Wednesday, December 12, 2018

EP102: Short Attention Span Podcast

Ken tackles a variety of unrelated, but hopefully humorous, topics. You’ll learn the amazing thing Mary Tyler Moore said in his living room, a discussion of actors not saying their lines, and Ken’s handy tips for how to create a hit procedural. Laughs and riches can be

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Maybe the most ingenious radio contest ever

This was in the early ‘70s. There was a big radio war going on in San Diego between stations KCBQ and KGB. The program director of KCBQ was Buzz Bennett. Picture Frank Zappa.

The competition was fierce. They each had promotions and were giving away money and prizes.  Lots of bells and whistles.  (Stuff like this used to routinely happen when one company didn't own every station.) 

One afternoon KCBQ was having technical problems. The station would periodically go off the air. The engineers scrambled and usually got it back on in five or ten minutes. But five seconds of dead air is an eternity in radio. Add to that, the afternoon shift was considered “prime time.” Other than in mornings, a station’s largest audience would be in the afternoon.

So KCBQ really had a problem.

Until Buzz Bennett came up with a solution.

He instituted a contest. If the station went off the air again, the first person who called when it came back on would win $100. As a result he had thousands and thousands of people listening when the station was OFF THE AIR. Now to me, THAT’S a program director.

It’s one of the reasons I mourn the death of terrestrial radio. KCBQ off the air sounded better than most stations today on the air.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A STAR IS BORN -- my review

It seems like every twenty years or so someone remakes A STAR IS BORN. There was the original with Janet Gaynor in 1937, Judy Garland took the stage in 1954, and then Barbra Streisand in 1976 starred in the horrible reboot that should have been called A STAR IS (still)BORN. Now comes the version for the Millennials starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also directed).

Lady Gaga was a revelation. Her musical talent was well known, but her acting ability is surprisingly off-the-charts. This is not a woman who needs to dress in meat. This is a super talented lady (Gaga) who can sing, compose, play piano, dance, and now act. Don’t be surprised if she wins an Oscar. Hey, they gave one to Cher.  (Actually, two Oscars because she's a lock for "Best Song.")

Lady Gaga steals the movie, although, in fairness, how much credit should go to Bradley Cooper for coaxing that performance? Cooper, in his first “megging” stint, also proved to have a strong visual eye. Talent-wise, he's in the wunderkind category too. 

My only quibble is that it’s 2 hours and 16 minutes long. I could take a half hour out of that film in well…. a half hour. You could too. It’s easy. As you’re watching the movie, whenever you yell out “WE GET IT!” you could lose the rest of that scene and the five-minute montage that follows.


I’ve heard people complain that the ending was “sad.” Well, of course it’s sad. Every version of A STAR IS BORN is sad. Streisand’s was the saddest because I was with people and couldn’t just leave in the middle.

Like BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, the music is the real attraction, and A STAR IS BORN more than delivers. If there are still any doubters that Lady Gaga is a superstar this movie should put those doubts to rest. She’s not just a meat model. But truthfully, I thought she looked the best when she wasn’t all glammed up. It was a joy in the early part of the film to watch her act and sing as “Stefani Germanotta” not “Lady Gaga.”

Oh, and if you need another reason to love her, when there were those horrific brush fires in California, my high school, Taft in Woodland Hills was an evacuation center. Lady Gaga showed up one night with pizzas for everyone. There was no publicity attached, no photo ops. I learned about it from someone who was there. (Barbra Streisand, on the other hand, dealt with the fire by hiring her own fire department to protect HER home.)

I expect A STAR IS BORN to receive a lot of Academy Award nominations, primarily because it’s one of the few contending films that people are actually going to see.

I look forward to the 2038 version starring Princess Charlotte.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Baby It's Cold Outside

A number of people have asked me to comment on the recent flap where a Cleveland radio station banned the longtime American Songbook standard, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because in light of today’s sensibilities the lyrics are potentially offensive to some. Now it used to be a reader would ask my opinion on something, I’d give it, and folks either agreed or disagreed with me.

That was then.

Today even a simple issue like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a loaded question. Because if I say, sure, play the record, I will be accused on condoning date rape, just as saying that Woody Allen once made funny movies unleashes a flurry of angry readers who will accuse me of condoning child molestation. A shout out to the “Honeymooners” means I’m all for spousal abuse. And I’ll be reviewing BLACKKKLANSMEN later this month. Take a guess what I’ll be labeled if I dare to not like that movie.

The point is, what should be a simple question is not. Not in 2018. So I ask you to take my answer at face value, not use it to label me, ostracize me, or blow it up into something way bigger than it is.

I happen to like the song. There’s a version played on (the best oldies station on the internet and planet) by Dolly Parton & Rod Stewart that I find charming. You can listen yourself at the bottom of this post (unless you’re in Cleveland — your ears need to be shielded). I’m all for #MeToo but I believe the spirit of the song is flirty not sinister. Yes, there are a couple of lines that today the lyricist might deftly avoid like “what’s in this drink?” But I never get the sense that he’s a dangerous predator. That’s just me. I don’t fear for Dolly’s safety.

I also understand the song "Kiss da Girl" from Walt Disney's LITTLE MERMAID was just taken off the 20 year repertoire list of a singing group due to 'concerns'. Huh????

I think you have to consider the context. Was the song considered objectionable before the #MeToo movement? A song I still hear all the time on Classic Rock and oldies stations is “Getting Better All the Times” by the Beatles from the classic Sgt. Pepper’s album. I’ve yet to hear an outcry to ban it. Ever listen to the lyrics?

I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved

To me that’s worse — even if it’s the Beatles and even if it’s a song on what many herald as the greatest rock album of all-time.

On the other hand, there is a song from the ‘60s sung by the Crystals called, “He Hit Me — It Felt Like a Kiss.” Now you NEVER hear that one on oldies stations (terrestrial or internet or wherever) and for good reason. Good God! A woman’s being abused and thinks it’s a good thing. Even when it came out people were saying “Really???” By the way, it was written by Carole King.

The line of acceptability changes as society does (although that Crystals song — Yikes!). Intent and era a song was released need to be factored in. If you don’t like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” or feel it’s inappropriate fine. But should it be banned from a radio station? Jesus, don’t we have bigger problems to worry about?

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Weekend Post

Mike Nichol's & Elaine May were two improv performers in Chicago who really clicked. So much so that they became a comedy team.  And a sensation!  

This was in the late '50's/early '60s.  Nichols went on to be an incredible director, as did May.  Sadly, Mike has passed away but Elaine is alive and well and starring on Broadway.

Here is a bit they did on the 1959 Emmys.  It's nice to know that nothing has really changed.  Enjoy.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s always a little more poignant to spend December 7th in Hawaii. Let us never forget the day that will live in infamy.

Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

YEKIMI starts it off:

Do you find it harder to write comedy [or other stuff] nowadays then you did when you were younger? I can remember back in my high school years and later just writing joke after joke after joke. [Actually started writing jokes for morning DJs in my senior year of high school...and kept it up even after I went into radio myself, although I never did mornings.] Now that I'm way older, it seems the jokes are few and far between then they were in my younger days. I'm guessing maybe it's because every internal organ on me has malfunctioned except my spleen [and I'm keeping a sharp eye on that] and after several surgeries and other medical problems, things just don't seem that funny anymore.

Actually it’s the opposite for me.  I would have to say it's easier.  I guess the years of experience have allowed me to discover different ways of drawing out laughs. Or the world is just so horrific these days that I need the escape that comedy writing provides me. So as long as my organs continue to work I’ll keep writing.

From -30-:

A follow-up question about working late into the night. How productive are you
3 A.M? Can you really think of something better that didn't come to you at 10:30? Isn't your brain fried? I sometimes (rarely) had to work 16 hours at a non-creative job simply because the job had to be done by morning and I know the results weren't always stellar. I can't imagine trying to be funny when 99% of your brain is screaming "Let me out of here." Also, what time did these sessions start?

