Monday, May 21, 2018

The 25th anniversary of the last CHEERS episode

It has been 25 years since CHEERS aired its final episode.  There have been a number of articles to pay tribute to that event and the show itself.  Thanks to both the Hollywood Reporter and Variety for including me in your pieces.   If you're a fan of CHEERS these are both fun reads.

Here's the Hollywood Reporter's story.

And here's Variety's story.

Now if you want a detailed account of just what it was like that final night, I devoted one of my podcast episodes to my first-person account of it.   You can find that here

I can never express just how lucky and grateful I am to be a part of CHEERS for 9 of its 11 years.  David Isaacs and I wrote 40 episodes and I am extremely proud of each and every one of them.  My thanks to Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows for including us in this extraordinary television show. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Come see my play tonight

I again am participating in the Ruskin Theatre Group's Cafe Play series.  Five playwrights met at 9:00 am this morning and our plays will be performed tonight at 7:30 and 9:00 at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica.  Wanna come?   The other playwrights are terrific.  Here's where you go for info and tix.  Hopefully see you tonight.

The Royal Wedding

Alas, I did not watch the Royal Wedding.

I did not get up at 4:00 AM. Well, I did, but that was to use the bathroom.

Nothing against the happy couple – I wish them a fairy tale life together – it’s just that (and I know I’m in the minority) I don’t care.

I do like the fact that it serves as a welcomed distraction. With all the insanity, evil, and havoc in the world it’s nice to spend a couple of days focusing on wedding arrangements and where Oprah will be sitting.

And it’s a shared event and there are so few of these lately besides protesting the insanity, evil, and havoc in the world.

Like I said, I'm in the minority.  We Yankees do love weddings. When Tiny Tim married Miss Vicki on THE TONIGHT SHOW it drew 45 million people. (It was second highest rated event in the ‘60s next to the moon landing.) By comparison, the Prince William/Kate Middleton nuptials attracted just 23 million.

There’s also the “American” factor. An American is marrying into the British Royal Family. And here in America, all we really care about are things that are American. If Harry was marrying a Dutch girl I don’t think there would be as many tea/viewing parties as were organized here in the colonies.

I hope the royal couple live in England because if they live here Harry is always in danger of being deported as an immigrant “animal.”

But personally, I’m not interested in the ceremony and hoopla. I’ve seen a few royal weddings in the past and the importance placed on incidental insignificant items seems way out of proportion to me. I very much like Meghan Markle, but I’d rather watch her on SUITS.

The only issue for me not participating in a shared event – will I feel left out? Will there be conversations I can’t participate in? Will I be out of the zeitgeist? Will folks be “liking” things and retweeting things I have no opinion on? So far, so good.  And I can always catch up by watching Melania's next wedding. 

I know by tomorrow our President will name O.J. Simpson as Attorney General and we’ll be off to another typical news cycle week. The wedding will be but a distant memory.  I just hope they last longer than Tiny Tim and Miss Vicki.   Eight years and over.   I think it will take Meghan longer than that to open all the blenders. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Time we'll never get back

We hear all the time that we spend a third of our lives sleeping. What about other precious time?

How much time that we’ll never get back do we spend…

Idling at intersections?

Waiting in doctors’ waiting rooms?

Trying on clothes we don’t wear?

Going through TSA inspections?

Re-reading paragraphs of books we’ve already read?

Talking to phone solicitors?

Sitting through commercials before movies start?

Waiting on the line for tech support?

Waiting in line at Starbucks?

Sitting on tarmacs?

Watching the little spinning beach ball?

Waiting for rock concerts to begin?

Channel surfing?

Reading bad jokes people email us?

Sending bad jokes to others?

Wrapping presents?

Stuck in traffic?

Playing Angry Birds?

Watching bad movies because we paid to see them?

Standing at bus stops?

Scrolling through Facebook postings of your friends’ adorable pets?

Reading this blog?

Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday Questions

FQ’s for U.

The Bumble Bee Pendant leads off.

Multi-cameras have always been my preference for watching a show because it often feels like a play.

That being said...now as a playwright, is there anything you'd love to bring to a multi-camera show that you can only do in a play or vice versa?

I’d like to bring back sophisticated comedies like FRASIER or CHEERS. I’d like to do a multi-cam where a network is not pressuring me to do a joke every second. I’d like the freedom to create characters with dimension and flaws and let the comedy come out of their behavior and struggles.

I’d like to be able to do long scenes. Again, there seems to be this fear that if the audience isn’t whip-sawed through an episode it’s going to instantly bail. I’d want my show to breathe a little.

And I’m convinced you could get MORE laughs and better laughs if you took this approach.

RyderDA asks:

How do you handle it when someone compliments a character for a line from a particular episode from a particular show that you wrote or helped write? "Ted Danson's so funny - last night he said 'You can't HANDLE the truth' I wish I was as witty as Ted."

Lots of people think the actors make up their lines. But as we are learning, there are a LOT of ill-informed people in this country.

When that happens I don’t say, “Hey, I wrote that line.” I gently say, “You do know the actors don’t make up those lines? That writers do?”

But what really pisses me off is ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that has that feature where they have a collage of actors with thought bubbles attributing pithy lines their characters said to THEM. Come on, EW, you should know better.

Dr Loser wonders:

Granted, you're going to want to write 90% of your scripts with David Isaacs, because you're simpatico.

What about the other 10%? Groucho Marx? John Cleese? Richard Pryor?
Is there somebody out there who you would really, really want to have written a joint script?

In a writing room you are collaborating with others so I guess I could say I’ve partnered with Larry Gelbart, Jim Brooks, the Charles Brothers among others.

But in terms of an actual partnership, I wrote a screenplay with Robin Schiff that we sold to MGM about 15 years ago. Otherwise, it’s either David or I write by myself.

As for a dream collaborator – I’d like to write a musical with Sondheim. I’d like to write anything with Sondheim.

And finally, DyHrdMET wants to know:

Have you ever seen a sitcom pilot which got picked up, but then the series was either cancelled after a few episodes and/or just lost its way that quickly, and you thought that it would have been better as a feature film instead of a TV show?

A couple I can think of offhand. There was a show on ABC about a group of idiots trying to rob a celebrity. How the hell can you keep that going for seven years? And then a CBS show called WORST WEEK about the mishaps leading to a wedding.

