Saturday, June 30, 2018

Funny because it's true

This is a cartoon by William Haefeli from the June 18th edition of THE NEW YORKER. 
                        "I set a limit: one pity play per actor per year." 

All of my friends are welcome to substitute "playwright" for "actor."

As a result you're all excused for the rest of the year.   And yes, a "reading" counts.

When I have a play in production locally, usually the first few performances are filled with friends (which I deeply appreciate).   But it's very that cool that around week three I glance into the audience and don't recognize anybody.   "Ohmygod!  Actual strangers want to see this!" 

But I saw the cartoon and thought, what a perfect intro to thank my friends (and blog readers) who have come to see my work.  Pity is one thing but an empty theatre is way worse. 

Now I better get back to work on that twelve hour one-man show I'm writing about the time I got my tonsils out.  Should be ready by January.  See you all again next year!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody?

Mork (nanu nanu) leads off.

I've got a baseball-adjacent question for you, Ken--what are your thoughts (if any) on baseball cards? Did you ever collect them, either as a kid or adult? Do you think they're good for the game, bad for the game, just plain dumb?

I loved baseball cards as a kid and had a big collection. Back in those days you couldn’t buy entire sets. You had to buy the gum (sugar-coated cardboard) and certain cards were rare and hard to get. You’d also end up with doubles and triples of cards. I think I had 12 Joey Jay, Milwaukee Braves cards one year.

But in my neighborhood you would flip cards. You and your opponent would stand at one end of a room and flip your cards against the opposite wall. Whichever card fell closet to the wall was the winner and you got to keep both cards. You would flip your doubles and triples in the hopes of getting a player you didn’t have.

Back before the internet, baseball cards were pretty much the only source of player statistics. And I would study them religiously.

Now baseball card collecting has become a business and to me that’s a shame. There’s an innocence to the hobby that’s lost.

But overall I still feel baseball cards are good for the game. Anything to promote interest in baseball is a good thing.

And finally, to all the moms out there, don’t throw out your kids’ baseball card collections. They will want them someday, trust me.

Brian Phillips asks:

What are some longest laughs from the studio audience that came from a Levine and Isaacs script?

In the first year CHEERS episode, “The Boys in the Bar” – where the regulars were worried the bar might go gay – we had a scene of Sam and Diane in the poolroom. Sam is trying to come to grips with the news that his roommate during his playing days was gay. At one point he says: “I shoulda known. One night we were in a piano bar and he requested a show tune.”

For some reason that got a thunderous laugh. The audience laughter was so long that director James Burrows cut the cameras to avoid wasting any more film.

When you have a joke that stops cameras – that’s the walk-off grand slam home run for comedy writers.

Mark has a question based on my glowing review of THE MIDDLE.

Given your love for the show back in 2013, did you get an immediate response from the makers of the show to either write or direct an episode?

I did get an immediate response from the showrunners thanking me, but no I was not approached to write or direct one. And that’s fine. I didn’t write my review with any hopes of getting an assignment. It was purely from the heart with no ulterior motives.

There’s talk of a spin-off starring “Sue.” I hope that happens. I’d much rather see that than a ROSEANNE spin-off.

And finally, from Mike Kaiser:

Hi, Ken-- All of these recent suicides got me thinking.... back in the day, was it the network censors that caused the TV version of the M*A*S*H theme to be aired without lyrics or was that a creative decision or something in between?

It was Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart’s decision never to air the lyrics. The lyrics do not at all reflect the tone or sentiment of the TV show. I applaud their decision and during my watch not once did we entertain airing the lyrics.

The lyrics are stupid and meant to be. Robert Altman’s teenage son wrote them. And ironically, his son has made more money off the royalties than his dad ever did directing the movie.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thank you.

And yet ANOTHER opening...

Happy to say that my play OUR TIME opens tonight in New York!  This is a terrific cast, director, and production.  Many many laughs.  If you're anywhere east of Kansas please come see it.  Thanks.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Red Hen incident

Recently Sarah Huckabee Sanders was kicked out of a Virginia restaurant for her role in defending Trump. This of course made all the news reports. 20 years ago when OJ Simpson was absurdly acquitted of murder there were any number of local restaurants who told him he wasn’t welcomed. And those that did allow him stay found many of their other patrons got up and left in protest.  I would have left in a heartbeat.  Very few, if any, of those incidents made it to national newscasts.

But it reminds me of a somewhat similar story about Nixon when he was president.

His western White House was an estate in San Clemente, California – a gorgeous beach community about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. In nearby Newport Beach there was (and still is) a fantastic funky restaurant called The Crab Cooker. Fresh grilled seafood served on paper plates. Very informal. Reasonable prices. Free breadsticks. And no reservations. But one of the few places actually worth the wait.

One day, during Nixon’s presidency when Tricky was at the western White House, the owner of the Crab Cooker got a call saying the president would like to dine there that Saturday night. The owner was delighted and suggested he come around 5:30 so he wouldn’t have to wait long. The White House rep said, “You don’t understand. The president of the United States wants to dine in YOUR restaurant.” “Yes, that’s a great honor,” said the Crab Cooker owner, “but unfortunately we don’t take reservations. Have him come at 5:30. He’ll get right in.”

The White House person said, “Reservations? No. We want you to close the entire restaurant for the night so the president and his party can attend.” “What? Oh no, we don’t do that,” Mr. Crab Cooker said. So Nixon never ate at the Crab Cooker.

The Crab Cooker did not go public with that story but word of it leaked out. And business skyrocketed as a result – much more than any publicity had the president actually eaten there. 

Sometimes the fork and spoon are mightier than the sword.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

EP78: From Russia with Laughs – International sitcoms and American reboots


Ken talks to Bill Diamond, a veteran writer/producer (WINGS, MURPHY BROWN) who has produced sitcoms in Russia.   It’s a crazy story. Ken & Bill also discuss reboots – specifically the new MURPHY BROWN and whether Ken thinks there will ever be a CHEERS reboot.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Open letter to MLB

Major League Baseball attendance has really plummeted. It’s now at the lowest average in the last fifteen years. There are lots of reasons given for this: bad weather, higher prices, length of games, too many games on television, or in the case of Los Angeles – too few games on television.

Allow me to offer another reason; one I’ve not heard anywhere else.

Today’s announcers are fucking boring.

They’re generic, they’re competent, they have pleasant voices, but they give the listener or viewer zero reason to want to tune in if the game itself isn’t important or meaningful. And face it, with 162 games a year, very few are really “important.” I love baseball, can watch it year round. But seriously, a single game the end of June? Who gives a shit who wins or loses? Even championship teams lose 60 games a year.

When I would tune into a Dodger game and find they were losing 10-0 I thought, “Goody! Vin Scully is going to fill the time with wonderful stories.  For the next hour he will keep me enthralled.” Now if the Dodgers are losing 5-0 – CLICK!

How important are announcers? Again, let’s look at the Dodgers. 70% of the market can’t get their telecasts. The only way 70% of the market can follow the games on a daily basis is over the radio. So you would expect the Dodger station would have enormous ratings. After all, we’re only a half-year from them being in the World Series. And when Vin Scully called Dodger games radio ratings were 40 shares or above – year after year – win or lose. Scully is gone. The Dodger radio station draws a 0.9. And attendance is way down so it’s not like everybody is just going to the park.  I'm sorry but that's horrifying. 

