Sunday, August 31, 2014

the history of rock n' roll in 27 minutes

This is truly awesome.  It's like THE BIG BANG THEORY opening titles but with music.  WLS was the powerhouse AM rock outlet in Chicago  (and most of the country thanks to it's enormous signal).  At one time in the '80s my father was the General Manager so I have a particular fondness for the station.   AM music radio was struggling but Dad fought hard to keep it going.   It was a losing battle.  Shortly after he left the station flipped to news-talk.

A WLS tradition during the thirty years they played popular music was to end the year with a montage of hits from that year.  And as each year passed the montage was expanded to include the new additions.  Originally the montage was like a minute.  By the end it had grown to almost a half hour.

What you're going to hear are quick snippets of just about every hit song, masterfully edited together.  Considering how the styles, tempos, and genres changed it's remarkable how cohesive this montage is.  Credit to Scott Childers who assembled this and to the many production people of WLS who contributed over the years.

Radio stations were known for doing special holiday weekend programming.  So in the spirit of that, I invite you to just sit back and relive the soundtrack of your life.  (You'll notice I didn't turn this into a cheap plug for my book on the '60s available here and the perfect companion while listening to this presentation?)

Happy Labor Day Weekend.  Enjoy!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Happy Birthday, Annie

It's hard to write a birthday post for a comedy writer.   I'd say something sentimental but she's on staff of a sitcom.  I'd be setting her up for endless serenading of "Sunrise/Sunset."    I mean, it was fine to embarrass her when she was a teenager.  I used to do that all the time.  But that was on purpose. 

This time I just want her to know that I'm proud of her, love her, and she makes me laugh everyday.  And if they do sing "Sunrise/Sunset" make them dance too. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the six-day Labor Day weekend, here are some Friday Questions:

Longtime reader and Sitcom Room vet Wendy M. Grossman leads off:

Amazon is moving into commissioning its own streamed series, and has posted the pilots for public voting. What do you make of that as a way to eliminate some of the expense of failures?

I like the idea but only as one indicator, not the sole determining factor. Only a small very vocal portion of the audience will respond. They don’t necessarily reflect the general populace.

But at least your pilot gets a shot. Now that networks no longer air failed pilots, you can work for a year on a project, it gets screened by ten executives and then thrown into a drawer never to be heard from again. It’s nice to know going in that actual people will get the chance to see your hard work.


The pilot turns out to be a total piece of shit. In that case, the last thing you want is to have it unleashed to the unsuspecting public. But hopefully that won’t be the case… too often.

ashes1998 asks:

Ken, you often speak of single camera and multi camera sitcom shoots.

Beyond the (fairly) obvious technical differences, how is the approach to writing different?

Multi-camera shows are shot in front of a studio audience (like a play). As a result, the writers are held accountable. Your jokes have to be good enough to make two hundred strangers laugh.

In single-camera shows, the showrunner has to only please himself. It’s easy to settle because nothing is ever put to a test. And since writing something really funny is hard it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that quirky behavior, catch phrases, and quick cutting is good enough.

Please note that I’m not saying single-camera shows can’t be genuinely funny. They can. But unfortunately, they rarely are.

And multi-camera shows are not bulletproof. Just because you have to make a studio audience laugh doesn’t mean you have the chops to pull it off. It’s easy to resort to cheap sex jokes and stale rhythms. Cue the laugh machine.

Bottom line: get the best writers. Shows should be single or multi depending on their premise. But success will have more to do with “who” rather than “what.”

From JB:

How do you feel about cable channels that squeeze or speed up final credits so much they're not readable? Since your name is in there occasionally it has to sting a little, right?

I find it deplorable. I wish the unions had more clout and could halt this thoroughly insulting practice.

Think of all these network executives in their large offices. What if the parent company said “Here’s your value to us – effectively immediately all of you will work out of one stall in a public restroom.” To me, it’s the same thing.

Jim S wonders:

How do you deal with disagreement? In the past, you've written that if you and your partner disagreed about a joke, the joke was gone. No argument. First, let me say that's really grown up.

But what about a casting director who honestly believes that actor x is right for a part? What about a director who has a vision for how a scene has to be staged? A suit who not only fancies herself creative, but in the past has shown judgment that you respect?

Here’s the reality: the person with the most power wins. Directors are kings on a movie set, but they are hired hands in television where showrunners rules the roost. Writers are usually subservient to everyone. (That’s why they become showrunners or film directors.)

Dealing with suits can be extremely frustrating because now they have more power. I would just say you have to pick your battles. And it seems to me at the end of the day you have three options. You can somehow bring yourself to tolerate the interference, you can reach a level of success where you’re allowed to ignore the notes (you have the most power), or you can leave because the system is not going to change.

And finally, from Tolouse:

In the MASH episode The Light That Failed, they never agree on who the murderer from A Rooster Crowed at Midnight is. Do you know??

Yes. O.J.

What’s your Friday Question? And drive carefully.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight -- my review

I don’t pay to see Woody Allen movies. There have been too many misfires. Most movie reviews help you decide whether it’s worth it to pay to see a particular film. In this case, it’s a review to help you decide whether to see the latest Woody Allen movie if you can see it for free.

So why do I even go in the first place? Because every so often he’ll do a MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. It’s why I prefer the National League to the American League. Every so often pitchers get a hit.

Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.

Allen’s latest – MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT – is his 44th feature. That’s quite an impressive canon. If only 30 weren’t duds.

First, the good news: it’s not a disaster. It’s not HOLLYWOOD ENDING. It’s not WHATEVER WORKS. It’s just… meh.

There are some good scenes, and interesting points about science vs. magic and whether God does exist (you know – Woody Allen comedy staples). The script is better crafted than usual – meaning he probably wrote it in three weeks instead of two. But as is usually the case, the story is very small and the film is stretched beyond recognition. The cinematography is lovely, which is important because nothing visual happens. The movie is an endless string of scenes of people talking to each other. Not fighting, not seducing – just… talking. Highbrow banter. DOWNTON ABBEY-light.

Okay, to be fair, in some scenes they’re also driving.

So after about a half hour you’re squirming and checking your watch.

I read a number of reviews – practically all pans – and interestingly none of them zeroed in on what I believe to be the real flaw of the movie.

It’s another Woody Allen love story between a middle-aged man and a young girl. It’s FUCKING CREEPY. I’m a middle-aged man and I think it’s creepy. Colin Firth is 53, Emma Stone is 25. That’s a 28 year difference. Yikes. Clearly, this is Woody Allen’s masturbatory fantasy that he keeps trying to justify movie after movie. In MANHATTAN he was dating a high school girl. At least he is no longer asking us to believe Julia Roberts, Tea Leoni, Mira Sorvino, and Elizabeth Shue forgo men their own age to swoon over Woody Allen.

So he can construct elegant little soufflés and hire our finest actors to wax poetic on the magic and illogic of true love, but as long as the leading man can join AARP and the leading lady still needs a fake ID to get a drink, the movie is FUCKING CREEPY.

So to conclude: if you’re under 50, especially a woman -- even for free it’s so not worth it. If you’re over 50, women will likely be bored or not like being reminded that men lust after young girls. So I would say – pass on the freebie. If you’re a 50+ man you’ll either find it icky and not worth your time, or you’ll want to see it tonight even it means the tickets aren’t free. Even if you have to pay full price and parking . Yes, that can be expensive, but I’m guessing you’ll only need one ticket. And if it is two the second one will be a student rate.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My 14 minutes and 12 seconds of fame

It’s always bizarre to be recognized. Celebrities get used to it and expect it (or demand it). But I’m not a celebrity. Even in my radio days, I was able to move about incognito.

I did a few improv shows but always as part of a group. And I was the warm-up man on CHEERS so a few thousand people in total saw me do that. I’ve been able to lead a pretty stealth life.

The first time I was recognized was a few weeks after I began broadcasting for the Mariners in 1992. I was primarily on the radio but we had a few TV games and I would be on-camera during the openings. So that was what, 90 seconds of face time? I went to the Bellvue Mall to pick up some things one morning. I was wearing a ratty t-shirt, shorts, and needed a shave – in other words, my usual attire. Three people stopped me and said they enjoyed me on the Mariner games. I was gobsmacked.