Both of those sound like movie premises. Good TV series need to have legs and room to grow. They need to be open ended.   Shows that depend on a narrow narrative often box themselves in. That’s the way I felt about PRISON BREAK. After the first season when they broke out they seemed to flail around looking for story lines. My heart went out to those writers.

What’s your FQ? You can leave it in the comments section. Thanks much.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Off with their heads!"

Now that the major broadcast networks have announced their fall schedules, it’s time for the public humiliation that is “recasting” shows that have been picked up. High profile actors are fired along with screaming headlines on industry trade sites.

Connie Nielsen was just replaced on the new CBS series about the FBI. Mira Sorvino’s comeback was short-lived as she was fired off her new series last week. A few years ago Jenna Fischer was booted off MAN WITH A PLAN.

There are many other examples, but I don’t want to share them because I’m sure it’s opening up old wounds.

And of course a year ago, Erinn Hayes not only was fired from KEVIN CAN WAIT but her character was killed off. You think Erinn Hayes is smiling these days?

Replacing cast members is not a new thing. Lisa Kudrow was the original Roz in FRASIER only to be replaced by Peri Gilpin. (I think Lisa managed to bounce back from that however.)

But here’s the difference: Until the last few years, these cast changes were not made public. They didn’t appear in bold headlines on Hollywood trade sites.

Is it really necessary to publicize these personnel switches? Is this news of such importance that it’s worth humiliating the actor? Isn’t it enough that he lost his job on a network TV series? There are not enough stories about Cannes or Adult Swim acquisitions?

I’m sorry. It just seems unnecessarily cruel to me and serves no real purpose. Believe me, in six months I’m not going to send an angry email to Deadline Hollywood saying, “Hey, I just watched that new FBI show and Connie Nielsen wasn’t on it. What the fuck?! Why didn’t I know about this?”

I guess consideration and compassion have also now been replaced.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

EP72: Meet Matt Mira - host of After Trek, and co-host of every podcast on the internet


Ken talks to podcast host, writer, and comedian, Matt Mira about a variety of subjects including his busy schedule writing for The Goldbergs in Los Angeles, then hosting After Trek for CBS All Access every weekend in New York. He's been on more podcasts than you could count. Matt hosts his own podcast, Sidekick, and co-hosts The Nerdist Podcast. He’s the ultimate nerd overachiever, podcasting genius, and great guest!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Network hopping

BROOKLYN 99 is moving from Fox to NBC. LAST MAN STANDING is moving from ABC to Fox. Does that strategy generally work?

Yes and mostly no.

A few of the “yeses”: JAG moved from NBC to CBS and not only became a huge hit, but spawned all the NCIS hits. And BAYWATCH departed NBC to first-run syndication and became a worldwide hit. (Who knew that people in other countries would want to watch hot babes in tiny bikinis?) And going way back to the ‘50s, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY starring Danny Thomas was on ABC for the first four years and CBS the last seven (changing its name to THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW) where its ratings soared. And LEAVE IT TO BEAVER started on CBS but enjoyed more success on ABC.

Also AMERICAN IDOL moving from Fox to ABC although the numbers it gets now are not even close to the numbers they got during their heyday. Bring back Sanjaya!

But most fail.

BACHELOR FATHER in the ‘60s was on all three networks and didn’t make a dent. And if you want to go way way back, TOM CORBETT, SPACE CADET didn’t click on either CBS, NBC, ABC, or Dumont. TAXI moved from ABC to NBC and was gone a year later. THE NAKED TRUTH fared no better on NBC than ABC. Moving to ABC from NBC did not jump-start SCRUBS. And there are many more examples.

Back in the late ‘70s when MTM was considered the Camelot of TV studios, they had THE TONY RANDALL SHOW on ABC. After getting only a 30 share (boy, those were the days) it was actually on the bubble. ABC offered a second season but only 13 episodes. MTM President Grant Tinker took the show to CBS where they offered a full-season. So Grant took it. A year later CBS cancelled THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. Grant later said he made a mistake moving it from ABC. That was where its audience was, he should have had enough faith that they would ultimately get their back 9 and possibly pave the way for future seasons. Moving shows is a big risk.

Now obviously shows that were cancelled and get a reprieve from another network don’t give a shit about the risks. They’re now playing with house money. But the networks tend to take the loss.

So why do networks do it? In most cases it’s because they own the particular show and want to protect their investment. 20th Century Fox owns LAST MAN STANDING. NBC’s parent company owns BROOKLYN 99. If BROOKLYN 99 were owned by Sony there’s no way in hell it would pop up on NBC (despite all the fan love). So let’s be clear, even if BROOKLYN 99 doesn’t get great ratings, NBC is stockpiling more episodes for later syndication and to sell to SVOD networks. And who knows? Maybe it will catch on at its new home. For NBC it’s a win-win.

I’m also guessing NBC’s comedy development wasn’t all that hot. It’s not like a truly great pilot was passed over for a series the number four network didn't want anymore.  

So you might see more of this. It’s no longer about winning in network television. It’s about making money any way you can. Too bad Fox wasn’t around when TOM CORBETT was on the air. That show could’ve landed there too.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What's going on at Fox?

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

Gretchen asks:

I wonder what your thoughts are on Fox changing their sitcom schedule. For several years they've been the "young and cool" network with niche single camera comedies like New Girl, Brooklyn 99, Last Man on Earth, etc. They never became massive hits but everything put together gave them a nice brand.

Now they're clearly going a whole new direction cancelling almost all of their single camera sitcoms and picking up multi-cam comedies that are targeted for an older audience ("The Cool Kids" which stars Martin Mull and David Alan Grier in a retirement home and of course, "Last Man Standing" returning). Do you think they're making the play to go broader because of the upcoming Disney merger?

Absolutely, and that’s very astute on your part. But I think there are several things in play.

When Michael Thorn took over as president of the network he clearly stated that he believed in multi-cams.

And just a quick time-out to remind everyone that multi-camera comedies are shot like a play in front of a live audience. Four cameras are recording the action simultaneously. Single-camera comedies like THE GOLDBERGS are shot like a movie with one camera and no audience. Okay, now that everyone is up to speed…

People forget that FOX has had very few live sitcom hits, and that two of its biggest were indeed multi-cams. MARRIED WITH CHILDREN and THAT ‘70s SHOW. So it’s not like this is groundbreaking. Thorn believes, as I do, that the problem is not the format but the execution. When there’s a comedy that people want to watch, (a la ROSEANNE or BIG BANG THEORY) they don’t give a shit how many cameras there are. It’s just that multi-cams are held accountable. They have to be funny because they have an actual audience. And part of the problem with most single-camera sitcoms is that they’re not funny. They’re quirky, they’re ironic, they’re mildly amusing – but they’re not funny. Many single-camera niche comedy showrunners claim they don’t aim to be really funny. I claim it’s because they can’t be really funny.

