Wednesday, February 26, 2020

EP163: All things FRASIER


In the second part of his discussion with David Lee, the co-creator of FRASIER, they get into the creation, casting, tone, and speculation over whether there will ever be a reboot of this iconic series.   If you’re a fan of FRASIER, this episode is not to be missed. 


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Comments on comments

I wonder if it's normal or I'm just turning into a lovable curmudgeon.

But I've been doing this blog now for close to 15 years (way longer than I thought I would).    And because of trolls (which I take as a sign of success) I've been moderating the comments the last three or four.

I love the comments section.  Often you guys have way more interesting observations than me.  Over the years I've met any number of you and have become friends with many of you.   It's kind of like creating a little community, which is cool.

And please keep those Friday Questions coming.

But lately I find my patience is starting to wane.   I'll get a snarky comment or stupid complaint and in the past I generally just let them through.  Now?  Fuck it.   If I read a comment and think "Why is this person even reading my blog, he clearly has issues with it or me?" I now just delete their comment.  Do I have thin skin?  No.  I don't give a shit.  These comments don't hurt my feelings.  I just find them annoying and by posting them it encourages others to be equally annoying.  So I'm deleting more comments now than I have in the past.    And that's aside from any pro-Trump comment, which I delete instantly.

Hopefully the comment section can be fun and a lively exchange of ideas and humor.   But criticizing the content of a FREE blog, attacking other commenters, trying to be funny by being snarky when you're not remotely funny -- sorry, but those comments are no longer welcome and will no longer post.    Yes, this may offend some of you and some may leave the blog.  My best wishes to you wherever you may go.   I'd rather a smaller audience of people who really have something worthwhile to say. 


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Take a trip in the WAY-Way-Back Machine

Usually I don't do videos during the week but these knocked me out.  Thanks to digital wizardry someone was able to restore and enhance early movies, and by early I mean 1896.   It's amazing to see real people from two centuries ago.  There are some elderly women and I'm thinking, I'm looking at someone who was alive in 1820.

So step into the Way-Back Machine (The WAY-Way-Back Machine) and see the world the way it was a mere 124 years ago.



Monday, February 24, 2020

Influences

In light of my recent tribute last to Gene Reynolds and how much he meant to me, I received this FQ and thought now would be a good time to share it.

I have two great kids. My daughter Annie and her husband Jon are co-executive producers of THE UPSHAWS, the new Wanda Sykes multi-cam coming to Netflix soon, and I don’t know what my son, Matt does at Apple Computers in Cupertino, but he manages a team that’s making the next… something.

With that as background:

Brian asks:

FRIDAY QUESTION, but not for you: I'm always glad to hear from you about people or projects that you like and/or have influenced you. What people or projects have had the same effect on your daughter?

And here’s Annie’s answer:

I guess it shouldn't come as a shock that I have many of the same influences as my dad. He (and my mom) did raise me and all. The TV shows that probably influenced me the most are The Honeymooners, Cheers, Frasier, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Golden Girls. I have always loved and admired the work of Neil Simon, Carol Burnett, Larry Gelbart, Alan Ball, Christopher Guest, William Goldman, J.D. Salinger and John Kennedy Toole.

When we were starting out, Jon (my husband/partner) introduced me to Jane Espenson's blog; I read it every day and have gained so much from her expertise. Jon and I credit our careers to Dan Staley and Howard Gould. Not just because they gave us our first jobs, but for what they taught us while we were working for them. Lastly, my dad has always been my biggest influence. (Not just because this is his blog and I feel like I have to say nice things.) I never thought I had enough talent to be a professional writer, and my dad was the one who told me I was wrong. I'm really glad I listened to him.

Annie

Thanks Annie. That means a lot. Hey, I’m just glad my influence didn’t completely screw you up. Same for your brother.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Weekend Post

Our first agent wasn’t very good. When David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, living on Kraft macaroni, and trying to break in we managed to get an agent. She was a legitimate WGA signatory but she wasn’t top tier. She wasn’t third tier. But shows would accept her submissions, which was all we really needed.

She sent our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to the great David Lloyd, who was one of their producers. When she didn’t hear back in a few weeks she sent him a blistering following up.

Several days later he responded. It was a rejection letter. The opening sentence was:

HOW DARE YOU!

He then went on for three paragraphs to rip her a new asshole for questioning his integrity and accusing him of shirking his responsibilities.

Almost as an afterthought, he finally got to our script in the fourth paragraph and basically said it was a complete amateurish piece of shit (although I don’t think he put it that nicely).

Years later we worked together on CHEERS and I mentioned the letter. David being David, he said, “Well, I’m sure it was a piece of shit.”

I’m also sure he was right.

You won’t be surprised to learn that once we got our first assignment (that this agent had nothing to do with), we moved on to more reputable representation.

In my career, I’ve been on the other side numerous times. I’ve been the one reading and judging. I always write nice rejection letters, even if the script sucks eggs. I feel that good, bad, or indifferent, the person (or team) went to the effort of writing a script and the least I could do is let them down easy.

Plus, who’s to say I’m always right? I’m not. Along the way, I’ve rejected a few great people who went on to long and successful careers.  When a writer friend of mine was story editor on ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE he rejected a script by the Coen Brothers. It happens to all of us.

So when you get rejected – and we all do – take heart. You never know who’s going to turn out to be an A-lister.

My favorite story of that was from Larry Gelbart. Larry was one of the most gifted and successful writers of the last half-century. Among his credits: creating the TV version of MASH, TOOTSIE, OH GOD!, FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, SLY FOX, CITY OF ANGELS, CAESAR’S HOUR – it goes on and on. But when he was 18 he had a screen test for an acting part in a George Cukor movie at MGM. He did his test, he wasn’t chosen, and that was that. Many years later when he was an accomplished writer he happened to bump into Cukor at a party. He told him the story and Cukor said to him, “Well why didn’t you tell me who you were going to be?”

Good luck and may you become who you hope to be.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Friday Questions

Time to warm the winter blues with some hot Friday Questions.  What's yours?

ScottyB is up first.

Have there been any sitcoms that lasted a single season that nobody watched that, in your estimation, showcased a certain or unusual *style* of humor that gave it a little something atmosphere-wise that made them little lost gems?

