Monday, May 22, 2017

My review of the new TWIN PEAKS

When TWIN PEAKS first premiered in 1990 it truly was mind-blowing. There had NEVER been a show like that. Utterly spellbinding. David Lynch was at the height of his popularity. BLUE VELVET brought new meaning to the phrase “ear to the ground” and Dennis Hopper was maybe the creepiest villain ever... until Dean Stockwell showed up in the same movie.

Right from the first night TWIN PEAKS was an absolute sensation – a breakout hit for ABC. The entire country was speculating over who killed Laura Palmer and can a log really talk? The series was filled with riddles, and imagery, and horrific images, and the same crummy furniture from BLUE VELVET apartments. (Were Ralph & Alice Kramden the set dressers?)  Coffee and cherry pie became our national dessert.

Sound played a big role as well with eerie music and winds that only seemed to howl when characters were indoors.  There must be horrible insulation in the Pacific Northwest.  Where other shows hire orchestras to provide the soundtrack, Lynch seemed to use a guy breathing heavily into an oxygen mask.

TWIN PEAKS began as a midseason series and was riveting... until they revealed who actually killed Laura Palmer – well, sort of. After that it was never the same.  Everything after that felt unfocused. I just pictured writers Lynch and Mark Frost constantly saying “Now what do we do?” In short order, the series lost its magic and eventually was cancelled.

A few years later there was a TWIN PEAKS prequel movie that dealt with the Laura Palmer storyline in much greater detail. And the movie did… meh. Since I was a fan of the show I saw the movie. But the more I got to know Laura Palmer the less I liked her and the less I cared that someone was about to bump her off.

Then a few years ago word came down that Lynch and Frost were reviving TWIN PEAKS for SHOWTIME. Was I excited? No. Not really. Was I curious? Sure. Would Lynch be able to catch lightening in a bottle twice? Certainly worth a look.

I must say I was a little surprised by the level of anticipation as the premier date drew near. I guess there were a lot more diehard TWIN PEAKS fans than I thought. So I was in front of my TV last night at 9:00.

What did I think?

Well…

I remember back in college living in the dorm.  I would get together with a bunch of friends, we would gather in one room, put tin foil over the window, sit in the dark, and the only illumination was from the Snoopy blacklight poster. We’d pass around joints, drink Red Mountain wine that came in gallon jugs, listen to Moby Grapes albums, soak up the far out psychedelic vibes, and really think we were cool. It was all so deep and meaningful. Today I look back and think, “What an idiot!”

THAT’S how I felt watching last night’s TWIN PEAK debut. All that imagery and those spooky moody sequences that I once found so mind-blowing in 1990 felt repetitive and silly in 2017. I know that may not be the popular reaction, but I’m sorry. What the fuck was I watching?

I never found it scary. I fully expect the reboot of ROSEANNE to be scarier.

And not only was it very derivative of itself, it was derivative of LOST and FARGO as well. SPOILER ALERT – That big glass box – didn’t the Others put Jack in one just like it? And those stark landscape shots of snowy terrain and scenes where folksy folks talked folksy was FARGO without the humor.

For me the initial attraction of the original TWIN PEAKS was that you had this seemingly normal town but under the surface was all this evil and strangeness. Now everything is so completely whack that any shred of normalcy seems greatly out of place.

I look forward to reading other reviews. I’ll be interested to see whether the general consensus is that the new TWIN PEAKS was the work of genius and anyone who couldn’t see that was just dense, or whether they’ll agree with me that just random weirdness isn’t deep, it’s a college film student’s thesis movie.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Multi-cams require multi-skills

Lots of TV-related posts these last few weeks since it's the Upfronts time of the year. Here's another one:

As discussed, there are not that many multi-camera shows on at the moment. And a lot of young sitcom writers have never worked on a multi-cam. So the question is, can those young writers adapt and write in the multi-camera format?

And the answer is: of course they can... IF -- and it’s a big “if” – IF they are really good writers and really funny. Yes, there may be some adjustments in style but so what? Talent is talent.

However, for a multi-cam to succeed you need experience at the top. You need someone who has been through the wars. And for young writers, you need these mentors. “Why?” you might ask. “If I have the talent and a fresh voice and all the Red Bull I could drink why couldn’t I just run a multi-camera show?” Maybe you can. But can you answer yes to all of these questions?

When you and your young staff are at a runthrough and something doesn’t work can you identify just what that something is?

And how to fix it?

Can you and your young staff rewrite an entire script overnight?

Can you come up with that big joke at 3:30 AM that gets you out of the act?

Do you know how to deal with temperamental actors (although this skill or masochistic tendency applies to any format)?

If you know your show is going to be long can you watch the quad split and know if you have the proper coverage to make the necessary lifts?

Can you budget your time between the writing, editing, casting, politics, and the hand-holding required to turn out 22 episodes in about 30 weeks?

And finally, can you turn out a product that you’re proud of? That doesn’t depend on canned laughter?

That’s a lot of stuff. Unless you’re a writer, did you even realize how many requirements went into that job? I’ll be honest, when David Isaacs and I joined the Charles Brothers to produce the first year of CHEERS, our background had been primarily single camera (MASH). Theirs was multi-cam (TAXI and various MTM shows). And they were solving problems we didn’t even recognize as problems. A couple of years before that we had a multi-cam pilot for NBC that didn’t get picked up. Once we saw what it really took to pull off showrunning a multi-cam we thought to ourselves, “We would have been buried if NBC had picked up that show. We were nowhere near being ready.” It was a humbling experience (one of many in our long career).

All young writers have growing pains and need to learn their craft. But I do think that young writers schooled in multi-cam have a steeper learning curve. And as a result are better equipped to take on anything. Those horrible late nights may be worth it after all. (Keep this post on file for when it’s 4:00 AM and you’re stringing Red Vines together to hang yourself.)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Join me on Instagram

Yes, I'm now on Instagram.   Please follow me at  Hollywoodandlevine.  I promise not to post any photos of food or cats.  Thanks. 

UPDATE:  Okay, you shamed me into it.  I just posted a "cat" photo.  

Now that the networks have set their Fall schedules...

...here are a few things to look for:

ABC is really going to challenge NBC in February with AMERICAN IDOL, ROSEANNE, and THE BACHELOR. NBC will have the Winter Olympics. Usually any Olympics obliterates the competition, but the ratings three years ago from the Sochi games were meh at best. Of course, it doesn’t help that the USA wins maybe five medals total.

Tuesday night will have a flood of comedy. ABC, NBC, and Fox all have competing sitcoms.

WILL & GRACE will go up against THE BIG BANG THEORY when CBS no longer has Thursday Night Football. Good luck to WILL & GRACE.

On Thursday night, SCANDAL takes on THIS IS US. There’s enough real scandal in the White House. I expect THIS IS US to kick ass. And the Seth MacFarlane vanity Fox series goes against them both. That way Fox services the very few who think Seth MacFarlane is talented enough to warrant his own series (like he was talented enough to star in major motion pictures and talented enough to host the Academy Awards) and also satisfy the vast majority of viewers who don’t.

CBS has the most stable schedule. And stability has its advantages.

The CW is the all-Super Hero network. Unless your series star wears a cape you have no chance. How soon until they do a live version of Mighty Mouse? Fox and ABC only have half their schedules devoted to comic book characters.
AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS is still on the air. How is that even possible?

