Monday, October 21, 2019

The upcoming World Series

The World Series begins tomorrow much to the delight of Astros & National fans. They managed to navigate their way through two tough playoff series (and in the case of the Nationals – three).

But for the losing teams, now the outrage begins. Now comes the hate, blasting managerial decisions, turning on players, declaring the entire season a failure.

Before the playoffs these same fans were convinced their team in its current configuration was destined to win. Now they spot glaring holes in the offense, the pitching rotation, you name it. Now they blame Joe Buck.

It used to be fans of losing teams were disappointed. Now they’re angry. MLB does nothing to discourage that. In fact, their new slogan is “We play LOUD.”

Social media provides an outlet for everybody to vent. It’s not just three angry letters-to-the-editor anymore.

I hosted Dodger Talk for eight years, taking listener calls after games. I often needed to be in riot gear. Can you imagine the calls to New York sports stations over the last 24 hours?

So here are some of my observations.

I prefer to save my hate for Trump and anyone who supports him.

The final game of the ALCS was spectacular drama, whoever you rooted for.

For all the notes and stats Fox gave out, they missed that this was the very first post-season game in history where two wife-beater closers gave up two-run home runs in the 9th. 

Fox desperately wanted the Dodgers vs. the Yankees and instead got the Astros vs. the Nationals. Don’t expect big ratings, despite two teams that are the best in baseball.

Baseball has become a slave to analytics but the playoffs prove that they don’t work during the post season. It makes no difference that you win 100 games during the regular year. You don’t face this level of competition every game, you don’t face 3rd, 4th, and 5th starters, hitters don’t see the same relief pitchers day in and day out, slumps get magnified, and unlikely heroes emerge that analytics can’t predict.

And don’t forget the choke factor. Some players rise to the occasion and others just do not.

With this new style of baseball everyone is trying to hit home runs. So the number of strikeouts is shameful. Yeah, you can hit 40 home runs during the season when a bunch are off of rag arm pitchers, but in a seven-game series with the season on the line and future Hall-of-Fame pitchers facing you, only the truly great ones hit two or three.

I am very much looking forward to this World Series. Both teams play with a lot of heart. (Do analytics have a category for that???) Both teams have great starting pitching and starting pitching wins series. The Nationals are a Wild Card team. They’ve had to battle and scratch the whole season. They’re used to pressure games. And they’re giant killers – toppling the mighty Dodgers. The Astros are a cohesive unit with zero quit and they too knocked out a heavyweight in the Yankees.

To me the big question is which team is balanced enough to win? Which team will score runs other than with home runs? Which team will put the ball in play more? Which team will whiff only ten times a game instead of sixteen? Which team will drive in more than two runners in scoring position? Which team will have angry callers in about a week?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Come see the play I haven't written yet

I will be one of 5 playwrights writing 10 minute plays in 3 hours Sunday at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica.   We write from 9-noon, the actors and directors come, rehearse and memorize during the afternoon, and at 7:30 and 9:00 the plays are performed.  It's a high-wire act but great fun and very unpredictable.  Come join the fun.  Here's where you go for info and tickets.  See you there.

Weekend Post

Why I love Los Angeles.

A new restaurant opened on Wednesday in West Hollywood.  THE BREAKING BAD EXPERIENCE.   You can eat in Gus' chicken joint with Walter White's Winnebago spewing blue smoke.  Not sure what's on the menu or whether you can get take-out pizza for your roof.  

But this is a real thing, on Santa Monica Blvd. just west of LaBrea.  If they really want to be authentic they should have one fly buzzing around.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Friday Questions

Let’s deep dive into some Friday Questions.

RMK gets us started.

I've heard you (and Kevin Smith when he guested I think) talk about 'guest' directing on TV shows. Where you're not regular staff, etc. It's always made me wonder if you know any story about a director not gelling with a cast or crew, and being replaced mid-week.

It’s happened twice on shows I’ve been involved with.

The first was years ago. The star really clashed with the director. I was one of the show runners so to avoid shutting down I had to step in and finish directing the actors (I knew nothing about cameras at that time so the hired director came back and did all the technical stuff.)

The second time was on ALMOST PERFECT (our series starring Nancy Travis). I got a call the night before camera blocking that our director was passing a kidney stone and would not be available the next few days.

So I had to go in and camera block on the fly. There was no way to prepare since I didn’t know how the show was blocked.

It actually proved to be a pivotal point in my directing career. The fact that I was able to do it fairly easily meant I was really getting the hang of it, camera-wise.

From Lisa:

As a comedy writer, have you ever written any episodes for a clown character or just any writing for any clown?

Or do you just hate clowns like many others do?

I only hate clowns that aren’t funny.

But I can’t recall ever writing a clown into any project we were involved in. People in animal suits, sure. What writer hasn’t? But no clowns. However, I did direct an episode where someone dressed as a jester for Halloween. Does that count?

Not a lot of room for clowns on MASH.

And speaking of MASH, Unknown asks:

Ken, I have a Friday Question about the lack of smoking on MASH. At the time the show was set (early 1950's) A LOT of people smoked, and I recall reading that the cigarette companies gave every soldier 2 free cartons a months. So why is there very little if any smoking on MASH? Was it a note from Standards and Practices since cigarette ads had recently been banned from tv? Or a decision by the creators?

Primarily Standards & Practices. And I was okay with that. Why glorify smoking? Yes, it was a little unrealistic that they didn’t smoke. But it was also unrealistic that they spent eleven years fighting a war that only took two.

On BECKER, same network, we did have the main character smoke and just floated the message from time to time that it was bad for you. Same on the MARY show. Katey Sagal’s character smoked (primarily to annoy Mary), but there too mention was made of the dangers of tobacco.

And finally, from Bob Paris:

Ken: Here is a Friday question involving a joke I heard a standup comedian do years ago on the Letterman show. "My wife and I met online. We didn't think our parents would understand so we told them we met at the University of Phoenix." My question is would the joke be better or worse if the punchline was: "... so we told them we met in college... at the University of Phoenix." Please analyze, if you don't mind.

It works either way, but I would probably opt for not adding “we met in college.” University says that. What the audience needs to know is that it’s a correspondence college. So I might say “we met on the campus of the University of Phoenix.” If you know it’s not a real school that might help the joke.

But it was probably fine as is.  Did it get a laugh?

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

EP145: This week’s guest: ME Part 1


On this week's Hollywood and Levine Podcast, Ken switches things up and invites entertainment reporter Arlen Peters to take the reins and interview him. We hear all about Ken's lengthy career in the world of comedy and entertainment as a Writer, Director and Producer.

Spoiler Alert: He does not make Ken cry.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

It's Thanksgiving Day!

Thanksgiving???

You’re thinking, “What country?”

No country. It’s my personal Thanksgiving Day.

On October 15th, many years ago, I had to report to US Army Basic Training at Ft. Leonard, Missouri (way up in the delightful Ozarks).

And since that day, every year on this date I give thanks that I’m no longer there. Basic Training was brutal for me. I was skinny, uncoordinated, couldn’t hit a target with a bazooka, couldn’t build or fix  a fucking thing, and I’m Jewish. I was truly, as my Drill Sergeants graciously reminded me hourly, a “fucking dud.”

So no matter how bad things are for me on October 16th, they’re still better than that year.

