Wednesday, December 12, 2018

EP102: Short Attention Span Podcast


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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Maybe the most ingenious radio contest ever

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

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

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

So KCBQ really had a problem.

Until Buzz Bennett came up with a solution.

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A STAR IS BORN -- my review

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

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

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

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

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

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

I look forward to the 2038 version starring Princess Charlotte.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Baby It's Cold Outside

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

That was then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Weekend Post

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

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

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


Friday, December 07, 2018

Friday Questions

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

Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

YEKIMI starts it off:

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

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

From -30-:

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

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

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

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

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

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

J Lee asks:

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

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

And finally, from Jonny M.:

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

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

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

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

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

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


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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A piano wouldn't help

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

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

We all SUCKED.  

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Comic strip tease

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

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

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

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

For God sakes, I’m not a machine!

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

Monday, December 03, 2018

A Friday Question that turned into a Monday Rant

It’s from Jim S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Weekend Post

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

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

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