When I run a show I will usually end a late night rewrite at 1:30 and have everyone return earlier the next morning to finish and just send down to the stage what we have with instructions that the rest will eventually follow.

This is because you’re right. Something that takes an hour to fix when you’re fresh at 10 in the morning will take three hours at 3 in the morning and probably not be as sharp.

Another thing I do – if there’s one whole new scene or tough section to address we’ll do that first then go back and do the rest of the script. You don’t want to get to that tough section at 2 in the morning after you’re already burned out..

For late night sessions we usually don’t begin actually writing until 8 or 9. From 6-8 we’re discussing the attack and in many cases re-plotting the story.

I’m reminded of writer Earl Pomerantz taking a break at 1:30 in the morning from a late night rewrite and saying, “There has to be an easier way of making $300,000 a year.”

J Lee asks:

When you and David got your first writing assignment for M*A*S*H, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", it was right after the show changed the relationship between Frank and Margaret, with her engagement to Donald. Was there anything you had thought about writing for them in terms of situations or lines (or rejoinders to them from Hawkeye) when you made your pitch for a script assignment that you now couldn't use, because what was good for Seasons 1-4 no longer worked for the dynamic in Season 5?

Gene Reynolds, who was the showrunner then, was incredibly organized. Before we pitched story ideas we met with him and he went over where the series was at that moment. He did it for that express purpose – so we wouldn’t be pitching stories they couldn’t use.  We knew where the characters were, what elements the show wanted to emphasize that year, etc. It made coming up with story ideas so much easier. All just part of good showrunning and Gene was the best.

And finally, from Jonny M.:

You often talk about giving writers more freedom from network interference as way to making better shows. After browsing through the list of original content on Amazon Prime and Hulu (where I'm assuming interference is limited), I'm seeing a lot of stinkers. Does this not give some credence to the idea that left to their own devices writers will often stray into vanity projects with limited appeal and questionable quality? I suppose those personal projects have brought us some great shows like Mad Men, but then on the other side you have results like A Crisis in Six Scenes (shouldn't have someone interfered with this one?).

First off, remember the late William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

You never really know what’s going to work. And yes, there are stinkers, but such is the case with broadcast TV WITH all the interference.

But by giving writers more freedom you at least have the opportunity of landing something special like MAD MEN or THE SOPRANOS. Neither of those shows would have gotten on the major networks and if they did they’d be so over-managed that any truly original idea would be squelched. So as I see it, betting on talent is still a better roll of the dice.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

EP101: Product Placement or how Coca Cola almost destroyed our movie career.

Ken explores the various forms of product placement in films and TV. And how a scene he and his partner wrote involving Coca Cola caused a huge stink.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A piano wouldn't help

A couple of weeks ago in the Improv workshop I attend we did an exercise that well… produced very few laughs (I’m being charitable). One of the class members had done this exercise years before in a different venue to better results. Back then they had a piano accompanying them, waited longer between punchlines, and had different sight lines. He suggested that not having those elements may have contributed to the lack of laughter. Okay, he might have a point.

But there was something else to consider. And in this case, in my best professional judgment, it was this other factor that truly explained it. 

We all SUCKED.  

It just wasn’t our night, not with that exercise. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you have a hot night and everybody is hilarious. And then there are nights when it’s a struggle. That night was a Herculean struggle.

I bring this up because comedy writers are always wrestling with this dilemma. When something doesn’t work it’s our job to determine why and how to fix it. And it’s easy to say, “The air conditioning was faulty, his tie was crooked and caused a distraction, the actor mumbled a key word, the camera didn’t frame him properly, the audience was blocked by the boom mic,” etc. Any and all of those factors could have been the problem. But I’ve learned to first ask, “Is it us? Did it not get a laugh because it’s a bad line?”

It’s only after I honestly determine that the joke should have worked do I start considering outside influences. But the bottom line is I blame myself first. And it’s all a function of being as objective as you can possibly be.

I remember the first year of CHEERS we were rewriting a script, someone came up with a joke that Glen Charles loved, and he said, “That’s the best joke of the entire season.” The next day at runthrough it bombed and when we got to that line in the rewrite he said, “Jesus. What were we thinking with that piece of shit?”

Having a piano playing underneath would not have helped that joke. Being tough on material means being tough on yourself. But it’s worth it. At least I sure hope so because that accounted for a lot of late night rewrites I’ll never get back.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Comic strip tease

Got a lovely note recently from Duane Abel, who does the comic strip ZED. He listens to my podcast, which is really cool because I’m a fan of his work. And it reminded me that at one time I too wanted to write a comic strip. I’ve always been an amateur cartoonist. You can see an example above. And I did have a comic strip appear in the local Woodland Hills newspaper when I was in high school. It was a weekly paper and after a few months I was let go for budgetary reasons. They couldn’t afford me. I was making $5 a week. They must've really been strapped because I offered to do it for free and they still said no. 

I investigated how you got a comic strip into real newspapers. You had to go through syndication firms. The big one I seem to remember was King Syndication. I don’t know what it is now, or even if the process has changed. But I did learn this – it was HARD to get accepted by King Syndication. Lots of people submitted strip ideas and only a select few got chosen.

That was discouraging but not crushing. I knew I wanted to somehow get into comedy and figured that any avenue I chose would have strict gatekeepers.

No, what really put the brakes on my comic strip career was this: the pressure. At least the presumed pressure. The drawing was no problem. I could draw and was quite comfortable working in pen & ink. But I would have to come up with a joke every single day. That’s SEVEN whole jokes a WEEK. On Sunday it had to be a longer joke.

For God sakes, I’m not a machine!

The irony of course is that as a comedy writer I had to come up with seven jokes every fifteen minutes. Still, there’s a part of me that always thought, what a great life comic strip writers probably have. I’d see pictures of Charles Schulz (PEANUTS) working in his beautiful studio and sigh. (Of course later a Northern California fire destroyed that studio, but still.) I hope I’m right. I’ve always loved comic strip art and admired many of the artists. I just assume they love their work. And what could be better than that? Okay… a cartoon series based on your comic. And maybe a movie… and merchandising..

Monday, December 03, 2018

A Friday Question that turned into a Monday Rant

It’s from Jim S.

I seem to have read that many of today's modern comedies are sort of half-written and the actors, such as Steve Carrell, are expected to improv lines. I saw the outtakes of Get Smart and you'd see Carrell giving multiple different lines for one shot. This improv technique didn't work for Ghostbusters.

So my question. Shouldn't a script be tight before going to film. I recall a Mark Twain saying - the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Part two of the question. If actors are expected to save/contribute/improv, is that fair to the actors who are just actors and is it unfair to the writers?

For all the reasons you list I personally don’t adhere to the practice of just using the shooting script as a blueprint.

I will concede that in some cases it works – if you have the right actors, director, and all the planets line up. But with millions of dollars at stake to go into production with your fingers crossed that divine intervention will occur does not seem a feasible game plan. But that’s just me.

First off all, there’s the pride issue. As the screenwriter I would like to think that I have provided the actors a solid story and all the tools necessary to make a strong cohesive movie that everyone can be proud of. I’m not giving them a half-completed job and saying “Here. You finish it.” My name is on the screen. I take a certain pride of authorship.

And even though I do believe “the best idea wins” I don’t feel it’s fair to expect others to bail me out.

When my scripts go to the stage I don’t want them to just be “good enough for now.” As you mentioned, a lot of time goes into choosing just the right word or concept or order of words within a sentence. And that’s fine. That’s my job as a writer.

Now the reality is in many cases the writer does turn in what he feels is his best, tightest screenplay, and the studio and director just shit on it. Does the improvising then improve the script or cheapen it? You get a sense of how Hollywood values screenwriters that they feel day player actors can do it better.  So I also find the practice insulting.