After that I had to actual look presentable when I went outside in Seattle. Fortunately, when we went on the road I was once again anonymous and could dress like a bum in Milwaukee.

However, in Seattle I would get stopped all the time. At restaurants, my wife was always astounded when anybody wanted my autograph.

Same in San Diego when I did the Padres radio and TV. Of course the minute I stopped doing TV I was immediately forgotten. We all get our fifteen minutes, right?

Over the last few years I’ve been occasionally stopped by fans of this blog. I’m always amazed (and DELIGHTED by the way). It’s not like my photo is on the masthead. What’s been particularly nice is that on several of these occasions my daughter, Annie was with me. So it gives her the false illusion that her father is somebody.

But of all the times I’ve been recognized, the strangest was in Des Moines, Iowa. It was 1988, I was broadcasting for the Syracuse Chiefs minor league baseball team. We were in Des Moines to play the mighty Iowa Cubs. I wandered into the Cubs’ clubhouse. The players were all at their lockers (probably calling their agents). I didn’t know anybody. I was seeking out their manager. And then, from one of the players I hear, “Hey, it’s the CHEERS warm-up guy!”

Holy shit!

Cubs’ pitcher, Jeff Hirsch had grown up in LA, went to UCLA, and was a regular in the audience the first season of CHEERS. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.  (Ironically, we since have become lifelong friends.) 

I must admit it’s kind of fun to be recognized. But then the paparazzi is not hanging out in trees across the street, no one who isn't hungry is going through my garbage, and embarrassing selfies are not circulating around the internet. And I bet George Wendt is just a tad weary of people shouting “Norm!” at him wherever he goes.

So if you should ever see me, please stop and say hello. I apologize in advance for how I’m dressed.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My (sort of) 2014 Emmy Review

FULL DISCLOSURE: I didn’t watch a minute of the Emmys. I was teaching a class at USC. But that insignificant little technicality is not going to stop me.

Here is my snarky review of the 2014 Primetime Emmy telecast.

Let’s see how close my predictions came to what actually happened.

Since the Academy clearly has abandoned any delineation in categories – shows enter not based on their genre but on which category they think they can win in – the results were somewhat blurred.

Congratulations to THE WALKING DEAD for winning Best Comedy. Kudos to SUPER FUN NIGHT for winning Best Drama. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK walked away with Best Animated Series, and the 2013 EMMYCAST won Best Mini-series.

Stephen Colbert won the Best Guest Star Emmy for his appearance on THE COLBERT REPORT.

Tatiana Maslany was not even nominated for Best Actress in a Drama despite playing nine characters, each one brilliantly, so as far as I’m concerned no one won this year.

There was a long touching tribute to Robin Williams that made it seem his death was far more significant than all of the other industry people who passed away this year.

Seth Meyers had a few good jokes but made you long for the days when real television stars used to host the Emmys. Jimmy Fallon is now even too big.

Between the four major networks, they combined for a grand total of two Emmy wins.

DATING NAKED contestant, Jessie Nizewitz’s vagina won Best Guest Appearance in a Comedy.

Since NBC carried the Emmys this year the options were move the telecast to Monday to avoid a conflict with their Sunday night NFL game, or air on Sunday as usual but only in a little box in the right corner of the screen. They chose wrong.

But seriously, how important are the Emmys when they get bumped for an exhibition football game? Not even a regular season game. And not even teams that America gives a crap about -- A practice game between Arizona and Cincinnati, with a million players no one’s ever heard of. Of course, there were plenty of Emmy nominees and even shows that no one’s ever heard of either. Not to mention mystery presenters. There were at least two of them familiar only to TV editors of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.

Red Carpet host Sam Rubin mistook Mindy Kaling for Aziz Ansari.

Taylor Schilling was nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy. They didn’t show any of her funny clips because, well… there aren’t any.

If there was one absolute lock it was Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And along those lines, as a rule, if you won before you won again.

Next year the Emmys should be on Netflix and they can announce all the winners at once.

The comedy bits were forced and too long. (That’s my other lock.)

Aaron Paul, who Fox didn’t want us to hire for our pilot, won again. How many Fox stars won anything last night?

Matthew McConaughey is now a Tony away from the hat trick. Or Bryan Cranston is just an Oscar away from the hat trick.

Everyone fawned all over Matthew McConaughey because they were just so excited to have an actual MOVIE STAR in the house.   It was like TV's version of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN.   

Instead of wearing a gown, Lena Dunham had one tattooed to her body.

Shows that didn't win the big prize got consolation Emmys for acting or writing or two for lighting.

Matthew Weiner lost. But at least he has his movie coming out.

Ricky Gervais entertained the industry people in the room and completely ignored the home audience.  And he wonders why America hates him.

Next year Amazon will offer all TV Academy Members free shipping on their next purchase if they vote for one of their shows. Expect one of their shows to win.

GIRLS didn’t win shit.  Can we finally stop wasting valuable nominations on that show?

Congratulations to shows like THE GOOD WIFE, PARKS & REC, ORPHAN BLACK, SUITS, SONS OF ANARCHY, JUSTIFIED, MASTERS OF SEX, THE MIDDLE, THE AMERICANS, and actors Andy Samberg, Katey Sagal, Liv Schreiber, Matthew Rhys, Kerri Russell, Tim Oliphant, Walton Goggins, James Spader, Jeff Daniels (who WON last year), Gabriel Macht, Rick Hoffman, Neal McDonough, and of course, Tatiana Maslany for an Emmy winning year even though you weren’t nominated so that DOWNTON ABBEY and comedy powerhouse Kate Mulgrew could be.

So how’d I do? I’m sure I nailed it on SUPER FUN NIGHT winning Best Drama. I mean, it was its final year.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Emmys are now on Monday

Unfortunately, I won’t be watching the Emmys this year. I teach a class in comedy at USC on Monday nights. I secretly think that’s why the Emmys moved from Sunday, to avoid my snarky recaps. Yes, I could DVR them, start watching when I got home at midnight then stay up all night writing but that’s the kind of stuff you do when people pay you.   So what I shall do instead is write my review BEFORE the show.  After all, you KNOW what you are going to see. 

At least I have the option of not watching the Emmys. If you’re attending them you don’t have that luxury. One year David Isaacs and I were nominated for a CHEERS we wrote. At the time blue ribbon committees were assembled for a long weekend. Each committee was assigned a category and sat together to watch all the nominees. They each then filled out their ballots, ranking the contenders.

A few days before the ceremony I got a call from a friend who happened to be on the blue ribbon committee judging our category. He wanted to give us the heads-up that we had won. Our episode clearly received the best reaction; big laughs all the way through.

So I was really looking forward to the ceremony. David and I prepared our speeches and were ready to go.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Not only did we lose, but it was the very first award of the night. Now we had to sit there for three excruciating hours and watch happy winners and clunky self-congratulatory TV salutes.

The next day at the office we got several calls from other blue ribbon committee members who we didn’t know. They all said there must’ve been some mistake. To everyone’s knowledge we had won. They suggested we investigate.

The trouble is there’s no graceful way of doing that. What, we were going to demand a recount? They’d discover that yes, indeed, a mistake had been made and send somebody to the winner’s house to take the Emmy away from him and drop it off at my door instead? Or they’d do the recount and discover the results were in fact, accurate. Then we’d REALLY look like assholes.

No, we just had to suck it up. But it was a lonnnnnnnng night.

Best of luck to everyone tonight, even if others who weren’t nominated are more deserving or you’re in categories you have no business being in.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Best News Anchor faux pas this year

So far, but it's early.

Recommended comedy reading

Starting tomorrow I will again be teaching "The Foundations of Comedy" lecture course at USC.   I'll be surveying screen comedies, silent pictures, sitcoms, sketch comedy, stand up, improvisation, radio, screenwriting and playwrighting.   Some features I'll be screening include:  WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, THE LADY EVE, ANIMAL HOUSE, MIDNIGHT RUN, DR. STRANGELOVE, and BANANAS.   These are all films I recommend you watch although you won't get credit. 

