Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Summer Movies Preview 2 (the sequel)

This is either my Summer Movies Preview or Fall Netflix Preview.   Part 1 was yesterday.

THE LONE RANGER – Johnny Depp as Tonto.   I guess it’s still politically okay to be in white face.

SMURFS 2 – They’re blue, they’re back, and they’re pissed!

DESPICABLE ME 2 – They’re pink, they’re back, and they’re pissed!

RED 2 – They’re red, they’re back, and they’re pissed!

2 GUNS – When they make a sequel will it be called 2 GUNS 2? Stars Denzel Washington, which is enough to get me and every woman in the world in the theater.

GROWN UPS 2 – Sequel of maybe the worst movie in the last ten years. I’d see FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY again on a loop before sitting through this.

KICK ASS 2 – There was a KICK ASS 1?

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE – Sequel to 300, but since most of those characters died this is parallel story. New characters will die.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES – Ryan Gosling. I don’t think even the Heavenly Father will let him off the hook for GANGSTER SQUAD.

R.I.P.D. – Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges are dead lawmen who come back to life kill bad guys although what's the point of killing people when they can come back to life?  There is an NCIS spin-off out there with Ryan's name on it. 

BLUE JASMINE – Woody Allen’s once made movies. Now he makes travelogues. This one is set in San Francisco. Some filmmakers do it for the art, others for the money, Woody does it for the Hilton Honor Points.

DEALIN’ WITH IDIOTS – Jeff Garlin encountering the parents of young baseball players. The title might be too generous.

STRANDED – Christian Slater is an astronaut stuck on the moon. This is why you need Lexus roadside service.


DON JON – Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote/directed/and stars in this film about a modern Don Juan. I guess that means the script I wrote where I star as Don Juan won’t get made now.

PLANES – Disney animation. CARS with airsick bags.

LOVELACE – Amanda Seyfried as ‘70s pornstar Linda Lovelace. I hope Amanda’s throat is more suited for this than singing.

The conclusion tomorrow: 

Monday, April 29, 2013

What does someone have to do to get some respect in this town?

The Lakers suck this year.  Last night they were eliminated in four games.  The Clippers are far better, more exciting, and yet, this photo I took over the weekend tells you all you need to know about LA.  The Clippers are the Rodney Dangerfield of Los Angeles.

Summer Movies Preview

There's like 56 big budget Sci-Fi/Doomsday/every-city-now-looks-like-Detroit blockbusters out this summer. Otherwise -- sequels, comic book heroes, and Ryan Reynolds' fifteenth attempt to open a movie. Here, as always, is my Summer Movies Preview. Full disclosure: I haven't seen any of these films. But when has that ever prevented me from judging them? Turn off your cellphones. Here we go:

MAN OF STEEL – Yet another reboot.  Amy Adams is Lois Lane and she's a redhead.  2,000,000 nerds will refuse to come out of their basements. 


THE HANGOVER PART 111 – It’s the night before Jorge Mario Bergoglio becomes Pope Francis and the gang takes him out to celebrate.

THE GREAT GATSBY – Baz Luhrmann directs so it's all about the pretty sets.  Hopefully the actors and story won't intrude on his vision

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS – The sequel of the reboot of several sequels of a reboot of several more sequels.

THE WAY, WAY BACK – Could be the sleeper of the summer. Festival darling co-written by Jim Rash. Keep an eye out for it.

IRON MAN 3 –  You got Robert Downey Jr. and WD-40  -- the Man of Iron could eclipse the Man of Steel. 

NOW YOU SEE ME – Magician heist film. If only they could make the FBI disappear.


EPIC – Animated film.  (pictured: right)  Essentially Alice in Leafland.

FRANCES HA – Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig re-team for a saga about modern dance in Manhattan. Guys will only see this when EPIC is sold out.

BEFORE MIDNIGHT – Ethan Hawke, Julia Delpy’s third or fourth sequel to BEFORE SUNRISE. All that’s left is BEFORE TRASH DAY.

AFTER EARTH –   Oscar grubber, Will Smith and his son go arm and Armageddon through the future. Wouldn't it be funny if his son won an Academy Award before he did?.

THIS IS THE END – Finally! An apocalypse comedy! Starring Seth Rogen, Oscar host James Franco, Jonah Hill, and all their friends entertaining themselves for ninety minutes.

THE WORLD’S END – Finally! A better apocalypse comedy! Stars Simon Pegg and the HOT FUZZ bunch entertaining you for ninety minutes.


WORLD WAR Z – For Generation X & Y.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING – Joss Whedon follows up his mega hit THE AVENGERS with a black-and-white modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play.  The studio wanted to call it AVENGERS 2 but Whedon said no. 

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY – Not the Rutgers story. It’s those lovable Pixar monsters seeking higher education and $200 million domestic.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Daniel Day-Lewis proves why he's the greatest actor ever

From last night's correspondents dinner...  Hilarious!  I don't know is playing Steven Spielberg but he's pretty good too.

CHEERS -- the Russian Poetry Corner

Here’s a scene of ours from a first season episode of CHEERS called "Any Friend of Diane's".  I posted this a few years ago and still get requests for it.  Diane’s college chum Rebecca (played by Diane runner-up Julia Duffy) comes to visit the bar. Imagine a sitcom today being allowed to do this run.


INT. BAR – DAY

Diane and Rebecca are chattering away in French. They laugh together. Rebecca’s laugh turns into a sob, and she buries her face in her hands.

DIANE
Rebecca, something’s wrong.

REBECCA
You always saw through my fa├žade of gaiety… Elliot and I have parted.

DIANE
No. You and Elliot? Rebecca, you two were together forever.

REBECCA
I know. I know. It all started when Elliot got his doctorate in ichthyology. His eye began to wander, and the next thing I knew he had taken up with a young student he met on a squid expedition.

DIANE
A doctorate changes a man. Rebecca, there’ll be others. In the meantime you have your work.

REBECCA
You’d think so. I used to find enormous comfort translating Russian poetry. But no more. Even when I went back over my favorite, Karashnikov’s “Another Christmas of Agony”, it failed to soothe me. (RECITING) “Mischa the dog lies dead in the bog. The children cry over the carcass. The mist chokes my heart, covers the mourners. At least this year we eat.”

DIANE
Well...If that didn’t pick you up, I’m at a virtual loss.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

I Love Lucy in REAL color

This is an amazing video. Someone in the audience of a 1951 taping of I LOVE LUCY took color home movies. Because of the sprockets I'm guessing he only shot when there was a lot of other noise on the set, or between takes. But anyway, here are scenes of the Copa nightclub and the Ricardo apartment, intercut with clips from the actual episode. This was the first time in my entire life that I saw the color scheme for the Richardo apartment. If you're a TV historian (or geek like me) you'll love this video.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Questions

Everything you ever wanted to know about show business (if what you ever wanted to know is in these four Friday Questions.)

Robert Pierce gets us started:

Ken, what is your opinion of pilot script competitions such as NYTVF's (New York Television Festival)Fox Comedy Script Contest? Do you think they are a valuable tool for those who are out of the industry to use to break into the business or do you believe otherwise? Seeing as how they only guarantee that the winner is given the opportunity to make a pilot, and after learning how the pilot process works from you, would you suggest a more direct route to the networks, and if so, how?

When trying to break in, the goal is to get recognized and distinguish yourself -- anyway you can other than sleeping with people.   Placing high in writing competitions is a great way to do that. Forget the prize money – just being able to write a cover letter to major agencies and saying you won a big script competition will definitely get their attention.

