Thursday, February 23, 2017

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE -- My bat review

It was nice seeing Batman without Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder there to turn him into a dark brooding tortured soul. Instead we get the more Donald Trump version. He thinks he can save the world all by himself, he hurts other peoples’ feelings, he never wants to share credit, and he thinks he alone has all the good ideas. The difference is you like this Donald Trump. Or at least tolerate him.

This sequel to the LEGO MOVIE has the same dizzying amount of stimuli coming at you, but it doesn’t have the same writers and suffers somewhat as a result. That is if you can stop to take a breath and compare. I appreciate their desire to fill every frame with as much as possible and cram in as many jokes, pop culture references, and silliness as they can, but after awhile it gets to be overkill. And the trouble with that is some real great jokes get lost in the relentless tornado.

MAD Magazine frequently does that, filling every inch of space with gags. But MAD Magazine you can read at your leisure. You can savor every hidden laugh. But this movie, at least for me, felt like I was watching a 90 minute version of THE BIG BANG THEORY opening title sequence.

Certainly there is the desire to constantly entertain, but it’s okay to slow down and take a breath once in awhile. I know the thought is that Millennials have no attention spans and must be distracted every second or they’ll get bored and will play the LEGO BATMAN VIDEO GAME on their phones while watching the LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, but I think Hollywood is doing Millennials a disservice. If the story is good they’ll get into it, if the jokes are funny they’ll laugh. Even at a normal pace.   But when everything is a wild chase scene, the real chase scenes don’t carry the same wallop.

Slowing the action from time to time allows the audience to recharge, get their second and third winds. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is brimming with ideas and like I said, there are many wonderful moments and snappy lines. I just think it would please more if it tried to please less.

Before the film, they showed the
trailer for a new LEGO NINJA MOVIE. I’ll be skipping that. I’m waiting for THE LEGO TWIN PEAKS MOVIE.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Episode 8: The Romantic Comedies You Need to See

Ken reveals his favorite rom coms and why you need to see them. Some you know, but others you might not. Find out what you’re missing. For anyone who likes to laugh or swoon. Also, he’ll be introducing you to a very young Albert Brooks. And finally, Ken comes clean on his recent appearances on CNN.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Another case of Hollywood nonsense-speak

I read a recent article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY about the upcoming live version of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Director Bill Condon was asked why he chose Emma Watson to play the plum role of Belle. He said, “With actors who got to choose their roles, you look at their resumes and you start to see a kind of autobiography emerge.” He goes on to say that Emma was involved in quite a few women’s equality causes and then: “From what I’d seen of Emma, she seemed to be the person, both on screen and off, who best reflected the qualities that Belle embodied.”

How lovely. What bullshit. Not that Emma doesn’t have all those marvelous qualities, but is that really what a director is looking for in an actor – that he or she personally mirrors the character they are hoping to play? Because for every actor hired for that reason, there is an equal number who get hired because they play against their real personality. Actors who play villains aren’t necessarily scary. Actresses who portray innocent young waifs nowadays have sex tapes about to go viral. Did Condon hire Luke Evans to play Gaston because he’s a narcissistic blowhard in real life?

And not to be too cynical but had the part already been offered to Anne Hathaway and Anna Kendrick who turned it down?

The truth is there is no real answer to why an actor is hired. But that doesn’t stop directors and producers and studios from waxing poetic on the intrinsic courage and spiritual honesty their stars embody that make them so perfect for Aquaman.

Casting is an inexact science. It’s subjective at best. And commercial at worst. Studio movies need stars. If you can’t get Damon get Denzel, and if you can’t get Denzel get Eastwood. So what if the age range and ethnicity are totally different? If you wrote a movie based on the life of Teddy Roosevelt and the studio could get Julia Roberts you have to somehow change the script to make it work. When the studio says “We’re looking for a project for Kate McKinnon” that could mean your COOL HAND LUKE remake.

And otherwise, quite simply, the actor just has to be right for the role. He brings an impossible-to-define quality to a part that the other hundred actors didn’t have. He just felt… right. Then, once you hire him you make up bullshit rationales to tell the press.

