Wednesday, July 17, 2019

EP132: Legendary Director Jim Burrows, Part 2


This week in part two of the interview, Ken and Jim Burrows discuss the technical aspects of directing, the challenges of filming a live show, and the unique requirements of sitcom pilots. They also discuss some very interesting stories about the huge hit sitcom Friends. Some of Jim's credits include; Cheers, Friends, Wings, Will & Grace and many more.  


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

I will not be reviewing the Emmys this year

I’m sorry. They’re just too absurd. Nominations came out yesterday and I throw my hands up at the whole affair.

RUSSIAN DOLL nominated as Best Comedy? I liked RUSSIAN DOLL, but shouldn’t a comedy be funny… for at least one second?

Christina Applegate as Lead Actress in a Comedy Series? Again, funny for one fucking second? Just one? How is Christina Applegate, who played this sour one-note widow on DEAD TO ME in the same category as Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Catherine O’Hara?

BETTER CALL SAUL, which does have very funny moments in it, is nominated for Best Drama Series while RUSSIAN DOLL is nominated for Best Comedy.

And of course THE BIG BANG THEORY and MOM and MODERN FAMILY and SUPER STORE and YOUNG SHELDON and KIMMY SCHMIDT and BROOKLYN 99 and half a dozen other series that ARE comedies and do try to make people laugh are shut out. But shows like RUSSIAN DOLL and DEAD TO ME are getting Emmy love.

Meanwhile, there were more laugh-out-loud moments on THE GOOD FIGHT than any drama or comedy this season. They got zilch. 

Look, there are now so many shows on so many platforms and so much overlap in style that the Emmys in its current form is a joke. Practically every category is now comparing apples to oranges.

And TV ratings will continue to plummet because most people will not have watched these show, or even know what they’re about or how to find them. Not to mention the shows behind pay walls that they can’t watch.

The Academy still doesn’t know if it’s going to hire a host. Like that will make the difference.

Well, I’m done.

And I’m guessing America is too so why review something no one has seen? What ballgame is on that night?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Has it really been ten years?

I've been answering Friday Questions for over twelve years.  That's probably close to 3,000 questions.   And since very few people actually go back and read the archives I occasionally will repost a Friday Questions segment.  I bet it's new to you.  This is from February 26, 2009.

Randall has some questions about end credits:

1. In recent years a lot of television stations have shrunk the end credits in order to show promos for their upcoming shows. Did the stations have to be union approval for this?

2. Some credits go by so fast I don't know how anybody can read them. Conversely, sometimes on talk shows the end credits will stop for a few seconds, apparently to highlight the name of a staff member or company that has provided a product. Are there any rules / restrictions that regulate how fast or slow credits can crawl?

3. Are stations that show movies or stripped television shows required by contract to show the credits in their entirety?

No, there are no restrictions, which is why networks and stations get away with it. Trust me, if there were union rules this deplorable practice would cease immediately. The trouble is, with there being so many more pressing issues for unions to deal with during contract negotiations this indignity gets lost in the shuffle. Not too many members are going to strike over this.

But it is a huge insult to the thousands of people who work tirelessly to make television shows as good as they are. And it’s bad enough these people have to share a card with thirty others and are up there for maybe a fraction of a second, but they’re expected to go that extra mile and really take pride in what they do while the networks can’t give them so much as a full screen. I say a network executive's name on his parking space should be as large as the smallest credit on his network. That would change things instantly.

From Zach Haldeman:

What is the typical relationship between writers and actors? Naturally the show runner gets to know the actors, but is Star #2 gonna be friends with Staff Writer #5, or even know Staff Writer #5?

Depends on the cast, depends on the staff. But usually the staff writers and the supporting cast tend to gravitate towards each other. Sometimes the cast members are a little intimidated by the show runner or the star of the show is a huge time and energy suck so these supporting players will cozy up to the lower tier writers to get their suggestions and concerns heard.

The ideal situation is when everyone in the cast and on the writing staff feel comfortable talking with each other. And that usually stems from show runners who are receptive to actors’ input and actors who view writers as colleagues not waiters.

And finally: D. McEwan has a M*A*S*H question.

In the movie, The Swamp had 4 residents, who were the primary characters: Hawkeye, Trapper, Frank Burns, and Duke Forrest, played by Tom Skerritt. Duke was as important a character as Hawkeye & Trapper John.

So why was Duke conspicuous by his utter absence from the TV series? I've been curious about this for over 30 years.

Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds felt the need to pare down the number of characters since they only had a half hour to work with. Duke was odd man out. In the original TV pilot there was also a Spearchucker but he too faded into the mist.

Another casualty of war was the lovely Marcia Strassman. She was a regular the first season as Nurse Cutler. She of course went on to play Kotter’s wife, Julie and had to look amused anytime Gabe Kaplan spoke.

Strassman is best known however for her hit record, “the Flower Children” in the late 60s.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Interesting Facts (if they're true)

Since nobody actually fact-checks anymore or when they do people ignore the facts, I thought I would post this.

There’s a diner in West LA called “Café 50’s.” It’s a very cool retro eatery plastered with posters and memorabilia from the last time we hated Russia. They also hand out a monthly newsletter that has fun trivia and reprints old ads from the era. (Buy a GIANT TALKING CLOWN for only $1 that’s a whopping 42” tall!)

One feature they have is “Interesting & Useless Facts!”

And they are, except who knows if they’re accurate? But, for fun purposes, I thought I’d share some of them with you. You are welcome to take them at face value or do the fact-checking yourself. The parentheticals are me.

Men get hiccups more often than women. (does this have anything to do with drinking?)

Men can read smaller print than women; women can hear better.

Chances that an American lives within 50 miles where he/she grew up: 1 in 2. (numbers probably vary in Hawaii)

State with the highest percentage of people who walk to work: Alaska. (Makes sense, the weather is always great.)

Percentage of American men who say they would marry the same woman if they had to do it all over again: 80. (My wife guessed 30.)

Chances that a burglary in the US will be solved: 1 in 7.(And it's probably the same idiot multiple times.) 

Only first lady to carry a loaded revolver: Eleanor Roosevelt. (Melania is not allowed because she’s on suicide watch.)

They have square watermelons in Japan. They stack better. (Okay, this one is true, so maybe the others are as well – I wonder if Eleanor was a good shot.)

Iceland consumes more Coca-Cola per capita than any other nation. (There are rednecks in Iceland?)

The phone book in Iceland is alphabetic… by first name.

In the Caribbean there are oysters that can climb trees. (usually right before Happy Hour)

And there you have ‘em. Feel free to impress your friends at parties, unless these nuggets are all bullshit, in which case – what are you quoting a stupid blog for in the first place?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Weekend Post

Is there a more interesting or weird actor than Christopher Walken? He's also an amazing dancer. Someone from the Huffington Post put this together. It's a phenomenal music video of Walken dancing. Great editing by whoever did this.  More cowbells not needed.  Enjoy. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions?

Frank Beans is.

When does a spinoff cease to be a spinoff? That is, when and how do networks, producers, audiences see the series as an original show in itself?

Classic examples like LAVERNE & SHIRLEY and FRASIER come to mind, just to name some of the most popular ones. How do they establish an identity outside of the show where their characters were created?

You establish your identity by not relying on guest star appearances from the original series. You create new interesting characters and a venue that can stand on its own. You also spin-off a character (or characters) that can carry a series. Lots of supporting characters can’t make that jump.

Oh, and you hire really good writers.

Bryan Thomas asks:

How do you keep coming up with fresh ideas for your blog? I tried twice a week and burned out but here you are 13 years, 5600 posts. Curious how far ahead you plan posts, if you do, and how you generate ideas.

I’ll be very honest. It’s hard and getting harder. I’ve cut back from seven new posts a week to five, and that has helped. Also having features like Friday Questions has been a big plus. But there are days when I wonder what the hell I can write about?

I do try to stay somewhat ahead with posts that aren’t time sensitive, but it depends. Usually, a flurry of ideas will come so I try to write a few posts at one time and bank them. Other times I’ll react to something current, write it, and post it the next day. But like I said, it’s getting more difficult.

I’m also devoting more time to my podcast.

Mike Bloodworth asks:

Have you ever considered turning one of your existing plays into a musical? Have you ever considered writing a musical in general?

