Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The upcoming live ALL IN THE FAMILY/JEFFERSONS episodes

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post:

Ben asked:

Ken, what do you think of Jimmy Kimmel producing a live airing of All in the Family and Jeffersons episodes (with Norman Lear's blessing) on May 22? Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei as Archie and Edith, Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes as George and Louise.

Well, first of all it’s a ratings stunt, pure and simple. Which is fine if it’s good.

I’m also not sure why it has to be live but that certainly adds a level of suspense and intrigue to the project. Will it come off without a hitch? If there’s a screw up, what will it be? I’m not a NASCAR fan but is that one of its big attractions? Possible crashes? To me the only read advantage of going live is that ALL IN THE FAMILY could be topical up to the moment.

But what’s interesting is this: ALL IN THE FAMILY was a show very much set in its time. Archie Bunker was a bigot and short-sighted, but underneath that was a frightened man who was set in his ways and terrified that the world was changing around him and he couldn’t reconcile it. Will they be doing a vintage script and make ALL IN THE FAMILY a period piece? If not, then I assume Archie just becomes a big Trump supporter and if so I have zero empathy for him. I won’t find him remotely funny. Frankly, I haven’t read enough about the details to know how they plan to tackle this.

To me the one thing they have going for them is that James Burrows is directing it. He’s the best multi-cam director in history, he’s done live shows before (WILL & GRACE), and if anybody can pull this off with flair and intelligence it’s Jimmy. So I’ll be watching (unless Archie dons a MAGA hat).

As for the new casts, remember a huge portion of the audience will be seeing these classic series for the first time. To those of us familiar with these iconic series it seems impossible to think of anyone other than Carroll O’Connor and Sherman Hemsley in the title roles, but who knows? Woody & Jamie are great.  So is Wanda Sykes.  I have my reservations about Marisa Tomei as Edith but willing to give it a shot. 

Currently, I have a one act play in the EST One Act Festival at the Atwater Theatre. It plays this weekend and then closes so come see it. The play is a two-hander. The two actors are sensational and great together. Well, one of the actors has a commitment to do a project back east and has had to leave the play. We knew this going in. So another actor is stepping in and it’s fascinating. He’s very different from the first but equally terrific and it gives the play a little different spin. He brings different qualities to the same script. There’s still great chemistry but it’s a different chemistry.

So a new Archie or a new George Jefferson might be fun. I’m sure there will be many who just can’t get over seeing new actors play these roles, but I’m willing to give ‘em a try.  Also, for me, Woody Harrelson can do no wrong. 

As a result, I go into this endeavor with curiosity. There are lots of questions – how good will the scripts be? If they use vintage scripts will THE JEFFERSONS use the one David Isaacs and I wrote?  Will the new actors pull it off? Will I have to turn it off if Archie defends Kavanaugh? Will it fly on its own or will all the gimmicks like airing live be necessary? What will the ratings be? The irony is it airs on a night I’m in an improv workshop so I won’t be watching it live. But I wish everyone involved good luck and offer that you couldn’t be in better hands than with Jimmy Burrows.

Monday, May 20, 2019

It all ended with a medium size bang

Network television ratings continue to plummet. A glaring example was the audience for the final BIG BANG THEORY. They drew 18 million viewers and for that CBS was turning cartwheels. I’m sorry. That’s a low number. You could argue there are way more options today, yada yada, but this is a show that has been on the air for twelve years. And is seen in syndication on numerous stations and is available for streaming. Over twelve years it should have accumulated enough fans that for its grand finale it received eye-popping numbers.

But then that speaks to network numbers in general. When only ten million viewers are watching a week then eighteen is a big jump. But ten million is really not a lot – not compared to what shows used to get. So sure if a series got 30 million viewers a week you could expect a whopping finale number. Still, twelve years. That’s a long time for people to discover and fall in love with a show.

What I’d be interested in knowing is whether the same number of viewers knew of and at one time watched both THE BIG BANG THEORY and for argument’s sake, FRIENDS. If so, shouldn’t THE BIG BANG THEORY still get FRIENDS-type finale numbers?

THE BIG BANG THEORY could also be a victim of series finale-itis. So many series have wrapped up that it’s less of a big deal today. Series finales used to be “events.” Today not so much. Hell, the Academy Awards are meh and World Series games are getting half of what they used to draw (or less). So it’s possible THE BIG BANG THEORY does have as many fans as FRIENDS it just that the BBT fans weren’t all that excited to see the finale.

All that said, I thought THE BIG BANG THEORY finale was well done. Nice touches like the elevator finally worked.

Anyway, to compare THE BIG BANG THEORY’S 18 million viewers, here are the Top 10 scripted shows – and yes, I realize some of these are from a bygone era of just three networks, but just on sheer strength of numbers, other finales made way more of an impact.

First of course was MASH. 106 million viewers. The entire country stopped to watch that show back in 1983.

Number two is CHEERS. We drew 80.4 million in 1993 and that too was like a national holiday. Not included in those numbers was the huge crowd in the Boston Common that watched on Jumbovision screens.

Number three was THE FUGITIVE finale from 1967. For years that was the highest rated show of all-time – scripted, non-scripted, whatever. It drew 78 million. And the big story there is that ABC didn’t want a conclusion to the series but its producer, QUINN MARTIN felt it was so important he was willing to pay for it himself.

Next is the SEINFELD finale in 1998. For most fans, myself included, it really fizzled. But it was seen by 76.3 million.

And speaking of FRIENDS, they finished fifth. 52.5 million watched in 2004. That’s almost three times TBB’s ratings.

Number six surprised me – MAGNUN PI.I in 1988. 50.7 million folks checked in.

THE COSBY SHOW was number seven. 44.4 million, which is probably how much money he’s spent on legal fees over the last four or five years.

That’s followed by ALL IN THE FAMILY – 40.2 million in 1979 although Archie Bunker went on to a spin-off series.

FAMILY TIES was ninth in 1989. That’s another one that surprised me. 36.3 million were on hand for that.

And finally, HOME IMPROVEMENT captured 34.4 million in 1999.

Shows that didn’t make the Top Ten include FRASIER (#11), DALLAS (#12) and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (#15). And I’m sure they all drew way more than 18 million.

Bottom line, when long-running beloved shows don’t draw mega numbers that’s a sure sign that broadcast networks are on their way out. Their argument has always been they’re the easiest platform to access and all they need to get big numbers is a show people really want to watch. You’d think they’d want to see THE BIG BANG THEORY.

UPDATE:  The GAME OF THRONES finale, which is on HBO that only a percentage of the audience can get drew 19.3 million last night.  Just sayin'.  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Weekend Post

Congratulations to everyone involved in THE BIG BANG THEORY, which ended its 12 year run this week with a nice send off.  That's quite an accomplishment, especially in this day and age where a series can be in year 6 and only have 36 episodes.

There were a number of articles about the show this week.  Some tributes and some analysis.   I, of course find the analysis amusing.  How much was the appeal due to geek-related references?  Was its throwback multi-camera style a help or hindrance?   Were the addition of two women characters responsible for its ultimate ratings climb?  

Here's why THE BIG BANG THEORY was popular:

It was FUNNY.

It had actual JOKES.

It was a comedy that strove to make you LAUGH.

It wasn't niche, it wasn't dark, it wasn't redefining television.

People tune in a comedy because they want to laugh.  THE BIG BANG THEORY delivered.  They weren't aiming at smiles, or wry nods of the head.  They sought to entertain.

Was it a perfect show?  No.  The stories were often paper-thin and not all jokes worked despite the audience's orgasmic reaction to each one.  But a lot of jokes DID work.  And the cast was terrific.  The sets were pleasant to look at.  The pace was brisk.    Personally, I thought the jokes were better and sharper earlier in the run, but they were also fresher. All long running series suffer from recycling material.

But Chuck Lorre assembled a funny cast and a room of very funny writers.