Also, entering contests does not have to be your only plan of attack. If you have direct contacts at shows or networks then by all means, pursue those avenues too.

Malinda Hackett asks:

I'm almost finished writing a spec script I plan on using to enter the tv writing fellowships. There's just one problem. The show I wrote a spec for used my idea in their season finale. I don't have time to write another script before the fellowship deadlines. What should I do? Will it look like I stole the idea?

You should be okay. This happens quite often. Plus, I imagine your story structue and jokes are disparate enough from the original that it won’t look like you just lifted it outright. And maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe the person reading and judging will not have seen the original.  Or he did see the original but thought your presentation was better. 

When you write a script and then learn the show is doing the same story it’s frustrating as hell but means that you’re thinking along the same lines as the producers… and that’s an encouraging sign. Good luck.

KryptonSite queries:

Mr. Levine, did you ever work on a pilot that was massively retooled?

I talked it about it recently, the first pilot we ever did, THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY got retooled, although I believe violated is a more accurate word. But that pilot was taken completely out of our hands. All the pilots that we wrote and produced stayed very close to the original draft all the way through production. Not that there weren’t casting changes and rewriting along the way, but we always have a strong sense going in of what the theme is, and if you have that compass you can generally keep your story on track.

The problems come when you start making big sweeping changes during pilot production. Now sometimes those are deemed necessary because what you have is bombing, but often these major decisions come out of desperation and although they may address one problem they usually create three others. And suddenly you’re four days into production, you’ve made the married brother now a bachelor, you’ve turned the parents into two neighbors, switched the workplace from a museum gift shop to a meat packing plant, made the show more kid friendly, and now you have no fucking clue what the show is about and what you could possibly do for episode two. I’ve helped out on a few shows like that and the end result was never pretty.

And finally, from Norm Garr:

In "light" of the firing of the head coach at Rutger's for the way he treated players and the video tape that was released, as a Director/Show Runner, have you seen such "abuse" on the set, in meetings, etc. over-the-years with actors, crew, etc.

Personally, no. But it does exist. There have been some showrunners who are verbally abusive to their staffs – yelling, belittling, ruling by fear.  Not my style.

There are some directors who yell and have tantrums. Not my style either.   I won’t allow it on my sets and once fired a director for screaming at his crew.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve worked with – from stars to gofers – are consummate professionals who take great pride in their work.

Seems to me there is a lot more screaming at underlings and making unreasonable demands at talent agencies. Agents often put their assistants, trainees, and interns through hell. See the movie SWIMMING WITH SHARKS.

I know one agency trainee who dropped out and joined the Marines because the Drill Sergeants treated him nicer.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My radio idol wanted to beat the crap out of me

Readers seem to enjoy my radio war stories, otherwise entitled: One Disc Jockey’s Mediocre Career. Several of you have requested I write a book about them. Buy my current book first. But to tease you, here’s another Top 40 tale.

In the fall of 1974 I had finally made the big(ish) time. I was hired to do the evening shift on K100, Los Angeles. This was the first time I was on the radio in my hometown, and even more exciting – the station was owned by Drake/Chenault, the same consultants who created Boss Radio KHJ. And most of the disc jockeys were former KHJ Bossjocks. The great Robert W. Morgan did mornings and the Real Don Steele did afternoons. As Beaver Cleaver, I got to follow the Real Don Steele. Forget that I had to play “Billy, Don’t be a Hero” and “You’re Having My Baby” every ten minutes – how cool was that?

Robert W. Morgan was one of my idols. He was the complete package. Great voice and wickedly funny. Within three weeks of my joining K100 Morgan almost drove down to the station with the intent of sending me to the emergency room.

Here’s what happened:

After my first week the station began a contest called “The Secret Stash.” Ten items (like stereos, trips, motorcycles – things kids wanted back then besides drugs) were in “The Secret Stash” and the first listener who could identify all ten would win them all. We took a contestant every hour and also provided hourly worthless clues. We would tell the contestants when they correctly named an item and eventually listeners were closing in on all ten. The contest took about a week.

When someone finally got the last one, the jock on the air was required to make a huge deal of it. The recording of that exchange was then used as a station promo for several days.

Usually you like your best jock to be the one on that promo. In this case, it was Robert W. Morgan. So once nine of the ten items were identified and we knew we were close, a giveaway clue was to be given on Morgan’s show. The next contestant would easily then win.

So that was the plan. But the night before, on my show, the contestant got it right. I made the requisite big hoop-dee-doo, my voice was on the promo for the next week, and Morgan was steamed. I heard about this but what could I do? It wasn’t my fault the skeesix won.

The station liked the contest so much they ran it again. Secret Stash #2 was rolled out. Same deal. Listeners narrowed down the items. We were primed to give it away the next morning on Robert W.’s show when, wouldn’t you know, a listener on my show got it right. So I’m screaming on the air how thrilled I am for this person while inside I’m going, “You stupid asshole! Do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve caused, you dick?”

Sure enough, Morgan had had one or two adult beverages, called the Real Don Steele and said, “I’m going down to the station to beat the shit out of that kid!?"  

Now he had warned me beforehand that if I gave away Secret Stash #2 instead of him he would hurt me, but I just assumed that was an idle threat. But now I was thinking -- was it? I knew Morgan had a temper. What if he did come down to the station? I hadn’t been in a physical altercation since the 7th Grade. I didn’t want to fight him. He was my idol. On the other hand, if your idol is kicking the crap out of you that takes away some of the adoration. Would I swing back? Three weeks ago I was truly honored just being in the same room as him. Now I’m trying to get him in a headlock?

Fortunately, Steele talked him out of driving to the station. He simmered down but wouldn’t talk to me for a month. Eventually we became very good friends. In his last year before succumbing to lung cancer I once joked with him. I said, “We never resolved this Secret Stash business. You want a piece of me? Come on. Let’s do it. Right now.” He looked up at me, in his somewhat frail state and said, “I could still take you.” He was probably right.

God, I miss him.  I don't miss "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" though.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

R.I.P. Allan Arbus

Sorry to hear of the passing of Allan Arbus who played Dr. Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist on MASH. I was surprised to learn he was 95. Weren’t you? He appeared just a few years ago at the TV LAND awards and looked great. I never would have guessed he was in his 90’s then.

I worked with Allan on two projects. MASH certainly, but did you know he was also in the movie David Isaacs and I wrote – VOLUNTEERS? He plays an Italian bookie who was intimidating enough that the Tom Hanks character fled to the Peace Corps in Thailand to avoid welching on his gambling debt.

Off camera, Allan was very much like the on-screen Army shrink he portrayed on MASH. In fact, Alan Alda originally thought he was a shrink. He was warm and understated. You just liked him. Everyone did.

The Dr. Freedman character was a great addition to the dynamic of MASH. Here was the lone voice of sanity and calm in the midst of all this craziness. You’ll notice that everybody on MASH speaks in a very rapid cadence. One-liners come flying at you from every direction. But Dr. Freedman spoke slowly. He settled everybody down. He kept things in perspective. And we could do the zaniest things but the episodes were always grounded if Dr. Freedman was in them.

David and I wrote the good doctor on several occasions. My favorite episode was called “The Billfold Syndrome.” A patient came into the 4077th with amnesia and Dr. Freedman, with help from Hawkeye and B.J., hypnotize him and recreate the battle that caused the trauma. Even though this story came from a real life incident and David and I did extensive research to make sure the procedure was accurate, this could have become a real hokey show. But Allan’s credibility and commitment made the episode work perfectly.