Is ABC giving up on Sunday night? I guess they feel they can’t compete against NBC Sunday Night Football. So they have TO TELL THE TRUTH and SHARK TANK. Their logo should be a white flag.

Friday night is now officially the dumping ground for hour-long series that have lost their luster. It’s hospice care for dramas.

YOUNG SHELDON will be the new hit comedy of the year. It’s also very funny.

Fox hopes that Lee Daniels becomes Shonda Rhimes as they’ve devoted all of Wednesday to his shows. By the way, I’m rooting for STAR.

Lots of military dramas on the schedule this year.  Green is the new Orange.

There are also a few religious-themed shows.   If you don't watch them this administration may just deport you.  

SURVIVOR is back. The only island they haven’t been to is Gilligan’s.

Throw in the intangibles like the World Series, two shows tanking and being cancelled right away, and it is still anybody’s guess how many episodes of ROSEANNE they’ll make before that thing implodes.

Next week I’ll talk about the types of sitcoms that were picked up and what to expect. Should be fun.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions.

The Bumble Bee Pendant has a question about the recent cancellation of LAST MAN STANDING:

Ken, so Tim Allen went on Twitter today (Tuesday) and said, "Stunned and blindsided by the network I called home for the last six years. "

We all know it's business, and its about money, but why would ABC burn a bridge, especially of an A List Star like Tim Allen? Why not be upfront, etc, and at least giving him some bullshit, rather than blindside him?

The Next time he or someone else has a product to share, ABC won't be their first choice.

Two truths: 1) Tim Allen is not an A-list star. Not anymore. Tina Fey is an A-list star. 2) Networks don’t care that they treat people poorly. Not anymore. Once they’re done with you they move on. I would not be surprised if some of the LAST MAN STANDING cast and writing staff found out about the cancellation on social media sites, not from phone calls from the network. You work on a show for six years and learn you’ve been dumped on Twitter.

And trust me, ABC is not alone. When a network wants to be in business with you you’re their best friend. They can’t do enough for you. HAMILTON tickets? You’ve got it. Room on the corporate jet? What time do you wanna leave?

Then they cancel your show and you have to walk home from New York.

Melissa Agar wonders:

I read today that Fox is bring New Girl back for an abbreviated season and that it will involve a time jump. Several shows in recent years have utilized this device -- Parks and Recreation, Jane the Virgin. I'm wondering what you think of the device. What challenges does it pose to a cast and staff?

I think it’s an interesting idea because it shakes up the show a little, and hopefully opens the door to new stories. It’s sure better than the reverse. On MASH we were stuck in this cosmic limbo where we couldn’t really do any time jumps. And trust me, by season seven it was very difficult to keep coming up with fresh stories that hadn’t been done.

Another advantage to the time jump:  If you want to make some cast changes they're easy to explain away. A line or two to cover the character’s exit and that’s it. You don’t have to do an episode showing his departure.

From suek2001:

I listened to your podcast through my ROKU device on my TV..through the TUNE IN app...works great! I did have a random question...how much did you have to pay to make your own theme song for the Podcast?

You mean my jingles? It helps to have a close friend who owns the largest and best jingle company in the world, Jam Creative Productions. We worked out a deal. A big thanks to Jon and Mary Lyn Wolfert.  The singers were amazing and here I am with them:
John E. Williams has a CHEERS FQ:

Was there ever an episode where Norm entered the bar and the writers forgot to add the "NORM" greeting?

There have been episodes where Norm entered with other people and on those occasions we didn’t do an official “Norm entrance.”  Usually they sang the theme from "the Magnificent Seven."

There may have also been a time or two when the bar was empty when he entered – so no, no “Norm entrance” on those.

Brad Apling wants to know:

It seems that bringing a TV show to the tube is complicated and getting more so in respect to, say, 30 years ago (which really isn't that long ago). So, it begs the question: Is there any encouragement for new writers to pursue the TV industry or is it a matter of numbers [some live, some die so might as well keep writing and trying]?

It is way easier to get a show picked up now than when I broke in. Back then there were three networks. If your pilot didn’t get on you were toast.

Now there are many networks, and streaming platforms, and premium cable channels. Shows can now be niche. So I would think for a writer this is a way more exciting time. Lot more buyers and opportunities. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The current trend in network comedies

Deadline Hollywood, the online industry website, posted an interesting article recently about single-camera vs. multi-camera sitcoms. You can find it here.

They accurately point out that this year networks pretty much bought reboots of popular retro multi-cams but practically all new comedies were single-camera.

So what does this mean, trendwise?

At this point I must pause for a disclaimer. I have no favoritism in this discussion. I’ve worked on both single-camera (MASH), and multi-camera (CHEERS, FRASIER) and love them both. Additionally, I have no plans to develop pilots for the networks in the near future so I don’t have a dog in this race.  All I ask is that a comedy be funny.  Use two cameras or shoot it on a surveillance camera.  I don't care.   End of disclaimer.

The article suggests that multi-cam shows are on the way out. Three current multi-camera series were cancelled – LAST MAN STANDING, 2 BROKE GIRLS, and DR. KEN. The first two for monetary reasons, the latter for humanitarian purposes. And NBC’s multi-camera offering, THE CARMICHAEL SHOW, airs in the summer, which is like a professional baseball player only getting to play in winter ball in Venezuela.

Nellie Andreeva, wrote the article, and I don’t disagree with anything she says. Multi-cameras are out of favor and young writers don’t want to write multi-camera (although many of these same young writers have never done it and maybe can’t write multi-cameras) so they don’t pitch projects of that genre.

But I think there’s more here to analyze. TV genres run their course and die. RIP Westerns and sayonara Variety shows. They faded for a good reason. People stopped watching them. So you would assume the same would be true for multi-camera comedies. But it’s not. Most of top rated sitcoms are multi-camera. THE BIG BANG THEORY, MOM, KEVIN CAN WAIT. What does CBS know that the other networks don’t? (CBS, by the way, did pick up a couple of new multi-cams.)

For all the single-camera shows on the air, how many of them are really big hits? I don’t mean time slot hits, or gaining .3 share of 18-34 women when Live + 7 Day totals are in – I mean a top ten major impact hit.  (MODERN FAMILY years ago but now it's just hanging on.)  And that’s not to say that there aren’t terrific single-camera shows (and conversely, truly terrible multi-camera shows). But when Westerns were dying, BONANZA wasn’t a top five show.

I always contend that viewers don’t select their comedies based on number of cameras. They don’t know the difference in most cases. They watch THE BIG BANG THEORY and FRIENDS and SEINFELD because they’re genuinely funny. When networks say they need to program a multi-camera show to compliment another multi-camera show I say why? Who gives a shit?

When Fox says it can’t launch a multi-camera show I say what comedy show that isn’t a cartoon CAN you launch? NEW GIRL? That was six years ago and despite its tepid numbers for years they still renewed it. Fox must really have been disappointed in their comedy development this year.

Certainly there is the nostalgia factor in rebooting shows like WILL & GRACE, ROSEANNE, ONE DAY AT A TIME, and FULLER HOUSE. But there is also the fact that they’re proven entities at a time when networks make all decisions based on fear. The fact that these reboots happen to be multi-camera, how many big hit single-camera shows have there been in the ‘80s and ‘90s? MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE maybe? Now it’s MALCOLM IN MIDDLE AGE.