More than that, it's the old expression:  You gotta be there.

I am however, sharing my reading list.  There are way more books and articles, but these should get you started. 

Required Reading---

Neil Simon – Odd Couple (play)

Recommended Reading --

John Vorhaus – The Comic Toolbox
Dan O’Shannon – What Are You Laughing At?
Ken Levine – Blog:
Woody Allen – Without Feathers
Woody Allen – Getting Even
Tad Friend - “What’s So Funny?”
John Morreall – “Historical Theories of Laughter”
Henri Bergson – Laughter, An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
Steve Martin – Born Standing Up
Douglas McKwan -- My Lush Life
Tina Fey – Bossypants
Marc Maron – Attempting Normal
Andy Goldberg – Improv Comedy
Mike Sacks – Poking a Dead Frog

I want a ten page paper on one of these topics from all of you by Friday.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Me & Marvin Gaye

I'm still in a Marvin Gaye mood after seeing the tribute show Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl.  So thought I would share my one personal encounter with him.  This is actually an excerpt from my book, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) that you need to buy immediately.   An early version of this was posted a few years ago, but how often do I get a chance to slyly plug my book? 

1964 Woodland Hills

Must-viewing: The Lloyd Thaxton Show. Each afternoon from 5:00-6:00 Lloyd Thaxton hosted a live dance party show on the cheapest cheesiest independent station in LA – KCOP. If his budget was more than $4.95 a show I’d be shocked.

His set consisted of four panels (probably cardboard) with musical notes drawn on them. Kids from local high schools were invited to dance on a soundstage the size of an elevator. This was appointment television for every teenager in Los Angeles.

What made the show special was Lloyd Thaxton. Most shows like this were hosted by disc jockeys. They were content to just introduce the records and step aside while the kids did the Twist, Jerk, Fly, Popeye, Monkey, Frug, Mashed Potato, Locomotion, and whatever other inane dance was the rage that minute. Lloyd was the first to realize “this was TELEVISION,” you had to do something VISUAL. So he would find ways to comically present the songs. This elfin redhead would lip sync, mime playing instruments, use finger puppets, don wigs, do duets with rubber masks, cut out the lips on an album cover and substitute his own – anything to make the songs fun. In many ways, Lloyd Thaxton was a local version of Ernie Kovacs, finding innovative new ways to use the new medium. Music videos these days are all ambitious, elaborate productions. Back then we were quite content to watch a guy sing into his hand.

I always wanted to be on his show but of course didn’t qualify because I was still in Junior High. The indignities continue! I did however, get to appear on Ninth Street West.

With the success of The Lloyd Thaxton Show, every local channel had their own dance party copycat. Over the next few years there would be Shebang on Channel 5 with Casey Kasem, Shivaree on Channel 7 with KFWB DJ, Gene Weed, and Ninth Street West on Channel 9 hosted by KFWB DJ, Sam Riddle. Stations hired the DJ’s with the best and most teeth.

I sent in requests to all of them, but only Ninth Street West bit. Talk about a great date -- taking a girl to a TV show and dinner at nearby Carolina Pine’s coffee shop in Hollywood. Thanks again for driving, Mom!

I asked my friend Marcia. You always want to be seen on TV with someone hotter than you, but not so hot that it screams “pity date.” Marcia was very cute yet believable as my escort.

The show originated from the Channel 9 studios on Melrose Ave. The soundstage was nothing more than a one-car garage (for a VW maybe). About forty of us were jammed into this tiny space. It’s hard to rock out with reckless abandon when at any moment you could get an elbow in your eye.

There were several guests scheduled to lip sync their songs. It was impossible to perform live. One amplifier and ten dancers would be pinned against the wall. The guests that night were the Beau Brummels (a group out of San Francisco), and British imports, Peter & Gordon.

Kids were so crazed over the Beatles that they started buying records from any group that came out of England. It’s the same principle where girls who can’t sleep with rock stars wind up in bed with their roadies. First it was the Dave Clark 5, and then the floodgates opened. Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (who sang one of the creepiest songs EVER – “Little Children.” The story of a guy threatening little children because they caught him diddling their sister. Ugh!), Gerry & the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, the inane Freddy & the Dreamers (whose entire act was to wear suits that didn’t fit and do jumping jacks), and Peter & Gordon. The harder edged Rolling Stones, Animals, Who, and Lulu would come a bit later.

Also guesting on the show that night was a very young Marvin Gaye. During a commercial break they set up for his number. Surprisingly, he seemed incredibly nervous. His hands were practically shaking. I assured him he was great and had nothing to worry about. It must have meant a lot coming from a white kid in his bar mitzvah suit. He gave me a quick smile, the red light went on, and he did his song. Afterwards when he was off camera he thanked me. Not necessary, but a lovely gesture.

The next day in school Marcia was quite the celebrity. Everyone had seen her on Ninth Street West. Maybe two or three had seen me. I wanted to say, “Hey, screw you, people. I’m the one who saved Marvin Gaye’s career!”

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Questions

Ready for some Friday Questions?   

Robin gets us started:

Say you're pitching an idea for a show and the network passes. Is it possible for you to move on--let's pretend you were able to get a different show on TV--and after you're a bit more well-known try to get your original idea made? Or is it the case that when it's gone, it's gone?

Until someone buys your idea it’s yours. You can shop it anywhere. And even if everyone passes, if your next idea becomes FRIENDS you can take your old rejected idea out of the drawer and there will be a bidding war.

For whatever reason, my partner and I never had much luck at ABC. Routinely they would pass and another network would buy our pitch. So we always scheduled ABC first and almost used it as a practice pitch.

I don’t know how it is now at ABC but it used to be that when you pitched a comedy, they were in Burbank, and the executives would sit with their backs to the window. You would be looking at the execs and over their shoulders, out the window, was Forest Lawn Cemetery. How perfect was that?

From Marianne:

Hi Ken! In the 'Cheers' finale, we learn that Diane has led a somewhat depressing life after leaving Boston. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her! There are rumors that Diane was written this way out of spite due to Shelley Long's departure from the series. Are these rumors true?

Those rumors are absolutely false. We were thrilled that Shelley agreed to come back for the finale. She certainly didn’t have to. But having Diane return really created a sense of closure and added to the “event” status of the episode. Think about it – why would Shelley agree to return if she felt the script was out to punish her?

Here’s the God’s honest truth: the final episode of CHEERS was much better because Shelley was in it. The series as a whole was elevated greatly by Shelley’s presence. Any other actress besides Shelley Long and CHEERS likely would have been gone in thirteen weeks. We owe her an enormous debt, and it is with delight that I can dispel such rumors. Thanks, Marianne, for giving me the opportunity to do that.

Andy P. has a question in light of the recent BIG BANG THEORY actors’ holdout.

I'd read that Parsons/Galecki/Cuoco also got development deals, Ken. Could you please explain a bit more about what that means?

That means that the studio sets up production companies for the actors, gives them office space, a budget to hire development executives and funds to buy or option material.

Sometimes these turn into legitimate companies like Kelsey Grammer’s Grammnet. They actually produce successful series. But most of the time these "deals" are just vanity projects that go nowhere. The actors think it’ll be fun to be a producer developing projects. And then when they see how difficult the process is they tire quickly.

It gives you an even greater appreciation for Desi Arnaz.
Stephen Robinson has a long question for a short answer.

I've noticed that with sitcoms filmed before a live audience, the audience will "react" (laugh) to a joke that is only a surprise if you're watching at home. For example, the camera zooms in to a close-up of the character saying something inspiring or potentially upsetting and then it pulls back to reveal that everyone she was speaking to has vanished or passed out. The audience would have noticed this set-up (the characters leaving the stage or lying down on the floor) so how do they keep the audience from "reacting" until the actual visual punchline?

We pre-shoot those scenes and show them back to the audience.

Daws asks:

What's your opinion of the movie "Major League?"