For years now Fox has had the reputation as the hip niche comedy provider. Single-camera shows like NEW GIRL and THE MINDY PROJECT. Here’s the reality: NEW GIRL did well out of the gate but started to slide. None of their other niche comedies really broke through. In some cases Fox renewed low rated sitcoms because they owned them and wanted to accumulate enough episodes for syndication. And now there are numerous cable and SVOD networks offering niche comedies so Fox doesn’t even have a corner on the market.

Now Fox wants to be competitive. They’re clearly going for a broader audience with shows like THE COOL KIDS (about a retirement home) and LAST MAN STANDING. Economics also play a part. Fox owns LAST MAN STANDING. Once ROSEANNE became a big hit and Fox sensed LAST MAN STANDING would appeal to the same audience they revived it. Fox will be adding to their LMS inventory but more importantly going after ratings they never could achieve with THE MINDY PROJECT (no matter how many ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY love letters were written about it).

I also think they’re trying to rope in some of their audience from Fox News. LAST MAN STANDING is certainly a great carrot for that.

Will this experiment work? Hard to tell. Fox has always had trouble launching live sitcoms. But is that network promotion or just bad network development? Had Fox introduced better sitcoms might they have found success? Who knows? Fox has the advantage of NFL football to bring in viewers who don’t ordinarily watch that network. Especially this year since they have Thursday Night Football. So at least people will see the promos for these new shows. Whether they’ll stick around for them is anybody’s guess.

But at the end of the day I applaud Fox for taking a chance with a new direction instead of just re-signing tired shows that have no future nor audience. And if this doesn’t work, I say bring back THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The dreaded laugh machine

Here’s a FQ that became an entire post. It’s a subject that keeps coming up so I thought I’d address it again.

David poses the question.

Slate started a podcast called Decorder and the first episode was about the history of the laugh track (both the laff box machine and sweetening live studio laughter). I know in the past you've talked about having to kill laughs because it made the show run long. Did you have any other say into how the laughs were "mixed."

On the shows where I was the showrunner I had total say. We would go to the final sound mix, Bobby Douglass would plug in his laugh machine, and we would sit with him frame by frame. We chose to be very sparing with the laugh machine. Whenever possible we would use the actual laugh from the show. Sometimes we would cheat if there were two takes. Just as we’d use the best performance of the two takes, we used the biggest laugh reaction.

Also, we don't write multi-camera shows that have a joke a second.  We'd rather have no laughs for most of a page building to a truly big laugh.  So we were perfectly content with lots of lines not supplemented by artificial laughter. 

But it’s a matter of taste. There are some producers who really lean on that machine, pumping in loud boisterous phony laughs every second. Believe me, they’re not fooling anybody. All they’re doing is turning off viewers.

I see the need for them on multi-cam shows because the audience’s reaction is part of the mix, but if I ran a single-camera show I would not use a laugh track. This was our constant (and pretty much only) fight with CBS on MASH. They insisted we employ a laugh track. I used to say, “Where are these people? Is there a set of bleachers in the Swamp?” The only concession they gave us was in the OR.

A couple of concluding nuggets.

Bobby Douglass’ dad Charles invented the laugh machine.

And did you know that Bobby often adds laughs to live events like award shows? But in those cases, they’re actually needed.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Happy Mothers' Day to your mothers and queens

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY!!! Especially to the mom of my kids, Debby, and the mother of my granddaughter, Kim. 

When you think of great mom's, who springs to mind first?  Why, Queen Elizabeth of course! 

In 1991 I was a rookie play-by-play announcer for the Baltimore Orioles. I kept a daily journal that year and sold it as a book. "It's Gone!...No, wait a minute"(my classic home run call unfortunately) was published by Villard and released in ’93. It’s available on Amazon or on a remainder table near you.  Her Majesty attended an Orioles game.  Here is certainly the only Queen Elizabeth baseball story you'll ever read: 
WEDNESDAY, MAY 15, 1991, BALTIMORE
A typical day really, except that the queen of England and the president of the United States attended the game. They saw the A’s win 6-3, although Randy Milligan hit his first home run of the year and then his second.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness Prince Philip are visiting the United States and wanted to view something that represented the “epitome of America”. That meant either the Shopping Channel or baseball. So our little ol’ ballpark on Thirty-third Street got the nod. The weather was glorious, the traffic horrendous, and the crowd merely moderate (32,501) to see this historic occasion (The queen was not as big a draw as free wristbands.)
The entourage arrived at 6:30 via motorcade and were whisked into a private reception hosted by club owner Eli S. Jacobs (whom I have yet to meet, by the way). The VIP party, which also included Mrs. Bush, baseball commish Fay Vincent (who told me before the game that the role of the commissioner in affairs such as these is “to be seen and then leave”), Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Mrs. Secretary of Defense, the Governor of Maryland, the British Foreign Secretary, and a number of the queen’s personal valets, secretaries, and foot stools. They all dined on crab cakes and hot dogs. (What, no crumpets and nachos??).
Everyone lingered over dinner for fifteen minutes, and then the royal party moved on to the Orioles dugout to greet the players of both teams.
I did not get to meet the queen. Jon Miller and I were on the air describing the proceedings. At 7:20 a receiving line of players was rushed through (viewed by the crowd on DiamondVision), and to the horror of the Secret Service, the president escorted Queen Elizabeth (or “Sausage” as Prince Philip calls her) up the top step into the on-deck area in full view of the masses. Personally, I feel Harold Baines would be in greater danger than the queen, but the Secret Service men held their breath just the same. The crowd roared its approval.
From there the royal party repaired back to Mr. Jacobs’ sky box on the mezzanine level just to the left of the press box. They sat comfortably behind bulletproof glass as a high school chorus mangled “God Save the Queen” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” over a sound system wracked by feedback.
They stayed for two whole innings, and I sort of felt bad because they were two very boring innings. Five walks, little action. Really, Your Highness, baseball is not that dull! I wanted her to stay longer, but by 8:45 the motorcade had shuttled her away. I also was hoping to have her stop by our booth and possibly read the “Esskay Meats Out-of-Town Scoreboard,” but that was not to be. See if I vote for her in the next election!
All in all it was a very exciting night. In three previous years in the minors the most important dignitary I ever saw attend a game was the Phillie Phanatic.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Friday Questions

Friday Questions to get into the Mother’s Day weekend.