Well, besides a couple of mine…

THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES and FLYING BLIND, both from writer/creator Richard Rosenstock were exceptional shows that deserved more support from ABC and FOX respectively. Think Woody Allen but fresher and funnier. FLYING BLIND also introduced the world to Tea Leoni.

Steve Gordon, who wrote and directed ARTHUR, had a great one-season sitcom called GOODTIME HARRY starring Ted Bessell that NBC killed.  NBC also killed a novel exploration of marriage called UNITED STATES from Larry Gelbart.

In the ‘60s there was a series called MY WORLD AND WELCOME TO IT about a Thurberesque character played by William Windom. It featured animation in the Thurber style and was created by Danny Arnold who went on to create BARNEY MILLER.

And while we’re in the swinging ‘60s, there’s OCCASIONAL WIFE, a fun romantic comedy (narrated by Vin Scully).

THE ASSOCIATES created by the TAXI team and starring a young Martin Short was a standout in the late ‘70s as was ALL IS FORGIVEN by the CHEERS gang in the ‘80s.

Also in the '80s, SHAPING UP by Sam Simon & Ken Estin and introducing Jennifer Tilly. 

I don’t know whether HE & SHE lasted one season or two, but if it’s one then include that too.

I’m sure there are others and I’ll think of them a week after this posted.

Bob Paris asks:

Ken: I have a question about a potential occupational hazard. When you are at a social event where people know you are a comedy writer, do you feel the need to be "on" and funny?

No. I’m happy to say something funny if it comes to me, but there is nothing more insufferable than a comedy writer who is “on” and trying to be Mel Brooks.

If you met me at a party you would not necessarily know I’m a comedy writer. You might even invite me despite the fact that I’m a comedy writer.

From Charles Bryan:

When writing characters unlike yourself, do you find a bit of that character in yourself? We've all got habits (or addictions) we struggle with. And Becker's a bit of wish-fulfillment for those times we want to say something tough but can't. I imagine that Larry David gets to live out a lot of conversational fantasies on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

There are some characters I write that are more like me than others. The goal is to get into the head of the character and adopt their worldview and voice. So often I will have characters saying and doing things I never would say or do.

It’s also important that the characters don’t all sound the same (at least for me). So I’ll go out of my way to give them different attitudes from each other, different speech patterns, slightly different vocabulary.

That said, sure, from time to time my take on the world might seep through.

Larry David is playing a very exaggerated version of himself — heightened for comic purposes. He’s not “that guy” in real life. Thank God.

And finally, from Mark:

A question no one asked but many would love to know.

Who is the model on your book "Must Kill TV" ?

She is the one who "peeks" at us when we open Ken Levine Blog in one of the tabs and open other tabs too, constantly reminding us to go back to Ken Levine tab and look for new comments.

I wish I knew.

In this global digital age, the artist who created that cover for me was in Wellington, New Zealand.

Where he found her I don’t know, but I wanted the cover to have one of those old classic noir/pot boiler feels and those usually featured an attractive woman… even if the woman was nowhere to be found in the book.

I was very pleased with the final cover. Glad you liked it too. Now please buy the book.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

EP162: Meet FRASIER co-creator David Lee


David Lee was a showrunner on THE JEFFERSONS and CHEERS and co-creator of WINGS and FRASIER. He’s an Emmy winning writer/director/producer.  In part one of this two part discussion, he discusses breaking into the business, THE JEFFERSONS, CHEERS, and the rigors of creating their first series, WINGS.  Next week is all FRASIER. 


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FORD V FERRARI: My Review

A movie about auto racing shouldn’t be slow.

FORD V FERRARI felt longer than the 24hour Le Mans Race.

How it won an Oscar for Editing I will never know.   I could take an hour out of that movie.  Give me the Oscar. 

No one can say the acting was the problem. Matt Damon as Carol Shelby and Christian Bale as driver Ken Miles lit up the screen, although I thought Tracy Letts as Ford the third or fourth or whatever stole every scene he was in.

It’s a very linear story with a lot of formula engine studio construction. Ford wants to beat Ferrari. He hires Shelby. Shelby hires Miles to be his driver. And of course the Ford “suits” don’t like Miles and are constantly getting Shelby to go with someone else. All Shelby has to do once is say “if Miles goes then I go” and everyone would back off. But then you wouldn’t have an hour of the same beats over and over and over.

There’s a lot of car talk, which if you know nothing about car engines was “wallla walla walla walla --- yesh, but walla walla walla walla.”

And what would an auto race movie be without numerous crashes? Or a young son that idolizes his dad, the driver? Or warnings that reckless drivers disregard?   Your favorite cliches are all in there. 

There is one thing in the movie that really made me laugh though, and I’m not spoiling it by revealing this. When the big Le Mans Race begins, Bale can’t get his side door to close. I don’t care how many millions went into the design and construction of the car – at the end of the day it’s still just a shitty Ford.

To me this movie would have been way more fun if it were 90 minutes and Elvis starred in it with Ann-Margaret.

Now for a real SPOILER ALERT so close your eyes if you don’t want to know the ending.

I'll even skip a few lines.












Okay, this movie was made in America. Who do you THINK wins the big Le Mans Race? It’s also based on a true story so you can just look it up.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

RIP Kellye Nakahara

MASH really was a family. Everyone on the set was treated equally. There was no hierarchy between the cast and the extras, and the crew for that matter. No diva treatment. No shunning day players or cable pullers. Many days we all had lunch at the Mess Tent. A table could contain Alan Alda, an extra, the showrunner, the make up person, a day player, and a Teamster driver.  In other words, not like any High School you ever attended. 

As a result, we all got to know the extras and whenever we could, we gave them lines (which meant considerably more income for them). Jeff Maxwell (Igor) and Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kellye) were two who over their years of service emerged and were in so many scenes they almost were members of the cast – credits-wise. But to us they were always members of the cast – as was Roy Goldman, Nurse Sherry, Nurse Gwen, and a rotating group that included Judy Farrell, Bobbi Mitchell, and Enid Kent.

So when I heard the news that Kellye Nakahara passed away at the age of 72 yesterday, I was heartbroken. She wasn’t just a co-worker from long ago. She was such a lovely person, had such a wonderful spirit, and brightened everyone’s day. And she was a terrific actress. Every line we gave her she delivered with honesty and warmth. We even gave her jokes. To me Kellye Nakahara was as much a part of MASH as the names you see in big block yellow stencil letters in the opening credits.

