Thursday, August 16, 2018

The one reboot I want to see

The reboot craze continues. There’s talk of ALF returning (thank God!) along with FACTS OF LIFE (dear God!). 24 may get a prequel. I guess the MAD ABOUT YOU reboot won’t happen, but as you all know there’s talk of FRASIER possibly returning to the airwaves.

Networks are basically admitting they can’t develop anything new. So I figure, since every show from television’s past is suddenly being considered for a revival, what about the series that began originally with a 49 share? Obviously America was in love with that show.

So I think one of the networks should do a reboot of AfterMASH. Let us finally get that show right.

First off, casting.  We need to go a year or two younger.   Liam Hemsworth for Klinger. Will Poulter for Colonel Potter. And we need to go diverse so Michael B. Jordan for Father Mulcahy. Roz Chao, who played Klinger’s young Korean wife, hasn’t aged a day in thirty years so she can still keep her role.

The show was originally set in a Veteran’s Hospital. What a goldmine for comedy that was! For the reboot we set it in the infirmary of a luxury cruise ship. That way we can work in a little LOVE BOAT action.

The show is still set in 1953 right after the Korean War (we must preserve the dignity of the franchise) but all the patients are in their 20’s and hot. The Korean War was brutal and only the handsome survived.

To ensure that the dialogue reflects the comic attitude and style of today, only Millennials will write the show. I may come by once or twice to explain what the Korean War was.

The stories will be more upbeat. Prosthetics is an area for comedy that bewilderingly was not covered the first time. Same with shock treatments.

Keep the haunting AfterMASH theme but just have KISS re-record it.

Whattaya think?

AfterMASH could be the reboot to end all reboots.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

EP85: Meet Peri Gilpin of FRASIER

Peri Gilpin, who played Roz on FRASIER talks about the possible
FRASIER reboot, working with that cast, her career, and her dad who was a celebrity himself.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The one I'd take back

There was a good article in a recent NEW YORK MAGAZINE called “the One I’d Take Back.” They asked six comedians (like Patton Oswalt) which joke or jokes they’ve told in the past that now they now regret and wish they could take back. 

There are a number of scripts I’ve written I wish I could have back, but that’s just because with the benefit of experience I think I could do a better job. It has nothing to do with questionable content.

But the article did get me thinking back to my days as a wise-ass Top 40 DJ. Very rarely did I “get in trouble” because of things I said on the air. I was pretty good at walking that line. The biggest brouhaha I ever got into was on TenQ in Los Angeles in 1977. I was playing a commercial for a Donna Summer concert that was going to be held at the Fabulous Forum (then-home of the Lakers and Kings). I said, “today the Forum, in ten years Magic Mountain.” Someone from her record company had a shit fit and raised a stink. I was told to not make fun of Donna Summer. (By the way, I was right.)

What I did do was poke fun at recording artists on occasion. Believe me, I was not unique in that. Dan Ingram, Don Imus, Larry Lujack, Robert W. Morgan, Howard Stern, and others routinely teed off on artists.

So looking back, I mocked Bob Dylan. That’s still okay. I mocked Barry Manilow. Still acceptable. Mick Jagger – no problem. Psychedelic bands – safe targets. The Partridge Family – go to town. The Temptations? I’m a racist. I would goof on how hip they tried to be. But it made no difference. Had I known then what I know now, the Temptations would have been off-limits, period. I can argue that you needed to understand the context and I was an equal-opportunity-offender but that’s one I’d like back.

I’m sure these comics felt the same way – you listen back to some of the things you said that you thought were perfectly fine and funny and now you just cringe. Yes, comedy often offends someone, but in this case I offended myself. Fortunately for me, these were live radio shows. Unless I play you the tapes, you’ll never hear them. Thank God this was before Twitter.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My thoughts on Mini-rooms

Networks and studios have found yet another way to exploit writers. Their latest brainchild: Mini-Rooms. Here’s a Vanity Fair article about it.

When a network orders a pilot for a short series (6-13 episodes) they now put together a small room of baby writers for two or three weeks to come up with future stories and/or scripts. If the show is then picked up they already have a lot of the stories broken and writing completed.  They don’t have to hire a full room of writers and even if they do there’s now less work to be done so the time frame is less and the network or studio is in an advantageous bargaining position.

So writers are hired on the cheap. And in a business where stability continues to dangerously shrink, TV staff jobs start seeming like four-week freelance assignments. Writers have to cobble together a bunch of these a year to survive. And getting any TV writing job is harder these days. Way more hoops. You have to be approved by the network and the studio and pod producers. Generally it takes meetings with three or four entities before a writer is offered even an entry-level job.

Can the WGA stop this? Not really. The networks/studios have found a loophole. They’re paying Guild minimums to these Mini-room baby writers (who understandably are just relieved to be working, even if it’s for the minimum and only for a couple of weeks) so they’re not doing anything strictly illegal.

And who is there to safeguard and protect writers from this insidious practice? Well, it should be agents. That’s their job. They could fight to ensure their clients got proper above-scale compensation. So why don’t they?  Because commissions are no longer their primary source of income.  In this new conglomerate world agencies now survive by making package deals and owning a percentage of shows.  Hard to fault them.  Everybody has to adjust to this new marketplace. But writers do receive way less protection than they used to. 

This is just another reason why the WGA wants to renegotiate their long-standing agreement with agencies.

Personally, I loathe the idea of Mini-rooms. If you hire me and my writing partner to create a series for you the pilot will be in our voice. We don’t need to enlist the help of inexperienced writers for pennies on the dollar. And quite frankly, it’s insulting to us that the studio/network would even suggest it. It’s like we can’t deliver a pilot on our own? We have to surround ourselves with help?

It’s one thing if you have a multi-cam pilot in production. Scripts have to be rewritten in one night following run-throughs. Putting together a mini-room for one or two nights makes sense in that case. But guess what? Studios/networks WON’T pay for those mini-rooms. Instead, writers have to rely on their experienced colleagues to come in as a favor, usually for a nice gift that comes out of the showrunner’s pocket.

And even that is now further exploited because writers are putting together mini-rooms to punch up pilot scripts before they go to the network. And those rooms are not compensated. In those cases I lay the blame squarely on the writer who created the pilot. First of all, where is his pride? Secondly, he’s being paid a lot of money to write a pilot. I get a free lunch in Styrofoam? I’ve helped out on a couple of pilots like this (not knowing the situation beforehand) but never again. And if I ever find myself in this situation in the future, believing I was helping out during production when it was actually pre-production, I will wish the creator well and go home.

Just remember this: All these changes in the system are designed EXCLUSIVELY to help the studio and network  and agency and save money. They are NEVER to benefit the writer. They are NEVER to improve the quality of the creative process. So pretty much anytime there’s another one of these new trends like Mini-rooms or Paper Partners you can pretty much bet that my position is I’m against it.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The JEWEL OF THE NILE timeline (and while I'm still haunted by it)

Got this in the comments section last Tuesday and thought, why not take a post to set the timeline on JEWEL OF THE NILE. It’s a re-post, but warning -- it takes a horribly tragic turn and is difficult to write.  You'll see why.

Unknown wrote:

Another recollection of 'Jewel of the Nile' from Kathleen Turner in today's NYMagazine:

Were you surprised or hurt at the way Michael leaned on you to do that movie?