Brian Phillips is up first.

I enjoy physical humor.

For you and David Isaacs, are sight gags easier or harder to come up with than verbal ones? Also, do either of you have a better knack for coming up with them?

We both love sight gags. It has less to do with whether they’re easy to come up with and more to do with whether they fit the tone of the piece. If we have a scene that’s pretty slapstick we can come up with tons of sight gags. But if a show is primarily verbal, the sight gag has to fit the situation and the reality.

I love to put in sight gags even in sophisticated comedies (like FRASIER). It breaks up the comic rhythm and generates laughs from a different source. In all of my stage plays, which are very verbal and grounded in reality I always have a few sight gags.

Another BIG factor: Can the actor perform the gag? You could have the most hilarious sight gag ever, but if the actor isn’t skilled in physical comedy it’s going to die a horrible death.

I’ve been very lucky in my career to work with actors like David Hyde Pierce. You could throw anything at him and he would crush it.

Francis Dollarhyde wonders:

Given that Nick Tortelli was mentioned in passing in lots of episodes (of CHEERS) prior to his first actual appearance, there seemed to be sense of anticipation for when he'd finally show up at the bar (which didn’t happen until halfway through season 2). This sort of points towards a big guest star.

Was it ever on the cards that Danny DeVito would play the part of Nick, to reprise the DeVito/Rhea Perlman dynamic in TAXI (especially since Nick Tortelli's general scumminess was not so far removed from Louie De Palma's?) Or am I totally off base? (Not that I'm sorry Dan Hedaya got the part, which he nailed).

No, it was never considered. Partly for the reason you stated; we didn’t want to just do Louie & Zena again. And we wanted Nick to be his own unique brand of scum.

Dan Hedaya was a gift from God. He was so funny in that role.

From MW:

Potentially dumb question about your podcast, which I like quite a bit. Your radio background is evident and makes the listening much better than the standard hemming and hawing most of us would do. Anyway...as a segment ends you say you'll be right back with... or something like that. Why? There is no pause or commercial where you go away. I'm assuming you don't "record" it all in one take and it's to let you know to find the next section, but why do you keep it in when there's no break in it. Told you it was a potentially dumb question.

Not a dumb question at all. I do record things in segments. And I don’t always know ahead of time whether I have commercials that week or not. If there are I want the audience to stay through them to the next thing. So that’s why I do it.

Worse comes to worst you get a five second music bumper then on to the next thing.

Steve asks:

I have a story idea that seems ideal (and others I have polled agree) for a particular sitcom, but I'm not a writer, and already have another career.

I could go through the effort of writing an entire episode spec script, but I understand those are pretty much ignored now for new shows.

What's the best way to get that story idea in front of the show? Try to contact one of the existing writers for the show?

I’m sorry to be blunt, but Steve, if you just have an idea for an episode of an existing show your chances of selling it are slimsly and nonesky. If you write a script you stand a slight chance.

You’re right in that most shows won’t read unsolicited scripts, but if the script is good it might attract an agent and that agent could then submit it. Yes, it’s a long shot, but crazier things have happened and I have to be honest and say that’s really the only way I see this working for you.

And finally, from Mike Miller:

Why hasn't there been a great TV Show about a sports team? There has not been a great, long running show about a team. The only ones I can come up with is "The White Shadow" and "Friday Night Lights" and they were more about high school.

Several reasons. First off, they tend to be expensive. Getting crowds and doing elaborate game situations takes time and money. Especially on the big league level.

Also, if you want to do a professional sport like MLB or the NBA you need permission and must pay royalties to use club logos. And sometimes the leagues want creative say or even creative control.

David and I had that with a pilot idea we once had involving pro basketball.  The NBA wanted creative control.  That was the end of that idea. 

Another problem, internationally shows about American sports don’t sell well.  And we live in a global economy. 

There have been attempts, notably PITCH on Fox a couple of years ago. So far no one’s really cracked it.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Elvis documentary on HBO

When most people think of Elvis Presley today, they think of this cartoonish character – a walrus with dyed jet black hair stuffed into a laughable white sequined jumpsuit with bell-bottoms attempting karate moves on stage while slurring songs he doesn’t remember. They think of the guy who used to eat entire chocolate cakes and shoot television screens whenever Robert Goulet was on. Or maybe they think back to the younger, strikingly-handsome former teen idol who starred in dozens of idiotic forgettable movies where he sang such classics as “Do the Clam.”

To me that’s one of many tragedies of Elvis Presley; the biggest is that he died at 42.

But you forget that he was an absolute trailblazer, that he single-handedly changed popular culture, and that he was a phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen since. He really was the King of Rock n’ Roll.

Happily, there is a new two-part Elvis Presley documentary that is extraordinary and really profiles the genius and the impact of this once-in-a-lifetime artist. Yes, there have been dozens of documentaries on Elvis, not to mention biopics, biographies, tribute shows, and radio documentaries. But I’ve never seen one that dealt so much into his music, his influences, and how he put it all together to create something utterly new and magic.

What you learn in this documentary is that Elvis didn’t just fall into this success. You see a new side of him – smart, observant, driven, and tireless. The impression he always gave off was that of a polite “aw shucks” country boy. But you find that he was very aware of exactly what he was doing and how it would further his career. I was very impressed.

His life was not charmed. He suffered loss, made a Faustian deal with Colonel Tom Parker who became his Svengali. Elvis made gobs of money but ultimately it was at the expense of his art and soul. The price of fame became isolation, drugs, excess, a tarnished legacy, and eventually an early death.

This documentary takes you back to the purity of his early career with wonderful insightful commentary by performers like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty (himself a tragedy).

I’m sure that anyone watching this program, regardless of age, will no longer think of Elvis Aaron Presley as a joke. And everyone should watch it just for that reason.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

EP71: Aloha OY


Ken shares his recent Hawaiian adventure, filled with all the usual Levine comic mishaps, celebrity sightings, and restaurant recommendations. It’s like being there without the sunburn or shark attack.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Come see my play reading FREE

Hey Angelinos, I'm having a reading of my new full-length play, OUR TIME this Friday at 4:00 in Santa Monica.  It's a loosely-based autobiographical comedy about four young people breaking into the world of comedy in 1975 LA.   There are still some tickets left and they're FREE. 