I made a vow to myself when I graduated Basic Training (there was actually a ceremony and some parents actually attended), that as time goes by and you start to remember only the good things and new friendships and eventually start to think “it wasn’t that bad” – no matter what I remember or forget it WAS that bad.

My draft number in the lottery was 4, which meant I was off to Vietnam unless I got my ass into a reserve unit QUICK, which I did. At the time I thought that draft number was the worst thing that ever happened to me.

But in truth it was a blessing.

I met my writing partner in the reserves. Having knowledge of how the military worked I was able to write MASH. MASH launched my career. Who knows where I would have ended up had I never been a grunt?

So I have that to be thankful for too.

Happy Thanksgiving Day!  Blow up the giant Snoopy balloon.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

An all too-typical Hollywood story (but with a happy ending)

Great article in the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER about Darren Lemke. He has a writing credit on GEMINI MAN although not a word of his script is on the screen.

So how can that be?

I’ll summarize the article.

Back in the ‘90s Lemke lived in New Jersey. He got a script to a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy who was a movie producer who liked it. Lemke was flown out to Hollywood, quickly got an agent and lawyer, and in a whirlwind sold two pitches.  It's the stuff of dreams.

One of the pitches was essentially GEMINI MAN – an assassin is hunted by his clone.  He sold it.  The dream continues. 

The project was on the fast-track. It looked like a sure thing. This was 1997. This Hollywood game is EASY!

But then Hollywood reality struck. There was concern over how to pull off the CGI. The script went through numerous directors, stars, and other writers. At one time Mel Gibson was going to play the lead; another time Clint Eastwood.

Lemke moved on, found success writing animated features, and GEMINI MAN went through more directors, studios, and writers. I may have been the only writer in Hollywood NOT to have done a draft.

So finally, 22 years later, the movie came out. The basic premise was still his idea and story elements of his draft remain and so in arbitration he was award shared story and screenplay credit.

I offer this today because this is almost the normal life of a feature project. For every story you read about a writer turning in a screenplay and the movie gets made six months later with no other writers attached – there are a hundred of THESE stories. One of the reasons I always preferred television and stayed in television even when I had a movie career was that things move slowly in the feature world. Endless drafts are written, thousands of screenplays are bouncing around in some stage of development.

And what writers learn is this: Don’t get too excited when you hear good news and don’t get too despondent when you hear bad. It’s a rollercoaster.

To be a successful screenwriter in Hollywood you need talent, perseverance, and motion sickness pills.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Defensive interference

Here’s yet another Friday Question that became an entire post (because I’m long winded).

Alex asks:

Any thoughts on effectively engaging with people who are providing a writer feedback on their writing samples? Back in the day when I hoped to be a writer, I always struggled to make people understand that I wasn't trying to refute their feedback, but that I was trying to get some good back-and-forth going to help me better understand how something came off compared with what I intended, and why. It wasn't my intention to defend the script, but it somehow always seemed to come off as defensive. (I guess I could have been specific with people about my intentions, but I didn't really even become that conscious of it until long after I'd stopped writing.)

I can’t speak for your encounters since I wasn’t there and don’t know you, but yes, often times (MOST times) engaging the critic comes off defensive because it is.

Are your questions – “Okay, what do you mean by that?” or “What bothered you about that?”

Or, are your questions -- “He’s her husband. Shouldn’t he pissed when she comes home late?” or “I explain that in the first scene. You didn’t get that?”

Whenever a writer answers a critique with “Yeah, but…” he’s being defensive.

As a writer, when I’m getting feedback the first thing I need to determine is how obligated am I to do these notes? If they’re network notes on a pilot there’s more of an expectation that these notes be carried out. And if you feel they will severely damage your pilot then you very well may want to dig in your heels. You’re fighting for the integrity of the project.

But if you’ve got a spec screenplay or stage play and you’re getting notes from colleagues or friends, you are under no obligation to carry out these notes. So why get defensive?

I’ve been to play readings where there’s a talkback after and the writer receives feedback. I’m amazed at how defensive and angry the playwright sometimes get. Look, a lot of the notes are idiotic. But you don’t have to DO them. So why get worked up? Nod, smile, say thank you. And some of the notes might be excellent and you come away with valuable input.

Another thing to consider about notes, and I saw this a lot with network and studio notes: The note itself may be bad but maybe there’s something underneath it that is worth paying attention to. Their “fix” is wrong, but obviously something bothered them. It’s often worth the time and effort to try to figure that out.

In that case you might ask some questions. “What bothered you?” “When did you start to feel that?” “Were you okay with this?” The back and forth should not be an argument, it should be you asking questions and he answering them. And presented in a tone that says you are genuinely interested in his answer.  Not patronizing or begrudgingly. 

I find that when writers become defensive eventually people stop giving feedback. Yes, that’s what the writers want but they’re then defeating the purpose of the exercise.

There is one school of thought that says for talkbacks writers should prepare questions beforehand and just listen to the answers. That doesn’t work for me because many of the questions I have when they’re reading my script are things I’ve noticed during the reading itself. A section didn’t seem to work for me – did it work for others? Hearing it aloud, was the boyfriend too whiney? They’re things I wouldn’t necessarily know beforehand.

At this point I should say a word about getting notes from a showrunner. If you’re on staff and the showrunner gives you notes, just DO them and do them without resistance. A quick way to get fired or not picked up for the next season is to be defensive during notes. You’re not going to win. The script is going be done his way whether you make the changes or he does them later, and all you do is piss him off. You think the showrunner is an idiot? Fine. Pay your dues and in a few years you can become showrunner and your staff will think you’re an idiot.

In conclusion, the best thing a writer can do is get feedback from people he trusts. Whenever I write a play I always give the first draft to three or four people I respect and welcome their comments. I don’t do every note, but generally my script comes way up on the second draft because of their suggestions. And I never argue. Hey, they’re doing ME a big favor.

I’m not Mozart. I miss things. I am not as clear as I could be on certain points. I took a chance on something and it didn’t work. I tried to cover up a plot hole with a band-aid and got busted. I over-wrote a scene. I under-wrote a scene.

Yes, it’s frustrating when you have to go back in and fix something, or find a new story element, or (in the case of one of my plays) conceive and write an entire new second act. But that’s just part of the process. And the professional writer accepts that. That’s why there are second drafts. That’s why there is alcohol.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Weekend Post

Ed Sheeran sure knows how to pick a partner. Check out this "Perfect" version of his song along with Andrea Bocelli.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions served up here.

Paul B leads off:

The hilarious British TV comedy "Coupling" from the early 2000's (think Monte Python meets Friends) was written single handedly by the creator, Steven Moffat. It was only 28 episodes over 4 years, but still seems like an enormous undertaking. If that weren't enough, his wife was the director. Would you ever consider such an effort?

First of all let me just say that the British COUPLING is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, and Steven Moffat is brilliant.

If I had an idea that good and the freedom to write the episodes at my own pace and hire the actors I wanted (not foisted upon me by a network), I would certainly consider it.

Again, if you’ve never seen COUPLING, go find it and watch it.

Robert Brauer asks:

What is it that differentiates one of your ten minute plays from a comedy sketch? I am presuming that there are differences, I just cannot make the leap of logic to determine what they might be.

