Saturday, December 15, 2018

Weekend Rant

 This touches on something I talked about earlier in the week in discussing the song "Baby It's Cold Outside."

There’s a scene in THE KOMINSKY METHOD in an acting class where a white student does a black monologue from an August Wilson play. It’s actually a hilarious scene. But one of the other young students stops him in the middle saying she’s not comfortable with this. Quick aside: Is it okay to do that now? I mean, if someone is uncomfortable they can certainly leave the room, but is it okay to actually stop the performer because of your discomfort? Just askin’.

But the point is she found it offensive for a white person to perform a monologue obviously meant for a black person.

In a recent discussion of THE HONEYMOONERS I received a comment from a college professor. He observed that kids today are almost looking to be offended by things. They find something objectionable in almost everything.

Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and a lot of comics won’t play colleges anymore because the audiences’ are too PC.

This is all very surprising to me because when I went to college (back in the Pleistocene Era) my generation was at its most rebellious. We scoffed at anything PC. The comedy we gravitated towards was the most irreverent and outrageous it could be. Richard Pryor, THE CREDIBILITY GAP, THE FIRESIGN THEATRE, the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks. Imagine college kids today seeing BLAZING SADDLES.

Some legitimate theatres now will post trigger warnings of the things in the play they’re showing that might be offensive. Have we become that sheltered? And the next step of course is that these theatres will not produce plays they think might offend some portion of their audience.

We need to lighten up, people. We can still be good caring human beings and be amused at the absurdity of a young white guy trying to do an August Wilson monologue. We can still enjoy CHEERS even though there’s not a lot of diversity (or FRIENDS or SEINFELD or FRASIER). We can still marvel at Richard Pryor even though the language is raw to say the least.


It’s supposed to be offensive.


Friday, December 14, 2018

Friday Questions

Take a break from Christmas shopping to check out some Friday Questions.

MikeKPa starts us off.

A lot of William Goldman's work was adaption. Have you ever done adaptations and did you find it easier or harder to work with an existing narrative?

Have never done an adaptation. In one of Goldman’s books he discussed how he went about that. He would read a book with a colored marker and underline anything he’d want to use. Then he’d read it again with another color pen and do the same thing. After a third reading and underlining he would go through and only keep the things that were underlined three times.

From Rick from Minnesota:

What can you recall from the Cheers episode entitled, Where Have all the Floorboards Gone and how was Kevin McHale as an actor?

Well, David Isaacs and I wrote that episode. And it’s one of my favorites.

The thing I remember the most was how surprised and delighted we were by Kevin McHale. First off, as a Lakers fan in the ‘80s I hated McHale during his Celtic years (and the cheap shot hit he put on Kurt Rambis).

But he turned out to be the nicest guy. And the biggest surprise was how great a natural comic actor he was. We even brought him back.

Usually when you have an athlete guest star, like Wade Boggs or Luis Tiant, you don’t place any real comedy burden on them. As a director I once had to coax a performance out of Karl Malone, Terry Bradshaw, and Mike Ditka. Oy. But Kevin was terrific.

Jonny M. asks:

Just watched the Cheers episode "Simon Says" with John Cleese. Cleese is hilarious, definitely one of the top five guest stars on Cheers. I have no idea if he was cast before or after the episode is written, but I imagine that once the writers knew it was him they tailored the script to his talents. How do you approach writing for a major talent who you know has the ability to knock it out of the park? Is it more fun? Harder? Both?

It’s way easier. As long as the actor embraces playing the character.

We once wrote an episode of FRASIER with Michael Keaton guesting. We wrote his character fun and zany like the one he played in NIGHT SHIFT. He was playing a TV evangelist; a real larger-than-life character. But he insisted on playing against that – very studied and buttoned-down. Our director was Jerry Zaks, a huge Broadway director, and even he couldn’t get Keaton to loosen up. To me the episode never lived up to its potential.

Cleese was totally on board and was a pleasure to work with. He also turned in a spectacular performance. Peter Casey & David Lee wrote that episode and really captured his voice and strengths.

And finally, Pam has a question about our involvement with VOLUNTEERS.

Are writers allowed on the set? Did they invite you to the shooting at Mexico? And were you invited to the premiere of the movie? How was it? Please share your experience.

It all depends on the director whether writers are allowed on the set. Some directors really welcome it and have them available for any last minute polishing. Other directors don’t want writers’ prying eyes.

In the case of VOLUNTEERS, director Nick Meyer did invite us to come watch the filming, but at the time we were rewriting JEWEL OF THE NILE for Michael Douglas on a deadline and were unable to go.

Douglas then wanted us to be on set for JEWEL OF THE NILE but by then we were writing the pilot for the Mary Tyler Moore series we created.

We were invited to the premiers of both films (which we attended), and in the case of VOLUNTEERS allowed to watch the dailies and the editing process. Thank you again, Nick Meyer.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

EP102: Short Attention Span Podcast

Ken tackles a variety of unrelated, but hopefully humorous, topics. You’ll learn the amazing thing Mary Tyler Moore said in his living room, a discussion of actors not saying their lines, and Ken’s handy tips for how to create a hit procedural. Laughs and riches can be

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Maybe the most ingenious radio contest ever

This was in the early ‘70s. There was a big radio war going on in San Diego between stations KCBQ and KGB. The program director of KCBQ was Buzz Bennett. Picture Frank Zappa.