Interested?  Email me at

HollywoodLevine@outlook.com

... for details.  First come, first served.   Lotsa laughs.   Come join us. 

The FRASIER/AVENGERS connection

Reader “Luke” pointed me to an article where the writers of THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR said the inspiration for the banter between Iron Man and Dr. Strange was the interplay between Frasier and his brother Niles on FRASIER. I found that very flattering until I read the article.

First off, let me say I heard the two writers, Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus, speak at the WGA screening of AVENGERS. They both seem like very bright, cool individuals.

So I don’t know if my issue is with them or how what they said was reported in the article. Here’s the quote from the article:

“Frasier was influential in our decision to put Stark and Strange together,” said co-writer Stephen McFeely in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment. He revealed that their interplay with each other was based on Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and his just-as-obnoxious brother, Dr. Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce).

My problem is this: I wouldn’t characterize either Frasier or Niles as “obnoxious.” Would you? A little arrogant perhaps and a tad full of themselves, but hardly “obnoxious.”

Also, Frasier and Niles were essentially allies. In AVENGERS, Iron Man and Dr. Strange are no fans of each other. They’re sparring partners, not bantering brothers. Yes, at times the Frasier boys have a tiff, but I would never classify them as “opponents.”

I guess what bothers me, and again I don’t know who exactly used the term “obnoxious,” but FRASIER tried really hard to give its characters dimension and give its relationships depth. So to see Frasier & Niles reduced to a one-word description --- that I don’t even believe is accurate – was a little disappointing.

Still, it’s nice that McFeely & Markus were fans of FRASIER. Too bad the show isn’t still going. We would have loved to have Thanos call in to Frasier’s radio show.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR -- my review

If you love the Marvel Comic universe then AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR will be action porn to you. Hundreds of your favorite Marvel superheroes team up in many combinations on many planets and worlds to give you a 2 ½ hour montage of every CGI comic book fight scene you’ve ever seen. Everyone gets thrown around like rag dolls, everyone gets flung twenty yards into a concrete building. At least five times.  Thank God no one gets hurt. 

If you’re locked in to all these characters and the Marvel legend I’m sure it’s great fun to see them all interact. It’s the ultimate All-Star game. I’ve only seen some of the previous movies so there were holes in my knowledge of the saga. Captain America now has a beard and wears black? Did I miss three sequels?

For all the special effects, explosions, epic battle scenes, and CGI animation for me the best part of the movie was the occasional funny quip. There were some great lines, and as opposed to the (competing) DC universe, Marvel doesn’t take itself so seriously. I love that.

And I appreciate that they attempted to build in emotional moments and tried to create reasons for vengeance besides just the standard “We have to stop the powerful supervillain who wants to control the galaxy,” but God it was overkill. And as a result, for me, some of these action and battle sequences were just mind-numbing. No one gets injured really so it’s just transformers pummeling each other. I've now seen it a thousand times in hundreds of movies. 

I can almost hear some of you now. “Levine’s old and just doesn’t like Marvel movies.” Not true. As readers of this blog will attest, I loved THE BLACK PANTHER, think it’s the best movie of the year so far. I really enjoyed the first couple of CAPTAIN AMERICA movies. Same with IRONMAN, ANT MAN, and they now have the best Spider-Man.  I even loved the AGENT CARTER TV series. But this installment felt unnecessarily long and prone to excess.

I know it’s getting terrific reviews, fans seem to love it, and it’s racking up boxoffice gold, but am I the only one who wasn’t completely enamored by this film? I know to say anything disparaging about THE AVENGERS is like spitting on the cross and admitting you’re 150 years old, but again I wonder, is it just me? I dunno. Maybe if they swapped out Mighty Mouse for Vision I would have liked the movie better.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The untitled diverse multi-cultural multi-camera family pilot

Every year there seems to be a trend in network comedy pilots. This year it’s strange blended families filled with as much diversity as the projects will allow.

Lots of single parents with complications. Lots of large families in various combinations. Lots of ethnic families. And then there are blended ethnic families.

There are unlikely pairings of single parents that “become” families. There are blended cultures trying to become families.

And of course there’s the family member who moved away but now must return to the family.

And most of them are “loosely based on the writer or star’s life.”

Many sound ridiculously complicated or with large casts. A few have narrators. That always scares me. When you have so many characters that you can’t let their behavior describe them, when you have to tell the audience who they are and what their place in the series is that always signals trouble to me.

A number of them are clearly just vehicles for their stars. The family premise is just an afterthought.

Nothing sounded particularly original.

Which is why, execution is so critical. For all I know four or five of these pilots are great. They’re smartly written, perfectly cast, with fresh looks at familiar situations. It could be a banner crop of pilots, or another year of 9JKL’s.

Upfronts are next week and we’ll know soon enough. At least it’s nice to see that multi-cams appear to be back in favor (until none of them are picked up).

The irony is I don’t think you could sell FRIENDS today. Six white kids who go through their twenties together – not a chance.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

It's just COMEDY, people

Okay, so I've been ranting about the same thing, but Bill Maher does it better and with funny graphics, and of course he's angrier than me. Worth watching.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Hawaii Five-18

Aloha!  Just got back from a few weeks on Maui.  Was gone before the volcano and earthquakes.  My heart goes out to everyone there.  Anyway, thought I would share some photos.  I'll do my traditional crazy travelogue on my podcast, which drops the middle of the week.  But in the meantime...

My adorable granddaughter, Becca.

Black sand beach

I forget.  This might be a sunset.

Good advice, wouldn't you say?

In case I want to swim to another island

Nightfall in the Blue Lagoon

More Becca, more eating

This is the kind of stuff I post on Instagram

We took a submarine ride.  Dive! Dive!

Not for the claustrophobic

135 feet below.  Notice Sponge Bob.

Much better name than Starbucks

Gotta go to a tacky luau

Not a lot of takers for the crap they sell

But someone paid $38,000 for THIS.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Friday Questions

Who’s ready for some Friday Questions?

KevinC starts us off:

We've been binge-watching Cheers and noticed in Season 9 there was a cold open where Rebecca and Woody had on the same outfit as in the episode before. How often were the cold opens moved around (timing issues, etc.) or did they just shoot the one for the next episode and didn't think of wardrobe?

