Saturday, March 23, 2019

Weekend Post

AMERICAN IDOL is back.  Yawn.  But 10 or 12 years ago it was HUGE.  For several seasons I would do my own snarky critiques and post them the next day.  This was back when everyone was actually talking about the show; when it was still a thing.  

I thought it would be fun to go back and re-post one of those weekly reviews.  This is from March 18, 2009.  And it was COUNTRY WESTERN night.  So enjoy... and watch where you step.

Now that the kids not attractive enough for FOX have been weeded out we can get down to business. This was Country Night and the guest mentor was Randy Travis (or, for you non Country fans: Thomas Hayden Church).

By and large all of the vocals were good. I must admit though that although I enjoy Country music I’m not an aficionado of it so I apologize if I don’t get all the titles exactly right.

Texas redneck Michael Sarver sang “Don’t get my girl confused with my horse”. Kara (as always) pushed for bigger notes. I bet if you looked at her iPod playlist you’d find thirty Celine Dion songs, twenty Shirley Bassey songs, and the complete works of Ethel Merman.

Adam Lambert is the illegitimate love child of Freddy Mercury and Liza Minelli. He sang “Ring of Fire” but in the more traditional pre-Hitler Berlin cabaret style.

Allison Iraheta (the Little Mermaid) did a great rendition of “Take my heart but leave the beer”. Randy Jackson liked it too and gave the ultimate compliment to a Country singer – “It was dope”.

Kris Allen, this season’s tween sensation sang the touching ballad, “If you leave me now I’ll kill your dog”. Randy Jackson was shocked. “Who knew you had tender moments?” he said to the boy who looks like a girl.

Randy was on fire last night. He amazingly surmised that classy R&B belter Lil Rounds wasn’t comfortable singing Hee Haw music. It’s like he’s…psychic! Personally, I thought she did a very nice job with “Harper Valley PMS”.

Scott McIntyre did a lovely interpretation of “There’s not enough whiskey in Kentucky to get me to take you home”. Paula thought he should stop accompanying himself on the piano. She said “Audiences need to see you as a showman”. Great advice to a blind man. Let’s see Scott juggle next week. Thank you, Simon for just calling her advice “stupid”.

The judges again scolded Alexis Grace for not looking and sounding like a whore. She sang, “Picking dingleberries”.

Widower/crooner Danny Gokey did not wow the judges this week with his version of the Carrie Underwood smash, “Jesus, check the oil”.

My favorite performance of the night was by Anoop Desai. He killed with “You were on my mind”. If there’s such a thing as Hindustani Soul, he’s got it.

Why did Megan Joy Corkrey drop her last name? Her graphic just read “Megan Joy”. I thought she looked gorgeous tonight; that gown really went well with her tattoos. And despite having the flu (which should be good for at least 10,000,000 votes right there) she nailed “After Midnight”.

And finally, Matt Giraud served notice to Danny Gokey that he’s not the only frontrunner. He brought down the house with “Give me back my spurs, the wedding is off”.

I think everyone is safe on Country Music night except Michael Sarver, the only actual country boy. It’s not fair. But isn’t that what the Coen Brothers were trying to tell us in “No Country for Old Men” after all?

Friday, March 22, 2019

Friday Questions

As March Madness officially begins: 

Peter asks:

I also noticed that you and David are listed as uncredited writers on Mother, Juggs and Speed. Is that another internet error or did you really work on that film?

We did not work on the film, but ABC commissioned a pilot and David and I did an extensive rewrite on that. The pilot was filmed and aired once (back when networks would show unsold pilots in the summer as “Failure Theatre”).

We did our draft, turned it in, and for some reason didn’t get a chance to see it when it aired. So I have no idea how good or bad it was or how much of our script they ultimately used.

Also, this was before the show was cast so we just went by the characters in the movie.

Bill Cosby was not in the pilot. He was in the movie.

So why would we do extensive rewrites for no credit? The money of course.

YEKIMI has a two-part question.

As a director, it seems that you do all your directing on sitcoms. Has no one come to you to direct any crime dramas [CSI, Law & Order, etc.] or other non-sitcom directing jobs or is that just something you wouldn't be comfortable doing or just not in your wheelhouse? And are there any directors that can handle anything that is thrown their way?

I would like to direct a single-camera show. I’ve shot numerous single-camera scenes but they were within multi-camera episodes. The trouble is you get put in the “multi-camera” category and without a friend as a showrunner of a single-camera show to give you a shot it’s hard to cross over.

And it’s not just me. I read where a current network pilot was originally designed to be a multi-camera show. King of all multi-camera shows, James Burrows, was slated to direct. The network then decided to convert it into a single-camera pilot and a different director was assigned. (Personally, I would have kept James Burrows no matter how many cameras there were.)

Ironically, it’s much harder to direct a multi-camera show. Knowing how to block and shoot with four cameras going simultaneously in front of a live audience is the ultimate Rubik’s Cube.

As for directing dramas, I would need to have a feature film or at least a short that could demonstrate I could handle this subject matter. Although I would certainly enjoy the challenge of directing something way “out of my lane,” I have no burning desire to direct procedurals.

All that said there are some veteran directors who hop back and forth between comedy and drama.  Michael Zinberg is one who jumps to mind.  

Hmmmm, I wonder if I could get an assignment on GAME OF THRONES based on an EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND episode I directed. I’ll put a call in to my agent.

From VincentS:

Several writers - including yourself - have complained about civilians throwing story ideas and in some cases scripts at them and some professional writers remedy that by simply lying about what they do for a living.

One writer not only told people he was in the livestock business, he took the precaution of learning everything he could about the livestock business in case he was tested by a would-be writer!

Have you ever lied about your profession to avoid the aforementioned situations?

Yes. In those situations I tell people I’m a writer of tech manuals. Rarely are there follow-up questions.

And finally, Michael queries:

Friday question in honor of spring training: For many years, the Mets had 3 announcers, Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy, and Lindsey Nelson, who each broadcast 6 innings on TV as part of 2 man booth and 3 innings on radio solo each game. How hard is it switching back and forth from TV to radio within same game and did you have a preference on which to broadcast games on?

I enjoyed switching back and forth. In TV your role is more to provide captions and set up your analyst partner. But I enjoy the whole production aspect of it. You have a whole crew involved, from the guys in the truck, to the stage managers in the booth, to the cameramen throughout the stadium. I feel like Captain Kirk.

But my favorite is radio, hands down. As the great Ernie Harwell once said about calling games on the radio: “Nothing happens until I say it happens.” I love the freedom of radio and the ability to go wherever I want, not where the director steers me. And to me, baseball on the radio is more of an art form.

So best case scenario is when I start a game on TV and then go to radio. It feels like the handcuffs have been removed. It’s just me and you the listener. Can you believe opening day is just around the corner? Play ball!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

EP115: Meet Dennis Palumbo, writer/therapist


Dennis Palumbo is a licensed therapist and also co-wrote the comedy classic, MY FAVORITE YEAR.  He talks about common problems writers face and offers invaluable advice.  Also he discusses his fascinating career.  From TV (WELCOME BACK KOTTER), to screenplays, to mystery novels – Dennis Palumbo has done it all.  And still has time to see patients.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The WGA vs. ATA (agents)

Lots of you have asked my opinion on the recent struggle between the WGA and talent agencies over “package deals.” It’s about to come to a head and writers might soon have to fire their agents en mass if their agency engages in the practice of package deals. What we’re really talking about here is the big four: CAA, WME, ICM, and UTA.

Package deals are when agencies get a piece of ownership for ostensibly putting the “package” together, lining up their acting, writing, and directing clients. The idea is you have a much better chance of selling something if you have key pieces already in place.

But agencies now package every show, even if it’s just the creator/showrunner. And they make a large profit as a result.

Agencies are also essentially producing their own shows. This leads to conflict-of-interest problems. How can your agent negotiate the best deal for you with the studio if they’re also the studio looking to keep costs down? Back in the 1960’s a company called MCA was doing that. Then-attorney general, Robert Kennedy said they had to choose – studio or agency? They chose studio and morphed into Universal. Through some loopholes agencies are getting around that now.

