Saturday, November 17, 2018

Weekend Post


The Thanksgiving holiday is the peak travel weekend of the year (in America. The rest of the world could give a rat’s ass about Thanksgiving.) So as a public service, here again (an annual tradition) -- and with a few additions -- are some travel tips:

Leave for the airport NOW.

Bring no luggage. Wearing the same clothes for a week is a small price to pay. Plus, the airlines now charge you for check-in luggage AND blankets. Pretty soon pressurized air will also be extra.

Southwest has no reserved seating. Get in one of the latter groups boarding. You don’t want to be one of the first to sit then watch as fifty people glance at the empty seat next to you, then to you, and decide to sit somewhere else. Even in the last row.

If you have children under the age of five tell your relatives one has an earache and make everyone come to YOU.

Those people in the Stand-By line – those are the same people who think they can get rich selling Amway products, and the Tooth Fairy really exists. Don’t fly Stand-By unless you like sleeping in airport terminals for five days.

If you rent from Hertz plan on a two hour wait just to get your car. Unless you’re one of their “preferred” customers in which case allow only one hour.

When rental car companies recommend you use premium gasoline put in regular. It’s cheaper, it’ll run just fine, and it’s not your car.


Before you pull off the road to a Chuck E. Cheese for lunch, remember their namesake is a rat.

Air travelers: avoid O’Hare. Better to land in Dallas, even if your destination is Chicago.

If you’re dropping someone off at the airport don’t even think you’ll be able to stop. Have your travelers practice the tuck and roll from a moving car. The first couple of times they’ll bounce but by the fourth or fifth try they should have it down.

Watch the DVD of HOSTEL on your laptop. The bigger the screen, the better.

There’s more legroom in Exit rows. When the flight attendants ask if you are willing to help out in case of emergency just say yes. Like it’s going to make a big difference anyway if you crash.

If you’re flying on an airline that doesn’t have reserved seating never sit next to anyone who is already eating or reading Ann Coulter.

Before you fly to New York and have to negotiate JFK just remember – the parade is on TV. And it’s the same friggin' balloons as last year. The only difference is that the stars of NBC’s big new hit from last year, GREAT NEWS won’t be there (thank God).

Never pay to see an in-flight movie starring Debra Messing.

Put a big strip of duct tape on your luggage so you’ll recognize it easily. And it makes a nice fashion statement.

If you’re flying with small children see if there’s such a thing as “Flintstones Valium”.

In-flight alcoholic beverages are expensive. Better to drink heavily at the airport before boarding.

And finally, watch PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES again and think of it as a “best” case scenario.

Happy trails to you all.

Friday, November 16, 2018

RIP William Goldman

For me, if there’s a Mount Rushmore of screenwriters it’s Billy Wilder, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and William Goldman. And now all four have passed. William Goldman died yesterday. He was 87.

Of the four, no one probably influenced me in more ways than William Goldman. He was the ultimate storyteller, both in terms of fiction and non-fiction. The way I break stories is a direct result of studying his approach. The flow of dialogue, creating vivid characters, getting laughs from attitudes and behavior not punchlines – I learned from the master.

And I’ll go further. William Goldman taught me how to write prose. None of my English professors ever did. There was a clarity to Goldman’s prose that I strive for. He had this gift of being able to present an emotional argument in such a way that his conclusions would always seem objectively reached. He would offer research, sometimes in favor of the opposition, then compare points-of-contention with reason and logic and reach a conclusion that was hard to argue. He was not afraid to concede points to ultimately state his case more persuasively. And he did this in a style that was conversational and really hit home.

Whenever, without exception, I try to lay out an argument in this blog William Goldman is in my head. Consciously.

He took delight in leading you in one direction then completely turning you around to another. It sounds maddening but it’s really fun. And more importantly, it holds your interest. He’s not just laying out facts, he’s taking you on a journey; he’s telling you a story. No better example of that was his screenplay for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. How he managed to unravel all those facts and names and interactions into a spellbinding movie is simply beyond me.

