Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

The New Yorker magazine has a weekly feature:  the cartoon caption contest.  They feature a cartoon and readers are invited to submit funny captions.   Three finalists are selected, people vote, and then the winner is announced.  I don't even think there's a prize other than bragging rights. 

An article in KQED Arts takes issue with the selections the magazine makes.  When a colleague was a finalist but didn't win there was a lot of bitterness believing his caption was better than the winner's.

Here's the article.

Welcome to the world of comedy rejection.

Comedy is soooo subjective.  5,000 people apparently enter every week. Can you really take it personally when yours isn't selected?  I mean, seriously

Obviously, you're going to think that your entry was better.  I've got news for you:  in 90% of cases, you're wrong. 

But that attitude is still a great motivator.  How many talented people became successful sitcom writers when they watched the crap on TV and said, "I could do better that this!"?

But 5,000 to 1 are staggering odds.   You may write the most brilliant caption ever and it gets lost, or the reader didn't get it, or didn't read it right, or was in a bad mood, or has a different sensibility, or seventeen other reasons.

I find this when entering ten-minute plays in festivals.  Plays that won major festivals get rejected by minor festivals.  It's all subjective.  I can't take it personally.  It's worth it to me to keep submitting, and along the way I do get some acceptances, so I continue.  And I file the rejections and forget about it.

In the case of the caption contest, a very prominent comedy writer and I used to submit.  We would run our captions by each other to make sure they were good enough.  I trust this person's opinion of comedy way more than some assistant editor's.  We would send them in.   And then nothing.   Neither of us were ever finalists.  Did I think mine were better than those selected?   Most of the time.  Sometimes I thought the one they picked was terrific.  And often I thought the one my comedy writer pal submitted was better than mine.

But like I said, we never broke through.  So what did we do?  Instead of getting mad, and challenging their selection process, we simply stopped submitting.  We happily went on about our lives.  In this case, it wasn't worth it to keep submitting. Better to focus my talents on something else. 

And that would be my advice to anyone frustrated over not winning.   There's no big cash prize.  There's no fellowship attached.  There's no job with the New Yorker or SNL.  There's no dinner with the queen.  There's no agent who is going to take you on.   Only continue if you're having fun with it, and the moment you're not then stop.

And then stop reading the caption contest.   Who needs the added aggravation?  

Monday, June 24, 2019

Why Romcoms are bombing

Interesting article in the Hollywood Reporter on the recent decline of Romantic Comedies and possible reasons why. Not since CRAZY RICH ASIANS has a studio comedy grossed over $100 million in the U.S. This year has been particularly disappointing. Several well-reviewed recent comedies have all bombed. THE LONG SHOT, BOOKSMART, and LATE NIGHT all went down in flames.

The article suggests perhaps Netflix is partly to blame since studios are making fewer romcoms they’re filling the void. The latest Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston made-for-Netflix romantic comedy supposedly has been seen by 30 million people (although I don’t believe that for a second. It’s just Netflix’s word.) .

Certainly Netflix is a factor. You don’t need IMAX to fully enjoy a romcom. And you sure don’t need to pay IMAX prices. To me, that’s another issue. Movie prices keep rising as costs to make giant tent pole super hero and action flicks continue to swell (what is the going rate for blowing up cities these days?). Theatergoers don’t want to pay those inflated prices for modest little urban trifles.

When a romcom is released these days, unless it’s something you really want to see or you hear amazing word-of-mouth, you’re more apt to say “I’ll wait till it’s on cable or Netflix.”

To me, the biggest factor for the genre decline is this: The romcoms the studios are churning out are not funny enough, or not charming enough, or not fresh enough. It’s as simple as that.

Let’s look at the three big summer disappointments so far. At this point I should say I haven’t seen any of them. Why? Because I’ve been scared off for one reason or another.

THE LONG SHOT. Word is this is just KNOCKED UP but with Charlize Theron instead of Kathryn Heigel. Seth Rogen even plays the same guy. Despite the reviews, no one I know has said anything other than “meh.”

BOOKSMART is supposedly just SUPERBAD with women. Playing the Jonah Hill part is Beanie Feldstein, who is Jonah Hill’s younger sister and looks like Jonah Hill. No one I know who has seen it has understood the critical acclaim. Maybe I’d find it utterly hilarious. But the lack of originality in premise and lack of enthusiasm from people I respect who have seen it made me say “I’ll wait until cable.”

And finally, LATE NIGHT. I’ll be very honest here. I don’t like Mindy Kaling. I don’t find her funny in any way. That’s me. That said, if all I heard was buzz that this was a laugh riot and the one movie to see this summer I would race to the theatre. I’d be thrilled to change my position on Mindy Kaling. Instead, I’m hearing, “not funny,” “on the nose,” and “formula.” Pass.