Allan Arbus lived a fascinating life. He was married to the famous photographer, Diane Arbus. Books and even a movie, FUR, have been devoted to her story. (How bizarre that a different actor would play Allan. It was MODERN FAMILY'S Ty Burrell, by the way.) But Allan was also a highly renowned photographer and then re-invented himself as an actor. The beauty of his acting was that it never looked like was acting. Everything was natural, effortless, and real. Even when he played an Italian gunsel.

I am honored to have known and worked with him. I wonder how many troubled people who were skittish of psychiatrists sought the help they needed because of the role model set by Allan Arbus. I suspect many. And thanks to reruns, Allan will probably continue to help others long after his death. You can’t ask for more than 95 years and that, can you?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

My problem with MAD MEN this season


WARNING: This is one of those Ken’s an old crank who has to rant posts.

When I’m creating a show my first rule is that I’ve got to love my characters. They may be flawed – they should be flawed – but ultimately I love them and care about them. And hopefully, I can convey that to the audience and they’ll love them too.

Again, the characters don’t have to be particularly loveable. Sweet and earnest and always-doing-the-right-thing is also boring. The best characters are complex. They may have internal battles between good and evil. They may be scoundrels but deliciously so. Or they can’t get out of their own way. Or life’s dealt them a bad hand. Or Hitler was their nanny growing up. I dunno – there are endless possibilities.

And often times the more layers the better.

But lately I’ve observed a disturbing trend. (Now the rant begins) Series creators are making their characters so hateful that I stop caring.

GIRLS is a good example. Season one those girls were quirky and self-centered but sort of fun. And they liked each other. By season two I wanted to slap all of them. And they wanted to slap each other. The end result is ratings for year two have plummeted.

And this season I’m starting to feel that way about MAD MEN. As readers of this blog know I am a huge MAD MEN fan. The first few years were phenomenal television. I loved it so much I almost took up smoking.

But then things started to shift. Betty, who season one was my favorite character, became such a hideous bitch I now expect her to wear a coat made of Dalmatians. Still, almost everybody else had some redeeming qualities (although I’m still looking for Pete’s). Peggy was adorable, Roger provided comic relief, Joan advanced in a man’s world using both her brains and bra, and then there was Don Draper.

He was a man of mystery, trying to overcome a dark past, flailing, always feeling out of sync, endlessly searching for who he is and what will make him happy. And it helps that a great actor (Jon Hamm) plays him.  He could be infuriating but he was always fascinating. 

So for years we felt for Don, even looked the other way when he did dishonorable things like cheat on his wife with every woman other than Bella Abzug. The hope was always that he’d figure it out, finally be comfortable in his own skin, and that all of his good qualities would rise to the surface and he’d become a better father, husband, employer, and stop wearing hats already in 1968. And if he slipped up a little, well – he’s only human and we’ve come to expect that. Betty is trying to throw Hansel & Gretel in an oven, she’s a lost cause. But there was still hope for Don.

Until this season. Now he has a loving wife, a wildly successful career, and he has become television’s biggest prick. It’s not enough he’s cheating on Megan, but he’s doing it with another woman in his building and he’s all buddy-buddy with her husband. They socialize together. He invites the guy to the office. What a fucking asshole! Meanwhile, he tries to destroy his wife’s dreams simply because they inconvenience him. He never talks to his children, even on Christmas. And he’s a cold distant boss to all his employees while still demanding total loyalty from them.

Why should I care anymore about this miserable soul?  Because he gets to his front door, slumps down to the ground, and feels sad?  At one time there were glimmers of humanity, moments when he would exhibit surprising kindness. But not anymore. Not this season.  Even Jon Stewart noted it on THE DAILY SHOW last night.

And the other characters are not much better. Dear plucky Peggy has turned into a cold-hearted bitch. She’s becoming Don. And along the way she’s betraying trusted friends to advance her own career.  She's gone from saddle shoes to jack boots.

Joan has slept with an oaf who looks like Shrek to become a partner. Roger has no relationship with his daughter and is basically drinking himself into oblivion. Pete never learns. He only has affairs with women who are nuts. This must be his test to see if he’s attracted to them: He asks a woman to cook him dinner. If he comes home and a rabbit is boiling he jumps her bones.

As brilliant as MAD MEN creator Matthew Weiner is (and Matt’s a friend who I acknowledge is a better writer than I’ll ever be), I worry that he’s stopped loving his characters. And I fear his loyal audience is starting to feel disillusioned. I’m not saying make Peggy the way she was, or have Don play catch with whatever actor is playing his son Bobby these days – everyone can evolve, everyone can change (or not change if that’s your prerogative), but we want to care. This year that's becoming a real chore.  Please renew your vows.  Love your characters again so we can.  Or let Megan shoot Don.   Something to get us back!  

Monday, April 22, 2013

My review of 42

You’re pitching a movie to a Hollywood studio executive.

YOU: You have this hero. Lots of people hate him. One guy in particular mercilessly razzes him…

EXEC: A bully! So it’s a bully movie? 

YOU: Yes! The ultimate bully movie.

EXEC: And eventually the hero has had enough and beats the living shit out of the bully! I love it!  Feel-good summer fare.

YOU: No, no. The big twist is that he doesn’t beat the bully up.

EXEC: Huh?  What? 

YOU: His triumph you see is that he controls himself, takes the high road, doesn’t let himself be brought down to the bully’s level.

EXEC: He doesn’t fight? Ever?

YOU: Nope.

EXEC: Well, then why the hell would anyone watch?

YOU: Because you admire his determination. You applaud his classiness. And you know the stand he takes will open the door for others.

EXEC: That’s not satisfying.

YOU: It is if I do it right.

EXEC: Well, maybe if you got a major star to play the hero.

YOU: No no, it should be a relative unknown.

EXEC:  What?!  Are you out of your fucking mind?  At least tell me the setting is something hot and new that the kids can relate to.

YOU: It’s a period piece about baseball.

EXEC: Baseball won’t sell one ticket overseas! Jesus, every time Ken Levine does a post on baseball in his blog his readers scatter. No one gives a shit about baseball? Especially baseball before the modern era -- 2005.   Does the team at least win the World Series?

YOU: No. They lose.

EXEC: Holy shit!  You're killing me here!  Are there any surprises? Anywhere?

YOU: No. Not really.

EXEC: Sorry, but no.  I'm passing before you can say Jackie Robinson.  

And yet, that’s exactly what does happen in 42, the story of the first African-American in baseball, Jackie Robinson. There’s no big payoff. The hero doesn’t blow up the villain's plantation. He doesn’t kill Hitler.

But what you’re left with is an elegant retelling of a story everybody knows. Jackie Robinson broke into baseball by conducting himself like a mensch. He faced bigotry among fans and fellow players and through sheer determination and talent rose above it all.

Writer/director Brian Helgeland mixes meticulous CGI recreations of old ballparks like Ebbets Field and Forbes Field with lovely performances – notably by Chadwick Boseman (who plays Jackie Robinson way better than Robinson did himself in the lame 1950 JACKIE ROBINSON STORY -- Jackie could steal bases, not scenes). Harrison Ford, who plays Branch Rickey as a blend of Wilford Brimley, Lewis Black, and Foghorn Leghorn, and John C. McGinley who did a fine impersonation of announcer Red Barber.

