Wednesday, January 31, 2018

EP57: Everything you wanted to know about TV programming in 30 minutes.

Part two of Ken’s interview with network scheduling chief Preston Beckman.  This week they discuss ratings, research, programming strategies, casting, reboots, and tips for making successful pilots. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Times they have a-changed

There’s nothing writers enjoy more than hearing or reading about other writers’ horror stories. It’s not schadenfreude per se (okay, maybe a little); it’s more that we all have them and take comfort in hearing other stories and thinking “at least that wasn’t me.” Hey, you probably do it too. Ever watch PROJECT GREENLIGHT? Isn’t one of the main attractions watching the constant upheaval and chaos?

So when I discover a book that details the nightmarish journey of some successful play, musical, or movie I’m all in. Recently, I read a book called THE SEESAW LOG by William Gibson. He wrote a very successful play in the late ‘50s called TWO FOR THE SEESAW. (There was also a later movie version.) It starred Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft and ran for 750 performances and collected several Tony Awards.

The book also included the text of the play and that’s what I want to focus on. (The nightmare section – you had to be there or at least give a shit?) Very well constructed and some very funny lines. I’ve never seen a production of it or the movie. But I was struck with how dated it was and how the times have changed.

First of all, it’s a two-character play. At the time this was considered avant garde. Plays had big casts, even comedies. Now all theatres want plays with small casts. Four is pretty much the max. And if you can stage it with no sets or costumes or sound or lights that would be better.

TWO FOR THE SEESAW is a romantic comedy, and for its time kind of racy. Single people having sex and talking about the subject. But never using a swear word. Obscenities in 1958 were verboten apparently. So the play read like a long sitcom.

A big story point was the guy celebrating his 34th birthday. Henry Fonda was cast in the role. He was clearly in his 50’s. Not even close. Imagine Daniel Craig passing for 34 today. And the woman was Anne Bancroft who at the time was 29 and played her age. So there was about a 25 year difference between them. Audiences didn’t seem to mind. I think they would today.

She was somewhat naive.  So he constantly called her "infant."  Seems a little insulting in 2018.  Hard to believe it wasn't in 1958.   There's a big difference between calling your object of affection "baby" and "infant."  Or is it just me?  

But the most startling change was this: During an argument scene Fonda takes a rolled up newspaper and smacks Bancroft in the face with it, sending her flying. WHAT THE FUCK?! And then it was justified because “she had it coming.” HOLY SHIT! She forgives him. And in the same scene he jokingly offers to slug her every hour. Now I’m curious to see if the movie version contains this beat. But wow – have sensibilities changed (for the better). What was considered acceptable behavior and even Broadway entertainment is truly appalling.

On the other hand...

A recent New York Post article said that many of our classic sitcoms are now cringeworthy because of the womanizing that exists in those shows.  As someone who wrote a lot of those shows I take issue with that.  At what point does this become silly?  Sam Malone or Hawkeye Pierce propositioning a woman with benign comedy banter is quite apart from hitting anyone.   The article cites a Syracuse University professor who showed the MASH episode where Henry Blake is killed.  At one point, earlier in the episode during his goodbye ceremony he grabs Hot Lips and gives her a big kiss.  The students gasped.  A) If you know the show you know that Hot Lips had a very healthy sex drive, and B) she liked it.  A point he makes is that students in earlier classes (before all the sexual harassment charges) did not react this way.  So I'm going to chalk it up to heightened sensitivity because the issue is so in the air. 

But if womanizing is the new line in sand never watch another James Bond movie, or IRON MAN movie, or Bob Hope movie, or Bogart movie, or SWINGERS, or SAVED BY THE BELL, or BOARDWALK EMPIRE, or MIAMI VICE, or FAMILY GUY (Quagmire), or STAR TREK, or THE SOPRANOS, or TWO AND A HALF MEN, or HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER or FRIENDS, and whatever you do, don't watch HAPPY DAYS.  That "Fonzie" character should not be allowed on television. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Why I didn't review the Grammys

People wonder why I didn’t review the Grammys. Partly because I didn’t watch them. I was glad Bruno Mars won a bunch. I love Bruno Mars. But for the most part, I feel like the Grammys are a party I’m not invited to.  At best I’m welcome to crash and stand off to the side and feel old.

A few years ago I was writing a screenplay about the music business. So for research I wrangled a VIP ticket to the American Music Awards. After the telecast there was a big on-site party, which I attended. I was the only person there not in a velvet suit or leather. I wore a sportsjacket. I must’ve looked like a narc. I spoke to a number of the rock stars and the lucid ones gave me some good information for my screenplay. I couldn’t tell you who they were and even if I could you probably wouldn’t know who they were.  But they were big, trust me. 

That’s the thing that struck me most. The shelf-life of most rock stars is probably less than a porn star’s. It takes a real effort to keep up with who’s at the top of the pops. And for years and years I did. But eventually I just said, “this is like keeping track of CW shows.” So I stopped. And within two years I knew practically nobody.

Someone could win nine Grammys one year and be playing at Six Flags Magic Mountain the next.

My heart goes out to these performers because the music industry is a revolving door. And very few performers even get to where they’re in the sweet spot where Grammys are even possible. How many American Idols have been dumped by their record labels? 80,000,000 people vote for these nimrods and two years later only six buy their new album.

So seeing who wins Grammys this year is like seeing who is the big winner on Bingo night. Next week there will be another Bingo night and next year there will be more Grammys. Half the 2019 winners are probably playing small clubs right now and half the 2018 winners will be taking their place.

Who can keep up? It’s hard enough to keep track of which free agents in baseball will go to which clubs and what night SUPERGIRL is on.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Two Friday Questions on a Monday

Here’s a two-part Friday Question that became an entire post. It’s from…

Rat Billings, who first asks:

When you were still climbing up as a young writer, how did you deal with the emotional side of being re-written?

No one likes to have their bubble popped. 

It was tough I’ll be honest with you. Either they rewrote us and (in our humble opinion) made the script worse, which angered us. Or they would make it markedly better and we would kick ourselves for not doing it that well. And along with that was the self-doubt that maybe we’d NEVER be able to write that well.

This is another reason why it’s good to have a writing partner. At least you have a support system in place. You tend to take the rewriting as less of a personal attack.

But here’s the reality: ALL young writers get rewritten.  Get used to it.   If you think everything you write is gold and should not be touched you are in the wrong business. Learning to accept that you will be rewritten, not being defensive about everything will go a long way towards advancing your career.

I’m reminded of a WGA membership meeting years ago. Everyone was there since we were deciding whether to go out on strike that year. Larry Gelbart got up to speak. He opened by saying, “Everyone in this room has re-written everyone else in this room.” He was not far wrong.

Use it as a learning experience and incentive to do better.

Pat also asked a related question.

When you were running shows, which steps did you take to make sure that your writers all felt valued throughout the inevitable process of re-writes, etc.?

First, I would work hard to make sure they had everything they needed to begin writing the draft. The story was well-worked out, a lot of joke pitches were already there. And I made myself available should the writer have any questions or problems along the way.

Once they turned in the script I made sure to read it that night, as soon as possible, and call them at home. I would lead with the things I liked and thought worked and then would say there were things we could probably improve upon and very briefly preview those.

When we either gave him notes for a second draft or (if time did not permit that) began rewriting ourselves we would try to include the writer as much as possible. Hopefully he would learn from how and why we changed his draft.

We would always give a young writer a second script, even if the first one was disappointing. Often the second script would be much better, and it was clear the writer learned from the first experience. However, if the second script was really bad then we had to assess whether he was the right fit for our staff. And sometimes they were. Sometimes you had writers who were joke machines and made an enormous contribution; they just couldn’t write great drafts. So you stopped giving them script assignments but kept them. Other writers you let go.

We try to provide as supportive and stress-free environment as we can, but at the end of the day the writer still has to deliver the goods. And some writers may be lovely people but they just can’t cut it.