I think you can see why writers are upset.

But it’s a complicated issue. With all the studio and network consolidation and writers getting fewer development deals, agencies have had to search for alternative ways to make money. Just taking 10% in a shrinking marketplace won’t cut it. They feel they need package deals and creative producing arrangements to survive in this new mega-marketplace. Realistically, I don’t see them giving any of that up without a serious fight.

A further complication: Yes, there are many instances of agents screwing writers. I’ve been the victim of this myself. I’ve fired agents over the years who I felt shafted me. But other agents I’ve had have truly worked on my behalf. They genuinely care about my welfare. It’s one thing to go to war against studios and networks because you KNOW they’re the enemy. You KNOW they’re out to screw you. They take pride in it. But if you have a good agent, he’s working FOR you. You have a real relationship with him. A good agent is your friend, not enemy. So it’s hard to fire your friend. I feel that way about my representation.

Oh, and there’s this additional wrinkle: You can fire your TV writing agent but still be represented by the agency in other areas – say directing or acting, or theatre. So you’re picketing one office but entering another down the hall. Confused yet?

So what’s the upshot? The WGA feels this course will be the most effective. The WGA has been a Godsend to writers. Our fees, pensions, health & welfare, residuals, and various other protections have only come from WGA struggles. I stand by the WGA as I have through numerous work stoppages. And I’m a huge fan of the current WGA president, David Goodman.

My fervent hope is that something can be worked out before April 6 to avoid any upheaval. But this is a tough one. There’s no RFK to step in.

All of this is uncharted territory. Oh well, Hollywood always loves a cliffhanger.

P.S.  There's an article going around by writer David Simon.  You can find it here.  In it he references a sleazy CAA agent, Jeff Jacobs, who he ultimately fired.  It's the same Jeff Jacobs that I once fired.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Talk about greedy bastards...

Talk about chutzpah!

One way for playwrights to get their plays produced is to enter festivals. Numerous theatres around the world stage festivals and invite playwrights to enter their work. Often, if your play is selected you’re required to waive your license fee. These are non-profit theatres, in many cases we’re talking ten-minute plays so the fees are not substantial, and it’s an opportunity to have your work produced and establish a relationship with that theatre, which might come in handy for future work. Another downside is that you’re generally competing with 300 other writers for eight or ten slots so you better brace yourself for rejections.

But clearly the playwright doesn’t make much money, if any. In fact, entering these competitions can cost them money. Some theatres require a submission fee. They usually range from $10-$20 and are sometimes waived if you’re a Dramatists Guild member or college student. That doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but still – you’re charging people who aren’t exactly raking it in, and if you enter a bunch of contests those submission fees add up.

This is the same scam where casting directors charge actors to enter showcases. Struggling actors can least afford it, and if you’re a casting director it’s your JOB to watch showcases and discover new actors.

I tend to weigh whether the fee is worth it for each specific festival. Is it a prestigious theatre? Is it in a major theatre city? Do they have a good reputation? A great acting company?  Certain festivals I’ll pay to enter and others I won't. 

And now comes along “The Neil Simon Festival” held in Cedar City, Utah. Registration is now closed but they wanted – are you ready? -- $150 to enter your full-length script.

$150.  

FUCK THEM.

Here’s what you get for your $150. NO money if your play is accepted. The winner receives a six-day staged reading and the following year a full production of three whole performances. Whoo hoo!  Who knows the quality of actors in Cedar City, Utah, not to mention directors? They do pay for your transportation and housing when you’re there for the festival. (That could be a Greyhound bus and they’ll “leave the light on for ya.”) Oh, and all writers get a critique of their play. Who knows how good the readers are in Cedar City, Utah?

Needless to say, they don’t get 300 entries. They’ve gotten 30. The festival organizer says that high fee has helped weed out the bad scripts. Uh… no. I would think it’s quite the opposite. Anyone who believes in their work isn’t going to waste their money with these idiots. But the desperate playwright who’s been rejected a gazillion times might enter because with so few others in competition he might finally score a win.

Clearly, the goal is not to mount the best play; it’s to make as much money as they can from struggling playwright.

So again I say: FUCK YOU.

This festival has been going for about ten year, but this new insulting submission fee is new. Gee, I wonder whether they would have done it while Neil Simon was still alive. I’m guessing no because I’m also guessing that Neil Simon’s response to this would be…

FUCK YOU.

I did not enter a play in this festival. Nor will I ever. The only way I’d ever allow this organization to stage one of my plays is if they pay me $150… for every performance. And even then I might just say…

FUCK YOU.

Monday, March 18, 2019

CAPTAIN MARVEL

SPOILER ALERT – not that you will actually learn any plot points because, well… because of the following meeting:

… where the CAPTAIN MARVEL writers had to pitch their story to studio executives.

SCREENWRITERS: Okay, first off it’s an origin story. Captain Marvel or Vers or Carol is on some planet somewhere in the desert and then she’s in a futuristic city and someone is teaching her to be a warrior and we learn there are good aliens and bad aliens and the bad aliens want to do something bad but need some fabrazabber to do it, whatever it is – take over the galaxy and shit. Yeah, they want to take over the galaxy. And they can change into anything they want so they’re hard to find.

Oh wait, her teacher/Yoda/Liam Neeson type guy tells her her one flaw is she lets her emotions get in the way. How fresh is that? We haven’t seen that character beat since at least 2016, maybe earlier.

And here’s the thing: Captain Marvel has all these fragments of memories that are all completely random and confusing but cool and maybe we find out what they are but for now we forget about that and send her on a mission to do something somewhere and it doesn’t go well for some reason and she winds up in a rocket pod that lands on earth in 1995. We do a scene where she lands in a Blockbuster Video, which is maybe the greatest idea ever in the history of movies. Can you imagine? Aren’t you just hysterical thinking about it? She walks down an aisle and picks up THE RIGHT STUFF. The audience will laugh for twenty minutes.

Okay, so now she’s on earth trying to get to a secret Air Force base because she used to be in the Air Force but doesn’t know why or when, which is fine because we do a big car chase for no reason and have an action sequence on a Metro train where she’s chasing people she thinks are bad but they get away but we meet Nick Fury so we forget that the Metro sequence was superfluous. But cool.

Nick helps her. Oh yeah, she’s trying to find out some stuff about someone and he helps her. But it’s not easy because a bunch of bad guys show up and there’s a big obligatory fight scene. Oh oh oh… forgot to mention – we introduce a cat. Real cute. And we’ll find a way to make it important and cool.

Now the good and bad aliens land on earth. We show a bunch of flashbacks, and Captain Marvel is still looking for answers so she goes to the best friend she remembers she has when he need her to remember that. The friend will be African American because Captain Marvel is not. Oh, and she has a daughter that will peg the cute meter. She and Captain Marvel will bond of course. Except she's not Captain Marvel yet.  She's still Carol or Vers. 

Now comes a few plot twists that you’ve never seen before… in this franchise.

Oh, along the way there will be funny ironic lines – at least one every fifteen minutes. Can’t be cool without funny ironic lines.

At this point we reach the third act. They get the fabrazabber. Captain Marvel becomes Captain Marvel. The little girl makes her a role model. Captain Marvel kicks serious ass and we do a giant cluster fuck of a sequence that takes place in outer space, on earth, in other galaxies, space ships, dimensions – the beauty is we make it so full of special effects that nobody cares where they are or what purpose any of this is serving other than seeing Captain Marvel beat the shit out of everyone. Which she does. 

Of course we do a dogfight like every STAR WARS movie, video game type laser fights, mega explosions, and ‘90s pop hits because that worked so well in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Needless to say we’ll have a lot to wrap up so we figure the film will end five times, maybe six. And it goes without saying we’ll set up a bunch of sequels.

Whattaya think?

STUDIO HEAD: That sounds like you merely stitched together every trope from every superhero and space adventure movie and thrown them together in a blender. You’ve jammed in every cliché and there’s not a moment that is remotely original. And it will probably cost upwards of 150 million dollars.