Another thing, movies should not just be about stringing gags together. Comedy needs to be crafted out of character and setting up comic situations. Laughs come from attitudes and emotions. There’s always the danger when actors start improvising that they may come up with funny lines but they undermine the character or story. The director has to always be aware of the big picture.

As for the actors, you’re right, it’s unfair to ask them to also improvise and fix the script. For many that’s not their training or process. It's like saying, “I hired you to paint this room. But you’ll also have to build cabinets.”

My motto is always hire the best actor. I don’t want to pass on a better actor because he can’t improvise. It seems to me it’s a better bet to enlist the best writers and best actors rather than okay writers and UCB graduates.

But Judd Apatow would disagree and between us, who has made more successful movies? So there you go.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Weekend Post

Saddened to hear of the death of President George H.W. Bush.  Even though he was a Republican and I'm a Democrat I always respected him and always believed he had the country's best interests at heart.  He conducted himself with class and dignity, and I think it's safe to say all Americans wished him well regardless of their political affiliation.   But that was respected that was earned.

Here's a glowing example of how he put our nation above politics.  He lost the election to Bill Clinton.  And yet, he took the time to write the incoming president the following letter. 

Oh, for the days when we had a mensch in the White House.   Thank you for your service, President Bush.  I do believe history will be kind to you. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Friday Questions

So much for November. Let’s end the month with Friday Questions.

Joe starts us off.

I am a big fan of John Candy. You said you loved him and he loved your script and told you not to change a word. Did you ever think of writing a script specifically for him? John Hughes wrote great parts for Candy, but otherwise it seemed like he was saddled with a lot of mediocre scripts. I would have loved to see him in another Levine-Isaacs script.

We would have loved to. The closest was when David Isaacs and I tried to get the rights to option the book CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. We wanted John to play the lead, Ignatius J.Reilly.

But it turned out seventeen other people wanted the rights and they were a lot higher up on the show business food chain than us. So it never happened.  

(Note that none of them have been able to crack the adaptation.  We probably saved ourselves a lot of serious aggravation.) 

Kevin Lauderdale asks:

Have we heard you on CHEERS as the announcer when the gang is watching sports on TV?

No. That was before I ventured into sportscasting. You will hear Jon Miller occasionally along with Larry McKay.

On the other hand, you will hear me on FRASIER, BECKER, MODERN FAMILY, MAJOR DAD, THE SIMPSONS, a bunch of other shows that probably will never be shown again. Also a couple of indie movies when people are watching ballgames.

Those one cent residuals really come in handy during holiday season.

PolyWogg queries:

I have a question along the lines of "The Show Must Go On!" and what you do if/when your deadline is looming and it's really "not there"?

You still have to tough it out. It might take a lot longer but you do the best you can.

Look, not every episode can be a classic. Some turn out better than others. You just have to resist the temptation to say, “that’s good enough, let’s move on.”

You go into each episode hoping it will be great, and sometimes you wind up putting lipstick on a pig. My feeling was always “even if it’s not a great episode at least there will be five or more solid laughs.”

The truth is you’re not just being paid for your talent. You’re being paid for your ability to create on demand. Plenty of times you’re not “feeling it.” You have a cold, you’re pissed at the notes, you had a fight with your spouse, rainy days & Mondays always get you down. But you still have to crank out the material at a consistently high level. In some ways that’s the hardest part of the job.

From Mitchell Hundred:

So when are you going to go on Alan Alda’s new podcast?

When he asks me. Actually, I’d rather he go on mine.

I’ve listened to Alan’s podcast and it’s terrific. He’s such an ingratiating guy.

And finally, VincentS wonders:

Since "I" comes before "K" how did you and David Isaacs decide on billing when you first partnered up?

Neither of us can alphabetize.

Actually, initially my name came first because I called David and asked if he wanted to write with me.

Some writing teams have an arrangement where every year they switch billing. I offered that to David and he said, “No, let’s leave it. My relatives know exactly where to look to see my name.”

But on ALMOST PERFECT, which we produced with Robin Schiff, when the three of us did a script together we rotated the names all over the place.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

EP100: We Made It! EPISODE 100!

Ken looks back at the insanity of over 60 hours of podcast material
and reprieves his favorite three stories one from TV, one from radio, and one from baseball. Thanks to everyone for listening and subscribing. On to the next 100!

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Kominsky Method

Okay, first off if Alan Arkin doesn’t win an Emmy they should just shut down the Academy. He is absolutely spectacular. Michael Douglas is no slouch either but Arkin steals every scene he’s in. When Arkin gives a eulogy early in the series it’s an absolute masterclass in acting. So between Douglas and especially Arkin you know you’re in for terrific performances when you watch THE KOMINKSY METHOD, now available on Netflix.

Second, who am I to review Chuck Lorre? He’s way more rich and successful than I am, and we’re supposed to be peers damnit! So this is less of a “review” and more of my general impressions.

THE KOMINSKY METHOD is way more nuanced and layered than his multi-camera mega hits. That said, I hope you like prostate jokes. Still, Lorre is stretching here and if not everything works I appreciate the effort.

The show is sometimes funny and frequently thoughtful. Douglas and Arkin play two aging men trying to deal with mortality, the consequences of mistakes in their lives, and a world that has passed them by. And prostate issues. Lots of prostate issues. They’re often angry, occasionally disillusioned, and many times depressed.

But what’s missing for me is a real drive. Let me compare THE KOMINSKY METHOD with BARRY for a moment. I chose BARRY because both deal with acting classes as a primary arena. But Barry is a hit man trying desperately to get out and battling life-and-death forces that are pulling him back in. There is real absurdity in the dark problems he faces vs. the rigors of trying to book a commercial.

THE KOMINSKY METHOD is just two aging men existing (and kvetching). Yes, they want things they can’t have. But it’s not a series about them striving to get them; it’s a series of learning to accept and adjust. And that’s valid and real and at times very interesting, but I just didn’t find it particularly compelling. Maybe if it were hilarious or set in a world I’ve never seen I could excuse all that, but I just kept hoping it would draw me in more.

But I have to say, it’s so refreshing to see a show not about Millennials. And it’s funnier than GRACE AND FRANKIE.

There’s also a mini-ALMOST PERFECT reunion going on. Both Nancy Travis and Lisa Edelstein are in it. As you know I’m huge fans of both and they can do no wrong. I’m sorry, but I do find it a little creepy that they have Nancy dating 75 year-old Michael Douglas. Maybe when I’m 75 I’ll have  no problem with it.

But all the pluses and minuses are minor. The main reason to watch this show is Alan Arkin. He’s beyond terrific. You may or may not agree with my opinions of THE KOMINSKY METHOD but I guarantee you will say I’m right about that.  See ya at the Emmys, Alan.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A loving tribute to Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay passed away last weekend.  He was... too young.  I loved Ricky Jay but never knew him.  My good friend Tracy Newman did and graciously offered to write her own personal, very heartfelt loving tribute to this exceptional man.   Ricky had a huge impact on her life as you will see.   It's a wonderful profile, filled with links so you can experience his brilliance first hand.  Thank you, Tracy, for sharing your precious memories.  Ricky Jay really did live up to the name "Amazing."

by Tracy Newman

This past Saturday night, I was at Musso & Frank’s having dinner with a friend. For some reason, we were trying to figure out who the late actor Vic Morrow had been married to, so I Googled it. That’s when I found out that my old friend, magician Ricky Jay had passed away. I was stunned and overcome with sadness. As soon as I got home I sat down at my computer and stared at it for a while, then I went to YouTube and started looking at videos of Ricky, reading about him and writing about him, trying to deal with this loss.