That was a bad blowup. I had signed a contract to do a sequel [to Romancing the Stone] but the script for it [The Jewel of the Nile] was terrible. What had happened was that Romancing was so successful that Diane [Thomas], who wrote the original script, evidently asked Michael for what he felt was a ridiculous sum to work on the sequel. So instead, he went with these two guys and what they came up with was terrible, formulaic, sentimental. Anyway, I said no. Then I found out I was being sued for $25 million [for breach out contract]. My position was that, yes, I signed up for a sequel but I didn’t sign up to compromise the quality of my work. Eventually Michael and I talked.

How’d that go?

He said, “What would it take for you to do this film?” I wanted Diane back, or at least to give input. And Michael did go to her for some alterations. But ultimately I read the script on a plane to Morocco, where the film was shooting, and I was furious. It didn’t have what Michael said it’d have. When I got to the hotel in Fez, Michael and I sat down on the floor with three versions of the script. We were trading pages to get a script that was acceptable to both of us. It was, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that.” It was frustrating. But I do have to say, when I got sick Danny and Michael called and said, “If you need anything kid…” So they’re true friends.

[Don't know if the '2 guys' were you and Isaacs or Rosenthal & Konner, but interesting anyway.]

Diane Thomas wrote ROMANCING THE STONE and did a spectacular job. Practically everything you saw up on the screen – the humor, suspense, warmth, vivid imagination, that was all Diane.

She of course was approached to write the sequel but was tied up writing a movie for Steven Spielberg. So Michael hired the team of Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner to do the screenplay of JEWEL OF THE NILE.

That was the draft Kathleen Turner had trouble with, as did Michael Douglas.

At this point David and I were brought on to do a rewrite. We did a rather extensive one, primarily trying to make sense of the story.

We also had a time crunch. In order to start filming in Morocco, their government had to approve the script. And the script needed to be translated into French, which would take a few more days. Additionally, there was the threat of a Writers Guild strike so we were pushed pretty hard to finish the rewrite quickly.

The hardest part of the script was the first act. In ROMANCING THE STONE, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) learns right away that her sister has been kidnapped and she has to go rescue her. The story is off and running.

Remember the end of ROMANCING THE STONE? Jack (Michael Douglas) buys a boat and as a grand gesture presents it to her in Manhattan and the take-away is that they’re going to sail around the world together and live happily ever after.

So now we pick them up in the sequel. They’re tan, they’re sipping champagne, they’re livin’ the life. No more adventures for these two. They’ve got it made.

Except we need an adventure. And a reason for them to abandon the good life and once again throw themselves in harm’s way. Not an easy task.

We could say that they’re just bored, but that’s a tough sell to an audience that would give anything to trade places with them.

Anyway, we did the best we could in the time frame allotted and turned it in. Michael loved our rewrite but still had trouble with act one. Don’t blame him. So did we.

He called me at home from Paris on a Friday night to say he did something not entirely kosher (but producers do what they have to do to get movies made). He had called Diane Thomas and asked if she’d work with us on the first act. Were we okay with that? We were thrilled. These were Diane’s characters. Who knew them better than she did?

She was only available that weekend, which meant working Saturday and Sunday. We didn’t care.

Diane was an absolute delight. So smart, so inventive, so kind. We meshed instantly. It was a wonderful weekend and I was proud of the results. So was Michael and off the script went to be translated.

The Moroccan government approved it and plans were made to start filming in the late spring.

We moved on and accepted an offer to create a new sitcom for Mary Tyler Moore.

Michael called and asked if we could be on the set during production. Normally we would have said “sure.” Morocco wasn’t a picnic, but there was also the South of France. Plus, what a cool experience. But we were locked in to the MTM project and had to pass.

So Michael did what I thought was a strange thing. He hired the original writers, Rosenthal & Konner to be there for production. So what did they do? They tossed out most of our script and put their original material back in. I defy anyone to explain the plot of JEWEL OF THE NILE.

Okay, here comes the truly horrible part. For helping Michael out that weekend he bought Diane a Porsche. A few months later, with her boyfriend driving that Porsche at 80 mph on rain-slicked Pacific Coast Highway, the car lost control and crashed. Diane Thomas and another friend were killed. Diane was 39.

That was 33 years ago and I will be forever haunted by it. I can’t drive PCH without thinking about her, I can’t see a Porsche without thinking about her, I can’t see a Michael Douglas or Kathleen Turner movie without thinking about her. I certainly can’t watch ROMANCING THE STONE or JEWEL OF THE NILE without thinking about her. And maybe now, if you do any of those things you’ll think about her too.

As a proud alum of UCLA I’m happy to say that the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program created the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award in her honor.

You can understand now why I can't tell that story without tears in my eyes.  And why I'm going to end it here. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

"What" writing partners argue about

Readers always ask if my partner, David Isaacs and I have fights when we’re writing. Sure, but the trick is to never make the fights personal. We can have a heated argument over a story point and then just go to lunch and discuss baseball. If we disagree on a joke pitch we’ve found it’s way easier to just toss it out, come up with something new, not waste a half hour on the argument, and result in someone being unhappy.

That said, we have had one disagreement that has been ongoing for literally decades.

I think characters should say “what?” occasionally when they hear a big piece of information and David thinks it’s unnecessary.

“I want a divorce.”

“There’s a tank coming.”

David thinks I rely it on too much.

“These apples are good.”

Okay, maybe he has a point there. But I contend that people say “what?” in daily conversation way more than they even think they do. And to support my point, if so many people didn’t say it, then the expression would never have evolved to “What the fuck?” I’d like to think that through our scripts I helped coin and popularize that now-treasured phrase.

And I also exercise some discretion.  I never pitch "say what?"

So how have we resolved this sticky matter?

We barter.

David will say, “I’ll give you a ‘what?’ for two ‘so’s’.” Yes, this leads to other arguments (“I have a ‘what’ banked from Thursday.” “No, you used that ‘what’ Monday.” “But we cut that speech.” “It still counts.”), but on the whole this has gotten us through hundreds of scripts. And it’s an example of the kind of stupid shit partners bicker about all day.

And don’t get us started with when to use and when to use --.  The police were once called.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Great advice for ALL writers

This quote from the late Oscar, Tony, and probably Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Nichols:

Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

Now you could say he’s stretching it, and you could argue that at times seductions are negotiations, but the real point here is that every effective scene needs some dynamic.

Two baseball fans in the stands just talking about the weather isn’t interesting. Umpires trying to decide whether the rain is coming down hard enough to stop a World Series game is.

A couple agreeing on what color to paint the house is boring. A couple throwing paint at each other is not.

Your scene needs some conflict, or one of the characters has a specific goal. There’s a dramatic reason for the scene.

It may be subtle. People are always looking for that little edge, couples are consciously or subconsciously trying to be in the power position in their relationship. Although a union contract might not be the topic on the table, this is still negotiation. Trying to get someone to agree with you is a form of seduction. The truth is in our daily lives we use most of these conventions all the time in our interactions; we just don’t recognize it. But for writers, they're the fuel that makes the engine go.

Rule of thumb: if you can just lift a scene out of a screenplay or TV show, or whatever without anyone missing it then it didn’t belong in the first place. We’re in a golden age of TV drama. Watch the good shows. See how every scene, every moment has a purpose, and is integral to the narrative.

A fight, seduction, or negotiation may be a little simplistic. But it gives you a good starting point. If you’ve written a scene that is just flat you can check it against those three dynamics. If it has none, or one but very mild, suddenly it’s no longer a mystery why your scene doesn’t work. Pick one or two or strengthen one or two.