The competition was fierce. They each had promotions and were giving away money and prizes.  Lots of bells and whistles.  (Stuff like this used to routinely happen when one company didn't own every station.) 

One afternoon KCBQ was having technical problems. The station would periodically go off the air. The engineers scrambled and usually got it back on in five or ten minutes. But five seconds of dead air is an eternity in radio. Add to that, the afternoon shift was considered “prime time.” Other than in mornings, a station’s largest audience would be in the afternoon.

So KCBQ really had a problem.

Until Buzz Bennett came up with a solution.

He instituted a contest. If the station went off the air again, the first person who called when it came back on would win $100. As a result he had thousands and thousands of people listening when the station was OFF THE AIR. Now to me, THAT’S a program director.

It’s one of the reasons I mourn the death of terrestrial radio. KCBQ off the air sounded better than most stations today on the air.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A STAR IS BORN -- my review

It seems like every twenty years or so someone remakes A STAR IS BORN. There was the original with Janet Gaynor in 1937, Judy Garland took the stage in 1954, and then Barbra Streisand in 1976 starred in the horrible reboot that should have been called A STAR IS (still)BORN. Now comes the version for the Millennials starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also directed).

Lady Gaga was a revelation. Her musical talent was well known, but her acting ability is surprisingly off-the-charts. This is not a woman who needs to dress in meat. This is a super talented lady (Gaga) who can sing, compose, play piano, dance, and now act. Don’t be surprised if she wins an Oscar. Hey, they gave one to Cher.  (Actually, two Oscars because she's a lock for "Best Song.")

Lady Gaga steals the movie, although, in fairness, how much credit should go to Bradley Cooper for coaxing that performance? Cooper, in his first “megging” stint, also proved to have a strong visual eye. Talent-wise, he's in the wunderkind category too. 

My only quibble is that it’s 2 hours and 16 minutes long. I could take a half hour out of that film in well…. a half hour. You could too. It’s easy. As you’re watching the movie, whenever you yell out “WE GET IT!” you could lose the rest of that scene and the five-minute montage that follows.


I’ve heard people complain that the ending was “sad.” Well, of course it’s sad. Every version of A STAR IS BORN is sad. Streisand’s was the saddest because I was with people and couldn’t just leave in the middle.

Like BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, the music is the real attraction, and A STAR IS BORN more than delivers. If there are still any doubters that Lady Gaga is a superstar this movie should put those doubts to rest. She’s not just a meat model. But truthfully, I thought she looked the best when she wasn’t all glammed up. It was a joy in the early part of the film to watch her act and sing as “Stefani Germanotta” not “Lady Gaga.”

Oh, and if you need another reason to love her, when there were those horrific brush fires in California, my high school, Taft in Woodland Hills was an evacuation center. Lady Gaga showed up one night with pizzas for everyone. There was no publicity attached, no photo ops. I learned about it from someone who was there. (Barbra Streisand, on the other hand, dealt with the fire by hiring her own fire department to protect HER home.)

I expect A STAR IS BORN to receive a lot of Academy Award nominations, primarily because it’s one of the few contending films that people are actually going to see.

I look forward to the 2038 version starring Princess Charlotte.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Baby It's Cold Outside

A number of people have asked me to comment on the recent flap where a Cleveland radio station banned the longtime American Songbook standard, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because in light of today’s sensibilities the lyrics are potentially offensive to some. Now it used to be a reader would ask my opinion on something, I’d give it, and folks either agreed or disagreed with me.

That was then.

Today even a simple issue like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a loaded question. Because if I say, sure, play the record, I will be accused on condoning date rape, just as saying that Woody Allen once made funny movies unleashes a flurry of angry readers who will accuse me of condoning child molestation. A shout out to the “Honeymooners” means I’m all for spousal abuse. And I’ll be reviewing BLACKKKLANSMEN later this month. Take a guess what I’ll be labeled if I dare to not like that movie.

The point is, what should be a simple question is not. Not in 2018. So I ask you to take my answer at face value, not use it to label me, ostracize me, or blow it up into something way bigger than it is.

I happen to like the song. There’s a version played on (the best oldies station on the internet and planet) by Dolly Parton & Rod Stewart that I find charming. You can listen yourself at the bottom of this post (unless you’re in Cleveland — your ears need to be shielded). I’m all for #MeToo but I believe the spirit of the song is flirty not sinister. Yes, there are a couple of lines that today the lyricist might deftly avoid like “what’s in this drink?” But I never get the sense that he’s a dangerous predator. That’s just me. I don’t fear for Dolly’s safety.

I also understand the song "Kiss da Girl" from Walt Disney's LITTLE MERMAID was just taken off the 20 year repertoire list of a singing group due to 'concerns'. Huh????