42 was quite stirring in spots and it did prove that with the right subject and creative team you could make a successful studio film that doesn’t adhere strictly to hokum Hollywood formulas.

I had only one problem with 42. And just to be safe: SPOILER ALERT. There was tremendous attention to detail, which I greatly appreciated. But then they commit a glaring technical error. I understand creative license and all but come on. The last big game of the season. The Dodgers are in Pittsburgh and need a win to clinch the pennant. Jackie Robinson hits a towering home run and as Red Barber describes it, it’s the game winner and the Dodgers are going on to the World Series. That’s a great movie moment… except – they’re in Pittsburgh. The home team gets another at bat. The Dodgers hadn’t won anything yet. But the CGI looked great!

42 is well worth seeing. It made me proud to be a lifelong Dodger fan. Proud to be a UCLA Bruin. And proud to be a citizen of Southern California where anyone could drink from the same water fountain in 1945.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

News anchor signs on by saying F**K and S**T

What a way to launch your news career. Yikes.

A true Hollywood movie star

Regular readers of this blog know that when I can't find an appropriate photo to go along with a post I just upload a Natalie Wood photo.  Some of you have been kind enough to send me photos you don't normally see.  I haven't had much cause to use them lately so they've begun to pile up.  And I figured, hey, the photos are more interesting than the articles.  So today I want to give thanks to those contributors and without any distracting text from me, give center stage to Ms. Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The most elegant speech in support of Boston

From today's pre-game ceremony at Fenway Park, delivered elegantly by David Ortiz, "Big Papi." I couldn't have said it any better myself.
UPDATE: It was blocked but now a new version exists. Enjoy it while you can.

Stars I claimed to have discovered... even though I really didn't

Anyone who has been producing TV series for any length of time will have similar stories. They can look back at actors they worked with or hired that later became big names. Here are some of mine.

Kat Dennings -- Star of 2 BROKE GIRLS was in a pilot of ours called SNOBS. We never had her say "vagina", which is why it never got picked up.

Aaron Paul -- Emmy winner for BREAKING BAD was in that same pilot. Okay, these first two I am claiming credit for. It's not like I'm getting any royalties off that damn project. 

Shelley Long – played a nurse once in MASH when I was there. I don’t remember much except she looked very cute in army fatigues.

Rita Wilson – same thing. Also cute in army fatigues. Worked with her again when she starred in VOLUNTEERS. Amazingly, she remembered me. I looked awful in army fatigues.

Katey Sagal – From one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes to a series regular on the MARY SHOW. We knew from day one that she’d become a star. And that’s without even hearing her sing.  Or seeing her riding a motorcycle.

Leah Remini – She played one of Carla’s many daughters on CHEERS. One of my favorite episodes (written by me and David) was “Loathe & Marriage” from the final season where Leah’s character gets married. I also directed her in FIRED UP. She was funny before she was even old enough to drive.

Tim Busfield – He’ll probably cringe but one of his first acting jobs was playing a patient on AfterMASH. Yes, it was, Tim, don't deny it.

James Cromwell – Okay, he wasn’t an unknown when I worked with him but he wasn’t on anyone’s A-List either. He was pretty much a character actor who bounced around. I knew him as Jamie then. We used him on an episode of MASH as a real goofball. Couldn’t quite tell from that role that he’d go on to be nominated for an Oscar. By the way, did you know he was in both BABE and THE BABE?

David Letterman – did a cameo on an OPEN ALL NIGHT we were involved with.


Maggie Lawson – You love her on PSYCH. I’ve loved her since writing and directing IT’S ALL RELATIVE.

David Ogden Stiers – Before he became Charles Winchester on MASH he was talk-show host Robert W. Cleaver on a TONY RANDALL SHOW David and I wrote. That was the episode that got huge laughs during rehearsal but silence during the filming. Later we learned that the bussed in audience spoke no English.

Annette O’Toole – had a small role on a TONY RANDALL SHOW. Tony didn’t like her at first. By show night he was pleading with us to bring her back. The English speaking audience loved her too although I must say she was beautiful in any language.

Lisa Kudrow – Did an episode of CHEERS. Very funny even in a small role. I was not surprised. She went to Taft High in Woodland Hills.

Sanaa Lathan – Directed her in LATELINE. I must’ve given her great notes on that three-page scene because she went on to become a movie queen. I went on to write a blog.

Willie Garson – Directed him in the stellar ASK HARRIET. When that show got cancelled he was free to take another assignment – SEX IN THE CITY. He’s now a regular on WHITE COLLAR.


Julie Benz – Another ASK HARRIET alum I directed.  She's in DEFIANCE, was in DEXTER, A GIFTED MAN, NO ORDINARY FAMILY, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and more. You can certainly understand the attraction considering she was also in SAW V.

Robert Pastorelli – Later to be a stalwart of MURPHY BROWN, but his greatest role was for us on the MARY show. He played sandwich guy, Mr. Yummy.

Jenna Elfmann – first cast in an ALMOST PERFECT as a whack-job secretary. She had no experience at the time and we knew it was a risk but there was something just so damn special about her. She killed in front of the audience. If ever there was someone I knew was going to make it besides Katey Sagal it was Jenna.

And before I slap myself on the back too much for being such a great judge of talent, here are a few of the people I didn’t cast who once came in to read:

Martin Short, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, Jane Lynch, Tea Leoni, Don Johnson, and Andrea Martin (although that was the network’s fault; we wanted her. They wanted Toni Tennille. Don't ask.),

Friday, April 19, 2013

Friday Questions

 
Friday Questions coming at ya. Duck!

Garrett starts:

Most shows are now going into the summer hiatus. On shows like Cheers and Frasier, did their main sets just sit on the sound stage all summer? Or were they struck so the studio could use them for other things?

Those two particular shows did not strike their sets. They stayed up all year. Coincidentally, they were both on the same stage – Stage 25 at Paramount.

On Stage 19 at Paramount, the WINGS set remained all year. But that’s where we filmed the ALMOST PERFECT pilot. In order to save money, we used Helen’s house as Nancy Travis’ house – just repainted it and substituted new furniture, and we wheeled out the plane and put the office set and restaurant set in the space normally reserved for the hanger. That’s how huge the hanger space was – you could fit two other sets inside of it.

orenmendez checks in:

Recently I've noticed some shows switching back and forth from the number of acts per episodes. Parks and Rec used to always be 3 acts, but in the past few weeks it moved to a 4 act structure, with the 4th being just one or two scenes, then the tag. 2 Broke girls is usually 3, but sometimes it only 2 acts.

How is this decision made, and how should I pick the structure if writing a spec?

It’s usually the network that decides the format based on how they feel they can maximize their commercial load while still keeping the audience from tuning out. Rarely is it, “I think you could tell your stories better if you followed this format.”

I just helped out on a pilot. It was a multi-cam, had a cold opening, three acts, and a tag.

Give me two acts and a tag or teaser any day. And while I'm at it, let's go back to vinyl.

As for your spec, follow any format the show uses on at least a semi-consistent basis. I always advise writers to try to obtain a copy of a script from the show you’re specing. Sometimes the cold opening is as long or longer than an act. It helps to know whether they call the first scene a cold opening, a teaser, or act one. Little stuff like that.

Did you know that in CHEERS scripts we never wrote INT. CHEERS – DAY? It was always INT. BAR – DAY. The more accurate you are, the better.