Use Nichols’ quote as a guide. It may not be perfect, but it’s much more eloquent than mine.

A scene has to have… stuff.

And that’s why he is who he is and I am who I am.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday Questions

Some Friday Questions to kick off your weekend.

Chris Thomson is up first.

I am probably wrong, but you never seem to put Boston Legal in your examples of excellent series writing.

Just wondered if there was history there or whether you just didn't rate the writing or acting?

Or you just didn't watch it.

I watched it and liked it. So no disrespect intended. A couple of my friends even wrote on it (when David E. Kelley let them). It was entertaining, but there are better shows. I didn’t even think it was David Kelley’s best series. There were a few years of THE PRACTICE that were way more compelling in my opinion.  

From Marty Fufkin:

If the proposed Frasier reboot does a Lou Grant and become a drama (which I think is a great idea) would you still be interested?

No. The big attraction for going back and writing for that character would be having the chance to once again write smart sophisticated TV comedy.

LOU GRANT was an excellent show but the character Ed Asner played in that show was not “Lou Grant.” He was someone else just taking Lou Grant’s name.

Christopher Lowery wonders:

Watched an episode recently with Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter-"Rally 'Round the Flagg, Boys'"-Feb 14, 1979) with the new ensemble/tone.

Was the style of writing/timing/anything different bringing a character from the more "zany" early few years of the the show?

What were your impressions of the final outcome compared to the character's early days of the show?

I think we did a pretty good job of keeping the spirit, tone, and humor of the Flagg character. We modeled our “Flagg” after the one Larry Gelbart established.

And I thought it worked. Flagg was such a fun character to write, but we were well aware that a little went a long way because he was so broad. So in the four years that I was with the show we only used him once.

And finally, from jcs:

In the first season of FRIENDS there is a wooden support beam close to the flat's door, in the left corner of Monica's kitchen. This beam later magically disappears as it probably blocked valuable camera angles.

Did sets on your shows ever lose certain features without explanation?

We had a very limited budget on the ALMOST PERFECT pilot. So for Nancy Travis’ house we just used Helen’s house from WINGS and re-dressed it. When AP got picked up to series we had to construct a whole new house. We kept the basic structure – where the front door was, etc. but suddenly her house went from Cape Cod to Craftsman.

Same with her workspace. It completely changed after the pilot.

We wanted to reshoot the pilot to make the sets consistent and Paramount just laughed. Looking back, we never got complaints from viewers.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The incredibly stupid new Oscar rules

I was going to do a post about Kathleen Turner’s JEWEL OF THE NILE comments but with the Motion Picture Academy drastically changing Oscar rules I thought I would address that today and save the JEWEL for Monday.

If you haven’t heard the news: The Academy this year will add a “Best Popular Movie” Oscar and for the first time, not air some of the categories live.  A few awards will be given away during commercial breaks and snippets of acceptance speeches will air later in the broadcast. Those categories have yet to be determined.  Let the cockfights begin! 

Congratulations, Motion Picture Academy, you just screwed the pooch.  

First understand these changes have only been instituted to improve ratings. They have nothing to do with righting wrongs or ensuring that deserving artists are given their due. This is just because they want better demographics. Period.

This is just so BLACK PANTHER fans have something to root for.

So the plan is what, “popular” movies in one category and art films that no one sees in the other? What happens if a movie is both? So BLACK PANTHER is not eligible for “Best Picture” because it’s also popular? Or does it get nominated twice?  What constitutes "popular" -- Melissa McCarthy in the cast? 

And if there’s more interest in the “Best Popular Movie” category than “Best Picture, “ then “Best Picture” becomes an afterthought. Say goodbye to any credibility. Say goodbye to rewarding excellence in filmmaking.

“Popular Movies” already have an award. It’s called MONEY. The filmmakers all get rich. They don’t get an Oscar but they do get a mansion in Trousdale.  Isn't that enough?  

So the Oscars are now a joke. Next?

As for not airing all the categories, that means you don’t hear the nominees’ names read. They’re nominated for an Academy Award, probably the highlight of their professional career, and the telecast won’t provide the two seconds required to say their individual names on TV.

Yeah, THOSE are the problems. Not a stupid bit where the stars go to a nearby theater and hand out candy and take selfies for ten minutes. Not endless clip montages. Not hosts singing “We Saw Your Boobs.” Not pizza deliveries.  Not monologues all for the benefit of Oprah.  Not cringe-worthy banter by actor presenters. Not Academy president bullshit speeches on how Hollywood “cares.”

The Oscars can only re-spark interest if they actually MEAN SOMETHING. But you cheapen the award, you strip away any class and luster the ceremony had, and what you’re left with is… the Silver Globes. Not even the Golden Globes because at least they’re honest about what attention whores they are. And they serve dinner.

Having an Oscar is really going to mean something when MAMA MIA 3 wins Best Picture. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

EP84: Meet Porky Pig and the world of animation voice over

Ken’s guest is Bob Bergen, one of the most successful cartoon voice over artists in Hollywood.  It’s like having Porky Pig and Luke Skywalker give you a tour through the exciting behind-the-scenes world of animation.   

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

How to win over TV critics

Yesterday, I talked in general about the TV Critics convention, held every summer (stretching into the fall and early winter) in Los Angeles.

These bedraggled TV critics have to sit through hundreds of panel presentations of all the new shows and any other programming these 200 networks want to serve up.

I’ve been on these panels, pitching our wares, and I usually look out at a sea of bored faces.

But one of our panels proved to be a big hit.

It was 1995 and we were doing a panel for our new CBS show, ALMOST PERFECT. I was on the stage along with co-creators David Isaacs & Robin Schiff, and stars Nancy Travis & Kevin Kilner.

We gave the usual bullshit, they asked the usual questions – your typical uninspired session.

And then a critic asked Kevin what he did before he became an actor? He said he worked for a bank and one of his jobs was to audit a company that sold a popular brand of chicken to markets and restaurants. Yawn.

Then Kevin said, “Do you ever wonder how they slaughter those chickens?”

My first thought was, “Holy shit! This may go down as the worst new show presentation EVER.”

Kevin went on to explain in graphic detail how indeed they killed their chickens. 

But suddenly I saw all the critics perk up. For the first time they were actually INTERESTED. They DID want to know how chickens met their demise. And then they had follow-up questions.

I’m sure for them it was just so refreshing to not be hearing “how our show is a reflection of the angst that young single people go through… bla bla bla.”

Within minutes we had won them over. And our session was one of the most talked about of the convention. Thank you, Kevin Kilner.

So if you’re a producer and your panel hasn’t gone up yet, you might want to Google “How to kill a chicken.” Especially if your show is about a cop who doesn’t go by the book or a married couple whose adult child moves back into the house.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Imagine a convention in the Hotel California...

It’s TV critic season here in LA. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, every summer TV critics from around the country converge on Los Angeles to hear panels from all the new shows, network executives, etc.

My heart goes out to them.

Picture a convention with sessions every hour, seven days a week, and it lasts for a month. "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

Having been a showrunner who numerous times was a member of one of these panels I totally understood why the gaggle of critics could not have looked less enthusiastic to see us. We were probably show 67 of 85. I’d look out at the audience and half these people were on their computers clearly reading email or watching MLB online.

In the online trade sites they do an article for each of these sessions. And they’re the same thing. These producers are touting their new shows, explaining why theirs is different and special, praising their brilliant casts. Flash forward to October and most of them will get roundly and justifiably panned by these same critics. Come next March and 90% of them will be gone.