Longtime fans of the show began to recognize her. And because MASH has been so successful in syndication, her episodes and memory will live on. She was a dear heart. I will miss her.  We lost a member of the family.  Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.

Monday, February 17, 2020

President's Day message from Abraham Lincoln

Hi, this is Abe Lincoln.  Thanks to Ken Levine for letting me guest blog today. 

As someone who is highly regarded as a president, I think I have a certain amount of street cred.  So I hope my words will resonate with you.  I have a whole Memorial in Washington and I am on the five dollar bill (also the penny but those are worthless).  So I'm not just some Rush Limbaugh bellowing out of my ass.

Okey dokey.

I've been observing what's been going on lately and I just want to say --

WHAT THE FUCK HAS HAPPENED TO THIS COUNTRY?

I'm a Republican and I'm ASHAMED to even be associated with the spineless treasonous assholes who now represent my party.

Does the Constitution mean anything to you sniveling cowards?

Does justice mean anything to you piece-of-shit lapdogs?

To say you are a disgrace is putting it mildly.  To say you will be vilified throughout history and painted as the weak self-serving bottom feeders you are is a sure fire guarantee.  Generations of your family will be embarrassed and forced to live down your shame, and the hardships future Americans will endure as a result will be justifiably blamed on you.  

And for what?  To protect the most corrupt reprehensible president this country has ever had?   The man who cares nothing for you, nothing for the people he has sworn to lead, and nothing for the national security of the United States?    To what end, so you don't lose your cushy job serving the public?  You've LOST that job.  You've FAILED your responsibilities.  You've destroyed the very fabric of Democracy.  You're hypocrites of the highest order.

We know the president is an immoral psychopath who will take down anyone who stupidly chooses to follow him (to me that's the only positive thing I can say about him).  So there's no sense in me dressing him down.  He'll just Tweet that I was ugly and my presidency was a disaster.  So fuck him.  He's a moron.  But YOU had a chance to do something about it.  YOU had the chance to STOP him -- to preserve the ideals of this nation, to safeguard our borders, to (dare I say it) do your FUCKING JOBS.

And finally, my birthday is February 12th, damn it.  I want my holiday back.  I no longer want to be lumped into a group that includes the second most despicable man on earth. (Mitch McConnell is number one.)   So you get a day off during the week sometimes.  Big deal.  Most stores and restaurants are open anyway.   But I want people to remember me for what I did, what I stood for, and how seriously I took the responsibility to lead the citizens of the United States of America.

Okay, tomorrow Ken goes back to reviewing movies, telling funny stories, and that sort of shit.   I'm sure today he'll be deleting lots of comments from pathetic trolls.  "Ooooh, he's a libtardThat'll hurt his feelings.  But I appreciate Ken allowing me to vent even though I know it will do no good.  The US Senate is a disgrace.

But it's an election year.  YOU can do something about this.  YOU are this nation's last hope.  With all the eloquence I can muster after my Gettysburg Address, I implore you good people of America, VOTE THE MOTHERFUCKER OUT.

Thank you. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Weekend Post

A reader asked me recently to talk about my sordid days doing improv. I started in 1979. Disco was dying and I was looking for the next big thing. My partner, David and I sold a pilot to NBC about a Nichols & May type improv team. The concept was could a man and woman work together and just be friends (long before Sally faked her orgasm for Harry)? To research the arena I called Dee Marcus, director of the improv group OFF THE WALL (still in existence, still performing around town, and still hilarious) and asked if I could audit a class. She said only if I agreed to participate. I figured, what the hell? I couldn’t be much worse than the other beginners.

I arrived and was blown away by how unbelievably great everyone was. SNL quality people performing over a beauty school at Santa Monica Blvd. and Fairfax. These were the beginners? Shit! I was lucky to get through a scene without pissing on myself (although, I know I passed up a sure laugh) After a few trying weeks of this I learned Dee hadn't put me in the beginners class, she put me in the performance class. These were all the top professionals. (Thanks, Dee) The tip off came when Robin Williams showed up one night.

I stayed in the class for a couple of years, learned an enormous amount, and eventually became part of a comedy troop, THE SUNDAY FUNNIES. We played to crowds often fewer in number than the cast.

After many years of sabbatical I'm back, taking Andy Goldberg’s workshop. Of all the improv teachers he’s by far the best. As a comedy writer I recommend improv training. It teaches spontaneity, committing to a character, and creating scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends. The hardest part is going to a deli afterwards and watching your classmates eat fried kreplachs at 11 at night.

One story about Robin. Needless to say, doing scenes with him was an adventure. He is so fast and brilliant he just uses you like a prop. One night I got called up to do a two person scene with him. If you were lucky you sometimes could get in two words. The scene began, he went off in fifteen different directions. I didn't even know what the hell he was talking about. Finally, I heard a beat of silence. He must've been taking a breath. Now's my chance, I thought. I don't know why but the only thing I could think to say was "fuck you". Much to my surprise it got a laugh. He was off and running for two more minutes of inspired word jazz and then it was my turn again. Since it got a laugh the first time I said, "fuck you". It got an even bigger laugh. This became the scene. Robin riffing, me occasionally blurting out "fuck you". And every time I got the biggest laughs.

When the scene was over I worried that Robin would be pissed that I upstaged him. Instead, he took me aside and said, “that was great.” I consider it one of my greatest achievements in comedy.

And I guess he remembered it because every time I saw him the first thing he said to me was “Fuck you!”

Friday, February 14, 2020

Friday Questions

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, Happy Birthday to me, and Happy Friday Questions to us all.

James starts us off:

I was watching the Steve Gordon version of The Practice with Danny Thomas. In-between seasons, one of the tweaks they made was to completely change the set of the son's house, but with no explanation that he'd moved. But other than the entrances and exits being rotated, it didn't do anything other than redecorate with new furniture and fixtures. They also changed the theme song, and not for the better.

As a show runner, do you ever see set changes or theme-song changes as ever being for the better? Do they ever help? On a long-running show I can see it breaking the monotony, but on year 2?

I can’t speak for the specifics of THE PRACTICE. Maybe the original apartment set was hard to film. The new one might have had ports built in so cameras could get farther into the set.  Or for year two they moved to a smaller sound stage and didn't have room for the original apartment set.  I dunno. I’m just guessing.