It seems to me there is this disconnect between the industry’s love of Mindy Kaling and the general public’s. No one watched her TV series. She certainly can’t open a movie by starring in it. If a major studio is only going to commit to two or three comedies a year, I can see them going after Kevin Hart – he opens movies, but Mindy Kaling?

Look, a certain X-factor is needed in becoming a comedy movie star. Lots of very funny talented people have been unable to break through in that regard. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Jon Hamm, and Bryan Cranston are just a few who light up the small screen but flicker on the wide one. And I can’t tell you why. I love each and every one of them.

But that’s another big factor. Because stars open movies. Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Will Smith, Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, even Melissa McCarthy used to open movies. A studio would get a romcom script and if they could interest one of these names in starring the movie got green lit. Who today would you go to? Kate McKinnon? So far the jury is still out. There’s a real shortage of comedy stars.

I think studios will still continue to make romcoms, although fewer of them. But in success they’re not just a home run; they’re a walk off. Because when they can shell out a modest $40 million and get back $300 million, that’s a much better investment than paying $200 million hoping to get $400 million. And a number of those $200 million dollar investments tank and that’s a huge hit. You know the super hero bubble is going to eventually burst, and when it does Hollywood is going to take a huge bath. Kevin Hart will start looking really good to them.

But for me, the bottom line is simple and the same with any genre. You want to revive it? Make better movies. It’s not like laughing has gone out of style. Present movies that are genuinely funny and audiences will come. But they’ve seen SUPERBAD. Give them something new that’s super GOOD.

UPDATE:  Let me address some readers who suggested I should see the movies and not just report what I've heard from others.  Thank you for the comments, by the way.   The point of this article is why people are not going to see these movies.  They're not critiques of the movies themselves.  And people are not going to see them because of meh word-of-mouth, or lack of interest in the subject matter, or ticket prices.  In this case the perception of the movie is more important than the movie itself.   You have to entice people to go see the movie first.  And theatergoers are clearly not interested -- despite the favorable reviews.  This post was an attempt to explain why that is. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Weekend Post

Last weekend I posted a scene from Steve Gordon's original screenplay of ARTHUR.  The draft was 147 pages so needless to say a number of scenes didn't make the final cut.  But his writing is just so good it is my pleasure to share it with you.  So here's another scene. 

Remember when Linda shows up at Arthur’s engagement party and they go out to the stables? In this version after the party they go to the Plaza Hotel and end up here:


Linda and Arthur enter the room.

(looking around) Look at this room! It’s not easy to feel cheap here.

Arthur sits on the bed.

You want something to drink? Or eat?


She walks to the window and looks out.

New York…

You were expecting Pittsburgh?

I feel like we’re a young couple from the Midwest on our first trip to New York.

(lying back on the bed) Come here.

Linda goes to the bed and lies next to him. He puts his arm around her. They lie like that for a beat.

What are we waiting for?

The other girl will be here in a minute. You didn’t think this was just going to be you and me, did you? You’ll like her.

Linda laughs.

Why do I feel so comfortable with you?

Because we are that couple from the Midwest. And we’re very nice people.

He kisses her. Light at first. Then it quickly turns to passion.

(breathing heavily) You’re a nice girl… but you don’t turn me on physically.

You’re not going to marry that girl. And you know it.

Arthur kisses her again.

Let’s not talk anymore. Okay?

Linda starts to unbutton Arthur’s shirt. She kisses his chest. They are both very excited.

(while kissing his chest) I know you’re not going to marry her.

She’s talking. Linda… let’s not talk.

He rolls over and kisses her again. After the kiss:

Let’s talk for a second…

I’m having sex here! Do you mind?

Why would you marry a woman you don’t love?

I have to. Can I help you with that zipper?

What do you mean… you have to?

Linda… there’s not a shower in the world cold enough to fix what’s going on here. Now… could we talk about this later?

Just tell me what you mean… you have to?

My family is forcing me to marry her.

You asshole! Nobody gets married like that! That hasn’t happened since 1850!

They’ll cut me off if I don’t! Without a cent!

So? You’ll get a job like everybody else. How much money is it?

250 million dollars.

Try it with her for a few years. Maybe it’ll work out.

Linda… you see this suite? I have to be in suites like this.


Because… that’s who I am. I’m Arthur Bach. I’ve got nothing but the money. I don’t know who I am without it.

You’re not Winston Churchill… I’ll tell you that.

(touching her face) It took me years… all my life… to find you. Just don’t compete with the money. The money is like my arm. It comes with me.

We’re not that nice young couple from the Midwest, are we? I’ll get a cab.

Linda crosses to the door. Arthur sits on the bed. She stops.

You can’t have everything, Arthur. If you get the potato you don’t get a vegetable.

Would you turn down this money?