Hey, I don’t blame the producers. When I was up there I touted my show, and how we were elevating sitcoms to an art form. That’s the game. Producers wax poetic, critics order hiking equipment from Amazon.

Each network and cable network and streaming platform has its few days carved out. And those usually end with parties for the critics sponsored by these networks. I think without the alcohol these poor reviewers could not make it through the month.

I certainly see the reason for conference. It allows TV critics access to all the stars and producers they’ll be covering. They can establish relationships, ask questions that might be relevant to their specific location or audience, and meet executives who otherwise go out of their way to avoid them. And since there are so many shows and networks the conference just continues to grow. Originally there were three networks, they each had their two or three days, and the whole shindig was over in a week and a half. Next year the new Apple Network will be joining the party (whatever exactly that will be) and probably six more. Going to the TCA Convention will be like shipping out to Afghanistan for a year.

It ain't worth the free drinks and all the shrimp you can eat.  

Tomorrow: how one of our panels became the hit of that year’s convention.

Monday, August 06, 2018

So FOX is going to save some money

Michael Thorn, in his first year as entertainment president of Fox Broadcasting announced that this year they will make the same number of pilots as before but they will only buy half the scripts they’ve done in past development seasons.

Fox will be going through, as they call it, a “transitional” year. Once Disney takes over 20th, the Fox network, which will remain with Rupert M. will no longer have a studio feeding it product. In the past, as much as 90% of the programming on Fox has come from its sister studio, 20th. And the other networks have similar statistics. Eventually, Fox will start a new production company, essentially 20th.2.0, and within a few years they’ll be back up to speed. But for now they’re trying to ease off their dependence on 20th.

As for future development plans, Thorn said this: “In years past, I feel all the broadcast networks, including us, bought way too many scripts, 50-60 dramas and that many comedies. We are going to be much more disciplined in our buying and probably buy half as many scripts for approximately the same number of pilots we’ve been doing in years past, about six of each -- nine comedy and drama.”

Yeah, but here’s the thing:

Every few years one of the networks tries a version of this. “We don’t need as many pilots.” “We’re going straight to series.” “We’re going to be much more selective.” “We don’t need pilot season at all.

And every time a network institutes this the result is utter fucking disaster. They spend the entire next season scrambling, yanking shows off the air, patching up their line up with hastily thrown together specials or reruns, constantly playing catch-up. And what they discover is that the money they saved in reducing their development slate was small compared to the money they lost due to a poor season.

So the following year they’d go back to ordering more pilot scripts and making more pilots.

What Fox might be thinking however is, we’re going to tank anyway once we have no studio affiliation. So why throw good money after bad? They’re not going to say that, of course. Unlike the San Diego Padres, they can’t just admit this is a rebuilding year. Stockholders might frown. So instead, their position is "we're being smart and savvy.”

Is the pilot system, currently in place, a sound one? Absolutely not. It's horrible and wasteful and still produces overwhelming failure.  But the solution is not to shoot yourself in the foot. The solution is to hire better writers. The solution is to give them more freedom. Don’t micro-manage. Don’t develop the same tired premises. Don’t copy other successful shows. Don’t hire people to write pilots who don’t have the experience and talent and vision to come through for you. Don’t keep rehiring writers who’ve written failed pilot after failed pilot. Don’t hire actors to write pilots just because you’re enamored by them. Don’t waste your money on bidding wars for stupid zeitgeist shit that never comes to fruition. Don’t keep executives who have bad track records. Don’t give preference to your pod producer friends. Don’t develop out of FEAR.

It’s not the amount of money you spend, it’s HOW you spend the money.

I know. I’m a crazy radical with insane impossible ideas.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

A typical Hollywood story

I was a Story Editor on MASH and was invited to speak to a sitcom writing class at UCLA along with my friend Larry, who at the time was a Story Editor on RHODA. We talked about how to break into the business – the importance of writing great spec scripts. Do’s and don’ts. 

We stressed the need for hard work, really studying the shows, setting high standards for yourself. That was the path to a script assignment for one of our shows.

A friend of mine was in the class and overheard the following:

Two coeds talking. Near the end of our discussion one turned to the other.

COED #1: So what do you think, Ken or Larry?

COED #2 (after some consideration): I’ll fuck Larry. I’d rather get a RHODA.

Postscript: Neither of us got lucky that night. And she never got a RHODA. But it was nice to know the students really were taking our career advice seriously.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Rookie Mistakes

Everyone has to start somewhere. For me and my writing partner, David Isaacs our first paid writing assignment was for an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. Prior to that we had been writing spec scripts, schlepping down to the Writers Guild to register them for protection, and then we peddled them to anyone who would read them.

Our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which had already been rejected by THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA) found its way into the hands of Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSONS. He liked it well enough to invite us to come in and pitch story ideas for the show. One hit the mark and we got the assignment.

Now came the hard part. Not the writing – but covering the fact that we were both utterly clueless of the process.

Step one was breaking the story. We met with Gordon and his partner, Lloyd Turner and worked out the beats of the story. Gordon then asked how long we needed to write the outline?

The outline? You have to write an outline?

I didn’t say that, but that’s what I was thinking. David and I wrote outlines for ourselves but they were usually handwritten scribbles on a couple pieces of notebook paper. I didn’t think that’s what he meant.

So we were on the spot. We didn’t want to say a week and have them say, “A week? It should take you two days.” Or we say two days and they say, “What? You’re just going to dash it off? It should take a month.”

We asked to see a copy of one of their outlines because we said, “every show has its own preference.” Even this was a stretch. They do vary, but we didn’t know that. There could have been one standard outline format used by every television show since Shakespeare’s day – how did we know?

They provided an outline. It was about seven/eight pages. We glanced at it and figured about three or four days. “Perfect,” they said. Whew. We navigated that minefield.

Once our outline was submitted and approved we were turned loose to write the script. Only hitch was that they needed it in two weeks. Normally that would not be a problem. But David and I were in the Army Reserves and those happened to be the two weeks we were ordered to report for active duty. Fortunately, we were in the same unit (we met in the Army Reserves) and were able to write the script at night at Fort Ord. Of course, that was a little strange. Picture one of those large barracks like in FULL METAL JACKET that houses fifty or sixty soldiers. It’s the evening. Guys are blaring the radio, smoking pot, drinking beer, playing cards or nerf basketball, and we’re sitting on a bunk saying things like, “Weezy, get over here!”
Script completed. Duty to country served. Monday morning upon our return I call Gordon to tell him we were bringing in the draft. “Great,” he said, “When can I have it?” I said, “Well, it’s 9:30. The Guild doesn’t open until 10. We’ve got to go over there and register the script, so I guess about 11:00.” He stopped me. “Schmuck!” he said. “You don’t have to register the script. I bought the script. You’re protecting yourself against me.” Oops. Didn’t know that. “Oh,” I said, “Then we can be there in twenty minutes.” “There you go!” he replied.

We hand-delivered the script and they were still laughing when we arrived.

Down through the years David and I have given a number of young writers their first assignment. And learning from our experience, we spell everything out. For you aspiring scribes, hopefully you too will get that first elusive script assignment. And hopefully you’ll get showrunners who will walk you through the process. But if not, don’t be proud. If there’s something you don’t know – ask. You may save yourself a lot of laughter that won’t be yours.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Friday Questions

What a concept! Friday Questions actually on Friday.

