Thursday, March 31, 2011

What's the frequency, Kenneth? Radio ramblings

Some thoughts on that medium that everyone says is obsolete but listens to anyway…

KGIL, an AM station in the San Fernando Valley is changing its format from “Standards” (i.e. Sinatra and maybe one Peggy Lee record a week) to “Classical”. With all the technology and improved fidelity these days, who’s going to listen to Classical Music on AM? That’s like watching AVATAR on 16 mm.

Morning Zoos are not funny. PARKS & RECREATION did a great bit a couple of weeks ago lampooning your typical Morning Zoo. Two obnoxious idiots doing four hours of fart jokes every day. That kid in high school who mimicked the girl with epilepsy was funnier.

Best syndicated all-night show: Red Eye Radio with Doug McIntyre. Hopefully he’s in your market. The man can talk on any subject. He’s a cross between a 5-time JEOPARDY champion and Jean Shepherd.  Especially knowledgeable in history, jazz, and SHE'S THE SHERIFF. 

What’s the big complaint people have about terrestrial radio? That they play too many commercials. So why do most stations continue to program 18 minutes of them? That’s suicide. Why not limit your spot load to 12 minutes and just charge more? It always kills me that music stations spend so much time on research and so much money on promotions and then just chase away their audience with a relentless bombardment of commercials.

Several years ago the geniuses who ran radio stations determined that the “Oldies” format was dead. Now that People Meters are used to determine ratings and not unreliable diaries, it turns out that “Oldies” is the most popular format of all. It’s that kind of thinking that has led us to Crystal Pepsi, rabbit Jerky, four-track tapes, and Budweiser’s tomato and clam juice beer -- the Chelada.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of radio visionaries, can we finally admit that HD Radio was a fucking bust? That was supposed to be the savior. Do you know one person who has an HD radio? Have you ever even seen an HD radio?   It's right up there with Betamax and the CBS Color Wheel.

Wanna know the future? It’s not satellite. Satellite’s contribution is making Howard Stern a billionaire. And I bet with all his money, even he isn’t shelling out $14.95 a month to hear the same songs he’s got programmed on his Pandora station.

When consumers are able to easily access internet radio in their cars, then the station you run out off an old Dell computer in your closet will be just as valuable as that terrestrial station that Clear Channel paid $30,000,000 for. More valuable because you won’t play18 God awful minutes of commercials.

Speaking of internet radio – I don’t know whether to plug this or disavow any knowledge – but Great Big Radio tomorrow night will be playing an hour recording of me as Beaver Cleaver on B100 San Diego from 1976. It’s a wonder I wasn’t led off in a straightjacket after this show. It airs at 11:00 PM EDT and then again at 11:00 PM PDT.

And I can’t plug internet oldies without a shout-out to  Imagine hearing a Roy Orbison song that isn’t Pretty Woman.

Baseball season begins tonight. Baseball is a sport that’s best described on radio. A good announcer can transport you to a different world. Television assaults you with “whooshes!”, replays, and close ups of coaches spitting tobacco. There are many excellent hometown team baseball announcers. May I recommend a few? Vin Scully of the Dodgers, Jon Miller of the Giants, Howie Rose of the Mets, Marty Brennaman of the Reds, Eric Nadel of the Rangers, Ted Leitner of the Padres, Bob Uecker of the Brewers, Dave & Andy of the Rays, and my excellent broadcast partner – Rick Rizzs of the Mariners.

A rising talk radio star: John Phillips on KABC Los Angeles.

Every radio market has a KISS-FM. Every one, at this exact moment, is playing the same Lady Gaga song.

In his never-ending quest to be Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly now also has a morning radio show. Wouldn’t it be great if Ryan ever comes out and Carson has to break it to Siri Pinter that he now likes guys?

Glenn Beck’s radio ratings are plummeting. There is a God! May he suffer the same fate as the JACK format.

And finally, a blast from the past: This is classic DICK VAN DYKE SHOW featuring radio. Rob Petrie is a small town disc jockey looking to set a world record as the D.J. who stays awake on the air the longest. Hilarity and brilliant physical comedy ensues. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mariah Carey's "miracle" pregnancy

Thank God for the internet! Otherwise, how could we keep up with the minute to minute updates on Mariah Carey’s pregnancy?   Can I ask a question?

Who the fuck cares?!

I can’t open a news page without some new screaming headline regarding Mariah Carey’s motherly way. She’s having contractions! EXTRA EXTRA! She’s been admitted to the hospital! BULLETIN! She’s not having contractions! OH NO!! She’s been released from the hospital.

Currently we’re at that stage where expert analysts discuss the difference between contractions and indigestion.

There are a million photos of Mariah’s extended belly. Some even taken during her pregnancy.

We know they will be twins, one boy and one girl. I’m sure her sonograms can be found on line. I would not be surprised if there was a webcam inserted right up the delivery canal. And maybe Mary Hart.

What’s the big deal? If Charlie Sheen were pregnant I wouldn’t expect this much coverage. This isn’t the holy Madonna, this isn’t even the trashy Madonna. There’s no “first” here.  Women have been delivering children the exact same way long before "Dream Lover" ever became a hit. 

Obviously, a lot of people do care. Otherwise, Mariah wouldn’t get this amount of attention. I just don’t know who those people are, or why? Mariah tries to downplay it. She’s not looking for publicity she claims. And then she goes and body paints her stomach – an obvious ploy for attention.

I wish her, her family, and her new babies all the good health and happiness in the world. It’s just that, when it comes to Mariah Carey’s reproduction endeavors, my curiosity and need to watch does not extend all the way till the blessed birth of her twins. It ends one second after conception.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dancing with the Stars

With Kirstie Alley competing on DANCING WITH THE STARS, I had to revisit the show. First off, she’s way better than John Ratzenberger.

Here are my other thoughts:

Elizabeth Taylor was a STAR. I wouldn’t qualify a wrestler, football player, DJ, swimsuit model, talk show host, Disney Channel actress, rapper, ex-boxer, Karate Kid, diet spokesperson, and sex tape exhibitionist as a “star”. The show’s real title should be DANCING WITH THE FAMOUS FOR SOMETHING AT ONE TIME PEOPLE.

To me the only legitimate “star” of the show is the person whose name you hear every week but ignore – Harold Wheeler, the music director. Forget the dancing; listen to the songs and their arrangements. They’re always great.

I still feel DANCING WITH THE STARS is just AMERICAN IDOL with feet. The host is a little smirkier, the judges more goofy, but it’s the same format. They perform, the judges prattle, you vote.

As a viewer, I couldn’t possibly begin to critique any of the actual dancing. Twyla Tharp could coach me from now until the Messiah comes and I couldn’t do a three-minute jive number. So my hat’s off to all the performers on DWTFFSAOTP.

But I do like some better than others. Viewers are surprised by how good Kirstie Alley is. I’m not. Having worked with her for years I was well aware with how graceful she is. George Lopez, maybe the unfunniest human being in the galaxy, recently called her a Dancing Pig. In addition to it not being true, there’s nothing remotely clever about it. “What’s a good metaphor for being fat that no one’s ever used before? I know. A pig.” How does this man have a career?

Note to Disney Channel stalwart Chelsea Kane: An “out-of-the-box” dance means different, not dressing like a mime. Still, I liked her better than the judges did.