From Leemats:

Re: "Anger Management," can you talk a bit about how the 10/90 structure works? I heard they have to deliver 90 episodes over two years. At 45 episodes per year, wouldn't the quality suffer? (Granted, I saw the first two episodes and don't really consider this a quality show.)

With this volume, do they get to have a writing staff that's twice as big as most sitcoms?

I don’t know what their schedule is but I do know they’re cranking out episodes at a furious pace. And yes, the quality suffers. The writing staff is not way larger. The writers they have work incredibly hard and I imagine incredibly fast. I suspect there’s not nearly as much rewriting.

I wonder what the mindset is, I really do. On a network show, 24 episodes was a killer. But we broke our backs to make sure each episode worked. We threw out whole scripts after table readings sometimes and stayed up all-night fixing jokes. If an ANGER MANAGEMENT episode isn’t coming together do they make drastic changes or do they say, “Well, out of 100 there are going to be a few duds” and just let it go? I ask this not as a put-down but a serious question. I can’t imagine the pressure that writing staff must be under.

And finally, from Mark:

I was wondering when it comes to multiple-part episodes and double-length episodes, under what basis would an actor be paid?

Per episode. If a series is normally an hour like MAD MEN and they do a two-hour premiere he gets paid twice.

Where it gets a little dicey is when a show will do a “super size” episode, just adding five or ten minutes. I suspect the actors don’t get paid more but you never know. I’m sure their agents ask for more.
Several times my writing partner David and I turned in a script that the staff thought could be expanded into a two-parter by adding a scene or two. We then got paid for a second script. It was a beautiful thing.

One final note on two-parters, and I’ve said this before. Usually, when a half-hour show expands the story is right in the middle – too much for one half hour and not enough for a full hour. There’s usually padding. They should be a part-and-a-half not two-parters.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks much and have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What shows influenced me?

Here’s one of those questions that deserves an entire post.

It’s from longtime reader Mary Stella:

I'd like to know what shows influenced you the most in television and how, and what's your dream three-hour night of television, including any shows from any decade, including now.

The first show that influenced me was CRUSADER RABBIT. I was probably four. But what I loved was that in addition to being funny (at least to a discerning four-year-old), the stories were inventive and episodic. Other cartoons made me laugh, but this one also hooked me into the narrative. I couldn’t wait for the next episode to see what happened and usually the plotting was ingenious (at least to a sophisticated four-year-old).  So CRUSADER RABBIT ignited my love of storytelling.

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN was also an early influence, but thank goodness I outgrew wearing those capes.

I always loved sitcoms. I was about nine when I first saw the “$99,000 Answer” episode of THE HONEYMOONERS. I didn’t see the payoff coming (I was less sophisticated at nine), and (SPOILER ALERT) when Ralph couldn’t identify the song Norton played as a ramp-up to every other song during their practice sessions I laughed for twenty minutes. It’s the biggest laugh I ever had in my life. And it was the first time I ever wondered, “How did they do that?” From then on I started watching sitcoms differently, paying more attention to the construction and appreciating the writing more. I can still watch those original 39 episodes on a continuous loop.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was a revelation. It was the first (at least to me) sophisticated comedy. The level of humor was smart and grown up. Everything else was broad and situation based. Plus, Dick was a comedy writer. Not only did it seem like the world’s coolest job – you go to an office, write funny stuff and laugh all day with other funny people – but super hot girls like Laura Petrie were actually attracted to you. Yes, this was a fantasy more far fetched than BEWITCHED but fourteen-year-old bespectacled wise-ass nerds could dream.

In college I became enamored with Woody Allen and thought if I was ever going to become a writer I would concentrate on screenplays. Then I saw THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and knew television was for me. Still, to me, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is the perfect sitcom.

The early ‘70s was a golden age of sitcoms. Shows like MASH and ALL IN THE FAMILY were both inspiring and intimidating. MASH, in particular. I’ve always loved language and the early Larry Gelbart years were extraordinary. It was so unique.  Every other show had set-ups and punch lines, this one just had a steady stream of witty remarks, turns-of-phrase, imagery, and absurdity. No one could do that like Gelbart. Trust me, I tried for four years.

Once I entered the field myself then it was more specific writers than shows that mentored and influenced me. Writers like Gelbart, James Brooks, Allan Burns, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Gene Reynolds, Glen & Les Charles, Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Steve Gordon, and David Lloyd.

Okay, that answers the first part of your question. Now for my dream three-hour night of television. I’m going to cheat. I’m just going to concentrate on comedies. Dramas take up two slots. So here are my all-time favorite sitcoms. The odd thing is that with these nostalgia stations like MeTV, a day may easily come when this is the line-up.

8:00 THE HONEYMOONERS
8:30 THE BILKO SHOW
9:00 THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW
9:30 THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
10:00 MASH
10:30 CHEERS

So now I throw the question back to you? What would be your dream three-hour night of TV, dear readers?

In case you missed it...

Thanks to everyone who participated in last night's teleseminar on writing partners featuring me and my writing partner, David Isaacs.   Great questions.  It was a lot of fun.

Many of you asked if there was a way to get a recording of it?   Yes, if you are already on our alert list.  You'll be emailed the details of how to obtain it.

If you are not on the alert list then I'm afraid it's not available.  BUT... you can download another SitcomRoom seminar I did last year.  Just go here.   And of course, it's free. 

Thanks again!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Writing partner etiquette

Tonight at 9 PM Eastern/ 6 PM Pacific I’ll be holding another FREE teleseminar. The topic is writing partners and my partner, David Isaacs will be joining me. We’ll answer all your questions. If you’re interested in participating and not already on the alert list here’s where you go to sign up.   You must sign up by noon PDT.  Did I mention it's FREE?

This is the type of subject matter we’re going to discuss:

What happens when a partner pitches a joke that he thinks is great but the other partner thinks it sucks?

This happens all the time. If it doesn’t there’s something wrong.

The key is this – you have to really respect your partner’s opinion. One main reason writers team up is because they want that feedback. Especially for sitcoms. It can be tough writing comedy in a vacuum. You’ll feel a lot more secure if someone you trust also thinks a joke or bit is funny. But if you think your partner is a great guy, and can introduce you to some hot girls but thinks Pauley Shore is the funniest comedian in the last hundred years – find someone else.

Next, make this commitment to each other: both members have to agree to whatever you ultimately turn in. And make this a cardinal rule.

Now… you pitch the single best joke ever written and your partner makes that “meh” face.

Cardinal rule number two: You can argue but never make it personal. Many times David and I are arguing over the story we're breaking. A half-hour goes by; we’re no closer to a resolution than we were when we started, but we put it down and go to lunch. And if you were at the next table you’d never know that fifteen minutes ago we were ready to kill each other.

It’s hard, I will grant you that. You get very passionately swept up in an argument and it’s so easy to slip and say, “this is why women hate you” but resist temptation.

So when David and I find ourselves in situations where one pitches a joke that leaves the other cold, we have this rule: If the joke pitcher can’t convince the pitchee in like two minutes why it should go in then just throw out the joke entirely and come up with something else. Trust me, it’s easier and takes less time to come up with an alternate joke than to fight for forty-five minutes and ultimately one partner is unhappy, resentful, etc. (which breaks cardinal rule number one). Again, this relies on trust. You may not agree with your partner but you do acknowledge that he knows what’s he’s doing and perhaps he’s right in this instance.