Unfortunately, I never met him. I saw him at a screening once. That’s as close as I ever got. And I was too intimidated to actually go up and talk to him. Besides, he was eating popcorn so he was busy. We did try to see if he wanted to write an episode of CHEERS the first season and he graciously declined. As great and versatile a writer as he was he didn’t feel he could do justice to a CHEERS script. I bet he was wrong.

I was a fan of William Goldman probably five years before I knew it. One summer night in the mid ‘60s I went to the Holiday Theatre in Woodland Hills and saw this little movie called HARPER starring Paul Newman. It knocked me out (so much so that I remember the theatre I saw it in). The rumpled private eye Newman played was a revelation. There was humor, suspense, fascinating characters, and an ending unlike any I had ever seen in that genre. At the time I didn’t think to ask, “Who wrote this?” but I did a few years later when I saw this little western called BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. And it turned out both films were written by the same guy. That’s when I really began following his career.

And that took me to his novels and non-fiction work. One of my favorites was a little book called SOLDIER IN THE RAIN. It was later made into a movie starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. The characters were so beautifully drawn and it was rich with humor. Then came MARATHON MAN (also later made into a movie) and I’ve yet to read a better, scarier thriller. I devoured his catalog until I came upon the real treasure – PRINCESS BRIDE. You’ve probably seen the movie, which he wrote and is wonderful, but pales in comparison to the book.

Here’s how inventive William Goldman was. In the book he sets up a personal anecdote and how he came upon this story. It’s a lovely framing device and gives the rollicking adventure some added dimension and context. Except for one thing: it’s all bullshit. That’s not really his family. The anecdote is pure fiction. William Goldman was the master of surprise. If you haven’t read PRINCESS BRIDE go to Amazon right now.

He also wrote books about a Broadway season, and of course his ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. He’s candid, informative, funny, and no one ever summed up Hollywood better: No one knows anything.

All indications are that he was a good guy, very collaborative, and very down to earth. He never got wrapped up in Hollywood; never got wrapped up in himself. We always say we’ll remember someone, but in this case, for me at least it’s very true. William Goldman’s DNA is part of my writing. So he will always be with me. And I will always hope to do him proud.

Friday Questions

Friday Questions, anyone?

Michael is up first:

With regards to late-night rewrites, are there union rules in place that limit how many hours a day or week staff writers are allowed to work? If so, are they enforced?

No. There are no restrictions.   It’s not like actors who must have a twelve-hour turnaround. Writers can work around the clock. And often do.

But we know that going in and understand that’s part of the job. Personally, if I’m running a show, I am willing to put in the extra hours not to settle. And since scripts have to be fixed literally overnight because they’re in production the result is often long hours. I’ve finished rewrites at 6 in the morning and then had to be on the set at 9. Believe me, I would have done it differently if I could.

So to regulate number of hours would be unrealistic and counterproductive. Plus, there are way more important issues the WGA has to fight for on our behalf.

Andrew Beasley is next.

Something I've long wondered about... when characters talk over each other in an argument, as Frasier and Niles often would, will every single line be written or are they left to improvise? I assume the former, but would love to know. Thanks.

In the case of FRASIER, every line was written. An actor might improvise something in rehearsal and if it works it gets written into the script. But there was no ad libbing during filming. And partly because the cameras changed their shots based on line cues. So if they don’t hear the cue they don’t go to their next shot. Confusion ensues. You hate to see four cameras crashing into each other. 

From cd1515 :

Instead of doing all these reboots, how feasible would it be for networks to just re-air the original show? Seems cheaper anyway.

Advertisers aren’t going to pay big money for shows that are not first-run.

And most shows that are popular enough to be rebooted are currently rerunning elsewhere. So it would be no big deal to see reruns of the original WILL & GRACE. You can find them on cable, streaming services, and DVD’s. 

The lure of the reboots is seeing new episodes and finding out what happened to the beloved characters you watched during their first-run.

CBS however, does an interesting thing around the holidays. It reruns episodes of I LOVE LUCY and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. But two things: they colorize them which makes them different, and the holiday season traditionally has low viewership so it’s a cheap way to fill the schedule when no one is watching. You’ll notice that the colorized DICK VAN DYKE SHOW is not on the fall schedule. At best, it’s a stunt.