I met Ricky in 1972 or so, through our mutual friend, bass player, Bobby Kimmel. Bobby was one of the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt’s trio when she recorded her first hit, “Different Drum.” He worked at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, started the prestigious concert series there and booked the shows. I played there a few times back then. He was going to book Ricky and wanted me to see him perform, so he took me to the Magic Castle. Ricky was working in the close-up room. The way the schedule at the Castle works is they clear the room for a new audience about every 20 minutes, but I was so blown away, I managed to stay in my seat for the entire evening and watch all five 20 minute shows.

Then, I came back the next night and the next night, for several nights. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Even though I had hung out at the Improv in New York in the mid-60s where many great comics were honing their acts, and was a founding member of the LA improv group, The Groundlings and had seen many brilliant performers, I had never seen anyone like Ricky Jay. The wit, the relaxed manner, the charm, the confidence and the ability to amaze! The Amazing Ricky Jay is what we all called him. He was and still remains the best overall performer I've ever seen. When you see Ricky Jay live, you’re sitting on the edge of your seat through the whole show!

I completely fell for him. We started dating and eventually lived together for a year or so, during which time I picked up on how to manipulate a deck of cards. I don't mean in a casual way; I mean I really learned how to perfect fans, cuts, shuffles, sleights, etc. There were cards all over the house, under and over everything! I would try a one-handed shuffle and they would spring out of my hands. I’d pick them up and do it again, hundreds of times a day. Ricky was practicing new tricks and throwing cards at everything. Honestly, it was crazy, but so much fun and exciting. By the way, I never learned how to do any card tricks. I wasn’t interested in that. I just loved the flourishes and anyway, I was completely incapable of misdirecting an audience's attention. I was only able to briefly surprise people with card fans and the like, enough so that I began actually working and making money, doing female hands in card games on TV and in movies! Now and then, I did Sally Fields’ hands in “The Girl With Something Extra.”

In 1974, I did Dyan Cannon’s hands in a poker game on a Bob Hope Special at NBC in Burbank. It was a take off on the movie “Paper Moon.” At rehearsal, Johnny Carson heard there was a female card handler on the Bob Hope stage, so he actually came over to meet me, with his make-up bib on! I did flourishes for him and he loved it. I went home and wrote a sketch for Ricky and me to do on the Carson show. I took the sketch in a big envelope to the NBC stages on the day of the Bob Hope shoot, and headed for where they shot the Carson show, when a golf cart came barreling toward me with Carson in it! I jumped in front of it, and handed him the sketch and as he was swerving to avoid hitting me, and I yelled, ”Remember me? The girl with the cards?” He smiled and drove off -- with the envelope! (If I tried that today, I’d be shot!) Anyway, two weeks later, Hank Bradford, Johnny's head writer at the time, called me and said they had rewritten the sketch for Johnny and me to do together! I was both bummed and excited. Ricky was pissed at first, but then was pretty excited for me and helped me prepare. (Ricky had done the Carson show a few times already, so it wasn’t that big of a disappointment.) Here’s the sketch:

After Johnny and I performed the sketch, I was told to wait behind the curtain during the commercial break, and if Johnny wanted to talk to me, he would introduce me and I would walk out and join him. Johnny worked with cards, too, so it turned out he was pretty interested in what I was doing:

Here’s one of the many things I learned from Ricky: You can really perfect something if you’re willing to do the work. Duh, you say? Well, that may seem obvious to some, but I didn’t really know that. I knew you could get something to be really good with hard work, but I thought you were wasting your time trying to perfect it. I played guitar, and my playing was good, but it certainly wasn’t perfect. When I first learned how to do a card fan, I managed to make it look really good, but it wasn’t perfect. The distance between each card varied, but when Ricky did it, the distance between each card was exactly the same. So I began the long journey of making a perfect fan. It took months and months. I got to where I could stare at the cards and imagine they were thicker, like cardboard, so I could see what I was doing wrong. My card fans became almost always perfect, and eventually so did some of my shuffles and cuts. That’s when I started getting hired for paying gigs. And I wasn’t nervous because I had the goods. That’s what Ricky had. He always had the goods. Here he is on Doug Henning’s World of Magic:

And here is a cool video about false dealing that will thrill some of you. I just saw it for the first time today. The quality of it is not great, but it’s good enough:

There's a lot more I could say here, about the many shows at theaters and parties where Ricky’s friend, Spencer Troy and I watched him completely amaze all sorts of audiences hundreds of times. He usually didn’t allow children at his shows, if he could control it, but sometimes he couldn’t. I remember once he was working a party and he asked the guests to sit in a big circle - there were about 15 people there, including a child of about 8 years old in her nightgown, who watched for a bit, but then fell asleep in her chair. After a few tricks, Ricky asked the person sitting directly across the circle from the child to take a card, and went through the usual routine of putting the card back in the deck, then losing it, and not being able to find it, and getting irritated, like this was all real or something. He asked the party goers to look for the card on themselves, in their pockets and the like. Suddenly, one of the guests screamed and pointed to the card, which was draped in plain sight, on the stomach of the sleeping child! I kid you not.

Besides the fact that Ricky was perhaps the best sleight–of-hand artist in the world, and a scholar, historian, and collector of curiosities, he was a sweet, sweet person. I mean, he had his moments like we all do, but he was basically so good and kind, and became more so as the years went by. He was so lovable, so loved, and even though he was a master of deception, he was just so honest. A good guy with great long time friends. It will take a while to get used to a world without Ricky Jay in it.

I find that writing about Ricky, reading other posts on Facebook about him and looking at so many videos I hadn't yet seen... all of this has been a good way to work through my feelings. I love Facebook for this. The interaction is helpful to me. Also, since Saturday night, I'm working with a deck of cards again, trying to get back a little of the strength it took to do various flourishes. Here’s an old picture of me doing a pretty darn good fan:
I have only one picture of Ricky and me, and I love it so much. It shows the fun we had together. He was so funny and adventurous. He was a great friend and taught me to "go for it" all the time. Here is that picture, from the early 70s:
He truly loved entertaining and surprising people and engaging. He was definitely a genius. My deepest condolences to Ricky’s wife, Chrisann Verges. We will all miss the twinkle in Ricky's eyes.

(By the way, Vic Morrow’s first wife was actress/screenwriter Barbara Turner. Their child, Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Thanks for reading this.

Tracy Newman (Tracy’s CDs for kids!)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Why I do what I do and not just sleep more

My office in Rome
Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

mdv59 asks:

To what do you credit your work ethic? I'm about 10 years behind you and I'm already exhausted-- how the hell do you have the energy to continuously write plays, create blog posts, record podcasts and still pursue writing?

I’ve always been goal-oriented. And it drives me crazy if I don’t accomplish “things.” Maybe if I were more athletically inclined I’d be playing sports, but short of that I’m just compelled to be productive. Are there drugs for that?

I also work on projects I enjoy. Writing has become far more enjoyable when I can work at my own speed at home in my underwear, not having to satisfy network and studio executives.

The hardest part of writing full-length plays for me is coming up with an idea and story that I feel is worthy of an entire evening of theatre. If I get lucky I get one a year. But when I do and I’m actually writing the draft, unless I hit a big snag (which happens) I actually find the process somewhat stimulating – way more stimulating than watching NCIS reruns 24 hours a day.  I even like to write when I'm vacation.  Sitting in an outdoor cafe, people watching, and writing is a great way to pass the time.   (I know -- I'm nuts.) 

But the key is to not force it. I don’t have to come up with an idea for my next play by Tuesday. I find the best ideas come when I’m relaxed and just open to possibilities. A good idea will come. It might not be for a couple of months but it’ll materialize. All I have to do is keep my radar up.

And in the meantime, crafting blog posts and ten-minute plays are like stretching exercises for writers. They don’t require that much time and it relieves the pressure off of having to find that million-dollar full-length play idea.

Plus, I feel you always have to challenge yourself to continue to grow. So I try to take on projects that might not totally be in my comfort zone but hopefully I can conquer. An example is the one-day play festival at the Ruskin Theatre that I try to participate in several times a year. Having to write a ten-minute play on a given topic in three hours, knowing it will be performed that night is a daunting task but also exhilarating.