That formula seems like a no-brainer but no one else seems to be doing it.  Either the cast is attractive but not funny or the writing doesn't really pop.   And again, when I hear showrunners proudly claim they don't write jokes to me what they're saying is they CAN'T write jokes.

So congratulations to THE BIG BANG THEORY.  Scientists will tell you that sometimes the most obvious solutions are the ones right in front of us. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions, shall we?

Marcus starts us off:

Did Crystal Bernard actually play the cello on Wings? If so, did she learn it for the show or know how to beforehand?

No, she didn’t play the cello. But she was a terrific singer and I think had some hit songs on the country charts. She also starred on Broadway in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN at one time. Crystal is immensely talented but alas not a cellist.

B Smith wonders:

I was watching an episode of MASH last night (for the zillionth time) and as those two choppers came in during the opening titles, it occurred to me that there had never been an episode that actually featured two helicopters. Presumably the expense dictated just using one, but am I right?

We might have used some stock footage of two helicopters if there was a big triage, but we never landed two choppers on that chopper pad. Certainly the expense was a factor, but also if we had to land two helicopters we could use stock footage and cut to when they landed and establish through camera angles and different people on the choppers.

One other factor: When we went out to the ranch to film the exteriors we would get one day per episode. And we would shoot 8 ½ pages. Trust me, that’s an insane amount for one day. So the less complicated we could make things for everybody, the better. One helicopter more than sufficed on most occasions.

From Breadbaker:

I was watching Cheers, Season 1, Episode 7, Friends, Romans, Accountants, an episode written by you and David, of course. In the episode, the bar was filled with accountants as extras, nearly all of whom never said a word. At the end of the episode, when they're hoisting Norm for having told off the boss, the band is playing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow", but no one is singing, which honestly feels unnatural. Was this because if the extras opened their mouths they'd be paid more and that would blow the budget? I imagine in Season One of Cheers, it was difficult enough to get that many extras into an episode, as the show was hardly a hit.

Here’s why: That wasn’t supposed to be the ending. Norm’s toga was supposed to catch on the door as they hoisted him out and it would remain as he went up the stairs supposedly naked. But we couldn’t get the trick to work. So what you saw and heard was a patched together ending. We added the band playing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in post production. There’s even a stock shot of Boston at night to kill a few seconds and button the scene.

Some things work, some things don’t.

That’s Baseball, Suzyn.

And finally, from Vincent Saia:

When (Robert Pirosh) and George Seaton were working on A DAY AT THE RACES they took the script out and performed it a theater in front of live audiences, as was A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (which Pirosh and Seaton wrote an early non-used draft for). Monty Python also did that with their sketches. Would you like to see that done for comedy movies and sitcoms?

Multi-camera sitcoms essentially do that, performing in front of a live studio audience.

Here’s the problem with movies: you want your movie to be visual, to take advantage of locations, and perhaps have scenes with large crowds. You can’t really recreate that in a theatre.

There often is a rehearsal period before a movie is shot, but that usually just involves the director and actors.

Monty Python primarily did sketches so it was easy to include them in their stage act. Unless your comedy is just a string of set pieces I don’t think a theatre audience would be of much help.

But what they do do in movies is test screenings – see what the audience thinks after they see the film. And often the film will be re-edited or even new scenes shot based on the audience feedback.

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

EP123: Open Letter to Ungrateful TV Actors


In light of Constance Wu’s public disdain of FRESH OFF THE BOAT’S pick-up, Ken puts into perspective what a gift it is to be on a hit series and the reality of network television casting. It’s an eye-opener. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Tim Conway

No one could make me laugh like Tim Conway.   I'm sure Harvey Korman felt the same.

Tim passed away yesterday at the age of 85.  He had been in ill health his last several years.   I first discovered Tim Conway on McHALE'S NAVY, a sitcom in the early '60s.   He was a standout in that show that contained lots of funny people including Joe Flynn, Carl Ballantine, Bob Hastings, and Gavin MacLoud. 

But Tim's real claim to fame was THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, a variety series on CBS in the '70s.  He was part of the ensemble. 

As I mentioned, he could always break up fellow cast member, Harvey Korman.  Traditionally, there were two tapings of THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW for two different audiences.  Conway would stick to the script for the first.  But once he knew he had the as-written version in the can he would often stray from the script for the second taping, primarily to get Korman to break.   Case in point is the following sketch.  

This is my favorite sketch of all-time.  I pick it up in the middle when it really starts really getting good.  Conway is a new dentist.  His first patient is Harvey Korman.  If you're not laughing after this there's something seriously wrong with you. 

RIP Tim Conway.  You were brilliant and hilarious. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"That's Baseball, Suzyn."

I love when everyday expressions slowly make their way into the lexicon. One that has crept in lately is an expression that originated in baseball. A number of expressions we now use started in our National Pastime.

Example: Some who is left-handed is called a “Southpaw.” That comes from baseball. The way baseball stadiums are configured to avoid the sun being in the batter’s eye, the batter faces east and a left-handed pitcher’s pitching arm is on his south side. Amaze your friends with that nugget.

The New York Yankees have a very unique radio broadcast team. Veteran John Sterling does all the play-by-play and his analyst is longtime Yankees reporter Suzyn Waldman. John is quite a character. He’s now in his 80’s and calls every pitch of every inning. His eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but his broadcasts are always colorful and opinionated. He drives a lot of people crazy but his ratings are still through the roof. And in this day and age of young generic cookie-cutter boring uninteresting announcers, he’s a throwback and breath of fresh air. I’m sure I’ll get lots of comments today, yay and nay.

But anytime something wacky happens on the field (which is almost every day) and it’s something you can’t easily explain (like why a guy who never hits home runs suddenly hits three in one game) he will always say…

THAT’S BASEBALL, SUZYN.

He’s said it enough now that it’s become somewhat of a trademark. I’ve seen people wearing T-shirts that say THAT’S BASEBALL, SUZYN. And now I’m starting to hear it outside the circle of baseball.

Now I’m hearing people use it to explain anything that doesn’t have a clear logical explanation. Fox benching one of its highest rated shows, LAST MAN STANDING – THAT’S BASEBALL SUZYN. Anyone in the world gives a shit about Kim Kardashian – THAT’S BASEBALL SUZYN.

Watch. I bet within a week you’ll have occasion to use it too.

Monday, May 13, 2019

It's pick-up and cancellation time

With a lot less intrigue and rumors and fanfare the networks have been ordering shows, cancelling shows, and renewing shows in advance of cobbling together their fall schedules for the Upfronts. There used to be much more suspense. A show’s fate wasn’t determined until the fall schedules were announced. Then the networks would address mid-season and back up pick-ups. “You didn’t get on in the fall but there’s still a chance.”

Now networks are picking up everything they think they might need at once and then deciding who goes where when.

The only thing not surprising about this year’s process is that it’s changing. Everything in network television is changing. First of all the stakes are lower. Getting a show on a broadcast network schedule was the be-all and end-all. Not anymore. Producers and studios have way more options, way more buyers, and in most cases would prefer to be on the newer platforms that have more of a future.

It’s also less of a horse race since each network has its own feeder studio and buys mostly shows they own.

And then of course this big change: The networks no longer make their decisions primarily on ratings. If they did, each network would cancel 99% of its schedule. Network numbers are shamefully small. How many broadcast network shows do you watch these days?

But there are other considerations now – protecting your investment by making more episodes, foreign sales, commitments, maintaining relationships, testing, demographics, costs of the shows, disappointing development, etc. Tired franchises remain on the schedule because even with dwindling numbers they’re better than the risk of new fare.

Don’t kid yourself. Decisions are made out of fear.

