometimes the title changes).  Once you submit the outline for payment, then it goes into the system and they need a title for records.  


But I will say this, titles don’t mean much.  You rarely see them on the screen.  It’s not like a movie or a play where a good title can help grab an audience.  So I advise writers not to spend two days coming up with the perfect episode title. 


I always liked the way FRIENDS handled titles.  Episodes were “The one where…  and they just described what the general story was about.  Probably saved the writers days.


What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

EP193: The Man who Saved Batman Part Two

Ken talks with Michael Uslan, the originator and executive producer of the Batman movie franchise.  This week we discuss the various Batman reboots, Christopher Nolan’s vision, the upcoming reboot, and why I hate what Zach Snyder has done to Superman. 

Listen to other podcasts similar to this on iTunes!

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Quarantine musings

Things to think about while in lockdown (for week 28)


I love this scam.  Underage teenagers are putting on gray wigs, wearing masks, and liquor stores are selling them booze.


Note to Postmate drivers:  If you’re making a delivery for me but stop off somewhere else first for fifteen minutes, so my food gets cold, that gets reflected in your tip. 


I miss restaurants, but not enough to eat in one. 


Seriously.  How hard is it to wear a mask?


CHEERS premiered 38 years ago this month. Stay tuned for a podcast episode all about that. 


Who besides me has had a screwed up sleep pattern since March?   Although, to be fair, I haven’t slept well since 2016. 


Not to take anything away from SCHITT’S CREEK, but if there weren’t the pandemic and people didn’t have all this time on their hands to sample it and watch the whole series, do you think it still would have won all those Emmys?  


I'm sure one reason people watch SCHITT'S CREEK is so they don't have to watch the news.  


When you get takeout food, and you’re eating it out of Styrofoam and it’s already starting to congeal, that’s two meals a day every day for ten months if you’re in a writers room.    Oh boy!  Italian again. 


If a UPS truck passes by the house and doesn’t stop I take it personally now. 


The San Diego Padres finally put together a fantastic year and none of their long-suffering fans can watch them in person. 


Are you still hoarding toilet paper? 


The new rage is Zoom readings of classic sitcoms like GOLDEN GIRLS and FRIENDS with diverse casts.  If Denzel Washington is reading this – BIG WAVE DAVE’S is available.


And to think – so much of this could have been avoided.  SHOULD have been avoided. VOTE!


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Happy Anniversary to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW


As reader Matt in Westwood pointed out, CBS missed a bet this past Saturday night.  50 years ago, to that day, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW premiered.    It’s not like CBS has such a powerhouse Saturday night line up that they couldn’t put together some kind of salute.  Especially when their colorized episodes of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW top the ratings the nights they’re aired. 


THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, created by Jim Brooks & Allan Burns was, for its time, a perfect sitcom.   Great characters, situations, and writing.  There was a smartness and depth of emotion to the scripts that, to this day, stands as the absolute gold standard in sitcom comedy writing. 


Oh, and it was very very very FUNNY. 


Fabulous jokes that all came out of character and attitudes.   Some of the greatest TV writers of all-time wrote for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW including Treva Silverman, Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels, Bob Ellison, Earl Pomerantz, Glen & Les Charles, and David Lloyd.   Talk about the ’27 Yankees. 


You could say, “Yeah, well, 50 years ago is a long time,” but that’s when MASH was launched and that’s still revered (thank goodness for me).  And ALL IN THE FAMILY was in its heyday during that period.  ABC (not even the network that originally aired it) saluted ALL THE FAMILY with two primetime recreations. 


Happy anniversary to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW on turning 50.  What’s weird is that that show had a huge impact on me and I got to work with her when she turned 50. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Last Night's Emmy Awards

 Here’s the best part of last night’s Emmy Award show:  An actual comedy that strives to make people laugh swept the comedy category.  Not a “dramedy” that has a few smiles or a quirky message show, but a real honest-to-goodness COMEDY.   So congratulations to SCHITT’S CREEK and all the Levys. 


Not only was it an unprecedented sweep, I hope it sent a clear message that comedies are supposed to be FUNNY. 


I’m told WATCHMEN and SUCCESSION are terrific shows.  Like most Americans, I’ll have to start watching them now. 