Comedy sketches tend to have funny premises and then as many jokes as they can get to service that premise.

A ten-minute play has a real beginning, middle, and end. Just like a good short story. A character will have to make a big decision, an event will cause change, there will be some revelation, etc. Storytelling drives a ten-minute play, not jokes.

Matt wonders:

Was Mako Iwamatsu cast on the FRASIER first season episode "Author Author" due to his connection with you and David on MASH?

Nope. I always like to take credit for things so actors can feel beholden to me, but the truth is we had nothing to do with that casting choice. Mako got the FRASIER gig because he’s terrific.

And finally, from Douglas Trapasso:

Paraphrasing a question from the recent candidate debates, if -you- were made Baseball Commissioner, and had full autonomy, what three changes would you make in your first 100 days?

Pitchers would have to face at least three batters or finish an inning.

Eliminate interleague play.

Not allow any TV deal that doesn’t guarantee the games be available to at least 70% of the local market.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

EP144: Writing Advice and a Rant


Ken deals with two difficult aspects of writing – structure and exposition along with helpful tips for each. And he has one of those rants of his.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Him or her again?

Along the ones of my rant of last week:
She’s probably a lovely person. I’ve never heard otherwise. And it’s not like she’s nails-on-a-blackboard. But for whatever reason, I just don’t get the appeal of Maya Rudolph.

No matter what I see her in I just find her ordinary. She’s never made me laugh. And she gets a million jobs and appearances on every award show, so it’s not like she hasn’t had chances. I just always feel there are a 100 other actresses who could do it better. And when you see her in a movie like BRIDESMAIDS with the very funny Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy it becomes even more apparent she’s not in their league.

I know there are people who love her and find her funny. I suppose it’s just a matter of personal taste. My son Matt is not a fan of Amy Poehler. I love Amy Poehler.

But every time I turn around it’s announced that Maya Rudolph has a new project. And I scratch my head. In this town there are so many truly funny ladies who don’t have the resume, connections, whatever and can’t even get in the front door to be considered for all these opportunities that Maya Rudolph snaps up.

And again, I have nothing personal against her. I just wish she were… funnier.

On the other hand, don't get me started on Mindy Kaling. 

I imagine we all have someone like that. You see them appear in a comedy sketch and go “why?” So I’d be curious. Just based on their act (not politics, not what they look like, not any kind of racial or gender bias), who is somebody that makes a good living in comedy that you just don’t get?

Should be an interesting day in the comments section. But again, nothing mean, no personal attacks, and no attacking each other (since I’m sure names will come up that some hate while others love). Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Even me.

Thanks.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

How to make stupid money in television -- at this moment of time

Let’s see how long it takes for this business model to implode. Because it will. 

TV is undergoing more changes now than it has in decades, perhaps five decades.

In the old days, here’s how the few lucky talented (but still fortunate) writers got rich:

Networks couldn’t legally own shows. So studios would make development deals to tie up the best talent. That resulted in multi-year seven-figure deals. The idea was that those writer/producers were exclusive to that studio and if they created a hit show everyone stood to cash in.

Additionally, writer/producers owned part of the shows they created. And in those days the goal was to make at least 100 episodes to sell into syndication. A smash hit like CHEERS or SEINFELD could be worth hundreds of millions to the writer/producer.

Once networks could own shows those development deals began to dry up. A few high-end deals still remained but the parameters of those deals were different. At one time writers only created shows and produced pilots. Under the new model, the network or studio (often the same thing) could assign you to work on whatever show it wanted.  You don't have a pilot?  Guess what?  You're Co-EP of THE NEIGHBORHOOD. 

Now we’re in a totally different universe. Streaming services are the future. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are getting competition from Warners, Disney, Apple, CBS, and more to come. They don’t need 100 episodes. They don’t want 100 episodes. Syndication is drying up. Soon there won’t be shows with 100+ episodes.  Series used to go seven years; in the future they'll go three.  Producers once produced 22 episodes a season.  Now they produce 12.  Or 8. 

So why should writer/producers go to Netflix or Hulu when their shows won’t go into syndication and they won’t make a backend killing if the show is a smash? Good question.

The answer is that these streaming services are now paying huge upfront money to A-list writer/producers but owning the shows outright. J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti, and a few others are making deals for over $300 million upfront. And the deals are not even exclusive. Pretty nice signing bonuses. 

Get it while you can, boys and girls, because this model is bound to collapse. Why? Compare it with the old model: Yes, everyone got rich IF the show became a big hit. If it didn’t, well, the studio was out a couple million for the development deal. Here, if shows aren’t hits the streaming service is on the hook for $300 million. How many of those hits can they absorb before they realize they made monumentally bad deals?

How has a similar model worked out for MLB? How does that Albert Pujols’ ten-year $240,000,000 deal look to the Angels now? How many championships has he led them to? How many additional fans has he put in the seats?

But at least he’s exclusive the Angels.

So Greg Berlanti, for example, has a $300,000,000 deal with the Warner Brothers/HBO streaming service, and also gets a show on NBC. If the NBC show becomes that rare hit he can make a ton in success. If the show he creates for Warner Brothers does well, so what? He’s gotten his money. Which of the two shows do you think he’s going to concentrate on more? And which of the two shows do you think he’s just going to hire a showrunner and basically attach his name to the project?

The problem for the streaming services is they have to pay stupid money to entice A-list writer/producers, especially at a time when there is a lot of competition. But here’s what will happen: Some of the competitors will fail, or more likely merge with other services. Now we have three or four big players. Next year there will be seven or eight. Five years from now there will be five again, just maybe not the same five. And once that settles, gone will be the need to overpay producers. Broadcast networks will erode even more. Netflix, Disney+, and a few others will no longer feel the need to throw insane amounts of money to a select few individuals.  They'll be the only game in town.

So like I said, get it while you can. Is there a chance if you take big money upfront and forfeit any ownership rights that the show will become the next FRIENDS and it will air over many platforms, still go into syndication, and make the studio wildly rich while you’ve left millions on the table? Sure. But in this marketplace, I’ll take the upfront money any day. When they call it stupid money, the person receiving it is never the stupid one.

Monday, October 07, 2019

MLB is striking out

WARNING:  This is one of my rants.  

Major League Baseball wonders why it's losing audience. After all, these are the PLAYOFFS. These are the games that mean something (after 162 other games). The World Series used to be a huge event. Now an episode of THE VOICE can beat it.

So what are some of the factors?

Imagine you’re plotting a movie and you decide to put your most suspenseful scenes right at the beginning and your least suspenseful scenes at the end. Kinda dumb, huh? Well, that’s the baseball playoffs.

They begin with two Wild Card games (one for each league) that is sudden death. All the marbles – ONE game. Can’t get higher stakes than that.

Then comes the four Division Series. Those are the best three of five games. So again, the stakes are pretty high. You lose one game and you’re really in a hole. If you lose the first game and don’t win the second then you have to win three straight while the other team only has to win once. That’s pressure, kids. Even if both teams win one, that game three is pivotal. And one pitcher who has a bad inning or one first baseman who lets a ball go through his legs can ruin the entire season.

And now the two league Championship Series. Best four of seven. Each single game takes on less importance. You can weather a bad game or two and still win.