Is an actor’s actual personality and worldview important in casting? Sure. It’s a factor. But so are his looks. His age. His hair color. His voice. His chemistry with his co-star. His ability to be funny, or sing, or be scary or whatever the role calls for. His level of exposure. His price. His TMZ baggage. His reputation. His ethnicity. His believability in the role. His global appeal. His recent boxoffice performance. His availability. His previous awards. His previous relationship with the director. His experience riding a horse.

Any one or several of these could be the determining factor in why one actor gets the gig over a hundred equally talented colleagues.

I’m guessing Emma Watson will be fabulous as Belle. Not because of her emerging autobiography, but because she’s a talented actress, can sing and dance, is very pretty, and has a big fan base from the Harry Potter movies – the same audience this film is trying to attract. Or Condon really wanted Emma Stone but the casting director fucked up and offered it to Emma Watson instead.

Just once I’d love to hear a director say, “I hired her because the studio made me.” Or “Meryl Streep wasn’t available” or “She gives the greatest blowjobs in Hollywood” or “They love her in China” or “She came cheap.” At least those explanations I could buy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

It never rains in Southern California

Any time it rains in Los Angeles, even if it’s a couple of drops, the local TV channels go nuts. STORM WATCH ’17. After all, this town is not built for clouds, much less rain. When buying a car, windshield wipers are an option like racing stripes.

But local channels scramble to report the showers with team coverage. Field reporters are dispatched to outlying intersections where there are large puddles. We’re told to stay inside until May. And that’s fine until…

We REALLY have a storm.

Like we experienced last Friday. Holy shit! A five-year drought ended in five hours. This was an Irwin Allen disaster movie. The rain was torrential, the winds were howling. And the field reporters were getting drenched.

Poor Eric Spillman of Channel 5 has been doing these reports for fifteen years. He must say “this is Eric Spillman Channel 5 News” every time he steps into a shower.

The other stations just send out their Barbie doll reporters. So poor Heather and Amber and Ambyr have big make-up crises. But those are the kinds of sacrifices you must make to be considered a serious journalist.

The big problem in Southern California is we have terrible drainage, especially in the suburbs. Housing tracts sprung up like weeds in the early ‘50s and proper drainage was not taken into consideration. Geologists rarely were consulted so many canyon homes were built on topsoil. My aunt’s home slid into their swimming pool during the downpour of ’62.

Beachfront homes offered little protection against high tides and angry oceans so to this day you see major celebrities filling sandbags to buttress their glass palaces against the raging sea and storm.

And then there are the mudslides – that effectively cuts off travel along the Pacific Coast Highway and the canyons. Poor Barbra Streisand can’t go anywhere!

Trees always seem to get uprooted. And this hits close to home. Behold our next door neighbor’s tree a few years ago. Yes… YIKES.

Power is out for much of the city because it seems the entire metropolis gets its electricity from one power line. So if a tree takes it down we’re blacked out from the future Mexican wall to Santa Barbara.

And everyone’s house leaks.  Roofers will be busy for the next three years. 

Then there are those pesky sinkholes.  Two cars fell into this one Friday night.

We came through the storm fine. Thank you to those who expressed concern. The next time there’s rain (probably later this week) unless cars are floating by my TV screen I don’t want to see the graphic STORM WATCH ’17.  And let Eric Spillman cover something that's indoors, willya? 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Can comedy save the nation?

I thought this appropriate to write on "Presidents' Day."  

In 1870 a corrupt mobster known as Boss Tweed led an organization that basically controlled New York City politics. Through his influence he was able to stack the city with elected officials who were in his pocket. He then used these officials to defraud the city the equivalent of billions today. Personality-wise, he was quite ostentatious, proudly wearing large diamonds while living in an opulent mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Harpers Weekly magazine wrote piece after piece denouncing this criminal, but most of his supporters were essentially illiterate so the articles were not widely read.

But then their political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, decided to go on a crusade against Tweed. Week after week his cartoons exposed Tweed for the despicable criminal he was, and the public was finally able to get the message through the visuals.

In the next election most of Tweed’s cronies were unceremoniously booted out of office and a few years later Tweed himself was convicted and sent to prison.

