Wednesday, August 05, 2020

EP186: Another Free Association Podcast

Ken riffs from topic to topic; everything from the Emmys to the Catskills, Cub Scouts, National Anthem, comedy exercises, American Bandstand, bowling, British sitcoms, summer camp, snark, and Sinatra.   Fun personal stories and harebrained opinions. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The AVN Awards

The AVN Awards were disappointing this year.  The AVN Awards are the porn industry’s version of the Oscars (although Golden Globes might be closer).   If you’ve seen BOOGIE NIGHTS there’s a sequence at the AVN Awards. 

Porn stars all dress up, attempt to look glamorous and classy, win awards for such categories as “Best Anal Sex Scene” and “Best Director – Comedy.” 

I’m sure they’ve been handed out thirty/forty years in one form or another, but it’s only been a few years ago that Showtime started airing them (taped delayed -- by five months).  . 

The first year I saw it I laughed my ass off.  How could you not when a trashy blonde with tears in her eyes thanked “Jesus and all the guys that fucked me in the ass?”   How much would you pay to hear Nicole Kidman say that at the Academy Awards? 

What made it additionally funny was that none of it was intended to be.  This wasn’t a sketch.  No one was winking at the camera.  The sincerity was both poignant and okay – I’m going to hell – hilarious. 

Showtime is still airing the show every year so obviously people (men I suspect) are watching.   What I don’t know is whether, like me, they’re watching for the laughs, or cheap thrills, or worse – they’ve got bets down on these categories. 

But I find it a guilty pleasure.  At least I used to.

Watching the 2020 awards (recorded before all the lockdowns), it just felt sad.  The speeches were the same so they felt like the same joke over and over.  The novelty was completely gone.  And what remained was the sadness.  You know these are people who mostly come from broken homes and heartbreaking childhoods.  You also know the career span of a porn star is just a few years.  And then what? 

I don’t even know how the industry survives today.  There are all these free Pornhub websites where you can see clips of anything you want for free.  You used to pay to see Stormy Daniels.  I was surprised that they’re still making “movies.” 

And as I watched these people try desperately to hold onto the luster of better days I thought to myself – this is now ALL award shows in 2020.   Even Sam Rubin & Mindy Burbano don’t seem that funny anymore. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

The Last Dance

Why bury the lead? THE LAST DANCE is the best sports documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s available on Netflix, produced by ESPN. Glad to see it's nominated for a number of Emmys

Due to the Trumpvirus and lack of live events, ESPN moved up its premier to April. I just got around to it, frankly because ten hours seemed a little daunting.

It’s essentially a profile on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s. I like Mike but ten hours? Then I thought: sitting through one baseball game with no crowds or excitement feels like ten hours, why not give THE LAST DANCE a try?

So glad I did. I binge-watched the whole thing in two days and was sorry when it ended.

I have not read a single review. I know some people had issues with it. I don’t know what those are, nor do I care. I found it compelling throughout and it seemed to portray Michael (I just call him “Michael” because I’m cool) in a balanced light. His greatness is constantly on display, but so is his dark side (and sometimes dick side).

Hey, he’s a complex guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances. With greatness comes expectations and unbelievable pressure. Fame can be a curse. And having an amazing gift doesn’t shield you from heartache. How much of his glory and riches would he gladly trade not to have his father murdered?

The filmmakers chose a great topic filled with colorful characters, weird twists, and real life suspense. Plus, they were given amazing access to behind-the-scenes revealing moments. The documentary gives us plenty of time to really see who Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman (a fucking loon who happened to possess athletic skills), Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr and numerous other personalities (both teammates and opponents).

They managed to get just about everybody to be a talking head. Two former presidents (Obama & Clinton) and two former Gods (Magic & Bird). I’m only sorry it wasn’t made for CNN because then they probably would have used me.

Finally, (and maybe this is a secondary lead I am burying), you don’t have to love the NBA or basketball to enjoy this documentary. It’s a sweeping novel and the basketball sequences are filled with suspense and artistry. And it's not made up.  It's all true!  As otherworldly as you think Michael Jordan is, when you watch the span of his entire career it just takes your breath away.

And you get to see some behind-the-scenes moments of SPACE JAM.

THE LAST DANCE – check it out. Yes, it’s ten hours, but where you going for the next six months?

Monday, August 03, 2020

Hollywood Insanity

Here in LA we had an earthquake last Thursday morning at 4:30 am,  centered in the San Fernando Valley. It was quite short but packed a real jolt. I was probably 20 miles from the epicenter and felt it.  But there was no damage.  Okay, this info you probably know.

But here’s what I find so interesting: is the industry website. It’s the current version of a trade magazine, as it were. And as such is very Hollywood-centric. This was their headline the morning of the quake:

Los Angeles Earthquake: Magnitude 4.2 Jolt & Several Aftershocks Rattle San Fernando Valley; Celebrity Residents React

Celebrity residents react?


Who gives a shit?

When you first heard or read about it, was your initial reaction: “What is Tyra Banks, Zach Braff, Lil Nas, and Lilly Singh going through?”