Jim S has a question based on a recent podcast with casting director Sheila Guthrie (if you haven’t listened you’re missing out on two great episodes).

You talked about getting the right actor, which got me thinking.

When you can't cast a part do you ever think it's because you can't just find the right actor, or do ever think if you can't cast a part maybe it's because the writing just isn't there yet?

Mostly it’s that we haven’t found the right actor. There was even a pilot we once had at CBS that we pulled because we couldn’t find the right two actors and didn’t want to just settle.

When the right actor reads you see the potential, even if that means rewriting to better take advantage of his gifts.

But I will say this, after hearing fifty actors trounce my material I do start to wonder what we found funny about it in the first place. The answer there is to just trust it.

From Markus:

Wasn't M*A*S*H shot in 4:3 fit for the TV sets of the time, and showing it in 16:9 cuts significant portions off of the image (which is at least as awful als colorized black/white originals...)? Or is this some sort of deluxe remastered version using original widescreen film?

MASH was filmed on 35 mm film so yes, they could go back to the negative cut and remaster it, which apparently they did.

On the air the show never looked as good to me. But that’s because I always screened the finished product in a theater on the big screen where the color and everything else was glorious (like my credit).

Jim S wonders:

How do you write when something huge in the news happened? I remember reading the book about the Dick Van Dyke Show and one of the stories Rose Marie told was having to do their show less than a week after Kennedy was shot.

The machine roles on, and schedules must be met. How does one do that in the face of a Kennedy-death type event?

An episode of BECKER that David Isaacs and I wrote was in production the day of 9-11. In fact, it was scheduled to shoot before a live studio audience that night. Obviously the filming was cancelled. The decision was made to shoot the show later in the week but without an audience.

The short answer is you just have to adjust. The relative importance of delivering a half-hour of television is minuscule compared to the magnitude of the world event.

And finally, from Doug G.:

What are your 3 or 5 best sitcoms ever that you never worked on in any capacity. Much like a lot of your readers, you were strictly a viewer of these sitcoms.

I’ll pick five although there are more.


What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Actor salaries for sitcoms

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Greg:

In an ensemble type show (The Office for example), does each actors salary based on how involved they are in the episode, or is it set per episode. Is Creed paid more when he has a few lines vs when he is basically a recurring (background type) character?

Each actor receives so much money per episode, all agreed upon in advance.  

Salaries for each actor are negotiated separately. The rate can vary depending on whether this is the actor’s first TV series or fourth. Once an actor has been in a series he has a base salary (known as his “quote”). The agent will try to improve on his quote for the new series.

The rates can also vary depending upon the actor’s popularity. Certain actors are audience favorites. They test well. So they can demand more money.

And if the actor is a current “flavor of the month” he might be offered multiple pilots or series. That means a bidding war.

Number of episodes is another issue. Some series regulars make deals for all shows produced. Other, more supporting characters, might be offered 8 of 13, something like that.

And then there are actors who are hired on a freelance basis. They may be a recurring character in the world of the show (say a waitress at the diner they occasionally frequent or a co-worker you see twice a season). The producer is willing to chance that that actor might be booked on something else the week he needs him so he won’t be available. In most of those cases, it’s easier to just write him out rather then make him a series regular. And there is always the danger that he gets a series of his own and is therefore no longer available to you.

You can’t go by the number of lines because for supporting characters that can fluctuate wildly from week to week. He may have a lot to do one episode and three lines the next.

One final thing I should note: Actors make their deals contingent upon approval from the network. In other words, a network can’t fall in love with an actor and then, thinking he has everyone over a barrel, start to negotiate for way more money. Deals have to be signed before the actor reads for the network. This protects the network and studio but it also means a lot more deal making for business affairs. Because if three actors read for every part that means that 2/3rd of them will be rejected and their deals null and void.

It’s pretty cutthroat out there so whatever the actor can get from the studio and network, God bless ‘em.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

EP83: The Making of CHEERS

Ken walks you through the process of producing an episode of CHEERS from start to the finish. From the writers room to the stage to the editing bay you’ll be there step by step. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


When first-run movies play in theaters (you remember theaters), they’re always preceded by four or ten trailers. And the trailers are always movies geared to the same people who came to see this feature. So for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT we were bombarded with big CGI action and/or horror films. AQUAMAN (glug glug), something set in a post-apocalyptic world (snooze), and something that looked like LOST but scary (“Where are we? Aaaaaa, there’s weird people in a lab experimenting with us!”). MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT is a fun movie, and if these trailers are any indication of what’s in the pipeline, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE is high art.

It’s pretty easy to review. You’ve seen some or all of the other MISSION IMPOSSIBLES? Think of the things you liked about them and this one has them, in some cases better and more exciting.

You know, Scientology would convert a lot more people if they said, “Join us and you’ll still look good at 56.” Tom Cruise appears almost ageless (although his face is getting a little puffy). You still totally buy him as an action hero. And you get so engrossed in the film that after a half-hour you stop thinking “He must be fucking nuts to support that insane religion.” Tom also does a lot of his own stunts, which is very impressive. And if the stunt is just too dangerous, the Church of Scientology forces Kirstie Alley to do it instead.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie knows how to ratchet up the suspense, get every last ounce out of every action sequence, and deliver a totally rollicking thrill ride. This shouldn’t be surprising. He won an Academy Award for the screenplay of THE USUAL SUSPECTS. The big question is: How could this be the same guy who last year wrote THE MUMMY?

MI: 6 (as hipsters or anyone who reads ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY call it) is sleek, filled with international locales. It’s James Bond for people who have never heard of Sean Connery… or Roger Moore. And it has the famous Lalo Schiffrin theme song. It’s worth seeing just for the opening and closing credits. I know you can’t wait for AQUAMAN, which looks like BRAVEHEART meets THE LITTLE MERMAID, but in the meantime, if you like summer popcorn movies that have death-defying stunts and Wolf Blitzer, go see MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT. Tom Cruise saves the world. If only we could get someone to save Tom Cruise.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Les Moonves mess

It is worth really following the Les Moonves saga as it unfolds. There have been numerous grand poobahs in the industry who have fallen from grace as a result of #MeToo. Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, various producers, showrunners, and on-air talent.

But this one is different.

When Harvey Weinstein was brought down it was a huge story. Here was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood dethroned and exposed. But see, here’s the thing: His company was losing money. He no longer had the clout he once had. And as a result, his inglorious exit from the business had little or no affect on it.

Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were high profile personalities. Their shows didn’t nose dive upon their departures. Kevin Spacey was removed from a movie he had already shot and his replacement received an Academy Award nomination. Spacey’s TV series goes on without him.

Ah, but CBS…

Les Moonves has done a spectacular job of leading CBS. And with the current corporate showdown with Viacom, his presence at the helm is more vital now than ever. Les Moonves has made a lot of money for the shareholders. And CONTINUES to make a lot of money. So it’s not so easy for the board to just say, “We’re shocked! We can’t have this! He has to go! Banish him!” No. The absolute last thing the board wants to do is replace Les Moonves.

On the other hand, the case against him appears strong enough that if he’s not removed there will be public outrage. Does the CBS board want to weather that shitstorm?

If Les steps down would CBS collapse? Of course not. Their stock will dip and my guess is creatively the organization will suffer considerably. The stock has already gone down 11% since Friday. There is no succession plan in place. So things will be chaotic. But CBS will survive. Apple has done okay since Steve Jobs passed away. Disney didn’t disappear after Walt went the way of Bambi's mother. And there’s still Warner Brothers without, well… the Warner brothers.