So why do I tell this story? Substitute SNL for Thomas Nast cartoons.

I can’t begin to applaud SNL enough not only for their stand against Boss Trump but for how well they are delivering the message. The writing is superb and the performers are amazing. Kate McKinnon is the next Lucy or Carol Burnett. Melissa McCarthy and Alec Baldwin have absolutely nailed their targets, as did Tina Fey in previous elections. And the rest of the cast is equally terrific.
SNL is now getting unheard of numbers – especially in the coveted 18-34 demographic. But it goes beyond that. They are attracting viewers of all ages. And they’re drawing a larger audience than practically every primetime network program. Add to that the Live +1 and +7 and the clips from the show that now go viral each week, and it’s clear that Saturday Night Live has become a genuine force.

This says two things to me. One: If you show something on TV that everyone wants to watch, large broad audiences are still possible. The argument that TV has to be niche now to succeed doesn’t necessarily hold water.

And two: Just as Thomas Nast’s cartoons got the population’s attention, SNL might just have a big impact. Lots of young folks who really didn’t care much about the last election are now opening their eyes to the chaos this administration has wrought. And we can only hope that they will react accordingly.

Boss Tweed tried to discredit Nast and even strong-arm Harper’s Magazine into silencing him. (Sound familiar?). To the publication’s credit, it stuck by its cartoonist. NBC is not backing down anytime soon, that’s for sure.  Not with THOSE numbers. 

Sure there are news commentators that are railing at the disarray in the White House. And newspapers are pointing out daily that the support team the president is surrounding himself with is every bit as corrupt and self-serving as Boss Tweed’s lackeys.  They (Trumps appointees)  have absolutely no interest whatsoever in serving the voters who entrusted Trump to lead on their behalf.

But that public is not reading those articles. Or watching those commentaries.

They are, however, watching SNL. Just as with Mr. Nast’s cartoons, COMEDY can reach people where other outlets can’t. At one time Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite delivered the message. Now it’s Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin.

Boss Trump continues to lash out at the press, but like everything else, he’s missing the point.

COMEDY is mightier than the sword.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Meet Treva Silverman

CNN (when it's not being the enemy of the people) is airing an excellent new documentary series on the history of Comedy.  This week's episode focuses on women -- comedians, actresses, and writers.   One of the writers they feature (all too briefly) is Treva Silverman.  Five years ago I wrote a post introducing you to Treva and I thought now would be a good time to re-post it.  If you watch the show (and I recommend that you do) you'll have a better appreciation for how much of a contribution this super-talented lady has made to comedy and television.
A lot is being made of this being the year of women comedy writers. All the WHITNEY/CHELSEA crude girl sitcoms were created by women. So by inference it's easy to get the impression that TV's ladies of laughter studied their craft at frat houses.

Not so. There have been many women writers who travel exclusively on the high road. One in particular is Treva Silverman.

Her comedy comes from character – keenly observing the behavior and absurdity of real people and real situations. Her laughs are hard earned because they derive from humanity not the easier route – cynicism. I’ve always believed that “only the truth is funny” and Treva’s built a nice career doing just that.

You probably have seen her name on many episodes of the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Without making her sound like Jackie Robinson, Treva was one of the first women TV comedy writers and really did pave the way for others to follow. As with Jackie, she did it with talent, poise, and the ability to steal home.

Treva’s career began in New York. While playing and singing at piano bars at night, she wrote songs and 13 off-Broadway children’s musicals. That led to writing sketches for musical revues at the prestigious “Upstairs at the Downstairs”. Other revues employed as many as twenty sketch writers. “Upstairs” had one – Treva.

Carol Burnett caught her show one night and hired her to write for her first variety series, THE ENTERTAINERS. She was the only woman on staff. Knowing how writing rooms can be a bit raucous, Treva set out to prove she was one of the boys by dropping a few F-bombs the first day. One of the writers took her aside and said, “Please don’t swear. It makes us so uncomfortable.”

MADEMOISELLE magazine included her in an article about women on the rise in professions traditionally held by men. All that did was put extra pressure on her. It’s hard enough to succeed under the best of conditions, but she felt if “If I fail I bring down all womanhood”.