SCREENWRITERS: Brie Larson wants to do it.

STUDIO HEAD: You have a greenlit movie.

Hey, I went to see it.  

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Weekend Post

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure and privilege of seeing Elaine May on Broadway starring in THE WAVERLY GALLERY. She was phenomenal. You'll see her on the Tony's in June picking up her award. Maybe several. She was so good they may give her the "Best Choreography in a Musical" Tony as well just because.

Elaine May has always been an idol of mine. From her days teaming with Mike Nichols to her directing (A NEW LEAF and HEARTBREAK KID are two of my all-time favorite movies) to the many screenplays and stage plays she's written, Elaine May is a Comedy God.

Recently I came upon this clip from the AFI special saluting Mike Nichols. This is Elaine's speech. You may not know who Elaine May is but after watching this I guarantee you too will love her.

Enjoy.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Friday Questions

Beware the Ides of Friday Questions.

Unknown has the first FQ:

I just came across the movie Critical Condition on television. I checked the credits, thinking it was directed by Sidney Lumet. I was surprised when I saw David's and your name listed as co-screenwriters with John and Denis Hamill. I don't recall your mentioning this film on the blog. Was your work here similar to Jewel and the Nile? Were you ever on the set? 

It was directed by Michael Apted, who did the 7-Up films, Coal Miner's Daughter and Continental Divide-my favorite John Belushi movie. Do you have any positive memories of working on it?

I have no fond memories of it because David and I had nothing to do with that movie ever. As much as we all want to believe if it’s on the internet it’s true, in this case it’s not. Nor was I once the “Dialogue Coach” for FLIPPER (true story – IMDB has since removed it).

I mention this because when you are sick and go to the internet to see what you have and are told it’s some horrible terminal disease that will kill you within a week, you don’t have to believe them. It’s probably an allergy to your neighbor’s cat.

Boomska316 is next.

Ken, I was wondering what you think of this trend of streaming services artificially stretching out the aspect ratios of older shows to make them full screen? I can only assume that someone complained about the black bars on the sides of the screen, but I find it off putting.

I hate anything done to alter a show’s original presentation whether it’s visual or speeding it up. I understand that older shows were not produced with the wider dimensions in mind, but so what? Let’s enjoy them the way they were meant to be shown. It’s not such a hardship to watch something with black bars on the side of the screen, is it? More disconcerting is everybody looking like Shrek.

Here's a question from Peter:

David Mamet has tried to defend the indefensible by saying college admissions procedures are a joke and his friends Felicity Huffman and William H Macy should be forgiven. What do you think about Mamet basically trying to excuse exam fraud just because his friends are involved? 

I think it's inexcusable.  First off, worthy students are being denied slots because of this.  And secondly, great values to be teaching your kids. 

We live in an age of entitlement.  Partly because people are willing to just look the other way.  

Felicity Huffman KNEW she was doing something wrong and something illegal.  I'm glad she got caught.  And as for David Mamet, it's people like him that have put us in this horrible political situation we're in right now.  Forget justice, ignore facts, reward greed and dishonesty.   Would it surprise you to learn David Mamet is a big Trump supporter?   I could care less what David Mamet says or thinks about anything.

From Jen from Jersey:

When you and Isaacs wrote sitcoms, did you have Assistant writers too? If not, how were you able to write the dialogue so quickly for 20+ episodes?

Starting on CHEERS we dictated scripts so yes, we indeed had a writers’ assistant in the room. Note: "Writers Assistant" is the new, more PC way of saying "Secretary."  And since this was before computers became the norm our assistants would take shorthand.

It took a special person to get everything down in shorthand and then accurately type it up. Throughout our career we had some nutty writers’ assistants but also some sensational ones. We could not have written our scripts so quickly were it not for Sue Herring, Lana Lewis, Ruth Horne, Nancy Koppang, Barry Zajac, Katy Pentland, Sherry Falk, and Linda Silverthorn (who was mentioned extensively in Ronan Farrow’s second NEW YORKER expose on Les Moonves).

And finally, Marka wonders:

Did they film the Eddy tricks before the filming, without anyone on the set, in case the tricks didn't work out during the live run?

Occasionally but most of the time we did them with the audience present. We usually asked Eddie’s trainer, Mathilda DeCagny beforehand if the trick we proposed was easily done. Mathilda, by the way, was the most loving animal trainer I’ve ever met. All tricks were learned by positive reinforcement.

And one final note on Eddie, his real name was Moose.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. As always, thanks so much for your FQ’s.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

EP114: My Writing Process


Ken talks about his writing steps, from germ of an idea to finished script or stage play. It’s an in-depth look into the creative process from an Emmy winning writer.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

"Who is a good replacement?"

Here’s an FQ that became an entire post.

PolyWogg has a question about replacing announcers… and a game show host.

Did you hear Trebek suggested some "unusual" names to replace him on Jeopardy when he retires? An announcer for, I think, baseball games and I've already forgotten who the woman was.

As an announcer, do you have people to suggest to replace Nantz for football / all of MNF people / Trebek?

 First of all, how tragic that Alex has Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer.  I wish, as originally intended, this was just speculation for three years from now.   Sadly, I think a decision will have to be made sooner.  I sure hope I'm wrong.

The woman baseball announcer is Jessica Mendoza. Not sure why she’d be a good candidate to host JEOPARDY (or evaluate players for the New York Mets --that's insane).  

Replacing Alex Trebek is like replacing Vin Scully. He’s truly masterful at hosting that show. I’ve watched tapings of JEOPARDY and it’s amazing how smooth he is and how easy he makes it look when in fact there are a lot of moving parts, tricky complicated answers, following the scoring, and handling unforeseen events. So who could replace him?

If I had to choose a woman I might think Rachel Maddow. You’ve got to be smart, able to read those hard-to-pronounce names and places in the answers, and have a personality. Another possibility: NBC Chief White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson (pictured above). Whip smart, takes no shit from Sarah Sanders, and very charming when filling in on THE TODAY SHOW.

For guys, Bob Costas is a New York minute. And I know the haters will be outraged, but Joe Buck would be awesome. He’s got a sense of humor and can handle all the mechanics. I think even some of the haters might be swayed.

Replacing Jim Nantz? First off, where is he going? I see Jim Nantz in that role as number one sportscaster for CBS for many years to come. That said, I would pick Ian Eagle. Calls a great game, is fun to listen to, works well with partners, and is very versatile.

Future stars in my opinion: Kevin Burkhardt of Fox and Jason Benetti of ESPN.

Who could replace the MNF crew? Anybody. Three guys off the street. Siri.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

RIP Hal Blaine

You may not know the name, but you've sure heard his work.  Hal Blaine was a studio drummer.  He was part of the "Wrecking Crew" -- a collection of the finest studio musicians in Los Angeles.  They backed up most of the hits you heard in the '60s and '70s.   Even groups that played their own instruments bowed to the artistry of these ladies and gentlemen when they got in the recording studio.  Dennis Wilson didn't play drums on Beach Boy records; Hal Blaine did.   Michael Clark didn't play drums on Byrds records; Hal Blaine did.

Hal played on 150 top ten hits.  40 number one songs, 8 Grammy records of the year.  And countless other hits.   Thanks to reader Arlen Peters I found this great YouTube video that features a montage of just some of the hit songs Hal played on.

He passed away this weekend.  Hal Blaine was 90.  The beat goes on... at least on records.  Quite simply, Hal Blaine was the best.  See for yourself.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Leaving Neverland (and then showering)

Watched the first two hours of LEAVING NEVERLAND and not sure I need to see the concluding two because I imagine it’s just more of the same. And the first two hours were disturbing enough.

First off, anyone who is surprised by this HBO Documentary is living in a dream world similar to the one the King of Pop called his home. There had always been allegations of pedophilia and multi-million dollar payoffs (far more money than one would give away just to settle nuisance suits), and… well… just LOOK AT HIM. 

One thing I didn't know was his "hideout" high rise apartment in Westwood was two blocks from my house.  Thank God my kids never trick-or-treated in that building. 