This town is nuts. During a wildfire last year there was extensive coverage of LeBron James evacuating.

I would submit there is a certain lack of perspective here in Tinsel Town.

But my favorite example was this: When President Reagan was shot it happened to be the morning of the Academy Awards. I believe VARIETY (although it might have been THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER) blared this headline:


And then in much smaller letters:


You’ll be relieved and happy to know Tyra Banks is fine, but the earthquake did wake her up.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Weekend Post

For a writer it never gets easier.


You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Friday Questions

Closing out July with FQ’s.

Kendall Rivers starts us off:

One of my favorite Becker episodes is The Usual Suspects. Can you share any interesting tidbits about that episode and the making of it? Also why the hell Sargent Borkow wasn't added to the series as a regular? He would've been a great replacement for Bob.

That’s my favorite episode too, although I might be biased for some reason.

The thing I remember is saying to the cast on the first day that if they had any questions or issues with the script don’t be shy. Feel free to share them, even though I was the writer.

As it happened it was an easy week. The script really worked – in large part due to the actors. Ted Danson, Shawnee Smith, and Troy Evans (as Borkow) were particular standouts.

There is a matching goof for those who pay way too much attention. Borkow is in the diner, orders hamburgers, and later they just appear. For whatever reason, the shot of Reggie setting down the plate was lifted. So it looks like the burgers just appear. How glaring a mistake was that? I’ve seen the show countless times and didn’t pick up on that until I read it on imdb.

The Borkow character was very funny when used in spots. Just like Colonel Flagg on MASH or Bibi on FRASIER – when used judiciously they really scored.

But they were very broad. If they were regulars their characters might lose their luster.

You could say “Bob” was broad too and quite honestly, I didn’t miss him when he left.

From Sogn:

In MASH very often we see Radar, and later Klinger, using the PA system, but all other announcements come from someone who's never seen in the entire course of the series. There's also no credit for the voice. Was this intended from the beginning as a running joke akin to Maris and Vera never being seen on FRASIER and CHEERS? Of course the analogy breaks down because the voice was never referenced by the characters, but the absence is very striking.

This was a holdover from the movie MASH. I’ll be honest, we never once gave a thought to “is there a communications tent?” Or “whose job is that?” Nor did I ever ask anyone I interviewed who had served in MASH units in Korea whether those announcements were realistic or even if they actually existed.

Some trivia for you MASH fans: for much of the series run that voice belonged to actor Sal Viscuso. Amaze your friends at parties.

sanford wonders:

Do you know of any movies that were turned down in which some other studio picked it up and became a hit. The question came from a Quora question. There were two answers. One was Home Alone The studio wanted Hughes to cut the budget. It was relatively small for the time. He eventually went to Fox where the movie made a ton. The other movie mentioned was Back to the Future It was turned down 40 times. Eventually Spielberg picked it and as they say the rest is history.

Oh, there are many. Huge hits.

Let’s start with Star Wars. Universal passed on that one.

And then you got ET, Pulp Fiction, Back to the Future, Twilight, the Exorcist, Dumb & Dumber, Boogie Nights… need I go on?

William Goldman was right. “No one knows anything.

And finally, from Ron Havens:

Over the years I have noticed that many of the classic sit-com scripts are really long and effective set ups for the final line of the show. I’ve seen it on “I Love Lucy”, “The Odd Couple” and others.
Have you ever written a script that started with the ending line or joke and write the entire show leading up to that line?

One time only. On CHEERS.

The episode was “Breaking In Is Hard to Do.” Frasier and Lilith are worried that their baby hasn’t spoken yet. Frasier takes him to the bar for a few days and Lilith finds out and is horrified. But then the baby says his first word: “Norm.”

It got a thunderous laugh. But it’s very risky basing a whole episode on one payoff joke because if the joke doesn’t work your entire episode is in the toilet.

David Isaacs and I did it once, got away with it, thanked the Gods of comedy, and have not tried it since.

What's your Friday Question?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

EP185: Singer/songwriter Debbie Gibson Part 2

From pop star to Broadway star to reality show star (with a few Shark movies thrown in), Debbie Gibson continues her unique and remarkable career.   The ups and downs of show business and what she’s learned along the way.  It’s a fun and insightful ride.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Actors Directory

In yesterday’s post I talked about discovering actors through Zoom readings. And of course there’s also imdb. That’s a great database for anyone in movies and television, even if it’s not always accurate. For a long time it had me as the dialogue coach for THE NEW FLIPPER. (“No no, Flipper, say it this way: “Eeep eep EEP eep.”)

But when I used to do those one-day play festivals at the Ruskin Theatre (back when there was theatre), I would be assigned a topic and two actors and have to write a ten-minute play in three hours. If I didn’t know the actors I could hop on imdb and in many cases view their demo reels. It was a godsend.

However, if you’re about to cast a pilot or indie feature and you bring on a casting director, it’s nice to have prototypes of actors to give them a better sense from the outset of just what you’re looking for. And that’s hard to do with imdb because there are a gazillion actors listed, more than half-a-gazillion of them dead.