I co-wrote a musical in 2006 that got produced at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut. It was a very different experience. Honestly, I didn’t love it.

It is so hard to make any little change without effecting the choreography, score, lighting, etc. There's a domino effect that is maddening. 

There are also Equity rules that at times handcuff the process. You can’t really get in there and make the kind of necessary changes you would like to make.

Musicals also take YEARS to get on the stage. I truly love musicals and the good ones are thrilling, and if the right composer came to me with the right idea I might consider collaborating on another one, but for now, I’ll leave it to the Broadway pros.

And finally, from slgc:

When you were making Volunteers, did you have any idea of what kind of star potential Tom Hanks had? Was there anything during his time on set that gave you an inkling that he was a truly talented actor?

We wanted Tom Hanks when we first wrote it in 1980 and he was on BOSOM BUDDIES.  At the time, no one would greenlight a movie starring Tom Hanks.

But flash forward to 1984:  VOLUNTEERS might not have been made at all if Tom Hanks didn’t agree to do it. Remember, by then he had his breakthrough movie with SPLASH. So he was already the flavor-of-the-month. But what we didn’t know at the time was just how exceptionally good he was.

We and world would soon learn.

What's your Friday Question?  Leave it in the comments section.  Thanks and have a great summer weekend.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Bonus Post

I wanted to tie up some loose ends.

But first, do check out my new podcast episode featuring director and (dare I say?) legend, Jim Burrows. He's directed over 1000 episodes, co-created CHEERS, and did the pilots for such shows as CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, WINGS, WILL & GRACE, DHARMA & GREG, THE BIG BANG THEORY, and over 40 more.  He's won 10 Emmys.  He IS a legend.   Knowing Jimmy for more years than either one of us wants to admit, I ask questions he’s not usually asked. We really get into the process of directing, his style and approach, dealing with Shelley Long on CHEERS, and other revealing topics. Just click on the big gold arrow above.

A number of you have pointed out that from Yesterday’s post (or yesterday’s post), high school and college kids are not in point of fact Millennials. They are Generation Z or Generation ZA or Generation Aught, or whatever. And Millennials have a wide breadth of knowledge and would know who the Beatles were. Maybe. I hope so. But my point was that it’s understandable if they don’t.

More surprising was the recent Teen Tournament on JEOPARDY where three extremely bright teenagers didn’t know that Tom Holland was the current Spider Man. (And for my money, he’s the BEST.)

The All-Star Game ratings were the lowest ever. And it was a good close game. Part of the problem I realized was that after the first four innings when the marquee players come out, the game is ultimately decided by All-Stars most people have never heard of. Not saying that those players don’t deserve to be there, they do, but many play for teams that get little national exposure so they shine in obscurity. And for the casual fan it means watching a meaningless game played by anonymous players.

Yesterday was the worst day of the year for sports fans. There was NOTHING. No baseball, none of the other major sports (pro and college) are in season. I wound up watching a replay of an old Dodger game from 1988. God, I miss Vin Scully. He made a 30 year old game way more interesting than Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

And finally, I have two short plays in the Brisk One Act Festival in Hollywood. I’m very proud of both. The first opens tonight and runs for four days. The second one is next week. I'll be pimping that one later.   If you’re in LA, swing by. I’ll be there every night so please say hi. Here’s where you go for info and tickets. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

EP131: Meet Director Jim Burrows Part 1


On this week's Hollywood & Levine, Ken interviews 10-time Emmy winner, Jim Burrows, who has directed over 1000 episodes of sitcoms including the pilots of CHEERS, FRIENDS, FRASIER, and WILL & GRACE. They discuss his career, and focus primarily on his process.  It’s a master class on TV directing. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

YESTERDAY -- my review

YESTERDAY imagines a world where only one person knew of the existence of the Beatles and took ownership of their songs as if he had written them. I wonder how many Millennials watching this movie DON’T know the existence of the Beatles.

These are all new songs to them. In the movie, Himesh Patel as failed street musician Jack Malik, becomes a megastar and the Lennon-McCartney songbook is universally recognized by the new audience as genius. They are, of course, but what about to virgin ears? Would kids today be blown away hearing “Yesterday” or “In My Life” or “The Long and Winding Road” for the first time? I’d say there’s a good chance. But what about “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “I Saw Her Standing There?” Did these early Beatles songs strike a chord because they were part of the Beatlemania phenomenon? Their later, more mature work stands a better chance.

And it’s not a hypothetical question per se because I’m sure millions of young adults and teenagers have never heard these songs. So compared to songwriters of their age, speaking directly to them, I wonder whether Beatles songs – even the greatest ones – would be so well received.

Then my follow-up question: Is this subject matter Millennials even WANT to see? Not that the movie can’t be a success regardless. There are enough older adults who do know and revere the Beatles and are just thrilled no one is in a cape to produce robust boxoffice receipts. But I’m curious.

For those, like me, who wanted to see it, it was a fun ride. The music alone is enough to carry you through. And the all-star combination of director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis assures that you’re in very good hands. Besides the tunes, there are some hearty laughs, they do have fun with the crazy premise, and the cast is very winning. Patel is great, love-interest Lily James is suitably adorable, and Ed Sheeran is very believable playing himself. Kate McKinnon also steals some scenes as his new bloodless manager. But I have one concern about Kate McKinnon. I LOVE her on SNL, think she’s a brilliant comedienne, one of the top ten all-time performers on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but I’ve never seen her play “real.” She’s always playing a sketch character – masterfully, but a sketch nonetheless. Such is the case here. She’s funny, but she’s a cartoon. I would love to see her drop all voices and exaggerations and just play a genuine person. I believe she can do it; I just haven’t seen it yet.

High concept romcoms like this used to be a summer staple. Now they’re few and far between. I think I’m just as nostalgic for that as the Beatles music. But I found YESTERDAY immensely enjoyable, charming, funny, and even touching in places. What’s it like to live in a world without the Beatles. Either go see this movie or ask any 8th grader.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Why network television is like Major League Baseball

With the All-Star game happening tonight, I thought this would be an appropriate post. 

I know this sounds like a Fairy Tale, but there was a time when a broadcast network would pick up a show and a showrunner would run it. He would make all the creative decisions. He would decide on casting. He would choose the stories, and he would hire writers to write them and directors to stage them.

During filming, he was the one who determined whether they needed a re-take. He was the one who approved the wardrobe. He alone determined that a new line was necessary, or that a close-up was required.

He would have a vision for the series, which he would carry out. If he was right the series became a hit. If he was wrong the network cancelled him, which was fair.

In Major League Baseball a team would hire a manager. He would hire his staff. He would have a certain approach to how he thought he could build a winning team. He would work with the front office to bring in the kind of players that fit his approach.

During the game he would make all the on-field decisions. He would substitute players, he would determine when a starting pitcher needed to come out and just which pitcher would relieve him. When to bunt, and when to hit-and-run, and when to walk batters intentionally was his call alone.

How he chose to motivate his team was his call as well. Was he fiery? Fatherly? Scholarly?

And if his team continued to lose he got fired. And that was fair. Another manager with another approach would take his place.

But that was “Once Upon a Time.”

Today networks own their shows. They hire showrunners to carry out their vision, whether they have a vision or not. They tell the showrunner who he can cast, which writers and directors he can hire. They approve the stories. Based on research, they call the shots.

During filming, they must be satisfied before moving on to a new scene. They dictate camera angles. They request new lines. For the most part, the showrunner is an order taker. And when the reviews are bad, the showrunner is expected to take the blame.

In baseball, the front office now firmly controls the on-field direction. Armed with analytics, they cobble together a roster that looks best on paper. They hire a young manager who will slavishly follow their approach.

During the game, the front office texts the manager telling him when to remove his starting pitcher. They often make out the line-up for him. They make strategic decisions and expect the manager to carry them out. And when those decisions blow up, the manager is expected to take the heat.

The parallel is obvious. And so are the results. Broadcast networks continue to lose audiences. The few hits they have are piloted by old school showrunners who have earned the right of autonomy – Chuck Lorre, Dick Wolf, Shonda Rhimes. And even they are fleeing for other platforms.When they're gone they will be replaced by young showrunners who will fall in line. 