That’s as fair as we can be in a truly cruel business.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Tips for young playwrights

For a TV writer or a playwright, there’s nothing like seeing your first production. After God knows how many specs, one acts, and plays that never saw the light of day, the feeling can be glorious to see your words come to life the first time. I say that reservedly because there are some factors that could spoil it. Bad cast, bad direction, and in the case of TV – your script could be rewritten to where it’s unrecognizable.

That happened with the first produced script that David Isaacs and I wrote. It was a JEFFERSONS and we might as well have turned in a draft of THE PATTY DUKE SHOW considering how much of our script made it to the stage. (Note: Our draft of the JEFFERSONS got us our first MASH assignment so it couldn’t have been that bad.)

Playwrights don’t have that problem, but they have another. Once their play gets on its feet the real work often begins. The dreaded rewrite phase. After taking months to carefully and thoughtfully craft your play, now you’ve got a week to fix the story, throw out the whole father subplot, replace the airport scene, find a new ending, punch up a lot of the jokes, and add a two-page speech to convince a jury that Charles Manson was just a misunderstood youth.

It can be overwhelming, especially if you haven’t done it before. I remember my first runthrough. David and I had just been hired on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM in the late ‘70s. RANDALL was a multi-camera show so every afternoon we writers marched down to the set to watch a runthrough of the day’s rehearsal. I was very excited.

We arrived on the stage, the producers schmoozed with the actors, and there were still doughnuts on the crafts services table. Directors chairs were lined up in front of the set. They even had our names printed on the backs of them (although only assholes actually made a point to sit in his own chair). I took my seat along with David and the rest of the writers, all of whom were experienced. My script was in its handsome show binder on my lap and my pencil was at the ready.

The runthrough began. I was enjoying it, laughing at a lot of the jokes. Then I glanced to the side. The experienced writers were all furiously scribbling in their scripts – X’ing out things, marking certain places, drawing arrows, writing in the margins, dog earring pages. I thought to myself, “What are they seeing? This all looks pretty good to me.”

After the runthrough I walked back to the office with less of a spring in my step. We all gathered around the conference table to discuss the night’s upcoming work. A writer would just say, “And page 13, Jesus!” The other writers would agree. Nothing more needed to be said. It was obvious.

Except to me.

We went to work, each issue was addressed, and the next day the runthrough was noticeably better (even to me). Over time I began to catch on. Seeing how pros improved scripts was invaluable. There is just no substitute for experience.

But that doesn’t help the poor young playwright who now has a two-hour play to fix all by himself.

So here are some tips:

Have the right mindset going in. The point of the runthrough is not to entertain you, but for you to analyze and assess what other people might find entertaining. Don't be like me.

You don’t have to totally fix the play in one night. Work on the big things first. Does the story track? Fix some of the jokes later.

Throw out anything that doesn’t work, even if it took you four months to write and was the reason you started the project in the first place.

There’s a saying on Broadway: Cut 20 minutes and run 2 years longer. Better to be short than long.

You don’t have to fix it yourself. Get feedback from people you trust. And it’s a time honored tradition in the theater to bring in “play doctors.” Abe Burrows became a legend doing that.  Swallow your pride. If you want help, seek it out.

Don’t just arbitrarily change everything that didn’t work. Sometimes it’s the acting and directing. You have to make that determination, but many times things don’t work because the actor or director doesn’t understand the intent. Keep the lines of communication open.

And finally, when you’re up all night in a hotel room tearing your hair out in a rewrite, stop for just a moment to remember how exciting it is that your play is actually being produced. It's all worth it.

In general, playwrights gravitate to television – that’s where the money and greater exposure is. But I always felt that more TV writers, especially comedy writers accustomed to the multi-camera format, should go the other way and write plays. How many plays are saved during tryouts? TV writers deal with run-throughs every day for years. Who better to tackle the process? I'm currently writing my sixth play.  I only hope to be in a position where I can follow my own tips.

Saturday, January 27, 2018


CBS has announced that it has ordered a reboot of MURPHY BROWN starring Candice Bergen.  I assume they'll reassemble as many of the original cast members as they can.  (A few have passed away.) 

Readers of this blog have been asking me what I thought.

I'm not sure of the reasoning, especially if networks are trying to attract the 18-49 audience.  I can't imagine anyone under 50 watching this show.  But CBS is very savvy and I'm sure they have a game plan for making on from it. 

The problem with MURPHY BROWN during its original run was topicality.  As a result those episodes today are incredibly dated.  There are references to politicians that wonks don't even know.  So I'm certain there's no thought of taking advantage of future syndication possibilities.  It'll have the same shelf life as THE DAILY SHOW. 

But I suspect a lot of the humor will be at Trump and the government's expense so I'll be watching.

And the bottom line for me is this:  MURPHY BROWN had some wonderful writers.  If creator Diane English reassembles them then I will be TOTALLY on board. 

It's also nice to see multi-cams making a comeback.   NBC recently ordered four multi-cam pilots including one from Mike Schur.   Now we just have to make sure the new crop of multi-cams are executed properly, and the original MURPHY BROWN staff is a big step in the right direction. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Friday Questions

Closing out January with Friday Questions. Oh, and Happy Birthday to Rich Brother Robbin whose internet oldies station is the best on the web.  Check it out here.

Lisa gets us started.

As someone who knows the inside of the business and someone able to know the real creative people who make the difference in making a great movie. Can it be said that Robert Evans is one the greatest Producers of Hollywood? As per his book, he made significant creative contributions in the making of Godfather and Chinatown - 2 of the greatest movies ever. Also uncredited help in the final version of Godfather Part 2.

If you read his book you’ll think he also was the first man on the moon and invented electricity.

Yes, Robert Evans was a major player and no one can deny that during his watch Paramount made some truly great movies.

But he was also a real character. Instead of reading the book, may I recommend to anyone that you listen to the audiobook? He narrates it. And it is HYSTERICAL. I mean, drive-off-the-road funny. And not intentionally.   His marriage with Ali MacGraw alone is worth the price of the audiobook. 

From Nate Lantzy:

I'm watching Cheers for the umptheenth time. Just started again. Pilot, once the bar is full, near the end. Older lady in a wheelchair, one appearance. Sitting all alone. I love to make my own canon on how the hell she got down those stairs, but is there a a behind the scenes story on her?

I’ve talked about this before – I don’t know her real name but that woman was originally a character in the series (Mrs. Littlefield I believe). And she had lines in the pilot. But when the pilot was cut together and was real long the decision was made to eliminate the character. So her lines were cut but there are still a couple of shots where she is still visible in the background.

Gazzoo queries:

Another Friday Question regarding Burghoff,...since he missed so many episodes his final few seasons, how much notice did you have of Gary's absence when writing scripts? I assume you sometimes had to rewrite stuff that was supposed to go to him.

Gary was signed for I believe 18 of the 25 episodes that season. We worked out with him the episodes he would miss before we went into production and then planned our season accordingly.

So if we broke a story where Radar was not needed we slotted it in one of the weeks we knew he’d be absent.

We missed having his presence in every episode, but working around him was not a major hardship.

Brian asks:

Did an actor ever ad-lib a line in one of the shows you worked on that got left in?


And finally, from Steve:

If second episodes are tough because you have to retell the pilot, what about all the viewers who jump on at episode 3, 4, 8, or the second series premiere? Is there a rule of thumb for when you can start assuming people know who your characters are, or do you try to ensure every episode would make sense to someone completely new to the show?

I would say that by episode 4 you can assume most of your audience knows your show. Especially now that people can easily go back and catch up on past episodes.

What’s your Friday Question? You can leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The end of the quirky comedy era?

A recent article in THE GUARDIAN bemoaned the end of the “quirky comedy era” as Amazon and Netflix have recently cancelled off-kilter fare like I LOVE DICK, ONE MISSISSIPPI, and LADY DYNAMITE. Instead these once daring streaming services are gravitating more towards traditional programming at the expense of experimentation and innovation.

On the one hand, I share the author's concern. When network sitcoms have become MODERN FAMILY with different ethnic groups, it was nice that there was an oasis where you could try something new.

But here’s the thing: No one watched these niche programs.

And the question has to be asked: Were they really that good?