Treva moved to LA to write for THE MONKEES, THAT GIRL, and GET SMART. So far all womanhood was safe. And then in 1969 Jim Brooks (who she first met when she was playing at a piano bar) called and said he and Allan Burns were creating a show for Mary Tyler Moore. Would she like to be involved? As a writer not a pianist.

She stayed with the show for five years, wrote 16 episodes, won two Emmys, and was one of its major creative forces. Allan Burns credits her with being the “voice of Rhoda” (although in person Treva could not be more different from the brassy Rhoda character) and Valerie Harper called her the “Feminist conscience of the show.” The guys, to their credit, never fought her…although the feminist attitudes did have to be pointed out to them.

Treva thought THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was the easiest and hardest job she ever had. Easiest because the show was so real. Hardest because the show was so real.

One thing she loved was that on the show she could write digressions. It wasn’t just story, story, story. Compare that to today’s sitcoms where there have to be B stories and C stories, and forty two scenes in a twenty minute show.

Needing a ditzy character to be the opposite of Rhoda, she created Georgette after seeing Georgia Engels in the Milos Foreman film, TAKING OFF. It was originally supposed to be just a couple of lines for one episode only, but Georgia was so funny everyone decided she should be a series regular.

Of the many episodes for MTM that Treva wrote, some of my favorites were “Lou & Edie Story” (Lou’s wife decides to separate), “Better Late…that’s a pun…than never” (Mary gets suspended when she writes a joke obit and the guy promptly dies), “Cover Boy” (introducing Jack Cassidy as Ted’s brother), and “Rhoda the beautiful” (where Rhoda enters a beauty contest).

Here's just a sample. In that last episode mentioned Rhoda loses twenty pounds but doesn't seem to be happy about it. When Mary wonders why she says, “Because I can never say again ‘gee, I’d look great if I lost twenty pounds’.”

After season five Treva left the show to live in Europe for several years. She came back to write pilots, movies, and was collaborating with Michael Bennett (CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS) on a Broadway musical called SCANDAL. With a score by Jimmy Webb, and starring Swoozie Kurtz, Treat Williams, Victor Garber, Priscilla Lopez, and Rob Morrow it was slated for production. But unfortunately, Bennett died and the project never came to fruition. To this day Treva feels it’s the best thing she’s ever written.

Michael Douglas called her to fix ROMANCING THE STONE. Test audiences hated the Kathleen Turner character -- they thought she was too cold. Plus, they only had the budget to reshoot the first scene – where Kathleen is home alone, gets a call from her sister, and has to go save her. Treva had the solution. Give her a cat. Let her talk baby talk to the cat. Just that one bit of behavior completely won over the audience. And the rest is box office success and disappointing sequel (that I helped rewrite) history.

Recently, Treva has rewritten SCANDAL as a play. A NY Times article called it “purportedly brilliant and unproduced”. Since then there has been a flurry of interest and hopefully we’ll finally get to see it soon.

I hope Treva Silverman serves as an inspiration to young writers, not because she’s a woman or that she broke barriers, but because of her work.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

What is so great about the Dumbo ride?

Since Disneyland has been sort of a theme this week (please check out my podcast this week on the subject) I thought I would share an entry from my book WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED about the day my wife, Debby and I went there.   Today is also her birthday (Happy Happy Birthday!) and I think a celebratory return trip is in order.
My wife and I went to Disneyland. Since becoming an adult this was the first time I was ever there without kids or a joint. No strollers, no giant diaper bags, no getting home and realizing we had left somebody. Also, we had never seen the adjacent California Adventure so we wanted to go before it eventually shuts down or is completely rethought.

We figured: go before the summer begins and kids are out of school. I guess that now means February. Disneyland was packed. There were lines for everything. The biggest: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Waiting, Space Mountain, and churros. The Small World attraction is closed for renovation (thank God). A big fence surrounds it. So the line was only a half an hour.

I wore a golf shirts and long pants. I was waaaay overdressed. Come on, people! At least the ratty t-shirts and torn plaid shorts should fit! You’re going to be taking pictures in those rags.