Announcers create loyalty. Announcers are a team’s best salesmen. But audiences need a reason to listen. It used to be that announcers had showmanship, distinctive styles and personalities. Fans would listen or watch games regardless of the score. I’m not saying the announcers should be bigger than the game or detract from the game, but Jesus, give us SOMETHING. Are teams so deathly afraid their announcers will God forbid say something that one fan might complain about? Fuck them. Even when fans HATE certain announcers they listen. God bless John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman of the Yankees – love ‘em or hate ‘em they’re unique and they draw a big audience. Have we forgotten the lessons of Harry Caray? Or Ernie Harwell? Or Jack Buck? Or Dave Niehaus? Or Bob Prince? Or Harry Kalas? Or Jerry Coleman?

I listen to a lot of announcers today and wonder – if you took away their laptops would they still be able to call the game? There is an ART to calling baseball – especially on the radio. You need to be a storyteller. You need a flair for the dramatic (and I don’t mean screaming home run calls). You need a sense of humor, you need to sprinkle in things other than baseball.

In fairness, there are some but very few who do this. People ask me who will be the next Vin Scully? My answer is always Jason Benetti of the White Sox. Don’t look now but he’s having fun. He’s making the game come alive. He’s giving a Shakespeare reference.

He makes you want to care about the White Sox – maybe enough that you’ll even come out to the ballpark. And it doesn’t cost your team $200 million for five years and Jason Benetti will never need Tommy John surgery.

Or does this just make too much sense to work?

Thanks to Mike Kinosian  for the following chart on flagship station ratings.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The new Mr. Rogers documentary -- My review

Full disclosure: I was not a fan of MR. ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD when it aired. My kids watched it, but I found it oddly creepy. Fred Rogers seemed hypnotized. If felt more like MR. STEPFORD'S NEIGHBORHOOD.  So I can honestly say I went into WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – the documentary on Mr. Rogers without an ounce of nostalgia. I went because a number of people I respect recommended it. And what else was I going to watch? SUPERFLY? (How could it POSSIBLY be better than the original?)

I am now one of those people recommending WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

What a wonderful and touching profile of a man who it turns out was absolutely genuine and sincere. His love of children and their well-being is so poignant. And unlike Walt Disney, he didn’t parlay his relationship with children into a multi-billion dollar monolith. Fred Rogers never got rich on merchandise and his “neighborhood” never became an amusement park in Florida. You never saw five-year-olds wearing Mr. Rogers sweaters to school.

What you did see was a broadcast pioneer. His show was unlike any children’s show before it and he himself was an original. No funny hats, no clown suits, no garish costumes. Just a kind soul communicating one-to-one to children who need all the love and attention and support they can receive.

I still would have a tough time watching one of his shows all the way through, but I sure appreciate them more now. I also appreciate that he tackled serious subjects. He dealt with the Robert Kennedy assassination the first week he was on the air. Later he dealt with race issues, death, divorce, self-esteem – not exactly Bozo the Clown introducing Popeye cartoons.

The documentary also delves with the insane push-back he received from certain quarters. There are those who blame him for Millennial behavior because he had the audacity of telling every child he was special. And even at his funeral we see horrifying protests that looking back are the seeds of hate and stupidity that we now call Trump supporters.

Especially in light of children being separated from their families and detained, this documentary is even more heartbreaking. Can you imagine if Fred Rogers were still alive to witness this? How he would weep.

I hope this movie is playing in your neighborhood. Go see it. And hug your child.

Monday, June 25, 2018

RIP Dan Ingram

Dan Ingram has died.  And I'm devastated.  He was 83. You know I come from a radio background and have admired many spectacularly talented disc jockeys from the great era of Top 40. Dan Ingram was my all-time favorite. And I didn’t even live in New York.

For almost 22 years Dan Ingram was the top rated jock on 77WABC in New York. Since the station had such a huge signal he was also a top rated jock in other markets such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He later worked on other New York outlets including WCBS-FM.

I first heard Dan in the mid ‘60s. Growing up in Los Angeles I knew of WABC but had never heard them. So I wrote a letter to the station asking for a sample of their programming. They sent a one-hour tape of a recent Dan Ingram show. Within ten minutes my head almost exploded. This guy was so funny, so quick, so fearless (he often goofed on commercials and the music), had such a great voice, precision timing weaving his content into the intro of records, and somehow managed to communicate as if he were talking only to me. I had heard some great disc jockeys. The Real Don Steele, Robert W. Morgan, Larry Lujack, Gary Owens, Don McKinnon, but I’m sorry, Dan Ingram was the best. He said more funny things in one hour (and all off the cuff) than anyone else did in a week. And he continued doing that for almost fifty years. It’s utterly mind-boggling.  And if you thought he was funny on the air -- when he turned that mic off that's when the real hilarity took place. 

I’ll bet if you grew up on the East Coast you too are crying right now.

More than just a deejay, Dan was a “broadcaster.” During the famous Northeast Blackout of  November 1965 Ingram drove to the station’s transmitter in Lodi, New Jersey and stayed on the air for eleven hours via a generator anchoring coverage of the emergency.

We met thanks to mutual friend, Jon Wolfert, and I stayed close to Dan for 40 years. We’d get together for dinner whenever my wife and I were in New York or when he and his wife were in Los Angeles. I had a reading in New York of a screenplay I had written and got Dan to read the stage directions. Forget hearing actors playing the parts, I was blown away that Dan Ingram was actually reading words I had written. That’s like Vladimir Horowitz playing a little ditty you had banged out.

Dan also did thousands of national commercials. I once said to him I hear his voice on spots in LA but no one else knows who he is, and he said, “When I walk out of the building I don’t want people saying ‘Hey, there goes Dan Ingram,’ I want them saying ‘Hey, who is that guy getting into a Rolls?”

Here’s a sample of Dan Ingram on the radio, thanks for friend-of-the-blog, Howard Hoffman.



His favorite moment in broadcasting was when he received a fan letter from a young girl who was about to commit suicide. She was listening to Dan, he said something that made her laugh, and that snapped her out of her deep depression. If she could still find things funny she still had things to live for. She thanked Dan for saving her life.

Dan has shaped many lives, gotten generations through tough times, adolescence, power failures, and personal struggles. To me he was an inspiration. And a mentor. For fifty years Dan has kept me in awe… and in stitches. My love and prayers to his family and millions of fans.

People on the radio are invisible. Their presence is in the air. Dan may have passed but that presence, the sound of his voice, and the joy he brought to our lives will stay with us forever. And will go with us wherever we are. That’s the true magic of radio. And Dan Ingram.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Slipping inside jokes into shows

A reader’s question will sometimes spark an entire post and that’s the case today. Richard Y. wanted to know about inside references and jokes writers slip into shows. Did we do it on purpose? How often did we do it, etc.? He perceptively noticed that on an episode of WINGS, Steven Weber walks by a magazine rack that features an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY with his likeness and real name on the cover.

Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone but I’d imagine that all writers slip these little nuggets in from time to time. What good is writing a show for 30,000,000 people if you can’t have a joke or two aimed at only six?

In some cases, writers do this to reward the audience for paying strict attention. I think LOST did that 500 times an episode. There are historical, literate, and spiritual references galore. We didn’t do that on ALMOST PERFECT. But any time Nancy Travis or any character was watching TV they were always watching CHEERS.

Hey, I’ll be honest. We do it for our own amusement. We do it because we can.

There’s a very famous episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S where Adam Arkin keeps commuting back and forth between Hawaii and Chicago. I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about. Well, we show him on a plane four or five times and every time he’s reading my book, “It’s Gone…No, Wait a Minute!” (This did not result in the huge spike in sales I was counting on, however.)

Animated shows are perfect vehicles for slipping in private jokes. The “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS that David Isaacs and I wrote is chock-full of names of actual people I encountered broadcasting baseball in the minor leagues. I play the Springfield Isotopes announcer, “Dan Hoard”. Dan was my partner in Syracuse and is a prominent sportscaster today.

There are often cartoon character likenesses of the writers that show up in THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY. You’d think they’d be more flattering.

It’s always a pain-in-the-ass coming up with names for characters. But this is an ideal way to slip in names of people you know. A lot of my former girlfriends show up as nurses on MASH. One became Charles’ sister, “Honoria”. Yes, I went out with a Honoria. It seems that anytime 24 needed a villain who wasn’t Russian or Persian (so that means twice in nine years) they used the name of a Fox network or studio executive.

Growing up, our family dog was named Babette. My mother named her. Can’t say I was ever crazy about the name. So in an episode of MASH that we wrote, Radar loses his hamster, which he named Babette. Then throughout the show everyone gave him a raft of shit for naming her that. After the episode aired my mom called and said, “Very funny.” But again, what’s the point of producing a primetime network television show if you can’t use it expressly to needle your mother?

Anytime I directed a show and there was a scene in a nice restaurant my dad became the maitre ‘d. That turned into a regular gig on ALMOST PERFECT when the show got picked up and “Annie’s” (named for my daughter) became a permanent set.

I used to love in MAD magazine there were sometimes cartoon panels that were just loaded with little bonus gags in the margins and background. Let’s just say there’s a lot of MAD in MASH.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

What words kan't you spell?

Thank God for spellcheck. There are some words I just can’t spell. For whatever reason my brain refuses to learn the correct spelling of a few words – words that are fairly common and you dear readers have no problem with at all.

One is jeopardy. Even as I typed it just now the squiggly red line appeared underneath. I keep putting a’s where there should be o’s or o’s where there should be a’s. And again, it’s not an obscure word. I watch the TV show all the time. The word is displayed in giant letters.

Another is privilege. I don’t even come close on this word. At any given time I may write privlige, priviledge, priveledge, privlige, privelige. None of these look any more wrong that the actual spelling.

For a long time I wrestled with guarantee. Somehow I mastered it. And I’m afraid to list the ways I misspelled it for fear that that will confuse me again and I’ll be back at square one.

In the case of pigeon, I want to always write pidgeon. And don’t get me started on pidgin.

I’d like to think I’m not alone in this brain cramp. So let me ask you – what are words that you can’t spell?

Imagine losing the final round of the National Spelling Bee over jeopardy?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Questions

Summer is officially here. So are Friday Questions.

Don Rosnel starts us off.

When he first joined Cheers, could you foresee Woody Harrelson’s future?

Honestly? No. Not that he wasn’t a terrific actor, but I will say this – he deserves all the success he’s received. He has great range, is so likeable, and I’m personally happy for him because he’s such a good person.

From Gary:

An old sitcom staple is for one character to believe he or she is a talented writer, and could be a great success at it. But when you hear a sample of what they've written, of course it is hilariously bad. The DICK VAN DYKE SHOW did this with Laura taking a night course in creative writing, and so did THE ODD COUPLE with Felix writing a series of terrible poems.

My question is, have you ever had to write something into an episode that is intentionally bad, as if done by an amateur? And for a professional writer is it easier or harder to write something that is supposed to sound bad?

Yes. The second episode of MASH we ever wrote was called “The Most Unforgettable Characters” and in it Radar took a correspondence writing course. It was great fun writing badly.

By the way, that DICK VAN DYKE episode you referenced is one of my favorite. Written by the great Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson.

From Robert Foreman:

Have you ever done any writing for advertising? Is that considered a whole different world? Is there much crossover from advertising writing to television and vice-versa?

I once applied to J. Walter Thompson and submitted some copywriting, but fortunately for me I was rejected. It is a different world.

A few noted comedy writers have come from the Mad Men ranks. Three off the top of my head are Howard Gould, Allan Katz, and Steve Gordon.

Karan G. wonders:

Can you think of serendipitous moments in your career….right place, right time….the universe giving you a helping hand? (As an example: In the 1950’s, the conservative New York Times book reviewer would never have selected Jack Kerouac’s first novel to review. As it happens, the reviewer went on vacation, and a more liberal leaning substitute selected the book and gave it a great review, displeasing the main book reviewer, who never allowed the substitute to review again. Nevertheless, Kerouac’s writing career was well underway……..serendipity.)

Too many to count. Meeting David Isaacs, my mother playing golf one day with the Story Editor of THE JEFFERSONS, the showrunner of MASH looking for young writers just when we were available.

Even having to serve in the army. I never would have met David nor could I have ever really written MASH with any authority if I didn’t have that personal experience in the military.

So many times the stars have to line up, and sometimes you don’t think they’re lucky stars but they are. 

What’s your Friday Question?



Thursday, June 21, 2018

Something I need to say

Sorry. Nothing funny today.  There IS nothing funny today. 

It is utterly incomprehensible to me that anyone, regardless of political leanings, could support this truly despicable practice of separating children from families. At what point does compassion and simple human decency supersede politics?

These are not terrorists. These are CHILDREN. My God!

Seriously, if in fact you do condone this barbaric practice that goes against everything America and DECENT human beings stand for, please go away.  I mean it.  Please stop reading this blog. If you’re a friend on Facebook please unfriend me. Stop following me on Twitter. If you comment in support of caging innocent children I’ll delete your comment and ban you for life. (I also don't want you guys turning on each other, so no name calling.  Thanks.)

You just can’t believe how furious I am. And heartbroken.

What has this fucking world come to? I would never have believed something like this could ever happen in the United States. And furthermore, I can’t fathom why everybody, 100% of the population isn’t outraged by this, isn’t completely up in arms. This isn’t a debate about school vouchers or how much of the budget should go to defense – this is the most shameful detestable policy this country has ever had.

And FUCK YOU FOX NEWS for trying to sell this atrocity to gullible idiots. Yeah, your family is going to be so much safer when toddlers are rounded up. May all the FOX NEWS commentators who spoke out in support of it rot in hell for eternity and beyond.

Here’s something you probably thought you’d never see in this blog – God bless Seth MacFarlane. He was the first showrunner to speak out against FOX. Also kudos to Steve Levitan.

People, it’s time to take our country back. Step one is being a caring loving human being. And if you’re not, please go away – forever.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

EP77: How do you know if something is funny?