And finally, from slgc:

How cathartic is the writing process for you? Do you exact karmic revenge on old foes or rewrite happy endings for yourself as part of your creative process?

It’s very cathartic. At times liberating and other times painful. But as a writer I get to work through issues that are meaningful to me in my art. And the desire to be as brutally honest as I can makes the process both more satisfying and occasionally excruciating.

As per your specific question: I never set out to attack anybody. Even in my memoirs, THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (available on Amazon… get yours now), when I showed someone in an unflattering light I changed his name. But yes, there are times I will give a personal story a happier ending than it really had. If I’m not going to make the big bucks at least I can have some wish fulfillment.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

EP98: My 15 Seconds of Fame: Me on Camera


Ken talks about the various times he’s appeared on camera either
as an actor, sportscaster, host, or dancer (if you can believe it). You’ll hear some amusing tales and learn why he’s not on camera more often.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Don Draper would be proud

This is my favorite advertising story.

So much of advertising is perception. Positioning yourself in the minds of the consumers.  And the rest is competition. It's not enough to be good, you have to either be better than your competition or make the consumer believe your competitor is bad.   Today there are so many products (not to mention political ads that are currently flooding the airwaves) and so many slogans that it’s hard for any one message to really hit home, but in Don Draper’s day when there were only three networks and three or four primary magazines a good slogan would have a greater impact.

Back in the ‘50s all canned tuna was pink. Then “Chicken of the Sea” came along with white tuna. It wasn’t selling. They tried to promote it as tasting like chicken (hence the name). The public wasn’t buying it. White tuna looked weird.

Along came Mad Men to the rescue. And this ingenious slogan:

“Chicken of the Sea” – guaranteed never to turn pink.

Within about a year pink tuna was completely off the market.

Now THAT’S advertising.

Ironically, "Chicken of the Sea" now also sells pink salmon.  I wonder if their campaign should be "Guaranteed never to turn white."  

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY -- My review

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is a movie that critics hate but audiences love. There are many things to pick apart in this film should you wish to, but if you loved the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen you won’t want your money back.

The sense I got was that Hollywood looked at Freddie’s life and said, “Too dark for a holiday release.” So they spruced up this very complicated figure and made him more Cineplex-friendly.

But the music is great.

Rami Malek (MR. ROBOT) did an admirable job capturing Freddie’s moves and swagger. He was fitted with ridiculous teeth. Supposedly Freddie had four extra teeth, which meant his mouth was larger and accounted for his additional range. If this were true then Wink Martindale is the greatest singer of the last hundred years.

Did I mention the music is swell?

Once Freddie cuts his hair and becomes the image we’re most familiar with then Rami looked like Rowan Atkinson with clown teeth. I will admit it took me out of some emotional scenes because all I could picture was Mr. Bean trying to eat an apple.

But then there were those songs.

Story-wise, it followed the Hollywood studio biopic formula. Parents don’t understand, falls in love with a local, gets discovered, career takes off, dumps the local flame, fame and fortune take its toll, uh oh, things start turning bad, relationships break apart, things get worse, but there’s a feel-good ending to send everyone home on a high note. Sometimes it works and is Ray Charles and other times it doesn’t and it’s James Brown, Johnny Cash, or (God help us) Bobby Darin. Things wrap up as they always do -- fences mended, family harmony restored, a spectacular farewell performance.

I will say this: Anytime they try to have the scene where the fictional rock star wows the crowd and whips them into an orgasmic frenzy it always feels bogus. Like Gwyneth Paltrow could raise the roof with her singing. But in the final Live-Aid scene you totally believe it (oh don’t say SPOILER ALERT, you know in the first minute of the film that that was gong to be the big denouement).

And that section alone is worth the price of admission.

Sure, they could have mounted a more nuanced, deeper study of this brilliant artist and how success and sex turned his life into a Shakespearean tragedy. But that’s shooting for Oscars. This movie aimed at pleasing audiences and making a shit-ton more money than any art house film could. Ending BOHAMIAN RHAPSODY with that recreation of the Live-Aid concert was a definite crowd pleaser.