Here’s another dilemma. One partner pitches a joke, the other thinks it’s funny but you’re both on the fence. Is the joke maybe out of character? Is it a callback but maybe one callback too many? Are you sure the actor can pull it off? Is it a little jarring? Too topical perhaps? Might it be crossing a line of good taste? There’s no clear cut answer here. It depends on the joke itself, the show’s sensibility, and what time of night it is. Do you just want to go home?

Most of the time if a line or bit requires that much discussion we’ll opt to discard it. However, there are also times we’ll just say, “Fuck it! This is fucking funny. Let’s put it in.”

And when it doesn't work you can always blame your partner. NOTE: That's a joke. Cardinal rule number three: Never throw your partner under the bus. And if that doesn't seem obvious then you shouldn't be in a partnership to begin with.

More war stories and tips tonight. Hope you can join us.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How can anything be funny today?

Imagine being a comedy writer, being in the writers’ room along with the rest of the staff, rewriting a script that will be filmed tomorrow, and you get word of the Boston explosions.

Try being funny after that.

That’s what numerous rooms all over town faced yesterday in the wake of that senseless cowardice attack.

If it was not imperative that the script had to be finished that afternoon, I suspect most staffs adjourned for the day.

And if the script was to be filmed today, the showrunner explored pushing it a day. How much would that cost and would the studio okay it?

In some cases, as incredible as it may seem, the writers had no choice but to go right back to work.

And they had to produce. They had to be funny.

Even the writers who were able to take part of yesterday off are back at it today. How funny do you feel 24 hours after the tragedy?

This is the hardest part of this job. There are times when the last thing in the world you want to do is come up with jokes. And all of a sudden, the script you’re writing seems incredibly trivial. Still, you’re expected to not only deliver on demand but at the highest level. No one is going to give you a break in late May when the episode airs because the restaurant scene was written during Boston.

Television comedy writers are sometimes maligned for having easy jobs. We just hang out, crack jokes, and get well-paid. We also have to be funny when we’re sick and funny when we’re heartsick. I don't point this out to seem valiant.  It sucks!

Trust me, we feel like shit having to produce comedy on a day like yesterday or even today. We feel like ghouls. We all see the sick irony in what we’re being asked to do. But we do it the best we can.

And then we  all go to therapy.

My deepest condolences and sincerest prayers to the victims of yesterday’s unconscionable catastrophe.

Monday, April 15, 2013

What's currently happening in the world of pilots

We’re in the middle of pilot season. For those not intimately involved, here’s what’s currently happening:

Network executives are running all over town to get from runthroughs to table readings to filmings. And Coldwater Canyon is closed. As they’re stuck on Laurel Canyon desperately trying to make a runthrough for a pilot they pretty much know is dead they’re muttering to themselves. “Why can’t they spread out these pilots?”

Table readings used to consist of the cast sitting around a conference table with writers, execs, etc. sitting in one row behind them. Now there are so many executives that the cast is generally at one long table like a dais and there are rows of chairs – theater seating.

So to get a jump there are now often pre-table readings.

Actors are being fired after table readings and runthroughs. Networks, studios, producers, and directors try to reassure their nervous casts but actors aren’t dumb.  The pressure can be enormous, especially if a pilot isn't going well. 

Actors are being fired because their parts are being eliminated. Almost every pilot goes into production way too long. The sister, the fourth roommate, the zany mechanic – they’re usually the first to go.

Or, those side characters score and suddenly became the second lead.

Creator/producers will ask their writer friends to come in and help out on rewrites during production. Half of these consultants will show up, sit in the room, and not say a word.

Every cast will have one actor who is a handful. Hopefully, it’s only one, it’s not the star, and whoever it is is worth it.

Some sitcom pilots get massively rewriteen. Here’s what I don’t understand:  the script was good enough to get a pick up, and the actors hired were the ones who got the biggest laugh with that material. Why is it now all shit?

Several pilots will implode. Most of those never should have been greenlit in the first place.

Jim Burrows will direct most multi-camera pilots.

If you have a project in the running at CBS, yes, Chuck Lorre’s new pilot will fill one of the slots. Not because he has three shows on the schedule already, but because this pilot is very funny and well cast.

Buzz in everywhere and totally unreliable. A good table read will result in the media saying it’s a lock for pick up.

All decision are made in New York.

Movie directors now direct drama pilots because it’s a big payday. They work a month and collect a fat royalty for the life of the series and never even watch the show after that. 

Pilots that networks love they can suddenly hate… and then love again… and then hate.  This can go on for weeks.

When you read that a list of shows is “also in contention” it usually means they’re dead.

No one wants to turn in their pilot first. The network sees it, likes it, but by the time they have to decide they’ve seen it seven times and are bored with it. All producers try to get their pilots in one minute under the deadline.

Networks always claim they’re high on the pilots starring big stars. Especially when the pilot is in production, that’s to placate the stars.

Just because a network has given a project a firm order even before the pilot is produced doesn’t man it will be one of their best new shows. It often means the opposite.

Forget the buzz, ultimately it’s testing that will determine the winners.

If you have a pilot, best of luck. You can catch up on sleep during the flight to New York.

"Why can't they spread out these pilots?" 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My celebrated "hippie" period

Here's another excerpt from my book THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60).  I'm going to keep doing these until I sell enough books to get in the Amazon top 10... or at least 10,000.   Here's where you go to get your ebook copyAnd here's where you go to get the handsome paperback.  Read the reviews.  Many are from people I don't even know. 

By 1967 I had been as far south as San Diego, far north as Santa Barbara, far east as Las Vegas, and far west as the end of the Santa Monica pier. But that was about to change. My dad announced that we were going up to San Francisco.

Oh. My. Fucking. God.

I had wanted to go to San Francisco more than anyplace else in the world. I was intrigued by all the buzz about the music scene there, Haight-Ashbury, the Summer of Love, and okay, I’ll be honest – I just wanted to see a Giants game at Candlestick Park.

As always, we drove. I still had not been inside an airplane. Our family trips tended to be on the frugal side. We stayed at a Travelodge motel on Lombard St. in the Marina district. We should have slept in the Impala. It had more room.

But I didn’t care. I was just thrilled to finally be there. We saw the sights, traveled the bridges, dined at Kans in Chinatown, hopped cable cars, slurped crab cocktails at Fisherman’s Wharf, and gawked at the basketball-sized bazooms on Carol Doda whose image was proudly and largely displayed at the topless Condor club in North Beach where she jiggled them three times nightly.

Side note: Carol had risen to prominence in 1964 when many delegates from the Republican National Convention went to see her act.

I also got my first glimpse of the Haight-Ashbury district. This was hippie Mecca, the epicenter of the counter-culture revolution. Love was free and the drugs were reasonable. With Scott MacKenzie’s “San Francisco” as their anthem, young people from all over the country migrated to the Haight. Harvard Professor Dr. Timothy Leary, the noted advocate of psychedelic drug research (LSD) coined the catchphrase: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. (That same year Leary would marry his third wife. Hard to tell whether the bride was really beautiful that day; all the guests were on acid.) This was a Utopian society, an oasis where you were free of the shackles of expectation and civilization. A haven for spiritual awakenings, creative inspiration, and yes, even consciousness expanding.

Haight-Ashbury looked exactly as you’ve seen it in documentaries and movies of the 60s. Loads of hippies in colorful garb (some with face paint) milling about, rolling joints, playing guitars and tambourines. Murals on the sides of buildings, head stores and ma & pa markets. And vivid kaleidoscopic color everywhere – from Tie Dyed clothes to rainbow store signs to a blue building with a yellow door. Imagine Jimi Hendrix as the art director of SESAME STREET. But it was festive and fun.