Ken discusses how top comedy writers determine whether things are funny or not, and offers some helpful tips on how to make your writing and content much funnier. It’s another behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood… and Broadway.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

INCREDIBLES 2: My review

Those of us who loved THE INCREDIBLES had to wait 14 years for the sequel. It was worth the wait. Even if it had been 15 years (16 might’ve been stretching it). But the sequel is incredible too.

Having the same creative voice writing and directing was a huge factor. I’m in awe of Brad Bird. How can one person be that great a writer AND animator? INCREDIBLES 2 is visually stunning, there’s fun at every turn, and none of the superheroes brood!

Since THE INCREDIBLES is my all-time favorite animated movie (sorry RAINBOW BRITE), it was hard for the sequel to live up to the original. But it’s certainly risen to my top five. The story itself is similar in structure to the original but there are enough surprises and new elements that you don’t feel you’re watching ROCKY VII.  And no songs!  Yay!

INCREDIBES 2 sure spoiled me for superhero movies. You can pair the Avengers with the Justice League of America and the X-Men and I’d still yawn at this point.

Now let me save you some angst. You’ll be watching a new character, Evelyn Deavor and go nuts trying to guess who does the voice. It’s Catherine Keener. You’re welcome.

Another thing I loved:  In the closing credits, all of the animators and other department heads got billing before the actors.   That Pixar animation team WERE the stars.  

I’ll be seeing INCREDIBLES 2 again. There’s so much going on and the pace really moves so I’m sure there are more things I’ll pick up that I missed upon the first viewing. Contrast that with the new AVENGERS movie. You couldn’t pay me to sit through that exercise in excess again.

I don’t want to hype INCREDIBLES 2 too much because there’s always the danger you might go, “Huh? He loved THIS?” But it’s well worth seeing. Several times even.

What did you guys think? 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My Top 8 performers of SNL

Been watching the new David Letterman Netflix interview series, GRIZZLY ADAMS & GUESTS and quite enjoyed the episode featuring Tina Fey. (Can I stop a moment to confess I LOVE Tina Fey? Going to New York this week and already have my tickets for her MEAN GIRLS musical.) Anyway, the episode is well worth seeing.

At one point Dave asks her to name her all-time top eight performers of SNL. Considering the enormous talent pool from the 156 years it's been on the air I thought that’s a Herculean challenge. So I decided to name mine. You’re welcome to name yours.

Narrowing it down to eight was tough. There are at least that many or more who could easily replace the ones I picked. But here they are:

John Belushi
Kate McKinnon
Will Ferrell
Gilda Radner
Eddie Murphy
Phil Hartman
Tina Fey
Bill Murray

Tina included Maya Rudolph, Jan Hooks, and I think Amy Poehler. I only watched once and was too lazy to go back and double-check.

I imagine it’s like popular music. Just as people tend to prefer the music they grew up with I suspect there’s a greater affection for the cast you watched when you first got hooked on SNL. Your lists will be a good test of that theory.

Thanks for playing and unless you pick Ann Risley there are no wrong answers.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On the road again

When Romcoms Go Bad
Just back from a couple of weeks in New York, Cleveland, and Grand Rapids – the typical east coast swing. In no particular order, here are some observations and thoughts along the way.

NEW YORK

No, I did not see CAROUSEL. I know it’s a classic but I hate CAROUSEL.

Unless you want to spend a fortune, see plays that are 8 hours long (but worth it) or musical adaptations of movies, there’s not a lot on Broadway these days.

That said, do see THE BAND’S VISIT. It just won the Tony for Best Musical and proves that heart and characters can beat out glitzy LED sets and overblown production numbers.

Had dinner with Broadway Bill Lee from CBS-FM, one of the last actual disc jockeys with personality. Keep the flame lit, Bill.

Everybody on the subway is checking their phone. Even the crazy people.

With Uber and Lyft the traffic is even worse in Manhattan, if that's possible.

Ocean Prime on 52nd St. – my best meal in New York. Better even then the Original Ray’s First Ray’s Only Real Ray’s pizza.

Thanks to the Gallery Players Theatre in Brooklyn for including my play, WHEN ROMCOMS GO BAD in their outstanding festival. I participated in a talkback after the Sunday performance and when asked what I was doing next I said, “I have to catch the F-Train for Rockefeller Center by 7. I’m nominated for a Tony.”

June is the month to go to New York. You can walk everywhere and eat outside.

Every building in Manhattan has scaffolding.

Certainly a highlight for me was getting lunch with Rob Long. Rob is a terrific writer/producer/commentator and does the preeminent entertainment podcast MARTINI SHOT on KCRW, Los Angeles. We went to the Union Square CafĂ© without a reservation at 1:00. The place was hopping. We thought we might have to eat at the bar. But we went up to the host stand to try our luck. The host looked up and said, “Ken Levine! Ohmygod! I’ve been reading your blog for years!” We got a table and this gentleman made my entire trip.

My daughter Annie and her husband Jon were in New York to move out of their Long Island apartment back to Los Angeles. They are driving back to LA even as you read. Since I planned to be in Grand Rapids, Michigan this past weekend to see my play OUR TIME they offered to give me a ride on the way. Thus began a four-day road trip that was great great fun.

CLEVELAND

Got there around 4:00 after a long day of driving through Pennsylvania and hitting construction every 30 miles.

Cleveland was fantastic. The weather was actually “nice.” Whenever I went to Cleveland with the Mariners or Orioles it was either snowing, raining, or a 1000 degrees with a million tiny swarming bugs called Midges. Wait, that’s not true. One trip with the Mariners we had a gorgeous day. But during the game there was an earthquake.

Last Thursday night was ideal. We of course hit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So much to see including Taylor Swift’s two piece chandelier dress.

At the gift shop (of course the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had a gift shop) the clerk asked why I had come to Cleveland. I said for the R&R HOF. “Why else do people go to Cleveland?” I asked. “For the sports,” she said, “And our hospital.” Now Cleveland does have one of the premier Cardiac hospitals in the world, still – a “hospital” seems like an odd third most popular attraction.

People were walking and eating outside in Cleveland too.

Mabel’s BBQ – pork ribs almost as good as Gates BBQ in KC.  And it might explain the need for the hospital. 

We left Cleveland on Friday morning.  LeBron will not be far behind.

GRAND RAPIDS

Driving through Michigan and Ohio I’ve never seen so many billboards for fireworks… or rifles.

Grand Rapids is known for making office furniture and was the boyhood home of President Gerald Ford. There’s a Gerald Ford Museum, which we didn’t see since no Taylor Swift costumes were on display.

Our Time
My play OUR TIME is at the Lowell Arts Theatre in picturesque Lowell. There’s a river and even a paddleboat. Both Friday and Saturday nights were sold out and both performances played great. My thanks to Brent Ailes, the cast and crew for really doing my play proud. It’s on again this weekend. If you’re in the area, you like to laugh, and you’ve already purchased your fireworks, swing by. Here’s where you go for info.

Annie & Jon continue their drive west and I flew home yesterday. Had to change planes at O’Hare. I got in my 10,000 steps and then some. Why does United put their video controls on the armrests right where you put your elbows? So to avoid changing my seat mate’s channels every five seconds I had to sit with my arms pulled in, thus feeling really squished into the seat.