They’re also not categorized by age, or type, or even gender.

Which brings me to the way we used to tackle this problem “old school.”

There were books that came out every year called the Actors’ Directory. There were two of them, as I recall. Both were the size of large city phone books and featured working actors along with their representation. One book for men, one for women.

Each book was broken down into categories. Young actresses were “Ingénues.” I think there was a section for children (although there may have been a separate book – we rarely had parts for children). So we’d leaf through the book and make lists.

There were any number of actresses who could have played in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE that still posted their ingénues pictures. But pretty much everybody was in there. Paul Newman next to a bit player.

I’m sure casting agents used to leaf through the same books, although the great casting agents went out and discovered new talent not yet in the directory.

It was a helpful guide and I don’t even know if it exists anymore. I’m sure a lot of actors were hired as a result of being in that book. “Hey, Marge, call William Morris. I think we’ve found our star. This kid Flipper has a great look.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

It's all happening at the Zoom

My heart goes out to actors doing Zoom readings. (Also to playwrights). Actors need to relate to one another. It’s hard when they’re in different locations and everyone is just staring into a camera.

A Zoom reading is no one’s first choice, but during the pandemic it’s that or no theatre at all. And if there’s one plus it’s that everyone in the world can watch instead of the population in the near vicinity of your venue.

But the conditions are less than ideal. You’re watching isolated boxes. The actors’ heads are different sizes, volumes are not level, the quality of the audio is mixed, the picture freezes, there are internet glitches, actors forget to unmute themselves or go on or off camera, they can’t feed off the energy of the audience, new audience members join and pop up on the screen, picture quality varies, etc.

And for comedy writers it’s especially hard because we don’t hear the laughs. I liken it to watching really bad softcore porn.

I’ve had a couple of play readings and I must say the actors really rose to the occasion. In one reading all of the actors were in the same room and boy what a difference that made. As Zoom readings go I've been super pleased.

And I did get something out of them. By seeing the number of participants I was able to see whether the audience was locked into the play or whether they bailed. It’s harder to just leave a theatre in the middle of a performance. You have to really hate it. But for a Zoom reading, it’s as easy as clicking off any TV show that no longer holds your interest. And face it, we’ve all developed itchy trigger fingers.

No one left my readings. So forget the laughs, the audience must’ve been invested in the story and characters. I’ll take it. I’ve seen other Zoom plays where an hour in it’s like someone yelled “Fire!” in a theatre.

That’s useful input for the writer. What about the actor? What does he get out of it? Number one, a chance to act. Again, it’s the only game in town. And two, a chance to be seen. Like I said, I’ve watched a number of Zoom readings and have been introduced to some wonderful actors that I might never had known about otherwise.

Another advantage for young writers trying to break in – it’s easy to schedule readings. Get your friends or actors you know and put it together. No arranging for a theatre or conference room. No having to put out snacks. You can record it and go back and analyze what worked and what didn’t. You can also invite as many or as few friends to view it as you like. It’s generally easier to get a Zoom audience. They don’t have to drive to a theatre, park, maybe pay a babysitter, and if the play is awful they can check their email or play games (keep your cameras off).

As time goes by I suspect Zoom plays will get better. We’ll learn how to smooth out the rough edges, the technology might improve, and actors will get better as they get more comfortable with the medium. And my sincerest hope is that by that time, we have a vaccine, can all go back to live performances, and never have to do another play reading on Zoom again.

Monday, July 27, 2020

RIP Regis Philbin

Sorry to hear that Regis Philbin has passed away at 88. I never met him, but from what I understand he was a lovely person. He certainly had a wonderful career. Over 60 years. He holds the Guinness World’s Record for number of hours on television. More than 16,700.

He was one of those very rare individuals who had lengthy television careers by being… personable. It’s not like he was a great singer or noted comedian (although he certainly did have a sense of humor). But he was primarily a… host. He could chat with a co-host or guest, host game shows, emcee events.

Regis Philbin was a TV “personality.”

And on the surface you might think, “so what talent or skill does that require?” The truth is: A LOT.

Moving a live show along, being spontaneous and able to handle anything unforeseen with grace and polish, versatility, even reading teleprompters seamlessly – that does take a real skill. You're up there without a net for 16,700 hours.  Being interesting enough that people continue to watch you year after year is also a skill.

The bottom line, Regis Philbin was a master communicator. And television is first and foremost about communication.

Very few have that talent. Dave Garroway, Garry Moore, Art Linkletter, Dick Clark, and more recently – Ryan Seacrest, Hugh Downs (who we just recently lost), and maybe Tom Bergeron. (I’m pretty sure Ryan is trying to beat Regis’ record in one year.)

The downside is: “personable” does not lend itself to a long legacy. Unless you grew up with Garry Moore or Art Linkletter I seriously doubt if you know who they are. TV personalities are made for the moment.

