Wednesday, August 05, 2020

EP186: Another Free Association Podcast

Ken riffs from topic to topic; everything from the Emmys to the Catskills, Cub Scouts, National Anthem, comedy exercises, American Bandstand, bowling, British sitcoms, summer camp, snark, and Sinatra.   Fun personal stories and harebrained opinions. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The AVN Awards

The AVN Awards were disappointing this year.  The AVN Awards are the porn industry’s version of the Oscars (although Golden Globes might be closer).   If you’ve seen BOOGIE NIGHTS there’s a sequence at the AVN Awards. 

Porn stars all dress up, attempt to look glamorous and classy, win awards for such categories as “Best Anal Sex Scene” and “Best Director – Comedy.” 

I’m sure they’ve been handed out thirty/forty years in one form or another, but it’s only been a few years ago that Showtime started airing them (taped delayed -- by five months).  . 

The first year I saw it I laughed my ass off.  How could you not when a trashy blonde with tears in her eyes thanked “Jesus and all the guys that fucked me in the ass?”   How much would you pay to hear Nicole Kidman say that at the Academy Awards? 

What made it additionally funny was that none of it was intended to be.  This wasn’t a sketch.  No one was winking at the camera.  The sincerity was both poignant and okay – I’m going to hell – hilarious. 

Showtime is still airing the show every year so obviously people (men I suspect) are watching.   What I don’t know is whether, like me, they’re watching for the laughs, or cheap thrills, or worse – they’ve got bets down on these categories. 

But I find it a guilty pleasure.  At least I used to.

Watching the 2020 awards (recorded before all the lockdowns), it just felt sad.  The speeches were the same so they felt like the same joke over and over.  The novelty was completely gone.  And what remained was the sadness.  You know these are people who mostly come from broken homes and heartbreaking childhoods.  You also know the career span of a porn star is just a few years.  And then what? 

I don’t even know how the industry survives today.  There are all these free Pornhub websites where you can see clips of anything you want for free.  You used to pay to see Stormy Daniels.  I was surprised that they’re still making “movies.” 

And as I watched these people try desperately to hold onto the luster of better days I thought to myself – this is now ALL award shows in 2020.   Even Sam Rubin & Mindy Burbano don’t seem that funny anymore. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

The Last Dance

Why bury the lead? THE LAST DANCE is the best sports documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s available on Netflix, produced by ESPN. Glad to see it's nominated for a number of Emmys

Due to the Trumpvirus and lack of live events, ESPN moved up its premier to April. I just got around to it, frankly because ten hours seemed a little daunting.

It’s essentially a profile on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s. I like Mike but ten hours? Then I thought: sitting through one baseball game with no crowds or excitement feels like ten hours, why not give THE LAST DANCE a try?

So glad I did. I binge-watched the whole thing in two days and was sorry when it ended.

I have not read a single review. I know some people had issues with it. I don’t know what those are, nor do I care. I found it compelling throughout and it seemed to portray Michael (I just call him “Michael” because I’m cool) in a balanced light. His greatness is constantly on display, but so is his dark side (and sometimes dick side).

Hey, he’s a complex guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances. With greatness comes expectations and unbelievable pressure. Fame can be a curse. And having an amazing gift doesn’t shield you from heartache. How much of his glory and riches would he gladly trade not to have his father murdered?

The filmmakers chose a great topic filled with colorful characters, weird twists, and real life suspense. Plus, they were given amazing access to behind-the-scenes revealing moments. The documentary gives us plenty of time to really see who Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman (a fucking loon who happened to possess athletic skills), Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr and numerous other personalities (both teammates and opponents).

They managed to get just about everybody to be a talking head. Two former presidents (Obama & Clinton) and two former Gods (Magic & Bird). I’m only sorry it wasn’t made for CNN because then they probably would have used me.

Finally, (and maybe this is a secondary lead I am burying), you don’t have to love the NBA or basketball to enjoy this documentary. It’s a sweeping novel and the basketball sequences are filled with suspense and artistry. And it's not made up.  It's all true!  As otherworldly as you think Michael Jordan is, when you watch the span of his entire career it just takes your breath away.

And you get to see some behind-the-scenes moments of SPACE JAM.

THE LAST DANCE – check it out. Yes, it’s ten hours, but where you going for the next six months?

Monday, August 03, 2020

Hollywood Insanity

Here in LA we had an earthquake last Thursday morning at 4:30 am,  centered in the San Fernando Valley. It was quite short but packed a real jolt. I was probably 20 miles from the epicenter and felt it.  But there was no damage.  Okay, this info you probably know.