"Quirky" to me is a lazy substitute for making people laugh. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” The author of the article, Stuart Heritage, even concedes that these cancelled shows were not laugh-out-loud funny. I’m sorry, but to me that’s a problem if you’re doing a comedy.

Let’s look at the reality. These niche shows are expensive to produce. You need to justify their existence. Expectations are certainly different for streaming services vs. broadcast networks, but if quirky shows can’t get numbers they at least have to get huge buzz. Like TRANSPARENT (which very few people actually watch) you need awards and fawning critics and a boost from the zeitgeist. Otherwise Netflix and Amazon and Hulu are left with… nothing.

This is not unique to television. If you write a quirky experimental play and no one comes it closes. If your movie bombs it quickly disappears. Why should streaming services continue to throw good money after bad?

My guest this week on my podcast is Preston Beckman. (To hear it just click on this link or scroll up and directly underneath the masthead is a big gold arrow. Click on it.) Mr. Beckman put schedules together for NBC and FOX for years. It’s a fascinating interview and one of the questions I pose is why doesn’t Netflix release any of ratings data? One reason, he says, is that more people are watching old TV reruns and movies than their new original programs. If more people are watching my old CHEERS episodes than HOUSE OF CARDS then how paltry must the numbers be for LADY DYNAMITE?

Just my conjecture, but I imagine streaming services picked up these quirky shows originally hoping that one would catch lightening in a bottle. One would be a breakout hit. One would attract a large audience. And thus far it hasn’t panned out so they circled the wagons.

The trick now is for them to develop more traditional fare that is a cut above network sitcoms. Netflix has done that with ONE DAY AT A TIME. Just because you’re trying to reach a broader audience doesn’t mean you have to do 2 BROKE GIRLS.

That breakout show is out there. There’s more to love than just Dick.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

EP56: How SEINFELD Got On the Air

 … and other tales of TV programming.  Ken interviews Preston Beckman (aka the “Masked Scheduler”) who scheduled programs for NBC and FOX for 35 years. From “Must See TV” to binge watching, it’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at just how your favorite shows get on the air. Part 1 of 2

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Can an older writer break in?

Here’s a Friday Question that’s worth a day’s worth of attention. It’s a question that a lot of you have. Mike Bloodworth sent it in.

As I near SIXTY I'm wondering if I should move on to something new, such as writing. However, I can't help but wonder if there's any point. Is the future of comedy writing reserved for your twenty-something grad students that you're always going on about? Or is there a chance that an older writer can be successful at this present time? I mean funny is funny, right? Good writing is good writing regardless of the author's age. Or am I just kidding myself. I'd love to hear what you think about this. And about aging in Hollywood in general.

Well first Mike, I think you need to define for yourself WHY you want to get into comedy writing. Is it because you feel you have a need to express yourself, it’s a real kick to hear something you’ve written get laughs, comedy writing is something you’ve always wanted to do, something that gives you inner satisfaction? Or is the end game to make money? (And if it is, by the way, that’s totally fair.) Answering the question helps decide what for you will constitute success.

When I started out I just wanted to be a comedy writer. The idea of getting up in the morning and my only responsibility was to be funny seemed like a dream. The notion of going to work at a movie studio or television lot was the be-all and end-all for me. But I was in my 20’s, single, and didn’t need much to live on (the one advantage of not having a girlfriend).

When you get to sixty, either you’ve made enough that comedy writing is a lark, or you hope that comedy writing will generate needed income. If it’s the former then go for it. What the hell? You have nothing to lose? If it’s the latter you need to face some harsh realities.

But before I spell out those realities I want to say very clearly that people do beat the odds. Older writers do break in. Not as many and it’s harder, but it does happen. If you want to be a quarterback in the NFL and you’re sixty – not a chance in hell. But you can break in as a writer.

Yes, there is ageism. Established comedy writers can’t find work. Networks do covet youth. It’s hard for me to really fault them on that since I was the happy recipient of work when I was in my 20’s.

If you don’t live in Southern California, that’s another drawback. It’s good to be here for networking purposes, support group purposes, and availability to agents, managers, the business in general. But moving to Los Angeles is always a big crap shoot. It’s a big crap shoot for young people so someone in their 60’s really has long odds. I’m assuming it’s harder for someone who has had roots for many decades and quite possibly family obligations to just pack up and take a shot in LA.

And the clock is ticking. Millennials have more time to kill. And can probably live cheaper. All of this needs to be factored in.

But here’s the good news (finally): No one can tell your age based on your name on a script. Unless your name is Woodrow Wilson Jr. a reader should have no idea that you’re not 24. You’re unfamiliar just like all the twentysomethings. An actor must produce a headshot (although those aren’t always the most recent shots. Some 60-year-old actors are still using their high school photos.).

And subject matter is important. There are more channels catering to older people so their sitcoms might welcome a writer with a little age on him. Or you might think of expanding into light hour dramas. They seem to have a more open attitude towards writers who no longer need to be carded.

Beyond that, the key is the script itself. If you have a writing sample that knocks in out of the park you’ll have showrunners coming after you. Sure, there is way more pressure on writing that breakout script, but it CAN be done. It seems like every year there’s another story about some nimrod in Minnesota who sends in a script and either Clint Eastwood directs it or a showrunner puts him immediately on staff.

Best of luck. My first suggestions would be to love what you’re doing first. Get pleasure out of the actual experience of writing comedy. And then if you sell it, congratulations, you grabbed the brass ring.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Refusing to work with Woody Allen

A lot of readers have asked my opinion so I’ll weigh in. After all, I have an opinion about everything. Sometimes they’re even informed.

This topic refers to all these actors now outraged and distancing themselves from filmmaker Woody Allen because of the sexual abuse charges that have been leveled against him. (DISCLAIMER: He was never actually convicted.) And set aside your feelings for Woody Allen.

To me the issue here is that these charges have been known for 25 YEARS. And just NOW these self-righteous actors are aghast that they could work for such a monster? 25 YEARS!

It’s not like they weren’t aware.

There was no SPOILER ALERT.

But they CHOSE to ignore those charges to work for Woody Allen. Actors have won Oscars from Woody Allen movies. It was always prestigious to work on Woody Allen movies. So yeah, he might’ve done some horrible things but that’s no longer in the news and the film means a nice trip to Paris and a chance to work with other well-known actors so what the hell?

But now it’s fashionable to denounce Woody Allen. Now there’s little to gain from being in a Woody Allen movie. Well, I’m sorry. Unless you were in LOVE AND DEATH or SLEEPER, you knew what you were getting into so I find your disgust and your regret insincere, self-serving, and hollow. You got what you wanted out of those movies and you were willing to set aside your standards to do so. Don’t come forward now.

Some are donating their salaries, which is a nice gesture.  How many are doing it to save face and control the damage?   Call me cynical but that's the kind of plan PR teams and spin control firms hatch.

Look, here’s the thing: Since 1992 when these charges were first made VERY public, practically EVERYBODY in Hollywood has worked with Woody Allen.

Taking a left turn...

Remember Michael Milken? In 1989 he was mastermind of a huge junk bond scandal involving racketeering, and securities fraud. People lost millions. He was convicted and sent to prison for ten years. Of course, he got out in two years for “good behavior.” After that he became very active in a drive to stop prostate cancer. At one point he worked out an arrangement with Major League Baseball to go around the country, appear on local teams’ telecasts during games, and talk about the campaign. It was all for a very good cause. And so he did, guesting for an inning on local teams’ broadcasts. When he came to Dodger Stadium and this was proposed to Vin Scully he said, “Michael Milken? On MY broadcast? Not a chance.”

ALL of these shocked actors could have said, “Woody Allen? Not a chance.”

And I’m sure some did. THOSE are the ones I’d like to hear from.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cecil B. DeMille -- guest blogger

Hello, this is the great Cecil B. DeMille. I would say “famed director” but some of you younger readers wouldn’t know who I am. Suffice to say I’m the greatest film director that ever lived. My time was the ‘20s through ‘50s when motion pictures were king, theatres were giant ornate palaces, and there were no virtual reality games in the lobby. Between silent and talkies I made 70 movies. Take that, Woody Allen!