Changing opening titles and the theme is usually rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Ratings aren’t great so the network starts asking for tweaking – like a new opening theme is going to turn the whole series around.

Bob Uecker is a National Treasure asks:

So many of The Office blooper reels are Jim Krasinski or Rainn Wilson unable to stop laughing during a scene. As a comedy writer, were you proud when actors couldn't get through a scene without giggling? As a director, were you annoyed? And of the shows you worked on, which actors were most prone to giggling during multiple takes?

First off, Bob Uecker IS a National Treasure.  Now to answer the question:  

I’d so much rather have the actors laughing than not liking the script.

Shows like THE OFFICE were “block and shoot,” meaning they’d block the scene, shoot it, then move on to the next scene so the actors don’t spend a lot of time with the material before cameras roll. Therefore when they think it’s so funny they have to laugh, I sure don’t mind that.

But for a multi-camera show shot in front of a live studio audience it’s a different story. The actors have a week to rehearse. By the time shooting begins they should be focused enough to no longer laugh.

Now obviously, if someone goes up on a line it breaks everybody up, and that’s fun. But at some point the cast needs to buckle down. So as a director I find it mildly annoying because it means the actor is not really committing to the character.

That said, I’ve had very few occurrences of this. Most of the actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with are consummate professionals.

From Dave H:

Is there a topic on your blog about old shows that have not aged well, where you can’t believe that people thought they were funny?

Well, I can only speak for myself.  

The one show that jumps out at me is LAUGH IN. It’s painfully unfunny. But in its heyday in the late ‘60s it was a massive hit, and even I was laughing at the time.

Same for BATMAN in the ‘60s. Hilarious at first when I was a kid and now cheesy beyond belief.

I look back and wonder what I ever saw in THE PATTY DUKE SHOW (other than having a little crush on Patty Duke). Same with GIDGET and Sally Field.

Now BEWITCHED is an interesting case. The first couple of years in black and white remain smart and funny, and the later years (which I watched and enjoyed at the time) are awful.

On the flip side, I was channel surfing recently and came upon an episode of ALF. I was never a big ALF fan but found myself laughing. And no one was surprised at that than me.

And finally, from C. Warren Dale:

More and more shows these days - almost all streaming dramas, more and more network and cable dramas, and even a few streaming (The Kominsky Method) and network (The Good Place, The Conners) comedies embrace a serialized story structure. This can make for good television but it makes it impossible to write a spec. Any assumptions you make about the characters, setting, or storyline could be blown apart by the next episode that airs. As television moves in this direction, how do you think new writers will be able to demonstrate their skills in that context?

When I taught a spec class at UCLA I advised students that if they want to write a spec of a serialized show just pick a place in the series and write from there. The producers understand that you won’t know what their plans are and take that into account.

But yes, it’s hard enough to write a spec without having to shoot at a moving target.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

EP161: 50 Actors we Rejected


Even the best actors get rejected countless times. Ken lists all the actors he and writing partner, David Isaacs have rejected for projects – often for good reasons, some for frustrating reasons (the network wouldn’t approve them), and some we just plain screwed up. But hopefully it will give heart to actors that rejections can’t deter talent or a great career.


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In defense of "Boys in the Bar"

This turns out to be a nice follow up to my recent post about our CHEERS episode, "Boys in the Bar."  

Matt Baume has a YouTube series called "Culture Cruise" dealing with LGBT issues.  A few weeks ago he devoted an episode to "Boys in the Bar."

There was also an article about it in the Huffington Post, which you can find here.

Thanks, Matt.  And let me again go on record as saying I'm very proud of that episode (even if parts are now dated) and I applaud the Charles Brothers, Jimmy Burrows, and the cast for believing in it, producing it, and airing it.

Note:  Within the next few months I will be doing a commentary track on that episode for my podcast.  So keep listening. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

THE IRISHMAN -- my review

A writer friend summed up THE IRISHMAN perfectly. He said you could take an hour-fifteen out of this movie – ANY hour-fifteen.

THE IRISHMAN is a meticulously crafted, well-acted, beautifully directed incredibly indulgent film about horrible people, not only doing horrible things, but horrible things we’ve seen already fifteen times in Martin Scorsese’s other movies. I know I frequently complain that movies are too long. This one is 3:39.
 
It’s TOO FUCKING LONG.

Not enough happens. De Niro and Pacino both do a medley of their greatest hits. CGI is employed to make them look young and at times De Niro appears almost Asian.

There are scenes of people taking a smoke break. Several of them.

3:39.

That's why it didn't win any Oscars.  

What could possibly have been left out on the cutting room floor? If smoke break scenes made the cut, what (if anything) did Scorsese leave out?

Along the way there were some excellent scenes and moments but not a compelling enough story to warrant the time it takes to fly from LA to Detroit. Joe Pesci and Ray Romano were standouts.  And the guy playing singer Jerry Vale. 

And then there’s my own, I acknowledge, personal issue with the film. Every main character in THE IRISHMAN is despicable. Tony Soprano without the therapy. And the only reason we give a scintilla of a shit about them is because wonderful actors are playing them.

So what happens in fifty years? Might there be a movie about Trump and his treasonous inner circle of gangsters? Will audiences have sympathy for Donald Trump and Stephen Miller and Rudy Giuliani if our national treasure actors-of-the-day portray them? Will future movie-goers (and who knows where they go in 2070?) be fooled into finding these monsters “fascinating?” The real people are fooling millions, imagine what good actors can do.  So for that reason I had a harder time caring for one second about any of the thugs in THE IRISHMAN. 

If, out of curiosity, you do want to watch THE IRISHMAN (it’s on Netflix, it’s free and available any time), my suggestion is to do it in two parts. Start in the late afternoon. Break around 6 for dinner, and return for the last two hours. And bring your laptop. I guarantee you’re going to be checking email and Instagram -- at least 339 times.

Monday, February 10, 2020

2020 Oscars -- my brief recap

As I suffered through the Oscars I was so glad I’m not reviewing them in full this year.

What an insufferable night of oozing insincerity. You realize that all of those noble equality/gender causes, Hollywood cares so deeply about (this year) is only because there’s pressure on them to do so?

I will say they got it right with PARASITE, but what does it say about US filmmaking that there is such a glut of Comic Book, sequels, and action films that decent, well-made movies about actual people are so few that not even one can win the Best Picture Academy Award? PARASITE was more original, more inventive, and in my mind, more worthy of the prize. Imagine last year's winner, THE GREEN BOOK going up against it?  Which film do you think would win? 