As for the same-old/same-old, the pick-ups were all standard fare. Comedies about dealing with diversity, family members forced to live or work together, etc. The hot producers like Chuck Lorre and Mike Schur got their new shows on. But then the hot producers like Chuck Lorre and Mike Schur know how to make and execute the best pilots. Their shows deserve to get on. New dramas follow the familiar cop/doctor/lawyer/family/spy/procedural/star-driven pattern. Only thing missing this year seems to be reboots. But one or two of those might still sneak in. Where’s Gilligan when we need him?

The fall schedules will be announced very soon. Congratulations to those involved who got picked-up. I should say a cautious congratulations because the next step in the process is the networks firing a bunch of series regulars and replacing them with recycled series actors whose pilots did not get on. I’m sure there will be one or two “Max Greenfields” who will pop up on new series within the month.

But as I like to say, if you’re a writer/showrunner and your pilot is either picked-up or not picked-up, you have the exact same reaction: “OH SHIT!”

Let the staffing season begin!

NOTE:  In my podcast that drops later in the week I devote my entire episode to the Constance Wu  ungrateful reaction to her show being picked up.  I needed more than a few paragraphs.  Please tune in.  Tune in every week but for that episode especially. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Weekend Post

Mother's Day in Sunday.  Give her a call.  For me this holiday resonates a lot more now that my own mother has passed.  If your mom is still with us take the time to tell her you love her.  You may not always get that chance.  And a special shout-out to Grandmothers.  Believe me, it's a lot easier to chase around a 2 year-old when you're 30 instead of 65. 

But that leads me to this hopefully-not-controversial weekend's post. 
This is my favorite mother joke. Actually it's a mother-in-law joke and it comes from the very politically incorrect but screamingly funny AMOS & ANDY SHOW.

DISCLAIMER:  I don't want any outraged 2019 comments on how I'm promoting body shaming or I'm a racist, whatever.  It's a JOKE.  A joke that was written almost 70 years ago.  Enjoy it in context.  Admire its construction.  How bizarre that I feel I have to post a WARNING disclaimer over one stupid joke.  But I do.  If you're worried you might possibly be offended click out and I'll see you Monday. 

I believe this joke was written by Mosher & Connelly (who went on to create LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and THE MUNSTERS).

The Kingfish sets up a blind date for "Mama". Hoping the poor guy would like her and take her off of his hands he arranges for Mama to go to the beauty parlor. He's talking to the hair stylist, describing Mama. He says (and I'm paraphrasing), "Picture a grapefruit that's been out at sea. And it washes ashore, all covered with seaweed and crabs. Now it sits in the sun for a couple of weeks and gets all wrinkly and rotted and bugs are now flying around it. Can you picture that?" The hairstylist says "Uh huh." And the Kingfish says, "Good. If you can make her look that good I'd be satisfied!"

Friday, May 10, 2019

Friday Questions

And now for some Friday Questions:

zapatty gets us started.

Premature Friday question - what did "creative consultant" Ronny Graham do when he worked on M*A*S*H ? I recall him appearing on Carson back in the day, and found him wildly amusing, and silly.

It’s a fancy title for a writer. Usually a Creative Consultant works one night a week but Ronny was full-time. He was a delight in the room. Pitched great jokes. And he also wrote several terrific scripts (one in which he also appeared).

As you’ll hear if you listen to this week’s podcast episode, his good buddy Mel Brooks would come into the room and hang out with us from time to time. That alone was worth hiring Ronny.

He was a true character. He was in NEW FACES OF ’52, wrote with Mel Brooks, was a semi-regular on CHICO AND THE MAN, and for years was the very popular spokesman for the Mobil Oil TV campaign as “Mr. Dirt.” Additionally, he did a cabaret act.

From scottmc:

After watching the episode 'Frasier Gotta Have It’ I was curious about Lisa Edelstein's credits prior to that episode. (I remembered that she was in a Mad About You episode) I noticed that before appearing on that Frasier ,and years before 'House', she appeared on several episodes of 'Almost Perfect'. Were you involved in casting her in AP? Were you or David working on FRASIER when that episode came up? Did you like her work on The Kominsky Method?

First off, I LOVE Lisa Edelstein. She is insanely talented and nice.

We cast her in ALMOST PERFECT because David Isaacs and I had seen her a couple of years earlier when we were casting BIG WAVE DAVE’S. She wasn’t right for that part but we made note that she had a real special quality. The ALMOST PERFECT part originally was just a few lines, but she was so hilarious we brought her character back. Eventually she became a semi-regular.

She was such a good sport. On ALMOST PERFECT we had her pelted with pies while she sang karaoke. On another episode she had to be almost naked (I think our show would have gotten higher ratings if it were called ALMOST NAKED instead of ALMOST PERFECT), and any physical comedy she could do. She also had the gift of making an unlikable character likeable.

Trivia note: I also directed Lisa in an episode of JUST SHOOT ME.

I love her on THE KOMINSKY METHOD. She’s essentially playing the same character she played on ALMOST PERFECT but drunker.

Stephen Marks is next:

I've been binge-watching episodes of the old British sitcom "On The Buses" and on every episode the characters make fun of each other's physical appearance, such as baldness, big teeth, height, weight, small chest, etc. I was wondering if a writer has to ask an actor if it is okay to make fun of them before it's written into the script or does the writer just do it and hope the actors don't mind.

I always clear it with the actor first if I want to make a joke about his appearance. I’m very sensitive to that.

And as a comedy writer I like to think I can derive humor from someone without having to trash his appearance. I think we got lots of laughs from Norm on CHEERS without having to resort to fat jokes.

And no joke, no matter how hilarious, is worth it if the actor isn’t comfortable. To me it’s not a body-shaming issue, it’s a basic decency issue.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

EP122: Take a Guided Tour of the 20th Century Fox Lot.


Ken is your guide for a VIP tour of the 20th Century Fox  lot where thousands of classic movies and TV shows have been filmed including MASH.   Enjoy some history, anecdotes, and Hollywood lore, and you won’t need comfortable shoes. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Top Tunes

Monday night I did a cool thing – I was a judge for a Top Tunes competition. (Officially I was a “celebrity” judge but who are we kidding?)

What are Top Tunes? Here’s an explanation.

It’s kind of like those story competitions where people have to tell stories based on topics they’re given, and one contestant is the winner and receives… well, nothing.  But Top Tunes is with singer-songwriters.

The venue was a small club in my old hometown of Woodland Hills. It’s tucked away in a big shopping center. Find the tanning salon and go left. Six singer-songwriters compete. They are paired at random so there are three teams. (Most people don’t realize that Rodgers & Hammerstein began their partnership in similar fashion. They both competed in a Top Tunes competition at the Apollo in 1946. The song title they pulled out of the hat was “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” and the rest is history. )

Each writing team goes out into the alley (what’s more creatively conducive than the Whole Foods loading dock?) and has 17 minutes to compose a song that they will then perform.

After they perform their song three judges comment (a la AMERICAN IDOL). I know shit about the technical aspects of music but that still puts me way ahead of Ellen DeGeneres. The judges are there to be amusing. The other two judges both sang. I did not. That would not have been amusing.

Personally I was hoping a producer from THE MASKED SINGER would be in the audience and want me to replace Jenny McCarthy (or anyone on that stupid panel), but alas the crowd was just a bunch of drunks.

We judges narrowed the field to two teams and then the pickled audience voted the winner. In this case it was Alan Roy Scott & Anthony Starble. Their song was FANTASTIC.  Not just good but professional good.  

The thing that impressed me most about the night was how extremely talented each and every one of the singer-songwriters were. They each got a chance to do one of their own compositions and there was not a “Unicorn Song” in the bunch. One of the true inequities of show business is how hard it is for insanely gifted musicians to break in and make a decent living. These were six people in a shopping mall in a valley suburb on a Monday night and with the right break I could see any one of them winning a slew of Grammys. What they do is equally as impressive as hitting a baseball 400 feet but no one is paying them $400 million. They get free drinks.