I love MAJOR LEAGUE, especially Bob Uecker as Indians’ announcer, Harry Doyle. From what I understand, he improvised all his dialogue, which explains why it was so hilarious. Now that Wesley Snipes is out of prison they should have a reunion.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The amazing Marvin Gaye

Last night I had the great pleasure to go to the Hollywood Bowl and see a tribute to Marvin Gaye. And we were in one of the boxes so the stage was in the same time zone. Just how amazing was Marvin Gaye? Check this out. It's Marvin's vocal track for "Heard it Through the Grapevine" in the clear. The man could sing.

Bonus Questions

As promised, here’s an extra day of Friday Questions. Keep ‘em coming.

Marianne has been patiently waiting. She’s up first.

I was just wondering why it wasn't until the later seasons that Cheers decided to film teasers in front of the actual bar in Boston? Also, were those scenes filmed in one hit or did the actors regularly go to and from Boston?

A large factor was the budget. Once the series got into the later years and Paramount knew it would go into syndication and become a cash cow there was more money to spend.

When CHEERS hit 200 episodes we all went to Boston to celebrate. There was a big parade. It was like following around the Beatles. But since we had the whole cast it seemed very convenient to shoot those teasers. Yes, we shot them all in a couple of days. Even got then-governor Michael Dukakis to do one. We were hoping to spin him off into his own series but it never came about.

Chris asks:

Have you ever worked on a show that didn't have a writer's room? If you did, how did you find the system to be?

Personally, no. I was asked once to take over as showrunner for a sitcom where the staff was sent off to their own offices to write jokes for the rewrite and the showrunner would then select the ones he wanted. We said we couldn’t work that way and declined the offer.

There was no writing room on SEINFELD. The staff would work one-to-one with Larry David on their scripts and then he and Jerry would rewrite.  One of the writers, Fred Stoller, wrote a terrific account of his year on SEINFELD.  You can buy it here

At the end of the day, it’s whatever works. Oh wait, I shouldn’t use that expression. WHATEVER WORKS was the name of that horrible Woody Allen movie starring Larry David. Sorry for bringing it up, Larry.

From Ally:

You said that directing with Jamie Widdoes crew was like driving a Porsche. Why? Obviously technical skill is important for any crewmember, but what are some of the intangibles that make a good crew? When you are the show runner, what do you look for when hiring your dream crew?

You look for crewmembers who take pride in what they do and excel at their craft. Ideally, you want crewmembers who offer more than just what is asked. There may be a tough shot to get. The cameraman has only a few seconds to get into position. Some will say it’s too tough and others will say, “I’ll get there. Don’t worry.” Those are the guys you want.

But the key is this: you need to recognize and appreciate their contributions. Treat them with the respect they richly deserve. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many directors and producers just treat these people like cattle.

I do everything but wash their cars. I love these guys and gals.

And finally, Maria wonders:

Have you ever thought about doing one of those interviews for the Archive of American Television? You seem to have so many interesting stories and insights - it would be fabulous to see you interviewed!

I would LOVE to do one of those. No one has asked me to. And I think it’s a little tacky to call them and say, “Hey, what about me?” But if anyone on the committee is reading this, I’m available. I’m just sitting here in make up.

More Friday Questions tomorrow (it being Friday and all).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The most ridiculous cop show currently on the air

If I were to write a spoof of a typical hour procedural I could not possibly come up with anything more absurd than TAXI BROOKLYN. This show has been airing on NBC on Wednesdays this summer although originally it was a French show. NBC has found a new way to not hire US writers – just buy shows from France and Sweden. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year they shoot AMERICA’S GOT TALENT in Belgium.

In France TAXI BROOKLYN’S premier drew 5.37 million viewers. In the U.S. it attracted 5.34 million. By comparison, the population of France is 65.7 million and in the United States 318.6 mil. And yet, more people still watched in France.

Out of curiosity I checked out an episode ON DEMAND. I sat with my jaw on the ground for an hour.

Here’s the premise: A hot-looking Brooklyn detective with a Peter Pan bob and the requisite TV grit loses her driving privileges somehow and enlists the help of an illegal alien cab driver to chauffer her around while she solves crimes. She wouldn’t just be paired with another cop who would drive? No, a better option, and one apparently sanctioned by the NYPD, is to have their officers protect the city in taxis. What police detective needs a ride to a homicide? Of course the driver becomes her de facto partner. Peter Pan and Latka fight crime.

How do you pitch that with a straight face?

Beyond that, this show has every possible procedural cliché. Seriously. They don’t miss a one. She comes from a family of cops. Her father was mysteriously murdered and she’s trying to crack the case. Her superiors are hiding something from her. Her ex is an FBI agent who may or may not be in bed with the bad guys. She dresses real butch but off duty is “all girl.” She is highly respected by the other stereotype detectives in the squad room. Of course none of them respect her enough to give her a lift once in awhile.

If there’s ever a taxi strike Brooklyn would be overrun by mobsters.

Cat (that’s her name – Cat) was also in some accident it seems. But in some scenes she’s on crutches and others she walks just fine but with a cane.

Again I ask, is that the best New York’s Finest can do? A cripple in a cab? Oh, and there’s no disability coverage for cops?

The episode I saw was one cliché after another. The mother of a foster home is murdered. Oh, those poor kids. Who would murder such a saint? SPOILER ALERT: did you say one of the kids? Did you say the least likely one? You of course would be right.

One of the kids is a smart-ass. He escapes the police station. How? A window in the bathroom of course. The captain yells at Cat to find him, as if this was all her fault. So they go searching, which allows for the obligatory “character banter” between Cat and cabbie. I forgot what it was about (while watching it). They find the kid (big surprise) on a road in New Jersey. The kid pleads for Cat to let him visit his dear sweet aunt. Cat says to him, “Don’t move” and she goes off with Latka to consider his request. This after five hours of searching for him. Does the kid stay still? What do you think? Oh no. He steals the cab. She’s not only hobbled, she’s also addled.


The kid eventually confesses that the foster mother was really Cruella DeVille to the utter shock of Cat (although viewers figured that out before the opening credits). Why couldn’t the kid confess this originally? It would have saved a lot of wear and tear on the cab.

I don’t know the fate of TAXI BROOKLYN. It’s NBC so if it does better than SEAN SAVES THE WORLD it might get renewed. But if it’s cancelled I’m getting on a plane and flying to Norway so I could pitch NBC my can’t-miss police drama – A hot no nonsense cop teams with a Gray Line sightseeing tour bus driver,

“Hey folks, we’re going to see the Statue of Liberty but first we have to go on this high-speed chase through Canarsie.”

I wonder if Chloe Sevigny would be willing to cut her hair.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TV sex

TV sex is not like real sex. Of course you generally don’t have Standards & Practice people hovering over the bed during real sex.

But in an age where mainstream movies are more explicit, the number one best selling book is rated X, and internet porn is only a click away, television is somewhat handcuffed (but not in the fun way). There are conceits we are asked to accept. But in real life….

What woman has sex completely naked except for wearing a bra? This is my favorite. I see it a lot when there’s a prostitute. Like prostitutes are shy. Or on the “groundbreaking” SEX AND THE CITY.

Meanwhile, on cable women are topless in GAME OF THRONES during jousting scenes.

Y’know, through deft camera work it is possible for a woman to be topless but nothing is revealed. She doesn’t have to wear a bra. An Allison Williams GIRLS sex scene is a perfect example. They tastefully cut around and you saw nothing. Meanwhile, Lena Dunham is bare breasted when she’s trying on shoes.
I’ve also seen scenes in shows where the woman is topless and the man is wearing a T-shirt. I don’t understand that at all.

Moving on…

Ladies, when have you ever finished sex then wrapped the bed sheet around you when you climbed out of the bed? This happens all the time on TV. The modest actress couldn’t look more awkward and generally has to hop to the bathroom, which is also somewhat unnatural. Just once I’d like to see her trip.

To avoid the whole nudity issue, another TV convention is the man just slamming the woman against a wall and the two have sex standing up. Sometimes they don’t even bother to remove their underwear, so I’m not sure how that works. And even under optimum conditions, it’s not the most comfortable position. Fortunately, the guy always lasts thirty seconds at the most. That’s not just acceptable, it’s required for television. But those thirty seconds seem to be enough as the woman is always completely satisfied. Not once has the woman said, “Wait. What are you doing? I just got this dress back from the cleaner. You’re going to get it all wrinkled. You know there’s a bedroom fifteen feet from here.” Or: “Really? That’s it?”