Also, why do people in window seats keep the windows closed the entire time? I can understand when you want the cabin dark to see movies better or sleep, but in the middle of the day – especially right after takeoff and right before landing – I never get over the thrill of being in the air and seeing cities from above. You pay big money to simulate that at amusement parks. It seems weird that people are so blasĂ© that they’d rather close the window and play video games on their phones.

Now I’m home and the best part of yesterday was gaining three hours. So my Father’s Day was 27 hours. As it should be.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Happy Father's Day

This is kind of a tough one for me since it's the first Father's Day I no longer have my father.  But I cherish the memories.  And send a special salute to my son Matt who has been a dad (and terrific one at that) for two years now. 

This is a perennial post, now updated.

Note to those wives and kids planning to celebrate: no brunches. That’s Mother’s Day stuff. Let the old man sit in front of the TV and watch the U.S. Open or the Arena football amateur draft in peace.

Or watch FIELD OF DREAMS.And now, as a public service, here are some movies NOT to watch on Father’s Day:

FEAR STRIKES OUT
CHINATOWN
SHINE
WALK THE LINE
OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
STAR WARS
THE GREAT SANTINI
THE SHINING

Some TV shows and telefilms NOT to watch:

THE MARVIN GAYE STORY
THE BEACH BOYS STORY
LOST
Any CBS family comedy

Some unfriendly father plays:

ALL MY SONS
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (any Arthur Miller, actually)
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Some books to avoid:

Any Bing Crosby biography
Any Frank Sinatra biography
Any Papa John Phillips biography 
Any Screaming Jay Hawkins biography
LOVE STORY (for so many reasons)

Records to skip:

PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE by the Temptations
BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash
MY DAD by Paul Peterson
CATS IN THE CRADLE by Harry Chapin

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Again, happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

At least I wasn't naked

This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved). It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday Questions

Welcome y’all to Friday Question Day.

Jim, UK starts us off:

What is your experience of trying to pitch films/shows that were completely different to anything you'd done before?

We tend to stay in our lane (comedy) when pitching, but there have been times we’ve been offered feature rewrites on genres we’ve never worked in.

Case in point was JEWEL OF THE NILE, which primarily was an action-adventure film. Honestly, we watched a ton of them and tried to glean what worked and what didn’t. To me that’s the best teacher. We learned more by studying GUNGA DIN than any screenwriting book.

From Janet Ybarra:

Ken, what is your opinion of TRAPPER JOHN MD? I personally never got into it because, to me, the Pernell Roberts portrayal never squared with the Trapper John we were introduced to on MASH.

They just used the name to gave the character a recognizable hook. But as portrayed in TRAPPER JOHN M.D. the character was nowhere close to either the TV or film version of Trapper. Frankly, I never watched it. It was just another formula hour doctor show back then.

I must say however that I have a hard time when characters change genres. I never could get into LOU GRANT even though I admired almost everyone associated with that show. The one hour drama Lou Grant was NOT Lou Grant. The fellow who was Mary Richard’s boss, THAT was Lou Grant.

J Lee asks:

When you were starting out on MASH, did you buttonhole any of the veteran writers who worked on the show (some with credits dating back to radio days) on how they handled script problems or how they worked with a writing partner?

No. We didn’t know any of them then. We met with Gene Reynolds to work out the story but we were on our own when writing our first draft. Later of course we worked with Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart, but at the time we started as freelance writers, we were in a vacuum.

What we did instead was load up on Gelbart scripts and study them for rhythm, tone, joke construction, everything. The only thing they didn’t teach us was how to be as brilliant as him.

And finally, from Michael:

How do you think the trend of Netflix and others to release all episodes simultaneously has changed day-to-day life in the writers' room?

Do writers have more time or less? Are more episodes complete before shooting begins? What about the lack of audience feedback and network input based on week-to-week viewing numbers?

The length of time devoted to producing these series depends on a lot of factors. What is the order? How much time have you been given? Does the platform need it right away or whenever you turn it in? What are the production requirements? How hard will it be to produce? Are there any restrictions on the actors’ availability? Do you lose your star to a movie in four months?

But all things considered, it’s certainly easier to make 13 a year as opposed to 22. You generally do have more time to really polish those 13 episodes. When you’re making 22 or more a season you’re just happy if you can knock ‘em all out on time.

The downside of course is often writers get paid by the episode. So 22 means a lot more moolah than a leisurely 8.

As for producing all episodes before they’re aired, yes, that can be a big problem if an audience doesn’t respond to a major character or story arc and you’re powerless to make mid-course corrections. That can positively kill a series.

Likewise, the audience can tell you which character will be the breakout hit, but if you can’t take advantage of that and suddenly steer towards “the Fonz” you’re killing a potential golden goose.

Again, that’s why I’m such a fan of multi-camera shows. You’re held accountable and you can learn the night of the filming whether an audience responds or not. You don’t have to wait a year until the series airs to learn you went in the wrong direction.

What’s your FQ?

Another Opening Another show

If you're anywhere near Grand Rapids tonight and tomorrow, my full-length comedy OUR TIME is playing.  I'll be there both nights.  Swing by.  Say hi and laugh.  Here's where you go for details. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

John Mulaney vs. Amy Schumer

Today’s post concerns television specials you might not be able to see. If you have Netflix you’re golden. But even if you don’t, you’ll be able to get the gist. And I’m sure you’ve seen similar TV specials in other places.

The ones I want to focus on are the stand-up comedy specials. Usually about an hour, a big name comic performs in a huge packed auditorium to delirious fans who laugh at everything they say, even if it’s Kevin James doing tired airport people mover jokes. Generally the comics will record two or three shows and cobble together the best performances or reaction (should anyone pee in their pants over airport people mover jokes).

I enjoy watching them. A few big name stand-ups who were comedy darlings at one time are starting to seem a little creaky. Their best specials are behind them. But there are usually flashes of what made them great so it’s time well-spent.

I used to be a big fan of Amy Schumer. Loved her Comedy Central show, thought her early specials were terrific. Then last year I saw her “Leather” special on Netflix. It was atrocious. Lazy, unfunny, just an endless collection of raunchy sex jokes – the kind you hear in frat houses just before everyone pukes. My position on sex jokes is the same as Carl Reiner’s: I don’t mind a sex joke, no matter how raunchy, as long as it’s FUNNY. But sex jokes just for the supposed shock value leaves me flat. And apparently, the Netflix audience agreed. It’s gotten horrible reviews and very few stars in the rating system.

I go back to the “lazy” factor. The entire routine seemed slapped together. Some comics reach a sweet spot where audiences laugh at everything. They don’t have to earn the laughs. You listen to some of Steve Martin’s old comedy albums and if you’re too young to get his tongue-in-cheek persona, you very well may be saying, “What the hell are they laughing at? A guy saying ‘Excuuuuuuuse me’ brings down the house? What the fuck?” Amy must’ve felt she had arrived at that pinnacle and just doing slut jokes and obvious blowjob jokes were enough to keep the flock fed.