But here’s what I find so interesting: is the industry website. It’s the current version of a trade magazine, as it were. And as such is very Hollywood-centric. This was their headline the morning of the quake:

Los Angeles Earthquake: Magnitude 4.2 Jolt & Several Aftershocks Rattle San Fernando Valley; Celebrity Residents React

Celebrity residents react?


Who gives a shit?

When you first heard or read about it, was your initial reaction: “What is Tyra Banks, Zach Braff, Lil Nas, and Lilly Singh going through?”

This town is nuts. During a wildfire last year there was extensive coverage of LeBron James evacuating.

I would submit there is a certain lack of perspective here in Tinsel Town.

But my favorite example was this: When President Reagan was shot it happened to be the morning of the Academy Awards. I believe VARIETY (although it might have been THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER) blared this headline:


And then in much smaller letters:


You’ll be relieved and happy to know Tyra Banks is fine, but the earthquake did wake her up.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Weekend Post

For a writer it never gets easier.


You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Friday Questions

Closing out July with FQ’s.

Kendall Rivers starts us off:

One of my favorite Becker episodes is The Usual Suspects. Can you share any interesting tidbits about that episode and the making of it? Also why the hell Sargent Borkow wasn't added to the series as a regular? He would've been a great replacement for Bob.

That’s my favorite episode too, although I might be biased for some reason.

The thing I remember is saying to the cast on the first day that if they had any questions or issues with the script don’t be shy. Feel free to share them, even though I was the writer.

As it happened it was an easy week. The script really worked – in large part due to the actors. Ted Danson, Shawnee Smith, and Troy Evans (as Borkow) were particular standouts.

There is a matching goof for those who pay way too much attention. Borkow is in the diner, orders hamburgers, and later they just appear. For whatever reason, the shot of Reggie setting down the plate was lifted. So it looks like the burgers just appear. How glaring a mistake was that? I’ve seen the show countless times and didn’t pick up on that until I read it on imdb.

The Borkow character was very funny when used in spots. Just like Colonel Flagg on MASH or Bibi on FRASIER – when used judiciously they really scored.

But they were very broad. If they were regulars their characters might lose their luster.

You could say “Bob” was broad too and quite honestly, I didn’t miss him when he left.

From Sogn:

In MASH very often we see Radar, and later Klinger, using the PA system, but all other announcements come from someone who's never seen in the entire course of the series. There's also no credit for the voice. Was this intended from the beginning as a running joke akin to Maris and Vera never being seen on FRASIER and CHEERS? Of course the analogy breaks down because the voice was never referenced by the characters, but the absence is very striking.

This was a holdover from the movie MASH. I’ll be honest, we never once gave a thought to “is there a communications tent?” Or “whose job is that?” Nor did I ever ask anyone I interviewed who had served in MASH units in Korea whether those announcements were realistic or even if they actually existed.

Some trivia for you MASH fans: for much of the series run that voice belonged to actor Sal Viscuso. Amaze your friends at parties.

sanford wonders:

Do you know of any movies that were turned down in which some other studio picked it up and became a hit. The question came from a Quora question. There were two answers. One was Home Alone The studio wanted Hughes to cut the budget. It was relatively small for the time. He eventually went to Fox where the movie made a ton. The other movie mentioned was Back to the Future It was turned down 40 times. Eventually Spielberg picked it and as they say the rest is history.

Oh, there are many. Huge hits.

Let’s start with Star Wars. Universal passed on that one.

And then you got ET, Pulp Fiction, Back to the Future, Twilight, the Exorcist, Dumb & Dumber, Boogie Nights… need I go on?

William Goldman was right. “No one knows anything.

And finally, from Ron Havens:

Over the years I have noticed that many of the classic sit-com scripts are really long and effective set ups for the final line of the show. I’ve seen it on “I Love Lucy”, “The Odd Couple” and others.
Have you ever written a script that started with the ending line or joke and write the entire show leading up to that line?

One time only. On CHEERS.

The episode was “Breaking In Is Hard to Do.” Frasier and Lilith are worried that their baby hasn’t spoken yet. Frasier takes him to the bar for a few days and Lilith finds out and is horrified. But then the baby says his first word: “Norm.”

It got a thunderous laugh. But it’s very risky basing a whole episode on one payoff joke because if the joke doesn’t work your entire episode is in the toilet.

David Isaacs and I did it once, got away with it, thanked the Gods of comedy, and have not tried it since.