And if there’s a condom involved, TV guys can take them out of the packet and apply them in one second. Other than Rob Lowe, I don’t believe it.

Back in bed, the women are always wearing full make up, and it’s never messed up… both before and AFTER sex. One can only conclude that she’s freshening up DURING.

TV couples are always doing it under the covers. And why not? It’s hot, no room to maneuver, and there’s no oxygen. And it must be really hard to apply lipstick and eye liner under those conditions.

Of course, shattering all those taboos is GIRLS. And for all my making fun of broadcast television for its bogus depiction of sex, I found myself really missing bras and bed sheets.

Monday, August 18, 2014

State of the Blog report

Every so often the home plate umpire has to step out and warn both benches to play nice.

The comments section has become a little unruly. Generally, I don’t respond to specific comments. A) It’s your forum, and B) if I did I’d be chained to my computer all day. When could I watch MASTERS OF SEX? So better to just respond here.

I’ve been getting more and more angry trolls. Yes, they point out all the myriad reasons why I suck, but my takeaway is “Wow. I must be gaining in popularity to get this much attention.” So thank you.

It’s amazingly flattering. I have actual haters.

The trouble is their diatribes go against the tone I’m trying to set. I want this to be a fun blog, and occasionally by dumb luck – informative. Obviously, controversy sparks more discussion and generally higher traffic, but that’s not my concern. An old war story about CHEERS is not going to get the same volume of readers as Ann Coulter blaming Obama for photosynthesis.

So to steer the comments section back into a non-military zone I’ve begun deleting more Anonymous comments. But again, thanks for the attention. And now you can hate me more. So everyone wins.

One rule I’ve always had was you must leave a name. If you file an Anonymous comment and I don’t like it you’re subject to deletion. Some say they don’t know how to post otherwise. You can still sign the bottom of your piece.

Okay.  Moving on. 

Since new people always ask: If I can’t find an appropriate photo for that day’s post I feature a picture of Natalie Wood. It’s my favorite tradition.

Some readers are angry that I sometimes repost articles on the weekend. I try to repost things from three or more years back. Here’s why: I get a lot of new readers who never saw these gems originally, very few people go rummaging through the archives, traffic tends to be lighter on the weekend, and you try writing new original content every day for almost nine years. My one fear of this blog is that eventually I’ll just get tired of doing it and stop.  It's not like I'm making any money.   Reposting gives me a little breather while still providing fresh material for probably 70% of my audience. It always amuses me that readers get so angry and indignant over this. I’m so sorry you’re not getting your money’s worth from this free blog.

I know a lot of folks are annoyed by the word verification process. This is a Blogger issue. I have no say in this. I wish it easier.  If I eliminate it I'll be deluged in spam. 

From time to time there are typos and grammatical mistakes.   Think of it as part of my charm.

Friday Questions: I do try to answer as many as I can. Over the next few weeks I may add some extra days to catch up a little. But please keep ‘em coming. Some I don’t answer because I’ve answered them before. I’m thinking of compiling them all for a book, but my other books have to sell more first (“hint hint”).

Unfortunately, there will be no Sitcom Room seminar this year. I’m busy with my play, a TV pilot, teaching at USC, directing an episode of INSTANT MOM, and oh yeah – this blog. Hopefully next year I will pick it up again.

Otherwise, thanks so much for your continued support. I’ve met a lot of great people through this blog, and often the comments are more insightful or funnier than the posts themselves.  I’m always curious as to how people found this blog, where they’re from, and what topics they like the most. So feel free to weigh in.  Especially first-timers.  Just sign your name.  Thanks again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ken Levine -- a.k.a. Beaver Cleaver

Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver on the classic 50s sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, passed away several years ago.  She was 94.  Not the star that Lauren Bacall was, but as a kid I marveled at how she cooked and cleaned and always wore a party dress and pearls.  My mom never did.   But for years it was an honor to be mistaken for Barbara's TV son.

I guess that requires an explanation, huh?

Okay, that means a look back at my checkered radio career...

After being fired from KMEN San Bernardino in late ‘73 I sat out of work for six months. Apparently no one wanted a wise-ass disc jockey with a light voice. I couldn’t even land a gig doing all-nights in Fresno. Ironically, when I did get an offer it was to do evenings at WDRQ, Detroit. So I wasn’t good enough for market #100 but I was fine for market #4.

More on my actual adventures in Detroit in future posts but today I want to concentrate on my name. No rock station would let me use my actual name (Levine sounded too… uh, “Red Sea Pedestrian”). And in general disc jockeys had very generic names. Johnny Mitchell. Steve Clark. Bob Shannon. Take any two simple first names and slam them together.

Needless to say, to audiences these disc jockeys were interchangeable. In some cases stations changed personnel but just kept the name. So Bill Bailey could be the afternoon man but over the course of three years that could be four different guys.

In Bakersfield and San Bernardino I was Ken Stevens. When I got the job in Detroit I decided to make a change. I took the moniker Beaver Cleaver.


I wanted something distinctive. I wanted something memorable. The first time the listener heard, “Hi, this is Beaver Cleaver” I wanted him to say "What the fuck?!"   Any major program director will tell you -- if you can get the audience to say "What the fuck?!" you've won. 

It was a name everybody knew from the TV show. I figured a lot of people would wonder if I was Jerry Mathers (who played the Beav). This might even prompt some discussion in various Detroit high schools. How often did you discuss disc jockeys in your high school?

I also liked that the name was easy to say. As opposed to Illya Kuryakin, my second choice (although it would have been fun to hear jingle singers trying to sing Illya Kuryakin).

I’d like to take credit for being the first disc jockey to do something like this, but the truth is I wasn’t. Art Ferguson debuted on KHJ in 1967 as Charlie Tuna. At the time Charlie the Tuna was the cartoon mascot of the Starkist Tuna ad campaign. Whether it was Art’s idea or a program director I thought it was genius.

One other side benefit to “Beaver Cleaver” was that I could use it for double entendres. Remember this was for a teenage audience. I came on the first night and said, “This is the grand opening of the Beaver.” Yes, it was juvenile but my goal was to make noise. I'm sure I got some more "What the fucks?!" with that one. 

Anyway, it worked. People did take notice and remember. A few years ago I was having lunch with Tom Hanks. He was saying he grew up in the Bay Area and I mentioned I was a disc jockey in San Francisco at that time. “Who were you?” he asked. When I told him his eyes lit up and immediately he said, “Beaver Cleaver! KYA! Boss of the Bay!” I don’t think he would have remembered the name I used in Bakersfield.  (I bet you can't either and you just read it fifteen seconds ago.)  

So I used that handle at WDRQ and future stops as a DJ. Later that year I was hired by K100 in Los Angeles. (A year before I couldn’t get arrested in Fresno.) The station was owned by Bill Drake & Gene Chenault, the architects of the KHJ Boss Radio format that was the rage of the 60s. I was brought in to do evenings, following the Real Don Steele. It was a dream job except I hated the program director. When I say he was clueless, here’s how clueless:

The day I was slated to debut the station had all of the other jocks hyping my arrival. The PD stopped in the booth and midday guy, Eric Chase jokingly asked if I was going to have Wally and Lumpy join me my first night. The PD said, “What are you talking about?” Eric said, “Wally and Lumpy – the Beav's brother and his dufus friend.” The PD was completely confused. Eric said, “Y’know, from the TV show. From LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.” The PD’s eyes widened in horror. “There’s a TV show?!”

How the fuck could this moron not have heard of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER?

So he calls me into his office panicked. There were already promos on the air. What if we got sued? I tried to calm him down. “If we get sued,” I said, “it’s the best thing that could ever happen to us.” Now he was really perplexed. I reasoned that in the highly unlikely event we were sued this would become a big story. The local TV stations would probably cover it. K100 would get more free publicity than it could ever imagine. I would stop using Beaver Cleaver and the station could invite listeners to come up with my new name. Fortunately, owner Bill Drake thought that was brilliant and I was allowed to keep calling myself Mrs. Cleaver’s Beaver.