I also gave Sugar Ray Leonard higher marks than the panel of poodles. The look on his face as they were panning him was priceless. Big smile but his eyes were clearly saying, “I could beat the living shit out of you and stick those number fans so far up your ass you could open your mouth and the 6 would appear.”

Let’s just skip Wendy Williams because the second I see her on the screen or hear her voice I hit fast forward.

The big galut wrestler, Chris Jericho won me over – not so much for his dancing but for his sense of humor. Asking fop judge Len if his testicles were okay was certainly a highlight of the night.

Romeo is a sensational hoofer. And all the scenes of him rehearsing shirtless should get him many Tallulah Morehead votes.

Ralph Macchio not only can dance, he has now officially replaced Dick Clark as America’s Oldest Teenager.

Pittsburgh Steeler, Hines Ward was also impressive. Light on his feet and graceful. Judge Bruno almost threw his house key onto the stage. 

I love how the judges told Petra Nemcova she was at a disadvantage doing the Jive because her legs were so long. Poor Petra. Some people just don’t get any breaks when it comes to the gene pool. “I…am…not…an…animal!”?

Backstage Brooke Burke is quite the penetrating interviewer. After the DJ, who I had never heard of but must be associated with Dr. Drew because he was in the audience (either that or Dr. Drew was just recruiting for CELEBRITY REHAB), received horrible grades from the judges, Brooke asked him, “Were you hoping for a better score?” No. Of course not. I was hoping to suck on national television. I think Brooke is ready to host the Oscar Red Carpet show with Sam Rubin.

And finally, we get to Kendra Wilkinson, whose last screen appearance was giving a blowjob on numerous porn sites. She almost had a meltdown because her dance required her to act like “a lady” this week. The pressure of that drove her literally to tears.  She's finding it very hard to dance since she can't keep her legs in the air. 

My last thought: the women professional dancers always look so much hotter during the casual rehearsal scenes. Natural and beautiful. Then for the show they get overly made-up and all look like David Bowie.

DWTFFSAOTP does have its moments. And I’m rooting for Kirstie Alley. Next year I hope they get George Lopez to be a contestant. Let’s see how well he glides across the dance floor. And I’m sure Kirstie won’t stoop to his level by calling him a “clumsy cow”.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Razing Arizona -- my week in the desert

Back from a week in Arizona for spring training where I made my broadcasting debut for the Mariners. Came fully prepared. Scouting reports, team media guides, citizenship papers in case I got too tan. If you can get past Arizona’s blatant racial profiling and shooting rampages, it really is lovely in the spring.

Phoenix airport car renters beware: Allow yourself and entire extra day. The rental car agencies used to be located right next to the terminal. Now they’ve moved to the only-slightly-less-convenient Arizona-New Mexico border.

Prior to my stay the skies had been clear and temperatures up into the 80s. I arrived just in time for ferocious winds, a huge rainstorm, and temps in the 50s. My baseball prep on Monday consisted of seeing LIMITLESS.

Stayed in Peoria, near the Mariners’ complex. When the M’s first opened their state-of-the-art facility in the early ‘90s there was nothing out there but tumbleweeds. Now there’s Hooters, homes, and Home Depots as far as the eye can see. The Seattle Mariners are the pied pipers of commercial development.

Did my first game at the new complex shared by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies in Scottsdale. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. It’s on an Indian reservation adjacent to a large casino. So fans can see current major league players and Pete Rose.

The Diamondbacks should play regular season games there in April. It’s far nicer than that airplane hanger they play in normally. Sure, it only seats 11,000 but how many people do they get for the Pittsburgh Pirates anyway?

The second you cross into Scottsdale from anywhere in Phoenix it becomes green. Not hard to figure out where the money is. And water.

This is all you need to know about Arizona: From the Arizona Republic on Friday -- Measures to allow firearms in public buildings as well as on public roads and sidewalks around college campuses advanced to the Legislature Thursday. This, I’m sure, is to accommodate big game hunters because you never know when you might encounter a deer in a post office or student union.

Everything in this town is a franchise. I wouldn’t be surprised if Phoenix is really just a branch of Albuquerque set in the desert.

But that’s not to say tradition isn’t important. Had breakfast one morning at the Corner Bakery. It proudly proclaims: Established 2009.

Last weekend was the annual Phoenix BBQ Festival. Why not hold it in August? You wouldn’t even have to light up the grills.

Lady Gaga was in town. Or was that Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians’ mascot?

Billboards all over town offered cremations for $586.25. What’s the twenty-five cents for? Matches?

And a 99 Cent store in Peoria was going out of business. Prices slashed! With the pennies you save you can now afford that cremation!

Saturday was the best and worst day for me. First off, my rental car wouldn’t unlock. I had a Mariners game to announce so needed to get to the Brewers’ park in Maryvale, which, like everything else in Phoenix, is 13.2 miles away. My friend Howard, who was in town on vacation, offered to give me a lift. But he was delayed due to some police activity that diverted him five miles in the wrong direction. I got to the park only to learn that my rental car wouldn’t start because I was trying to open the wrong car. Yes, I’m an idiot.

But it was also the best day because Bob Uecker was in the park. Bob Uecker has many titles. “The Voice of the Brewers”, “Mr. Baseball”, “Former star of MR. BELVEDERE and MAJOR LEAGUE”, “National Treasure”. For all the brilliant comedy writers I’ve known through the years, Bob is funnier than 99% of them. Last year Bob underwent three major surgeries. Some of the complications, he admitted, were because he performed them himself. So it was a joy to see him back, spry and as hilarious as ever.

Like anyone who goes to Arizona, I went to a Phoenix Coyotes NHL hockey game. They play in the ridiculously named arena. Nice venue but of course, freezing due to the ice rink. Apparently the team is not doing well and there is fear it may relocate. I know how to keep them in the desert forever. Hold their home games in the summer.

The Delta terminal at SkyHarbor airport was surprisingly empty for the last Sunday night of spring training. Guns are not allowed of course, and it was really a shame because a herd of antelope was roaming the newsstand.

The Delta plane was a CRJ700. Imagine being in an MRI tube for an hour.

Thanks to everyone for a great week. All Mariners travelogues this year are dedicated to the memory of Dave Niehaus – the Elizabeth Taylor of broadcasters.

Note:  My book of previous travelogues, WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED is available for Kindle users, Nook-nicks, other ebook formats, and in glorious paperbackt.  Yes, I know it's shameless but it's not like they're letting me on THE TODAY SHOW to plug the damn thing. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How to REALLY knock off the Bellagio

OCEAN'S ELEVEN-type movies have done great at the boxoffice.  Even OCEAN'S THIRTEEN made money and that was awful.  Audiences love glitzy caper movies even if the capers are completely ridiculous. A couple of years ago my writing partner David and I wrote a pilot for Fox called ODDS about an all-night diner just off the Vegas strip that catered exclusively to the locals. One of our running bits was that they were always cooking up schemes to knock off the Bellagio themselves. Here’s an example. And no, the pilot didn’t get made, and yes, it should have. You're welcome to try any of these capers. Let me know how it goes.


Y’know, I was on stage tonight and it hit me how we could knock over the Bellagio. We break into the surveillance system, then send subliminal messages to the guards. We hypnotize them. And here’s the genius of it – the GUARDS then take out the money. We wait at the side entrance in a Brinks truck and then off we go.

So you need an electronics expert to break into the system, a Brinks truck and a hypnotist?

There’s one at the Stardust who’s great. He can get people down to their underwear.