In baseball you have Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, and Terry Francona – three managers with World Series rings. And then a parade of younger managers who “relate well to the players” and embrace the front office game plan. In other words, they get those in-game texts and carry out the orders, whether they agree with them or not. Bochy is retiring after this year.  Which 30 year-old with no big league managerial experience will replace him? 

The result: Every team is working off the exact same numbers, following the same direction, and games now are all 3:30, there are a million strike outs, a ton of home runs, and nothing else. Fifteen minutes can go by between batted balls in play. Six or seven relievers come into the game for each team on a regular basis. What once was a delicious chess game is now a computer program.  Let's see what the ratings are tomorrow for the All-Star Game.  I'm not predicting a home run. 

For network television and baseball to get better, to attract more fans, I think the solution is simple.

JUST LET ‘EM PLAY.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Breaking News: A police pursuit

So I turned on the TV at about 11:00 PM recently to watch some shows I had recorded. And a local station, KTTV,  had a live police pursuit. A car was cruising down the freeway followed by California Highway Patrol squad cars. He was heading up north on the 5. He could take that well up into Northern California (assuming he didn’t run out of gas).

The freeway was very light at that hour. A few big rigs in the slower lanes but primarily empty. The renegade vehicle was going at a cruising speed of 60 or 70. He was doing nothing erratic; not switching lanes. The CHP’s were not tailgating, they were giving him room.

So picture it – the KTTV sky-cam helicopter following a car at night driving along a wide-open freeway at a safe and consistent speed followed by other cars with flashing lights. Passing through such communities as Santa Clarita and Newhall.

I watched for a half an hour.

There was nothing exciting. This was no FRENCH CONNECTION wild car chase, no celebrity in a Bronco – just cars tooling along at night. The news anchors provided commentary talking to a police expert, but there was nothing riveting there. Basically, the game plan was to give the guy space, not do anything to endanger anyone, and wait him out.

Still, I found myself strangely engrossed. 7,000 channels, numerous streaming services with 20,000 shows to choose from – and I’m opting for an SUV joy riding through Valencia.

But I dunno, there was something almost Zen about it. Maybe the late hour contributed – it was the end of a long day and I was looking to just chill, but I was way more entertained than when I watched GAME NIGHT IN AMERICA.

Eventually I got tired and just went to bed. I wasn’t engrossed enough to care how it turned out. But I can’t remember when I enjoyed anything on KTTV more over the last few years.

In New York City one local station traditionally just shows a fireplace with a roaring fire on Christmas Day. And it gets ratings. I used to think that was crazy. Now I wish Netflix would carry it.

But let’s get real – stations carry these police pursuits because people watch them. Call it the “Lullaby of Broadcasting.” How many of my fellow Angelinos got a good night sleep because of this nimrod? Is a function now of television to numb us? We tried that with AfterMASH but it didn’t catch on. Maybe if we would have had Colonel Potter drive a 1953 DeSoto through Missouri every week we might’ve been a hit.

Oh, one final note on this police pursuit. It began on the campus of Long Beach State when campus police noticed the car was driving at night with its headlights off. I heard that and thought, “All the better. I’m getting a snack.”

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Weekend Post

The All-Star Game is this Tuesday night in Cleveland. The All-Star Game is always a big deal for me, and it used to be for America, but now I don’t know.

The reason I like the baseball All-Star Game over the other sports is that it’s the only one that’s really competitive. In the NBA and NHL no one is really playing defense. NBA final scores are 154-148. The NFL Pro Bowl is after the season (so really who gives a shit?) and no one is going to play hard. It borders on Darwin Report to get injured in the Pro Bowl.

But in baseball you have the best pitchers trying to get out the best hitters while some of the slickest fielders are in the field. And by and large, the players play hard. (Sometimes too hard like when Pete Rose barreled into catcher Ray Fosse effectively derailing Fosse's career.)

World Series managers from the season before are the NL and AL skippers – so Dave Roberts and Alex Cora. I don’t envy them. I’m sure they’d like to get every player into the game, but you need reserves in case the game goes into extra innings. Teams have been burned before. Plus, it’s a delicate issue how they use pitchers. If I’m the manager of the Houston Astros I don’t want Justin Verlander pitching three innings.

One thing that seems to happen every year is several All-Star players claim injuries at the last moment (like this weekend) and other players take their place.

But it seems to me the interest in the game depends mostly on how many recognizable stars are in the game. And we’re starting to enter an era of remarkable new young talented players. They’re not household names yet (unless they play for the Yankees) but they’re spectacular athletes. Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Gio Urshela (who IS a Yankee but not a household name), and Charlie Blackman are just a few of the outstanding position players.

Not surprisingly, the Home Run Derby the day before the All-Star Game is starting to get more interest than the game itself. There used to be a TV show called HOME RUN DERBY in the ‘50s. Why hasn’t someone brought that back? Wouldn’t more people watch that than Steph Curry’s miniature golf show?

One All-Star that should be participating in the game on Tuesday is Cleveland’s fabulous announcer, Tom Hamilton. If I were commissioner he’d be calling the national radio broadcast.

Like I said, I’ll be glued to my TV Tuesday night (imagine – watching an event on TV – LIVE). Let’s see if America joins me. For several years they instituted that idiotic policy that the winning league got home field advantage in the World Series. So now “the game counts.” What a joke that was. Like the Seattle Mariner All-Stars are really going to bust their humps so the Boston Red Sox get home field advantage in the World Series. Thankfully, that policy was dropped.  Other than Pete Rose, no one bets on the All-Star Game. 

Watch because these are some of the greatest athletes in their sport, and if you don’t know who they are it’s a great way to be introduced to them.

“Play Ball!”

Friday, July 05, 2019

Friday Questions

It may be a holiday weekend, but Friday Questions get answered just the same.

Colby starts us off:

If you had to sit down now and write an original episode of any of the shows you've worked on, (your actors are frozen in time, so no nursing home requirements for the characters) which do you think would be the easiest to write fresh content for?

CHEERS.

Don’t know why, but I never got tired of writing that show. Even after 40 episodes. I love those characters, love that setting, and could happily keep writing them for years.

FRASIER would be a close second.

But not MASH. So much of that show was based on research, and by the end those bones were picked clean. Because we were locked into a time and place and characters couldn’t grow, I think the show went on about two or three years too long.

Earl B asks:

Have you ever, in your writing, thought "This is a good, clever joke, but at this point in the script I need a belly laugh"?

All the time.

Especially if we’re looking for a joke to end a scene.

When I write a joke I always try to imagine a studio audience’s reaction. Will they really laugh at this or will they smile? Not every line in a script needs to be a belly laugh, but there are places where they are required.

Example: If you take a whole page to set up one joke, it better be a great joke.

In general, I try to shy away from “clever.” Word-plays or puns work better in prose.

But I’m always looking to “beat” jokes – in other words, replace them with better jokes. It's become an obsession.  I do it sometimes with jokes that have already aired.  I need therapy. 

From PolyWogg:

I have a question about off-set escapades. Does scandal / noise / etc. from the stars affect the writing or is that someone else's problem and you stick to the writing?

Offstage distractions make it harder for all concerned. The audience will start blending the actor’s behavior with his character’s, which often distorts the character.

As a writer you do your best to maintain the direction and integrity of the show, but it’s tough when an actor’s behavior starts turning viewers against them and your show.

I would not want to be writing FRESH OFF THE BOAT right now given Constance Wu’s disdain for the show that launched her career.

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a gun.

And finally, from Jim S:

What is the protocol for using personal stories. I imagine it's OK for a writer to think, "I remember a time when I forgot my mother's birthday and there was Hell to pay. Let's make that a story."

But what if Mom objects? And say you remember an embarassing story where a friend or even family member did something that they might not like on national TV? How do finesse that? Or are the lines one doesn't cross?

That’s always an issue, and the writer has to take it on a case-by-case basis.

One way is to ask the person's permission.  

Putting a spin on the story to hide someone’s identity is always helpful. Instead of your father who got drunk and drove his car through the living room, it’s a neighbor, or one of your regular characters. The world doesn’t have to know.

To me the tipping point is if you know it’s going to really hurt someone’s feelings. Then I would say don’t do it.

But here’s the interesting thing – let’s say you shield a family member by preserving their anonymity. But the behavior is clearly theirs. Often times the person in question will say, “I know someone just like that.” They won’t recognize that it’s them.  