On stage he was this bad-ass larger-than-life force of nature. And offstage he was this ethereal fragile childlike urchin who clung to the parental support of Elizabeth Taylor. He built an amusement park for himself and frolicked with little children. Who at the office that you work with does that?

His appearance became increasingly ghoulish. His behavior got more outlandish. Any attempt to appear “normal” was laughable. FATHER KNOWS BEST starring Michael Jackson.

The first part of the documentary basically follows two families, one from Australia and one from Simi Valley, California. Half the planet apart but absolutely similar in M.O. The victims are now adults recounting in detail their encounters with the King of Prey. The accounts are heartbreaking, disturbing, and absolutely what you expected all along.

I blame the parents. These were innocent impressionable 7 year-old boys. They had no idea what they were being led into. But what parent in their right mind allows their 7 year-old to hang out with Michael Jackson unsupervised and share a bed with him? Yes, he may be very childlike and fun, but he’s a 30 year-old man and your son is 7! Is the lure of riding a limousine, or staying in a hotel suite, or meeting Sean Connery that great that you’re willing to overlook what so obviously was going on right under your nose? Isn’t it your job to PROTECT your child? When a 30 year-old man’s best friend is your second grader that should be a storm balloon.

So for me the real sickening part of the documentary was not the Michael Jackson tell-all (although it was pretty horrendous), but the mothers trying to come off as victims themselves, as if they were tricked.

Should I watch part two? Are there different things to learn? Once one of the mothers was excited to be in Neverland because there was a movie theatre with FREE candy I almost turned off part one.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Weekend Post

In the '60s and '70s local car dealer commercials were big in California.  They would sponsor late night movies and old reruns.  A big car dealer in LA was Ralph Williams Ford.  Another was Cal Worthington who had several local auto dealerships.   Ralph Williams became kind of a national personality when Johnny Carson used to joke about him on THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Ralph originally did his commercials himself but eventually turned the mic over to a great TV pitchman, Chick Lambert.   Ralph expanded his empire, opening car dealerships in other places like San Bruno in the San Francisco area.  Chick Lambert did those commercials too.

Here's one he obviously made for a blooper reel or the Christmas party.  There are some who believed this aired live.  It did not.  By the '60s these car commercials were pre-taped.  There's even a slate at the beginning of the spot. 

But it's hilarious and the car commercial you WISH you could see live.  Enjoy. 

Friday, March 08, 2019

Friday Questions

Daylight Saving Time starts again on Sunday. Remember to turn your clocks ahead one hour. And leave any Friday Questions in the comment section.

Mitchell Hundred has this week’s first FQ:

I was watching the Laurel and Hardy video that you posted a couple of weeks back, and although I really enjoyed it I noticed that neither of them seems to be playing the straight man. So my Friday question would be: what is the function of a straight man in comedy, and why does Laurel and Hardy seem to work so well without one?

A standard trope in comedy is “set up/joke.” In many cases that means someone asks a question (set up) and the other person answers with a punchline.

What people don’t realize is that it takes a lot of skill and timing to be a good set-up man. And the guy who has the punchline may get the laugh and glory, but the joke would not have worked had the set-up man not teed it up correctly. Great examples are Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen, and Bob & Ray on the radio.

Laurel & Hardy had a different dynamic. Most of their comedy was physical. Their dynamic was a frustrated guy who attempted at all times to preserve his dignity and a carefree guy who through his bungling frustrated the other guy to death.

What Stan Laurel (who wrote all of their material) understood was that the laugh was not just the physical gag (e.g. brick falling on Hardy’s head) but the reaction.

Longtime friend of the blog, Wendy M. Grossman asks:

If, you say, the Academy Awards are discontinued, Hollywood won't bother making "prestige" pictures any more - its output will be entirely superheroes, comic books, and other stuff for teenaged boys. What happens then to movies for grown-ups?

They get made by Netflix and other streaming services. They essentially become TV movies.

And as a result you sacrifice scope and the experience of seeing the film in a theatre.

A-list directors will find their way to Netflix but they will have to work with a more limited budget and their project most likely won’t have the impact it would have had it been a major motion picture.

When you go to your menu screen on Netflix, there will be the thumbnail of the new Martin Scorsese movie next to the CATWALK documentary. That’s a fry cry from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

From 71dude:

With nothing getting good ratings anymore and even established series like "Fresh off the Boat" and "Speechless" hanging by a thread, how do actors in bubble shows decide when to audition for other pilots? Do they follow ratings websites that say their show is "likely renewed" or "likely cancelled"? Or can they just act in whatever they want when their season wraps?

If their show is on the bubble they go on auditions and if they get cast in a pilot it’s understood they’re in “second position” – meaning if their previous show does get picked up they’re obligated to return to it. But if it gets cancelled and they’re free and the new pilot goes to series they’re confirmed for that series.

That’s what happened to Jennifer Aniston. When she signed to do the FRIENDS pilot she was in second position to a summer sitcom on CBS, MUDDLING THROUGH (see photo of Jennifer in that show above). Had that show gotten an order for more episodes Jennifer would have had to drop out of FRIENDS.

So as a producer you take a risk when you hire someone in second position because it has happened that a bubble show got a last minute reprieve and a pilot that was ordered to series had to recast and reshoot because their second position actor was now no longer available.

Unless the actor is really really special or it’s almost a guarantee his previous show is not coming back I tend to avoid hiring actors in second position. The casting process is stressful enough.

And finally, Jamie T has a baseball question.

YouTube is chock full of clips of brawls breaking out in Major League Baseball games (some posted by MLB itself). They get tons of views.

As an announcer, did you ever have to call a brawl? Whether or not you had to do it, what would your feeling be in the moment? Are you kind of excited by the action? Are you annoyed? Does the league/network/local management give any guidance on how they want you to call it?

I’ve called many brawls. No, I get no guidance.

Brawls can be ugly and certainly don’t show baseball in a good light. And of course, guys could get hurt.

On the other hand, in some cases I understand the reason for them. Players need to protect their teammates. Players who don’t quickly become ostracized.

Personally, here’s what I like about them. I feel I’m pretty good at descriptions and painting a visual picture. Brawls let me show off those skills.  And it's way more fun to call them on radio because you've got to continually set the scene.  (At least for me.  There are lots of announcers who are very uncomfortable going off script.) 

There was one brawl I called that was particularly unsettling. I was calling it on the radio. Chip Caray and Ron Fairly were handling TV that inning. It was my second year with the Seattle Mariners. We were playing the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore. Our catcher, Dan Hasselman took exception to being plunked by Mike Mussina thus sparking what proved to be a really ugly melee. Most brawls are essentially guys just standing around but there were fist-fights that just kept erupting.

And here’s the thing: I knew every player on both teams personally. Many were my friends. So here I am calling the blow-by-blow of friends of mine slugging other friends of mine. There was nothing remotely fun about that one.

Here’s the fight with Chip & Ron’s call. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording of my broadcast. Too bad because I thought, under the circumstances, I did a real nice job.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

EP113: Meet Bruce Miller and learn the story behind “Tossed Salads & Scrambled Eggs.”


Bruce Miller has composed and conducted the music for many TV series including FRASIER. He tells the inside story of what “Tossed Salads & Scrambled Eggs” really means along with other fascinating tales. Plus, a huge treat for FRASIER fans – something you’ve never heard before. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The story behind "Hash"

Kendall Rivers had a Friday Question about the 70's sitcom BARNEY MILLER.  (It since has become an entire post)  Here's the FQ:

Could you get Tom Reeder to give a full backstory of the behind the scenes of Hash from the germ of the idea to the taping?

Happily, I was able to do that. Tom is a good friend and graciously agreed to answer your question. By the way, that is my single favorite episode of BARNEY MILLER.

This episode got written over forty years ago, so I can't say, "Oh, I remember it like it was yesterday." I went through some of the dusty clutter in my office, though, and found some notes. The original title on my first story outline for it was "The Gift" (the hash brownies given to Wojehowicz by a woman named Gloria). It had a B story about a guy who turned himself in after being AWOL from the Marine Corps for 16 years. On the next pass, that element went away and the title changed to "Pot". That lasted until the second draft of the teleplay. Someone -- it may have been Reinhold Weege -- made the sensible suggestion that the secret ingredient in the brownies be changed from marijuana to hashish, because its effects come on more quickly, which helped move the story along.