And that’s unfortunate because they don’t get the credit they deserve. You’ve got to be doing something right for people to hire you to go on camera for 16,700 hours. And no one was better at it than Regis Philbin. The sense I always got was that he enjoyed every minute of it, and that’s got to be worth way more than being a trivia answer in twenty years.

So long, Regis. Sorry we can no longer “see you tomorrow.”

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Weekend Post

Here's some advice for first-time show runners.  Not that anyone asked.   (NOTE:  As most of you know, when I can't find an appropriate photo I feature Natalie Wood.)

1. Communicating with your staff. It’s not enough to have your vision for the show; you need to clearly share it with your other writers. Don’t just assume. It’ll be hard enough for them without trying to figure out what’s in your head. Same is true with your editor and directors.

2. Be very organized. Time will go by much faster than you think. From day one lay out a plan. You want so many outlines by this date, so many first drafts by that date, etc.

3. Don’t squander that period before production begins. It’s easy to knock off early or move meetings back. But this is golden time before the crunch when actors arrive, cameras roll, and a thousand additional details require your attention.

4. Accept the fact that the first draft of the first script you receive from every staff member will look like a script from the last show they were on. It will take them time to adapt to your show.

5. Remember that every writer is not a “five-tool player” as they say in baseball. By that I mean, some may be strong at story but not jokes, or punch-up but not drafts. Not everybody is good at everything.  Consider that when putting together your staff.

6. Embrace diversity.  Welcome different points-of-view. 

7. Hire at least one experienced writer. Otherwise, on top of everything else you're doing, you're re-inventing the wheel. 

8. Don’t show favoritism to some writers over others. It destroys morale and no one loves a teacher’s pet.

9. Pick your fights with the network and studio. Don’t go to war over every little note. Antagonizing everyone all the time is a good way to ensure this will be your only showrunning gig. Yes, you’re an artist and you’re trying to protect your vision. And yes, a lot of the notes are moronic, but you have to hear them out. You have to consider them. You have to do the ones you can live with. The best way to get your way is to get them on your side.

10. Don’t overwork your staff. This goes back to being organized. There’s only so many times you can whip the same horse. Your people are dedicated to the show but not to the extent you are. They’re not getting any back end deals. They’re not getting interviewed by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. This show may be your whole life but they want to go home.

11. Praise your staff. If they turn in a good draft, let ‘em know. This sounds like such a simple thing but you’d be surprised how many showrunners don’t do it.

12. Respect the crew and learn their names. When you walk onto the set, greet them.  They’re not just a bunch of convicts picking up litter along the side of the expressway. They’re dedicated highly-trained professionals who never get any recognition. Take the time to know who they are.

13. Take care of yourself. On the weekends get plenty of sleep. Eat right. Relax. It’s a long haul.

14. Never make your staff work late nights if you’re not there with them.

15. Don’t get so caught up in the work and the grind that you forget to have some fun. You’re running your own show. That’s a rare opportunity. Enjoy it… or at least as much as you can before you have to put out another fire.

16. A good way to completely destroy any morale is to automatically put your name on every script and share credit with every writer. You may win in arbitration but you lose your troops. The trade off is not worth it. You’re getting paid more money than anybody already. Let your writers receive full credit and residuals.

17. Accept responsibility. When things go wrong (and they will) ultimately you’re the one in charge. Not saying you can’t make changes in personnel if someone doesn’t work out, but don’t be constantly playing the blame game. You’re the showrunner. You take the hit.

18. On the other hand, don’t take all the credit. When ideas and scripts and jokes come from other people, publicly acknowledge their contribution.

The bottom line is a showrunner has to develop people skills and management skills as well as writing skills. You may have enormous talent but that will do you no good when your staff firebombs your car with you in it. Good luck. The work is hard but the rewards are enormous.  Wasn't Natalie gorgeous? 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Friday Questions

Moving through July with this week’s Friday Questions.

WB Jax starts us off.

Recently watched the S5 MASH episode you and David wrote in which Radar seeks to improve his writing skills via a Las Vegas-based correspondence course. In the episode there's a scene where Frank Burns confiscates Igor's tapioca pudding, only to discover, after first bite, a "surprise" in the pudding (you guys must have been proud of yourselves when coming up with the "surprise"). We all know what a talented actor Alan Alda is, but I wondered if there were certain scenes like this where the "payoff" was unknown to the "reactors" in the scene until the cameras rolled (so as to generate on film a seemingly spontaneous reaction) or are people like Alda simply masters at "cracking up on cue" even after a scene is rehearsed/blocked?

The episode you’re referring to is “The Most Unforgettable Characters.”

No, on MASH there were no surprises while the cameras ran. Alan and other good actors have the skill to laugh on command.

The only time the MASH cast was not told of a scene beforehand was the Henry Blake dying announcement scene in the OR. And for that, Larry Gelbart told the cast there was one more short scene to film, get into your OR scrubs, and before the scene was shot they were given the script. Alan was the only one in the cast who knew beforehand.

While the actors were still somewhat shell-shocked they filmed the scene. And actually, they had to film it twice because there was a technical glitch on the first take.