But I’m here to tell you – WOODLAND HILLS HAS TALENT.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Aaron Sorkin and other unfair snubs

It say something about The Tony Awards that the nominations were announced a week ago today and I’m just addressing them now. Other than a five block radius in Manhattan I can’t imagine there’s been any water cooler buzz about the Tony nominations. It’s not like I’m late to the party. I could have saved this post for early June.

The Tony Awards ceremony is always one of the best of the award shows because there’s actual entertainment in it. Production numbers from the musicals are way more fun to watch than Lady Gaga practically going down on Bradley Cooper during their Oscarcast number. Tony winners tend to be wittier than their film or TV counterparts as well. Some genuine laughs and fewer shout-outs to agents.

So you would think the Tony Awards would get decent numbers. It doesn’t. It gets dreadful numbers. And why? Simple. 99% of the country hasn’t seen one of the nominated shows nor even knows what they are.

The musical that got the highest number of nominations is HADESTOWN. Ever hear of it? If you think the Oscars has a problem…

So there’s no rooting interest. At least on the Oscars or Emmys if something wins you’re not familiar with you can go to your favorite Cineplex or ON DEMAND and catch it the next day. THE FERRYMAN is a great play I’m told. If it wins and you’re in Portland and you don’t happen to have a New York trip scheduled for late June the chances are real good you will never see it. So as a viewer why even take note of it?

It seems silly to really “analyze” the nominations since so few of you know who the nominees are and even fewer of you care. But I do want to highlight a few points.

If ever there was a lock, Elaine May will deservedly win Best Actress for THE WAVERLY GALLERY. She gave one of the most thrilling performances I’ve ever seen in the theatre.

I don’t understand the Tony love for the musical THE PROM. Falling for the hype I saw it and was dumbfounded by how trite and clich├ęd and on-the-nose obvious it was. Take the worst flaming gay jokes from WILL & GRACE and rejected songs from MEAN GIRLS then add unearned cringeworthy sentimentality and that’s THE PROM.

And finally, I’m surprised by the snubs for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and NETWORK. Both are excellent. And both are popular. Broadway is well aware of the recognition problem they face as evidenced by all the franchises, reboots, jukebox musicals, and known stars they can put up on marquees in a desperate attempt to attract general audiences. So either snub all of them for their gross commercialization or none. Why snub two of the very best written plays this season? The MOCKINGBIRD snub was clearly a dig at Aaron Sorkin. Sour grapes. Yes, he’s a personality who knows how to self-promote, but he also delivers the goods. And he attracts audiences. Isn’t that what you want?

Here’s the typical timeline for Best Play nominees: They’re all excellent, they’re all highly dramatic, they all close due to lack of interest.

So when you get a couple of plays that are highly dramatic and popular, those are the ones you snub? Seems very petty.

Look, there used to be dozens of straight plays mounted every Broadway season. Now there are very few. For the high cost of a ticket many theatergoers would rather see a musical. They opt for the spectacle and songs tossed in. As a playwright, I’m often asked if my ultimate goal is to get a play on Broadway. No. I write comedies instead of message plays about gender identification so that’s two strikes right there, and I know the only way I’ll get something on Broadway is if I attach one or two (or four) big stars. I don’t know Bryan Cranston well enough to pick up the phone. I’ve never been to a Dodger game with Jeff Daniels. But that’s fine. Give me regional and community theatres that will mount decent productions and audiences that laugh and have a good time and I am totally happy. But Broadway needs to keep straight plays as part of their season. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and NETWORK were big steps in the right direction. They both deserved to be celebrated not snubbed.

That said, congratulations to all the shows and artists who were nominated. The Tony Awards air on CBS on June 9. I’ll still be watching, except during THE PROM production number.

Monday, May 06, 2019

End Game of Thrones

I feel completely out of step with the world.

I have no desire to see AVENGERS ENDGAME – I don’t care how many billions it's taken in. I’ve reached my saturation point on super hero movies… and all-star super hero movies. They end in a big cliffhanger where it appears everyone dies, but you know they’ll all be back. I’m done. Okay, except for the next Wonder Woman. But after that I’m really done. (Unless there's another Wonder Woman.)

I’ve never been able to get into GAME OF THRONES. Just not a fantasy guy. Dragons and bloodshed are fine for Broadway musicals but not TV series. At least for me.

I can’t watch the news. It just infuriates me. Even commentators that I love. Sorry. Please let me know when we have a new president.

I don’t own a Fitbit. So I walk 6,542 steps today? And some of those were to get pie?

I didn’t watch the NFL Draft. I was not on pins and needles waiting to see who the Kansas City Chiefs picked first.

I don't watch AMERICAN IDOL (although nobody does anymore).  

So I’m out of step. And yet I seem to be existing okay. I don’t sense a real void in my life. The time I spend not doing these things is filled with other pursuits, other projects, other passions. I don’t feel deprived. The only downside is… is…. Hmmm. I can’t think of one.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Weekend Post

The new season of GAME OF THRONES is here and there's lots of buzz every week.  I never got into it.  But I tried.  Once.  Seven years ago.  I watched the first episode of that season and hoped I could glean from that what was going on to get up to speed.  Well, it was not to be.  

But to help me, I kept notes on the episode, figuring I might be able to go back and connect whatever dots still needed to be connected.  That was no help either.  But I decided to post my notes for those, like me, who were coming into this phenomenon cold.   So since we're in another GoT craze, I thought I'd repost them.  If you know the show these might make some sense.  And you'll see how the show appears to those of us who aren't into the show.   

In any event, I hope you'll find them amusing. 

The show starts with “Previously on GAME OF THRONES.” Good! This will help. There are quick cuts, tiny snatches of dialogue. “You will pay!” “Wait for me!” “I’m the king!” “No, I’m the king!” “Neither of you are king!” I don’t know. It went by too fast. There were also fifty-two main characters. I’d see someone and think, “Oh, shit, where do I know him from?” Then he’s gone. Replaced by some hot blond. I wonder – do we see her naked? At the end of this wrap up I know absolutely nothing.

Cut to opening titles. Eye-popping graphics and stirring theme as the camera sweeps us all around a map. From what I glean, there are different kingdoms here in the land of… wherever this is. Or I’m wrong and the show is about mead salesmen.

The show begins. There’s a jousting tournament. Cool! Very realistic. The loser dies. Lots of blood. We see the tourney is for the pleasure of a king. The king looks like he’s maybe 19. And he’s clearly a brat. He’s the music prodigy in your high school who was so insufferable you spilled hot chocolate on him at every opportunity. By his side was a young waif who I gathered was either the queen or his personal shopper. She didn’t appear happy. Like she was forced to go to the prom with Screech.

Peter Dinklage shows up. Yay! Him I know. And I know he won the Emmy last year. The show picks up immediately when he appears. I don’t know what his relationship to anybody is but his armor must be made of Teflon because he has no problem speaking his mind to everyone without getting an axe in his skull.

In the castle somewhere there is a board meeting held by a medieval MILF who is in some position of power. They’re discussing when the peasants can use drinking fountains or something and the meeting breaks up with Dinklage crashes the party. He and the MILF do not get along. He shows her some paper that says he is allowed to be insouciant and have all the best lines. She is not pleased.

Now (as best as I can remember) we’re moving briskly through the woods, POV style. We stop at a pond and see a reflection of a wolf in the water. So we must’ve been the wolf in that sequence.

A transition I forgot then people are at that creek and the wolf is gone. Did the wolf turn into one of them? Oh wait. That was ONCE UPON A TIME. I don’t know who these people are or why they are there. A red comet is spied in the sky. It means something.

We cut to a hot dusty desert where a tribe of bedraggled people are zombie-walking across the arid landscape. I look for Moses. He doesn’t seem to be there. The leader appears to be an attractive young woman with a small dragon on her shoulder. That threw me. My sense was the show was gritty and realistic. Now they’re saying there are mythical creatures?