By the way, I don't think I made the original pitch of the "everybody gets stoned" notion. During that time in the middle of the third season, there were some changes happening in the production staff. As I recall, Chris Hayward was leaving and Roland Kibbee was coming in; I think maybe Kibbee was the one who lobbed that germ of a story idea. I also want to mention that in the final draft of the teleplay, Reiny contributed a lot of good dialogue. We were both new writers then; Barney Miller was the show on which both of us got our first writing assignments.

I have no idea how much past personal experience (if any) influenced the actors' performances, but I think we'd all agree that they were convincing -- particularly Jack Soo. I loved his interpretation of the song "It's Almost Like Being in Love" at the end of Act One. That song is from the musical "Brigadoon", and I had been in a production of that show while in high school. It popped into my head when I was writing the script. As Ken will attest, you never know where inspiration is going to come from.

Thanks so much to Tom Reeder. He also wrote some of the best episodes of MASH and CHEERS.

And here is the episode itself.    Set aside a few minutes.  It's well worth watching.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

CATWALK -- BEST IN SHOW but for real

If you liked BEST IN SHOW you will love CATWALK. This is a documentary on Netflix about cat shows. They’re like dog shows but even goofier.

CATWALK stars people who you would swear were created by Christopher Guest. But they’re real. And immensely endearing. Part of it may just be that it’s all set in Canada and Canadians, from what I’ve experienced, are incredibly nice. But cat shows are clearly their passion and you find yourself rooting for them.

What was funny to me was this: They’re cats. Unlike dogs, who like to show off and please people, cats are cats. They don’t give a shit.   Part of the competition is a little obstacle course and it’s a riot watching these cat owners trying to get their little darlings to jump over a stick or go through a hoop. They’re cats. Stunts on demand are not their thing.  Being brushed and groomed for ten hours a day -- that they'll indulge their owners. 

There’s certainly a level of absurdity in these cat shows (as there were in the BEST IN SHOW shows), but the participants take it very seriously (which makes it that much funnier). But like I said, after awhile you get sucked in. I found myself actually rooting against a Persian Red. I just didn’t like her attitude.

The documentary focuses on two competing women who are ultimately friendly rivals. Again, I think that’s Canada. If it were set in the US one of the women would Tanya Harding the opposing cat.

These cat shows appear to take place almost every weekend in Canada and these owners schlep their coiffed tabbies through the snow from one drafty exhibition hall to the next. You sure gotta give them points for dedications – especially since the same two or three cats win every week. And it’s not like the also-rans can say to their cats, “Tomorrow you’re going to start taking piano lessons.”

CATWALK covers it all, from the thrill of victory to the agony of hairballs. I give it a blue ribbon.

Monday, March 04, 2019

How to improve your life

Here’s a quick and easy way to improve your life:

Stop watching pundits on cable news channels.

This goes for whichever side you’re on, whichever network you normally watch.

Y’see, here’s the thing: they’re usually wrong. They’re speculating while all the facts are still not known. And every time a new fact is revealed it suddenly changes the scenario and they have to speculate in an alternate direction.

All the while your anxiety level continues to rise.

And Jesus, isn’t the current political climate stressful enough?  Last week alone.

Now you could say, well, I have to be informed. And I say yes, but that’s not what this is. This is just guesswork mixed with rumor flavored by bias and spin. Nothing in your life or the world is going to change by not watching talking heads you don’t know break down legal and political issues they don’t know.

Free yourself. Don’t sit in your room. Go outside and play.

I know it’s tempting when a story comes along that could advance your side. You want assurance that things are as good or bad as you are hoping for. But these explosive “bombshell” stories come every day now. It’s exhausting.

Look, in 2016 I was glued to my screen. I had to hear the analysis from every debate, every step of the election. I checked the polls, I read the articles, anytime I saw three people sitting at a round table talking I watched. I’d check out the opposing news channel to know what their pundits were saying. I was a walking Wonk.

And you know what? They were ALL WRONG. All the analysis, all the predictions – DEAD WRONG. I wasted a year listening to these nimrods.

So by not watching them now I don’t believe I’m missing anything.

It’s a trap, a time suck, and only ends with you taking fistfuls of Lexapro and eating gallons of ice cream. 

In 1949 slugger Ralph Kiner had a big season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was surprised when team president Branch Rickey did not offer him a raise for the following season. “But I hit 54 home runs,” Kiner exclaimed, to which Rickey replied, “Yeah, but the team finished last. We can finish last without you.”

The world will turn whether you watch roundtables or not.

It’s a brand new week. Get out and enjoy it. You’ll thank me.

(Coming up in the next half hour, four experts will debate this blog post.)

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Weekend Post

As mentioned in my review, the Motion Picture Academy really blew it by not including Stanley Donen in its IN MEMORIAM section.  The man was a titan in the industry.  He never won an Oscar for directing because he directed commercial hits and not sweeping epics.   But many of his pictures were classics, including SINGING IN THE RAIN.

I got a chance to meet him once.  He had a movie idea, which he took to writer Larry Gelbart.  Larry was too busy working on other projects but suggested me and my partner, David Isaacs.  We then went to lunch with Mr. Donen (both completely star-struck).   He could not have been nicer and more charming.  Ultimately the project never got off the ground but that lunch was a career highlight.

In 1997 the Oscars gave him a lifetime achievement Academy Award.  Here's the intro, by Martin Scorsese and his delightful acceptance speech. 

A couple of things:  You'll notice he mentions Larry Gelbart by name.  Also, when they cut away to the crowd notice all the STARS.  Real stars.  Sean Connery, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, Robert Duvall, Warren Beatty.   Today we get Alex Rodriguez.

Anyway, here's Stanley Donen.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Friday Questions

Let’s March into this week’s Friday Questions.

Unknown starts us off.

Here’s a Friday question: You won the TV lottery! NBC is giving you the go ahead on reviving an old popular show (since Will& Grace, Murphy Brown (?) and Roseanne was such a success). What show would you do (can't be your own, sorry)? WKRP? (the trials and tribulations when they go to streaming radio) Dick Van Dyke show? (Richie is now a TV writer) Hudson Brother's Razzle DAzzle show? Bob Newhart? He is now a radio psychologist?...oh wait...
What would you do?

I would respectfully refuse the offer. If I can’t reboot my own show, why would I want to reboot someone else’s?

First off, only the original creators should do the reboots. They’re the real voices of their shows.

And secondly, any show that predates the 90’s is probably now too old to reboot. You don’t want to see these characters 40 or 50 years older. Don’t believe me? Go to your high school reunion. Sometimes it’s better to remember people and shows when they were in their prime.

VP81955 asks:

(Last month) marked the 50th anniversary of KHJ's 48-hour "History of Rock & Roll.”  Here's an article about it.

Did you listen to much of the original version? What did you think of it? I understand KRLA, a Top 40 competitor, had just begun an hour-long weekly historical series that lasted over the course of a year -- did you hear parts of that one too?

I listened to practically ALL of the KHJ "History of Rock n' Roll."  I have a complete copy of it. That weekend it poured in Los Angeles and I just sat home glued to my radio.  I didn't even go out on a date and that was a rare time when I had a girlfriend. 

It was a monumental achievement (both the "rockumentary" and me having a girlfriend). Robert W. Morgan’s narration was perfect as was Bill Mouzis’ production. But the real creative genius who created it and put it together was KHJ program director/resident genius, Ron Jacobs.

There was a syndicated version later that year voiced by Humble Harve Miller (also excellent) and various updated versions. Originally in 1969 it was 48 hours. I think if they did it today it would have to be 269 hours.

Competing station KRLA had the "Pop Chronicles" but I believe they were hour-long programs – extremely well done but not nearly the magnitude of KHJ’s “History of Rock n’ Roll.”