I think you have to consider the context. Was the song considered objectionable before the #MeToo movement? A song I still hear all the time on Classic Rock and oldies stations is “Getting Better All the Times” by the Beatles from the classic Sgt. Pepper’s album. I’ve yet to hear an outcry to ban it. Ever listen to the lyrics?

I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved

To me that’s worse — even if it’s the Beatles and even if it’s a song on what many herald as the greatest rock album of all-time.

On the other hand, there is a song from the ‘60s sung by the Crystals called, “He Hit Me — It Felt Like a Kiss.” Now you NEVER hear that one on oldies stations (terrestrial or internet or wherever) and for good reason. Good God! A woman’s being abused and thinks it’s a good thing. Even when it came out people were saying “Really???” By the way, it was written by Carole King.

The line of acceptability changes as society does (although that Crystals song — Yikes!). Intent and era a song was released need to be factored in. If you don’t like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” or feel it’s inappropriate fine. But should it be banned from a radio station? Jesus, don’t we have bigger problems to worry about?

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Weekend Post

Mike Nichol's & Elaine May were two improv performers in Chicago who really clicked. So much so that they became a comedy team.  And a sensation!  

This was in the late '50's/early '60s.  Nichols went on to be an incredible director, as did May.  Sadly, Mike has passed away but Elaine is alive and well and starring on Broadway.

Here is a bit they did on the 1959 Emmys.  It's nice to know that nothing has really changed.  Enjoy.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s always a little more poignant to spend December 7th in Hawaii. Let us never forget the day that will live in infamy.

Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

YEKIMI starts it off:

Do you find it harder to write comedy [or other stuff] nowadays then you did when you were younger? I can remember back in my high school years and later just writing joke after joke after joke. [Actually started writing jokes for morning DJs in my senior year of high school...and kept it up even after I went into radio myself, although I never did mornings.] Now that I'm way older, it seems the jokes are few and far between then they were in my younger days. I'm guessing maybe it's because every internal organ on me has malfunctioned except my spleen [and I'm keeping a sharp eye on that] and after several surgeries and other medical problems, things just don't seem that funny anymore.

Actually it’s the opposite for me.  I would have to say it's easier.  I guess the years of experience have allowed me to discover different ways of drawing out laughs. Or the world is just so horrific these days that I need the escape that comedy writing provides me. So as long as my organs continue to work I’ll keep writing.

From -30-:

A follow-up question about working late into the night. How productive are you
3 A.M? Can you really think of something better that didn't come to you at 10:30? Isn't your brain fried? I sometimes (rarely) had to work 16 hours at a non-creative job simply because the job had to be done by morning and I know the results weren't always stellar. I can't imagine trying to be funny when 99% of your brain is screaming "Let me out of here." Also, what time did these sessions start?

When I run a show I will usually end a late night rewrite at 1:30 and have everyone return earlier the next morning to finish and just send down to the stage what we have with instructions that the rest will eventually follow.

This is because you’re right. Something that takes an hour to fix when you’re fresh at 10 in the morning will take three hours at 3 in the morning and probably not be as sharp.

Another thing I do – if there’s one whole new scene or tough section to address we’ll do that first then go back and do the rest of the script. You don’t want to get to that tough section at 2 in the morning after you’re already burned out..

For late night sessions we usually don’t begin actually writing until 8 or 9. From 6-8 we’re discussing the attack and in many cases re-plotting the story.

I’m reminded of writer Earl Pomerantz taking a break at 1:30 in the morning from a late night rewrite and saying, “There has to be an easier way of making $300,000 a year.”

J Lee asks:

When you and David got your first writing assignment for M*A*S*H, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", it was right after the show changed the relationship between Frank and Margaret, with her engagement to Donald. Was there anything you had thought about writing for them in terms of situations or lines (or rejoinders to them from Hawkeye) when you made your pitch for a script assignment that you now couldn't use, because what was good for Seasons 1-4 no longer worked for the dynamic in Season 5?

Gene Reynolds, who was the showrunner then, was incredibly organized. Before we pitched story ideas we met with him and he went over where the series was at that moment. He did it for that express purpose – so we wouldn’t be pitching stories they couldn’t use.  We knew where the characters were, what elements the show wanted to emphasize that year, etc. It made coming up with story ideas so much easier. All just part of good showrunning and Gene was the best.

And finally, from Jonny M.:

You often talk about giving writers more freedom from network interference as way to making better shows. After browsing through the list of original content on Amazon Prime and Hulu (where I'm assuming interference is limited), I'm seeing a lot of stinkers. Does this not give some credence to the idea that left to their own devices writers will often stray into vanity projects with limited appeal and questionable quality? I suppose those personal projects have brought us some great shows like Mad Men, but then on the other side you have results like A Crisis in Six Scenes (shouldn't have someone interfered with this one?).

First off, remember the late William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

You never really know what’s going to work. And yes, there are stinkers, but such is the case with broadcast TV WITH all the interference.

But by giving writers more freedom you at least have the opportunity of landing something special like MAD MEN or THE SOPRANOS. Neither of those shows would have gotten on the major networks and if they did they’d be so over-managed that any truly original idea would be squelched. So as I see it, betting on talent is still a better roll of the dice.

What’s your Friday Question?