As always, the park was immaculate… although I could swear one of the 60-year-old maintenance men in an elf suit was a former producer of TAXI. And the teenagers who work there remain the nicest, perkiest, helpfulliest David Arhuleta and Carrie Underwood clones you could find this side of Stepford.

I’m guessing the teens with major imperfections like acne or no dimples are assigned to wear those bulky heavy character costumes. It was 90 degrees and Winnie the Pooh was staggering around, tripping over strollers, kicking little tykes, occasionally sticking his head in an ice cream pushcart for relief.

Happy to say that the new Pirates of the Caribbean ride wasn’t ruined by the improvements. There were a few Jack Sparrows added and a nifty Davy Jones hologram but otherwise it’s pretty much the same. Oh maybe a little less raping but the spirit of fun is still there.

To avoid standing in endless lines Disneyland now offers “Fast Passes” for most major rides. It allows you to return for wait-free boarding. We got our Fast Passes for Space Mountain at 1 PM. Our reservations were for 9:30, thus saving us fifteen minutes had we stood in the normal line.

I was a good boy this trip. I did not stand up and ask Mr. Lincoln a question nor did I buy a Mouseketeer hat, have them scroll “Vincent” then rip off one of the ears.

With all the spectacular photo-ops Disneyland provides, all day long I saw people taking pictures of each other while standing in lines. We are truly a country of idiots.

Then there are the women trying to walk all day and night in ankle strap wedges. And they wonder why they’re crippled by Fantasyland.

Gas prices are so high that for the Autopia, the cars are now just being pushed by Disney employees.

In a nod to health conscious California, Disneyland eateries now serve healthy food along with the usual fast food junk. My wife ordered a salad. It was the third one sold this year!

The irony of the Indiana Jones ride is that Harrison Ford probably can’t ride it. It’s way too violent and rugged for a 66 year-old man.

We moved over to California Adventure, which is like going from Times Square on New Year’s Eve to downtown Flint, Michigan a year after they closed the GM plant.

The only thing worth seeing is “Soarin’ Over California”. It’s a simulated hang glide tour over the state. If only I could simulate flying on American Airlines instead of actually having to fly on American Airlines.

Wandered around the park. Don’t know the names of the “lands” per se but there’s one that’s kind of rustic that my wife just called “Wilderness Shit”. They pipe in this real stirring John Williams type music and I must say, coming out of the restroom I thought there’ve been times when I could have really used this.

Next we encountered a beach boardwalk themed land. The John Williams music gave way to Beach Boys tunes on a calliope. All these years I never knew that “Surfer Girl” was a circus song.

Disney – the company that brought you “Song of the South” and tar babies now presents “Pizza Oom Mow Mow” on the pier at California Adventure.

There’s a big classic Coney Island style rollercoaster and something called the “Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”. Not wanting my first major stroke to be in a place where the paramedics all wear Peter Pan costumes I passed on both.

We returned to Disneyland, nostalgic for the days when California Adventure used to be a parking lot.

Night fell on the Magic Kingdom and it got a little chilly. No worries. There’s a clothing store every hundred feet. Me: “Excuse me, Tracy/Stacey/Kaysee/Lacy, do you have a men’s sweatshirt that doesn’t have Tinkerbell on it? Or Mickey in a wizard’s cap? Or Mulan? Or a fucking fairy castle!?” I bought a Davy Crockett coonskin cap so at least my head was warm.

Even in the evening when the crowd thinned out there was still a 45 minute wait for the aptly named Dumb-o ride.

No trip to Disneyland would be complete without a harrowing bobsled ride down the Matterhorn. It always takes me back to my idyllic childhood, going on it once with my dear sweet grandmother and hearing her drop the f-bomb.

The Haunted Mansion is now inhabited by a bi-lingual ghost. He gives spooky instructions in both English and Spanish.

Never got to Toontown. There were enough over-stimulated, sugar revved, screaming, out-of-control little hellions in all the other lands.

Following the fireworks and “Disney Dwarfs on Parade” or whatever the hell that noisy thing was, we dutifully reported to Space Mountain to take advantage of our Fast Pass. Wow! Space Mountain was always great but this new revamped version is awesome. You know they mean business when they tell you to take your glasses off. As I was crawling off the rocket sled on my hands and knees I said to my wife, “Now THAT’S a thrill ride!”