The 2018 Academy Award nominations will be announced tomorrow so I asked Ken (who is a lovely writer and in my day I probably would have hired him… but then had him rewritten) if I could be his guest blogger today and share some of my thoughts on this year’s crop. After all, I was the greatest film director who ever lived. And now you can add “greatest film director who ever died.

Overall I was disappointed. This year’s contenders are not “movies of the YEAR.” They are nice little diversions on a Tuesday night. A “movie of the year” was an EVENT. It had SCOPE. It had major stars. It was destined to be a classic, still viewed fifty years later. In fifty years from now is anyone going to be watching THE BIG SICK? And don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed THE BIG SICK. But it was a pleasant trifle. And too long. And I made three-hour movies. But I blame Judd Apatow.

Yes, I know. I sound like one of those old disgruntled burn-outs. “Hey, you kids, get off my movie lot.” But in my day, we made spectacles with no CGI. If we needed 10,000 extras for an intimate café scene we got 10,000 extras. For THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (perhaps the greatest film ever made – take that James Cameron), I parted the Red Sea. More impressive was getting a performance out of Charlton Heston. (We clashed considerably because I wouldn’t concede to his demand that all the Jews be armed with machine guns. “They didn’t have machine guns back then!” I screamed, but he kept claiming “the Second Amendment.” I had to constantly remind him that back in ancient Egypt the right to bear arms meant sticks.) Nowadays, what passes for spectacle? DUNKIRK maybe. But there’s no story. I watched it the other night with Joan Crawford and we were both confused.

Then there’s THE POST, which is a pale version of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. That’s like if Steven Spielberg followed up my picture with THE SIX COMMANDMENTS.

As for THE PHANTOM THREAD – excuse me but motion pictures require “motion.” That is not a film, it is an oil painting. I watched it with Lana Turner and she fell asleep.

LADY BIRD was a sweet little comedy that we would call a B-Movie. Studios cranked those out once a week. You wouldn’t buy a hard ticket to see LADY BIRD. You would go to your neighborhood theatre where for a dollar it would be playing with THE DISASTER ARTIST. GET OUT is a terrific B-Movie that would break all boxoffice records at the Drive-In.

If MOLLY’S GAME came out in 1927 instead of THE JAZZ SINGER, the silent era would have been extended an additional five years. I watched it with Marilyn Monroe and the dialogue gave her a migraine. She had to lie down (with Clark Gable).

The other contenders are pretty or thoughtful in that Art House way, but again, where is THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH or SAMSON & DELILAH? As for candidates in the acting categories – I haven’t heard of half of them. Where are the STARS? Back then we had Claudette Colbert, not Stephen Colbert. Why isn’t George Hamilton up for anything?

I understand the U.S. boxoffice had it’s worst year in over a decade. On the eve of the day when they announce nominees for “the Best Picture” I say “Make Better Pictures.”

Thanks, Ken, for letting me rant. From what I understand, Ken will be reviewing the Oscars again on his podcast. Carole Lombard says she subscribes so I’ll probably go over to her place to listen.

Cut!  Print!  That's a wrap, everybody!  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

High wire writing

Today I am participating in another one-day play exercise at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica. Five playwrights meet at the theatre at 9:00 am. We are all given the same topic and each handed headshots of the two actors who have been assigned to us. Based on that we each go off to our little corners and write a ten-minute play in three hours.

And there are certain restrictions. They all must take place in a café. (The program is called THE CAFÉ PLAYS.) On the stage is a small table, two chairs and a counter. No internal light cues, no tricky sound requirements. And for the sake of the poor actors who have to learn and perform these plays in only a few hours, no long monologues. Two or three sentences at the most per line.

At 12:30 the actors and directors arrive, receive their scripts and fan out into separate rehearsal spaces. I hear a table reading of my script, offer any insight into how I see it, and then I go home and nap for four hours. The directors stage and rehearse the plays, the actors memorize them, and at 7:30 and 9:00 they’re performed for generally sold-out audiences (the theatre seats 65).

It’s great fun and a real adrenaline rush. But it’s also nerve-wracking as hell. I’m always amazed at the results. Most of these plays are terrific, and the actors learn enough of their lines to pretty convincingly pull it off. It’s also so interesting to see how the same topic leads to five wildly different plays, both in terms of style and subject matter.  Imagination is a wonderful thing.

And at the end, for me as a playwright, I now have another ten-minute play. And I can always polish it at my leisure. A couple of the Café Plays I’ve written have gotten into other festivals. And the Ruskin provides bagels! Another advantage is being introduced to a bunch of really talented actors. It’s a win/win.

Writers always complain of not knowing what to write. They can’t think of a good idea. For some that’s an excuse but for many it’s a legitimate thing -- a form of writer’s block. But this exercise shows there are ways to break through that. Assign yourself a task. Imagine you will have two actors. They can be any age, gender, nationality. Pick a setting. A café, park bench, a street corner. And then pick a topic. It could be an expression, something you saw in the paper, an old cliché. The three I’ve had since participating were “The end of summer,” “The graveyard shift,” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” Pick one of those if you’d like.  You can even impose a time restriction if you like.  Sometimes not having all the time in the world to think about something is a good thing. 

The point is I’ve written plays on topics I never would have thought of had it not been for the exercise. You don’t need the world’s greatest, most unique, dazzling idea. You just need a topic and a relationship between two people. And bagels.

If you’re in LA, come see our Café Plays. They’re tonight and every third Sunday of the month.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

MY PLAYBILL -- Aren't you impressed?

When the musical I co-wrote was produced I was asked to submit my bio for the program. The trouble is, if I list that I am primarily a TV writer it’s like putting a big target on my chest for New York theatre critics. So I thought I’d fudge, tailor it a tad for the Broadway theatre crowd. And now I have a few full-length plays I hope will hit the Great White Way.  What do you think of this?

Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse whom he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.

Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, HAMILTON (it was originally about actor Hamilton Camp), OSLO, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).

An experimental work of his own played four nights in Los Angeles and three nights in Houston. It was called the 2017 WORLD SERIES.

He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Questions

Some Friday Questions and even answers.

Andy Rose starts us off:

If a show’s main set is due to be damaged in some way on camera and then fully restored later (the Cheers bar gutted by fire, Frank driving his car through the front door on Everybody Loves Raymond), do they typically damage the real set and then rebuild it, or do they build a temporary replacement that gets damaged in its place?

They build a duplicate set, or the part of the set needed. And it’s often not exact down to the letter because a car is going to go through and smash it in two seconds.

There was an episode of CHEERS that David Isaacs and I wrote where Cliff was distraught that his mother sold his boyhood home. So he chained himself to the main beam holding up the house. Eventually Norm uses a saw and cuts the beam, releasing him. Once they exit the house the second floor collapses and crashes down to the first, toilet and all. We did that live on the stage in front of the audience. Jimmy Burrows directed.  Needless to say, the audience went wild. 

But if the main set needs to be doctored, they often just pre-shoot the day before. Remember one of the Bar Wars episode of CHEERS (also written by me and David) when Woody is trapped in the bar area which has been enclosed by cinder blocks? We just shot that the day before.

From Don Burke:

How does a freelance director get hired? Is there a directory and the show runner rifles through a bunch of names? Is it just through personal relationships? Does a certain script come across the show runner's desk and he thinks "You know who'd be great for this? Ken Levine?" Just curious how certain directors get paired with certain shows/scripts.

Personal relationships help A LOT. Or recommendations. But networks and studios have lists. There are certain directors certain networks just like working with.

Agents also do a lot of the heavy lifting. They pitch directors to show runners. They pass out directors’ reels, etc.

And the reality is many freelance spots are filled by crew members of that show. An editor, First AD, camera coordinator, DP, writer might get that coveted one or two open slots.

Beth wonders:

Who (if anyone) keeps track of when royalties are due? Do people just take it on the honor system that they will get paid if they should? Do certain "groups" (i.e., actors vs writers vs directors vs various crew) keep better track than others?