We moved the teasers around a lot. It depended on the time. We would often swap teasers. The only good thing about the teasers (I hated them) was that they were independent of the story. So if we needed one that was 2:05 and the one we shot that week was 4:00 we easily could trade.

Mel Agar queries:

Are two-part episodes planned to be two-parters or do they grow organically out of a story that's just too big to be contained in 22-ish minutes?

Usually they grow from single episodes. And most of the times they are really 1 ½ parters. Too much story for one episode; not enough for two. Often there is a little padding that goes into two-parters.

But I used to love it when David Isaacs and I wrote a script and it was just too full so they made it a two-parter. BAM! We got paid twice.

My favorite two-parters that we did (not that anybody asked) were “Finally Parts 1 & 2” for CHEERS and “Adventures in Paradise Parts 1 & 2 for FRASIER.

From Dr Loser:

What show (or film, or other engagement) was the best you can remember for catered food?

That’s an easy one. EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Amazing food. A Vegas buffet.

 JUST SHOOT ME was pretty awesome too. When they have an omelet station, you know you’re in for some good eats.

The Mess Tent food on MASH that everyone in the 4077 bitched about -- was actually excellent.  

And Peter Aparicio rounds it out.

Can you identify any actors/actresses who began to act more like their character in their personal life (especially those who played the same character for many years)?

I would have to say Hawkeye became more like Alan Alda and Hot Lips became more like Loretta Swit on MASH. Watch a season one episode and a season ten episode and you’ll see quite a transformation.

What’s your Friday Question?  Just leave it in the comments section.  Thanks much!

Thursday, May 03, 2018

An interesting ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT development

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT'S 4th season was on Netflix.  It began airing a few years ago.  But it was a slightly different format than the one it employed during its years on Fox.  Since it was hard to get all the actors back together at the same time, the Netflix version followed individual characters and not the group as a whole.   The reaction was, shall we say, less than glowing?

Now comes word that the show's creator Mitch Hurwitz is "re-mixing" the season.  He's trying to make it more of an ensemble show.  The plotlines were so complicated anyway that the re-mix can't be any more confusing than the original version.

Will it work?  I dunno.  But it's an interesting experiment.

However, I have a question.

How do you now determine writers' credits?   Every episode has to have a writing credit.  And if Mitch cobbles together pieces from four episodes into one, the writers of all those episodes deserve credit.

And probably money.

I assume they have to be paid for the new re-mix version.

And since the WGA has rules as to the number of writers allowed per episode, they'd need a waiver and they'd need to pay each writer at least the equivalent of half an episode.  At least that is my understanding.

This is a sticky issue because to my knowledge no one has ever attempted something like this.  I don't believe there is a precedent.

So something will have to be worked out, and I'd be very interested to see just what that resolution is.  According to several readers, the episodes drop tomorrow. 

Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

EP70: How To Write Material That SELLS


Ken’s guest is Blair Richwood, a longtime feature development person and book editor.   They discuss what it takes for you to write a screenplay, pilot, or book that sells.   Also tips on pitching, what studios and Netflix are looking for, mistakes to avoid, and navigating the literary and Hollywood world. 


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I’m always in awe of those technicians who set up the acoustics for major theatres like the Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It’s such a baffling science. Sound travels in mysterious ways and patterns. A singer can stand on a stage in a cavernous Broadway theatre, sing without a microphone, and you hear her clearly in the last row of the balcony, which is in a different zip code. And then there’s a lovely 99-seat theatre in the San Fernando Valley with almost stadium seating and fantastic sightlines but you can’t hear a damn thing in the upper five rows.

Technicians use special panels to enhance the sound, to deaden the sound, to channel the sound, combat echo, filter out unwanted sound. They construct nooks and crannies, place walls strategically – I don’t know how they do it.

Why is one restaurant so loud you can’t hear yourself think and a similar restaurant in a similar space is quiet and comfortable? This keeps me awake at night.

The reason I bring up this topic (besides looking for something else to talk about after 5200+ posts) is that I have a weird acoustic quirk at my house. My house sits back from the street up an incline. If I’m in one of the upstairs rooms that fronts the street and two people are talking on the sidewalk across the street I can hear them as if they were right under my window. It’s bizarre. They’re maybe ten yards away, but they might as well be in the same room. Meanwhile, order a sandwich at any Subway and the person behind the counter can’t hear you.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. Do you have any audio quirks where you live or work? And seriously, how hard is it to hear “A BMT with NO CHEESE?”

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The next great comedy writer

iPhones try so hard to be intuitive.

There of course is Auto-Correct, which is very hit and miss. We’ve all sent texts we regret due to not proofing this handy feature. (Make sure you spell "can't" correctly.) 

But there is also this toolbar right above the keyboard that tries to anticipate your next word. When it’s right it’s very helpful. You just tap it once instead of having to type out the whole word. But it’s also wildly off base much of the time. And that’s certainly to be expected. Your iPhone can’t read your mind (yet).

When I type out texts or emails I find myself now always scanning this toolbar, trying to surmise where the phone thinks I might be going with this sentence. And what it thinks of me that I might go down some of these wacky paths.

But then I had an idea. An experiment. What if this feature happens to have a sense of humor? What if it doesn’t just “think;” it thinks funny? I know that Siri is programmed to say some smartass remarks.
So what if I wrote a script on the iPhone? I could just write in the set up and maybe it would provide the punchline. Wouldn’t that be nice when you’re stuck for a joke?

If this works, keep it to yourself. You don’t want EVERY comedy writer to know the wonder of Siri. But in this new modern techno-world, the next great Neil Simon could be in your pocket. Try it, and let me know how it goes. Good luck!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Reporting from the trenches

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

Covarr asks:

Have you ever made substantial changes to a script based on input from an actor? Respectfulness aside (I would hope and assume that one is obvious), what factors influence the extent to which you heed their concerns?

Yes. In some cases it’s because the star is just difficult and wields the power to force wholesale changes. In practically ALL of those instances, the resulting script is worse. Or, at best, lateral.

I’ve been relatively lucky. I haven’t written for the more notorious of the monsters.

There have been times when an actor’s reluctance to do the script as written comes with a good reason. And those generally result in better scripts. We had a script on MASH where Mike Farrell took issue ethically with something we were asking BJ to do. We used that argument and did an extensive rewrite. The end result was a much more layered episode.