Finally comes the coveted World Series. Also the best four of seven.  By now you’ve had a possible 36 playoff games (if they all go the distance). But let’s be realistic. Say there have only been 29 playoff games. That’s still a lot.

It also used to be that the World Series was the only time teams from each league would play each other. So there was a real novelty factor. Now we have inter-league play so who cares? This year the Dodgers have already played the Yankees. And who gives a shit if the Astros play the Padres?

Starting the games at 8:30 and ending them well after midnight doesn’t help generate fan interest either.  Good luck attracting kids. 

So by the time the World Series ends you’ve sick of baseball, and besides, Thanksgiving is the next day.

Another problem: There are like seven networks carrying the games and it’s not even consistent within a playoff which network is carrying which game. Many of the games are farmed out to lower-tier networks like FS-1. Game times are staggered and not announced until last minute. Fans can’t find the games on TV. Even if they WANTED to watch they had trouble. There’s no continuity.

Then there’s the game itself and the way it’s played now. Friday night the Dodgers lost to the Nationals. They struck out 17 times. That used to be an astonishing number. Not anymore. Saturday Astro's pitcher Gerrit Cole struck out 15 Tampa Bay hitters.  Everybody now swings for the fences. Home run totals are through the roof. But the game is boring. There are seventeen pitching changes. Good hitters foul off nine pitches. That’s exciting to watch. With the added commercial load and the current method of play, these games take upwards of four hours to complete. It used to take two-and-a-half.

Yes, along the way there are some spectacularly entertaining exciting games, but the majority of them aren’t.

I love baseball. I used to live for the playoffs. I would hang on every pitch. And now I’ll watch a game or two if it’s convenient or the Dodgers are playing. For the rest I'll just watch the highlights (guys homering and guys striking out). 

There was a great line when iconic playwright and director George S. Kaufman went to see a play he had directed after it had been running a couple of months. Over that time the cast added things and changed little things. Kaufman put up this announcement on the backstage bulletin board:

REHEARSAL TOMORROW AT 2 TO REMOVE ALL THE IMPROVEMENTS

Baseball needs that same rehearsal.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Weekend Post

People have asked whether I’m gong to see THE JOKER this weekend, and the answer is God NO.

Will I get around to it someday? Maybe.

And I know it will make a shit ton of money this weekend. But here’s what’s holding me back:

It’s yet another comic book movie.

If I’m going to see a Batman movie I at least want to see Batman.

I understand it’s a celebration of guns.

There are deep concerns that some fucking idiot might want to shoot up a theatre that’s showing it, a la the 2012 Aurora massacre when THE DARK KNIGHT RISES premiered.

After that point, no other justifications are necessary but…

The movie got a wretched review in the NEW YORK TIMES.

The movie won the Venice Film Festival. That’s always a warning sign.

I’m not in the mood for a dark cynical empty heartless movie right now.

I don’t give a shit why some outcast becomes a serial killer. I just want to take his guns away.

And finally, the real Joker is in the White House. Why pay good money to see a pale imitation?

Friday, October 04, 2019

Friday Questions

10-4 good buddy. Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

From Brett Bydairk

I was listening to your latest podcast earlier, and a question occurred to me: how does one become a script doctor, those (usually) uncredited folk who rewrite scripts to polish them or fix mistakes?

Well first of all, there are not many of those jobs left. Shows would now rather spend the money for lower level staff writers than once-a-week consultants. There are arguments for both sides. Having a seasoned pro come in can really move things along or solve story problems during rewrites. When you’re in the trenches it’s nice to have someone you can really trust.

On the other hand, this now gives young writers more chances to break in and that’s a very good thing.

You get those jobs by spending years on staff and proving that you are good in a room – pitch lots of jokes that make it into scripts, offer story fixes that work, and present a positive energy that can keep the momentum going or jump start things when it's not.

Eventually you build a reputation, friends in the industry hire you, and you’re on your way.

Proud to say I’ve worked with three of the best: Jerry Belson, Bob Ellison, and David Lloyd.

From Mike Bloodworth

I've asked this about your plays, but it's also applicable to TV scripts. What's the best way to protect a submission from being plagiarized?

Copyright it. Register it with the WGA (you can do that on line). Make a copy and send it to yourself.

Registering with the WGA is probably the easiest.

Gareth Wilson is next.

There was a recent negative review of a Netflix show where the reviewer said the problem was Netflix doesn't have pilots. An entire season was ordered, filmed and released before anyone realised how terrible it was. Do you think the pilot system does a good job of filtering out obviously bad shows?

Every ten years or so a network will decide that making pilots is a waste of money. The result is they have a horrible development season, the shows they air generally tank, and the following development season the pilots are back.

Pilots are helpful. You can tweak as a result. Although shows do evolve and improve over time, you can tell from the pilot whether a certain show just isn’t clicking. No chemistry, the premise doesn’t hold up, the execution sucks, whatever. What sounds good in a meeting, and what looks good on paper sometimes doesn’t translate. Nor is a big star any guarantee of success.

Personally, I would love a series order without a pilot. But I would still really analyze that first episode (pilot) and make changes before charging into the season.

And finally, from Lairbo:

If you were to revive Big Wave Dave's, would you do a straight-up reboot or change it up with some sort of Next Generation twist (the kid Adam Arkin and Jane Kaczmarek find out their going to have now all grown up and in charge, or something)?

It’s not like anyone remembers this show or these characters. Truthfully, I would recast everybody but Kurtwood Smith as the ex-patriot. We would make the others younger and more age-appropriate. I say “we” because I co-created the show with David Isaacs who would join me in showrunning the reboot.

BIG WAVE DAVE’S is about three guys having a midlife crisis. We would have to rewrite and adjust the characters. Today’s 40 year-old is different from the 1990’s 40 year-old.

Meanwhile, no one is clamoring for a reboot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S despite the fact that I still have the sign.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

EP43: Once Upon a Time in Woodland Hills


Ken gets nostalgic and shares all of his futile attempts to be popular in High School. It’s his version of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘60s. 


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Favorite CHEERS episodes

Yesterday I shared my favorite MASH episodes. Several of you have asked that I do the same for CHEERS. For MASH I chose from the whole series, but David Isaacs and I wrote 40 episodes of CHEERS so I think I will list my Top Ten episodes written by Levine & Isaacs.

TO ALL THE GIRLS I’VE LOVED BEFORE – We wrote this without an outline and it actually turned out really well.

RAT GIRL – Lilith keeps a dead rat in her purse. We won a WGA Award for this sensitive episode.

ANY FRIEND OF DIANE’S – Our first CHEERS and the last scene with Sam & Diane is one of my faves.  And Jim Burrows' father, Abe Burrows said he really liked that episode so that's cause for a swelled head. 

TRUCE OR CONSEQUENCES – Our second CHEERS. Shelley Long and Rhea Perlman were both stellar in the episode where they tried to be friends.

JUMPING JERKS – The guys skydive. Just silly but fun and a fan favorite.

BOYS IN THE BAR – Another first season show. The guys fear the bar will go gay. I doubt if we could do this episode today, but it earned us an Emmy nomination, WGA Award, and GLAAD Award.

DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY ON ICE – We had to kill off Eddie LeBec after Jay Thomas insulted Rhea Perlman on the radio. Happy with the result and it earned us another Emmy nomination.