A horse dies. Am I watching LUCK? This event prompts the girl to send tribe members off in different directions to look for something. I’m guessing oats.

The red comet transitions us to a snow-covered wilderness where more people are tromping around. We’ve gone from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. They come to a big house. We learn that the proprietor had all these daughters, married them, then had more daughters by them. So throw in CHINATOWN, BIG LOVE, and any episode of THE MAURY POVICH SHOW. He warns the men not to touch any of his wives/daughters. The scene ends there but you know next week six guys are going to be caught jumping the Chloe Sevigny-lookalike.

Meanwhile, where’s the sex? Where’s the nudity? Even the dead horse had a saddle on it.

Now we’re in another kingdom and meet (I assume) another king. Hard to tell. He’s wearing furs. Would it be so hard to give all the kings crowns? At least through the second season. He’s discussing matters with a woman who looks like a younger Jean Marsh. I have no idea what they’re talking about. They don't sleep together so she might not be his mother. 

From there we go to the woods (or it might be teen king’s castle – by this point I’m lost). Someone is being held in a cage. He engages in a conversation with his captor. I’m sensing the prisoner is a member of some royal family. Either that or he’s one of the old guy’s wives/daughters. He appears very jaunty for a prisoner, especially when the wolf from the pond scene shows up and is in the cage with him. Then the wolf disappears. At this point I’m waiting for the Smoke Monster to arrive.

The show now bounces from place to dizzy place. Finally, we see the brothel. Fifteen seconds of a girl having sex but being coached (so ech!) and then we see the brothel lobby and a few bare breasted girls. The erotic mood is broken somewhat however when men in armor enter and kill a baby.

I found the show’s dialogue to be somewhat inconsistent. Juxtaposed with “Ay, your liege, I will be gone by day’s first light” is “I want to fuck.”

And then the screen cuts to black and the hour is over. I’m baffled. I imagine if you are a fan of the series, every scene I described was ripe with delicious moments and exchanges. There were surprises. High tension. Amusement. (If you were aroused by the brothel scene though, you’re sick.) But to fully enjoy this series I suppose I better go back, watch the entire first season, and maybe read the five novels just to be sure.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Friday Questions

Here we are in May already. Time for more Friday Questions.

David Russell gets us off and running.

Do writers and actors ever acknowledge, even to themselves, that they're on a stinker of a show? I've watched shows that have inexplicably been green lit, they're universally panned, or they're dying a terrible, slow death after having been on too long. Do the writers and cast still really believe in the show or is there some recognition they're working on a lousy product, and what does that do to the morale on the production?

Writers acknowledge more than actors. Actors may know but since they have to go out there and perform every week and it’s their faces up there they tend to be more in denial.

Writers, especially staff writers, see things for what they are and bitch about them.

That said, writers will sometime prefer being on a bad show to a good one if the good one is run by a tyrant and the bad one is run by a lovely person who creates a pleasant work environment.

If actors get bad reviews and are publicly told they’re on a dog then they freak and general chaos is usually the result.

At least a bad movie is in the can, but when actors have to continue making bad TV shows then you have that long death march until the end.

An actor once told me that early in her career she was in some B-movie teen comedy, and they had the cast and crew screening. When the lights came back up all of the actors were literally crying.

At least they didn’t have return to the studio the next day to begin work on the sequel.

From scottmc:

Ken; were you a d.j.when 'Delilah' was a hit for Tom Jones? My daughter is 14 and I try to play for her songs from when I was her age. She likes the Turtles (especially the byplay between the lead singer and the heavy set guy) and the 4 Seasons (some of their songs show up on the soundtracks of some of the movies she watches.) When we heard 'Delilah' she couldn't believe it. I looked at my copy of 'The Me Generation...by Me' and it seems you started working in radio right around the time that song was released. Did you ever play the song, what was your reaction to it?

I played that song many times. I don’t understand what the big deal is. It’s a story song about a guy killing his girlfriend for cheating on him. The police come and I assume he winds up in the cell next to Cosby. 

There are any number of songs that had that similar theme of someone murdering someone else who they felt did them wrong. The delightful “Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Stagger Lee,”  “Murder Ink,” “Fulsom Prison Blues,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Hey Joe,” and of course “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I bet you can think of seven more.

RyderDA asks:

In old movies (not sure when, but certainly pre 1960), the credits showed up at the start of the movie and when it was over, the movie just ended. Later movies seemed to feature some intro credits, and some credits after as well. Somewhere in the late 60's or early '70's, all the credits started showing up at the end. They got longer and longer over time; now credits are so long, they seem to list everyone who worked in the production company's office plus everyone living in the cities where the movie is made just for good measure.

I think you have written in the past how the WGA worked on getting writers properly credited, but 1) who fought to get the 4th transportation driver listed, and 2) why the switch over time from credits all before, to before and after, to mostly after?

I believe the switch over time was to get the audience invested in the narrative quicker. Movies didn’t have to start slowly to accommodate credits, or if the film began with an action sequence, they didn’t have to interrupt the flow by doing an opening title sequence. Or the movie didn’t open with a four-minute opening title sequence.

For the most part, I miss opening titles. What would a James Bond movie be without them?

A lot of romantic comedies used to have clever and stylish animated opening titles. I quite enjoyed those.

As for credit placement, unions negotiate that. If the credits are at the beginning of a film the director gets the final credit. If the credits are at the end of the film the director gets the first credit (followed by producer and writer).

Regarding all the crew members, I suspect there are union stipulations for that too. Personally, I don’t mind that there are a million credits. Everyone who works on a film deserves recognition. I’ve talked about this before, many of the hardest working, most conscientious members of the crew are below-the-lines people who never get the kudos they deserve.

And finally, Jim S. wonders:

What was the best note you ever received from a suit, and from a fellow writer/producer?

Network: Tim Flack at CBS. We conceived the pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S as three guys having a mid-life crisis deciding to open a surf shop in Hawaii. Tim said one needed a wife to bring along. That turned the premise into more of Wendy & the Lost Boys.

We hired Jane Kaczmarek, she tested through the roof, and the show got on the air because of her. I’d say that was a pretty good note.

Writer note: Treva Silverman read the original draft of my play A OR B? and said, “the first act is wonderful. You have no second act.” I completely threw out my second act, wrote a new entirely different one, and the play went on to receive numerous well-received production. Thank you, Treva.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section and stay away from Delilah.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

EP121: Another CHEERS commentary track w/ Writer Ken Levine


Ken provides a commentary track for the CHEERS episode “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” from season 6, episode 17. Frasier and Lilith's wedding is nearing, and their best man and maid of honor, Sam and a very surprised Rebecca, are throwing them each a bachelor and  bachelorette party! You can watch along or just listen as Ken shares background info and nuggets on one of his favorite episodes.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

First Day of May -- Jonathan Coulton

I can't think of a better way of welcoming in the spring. You'll be forwarding this I can almost guarantee. Thanks to my daughter Annie for alerting me to this joyous song.

NOTE: Coulton also writes and performs those animated segments on THE GOOD FIGHT that are absolutely brilliant. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

And the popcorn was good too!

Remember Revival Theatres? These were movie houses that ran eclectic double bills of vintage films, usually for one or two night runs. On Tuesday they might feature THE BIG SLEEP and MALTESE FALCON, Wednesday could have two Bergman films, and Thursday maybe BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and VOLUNTEERS (okay, that last one is my fantasy). Weekends offered midnight shows as well. ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW was a staple at many of these old movie palaces.

Revival Theatres saw their heydays in the ‘70s and ‘80s, usually in college towns. We were introduced to a whole new world of cinema. I can’t count the number of classic films I was exposed to for the first time by going to the Fox Venice, the Nuart, and the Beverly Cinema. And in the early ‘70s the Fox Venice also had a music group playing on the weekends – Oingo Boingo. Admission was something like $2.00. So for two movies and Danny Elfman’s group playing live it was a pretty good deal.