But this is a big test for Hollywood.  Money vs. principles. 

The CBS Board yesterday voted not to act on the matter, instead saying they would select outside counsel to conduct an investigation and then determine their course of action. In other words, it buys them time. They could either work out an exit strategy or find some way to excuse the charges and go forward with Les. And buying time puts distance on the story. In another month Trump will undoubtedly do something else appalling or idiotic and the country will be up in arms over that. Or, by that time, he will have done seven heinous things.

So stay tuned. There is obviously more to this story.

Julie Chen, by the way, is standing by her husband. Of course CBS is the network that aired THE GOOD WIFE.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Why I love living in "Hollywood"

Every so often Hollywood lives up to its reputation as the “dream factory.” Yes, we have crazy traffic and every loopy fad, con artist, opportunist, and cult gravitates here, but every so often the uniqueness of the area offers perks you can’t get anywhere else.

Like bumping into celebrities. Like Jennifer Garner on the next treadmill. Or Tom Hanks recognizing you.

Since so much filming takes place here it’s not uncommon to come upon a shoot. There’s George Clooney down the block waiting for a set-up to be lit. Here’s a location manager wondering if they can use your pool for a pilot starring Eliza Dushku?

To be fair, often times these location filmings are a royal pain in the ass. They snarl traffic even more.

But there was one recently that really tickled me. As many of you know, I love the ‘60s. Especially LA in the ‘60s. Well, Quentin Tarantino is currently filming his next movie that is set in Hollywood in 1969. Not sure of the premise. Probably a tender love story set against the Manson murders.

But for authenticity his crew has transformed a couple of blocks of Hollywood Blvd., recreating Hollywood in 1969. This includes bus signs, ads on benches, etc. Talk about entering a time machine.

So recently I went to dinner at Musso & Franks, which is right in the middle of the recreation. Took a couple of photos, and it was so cool to be back in 1969. With all due respect, you can’t do that in Baton Rouge.

Sure, amusement parks and Vegas can erect recreations, but it’s not like being on the actual boulevard.

What I really appreciate is that Tarantino made the choice to physically recreate it and not just use CGI.

I only hope I get half as much enjoyment out of the movie.

See for yourself.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The greatest drum solo ever!

John Bonham from Led Zepplin.  If you like drums (and who doesn't other than my mom when I tried to learn them?) you've got to hear this.  Ringo, eat your heart out.

Ladies and gentleman, the beat goes on... and on... and on. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Friday Questions

Last Friday Questions of the month. Is one of them yours???

Bryan leads off.

Friday (Baseball) Question: did you keep your scorebooks from your baseball days? Could you show what a page looks like? Any funny story associated with one (especially if while working with Dave Niehaus)?

Yes. I’ve kept all of my scorebooks, even from my minor league days. I keep waiting for Cooperstown to ask for them but so far I haven’t received that call. Maybe they have the number wrong.

Here’s a typical scorecard. Good luck deciphering it. But I can go back and instantly recap every inning and all the scoring. I can give you pitch counts, where every ball was hit, how every player moved from base to base, when there were pitching changes and pinch hitters. And that’s in addition to stats and notes at my fingertips along with the defensive alignment.
As for funny stories, Dave Niehaus and I were doing a game from Texas. It was the end of the season, 100 degrees at 8 at night, both teams were eliminated, and it was a TV game for us. So I did the first 4 ½ innings on TV and the rest alone on the radio. The game went 17 innings. And each team had 40 players on their roster and we set a major league record for the number of players used in a game. Needless to say, my scorecard was an utter mess. Trying to recap for the postgame show I said "I have no idea what I wrote.  Check tomorrow's paper." 

Jim S has left a question after listening to Episode 79 of my podcast about the realities of the writers room.

You said some interesting things about having to write when you're angry or distracted.

You obviously want to avoid asshole actors. When thinking of hiring someone, and you know the people he or she has worked with before, do you do a quiet check to see if they are Harry Morgan or Kathryn Heigel?

Oh you bet. We check with other writers who’ve worked with them. If possible, we check with crews as well. I want to know how they treat crew members.

There is a real “life’s too short” factor.

Not only will I do my due diligence, if I hear another producer is considering an actor who I know personally is a monster I will make a point of calling the producer and warning him. There are too many deserving actors who I would rather see get breaks then established “stars” who show no respect to anyone but themselves.

UPDATE:  Harry Morgan was GREAT, by the way.

Tom Galloway queries:

What if instead of Shelley Long/Diane leaving when she did, Ted Danson/Sam left (and she stayed)? Any thoughts on how y'all would've handled that?

If Ted left the show I think the Charles Brothers would have ended the series. It was Sam’s bar. Diane entered the world, but it was Sam’s world.

When Teddy finally did decide to leave after the eleventh season there was some talk about continuing without him but the decision was made to close up shop. Sam Malone was the heart and soul of CHEERS. I believe it was the right decision. 

And finally, here’s another baseball question, from opimus:

If you had it your way, who would be in booth with you and what teams besides the Dodgers?

Happy to broadcast for any big league team. And there are many current baseball announcers I would be thrilled to partner with.

But if I were hired and allowed to choose my partner, it would be Dan Hoard. Dan is the voice of the Cincinnati Bengals and U of Cincy, but he’s a great baseball announcer and we were partners in Syracuse. We have a great chemistry and together I think we would produce a top flight broadcast.

What's your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Will there be a FRASIER reboot?

An article appeared on trade websites saying a FRASIER re-boot may be in the works. So naturally I was bombarded with inquiries about it.

Here’s what I know:

Very little.

I don’t think the plan is to reboot like WILL & GRACE where everyone in the original cast comes back and the show picks up where it was. I understand the plan for FRASIER is more of a spinoff in another city with other characters. The article says Kelsey is meeting with writers.

Has anyone come up with an idea that he likes and wants to do? I have no idea. Who are the writers he’s meeting with? Don’t know that either.

I do know this: the new series will be compared to the original and that will be a tall order.

I’m more interested in who the creative team will be. Remember, so much of FRASIER was the writing. If some of the original writers want to come back then I’d be interested too.

The sense I get is that this is still a long ways off. But it’s certainly intriguing, isn’t it?

Hey, what about if he opens a surf shop in Hawaii? BIG WAVE FRASIER’S. Where’s Kelsey’s number?

UPDATE (since a few of you have asked):  One of the big attractions of participating in this new version of FRASIER (should all the planets line up) is the opportunity to work again and write again with David Isaacs.  "Levine & Isaacs" would return!  

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

EP82: Casting Director Sheila Guthrie: Part Two

Casting Director Sheila Guthrie talks to Ken about casting FRASIER, how to audition, mistakes to avoid, and some crazy casting stories you won’t believe. Lots of useful information, tips and laughs.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

FRASIER reboot?

Getting a lot of questions about a possible FRASIER reboot, whether I'd be involved, etc.  Will address all of this in tomorrow's post.  How's that for a teaser? 

"You tell 'em, Hamlet!"

Here was an interesting question posed to me as a writer – do I mind if audiences talk back to the actors during performances of my work? It’s a cultural issue. For some cultures it’s accepted and even encouraged.

I’m referring specifically to talking back to the actors. Feel free to laugh out loud, cheer, spontaneously applaud, even gasp. And of course yakking to the person next to you or taking a cellphone call should result in the death penalty, but what about calling out encouragement to the actors or warning them that the butler has a gun?