And I’m sure the takeaway from Hollywood studios is not make more quality movies, but stage better promotional campaigns.

Just remember, these are the same people who honored and honored and honored Harvey Weinstein.

Brief observations:

Steve Martin & Chris Rock were funny.

Maya Rudolph is never funny. I’m sorry. She’s always a presenter, she always bombs.

I was thrilled for Laura Dern.

First time I ever heard cow insemination brought up in a victory speech.

What a joke that Tom Hanks was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.   The movie's about him.  The movie doesn't get made without him. 

FORD V FERRARI -- a movie that’s 2:30 and should have been 1:30 doesn’t deserve to win Best Editing.

Academy President, David Rubin was a casting assistant on a show I worked on in the ‘80s. It’s nice to see good and talented people rise to prominence.

The new Academy museum will be housed in my favorite building in LA --the old May Co. building at the corner of Wilshire & Fairfax.  

Joaquin & Rene – even when you have wonderful things to say, if you just keep talking forever people will start to hate you.   You couldn't hear it but America was screaming at the screen: "GET THE FUCK OFF ALREADY!"   They were screaming that for the last four minutes of each of your speeches. 

Melissa Disney did a great job as offstage announcer.  She was actually the host of the Oscars.

There were a few upsets so that was fun.

The "Cats" bit was as painful as the movie. 

What does it say about the lack of stars when they kept showing Disney CEO, Bob Iger on camera?

And finally, here’s next year’s sure bet: At least one woman will be nominated for directing. Greta, round up your camera crew.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Weekend Post

For the first time in years I won't be reviewing the Oscars this year.  I may do a quick post on Monday with my overall reaction to the event (IF I choose to watch it), but I'm foregoing the long snarky review.

Why?

I talked about this on my podcast last week -- I just think it's run its course.

I've been doing it for about 25 years (which is staggering to me).   At first it was something fun I distributed to my email contact list.   Movies were more mainstream.  I was making observations for the first time.  Sam Rubin on KTLA was saying idiotic things on the red carpet show that only needed my transcribing his actual words.

I always wrote my reviews immediately after the broadcast and posted it the second I was finished so that if a similar joke appeared elsewhere you knew I didn't steal it.  

Eventually, the reviews took on a life of their own.   A very popular San Francisco radio talk show host started stealing the material and claiming credit for it and quickly was removed from my list.  Newspapers in London and Toronto reprinted my reviews (with my permission and for a stipend), and the day after the Oscarcast I was asked to guest on a number of talk shows.

As time went on I began to feel a sameness.   Some of my jokes were just becoming variations of other similar jokes from past years.   There was little shock value in the dumb things Sam Rubin said because he said dumb things every year.

My main motivation at that point was that it increased traffic to the blog.   The last few years I unveiled it first on my podcast, again, as a way to increase listenership.   And I have to say it worked.  I would get a spike for my Oscar reviews. 

But those made for really long nights because after writing the review I then had to record it and put together the finished podcast episode.  It meant an all-nighter.    And that would have been fine -- if I were still in college.  Or even working on a show.  But writers get paid for staying very late at night.  Podcasters and bloggers don't.

And finally, the key reason:   It wasn't so much that they were harder to do (which they were)'; it's that I just didn't feel they were that good -- certainly not as good as they had been in their glory years.   And if I can't make every project as good as I can possibly can I don't feel it's worth it.  So better to stop than churn out less than my best.

For fans of my Oscar reviews, thank you and my apologies for disappointing you this year.  

At one time I was reviewing the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, and every week on AMERICAN IDOL.  It's time for the "play off" music.  

Friday, February 07, 2020

Friday Questions

Slogging through the winter with more Friday Questions.

Susan begins.

Do you think you will be remembered in the Oscar's 'In Memoriam' segment?

You wrote for a few movies, but your work was for mostly TV shows. I am sure you would have thought about it too.

No, I don't think I'll be included. Not with the body of movie work I have now. If one of my plays becomes a major motion picture and wins a bunch of Oscars then I have a chance. But since that’s highly unlikely I’m going to try to stay alive as long as possible.

I suppose for the TV Academy I’ve got a chance. Depends on how many more important people also go that year.

But here’s my real goal: Considering how irrelevant these award shows are becoming, I hope to outlive them.

VP81955 queries:

Are some characters in an ensemble simply more difficult to write stories for, regardless of the quality of the actor?

Absolutely, and you’re right, it’s not necessarily the actor’s fault. If the character is bland, too nice, or too perfect there’s nothing to hang any comedy on.

Fay on WINGS was tough. Father Mulcahy on MASH. Daphne on FRASIER. Those were three that I had to personally wrestle with, and I’m sure every TV comedy writer has one or two that he or she encountered.

I always feel bad for the actors. They have thankless roles, and as a writer I feel bad that I couldn’t service them better. But we were hampered by the overwhelming goodness of their characters.

From Bob Waldman:

Have you ever been far into developing an original series idea when you learn a network has greenlit a pilot with almost the identical premise as yours? Do you put away your idea and start on another?

No, not in television. But in TV it’s not uncommon for several networks to do similar shows. And in the case of NBC, they developed two shows one pilot season with the same premise although with different execution -- the backstage world of an SNL-type show. STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP from Aaron Sorkin and 30 ROCK from Tina Fey. Well, one of them was successful.

In movies however, David Isaacs and I wrote a spec screenplay that we were literally in the middle of negotiations for a studio to buy it when it was announced that Robin Williams was attached to a project with a similar premise so our studio pulled out.

If that announcement had been made just one day later we would have made a lot of money. That one hurt. 

And finally, from Randall Klugman:

Why are there no multicamera comedy movies? Even SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH and GOOD LUCK CHARLIE changed formats when they made movies.

Filming a TV show in front of a studio audience is meant to simulate the experience of watching the show in a theatre with other people, and not just by yourself in your living room. So, in theory, the laughter on the screen is supposed to prompt you to laugh as well.

But when you do a TV show as a movie it is (at least initially) meant to be seen in a theatre with a live audience. And you know how much funnier a comedy is when everyone in the room is laughing.