And if these reboots work, what will it teach the networks --that multi-camera is still a viable form or they need to reboot SILVER SPOONS? What do you think?

There would be more multi-camera shows on the air today if networks put more of them on the air. Period. End of story. CBS gets that. You could argue that one of the new shows CBS bought is the YOUNG SHELDON spin-off of THE BIG BANG THEORY and even that’s single-camera. But it has to do more with storytelling. You want to see young Sheldon out and about in the world. You don’t want to see him stuck in his room. So of course it’s a single-camera show.  And I bet you it'll be damn funny

I think you stand a better chance of breaking through the clutter with a new multi-cam because you’re held accountable. The show has to get real laughs. And if you can pull it off (it’s not easy) you’ll stand out. And you know the TV business. If another FRIENDS comes along and is a sensation the next year there will be fifteen multi-camera shows on the air. 

But how can you find that next FRIENDS or FRASIER or SEINFELD if you don't develop multi-camera shows?

In fairness, though, I will say this:  When a single-camera show is bad it's usually just flat or boring.  When a multi-camera show is bad it's painful to watch.  And the forced canned laughter just makes it worse.   So it's riskier and risks are something networks are petrified of.  So it's not enough to develop multi-camera shows, you have to develop GOOD ones.  You have to hire writers who are skilled in the form.  Hey, it ain't Shakespeare.  They're out there. 

All that said, if I were developing for a network (and again, I am not) I would definitely pitch a single-camera show. Why? Networks are more receptive, I’d have a better chance of selling it, and here’s the main reason: There would be less interference. With multi-camera shows every day there is a runthrough; the notes are endless. On the night the show is shot there are notes every second on everything from camera angles to performances to set dressing. With a single-camera show at some point you go to Simi Valley and it’s 3 AM and you just film it. That’s for me.

But to just discard multi-cameras is like a basketball team just dismissing anyone who isn't tall.  And then there's Isaiah Thomas.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Episode 20: Romy & Michele’s Podcast Reunion


“Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” has become a comedy classic. Ken interviews Robin Schiff, creator of those characters and screenwriter of the movie. Robin is one of the most successful comedy writers in Hollywood. She discusses her career, the challenges of being a woman in the world of comedy, an exciting new chapter for Romy & Michele, and she has great advice for young screenwriters.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Podcasting my fate to the wind

It’s taken a few months but I’m really starting to get the hang of this podcast business. Like with my blog, when you present a variety of topics you need a little time to figure what works and what doesn’t. Eventually you get more comfortable and more into a groove.

It also helps to have some steady listeners. I don’t feel obligated to “introduce” myself every episode.

I’m still experimenting with subject matter, length, and the number of interviews. Thanks to your suggestion, between 30 and 40 minutes seems to be ideal. I don’t want to have interviews every week because then I spend most of my time being a booking agent. I’m also looking for some different more offbeat interview subjects. I think we’ve all heard enough stand up comedians on other podcasts.  Marc Maron is down to interviewing guys from open mic night.  In the future I also want to bring on some of my writer friends – names you may know but only via credits.

I continue to enjoy flying solo and not having a co-host. Especially now that Ryan Seacrest has been taken. I prefer talking directly to YOU. And all too often I hear podcasts where the first five minutes is the two hosts chatting about their weekends. I don’t care about MY weekend much less theirs.

I attended a seminar on podcasts recently. It was part of a larger international radio convention so naturally most attendees were forcing their voices down. I learned a few interesting facts. The largest segment of the population that listens to podcasts is Men 25-49. I might’ve guessed Women.

20% of all audio listening (radio, Spotify, satellite, podcasts, etc.) is done on smart phones. Podcast listening is up every year. Close to 30% of the radio audience listens to at least part of a podcast. What that says to me is that there are still 70% of listeners to go. So there’s still a large untapped audience. (Now I just have to figure a way of getting them.)

The most listened to genre is true crime. Duh! SERIAL kicked that into gear. Second most popular is storytelling/humor. Hey, that’s me! So I’m encouraged by that fun fact. It’s nice that what I present is not way down there with podcasts about lint.

One difference between podcasts and radio is that in podcasts everybody starts from the beginning. And most listen all the way through (another reason why a half hour is better than say two). In radio your audience is always coming in in the middle (and leaving the minute commercials come on). 

The bottom line for me is that I’m really having fun with it. It’s like radio except I can’t be fired and I don’t get any program directors telling me to just shut up and play the records (which is especially disconcerting when I’m doing a talk show).

I’ve got some cool things coming up, and as always I’m interested in your feedback – what you like and don’t. So if you haven’t listened to the podcast (or you did when I started but haven’t in awhile), I hope you’ll check it out. And subscribe. That and reviews are the best way to build an audience. (I don’t know who reads these reviews but I’m told they’re important so I plug them whether I know why or not.) Oh, and tell your friends. I’m hoping you each have 10,000 friends.

Thanks for listening. And if you haven’t listened, just click the gold arrow right under the masthead.  The current episode is all about the final episode of CHEERS.  And the new one coming tonight is my interview with Robin Schiff all about ROMY & MICHELE.

So far HOLLYWOOD & LEVINE is the most listened to podcast on my phone. I’m hoping to extend that to your phone.

UPDATE: People have asked how they can subscribe if they don’t have iTunes. Two of my readers graciously explained other ways you can subscribe so I thought I would share them. Thanks Jeffrey and Chris!


Jeffrey Graebner says:

You can subscribe from just about any Podcast application, actually. I use PocketCasts, which is one of the most popular options for Android and was able to easily find it with a search. I did just check and was a little surprised that it isn't available from Google Play. You might want to look into getting it added there.

There is also a direct RSS link that you can plug into pretty much any Podcast application to subscribe if it doesn't show up via a search. That link is found by clicking here. By the way, the RSS address is actually available from the banner at the top of your site. It is the little icon with two quarter circles above a dot.

I just checked and was a little surprised that it isn't available from Google Play. You should be able to add it by going to https://play.google.com/music/podcasts/portal and clicking the "Add a Podcast" button. You will then need to enter the RSS address I gave above and provide them with some information so that they can verify that you are the owner of the Podcast.

Chris Ledesma then adds:

To "subscribe" to any podcast, you just need a podcast app from your app store. Search "podcast" and you'll find many to choose from. Of course, most iPhone users use iTunes, but you don't have to. Once in the app, search for "Hollywood and Levine", when it finds it there should be the option to subscribe. This means that you don't have to go looking for the podcast each week. As soon as Ken posts an episode, your podcast app will get it for you. You can even set the app to send you a notification on your device, but that's not required. Finally, if your app has trouble finding "Hollywood and Levine" then you can search using an RSS link. Poke around your app for "search by RSS" and put this link in the search bar: click here.  http://hollywoodandlevine.libsyn.com/rss Good luck and happy listening!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Why I love FARGO (well, one of the reasons)

Exposition is a bitch!

Like all screenwriters I consider it a necessary evil. You need to provide backstory; you need to define characters for the audience. But it’s generally uninteresting and often stops the action rather than forward it.

And yet it’s crucial. The audience needs that information. Too little exposition and the audience is confused. Too much exposition and the audience is logging onto Netflix.