And as we drove through this idyllic world I thought to myself, “Ugggh! How the hell can anyone live here? It’s so dirty and crowded. What happens if you get sick? What kind of privacy would you get in one of these cramped apartments? How clean are the bathrooms? What’s the TV reception like?”

I had zero desire to turn, tune, drop, or whatever else was necessary to move to Haight-Ashbury and join this freaky scene.

It's one thing to be a hippie. It's another to give up creature comforts.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Jonathan Winters 1925-2013

Jonathan Winters was quite simply a comic genius. I was privileged to watch him in action a few times and was absolutely in awe. No one was faster, more inventive, or funnier than Jonathan Winters.

And it was all off-the cuff.  Amazing.

He passed away yesterday at 87. What a brutal week this has been.

I was first introduced to Jonathan Winters as a kid. He would appear as a guest on Jack Paar's Friday night variety program and those were always the wildest shows. Jonathan never had a “monologue” or set routine. Paar would hand him an object like a stick and he would morph from a fisherma to a violinist to a lion tamer, canoeist, mental patient – you name it.

All the wacky stuff that Robin Williams does – Jonathan Winters originated it.

He later appeared in MAD MAD MAD WORLD, lots of other movies, MORK & MINDY, and few people remember he won an Emmy for playing Randy Quaid’s dad in a 1991 forgotten sitcom called DAVIS RULES.

But as popular as he was, he could have been more popular. He battled demons – depression, drinking – he even spent some time institutionalized. But it’s the old Oscar Levant line: “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity and I have erased that line.”

Jonathan and I had a mutual friend in Gary Owens. I would sometimes see him when I saw Gary. Gary wrote his autobiography and had a book signing at a (now defunct) bookstore in the San Fernando Valley one evening. A number of us got up to speak. When it was Jonathan’s turn he just began riffing on what Gary did in the war. It was spectacularly funny. Even line a gem. And the thoughts just flowed effortlessly out of his brain. It would take me six months to write that monologue and it wouldn’t be half as good.

Like I said, I was in awe. He pulled ideas and references from so far out in left field he was behind the bleachers.

Offstage he was a very quiet, almost shy man. But he was also just a second away from a great quip. At another function I was talking to him and Gary when another comedy writer sauntered over. The writer starting going into schtick, obviously trying to impress Jonathan. Jonathan just listened quietly for a few minutes then put his hand on the writer’s hand to gently stop him and said, “That’s why Dean left Jerry, y’know?” But that was Jonathan – offbeat, original, and in the kindest way could absolutely level you.

Robin Williams is just one of many who have been influenced by Jonathan Winters. I suppose there’s a little Winters in my comedy DNA.

I’m only sorry that a lot of his best work was the improvised material he did on late night talk shows because that was long ago and far away. For young people Jonathan Winters might just be a name. But for those of us who got to see him in action, he was Sinatra, Picasso, and Groucho all rolled into one, which is only fitting since he played so many characters.

R.I.P. Jonathan Winters. The world is a less happy place.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Friday Zweifel

Do people look forward to Friday because of my questions or the weekend? I’ll foolishly assume the former.

Anja leads us off:

Please can you share your insight in how far translations usually get guidance from the original writers, if any? In Germany, every single non-German series or movie gets broadcast dubbed or, on rare occasion, subtitled. Over the years many translations (The Simpsons an often cited example) have been mocked by fans for notoriously bad translations, missing or misreading lots of jokes. Are translations generally supervised, or would this even be negotiated when something is sold to tv-stations abroad?

(Notice how this ties in with my CHEERS theme in German post from last weekend???)

The U.S. writers are never consulted. We have no idea what’s happening to our dialogue. When David Isaacs and I rewrote JEWEL OF THE NILE we needed the screenplay cleared by the Moroccan government so someone translated our draft into French. My wife, who speaks a little French, said everything was just translated literally. So of course most lines made no sense. The government cleared it.

I found this on line recently. Scenes from an episode of our series ALMOST PERFECT dubbed into German. You tell me if it makes sense… or is funny.


Fred Beiderbecke asks:

Watching COMMUNITY on Netflix the shows seemed to be slightly different in lengths, usually about 21 minutes and seconds. How do you do the timing for the time allowed? Do they ever sell more commercials and tell you to cut time, or vice versa?

The network gives you a format down to the second for how long your show can be. Usually, when an episode is first assembled it’s too long. We have to edit it down to time, which is fine because there are always jokes that don’t work, moments you could lose, things that could use tightening up, etc.

Rarely will a major broadcast network let you go over. I seem to recall they did let us once on FRASIER. Cable networks are not as strict.  They can go long on occasion.  What those cable networks need to do though is alert folks so our DVR's don't cut off and we miss the last seven minutes of a show -- like what happened last week with THE AMERICANS on FX.   Hint hint. 

Broadcast networks have no problem however if you come in short by either thirty seconds or a minute. They won’t add a commercial. They’re usually at the maximum amount allowed anyway. But they will happily add promos.

The format you are given remains the same from week to week unless you change time slots. Then it could change, but only by thirty seconds or so. Again, this is more a broadcast network policy. Cable might be looser.

From chuckcd:

ZERO HOUR was cancelled after just three episodes by ABC. How many episodes did the network order? (Or what is the usual number). What happens to the unaired episodes?

I don’t know the specifics on that show but now that networks own the studios they can order as many or as few as they want.

Back when networks couldn’t own shows they had to negotiate with studios for their product. Network license fees rarely were enough to produce high quality shows so the studios would be on the hook for the overage. As such, studios pressed for at least 13 episodes to give themselves a chance at recouping their investment.

Networks eventually got tougher and offered six on occasion. Depending on the deal the studios accepted. And then networks were allowed to own product and all bets were off. Now networks can order five or four. And once they place an order they can cut it back. When UP ALL NIGHT was yanked for re-tooling and the decision was made to convert to a multi-camera camera format, the initial order was for four. That got reduced to one. And now that’s even gone.

For hit shows they can add additional episodes… usually at the very last minute when the staff is working on fumes.

And now of course there’s the 10/90 model that you see on selected series like ANGER MANAGEMENT. FX had to order ten at the outset and if they wanted to renew, it had to be for ninety (which they did, by the way).

What happens to unaired shows? Most of the time the network just eats them.  Or stream them.   A few decades ago networks would air their unsold pilots in the summer, just to try to recoup some of the costs. They weren’t good but they were original material and back in those re-run days, original programming in the summer was a rarity. This was pre-reality. Networks couldn’t fill their schedules with marginal celebrity-diving shows.

What’s your question?  Dank.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Free teleseminar!

I will be conducting another free teleseminar (i.e. great big telephone conference call) next Wednesday, April 17th at 9 PM Eastern/ 6 PM Pacific.  The subject is "writing partners" and I will be joined by my writing partner, David Isaacs.   We'll be answering all the questions about partnerships that you have sent in.  

Here's how it will work:  Just sign up for my SITCOMROOM alert list and we'll email you the details.   Again, it's absolutely free.   No salesmen will call.  No one wins any trips.  You can unsubscribe at any time.  We only use the list to alert you of free stuff like teleseminars and videos, and any new Sitcom Room seminar news before I announce them publicly.   (In fact, those on the list have known about this teleseminar for two days.  Perhaps you've seen people walking around with big smiles and wondered why.) 