For the record, I was never sued. And continued to use the name until 1980. By the way, Frank Bank, who played “Lumpy”, is now Jerry Mathers’s investment adviser.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Next year we hope to be Number One!

Whoever is #1 -- West Virginia or whover -- we're coming for you!

One of the true idiots I've ever worked with

Early in my directing career I did a couple of episodes of ASK HARRIET for FOX. It actually was not a bad show and I worked with some wonderful actors like Willie Garson, Ed Asner, and Julie Benz. But one of the producers was maybe the worst writer I’ve ever encountered in the business. And he really stuck out because the rest of the staff was terrific.

For purposes of this piece let’s call him Shecky because he pretty much embodied the lowest of the borscht belt comics. Loud, lascivious, dyed his hair and eyebrows with shoe polish, always hustling and creeping-out the extras. He was the uncle your parents always kept you away from when you were little.

Shecky only cared about jokes. Usually old, usually off color. Supposedly when he was on staff of an earlier series whenever it was time to break a story he fell asleep.

One week we had an act break joke that was just a vile gratuitous slam on gays. I called and said the cast and I were all extremely uncomfortable with the line. He said he wanted to see it at runthrough. Okay. Fair enough.

I rehearsed the scene and told the cast not to purposely tank the line. They didn’t need to first of all, and secondly, we didn’t want to give Skecky any ammunition for keeping the line.

So the writers all came down, we did the scene, and predictably the joke bombed… except for Shecky laughing hysterically. And this was the conversation that followed, almost verbatim, between me and the Sheckster.

Me: Well, it didn’t work. We could really use something else here.

Shecky: What are you talking about? It worked great!

Me: Huh?   It did? No one laughed.

Shecky: I laughed.

Me: Yes, but not one of your other writers.

Shecky: Well, of course they didn’t laugh. They’re comedy writers.

Me: Excuse me??

Shecky: They’re comedy writers. But real people will laugh at that.   Writers are jaundiced.

Me: Wait a minute. Isn’t the fact that they’re professional comedy writers mean they’re watching the material to determine whether an audience of real people will find it funny? Their job is not to be entertained themselves. Their job is to best determine what others will like. Otherwise, what’s the point of even having a runthrough?

Shecky: To support the actors. Look, the joke stays.

I was just the freelance director. I walked away in utter disbelief. They did the joke on show night and not only did it not get a laugh, it got gasps from the audience.

Later that night Shecky said he was putting in a new line in the scene we were about to shoot. It was an office party scene and one character was trying to impress a co-worker he had eyes on. So another character suggests Xeroxing his ass. Why this would charm a woman I do not know. But there was some lame line of justification. Shecky wanted to change it. When the one character was reluctant to Xerox his ass the other was now to say, “Look, everyone knows the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt.”

Me: No, really.

Shecky: That’s the line.

Me: You’re not serious, are you? I mean, you’re not actually proposing that line, right?

Shecky: Why not? What’s wrong with it?

Me: What's wrong with it?   Really?  Uh… well, for starters -- it’s tasteless and offense and not remotely funny.

Shecky: Well, fuck you! That’s the line.

I refused to give that line to the cast. If he wanted it in he would have to do it. He cursed me out again and stormed onto the stage. Two minutes later he returned.

Shecky: (begrudgingly) Alright, we’ll do the original line.

Me: Let me guess, the actor refused to say it?

Shecky: FUCK YOU!!

By mutual consent, that was the last ASK HARRIET I directed.

But the big question is this: How do you know when something’s funny? Especially since humor is so subjective. The standard answer is “it’s funny if it’s funny to you”. I disagree. And I use Shecky as an example. If you’re attempting to become a professional comedy writer you need to gage what strangers will find funny.

This requires a knack, based on observation, experience, and your own sense of humor. Paying attention to what works. The only true determination is if the audience laughs. So how are the jokes constructed? How dependent is the material on performance? Or reactions?  What about tone?  Timing? Do you have the right target audience? What and exactly when are they laughing?  And then of course, there’s common sense. I’d be surprised if a single one of you thought, “the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt” was funny and appropriate.

Can this knack be developed? Absolutely. My first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. I went down to my first runthrough, sat on a director chair with the rest of the writers and enjoyed the runthrough immensely. Meanwhile, I’m looking over at everyone else and they’re madly scribbling. I’m thinking “What are they seeing?” But then we’d get back to the writers room and they’d start discussing the script and their concerns. The next day’s runthrough would be dramatically better. By paying attention I began to see what they saw.

So what if you don't have the luxury of being on staff? 

When you go to comedy movies make note of what works and try to figure out why. Same with plays. Sitcoms are harder unless they’re multi-camera and you’re in the audience. Because through editing, sweetening, and retakes they can make shows appear better than they played. But train yourself to study comedy. And when you feel you finally have a real handle on it then learn this cardinal rule:

No one is always right.

I hate to say it and wish it weren’t so but no matter how long you’ve been doing it, how many Oscars or Emmys or Tonys you have, you still may be wrong. That’s why we have runthroughs. That’s why Neil Simon, after all his smash hits, rewrites constantly while his plays are still in tryout. That’s why movies are previewed.

So we never know for sure. But start thinking professionally.  If you do your due diligence, if you begin to trust that you’re right most of the time you’ll have a much greater shot at breaking in. And more importantly you’ll help weed out fucking idiots like Shecky.  Please do it.  For me.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Questions

Let’s kick off the weekend with some Friday Questions:

Cathryn leads off:

How do you feel about the state of illegal downloading/streaming now? Do you think it'll inevitably get worse with younger generations doing it almost by instinct or do you see it being cracked down on harder than the war on drugs in the future?

Some people may argue facetiously that if it's 2 Broke Girls or an Adam Sandler movie, it's less of a crime than downloading Almost Perfect or Volunteers, but what do you think?

It’s a sticky issue, and here’s why: Yes, writers, directors, actors, et al. are getting cheated out of royalties when material is being downloaded illegally. It’s wrong and I applaud all attempts to stop it. Since studios are also losing money they’re understandably on the case. Will they be able to crack down on it?  I highly doubt it. 

On the other hand, what about movies and series that the studios have no intention of ever releasing again? They don’t feel there will be enough return for them to put out a series on DVD or allow a streaming service to offer it. An example of this is ALMOST PERFECT, our series from the ‘90s. I have been told that there are no plans to release it.

So either the series just disappears into the ether or someone releases it illegally. In that case, I would prefer it’s seen. I would prefer that the good work done by all involved is not forgotten. I myself am not going to market bootlegged copies. And generally the quality of bootlegged shows aren’t great. But I’ve seen ALMOST PERFECT offered online. And I’ve just looked the other way.

VOLUNTEERS, on the other hand, is out on DVD and does still show up on television. If I see someone selling bootleg copies I will blow the whistle.

I must say it still really frosts me that ALMOST PERFECT with 34 episodes, two successful syndication deals in the 90s, and bankable stars like Nancy Travis and Lisa Edelstein can’t find a home somewhere – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, WB, CBS, anywhere.
Anonymous has a question (again, please leave a name):

Ken, regarding a CHEERS reunion, you previously wrote, "Reunion shows are always sad. Much better to remember the characters for who they were… and what they weighed."

Do you ever feel that way about your former co-workers? In other words, was it depressing when you went to the CHEERS 30 years reunion and saw the cast and crew all fat and old?

No, I was more depressed by how many of them looked better than me after all these years. But seriously, no.

Most of us have all stayed in touch. We’ve all aged together. And it was lovely to reconnect with those I hadn’t seen in years.

But seeing “characters” that you’ve come to know a certain way suddenly be thirty years older is jarring. The relationships are also vastly different. Sam is not going to be a Lothario at 60. How sad would that be? How pathetic if Norm spent his entire adult life sitting on the same bar stool? And if everyone’s moved on, if they’ve all matured and changed, that’s fine, but it’s not CHEERS. Better that they stay frozen in time.