Finally, it was time to leave. Where did twelve hours and hundreds of dollars go? A half hour to catch the tram and another half hour to find our car in the parking structure the size of Liechtenstein, and we were merrily on our way (to hit massive traffic on the Santa Ana freeway at midnight).

I have always loved Disneyland. I’m not ashamed to say it. I am ashamed to wear any of those sweatshirts but even as a five year-old curmudgeon I marveled at the imagination, scope, and vision of this wondrous (albeit highly profitable) world. So I will be back. Soon. My Fast Pass reservation for the Little Nemo Submarine Voyage is November 21st at 6:30 AM.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the Presidents Day weekend, here are some FQ’s.

Greg starts us off.

What's the practice for referencing famous people living or dead, specifically in comedy writing, whether it's on screen or in book form? Do you have to get some kind of clearance beforehand, especially when they're used in a joke that might not be entirely flattering? Maybe drawing on a commonly held stereotype for that person (i.e. alcoholic, adulterer).

If they’re a public figure they're fair game.  You can use their name. If you show their likeness you need clearance.

If you mention them in a derogatory manner you always run the risk of a libel suit. But that’s certainly a gray area. Look at SNL.

From Mike Lonergan, Tacoma:

Starting a new radio job, did you ever find yourself saying the wrong call letters? I swear the "red phone" call I got from the program director my first night was friendly and casual, but it went like this..."Just a couple things--I'd like you to keep the music a little more up-tempo. Oh, and do you have a pencil? Write this down, K-B-R-O. That's the name of the station, not what you've been saying."

Not as a disc jockey. But I did slip up once as a baseball announcer. After doing the Orioles games for a season I moved over to Seattle. The first time we were back in Baltimore I paused for station identification and told Seattle fans they were listening to “The Baltimore Orioles Radio Network.” Oops. My partner, Dave Niehaus laughed for ten minutes.

Speaking of Dave, next month Sports Illustrated is doing a salute to the Seattle Mariners and included is a tribute to Dave that I wrote especially for the magazine. I’ll let you know when it hits the newsstands.

Keith Bodayla queries:

In looking for scripts online of shows I want to write a spec for, I've come across several people who have posted their own spec scripts online. What are your thoughts on this practice? Seems like a bad idea to me, or at least not one that would land you a job. But I could be wrong.

That’s a very bad idea. You have zero protection. And once that content is out on the web anything can happen. Someone could steal your script, put their name on it, submit it to a show, get hired, and you are completely unaware.

Do whatever you can to protect your material. Register every script with the WGA. Go here for details.

There’s enough stealing when properties are protected. Don’t make it easy for someone to rip you off.

cd1515 asks:

How much do you think being a comedy writer helped you get into baseball?

Could a guy stocking shelves at Walmart who was practicing in the bleachers on the side gotten the same shot you did?

Being a comedy writer was a double-edged sword. On one hand there were teams that were intrigued, but on the other there were teams that didn’t take my commitment seriously because of my background.

And remember, the tapes I made in the bleachers had to be good enough to warrant serious consideration. Plus, once I got my first job, the tapes had to be good enough to advance.

I’m sure there are some who think I only got these jobs because of my TV resume, but the truth is I spent years dedicated to sharpening my sportscasting skills. I didn’t ride all those buses and call games in sub freezing weather to improve my comedy writing ability.

And finally, from Liggie:

Here's a radio question. Local DJs/hosts will give commercials for a local business (usually a car dealership) and mention the great car and customer service they got from them. Do those commercials originate because the host bought the car on his own, liked it, and approached three dealer, or because the dealer offered to give a car to the station in exchange for sponsorships?

Usually the host is approached and offered the use of a car if he’ll be the dealer’s spokesperson. The key here is “use.” When the deal is up the car generally goes bye-bye.

When I was hired to announce Syracuse Chiefs baseball my one stipulation was that the team provided a car for me. They did. But it had big ads for the car dealer on both sides. I looked like an idiot driving around town in that thing.

What's your Friday Question?  I also answer them on my podcast.  Have you subscribed????