The various Guilds police that. I can’t speak for all of them but with the WGA, you can now go on line and see what residuals you’ve received. And if there’s something you feel is missing you can call the Guild.

The truth is we all get cheated out of residuals.

VOLUNTEERS (a movie David Isaacs and I wrote) aired several times on ABC, for months on HBO, then in syndicated packages all over the country. We didn’t see a dime. I called the WGA. They investigated. David and I each received huge checks. But if I hadn’t flagged them we never would have received what we were owed.

There is no such thing as "the honor system" in Hollywood. 

Brad Apling queries:

What does your podcasting setup look like? Did you build a sound booth at home or you just plug a microphone into your laptop, setup your script, close the office door & fire away with stories and advice?

Here’s the beauty of radio (and podcasting) – everything is left to your imagination. Radio stations that I imagined looking like the bridge on the starship Enterprise were old shit piles. But boy did they have mystique.

So for my set-up, I’ll just say I do it at home with really excellent equipment. And I’ll let you picture the rest. Hint: think “Norad.”

Do you have a Friday Question? Please just leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A broadcasting lesson I learned the hard way

Sorry to hear that Ronn Owens will no longer be hosting a talk show on KGO radio in San Francisco. He’s been there for like 40 years. Considering you get a gold watch in radio if you stay on the same station for two months, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Ronn taught me the biggest lesson in hosting talk radio shows. And I was reminded of it recently when Jake Tapper shut down White House staffer Stephen Miller.

In 1980 I began hosting a talk show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. My shift was Saturday nights from 8-10. One week I arranged to have Sid Caesar as my guest. Caesar was one of the funniest men in the history of television. He hosted a 90-minute live prime time variety show on NBC in the early ‘50s that was a huge hit. Ever see the movie MY FAVORITE YEAR? That was based on Sid Caesar’s show. Writers of Caesar’s show at various times included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner (who also co-starred), Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen among others. The Mount Rushmore of comedy. Anyway, Caesar was BIG. There’s not even an equivalent in TV I can think of today. B-I-G.

And I got him as a guest. How cool was that?

He arrived at the station and we went on the air at 8:00. I had not realized that Sid had a drinking problem during that period. He got on the air and was surly and abrupt and started snapping at the callers. Needless to say, the phones lines went dead. Who wanted to be denigrated by Sid Caesar? Well, that left only ME. It was just me and him the rest of the hour. Picture the domestic fight scenes in I, TONYA.

The next morning I called Ronn and reported this – how mean he was, what a nightmare for me it was, etc. He listened calmly and finally said, “It was your fault.”


He said it was my show and I should never give up control of it. I should always be prepared with enough other material to talk about so that if I have a bad guest I could get rid of him pronto. He said I should have gotten to the first commercial break, said “Our guest has been Sid Caesar and we’ll be back after this” and send him on his way.

I said, “Yeah, but he came all the way over here from the valley and…” Ronn cut me off. “Who gives a shit? He’s killing YOUR show.”

He was right, of course. And I have always heeded that advice. There have been times when I’ve had to abort interviews (Jose Canseco jumps to mind) and other times when there were technical difficulties and I couldn’t take callers. I always am armed with articles and other topics to fill with.

Jake Tapper must know that rule too. When Stephen Miller became unhinged, Tapper said, “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time,” thanked him, turned to another camera, promoted the next guest, and threw it to break. Miller was gone.

Setting aside politics (if I were interviewing Obama and he suddenly starting flipping out and being abusive I’d cut him off too), to me this shows the value of experience. I always felt terribly embarrassed that I had to learn this particular lesson on a major Los Angeles radio station. Yes, we all make mistakes and we all are green, but that’s what smaller markets or weekend all-night shows are for. Unexpected things happen on live radio and TV. How the host handles them is where the rubber meets the road. All too often these days hosts are hired for their bombast or shtick. My first thought when I watched the Tapper-Miller interview was not what a loon Miller was, but what a pro Tapper was. There’s a lot to be said for experience and professionalism. In all professions.

NOTE: Stephen Miller will not be a guest on my podcast.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

EP55: Let’s Do Lunch!

Power lunches are a Hollywood tradition and this week Ken examines the rituals and which restaurants mean you have a viable career.    Ken also shares some personal lunch tales -- some good, some not so good but all entertaining. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Hugh Wilson

So sorry to hear that Hugh Wilson has passed away. He was 74 -- waaaaaay too young. Hugh created WKRP IN CINCINNATI, some other terrific series like FRANK’S PLACE, EASY STREET, and THE AMAZING TEDDY Z. And he became a movie director, megging the first POLICE ACADEMY (hey, it was a huge hit and spawned 37 sequels), FIRST WIVES CLUB, BLAST FROM THE PAST, and one of my favorite rarely-seen-today films, RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY.

I first met Hugh in 1977 when my writing partner, David Isaacs and I got our first staff job, which was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM. Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses were the showrunners, but the other two staffers were Gary David Goldberg (sadly, now gone too) and Hugh Wilson.

Hugh could not have been more welcoming and fun. We were nervous, needless to say, but Hugh really helped us come out of our shell. I believe he was originally from Atlanta (although my memory might be faulty). In any event, he had kind of a good-old-boy demeanor. He never lacked for confidence but instilled confidence in you as well. And he had a unique comic way of getting across his message. In wondering if David and I were Jewish he said, “So are you a couple of them boys from the college?”

Another thing about Hugh, he really knew his stuff. His suggestions were great, his joke pitches hilarious, and it all seemed to come so easily. He also directed some episodes for us and was the same unflappable guy we saw in the writers’ room. When he later graduated to film directing I wasn’t surprised in the least. Nor was I surprised by his success.

We left TONY RANDALL to join the staff of MASH after the first season so really didn’t get the chance to spend much time with him over the subsequent years. As a radio guy myself I loved WKRP and called him on several occasions to praise the show. And over the years we would each offer writer recommendations.

I’ll remember Hugh Wilson for his talent, his spirit, his David Letterman gap-tooth grin, and kindness to a couple of young rubes. And I’ll think of you more than just “once in a while.”

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

If they ever did a re-boot of MASH

The new TV trend is to do reboots of classic TV series. WILL & GRACE, X-FILES, ROSEANNE, FULL HOUSE, and others are in the works including MAD ABOUT YOU.

So what about MASH? Why not? As a former writer of MASH, I hope they enlist me to write it. A couple of scenes might look something like this:



I don’t think this is going to work. The prunes gum up the works.

I’d walk over there and help you but my arthritis is too bad.

Save your hands for surgery.

I’ve lost every patient for the last month. I wish someone would invent a drug to relieve arthritis, even if the side-effects were death, blindness, suicidal tendencies, nausea, and seizures.

This damn war. I hate it.

How long has the Korean War lasted so far?

Two years, but I swear it feels like 65.


Have you guys seen my teddy bear?

You’re holding him.

Oh. Right.





I don’t hear them.

Trust us.

Okay. Say, have you seen my teddy bear?




Damn! Lost another one.

How long is this inhuman nightmare going to continue? I’ve been on my feet for forty-five minutes.

HAWKEYE (to Hot Lips)
Hey Margaret, after this, how about we go back to my place and share a heating pad?

Sorry doctor. We’re having a party for Nurse Bigelow who’s walking for the first time since she got a new hip.

Well, I’ll keep my teeth in just in case.

KLINGER ENTERS in a dress.

Klinger, when did you go back to wearing a dress?

I am?

I hate war.

I’ve taken enough shrapnel out of this kid’s chest to build a Buick.

I’ve said that before?


So what’s everyone going to do after the war?

Me?  Well I plan on becoming the Chief Surgeon at Massachusetts General. And hope I can go three months before forced retirement.

Become a role model for the sensitive man. (to Hot Lips) Did you get that X-Ray of my groin I sent you?

I’m going back to Toledo. Sure wish I didn’t have four heart attacks and could still eat Paco’s hot dogs.

I’m going to do dinner theater.


Well, as you know my daughter Erin was born after I was shipped out. So I’m going to see her for the first time and also my granddaughter who’s now twelve. God, this has been a tough two years in Korea.