Then video tapes arrived, and laser discs, and video stores, and eventually HBO, TCM, NETFLIX, DVD’s, ON DEMAND, etc. You didn’t need a Revival Theatre to see BLAZING SADDLES and THE BICYCLE THIEF; there were seventeen other ways to obtain copies to watch in the comfort of your own home. Revival Theatres began to disappear.

In LA the Nuart is still there but their programs now change only a few times a week and a lot of their double bills are so obscure I wonder if anyone has ever heard of them. The Beverly Cinema recently got a face lift when Quentin Tarantino bought and renovated it. For that I am very grateful (although not grateful enough to ever watch HATEFUL 8 again).

Last Sunday night I went to the New Beverly Cinema to see two Neil Simon films, AFTER THE FOX and THE HEARTBREAK KID. I had forgotten how much fun it was to watch comedies on the big screen and hear actual laughter. Especially for THE HEARTBREAK KID. This is one of my favorite movies, it was directed by Elaine May, and as comedies go it’s rather dark. It’s also very Jewish.

I saw this movie when it first came out in 1973. I was an all-night DJ on KMEN San Bernardino back then so went to the big City Center theatre in San Berdoo to see it opening night. It was a Friday date night and since the film was billed as a romantic comedy the theatre was packed with young people. Imagine this cavernous theatre and only one voice laughing at this picture – mine. I’ve seen it many times subsequently but at home. I think this was the first time I saw it on the big screen where it got explosive laughs from the audience.

SIDEBAR: When I hosted the Neil Simon Film Festival for TCM I asked that they include THE HEARTBREAK KID, which they did. They also said it was the first time that film had ever aired on TCM. I hope they’re still playing it (although it’s not nearly as good without my intro and outro).

I really miss the shared experience of enjoying a comedy with actual people. That’s a big reason why I write plays. Actors are not going to come to your home – you have to go to them. If there’s a Revival Theatre in your town go to it, support it, and tell your friends. You won’t just be seeing movies; you’ll be having an experience. That’s the one thing Netflix can’t give you (despite their raising prices). And if you do have a Revival Theatre in your neighborhood, suggest a double-bill of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and VOLUNTEERS. I think it would be really cool.

Monday, April 29, 2019

How to get your own Netflix Special

If you’re like me you log onto Netflix and have no idea what to watch. The Home Page is filled with a dizzying assortment of thumbnails for shows and documentaries and specials – most of which I’ve never heard of. Okay, I clicked on the BONDING trailer to see what that was all about. Zoe Levin as a dominatrix piqued my interest. Not a lot of hot Jewish girls in leather. But otherwise, I’m seeing all those series from other countries, or fourth seasons from shows I never watched and it’s somewhat overwhelming.

If I don’t plan to watch long I tend to sample comedy specials. If they’re funny I stay with them, if they’re Amy Schumer I write blog posts. But I’ve discovered some terrific new comics I was unfamiliar with.

So I come upon a special by someone named Brene Brown. Who? Well, she must be famous if she has a Netflix Special. So I click on and it starts like every other stand up special – the performer backstage (basically a waste of the first three minutes), and then this attractive middle-aged woman steps out onto the stage. It’s a big theatre with balconies. You can’t do a Netflix special without balconies. And she immediately gets a standing ovation. Have I been marooned on a desert island for five years? Who is this person getting a standing O? She starts off with a few mild jokes that are getting screams. And then I start to realize she’s not actually a comedienne, she’s a self-help guru. But she’s one for Millennials because every sentence was peppered with “So I’m like… and then he’s like… and I’m like… and like they’re like…”

She’s going on for five minutes trashing the suggested covers for her book and of course the crowd is roaring. What the fuck is this? I’m wondering.

Finally, she makes reference to a TED talk she once did. So I decided to turn off the special and seek the TED talk.

And what I saw was almost a completely different person. Brene Brown was a social worker/researcher at the University of Houston. She’s also a mom and has a PHD. Nothing fancy, nothing glitzy. She gave a very earnest straightforward speech on the value of vulnerability in self improvement. She was very genuine. Not a single “I was like” in the entire presentation. This was 2010.

I guess Oprah or somebody discovered it and the TED talk went viral. And suddenly Brene Brown is a social media star. She now has a bunch of books (I assume with covers that she is allowed to approve), a top draw lecturer, and Netflix Special-er.

Her message sounds sound and every few years another self-help guru comes along (where is Susan Powter when we need her?), but to me the most interesting thing about Brene Brown is her transformation from academic lecturer to zeitgeist celebrity. She’s now got the new hair, new wardrobe, new zippy patter, new Millennial-speak. Someone should really study that phenomenon. Hey, maybe there’s a Hulu Special in your future.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Weekend Post

Someone asked me recently what my favorite music video was? It took me a nano second to answer. The Bruno Mars "Uptown Funk" mash-up of Hollywood movies.  There are 100 dance films, 280 edits, and none of cuts were sped up or slowed down.  The author on YouTube is listed as Nerd Fest UK.   You may have seen it.  It's been around.  But I could watch it a hundred times.

Don't be surprised if you don't replay it at least twice.

Enjoy.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Friday Questions

Closing out April with more Friday Questions.

Poochie has one about the WGA-ATA dispute.

So what does this mean for those of us in the crowd aspiring to make it in the biz? Is the barrier for entry now easier or harder than it's been? And how would you recommending submitting/breaking in under these new conditions?

If you don’t already have an agent (even it’s one you fired due to the dispute) I would say it’s harder. I seriously doubt whether agents are taking on newbie clients at this time. And managers have enough work on their hands acting as agents for their clients to take on new people.

I would say just keep writing. This too will pass, and most important is you having a script that is a home run. There’s so much that’s beyond your control but writing a great script is not one of them. So use this uncertain time to just concentrate on your craft.  Best of luck.

From WLUP (a Chicago station I already miss):

I heard a Steve Dahl interview recently where he was saying that back in the old days, radio DJ's could make more money doing appearances at bars and such than they would make in the radio salary. Did Beaver Cleaver ever get to do in person appearances?

I did a few high school record hops and made a few hundred dollars, which was big money considering how little I was paid to be a disc jockey, but nothing significant. And I was usually fired before I could get a real foothold in any one market.

By the way, Steve Dahl answered the request line for me on TenQ.  I love that guy and have always taken great satisfaction in his success.

Now back to the answer...

The DJ’s who really made big money on the side were also concert promoters and in some cases managers of various rock groups.  The "first" rock n' roll disc jockey, Alan Freed, figured that out early.

Roger Christian, a longtime LA jock in the ‘60s moonlighted by writing lyrics to Beach Boys songs. On many early Beach Boys records you’ll see the writing credit as “Wilson-Christian.”

Dr Loser wonders:

Several of the more satisfying episodes of Frasier were basically Feydeau farce. (I count the aforementioned restaurant episode as one -- it merely substituted eels for frustrated desire.)

Feydeau farces only really work on multi-cam. Do you see a future for them?

The problem is they’re very difficult to do. You need terrific writers, actors with exceptional timing, and a skilled director.

They require precision at every turn. On one show I co-created we did an Feydeau Farce. It came out great. But the cast came to us after and said it was just too hard to do and requested we refrain from further farces.

Happily, the FRASIER cast embraced farces. And the show had writers like Joe Keenan and David Lloyd who could write the hell out of them.

I enjoy writing them… on occasion.

But John Cleese told me he only made a very few FAWLTY TOWERS because farces were so difficult to write and pull off. And Neil Simon maintains that his farce, RUMORS, was the hardest play he ever wrote and he vowed never to write another farce.

But boy, aren't they magic when they work?   I hope they're around forever. 

And finally, Frank Beans wants to know:

On MASH, what was the role of Stanford Tischler? I see his name in the show credits all the time. I know that he was a veteran sound editor, but what did he do on a working basis? Was it all post-production, or did he contribute to the music in other ways?