And as for the podcast, I’ve always loved broadcasting and this gives me a chance to be “on the air,” doing what I want without a program director telling me to shut up and stop trying to be funny. The fact that my podcast can be heard around the world is also pretty cool. This wasn’t the case when I was on the air in Syracuse and the station couldn’t be heard in the parking lot.

Bottom line: I just hate to be bored… even if that means accomplishing something.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Weekend Post

So last Wednesday I did a post sharing my love for the 1950’s sitcom classic, THE HONEYMOONERS. In the comment section I got the expected few who agreed and adored it and those that felt the show was meh. And that’s great. That’s what the comment section is for.  And the idiots who called me a libtard just got deleted.   

I also received a number of comments that took the show to task for lead character Ralph Kramden’s “threat of domestic violence.” He would constantly threaten to hit his wife, Alice, or “send her to the moon.” In light of today’s #MeToo era is Ralph’s behavior offensive? And although his threats were jokes, is it okay to find them funny today?

So let me offer my feelings on the subject… with the understanding that it’s just one man’s opinion. But it’s a man who happens to have a blog so here goes.

First off, as a lot of readers pointed out, for all his bluster, at no time did we ever believe Ralph would actually act on his threats. How do we know this? By watching Alice’s reaction to them. She never bats an eye. So it was crystal clear that she was never in the slightest danger. And whenever Alice got mad or felt Ralph had gone too far she could level him with one “Ralph, don’t you dare.” He immediately retreated, instantly becoming a contrite tub of jello. Alice was the boss of that relationship. And you have to put that into context because at the time all the other domestic sitcoms featured an authoritative husband (a la Ricky) and a ditz-brain wife (Lucy).

Ralph Kramden never laid a hand on Alice. Watch I LOVE LUCY – there are episodes where Ricky puts Lucy over his knee and spanks her. Yikes! Where’s the outcry against I LOVE LUCY?

My second point goes back to context. Expecting characters sixty years ago to have our current sensibilities is not fair to them. It’s just not. It is fair to say you personally are disturbed by watching such behavior, don’t find it funny, and would prefer watching something else.

But in light of this particular show, I feel I can watch it and laugh in all good conscience. I don’t feel it makes me less enlightened, I don’t feel it makes me a hypocrite, and I don’t feel there’s a part of me that should feel guilty.

Ralph Kramden is a sad character. He lives in a shit hole, has a go-nowhere job, and strives for that brass ring of the American Dream that you know he’ll never capture. He has get-rich quick schemes that all backfire. He’s physically unattractive. He’s not very smart.

He’s a frustrated man. But a key element of comedy is frustration. And as portrayed so brilliantly by Jackie Gleason, Ralph Kramden is extremely funny. What makes his “threats of domestic violence” so funny is how hollow they are. What makes his anger so funny is that how benign he ultimately is. No one shivers in their boots when Ralph erupts. They’re tantrums. John Cleese in FAWLTY TOWERS does the same thing. He and Gleason and a few others have turned the act of the meltdown into true hilarity.

So bottom line, I’m not justifying Ralph Kramden’s behavior. And today you could never in a million years sell this show. But seen for what it is and what it was I think there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be derived from watching THE HONEYMOONERS. Guilt free.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Black Friday Questions

Happy Black Friday. Here are some FQ’s besides where did I park my car?

Sanford is first at the table (so to speak):

I was looking up something about the famous Chuckles episode. I found this clip of Ed Asner talking about how the show was short and they needed another scene to fill the time. As he explained there was so much laughter that it filled all the time they needed. Has anything like this happened with any of the shows you worked on?

The pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S. At Dress Rehearsal we were right on time. But we ended up ten minutes long due to the laugh spread. A good episode will typically spread two to five minutes.

On the one hand this laugh spread was GREAT. You can imagine how much fun it was on the set that night. EVERYTHING worked.

The trouble came when we had to edit the show down to time. Ultimately we had to reshoot some of it because to make the cuts we wanted the actors would bounce around the stage due to the way it was blocked.

Still, I will take those problems ANY day.

Next is Joe who has a question about the movie we wrote, VOLUNTEERS:

You said you couldn't be there for shooting because of "The Jewel of the Nile." In hindsight, do you wish you had been there, and do you think it would have made the movie better -- especially the scene where it was supposed to be played frenetically but was shot a lot slower?

Like all writers, I firmly believe our movie would have been better if we had been on set. Director Nicholas Meyer was a very collaborative mensch so I’m sure our suggestions would have been seriously considered. We would not have won every disagreement, but that’s the process. In the case of a couple of scenes, all we would have asked was to have them shot both ways. Then test audiences could decide.

And ultimately, even not being there, we liked way more than we didn’t.

From Matt Barnett:

What do you think of the pacing of today's sitcoms? They go at such a fast tempo that it's almost anxiety inducing. I first noticed this with "Cougar Town." I recently watched an episode of "The Goldbergs" and it ripped by at neck break speed. "Modern Family" is the same way. For me, it's almost too fast to enjoy.

It’s a matter of personal taste but sometimes I find current shows go at such a breakneck pace that the jokes don’t land. Give the audience a chance to appreciate and laugh at a joke.

A related complaint is that some shows try to jam in jokes every second. As a result you get a lot of half-baked jokes, the characters stop sounding like real human beings, good stuff gets lost, and the experience is exhausting.

I would rather take two minutes to set up a really big laugh rather than ten jokes in two minutes and none of them really score. But that’s me (i.e. old guy).

Jonathan Littlemore asks:

I'm a listener from over in the UK and I would love if you could do a episode on the Podcast discussing the different types of Comedy writing. Here in the UK our Sitcoms tend to be written by one person and not in the Group room style used in the States.

Was there ever a time in America when scripts were just written be one person or have they always just been done by a group?

Check out Episode 92 of HOLLYWOOD & LEVINE, Episode 92, “the History of Sitcoms.” You can access it here. I discuss the evolution from even before TV to current practices and why things evolved.

And finally, from Edward:

How did you receive feedback regarding your shows/movies back in the 1970's and 80's?

News clipping services that compiled all reviews and articles about your show, and we received a lot more viewer mail back then. Some of the viewers even signed their letters.

Travel safely this weekend.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

EP99: Holiday Turkeys: What Were They Thinking?

In honor of Turkey Day, Ken spins one audio trainwreck after another. You’ll laugh till you cringe.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


Stay warm on the East Coast.   I hear record lows for the Macy's Parade.   At least Matt Lauer gets to sleep in.  My heart really goes out to the Broadway performers who have to do those production numbers in front of Macy's.  "The good news is you're in a Broadway show.  The bad news is you're getting frostbite."

My Thanksgiving Tradition

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving already. 

We all have our own cherished Thanksgiving traditions. Enjoying Grandma’s famous stuffing recipe (which oddly tastes a lot like Stove Top Red Box), the game of touch football on the lawn (they still talk about the year Uncle Ed’s stitches came loose), weird cousin Marla’s holiday decorations (festive paper turkeys with hatchets), everyone bringing their favorite dish, renewing the argument over whether cousin Marla should be hospitalized, etc. My fondest tradition was watching THE HONEYMOONERS marathon on one of the local LA channels. The last few years it’s been discontinued but thanks to DVD’s, I now own all 39 classic episodes and can gleefully watch them again for the nine millionth time.  I assume Netflix or one of them also offers the show for streaming.

Produced in 1955 for one season only, THE HONEYMOONERS remains my favorite all-time sitcom. I don’t think there’s ever been a more inspired cast than Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. And Joyce Randolph was okay too.  Joyce, by the way, is still with us!