And I will say this, I have had arguments with my wife where she’s said in the middle of it – “This better not turn up in a script!”    They never did.  I'm not an idiot. 

The best and safest way to go are to do humiliating stories about yourself.

What’s your Friday Question? Hopefully, you still have ten fingers to type because you didn’t lose three of them in a home fireworks accident.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

EP130: Writing Musicals for Broadway… and the U.S Army


Ken discusses what he learned writing the book for a musical  and also shares an insane story of writing a musical for the United States Army. Hint:It was less successful than “Hamilton.”


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

4th of July Memories

Tomorrow is the 4th of July.  Since it's a day to celebrate Americana and (in my case) a chance to sell some books for your summer reading, here are two brief excerpts from THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60s), my humorous/nostalgic/Pulitzer Prize ignored memoir of growing up during the California myth. You can get the Kindle version here. The paperback here. And the audio version (voiced by yours truly) here. It’s the perfect way to support this blog and relive happier times.

July 4, 1964

Fortunately, we were back home from Hemet in time for Independence Day. They still had 4th of July parades in Woodland Hills. Not exactly lavish affairs -- a few Jaycee Booster Clubs, school marching bands (playing nothing but “Stars & Stripes Forever” and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”), anyone who owned a horse, ice cream trucks, local dignitaries (“Hey, there’s Mr. Neider from Neider’s Auto Body!”), some elementary school classes, local politicians (“We have a councilman?”), and majorettes from as far away as Reseda. The twirling batons proved to be more dangerous to crowds than today’s maple bats.


But for me the REAL reason to stake out my spot on Ventura Blvd at Shoup Avenue was that the grand marshal was always Buster Keaton. Buster was probably 150 by then but still, there he was. Mostly forgotten today but Buster Keaton was a comic genius in the era of silent films and early talkies. His flair for physical comedy was so inspired that even today I don’t think there’s a single comic who can remotely touch him. If I couldn’t still see George Washington in person at least there was Buster Keaton.

I miss those parades. If you still have one where you live, go. Wave a flag. Cheer. Just duck when the baton twirlers go by.

July 4, 1967

We got a dog that summer. A poodle-terrier. My mother named her.

Babette.

That name would not have been my choice. I don’t remember why we got a dog. We never had a pet before. But I was thrilled. And Babs turned out to be a fabulous dog and companion. If someone in the house were sick, she’d sit all day at the end of his bed. I worried that our family, unaccustomed to caring for pets might not take the best care of her – and my early fears were justified.

Our house was only two blocks from the Woodland Hills Park. On the 4th of July, they would shoot off fireworks. We always invited a few people over for a barbeque and fireworks show, comfortably viewed from our backyard. A neighbor was lying on a chaise lounge. He set his martini down on the ground. Babette approached and lapped up the entire contents in mere seconds. Ten minutes later she staggered out onto the lawn and passed out for twenty-four hours. We have a dog for one month and get her completely shit-faced. Nice.

Have a safe and sane 4th of July.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

ROCKETMAN -- My review

I was so excited to see ROCKETMAN. I’m a huge Elton John fan. And even though I vowed not to see any movies this summer where the star wears a cape, I made an exception for this film.

Ugh!

ROCKETMAN is five hours of self-loathing mixed with production numbers. It’s as if Eugene O’Neil wrote a jukebox musical.

And again, I love Elton John.

There’s not a moment of this movie you haven’t seen in seventeen other rock star biopics. Unhappy childhood, identity issues, stardom, unable to handle it, unloved, drugs, breakdowns, redemption.

Twenty minutes in you’re screaming: “ WE GET IT!!!”

Every point is hammered home seven times, just in case you missed it the first six. Oliver Stone might even think they were laying it on too thick.

Did I mention Elton John is one of my favorites?

Taron Egerton does a terrific job portraying Elton. The wardrobe budget on his glasses alone had to be more than the cost of GODZILLA. The person who comes off the best is Bernie Taupin, well played by Jamie Bell. The film is sort of a love letter to Bernie Taupin. 

But then the clichés are all there. Withholding father, mother who lays on mind trips, the meteoric rise, dumping the original people who believed in him, the ruthless manager, wallowing in excess, fame and fortune at the expense of his soul, tantrums, ambulances. Even the montage of LA that includes the Hollywood sign and driving by palm trees.

And for all the tedious repetitive scenes telling us things we already know going in, the one thing the film doesn’t bother to explain is how a shy kid doesn’t just become a performer but becomes this wild flamboyant showman. Where did that impulse come from? We see all of the costumes; we don’t see what about his personality would guide him in that over-the-top direction. Was it his savvy, knowing how to really entertain an audience, or was it just an alter ego that he would use to release all of his inner frustrations? That might’ve been interesting to learn rather than twenty scenes showing him drinking and snorting coke. 

If you like Elton John my suggestion would be to watch one of his concerts on line and have Spotify make you a playlist.

I now live in fear that next year we get the biopic of Tiny Tim.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Misc.- Takes

In no order of importance…

I’m guessing the current WGA battle with the ATA (talent agencies) will ultimately be resolved in the courts. It won’t get to the Supreme Court because, as of this year, it no longer exists.

FIVE GUYS over IN N’ OUT. And since you can get free peanuts at FIVE GUYS, why bother ordering fries?

Next week my podcast guest will be director, Jim Burrows (pictured above with me). It’s a two-part interview, and he was GREAT. We talk about the process of directing, the popularity of FRIENDS, tales of directing that pilot, stories about CHEERS and WILL & GRACE, and directing the recent live reboot of ALL IN THE FAMILY/JEFFERSONS. So stay tuned. It’s coming soon.

Jim Burrows directed 44 episodes that David Isaacs and I wrote.  Including one that we acted in.  Only the great Jim Burrows could get a good performance out of me.  (This was for a show called THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES and not only did I have to deliver a joke, I had to deliver it while walking.   And yes, I got my laugh.  Thank you, Jimmy.

I forgot to ask whether he’s still getting residuals for THE TONY RANDALL SHOW we did together in 1976. I’m not.

My favorite internet oldies station, Richbroradio.com was off the air a couple of days while Rich Brother Robbin was moving.  But it's back up and you can hear it here.  If you like oldies from the '50s-'70s this is the site for you.  Bookmark it. Not just the same 100 songs.  Rich has a deep playlist -- songs you might have forgotten but go "oh wow!" when you hear them.  And what better time to cruise around digging feel-good music than the summertime? 

Kevin Durant remains a highly sought-after free agent even though he can’t play next year due to injuries.  Imagine the money he'd get if he could play. 

Proud to say I had a play in the Stonewall Festival in Buffalo this last month. Thanks to Donna Hoke for putting together such a great line-up of plays celebrating LGBTQ.

The New York Mets are the New Coke of baseball.  The Mets are bringing back 1962 more than Richbroradio.com is.

Network shows go back into production very soon. A single-camera sitcom will film from July to April to produce 22 episodes. On MASH we shot 25 episodes from the 4th of July to just before Christmas. And that included all the complicated exterior scenes done at the Malibu Ranch.

Could Neil Simon get a comedy play on Broadway today?

Durant and Kawhi Leonard could wind up on the same team. Possibilities include the Knicks and Clippers. Both teams know that Durant is out for the year, right? That may seem like a silly question but these are the Knicks and Clippers.

The Yankees and Red Sox first inning in London on Saturday – between them they scored 12 runs. Final score:  Yankees 17, Boston 13.   What a joke.

The Yankees won the second game 12-8.  That one was a real pitching duel.  

My favorite character on HBO’s BARRY: Anthony Carrigan as NoHoHank. Hilarious and completely original.

How come the Kansas City Royals weren't invited to play in London? 

What was wrong with the format of the old TO TELL THE TRUTH? Y’know, back when it was GOOD.

I have two ten-minute plays this month at the Brisk Festival in LA.  Here's the info.  If you come to one, say hi.  

Saw a recent episode of JEOPARDY where the contestants were all in their 30’s or early 40’s. They had to identify a certain actor – Robert Redford. None of them even rang in. Seriously? Robert Redford? You JEOPARDY contestants know the names of Nairobi mountaintops and the all the names of President Chester A. Arthur’s cabinet, but you’ve never once seen BUTCH CASSIDY or ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN or THE STING?