So if you go into BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with low expectations and you’re not a reviewer for the New York Times you should enjoy this movie. And for the next three days you’ll be listening to nothing but Queen. What music!

Monday, November 12, 2018

KEVIN CAN F*** HIMSELF

This is clearly my favorite project currently in development – KEVIN CAN F*** HIMSELF. Created by Valerie Armstrong and executive produced by Rashida Jones, this is a half-hour comedy pilot for AMC.

With a healthy dollop of meta, this sitcom was obviously inspired by the recent CBS series, KEVIN CAN WAIT starring Kevin James.

Some background. KEVIN CAN WAIT premiered two years ago and was an instant hit. It was the most successful new comedy of the season. It received a full-season order for the second season months before season one was even over. And CBS initially so wanted Kevin James that they agreed to build a soundstage for him in Long Island so he could do the show practically from home. To say he was the 800 pound gorilla was an understatement. Of course, you build the guy a studio what do you expect when he flexes his creative muscles?

From day one James ran the show. The original creator/show runner quit halfway through season one. James was notorious for rewriting every script.

One of his problems was the chemistry between him and his TV wife, Erinn Hayes. Admittedly, Hayes is not a gifted comedienne. She’s more of a dramatic actress. Anyway, the decision was made to drop her at the end of season one and replace her with Leah Remini. Remini and James were together on KING OF QUEENS. And Remini is much more facile when it comes to comedy. So there definitely were reasons for making the switch. It was a decision approved by CBS and the studio producing the show. Casting changes are not uncommon. We were forced by CBS to let Kevin Kilner go from ALMOST PERFECT (a stupid decision that ultimately killed the show – thanks, CBS).

But in this case, the real problem was how KEVIN CAN WAIT handled it. They decided to kill off the character. That’s pretty severe. They couldn’t say she had to care for her sick mother in California and keep the door open for guest appearances to keep her in the series? Erinn Hayes had fans and the general consensus was that killing her off was excessive and needlessly hostile.

And then in season two her death was completely swept under the rug. There were a few mentions in passing (mostly as jokes).  So it was handled in a very callous manner.  I don’t have to tell you who made those creative decisions. James dug in his heels and guided the show in season two, deaf to any network, studio, or staff concerns. The result: the ratings went down and CBS cancelled the show after season two.

It takes some doing to go from most successful new comedy to cancellation in one year. (Although Roseanne managed the same feat in the length of time it took to write and post one tweet.)

If you watch a lot of network family sitcoms you’ll see a convention that always strains credibility. There’s always a schlub unattractive dim husband and a hot wife (usually younger) who in real life wouldn’t piss on these dolts if their hair was on fire. Jami Gertz & Mark Addy, Courtney Thorne-Smith & Jim Belushi, Nancy Travis & Tim Allen, and certainly Erinn Hayes & Kevin James (just to name a few).

Actresses will tell you it’s the most thankless role ever. You’re the wet blanket, rarely do you get great jokes, and you have to somehow try to sell that you’re in love with these obnoxious idiots.

So that’s what KEVIN CAN F*** HIMSELF is about. In their words it “explores the secret life of a woman we all grew up watching: the sitcom wife. A beauty paired with a less attractive, dismissive, caveman-like husband who gets to be a jerk because she’s a nag and he’s ‘funny.' What happens when this supporting character is presented as a real person? And what if that person is pissed?”

Should be fun. I know an actress and writing staff who might enjoy working on this show.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Weekend Post

My heart goes out to anyone in the path of the many horrendous brushfires roaring through California. Wildfires have always been a threat in these areas but it seems this year things have gotten worse. So many homes; so many lives. People in canyons and in Malibu face these dangers every few years. But a lot of these fires are sweeping through suburbs.

Again, my hopes and prayers for everyone’s safety.

I don’t know what the coverage is like where you are, but here in Los Angeles, it is geared very much to the entertainment industry. And representative of just how myopic this town is.