Otherwise, the actors received the whole script before it went into production.

Bob Waldman asks:

Is there a certain length you aim for when you write a one act play?

There seems to be two.

Lots of theatres have ten-minute festivals. That seems to be the rage. I’ve enjoyed some success in this arena.

Otherwise, I’d say between twenty minutes and a half hour. I’ve had one 30 minute play produced eight or nine times.

Good luck.

Michael wonders:

The commercials for the TBS show "The Misery Index" have me hating the show sight unseen. I know one of the issues the broadcast networks face today is to get people to even see commercials for their shows, but in the past do you think they made much of a difference in the success or lack of success of some of the shows you worked on?

In the past, on-air promos were HUGE. Producers fought tooth and nail for precious slots. But those were the days when everyone watched the networks. A lot more people saw the promos then than see them now.

But you bring up a good point. A bad promo can be very detrimental. Promos can scare off people just as easily as they can attract them. So it’s not enough that the network promo’s you, they have to do it well.

That said, when a network doesn’t promo you it means you’re dead.

And finally, from Mike Bloodworth:

Would you advise students and wannabe writers to practice writing scripts for old/classic TV shows to develop the skill? Or should they concentrate on current shows? Or should they do neither and work on their own material?

If you are going to write a spec of an existing show, definitely do a current one. There have been a couple of times when people have submitted specs of vintage shows to stand out, but I’ve never heard of the gambit working to where they got an assignment as a result.

More than anything, the desired script of the day is something original, usually a pilot.

But I say have both. If someone reads and likes your pilot the first thing they’re going to ask you is what else do you have? They want to make sure this sparkling writing sample was not a fluke or took you six years to write.

Again, good luck.

What's your Friday Question?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

EP184: Meet singer/songwriter Debbie Gibson Part 1

Debbie Gibson was a huge pop star in the late ‘80s – writing, performing, and producing a string of gold records while still in high school.   It’s a unique and fascinating journey.  So you want to be a rock n’ roll star?  Here’s all the hard work it takes to get there.  Plus, her songwriting process. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A happy Hollywood ending

Great article in VANITY FAIR by Maureen Ryan about a true Hollywood raging asshole, Peter Lenkov.  He was the showrunner of HAWAII 5-0, MCGYVER, and MAGNUM P.I.  He was recently fired by CBS after years of unbelievable abuse and bad behavior.  His (through his lawyer's) major excuse: the enormous pressure of the job.  

Yes, showrunning is an incredibly stressful job, especially on a hit network show where you have to turn out 22 or 24 episodes a season.  But here's the thing:  You don't have to be a unleashed monster to do the job.  Trust me, there are some lovely people running shows.  It has more to do with your personality and who you are.  And if you are an asshole, add the element of pressure and you become out of control. 

Peter Lenkov is not the only horrible showrunner out there.  But happily, most are not like that.

And in his case, it's not even that he's such a genius.  To that end, I'm reposting my review of his HAWAII 5-0 that I wrote in 2011.  Just know that I was a fan of the original and I love pretty much anything "Hawaii."   And yet this is what I thought of his show and his writing.  

HAWAII 5-0 is a great example of a show that even in year two has no idea what it wants to do. Most new shows tinker in the early going as they try to find their groove, but when they still are making big changes in the second season that’s a sure sign they’re flailing creatively.

Every time I watch HAWAII 5-0 I always make a vow that that’s it. I’m done with this stupid show. But for some reason I end up watching it again. And making the same vow. It’s the same principle as eating at Wendy’s.

The original version in the ‘60s was very clear. Jack Lord played the head of a special police investigation unit. He generally wore a suit. His team did most of the difficult stunts (like walking quickly) and they always got the bad guys. Throw in a great theme song, beauty shots of Hawaii, and you had rating rainbows for twelve years.

The new version had to be spiffed-up. Steve McGarrett (now played by Alex O’Loughlin) became a super human action hero. Jack Bauer goes Hawaiian. I’m guessing the more the writers gave him scenes to “act” the more they decided to give him scenes to shoot people.

Scott Caan was chosen as his partner. He’s likable, quirky, but the sense I get is he’s kind of a klutz. Good for banter, bad for cliff diving. So the decision was made to give him a heart tugging personal life. He’s crazy about his daughter but rarely gets to see her. He’s divorced but still loves his ex-wife. What the writers soon discovered was – no one gave a shit. Who wants to cut away from a drug bust to see Scott Caan taking his daughter for shave ice? So after the obligatory daughter-was-kidnapped story, they moved off of that. They still don’t know what to do with Scott Caan.

For a while they tried to establish that Alex had a former flame who still worked for the Navy and would provide needed info and the occasional romp in the sack. Three weeks of this and it was an early discharge.

Daniel Dae Kim (Jin from LOST) as a former Hawaii PD officer that was drummed out of the force for supposedly being dirty (but of course he wasn’t… he was just protecting his family in a convoluted subplot that captivated a grand total of no one). And Grace Park. What law enforcement team doesn’t need someone whose specialty is surfing?