Monday, January 15, 2018


Okay, first of all I’m not a STAR WARS fanboy. I couldn’t recite the legend. I don’t remember if Chewbacca is really Princess Leia’s nephew or R2D2 is Darth Vader’s life coach. I just go to enjoy a rollicking space adventure film. I know who Luke Skywalker and the gang from the original STAR WARS are. And I know that family trees are important and everyone is searching for their father and when they find him they cry. Since we already have and STAR WARS is in the future, you’d think it’s just matter of signing up for the six months free subscription. But I digress.

Point number two: I loved the original STAR WARS, clunky dialogue aside. I saw a preview screening before it was released and knew nothing at all about it. So I went in with zero expectations and was just blown away. No episode since has had the same affect, but that’s to be expected. So I don’t go into a STAR WARS movie ready to be knocked on my ass.

Point number three: These latest chapters are not targeted to my demographic. They throw us a bone by including Luke Skywalker and Leia and our favorite droids, but this is STAR WARS 2.0. It’s Rey’s world and Adam Driver has graduated from going backdoor on Lena Dunham to the new Darth Vader. Supporting rebel fighters prove that the Resistance now embraces diversity. And creatures in rubber masks round out the players. So if I don’t walk out of the theater with my world rocked, Disney is not going to give a shit.

But I do go into these movies wanting to like them. I want thrilling action scquences, swashbuckling lightsaber duals, space dogfights, overcoming incredible odds, dazzling special effects, heroics, villains dying horribly, magic, cliffhangers, exotic planets, comic moments, betrayal, mythology, advanced technology, a club scene featuring bizarre benign-looking aliens, combat, force fields, laser beams, explosions – and THE LAST JEDI had all of those. Every one.

And I was soooo bored.

Everything was expertly executed. But it was like watching ROCKY 17. The same tropes, the same storylines, the same jeopardy, the same goals, the same everything. They could have cut up the last two STAR WARS movies and reassembled them in a different order and I’d be hard-pressed to know the difference. Sorry. On it’s own or if it had been the first STAR WARS chapter I might have been completely awed. But all I could think during the movie was “why am I so bored? Giant alien ostriches are stampeding through an enormous casino sending space creatures flying while Rey and Adam Driver are using their lightsabers to chop down red storm troopers on a set left over from BARBARELLA and John Williams score is blaring and I’m checking my watch.

The movie was also bittersweet because of Carrie Fisher.

Disney will keep making these chapters until they drive the franchise into the ground.  And for now they make still take in big bucks although a new STAR WARS movie is no longer such a big event.  And as well-crafted as these new chapters may be, to me they still feel a little, well... forced. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

How STAR WARS was saved in the edit

You got eighteen minutes to watch something very cool? This video really illustrates the value of film editing. It's how the original STAR WARS was saved in the editing, and along the way you'll learn a lot about dramatic flow, story structure, building tension, and what not to do. Check it out.

And tomorrow I review the new STAR WARS chapter, THE LAST JEDI.  

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Tips for winter travelers

Traveling is a nightmare anyway, but during the winter it gets even worse.  And this is one of the coldest on record. (But there's no Global Warming.)  Anyway, fear not, blog faithful. Here are some suggestions for winter air travel:

Check the weather forecast. If it’s not 72 degrees and clear EVERYWHERE in the United States, reschedule.

Do not call the airline for a weather update. You’ll learn it’s cool and overcast in New Delhi.

Allow two hours before the flight, ten hours for the tarmac, two hours for the unscheduled fuel stop, and two hours to retrieve your luggage. And if you’re flying from LA to San Francisco, 45 minutes for the flight itself.

If you print your ticket on one of those self-help stations realize that the chances of it working are the same as five cherries coming up on a slot machine.

Best to print your ticket at home the night before along with the flight schedules of every other airline going to your destination, airport shuttle schedules, Amtrak schedules, and the 1-800 numbers for Ramada, Holiday Inn, Hilton, Marriott, Quality Inn, Best Western, and the YMCA.

Never turn in your rental car until it’s the final boarding call on your flight.

Never fly to, from, or around Chicago.

Always use skycaps. And if you choose to ever see your luggage again, tip.

Remember: “the white zones are for assholes in SUV’s only”.

You are allowed several little three-ounce bottles of something but not one three-and-a-half-ounce bottle of the same thing.

You might want to put that Astroglide into a nondescript little bottle.

Don't book connecting flights in the winter, even in Hawaii.

Don’t have children if you plan on flying anytime in the next fifteen years. Even if it’s one trip.

If they announce they’re overbooked and are looking for volunteers to take a later plane for free trips take it. The flight is going to be cancelled anyway. And you’ll have a jump at getting reservations at the airport Hilton.

Have your laptop, ipad, iphone, 3DS,  camcorder, transistor radio, electric razor, hand held fan, and pacemaker fully charged. Ten hours on the tarmac is a long time and there are only outlets and they're in first class.


Before you get on the flight take Airbourne, water, Xanex, Oscillococcinum, Clariton, Ambien, and tequila.

Fake a limp so you can pre-board and guarantee there will be room in the overhead compartments for your stuff.

Bring your own downloaded movies, music selection, food, blankets, pillows, reading light, water, magazines, newspapers, coffee, toilet paper. And just to be on the safe side, your own oxygen masks and floatation devices.

Play the drinking game. Take a swig every time you hear “we apologize for the inconvenience”. Not recommended for those unwilling to get completely shitfaced.

Drinking game #2: “We thank you for your patience.”

Don’t kid yourself. EVERYONE is flying “stand by”.

The scary part used to be the landing. Now it’s pushing off from the gate.

Beware of free WIFI hotspots in airport terminals. Hackers use these to break into your computer. Not a joke.

It’s quieter and smoother in the front of the plane. And screw what they say, if you’re in Coach and you want to use the bathroom go to the ones in First Class.

And finally, always remember: it’s NEVER the airlines' fault. It’s the weather, air traffic controllers, mechanical problems, baggage handler strike, FAA rules, homeland security, airport restrictions, lawmakers, the billy goat curse, lunar eclipses, and most of all -- the media.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Questions

Here they are:

Walter starts us off:

I read that Gary Burghoff was a nightmare on the set of M*A*S*H -- "Love Radar, hate Burghoff" some of the cast have been rumored to say. Is there any truth to that?

I’m glad to get these questions because they give me a chance to set the record straight.

No, he was not a nightmare. And take that from a guy who was there. There were times he might have disagreed with a director or questioned something in a script, but most actors do that. And he did it very infrequently.

But I found Gary to be always pleasant on the set and always prepared. Trust me, I’ve worked with monsters. Gary was farrrrr from one of them.  (And NO, that was a not a dig at Jamie Farr.  He too was a joy to work with.) 

Liz asks:

Have you written a script for a movie or TV series with Hollywood and the people living there as the basis?

I have written a comic novel, that just happens to be available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions. It’s called MUST KILL TV. I’m actually very proud of it and it’s gotten great reviews.

You can find it here.

Thanks for asking. I always love excuses to shamelessly plug my stuff.

From Phil:

You have worked on Simpsons.

How was it working with voice actors? I mean it would be really fascinating to work with Hank Azaria - Duffman, Chief Wiggum, Skinner, Chamlers, Moe, Disco Stu.... The way they go about their work of changing voices. Please share your experience.

It was great fun, especially the episode where I did a voice as well. They all have great concentration and can slip in and out of various voices with relative ease. And remember, it’s not just the voices – they all have great comic timing and are good actors.

Besides Hank, I should also mention Harry Shearer and Maggie Roswell.

And finally, Sheila wonders:

I have been reading articles on how writers write a script and send it to all studios and have a bidding war for it by the end of the day or week.

Have you and your partner ever done that? Set a deadline for the executives to give an answer or have them bid against one another?

Yes. To try to pump up interest in the project – since perception is everything in Hollywood – agents will essentially do a roll-out campaign for your script. They’ll alert studios and producers that it’s coming and they only have 48 hours to read it, etc. And that can generate buzz and lead to a bidding war – IF the screenplay delivers. All the hype disappears if the reader doesn’t like the script.