Actually Stan was our editor, not sound editor, and he was fantastic. Back in those days you still edited on film. You had to be lighting fast and crazy good to churn out 25 half hours a year under constant deadlines. He was often editing three episodes at once. How he kept them straight I will never know.  Also kudos to his assistant, Larry Mills. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

EP120: NBC’s Al Michaels, Part 2


In the second of two parts, NBC sportscaster Al Michaels, who has called 10 Super Bowls, numerous World Series, and will be forever known for his “Miracle on Ice” call, joins Ken for an in depth discussion on NFL football, working with partners, his process, preparation, and how much sleep he gets the night before he calls a Super Bowl. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Why do we laugh?

Thanks to loyal reader, Wendy Grossman for alerting me to this article in the Guardian about a study on laughter.
Scientific studies on why we laugh are always dicey, but some nuggets in the article did seem to ring true (even if I don’t know how they arrived at them). The author, Sophie Scott (who describes herself as a brain scientist) claims we are thirty times more likely to laugh if someone else is with us instead of being alone. I truly believe that. Laughter is contagious and that’s why seeing a play or movie with a big crowd is a much more fun experience.

It’s also why there are laugh tracks on network sitcoms. The idea is to simulate the experience of being in a laughing crowd. 

Two other points worth noting:

We laugh more than we think, especially if we’re engaged in conversation. Some of that is social laughter certainly, but still – seven laughs in ten minutes. (Although I can’t imagine laughing once in an hour with Mike Pence.)

The second point is that humans are supposedly not the only species that laugh. Apes, parrots, and even rats laugh. (Maybe that’s why our “Rat Girl” episode of CHEERS got such a great response the night it was filmed on an old soundstage at Paramount.)

But here’s where the article hits a speed bump.

To study laughter and the interaction of conversation, Ms. Scott plans to study the reaction to three stand up comics at a performance on May 2nd. The problem is simply this: If she did the same study every night for two weeks, with the same comics delivering the exact same material – she would get back fourteen very different results. There are so many factors involved in why and how energetic people laugh. The room temperature, the day of the week, the news that day, the demographics, different backgrounds of the audience, varying sensibilities, the weather, various biases – and that’s just for starters.

Without wiring people, I’ve seen this first hand with a number of my plays. Same actors, same performances, same jokes – wildly different results. Jokes that kill one night get nothing the next and straight lines get huge laughs the next evening.

To me the big question is how could 200 strangers independently laugh at something and the next night 200 other strangers independently not laugh at the same thing? Looking at averages you’d think between say 50-75% of any given audience would laugh at that joke; not 0-90%.

I wish her luck on her study. I’ll be interested to learn what she concludes. If nothing else, it might be good for a laugh.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A book recommendation

Breaking in is hard to do. Especially if you want to be a screenwriter. You can’t go into any Starbucks in LA without seeing at least three intense sleep-deprived people hunched over their laptops. Not that it’s ever been easy to hoist yourself over those palace walls but now it seems harder. More people are trying and agents are taking on fewer new clients.

So how do you break through?

The best way is to distinguish yourself somehow. (“Oh, that’s easy. Why didn’t I think of that?”)

One way is to enter screenplay competitions and hopefully win or place high enough that you’re recognized. (“Sure. Win screenwriting competitions. Piece of cake.”)

Yes, it’s a tall order. And with as many as several thousand entering certain competitions the odds are staggering.

But now at least there’s help.

A new book called “Screenplay Competitions” by Ann Marie Williams has just been released and finally there is a lifeline for the wannabe screenwriters out there. There are tips on how to submit, who to submit to, what judges are looking for, how you can improve your chances, etc. Look, there are many hidden traps and the competition is fierce. This book offers an invaluable guide into the world of screenplay competitions. And more than that – it shows you ways how these competitions, even if you don’t win, can help you improve your writing.

How do I know it’s good advice? For the last few years I’ve been entering play in stage play competitions. The process (and competition) is almost the same. Things I learned myself all appear to be covered in this book.

Case in point: rejections. First, prepare yourself: you’re going to get rejections. The book points out, and it’s true, that the judging process is soooo subjective and each competition has a specific agenda so a script that wins one major competition will likely be rejected by fifty others. Same script. How do you deal with that? This book helps.

I should point out that I don’t know this author, publisher, nor am I getting any remuneration for recommending this book. I just think it will be a useful tool and maybe give you a little leg up. And in today’s world, any advantage, even a small one, is HUGE.

Best of luck. Like I always say – someone has to break in. Why not YOU?

Monday, April 22, 2019

The most fun show on TV

Forget the NBA Playoffs, the Stanley Cup, or the start of the baseball season. Who cares about the Emmy race or Democratic hopefuls for president? Yawn on the next American Idol and VOICE winner. There’s a new competition in town that’s sweeping the nation.

James Holzhauer on JEOPARDY!

Have you seen this guy? In only twelve days he’s racked up over $850,000. (That's almost as much as Mike Trout makes.)  James has shattered the all-time one-day total three or four times already. It’s like if this new prospect joined the Yankees named Clark Kent.

Not only does he have an otherworldly knowledge of everything, he has super quick recall. And he’s a professional sports gambler by trade so it’s common when he lands on DAILY DOUBLES to push all his chips into the center and go for it. I mean, sure, I could do that, but only if the topic was “Natalie Wood” but he does it on “Pleistocene Era Children's Literature,” “Fifteen-letter words with u in them twice,”and "Lana Wood."

He’s extraordinary to watch. If I went on that show and they told me the answers an hour beforehand I still couldn’t retain all that information by the time the cameras were rolling.

JEOPARDY has always been a great game show. It moves fast, it’s smart, and has the perfect host in Alex Trebek. (He can pronounce difficult words and names – although who knows if he’s right?) Certainly, it’s bittersweet now watching JEOPARDY because we know of Alex’s medical condition and our hearts go out to him. (By the way, Alex was so good on the CHEERS episode he appeared on that we wrote him into another scene – the final scene in the bar. He can deliver clues and jokes.)

But now with Holzhauer it’s off the charts fun to watch the show. And unlike a TV series you get a new episode five times a week instead of once a week. And you get open-ended new episodes, not just thirteen in a row.

It’s also easy to root for Holzhauer because he seems like a good guy. He’s very low-key. Ken Jennings is still my favorite due to his sense of humor ("What be Ebonics?"), but James H. has an easy-going charm that (like everything else about him) is “winning.”

Like I said he’s a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas so most of his winnings will eventually go to the government and Caesar’s Palace.

Now the big question is can he top Ken Jennings’ record of winning 74 consecutive times? I think the old record was 20. And unlike “cash amounts” James can’t accomplish that in five days. So we may be in for an exciting ride for the next few months.

Holzhauer is rarely wrong. If he doesn’t know an answer he doesn’t ring in. And one day last week the answer (or question, excuse me) was “What is Final Draft?” (the screenplay writing program). And he didn’t ring in. I knew something James Holzhauer didn’t. HA! BAM! Mic drop!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Weekend Post

It's been over five years since I posted this.  It's one of my all-time favorites.  Written by my partner, David Isaacs.  Definitely worth a rerun. 
 
Once again it's time for a memo from Mr. Special Effects.

Now more than ever, showrunners are implored to KEEP THE BUDGET DOWN! Like that's
ever been easy in Hollywood. This town is notorious for huge mark ups, studios charging their own shows outrageous rent for their stages and facilities, etc. And if God forbid you need a special effect look out. In writing rooms whenever we propose even the smallest stunt we turn to my partner, David Isaacs, who has created a great character – Mr. Special Effects. He will then describe what is required to pull the stunt off and how much it will cost. Here is an example, in the form of a memo.

And believe me when I say this is TYPICAL.