What's your Friday Question?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

EP185: Singer/songwriter Debbie Gibson Part 2

From pop star to Broadway star to reality show star (with a few Shark movies thrown in), Debbie Gibson continues her unique and remarkable career.   The ups and downs of show business and what she’s learned along the way.  It’s a fun and insightful ride.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Actors Directory

In yesterday’s post I talked about discovering actors through Zoom readings. And of course there’s also imdb. That’s a great database for anyone in movies and television, even if it’s not always accurate. For a long time it had me as the dialogue coach for THE NEW FLIPPER. (“No no, Flipper, say it this way: “Eeep eep EEP eep.”)

But when I used to do those one-day play festivals at the Ruskin Theatre (back when there was theatre), I would be assigned a topic and two actors and have to write a ten-minute play in three hours. If I didn’t know the actors I could hop on imdb and in many cases view their demo reels. It was a godsend.

However, if you’re about to cast a pilot or indie feature and you bring on a casting director, it’s nice to have prototypes of actors to give them a better sense from the outset of just what you’re looking for. And that’s hard to do with imdb because there are a gazillion actors listed, more than half-a-gazillion of them dead.

They’re also not categorized by age, or type, or even gender.

Which brings me to the way we used to tackle this problem “old school.”

There were books that came out every year called the Actors’ Directory. There were two of them, as I recall. Both were the size of large city phone books and featured working actors along with their representation. One book for men, one for women.

Each book was broken down into categories. Young actresses were “Ingénues.” I think there was a section for children (although there may have been a separate book – we rarely had parts for children). So we’d leaf through the book and make lists.

There were any number of actresses who could have played in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE that still posted their ingénues pictures. But pretty much everybody was in there. Paul Newman next to a bit player.

I’m sure casting agents used to leaf through the same books, although the great casting agents went out and discovered new talent not yet in the directory.

It was a helpful guide and I don’t even know if it exists anymore. I’m sure a lot of actors were hired as a result of being in that book. “Hey, Marge, call William Morris. I think we’ve found our star. This kid Flipper has a great look.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

It's all happening at the Zoom

My heart goes out to actors doing Zoom readings. (Also to playwrights). Actors need to relate to one another. It’s hard when they’re in different locations and everyone is just staring into a camera.

A Zoom reading is no one’s first choice, but during the pandemic it’s that or no theatre at all. And if there’s one plus it’s that everyone in the world can watch instead of the population in the near vicinity of your venue.

But the conditions are less than ideal. You’re watching isolated boxes. The actors’ heads are different sizes, volumes are not level, the quality of the audio is mixed, the picture freezes, there are internet glitches, actors forget to unmute themselves or go on or off camera, they can’t feed off the energy of the audience, new audience members join and pop up on the screen, picture quality varies, etc.

And for comedy writers it’s especially hard because we don’t hear the laughs. I liken it to watching really bad softcore porn.

I’ve had a couple of play readings and I must say the actors really rose to the occasion. In one reading all of the actors were in the same room and boy what a difference that made. As Zoom readings go I've been super pleased.

And I did get something out of them. By seeing the number of participants I was able to see whether the audience was locked into the play or whether they bailed. It’s harder to just leave a theatre in the middle of a performance. You have to really hate it. But for a Zoom reading, it’s as easy as clicking off any TV show that no longer holds your interest. And face it, we’ve all developed itchy trigger fingers.

No one left my readings. So forget the laughs, the audience must’ve been invested in the story and characters. I’ll take it. I’ve seen other Zoom plays where an hour in it’s like someone yelled “Fire!” in a theatre.

That’s useful input for the writer. What about the actor? What does he get out of it? Number one, a chance to act. Again, it’s the only game in town. And two, a chance to be seen. Like I said, I’ve watched a number of Zoom readings and have been introduced to some wonderful actors that I might never had known about otherwise.

Another advantage for young writers trying to break in – it’s easy to schedule readings. Get your friends or actors you know and put it together. No arranging for a theatre or conference room. No having to put out snacks. You can record it and go back and analyze what worked and what didn’t. You can also invite as many or as few friends to view it as you like. It’s generally easier to get a Zoom audience. They don’t have to drive to a theatre, park, maybe pay a babysitter, and if the play is awful they can check their email or play games (keep your cameras off).

As time goes by I suspect Zoom plays will get better. We’ll learn how to smooth out the rough edges, the technology might improve, and actors will get better as they get more comfortable with the medium. And my sincerest hope is that by that time, we have a vaccine, can all go back to live performances, and never have to do another play reading on Zoom again.