To me the very best version was the original with Robert W. Morgan and that only aired one time only.  Like I said, I have a clean copy of the entire 48 hours.  It's one of my most cherished possessions.

From Jahn Ghalt:

"Why not mount your own ten-minute play festival?"

Pull out your rolodex and contact some like-minded play producers to put one on. Contact some sure-fire playwrights about this idea and get some of their stuff produced for a 2nd time (and use judgment to relax the "won something rule")

John, I have thought of that and there are discussions underway even as we speak. Stay tuned.

And finally, from Ted O'Hara:

I just saw your M*A*S*H season 5 episode "Post Op", which you and David did while you were still freelancers. Nice episode. Gene Reynolds and Jay Folb wrote the story, while you two did the teleplay. How did that happen? Often it's the other way around - a freelancer will write the story, and then a staff member will write the teleplay?

That was at the very end of the season. CBS ordered one additional episode at the last minute. Gene and Jay assembled some stories from Post Op they had found in the research (interviews with doctors, nurses, patients in Korea, etc.) but didn’t have time to write it. David and I had done two freelance episodes that were very well-received so they called to see if we wanted to write the teleplay. Needless to say we did.

Normally a freelance writer will come in with an idea, you’ll work out the story with the staff, write an outline, get notes on the outline, then write your first draft.

In this case we walked in and they handed us the outline. They walked us through it scene by scene and we went home and began writing the script. As I recall there was a time crunch and we had to turn it in in a week. It had taken two weeks to do drafts of the other MASH episodes we did so David and I put in marathon days to finish on time while not sacrificing quality.

They must’ve been quite happy with our draft because 90% of it on the screen and shortly after we turned it in we got the offer to go on MASH fulltime.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The future -- mine & Oscars

After writing Oscar reviews for over 20 years, this year’s might have been my last. Nothing's written in stone and a lot will depend on how many people log on to the podcast.  But they’re getting harder to write and fewer people are interested in the Oscars.

I seriously think the Academy Awards are losing its relevance. And I say that with great sadness. For many many years the Academy Awards was a huge cultural event. The entire country had a stake in the movies that were nominated and the entire country watched. There were upsets, surprises, streakers, glamour, and in general the Oscarcast was a rollicking entertaining once-a-year event.

The industry supported it. The movies nominated were both artistic and economic triumphs. It was not unusual for the highest grossing film of the year to also win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. The songs that won Best Song often became hits on their own and in numerous cases became standards. Who won Best Song in 2018?

Hollywood royalty all showed up whether they were nominated or not. The host had gravitas and guided the evening with class and humor.

And the in-home sport was goofing on the fashion disasters and lusting after the ones who looked spectacular. There was, dare I say? – body shaming. Oscar parties were filled with catty remarks – from everybody. And nobody felt guilty for being a “bad person.”

Compare all of that to now.

Hollywood makes movies for 17-year old boys. That’s their target audience. The movies that today we consider classic would never get made. Instead, studios invest in super hero movies, sequels, cartoons, action-flicks, raunchy comedies – anything to draw the young theatregoer. Then, for two months a year they roll out adult prestige films hoping to win awards. Don’t kid yourself. If there were no more Oscars, these indie offshoots like Fox Searchlight would go away. Studios would make ONLY tent pole fare for Millennials.

So there is a real disconnect between the movies most people see and the movies that get nominated for awards. And there’s nothing the Academy can do about it. They have no say in what gets made. So all they can do is watch their relevance slip away.

And it becomes a vicious circle. Ratings drop because the bulk of movie goers don’t watch or care about the films that are nominated. And members of the Academy are not going to pander to them and start nominating ANT MAN 2 as Best Picture of the year. With lower ratings, the network that paid big bucks for the exclusive rights to air the Oscars gets nervous. And what do nervous networks do?

THEY MEDDLE.

And that’s what ABC has done. Add new categories, give out awards during commercial breaks, hire the creator of FAMILY GUY to host because kids love that show. And every time the Academy goes along and the move backfires (which most do) they lose more and more credibility.

Don’t kid yourself. ABC doesn’t give a shit about the state of the motion picture industry and preserving its excellence – they just care about ratings and making good on their investment. And if you think it’s just ABC you’re wrong. CBS, FOX, and NBC would do the same thing. Do you think Fox wants the two best teams in baseball to compete in the World Series? No. They want the Dodgers vs. the Yankees. Every year. Do you think NBC wants the best athletes in the world to shine in the Olympics? Of course not. They want American athletes to shine. Networks pay outrageous sums for the rights to these big events and understandably want their return. So look out if the event is underperforming. That’s what’s happening big time with the Oscars.

40 million people used to show up every year. This year everyone was publicly pleased because the rating went up from 26.5 million to 29 million. Woot woot! But behind closed doors they’re still saying, “We’re FUCKED and we’ve got to do something! NOW!”

So let’s look back at Sunday’s Oscarcast. Stripped down, no host, tennis players presenting awards, and a bland pleasant movie winning Best Picture. There are already articles in major publications saying it’s the worst Best Picture choice since CRASH. But it’s safe.

And safety now also counts, because in addition to network pressure, the Academy is getting major pressure from diversity and special interest groups – the winners have to be more inclusive. God forbid there’s not enough diverse winners – the Academy gets slammed. So decisions are made with that in mind.

The in-home experience is not as much fun because now if you rag on someone you’re accused of being racist, homophobic, body shaming, etc. Believe me, my reviews were better 20 years ago. It was understood I was being snarky and went for the best joke I could. And no one accused me of being insensitive. Now I self-censor. There are at least three jokes I considered putting in my review that I know are really funny. But I also know I’d get slammed and who needs the aggravation? That's a problem.  Readers even blasted me for saying something negative about poor Sam Elliott. 

SIDEBAR:  Sam Elliott.  When you are lucky enough to be nominated for an Academy Award for acting the correct response is gratitude.  It's not "Well, it's about time."   Let's get real.  Sam Elliott has played the same character in everything he's done.  He has the same smirk, delivers lines the same way, and has parlayed a nice career out of it.  And God bless him.  I like Sam Elliott in the right thing.  But to suggest that he hasn't been given the respect he deserves -- he ain't Daniel Day Lewis.  End of sidebar.

As movies continue to blur lines between theater experiences, streaming services, and television it’s becoming harder and harder to even determine just what a “movie” is. The Academy dodged a bullet this year by not naming ROMA Best Picture. It was made for Netflix and is available right now at your convenience if you’re a Netflix subscriber. Sorry AMC theatres. You know one day, probably soon, a Netflix movie will win Best Picture. And that same movie could win an Emmy. Those lines are blurred too.

So again, and it pains me to say it, the Oscars appear headed in the same direction as newspapers, broadcast television, terrestrial radio, and shopping malls. Eventually the deal with ABC will be up. And if there still IS an ABC as we know it, I doubt they’ll want to re-up.  Or if they do, they'll want full control of the broadcast.  Then what?


When I started reviewing the Oscars they were still a "thing."  I'm happy to continue as long as they still are.   Will they be?  Will they be fun again?  Can I have fun again writing it?  Will there be enough people interested in the Oscars to be interested in my review?   Let's see how many people listen and then I'll decide about next year.   Thanks for understanding.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Oscar review: the text

There are readers who are hearing impaired or just don’t want to be bothered listening to a podcast (even mine) so I am posting the text of my Oscar review – although it’s much better hearing me do it. The lines get delivered as intended. And I throw in asides and ad libs that aren’t in the original text. To listen, just click on the big gold arrow above.

But short of that, here is my snarky bitchy Oscar review (for those who still remember as far back as Sunday).

Here’s all you need to know: Without an emcee, without pizzas being delivered or selfies being taken, no accountants from Price-Waterhouse being introduced, no production numbers, no montage salutes to Jane Austin movies, and no Gene Hersholt award being given – the show still went 19 minutes over. Although without the one speech from the woman in the red dress that looked like a frosted flower on a cake after someone sat in it, the show might’ve finished ten minutes under. The cake woman spoke forever and her partner managed to get out, “I just want to thank the crew.”