It’s a tough one because when I write for a live audience (either in theatre or multi-cam TV) I generally don’t expect the audience to respond. I write in a certain rhythm and that flow would obviously be disrupted if folks were calling out things between lines.  On the other hand, I've written two short plays, THE HOOK UP and AVOCADO TOAST that are both interactive with the audience.  Those have been great fun and audiences really love to participate. 

I’ve had limited experience with paying customers just calling things out to actors on stage,  but I can tell you one time on a multi-cam sitcom I wrote we had an audience who engaged in this behavior and it really threw off the actors’ timing. Also, it was hard to eliminate the audience “feedback” from the soundtrack so we were unable to use it and had to resort to the laugh track that week, which I truly hate.

I also don’t know how the non-talkers feel about this. I imagine if they’re not expecting it it can adversely affect their theatergoing experience. But I’ve been to movie theatres in cities where this practice is common and since the audience is prepared for it, no one seems to mind. It's all part of the fun.

So I guess my answer is this: If the actors are prepared for it and don’t mind, and the other theatergoers are prepared for it and don’t mind then what the hell? My ultimate goal is to please audiences and have them leave happy and fulfilled so if this is part of their enjoyment talk away.

But if it’s a few isolated people sprinkled in the audience then no, you’re just spoiling the experience for everyone else. You’re rude and self-centered and don’t care about anyone else’s feelings. The beauty of live theatre is that you have live human beings on stage. They’ve rehearsed for weeks and they’re busting their ass on stage to entertain and move you. At least have the courtesy to let them perform uninterrupted.

This debate underscores the thing I so love about writing for the theatre (or multi-cams) – live audiences are part of the experience. And every audience for every performance is different. There’s always a sense of excitement and suspense. You never really know how an audience will respond. Last year on Broadway I saw THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. There was wall-to-wall laughter; one giant guffaw after another. Seemingly bulletproof. But talking to one of its producers he said there are occasional nights when the cast is just a little off or the vibe is weird in the theatre and the entire evening falls flat. You can’t take anything for granted.

But the upside is you could also go see a live performance one night that is absolutely thrilling and far exceeds your expectations.

So in conclusion, I think it depends on the circumstances, although I would be very curious one time to see one of my full-length plays in this environment.   Who knows?  I might get into the spirit of it and spontaneously call out "Brilliant!  Who wrote that?" 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The life and genius of Robin Williams

Well worth watching is the new Robin Williams documentary on HBO. They do an excellent job of capturing his genius and delving into the man behind the mania. I felt it was balanced and fairly accurately conveyed the Robin Williams I knew.

I won’t go into details of my relationship with Robin because I’ve spelled them out many times already on this blog, but I was in improv classes with him. And after class would get something to eat with him and others in the group. Later I had a movie idea I thought he’d be great for and he invited me up to his ranch in Northern California to discuss it, but the timing never worked out -- he went off to do some other project, and I was involved with something else.

The thing I always said about Robin (and they touch briefly on this) was that he had an on-and-off switch. During class he was the zany brilliant Robin we all know, but later in the restaurant he was quiet as a church mouse. Funny but at the time I almost felt a little cheated. It’s like if you were hanging with Frank Sinatra in the ‘50s (and he couldn’t get you girls) you’d at least want to hear him sing.

But after watching the documentary I got a new perspective. Looking back, I’m now somewhat thankful he wasn’t “on.” Because my reaction to the two-hour profile was that it was exhausting. Robin was truly a force of nature and it seems almost tragically inevitable that a light that bright would burn itself out, but it was comforting to see he had quiet moments along the way and that his life wasn’t just one super intense fever dream.

The end of course is so sad. For the extraordinary gift that he was bestowed it came with a very steep price. This documentary is filled with rare footage (even stuff with my improv classmates Andy Goldberg, Wendy Cutler, Paul Willson, and Susan Elliott), and even revelations. Like everyone else, I always assumed Robin left his first wife for his son’s nanny, but it turns out he and his wife had been separated for a year before he began a relationship with the nanny.

If you love Robin Williams (and who doesn’t), treat yourself to this profile of a once-in-a-lifetime entertainer.

Monday, July 23, 2018

It might not be your fault

I know this sounds like a convenient excuse, and you’re welcome to use it, but it’s also true.

Comedy writers should realize there are a lot of people who don’t know how to read comedy scripts. They just don’t have the ability to visualize how something will play based on reading the text. Likewise there are people who can’t read blueprints and people who can’t read music. Personally, I have trouble with mimes. Someone is on stage pantomiming an activity and I have no clue what he’s doing.

Even some other writers have trouble deciphering comedy scripts. I have a friend who’s a wonderful dramatic playwright. When she saw a reading of one of my plays she said, “I had no idea it was so funny. On the page I couldn't tell.”

(NOTE: This is yet another reason why I suggest you gather some actors or friends and have a reading. At least YOU’LL know if it works.)

But take heart. This is not a skill most folks require. It’s not like you’re trying to drive and you have no depth perception.

The problem is this: Many of these people who can’t read comedy scripts are in positions to judge your work. They judge festivals and contests, they do coverage on your screenplay, they are network, agency, and studio gatekeepers. I once had an agent who admitted to me he had no idea reading a script whether it was funny. No problem for me since I was established; big problem for a young writer hoping to get representation by sending this man a writing sample.

Especially if your comedy comes out of character and attitude is this problematic. You may write a hilarious scene but there are no “jokes” per se. A big audience laugh might be “Ohhh-kay” but on paper it just looks like a word. Some readers look specifically for “jokes.” “The last time I was this pissed was when…”  And those scripts tend to feel jokey and artificial when they get on their feet. 

So if your script or play is rejected, know that among the possible reasons is that the reader just wasn’t capable of “getting it.” And hey, that IS a great excuse, isn’t it?

Note for new readers:  Whenever I can't think of an appropriate visual I post a photo of Natalie Wood.  Enjoy.  

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The music "bumpers" on CHEERS

That's what we call those little musical passages that transition scenes -- bumpers. 

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post because I have a special guest to answer it.

Dan Ball asks:

When I watch CHEERS, I always wonder how music was handled? I know Craig Safan scored the whole series (along with some great scores for THE LAST STARFIGHTER and REMO WILLIAMS), but would he actually score each episode or record a bunch of cues at one recording session per season that the director/editor could whip out in the editing room? Was it actually the director and editor who chose those cues? You've probably had to sit in this music chair plenty times in the past, so what's your strategy for picking the best ear candy for us, the audience? Are you more/less demanding in your scoring tastes because of your background in radio?

I didn't select the music cues.  For the shows I ran I had our line producer handle that.  Nor was I involved in the music on CHEERS.   So I personally don’t know the answer to Dan's question, but I figured why not go to the source? Craig Safan was nice enough to provide the answer.

You’re both right! I would score around half of each season’s episodes specifically for individual episodes. Usually these were recorded in groups of three episodes per session as there were union minimums and only one episode’s worth of music wouldn’t fill up that minimum amount of the musicians’ time. But I didn’t score each and every episode… I also recorded a “library” of musical cues in the “Cheers” style at the beginning of each season. Then that library was used for the shows that weren’t individually scored. Of course any new music I’d write for shows during the season would get added to that library so it would become quite extensive and after so many seasons… well you get the idea. It wasn’t the director or producer or editor who would choose the library music cues… it was the music editor. That would be Chips Swanson who was the music editor during the entire run of “Cheers”.