As for the show itself, sorry, I couldn’t get through it.  I give them credit for attempting a very ambitious feat, and Jimmy Kimmel did his usual solid job of moving it along.   But the bits were mostly painful.   And the In Memoriam section omitted my good friend Earl Pomerantz and David Schramm from WINGS.   And as blog reader Bradley pointed out, they also forgot to honor Billy Goldenberg, Orson Bean, Lynn Cohen, Paula Kelly, Jerry Herman, Terrence McNally, Saul Turtletaub, and I’m sure two or three more.  Disgraceful.  But they had 5 minutes to devote to that stupid bit at a race track featuring the cars delivering Emmys. 


I turned it off after the In Memoriam.  I so didn’t give a shit the rest of the way. 


I thought to myself, if you’re not in the TV industry, why would you be watching this?  And my guess is, not many people were.  Ratings have been horrible when you could see all the actors and dresses.     


UPDATE:  Last night's ratings were the lowest of all-time.  Only 6.1 million people watched, down 12% from last year's previous all-time low.  In key demographics it was down 25% from last year.  Of course, when not a single network show wins an Emmy that could be an added problem. 


I appreciated all the winners telling everyone to vote, but I’m sure they were preaching to the choir.  However, for those of us who share their views of compassion and justice, their sentiments were greatly appreciated.   Even the Canadian winners implored us all to do the right thing. (Another reason why I'm glad they won.) 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Weekend Post

As if 9/11 wasn't already the bleakest day in modern history, eleven years ago on that date Larry Gelbart passed away.  He was 81.   He was a dear friend, mentor, and inspiration.   At the time I wrote a tribute for the blog.  It took me a couple of days.  I was totally devastated.  Anyway, I thought I'd share with you again my thoughts on Larry. 

In addition to everything else, he wrote beautiful eulogies. With his flair for words and wit and warmth he constructed eloquent touching tributes. I used to kid him that he had to live forever because no one else could write them as well. And now I find myself in the agonizing position of trying to write his. First off, let me say, it won’t be as good.

So rather than tell you what you probably already know – that he was the Mozart of comedy writing and recipient of every honor but the Heisman Trophy – I’ll try to share some things you might not know; some personal stories.

In many ways the hardest part of writing scripts is turning them in. Because then you have to wait. And wait. And wait. It’s a stomach churning exercise filled with angst and insecurity and flashbacks of high school. After a day you’re an utter basket case. After a week you’re confessing to crimes you didn’t even commit.

When you turned in a script to Larry at 5:30 he called you at home to say he loved it… at 6:30. The first Rolaid hadn’t even dissolved in your stomach yet. Trust me, this is unheard of. But that was Larry. Empathetic, considerate, a mensch. He was the kindest man in an industry that seriously frowns on that sort of thing. Fortunately, he had the talent to overcome it.

And despite his enormous success, he was just as human as the rest of us mere boulevardrd farcitiers. He arranged for house seats for my wife and I to see the original production of SLY FOX. Jacqueline Kennedy was sitting next to me. When I called the next day to thank him and tell him who was sitting on my left, he got very nervous. “Did she like it? Did she laugh? Which jokes?” He was thrilled to learn she did laugh, and I’d like to think thrilled that my wife and I laughed too but probably more Jackie. After all, she paid for her seat.

I mentioned one day in a rewrite that my favorite MASH episode was “the More I See You” with Blythe Danner guesting as Hawkeye’s former flame. A few days later I received a gift. In those days Larry used to write his scripts longhand on legal pads. He gave me a Xeroxed copy of his original first draft. And the Mozart comparison continues. There were no cross-outs. Every line was perfectly constructed. Emotion and humor flowed from speech to speech with absolute ease. How does one do that? It’s impossible! That draft (now bound) remains one of my most cherished possessions.

And by the way, he could write an entire MASH script in one night. He was incredibly fast. Stanley Donan was going to direct a movie called BLAME IT ON RIO. He was not happy with the draft his writer had ,turned in and asked Larry if as a favor, he’d read it and offer his suggestions. Larry said sure (Larry always said sure). The script was delivered to him Friday at 5:30. No, he didn’t call back with his reaction at 6:30. He waited until Monday morning. But he said he had so many problems with it that instead of just scribbling down some notes he took the liberty of REWRITING the whole screenplay himself. Unbelievable. Even Mozart didn’t compose an opera over the weekend. Larry said use what you like. Donan used every word.