BAR WARS – The first of what became a series. We wrote this last minute over a weekend and then the WGA went on strike. Paramount was allowed to film existing material but not change it, so what you see on the screen was our rushed first draft. It could’ve been better with polish, but considering the circumstances it didn't suck. 

BREAKING IN IS HARD TO DO – We built an entire episode to payoff one big joke at the end. It was very risky but thankfully it worked. The laugh was about a minute.

THE BIG KISS OFF – Another very frothy episode but lots of laughs another fan favorite. Kirstie was particularly good. 

We wrote so many that I could also do a Bottom Ten… but I won’t. And even those might be better than I think. 

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Favorite MASH episodes

Here’s an FQ that became a whole post.

Roger Owen Green asks:

REGARDLESS of whether you were involved or not, what are your:
10 favorite MASH episodes?

There are a couple of our episodes I wouldn't put in the top 100.  But to answer your question:

I present these in no particular order. Most of these were written by Larry Gelbart and Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum. Only three are ours. (Out of Sight/Out of Mind is a sentimental favorite because that was our first and pretty much launched our career. It’s probably how the Beatles felt about “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”)

I’m sure you’ll notice that the final episode is not included. Sorry. Just not a fan.

In my opinion: “The General Flipped at Dawn” is the funniest. “The Interview” is the most poignant.

Since there are well over 200 episodes I’m sure if you polled 1000 different people you’d get 1000 different polls. But this is mine (although another 20 just missed the cut).

The Interview

The More I See You

The General Flipped at Dawn

Point of View

Hawkeye

Tuttle

Out of Sight/Out of Mind

Abyssinia Henry

Sometimes You Hear a Bullet

Goodbye Radar Part 2

Monday, September 30, 2019

The new TV season so far

So last year the MURPHY BROWN reboot opened to disappointing ratings. 1.1 in adults. This year not one debuting new show has gotten that high a number.

Are you surprised? I’m not.

Name me one broadcast network new show you were excited to see? Patricia Heaton in yet another sitcom? I love Patty Heaton but this just screams of network desperation. Shows must be populated with known names. Hence Patty Heaton Walton Goggins, Brad Whitford, Cobie Smulders, Billy Gardell… and in years past, Kevin James, Matt LeBlac, Matthew Perry, Joel McCray, Martin Mull, Max Greenfield, Katy Sagal, Judd Hirsch, and pretty much anyone who had a network show between 1995-2017.

I just don’t get it.

Practically every Emmy went to a non-broadcast network show. When clearly the taste of the audience is leaning towards more original fare, why do networks continue to just recycle faces and ideas?

Patricia Heaton goes back to school. How many times have we seen that?

Walton Goggins – widowed father with kids trying to get back in the dating scene. Exact same premise as the last season of KEVIN CAN WAIT. And it was a tired premise then.

Is Walton Goggins, a fantastic character actor when playing a creepy guy, really a romantic lead big enough to build a network sitcom around? That’s like when the Seattle Mariners spent a gazillion dollars for Robinson Cano. Did Robinson Cano put one extra butt in the seats?

I have to laugh when I pick up ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’S TV Fall Preview and there’s all these interviews with stars and showrunners touting how unique and special their shows are when they’re anything but.

Interestingly, most of these shows were not helped by 3 Day adjustments. And those were the premiers. What do you think is going to happen this week and next?

And the networks’ takeaway of course: Comedy is dead. No one wants to see comedy. Meanwhile, the young audience they’re so desperately trying to attract are watching FRIENDS in record numbers.

There are other actors out there. There are original ideas out there. Why not seek them out? What do you have to lose? You CAN’T do worse than you’re doing now. Except for next year if you stay on the same path.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Friday Questions

I have a short play opening at the Hollywood Short + Sweet Festival tonight. Come see it. In the meantime, your Friday Questions for the week:

Andrew gets us started.

I've heard that on some sitcoms, when a character became an unexpected breakout sensation, the rest of the cast were frustrated about being overshadowed and/or the show's direction changing. Examples would be Good Times (J.J.) and Family Matters (Urkel). Have you ever experienced this on any shows you worked on? What are your thoughts on why some shows seem to adjust better than others (like Happy Days)?

More than anything else it depends on the star. If the star is gracious then fine. In cases like that the star is aware that high tides float all boats and a breakout characters means success for the show – thus more money and accolades for YOU.

But if the star is an idiot or must hog the spotlight then the new dynamic is hell. Cybill springs to mind.

So kudos to Kelsey Grammer for being so supportive of David Hyde Pierce. Same with Ronny Howard on HAPPY DAYS. He embraced Henry Winkler’s Fonzie.

I’m reminded of the great Jack Benny (who had his own radio and TV variety show for 274 years). Someone said to him, “I don’t understand it. You let all your supporting characters have the big jokes” to which he said, “Ahhh, yes, but the show is called THE JACK BENNY program. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore understood that as well.

Gary ask:.

Ken, when you were directing a show that was written by others, were you still thinking of funnier lines to replace those in the script? If you've written comedy I imagine there's no way to turn off that trigger in your brain. And did you ever suggest a funnier line while directing, or would that be a serious breach of show business protocol?

I would ask the showrunner beforehand if I could do that because yes, lots of times I thought of better jokes than were on the page.

Some showrunners welcomed that and were very appreciate. Others said no, show us what we wrote. In those cases, if something didn’t work I would pitch the new line back in the room and occasionally it would go in.

But the short answer is it was the showrunner’s call and I bowed to his wishes. And by the way, if he didn’t want me offering suggested new lines, that was okay too. I never took it personally. I wouldn’t let a freelance director toss in lines in one of my shows before approving them with me first.

From Susan:

You are a good writer, you had scripts and also the directing experience. With your money and maybe some raised from outside, why didn't you make your own independent movie, than be dependent on these horrible studios?

Too much money coupled with very little likelihood I would find a film distributor (unless I had a big star in my little film).

Most small independent movies cost well over six figures and wind up as DVD’s on coffee tables or are forever being entered to film festivals.

For every BLAIR WITCH PROJECT there are a thousand movies that lose a fortune. I’ve known a number of my writer friends who boldly took that step and wiped out their life savings to make movies that maybe twelve people have ever seen.

Doesn’t seem like a good bet to me.

And finally, Mike Bloodworth queries:

Have you or a show you've worked for ever been accused of stealing someone else's idea? In other words, have you i.e. you staff ever come up with a story so similar to someone's who's spec script was rejected that it caused problems?

A couple of times on MASH. 20th Century Fox did a deposition with us at our office and they took it from there. I don’t know the details but do know we always won.

My Friday Question is “what’s YOUR Friday Question?”

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

EP142: Meet radio star Shotgun Tom Kelly


How many disc jockeys have a star on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame?  Okay, several, but Shotgun Tom is one of them. Currently on Sirius/XM’s 60’s on 6 channel he’s had a colorful career in an industry that used to be really fun and now sucks.  But together we relive the good stuff.


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If I could do it, then ANYONE could

When David Isaacs and I decided to try writing TV scripts in an attempt to break into the business a lot of my friends thought I was crazy. Then we landed an assignment on THE JEFFERSONS and were on our way.