But the material was so bad that even many diehards were turned off. And I say that fully expecting a flurry of angry commenters saying “She was fucking hilarious and you don’t know shit!” If you thought the “Leather Special” was great, I’m happy for you and glad you were entertained for an hour. But I bring up the “Leather” special to make a point.

Compare that to the latest John Mulaney Netflix special, “Kid Gorgeous.” He’s had others but I’m choosing that one because it’s a better equivalent in terms of where he and Amy are in their careers. The thing that struck me about this special is that it is packed, every second with good material. You can see how well-crafted it is. Filmed at Radio City in February, he had spent the better part of last year touring. And it shows. I’m guessing that for the hour of material that made it there was probably an hour that didn’t.

It was also refreshing to see that he wrote everything himself. There were some big laughs and wonderfully astute observations. Was it the funniest comedy special of all-time? No. But it was pretty great and one has to admire his professionalism. Is John Mulaney at the point in his career where he doesn’t have to earn every laugh? Considering he filled Radio City Music Hall I’d say he’s getting there. But the fact that he earned them anyway made him all the more impressive.

There are a gazillion stand-up comics out there. The night I did my one (and only) open mic night there were probably forty on that bill alone. Everyone got only five minutes. And I was shocked by how sloppy and lazy most of these young hopefuls were. Jesus. Five minutes. If they can’t do a tight very funny five minutes how do they ever expect to have a career in comedy? They should be studying Mulaney. But his comedy takes a lot of work and effort. My guess is they’re studying Schumer. And my other guess is you’ll never see a Netflix special starring one of them.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

EP76: The Worst of Levine & Isaacs


Ken Levine discusses AfterMASH and MANNEQUIN 2, two of his least
successful projects. You’ll learn what went wrong, how he dealt with it, and ways to find the good in bad situations. There’s also a great karma story you will love.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Yet more praise for Ted Danson

Okay, here's another one of those ten year old Friday Questions re-post.  Resurfaced  because readers rarely go back through the archives (especially posts from many years ago) and I'm preparing for nine play productions.  My guess is this post is new to you.  Enjoy.

It’s Friday Question Day – my most popular feature, even if it’s my only feature. Leave your questions in the Comments section. Thanks.
Brian Phillips starts us off:

I recently heard the "Fresh Air" interview on NPR with Terry Gross. Ted Danson said that it took him over a year to play Sam properly. Within that year, I would argue, Sam and Diane worked well off of each other. On the shows you have worked on do you find that the cast "chemistry" is something that is pretty much in place near the beginning of the show ("Friends" creators felt this way about their cast) or does it tend to develop over time?

I found it’s often more rare that the chemistry is present right from the beginning. Usually both the acting and the writing evolves as everyone gropes to find that perfect formula for success. Frequently series will need one or even two years before they really hit their stride. I felt that about THE OFFICE and BIG BANG THEORY.

It sometimes is a trial-and-error process in the early going. Eventually you sift through and find the gold (hopefully).

Ironically, I thought Ted played Sam the best that first season. Part of it is our (writers collectively) fault. I think at times in the course of the run we made Sam too dumb. Granted, that made it easier to mine comedy from the character but I love how cool and together Sam Malone was in those early episodes. But that could just be me.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is another example of a show I believe had sensational chemistry right from the pilot.

From Fred:

I was in college in the 80s and had a friend at William and Mary who told a story about a classmate who wrote a spec script for M*A*S*H, submitted it and had it produced. This writer, the story went, wrote at least a few scripts while still a student at William and Mary, and eventually became a regular writer for M*A*S*H.

Is there any truth to this story, and if so is it something that could never happen now?

No truth to that story. Sorry. Of course, I've known of guys who happen to share my name who have taken credit for writing my shows. When someone says they wrote for a hit show ask to see a residual check.

It could happen that you sell a spec but it’s highly unlikely. If your script gets you meetings or an agent or an assignment then you've hit it out of the park.

But there are, from time to time, instances when a show will buy a spec script and produce it. That’s what happened to Sam Simon and TAXI. It’s very rare, but who knows? Producers are always scrambling for good stories.

John queries:

Ken have there been any shows you've written for/been employed by and have left that you looked at in their ensuing episodes/seasons and wondered "Why are they doing that?" or "Why are they taking the show in that direction?"

Yes. But there have also been times when I’d see a future episode of a series I worked on and think, “Damn! That’s a great story. Why didn’t we think of that?”

Gottacook wonders:

Do you see any hope for the return of the anthology series?

Probably not but you never know. Anthologies are very expensive to produce. You need a new cast every week, new sets, new stories. In this economy especially, I don’t think networks are looking to take on that kind of ambitious project.

Plus, audiences become attached to characters. Anthologies introduce you to new ones every week. You have to figure out who they are, whether you like them – that’s way too much work for most people. Much easier to just turn on the TV, there’s Monk, he’s afraid of germs again, I’m happy.

There have been variations of anthologies. One is to have one leading character anchoring the series. QUANTUM LEAP and THE FUGITIVE are examples. The series star meets new people and finds himself in new situations but still, the show is centered around him. To some degree MY NAME IS EARL is structured along those lines (but that show had several recurring characters).

And finally, from Joey:

Episodes are edited for syndication or cable to allow more commercial time than when they were first run. Do writers anticipate this and write scenes that are not crucial to the A story that are, in effect, designed to be edited out.

Generally not. If there’s a free floating tag, that’s easily removed. But here’s the thing – even if we wrote scenes that could clearly be lifted, whoever is editing the shows for syndication would select something else. Some MASH episodes are hacked up so poorly that the stories no longer make sense. Or invariably editors will cut out the best jokes of the show. They have a sixth sense for that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Conceptual Blending

Heard a great term recently. Conceptual Blending.

It means borrowing from one creative property to another.

Another term that is similarly used is Homage.  Paying tribute to a former work by copying it. 

In music there’s the term Sampling. Sampling is when a rap musician lifts an existing part of a previous record and weaves it into his song.

I have another term. STEALING.

It is not an homage to take a story or style from one show and re-use it as your own. It is not conceptual blending to rip off someone else’s jokes in your stand-up routine. Nor is it sampling to use Motown tracks in your hip hop song.

There's a term called permission.  You need permission to use someone else’s material. And if you don’t receive it and use the material anyway you are liable for damages. Good luck to the defense attorney who argues to a jury on behalf of conceptual blending.

We now live in an age of spin, of Alternate Facts. But there’s one term that never seems to need a pretty euphemism:

BULLSHIT.

That’s the term that exists in my vocabulary, especially when referring to these others.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

The MEAN GIRLS musical

Greetings from Gotham.  Congrats to THE BAND'S VISIT, which was the big Tony musical winner last night.   I saw it and thought it was the right choice.

I also saw, with great anticipation, the new MEAN GIRLS musical, which was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and I believe came away with nothing or next to nothing.   And it pains me to say this because I love Tina Fey, but how did they even get all those nominations?

At this point I should post a disclaimer -- young women in the audience were orgasmic over every mediocre song and moment.   If you were just watching the audience and not the show you'd think it was the biggest hit in the history of Broadway.   But especially when compared with a musical that had some depth, way better music and songs, and storytelling that depended on emotion and not glitzy video screens and razzle dazzle, it paled.