A writer friend of mine, Richard Rosenstock, captured the night perfectly. He said: “This was like the Kirkland brand of Oscar shows — no distinction, no ambition, no charm, no distinctiveness, no celebration of what it actually is representing, but still technically qualifies as vodka.”

It’s hard to have a rooting interest when no one’s seen the movies, none of them were exceptional, and no one cares.

Also, let’s face it – there were hardly any real stars. Barbra Streisand, Samuel L. Jackson, and Julia Roberts. Okay, and maybe Brie Larson (but that might be because I’m in love with Brie Larson). They were all in the last hour. And I suppose Charlize Theron, now a brunette, adorned in a body-hugging, plain grey gown. She looked like Morticia Adams on her wedding day.

And the rest were B actors. Mike Myers & Dana Carvey? John Mullaney & Awkwafina? Krysten Ritter? What movie has she ever been in? Kiki Layne? Before BEALE STREET she did a guest appearance on CHICAGO MED.

Where was Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslow, Leo, Matt Damon, Gal Gadot, Nicholson, Eastwood, Redford, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg (well he never comes if he’s not nominated), Will Smith (he’ll come for ten years if you just nominate him once), Martin Scorsese, Sidney Poitier, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johansson, Margot Robbie, Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Robert DeNiro. The Best Song presenter was Constance Wu.

And then of course there are the stars and industry moguls who can’t be there because of sexual abuse charges – including the director from one of the Best Picture nominated films.

Here’s how scarce the star power was. When they cut to the audience the best they could do was Alex Rodriguez.

They couldn’t even fill the presenter ranks with actors. Serena Williams, Chef Jose Andres, Trevor Noah, the guitar player from Rage Against the Machine, Congressman John Lewis were up there. God love ‘em but Penelope Cruz wasn’t available? Sure, she mangled every name, but she was in movies.

Look, here’s the big problem: The Motion Picture Academy is now clearly ABC’s little bitch. And what happens when you let the network that thought putting Roseanne Barr on TV again was a good idea, dictate your product? Well, let’s see. First came the announcement of a new category – Best Popular Movie so ABC could attract young viewers by making FIFTY SHADES FREED an Oscar nominee, then the backlash killed that. Next came naming a host who was politically incorrect so that ended and no one wanted to fill that role (despite a six-figure income for one week), followed by the announcement that only the top two most popular songs would be performed. Lady Gaga put a stop to that folly. But wait, there’s more. They decided to present four categories during commercial breaks, which caused an industry revolt so the Academy backed off of that too. And every time ABC tells the Academy to bend over and grab their ankles it destroys their credibility that much more. And without credibility they’re nothing more than the MTV movie awards but with movies no one has ever seen.

This is the first year where the show should have begun with the “In Memoriam” segment. That said, Adam Lambert and what’s left of Queen got things off to a rousing start.

Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph did essentially an opening monologue, reminding us of how much better the Golden Globes were when Tina & Amy hosted that. I don’t know why Maya Rudolph was included. Guess it’s like when Mom says you can’t go to the movies unless you also take your little sister. Tina and Amy were funny. Maya made a wall joke.

The set looked like it was designed by Antoni Gaudi.

And then at one point there was a wide shot and you saw the string of white lights peeking out from under the top and it looked like the Oscars were being given away in the mouth of the whale from PINNOCHIO.

Best line of the night: “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!”

Since ABC also controls the Red Carpet show, poor Sam Rubin of KTLA and his emaciated co-host, Jessica Holmes were banished to four hours before the ceremony. So of course no stars were there yet. Will Smith would have been there if they had just nominated him. Sam & Jess wound up interviewing other Red Carpet hosts (like someone from the Disney Channel) and Wolfgang Puck. Always one to pose penetrating questions, Sam asked Wolfgang if stars got hungry?

The ceremony featured a gala montage of movies, most of them not nominated, and narrated in part by Fred Rogers, whose superb documentary was not nominated.

Nominees were apparently told at the luncheon that they had 90 seconds from the time their name was announced to get on stage and deliver their speech. I guess stars were “hungry” because no one listened.

Amy Adams is now 0-6 and Glenn Close is 0-7. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant has an Oscar.

GREEN BOOK? Best Picture of the year? Really? This was clearly the year of social relevance and I guess THE GREEN BOOK was the more feel-good version of BLACKKKLANSMAN.

The commercials were more entertaining. There was a trailer for CLIFFS OF FREEDOM with war scenes, Turks and Greeks are waving machetes and I thought, wow, Disney’s new live-version of ALLADIN is really gritty.

Spike Lee looked like a combination of a pimp and Mr. Conductor from SHINING TIME STATION. Just like his movie, his speech bludgeoned you with his message.

Compare his obscenity-censored heavy-handed rant with Mahershala Ali’s elegant speech that said the same thing only with class.

So Bette Midler refused to sing “Hello Dolly” on the Tony’s, even though she was on Broadway playing Dolly, but she did agree to sing on the Academy Awards. Not Divine, Miss M., not divine.

Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree were funny wearing the exaggerated wardrobe from THE FAVOURITE, complete with the bunny puppets – an inside joke for the six people who saw THE FAVOURITE. Not being able to open the envelope with the puppet made me laugh.

Actually the funniest person of the night was Best Actress winner, Olivia Colman. Her speech was delightful. Genuine and filled with hilarious asides. Let her host next year.

Regina King thanked writer James Baldwin. Thank you.

So Melissa McCarthy presented in a dress with a long goofy train, then costume design winner Ruth Carter came to the stage with a long train, and Jennifer Hudson, singing some awful screechy Diane Warren ambulance siren of a song, had a huge train. Since when did the Oscars become a Bridal Fair?

ROMA won the Best Foreign Film. How can it also be nominated for Best American Film?

A STAR IS BORN went from Oscar favorite to let’s give them something so Lady Gaga will show up.

I must say I loved Lady Gag’s speech. When she drops the Gaga facade and is just Stephanie, the insecure kid who the mean girls probably terrorized in high school, she is very heartfelt and really connects with young people. Her message was lovely.

At one point they showed Robert Iger, the COO of ABC in the audience. But the shot was very brief. You couldn’t see him manipulating the marionette strings.

Speaking of ABC, did you see that promo they ran for their new spy show centered around a tampon joke. Way to keep it classy.

I was glad Sam Elliott lost. “It’s about time” he said regarding his nomination. Yeah, finally the Academy is recognized what a national treasure and brilliant thespian you are. See you on THE RANCH, the Netflix multi-camera sitcom.

Rami Malek won Best Actor for BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Hey, it’s hard to lip sync Freddie Mercury with those prosthetic teeth.

Okay, when the make-up winner was thanking that endless list of names didn’t you secretly wish they HAD presented that award during a commercial break?

At least Jim Carrey didn’t present.

Most excited winner: the woman from the documentary, SKIN. She went bat shit. It’s like she won a car on THE PRICE IS RIGHT. I make fun but if I won that would totally be me.

I loved that the IN MEMORIAM segment just featured background music and not some AMERICAN IDOL contestant belting out Ava Maria. And I appreciated that they filled the screen with the people they were saluting. Wow. What a tough year this was. We lost some true giants.

But shame on the Academy for not including Stanley Donen. They can claim it was too late and the segment had already been produced but that’s bullshit. They could have included him if they wanted to. If he had died during the ceremony they could have included him. Use some of that technology you give out awards for. And what made it even worse is that the President of the Motion Picture Academy introduced the segment. (I thought I saw Bob Iger’s hands at the top of the screen moving the president’s limbs. In any event, shame on them. Again.

Kacey Musgraves wore this frilly pink gown with a big poofy collar that looked like one of those loofah balls you have in the shower.

Happy that SPIDERMAN won for Best Animated Film. Hey, I actually saw that one.

Gee, I wonder who would have won the Most Popular Film had they awarded it. How about this for a new category, “Best Film that was made to show in theatres and not on Netflix?”