Within a couple of months a number of friends then began pairing up and writing spec scripts themselves. Their motivation was pretty clear. “If these guys could make it, we certainly could.”

Only one of those teams broke through. Larry Balmagia & Dennis Koenig. Both had terrific careers, both together and apart. A couple of the other teams at least finished their spec script. A number of others abandoned the project halfway through. Who knew is was HARD to write a good half hour sitcom episode?

Flash forward and I’m now writing stage plays. Mostly full-lengths. But to complement them I also write ten-minute plays. Ten-minute play festivals have become a “thing.” And I’ve been extremely fortunate. Amid all the rejections, I’ve gotten into a considerable number. Unlike full-lengths, they take a day to write and not four months. And they’re fun to write.

So just like with my TV writing venture, a number of friends have also tried their hand at ten-minute plays. I’ve had three of them so far.

But unlike TV, all three have stuck with it, all three are really talented, and all three have broken in. Dan O’Day, Elden Rhoads, and Andy Goldberg each are enjoying multiple productions of their ten-minute plays around the world.

At this point, let me say that breaking in is no easy feat. These festivals now receive upwards of 400 submissions for eight or ten slots. It’s not just, “If he could make it, I certainly could.”

This Friday begins two weekends of the Short + Sweet Hollywood Festival. I’m lucky enough to have two plays in. DATING THROUGH THE DECADES this weekend (Charlie Chaplin program) and PLAY IT AGAIN, SIRI next weekend (Cary Grant program.

But it’s not just me. Andy and Dan have plays in the festival as well. (Elden has a play too but it’s in Australia.)

So how good are we? Come see for yourself. They’re playing at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre (she was married to a playwright once) at the Stressberg Institute in Hollywood. Here’s where you go for information and tickets. Stop by and see what I wrought upon the world. I guarantee you’ll be delighted. I’ll be there for every performance of my plays so please say hi. Dan's play is in the Stanwyck program and Andy's follows mine in the Grant program. 

Note to all my friends: Next up I want to try skydiving.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

My favorite TV themes



Here’s a FQ that became a full post.

ScottyB asked:

Hola, Ken. I’m of the same mind as you regarding opening theme songs. I’m roughly your age, and I mourn them to this day same as you. So — what would be your Top 5 TV show theme songs?

Happily, an astonishing three of them are from shows I worked on. MASH, CHEERS, and THE JEFFERSONS.

Johnny Mandell wrote the theme for MASH, originally for the movie. There were lyrics but we never once used them on the TV show. Think of all the times you’ve watched MASH, have you ever fast-forwarded through the opening credits?  Bet you'll click on the video above. 

The CHEERS theme, written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo fit perfectly with the visual montage created by Castle-Bryant. By the way, that’s Gary Portnoy singing the theme.

Actress Janet DuBois, who sang the iconic JEFFERSONS theme also co-wrote it with Jeff Barry. Has there ever been a more infectious TV theme song than THE JEFFERSONS? Even college marching bands can’t fuck it up (although they all try).

Now, among the 99.99999999% of shows I didn’t work on:

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Lalo Schifrin’s heart-pounding theme over preview highlights while the fuse burned was the perfect adrenaline rush to launch you into the show. And admit it, when watching a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie, didn’t you love it when that theme began blaring?

And finally, maybe my favorite TV theme of all-time – PETER GUNN way back in the ‘50s written by Henry Mancini. That sinister guitar/piano bass line that just pulses through the song gets me right in the kischkis. And the horns build to a thrilling climax. Younger readers may not be familiar with it, so here it is:



Other honorable mentions:

THE AVENGERS
THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW
FRIENDS
HAWAII 5-0
WKRP IN CINCINNATI
THE HONEYMOONERS
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW
TOP CAT
THE MONKEES

And I'm sure there are another ten I just can't think of offhand.  What are your favorites?

Monday, September 23, 2019

Last night's abomination

Like an idiot, I watched the Emmys last night. Happy for the winners. I sure prefer Phoebe Waller-Bridge to be the Flavor of the Month instead of Lena Dunham.

And I’m glad I chose not to review them because this year’s show was utterly and completely classless. That’s all I can say. Felicity Huffman jokes. Cosby jokes. Roseanne jokes. Instead of having a host they had Anthony Anderson and his mother steal Emmys.  Think about it.  That looks good. The show was a pathetic attempt to be funny and edgy and thus obliterate any stature and prestige the ceremony was supposed to celebrate.

And since it was on Fox we got the fucking MASKED SINGER shoved down our throats.  More excellence in television.  Oh, and can we NEVER see Ken Jeong again?  NEVER EVER.

The nominees deserved more respect. The winners deserved more respect. And it’s time the industry take a good hard look at how they present themselves to the viewing public. Last night’s ceremony was a disgrace.  

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Friday, September 20, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions roll around again.

Kubelsky starts us off:

I read that at the 31st Emmys (1979), the "ceremony [was] remembered for problems with the Pasadena Civic Auditorium's air-conditioning..."
Ken, you were nominated this year for "Point of View." Can you shed some light on this? Was it sweltering in there? Noisy? Too cold? 

Also, this seems to be the only year where sitcom and comedy/variety categories were merged... how did it feel to be up against an SNL episode in the writing category? They are completely different animals!

For those keeping score, the other nominees that year were the "All in the Family" episode where the Bunkers visit Mike & Gloria in California, Michael Leeson for "Blind Date" (Taxi) and Alan Alda for the M*A*S*H episode "Inga" (which won, prompting Alda to do a cartwheel on his way to the podium).

Oh, that’s right. The Emmys are this weekend. I may or may not even watch them. No review. As I’ve said before, the nominees and categories are now a joke. At this rate, WALKING DEAD will soon win for Best Variety Special.

Yes, it seemed unfair to be lumped in with SNL simply because it was a different genre. It wasn’t fair to any of the nominees including SNL.

To be honest, I don’t remember an air-conditioning problem that night. The auditorium may have been hot but I was sweating for other reasons. I was, of course, disappointed that we didn’t win for POINT OF VIEW but I was really furious that Charles Dubin didn’t win for directing POINT OF VIEW. He did a masterful job.

From -30-

If you were a major league baseball player, what would your walk-up music be?

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion.

Edward wonders:

What are your thoughts on season-ending cliffhangers to hopefully keep the viewer's interest so they stick around to watch a new season?

The problem with cliffhangers is the audience has to really be invested in your show to care. I see some shows doing cliffhangers and laugh. No one other than the people who work on that show give a shit. And probably half of them don’t.

If your show is doing well enough that a sizeable audience does care then it’s unnecessary to inflate the ratings.

And it can really be ludicrous if your show is on cable or a streaming service because you can go a year or more between seasons. No one is going to sit at the edge of his seat for 18 months. By the time the show comes back most people will have forgotten that there even IS a cliffhanger.

All that said, if you’re the type of show that does cliffhangers and you’ve got a real doozy, then by all means do it. And if it captures the audience’s imagination it might become an “event” like “Who shot JR?” from DALLAS.

And finally, from Chris in Cleveland

I know the old adage; If you want to write for Hollywood TV and films, you need to BE in Hollywood. But in this 21st century age of Netflix and other streaming services, is there a way to pitch scripts or series ideas to any of these content providers living outside of LA LA Land?