What about when they’re not drunk?

Oooh, problem.

Come on, you gotta get real. Here’s what we do: We get an impersonator to pose as a rich Arab Sheik. He lands in a helicopter on the roof of the hotel. They put him up in the Presidential suite. We have somebody go through the ventilation system with sleeping gas, knock everybody out. Then we bring the money up and hide it in the room. While everybody’s running around town looking for it, we just check out, carry it into the helicopter and away we go.

Where we gonna get a helicopter?

Maybe we can just talk a pilot into doing us a favor.

Or…you hypnotize him.


Every night I listen to these nitwit schemes. As if getting all that money would actually make you happy.

You’ve taken a few blows to the head, haven’t you, Rosie?

I’m just saying, there are more meaningful ways of finding satisfaction and happiness in this world.

Let me guess. Jesus?

Yes, “minister”. Jesus.

(indignant) Hey, don’t use that tone. I’m licensed.

You need to believe in something that’s bigger and more powerful than you that will show you the path to the true meaning of life.

You say “Jesus”. I say “The Bellagio”.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Blow in her face and she'll follow you anywhere

As I continue in Phoenix calling Mariners' games (12:55 today on 710 ESPN in Seattle and MLB.COM), thought you might enjoy these actual magazine ads from Don Draper's day.   Noted without comment except to say, JESUS EFFIN' CHRIST!!?"

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday questions about pilots, CHEERS, and where to live in LA

Hello from Arizona, where it turns out it’s Friday here, too. So here are some Friday questions.

Crouch_P gets us started. 

When writing a pilot, do you include a character and set list, and if so, are these generally considered to be part of the page count?

Depending on the project, yes to character descriptions, no to set lists. If you do character descriptions, make them very brief – two or three sentences. And what I like to do is also include a prototype, even if you know you’re not going to get him. E.g. “Picture James Franco”, “Picture Will Ferrell”.

Plus, I would still remind the reader in a sentence or two who the character is the first time you introduce him in the body of the show. Do it in the stage directions. Again, emply the “Picture Natalie Portman” trick. It just helps the reader instantly get what you’re going for.

It's crucial in pilots not to confuse the reader. That sounds like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised.  I know I’ve said this before, but don’t give women characters traditional male names. Alex and Sam are two that spring to mind. Or names that are just initials. J.D. That could be anyone.  Don't befuddle the reader.  You're writing a pilot not a Russian novel. 

I try to choose names that were popular when the characters were born. A mom character might be Deborah. But there aren’t too many 12 year-olds named Deborah these days. Likewise, there aren’t a lot of 50 year-old women named Britney. And I’d avoid Adolph just on general principles.

Speaking of names -- Johnny Walker has a CHEERS question.

I think back to the Woody and Rebecca years, and mingled in with the laughs I'm kind of shocked by what I remember of Sam's womanizing behavior. It was lost on me as a kid, but I was wondering how you feel about this years later?

I haven't seen the episodes in a very long time, so I'm not referring to anything specific (other than maybe Sam's desperate quest to "bed" Rebecca).

I must say I was never a fan of the season arc where Sam went to elaborate and sometimes despicable lengths to get into Rebecca’s pants. Ironically, NBC did research testing on the show at the end of that year and Sam tested the highest of any character. Why? Because the audience perceived him as fatherly to the bar patrons and “protective” of Rebecca. Huh?? What show were they watching? Sam did everything but slip her a roofie.

As for the original womanizing (first few seasons), I thought that worked, primarily because Diane was such a terrific foil. She could really get under Sam's skin and get him to question his beliefs. This created a terrific internal conflict. His brain vs. his crotch (and we all know who wins that battle).

I also liked that we dealt with Sam aging during the course of the series. There comes a point where you do have to grow up. Even Sam -- which isn't to say that he went quietly .

Jim S with another CHEERS question:

I saw for the first time in years the episode where Frederick's first word is "Norm". That was one of the cleverest things I've ever seen on TV. I noticed the credits show you and your partner as the writers. Just how did that really great idea come about?

This is one I addressed before but here’s the answer.

And finally, from Ajjjj:

As a young writer about to move to LA and working with a limited budget, what parts of town would you recommend to live in... specifically cheap enough but still not running to your car and back.
Also, is there an area of town where you'll be closer to where most of the TV writing happens, or is it spread out?

The studios are more spread out now than they ever were to take advantage of cheaper rentals. So it’s not just Hollywood and Burbank and Century City. Now it’s Valencia and Redondo Beach as well. But don’t worry about it. If you get a good writing job you just move to wherever your office is. Unless it’s downtown.

Several areas seem popular with young people relocating to Los Angeles. The West Hollywood area (actually East West Hollywood) around Melrose and La Brea is nicknamed “First Stop L.A.” Housing is somewhat affordable and the area is somewhat safe. Hollywood near the hills is also a good destination. This is where a lot of locations for SWINGERS were filmed. Then there’s the Silverlake District. Funky with a lot of artist-types.

Beware the Westside of LA – it’s expensive. And Malibu is a little pricey, especially around where Barbra Streisand lives.

What’s your question?

For you folks in Seattle, I'll be calling tonight's Mariners-Dodgers game on 710 ESPN radio and   Join me for some thrilling Cactus League action! 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

In 1992, David Isaacs and I wrote the episode of CHEERS where Cliff writes a joke that gets on THE TONIGHT SHOW.  Miraculously, Johnny Carson agreed to do it.  The plan was to tape our segments on the TONIGHT SHOW set following a taping.  The audience was invited to just stick around and I don't think a single member left. 

You're saying, "Yeah yeah, isn't this supposed to be about Elizabeth Taylor?  This isn't one of those posts where you try to sucker us into buying your book?"  No.  Ms. Taylor is coming.  Hang on. 

David was out of town that night so I went alone, making myself available for any last-minute rewrites.  Before the taping I introduced myself to Mr. Carson and offered to make any changes he felt necessary.  He said, "No, this is fine.  I'll do it just like this."   I could have kissed him.

"Elizabeth Taylor?  Where's Elizabeth Taylor?"

Okay, okay!  I'm getting to that.

During the taping I was escorted into the Green Room, and there, sitting alone, was -- you guessed it -- Elizabeth Taylor.   She was a guest that night.

I didn't know what to do.  This wasn't just a movie star, this was Hollywood Royalty.  It's like, what's the correct procedure for addressing the queen? 

She must've sensed my discomfort because she said hello to me.  I sat down and tentively began a conversation.  I broke the ice by saying my father starred in a movie with her?   Well... not exactly "starred".   My dad was an extra one day on NATIONAL VELVET.   She laughed and within minutes we were chatting like friends.  Elizabeth Taylor could not have been more charming and disarming.  And funny.   She talked about her recent birthday party held at Disneyland.  The woman could tell a story.   I was enthralled.  It was an almost out-of-body experience.  I couldn't stop thinking, "What the hell am I doing here with ELIZABETH TAYLOR?"

Moments later it was time for her to go on the show.  We said goodbye, and I never saw her again.  That's it.  Not much of a story really.  Just one brief encounter.  But over the next few days I'm sure you'll see and hear many tributes to this true show business legend.  I just want you to know she was also a kick.  

What will they think of next?

It was only a matter of time. We have wedding planners, party planners, cuisine consultants, and life coaches, why not funeral planners?

That day has come. Shiva Sisters is here!