I’ve been relatively lucky. I’ve sold two spec screenplays. Neither resulted in bidding wars but I was well compensated. And there have been other specs that didn’t sell. Unless you’re the super hot flavor-of-the-month you probably have three or four or fifteen unsold screenplays to go along with the ones you did sell.

When it doesn’t sell it’s a lot of time and work for nothing. But when it does, you’re an alchemist – spinning straw into gold. You take 100 blank pieces of paper and turn it into a lot of money.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks!

Thursday, January 11, 2018


Movie review week continues!

First off there is a cloud of controversy hanging over this film because of the James Franco sexual harassment charges. (This harassment issue has been in the forefront so much lately that I can now actually spell harassment without the use of spellcheck.) Did he do these things? Did he not? Will seventeen other women accuse him in the time it takes you to read this? I don’t know. So at least for the moment, I’m going to recommend this movie on its own merits, and if it turns out Franco ultimately makes Dustin Hoffman seem like a Boy Scout I take it back.

Now to the review...

My all-time favorite book is called CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. It’s a huge comic novel written by John Kennedy Toole that had me laughing at practically every sentence. And yet, lots of people I know and respect hate the book. Why? In order to love it you must embrace the central character, Ignatius J. Reilly who is a sloth and at times infuriating. Some people can’t get past that. I can and find him hilarious. (Obviously I’m not alone. The book won a Pulitzer Prize.)

But I bring that up because THE DISASTER ARTIST asks you to find an over-the-top outrageous character both sympathetic and funny. Even though you’re asked to laugh at him you’re also asked to care about him. If you can, THE DISASTER ARTIST is a treat.

James Franco directed and stars as Tommy Wiseau, a real-life person (as hard as that is to believe). Wiseau wrote, directed, produced, self-financed, and starred in one of the worst movies ever made, THE ROOM. It’s one of those “so bad it’s good” films that has since become a cult classic. Tommy Wiseau is the Ed Wood of the new millennium.

So on one level this is a film about the making of a film. It’s PROJECT GREENLIGHT on steroids. And a razor-sharp satire on Hollywood. But it’s also a film about friendship and dreams. Yes, you’re laughing at ineptitude and hubris but the movie is never mean-spirited. It would have been so easy to make this a hatchet job but Franco steers clear of that.

And his performance is amazing. I’d say he deserved winning the Golden Globe but those are such idiotic awards, who cares? It’s not easy playing over-the-top AND real but Franco pulls it off.

Much credit for the success of THE DISASTER ARTIST should also go to the screenwriters – Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

Some final notes. Like LADY BIRD it’s primarily set in the early 2000’s. Boy, don’t you feel old when films from the 21st Century are now considered period pieces?

You don’t have to see the original movie of THE ROOM to fully appreciate this movie.

Smartly, THE DISASTER ARTIST is played straight. It’s not campy, there’s no “wink wink” to the audience. And that’s what it makes it funny.

It’s only about 90 minutes. Imagine! A comedy that’s not 2 ½ hours.

And kudos to Judd Apatow who turns in a nifty performance as a Hollywood power player who Tommy ambushes in a restaurant.

This and the BIG SICK would be my favorite two comedies of the year. And I’m going back to say THE ROOM is now my favorite comedy of 2003.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

EP54: Are you ready for some football?

With the NFL playoffs in full-swing, Ken interviews Dan Hoard, the radio voice of the Cincinnati Bengals.  It’s a fun-filled episode of play-by-play touchdowns and fumbles.  For sports and non-sports fans alike.      


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


There’s a great old joke in Hollywood. “Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?” Well, the joke actually applies to Kevin Spacey and ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. The big achievement of this film is that Ridley Scott was able to re-cast Christopher Plummer, re-shoot all his scenes (and there were a ton of them), and still get the movie released on time. That was awesome filmmaking. If only the movie itself were better.

Warning: This is another film that critics praised to the heavens so if you disagree with me you’re not alone. But I was disappointed. The title should have been ALL THE ENDINGS IN THE WORLD because every time you thought it was over there were twelve more things to wrap up.

The premise was very intriguing. J. Paul Getty’s grandson was kidnapped in 1973 (true story) and Getty, the richest man in the world (before Ryan Seacrest) wouldn’t pay the ransom. Cool. So now what?

The problem is the two protagonists, Michelle Williams as the boy’s mother, and Mark Wahlberg at Getty’s assigned handler of her basically just react. They sit and wait for the phone to ring. They travel back and forth between Rome and London to meet with Getty. They raid the kidnappers hideout… after they’ve left. And even then, they stay behind in the car.   The rule of thumb in a taut thriller is that months don't go by. 

Otherwise we see that J. Paul Getty was a despicable human being. Duh! Christopher Plummer gave such a good performance I’m now hoping the director of BEYOND THE SEA will go back and replace Kevin Spacey with him as Bobby Darin.

Michelle Williams fulfilled the Oscar-bait role as the strong but sensitive mother, and Mark Wahlberg was one note the entire film. The kidnapped kid was played by Charlie Plummer (no relation to Chris, so don’t get that confused Academy voters).

To me, a way better movie would have been watching Ridley Scott scramble to re-shoot and edit the film in time for Christmas release. That at least had some tension and a ticking clock.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018


Is there a more perfect analogy for THE PHANTOM THREAD than the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed one of my all-time favorite movies, BOOGIE NIGHTS. I mean, it’s in my top ten. And then, everything else he’s ever done since has been a huge disappointment to me. He’s become this plodding studied director who’s traded drama and entertainment for pretension and self-indulgence.

THE PHANTOM THREAD just extends that streak. Of course there are critics fawning all over it. For over two hours you watch this fop with the world’s biggest stick up his ass design dresses and keep the woman who loves him at arm’s length. We’re supposed to care why? Oh, because the great Daniel Day Lewis is playing the fop. And as we all know he’s the greatest actor the world has ever known.

Or… he’s the emperor. I’ve never seen an actor who appears more in love with himself than this guy. The vibe he sends is that every line he delivers is a gift from on-high, every expression a revelation. It would not surprise me if he insisted on a mirror always being on the set.

Yes, he’s very skillful. And he’s done excellent work in the past. But to me the best actors are the ones who lose themselves in a role. With him it’s all about “admire my brilliance and don’t let the story distract you.” This is the danger of reading and believing your press clippings.

Recently he’s made a big deal about retiring – again, drawing as much attention to himself as he can. This is not like the Beatles splitting up or Vin Scully retiring. This is not cause for national mourning. Thanks for some great performances, enjoy your life to the fullest, I wish you nothing but happiness, and the movie industry will muddle on. And fifty dollars says he comes out of retirement.  In less than three years.

The one who really should retire is Paul Thomas Anderson. 

For me, the best part of PHANTOM THREAD was Vicky Krieps, as his girlfriend. She felt very real, especially in those many scenes when she’s clearly annoyed by DDL’s foppish behavior.

I will say this – the story does get going and take some interesting (albeit weird) turns. Unfortunately this comes about 90 minutes in.

And if there's a theme to this tedious test of an audience's endurance is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.   There are at least seventeen breakfast scenes.  And one five-minute scene of Daniel Day Lewis ORDERING breakfast.  This is not a joke.  This is a warning.  

We all have our personal taste and mine is to see a movie that strives to enthrall me and take me on a thrilling journey not witness a potential Masterwork.

It could also be that I’m just not “deep” enough, not “sensitive” enough to appreciate such a work of exquisite complexity and depth. Sorry. Me thought PHANTOM THREAD sucked. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

THE POST -- My review

THE POST takes us back to a time when Americans were smart enough to realize the “Fake News” came from the government, not the media. Steven Spielberg delivers a handsomely mounted film with a message more timely now than when its events took place.

Steven has put together a Justice League of American Actors. It’s amazing how many great actors are in this film with nothing to do. Maybe one or two scenes. Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, and Jessie Mueller are just a few of the supporting cast members to go along with mega stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. And other supporting thesps who did get some good stuff to play include Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Jesse Plemons, Bruce Greenwood, and Matthew Rhys. What, Steve couldn’t get Marlon Brando to come back one time and play Spiro Agnew?