Her role has been reduced to Googling potential perps, taking discreet surveillance photos with a camera the size of a howitzer, and looking smoking hot in a bikini. Every so often she gets to kick someone in the mouth.

They tried to give Alex a backstory. His father was a cop who was killed under mysterious circumstances, leaving Alex a toolbox with clues. From time-to-time they deal with that. Other times it’s ignored. A sister was introduced into the mix. After several episodes she didn’t work out and was gone.

Jean Smart was the governor. It’s hard to make Jean Smart not interesting but they somehow managed to do so. Bang! She was shot and gone the end of last season.

Larisa Oleynik was introduced late last year as a former CIA analyst who winds up doing the same stuff for the team that Grace does.  Big surprise.  That didn’t work. She’s mousey so she can’t be used during action scenes. My guess – they thought she could become a love interest for Alex. But there’s no chemistry. She’s now gone.

And in her place – a super hot blonde bombshell, Lauren German. If that doesn’t light a fire under Alex’s loins then it's time for Ricky Martin.  Lauren's a former Homeland Security agent assigned to the team against his wishes. So expect three weeks of mandatory bickering before the beleaguered writers realize that doesn’t work either. Good luck writing those scenes where we see Alex’s “sensitive” side. That’ll be one more story arc for the “dear God, never again!” file.

And still the new characters keep on coming. Terry O’Quinn (also a LOST alum) as a… I can’t even keep track. Alex’s mentor, John Locke, I dunno. And Tom Sizemore (in between his own jail stints) as an Internal Affairs hard-ass.

But wait! There’s more!

I suppose the writers felt they needed some comic relief. That way the tone could be action-thriller-romance-relationship-comedy. So joining the crew is Masi Oka as a goofy nerd coroner, and Taylor Wiley as big fat Hawaiian street informant, baby sitter for Scott’s daughter, scam artist, and shave ice stand proprietor. By this point you should be screaming, “Jesus! This is just a clusterfuck!” And you would be right.

But wait! There’s still more!

Arch villain Wo Fat pops in and out. Scott Caan’s ex-wife pops in and out. There’s a story arc involving Grace being investigated for grand theft. Lirisa may be a mole, or she may be a double-agent. The new governor has it in for Alex’s team. Alex suspects his late father may be a bad guy. There’s still the toolbox with clues. The HPD still hates Daniel Dae. And just what’s in that mysterious “hatch”.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t know what you’re writing you’re in trouble. Maybe one of these mid-course corrections will work and the show will click. The ratings are still okay but the theme song and beauty shots can only take you so far. One of these weeks I’m going to keep my vow. Better introduce Charlie Sheen before it’s too late.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Funny ladies

Here’s a FQ from Kendall Rivers that became an entire post.

I have quite a list of favorite comic actresses who also happen to be gorgeous proving that there are quite a bit of funny women who are beautiful though it's not always easy to find them from what I read or heard from various showrunners of sitcoms. Who are some of your favorite comic actresses tv or film?

I don’t know why they have to be beautiful.  And to me, when a woman actress is funny she is beautiful. 

So I’m going to just list a bunch, knowing full well I’m inadvertently leaving some out.  So don’t hate me if I overlooked your favorite.  However, there are also names left out on purpose… like Mindy Kaling (who I don’t find funny for a second). 

But among the ones I do find funny (in no particular order) …

Lucille Ball
Shelley Long
Audrey Meadows
Barbara Stanwyck
Carole Lombard
Kate Hepburn
Wanda Sykes
Eden Sher
Elizabeth Banks (when she’s not hosting game shows)
Rosalind Russell
Eve Arden
Carol Burnett
Betty White
Bea Arthur
Georgia Engels
Rita Moreno
Mary Tyler Moore
Suzanne Pleshette
Marion Lorne
Laurie Metcalf
Marla Gibbs
Alison Janey
Doris Roberts
Diane Keaton
Tracey Ullman
Bette Midler
Madeline Kahn
Lizzy Caplin
Whoopi Goldberg
Patricia Heaton
Zara Cully
Peri Gilpin
Judy Holliday
Jane Lynch
Gracie Allen
Elizabeth Montgomery
Leah Remini
Nancy Travis
Lisa Edelstein
Jane Kaczmerek
Leslie Jones
Melissa McCarthy
Kate McKinnon
Tina Fey
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Gilda Radner
Catherine O’Hara
Andrea Martin
Kim Fields
Jean Stapleton
Charlotte Rae
Rhea Perlman
Lisa Kudrow
Julie Kavner
Valerie Harper
Cloris Leachman
Amy Poehler
Wendie Malick
Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Margaret Dumont
Kristen Bell
Constance Wu (although not a fan)
Ellie Kemper
Sarah Silverman
Jane Krakowski
Parker Posey
America Ferrera
Julie Bowen
Esther Rolle
Imogene Coca
Lily Tomlin
Isabel Sanford
Laura Linney
Frances McDormand
Joan Cusack
Jan Hooks
Cecily Strong
Rachel Dratch
And the ones I overlooked

Monday, July 20, 2020

DON'T play ball!

photo by Mark F. Gleason
Open letter to Major League Baseball: 

No one loves the game more than I do. I made it a second career, that’s how much I love it. I’m a fan of all major sports, but baseball is the only one I miss during its offseason. The only reason I look forward to February is because that’s when pitchers and catchers report. When I used to announce games people would say, “How could you sit through 162 baseball games every season?” And I’d say, “It’s more like 182 with spring training, and I’m always bummed out on closing day.” So this is coming from a fan who has craved baseball since late October or Christmas (whenever the World Series ended).