Shiva Sisters is (in their words) a full service company, which lightens the burden for those who have lost a loved one. Our company creates meaningful receptions, shivas and memorials.

This is a service geared to baby boomers. Drugs didn’t get all of us in the ‘60s. We have disposable cash, and who wants to give up an afternoon of golf to make funeral arrangements? Ugh!

A recent article about this boasts such memorial tributes as releasing balloons that are the favorite color of the deceased, special non deli menus (deli food is so…obvious), providing an opera singer at the grave site (I guess to prove it really is over), a marching band, and my personal favorite – for an extra $200 or so mourners could take one final ride in a special hearse towed by a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

It’s one thing for weddings and bar mitzvahs to have “themes” (and even some of those are absurd). How soon until I attend a “Star Trek” funeral? The immediate family is given Spock ears to wear and the service is done entirely in Klingon.

I also see the rom-com possibilities. How many wedding planner movies have there been? Now comes Jennifer Lopez as the “Funeral Planner”. Good at her job but always complaining that all the good men are taken. Along comes Mark Ruffalo whose wife was crushed to death in a car wash accident. He comes to her planning the “King’s Speech”-themed funeral. There’s an immediate attraction. But there’s always a zany complication. In this case it’s that Ruffalo’s dead wife isn’t even cold yet.

So they don’t date. Jennifer becomes depressed. She’s not having fun planning burials anymore. But they bump into each other at other funerals she arranges. They dance together during the “Romancing the Stone”-themed memorial. Take a surfing lesson together at the Gidget-grieve. And finally kiss at the Spongebob Squarepants cremation ceremony. They fall in love, and in a touching finale they combine the unveiling of his late wife’s headstone with their wedding reception. Add some vintage Motown hits and you’ve got the feel-good tear jerker of the summer.

Then come the reality shows, and finally THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF FOREST LAWN.

If this doesn’t make you want to live forever I don’t know what will.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

And the ants take the field!

I’m here in Arizona about to broadcast my first game for the Seattle Mariners tonight. I have my stat sheet, binoculars, and late night reservations to that restaurant that has the inebriated women and mechanical bull. A question I’m always asked is how did I get into baseball announcing? I mean, it’s not the logical progression from comedy writing.

Ever since I first heard Vin Scully I thought, that’s what I want to do. Call a baseball game, sit right behind home plate, and go to exotic locales like Cincinnati and Detroit – what could possibly be better? It also helped that I was a horseshit ballplayer, even at age 8.

But as I grew up I drifted into other fields, notably sitcom writing. And I certainly don’t regret that decision. It really helped prepare me for writing a blog. Still, it always irked me that I never gave announcing a try. And I’d see those beauty shots of Detroit and really sigh.

Finally, in 1986 I decided if I didn’t go for it then I never would. As midlife crises go, it was a lot safer than driving racecars or learning to salsa dance.

Another friend from the industry, Steve Leon, had the same yearning to criticize players so together we decided to give play-by-play a shot. You can’t really learn how to do it by just calling the game off the TV with the sound down. You’re only seeing the shots they’re showing. You really need to see the whole field and decide for yourself what’s important. Plus, with the sound off you have no crowd noise. You end up sounding like Jack Nicholson in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.

So that means you’ve got to throw caution and ego to the wind and actually go to a game with a recording device. We decided to hit Dodger Stadium.

The big question though was where to sit? There was always the “slim” chance that we could be annoying people so we thought, let’s not do this in sections where folks paid good money for their seats. You pony up a small fortune to see a ballgame, you don’t want two nitwits next to you massacring play-by-play.

So the best option was General Admission. Dodger Stadium is built with a wedding cake design. The very top level is General Admission, and for good reason. You are above the timberline. Yes, you’re behind home plate and have a great panorama of the whole field, but the players are ants. Still, it was cheaper, not always filled, and since the seats weren’t reserved, if someone found us insufferable they could always move. Other than my wife, no one did.  

So that was our broadcast booth. For two years. At first we did the games together. Then we each wanted to get in more innings so we each brought recording equipment, went to different sections and “called ‘em as we saw ‘em”… or, more accurately – “called ‘em if we saw ‘em”.

We were up there with the total crazies and drunks. But don’t kid yourself – they’re the best fans. They may pass out in the 7th inning but they’re totally into the game. If you can understand what they’re saying, they’re pretty knowledgeable. After awhile some of the regulars started gathering around me. One even brought binoculars to keep track of the bullpens. I couldn’t see who was warming up. The bullpens were in a different zip code.

My operation got more and more elaborate. I bought a headset microphone (just like the real announcers use!), a portable mixer, and a separate crowd mic. I secured two seats – one for me and one for my equipment – and sat in the first row so I could drape the crowd mic over the side for a fuller sound. And to answer your next question: Yes, I looked like a idiot.

But I’ve always felt that was a small price to pay for achieving your goal. The truth is, I had great fun, improved enormously (from terrible to barely passable), and in only two years both Steve and I got jobs announcing for AAA clubs. (AAA is the highest level of the minors). So the humiliation paid off. 

The moral here is to chase your dream. There are always things standing in your way, but most of those are just excuses. You don’t have the time, you’re going to look foolish, you’re on death row. But in most cases, you can find the time, ignore the taunts, or escape during a riot.

Follow your bliss. It’s really worth it. Want proof? Later next month – I’m off to Detroit!

Talk to you tonight Seattle on 710 ESPN radio and

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau -- review


I admit it, I’m a sucker for a good sci-fi/thriller/romcom. You just don’t see enough of them. Okay, you don’t see any. But THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is all that maybe a little action/noir/fantasy to boot.

As long as you turn your suspension-of-belief dial way up into MEN IN BLACK II country, you’ll have fun with this movie. There are all the logic problems associated with having to create your own rules, then making up new ones as you go along just to keep the plot moving. But forget about all that. The story is about a group of otherworldly men who make sure that events in life occur as they’re supposed to and must keep Matt Damon and Emily Blunt from falling in love with each other. You can’t buy into that premise and then ask: “this Adjustment Bureau, do they give their employees hams every Christmas?”

Writer/director George Nolfi tries to do a lot of things – mix in metaphysics with romance, religion, politics, and of course, modern dance. Some elements work better than others, but for my money – if the romance works, then the movie works.

There is great chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Right from their very first scene together. Thank God they didn’t cast Katherine Heigl! Whenever I watch a love story I try to imagine if it were me in that situation – would I go to the lengths this character is going through just to capture the heart of the love of my life? In this case no, but I’m a chicken shit. Were I a person of any substance then hell yeah, I totally would have. Emily Blunt was perfectly cast.  Matt Damon was good too, and of the ten movies he's been in this year alone, this is his best so far. 

John Slattery plays one of the Adjustment Bureau Adjusters and as usual, steals any scene he’s in. When you look up the word “insouciant” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of John, smirking underneath his fedora. This was a much more challenging role than MAD MEN however. John had to deliver his lines without holding a drink.

Hats play a big part in the movie. The way you can identify Adjustment Bureau personnel is that they all wear hats. Assuming they’ve been around for thousands of years I suspect they really stood out back in the Roman Empire days wearing togas and fedoras.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU was fun and if any movie genre at all is your favorite then I recommend you go see it. Unless you’re not supposed to. In which case, don’t. I’d hate to think the next world war is caused because you wandered into the wrong theater and watched for twenty minutes before realizing this wasn’t GNOMEO & JULIET.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Has-been Apprentice

Maybe the saddest show in the history of television is CELEBRITY APPRENTICE. This is entertainment on the same level as watching a dog try to eat a caramel. We see F-list celebrities so desperate to remain in the public eye that they subject themselves to nationwide humiliation. Any trace of dignity these people once had they gladly forfeit to be on television. Now granted, in some cases like Gary Busey, so what? The man has lost his mind. Dignity is not an issue. How to hold utensils to eat food is.