So a TV audience is unnecessary.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

EP160: Meet John Pike Part 2


The former president of Paramount TV and VP of CBS Late Night, John Pike discusses his role, the birth of Fox, the return of STAR TREK, working with David Letterman, the future of the business, and he offers great advice for anyone interested in getting into the entertainment industry. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Gene Reynolds

96 is a good long run, but when it’s the man responsible for your career and the best mentor a writer could ever have, you still have to say “too soon.”

Gene Reynolds passed away, two months shy of his 97th birthday. I would get lunch with him and MASH producer, Burt Metcalfe, at Musso & Frank’s a couple of times a year. He was still very sharp, very funny, and I always learned something.

Gene led an amazing life. He was a child actor at MGM along with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Jackie Cooper. He starred or co-starred in numerous films. A trivia note: In I LOVE LUCY, when the Ricardo’s finally vacated their famous apartment, Gene was the new tenant.

In the 1960’s he turned to directing, helming hundreds of TV shows from HOGAN’S HEROES to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW to THE MUNSTERS.

In the early ‘70s as a producer at 20th Century Fox he was handed a project. Adapt the movie MASH as a TV series. It was Gene who not only thought of Larry Gelbart to write it, but lured Larry back to the US after years of living in London. Larry Gelbart may have been responsible for much of the brilliance of MASH, but Gene Reynolds was its soul. Gene put it together, Gene established the tone, and for the first five years was the guiding force. After that he ran LOU GRANT and collected several of his six Emmys.

My writing partner, David Isaacs and I met Gene in early 1976. We were less than a year in the business – having written one JEFFERSONS, two JOE AND SONS, and a couple of stories for BARNEY MILLER. Luck is such a key factor in any Hollywood career. This was to be the start of season 5 of MASH and Larry Gelbart had just left. For the first time they were looking for new writers. We happened to be at the same agency as Gene and our agent submitted a writing sample, our draft of the JEFFERSONS (which bore little resemblance to what ultimately aired).

Right place, right year. And it also helped that David and I were in the Army Reserves. We had a firm grasp of that world.

We met with Gene in his office and he took the time to explain the show, what their objectives were, the type of stories they were looking for. Then he loaded us down with research – transcripts of doctors and nurses, books on Korea, recent MASH scripts, and the novel of MASH. Who spends a whole afternoon talking to young writers who may never get an assignment? But that was Gene.

We came in a week later with 50 story ideas, overwhelming him. He paired two of the notions – a gas heater blows up rendering Hawkeye temporarily blind and the guys pull a sting on Frank by recreating a baseball game on the radio. This became “Out of Sight/Out of Mind.” Gene was a little hesitant because it was a pretty dramatic story. We lied and said we wrote lots of drama in college. We had never written drama in our lives.

So he gave us the assignment. That script became our golden ticket and launched our career. Talk about blind faith – two inexperienced writers given a challenging episode based on a first draft of a JEFFERSONS.

Long story short, he loved our draft, kept giving us more, and the next year we joined the staff. It was the break of our lives and we owe it all to Gene.

Ironically, that episode -- directed by Gene -- aired on MeTV the night he died.

The year we joined the staff Gene left for LOU GRANT. But once a week we’d meet up at his house in the Hollywood Hills and go over scripts and outlines. This was an absolute masterclass. Always the gentleman, Gene was the greatest story person I’ve ever met. I learned more about story construction from Gene Reynolds than all my other mentors combined. In a lovely, supportive way he would point out flaws or suggest alternatives. And the amazing thing was this: Not only could he see story problems with laser-like focus, he also instantly had the solution.  Usually ingenious. To this day I don’t know how he did it.

So many things did Gene Reynolds teach me. Besides story construction, the value of research, the constant striving for excellence, and most importantly – the need to include humanity in everything you write. More important than killer jokes or clever plot twists was HUMANITY. The audience had to care. I’d like to think that’s in the DNA of everything I write, so again, thank you Gene.

He also taught me how to be a good showrunner. Establish an organized professional environment high on support and low on drama. Treat everyone with respect, work to get the best out of people. And it’s as simple as this: I remember the first time we got script notes from Gene. There was a joke he didn’t like. Other showrunners might say “That sucks, get rid of it, no!” Gene pointed to it and said, “You might want to take another look at that joke.” It’s a little thing – tiny even – but it meant a lot. And that was Gene.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Gene was my role model as a director. He was always cool, confident, prepared, unflappable, unhurried (although he always finished his shows on time). Trust me, there are times it’s hard to be unflappable. Things go wrong, actors misbehave, a cat gets caught in a heating vent. Yet Gene handled anything that came his way with grace, earning the full respect of the cast and crew. It seemed to come effortlessly to Gene. I have to work like hell at it.

I’m glad I was able to thank him on numerous occasions for all he did for me, both privately and publicly. But I never felt it was enough. How could it be? When a man launches your career and makes you a better human being, how large does the skywriting have to be?

Again, 96 is a good full life. Who wouldn’t take that deal right now? But aside from losing my parents, the only two passings that brought me to tears were Larry Gelbart and now Gene Reynolds.

And just writing this has brought me to tears again. Thank you Gene.  For EVERYTHING.

I hope to continue making you proud.  

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

We comedy writers from the past apologize

Very funny article in a UK paper:  a Comedy Writer from the 1970's apologizing that jokes they wrote then now are inappropriate and insensitive and we all should have known better at the time.

We all should have questioned whether material intended to be broadcast in a few months would be deemed unacceptable to people who wouldn't be born for another fifteen years.

How thoughtless of us!

It's a funny satire but all too true.  Entertainment needs to be viewed in context.   Tastes change, society changes, but we need to view past shows with the understanding that they were written and performed for a different audience with a different sensibility.   Suddenly, after 40 years we comedy writers are not all racists and homophobes.

To me a prime example is the episode of CHEERS my partner David Isaacs and I wrote for the first year of CHEERS.  It's called "Boys in the Bar."  There's been some recent outrage and demands that the episode be pulled from distribution.   In the episode, some of the bar regulars are worried the bar is going to go gay.  As a result they act like idiots and ultimately get their comeuppance.    Some folks are saying it's totally offensive to the LGBT community.

At the time we won the GLAAD Award from the LGBT community.  We also won the WGA Award for Best Comedy Script and were nominated for a writing Emmy.

Perspective people.  Perspective. 