I wonder what people in their 20’s would think of the show. Would it seem too retro? Would the black-and-white cause a disconnect? Would the comedy still hold up? I’d like to think it would. I’d like to think any generation would marvel at Art Carney demonstrating a golf swing, or Jackie Gleason learning to mambo.  Happily, when I taught a course at USC a few years ago the class seemed amused.  (Of course the course was Physics so sure they were happy to screen a TV show.) 

If you’ve never seen THE HONEYMOONERS, or haven’t in a long time, I invite you to get the DVD collection or go on Netflix or Hulu and have your own Thanksgiving marathon. But JUST the classic 39 episodes. The collected sketches from Gleason’s variety show or the “lost episodes” don’t hold up. But those 39, for my money, are sitcom perfection. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Some of my favorite episodes are:

The Golfer
Better Living Through TV (the one I showed to my Physics class)
Oh, my Aching Back
The $99,000 Answer
Young at Heart
Unconventional Behavior
Hello, Mom


UPDATE:  For my weekend post I will respond to this notion of whether I think THE HONEYMOONERS should now be considered offense due to our changing sensibilities.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

I agree with Steven Spielberg

And not just because I want him to direct one of my movies... or even say hello to me.

Got a missive from reader "Laura" who asked:

Ken, can you please give your opinion on what Steven Spielberg said regarding Netflix movies, that they don't deserve Oscars.


Here's the article.

The key point Steven makes is that Netflix movies are TV movies (or iPhone movies).  They're not theatrical films.  The Academy has some rule where a movie has to play in a theater for one week in Los Angeles and New York to be eligible for Oscars.  So what studios do is run them for one week the end of the year, often times in only one theater.  That way they're eligible for the next ceremony and the studios can then release the pictures wide a few months later.

But streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are doing the same thing.  Except they have no plans to release their films theatrically after the one week window for eligibility purposes.

And like Steven said (notice I call him by his first name as if we're close?), if they're great movies they should win Emmys.   But it's distorting the intent of the Motion Picture Academy.

The fate of the Oscars is up for grabs as new delivery systems pop up.   Same goes for the Emmys -- worse for the Emmys because there's some question as to whether streaming services should even be considered "television."   Personally, I feel if a show is meant to be seen on your television screen then it's a television show.  So what if it's from Netflix or Facebook or Apple? 

But that's a different experience than seeing a movie at a theater.  Forget that it's often better.  It's different.  And if idiots aren't texting next to you or talking or bringing their newborns it can be a thrilling experience depending on the film.   You just don't get the scope of the AVENGERS on your smart phone.  (Maybe ANT MAN works on the small screen but other superhero movies need a larger canvass).

Also, if you don't subscribe to Neflix you can't see their movies.  Films distributed in theaters presumably are available throughout the country (although certain art films are hard to find in Panama City).    The Oscars are crying about their hemorrhaging audience numbers.   It's bad enough most people don't see the nominated films, when most people CAN'T see the nominated films then ratings are going to sink to MURPHY BROWN levels.

Listen to Steven Spielberg.  Uphold the integrity of your awards.  Don't let films made for YouTube qualify for Academy Awards.    Don't even make eligible the Netflix documentary ON Steven Spielberg.

And Stevie, my brother, if you're reading this, sure I'd like to go out to lunch with you.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

THE FRONT RUNNER -- My review (of the reviews)

It’s very interesting to watch a new movie and then have a Q&A with the director and writers. They usually have a vision of what they wanted their film to be and you get to judge whether they succeeded (in your opinion) or not. Such was the case with seeing THE FRONT RUNNER at the WGA and then hearing from director/co-writer Jason Reitman and writers Jay Carson and Matt Bai.

The movie, in case you’re unfamiliar or it hasn’t hit your town yet, is about golden boy Senator Gary Hart and how his run for the presidency was derailed in a three-week period over an extra-marital affair in 1988. Yes, that seems almost quaint now, but back then when a president’s character meant something to all Americans, just the possibility of impropriety was enough to kill a political career. So for many the movie was wistful nostalgia. 

I enjoyed THE FRONT RUNNER. Hugh Jackman played Gary Hart. Hart was very charismatic and Jackman actually had to tone down his charisma to portray Hart. The rest of the cast was terrific. Vera Farmiga can do no wrong, J. K. Simmons was his usual excellent self (although at any moment I kept expecting him to launch into a State Farm commercial), Molly Ephraim was smart to quit her day job (LAST MAN STANDING), and Mamoudou Athie was a real standout.  (I wonder if Mamoudou Athie is just his stage name?)

The writing was crisp, visually the movie was very interesting. You really felt you in the middle of a presidential campaign. Every scene was packed with people talking over each other and eating stale sandwiches on the run.  I can't imagine this movie ever playing on CBS because so many people in it were not good looking enough. 

Was it a groundbreaking movie? Will it be an Oscar “front runner?” No. But Reitman’s vision of showing the events from numerous perspectives was very much realized (in my opinion). You saw the affects of the affair on his family and his staff, and you saw the way journalists chose to cover the story – at times heroically and other times sleazily. There were ethics issues, #MeToo issues, judgment issues.

Again, my problem was that in light of current events, what was then such a shocking story now feels like the 24-hour news cycle on a slow day. But the movie was written in the Obama era. So much of a film's success rides on luck and timing and not being released the same day as a STAR WARS chapter. Sometimes you catch the zeitgeist and other times it leaves you in its wake.

Anyway, I went home and out of curiosity went on Rotten Tomatoes to see the critical reaction. YIKES. Most hated it. You realize the filmmaker’s vision means nothing unless it jibes with theirs. And for most of these reviewers, they wanted a different movie. Some thought it should have focused more on Donna Rice (the affair-ee) and dealt primarily with the unfairness and double-standard women have to endure. Yes, that’s certainly valid, but…

That’s not the movie Reitman chose to make.

Others had my reaction but way more severe. There was no just viewing it as a timepiece. To some it was irrelevant and why bother even making the damn thing? Uh… because it was entertaining?

Some questioned Jackman’s portrayal of Hart – like they’re so intimately familiar with Hart’s public and personal persona.

The overall point was these critics went into the movie with certain expectations, and instead of viewing it for what it was they viewed it as what it should have been (in their opinion).

And this is where every artist comes to a crossroad. Do your vision or try to ascertain what vision would be most embraced? If you go with the former you could go down in flames. If you go with the latter you probably will go down in flames and you’ll get less sympathy from me than I had for Gary Hart.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Weekend Post

The Thanksgiving holiday is the peak travel weekend of the year (in America. The rest of the world could give a rat’s ass about Thanksgiving.) So as a public service, here again (an annual tradition) -- and with a few additions -- are some travel tips:

Leave for the airport NOW.

Bring no luggage. Wearing the same clothes for a week is a small price to pay. Plus, the airlines now charge you for check-in luggage AND blankets. Pretty soon pressurized air will also be extra.

Southwest has no reserved seating. Get in one of the latter groups boarding. You don’t want to be one of the first to sit then watch as fifty people glance at the empty seat next to you, then to you, and decide to sit somewhere else. Even in the last row.

If you have children under the age of five tell your relatives one has an earache and make everyone come to YOU.

Those people in the Stand-By line – those are the same people who think they can get rich selling Amway products, and the Tooth Fairy really exists. Don’t fly Stand-By unless you like sleeping in airport terminals for five days.

If you rent from Hertz plan on a two hour wait just to get your car. Unless you’re one of their “preferred” customers in which case allow only one hour.

When rental car companies recommend you use premium gasoline put in regular. It’s cheaper, it’ll run just fine, and it’s not your car.

Before you pull off the road to a Chuck E. Cheese for lunch, remember their namesake is a rat.

Air travelers: avoid O’Hare. Better to land in Dallas, even if your destination is Chicago.

If you’re dropping someone off at the airport don’t even think you’ll be able to stop. Have your travelers practice the tuck and roll from a moving car. The first couple of times they’ll bounce but by the fourth or fifth try they should have it down.