And poor Sarah Paulson.  Is there a more thankless role than the "wife."  Plus, she has to deliver the worst speech in the film explaining to us (via Ben) why the stakes are so high.   Later there's another poorly written scene.  Meryl Streep with Alison Brie (who plays her daughter).  For the sake of getting information out to the audience Meryl tells Alison things she would obviously already know.  I'm paraphrasing but not much: "Remember that day you wrote a note and we got into the car and were our way to your father's funeral because he had died and you gave me the note and we were all wearing black...?"   And then, only for our purposes, Meryl has Alison read the note aloud.  Who does that?  Nobody.

The John Williams score sounds like a network news theme played for two hours.  But those are quibbles and personal pet peeves. 

THE POST is a very good movie that would be considered a better movie if it weren’t for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, which was a spectacular movie. And it’s hard not to compare the two when it’s the same paper, same era, similar storyline, and many of the same characters. ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN took down an entire administration. THE POST exposed the government’s cover-up on Vietnam but caused no major impact on history. And as my daughter Annie pointed out, it seems like every year we get another one of these newspaper movies.

Reporters are trying to uncover a major scandal, they’re stymied in their attempt to get all the facts, there’s resistance to print the bombshell story, they finally do, the end.

A recent version was SPOTLIGHT. Spielberg even got the SPOTLIGHT writer, Josh Singer, to rewrite Liz Hannah’s original screenplay.  (If Josh happened to write the Streep-Brie "note" scene Liz might be reading this going "YES!!!") 

And I’m sorry but Jason Robards was better as Ben Bradlee than Tom Hanks.  Tom went in and out of a Boston accent.  He was doing Lawrence Bourne III from VOLUNTEERS.  I wonder if I can get any sequel money??? 

I’m glad Spielberg made THE POST. As always, it’s beautifully shot. The camera work and performances are dazzling.  You should definitely see it.  I say that not as a California Elitist but as someone who loves this country and fears for its future.  The First Amendment needs to be protected, now more than ever. 

Sunday, January 07, 2018

How to memorize scripts -- part 2

Here’ the final  installment in how actors memorize scripts. Part one was yesterday.   These come from actors you know. As you’ll see, no two methods are even remotely similar.

Actor 1:

The repetition from rehearsals is very helpful. But, of course, on "Cheers" we had lots of changes. That's why starting in the middle of the week was so constructive.

I could study during the weekend. I would mark the common consonants, like the "t"s or the "s"s or whatever. Sometimes the letters were near alphabetical, but even if they weren't the consonants gave me a landmark in my long paragraphs.


Actor 2:

When memorizing lines, I make it a rule to lay off xanax or klonopin.

Most shows aren't that good, so it's difficult to stay awake anyway. Usually, I read the whole script first so I understand the story. Then, I sit in a chair in the corner of my bedroom and literally memorize page by page, reading each line and the cues, and then by putting my hand over my lines (i.e. covering up my lines) and trying to say them. It helps me to say them out loud.

I stay with each page until I can do the whole page and then move on. In a long play, I aim at only five pages a day. For plays, I also like to know my lines as soon as possible, even before we start, even though a lot of directors don't approve of that (because, they believe, you get locked in to line readings. I disagree- particularly in a really wordy play. I think if you know the lines really well you can say them in any way that occurs to you during rehearsal.

I also like to go over my lines in my head wandering around the street - if I can do them with all the distractions of the city - then I really know them, even though you look pretty stupid to all the people passing you by .

It has to be a little faster for film and tv - although I do the same things. It helps me to imagine the blocking, even if what I imagine doesn't always turn out to be correct.

Honestly, I'm not particularly good at memorizing. I know people who are dazzlingly fast - they can read down a page and they've pretty much got it. They almost never sit in a corner somewhere and work on it... just by rehearsing and osmosis they get it. Alec Baldwin's ability to memorize fast is astounding. Somehow, they see the page in their head.

A bunch of people hire assistants to constantly grill the lines - I don't usually do that but it's really common.


Actor 3:

Hi Ken,

It is fairly easy for me to memorize lines at this point.

Normally, there is an objective to whatever I am saying in a scene (ie: I know what I want to say) so the lines are obvious to learn.

Sometimes it is harder when there is a long speech. That is harder to learn - I have to make sense of it for me then just say it over and over until I know it in my sleep.

I have little clues for memorizing too: if I have to remember a list of things in a speech I remember the first letter of each word.

The hardest lines to remember are those in another language.


Actor 4 (a soap opera star):

A great deal of it depends on certain skills that you're either born with or you're not. If you are born with the capacity to memorize, so much the better for you. However other factors do come into play. One of those is your comfort and familiarity with the character you're portraying. If it's new and you're just kinda feeling your way along, might be slightly difficult at first. However, if it's a character with which/whom you are completely familiar and at ease then you know, almost before the writer puts it on the page, what you'll say and how you'll say it. Another factor is the leeway, if any, that an actor is given with his/her lines. On a soap, for instance, with sometimes PAGES of dialogue or (heaven help us) a monologue, you (more often than not) will be given a little room to ad-lib. Get all the correct information out, give your partner their correct cue and make it sound natural and real...and you can get away with a lot.

Stage trained actors usually fare much better on the screen than the other way around with regard to memorization. There's very little ad-libbing tolerated in the theatre and so that training is invaluable when making the leap to TV or film. However, the advantage of doing live theatre is the rehearsal process, which can take weeks of doing the same scene over and over...and THAT'S where much of the memorizing is done for the stage. For the screen, big or little, if you are just not a good memorizer, the only thing you can do is go over and over and over and over...and over it with a partner or in the mirror. Sentence by sentence if you have to.

Actor 5:

Years ago I was taught a method called the "key word" method for memorizing commercial copy quickly when auditioning for commercials in NY where the copy is presented to you when you get to the audition. You only have a few minutes to look at it before you're whisked in to go on camera. The "key word" is the word that jumps out at you when you are reading a line and is different for everyone, but hopefully is the "heart" of a sentence. You circle it and memorize it. Then in theory you have a list of "key words" that bring up the complete sentence when needed.

Now, my actress wife has also influenced me and her method is one that I have used more and more the older I get. Seeing a picture in my mind of the sentence and matching an action to it at the same time.

An actor also has an action for each line. Actions being verbs. For example, in typical arguments between two romantic leads in a scene, often one character will get to a point where they "present", "list", "defend" (all active verbs) their P.O.V. with a "laundry list" of idea. In the actor's mind when you get to that place in the scene in my mind I know what is to be said is the "laundry list", and I match that to my action/verb "defend my P.O.V.", "present my reasoning", "list my reasoning", etc.

The process typically gets harder the older you get because for most of us our memory begins to go, but with these tools and techniques, hopefully we can stay adept at memorizing for more years than we should. They are good brain exercises too. All memorization ... jokes, poetry, speeches, etc. are good for our brains.

Actor 6:

I'm what is called a "quick study" -- I can learn pages in a few minutes. Apparently, that has to do with what side of the brain you work on -- and that's not a choice!

I learn through images. I see a line and I see the picture of the line. For example, "I love you, you're the greatest man I've ever known, but if you don't clean up that office, I"m going to leave you!"

I see the man I love standing in a room full of paper which he is not putting in a trash can and then I see myself leaving.

The picture -- to the action -- to the line.

Sometimes, there is a word I get caught on and then I use a muscle memory technique. The brain is a muscle and if you lift 20-30 times all the other
muscles (the tongue etc.) remember. So, I repeat by rote over and over and over until the muscle remembers and then I don't have to think about that word -- it comes -- the muscle just
does it.

Finally, my acting technique, Meisner, learned in grad school -- lines are just an extension of the physical action. So when you are working out the part you are in motion moving from
set piece to prop to person etc. and it's like a dancer with choreography you just know what the action is your playing and you move in that direction and the lines come because you know where you are headed based on the intention and action of the scene.

Thanks again to all the actors who participated.