What’s a writer to do?

I generally try to dole exposition out in dribs and drabs. And if I can couch it in jokes that’s the “little bit of sugar that makes the medicine go down.”

Characters’ behavior can be a big clue. Their look, voice, speech patterns, wardrobe, attitudes, and decisions all contribute to building a profile without someone having to say: “You’re a loser, schemer, with a limited education, poor self esteem, a modest income, shitty dresser, youth slipping away, and you have jealousy issues.”

Still it’s very hard to do that artfully.

Which brings me to last week’s episode of FARGO.

They did something that just blew me away. They presented an incredibly novel way to re-introduce all of their characters.

With FARGO alum Billy Bob Thornton doing the narration, he recited the introduction to the orchestra segment from Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF. Each character (or animal) was represented by a single instrument, and on the screen you saw the FARGO character who best represented that animal. So Nikki was the conniving cat, Ray the dumb duck, etc. In four minutes you absolutely knew who each character was without any of them saying so much as a word. Visually and stylistically it was eye (and ear) popping.

That, to me, is ingenious storytelling.

The episode itself was excellent too with the added treat that PETER AND THE WOLF provided the soundtrack throughout. There are I’m sure other parallels to PETER AND THE WOLF, both in the basic story and the fact that Russian characters play a part.

Great writers always look for different ways to tell stories, convey information, capture an audience’s imagination. This is truly a golden age of television drama. Shows like FARGO raise the bar. And inspire old seasoned vets like me, even after all these years. Talk about hitting the right note.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Pilot process -- where we stand at this moment

Your heart has to go out to actors. (And this from a writer.)

Getting a role on a pilot has worse odds than winning a lottery (unless you’re Amanda Peet or Judd Hirsch – then you get a pilot every year).

And if you do get on a pilot don’t pop the champagne just yet. Many actors are replaced during the week of production. A bad runthrough and you’re through.

The number of pilots the networks pick up every May are very few. There’s like a 70% chance of a pilot not going forward. And if you’re lucky enough to beat those terrible odds you’re still not out of the woods.

Because networks frequently re-cast and re-shoot pilots after they’ve been picked up. That’s what’s going on now.   Actors are being replaced. 

What makes it even more mortifying is that now with industry websites and social media, these firings are all public. It’s not enough to lose your job, now the whole world has to know about it. It’s a public pantsing.

Cristela Alonzo – just a few years ago starred in a show that bore her name. Now – fired off of THE GOSPEL OF KEVIN. Jenna Fischer, for God sakes, was dumped off of MAN WITH A PLAN for Liza Snyder (boy, there’s an upgrade). And now Jenna will be starring in a new pilot that just got picked up (I assume she’s still in it).

I point out these two examples because both actresses are known and can find other work (Jenna already has – assuming she’s still in it).

But there are other actors and actresses that are not as well known and are being replaced and I see no need to add to their public shame by naming them.

Look, sometimes the firings are justified. They may be lovely actors but just not right for that role. We’ve had to do it ourselves and it’s horrible. And I’ve often told the story of Lisa Kudrow being replaced by Peri Gilpin during the pilot week of FRASIER. Lisa promptly wound up on two shows – MAD ABOUT YOU and that thing about friends (I forget the title).

Make no mistake, showrunners get replaced too. And their curb kicking gets a blurb in Deadline Hollywood. But they’re writers so nobody cares. And the reason is usually creative differences (which is now code for: didn’t take all our notes and thank us for them). But when an actor is fired it’s personal. They didn’t like HIM or didn’t like HER. They weren’t funny enough or cute enough or had chemistry with Matt LeBlanc (like Liza Snyder does). Focus groups rejected them because they didn’t like their shoes (and trust me, that happens). It’s brutal!

So again, to all the actors who are getting replaced, hang in there. You could be the next Lisa Kudrow. Or Jenna Fischer (assuming she’s still in it).

Sunday, May 14, 2017

My Mothers' Day story

How important are moms?   I might not have a career were it not for mine.

David Isaacs and I were writing spec scripts at night, trying to break in, going nowhere.  We had written a spec pilot that was an amateurish mess that would have cost more to produce than AVATAR.  We then wrote a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA.  Our ersatz agent submitted both scripts and received two rejection letters (actually three -- the RHODA was submitted to two different producers on the show).   We were going nowhere fast.

And then one day my mom went to play a round of golf and got assigned to a foursome that included a gentleman named Gordon Mitchell.  She asked what he did, and when he said he was the Story Editor of a new show that just premiered called THE JEFFERSONS, she said, "Oh, my son is a great writer."  I'm sure he cringed, but he was a mensch and said he'd read something we'd written.

So I got in touch, sent him our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  He liked it, invited us in to pitch stories.   They bought one and that was the start of our career.

But we never would have had an in to THE JEFFERSONS had it not been for Mom. 

So thanks, Mom.  For everything.   I miss you everyday.  Thanks also to Debby, the mother of my children, Kim -- the mother of my granddaughter.  And to all YOU mothers -- we salute you on this most deserved (although commercially manufactured) holiday.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

LAST MAN STANDING and 2 BROKE GIRLS cancelled

As the networks get closer to announcing their Falls schedules, things are starting to come into focus. Pilots are being ordered, and bubble shows are either getting last minute reprieves or cancellations.

Most of the cancellations are expected. DR. KEN, IMAGINARY MARY (dear God), THE REAL O’NEALS, SON OF ZORN (dear God again), APB, MAKING HISTORY, PITCH, NO TOMORROW (they were asking for it with that title), POWERLESS, and a number of others. And if you’re not reading this until Monday that number has probably grown.

Two cancellations were somewhat surprising because they were both established hits and performing relatively well. LAST MAN STANDING and 2 BROKE GIRLS. I obviously don’t mourn the loss of the latter, but it tells you something about the business when successful series get cancelled while less successful series get picked up.

And it can all be explained in one word: ownership.

2 BROKE GIRLS is owned by Warner Brothers, LAST MAN STANDING is owned by 20th Century Fox. If they were owned by CBS and ABC respectively they would both be on the schedule.

And by the way, don’t cry for either of those shows. They’re both doing fantastic in syndication and both bringing in scads of cash for their studios.

But as the seasons pile up so do the costs to produce those series. Actor salaries rise, as do the above-the-line players (writers, directors, producers, and those managers and former executives who attach themselves to these projects and take a cut despite doing nothing).

Networks negotiate with studios on what their license fees will be (networks pay a license fee to the production company/studio in exchange for two airings of the show. If the show costs more to produce the studio pays the overage. Studios lose money on most shows. But a home run like THE BIG BANG THEORY can erase all of that and more.

So networks don’t want to pay big bucks to studios when they can’t participate in future profits. And big studios reach a point where production costs get so high that even in syndication it doesn’t seem worth it. Especially if a network now wants a cut. If studios already have a hundred episodes, how much more important is it to have a hundred and twenty?

So the negotiations get tough. The studios bank on the network’s need for the show and the network banks on the studio’s desire to have more episodes in syndication. It’s a game of chicken and sometimes it goes either way.

In the case of 2 BROKE GIRLS and LAST MAN STANDING the deals fell apart.

But if you’re fans of those two shows, just wait. If ROSEANNE and WILL & GRACE are any indication, they can just come back in two years as reboots and there will be a bidding war for them.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friday Questions

Once again, here are Friday Questions for your edification.  