Stop this ridiculous charade of a 2020 season now while you can.

I watched some of the “exhibition” games this past weekend and it was just a joke. Empty stadiums. Some stadiums had cut outs of people in some of the front row seats (something Ed Wood would do), and otherwise 40,000 empty chairs. Some players were wearing a mask, others weren’t.

And the games moved like molasses. Baseball is not known for it’s lightening pace anyway, but this was just paint drying with artificial crowd noise pumped in.

I put “exhibition” in quotes because here’s the truth: These regular season games MEAN NOTHING.

One-time only divisions. Sixty-game seasons. Expanded playoffs. No separation between the National and American League. Some of the premier players are opting out (when you have $50 million already, what can’t you buy?). And in all likelihood the season will be called off at some point.

Why? Because players and managers and others involved will contract the virus and perhaps face serious health issues or even die. And they’ll spread the virus to other players, who will spread it to family members, etc.

So you ask, why are they doing this? Canada won’t permit the Blue Jays to play in Toronto. They’ll have to play in either Buffalo, New York or Florida (like that’s the safest place to go). Why risk players’ health and the very integrity of the game for a possible three months of a diluted and bastardized product? Is it because the public needs its baseball? Is it for the comfort that the game and its healing effect has on hard times? Is it a statement that America rises above everything? No. They’re doing it because of….


Players want to be paid. Owners want broadcast and merchandising revenue. There’s no other reason.

Let’s look at the “safety” precautions. Players were given a hundred page booklet with the guidelines. How many players do you think are going to read it? Or even the first five pages? A friend said that on page 50 they could give a phone number and say anyone who calls this number will get a million dollars and they wouldn’t give away a single cent. He's right.  You could put the phone number on page 11 and get the same result.  Or maybe even 2. 

The players will be tested often. That’s a lot of players, a lot of tests – might those tests be better used in communities to help lower the spike? Players will seemingly be in a bubble. On the road they’ll be in blocked-off sections in hotels on lower floors. They’re instructed not to take elevators. I guess most meals will be room service. Forgetting how that arrangement is far from impenetrable, at home they’ll be with their families. Who knows who family members have been with? Who knows how many wives and girlfriends and live-in uncles wear masks or go to bars in states where they’re open? Good luck to Marlin and Ray players. 

Oh… and support staff, stadium personnel, announcers, ground crew, media members – they’re not entitled to the vigilant testing. They’re on their own. And everybody has to sign waivers freeing MLB and the teams from any responsibility or damage should they come down with the virus. And you KNOW some will.  It's just a matter of how many and how serious? 

I’m guessing fans will watch the first few games of the season out of curiosity. Then the novelty will wear off and ratings will be through the floor. Announcers won't travel so they'll be calling road games off the television feed.   That should be interesting.   You're the Giants announcer calling a game from Colorado.  You're taking the Colorado feed.  All of a sudden the camera goes to the Rockies bullpen and stays there for two minutes because the Rockies announcers are talking about the bullpen.  But if you're the Giants announcer, you're stuck looking at the other team's bullpen for no reason.  Like I said -- a joke. 

And the only suspense will be who gets out of this alive? Even, if by some miracle, the season and post-season is played out, no one is going to take the World Series champion seriously. With no importance, no excitement, and no fan involvement why do this? And the answer is:


Saturday, July 18, 2020

Weekend Post

I was excited to see the 30 ROCK reunion last Thursday night. I knew going in it was a disguised hour commercial for NBC and all the Universal/Comcast holdings. But 30 ROCK always treated the meta aspect of NBC with a wink-wink so I wasn’t particularly worried. I knew they’d promote and make fun all at the same time.

And I love Tina Fey.

There were some good jokes (there always are) and it’s always great to see Alec Baldwin in any comedy. Maybe if the show had been a half hour I would have come away satisfied.

As it was, an hour-long relentless bombardment of NBC product sapped away the playful mirth, and by the end I felt I had been had.

A little meta is fun. A lot of meta becomes exclusionary. When the general audience gets the sense that the show is geared primarily to industry insiders they stop caring. And Thursday night was a meta-fest.

My other problem was the promos themselves. Quick-cut trailers that were frenetic and exhausting. And here’s the thing: Yes, NBC has new shows and comedies, and classics, and movies, and documentaries, and news shows, and animation, and vintage shows, and sports, and family fare, and concerts, and reality shows – but so does EVERYBODY ELSE.