From Charles H. Bryan:

Hi, Ken. Friday Question: (although you may have answered this before) Can someone learn to be funny? I know there are aspects of craft -- how to structure a joke, etc., -- but is basic funny a "you got it/you ain't got it" quality?

I have answered this before it often comes up so it’s worth repeating. No. Unfortunately, you can’t teach someone to be funny. Your brain is either hotwired to see the absurdity in things or it isn’t. It’s a gift. If you have it you can be taught to be funnier. You can learn joke construction, dramatic structure, elements of timing. You can refine your craft. You can learn to access your gift more freely, but if you’re not funny to begin with then I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

But here’s the good news: There’s something worse than not being funny. It’s someone who’s not funny but thinks he IS funny.  That's torture.   

And finally, from Michael:

Besides Tony Gwynn, what other baseball players you covered were exceptional good guys?

Cal Ripken Jr., Kirby Puckett, Goose Gossage, Brad Ausmus, Will Ohlman, A.J. Ellis, Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Dwight Evans, Felix Hernandez, Mike Blowers, Trevor Hoffman, Don Mattingly, David Wells, Torii Hunter, Mike Fetters, Robin Yount, Chad Billingsley, Dennis Eckersly, Will Clark, Kevin Tapani, Clayton Kershaw, Ray Fosse, Larry Dierker, Omar Vizquel, Paul Molitor, Chris Bosio, Greg Maddox, Joe Torre, Bruce Bochy, Lou Pinella, Mike Krukow, Dave Valle, and I’m sure I’m leaving out fifty others. By and large, ballplayers are good guys, and I honored that I got to meet them.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The hardest working reviewer in show business

Any critic can review movies everyone has seen. But to write reviews for movies that no one has seen and still make them entertaining, that’s a challenge. With GET ON UP I guess I accept that challenge. If I could see 3D or be willing to brave the teen texters and parents who bring screaming babies to the theater I’m sure I’d catch more of the popular ones. Most of my movie-going these days is membership screenings at the WGA and DGA. They’re free, audiences really do turn their cellphones off, and it’s nice to be in a full theater and still be one of the youngest people there.

And just because the buying public doesn’t respond to a movie doesn’t mean it’s bad. There have been many undiscovered gems that came and went in virtual obscurity because they failed to have anyone in them who wore a cape. So I had high hopes for GET ON UP. It’s the story of R&B superstar James Brown (whose music I love), in an era I love, and for good measure, when he was on stage he often did wear a cape.

And theater owners had to be happy. What better in-movie-commercial was there than James Brown singing “Popcorn?”

There’s a lot to like about this film. The problem is there’s too much. It’s almost two-and-a-half hours long. You could easily take forty minutes out of this movie. And its fatal flaw – you could take any forty minutes out of this movie.  Instead of GET ON UP, the title should be WE GET IT.
First the good news. The soundtrack is terrific and Chadwick Boseman is electrifying as the Godfather of Soul. He’s got him down – from the voice to the moves. First Jackie Robinson and now this. Imagine what he could do playing a fictional character. I thought Chadwick was better as James Brown than Jamie Foxx was as Ray Charles and Jamie won an Academy Award for his performance. Will Chadwick be so lucky? I think it depends on the competition. Will there be other movies that Academy members DO see?  That could spell trouble.

More good news – Clint Eastwood didn’t direct it.

As for the bad news – this film is waaaay over-directed. It cuts back and forth in time leaving the viewer utterly confused. Director Tate Taylor takes no chances. He throws every convention he can at you. He breaks the fourth wall, does time lapse montages – I was just relieved Oprah Winfrey didn’t show up in a cameo.

The portrait of James Brown was quite idealized, and that’s with showing multiple arrests and spousal violence. There were way more arrests, much more domestic violence, drug use, and rape charges.  He had at least nine kids and at least three marriages.   To me a better movie would have shown the real contradictions between this genius performer and music industry visionary and troubled, angry, very damaged soul. We only see brief glimpses of his dark side. For every moment he’s fucked up there’s ten minutes he’s funked up.

There are numerous scenes of Brown’s horrible dysfunctional childhood in the deep South that quite frankly would have had more impact if we hadn't already seen similar scenes in five or six other movies.   That's just a timing issue. 

The rest of the cast was fine except for Dan Ackroyd. He can’t play real and he sure can’t play Jewish.

All in all, too long, great music, but if you want to get a much better, more accurate portrait of the man, instead of this (which no one is watching anyway), go see the documentary THE NIGHT JAMES BROWN SAVED BOSTON by filmmaker, David Leaf. It’s “Outta SIGHT!”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More thoughts on Robin and Lauren Bacall

I hate writing tributes. And this year it seems I’ve had to write more than ever. Some are more personal, some are bigger stars than others, but they all chip away at the soul. Some reflect the loss of an era or our childhood. Others are shocking because they’re so unexpected.

But very few have the shattering impact that Robin Williams’ death has had on the entire world. 

Every conversation I had yesterday at some point turned to Robin Williams. I’ll bet it was that way for you too. Did you find yourself discussing him with people you didn’t even know (waiters, cashiers, etc.)? I did.

I was trying to think of how many other times in my life there has been this level of overwhelming grief for a celebrity. Aside from political assassinations, in my lifetime I would have to say John Lennon, Princess Diana, and Marilyn Monroe. You remember exactly where you were when you heard the news. You walk around in a daze for days.

It’s as if our shared love for this person unites us all and for one brief moment Red States and Blue States all blend and become Purple States. Differences are set aside and we find a common ground in humanity. I tweeted yesterday alerting my followers to my tribute, and among the people who favored my tweet was -- I kid you not -- Roseanne Barr.  I have to tell you, I was very touched. 

If you went on Facebook yesterday, practically every update was about Robin Williams. I was struck by how eloquent and heartfelt they all were. Many shared personal anecdotes and photos. I must be the only person Robin knew (or even met) who didn’t get his picture taken with him. Facebook suddenly became… relevant. There was an outpouring of genuine emotion, which took the place of cat pictures and taco recipes. Thank you all for sharing. A collective “Like” to you all.

And then, almost 24 hours after the news of Robin Williams came word that Lauren Bacall had passed away at 89.  Jesus Christ!  Ordinarily, I would write a tribute. But two back-to-back is too much. I don’t want to become the Georgie Jessel of the internet (Yes, old reference. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get it. I would have used someone more contemporary if there was someone more contemporary.) Just know she was one of my favorite people and maybe the sexiest Jewish movie star ever.

May Robin and Lauren both rest in peace, and may we not get any more bad news today so I can write a humorous post for tomorrow.  Thank you. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

My thoughts on Robin Williams

I wonder what kind of tribute Robin Williams himself would want. I bet he’d want it to be funny. He’d say, “downplay the genius!  What would a funeral on Ork be like"? At this point he would riff, going off in fifteen different directions. Instead of grieving, Orkians would go door to door selling vacuum cleaners. They would recite the Lord’s Prayer in a Scottish accent. Mourners would sing the hits of Gary Lewis and the Playboys.

If Robin delivered his own eulogy he would do it as Kate Hepburn on helium posing as a rapper.

Yes, he won an Oscar but he’d remind you that CBS cancelled him while renewing THE MILLERS.

He’d launch into the auctioneer at his estate sale.

He’d say the title of this piece should be “Good Mourning, Viet Nam.”

He’d announce an upcoming wrestling match between himself and Andy Kaufman.

He’d report back that hell was having to sit through the Emmys. And then he would sing and dance a production number as Heidi Klum.

He would wow you with his fertile and facile mind and distract you from the intense feelings of sadness you felt for the loss of this truly original, truly brilliant comic genius.

He wouldn’t want you to dwell on the darkness he experienced; darkness so black and debilitating that it eventually engulfed him. He fought demons all his life – alcoholism, drug addiction, major depression, Fruit Punch Oreos (okay, he would want me to add that so there was at least one joke on the list) – but the laughter always won out.

Until yesterday.