Dave Z starts the edifying: 

When a new multi-cam studio audience show is shooting its 2nd, 3rd, 4th episodes (likely being shot before the Pilot has aired), is the audience shown the pilot or explained some of the relationships so jokes that rely on knowing a little about the characters or their backstories don't fall flat?

Yes. Usually the pilot or an abridged version of the pilot is shown well into the first year. We had a truncated cut of the CHEERS pilot we showed and my wife, who came every week to the filmings, pretty much had the pilot memorized by the time the show actually aired. I bet she can still recite some of the lines.

The one CHEERS bit that befuddled audiences before the show aired was the Norm entrance. Those died horrible deaths in the first few episodes. It was only when the audience understood that this was a regular running bit did they embrace it.  By the last season they were laughing just when he entered the bar. 

forg/jecoup asks:

Designated Survivor has been pulling solid ratings but I do wonder if the elections somehow affected its ratings

Based on the "pilot buzz" from Deadline and Variety, ABC is on the fence with the political comedy pilot with Felicity Huffman and Courtney B Vance, this was the first pilot ordered this season and was assumed to be a near lock for a pick up.

Do you think the political climate will affect how networks pick up shows this

Sure. Does the public still have the appetite for political shows? And if yes, can the viewers embrace one more? Between SCANDAL, VEEP, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR, MADAME SECRETARY, HOUSE OF CARDS, and I’m probably forgetting three others – there are a lot of political shows already on the air.

Many factors determine whether a show gets picked up. How are the current political shows doing? Are they on the rise or wane? BRAINDEAD was a political show that bombed. Even though it was on a different network (and politics was not what killed it – ants from outer space did), still networks take that into consideration.

A few years ago we pitched a political-themed pilot to USA and they passed because they said political shows didn’t work on their network. They had aired a series called POLITICAL ANIMALS and it failed, so of course their takeaway was that all political shows fail on their network. No one thought to say, “Yeah, but POLITICAL ANIMALS was a shitty show.”

Meanwhile, politics are sure helping late night talk and sketch shows. Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, and the SNL crew are maybe the only people in the entire country benefiting from our idiot president.

And while we’re sort of on the subject of politics, Andrew wants to know:

Over the years I've heard several people compliment Rush Limbaugh for breathing new life into AM radio, despite disagreeing with his politics. I've never seen you post on Limbaugh, or political talk radio in general. What's your assessment of Limbaugh's influence? Do you find anything commendable about him, or do you think he has done too much harm to deserve any accolades?

I met Rush years ago when he was first starting out doing his national radio show. My writing partner and I were developing a pilot and had a Rush-type character so we wanted to meet him. I got in touch and when he next came out to California we took him to lunch.

I have to say he was a lovely guy. Funny, self deprecating – he really seemed to have the whole thing in perspective. Plus, he and I had a lot in common – our background in Top 40 radio (he was a great jock on KQV Pittsburgh as Jeff Christie) and he worked at one time for the Kansas City Royals so we had a baseball connection.

We stayed in touch for a number of years. Now he seems to believe all the press clippings and has turned into a distorted caricature of himself. So I have no idea whether he’s this “new” person or the same guy I used to know.

When he began his show he was very entertaining. A lot of it was a put-on. In time it has morphed into something completely different. I haven’t listened in years. I have no idea what he sounds like now. I do know that his ratings have plummeted.  His act and influence may have run its course.

And finally, from john not mccain:

I was reading in Rob Lowe's first book about his experience being in the cast of a show called "A New Kind of Family." He said that after the studio audience had been there after a couple of hours it was kind of hard to get them to keep laughing. So somebody would throw candy at them and it perked them right up again. Did any of your live audience shows ever need perking up like that?

They all did. And yes, warm up people hand out candy and snacks. My podcast from last week was all about the art of warm up. Do you see right under the masthead of this blog is my current podcast? Just scroll down until you find the one about warm-up men. It's Episode 18.   Click on it.  It’ll tell you all you ever need to know on the subject, along with some crazy anecdotes.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

For my consideration

As a proud member of the TV Academy I am currently being sent DVD screeners for Emmy consideration. Remember when you were a kid and something you had ordered (like a toy) finally came in the mail? Oh, the anticipation! The excitement of seeing that package or envelope arrive! Well, it’s like that every day!

Except, when you were a kid you were thrilled when you opened the package. When I open most of these I’m saying, “Huh? What the hell is this show?”

With 455 scripted shows and God knows how many unscripted shows out there, it’s shocking how many television programs I’ve never heard of. In some cases, I don’t even recognize the network. Elaborate programs too (at least based on the cover art).  Costume dramas and battle scenes and crucifixes. 

And as I thumb through them one by one I feel a certain pang of guilt. There may be two or three of these shows that are really terrific. Some very talented and dedicated people poured their hearts and souls into these shows. And the studio must’ve spent a fortune sending them out. Some of the boxes and packaging is extraordinary. They should give out an Emmy for packaging.

But Jesus, life is too short. And if there is a series I do want to watch they often only include a couple of episodes. Sometimes they also provide a code so you can watch the series in its entirety on line. So there’s thirteen hours, or more precisely – twelve hours I won’t be watching something else.

In some cases I look at the screeners and think, “This is just a waste of money. This is setting $20,000 on fire.” TWO BROKE GIRLS as Best Comedy? In what universe? Feed the homeless with that money. 

So I sift through the entries and pick out generally ten or twelve things I want to watch. There’s usually a couple of series that have received good buzz that I haven’t seen so out of curiosity I’ll throw them on. And it’s worth the time I take cutting up the others (you’re not allowed to pass them on to anybody so the best way to prevent that is to snip snip), in order to have those twelve shows I feel are worthy of my time (not spent watching baseball or SUPERGIRL).

And every so often I’ll open one of those packages and it will be like when I was a kid. Last year it was FARGO. This year it’s… well, the packages are still coming.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Episode 19: “Final Call”–-The Last CHEERS episode


The last CHEERS episode drew over 42 million viewers. Ken discusses the making of that classic show, bringing back Diane, the filming, airing, and disastrous TONIGHT SHOW that followed.  For fans of the show this week’s episode is a must-listen. Also, have you heard the CHEERS theme in its entirety?  You will this week.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

My craziest rehearsal

It was back in 1999 when I was directing the Al Franken sitcom LATELINE in New York. We filmed at the Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens. Other tenants included THE BILL COSBY SHOW and SESAME STREET (Yes, how ironic is that?). The month was November so it was quite cold.

The Kaufman-Astoria studios took up a city block. But across the street were typical retail businesses – dry cleaners, Greek restaurant, liquor store, etc. It’s not like Southern California where the Warner Brothers lot is sprawled out over many acres.

Our filming schedule was this: We shot the show on Tuesday nights before a live studio audience. Wednesday we had a table reading of the new script. Thursday and Friday we rehearsed on the stage. On Monday the camera crews came in and we did all the camera blocking. That brought us again to Tuesday (shoot day).

In LA, after a Tuesday filming, crews arrive in the middle of the night, strike any swing sets, bring in the new sets for the upcoming week, and begin dressing and painting them. By Wednesday at noon the stage is ready for actors to rehearse.

Not in New York.