And both were adapted from movies.

The MEAN GIRL movie is a classic.  So sharp, so funny, so deliciously twisted.  Tina Fey's screenplay is comedy gold.   Very little of that brilliance made it to the footlights.

Instead we had forgettable songs, one after the other after the other.  They didn't move the story forward.  They just expressed the moment at hand.   And there were so many there was very little time for Tiina Fey's book.   So the book essentially consisted of twelve of the best one-liners from the movie.  A number of reviewers pointed out the same thing.

So why weren't some songs cut (it was a long show)?  Well, the composer was Tina's husband.    Anyone who's been in a marriage suddenly understands.

Was the show bad?  No.  It had its moments and even its good songs ("Stop" was wonderful).  The visuals were dazzling and the energetic young cast danced their guts out.  It's just that... well, I had higher expectations.   I love Tina Fey and I love MEAN GIRLS -- what could go wrong? 

Adding songs to a non-musical narrative (i.e. a movie) comes with a risk.  Story turns need to be abbreviated, characters need to be less complex -- something has to go to allow for all the singing and production numbers.   And all that is fine if the music adds another layer.   But in this case it didn't.  And the lyrics were not nearly as clever as Tina Fey's dialogue (understandably a tall order for any lyricist).   So the end result just feels like another Broadway cash grab that redresses an existing franchise to draw in paying customers.   Disney has done this with everything they've made except PERRI, THE FLYING SQUIRREL.

I suspect MEAN GIRLS will run longer than THE BAND'S VISIT despite losing all the Tony's to it.  And if you're in the target age group, save your allowance (for months) and fly your freak flag.   But for my money this was not Tina Fey's best work... although I will be first in line to see whatever she comes up with next. 

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Stage Direction -- cut it

A few years ago I participated in a screenplay reading. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, readings are a terrific way to really access your screenplay (or play or pilot or whatever). There’s nothing like actually hearing it. You’ll get a great sense of what works and what still needs work.

But the one problem with screenplay readings in particular is that so much of a movie is visual, which means a lot of stage direction. That’s fine for reading silently but it becomes very cumbersome when the directions are read aloud. You really kill the flow when you take two minutes to describe something that will happen on the screen for two seconds. I read the stage directions for this particular screenplay and the writer (a seasoned veteran) knew to cut the direction down to the bare minimum. (I can also now say that I worked with the late James Gandolfini, who had the lead role in the reading. He was very good, by the way.  It's such a tragedy he's gone.)

But the focus of my post today is on stage directions.

A number of years ago there was an organization in New York that held weekly screenplay readings. Writers submitted their drafts and if yours was selected they provided a venue, an audio tape of your reading, publicity, and help with the casting. I entered a screenplay and it was selected.


One of the services they provided was a guy who would go through your screenplay and thin out stage directions. Now I was a little offended at that. I prided myself on being very spare with my stage directions. I didn’t want some skeesix trimming my direction. They said that his cuts were only suggestions and I could use any or all or none of them.

In that case, I said “fine.” I thought, “Good luck to this guy finding trims. There’s not an excess word.”

A week later a script arrived and I was floored. With a black sharpie he hacked and slashed and must’ve cut at least half of my stage direction. I was now pissed. Who the fuck does this clown think he is?

Then I started going through his suggested cuts. Yeah, that’s a good trim… right, I don’t really need that… uh huh, that is somewhat redundant… etc. When I got to the end of the script I realized I had kept 90% of his changes.

It was a humbling but very important lesson. Now when I write screenplays I try to be super economical when writing stage directions. And then I go back and take what I call my Edward Scissorhands pass and cut out a lot more.

For that New York screenplay reading I got the great Dan Ingram (longtime DJ on WABC and voice of a trillion national commercials) to read the stage directions. And for me it was the best part of the reading. There were times I wasn’t even paying that much attention to the dialog. I kept thinking, “Oh wow! Dan Ingram is reading my words!” Great words like “he enters” and “Interior: Hotel Room – Day” but still!

You may be saying, “Yeah, making all those cuts are fine when someone has to read everything aloud, but what about when someone is just reading the script? Wouldn’t more detail and description help convey your visuals? No, and here’s why: People hate to read stage direction. Especially a lot of it. So the less you have the better your chances that the reader will read it at all. You want to be descriptive? Write a novel.

Just think of the Academy Awards and what it’s like when they stop to read the Price-Waterhouse vote tabulation disclaimer. Now imagine them doing that after every presenter. That’s a screenplay reading with too much stage direction.

Again, I appreciate that for the reading I participated in the narration was cut way back. Seriously, who would you rather hear for an hour? Me or James Gandolfini?

Friday, June 08, 2018

Friday Questions

FQ’s are ready. Come get ‘em while they’re hot.

McAlvie starts us off.

I hate it when they colorize original b&w movies, because something I can't put my finger on what gets lost. I think its because they actually used the "limitations" of b&w film somehow, and that something gets lost in translation; but I don't pretend to understand the technicalities. Not that you were around then, Ken, but you know the industry, and the people. I would enjoy getting an insiders take on this.

A lot has to do with the lighting. Those movies were lit specifically for black and white. The shadows and contrasts were carefully constructed to evoke moods. All of that gets obliterated when B&W films are colorized.

And then of course is the technical issue that the skin tones and colors in general still look weird.

The only time I will watch a colorized show is when CBS shows “new” versions of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. And they’re always creepy.

Dave Wrighteous asks:

Since Hollywood is always crying poor, and since streaming technology has gotten so good, why don't Hollywood studios offer an "on demand" version of their catalog's? Think of it as a "movie jukebox". The studios would make bank on films they already paid for/made theatrical dough on, and struggling theaters could show say, Raiders of the Lost Ark on a Friday night and pack the house (that'd probably make more $ than the newest crappy, unfunny rom-com). Win/win, am I right?!?

The real reason Disney wants to buy 20th Century Fox is to get their film library. Studios realize that to make money in this streaming age they need content. I expect all kinds of On Demand and pay walls to sprout up.

But to re-release some of them theatrically would not be feasible.  The target moviegoer is in his or her early 20’s and will opt for the newest crappy unfunny romcom. And quite frankly, I understand that. They’d rather see movies made for them.

From Bryan Price:

Ken - I was curious about your baseball announcing in the minors. Seems like it took you a couple of years prior in the stands at Dodger Stadium and then but a few in the minors before you were hired by the Orioles. I'm guessing that is considered a fast route? How did you do it?

LUCK. I was told major league teams preferred to hear major league game audition tapes so after my third season in the minors (which ended on Labor Day) I went to Anaheim Stadium to record a demo. There I met Jon Miller who was calling Orioles games. I gave him a tape and asked if he would graciously critique it.

A couple of months later he called to say that he loved the tape and that the Orioles had an opening and suggested I apply. I did and amazingly got the job. So a lot of things had to fall into place. Of course it also helped that by that time I had had 20 years of radio experience in major markets. So even though I had only done baseball for three years I was already a very polished broadcaster.

But experience and talent without luck will only get you so far. I was verrrrry fortunate.

And James wonders:

In the past you complained about how difficult it could be to write the teasers for Cheers. How difficult was it writing the silent piece that played under the closing theme and credits to Frasier? I often thought those were very clever and often the best part of the episode.