At this point I was going to mention that Jim Burrows’ father was Abe Burrows, but if folks don’t know who Robert Redford is, what are the chances they’ll be familiar with Abe Burrows? He was a Broadway legend who, among other things, wrote GUYS & DOLLS. (Gee, I wonder how many people have heard of GUYS & DOLLS?)

I want to go to Star Wars Land in Disneyland but I’ll wait for the initial crowds to die down. So I’ll see it in 2030.

The Red Sox flew to London on a luxurious private jet.  For the trip home they probably flew commercial -- steerage with a stop in Johannesburg.  

The second Democratic Debate was seen by over18 million people. Some are saying that’s a paltry amount, but those same people thought 18 million viewers for THE BIG BANG THEORY was a big number.

CNN premieres its new documentary series on movies this month. I was one of the people interviewed. Let’s see if I make the cut. I didn’t tell them I co-wrote MANNEQUIN 2.

They did use me on the ‘70s, ‘80s,’90s, and ‘00s during the television segments. And thankfully, they replay those on CNN often. I was on again last night.  I’m thrilled, not for the exposure. But when you’re seeing me on CNN it’s an hour you’re not seeing Trump.

The 4th of July holiday weekend begins Thursday except in Hollywood where it began last Thursday.

You have my permission to start yours now.  

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Weekend Post

I’m always looking for cheesy reality shows to laugh at and bring to your attention. Recently, I heard about one that showed great promise so I eagerly sought it out.

It’s called LOVE ISLAND. It’s a British reality-competition show that’s in its 5th or 6th season. Hulu carries it. That’s where I saw it.

LOVE ISLAND is one of those singles-pairing-up shows with beautiful people in a beautiful setting. Ten people couple up but then new players are added and it’s musical chairs. The couples sleep together at night, but all five sleep in the same room. Couples can earn private room privileges and you know a lot of sex goes on. The winning couple gets lots of money or condoms. I’m sketchy on the details.

It’s not even on an island. It’s a big house.

There’s also occasional nudity, but in this day and age, so what? Nudity is not hard to find on the internet (I'm told).

I was advised that season two was good so started watching that. And again, the cheesier the better.

By the end of episode one I was done forever.

Why?

I sooooo hated every fucking one of those contestants. I have never seen such self-absorbed vacuous bitches and assholes in my life. One girl was crying because one of the muscle-bound lunkheads snubbed her in the slightest possible almost unperceivable way. I wanted to throw her down a well.

They spend all day in bikinis and shorts picking apart each other and drinking. The girls devote half the day to putting on make up.  I kept wondering, "Why am I watching this SHIT?" 

By the time the show was over I had the same rage Spike Lee would like me to have after watching BLACKKKANSMAN.

I guess this show runs an hour a night for five or six weeks each year – similar to our BIG BROTHER. And I know it’s a smash hit in the UK. But the only way you’ll ever get me to watch again is if storm troopers barge in and move them all to a labor camp. (Actually, that series I would watch every night.)

Friday, June 28, 2019

Friday Questions

Closing out June with Friday Questions. What might yours be?

From Keith:

Now that you're doing your plays do you try to write to deadline, or is it more of a "whenever it's done, it's done" kind of thing? Would you encourage young writers to set self-imposed deadlines?
 
After writing on deadlines for several centuries, it’s a great luxury to finish at my leisure.  Still, I tend to move at a pretty good clip, and I like to keep some momentum going so I generally finish in a timely manner.

And of course, if I have a play in rehearsal, then I’m re-writing every night and it’s just like being on staff of a TV show again (except there’s no staff – there’s just me).

For young writers however, I would encourage a self-imposed deadline, as long as it’s reasonable. Don’t create added pressure on yourself, but figure how long you think it will take to finish a certain project, allow yourself some added breathing room then set a deadline.

Remember, should you sell a movie or TV pilot and get into the business, deadlines are SOP. Might as well get used to them.

Unknown asks:

Why do the networks hate me? Anything I like gets canceled, and most don't make sense.

It’s because you don’t list a name and just go by “Unknown.” Networks hate that.

(Sorry. Just couldn’t resist.)

Jonny M. wonders:

Have you ever been on a show and just hated the direction the show runner was taking it? How do you deal with that?

I’ve been very lucky that I’ve never been in that exact situation. But I have consulted on shows like that and I have directed on shows like that.

And my philosophy is to just go with it. Tell me what you want, what joke, etc. and I’ll do my best to provide it. It’s not my ass when the show tanks.

And fighting with the showrunner does you no good. You’re not going to change his mind; you’re only going to make an enemy. And getting an ulcer over writing for 2 BROKE GIRLS is hardly worth it.

If the show is too intolerable then quit. Otherwise, just do the best you can and try not to work yourself into a daily lather. They’re paying you. You’re working on a TV show and not cleaning the grease traps at McDonalds. There are worse ways of making a living.

But keep your eyes open at all times for better opportunities.

And finally, from Toledo (a person, not the city):

What is your opinion of the trend of TV baseball announcers that spend an inordinate amount of time talking about subjects that have nothing to do with the game they are purporting broadcasting? I'm not talking about Vin Scully's interesting tidbits of information that he used to fill in between pitches, or Harry Carey's sometimes humorous tangential expositions about restaurants in a visiting city.

I'm thinking about whole innings that seem to be devoted to a detailed presentation on some baseball subject, such as the future of some pitcher who is not starting this game or some long term trade strategy. The entire discussion seems to be pre-planned since it is often supplemented with numerous prepared graphics and backup research. 

Meanwhile, the action on the field is generally ignored by the announcers, no matter how interesting it may be. 

The worst situations occur when there is a guest in the booth, or when one of the players or the manager is being interviewed remotely from the dugout. Obviously, I am not a fan of this as I want to focus on the game I am tuned in to watch.

Well, obviously it depends on exactly what topic they’re discussing, how relevant it is, how topical it is, and what the game situation is. If it’s a 9-0 blowout the announcers have to talk about something.

But my problem is very few of the current crop of announcers have any flair, any showmanship, anything personal to offer. They’re bland, interchangeable, terrified that someone is going to rip them on Twitter, and so their commentary is reduced to what I like to call “baseball for scouts.”

I’d say they should find ways to entertain the audience, but so few of these guys even have that ability.  They need to be storytellers with a sense of the dramatic and the majority of these deep-voiced young robots have no talent for that whatsoever.   So what you get are long discussions on pitcher-hitter match ups.  Zzzzzzz.

That’s why someone like Jason Benetti of the White Sox stands out. To me he’s the next Vin Scully. Calls a great game, understands analytics, has perspective, works great with his partner Steve Stone, and has a sense of humor. It is such a pleasure to listen to Jason call a game. He restores my faith that TV baseball announcers CAN be fun and interesting.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

EP129: Our Pilot That Failed at ABC and HBO


Okay, two versions of this pilot failed at two different networks, but Levine & Isaacs got to hang out with the president of the United States, back when that meant something. 

 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

ITV bans male-only comedy writer rooms

A number of readers have asked me to comment on this:

ITV, the biggest broadcast production and distribution company in the UK recently adopted a new policy where comedy writers rooms can no longer be male only. Ideally, they’re hoping for a 50/50 mix, but at least for now ITV shows must have some women on staff of every comedy show.

So how do I feel about this?

My daughter is a TV comedy writer. How do you think I feel?

Women are just as talented, just as funny as men – and in many cases, more so. Not hiring qualified women is only hurting the product.

And I’m proud to say this is not a new stand. Twice, David Isaacs and I have had shows that starred women. In both cases we hired women writers, women directors, women producers, women casting directors – and this was long before #MeToo and the current push for diversity.

We didn’t do it to further a cause. We did it simply because these were the very best people we could hire, and why not hire the best?

Women writers offer a different perspective. Our goal has always been to be as accurate as possible, and have the comedy come out of relatable situations. Our shows were so much richer, so much more universal, and so much funnier because we had women writers. To me this is a no-brainer.

In the case of ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis, we partnered with a woman, Robin Schiff, and truly could not have done it without her.