Are you crazy? Of course not! I steal ties for Christ sakes! But when you look for a mistress… make it a mistress! She should speak French and give back rubs. Don’t come to me. I want to get married. What do I know about being a mistress? You’d get me an apartment and I’d want to know if it’s near a good school.

Goodbye, Linda.

Don’t pout. You’re lovely. I’ll remember you the rest of my life.

Linda exits. Arthur goes to the bar and pours a drink.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Friday Questions

June Friday Questions are busting out all over. What’s yours?

Mitchell Hundred leads off.

I've been thinking a lot lately about bottle episodes. Is there any significant difference between the way a writer approaches them and the way they might approach a more conventional script?

Very much so.

A bottle episode is one that is pretty much confined to an existing set. A show will have an annual budget and if they know there will be episodes with helicopters or big crowd scenes or explosions, to offset the cost they’ll plan a simple episode that all takes place in one set and can be produced under-budget.

Best bottle show I ever saw was the BREAKING BAD episode with just Walter and Jesse and a pesky fly in the meth lab.

But you have to consider them almost like one act plays. The dialogue becomes much more important. You can’t rely on action to give you your story turns. Bottle shows are much more character-based.

If I’m a showrunner I assign my bottle show to my best writer.

Scottmc is next.

I just read that movie theaters in August will show five colorized episodes of 'I Love Lucy's as part of a Lucille Ball birthday tribute. Initially, I couldn't see an audience that would pay current movie ticket prices for this. Then I saw that they are going to release them on DVD.(The theatrical showing is a promotion for the DVD.)

Do you think episodes of shows that you worked on could be shown effectively on a big screen? Can you think of any classic situation comedy that could have episodes shown?

I’ve seen episodes of CHEERS and FRASIER I’ve co-written on the big screen and the audience reaction was terrific. But they don’t take advantage of the scope that cinema provides.

Single-camera shows have a better shot, in my opinion. MASH certainly (which started out as a movie). Except for one episode.

“Point of View.”

That’s the episode David Isaacs and I wrote that was seen through the eyes of a patient. On a big screen when you’re seeing giant heads staring down at you it’s very disconcerting. On TV though, on normal sized screens it totally works.

But since MASH was shot on film, every week before we’d release an episode to CBS we would screen it one more time to make sure everything was okay, so I’m very used to seeing pristine 35mm cuts on large movie screens. And they were glorious.

slgc asks:

When you were working in radio, were there any songs about disc jockeys that were memorable or meaningful to you?

You bet.

“W.O.L.D.” by Harry Chapin. It tells of an aging disc jockey, sacrificing his marriage to bounce around the country playing the hits. It’s a great cautionary tale.

And finally, from Anthony:

Ken, I've always wondered why ESPN's production of Sunday Night Baseball is almost exclusively made of up National League matchups, or at least contains one NL team. With few exceptions such as Red Sox vs Yankees (obviously), a game featuring the reining AL pennant winner, or a recent World Series rematch, if you look at the pre-determined SNB schedule for the entire season, it's usually a NL matchup. Is there a business reason for it?

First off, I hadn’t noticed that. But I’m sure ESPN does research on which teams have a national following and programs accordingly. In the National League I’d say the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, Braves, and maybe the Giants have large national following. But unless they’re winning like crazy you’re rarely going to see the Padres on SNB.

In the American League the Yankees and Red Sox both have national followings and maybe the Tigers and Angels, but who else? The Blue Jays?  (Yes, in Canada) The Rangers? The Mariners?

When I wrote my book about my year broadcasting for Baltimore a number of publishers said they would have snapped it up if it had been about the Cubs or Cardinals, but there was not enough national interest in the Orioles. Judging by book sales they were right. 

So to answer your question, that would be my guess. And please understand the examples I gave were not personal. Don’t write that you were hurt because I didn’t say the Pirates had a fan base. Every team has a fan base. Pittsburgh transplants are everywhere as are Cleveland transplants. But when you go to a Dodger-Diamondback game in Arizona and see that half the crowd is wearing Dodger blue you know THAT is a following.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

EP128: Ken’s Commencement Speech and Welcoming in Summer

If Ken were to ever speak at a college graduation, this would be his speech.  And then he reflects on summers past.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Comedians in cars getting coffee

Okay, I may be the only person on the planet who thinks this but I don’t like COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE. I know I’m spitting on the comedy cross and numerous friends swear by it, but I’m unimpressed.

In a half-hour show with A-list comedians I learn little or nothing. Instead, I’m treated to a five-minute introduction to the vintage car Jerry is driving that week (who cares?), the obligatory call from the car to the comedian, stock shots or Jerry and his guest walking, and once they get to the coffee shop, seventeen close up shots of coffee being poured.

The interview itself is always clipped, Jerry can’t help but try to top his comedian guest, and there’s a general condescension that only Jerry and his guests really know “funny.” It’s like the cool kids in high school graciously letting us sit at the next table and eavesdrop.

