Thursday, June 21, 2018

Something I need to say

Sorry. Nothing funny today.  There IS nothing funny today. 

It is utterly incomprehensible to me that anyone, regardless of political leanings, could support this truly despicable practice of separating children from families. At what point does compassion and simple human decency supersede politics?

These are not terrorists. These are CHILDREN. My God!

Seriously, if in fact you do condone this barbaric practice that goes against everything America and DECENT human beings stand for, please go away.  I mean it.  Please stop reading this blog. If you’re a friend on Facebook please unfriend me. Stop following me on Twitter. If you comment in support of caging innocent children I’ll delete your comment and ban you for life. (I also don't want you guys turning on each other, so no name calling.  Thanks.)

You just can’t believe how furious I am. And heartbroken.

What has this fucking world come to? I would never have believed something like this could ever happen in the United States. And furthermore, I can’t fathom why everybody, 100% of the population isn’t outraged by this, isn’t completely up in arms. This isn’t a debate about school vouchers or how much of the budget should go to defense – this is the most shameful detestable policy this country has ever had.

And FUCK YOU FOX NEWS for trying to sell this atrocity to gullible idiots. Yeah, your family is going to be so much safer when toddlers are rounded up. May all the FOX NEWS commentators who spoke out in support of it rot in hell for eternity and beyond.

Here’s something you probably thought you’d never see in this blog – God bless Seth MacFarlane. He was the first showrunner to speak out against FOX. Also kudos to Steve Levitan.

People, it’s time to take our country back. Step one is being a caring loving human being. And if you’re not, please go away – forever.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

EP77: How to make your writing funnier!


Ken discusses how top comedy writers determine whether things are funny or not, and offers some helpful tips on how to make your writing and content much funnier. It’s another behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood… and Broadway. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

INCREDIBLES 2: My review

Those of us who loved THE INCREDIBLES had to wait 14 years for the sequel. It was worth the wait. Even if it had been 15 years (16 might’ve been stretching it). But the sequel is incredible too.

Having the same creative voice writing and directing was a huge factor. I’m in awe of Brad Bird. How can one person be that great a writer AND animator? INCREDIBLES 2 is visually stunning, there’s fun at every turn, and none of the superheroes brood!

Since THE INCREDIBLES is my all-time favorite animated movie (sorry RAINBOW BRITE), it was hard for the sequel to live up to the original. But it’s certainly risen to my top five. The story itself is similar in structure to the original but there are enough surprises and new elements that you don’t feel you’re watching ROCKY VII.  And no songs!  Yay!

INCREDIBES 2 sure spoiled me for superhero movies. You can pair the Avengers with the Justice League of America and the X-Men and I’d still yawn at this point.

Now let me save you some angst. You’ll be watching a new character, Evelyn Deavor and go nuts trying to guess who does the voice. It’s Catherine Keener. You’re welcome.

Another thing I loved:  In the closing credits, all of the animators and other department heads got billing before the actors.   That Pixar animation team WERE the stars.  

I’ll be seeing INCREDIBLES 2 again. There’s so much going on and the pace really moves so I’m sure there are more things I’ll pick up that I missed upon the first viewing. Contrast that with the new AVENGERS movie. You couldn’t pay me to sit through that exercise in excess again.

I don’t want to hype INCREDIBLES 2 too much because there’s always the danger you might go, “Huh? He loved THIS?” But it’s well worth seeing. Several times even.

What did you guys think? 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My Top 8 performers of SNL

Been watching the new David Letterman Netflix interview series, GRIZZLY ADAMS & GUESTS and quite enjoyed the episode featuring Tina Fey. (Can I stop a moment to confess I LOVE Tina Fey? Going to New York this week and already have my tickets for her MEAN GIRLS musical.) Anyway, the episode is well worth seeing.

At one point Dave asks her to name her all-time top eight performers of SNL. Considering the enormous talent pool from the 156 years it's been on the air I thought that’s a Herculean challenge. So I decided to name mine. You’re welcome to name yours.

Narrowing it down to eight was tough. There are at least that many or more who could easily replace the ones I picked. But here they are:

John Belushi
Kate McKinnon
Will Ferrell
Gilda Radner
Eddie Murphy
Phil Hartman
Tina Fey
Bill Murray

Tina included Maya Rudolph, Jan Hooks, and I think Amy Poehler. I only watched once and was too lazy to go back and double-check.

I imagine it’s like popular music. Just as people tend to prefer the music they grew up with I suspect there’s a greater affection for the cast you watched when you first got hooked on SNL. Your lists will be a good test of that theory.

Thanks for playing and unless you pick Ann Risley there are no wrong answers.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On the road again

When Romcoms Go Bad
Just back from a couple of weeks in New York, Cleveland, and Grand Rapids – the typical east coast swing. In no particular order, here are some observations and thoughts along the way.