*******

Report from TV Special Effects Department:

RE: Frasier

Situation: In a dream sequence, Frasier is on the air and his board explodes.

Proposal---If I'm to understand correctly from our conversation you all want the entire radio board to explode in Frasier's (Mr. Gramner's) face. filling the studio room with smoke. It's quite a coincidence since my dad created the same effect for Mr. Al Ruddy for an episode of 'The Monkee's. (For your reference it's the one where the Monkees try to outfox a Russian agent played by Mr. Lloyd Bochner). The good news is that with all the advancements in explosive delivery it's a much easier effect. (The real reason you never saw Mr. Mike Nesmith at any Monkees reunion is that he had four fingers of his left hand blown off. It's certainly not true that he was sick of being a part of a third rate Beatles knockoff. That and feeling responsible for Yakima Canutt losing a testicle on "How the West was Won" haunted my father till he fell to his death rigging Mr. Demetrious 'George' Savalas for a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in 'Kojack.)

Anyway, the effect is fairly simple, but of course we want it foolproof and safe. (within reason) First of all we will rig a series of explosive charges across the board. That will control the blast as oppossed to one big blast which is harder to control. I will set off the charges in sequence from a specially designed phaser. That should supply our explosion and still create the effect. We also set a charge inside the board so that in the case of a fire breaking out from the initial explosion (small possibility) I'll blow that charge which in turn would smother the flames. That, of course, would also preclude a second take.

Now I'm to understand that Mr. Gramner would like to do the stunt himself (concurrent with an 'Entertainment Tonight' segment profiling sitcom actors who do their own stunts.) That's fine but we will take the precaution of covering his body in an inch to an inch and a half of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly under a flame retardant herringbone suit. (It's uncomfortable but the guy works, what, twelve hours a week?) That will protect him vis a vis a mistake in explosion deployment. (Just to warn you in spite of caution it can happen---Sometimes to a serendipitous result. My dad worked for Mr. George Roy Hill on 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KId." Liitle known fact, the boxcar being blown to smithereens was not in the script. It was what we call in the S.E. business a happy accident. Thankfully the only injury was a prosthetic arm that was mangaled up pretty good. It belonged to my dad's assistant 'Spider' who had lost his real arm and half a foot working with my dad on 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Long story)

So we will protect Mr. Gramner. Safety for the cameramen and crew are at your discretion. Should be a do it every day, piece of cake effect. Still it's S.O.P. for me to ask you one question that's in the order of a final safeguard. Was there originally an actor you really felt could have played Frasier in the event that Mr. Gramner was unavailable or... "a handful"? Have to ask. It many times makes a tougher call but I will remind you of 'happy accidents'.

I'm going to ball park a cost for you then come up with a final tally later. I know you have budget concerns but it's a heck of a stunt. Figuring explosives , equipment rented from the studio electrical dept., special costuming from the studio costume dept., crew, overtime, dummy board and console from studio props, studio fire chief standing by, and I figure you'll want to throw in pizza for a hard working S.E. bunch, I think I can bring the whole thing off for you, on the cheap, for about 110 thousand dollars. Again that's if we're not figuring on another take.

Loved the script by the way.

Mr. S.E.

Friday, April 19, 2019

(Good) Friday Questions

Happy Easter and Passover and whatever else you’re celebrating. Here are this week’s FQ’s.

blinky is up first.

I just saw a post on Reddit that the medical adviser and Alan Alda co-wrote an episode of M*A*S*H. Tell me more!

Well, first off, it was after we had left the show. But yes, the episode called “Life Time” was written by Dr. Walter Dishell and Alan Alda. Dr. Dishell was our medical advisor (and a great guy).

It’s the episode all done in real time. The idea was really Gene Reynolds'. But it was one that required a lot of medical knowledge. Dr. Dishell asked if he could write it since he would be contributing so much, and Gene agreed as long as he wrote it with a real MASH writer (I think Alan qualified).

The episode is also noteworthy for the clock in the corner of the screen. That idea, apparently, was Dr. Dishell’s.

MASH was always experimenting and trying different ways to break the format. “Life Time” was one of the best.

From Jen from Jersey:

In terms of continuity, do writers forget details about the characters and events from earlier seasons. I notice this all the time when I binge watch. One recent example is that the first episode of Wings, Joe introduces Brian to Lowell but in later episodes we find out that they all went to high school together.

Sometimes you have different writers who weren’t on the show when the first factoid was aired. Other times writers forget, especially if it seemed like a small detail buried within an episode. There are times I’ve been on MASH and CHEERS trivia sites and there will be questions from episodes I wrote that I still don’t know the answer.

Some shows used to keep a detailed bible, but that’s pretty time consuming, and now you have the internet to post episode guides.

And seriously, this was much less of a problem before series were all available for binging or cable networks ran eight episodes a day. Now these continuity problems are glaring.

All I can say is that for a long running series writers do the best they can to maintain continuity. Unfortunately there are getting to be fewer and fewer long running series.

Sean queries:

While binging Game of Thrones recently, I noticed something new. The opening credits only feature the actors in that particular episode. I've been an avid TV nut for decades and have never noticed that before. Is that common? It seems to me that even if Jamie Farr or William Christopher didn't appear in a particular episode, they were still credited in the opening.

Have I missed out on something?

It depends on the actor’s contract. Some stipulate their credit must be in every episode whether they appear or not, and others only get a credit on the shows where they actually do appear.

Where the credit appears and how the credit appears also are up for negotiation. Along with size and screen placement.

And finally, from Madame Smock:

Aloha Ken,

I listened to the "How did I get talked into this ?" podcast Ep. 116.I thought the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild story could have been a story premise on Frasier. Do writers use their personal experiences to come up with a storyline?

ALL the time. Our most humiliating life experiences are all golden fodder for sitcom stories.

The best stories are the ones that are the most relatable and those come from real life. I think it was Carl Reiner, when he was running THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, who said to his writers: “Go home this weekend, have a fight with your wife, then come back and tell me about it.”

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

EP119: NBC’s Al Michaels Part 1


In the first of two parts, NBC sportscaster Al Michaels, who has called 10 Super Bowls, numerous World Series, and will be forever known for his “Miracle on Ice” call, joins Ken for an in depth discussion.  In Part 1 Al talks about his baseball career, covering an earthquake, working for the Dating Game, MNF, and moving from ABC to NBC.  You don’t have to love sports to love Al Michaels.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What were they thinking, Part 2?

We've come a lonnnnnng way since 1962.  Smack dab in the middle of the MAD MEN era comes this actual commercial.  Where was #MeToo when that generation needed it? 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What were they thinkin'?

You know how you watch something on YouTube and that leads you to another video and pretty soon you go down a rabbit hole and hours go by as you discover different nutty things? That was me last night.

And I came upon this. It’s so absurd I had to share it.

There was an afternoon show on ABC in the mid ‘60s called WHERE THE ACTION IS. Dick Clark hosted and basically it was a music show consisting of rock groups of the day lip syncing their songs at the beach. The idea was to capture that whole California Myth (which did exist if you had a car and could get to the beach). I recall seeing Paul Revere & the Raiders wearing their heavy felt Revolutionary War uniforms rocking out at the beach.

To my knowledge, WHERE THE ACTION IS was gone long before 1973. But then I found this music video, which is very reminiscent of WTAI. I don’t know the story behind it. But it’s Vicki Lawrence singing her only big hit, THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA at the beach. And it sounds like Dick Clark introducing her.

But here’s what’s so bizarre and made me laugh out loud. Hardly anybody at the beach is paying any attention to her. They’re all running around, throwing the football, tackling each other, kicking sand. She’s just standing in the middle of this scene for no reason whatsoever. And the content of the song is about a murder in the south and an innocent man being hung. So the few people who are in the background dancing to this look like complete idiots.

I love Vicki Lawrence and would someday like to ask her about this. But in the meantime, enjoy today's surreal music video.