Robin would turn this into a routine. He would mimic the ten best on-screen movie deaths, he would rattle off fifteen possible sayings for his headstone, he would say he’s making the ultimate sacrifice to boost People Magazine’s circulation.

But he’s not here. There’s no one to make us laugh in spite of our grief.

And so, with apologies to Robin, we remain in utter shock. We even cry. We mourn the loss of an irreplaceable talent, a force of nature, and I think more than that, we mourn the circumstances. No one should suffer such emotional pain and hopelessness. Especially one who has brought such joy to so many.

I knew Robin Williams. I was once in an improv class with him. I’ve written about it on this blog. There were even a couple of times I made him laugh. What I wouldn’t give if I could’ve saved just one of those laughs for yesterday.

Okay, this is where Robin would do ten minutes on walk off music.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Infuriating rejections

Getting rejected is part of the game in Hollywood. For most of the time it IS the game. No one is immune. NBC once passed on Tom Cruise to star in a pilot. I consulted on a pilot that rejected Annette Bening. ABC demanded a series be recast to replace Tim Robbins. Chuck Lorre has unsold pilots. So does Woody Allen.   Jennifer Hudson got booted off AMERICAN IDOL. You get the idea.

My writing partner, David Isaacs, and I have had our share of rejections over the years. But every so often we'll get one that really gets our attention because of the explanation. Here are a few.   If you've been in the business for more than twenty minutes you probably have six examples of your own. 

We did a pilot once for NBC. We turned it in and they said, “This is exactly what we’re looking for.” We were feeling great.  A few days later they passed. Their explanation: “This was exactly what we were looking for… last week.”

I once wrote a spec screenplay. A studio executive rejected it, but said, “The writing was so good it almost fooled me into liking this movie.” Gee, thanks.

A pilot we developed for Fox was rejected as being “too NBC.” At the time NBC was the gold standard for comedies and Fox was a mess.  So I guess that was a compliment... maybe?

Early in our career ABC came to us to develop a family pilot. We did. They rejected it. Why? Because they had also developed one with Erma Bombeck but she had a commitment. So ABC said to us, “If it’s any consolation, yours was much better.” No. Not really.

Very early in our career we had a two-pilot deal at NBC. They had to produce at least one of the two scripts. They chose to greenlight the first. The pilot process was a struggle, filled with “creative differences.” The show didn’t get on the air (losing out to PINK LADY AND JEFF), but we still had another script commitment. So we worked with them, developed a new project, turned it in, and the VP of Comedy Development called us to say, “Wow. Guys. I’m really impressed. You guys really put a lot of effort into this even though you had to know there was no way we were going to make it.” Again, thanks.  Were we pros or schmucks?

When Les Moonves pulled the plug on ALMOST PERFECT he told me “it was the best show he ever cancelled.” Yes, on one hand that’s gratifying, but on the other – seriously??? (I’m still waiting for the reverse – someone to say, “This is the worst thing I ever bought.”)

No matter how you get rejected, the key is to shake it off and move forward. I’m not saying it doesn’t sting, or was fair, but you have to rise above it. You don’t have to sell everything. Just enough. And if you do sell enough and become hot enough, then suddenly everybody will want to buy all the stuff they had rejected.   Even the stuff that wasn't "the best." 

UPDATE:  I will post tomorrow my reflections on the tragic death of Robin Williams.  I need some time to process it.  My heart goes out to his family and millions of fans.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A hilarious news anchor faux pas

You'd like to think Edward R. Murrow would not have made this mistake. Here's WCAU Philadelphia anchor Lori Wilson reporting on "shaving her muff."  Don't they teach "muff" in journalism school?

Only in LA

Winning awards is sooo important, so VITAL that studios and network launch big campaigns.  It used to be full page ads in industry trades.  But now it's literally billboards.   There are not that many Emmy voters, and I don't quite see how a billboard will sway a member to vote for your show, but okay.

Except...  that this is all money that could be put to better use -- like hiring more writers, or allowing assistants to park on the lot for free.  Between the elaborate screener presentations and now billboards -- you could probably get an Aaron Sorkin for what all of that nonsense cost. 

I imagine you don't see a "For Your Consideration" ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK billboard in Kansas City or Fort Wayne.  

And by the way, it's not just Netflix staging these campaigns.  

Sometimes actors get ads included as part of their deals.  My favorite was once seeing a full-page ad in Variety that said:  "For Your Consideration for Best Actor in a Motion Picture -- DeForest Kellwy as Bones in STAR TREK 2. "  Seriously? 

Only in LA. 

Saturday, August 09, 2014

How TV stars become movie stars

It's not easy to make the jump.  Many flame out.  Jason Bateman is crossing over.  Jennifer Aniston did it a few years ago and is still making movies. 

But it got me thinking about other TV vets who crossed the great divide and made it big in features. The one that jumps to mind immediately is James Cromwell. Terrific actor. Can play anything. But for years he just knocked around as a goofy character actor on TV. He was “Jamey” Cromwell then. We used him a couple of times on MASH and he was terrific. But I remember once when casting a pilot his name came up and my partner and I said, “he’s good but Jesus, haven’t we seen him like a million times? Isn’t there anyone else more fresh?”. Today we’d be lucky if he’d read one of our scripts.

Anyway, there are many other examples from George Clooney to Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Goldie Hawn, Thomas Hayden Church, Woody Harrelson, and I'm sure you can list ten others. But for every one who makes it, there are also a hundred David Caruso's and Matt LeBlanc's who don't. Why?

I don’t know. The X-Factor. Movie stars have a presence, a danger, a glow. There is something riveting about them. They can surprise you. They can command the big screen.

And they’re incredibly lucky. They happened to be in a hit. Again, going back to Jamey Cromwell. He gets a call from his agent:

Agent: Listen, I think I got something for you.

Jamey: (excited) A guest spot on WEBSTER?

Agent: Better.

Jamey: Wow! What?

Agent: A movie.

Jamey: Really! Fantastic!

Agent: Yeah, it’s a great story. There’s this pig that wants to be a sheepdog and he goes to live with this…

Jamey: Wait, wait. Back up a minute. A pig?

Agent: Cutest one you’ve ever seen.

Jamey: Brother. And what do I play?

Agent: The farmer.

Jamey: Who does what?

Agent: Who enters the pig in a sheepdog contest.

Jamey: Do I have a lot of lines?

Agent: Yes, but not as many as the pig.

Jamey: See if you can get me a callback on that WEBSTER.

Agent: No, no, you’re not hearing me. This could be a huge mainstream movie. And of the humans, you have the most to do.

Jamey (wavering): Well… it would be good to be in a big summer blockbuster.

Agent: Great. They film in Australia.

Jamey: Huh? How mainstream can this be if we film it in Australia?

Agent: I dunno. They got a deal on the pigs.

Jamey: Don’t Levine & Isaacs have a pilot? I mean, if I’m going to stoop

Agent: Sorry. Nothing this season. I think the industry is starting to wise up about those two hacks. And I’m afraid WEBSTER isn’t going to happen. I’ve been holding this from you but Alex Karras doesn’t think you’re a good actor.

Jamey: Alex Karras? I’m not good enough for Alex Karras? Okay. Fine. I’ll do the fucking pig movie.

Agent: That’s great! Fantastic! Except…

Jamey: Except what? I lose the audience’s sympathy by eating my co-star?

Agent: No, it’s just that… you don’t have it yet. They’re going to want a screen test

Jamey: A screen test?! Why? They know what I’ve done. Just watch any episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. I must’ve played eighteen farmers.

Agent: Yeah, but they… they kinda want to see if there’s any chemistry between you and the uh… your little pink co-star… who by the way, would get billing under you. I negotiated that. It wasn’t easy but I got it. (Off Jamey’s silence) Look, you’re right. I’ll find something else. Let me check the cop shows. See which ones you weren’t killed in and I’ll call them again.

Jamey: (resigned) No, no. What the hell? Set up a meeting with the pig.

Cromwell was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in BABE and went on to terrific roles in many top movies including L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.  If Matthew Perry's new series (THE ODD COUPLE) doesn't catch on I think he'll be on the phone to agent saying, "Scare me up a pig."