Thanks. Those tags were way easier to write than teasers because we had something to draw from. The tags always related to something that happened in the episode. They weren’t free floating. Plus, they were only 30 seconds and silent.

Some were harder than others but for the most part they were fairly easy to come up with.

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comments section. Muchas gracias.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Counting laughs

I have a good friend who is a terrific playwright. Mostly dramas. She writes very moving plays that usually touch on important social issues and often have gut-wrenching moments.

And I always kid her that she has it easy.

She doesn’t have to get laughs.

Meanwhile, she’s always needling me about counting laughs. Which I do.

It’s akin to self-torture, but I can’t help it. I don’t know whether it’s the curse of writing comedies or just my own neurosis, but I try to fill my plays with laughs. Underneath are always serious stories, characters are grappling with major issues, and the themes are weighty – but beyond that I want to hear near constant laughter.

A comedy should be FUNNY, damn it!

So it is nerve wracking because not every joke will work, and from night to night different lines get different reactions. Yet I want every joke to land, as unrealistic and utterly insane as that might be.

Meanwhile, for my friend to enjoy a performance of one of her plays, as long as people don’t text, snore, or walk out, she’s golden. The length of a comedy play expands if there’s a good laugh spread. Is there a sniffle spread that elongates dramatic plays?

I’m sure a lot of comedy playwrights say if their play got ten or fifteen good laughs they’re happy. Not me. I shoot for a few hundred.

And there are times I get them – times when everything is working just great, the air conditioning is on, the cast is on its game, and the audience is rocking. I can’t think of a greater high (that doesn’t involve stimulants or someone else’s consent).

So I shall continue to count and make myself unnecessarily nuts.  If only I could think of a good tragedy...

I'm in New York to see my one act play, WHEN ROMCOMS GO BAD as part of the Gallery Theatre Festival in Brooklyn this weekend.  Then next weekend I'm off to Grand Rapids, Michigan to see a production of my full-length play, OUR TIME.   If you're in either of those areas, stop by.  

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

EP75: Mark Evanier: The art of cartoon voice work and the variety show from Mars


In part two of Ken’s conversation with the multi-talented Mark
Evanier they discuss voice over work for animation, how to break in, what they’re looking for and not looking for, and other various tips. He also talks about producing a truly bizarre TV variety show called PINK LADY AND JEFF. You won’t believe this Hollywood/Tokyo story.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Smoke gets in the CBS eye

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post with a special guest to answer it. Because if I don’t know the answer I often try to flag down the person who does.

Dave Wrighteous has the question.

Hey Ken! Never saw it while it was on, but I've been watching Becker in reruns and am LOVING IT! It's hilarious and Ted Danson is terrific! Anyway, my question is: did creator Dave Hackel or you or the network ever get complaints about Becker's smoking? You hardly ever see that on TV anymore, and I heard that NBC's late, great show Constantine had constant network battles about the smoking of the lead character.

Thanks and best wishes.

I went to Dave Hackel who graciously provided the answer.

Before we started shooting “Becker,” I asked for a meeting with Les Moonves so that I could get his thoughts about the tone of the show. Specifically, I wanted to see if I might get some sort of assurance that, once past the pilot, CBS wouldn’t suddenly start giving us notes aimed at softening the character to make Becker more traditionally television friendly. I thought it best to at least start by being on the same page with the head of the network.

Moonves was great. He’d read the script again before we met and assured me that he was willing to let us go for it.

But he did have one concern: Becker’s smoking. He didn’t ask me to take it out, but he wanted my assurance that we wouldn’t glamorize it in any way.

Not a problem, I promised. In fact I told him that my plan was to constantly have other characters tell Becker how disgusting his habit was. Also we did things like showing his own doctor admonishing him about smoking, depicted him unable to exercise because of his habit, had him wrestle with trying to quit and even had him start a fire by flicking a lit cigarette on the ground.

In my opinion, the show was able to send a far better anti-smoking message by having our main character smoke than had we not. And, to his credit, Les kept his word.

We continued to speak negatively about smoking and CBS allowed us to have the character behave as conceived. If the network or studio received complaints about Becker smoking cigarettes they handled them without getting me or the staff involved.

Again, my thanks to Dave Hackel. And Les Moonves.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Why Howard Stern became the King of All Media and not me

Readers of this blog know I’m a fan of Howard Stern. Not because he’s so hilariously funny, although he often makes me laugh – but because the guy is so SMART. Recently I caught the interview he did with David Letterman on Dave’s new Netflix show GABBY HAYES INTERVIEWS PEOPLE.

As with his radio show, Howard spoke very candidly and openly about his life.

He and I began our radio careers at roughly the same time. In fact, at one time I think we might have overlapped working in Detroit – me at WDRQ and he at WWWW. We both listened to the radio in our teens and had a desire to be on the air. We both wanted to be funny, and we both realized that we needed something distinctive to stand out. And we both had role models of radio performers we admired and wanted to emulate in some form.

I chose disc jockeys who were masters at humor. Dan Ingram, Robert W. Morgan, Lohman & Barkley, Dick Whittington, Gary Owens, Don McKinnon, Bob Hudson, Dale Dorman. Howard gravitated towardds bombastic talk show host, Bob Grant. (Ironically, I knew Bob Grant. Before his success in New York he did a stint at KABC, Los Angeles when my dad was a salesman there. That’s another thing – Howard and I both had fathers who worked in radio but not on the air. His was an engineer.)

Bob Grant was very refreshing. He was blunt, opinionated, and always honest. It was that honesty more than anything else that Howard responded to. But with originality comes a big risk.

Here again, Howard and I took different paths. I tried to be funny within the system. I felt if I could sound up and fun on a Top 40 station and slip in outrageous comments that I could attract both the listener paying attention and the casual listener. It worked to a certain agree. I got great ratings wherever I went, but because I was distinctive and didn’t have the classic DJ voice I was always hired on the “other” station. So my station was always getting beat in the ratings so there was always upheaval, which is radio-code for mass firings.

Howard steered more towards album-oriented stations where the format was somewhat relaxed. But by being totally different he was really leading with his chin, constantly inviting termination in an industry where security was as rare as diamond rings in Crackerjack boxes. Trust me, as someone who was also in the trenches, what he did took COURAGE. But he had the enormous talent and conviction to stick it out. And it obviously paid off. I got out of radio the minute I could (which proved to be a very wise decision on my part).

In Stern’s interview with Karl Marx he also talks about he conscious decision to evolve over time as he himself has matured. Some fans were not happy and moved on, but it was worth it to Howard to remain honest to who he is. The result is a show as fresh and timely as it was twenty and thirty years ago. Contrast that with Rush Limbaugh. He’s still doing the same tired act and his audience and influence is now minuscule to what it once was.

Will there be another Howard Stern? I don’t think so. What kid today in his right mind would want to go into radio? That’s like wanting to start an Osmonds tribute band. But if you want to use a radio personality as a role model for whatever industry you hope to conquer and you choose Howard, don’t focus on his inflections or the content of his program or the sunglasses, focus on his SMARTS. In that regard he is the King of all Media.