In New York, crews swap out the sets on Wednesday. I asked the producer if they had crews who could do that in the middle of the night and he said, “Yes, but you don’t want ‘em.”

So to accommodate that I would hold table readings on Wednesday and just send the actors home. I had a terrific cast so two days of rehearsal was more than sufficient.

But one week the script called for a guest actress who had a very pivotal role. One lady really stood out in casting but had a conflict. She was not available that Thursday. Our choices were to go with someone else or rehearse on Wednesday that week instead. I opted for the latter. I just thought this actress was way too special to let get away.

So we hired Allison Janney.

All sound stages have what is known as an “elephant door.” That’s the door that is essentially a wall. You need a door that size to move fully erected sets in and out. In Hollywood studios, those doors open to the interior of the lot. Here it opened to the city street.

So picture the scene. I’m rehearsing the actors. There’s all the hammering and banging as crews are dismantling sets and wheeling them loudly across the stage. Since the giant elephant door is open it’s now 35 degrees. We’re all wearing parkas and gloves.  We can see our breath. And since the open stage door was on a city street curious bystanders were free to just saunter in to see what was what. At one point I turned around and there were eleven strangers standing behind me just watching.

At that point I just wrapped for the day. I figured, end this before someone in my cast gets frostbite, someone in my cast gets laryngitis from yelling over the jackhammers, or I start getting directing notes from bystanders.

The show came off great and Allison Janney was amazing. I’d like to think that episode caught the attention of NBC and maybe paved the way for her to get THE WEST WING. Or star Al Franken said, “This is too crazy.  I should get into something else more sane... like politics." 

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Come see my new play!

THIS IS BOTH A BLOG POST AND BLOG EXPERIMENT. (Theatre Companies please read the whole thing.)

Very excited that one of my one-act plays has been selected for the 8th Annual Festival of Shorts by the Edmonds Driftwood Players outside of Seattle. Come see it July 7-9. Here’s where you can go for more information. As a real departure for me, it’s a comedy.

Playwrights will tell you that unless you’re the toast of New York theatre it’s very difficult to find places that will produce your play. I’ve been very lucky that both my last two plays and several one-acts have found full productions.

And here in Los Angeles it’s even harder because of the new Equity rules that jack up costs to where even modest productions are now prohibitive. Instead of TWELVE ANGRY MEN you can only do TWO ANGRY MEN.

Part of the overall problem is that theatres have “seasons.” So they’ll schedule maybe five or six productions a year. And one of them is always Christmas-themed and one is always LOVE LETTERS starring local news anchors. You submit your play and sometimes a year could go by before they respond. And in fairness to the theatres, I’m sure they all get inundated with material. I can only imagine some of the dreck these artistic directors have to wade through.

So playwrights must have patience. If they’re lucky enough to get a call from a theatre company saying they’re interested in their play I bet the initial reaction from more than half of them is “Oh. I submitted a play to you?” It had been so long they forgot. Submissions are like giving a note to Lassie and telling her to go across the Grand Canyon for help. “Hurry, Lassie!”

There are theatre websites that list various festivals and competitions and for fun I’ve entered a few. They each have different requirements (only plays about Nordic women cleaning fish with the word “lawnmower” in the title), deadlines, application restrictions. Some want you to produce it and stage it yourself, which begs the question: Then what do I need you for? And although my primary interest is in writing full-length plays, there are more opportunities for one-acts and the name of the game is getting your work on stage.

So I’m thrilled that my one-act LOVER’S LEAP will hit the boards in Seattle. I’ll go up for it, so if you’re in the theatre say hello and don’t blame me for the slow Mariners start.

NOW FOR THE BLOG EXPERIMENT

As mentioned, I have two full-length plays that both received great reactions and reviews. One is A OR B?, which is a two-character romantic comedy, and the other is GOING GOING GONE, a four-character comedy set in a baseball pressbox. I would love to get more productions of them. I have an agent who is sending them out, but as I wait the year for responses, I thought I’d take a more direct route.

YOU.

A OR B? received a fantastic production at the Hatboro Theatre outside of Philadelphia. And that came about through a reader of the blog who was involved with the theatre.

So here’s my experiment: If you’re a theatre company or own a theatre and you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing comedy, please get in touch. You can email me at bossjock@dslextreme.com. I’ll provide copies of the plays and press packets. (Let’s see if anyone takes me up on it.) Both plays are very funny, and let’s get real -- how many times can you do LOVE LETTERS? It’s gotten to the point where the weekend weather girl and local mattress store owner are starring in it.

Thanks much.

The top 10 "Hollywood" movies (at least according to me)

Reader Sandra, you got your wish.

Wondering as a Friday question or just as a separate post, if you can make a list of movies that portrays Hollywood best as per you.

Some lists do exist on net, but by outsiders and journos. Which movie do you think portrays Hollywood screw-ups/odd-balls/wackos best ;)

There are lots of movies. Hollywood loves itself. And there are everybody’s obligatory favorites like SINGING IN THE RAIN, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, and A STAR IS BORN (all eight versions except the Barbra Streisand one). And I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of comments from people annoyed that I didn’t include this movie or that. So to save you the trouble – I didn’t care for ADAPTATION. I hated HAIL CAESAR and BARTON FINK. I adore Preston Sturges films but SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is my least favorite. S.O.B.’s big moment was getting to see Julie Andrews’ breasts, so big whoop. Ultimately, what I decided to do is just select my top ten (in no apparent order except for number one).

SUNSET BOULEVARD – The ultimate Hollywood Babylon film. Billy Wilder’s haunting 1950 tale of a screenwriter moving into an old mansion owned by a deranged former silent film star, Norma Desmond, is still the gold standard. “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille” is one of the great lines in all of cinema. Gloria Swanson plays Faye Dunaway (although she doesn’t know it).

THE BIG PICTURE – This forgotten film from 1989 is a comic gem. It was co-written and directed by Christopher Guest and stars Kevin Bacon, Michael McKean, and even the great Emily Longstreth. Part satire/part nightmare. And standout supporting performances by J.T. Walsh and Martin Short. Find and watch this movie immediately.

THE PLAYER – Robert Altman’s dark tale of modern Hollywood starring Tim Robbins is enough to send you packing for a return trip to Des Moines.

THE STUNT MAN – Peter O’Toole’s finest role when he wasn’t playing a guy named Larry. Richard Rush crafted a visually striking film that blurs the line between what’s real and surreal. This is another rarely seen film that’s worth seeking out.

GET SHORTY – Elmore Leonard’s perfect blend of crime and comedy populated with rich characters. How could you not love someone named Chili Palmer? One of Travolta’s best comeback vehicles.

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS – Kevin Spacey played the biggest Hollywood asshole ever. Modeled after probably fifty guys who modeled their behavior after producer Joel Silver.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL – Hollywood noir at its best. Curtis Hanson’s masterpiece. Russell Crowe’s best movie. And I don’t think he hit anyone on the set.

BOWFINGER – Steve Martin’s nutty take on Tinsel Town. Eddie Murphy is a riot in this film. I think Martin also modeled his character on Joel Silver.  (So did Trump apparently.)   

THE ARTIST – The modern day silent movie that won Best Picture in 2011. To hold an audience’s interest with that one gimmick was pretty impressive.