Monday, February 03, 2020

Super Bowl LIV: My review

DISCLAIMER: This is a snarky Super Bowl review. I will never be hired by Sports Illustrated or even the Toluca Lake Times. This is my annual attempt at sportswriting and I’m more Redd Foxx than Red Smith.

Super Bowl LIV (or Super Bowl Live for people who don’t recognize Roman Numerals) was a good game until the last two minutes when the 49’ers reverted back to their 4-12 selves of 2018. But with 2:44 remaining, San Francisco was down by only 4 points with the ball. Great line by Joe Buck: “For the 49’ers it’s First Down and 85.”

And haters, sorry, but Joe Buck does a remarkable job. He’s concise, accurate, knowledgeable, and resets the game situation after every play. He’s cool under pressure and can handle anything unexpected that comes his way. Not easy to do with 100 million people watching (although in truth, most people are at parties talking so maybe 300 people are actually listening). Troy Aikman is solid and astute but dull. I’m sure for Joe to goof around with him it’s got to be like playing tennis against a blanket.

Had Green Bay beaten San Francisco in the NFC Championship game we would have had a rematch of Super Bowl 1 where the mighty Packers took on the upstart Chiefs – much like Meryl Streep vying for the Best Actress Oscar with Heidi Klum. What a difference 54 years make.

The FOX production team is to be applauded. Outstanding coverage. They employed more cameras than the total number of Los Angeles Charger fans.

The only way the Super Bowl pre-game shows could have been longer is if Martin Scorsese had directed them. I tuned in at the end during the hundred-year tribute to the NFL. Anyone else notice that O.J. Simpson was among the greats they saluted? But it was wonderful to see the (few remaining) football heroes of my youth. They were all wearing matching red sports jackets so at first I thought it was a salute to stadium ushers. Most had to sit. Of the fifty or sixty grid iron greats I bet there’s not an ounce of cartilage between them.

Yolanda Adams sang a gorgeous rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and Demi Lovato did her best Whitney Houston impression with “the National Anthem.” At one time it would have been stirring to hear these two performances, but that was when the United States was a Democracy.

Now you may think, there’s no need for politics in the Super Bowl. But when there are presidential ads and J-Lo dons a huge American Flag fur coat, the gloves are off. Warning: I have strong opinions.

Right before the game when they had that moment of silence for Kobe Bryant (and “passengers”) and other notables I was relieved Mr. Peanut wasn’t included. It turns out he didn’t die after all (which is probably why he wasn’t included).

The commercials were the usual. A few standouts but mostly over-produced, forced, confusing, frenetic woeful attempts at humor. Considering what they cost to produce and what they paid to advertise on the Super Bowl, you’d think they’d spend a few thousand bucks and hire decent comedy writers.

What the fuck was the Snickers’ hole? Why were all the Sci-Fi creatures from every movie coming to Wal-Mart’s for their blue bags? Why was Arya from GAME OF THRONES singing “Let It Go” while driving in traffic?

There are always the obligatory celebrity cameos. What a huge treat to see M.C. Hammer again. Or 80 year-old Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. Or Martin Scorsese (half the people who watch the Oscars don’t know what he looks like, much less the Super Bowl), or Jonah Hill, or the Kool-Aid Pitcher.

In comedy writer rooms we have an expression called a “Nakimora.” That stems from an old episode of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. Bob was buying a stereo and the brand was Nakimora. There were six or seven call-back jokes that referred to the name. And each one landed with a thud. So when we do call-back jokes we try not to do too many because we don’t want another “Nakimora.” I bring this up because the Charlie Day-stain-on-his-shirt bit was an excruciating “Nakimora.” Ad after ad bombed and bombed and bombed worse.

I’m not going to go through all the ads but the ones I liked were the Bill Murray “Groundhog Day” ad for Jeep, the Alexa spot (although what did they need Ellen and Portia for – the joke was versions of Alexa through history?), the Bryan Cranston send-up of THE SHINING (immediately followed by a send up of FARGO), and best and most moving was the Google ad.

I didn’t cry at the Google ad (like many people), but I did cry seeing that appalling Donald Trump ad. One woman is reunited with her family thanks to Donald Trump. Awwww. How about the THOUSANDS of families separated by Donald Trump? How about all the children in cages because of Donald Trump?

In fairness, Mike Bloomberg’s spot won’t wow anybody either.

And if we’re on the topic of ads that are truly bullshit, how about the one where the NFL is using high tech wizardry to ensure that players are getting the best health protection possible? And Exxon is doing all it can to clean up the oceans. And O.J. continues his relentless pursuit of the real murderer.

There were a couple of baffling spots. The only way to save our farmland is to buy Michelob beer. The only way to bring our country back together again is to all use TurboTax. If you really want to help the environment, buy an electric engine Hummer. And Wal-Mart celebrates small town America (despite the fact that they’re responsible for putting thousands of ma & pa stores out of business).

Did you notice that a lot of Super Bowl commercials used ‘60s music?

And the theme this year seemed to be frogs, which extended to the way Joe Buck sat on that stool with his legs spread apart.

Speaking of legs spread apart, the Half-Time Show this year was brought to you by “Bare Elegance Gentleman’s Club.” It starred Shakira and Jennifer Lopez and I’m surprised they didn’t collect dollar bills from people in the front row. Both are now in the mature category of PornHub – Shakira is 43 and J-Lo is 50. Yet they both looked great and both could still bump n’ grind (which is good because neither got where they are because of their extraordinary singing ability). I think they were competing to see who will become the next Cher. Shakira had a hot red outfit that showed off her midriff, and J-Lo dressed for the Ice Capades.

Shakira did a delightful BDSM number with a rope. (Explain that to the kids, mom & dad.) And in maybe the single greatest highlight of the whole 18-hour Super Bowl extravaganza, she wiggled her tongue.

All that was missing was one of them tying a cherry stem into a knot with their tongue or swallowing a cucumber whole.

But I did love this: In fact, I applauded. As part of J-Lo’s set she had kids singing in cages – clearly a fuck you to the wonderful man who brought one single family together.

And once the Chiefs won, the leader of the free world tweeted this: "Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs on a great game, and a fantastic comeback, under immense pressure. You represented the Great State of Kansas and, in fact, the entire USA, so very well. Our Country is PROUD OF YOU!" Hey, you moron, the Chiefs play in Kansas City, MISSOURI.