A similar story: For rewrites we would dictate to our assistant, Ruth, who was lightening quick. There was a big Radar speech. Larry started pitching and was just on fire. We were in stitches. Ruth broke in, telling him to slow down. Even she couldn’t write that fast. Larry said, “Just get half” and kept going. The half she didn’t get was better than anything else on television.

Larry always sent thank you notes. Larry always dropped you a line wishing you well on your upcoming project. Larry always returned phone calls. Larry always emailed you right back. Larry even left comments on my blog. I half expect a thank you note for this essay.

His legacy will last forever. His work was timeless, universal, steeped in humanity, and brilliant. MASH will always air eight times a night, TOOTSIE and OH GOD! will forever be on your screens (be they 64” plasmas or 2” iPods), FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and CITY OF ANGELS will be revived as long as there are stages.

Like any screenwriter, Larry had drawers and drawers of unproduced or unsold or unfinished projects. In June he just had a reading of a pilot he conceived. Last year he mounted a play in Chicago he was shepherding to Broadway. At the time of his death he was adapting one of his films into a musical and one of his musicals into a film. So yes, he left behind an amazing body of work but still we “just got half”.

Many people who knew him felt that Hawkeye Pierce was an idealized version of Larry. I’d like to think one of his other character creations was a more accurate representation of just who he was. God.

Enjoy the work of Larry Gelbart. You will laugh until you hurt. And for those of us who were blessed to have known him, we will hurt until we laugh.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Friday Questions

Kicking off the weekend and Jewish New Year with Friday Questions.

June Bug starts us off:

Most sitcom heavy-hitters these days have become famous before joining the series - think Samberg, Janney, Farris, Deschanel. Are we losing out on undiscovered comic talents bc of Hollywood's reliance on bankable names? Do you think this shift is permanent, or is it just another tide-turning?

Networks have always preferred known stars to front their series. Now more than ever. You’re more apt to sell a pilot if you already have a coveted star attached.

So how do unknown actors get discovered? Generally, by being a supporting character who breaks out. Henry Winkler, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards. The casts of THE OFFICE and PARKS AND REC emerged but had Steve Carell and Amy Poehler as the stars.

The bottom line is this: Networks don’t want to take a chance… on anything.

From Mr. Ace:

What are your thoughts on shows that used animated openings like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, and could an animated opening work today?

Sure. Why not? Today, more than ever, animation is hot.

If you had a live-action pilot with an animated opening, the thing that might prevent the sale is the live-action show.

And of course, the big problem is convincing the network to let you do any kind of opening title sequence.

Kendall Rivers asks:

I love a good Heck family car trips which made me think that The Hecks have got to be the most believable tv family I've seen in years with genuine chemistry. They actually feel like an actual family which most other family shows of this era lack. The Johnson's on Blackish are just too mean and spiteful to each other, The Juangs from Fresh are too...distant? And the families from modern family are just messes. I feel like if their shows did the car trip episodes or scenes The Middle did I'd be bored to tears or change the channel. What about you? Do The Hecks measure up to your favorite tv families?

As I mentioned in my Wednesday post, I love THE MIDDLE. I often found it funnier than MODERN FAMILY. And it was perfectly cast. Those kids were all amazing. And Eden Sher is a comedy goddess.

It used to bother me that there would be a 30 second promo that would be 25 seconds of MODERN FAMILY tagged with “And a new episode of THE MIDDLE.”

And finally, from Rhonda Aghamalian,

Of all the actors you've worked with/had the opportunity to observe over the course of your career, which are the least like their best known roles/characters and which are the most like them?

In our movie, VOLUNTEERS, Tom Hanks played a preppy asshole, and Tom could not be farther from that in real life.

Same with David Schramm who played sleazy Roy on WINGS. David was a sweetheart.

And I would add Ted Danson as BECKER. He’s anything but a bitter curmudgeon.

On the other hand, Harry Morgan as Colonel Potter on MASH was very much like his character, as was Mike Farrell as B.J.

Happy New Year! I’m ready for a new year. Aren’t you?