HBO Max could make the same trailers. So could DISNEY +, and Netflix, and Hulu. In fact, they DO make those trailers.

So there’s nothing eye-popping about the NBC presentation. We get it. I’m sure there are some wonderful shows in there. I have no idea what they are. Or, in some cases, where in the NBC universe they reside.

And so by the end of the hour, for all the promos and all the shows on all the platforms, the only one that landed was the new Ted Danson sitcom. It looked fun and we were treated to 30 seconds of it, not 1.6. I think it’s on the big network. It is, isn’t it?

Which platform runs 30 ROCK because I would rather watch the old shows than anymore “reunions.”

Friday, July 17, 2020

Friday Questions

Stay safe and enjoy these Friday Questions.

Richard Pride starts us off:

I recently watched Shelley Long's 1983 Emmy Award acceptance speech. She was eloquent, gracious, and beautiful. She spoke just like Diane Chambers; in fact, that speech could have been delivered by Diane Chambers without changing a word. So my question is, how similar was Shelley Long to the character she played?

Similar enough that Shelley was able to really understand that character and how to play her to perfection, but different enough in that Shelley is not nearly as neurotic and buttoned-down as Diane. 

Diane was too in her head to have a committed relationship.  Shelley was a wife and mom. 

Another difference:  I don’t think I’d like to have lunch with Diane Chambers.  Shelley Long is delightful dining companion. 

From Daniel:

I guess this could be a Friday question. I'm from Baltimore. When you worked for the Orioles back in 1991, which area of town did you live in during the season? Hopefully you have mostly pleasant memories of the area?

Owings Mills and it was lovely.   There was a great deli nearby.  We lived in a condo complex not far from the expressway.   A nice townhouse and there was a pool. 

Chad Holmes asks:

In which of your jobs did you feel the most pressure? You talked about how Cheers was a low rated show in the first season while you knew it was good material. What kind of pressure was that? Or taking over as the lead people at MASH? Or the struggles with a new show with a big star like Mary? Where did the pressure really hit you the most?

David Isaacs and I were champing at the bit to take over the writing of MASH. 

On CHEERS we always felt we were turning out good shows.  We never felt there was anything more we could have done.  We were on the lowest rated network against a hit show on CBS.  That wasn’t our doing.

But what really took the pressure off was NBC president, Grant Tinker who very much believed in the show.  So we knew we had the network’s back. That is HUGE. 

Creating a show for Mary Tyler Moore was indeed pressure filled.  It was our own show, so we wanted to prove ourselves.  There were the comparisons to her old show, which was a classic.  And CBS put us in a terrible time slot against a top five show.   So for all those reasons, I’d say MARY over MASH or CHEERS. 

And by the way, I’m very proud of the work we did on MARY and stand by it to this day. 

And finally, from Brian Phillips:

Which TV show have you directed that has had the least amount of retakes (a no-reshooter? No-taker?)?

The “It’s a Wrap” episode of ALMOST PERFECT because there was a giant pie fight.  I shot it twice – once on camera blocking day (at the end of the day).  Then crews worked all night to clean everything up and we shot it once more in front of the audience.  

That’s probably a seven or eight minute chunk of the show.  I had five cameras (one a steady-cam) and no second chances.  I shot the pie fight scene then wrapped.   The audience got out probably an hour early. 

Many factors go into retakes.  The director needs additional coverage, new lines are inserted, actors slip up, there’s a boom shadow, a camera missed a cue to move, an actor is off his mark, etc. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

EP183: TV Critic Alan Sepinwall Part 2

Alan Sepinwall is the Chief TV critic for Rolling Stones magazine and author of numerous books on television.  This week we discuss the future of television, and pissing off showrunners. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Peacock shows its colors

I love how NBC’s new streaming service, Peacock, plans to launch today with a focus on COMEDY. 


When you consider that the highest rated streaming shows are FRIENDS and THE OFFICE, and other top performers are KING OF QUEENS and TWO AND A HALF MEN, if you have a lot of comedy in your library why not take advantage? 


And NBC does.




Using those as anchors, the network is also commissioning new comedies including projects from Tina Fey and Mike Schur. 


Comedy works. 


Especially now in a pandemic.   I bet for all the shows offered on HBO Max, their best performer is FRIENDS.   As excellent as series like THE HANDMAID’S TALE are, you can’t build a brand around them. 


APPLE + launched with glossy new shows with big names attached.   And for all that high visibility the reaction has been meh.   None of their shows really took off.  


And more people are going to watch Steve Carell on THE OFFICE on Peacock than THE MORNING SHOW on Apple. 


Comedy works. 


Netflix just canceled a bunch of original shows.  I’m hearing no buzz from anybody.  They also lost the rights to CHEERS on July 1st.   I’m hearing an outcry over that – even though you can still find CHEERS on Hulu, CBS All-Access, and I understand Peacock will offer it too.


The bottom line:  There has always been and still remains a healthy appetite for comedy.   On the one hand I applaud Peacock for recognizing that; on the other – doesn’t it just seem obvious? 


Good luck with today’s launch.