A more recent article opposes this policy.  They feel it's unfair to set quotas and claim shows like CHEERS did just fine with all-male writers.   Except, the first staff writer hired was Heide Perlman.  And throughout the years CHEERS hired many women writers including Cheri Steinkellner (who became a CHEERS showrunner), Tracy Newman, Kathy Ann Stumpe, Rebecca Parr Cioffi, Sue Herring, Kimberly Hill, Janet Leahy, Katherine Green, Lissa Levin, Susan Seeger, and Miriam Trogden.

To me the shame is that this has to be a “policy.” But if that’s what it takes, so be it. I’m sure some British male writers are going to grumble, but in a couple of years showrunners will be thanking ITV for taking this stand.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest

The New Yorker magazine has a weekly feature:  the cartoon caption contest.  They feature a cartoon and readers are invited to submit funny captions.   Three finalists are selected, people vote, and then the winner is announced.  I don't even think there's a prize other than bragging rights. 

An article in KQED Arts takes issue with the selections the magazine makes.  When a colleague was a finalist but didn't win there was a lot of bitterness believing his caption was better than the winner's.

Here's the article.

Welcome to the world of comedy rejection.

Comedy is soooo subjective.  5,000 people apparently enter every week. Can you really take it personally when yours isn't selected?  I mean, seriously

Obviously, you're going to think that your entry was better.  I've got news for you:  in 90% of cases, you're wrong. 

But that attitude is still a great motivator.  How many talented people became successful sitcom writers when they watched the crap on TV and said, "I could do better that this!"?

But 5,000 to 1 are staggering odds.   You may write the most brilliant caption ever and it gets lost, or the reader didn't get it, or didn't read it right, or was in a bad mood, or has a different sensibility, or seventeen other reasons.

I find this when entering ten-minute plays in festivals.  Plays that won major festivals get rejected by minor festivals.  It's all subjective.  I can't take it personally.  It's worth it to me to keep submitting, and along the way I do get some acceptances, so I continue.  And I file the rejections and forget about it.

In the case of the caption contest, a very prominent comedy writer and I used to submit.  We would run our captions by each other to make sure they were good enough.  I trust this person's opinion of comedy way more than some assistant editor's.  We would send them in.   And then nothing.   Neither of us were ever finalists.  Did I think mine were better than those selected?   Most of the time.  Sometimes I thought the one they picked was terrific.  And often I thought the one my comedy writer pal submitted was better than mine.

But like I said, we never broke through.  So what did we do?  Instead of getting mad, and challenging their selection process, we simply stopped submitting.  We happily went on about our lives.  In this case, it wasn't worth it to keep submitting. Better to focus my talents on something else. 

And that would be my advice to anyone frustrated over not winning.   There's no big cash prize.  There's no fellowship attached.  There's no job with the New Yorker or SNL.  There's no dinner with the queen.  There's no agent who is going to take you on.   Only continue if you're having fun with it, and the moment you're not then stop.

And then stop reading the caption contest.   Who needs the added aggravation?  

Monday, June 24, 2019

Why Romcoms are bombing

Interesting article in the Hollywood Reporter on the recent decline of Romantic Comedies and possible reasons why. Not since CRAZY RICH ASIANS has a studio comedy grossed over $100 million in the U.S. This year has been particularly disappointing. Several well-reviewed recent comedies have all bombed. THE LONG SHOT, BOOKSMART, and LATE NIGHT all went down in flames.

The article suggests perhaps Netflix is partly to blame since studios are making fewer romcoms they’re filling the void. The latest Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston made-for-Netflix romantic comedy supposedly has been seen by 30 million people (although I don’t believe that for a second. It’s just Netflix’s word.) .

Certainly Netflix is a factor. You don’t need IMAX to fully enjoy a romcom. And you sure don’t need to pay IMAX prices. To me, that’s another issue. Movie prices keep rising as costs to make giant tent pole super hero and action flicks continue to swell (what is the going rate for blowing up cities these days?). Theatergoers don’t want to pay those inflated prices for modest little urban trifles.

When a romcom is released these days, unless it’s something you really want to see or you hear amazing word-of-mouth, you’re more apt to say “I’ll wait till it’s on cable or Netflix.”

To me, the biggest factor for the genre decline is this: The romcoms the studios are churning out are not funny enough, or not charming enough, or not fresh enough. It’s as simple as that.

Let’s look at the three big summer disappointments so far. At this point I should say I haven’t seen any of them. Why? Because I’ve been scared off for one reason or another.

THE LONG SHOT. Word is this is just KNOCKED UP but with Charlize Theron instead of Kathryn Heigel. Seth Rogen even plays the same guy. Despite the reviews, no one I know has said anything other than “meh.”

BOOKSMART is supposedly just SUPERBAD with women. Playing the Jonah Hill part is Beanie Feldstein, who is Jonah Hill’s younger sister and looks like Jonah Hill. No one I know who has seen it has understood the critical acclaim. Maybe I’d find it utterly hilarious. But the lack of originality in premise and lack of enthusiasm from people I respect who have seen it made me say “I’ll wait until cable.”

And finally, LATE NIGHT. I’ll be very honest here. I don’t like Mindy Kaling. I don’t find her funny in any way. That’s me. That said, if all I heard was buzz that this was a laugh riot and the one movie to see this summer I would race to the theatre. I’d be thrilled to change my position on Mindy Kaling. Instead, I’m hearing, “not funny,” “on the nose,” and “formula.” Pass.

It seems to me there is this disconnect between the industry’s love of Mindy Kaling and the general public’s. No one watched her TV series. She certainly can’t open a movie by starring in it. If a major studio is only going to commit to two or three comedies a year, I can see them going after Kevin Hart – he opens movies, but Mindy Kaling?

Look, a certain X-factor is needed in becoming a comedy movie star. Lots of very funny talented people have been unable to break through in that regard. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Jon Hamm, and Bryan Cranston are just a few who light up the small screen but flicker on the wide one. And I can’t tell you why. I love each and every one of them.

But that’s another big factor. Because stars open movies. Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Will Smith, Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, even Melissa McCarthy used to open movies. A studio would get a romcom script and if they could interest one of these names in starring the movie got green lit. Who today would you go to? Kate McKinnon? So far the jury is still out. There’s a real shortage of comedy stars.

I think studios will still continue to make romcoms, although fewer of them. But in success they’re not just a home run; they’re a walk off. Because when they can shell out a modest $40 million and get back $300 million, that’s a much better investment than paying $200 million hoping to get $400 million. And a number of those $200 million dollar investments tank and that’s a huge hit. You know the super hero bubble is going to eventually burst, and when it does Hollywood is going to take a huge bath. Kevin Hart will start looking really good to them.

But for me, the bottom line is simple and the same with any genre. You want to revive it? Make better movies. It’s not like laughing has gone out of style. Present movies that are genuinely funny and audiences will come. But they’ve seen SUPERBAD. Give them something new that’s super GOOD.

UPDATE:  Let me address some readers who suggested I should see the movies and not just report what I've heard from others.  Thank you for the comments, by the way.   The point of this article is why people are not going to see these movies.  They're not critiques of the movies themselves.  And people are not going to see them because of meh word-of-mouth, or lack of interest in the subject matter, or ticket prices.  In this case the perception of the movie is more important than the movie itself.   You have to entice people to go see the movie first.  And theatergoers are clearly not interested -- despite the favorable reviews.  This post was an attempt to explain why that is. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Weekend Post

Last weekend I posted a scene from Steve Gordon's original screenplay of ARTHUR.  The draft was 147 pages so needless to say a number of scenes didn't make the final cut.  But his writing is just so good it is my pleasure to share it with you.  So here's another scene. 

Remember when Linda shows up at Arthur’s engagement party and they go out to the stables? In this version after the party they go to the Plaza Hotel and end up here:


INT. HUGE ORNATE PLAZA HOTEL SUITE – NIGHT

Linda and Arthur enter the room.

LINDA
(looking around) Look at this room! It’s not easy to feel cheap here.

Arthur sits on the bed.

ARTHUR
You want something to drink? Or eat?

LINDA
No.

She walks to the window and looks out.

LINDA
New York…

ARTHUR
You were expecting Pittsburgh?

LINDA
I feel like we’re a young couple from the Midwest on our first trip to New York.

ARTHUR
(lying back on the bed) Come here.