Watch the DVD of HOSTEL on your laptop. The bigger the screen, the better.

There’s more legroom in Exit rows. When the flight attendants ask if you are willing to help out in case of emergency just say yes. Like it’s going to make a big difference anyway if you crash.

If you’re flying on an airline that doesn’t have reserved seating never sit next to anyone who is already eating or reading Ann Coulter.

Before you fly to New York and have to negotiate JFK just remember – the parade is on TV. And it’s the same friggin' balloons as last year. The only difference is that the stars of NBC’s big new hit from last year, GREAT NEWS won’t be there (thank God).

Never pay to see an in-flight movie starring Debra Messing.

Put a big strip of duct tape on your luggage so you’ll recognize it easily. And it makes a nice fashion statement.

If you’re flying with small children see if there’s such a thing as “Flintstones Valium”.

In-flight alcoholic beverages are expensive. Better to drink heavily at the airport before boarding.

And finally, watch PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES again and think of it as a “best” case scenario.

Happy trails to you all.

Friday, November 16, 2018

RIP William Goldman

For me, if there’s a Mount Rushmore of screenwriters it’s Billy Wilder, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and William Goldman. And now all four have passed. William Goldman died yesterday. He was 87.

Of the four, no one probably influenced me in more ways than William Goldman. He was the ultimate storyteller, both in terms of fiction and non-fiction. The way I break stories is a direct result of studying his approach. The flow of dialogue, creating vivid characters, getting laughs from attitudes and behavior not punchlines – I learned from the master.

And I’ll go further. William Goldman taught me how to write prose. None of my English professors ever did. There was a clarity to Goldman’s prose that I strive for. He had this gift of being able to present an emotional argument in such a way that his conclusions would always seem objectively reached. He would offer research, sometimes in favor of the opposition, then compare points-of-contention with reason and logic and reach a conclusion that was hard to argue. He was not afraid to concede points to ultimately state his case more persuasively. And he did this in a style that was conversational and really hit home.

Whenever, without exception, I try to lay out an argument in this blog William Goldman is in my head. Consciously.

He took delight in leading you in one direction then completely turning you around to another. It sounds maddening but it’s really fun. And more importantly, it holds your interest. He’s not just laying out facts, he’s taking you on a journey; he’s telling you a story. No better example of that was his screenplay for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. How he managed to unravel all those facts and names and interactions into a spellbinding movie is simply beyond me.

Unfortunately, I never met him. I saw him at a screening once. That’s as close as I ever got. And I was too intimidated to actually go up and talk to him. Besides, he was eating popcorn so he was busy. We did try to see if he wanted to write an episode of CHEERS the first season and he graciously declined. As great and versatile a writer as he was he didn’t feel he could do justice to a CHEERS script. I bet he was wrong.

I was a fan of William Goldman probably five years before I knew it. One summer night in the mid ‘60s I went to the Holiday Theatre in Woodland Hills and saw this little movie called HARPER starring Paul Newman. It knocked me out (so much so that I remember the theatre I saw it in). The rumpled private eye Newman played was a revelation. There was humor, suspense, fascinating characters, and an ending unlike any I had ever seen in that genre. At the time I didn’t think to ask, “Who wrote this?” but I did a few years later when I saw this little western called BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. And it turned out both films were written by the same guy. That’s when I really began following his career.

And that took me to his novels and non-fiction work. One of my favorites was a little book called SOLDIER IN THE RAIN. It was later made into a movie starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. The characters were so beautifully drawn and it was rich with humor. Then came MARATHON MAN (also later made into a movie) and I’ve yet to read a better, scarier thriller. I devoured his catalog until I came upon the real treasure – PRINCESS BRIDE. You’ve probably seen the movie, which he wrote and is wonderful, but pales in comparison to the book.

Here’s how inventive William Goldman was. In the book he sets up a personal anecdote and how he came upon this story. It’s a lovely framing device and gives the rollicking adventure some added dimension and context. Except for one thing: it’s all bullshit. That’s not really his family. The anecdote is pure fiction. William Goldman was the master of surprise. If you haven’t read PRINCESS BRIDE go to Amazon right now.

He also wrote books about a Broadway season, and of course his ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE. He’s candid, informative, funny, and no one ever summed up Hollywood better: No one knows anything.

All indications are that he was a good guy, very collaborative, and very down to earth. He never got wrapped up in Hollywood; never got wrapped up in himself. We always say we’ll remember someone, but in this case, for me at least it’s very true. William Goldman’s DNA is part of my writing. So he will always be with me. And I will always hope to do him proud.

Friday Questions

Friday Questions, anyone?

Michael is up first:

With regards to late-night rewrites, are there union rules in place that limit how many hours a day or week staff writers are allowed to work? If so, are they enforced?

No. There are no restrictions.   It’s not like actors who must have a twelve-hour turnaround. Writers can work around the clock. And often do.

But we know that going in and understand that’s part of the job. Personally, if I’m running a show, I am willing to put in the extra hours not to settle. And since scripts have to be fixed literally overnight because they’re in production the result is often long hours. I’ve finished rewrites at 6 in the morning and then had to be on the set at 9. Believe me, I would have done it differently if I could.

So to regulate number of hours would be unrealistic and counterproductive. Plus, there are way more important issues the WGA has to fight for on our behalf.

Andrew Beasley is next.

Something I've long wondered about... when characters talk over each other in an argument, as Frasier and Niles often would, will every single line be written or are they left to improvise? I assume the former, but would love to know. Thanks.

In the case of FRASIER, every line was written. An actor might improvise something in rehearsal and if it works it gets written into the script. But there was no ad libbing during filming. And partly because the cameras changed their shots based on line cues. So if they don’t hear the cue they don’t go to their next shot. Confusion ensues. You hate to see four cameras crashing into each other. 

From cd1515 :

Instead of doing all these reboots, how feasible would it be for networks to just re-air the original show? Seems cheaper anyway.

Advertisers aren’t going to pay big money for shows that are not first-run.

And most shows that are popular enough to be rebooted are currently rerunning elsewhere. So it would be no big deal to see reruns of the original WILL & GRACE. You can find them on cable, streaming services, and DVD’s. 

The lure of the reboots is seeing new episodes and finding out what happened to the beloved characters you watched during their first-run.

CBS however, does an interesting thing around the holidays. It reruns episodes of I LOVE LUCY and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. But two things: they colorize them which makes them different, and the holiday season traditionally has low viewership so it’s a cheap way to fill the schedule when no one is watching. You’ll notice that the colorized DICK VAN DYKE SHOW is not on the fall schedule. At best, it’s a stunt.

And finally, from slgc:

How cathartic is the writing process for you? Do you exact karmic revenge on old foes or rewrite happy endings for yourself as part of your creative process?

It’s very cathartic. At times liberating and other times painful. But as a writer I get to work through issues that are meaningful to me in my art. And the desire to be as brutally honest as I can makes the process both more satisfying and occasionally excruciating.

As per your specific question: I never set out to attack anybody. Even in my memoirs, THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (available on Amazon… get yours now), when I showed someone in an unflattering light I changed his name. But yes, there are times I will give a personal story a happier ending than it really had. If I’m not going to make the big bucks at least I can have some wish fulfillment.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

EP98: My 15 Seconds of Fame: Me on Camera

Ken talks about the various times he’s appeared on camera either
as an actor, sportscaster, host, or dancer (if you can believe it). You’ll hear some amusing tales and learn why he’s not on camera more often.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Don Draper would be proud

This is my favorite advertising story.

So much of advertising is perception. Positioning yourself in the minds of the consumers.  And the rest is competition. It's not enough to be good, you have to either be better than your competition or make the consumer believe your competitor is bad.   Today there are so many products (not to mention political ads that are currently flooding the airwaves) and so many slogans that it’s hard for any one message to really hit home, but in Don Draper’s day when there were only three networks and three or four primary magazines a good slogan would have a greater impact.