The celebrities (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) claim they’re only doing the show to support their favorite charities. And that’s certainly admirable, but who are we kidding? Meryl Streep and George Clooney are very committed to charities, you don’t see them in the boardroom trading insults with Jose Canseco.

I look at the list of celebrities and don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

GARY BUSEY – A one-time fine actor now reduced to a cautionary tale for why you should always wear a helmet on a motorcycle.

DAVID CASSIDY – Former teen throb who now dyes his hair a color not found in nature. Was Richard Hatch's bitch in like eleven minutes .  Already fired.

NENE LEAKES – How many of you are going who??? NeNe Leakes was one of the REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA. This apparently qualifies her for stardom. Don’t be surprised to see her hosting the Oscars next year.

RICHARD HATCH -- Winner of the first SURVIVOR. He was later inducted into the SURVIVOR HALL OF FAME. Be sure to visit it the next time you’re on the Cook Islands. Ultimate reality show weasel. Spent three years in a federal pen for tax evasion.  How do you declare to the government you have no money when you win a million dollars on national TV?  And now he's serving another nine months for the same thing.  Soon to be inducted into the MORON HALL OF FAME. 

MARLEE MATLIN – A former Oscar winner. Way too classy to be included in this bunch. It’s only a matter of time before one of the other nut case women complains that “Marlee doesn’t listen.”

JOE CANSECO – Certifiable. I speak from first-hand experience. I was hosting a talk show on KABC radio about a year ago and had Jose on as my guest. The show was live. I introduced him by saying he was ostracized by baseball but his charges of steroid use proved to be true. So I was hardly a hostile host. I asked him what he would say to those who still doubt his claims and he said, “I’d say they’re fucking assholes and they can kiss my fucking ass.” He continued on this blue rant and of course I cut him off. Thank goodness for the ten second delay. What was he thinking? It’s not like he’s never been interviewed before. And it’s not like anyone forced him to do the interview. He’s completely out of his mind. Just the kind of person you put on national television.

LA TOYA JACKSON – What about that family is not sad?

HOPE DWORACZYK – Former Playmate of the Year. Has the distinction of being Playboy’s first 3D centerfold. Not a lot of people know the face but she has the most recognizable vagina in America.

LISA RINNA – Actress best known for being married to Harry Hamlin and now having too much work done. Already fired.

MEAT LOAF – Much too talented to be doing this shit. Not just a terrific singer but a damn good actor. Instead of running around trying to sell pizzas he should be interviewing new agents.

LIL JON – Hip hop artists often associate with the wrong crowd. This is proof of it.

NIKKI TAYLOR – It says in the NBC bio: She began modeling at the age of 14 and immediately captured the heart of America with her girl-next-door charm and undeniable beauty. Today she has huge tattoos running up her left arm. The biker chick next door. Of all the women she seems the brightest and most down-to-earth.   Fired last night.

STAR JONES – Nightmare. And of course she has her little doggie, too. LSD bad trip nightmare.

JOHN RICH -- Country star. It's either this gig or Six Flags Over Texas. 

DIONNE WARWICK – This is the saddest of all. Dionne Warwick is music royalty. She’s an icon. A treasure. And she’s 70 years-old. We shouldn’t see her struggle to learn how to use a cash register. Let her drugged out niece, Whitney Houston do that.

Beyond the celebrities, the show is the exact same as its always been. Inane tasks tied into shameless product placement, interview segments where contestants either boast about themselves and take shots at others, and Donald Trump in the boardroom acting like he has the biggest dick in the room, even though we all know Star Jones has Trump trumped. 

Let me know how the season goes. I won’t be watching. But the week Jose Canseco kills somebody on camera please send me the YouTube link.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Extras! Extras! Read all about them!

I should probably save this for Friday but a reader wanted to know if extras talked softly and if so is it distracting to the main cast?

The extras don’t talk. They just mouth conversations. The background hub bub is added later in post production. If they did talk it would be (a) distracting, (b) hard to match takes when we edit back and forth between takes, (c) they would have to be paid, and (d) God knows what bullshit they’d say.

On multi-camera shows extras are generally brought in the last day or two. The Second Assistant Director is in charge of placing them, telling them where to walk and when. Invariably when I was directing there would be a woman placed at a table with Marge Simpson hair that completely blocked out the stars. Or someone would be told to cross in front of a star just as he was delivering his punch line. Occasionally you find an extra looking at the camera.

I always picture an union meeting (they do have a union – SEG, Screen Extras Guild) where everyone is incensed, waving arms, pumping fists, and mouthing their passionate views.

Even though extras are not allowed to talk they are allowed – even encouraged to act. Or should I say, “react”? Cheer when someone makes a big announcement. Silently gasp in horror when someone spontaneously bursts into flames.

I remember an episode of the old SUPERMAN series. The bad guys wore full lead helmets (Superman can’t see through lead). There was a scene where two of them were walking down the hall in the Daily Planet building en route to a meeting with Perry White. Two extras entered from the other direction and didn’t even notice that there were two guys in suits and hats with LEAD HELMETS!!

I was directing an episode of ALMOST PERFECT that featured a giant pie fight scene (actually 800 custard tarts). We had our cast and sixty extras. For three days I choreographed and rehearsed the scene with rice cakes. Once cameras were rolling I knew I only had one take. (My inspiration was the great Laurel & Hardy pie fights.)

I was trying to work out a thousand things at once when this extra comes up and announces she would not like to be hit with any pies. Please place her accordingly. I said, if you don’t want to be in the pie fight then we’ll just replace you. No, no, she said in a very prim voice, she’d do it, but I was to instruct all the other extras to spare her specifically from any incoming pies? I said, I would see what I could do.

Okay, I know I’ll roast in hell for this but I did instruct the other extras. And when cameras rolled this girl got pelted with hundreds of pies. From all directions. Just bombarded. (It seems that she had managed to annoy all of them too.) I look back at that episode and the sight of her just getting blasted with pies makes me fall on the floor laughing every time. Like I said, I know there are not going to be any harps where I’m going.

Being an extra looks like an easy job but it’s not. There’s a lot of down time that can get real boring. The pay isn’t great. Job security is nil. There’s pie in your hair for weeks. In general it’s a very thankless job. The common name for extras in Hollywood is “background”. How many people in their college yearbook list “background” as their dream job of choice?

But they perform a very useful and important function. And I’m happy to speak on their behalf… since they themselves can’t without being paid day player rates.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I'm no longer "Mr."

They’ve finally removed the “Mr.”. If you went to the Amazon page to buy my paperback (which you definitely should, by the way – it’s only $6.99 and tells you which city in America has the most sex), I was listed as “Mr. Ken Levine”. I have no idea why. It made me seem like such a diva – the male equivalent of “Miss Diana Ross”. The message it sends is this guy takes himself reeeeally SERIOUSLY. This is not the best profile for an author trying to hawk a humor book.