Linda goes to the bed and lies next to him. He puts his arm around her. They lie like that for a beat.

LINDA
What are we waiting for?

ARTHUR
The other girl will be here in a minute. You didn’t think this was just going to be you and me, did you? You’ll like her.

Linda laughs.

LINDA
Why do I feel so comfortable with you?

ARTHUR
Because we are that couple from the Midwest. And we’re very nice people.

He kisses her. Light at first. Then it quickly turns to passion.

ARTHUR
(breathing heavily) You’re a nice girl… but you don’t turn me on physically.

LINDA
You’re not going to marry that girl. And you know it.

Arthur kisses her again.

ARTHUR
Let’s not talk anymore. Okay?

Linda starts to unbutton Arthur’s shirt. She kisses his chest. They are both very excited.

LINDA
(while kissing his chest) I know you’re not going to marry her.

ARTHUR
She’s talking. Linda… let’s not talk.

He rolls over and kisses her again. After the kiss:

LINDA
Let’s talk for a second…

ARTHUR
I’m having sex here! Do you mind?

LINDA
Why would you marry a woman you don’t love?

ARTHUR
I have to. Can I help you with that zipper?

LINDA
What do you mean… you have to?

ARTHUR
Linda… there’s not a shower in the world cold enough to fix what’s going on here. Now… could we talk about this later?

LINDA
Just tell me what you mean… you have to?

ARTHUR
My family is forcing me to marry her.

LINDA
You asshole! Nobody gets married like that! That hasn’t happened since 1850!

ARTHUR
They’ll cut me off if I don’t! Without a cent!

LINDA
So? You’ll get a job like everybody else. How much money is it?

ARTHUR
250 million dollars.

LINDA
Try it with her for a few years. Maybe it’ll work out.

ARTHUR
Linda… you see this suite? I have to be in suites like this.

LINDA
Why?

ARTHUR
Because… that’s who I am. I’m Arthur Bach. I’ve got nothing but the money. I don’t know who I am without it.

LINDA
You’re not Winston Churchill… I’ll tell you that.

ARTHUR
(touching her face) It took me years… all my life… to find you. Just don’t compete with the money. The money is like my arm. It comes with me.

LINDA
We’re not that nice young couple from the Midwest, are we? I’ll get a cab.

Linda crosses to the door. Arthur sits on the bed. She stops.

LINDA
You can’t have everything, Arthur. If you get the potato you don’t get a vegetable.

ARTHUR
Would you turn down this money?

LINDA
Are you crazy? Of course not! I steal ties for Christ sakes! But when you look for a mistress… make it a mistress! She should speak French and give back rubs. Don’t come to me. I want to get married. What do I know about being a mistress? You’d get me an apartment and I’d want to know if it’s near a good school.

ARTHUR
Goodbye, Linda.

LINDA
Don’t pout. You’re lovely. I’ll remember you the rest of my life.

Linda exits. Arthur goes to the bar and pours a drink.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Friday Questions

June Friday Questions are busting out all over. What’s yours?

Mitchell Hundred leads off.

I've been thinking a lot lately about bottle episodes. Is there any significant difference between the way a writer approaches them and the way they might approach a more conventional script?

Very much so.

A bottle episode is one that is pretty much confined to an existing set. A show will have an annual budget and if they know there will be episodes with helicopters or big crowd scenes or explosions, to offset the cost they’ll plan a simple episode that all takes place in one set and can be produced under-budget.

Best bottle show I ever saw was the BREAKING BAD episode with just Walter and Jesse and a pesky fly in the meth lab.

But you have to consider them almost like one act plays. The dialogue becomes much more important. You can’t rely on action to give you your story turns. Bottle shows are much more character-based.

If I’m a showrunner I assign my bottle show to my best writer.

Scottmc is next.

I just read that movie theaters in August will show five colorized episodes of 'I Love Lucy's as part of a Lucille Ball birthday tribute. Initially, I couldn't see an audience that would pay current movie ticket prices for this. Then I saw that they are going to release them on DVD.(The theatrical showing is a promotion for the DVD.)

Do you think episodes of shows that you worked on could be shown effectively on a big screen? Can you think of any classic situation comedy that could have episodes shown?

I’ve seen episodes of CHEERS and FRASIER I’ve co-written on the big screen and the audience reaction was terrific. But they don’t take advantage of the scope that cinema provides.

Single-camera shows have a better shot, in my opinion. MASH certainly (which started out as a movie). Except for one episode.

“Point of View.”

That’s the episode David Isaacs and I wrote that was seen through the eyes of a patient. On a big screen when you’re seeing giant heads staring down at you it’s very disconcerting. On TV though, on normal sized screens it totally works.

But since MASH was shot on film, every week before we’d release an episode to CBS we would screen it one more time to make sure everything was okay, so I’m very used to seeing pristine 35mm cuts on large movie screens. And they were glorious.

slgc asks:

When you were working in radio, were there any songs about disc jockeys that were memorable or meaningful to you?

You bet.

“W.O.L.D.” by Harry Chapin. It tells of an aging disc jockey, sacrificing his marriage to bounce around the country playing the hits. It’s a great cautionary tale.

And finally, from Anthony:

Ken, I've always wondered why ESPN's production of Sunday Night Baseball is almost exclusively made of up National League matchups, or at least contains one NL team. With few exceptions such as Red Sox vs Yankees (obviously), a game featuring the reining AL pennant winner, or a recent World Series rematch, if you look at the pre-determined SNB schedule for the entire season, it's usually a NL matchup. Is there a business reason for it?

First off, I hadn’t noticed that. But I’m sure ESPN does research on which teams have a national following and programs accordingly. In the National League I’d say the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, Braves, and maybe the Giants have large national following. But unless they’re winning like crazy you’re rarely going to see the Padres on SNB.

In the American League the Yankees and Red Sox both have national followings and maybe the Tigers and Angels, but who else? The Blue Jays?  (Yes, in Canada) The Rangers? The Mariners?

When I wrote my book about my year broadcasting for Baltimore a number of publishers said they would have snapped it up if it had been about the Cubs or Cardinals, but there was not enough national interest in the Orioles. Judging by book sales they were right. 

So to answer your question, that would be my guess. And please understand the examples I gave were not personal. Don’t write that you were hurt because I didn’t say the Pirates had a fan base. Every team has a fan base. Pittsburgh transplants are everywhere as are Cleveland transplants. But when you go to a Dodger-Diamondback game in Arizona and see that half the crowd is wearing Dodger blue you know THAT is a following.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

EP128: Ken’s Commencement Speech and Welcoming in Summer


If Ken were to ever speak at a college graduation, this would be his speech.  And then he reflects on summers past.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Comedians in cars getting coffee

Okay, I may be the only person on the planet who thinks this but I don’t like COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE. I know I’m spitting on the comedy cross and numerous friends swear by it, but I’m unimpressed.

In a half-hour show with A-list comedians I learn little or nothing. Instead, I’m treated to a five-minute introduction to the vintage car Jerry is driving that week (who cares?), the obligatory call from the car to the comedian, stock shots or Jerry and his guest walking, and once they get to the coffee shop, seventeen close up shots of coffee being poured.

The interview itself is always clipped, Jerry can’t help but try to top his comedian guest, and there’s a general condescension that only Jerry and his guests really know “funny.” It’s like the cool kids in high school graciously letting us sit at the next table and eavesdrop.

When not trying to top his guests Jerry is generally doubled-over in laughter – at stuff that is just not that funny.

Here’s what I learned from the half-hour John Mullaney episode – he writes his ideas in a notebook. Wow! How revealing!

From Kate McKinnon – she liked school as a kid. Otherwise it was pretty much Kate doing schtick.

When I interview someone I try to get them to really reveal information we didn’t know. If it’s a comedian I want to know his process, how his mind works, how he’s evolved, what’s his worldview, background, goals, amusing anecdotes, etc. But this show is a slickly produced hodgepodge with background music, beauty shots of cars and percolators, and Jerry being the smug host.

The message is clear: YOU’LL never be this funny, YOU’LL never have a career like this, YOU’LL never drive a car like this. Well, you know what? I’ll grab a ride elsewhere.

Now I expect to take a lot of heat for this because like I said, most people love this show. But I’d rather see a comedian in an Uber talking his process for a half-hour and he can grab coffee later.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Best game show host. "Who is Alex Trebek?"