Yes. If you’re Aaron Sorkin. If you’re established. You can Face Time from Bhutan.

Otherwise, you need to be available for face-to-face meetings. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t live elsewhere and just fly in for the meetings. But that could get expensive.

And if you hope to get on staff then at some point you need to move to LA. For freelance screenwriters, once the meetings are through and you’ve got the assignment, you can go off and write the draft at the Starbucks in Bhutan.

So I wouldn’t say, no, you have to live in LA. But this is an incredibly competitive field and NOT being “in the room where it happens” puts you at a distinct disadvantage.

Best of luck. 

What’s your Friday Questions?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

EP141: Taking Meetings in Hollywood


Ken discusses the various and wacky movie meetings he and his partner, David Isaacs have “taken” over the years. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Uh oh. Another one of my rants

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post because it gave me a chance to rant. And you know I LOVE to rant.

Kendall Rivers asks:

You've been doing the TV comedy thing for quite a while. Now in this current oversensitive climate we're in how much hell is it for you as a comedy writer to have more pressure than ever to not offend anyone when writing a joke? These days writing a slight against string could wreak havoc.

I can’t think of a worse time. Ever.   Mostly because things are so confusing. You have people who are offended by the smallest slight and you have a president who makes blatant racist remarks, insults women, belittles soldiers that fight for the country, and mock the handicapped and millions of followers are totally fine with that.

How do you write satire when what’s actually happening in America is so much more bizarre than the Onion or SNL or late night comics could exaggerate for comic effect? And it’s hard to laugh because it’s so tragic.

So that’s one side of it. Focusing more on your  question, there’s the enlightened side whose feelings must not be hurt at all costs.

Some stand up comedians won’t play colleges anymore because the students are too overly sensitive. College kids are supposed to be irreverent, subversive, anarchistic. Up until now they thumbed their nose. Now they shield their ears.

How did this happen?  

Humor should push boundaries. It should shine a light on our absurdities, hypocrisies, and foibles. That doesn’t necessarily mean “mean spirited,” but it also doesn’t mean we must avoid offending everyone at all costs. Yes, some of the humor is pointed at us, but we used to be a society that could handle that. We used to be able to laugh at ourselves. We didn’t need safe rooms.

So TV writers do have it harder these days. Networks won’t let you do anything controversial. The concession is you can now do sophomoric sex jokes. Not a fair trade-off as far as I’m concerned.

Personally, I get my comedy from stand-up specials these days. And the best one I’ve found is the new Dave Chappelle Special on Netflix. It’s so refreshing to see a fearless comic, who is also devastatingly funny and insightful. But warning: He pulls no punches. Spares no sacred cows. Like I said, it helps that he’s brilliant. But as I was watching it I thought: Lenny Bruce would be proud.  He's taken a lot of shit for it (good for him), but I find it interesting that on Rotten Tomatoes critics give him a 27% score but Netflix viewers give him 99% approval.  

Could the tide, ever so slightly be turning?

We need MORE comedy today. And we need to allow the artists who make comedy more freedom to take chances and swing for the fences.  Otherwise, we’re all marooned on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

An argument for writing scripts

I’ve read a number of articles lately about life in the writers room. A long one about FRIENDS, one about Chuck Lorre shows, and they all tout the benefits of most of the script writing being done by the collective group. FRIENDS at least used to send writers out to craft a first draft, but then the staff would have at it and it would be a feeding frenzy. Chuck Lorre shows even avoid that step. First drafts are written at the table by committee and then writers’ names are just assigned. No writer ever gets to do a “first draft.”

And other shows are set up similarly.

One could argue that the system works. I would say especially in the case of FRIENDS. Those episodes are little gems and the reruns have become a worldwide sensation.

But I think at a price to young writers.

Young writers need to write drafts by themselves for their own development. If you’re a young writer on staff YOU need to come up with those big jokes that end scenes, YOU need to make adjustments when the story outline doesn’t work, YOU need to write that tender speech. And then YOU need to do the rewrite, find new better jokes, find more artful ways of making story turns, discover ways of satisfying notes you don’t agree with but are obligated to do.

In a room you let the big joke guy come up with those zingers and you let the story guy figure act 2 fixes. You can zone out when the staff bats around a thorny story issue and rejoin the conversation when it’s been resolved. Even in the FRIENDS article it said that creators David Crane and Marta Kaufman did most of the heavy lifting when it came to emotional moments, arcs, and the direction of the series. The writers were told that “Comedy is King” and their job primarily was to pepper the show with killer jokes.

James L. Brooks, co-creator of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, which begat TAXI, which begat CHEERS, which begat FRASIER always had a saying: “At some point you’ve got to be a writer.” I’m so glad I was weaned in that camp. You had to write first drafts. And the goal was to get as much of your original script into the final show despite whatever rewriting was done after you turned it in. There’s a real sense of author’s pride when 90% of your script makes it to air. And it’s a real learning experience when only 10% does.

I’m so glad I was part of that group. That system down through the years produced some great young writers like the Charles Brothers, Earl Pomerantz, Gary David Goldberg, Hugh Wilson, Peter Casey, David Lee, David Angell, Heide Perlman, Christopher Lloyd, Steve Levitan, Sam Simon, Ken Estin, Barry Kemp, Bill & Cheri Steinkellner, Phoef Sutton, Dan O’Shannon, Tom Anderson, Dan Staley, Rob Long, Joe Keenan, Anne Flett-Giordano, Chuck Ramberg, and quite a few others. Some of those names might not sound familiar today but they all had major careers filled with Emmys and hit series they created.

And I’ll go back a step further and say it’s the way Carl Reiner worked when he created and ran THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. He developed such writers as Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Bill Persky & San Denoff.

When I was directing DHARMA & GREG I was talking to a young staff writer at the wrap party. D&G was a Chuck Lorre show so all room-written. And again, that system turned out consistently funny scripts — but the writer was worried that after two years of this he couldn’t write a script on his own again. It eroded his confidence. After two years on a show you’re supposed to feel better about yourself and your skills as a writer, not worse.

Now a show runner could certainly argue that his job wasn’t to teach young writers but to turn out the best shows he can. Young writers were hired who had the talent to contribute to his agenda in his system. And that’s certainly true, but I come from a generation where it was important to pay it forward. I had Jim Brooks and Larry Gelbart and the Charles Brothers as mentors. I was truly blessed. I would not be a quarter of the writer I am without their tutelage. So I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to mentor young writers on my staff. And that means my young writers have to write drafts. It’s more pressure on them, more responsibility, more work, but in the end I believe it is so worth it. (And, by the way, it’s more work for me as well — giving outline notes, giving second draft notes, rewriting their drafts. But still, it’s worth it.

There’s another more self-serving benefit to grooming young writers. In time on a successful show you can step away a little and they can assume more important roles.

I know this may sound like one of those “back in MY DAY” rants, but I do believe it’s essential that young writers be allowed to write scripts. Isn’t that why we all wanted to get into the business in the first place?

Monday, September 16, 2019

Happy Birthday Dad

This is always a tough day because it was my father’s birthday. Cliff Levine would have been 92. He made it to 89. Only the good die too soon.

People ask where I got my sense of humor. It was from my dad. I was hoping for his looks, but the sense of humor has served me well.