At one time 40 million Americans used to watch the Academy Awards. When I was on MASH we’d put our worst show of the year on up against the Academy Awards to hide it. Now we’d put our best show. MASH normally got 30 million viewers a week. Last year’s Oscars managed only 26.5 million. MASH would beat the Academy Awards. And just wait for this year’s ratings. MASH on the Hallmark Channel might’ve beaten them.

TOMORROW: Why this might be my last Oscar review

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

RUSSIAN DOLL -- My review

I must admit, I went into RUSSIAN DOLL with some trepidation. This is the new eight-episode series on Netflix that is getting a lot of buzz. But the premise didn’t seem great to me – GROUNDHOG DAY except the lead character keeps dying and starting over at the same spot. I figured it was like seeing 17 rewrites of the same scene.

But I gave it a try (people I trust because they hate everything liked it, so what the hell?) and was very pleasantly surprised. By the end of episode two I was hooked.

For Natasha Lyonne this was the role and hairstyle of a lifetime. She plays a totally out-there, foul-mouthed, wise-cracking, party girl chain-smoking, hard drinking, drug taking, thrill seeker narcissist with a good heart and DNA laced with mental illness and dysfunction. In other words, as an actress she had something to play.

And she played the crap out of that character.

To flesh out the premise, Lyonne plays “Nadia” who is at her 36th birthday party hosted by her wacky BFF Greta Lee and surrounded by all her Bohemian friends. This takes place in whatever section of Manhattan has converted every room into a loft, even rooms on the ground floor. Each time she wanders off in a new variation that ultimately leads to the kinds of death Wile E. Coyote suffers – falls down stairs, falls into manholes, electrocuted, and my favorite – some giant anvil-like object falls on her head. But each time she returns to “Go” she takes with her the memory of what happened before. And each time elements charge slightly (e.g. there are fewer people at the party).

So slowly she tries to piece together what is happening to her and how to stop it.

At this point, maybe three episodes in, my overriding thought was: “You better RESOLVE this by the end of episode eight. This better not be a cliffhanger after I followed this Shaggy Dog story for four hours!”

Happy to say they do wrap it up. And beyond that I’ll say no more about the plot. But I will say that the storytelling is inventive, intricate, at times very funny, surprising, and you’ll be binging it I guarantee it. The look is rich and glossy. Other standout performances are from Elizabeth Ashley, Jeremy Bobb, and Charlie Barnett.  Also points for playing "Alone Again, Or" by Love to end the final episode.  One of my all-time favorite groups. 

My only warning is Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up” will become an earworm that will stay in your head for days.

I recommend RUSSIAN DOLL, which could have also been called YOU ONLY LIVE 17 TIMES.

Monday, February 25, 2019

EP112: Ken’s Annual Bitchy Snarky Oscar Review


Once again, comedy writer Ken Levine watches the 2019 Academy Awards so you don’t have to, and files his opinionated, hopefully insightful, hopefully funny review. See if you agree with anything he says.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Coming soon

My Oscar review podcast will be dropping shortly.  Hang in there.  It's almost here. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Weekend Post

As you read this there is probably a rehearsal going on at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood for the Academy Awards. The show airs Sunday night on ABC and yes, I can see you yawning. For the third year in a row I will be reviewing them on my podcast. I will write and record it immediately after the telecast and it will drop Monday morning. Why do the review for the podcast instead of the blog? Simple. I’m trying to get MORE LISTENERS.

But this weekend is when the real production work takes place. The director fine tunes all the camera assignments. Dance numbers and song performances are rehearsed, and presenters try their luck reading the teleprompter. I should amend that to say the presenters who bother to show up read the teleprompter. Most do not.

Hopefully they’ll get all of the set malfunctions out of the way and no one will get trampled when the giant Lazy Susan stage spins the wrong way.

There will also be a dress rehearsal. Stand-ins will double for nominees. The director will run the show in its entirety. There are rehearsal envelopes, they are read, and the stand ins get up and give bullshit speeches. Sometimes these speeches are way more entertaining than the actual ones given by the winners.

They do this to get a sense of the timing. Ordinarily they have a host and one of his functions is to either move things along or fill if need be. But this year there is no host – one of the many things the Academy has bungled for this Oscarcast.

Rain is not expected so we won’t have the pleasure of seeing stars in their million dollar gowns and hoodies.

I wonder if they rehearse those Red Carpet shows. Does Jessica Holmes or Sam Rubin ask stand-ins whether they conferred with Freddie Mercury before playing him?

One year for the Emmy rehearsal the bogus envelope had David Isaacs and I winning. We lost during the actual ceremony. But they gave us the envelope. Gee thanks! So with that in mind, congratulations to all the rehearsal winners. What a moment.

See you on the podcast. By the way, the current podcast episode is filled with Oscar trivia like who never won – rehearsal or otherwise. Check it out.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Friday Questions

More exciting than the Oscars – Friday Questions.

Rock Golf is up first.

Kelsey Grammer was on The Late Late Show with James Corden and discussing a possible Frasier revival. He claimed to have been talking with "a group of writers" about getting this going.

So a two part question: Are you one of those writers? And do you think a Frasier revival would be a good thing?

I am not one of those writers. If I had an idea and called Kelsey I’m pretty sure I could be one of those writers.

Would a reboot be a good thing? It really depends on the premise and more importantly who is writing it? If the original FRASIER writers are involved then I might be optimistic. If a whole new group is coming in then I’d be very wary.

There’s a real legacy to FRASIER and those characters. I think you risk really tarnishing that legacy with a reboot that’s not as good or better than the original. I don’t think the recent revival of MURPHY BROWN did their legacy any favors.

From Bruce P:

I sometimes am amazed looking at old sitcoms / dramas that either had a short run or were on the decline in both quality and ratings. I realize the actors and crew are professionals and will do their jobs whether their shows are ranked #1 or #120. But is there a discernible difference in attitude on the set of a hit compared to the set of a soon-to-be cancelled show? I can understand disappointment on a low rated show set. But isn't there also tension on a hit show set as the writers, crew and actors feel like they have to continue to produce quality to maintain their high ratings.

No. Hit shows tend to have relaxed sets. There’s not that dread that “it isn’t working.”  There's something that's a rare commodity in show business: stability.   If anything, I’d say there’s too much confidence on some sets.

But if you’ve been in the business for any period of time you’ve undoubtedly worked on shows that were struggling, or just plain nightmares. As a result, to find yourself on a hit, most people involved – from the actors, writers, and crew – appreciate more what they have and don’t take it for granted.

BUT…

This is all predicated on not having a monster for the series star. The star sets the tone and a monster, fortified with a modicum of success, will become even more insufferable and obnoxious. And that will poison everything.

Oh, and to be fair, there are monster showrunners too.

Happily, those are more the exceptions than the rule. Hit shows don’t come along often. If you’re fortunate enough to be on one I hope you enjoy every single minute of it.

Brian Phillips wonders:

In your latest podcast (the one on ageism), you say that you are working solo. Do you find when you are writing that you hear your partner's voice in your head even if you aren't working with him?

Absolutely. All the time. I’ve always trusted David Isaacs’ judgment and valued his high standards. So consciously or unconsciously I’m always thinking “Is this good enough? If we were writing this together would it get in?” (In a sense he’s helping me write even though he’s not there.)

I think the proof of this mindset (for both of us) is that on those few occasions when we split a script up and each wrote one act separately and then put them together, I swear you could never tell which of us wrote which act.

And by the way, when I write a new full-length play, the first person I give my first draft to for notes is David.

And finally, from cd1515:

One thing I see in bad shows is characters constantly calling each other by their names.....like every sentence or two. It almost feels like the writers were padding the weak script with useless words. No one talks that way. Do writers have rules or theories on that?

There’s no written rules. I can only share how I address it. Generally I’ll avoid the characters calling each other by their names. You’re right, people don’t do that.

I have two exceptions: People do call each other by name if they’re particularly mad at them. “Mary, you and I are through!”

The other time I use that convention is in pilots. I sprinkle the names in there a few times to help the audience learn their names. By week three of a series I discontinue that.

What’s your Friday Question? Remember I will be reviewing the Oscars on my podcast. You can hear it Monday morning.