MULLHOLLAND DRIVE – is pretty cool and erotic. David Lynch so don’t expect a lot of big production numbers.

Those are mine.  What are yours?  

Monday, May 08, 2017

PRE-viewing the current pilots

Okay, the Fall pilots are in (you were worried, right?). They’ve been filmed – in some cases re-filmed. Studios have done their pre-testing. Yes, it’s not enough the networks test pilots; studios now pre-test them – the same way studios now have pre-table reads before the actual table reads.

Soon it will be staffing season, but showrunners of pilots are meeting with writers now. It’s pre-staffing season. So writers will be taking a lot of wasted meetings because once the pick ups are announced most of these showrunners will have nothing to offer.

Within a week or so the networks will announce their new Fall schedules and also pick up shows for mid-season. This is called the Upfronts – when advertisers buy time “up front” for the upcoming season. Most of the hit shows have already been renewed, and a few pilots are getting early pick ups. So it’s pre-Upfronts, which is interesting because “Upfront” is another way of saying “pre,” isn’t it?

Those early pick ups give showrunners a real head start in staffing. Or, more accurately, it gives the showrunners who don’t get early pick ups a real disadvantage.

And now comes nervous time, coupled with RUMORS. Industry websites are filled with articles this time of year handicapping pilots.  It's all about the buzz

What shows are front runners? What shows are losing momentum? What current shows are on the bubble? What shows are dead? What shows have support in certain circles but are still considered longshots? What shows may have poor “linear” ratings but are doing okay overseas and may still be worth renewing?

Decisions are made based on testing, based on commitments, (another “pre”), whether they themselves own the show, what the global prospects are, where it might fit in the schedule, whether it has a suitable star in it, whether it appeals to the exact audience that network is trying to reach, whether it can be produced for a lower license fee, whether it’s a legacy show, whether it fits a need, whether it’s good counter-programming, whether the network wants to be in business with that producer, whether bubble shows get an uptick in the ratings, and oh yeah – whether it’s any good. (And I’m sure I’m leaving out a few factors.)

But wait – there’s more (as they say on those infomercials)!

Projects arrive out of the blue at the last minute. A studio will finance a “presentation” that suddenly a network loves. This year networks have decided that reboots of old shows are in so when Roseanne announced she would make more of her show (good luck to those writers) there were several networks that leaped at the opportunity. AMERICAN IDOL is getting a reboot. That resulted in a bidding war. Think about it – if AMERICAN IDOL goes on your schedule (probably mid-season), how many hours over how many days a week does that eat up? In other words, how many scripted shows that would have been ordered don’t get ordered? (One reboot means six boots.)

So you can imagine the anxiety showrunners are experiencing at this very moment. Their show is on, their show is off, it’s being considered for mid-season, there’s talk of recasting, they’re getting a pick up of 13, they’re getting a pick up of 6, they’re dead, they’re alive again, they’re alive but dead. AAAAAAAAHHH!!!!

The ultimate decisions get made in New York, and super agent Bob Broder once coined the phrase: “Everything turns to shit over Mississippi.” Shows the networks loved in LA somehow lose favor by the time the final decisions are made in Gotham. Testing is in, pressure is applied by other more powerful producers, and don't forget AMERICAN IDOL.

Things can change by the minute.

And they do.

One producer I know was told his show was on the schedule and the network put him on a plane to New York for the Upfront presentation. A limo picked him up at his house, whisked him to LAX, where he flew first class across the country. When he got to JFK there was no car waiting for him. That was strange, he thought. He then got a call from his agent. The show was dead. Sorry. So no car was provided and the luxury hotel reservation was cancelled. If I’m not mistaken, the producer had to turn right around and fly back on his own dime.

Good luck to everyone in this maddening game of musical chairs. You might want to make appointments with therapists now. Pre-appointments.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

My meeting with John Lennon

It wasn’t a long meeting. But it was memorable.

Winter 1973. I’m an engineer at KABC and KLOS radio in Los Angeles. Essentially I worked as a board op for KLOS. That meant I played the records and commercials. Union rules prohibited the disc jockeys from doing anything other than turning on and off their microphoness. Oh, and they could talk. They got that concession.

It was a cool job. KLOS played what today we call “classic rock.” Album cuts and Layla. I loved the music and the jocks were all terrific dudes. I’m still friends with Jim Ladd, Marc Driscoll, and Dion Jackson from that talented staff.

Occasionally I would have to go across the hall and handle KABC talk shows. That was fun too. Talk radio in those days welcomed different points of view, not just one. Imagine such a concept – a balance of ideas. I know. It was crazy.

I’m working one Saturday night on KLOS. I’m on my break. It’s about 9:45. The 10:00 KABC talk show host was Elliott Mintz. There was a long hallway at KABC/KLOS that led to the side entrance. I step out of our studio and happen to glance down the hallway. Holy shit! There’s John Lennon and Yoko Ono buzzing to be let in. They were Elliott’s scheduled guests. ( Elliott is still Yoko’s publicist, by the way.)

I duck my head into the KABC control room and say I’ll get them. Then I barrel down the hall and usher them in. I introduce myself and shake hands with them both. Yoko’s handshake is firmer than John’s.

He’s wearing a blue jean shirt and khakis. She’s wearing a huge black fur that must weigh sixty pounds.

I’ve got about twenty seconds alone with John & Yoko as I lead them down this long hall. What do you say to them?

At the time there was a very popular album by the National Lampoon that featured a very funny send-up of John called “Magical Misery Tour.” In that song he’s forever yelling, “I’m a fuckin’ genius!”

I don’t know what possessed me but I say to John, “So… what’s it like being a fuckin’ genius?” Without breaking stride he gives me a big grin and says, “Pretty nice, actually!”

That was it. We arrive at the studio and Elliott takes it from there. I couldn’t even hang back to watch the interview. I was due back at KLOS at 10:00.

But it brings up an interesting question. If you get to meet someone you idolize and you have time to ask him just one thing, what would it be? I’m sure had I known in advance that I would be meeting John I would have prepared something a little less – how should I say it? – obnoxious, but I just had the sense he would take the question in the spirit it was asked and in fact he did.

I didn’t have time to ask Yoko a question. Which is probably good. I don’t think she would have seen the whimsy in “What dead animal is that?”

So there’s my twenty second brush with greatness… and his wife.

Here's "Magical Misery Tour".

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Some thoughts on rewriting

Got one of those Friday Questions that is worthy of an entire post. 

It’s from SeanK.

Ken,
You’ve mentioned a couple of times doing an un-credited re-write for Jewel of the Nile. I’m curious about that, mainly as it pertains to the ability to add it to your resume. Assuming only known writers would be asked to do a re-write, I suspect there’s enough Kevin Bacon-esque connections that it would be easily verified should it come up. But, well, does it come up? Why was it un-credited (your call or theirs)?

Larry Gelbart once stood up at a WGA membership rally just before a strike and said, “At some point everyone in this room will rewrite everyone else in this room.”

He was right.

Rewriting is as much a part of Hollywood as rumors and hookers. It is such a common practice in the feature world that the rare exception is the screenplay that makes it to the screen not having been rewritten by six other writers.

Screen credit is determined by a Credits Manual sanctioned by the Writers Guild. An arbitration is ordered any time a new writer is put on a project, whether the new writer requests it or not. In general this Credits Manual is there to protect the original writer. In the old days directors would routinely futz with scripts and slap their names on them. No more unless they deserve it.