Look, as a showrunner I always assume that during the course of a season there are going to be a few scripts that are just snake bitten. We’ll be rewriting late into the wee hours night after night. The problem is you don’t know going in which scripts those will be. (If you did you would have addressed the problems before it went into production.) So if there’s a particularly hard week based on an actor balking at something and he’s right, that’s just the way it goes. I never resent the actor for that. We’re rewriting because we didn’t get it right the first time.

But here’s what really pisses me off: Actors objecting to something in the script and trying to justify it as a character issue when in truth it’s a vanity issue. The actress doesn’t think the actor we’ve cast to play her boyfriend is attractive enough for her. But she won’t say that. She’ll say her character wouldn’t date this person for some bullshit reason. We end up getting into this argument about motivation and the character when we KNOW that’s not really what this is about at all. And we can’t just call her on it. We can’t say, “The real issue is your ego. You think people will find you less attractive if you’re with this guy instead of George Clooney. You don’t give a shit about the character or the show. You just care about how YOU look.” So instead we engage in this fifteen-minute discussion of nonsense.

At the end of the day it’s all about who’s the most powerful person in the room. And there’s a great quote from the brilliant late producer, Steven Bochco regarding actors.

“The first year they work for you, the second year you all work together, and the third year you work for them.”

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Thanks, Mom

My mother, Marilyn, would have been 90 today. She passed away several years ago. A day doesn't go by when I don't miss her and think about her. In addition to everything else she did for me, she is responsible for my career in television.

My partner, David and I were writing spec scripts, going nowhere, not even getting read at most shows. Then one day my mother found herself playing golf with Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSON. Like any good mom she said her son was a brilliant young writer and would he consider reading a script? Frankly, I’m a little surprised she didn’t have a copy in her bag but still. As a favor to her, Gordon did read our spec, liked it, and to our amazement, gave us our first assignment. In so many ways my mother has been a true angel in my life.  And never once asked for her 10%.   Happy Birthday, Mom.  I love you. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

I hate PowerPoint

Imagine you had to give a presentation to a fairly large group. The topic is something you know something about. The quarterly report. The latest advances in merkins. Whatever.  And while you're delivering this presentation you also have to put on rock climbing gear. Bulky jacket,boots, lacing up the heavy boots, attaching one or two harnesses, stocking up on flares and picks. All this while you're analyzing T.S. Eliot poetry.

Well for the most part, that's what it's like when you do a presentation with PowerPoint. Ive been to a number of conferences lately where good speakers with interesting topics were derailed by PowerPoint presentations. They spent half their talks fumbling around with slides. At first the audience is patient and has a little empathy. But after five minutes you want to scream, "Hey, numnuts! They're friggin' bullet points. Who gives a shit?! Just talk!".

PowerPoint and similar programs kill more lectures than they help. Yes, if you need visuals, fine. Let's say you're explaining how Facebook works or just "what is pornography?"  Slides would help -- in some cases the bigger, the better.

But now you can easily make graphs and graphics to just underscore the text of your talk. 68% of homeowners have spice racks.  "I don't believe you. Oh wait, I'm now looking at a slide of a spice rack and underneath it says 68% of homeowners have these. Okay, you sold me!".

The truth is speakers now use PowerPoint as a crutch. They think the can jazz up their presentations with visual aids. All too often though this results in technical snafus, fumbling around, the wrong slides, and takes the speaker right out of any rhythm. And most of the time the slides are boring, hard to read, and unnecessary.

Some people think if they don't arm themselves with PowerPoint that the audience will think they're unprepared. That's bullshit!

As a speaker, your job is to communicate. Talk to us. Share ideas, if it's a topic you're excited about let us see that.  You don't have to be the worlds greatest speaker. But your genuine enthusiasm will sell your message. Not a dizzying display of pie charts.

A helpful tip that will mean more than a slide proclaiming "4 warning signs of gum decay" is to start your talk with a story. People love stories and it puts them at ease. People think you have to begin with a joke -- the great woody Allen intro: " I'm reminded of the incestuous farmer's daughter...". No. You don't have to do that. If you got a great joke and you're good at delivering jokes then yeah, kill 'em. But a brief story, preferably personal, will achieve the same goal of disarming your crowd.

Speak with passion. Again, you don't have to be Billy Graham or Zig Zigler. But make us understand why the topic is interesting to you. In this case, a well placed word is worth a thousand pictures.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Friday Questions

Closing out another month with NEW Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Dave Wrighteous is up first.

Do you think, in this era of network TV struggling to stay relevant with the rise of cable and premium channels like HBO, that it could/would be a good idea to rerun shows on prime time network stations? It's cheap (no actors, writers etc. to hire and the cheap to make reality shows have proven networks like cheap content!) Popular shows that have been done to death in syndication wouldn't fly, but maybe some shows that never found an audience and were cancelled may find a new life and audience… like Big Wave Dave's!"

No, as much as I’d like BIG WAVE DAVE’S to make a triumphant comeback.

In today’s world networks have to be more competitive, not less. Rerunning even their hit shows tend to be a liability. For decades networks would just fill the summer months with reruns. Their ratings would suffer but all networks suffered equally. But now, with 1000 other channels, many offering original programming, networks can no longer afford the luxury of coasting.

And as for putting reruns or former cast-off shows on during those periods where networks traditionally offer original fare, that would be tantamount to waving a white flag and surrendering. Yes, they’d save money but “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Roger Owen Green asks:

Has the proliferation of these old shows coming back to life pleased you, bothered you, or it depends? Does having the bulk of the original cast make a difference?

And, given the frequency of these, would you now suggest that an aspiring writer consider a script for a Cheers reunion or All in the Family, The Next Generation (Meathead and Gloria's kid is more conservative than Archie!)?

What this new trend of rebooting screams to me is that networks are just out of ideas and will try anything. Old shows are a known entity so at least offer some value in initial sampling.

Ultimately some will succeed and others won’t and after a few years this trend will run its course.

Remember there was a period when Hollywood studios were doing movie versions of TV shows? BEWITCHED, THE BRADY BUNCH, BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, GET SMART, MAN FROM UNCLE, ADAMS FAMILY, etc. A few like ADAMS FAMILY were fun but most fizzled out. That’s what I think will happen here.

Having the original casts back is both a plus and minus. They’re the people you are comfortable with in the roles. But I fear in some instances their advanced ages will be disconcerting. In most cases, it’s better to remember these shows and characters in their original form.