NEW YORK

No, I did not see CAROUSEL. I know it’s a classic but I hate CAROUSEL.

Unless you want to spend a fortune, see plays that are 8 hours long (but worth it) or musical adaptations of movies, there’s not a lot on Broadway these days.

That said, do see THE BAND’S VISIT. It just won the Tony for Best Musical and proves that heart and characters can beat out glitzy LED sets and overblown production numbers.

Had dinner with Broadway Bill Lee from CBS-FM, one of the last actual disc jockeys with personality. Keep the flame lit, Bill.

Everybody on the subway is checking their phone. Even the crazy people.

With Uber and Lyft the traffic is even worse in Manhattan, if that's possible.

Ocean Prime on 52nd St. – my best meal in New York. Better even then the Original Ray’s First Ray’s Only Real Ray’s pizza.

Thanks to the Gallery Players Theatre in Brooklyn for including my play, WHEN ROMCOMS GO BAD in their outstanding festival. I participated in a talkback after the Sunday performance and when asked what I was doing next I said, “I have to catch the F-Train for Rockefeller Center by 7. I’m nominated for a Tony.”

June is the month to go to New York. You can walk everywhere and eat outside.

Every building in Manhattan has scaffolding.

Certainly a highlight for me was getting lunch with Rob Long. Rob is a terrific writer/producer/commentator and does the preeminent entertainment podcast MARTINI SHOT on KCRW, Los Angeles. We went to the Union Square CafĂ© without a reservation at 1:00. The place was hopping. We thought we might have to eat at the bar. But we went up to the host stand to try our luck. The host looked up and said, “Ken Levine! Ohmygod! I’ve been reading your blog for years!” We got a table and this gentleman made my entire trip.

My daughter Annie and her husband Jon were in New York to move out of their Long Island apartment back to Los Angeles. They are driving back to LA even as you read. Since I planned to be in Grand Rapids, Michigan this past weekend to see my play OUR TIME they offered to give me a ride on the way. Thus began a four-day road trip that was great great fun.

CLEVELAND

Got there around 4:00 after a long day of driving through Pennsylvania and hitting construction every 30 miles.

Cleveland was fantastic. The weather was actually “nice.” Whenever I went to Cleveland with the Mariners or Orioles it was either snowing, raining, or a 1000 degrees with a million tiny swarming bugs called Midges. Wait, that’s not true. One trip with the Mariners we had a gorgeous day. But during the game there was an earthquake.

Last Thursday night was ideal. We of course hit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So much to see including Taylor Swift’s two piece chandelier dress.

At the gift shop (of course the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had a gift shop) the clerk asked why I had come to Cleveland. I said for the R&R HOF. “Why else do people go to Cleveland?” I asked. “For the sports,” she said, “And our hospital.” Now Cleveland does have one of the premier Cardiac hospitals in the world, still – a “hospital” seems like an odd third most popular attraction.

People were walking and eating outside in Cleveland too.

Mabel’s BBQ – pork ribs almost as good as Gates BBQ in KC.  And it might explain the need for the hospital. 

We left Cleveland on Friday morning.  LeBron will not be far behind.

GRAND RAPIDS

Driving through Michigan and Ohio I’ve never seen so many billboards for fireworks… or rifles.

Grand Rapids is known for making office furniture and was the boyhood home of President Gerald Ford. There’s a Gerald Ford Museum, which we didn’t see since no Taylor Swift costumes were on display.

Our Time
My play OUR TIME is at the Lowell Arts Theatre in picturesque Lowell. There’s a river and even a paddleboat. Both Friday and Saturday nights were sold out and both performances played great. My thanks to Brent Ailes, the cast and crew for really doing my play proud. It’s on again this weekend. If you’re in the area, you like to laugh, and you’ve already purchased your fireworks, swing by. Here’s where you go for info.

Annie & Jon continue their drive west and I flew home yesterday. Had to change planes at O’Hare. I got in my 10,000 steps and then some. Why does United put their video controls on the armrests right where you put your elbows? So to avoid changing my seat mate’s channels every five seconds I had to sit with my arms pulled in, thus feeling really squished into the seat.

Also, why do people in window seats keep the windows closed the entire time? I can understand when you want the cabin dark to see movies better or sleep, but in the middle of the day – especially right after takeoff and right before landing – I never get over the thrill of being in the air and seeing cities from above. You pay big money to simulate that at amusement parks. It seems weird that people are so blasĂ© that they’d rather close the window and play video games on their phones.