Those arbitrations can get very hairy. The 1994 FLINTSTONES movie had no less than sixty writers involved at one time or another. (I know what you're thinking -- sixty writers for that?!)

Many A-List writers make a handsome living doing uncredited rewrites and polishes. What they sacrifice in credit they make up for in compensation. Some of these scribes command $100,000 a week to provide their genius. (I’ll pause a moment while you pick yourself up off the floor.)

When a studio brings a new writer on a project they are contractually obligated to let the other writers know. Of course they don’t but they’re supposed to.

There are no gag orders on rewriters. The Hollywood trade publications often print who is now rewriting what. There are websites that list project status reports complete with the latest writers assigned to scripts.

So I’m not breaking any confidentiality agreement by revealing that my partner and I did a rewrite on JEWEL OF THE NILE. A paper trail does exist. Plus, I have our draft (in English and French. Our script had to be translated into French for the Moroccan government to approve before allowing us to shoot in their country.). So if you want proof of our involvement you’re welcome to check with 20th Century Fox, the WGA, or call the King of Morocco.

For a couple of years we did a lot of rewrites. Both MANNEQUINS and several movies that ultimately never got made. We rewrote some big names. One in particular is a prominent comedy writer I truly admire and even though the script needed work and he wasn’t available I still felt weird about it (but not weird enough to turn down the assignment).

And just as Larry Gelbart said, a number of big names rewrote us. Often there’s animosity between the original writer and the new guy brought on to fuck up your brilliant screenplay. But not always. David Isaacs and I had an original script rewritten by Cameron Crowe and we became friends with him. (It also helped that we thought he improved our script considerably.)

In television it’s the showrunner and staff that rewrite practically every script. There’s the old adage – “Writing is Rewriting.” What it should really be is – “Writing is Rewriting Someone Else”.

At least no one else rewrites this blog. Although, if that prominent comedy writer did it would be a whole lot funnier, damn him.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Friday Questions

“May” I interest you in some Friday Questions?

Brad Apling starts us off with an FQ about audiences for multi-camera shows.

Did you ever have an episode that you thought was really good but the audience acted ho-hum about or one which you thought was average humor yet the audience reacted as if it was the greatest piece of humor the world has ever known?

Yes. Sometimes you just get a bad audience, but when you watch the show edited together it plays great. Steven Moffat, the great writer of SHERLOCK, DR. WHO, and one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, COUPLING said there was an episode very early in the run of COUPLING that died before the audience. Part of the problem was that there was going to be subtitles through a large part of it. When the show was assembled and the subtitles were in place the show played so well that Steven feels that was the episode that really launched the series.

And the flip side of your question is also true. There have been times when a show played gangbusters in front of the audience and then when we watched the rough-cut we scratched our heads and said, “This is terrible. What are they laughing at?”

From John J:

Sometimes when I watch a show I will wonder where I know some random actor from. On IMDB I will see that he does a couple of episodes a year plus some smaller movies. So my question is, can he make a living like this? How does the average non A-lister pay the bills?

Uh, he has another job. He’s a waiter, an Uber driver, a real estate agent, a carpenter. Character actors who support themselves and their families on acting alone are very fortunate. Most have to supplement their incomes.

That’s why I always say if you want to be an actor you have to really really love it.

Johnny Walker wonders:

Thinking about the realities of having to produce work on demand, have you ever been given an assignment where you were really unhappy with the story? Obviously I guess your job as the writer is to do the best job you can, but how do you reconcile the fear that your name is going to be on something you may not even like?

Yes, and eventually I learned to call the showrunner and work through the problem. But when David Isaacs and I were starting out and getting freelance assignments we had one that absolutely stymied us. It was an episode for a sitcom called THE PRACTICE (not to be confused with the David E. Kelley legal show of the same name years later). We actually came in with the story and they bought it. But once we started writing we realized it didn’t work. We were afraid to tell the showrunner for fear he might just cancel the assignment.

But writing every line was like pulling teeth. Finally, David had a good idea. He said, “Let’s shake things up. Let’s get out of here and write somewhere else.” So we drove down to San Diego, got a hotel room, and pretty much locked ourselves in while we powered through the draft. If he hadn’t made that suggestion I think we’d still be on page three.

I never worry about my name being on something that's not outstanding.  That's the breaks of the game.  There are episodes we've written that got rewritten and I felt made worse.  You live with it.  

And finally, Jim S. asks:

Do you have any special phrases for baseball that you use in non-home run situations?

For example, the late, great Ernie Harwell used to say, when a player took a called third strike, "he stood there like the house on the side of the road."

I will use that phrase when I just might sit stunned and not do anything for a couple of seconds when something surprising happens.

No, I don’t. That’s kind of a folksy style that was perfect for Ernie and a few others like Red Barber, but it’s not me.

I also never developed an exclamation phrase either like “Holy Toledo!” or “Holy Smokes!” or “How about that?” I wanted to use “Fuck-a-doodle-do!” but for some reason radio stations frowned upon it.

What's your Friday Question?  

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Why radio sucks (one of the reasons)

Been listening to some broadcast media podcasts lately (boy, do I know how to have fun), mostly about the radio industry. Experts and programmers and consultants giving advice – promote your brand, embrace social media, yada yada.

And they all say radio needs to find more talent, people who are genuinely creative and great communicators. They bemoan the fact that these people are hard to find.

But see, here’s the problem:  when I was a kid radio was exciting. Every station had live DJ’s. They had freedom to be personalities. They had distinctive styles (well, some did and then fifty other jocks in smaller markets copied them).  They howled like wolves.  They had an impact. They drew big audiences. They mattered. And it was not unusual for a creative young person (like myself) to want to go into radio.

Today, I don’t know any Millennial who wants to make a career in radio. Why the hell would he?  That's like wanting to be a butter churner.  With so many more options available in video and music and numerous internet outlets where you can get your project – whatever it is – directly out to the public, why would anyone with artistic abilities or a need to express themselves bother with a medium that is dying, eliminating talent, exploiting the talent it has, and none of his peers listen to anyway? What’s to aspire to – being on a morning zoo making bad vagina jokes? Doing voice tracks for seven stations all for the price of being on one? Finding clever ways to say generic things so listeners will think you’re actually in Yakima?   What idiot has stars in his eyes for THAT? 

And these radio conglomerates that are bemoaning this lack of new blood have only themselves to blame. How are young broadcasters supposed to gain experience? No longer are there weekend all-night gigs in small towns? No longer are there first jobs where you can be terrible. If anyone ever uncovers a tape of me from my Bakersfield stint I will have to kill him. And when I play the tape during the trial no jury will convict me.

So where is this talent pool supposed to come from? Who wants to move to Baton Rouge to do Metro Traffic for five stations at minimum wage? Who wants to move to El Centro to do a daily six-hour morning show, three hours of station production, and three hours of going out on sales calls… for minimum wage? Video didn’t kill the radio star. Radio did.

And a final note to these giant conglomerates – assuming you all don’t go bankrupt in five minutes (which you will), there IS plenty of talent out there. Funny, fresh, vibrant, relevant with the rare ability to excite, entertain, and connect with an audience. Yeah, they’re out there. You fired them all.