Nor is it particularly flattering. It’s not Mr. Show Biz or Mr. Dynamite or Mr. Burns. It’s an uptight hair stylist. And it's not a demand for respect.  "They call me Mr. Levine" doesn't have the same gravitas as "They call me Mr. Tibbs." 

Besides, Mr. Levine is my son.

Okay, an explanation: When my daughter, Annie was 13 she attended a summer day camp at her elementary school. My son, Matt (then 17) was hired to be one of the counselors. The camp director insisted that all campers only refer to the counselors by their last names. So Annie had to call her brother Mr. Levine. This went over well, as you can imagine.

Anyway, after a week Amazon finally removed the Mr.

I also get a kick out of the feature where they list other items people who bought my book have ordered. In my case, they include a butane lighter, a self-help counseling book by Dr. Phil, and a trash can with a shredder attached.

Thanks to everyone who has ordered my book (either in paperback, Kindle, Nook, or other ebook format). And trust me, that shredder really works!

Reducing humor to an equation

Came across this recently from my Chicago friend, Lyle Dean.   No one has been able to accurately define just why something is funny.  Up until now!  Funny man Alastair Clarke has broken the code.  Throw away that seltzer bottle.  Grab a probability calculator!  Here, for the first time ever, is THE SECRET OF COMEDY.

A new theory suggests an equation for identifying the cause and level of our responses to any humorous stimuli: h = m x s.

The theory argues that human beings are more reliant for their behavioural instruction on culturally inherited information than any other species, and that the accuracy of that information is therefore of unparalleled importance. Yet the individual is exposed to the continual threats of error and deception, which can seriously affect their chances of survival and success.

To compensate, humour rewards us for seeing through misinformation that has come close to taking us in. The pleasure we get (h) is calculated by multiplying the degree of misinformation perceived (m) by the extent to which the individual is susceptible to taking it seriously (s).

Humour therefore exists to encourage us to take information apart and to reject that which is unsound and could potentially harm our prospects. Every time we laugh, we have successfully achieved this, resolving inconsistencies in the fabric of our knowledge as we do so.

"I am not attempting to claim that we each engage in an algebraic equation before we find something funny," says the author, Alastair Clarke, "but that this schematic description reflects the instantaneous reactions of the brain to potentially dangerous misinformation."

I'm sorry, that still doesn't explain Gallagher.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why do shows that were once good now suck?

Ready for some Friday questions?

lansing asks:

Do writers on a long-term show perceive when the quality of a program is in decline? A substantial decline in ratings makes this obvious to everyone. However, a ratings decline can substantially lag a quality decline.

Well, first of all, if I’m a show creator, that’s a problem I’d be happy to have.  By the time we jump the shark I'll be in Hawaii. 

There are several reasons why a show’s quality declines. You start running out of stories. Imagine if Shakespeare had to come up with 200 stories for Hamlet.  They'd be doing the talent show episode by season two.

You find yourself falling into familiar patterns. And you find that the characters no longer surprise you. You pretty much know exactly what they’re going to do in every situation since you’ve already put them in every situation.

Another reason is that often show runners get tired of the grind of producing a show every week and scale back their involvement (Aloha!).  The replacement writers, although they may be good, just don’t have the same feel for the show as the person who created it. So it drifts a little. That’s how we felt with MASH. David Isaacs and I, on our best days, were not as good as Larry Gelbart on his worst.

Sometimes your star over time will assume more creative control and that can cause a sea change in the show’s quality. Yes, I’m thinking of you, Cybil Shepherd. (Sidenote:  I see she's agreed to be in a sitcom pilot this season.  God help those poor writers.)

I used to welcome when we’d have a cast change because that would alter the chemistry and give the show a new sense of freshness. Charles Winchester on MASH and Rebecca Howe on CHEERS are two good examples. TWO AND A HALF MEN could experience that too. (Who should they get? Gary Busey? Mel Gibson? Randy Quaid?)

Someone who didn’t leave his name wondered:

When you were working on becoming a baseball announcer, did you ever have the cojones to ask Vin Scully to listen to one of your tapes and comment?

No. I never wanted to impose. Plus, I didn’t want my idol to think, “Jesus, this guy is horseshit!”

From Robala:

How many pilots will a network allow for a new show? For instance, I know that there two previous pilots for "All in the Family" (with two other actors cast as Mike and Gloria) and another pilot for the "Bob Newhart Show" where Jerry wasn't a dentist but in practice with Bob.

It all depends on how much faith the network has in the project. 90% of the time if your pilot isn’t picked up it’s dead. But there are times when the network is willing to redevelop it. There have been several HAWAII 5-0 pilots before the current version (one even starring Gary Busey). NBC made a couple of versions of the British hit COUPLING. And for some reason NBC just wouldn’t let the LIPSTICK JUNGLE project die. There must be a version starring every TV personality except Ivanka Trump.

Today, networks routinely recast and re-shoot parts of pilots after they’ve been picked up. That way if Gary Busey's and Cybil Shepherd's pilots doesn’t go, they can be inserted into yours.

Stephen wants to know:

What is your opinion on multi-year contracts actors enter into when they join a show, as opposed to the single-season contracts most actors are signed to here in the UK?

As a producer, I love it. That way I know that if the show takes off, I’m protected. My cast is locked in and so are their salaries.

For the actors, it’s not such a good deal. Based on one script (that is bound to change) you’re asked to make a multi-year commitment. For the quick income you make on the pilot, sometimes you’re then stuck on a terrible show… for five years. That's more of a sentence than some people get for murder.  And you don’t have a lot of time to think about it. There are a hundred other actors who would jump at that opportunity. That’s a big life commitment to make in six minutes.

And finally, sophomorecritic has a question about my book WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED (the Kindle version you can order here, the paperback you can order here), and all other ebook formats here.)

I would buy a book about Ken Levine's experiences in TV (easier than scrolling through all the back entries), but why would I be interested in his travels?

Ken's developed a readership based on his great firsthand accounts about working in TV and his insights into the TV/film industry. Does anyone else think it's a big mistake for him to self-publish a book that has little to nothing to do with what bought people to this blog in the first place?

That's a fair question.  But I like to think of my blog as more than just a TV industry and writing advice destination.  I post about whatever interests me.  And that may range from baseball to pop culture to radio to travel.  I happen to think readers would enjoy following my turbulent sojourns.  Doesn't mean I won't do a TV related book at one point... assuming this book sells.  So if you want a TV book, the best thing to do is buy ten copies of this one even if you have no interest or hate it. 

What’s your question?  Please leave it in the comments section and thanks. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My favorite location spotting story

Yesterday’s post on location shooting unlocked a lot of memories for a lot of people. Thanks for sharing yours. I have one more story. This is my favorite.

There’s a large indoor shopping mall in West Los Angeles called the Beverly Center. Along with chain stores and a bad food court is a multi-plex theater. One afternoon, with nothing to do, Sam Simon (co-creator of THE SIMPSONS) and I decided to kill time by going to a movie.

As usual, twelve theaters – nothing good. We finally settled on VOLCANO.

VOLCANO  was a ridiculous movie that came out in 1997. Apparently a volcano erupts in Los Angeles. You’d think some geologist sometime would know that there was an active volcano brewing under a giant metropolis. When they started digging the Metrolink subway wouldn’t at least one worker say, “Y’know, it’s awfully warm down here”?

And usually volcanoes erupt out of mountains and not flat residential areas but why quibble?