Thank you so much, Craig. And just know I’d be happy to return the favor. If you ever want me to conduct a session for you sometime, just say the word. But seriously, how cool that actual artists give their time to contribute inside info to this blog?

Saturday, July 21, 2018

If Chrisopher Nolan re-booted MARY POPPINS


FROM: Christopher Nolan
TO: President of Walt Disney Pictures


After watching the original 1964 movie once I know how we could improve this beloved children’s classic and make it relevant for today’s theatergoers.

The color scheme must be grey.  Most of the film will take place at night.  

It is still a period piece but we update it slightly. It now takes place during the bombing of London in World War II. Let’s take some creative historical license and blow up Big Ben and the Parliament building. We have the means to do that in a very cool way. To punctuate the moment cut to an Englishman saying “SuperFUCKINGcalifragilisticexpialidocious!” as a double decker bus almost decapitates him. We can still say two fucks and keep our PG-13.

Bert, the street performer, is a loner with a dark past. Dick Van Dyke was fine for his day but I see Steve Buscemi. He should always be an ominous presence. He himself was abused as a child and we must always be afraid when he is around children.

His fellow street people are all damaged due to the horrors of World War I. There might be some comedy in seeing them act silly as long as we understand it is because they are deeply traumatized.

There will be no singing, dancing, or animation in this new version. Anything to take us out of the reality of innocent people being slaughtered is counter-productive. Modern children don’t want fuzzy bedtime stories. They want to be scared shitless. Let’s do that for three hours.

Mary Poppins arrives. She too has a dark past. Sexual abuse and forced into prostitution has caused her mind to snap. Her sunny optimistic disposition is really psychotic repression. She thought she was applying for position of madame not nanny. but to avoid a savage beating from her pimp she takes the job. Julie Andrews was serviceable for the time. But now we need a warrior. Casting suggestion: Katee Sackhoff as Mary Poppins.

The kids take to her right away. She still has the magic bag filled with wonders that they’ve never seen. But those wonders are dildos and handcuff and cock rings. The kids play with them. We get our heart, our comedy, and our bonding. If time allows, Bert comes over and teaches them how to play doctor.

Keep some of the familiar conventions but justify them. The floating tea party is the result of the children being drugged. The dancing penguins is a bad acid trip. I have some leftover designs for the Penguin in DARK KNIGHT. We can use those.

Keep the scene where Mary takes the kids to the bank to see their disinterested banker father (who has a dark past, by the way) and it turns into chaos. But let the chaos be a bank robbery. Let the children be held hostage. Let their father learn to appreciate his children by seeing guns to their heads. Let Mary impale one of the robbers with her umbrella. Let it go right through him. This starts a gun battle. One of the children dies. That will get the dad’s attention to really love the remaining ones.  Let the dead child be his favorite.  That ups the anguish -- always a crowd pleaser. 

Eventually the family’s home is bombed so there’s no further need for a nanny. Mary moves on thus setting up the franchise for sequels. I have some ideas for how she can clash with Mr. Belvedere but I’ll save those for MP2: THE WAR OF THE APRONS.

As always, these recommendations are non-debatable. Please confirm their brilliance at your earliest convenience so I can get the wardrobe people working on Mary’s armored house dress.



Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day. And Natalie Wood's birthday.  She would have been 80.  Happy Birthday, Natalie!

DARON72 is up first.

You wrote a few episodes of "Open All Night" which was based on the British series "Open All Hours." Have you seen the 2016 sequel series "Still Open All Hours" and do you think a show with a format like that would work today?

I’ve never even seen the original British series. I didn’t know there was a British series. So… no.

Sure the show could work today. It’s a fun workplace setting that you could populate with colorful characters.

Although, the best comedy about a convenience store for my money is Kevin Smith’s movie, CLERKS.

From Carson:

I notice that HULU now has all 11 seasons of M*A*S*H. By the way, it's in 16x9 HD and it looks great. I was wondering, do you get residuals off of this? I don't care to know how much, I'm just curious if you still get some type of compensation or if things in the 70s were just structured much differently.

I am supposed to get something but I don’t know the formula and so far I haven’t received much if anything from streaming platforms.

I still do receive residuals from syndication and cable, and since MASH is now on three or four cable channels and numerous broadcast channels I continue to see some compensation. Not a lot, but hey, it’s something.

I’m also thrilled that episodes I wrote decades ago are still being seen and enjoyed.

Dhruv has a question after reading my post on Pepe Le Pew.

Since today's blog is about cartoons, thought I would ask the question I wanted to ask for a long time.

Why do many people in Hollywood hate Disney?

Family guy makes a whole lot of parody about them and none of them paints them good.

Oscar hosts like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg too made fun of them in their monologues. Billy about Walt and Whoopi about Euro Disney.

This is just a guess on my part. But it’s because Disney is the establishment. And wildly successful.

The criticism is like people throwing rocks at the palace wall.

Also, Disney has a very clear image. And it’s easy to make fun of that image.

But Disney is still the gold standard when it comes to animation (especially with Pixar now in the fold).

I think the palace walls will stand.

And finally, Nancy wonders:

I am binge watching "Entourage". Is this anywhere near the real Hollywood? The abusive agent, over the top lifestyle, the girls throwing themselves at the stars and other excesses showcased in the series.

The abusive agent is real for sure. He was my agent for eleven minutes.  I believe the series was loosely modeled on Mark Wahlberg’s rise to fame. Mark was also one of the show’s executive producers.

I would hope the lifestyle excess is an exaggeration (although it probably isn’t). Surrounding yourself with toadies is certainly real.

The women throwing themselves at these people, that unfortunately I would have no way of knowing. All I can say is it has not happened to me. And I keep waiting.

And waiting.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 19, 2018

An Emmy for Megan?

The most interesting Emmy question for me is whether Megan Amram wins.


Megan Amram is a TV writer with impressive credits (THE GOOD PLACE, SILICON VALLEY, THE SIMPSONS, PARKS & REC). She may have figured a way to practically steal an Emmy. There is a category called “Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series” and one for “Outstanding Series.” Essentially a six-episode web series. Anyone can mount one of those.

Megan figured that if she did a web series that qualified she could win an Emmy. The title of her series clearly tells you her intent. AN EMMY FOR MEGAN. The whole point of this exercise is to win an Emmy.  Credit her for an ingenious idea. 

And because Megan is in the business she was able to get cameo appearances from such Hollywood luminaries as Ted Danson, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Rogen, Rian Johson, and even J.J. Abrams. Plus, she’s well enough connected in the community that I’m sure she has plenty of Academy member friends who voted her in.  These same friends will doubtless vote for her to win.   So she probably will.  

All of this is fun. And her website is amusing. But if she wins, I think it makes the Television Academy look like idiots. If someone can beat the system as a goof that easily and actually walk away with an Emmy then the award itself is cheapened and the credibility of the Academy comes seriously into question.

Once the TV Academy starts letting web series with minimal requirements eligible for Emmys then the whole award means nothing. It is supposed to represent excellence in television. If GAME OF THRONES receives the same award as some amateur prankster making a homemade video how prestigious is the award? Jesus. Even the Golden Globes don’t give out statues for home movies.

The television landscape is changing, that’s for sure. More platforms, more ways to watch. It's clearly a dilemma for the Academy.   My heart goes out to them.   But they better find a way to preserve the honor and dignity of Emmys or they’ll just become trinkets you can buy for the price of six five-minute episodes.  Actually, they don't even have to be that long.