I’ve always been a fan.

He’s done a great job hosting JEOPARDY. And it’s not easy. You need laser-focus, the ability to pronounce foreign names and other tongue-twisters correctly, to keep the game moving, and successfully engage with the contestants, many who are nervous and ill-at-ease.

When we did the CHEERS episode where Cliff went on JEOPARDY we also discovered that Alex was very funny. So much so that we wrote him into another scene and he appears at the bar.

A couple of months ago I went to watch them tape JEOPARDY. They do five shows in one day – three in the morning, and two after lunch. That’s a lot of clues to announce, money totals to keep track of, and be accurate in allowing and disallowing answers. The time between shows is like twenty minutes – just enough time for Alex and the winner to change clothes and maybe down a Red Bull.

It would be understandable if Alex had a little less energy on the fifth show of the day (or even fell asleep), but that’s never the case. He is up and present every episode regardless of when it was taped.

And what you don’t see at home is that during commercial breaks he steps out and answers audience questions, again displaying his great dry wit.

So under normal circumstances he does a remarkable job.

As I’m sure you know, he revealed to the world that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Let’s be real – that’s a bad one. According to reports, his treatment is going well and he is in remission, but that treatment has been brutal.

Apparently, there are times between shows when he’s in his dressing room in tremendous pain. Producers have offered to cancel the rest of the day’s taping, but he always says no. And somehow he rallies to go before the cameras and do his usual outstanding job. I watch the show every day. I’ve been watching for a long time. I would never know he’s in pain if I hadn’t heard the story.

That, to me, is the ultimate professional.

My admiration is through the roof. And I’m sure, like you, I offer my best wishes and prayers.

If the answer is “courageous” the correct response is “Who is Alex Trebek?”

Monday, June 17, 2019

Bring back sparkling dialogue

I received a lot of good buzz from this weekend's post where I featured a scene that wasn't shot in the original movie of ARTHUR by Steve Gordon.

What everyone reacted to was the sparkling dialogue.

And I don't think it's an age thing.  As many younger readers responded as older.

The sad thing is you don't hear dialogue like that in movies today.  Or TV.  Or even a lot of plays.  Theatrical comedies have to be dark black comedies as is the current trend.

And I say why?

Now, I must admit I'm not an objective bystander here.  I've always loved smart, character-driven funny banter.  Steve Gordon is one of my idols.  Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Herb Gardner are a few others.    So that's the kind of dialogue I try to write.

Happily, that style was in vogue during my TV writing career.  MASH, CHEERS, and certainly FRASIER appreciated and celebrated the value of witty dialogue.   Every play I write I strive to reach the level of ARTHUR.  And it's very rewarding when lines get big laughs from the audience.

And understand, I'm not talking about "jokes."   I'm talking about dialogue that is in character, moves the story along, is generally attitude-based, and is funny in context.

I suspect witty dialogue is not so prevalent because it's very difficult to do.   Easier to do a gross-out scene, sophomoric sex jokes, dripping irony, or moments that are mildly-amusing at best.   And of course, those who can't do it or are intimidated by it claim it's a style that's "old school" and passe today.

But ask an audience.  Or, more accurately, listen to them.  Listen to them laugh at well-crafted funny lines.   Watch ARTHUR again (only the original.  The sequel and remake -- neither by Steve Gordon -- suck!).  Forget that it's a timepiece and in today's sensibility you couldn't do a number of the things they did in that film.  You're going to laugh your ass off.  For 90 minutes you're going to be bombarded with one hilarious line after another.

It's a style that I feel should come back, and I'm out there every day doing what I can to revive it.  This one's for you, Steve.

UPDATE:  from Jon Emerson.  This is a Twitter video from Nicole Silverberg on 90% of movie jokes now.  Couldn't like agree, y'know, more. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Weekend Post

One of my favorite comedies of all time is Steve Gordon’s ARTHUR.  I love the screenplay.  Steve tragically passed away waaaaay too young.  Parts of the film don't hold up today because you can't have a roaring drunk just driving around Manhattan.  But viewed as a timepiece it still holds up to be hilariously funny.  No one could write dialogue better than Steve Gordon.   

Believe it or not his first draft was 147 pages. (Do NOT try this at home, kids.) Steve was kind enough to give it to me.   At 147 pages there obviously were scenes that never saw the flickering light of the projector. But here’s one of those missing scenes. Don’t you wish you could write this well? I do.

When Arthur (Dudley Moore) goes to Linda’s (Liza Minelli) apartment after proposing to Susan:

INT. LINDA’S BEDROOM – NIGHT

It is a small room. Linda sits at the edge of the bed. Arthur paces.

ARTHUR
Nice. Really a nice place.

LINDA
I’m thrilled. A lush likes my furniture. Talk.

Arthur reaches for a yearbook that is on the table.

ARTHUR
Is this your yearbook?

Linda jumps off the bed and rips the yearbook out of Arthur’s hand.

LINDA
God damn it! I have to get up and go to work tomorrow! Now stop fooling around. What do you want? You want to see a funny picture?

ARTHUR
Yeah.

Linda flips through the book. They are close.

LINDA
This is me in the school play – I played Juliet. Martin Feinberg played Romeo. Look at the hair. God! Martin Feinberg became a lawyer.

ARTHUR
What did you become?

LINDA
I’m a waitress. I’m studying to be an actress.

She flips through the book.

ARTHUR
You want to be an actress?

LINDA
No, schmuck… I’m studying to be an actress because I want to be a carpenter. (in the book) Look at this! Me playing vollyball! This guy went to prison.

ARTHUR
Sure… he probably got a lawyer who wanted to play Romeo. Did you go with anyone?

LINDA
Not really. My mother was sick then. I came home from school and spent as much time with her as I… anyway… it wasn’t a good time. This girl here…Mona… used to get laid 20 times a week.

ARTHUR
She looks tired there.

LINDA
Where did you go to school?

ARTHUR
I went to eight prep schools. I was thrown out of all of them. I was real unhappy as a kid.

LINDA
With all your money?

ARTHUR
Yeah. I had a big house. But nobody wanted me in it.

Linda puts her hand on Arthur’s face.

LINDA
You’re a lovely man.

ARTHUR
Lovely?

LINDA
Don’t worry about it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever said to anyone. Why haven’t you called me?

ARTHUR
Uh… that’s why I came here tonight. I think about you all the time. I am so fond of you…

LINDA
If you’re breaking up with me… I think it’s only fair to tell you that we’ve never had a date.

ARTHUR
(smiling) I am breaking up with you. We were so good we didn’t need dates.

LINDA
Why don’t we see each other and then break up?

ARTHUR
Listen… there’s stuff. Let’s not get into it. I can’t see you. Remember that ring?

LINDA
I had a feeling about that ring… you don’t clean that… you guard it.

ARTHUR
I gave it to somebody tonight.

LINDA
My ring? So what are you doing here?

ARTHUR
I had to see you to tell you I can’t see you.

LINDA
Neither of us is crying. Everything’s okay. You are the strangest person in North America.

ARTHUR
Yeah. Well… goodbye. It would probably be a mistake for you to come to that party Wednesday.

He starts toward the door.

LINDA
Yeah.

He turns.

ARTHUR
It’s the best way. There’s a lot involved.

LINDA
Right.

Arthur kisses her on the lips.

ARTHUR
(after the kiss) Goodbye. I guess this is it.

He continues to hold her.

LINDA
You’re holding me and kissing me. In my bedroom. With what you drank… you may be clearing up my sinuses.

Arthur kisses her again.

ARTHUR
Let’s just say goodbye. This is silly.

He kisses her again. This time it grows into a passionate kiss.

LINDA
(after the kiss) How long ago did you get engaged?

ARTHUR
About four hours ago. Jesus… this is wonderful.

LINDA
Make sure you come by your honeymoon night. Let’s stop. I enjoy you… but there are certain rules.

ARTHUR
Right… Goodbye.

He exits.

In the actual movie this scene was rewirtten and is much shorter. He goes to her apartment to give her $100,000 guilt money which she doesn't take. (Great shot of her dad outside the door, practically dissolving into tears.)

By the way, in the first draft Linda is not Italian. She's Jewish. Davidorf is her original last name.