I was lucky enough to have a great father. He’s always been my role model… except when it comes to playing golf or fixing things.

He was always supportive, which took some real doing. When your kid wants to be a Top 40 disc jockey or TV comedy writer and at 8 years-old was announcing Little League Games instead of playing them, I’m sure it took real willpower to not lock me in a crate. I see parents wrestling with their child wanting to be transgender and I think, yeah but it’s not like he wants to go into radio. And not only did Dad let me go off and follow my DJ dream, he even listened to me (once or twice). Forget FIELD OF DREAMS – that’s a father’s love.

Cliff (as I never called him) had a distinguished career in broadcast management and followed that up by doing charity work and acting on television. Eventually he became a star on our Nancy Travis series, ALMOST PERFECT (he really sold those two lines a show).

One of the great days of my life was May 15, 1982. Dad and I happened to both be in New York and on that Saturday he took me to Washington Heights to see where he grew up. And we got a drink together. There was a guy with a pushcart who had a fully functional bar (true story). So we stood in line and got a drink. This was 10 a.m.

I love him and miss him everyday. So please, whatever street corner you’re currently on, have the bartender pour you a cool one and raise a glass to Cliff Levine.

Cheers, Dad.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday the 13th Questions

Hopefully they’ll bring you good luck.

Tom in Vegas starts us off:

For those of us not in the business, what exactly is a "Spec Script?”

Tom, it’s a script that is written on speculation. In other words, no one is paying you to write it. It generally is a sample script of an existing show.

At one time producers only wanted specs of existing shows. Then the trend turned towards spec pilots. Now I’m getting the sense it’s slowly coming back the other way.

If I’m a showrunner I want to see that the writer can write in the style and voice of an existing show. He or she may have a fresh voice in pilots but I’m not looking for a fresh voice. I’m looking for someone who can adapt to my show.

Along those same line, Mike Bloodworth has a question.

I've been told that when one is trying to get on a staff he or she should not submit a script for that show, but samples of other shows they've written to demonstrate their skill, I guess this is to avoid the old, "Hey! You stole my idea!" accusation. Is this true? Or was I given bad information.

That’s one concern although if it’s submitted by an agent there’s an understanding that the writer won’t sue. I’ve talked about this before. Spec scripts will come in that are coincidentally similar to stories already in development.

Even on a general level. Their script may be Klinger falls in love with a hooker and a script already out to a writer could be the story Klinger falls in love with the general’s daughter.

Typically writers have a tough time winning these types of lawsuits. And they do it at their own risk because no one will hire them afterwards. So you damn well better win. (And some have and have ridden happily off into the sunset.)

The real concern for writers is that the showrunner and staff of that show know it so well that any tiny infraction you make will be flagged. The thought is you’re leading with your chin.

However, I don’t subscribe to this. I would MUCH rather a writer do a spec of my show. I don’t expect him to know all the ins and outs. But can he write my characters? Are his jokes funny and in the style of the show? Even if the story has flaws, is it the type of stories we tell in an approximation of the way we tell it?

I’ve been burned in the past by good spec scripts for one show and a lousy draft for mine.

From JAS:

Friday Question: I saw an article today about Adele Lim quitting the Crazy Rich Asians sequel because she was being paid 1/10 what her (white) co-screenwriter was being paid. Warner Bros. put out a statement that compensation is based on experience, etc. However, Lim seems to have a ton more experience than her co-screenwriter. The difference is that she's written a lot of TV, while her co-screenwriter's (very few) credits are on features.

As someone who has written for both TV and features, can you give an insider's take on this situation? Is it pure racism/sexism? Or is there really that much of a disparity between how Hollywood values experienced television writers versus more inexperienced feature writers? Do you think you would have made more on the movies you've written if you didn't a television resume?

I would be so far out of line to speculate whether there’s racism or sexism. But it is true that the more experience you have the more money you can generally command.

When negotiating with agents, the first thing the business affairs person will ask is what were her “quotes?” In other words, what was she paid on the last assignment? The goal is to work your way up the ladder to a high quote because it’s easier for the agent to get that price again or better it.

But at the end of the day it’s up to the studio to determine how much this writer is worth it to them. Can they lowball a writer knowing it might insult him and he could break off negotiations? If they don’t give a shit that he walks then yes. But if they need the deal to be done they won’t start with a bullshit number. The writer’s quote is the bottom line. And here again the studio has a decision. Do they want this writer enough that they’re willing to match or beat the quote?

So was racism or sexism in the equation? I have absolutely no idea. But I know this: IF a studio has a chance to screw you, pay you less money than your co-writer assuming he’ll never find out, they’ll do it every single time. Regardless of race, sex, age, experience, blood type. 

And finally, from Liggie:

A baseball question. I've heard MLB would like to expand from 30 to 32 teams, to consist of two leagues with four divisions of four teams each a la the NFL. Which cities would you like to put these hypothetical two teams, and in which league? (Assuming they can get a stadium built, of course.)

Montreal and Charlotte, North Carolina.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

EP140: Inside the Writer’s Mind


Listen to a ten-minute play that Ken wrote and hear him walk you through his thought process. Lots of creative decisions need to be made. It’s a great lesson in how you craft a comedy scene. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

9-11 and David and Lynn Angell

I re-post this every year on this date and always will. 

9/11 affected us all, profoundly and in many cases personally. Two of my dear friends were on flight 11. David and Lynn Angell. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of them, missed them, and not felt grateful that they were in my life.

David and I worked together on CHEERS, WINGS, and FRASIER (the latter two he co-created). We used to call him the “dean”. In his quiet way he was the one we always looked to for final approval of a line or a story direction. He brought a warmth and humanity to his writing that hopefully rubbed off on the rest of us “schickmeisters”. And he could be funny – sneaky funny. During long rewrite sessions he tended to be quiet. Maybe two or three times a night he’d pitch a joke – but they were always the funniest jokes of the script.


For those of you hoping to become comedy writers yourselves, let David Angell be your inspiration. Before breaking in he worked in the U.S. Army, the Pentagon, an insurance firm, an engineering company, and then when he finally moved out to L.A. he did “virtually every temp job known to man” for five years. Sometimes even the greatest talents take awhile to be recognized.

I first met David the first season of CHEERS. He came in to pitch some stories. He had been recommended after writing a good NEWHART episode. This shy quiet man who looked more like a quantum physics professor than a comedy writer, slinked into the room, mumbled through his story pitches, and we all thought, “is this the right guy? He sure doesn’t seem funny.” Still, he was given an assignment (“Pick a con…any con”) and when the script came back everyone was just blown away. He was quickly given a second assignment (“Someone single, someone blue”) and that draft came back even better. I think the first order of business for the next season was to hire David Angell on staff.

After 9/11, David’s partners Peter Casey & David Lee called me and my partner into their office. There was a FRASIER script David Angell was about to write. (It was the one where Lilith’s brother arrived in a wheelchair and became an evangelist. Michael Keaton played the part.) Peter & David asked if we would write it and for me that was a greater honor than even winning an Emmy.

David’s wife, Lynn, was also an inspiration. She devoted her life to helping others – tirelessly working on creating a children’s library and a center that serves abused children.

My heart goes out to their families. To all of the families.

I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

So tragic, so senseless, and even eighteen years later, so inconceivable.