So we’re watching this atrocity. There must’ve been ten other people in the theater. The volcano goes off. There’s mass panic and bad special effects. Anne Heche and Tommy Lee Jones try to save the city. Former talk show host and Oprah-wannabe, Mother Love plays “traffic cop”. The great actor, Harvey Levin even appears.

The molten lava is oozing down major streets, melting everything in its path. Storefronts are obliterated. Frozen Yogurt stands offer little resistance.

Finally, there’s a shot of the red hot lava fast approaching the Beverly Center, to which Sam cries out, “Hey! We better get out of here!”

That was maybe the biggest laugh I (and everyone else in the theater) ever had during a movie.

Location is everything.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hey, there's a portion of my car on national TV!!!

In the first year of CHEERS, they still edited the show on film (later they would transfer the film to tape and edit digitally). One time my partner, David and I were asked to go over to editing and check something out. We walked across the lot to the building where our editors were located, trudged up the stairs, glanced out the big window that greeted us at the top of the stairs, and we both just stopped dead in our tracks.

It hit us both instantly.

That was the view out of Lucy and Ricky’s hotel room in Hollywood during that famous season of I LOVE LUCY. They must’ve taken the photo for the backdrop from right there.

This is one of the cool things about living in Los Angeles – recognizing locations in TV or movies that I know or have been to.

And it’s especially great when it comes as an unexpected surprise.

Here's another example: I grew up in Woodland Hills, a suburb of the San Fernando Valley. About ten years ago I’m watching a rerun of an old ‘50s action/crime show called HIGHWAY PATROL. This starred Broderick Crawford, an overweight middle-aged balding alcoholic as the head of the CHP. (Imagine getting that guy through network casting today? Now the same part would be played by Elizabeth Mitchell.)

Quick side note: Crawford really was an alcoholic. In fact, he had so many DUI’s that his drivers’ license had been permanently revoked. This caused a big problem because how can the head of the Highway Patrol not be able to drive? So a concession was reached. Crawford was allowed to drive but only when the camera was running. So the director would yell “Action!”, Crawford would drive the car, the director would yell “Cut! Let’s go again!”, and Crawford would have to exit the vehicle so a crew member could drive the car back to the original spot.

Anyway, I’m watching this show (probably on cable channel 863) and Crawford is driving down a street. Suddenly I recognize a storefront. Neider’s Auto Body. Holy shit! It hits me – he’s driving down Ventura Blvd., right where I used to live! I, of course, hadn’t seen that street in a million years. But it all came flooding back to me. He passed Dillaway Realty. I knew instantly what he would pass next – the Pool Supply store, then the Gulf gas station, the freeway underpass, and Love’s BBQ.

Sure enough the tracking shot continued. There was the Pool Supply place, there was the Gulf station, and then… what the fuck!? There was no freeway underpass. This must’ve been filmed a year before the freeway was erected.

I can’t tell you how absolutely weird that was. Truly, like being in a time machine.

And that was just one example. The Bob Hope movie, BACHELOR IN PARADISE was filmed in my neighborhood. The tract house he lived in was the same model as mine. (The interior was different though. Ours didn’t have Lana Turner.) There were scenes in the Woodlake Bowl where I once sprained my thumb! Landmarks popped up throughout the whole movie.

And this was not a rare occurrence.  I was very excited one afternoon to come out of the Woodland Hills library and see that they were filming a scene from THE FBI there. Efrem Zimbelist Jr.(who had his license) pulled his car to a stop right in front. And there, in the shot, for all to see, was the back fin of my Mercury Comet! The night it aired I actually invited friends over.

This is one of the perks of living in a company town. Seeing old neighborhoods and places long since turned into Costcos.  It's a real blast from the past. And it makes up for the horrible downside.

For every nostalgic wistful moment I’ve had, there are an equal or greater number of moments when I’ve been really pissed because traffic is snarled due to location filming of some fucking idiotic movie or TV show. Streets are blocked off.  Temporary "No Parking" signs are everywhere.  Equipment trucks and cable as far as the eye can see.  Giant lights blind you at night.  “Why can’t they film this goddamn thing in Pittsburgh”?! I’ve been known to yell.

But then I see Neider's Auto Body and realize I'm the luckiest guy in the world.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The paperback is again available

Once again you can order the paperback of my book, WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED by clicking here.   The price remains a ridiculously low $6.99 and if we ever meet I'll autograph it for you, which will reduce its value even more.   Sorry for the one-day delay. 

Just got off the phone with Chaucer who told me these things happen.  He also told me to include all the blurbs I've gotten.  I said, "Isn't that really shameless?"  And he said, "So what?!  You're trying to sell some books, aren't ya?"   Hey, he's Chaucer.  He's the man.  So here are some blurbs. 

That Ken Levine can seem so effortlessly funny on topics ranging from the TV industry to cruise ships to sports only confirms what a devilishly good craftsman he is. His travel writing reminds me of S.J. Perelman’s; his show-biz skewerings of an unholy alliance between Mark Twain and Ricky Gervais. Go figure; go laugh.
Entertainment Weekly

Funny, hilarious, hysterical, side-splitting, witty… These are just a few of the words I found in a thesaurus to describe Ken Levine’s “Where The Hell Am I”!
Co-creator of The Simpsons

Ken Levine is one of a select hand full of people on planet earth who has been able to earn a nice living practically since childhood by writing jokes. Before deciding to commit to writing a book, he bothered to first log decade after decade in the trenches, being professionally funny! Who else do you know who did something like that, just for your reading enjoyment? How could you live with yourself if you didn't buy this? 'How?', I ask. 'How?'
Author, commentator, former head writer of the David Letterman Show.

"As a frequent traveler I always look forward to Ken's travelogues. They make me actually LOL. Anyone who travels or ever dreamed of traveling will love his humor (except shepherds - shepherds will not like this one bit)."
Fox Sports

Finally!! We who have been lucky enough to read Ken's hilarious essays
always say, "You should publish these!". I'm a tough customer when it comes
to laughing out loud alone (except after tequila), so trust me when I tell
you, this book will make you laugh. A lot.
Writer, Comedian, Founder Tails of Joy

"First, you say, 'I wish I could notice what he notices.' Then, you go, 'I wish I could put things the way he puts them.' Then it's 'I wish I had his batting average for hilarious comedy.' Then you forget all that nonsense and just laugh. With Ken Levine as your Tour Guide, you can laugh at a variety of travel destinations without ever having to leave the house. A plus for Agoraphobics, who like a good chuckle."
Award winning writer for Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Larry Sanders

"As travel writers go, Ken Levine is like de Tocqueville, only better because he is not French."
Writer, satirist,commentator

The AMC pilot "Bake-Off"

I’m changing my advice to aspiring writers.

I’m always asked what’s the best advice I can give them and up until now I’ve said just continue to write. Study English. Read scripts. Analyze scripts. Learn dramatic structure.  But most of all, keep churning out material.

That stuff is still important, but it seems today, equally or even more important is becoming a good salesman.

AMC last week held what it likes to call their “Bake-off”. Six pilot scripts have been ordered and the writers of those shows had to trek down to some LA hotel and make elaborate presentations of their projects. The writer/creators each had to show a promo reel and re-pitch their series in detail, even mapping out the entire first season. Wow. Why not get a seventh contender, Watson the computer, and just show the whole thing on the Game Show Network?