Back in the ‘50s all canned tuna was pink. Then “Chicken of the Sea” came along with white tuna. It wasn’t selling. They tried to promote it as tasting like chicken (hence the name). The public wasn’t buying it. White tuna looked weird.

Along came Mad Men to the rescue. And this ingenious slogan:

“Chicken of the Sea” – guaranteed never to turn pink.

Within about a year pink tuna was completely off the market.

Now THAT’S advertising.

Ironically, "Chicken of the Sea" now also sells pink salmon.  I wonder if their campaign should be "Guaranteed never to turn white."  

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is a movie that critics hate but audiences love. There are many things to pick apart in this film should you wish to, but if you loved the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen you won’t want your money back.

The sense I got was that Hollywood looked at Freddie’s life and said, “Too dark for a holiday release.” So they spruced up this very complicated figure and made him more Cineplex-friendly.

But the music is great.

Rami Malek (MR. ROBOT) did an admirable job capturing Freddie’s moves and swagger. He was fitted with ridiculous teeth. Supposedly Freddie had four extra teeth, which meant his mouth was larger and accounted for his additional range. If this were true then Wink Martindale is the greatest singer of the last hundred years.

Did I mention the music is swell?

Once Freddie cuts his hair and becomes the image we’re most familiar with then Rami looked like Rowan Atkinson with clown teeth. I will admit it took me out of some emotional scenes because all I could picture was Mr. Bean trying to eat an apple.

But then there were those songs.

Story-wise, it followed the Hollywood studio biopic formula. Parents don’t understand, falls in love with a local, gets discovered, career takes off, dumps the local flame, fame and fortune take its toll, uh oh, things start turning bad, relationships break apart, things get worse, but there’s a feel-good ending to send everyone home on a high note. Sometimes it works and is Ray Charles and other times it doesn’t and it’s James Brown, Johnny Cash, or (God help us) Bobby Darin. Things wrap up as they always do -- fences mended, family harmony restored, a spectacular farewell performance.

I will say this: Anytime they try to have the scene where the fictional rock star wows the crowd and whips them into an orgasmic frenzy it always feels bogus. Like Gwyneth Paltrow could raise the roof with her singing. But in the final Live-Aid scene you totally believe it (oh don’t say SPOILER ALERT, you know in the first minute of the film that that was gong to be the big denouement).

And that section alone is worth the price of admission.

Sure, they could have mounted a more nuanced, deeper study of this brilliant artist and how success and sex turned his life into a Shakespearean tragedy. But that’s shooting for Oscars. This movie aimed at pleasing audiences and making a shit-ton more money than any art house film could. Ending BOHAMIAN RHAPSODY with that recreation of the Live-Aid concert was a definite crowd pleaser.

So if you go into BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with low expectations and you’re not a reviewer for the New York Times you should enjoy this movie. And for the next three days you’ll be listening to nothing but Queen. What music!

Monday, November 12, 2018


This is clearly my favorite project currently in development – KEVIN CAN F*** HIMSELF. Created by Valerie Armstrong and executive produced by Rashida Jones, this is a half-hour comedy pilot for AMC.

With a healthy dollop of meta, this sitcom was obviously inspired by the recent CBS series, KEVIN CAN WAIT starring Kevin James.

Some background. KEVIN CAN WAIT premiered two years ago and was an instant hit. It was the most successful new comedy of the season. It received a full-season order for the second season months before season one was even over. And CBS initially so wanted Kevin James that they agreed to build a soundstage for him in Long Island so he could do the show practically from home. To say he was the 800 pound gorilla was an understatement. Of course, you build the guy a studio what do you expect when he flexes his creative muscles?

From day one James ran the show. The original creator/show runner quit halfway through season one. James was notorious for rewriting every script.

One of his problems was the chemistry between him and his TV wife, Erinn Hayes. Admittedly, Hayes is not a gifted comedienne. She’s more of a dramatic actress. Anyway, the decision was made to drop her at the end of season one and replace her with Leah Remini. Remini and James were together on KING OF QUEENS. And Remini is much more facile when it comes to comedy. So there definitely were reasons for making the switch. It was a decision approved by CBS and the studio producing the show. Casting changes are not uncommon. We were forced by CBS to let Kevin Kilner go from ALMOST PERFECT (a stupid decision that ultimately killed the show – thanks, CBS).

But in this case, the real problem was how KEVIN CAN WAIT handled it. They decided to kill off the character. That’s pretty severe. They couldn’t say she had to care for her sick mother in California and keep the door open for guest appearances to keep her in the series? Erinn Hayes had fans and the general consensus was that killing her off was excessive and needlessly hostile.

And then in season two her death was completely swept under the rug. There were a few mentions in passing (mostly as jokes).  So it was handled in a very callous manner.  I don’t have to tell you who made those creative decisions. James dug in his heels and guided the show in season two, deaf to any network, studio, or staff concerns. The result: the ratings went down and CBS cancelled the show after season two.

It takes some doing to go from most successful new comedy to cancellation in one year. (Although Roseanne managed the same feat in the length of time it took to write and post one tweet.)

If you watch a lot of network family sitcoms you’ll see a convention that always strains credibility. There’s always a schlub unattractive dim husband and a hot wife (usually younger) who in real life wouldn’t piss on these dolts if their hair was on fire. Jami Gertz & Mark Addy, Courtney Thorne-Smith & Jim Belushi, Nancy Travis & Tim Allen, and certainly Erinn Hayes & Kevin James (just to name a few).

Actresses will tell you it’s the most thankless role ever. You’re the wet blanket, rarely do you get great jokes, and you have to somehow try to sell that you’re in love with these obnoxious idiots.

So that’s what KEVIN CAN F*** HIMSELF is about. In their words it “explores the secret life of a woman we all grew up watching: the sitcom wife. A beauty paired with a less attractive, dismissive, caveman-like husband who gets to be a jerk because she’s a nag and he’s ‘funny.' What happens when this supporting character is presented as a real person? And what if that person is pissed?”

Should be fun. I know an actress and writing staff who might enjoy working on this show.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Weekend Post

My heart goes out to anyone in the path of the many horrendous brushfires roaring through California. Wildfires have always been a threat in these areas but it seems this year things have gotten worse. So many homes; so many lives. People in canyons and in Malibu face these dangers every few years. But a lot of these fires are sweeping through suburbs.

Again, my hopes and prayers for everyone’s safety.

I don’t know what the coverage is like where you are, but here in Los Angeles, it is geared very much to the entertainment industry. And representative of just how myopic this town is.

Lots of headlines are about which celebrities had to evacuate – as if Kim Kardashian evacuating is any more important than anyone else. Alyssa Milano is safe we’re told. An industry website featured the headline proclaiming Caitlyn Jenner safe. Whew! Like in the midst of all this destruction and heartbreak I give one shit about Caitlyn Jenner.

The big news was the loss of the Paramount Ranch. Oh no. The sets for WESTWORLD were destroyed. Yes, that’s unfortunate, but it seems to me it pales compared to people losing their homes. Oh, and the hospital that burned down. The mansion used for THE BACHELOR and THE BACHELORETTE was damaged we’re told. And the industry report added that neither show was currently in production. Thank God! Seriously, when you look at the scope of these fires who gives a fuck about THE BACHELOR’S possible production setbacks?

Hollywood has never been one for perspective. The day President Reagan was shot it was the scheduled night of the Academy Awards. They were postponed as a result, and one of the trades had the large blazing headline: OSCARCAST POSTPONED. And then underneath, in much smaller letters: The President Shot.

My sincerest hope and prayer is that if you’re personally affected by these fires that YOU’RE safe, your animals are safe, and YOUR home is spared. The sets for WESTWORLD will be rebuilt. THE BACHELOR can rent a different mansion. I know it’s a hard thing to ask in this town, but seriously, let’s get real.