Lots of headlines are about which celebrities had to evacuate – as if Kim Kardashian evacuating is any more important than anyone else. Alyssa Milano is safe we’re told. An industry website featured the headline proclaiming Caitlyn Jenner safe. Whew! Like in the midst of all this destruction and heartbreak I give one shit about Caitlyn Jenner.

The big news was the loss of the Paramount Ranch. Oh no. The sets for WESTWORLD were destroyed. Yes, that’s unfortunate, but it seems to me it pales compared to people losing their homes. Oh, and the hospital that burned down. The mansion used for THE BACHELOR and THE BACHELORETTE was damaged we’re told. And the industry report added that neither show was currently in production. Thank God! Seriously, when you look at the scope of these fires who gives a fuck about THE BACHELOR’S possible production setbacks?

Hollywood has never been one for perspective. The day President Reagan was shot it was the scheduled night of the Academy Awards. They were postponed as a result, and one of the trades had the large blazing headline: OSCARCAST POSTPONED. And then underneath, in much smaller letters: The President Shot.

My sincerest hope and prayer is that if you’re personally affected by these fires that YOU’RE safe, your animals are safe, and YOUR home is spared. The sets for WESTWORLD will be rebuilt. THE BACHELOR can rent a different mansion. I know it’s a hard thing to ask in this town, but seriously, let’s get real.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day. Remember, a new post tomorrow to carry you through the weekend.

Bryan Price starts us off:

Was watching and enjoying a first-season CHEERS you wrote - the episode Now Pitching, Sam Malone where Sam is "convinced" to make a commercial. Can you tell us about any complications from designing a fake commercial within a real TV show and any anecdotes in working with Luis Tiant.

Doing the fake commercial was easy. We based it on an actual campaign. It was pre-filmed (so not in front of the audience) and James Burrows directed it as if he were directing any commercial.

It took forever to film however, and the reason was Luis Tiant. Now I love Luis. He’s a totally sweet guy. But his English, especially his diction when speaking English, was somewhat, uh… lacking. He tried his best and was a pleasure to work with, but OY. God knows how many takes it took.

I think we still looped him after the filming. 

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

I'm always intrigued by how a writer of a show/screenplay/whatever can simply say, "I am going to write a totally new draft and not include anything from the old script."

How does someone's previous version not influence a new version?
How do you pretend that anything you thought worked in the previous iteration, not make it into the new one?

If a script requires a page-one rewrite I will either go back to the outline and not even work off the draft, or change the story significantly and write a new outline.

There may be a line or beat in the original draft worth keeping and I’m happy to. Less work for me. But I won’t shoehorn anything in from the original draft.

And usually the reason for a total rewrite is the original writer didn’t have a good sense of the characters. So none of their dialogue will be useful.

But look, I once threw out a whole act of a full-length script that I wrote. There were some wonderful jokes but the story didn’t work so I threw it all out and came up with something else (that proved to be way better).  Writing is rewriting. 

From ReticentRabbit:

Julia Louis-Dreyfus will accept the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor later this month. Keeping in mind that they typically only present the award to those who are living and never repeat winners (making this something of a Lifetime Achievement award), who would get your vote?

Can I vote for myself? Oh well. In that case, Mel Brooks.

And finally, from DyHrdMET:

I'm sure you've answered this already, but why did you want to get into directing TV sitcoms?

It’s not for the reason you would think. It’s not because I felt the need to protect my words.

After years of being on staff or consulting on shows I got to the point where I hated to go to the stage. I would dread run-throughs and hold my breath that the script worked and I wouldn’t be in the writing room until 3 a.m.

And one day I thought to myself, this is nuts. The whole reason for being a TV writer was to see my work done. I should be looking forward to going to the stage, not dreading it. So I thought, how could I recapture that desire to be on the stage? And the answer was directing.

That was where the fun was. You were playing with the actors and trying to make a show, and if it didn’t work and had to be rewritten you could still make dinner reservations. Directing was way more social, you got to play with cameras, and trust me the days just fly. There’s never enough time.

That was my initial motivation and I have to say it worked. I love directing. Don’t tell anybody but it’s waaaaay easier than writing.

What’s your Friday Question?