What this means of course is that if a young Neil Simon pitched THE ODD COUPLE to AMC while Dr. Gene Scott, who never wrote a script in his life, pitched a show about a guy just sitting in a chair, Dr. Gene would get the pilot order.   Why?  He’s the better salesman.

I understand the trend. There are fewer pilots, fewer movies being developed – it’s harder to make a sale. So it’s not enough to come in with a good idea – you’ve now got to wow them.

But this requires a whole different set of skills. Confidence, charisma, charm. Most writers I know became writers precisely because they lack those skills. Hence the problem.

Now granted, these are great attributes to have, whether you’re a writer or not. Presenting yourself favorably is important in any field. The question though is how do you make that transformation? How do you go from a guy who is only comfortable writing in an isolation tank in Antarctica to Sean Hannity? Self-help books? Motivation seminars? Copious amounts of alcohol and drugs?

Well, whatever it takes, whatever you have to do – do it. Even if it means foregoing a master class on writing by Aaron Sorkin to take Bill Clinton’s “Five Steps to Get Anyone On Their Knees” weekend retreat.  What good is a great script if it just sits in your drawer?

I have no idea what the six pilots are that competed in the AMC “Bake Off”. On the one hand it seems a little unfair to judge a project’s merit based on the sales pitch of an amateur salesman, but on the other, at least it’s something active you as the creator can DO. It’s in YOUR hands, not a bunch of idiots rounded up at the Fat Burger across the street of the Preview House.

So take that public speaking class, listen to the theme from Rocky on an endless loop. Just remember -- Colin Firth might’ve beaten Jesse Eisenberg for the Oscar, but at AMC Jesse gets the greenlight while Colin is told: “Th-th-th-th-that’s all folks!”

Monday, March 14, 2011

My book is now available in paperback

WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED is now available in "handsome" paperback form.  I'm pricing it ridiculously cheap.  I'm not going to make a fortune anyway so why not make it more attractive for people to buy?  It's only $6.99.  Seriously.  That's all.  Here's where you order.  And remember, it makes a great gift and Christmas is coming up. 

UPDATE:  Out of stock for the moment.  Making a slight change in the printing.  Should be back up in a day or so.  You are welcome to pre-order.  Sorry for the delay.  

If you thought Don Draper was good...

I’m always looking for effective ways of selling my book. (By the way, it’s gotten great reviews, it’s very funny, and the ebook costs only $2.99. What are you waiting for??? Order it here for Kindle, here for the Nook, here for everywhere else. And the paperback has just come out.  It's only $6.99 and you can order that here.  

But when I think of great salesmen, one name immediately comes to mind. Reverend Gene Scott. I’ve mentioned him before. He was a mainstay of local LA television in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He had this cable channel and was on it 24 hours a day. Twelve of those hours he was live. Twenty-one of those hours he was pitching for money. You rarely, if ever, saw him actually teach or preach the gospel.

He used a variety of techniques. Dr. Scott was a ruggedly handsome figure with flowing white hair and piercing eyes. Every time you tuned in, there he was, sitting on this garish wooden throne of buffalo antlers, staring at you, soliciting. Every other TV evangelist would cajole you, appeal to your sense of commitment and faith, and even occasionally beg. Not Dr. Scott.

He would get angry at you. He would yell at you. He would call you worthless.  He would accuse you of being in league with the devil.  (Dr. Scott was very big on the devil.  That was his go-to guy.)

He would sometimes set time limits. $30,000 in 30 minutes, or else! (I never knew what “what else” was since he never actually preached.) And then my favorite – he would just stare at you… for an hour. At the time I’m writing MASH and thinking, “I’m killing myself trying to come up with material to pack into every minute of the show” and this guy is more mesmerizing just sitting in a chair staring at me.

He brought in money by the bucket loads.

Now, obviously I can’t do that. I guess I could ask you to stare at the picture at the top of this post until you break down and buy the book, but I don't think that would work. 

Recently, I heard someone else try to emulate a Dr. Scott method with disappointing but riotous results.

I was surfing one night through iTunes radio, sampling different internet stations. I came upon this oldies station from Great Britain. A record ends and the owner of the station comes on. He says the station survives on donations alone. He then tells his audience to go to his website and pledge a donation. I was just about to move on.  But then he said this: “I’m not going back to music until I’ve received thirty pledges”.

Allll-riiiight! Now I knew I was in for some fine entertainment.

There are a billion other oldies internet stations. Some play the hits, some play obscure songs; there’s probably four that play Annette records 24/7. So his threat is completely toothless.

For the next half hour this guy vamps like there was no tomorrow. Clearly, he's getting no takers. How could he get thirty pledges? There couldn’t have been more than five people (including me) listening to this.

At first he jabbered on and on about how unique his playlist was. Uh, no. There are a thousand other stations playing that same Clarence Frogman Henry records. Then he discussed how hard he works and how much time this station requires. Uh, who’s telling you to do it?

Then he fumbles around for ten minutes groping for anything to say. Finally, he gets angry. But he's British. So he can't just yell at you like Dr. Gene. The best he can do is be properly peeved. And inside I know he's ready to explode.

Finally, out of pity (and gratitude for such a delightful half hour) I went to his website to make a donation.

I got an error message. The site wasn’t working.

It was the devil!  The devil I say!!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Open letter to anyone producing a sitcom pilot

For those of you lucky (or unlucky) enough to have your pilot ordered you are now in the toughest part of the process – casting. These are the most crucial decisions you will ever have to make on your project. Everything else can be fixed. Scripts can be rewritten, scenes re-shot, set dressing changed. Even your premise can be altered. But if your actors suck you are dead.

The only thing worse is that the actors suck, you get picked up anyway, and then you are dead and sent to a hell reserved for Hannibal Lector and the guy who created WINDOWS 98.

So may I make one suggestion? It sounds incredibly obvious but you’d be surprised.


This is not as easy as it sounds. Sorry you waiters at the Cheesecake Factory but there are not that many really funny people out there.

And there is the growing ham fisted network interference that attempts to take the casting decisions right out of your hands and give away your prize parts to old retreads or J. Crew models. More important than comic chops to these networks are good teeth and breasts that test well.

But that’s not what YOU should be looking for. You want people who are funny. And beware. There are enough good actors in Hollywood who are skillful enough to know where the jokes are and how to get them. You can be fooled. So don’t just go by the reading.

Go by the look, the attitude, their body language, their voice. They are intangible qualities but you can spot them right away. Just look at the cast photos of PARKS & RECREATION and THE OFFICE. Then compare them with say the Americanized version of COUPLING.
Good rule of thumb: if someone walks into your office and you immediately want to write a new half page of dialogue for him or her, that’s who you hire.

And as for the network battles? Sometimes they’ll be won over too. Laughter is a great selling point. And then there will be those times you’ll hear, “Yeah, he’s funny but…” Just remember – there ARE NO BUTS. You can be diplomatic, praise them for their choice of actors but suggest they might be even more wonderful in that exciting new procedural pilot they have where a special team solves crimes by looking at cremation remains. But at the end of the day you want the funny choice, even if he’s not known. Sometimes it’s BETTER that he’s not known.

Producing a pilot is like one man facing an army. There are constant battles and it’s always hard to know which ones to fight. But this is the big one. Fight to the death for funny.

Just imagine SEINFELD with William Devane as Kramer and Kim Ravers as Elaine.

Best of luck with your project. I'm not going to hope it's good. I'm going to hope it's close to your vision.