Now I’m home and the best part of yesterday was gaining three hours. So my Father’s Day was 27 hours. As it should be.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Happy Father's Day

This is kind of a tough one for me since it's the first Father's Day I no longer have my father.  But I cherish the memories.  And send a special salute to my son Matt who has been a dad (and terrific one at that) for two years now. 

This is a perennial post, now updated.

Note to those wives and kids planning to celebrate: no brunches. That’s Mother’s Day stuff. Let the old man sit in front of the TV and watch the U.S. Open or the Arena football amateur draft in peace.

Or watch FIELD OF DREAMS.And now, as a public service, here are some movies NOT to watch on Father’s Day:

FEAR STRIKES OUT
CHINATOWN
SHINE
WALK THE LINE
OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
STAR WARS
THE GREAT SANTINI
THE SHINING

Some TV shows and telefilms NOT to watch:

THE MARVIN GAYE STORY
THE BEACH BOYS STORY
LOST
Any CBS family comedy

Some unfriendly father plays:

ALL MY SONS
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (any Arthur Miller, actually)
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Some books to avoid:

Any Bing Crosby biography
Any Frank Sinatra biography
Any Papa John Phillips biography 
Any Screaming Jay Hawkins biography
LOVE STORY (for so many reasons)

Records to skip:

PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE by the Temptations
BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash
MY DAD by Paul Peterson
CATS IN THE CRADLE by Harry Chapin

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Again, happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

At least I wasn't naked

This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved). It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday Questions

Welcome y’all to Friday Question Day.

Jim, UK starts us off:

What is your experience of trying to pitch films/shows that were completely different to anything you'd done before?

We tend to stay in our lane (comedy) when pitching, but there have been times we’ve been offered feature rewrites on genres we’ve never worked in.

Case in point was JEWEL OF THE NILE, which primarily was an action-adventure film. Honestly, we watched a ton of them and tried to glean what worked and what didn’t. To me that’s the best teacher. We learned more by studying GUNGA DIN than any screenwriting book.

From Janet Ybarra:

Ken, what is your opinion of TRAPPER JOHN MD? I personally never got into it because, to me, the Pernell Roberts portrayal never squared with the Trapper John we were introduced to on MASH.

They just used the name to gave the character a recognizable hook. But as portrayed in TRAPPER JOHN M.D. the character was nowhere close to either the TV or film version of Trapper. Frankly, I never watched it. It was just another formula hour doctor show back then.

I must say however that I have a hard time when characters change genres. I never could get into LOU GRANT even though I admired almost everyone associated with that show. The one hour drama Lou Grant was NOT Lou Grant. The fellow who was Mary Richard’s boss, THAT was Lou Grant.

J Lee asks:

When you were starting out on MASH, did you buttonhole any of the veteran writers who worked on the show (some with credits dating back to radio days) on how they handled script problems or how they worked with a writing partner?

No. We didn’t know any of them then. We met with Gene Reynolds to work out the story but we were on our own when writing our first draft. Later of course we worked with Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart, but at the time we started as freelance writers, we were in a vacuum.

What we did instead was load up on Gelbart scripts and study them for rhythm, tone, joke construction, everything. The only thing they didn’t teach us was how to be as brilliant as him.

And finally, from Michael:

How do you think the trend of Netflix and others to release all episodes simultaneously has changed day-to-day life in the writers' room?

Do writers have more time or less? Are more episodes complete before shooting begins? What about the lack of audience feedback and network input based on week-to-week viewing numbers?

The length of time devoted to producing these series depends on a lot of factors. What is the order? How much time have you been given? Does the platform need it right away or whenever you turn it in? What are the production requirements? How hard will it be to produce? Are there any restrictions on the actors’ availability? Do you lose your star to a movie in four months?

But all things considered, it’s certainly easier to make 13 a year as opposed to 22. You generally do have more time to really polish those 13 episodes. When you’re making 22 or more a season you’re just happy if you can knock ‘em all out on time.

The downside of course is often writers get paid by the episode. So 22 means a lot more moolah than a leisurely 8.

As for producing all episodes before they’re aired, yes, that can be a big problem if an audience doesn’t respond to a major character or story arc and you’re powerless to make mid-course corrections. That can positively kill a series.

Likewise, the audience can tell you which character will be the breakout hit, but if you can’t take advantage of that and suddenly steer towards “the Fonz” you’re killing a potential golden goose.

Again, that’s why I’m such a fan of multi-camera shows. You’re held accountable and you can learn the night of the filming whether an audience responds or not. You don’t have to wait a year until the series airs to learn you went in the wrong direction.

What’s your FQ?

Another Opening Another show

If you're anywhere near Grand Rapids tonight and tomorrow, my full-length comedy OUR TIME is playing.  I'll be there both nights.  Swing by.  Say hi and laugh.  Here's where you go for details.