By all means DO NOT do specs of old shows having reunions.  It's a stunt that will backfire.  If you want to do a spec ROSEANNE or WILL & GRACE do the current version.

From Mr. Hollywood:

Could you do MASH today in today's political climate?? In today's "TV climate"?

MASH benefited greatly by the country being in a very unpopular war and a similar war to the one fought in Korea. We don’t have that now.

As for the political climate – we’re so polarized now that the numbers MASH got are impossible to achieve today.

ROSEANNE is this huge “hit” getting 14,000,000 viewers. MASH routinely got numbers that are higher than today’s Academy Awards. You’re not going to find 30,000,000 Americans to agree on anything these days.

So, to answer your question – no.

And finally, from Mark Solomon:

Ken, I just watched, on Antenna TV, a wonderful episode of "Wings", written by you and David, in which Frasier and Lillith Crane are in Nantucket in order for Frasier to conduct a self-help seminar on the island with paying attendees.

I'm curious about the genesis of that cross-over episode. Was it that NBC execs were seeking to bring the cachet of the higher rated "Cheers" to an episode of "Wings", or did you and David initiate the idea, perhaps knowing that your association with "Cheers" would make it likely that all the parties involved would be willing and eager to make the episode happen?

Thanks for another terrific episode.

Thank YOU.

I don’t recall the exact details but networks are always looking for stunts, and one is crossover shows. The creators of WINGS, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell were veterans of CHEERS and both shows were produced by Paramount, so a lot of obstacles were eliminated going in.

I suspect one of the WINGS guys floated the idea by Kelsey and Bebe of guesting and they were agreeable to it. Once the deals were set, Peter, David & David approached David Isaacs and me to write it. We were writing and consulting on both CHEERS and WINGS at the time so we were the logical choice.

We broke the story with Peter, David, and David and wrote the script. I seem to recall that most of our first draft remained. I was very pleased with the final result.

How’s this for trivia? David Isaacs and I are the only writers to write Frasier Crane in three series. Like Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, I don’t think that record will ever be broken. If only it meant something.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The pilot process -- where everything currently stands

This is nervous time for pilot producers/creators/agents/actors – pretty much anyone associated with the many pilots currently under consideration for a fall or midseason network pick up.

Decisions will be made as soon as next week and production teams are scrambling to assemble and ready their pilots for presentation.

It’s also the time when rumors are flying left and right – which show is hot, which show is dead, which dead show is suddenly hot again? Industry websites are buzzing with speculation.

The big X-Factor, of course, is testing. Studios now pre-test their pilots in anticipation of the networks audience testing. Those test results completely shuffle the deck.

There are also existing shows currently on the bubble. Some have gotten tryouts in different time slots to see if their fortunes improve. Others simply wait to see how well the pilots test. If your network has a strong slate of pilots you’re probably dead. If the development season is a flop you might get a reprieve.

Add to the mix commitments, network needs, how many holes in the schedule need to be filled, compatible shows to fill an hour, pressure to increase diversity, ownership of shows, and license fee costs and you get a pretty good idea of the craziness that lies ahead for those with a dog in this race.

And as super-agent Bob Broder once said, “Everything turns to shit over Mississippi” – meaning show that the network loved while screening in LA often lose their luster once the test results are in as they fly to New York for the final decisions.

Best of luck to all the contenders. And I always leave you with my quote for the Upfronts process. “The winners go to work and the losers go to Hawaii.”

Aloha.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

EP69: Celebrity Fist Fights


Ken tells stories about various altercations he has had in his career – none were his fault. Okay, maybe one. He also plays some fascinating radio clips and shares with you some celebrity fistfights that you won’t believe. 


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Who is the guy with that weird laugh?

Once again I'm slipping in a ten-year-old Friday Questions post.  This has been a crazy month, I need a bit of a break, and I bet 90% of you are reading this for the first time.  So stagger back down memory lane with me. 

Here are answers to some of your Friday questions.

velvet goldmine wondered this last week:

I know that even shows filled before a live audience sometimes used to "sweeten" them with recorder laughs. But there's this one man's laugh that you hear on TONS of shows from the 70s, from MTM to Taxi. You know the one I mean? First there's a startled "Haw!" as the setup gets underway, then this extended "Haw Haw Haw..." when the joke reaches its zenith.

Why in the world would they keep using this familiar, even annoying laugh? And if by chance it was the same guy at all the tapings -- say, a superfan, or a self-impressed writer -- why wasn't he muzzled?

This is less of an answer than a confirmation. As several people correctly mentioned in the comments section, the distinctive laugh you hear belongs to James L. Brooks (pictured above). It’s less annoying when you realize it’s genuine. And when he laughs at something I’ve said or written, it’s sheer music.

There are also two very distinctive laughers on the last seven years of CHEERS. Phoef Sutton and Bill Steinkellner. I can’t describe them but watch any episode from those middle and later years and you’ll know what I mean.

Jim Stickford asks:

What's the procedure for deciding what particular line to use. I saw Carl Reiner in an interview years ago and he said one of the reasons he stayed in the writer's room for Your Show of Shows was that he could type, which was a bid deal in the days before computers and photocopiers. When the writers threw out lines, Carl picked the one he liked best and typed it in.

Is there a procedure? Is it decided by the show runner? Do you vote on it?

It’s either the showrunner or the person designated to run the room in the showrunner’s absence. Someone has to have the final say otherwise you have the scene in GODZILLA with all the people running through the streets crazed. Although, wait a minute. It's like that normally.

From Jaime J. Weinman:

Do you prefer writing sitcom episodes with a tag before the closing credits (M*A*S*H) or episodes that have no tags and end the episode with the second act (Cheers)?

Also what are the reasons for having tags or not having tags: is it usually network policy (like in the '80s when almost none of NBC's sitcoms used tags), or is it sometimes the showrunner's decision?

Tags are those little two minute scenes at the end of sitcoms. They serve the purpose of rewarding the viewer for staying through the last spot break. Some shows have them, others don’t. It depends on their format and needs of their network. There seem to be fewer today as networks are going more to a three-act format -- again, all in the cause of audience maintenance; none in the cause of better storytelling.

I MUCH prefer writing tags to the teasers we employed on CHEERS. At least with tags you could draw upon content established in the episode and just do a call-back. Teasers were completely independent of the story that followed. The Charles Brothers thought it would be novel and help establish the world of the bar. They were right of course, but teasers were a bitch to pull out of our ass every week.

What’s your question???