So mark your calendar, or text yourself, or whatever.  If you're looking for a partner, looking to dump a partner, deciding whether you need a partner, wonder how the process works, or you just want to sit back and hear some fun stories and possibly useful advice, join us next Wednesday night. 

Again, here's where you go to sign up.   Thanks.   

 Now back to your regularly scheduled blog.

B100 reasons to love radio

Happy to say I was a disc jockey back when radio was fun. In the ‘70s there were two formats that appealed to young listeners. Laid-back album oriented FM stations where all the DJ’s were stoned or at least aspired to be. And Top 40 where the presentation was high energy. Speed instead of downers. I gravitated towards Top 40. There was more freedom to be zany, you could talk every three minutes instead of every fifteen minutes (after long far out album sets), and you could play jingles and sound effects and wild tracks of people telling you to shut up. Top 40 was a better fit for my personality. I was not cool. I was not mellow. I thought “Nights in White Satin” sucked.

The only downside to Top 40 radio was that you played the same damn ten songs over and over again. That’s what eventually drove me out of it (that and being fired a lot). But playing “Kung Fu Fighting” four times a night every night almost turned me into Mary Todd Lincoln.

In 1975 KFMB-FM San Diego became B100. Programmed by a radio genius, Bobby Rich, it was a wild fun station with the slogan “Better Boogie” (whatever that meant). By then I had retired from radio full-time and was in Los Angeles launching my TV writing career. But I still did weekends on B100. Thank goodness the station had a trade deal with PSA airlines and the Travelator Hotel (where all the stewardesses stayed and slept with everyone but me). I was using the air name Beaver Cleaver and having the time of my radio life. Imagine Seth MacFarlane but not as tasteful.

Almost from day one the station was a huge hit. San Diego kids were very discerning when it came to “Boogie” and appreciated that ours was better.

For the one-year anniversary of the station, program director Bobby Rich put together a weekend special – 100 hours on non-stop music. No commercials. And better than that, he invited top disc jockeys from Southern California to come down and make guest appearances. Rich Brother Robbin, Dave Conley, and Chuck Browning (former well-known San Diego personalities) and Billy Pearl (formerly of KHJ and once my roommate) joined the airstaff for 100 hours.

To mix it up everyone worked one-hour shifts. And in a couple of cases we doubled up. I did an hour teamed with Rich Brother Robbin and another with Billy Pearl.

Pretty much anything went. Inside radio jokes flew. At the time there was a syndicated program rock stations were airing called the Fantasy Concert, where a Woodstock-like concert was imagined. (They played "Kung Fu Fighting" but put crowd noise underneath it.)  So I did the Concert from Rock n’ Roll Heaven. In an Ed Sullivan voice I introduced all dead acts. There were Mama Cass ham sandwich jokes, Jimi Hendrix jokes – like I said, good taste was not a high priority.

And for most of the weekend everyone hung out at the station. It was one continuous party. Hopefully the listeners got swept up in our enthusiasm and rowdiness because we were probably terrible. It’s like seeing home videos of the party you thought was so awesome. In the light of day taking off your clothes and peeing in the cat box was not the great idea you thought it was at the time.

But the point is radio was fun. It was live, it was audacious, and sadly, I don’t think will ever be like that again.

Today marks the anniversary of that anniversary so I thought I’d play a compilation of the weekend produced by B100. Thanks to Airchexx.com for the exhibit.   Get ready for Audio Red Bull, mixed with speed, and then a Mountain Dew chaser. I apologize to the cat.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

If my life were like MAD MEN

I watch MAD MEN and enjoy it. Then I read Alan Sepinwall’s recap and realize, “Holy shit! I missed half of what was going on!"  There was all this symbolism and existential meaning and I was concentrating on whether we’d see Megan naked.  Matthew Weiner writes on numerous levels and I marvel at Alan’s ability to analyze each one.  But it got me wondering – what if my life were like MAD MEN?

I went down to the beach for what I thought was lunch. But really I was trying to recapture my youth. It harkens back to the day in 1989 when, during a WINGS rewrite, I turned to Steve Levitan and said “I used to go to the beach all the time as a kid.” Not coincidentally, that particular WINGS episode had a moment where Joe ordered a sandwich from Helen.

For lunch at the beach – I had a sandwich.

The only question is – did Helen represent my mother? Or Manuel who makes sandwiches at the Apple Pan? Or Helen Dukoraniweiz, a girl I once sat next to on a bus? Sometimes there are no clear answers in my life.

The following day I was in the Hamburger Hamlet in Van Nuys, unbeknownst to me celebrating or mourning the passage of time as I did at the beach, thus perpetuating that theme, when I bumped into an old friend from my radio days.  She said, “Hi Beaver” reminding me that I had two identities. To the world today I’m known as Ken Levine, but back then as a disc jockey, I answered to the name Beaver Cleaver. A chill went up my spine as a deep dark secret suddenly resurfaced. There had been a Beaver Cleaver. I had taken his name. And all the time I used it I lived in mortal fear that I would be discovered… and sued. I was living a lie, and not even making good money.

For a long time I kept this from my wife. And then one night she broke into my desk. And there they were. KYA surveys with my picture. Airchecks of me on WDRQ playing more of Detroit’s rock and soul. I explained it was a past life. Beaver Cleaver was dead. Well, not the real Beaver Cleaver but the persona Beaver Cleaver. She accepted that but asked why I picked such an utterly stupid name? I don’t know. Sometimes there are no clear answers in my life.

My radio friend’s name was Helen. Wait, could that be the Helen who made Joe his sandwich? She said I was sort of her mentor. At first she was very timid. It was hard for a woman to break into primarily a man’s business. But as time went on she became more confident, and eventually she took on the style and characteristics of me. She would have changed her name to Beaver except for… well, you know.

I had dinner that night at the Apple Pan with my daughter, Annie. Her real name is Diana. New theme: we all have dual identities. But does that theme clash with the other theme that we all long for the past (if in fact that was the other theme – I know it had something to do with reflection)?

I remember the day Annie came to work with me. It was last Friday when we both helped punch up a pilot. I thought back to how she has changed over the years – how she’s developed from a little girl into a lovely young woman, and how I’m still pitching the same jokes. In fact, the joke I pitched for that WINGS scene that was rejected made it into the pilot.

Later that night I was sitting at a bar at the Courtyard by Marriott in Century City (no significance, I just get points toward a free room) feeling sorry for myself. Did that joke mean all of our past experiences are valuable and will at some time be called upon? Or does it mean that I’m just a hack? Sometimes there are no clear answers in my life. Jesus, I’ve even started repeating sentences.

A mysterious woman sat down next to me. She ordered a martini and the chicken wings appetizer. WINGS? She noticed I was depressed even though I said nothing. But my crying might have been a tip off.  She said, “Are you sad because you’re lonely?” No. “Sad because you’re getting older?” No, but thanks for bringing that up. “Sad because you’re in need of sex?” No, unless that’s an offer. “Sad because there’s ultimately no meaning? No. “Then what is it?”

I took a drink, thought back to the beach and the pilot and my daughter and all the other clues and suddenly it became crystal clear.  I didn't need to join some crackpot artist colony in Palm Springs or have seven affairs.   The existential answer made itself visible to me.  Here's what I realized:

This is the type of article that would be perfect for the New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” feature but they never even respond to my submissions.

At that point the PA began to play "Hooked on a Feeling" by David Hasselhoff . I have no idea why.  And then the lights went out but the song kept playing.  This is tough to take every week.