When not trying to top his guests Jerry is generally doubled-over in laughter – at stuff that is just not that funny.

Here’s what I learned from the half-hour John Mullaney episode – he writes his ideas in a notebook. Wow! How revealing!

From Kate McKinnon – she liked school as a kid. Otherwise it was pretty much Kate doing schtick.

When I interview someone I try to get them to really reveal information we didn’t know. If it’s a comedian I want to know his process, how his mind works, how he’s evolved, what’s his worldview, background, goals, amusing anecdotes, etc. But this show is a slickly produced hodgepodge with background music, beauty shots of cars and percolators, and Jerry being the smug host.

The message is clear: YOU’LL never be this funny, YOU’LL never have a career like this, YOU’LL never drive a car like this. Well, you know what? I’ll grab a ride elsewhere.

Now I expect to take a lot of heat for this because like I said, most people love this show. But I’d rather see a comedian in an Uber talking his process for a half-hour and he can grab coffee later.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Best game show host. "Who is Alex Trebek?"

I’ve always been a fan.

He’s done a great job hosting JEOPARDY. And it’s not easy. You need laser-focus, the ability to pronounce foreign names and other tongue-twisters correctly, to keep the game moving, and successfully engage with the contestants, many who are nervous and ill-at-ease.

When we did the CHEERS episode where Cliff went on JEOPARDY we also discovered that Alex was very funny. So much so that we wrote him into another scene and he appears at the bar.

A couple of months ago I went to watch them tape JEOPARDY. They do five shows in one day – three in the morning, and two after lunch. That’s a lot of clues to announce, money totals to keep track of, and be accurate in allowing and disallowing answers. The time between shows is like twenty minutes – just enough time for Alex and the winner to change clothes and maybe down a Red Bull.

It would be understandable if Alex had a little less energy on the fifth show of the day (or even fell asleep), but that’s never the case. He is up and present every episode regardless of when it was taped.

And what you don’t see at home is that during commercial breaks he steps out and answers audience questions, again displaying his great dry wit.

So under normal circumstances he does a remarkable job.

As I’m sure you know, he revealed to the world that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Let’s be real – that’s a bad one. According to reports, his treatment is going well and he is in remission, but that treatment has been brutal.

Apparently, there are times between shows when he’s in his dressing room in tremendous pain. Producers have offered to cancel the rest of the day’s taping, but he always says no. And somehow he rallies to go before the cameras and do his usual outstanding job. I watch the show every day. I’ve been watching for a long time. I would never know he’s in pain if I hadn’t heard the story.

That, to me, is the ultimate professional.

My admiration is through the roof. And I’m sure, like you, I offer my best wishes and prayers.

If the answer is “courageous” the correct response is “Who is Alex Trebek?”

Monday, June 17, 2019

Bring back sparkling dialogue

I received a lot of good buzz from this weekend's post where I featured a scene that wasn't shot in the original movie of ARTHUR by Steve Gordon.

What everyone reacted to was the sparkling dialogue.

And I don't think it's an age thing.  As many younger readers responded as older.

The sad thing is you don't hear dialogue like that in movies today.  Or TV.  Or even a lot of plays.  Theatrical comedies have to be dark black comedies as is the current trend.

And I say why?

Now, I must admit I'm not an objective bystander here.  I've always loved smart, character-driven funny banter.  Steve Gordon is one of my idols.  Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Herb Gardner are a few others.    So that's the kind of dialogue I try to write.

Happily, that style was in vogue during my TV writing career.  MASH, CHEERS, and certainly FRASIER appreciated and celebrated the value of witty dialogue.   Every play I write I strive to reach the level of ARTHUR.  And it's very rewarding when lines get big laughs from the audience.

And understand, I'm not talking about "jokes."   I'm talking about dialogue that is in character, moves the story along, is generally attitude-based, and is funny in context.

I suspect witty dialogue is not so prevalent because it's very difficult to do.   Easier to do a gross-out scene, sophomoric sex jokes, dripping irony, or moments that are mildly-amusing at best.   And of course, those who can't do it or are intimidated by it claim it's a style that's "old school" and passe today.

But ask an audience.  Or, more accurately, listen to them.  Listen to them laugh at well-crafted funny lines.   Watch ARTHUR again (only the original.  The sequel and remake -- neither by Steve Gordon -- suck!).  Forget that it's a timepiece and in today's sensibility you couldn't do a number of the things they did in that film.  You're going to laugh your ass off.  For 90 minutes you're going to be bombarded with one hilarious line after another.

It's a style that I feel should come back, and I'm out there every day doing what I can to revive it.  This one's for you, Steve.

UPDATE:  from Jon Emerson.  This is a Twitter video from Nicole Silverberg on 90% of movie jokes now.  Couldn't like agree, y'know, more.