All in all, Super Bowl LIV was a slick well-done production of a good tight game and a showcase for a budding NFL superstar, Patrick Mahomes. (Tom Brady, time to pass the under-inflated baton.) I’m waiting for our president to tweet his recognition of San Francisco. “They lost but they played well and the 49ers represented their great state of Alaska – that they were named for – very well.

Bring on the XFL!

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Weekend Post (yearly tradition)

This is a yearly tradition.

For several years I had been talking about the "Lost" CHEERS scene. David and I wrote it for the 1983 Super Bowl Pre-game show to promote our fledgling series. They ran it just before game time and it was seen by 80,000,000 people. Nothing we've ever written before or since has been seen by that many eyeballs at one time. But the scene was never repeated. It never appeared on any DVD's. It just disappeared.

Until a few years ago.

Sportswriter supreme, Joe Resnick had taped every Super Bowl including that one. And since the scene aired so close to the game, it was on the tape.  Sadly, Joe passed away a few years ago.   You can read my tribute to him here.

Thanks to friend of the blog, Howard Hoffman, he was able to digitize it and post it on YouTube.  Here's the text of the scene.

So here it is. The Super Bowl is Sunday.


Friday, January 31, 2020

Friday Questions

Closing out January with Friday Questions.

Steve Weed starts us off.

Dragnet has always been one of my all-time favorite shows. I love the stylized acting, the distinct dialogue, and the blatant proselytizing. In all your time working with Harry Morgan on M*A*S*H and After M*A*S*H, did you ever have an opportunity to talk with him about his experience on that show and working with Jack Webb?

I did. He spoke fondly of the experience but did say Jack Webb was incredibly cheap. (It was Webb’s production company that produced the show.) For example, he noted that they wore same suits every episode because they went out and filmed exterior shots of them getting in and out of cars and going in and out of the Parker Center and this way everything would always match. And they could use the same exterior shots every week instead of filming new ones.

Jack also liked to wrap shooting every afternoon around 4:30, and Harry sure enjoyed that.

But often I would see him and say, “Just the facts, ma’am.” He would come back with a typical cryptic DRAGNET line he had uttered on the show.

God, I miss Harry. He was such a great guy – in addition to being an incomparable actor.

Anthony Hoffman is next.

I was watching a YouTube video from a Supernatural convention panel where actress Jewel Staite talked about how you can tell if the main actor(s) are assholes based on how the crew acts. She mentioned how happy the crew on Supernatural is after years on the air but said she’s been on sets where the crew couldn’t wait to go home. Is their truth to this?

She’s absolutely right. The star sets the tone. If the star is a team player and a mensch you can expect a happy set even if the production is a difficult one.

But if the star is a monster it creates a toxic atmosphere that affects everyone down to the craft services guy.

slgc wonders:

Aside from baseball, which you obviously love, which sports do you follow on a regular basis?

Football and basketball primarily. College and pro, although as a UCLA alum I have not had much to cheer about in the last two or three decades when it comes to football (and lately, basketball).

In addition to baseball, I also have done basketball play-by-play. Even got to do part of a game for the Golden State Warriors once.

I love going to hockey games, but I don’t really understand the fine points of the sport. I was at a Kings game once. I went to the restroom between periods and they had the radio broadcast piped in. They were analyzing the previous period, and at one point said “everyone in the arena could see (this strategy playing out)” and I thought to myself, “I didn’t see it. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But I love all sports. When I was in New Zealand a few years ago I went to a rugby tournament. I didn’t really understand it, but after about a half hour I sort of got it. And enjoyed myself very much.

And finally, from MikeKPa.:

Regarding dating writing partners, I assume that wasn't the case with you and David. However, did either of you ever set up a blind date for the other, or date a former ex of the other? And did any of those dates or situations wind up in a script?

David set me up with a couple of dates. He had a girlfriend at that time. No, neither one of us ever dated the other’s ex. Nothing could break up a partnership faster than that.

None of these dates have made it into a script – YET. There’s one that will at some point, but I’m not saying anything beyond that because I don’t want to give anything away.

Hey LA peeps, the reading of my full-length comedy, AMERICA’S SEXIEST COUPLE is tonight at the Atwater Theatre at 8 pm. A few seats still remain. Come join the fun. I want to see a full house. Here’s where you go for tickets. Thanks.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

EP159: Things even I didn’t know about FRASIER & CHEERS


Ken’s guest is John Pike, the longtime president of Paramount Television in the ‘80’s & ‘90s. Most people don’t know this but John played an instrumental role in the creation of FRASIER. That and CHEERS take up most of part-one of this fascinating two-part interview.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Won't you be my neighbor?

In 1986, my writing partner, David Isaacs and I took a rewrite assignment for 20th Century Fox. We did a polish on a movie that never ultimately got made. (What a unique story that is in Hollywood.) But we were given an office and writers assistant on the 20th lot.

At one time at that studio we were in a gorgeous Swiss Chalet. Now we were here:
Gives you some idea of where our career was at the time. From a chalet to the Bates Motel.

We had two tiny offices – one for the assistant and one for us. A couch barely fit into ours. Cloak rooms were larger.

And behind us was the editing bay for a new series premiering that fall called LA LAW. For weeks they were assembling the opening titles so we heard five-second snippets of their opening theme 30,000 times. To this day I can’t hear that opening theme without getting PTSD.

But we enjoyed the assignment, it’s always fun to be on a lot, and we liked our no-tell/motel neighbors. They were a young writing team fresh out of USC named Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. They were working on a broad comedy called PROBLEM CHILD. The four of us hung out, went to lunch a few times.

Everyone moves on in Hollywood so off we went (or they went – I forget which) and wished each other well.

They DID well. Among their screenwriting credits are THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, MAN ON THE MOON, BIG EYES, ED WOOD, and the current DOLEMITE IS MY NAME. And this being Tinsel Town, where everyone has lesser credits: PROBLEM CHILD 2, and THAT DARN CAT (which starred the cat we used on ALMOST PERFECT – I hate when actors jump from TV to features).

They also dabbled in television doing the award-winning O.J. SIMPSON TRIAL for FX.

So obviously they’re terrific writers, but the best thing is – they’re the same unassuming nice guys they were back in the Dust Bowl motel. I hope to get them on the podcast later this year.

Every studio has offices set aside for transient writers who come and go with individual projects. It’s an oddball mix of scribes and genres. Some writers are on the way up, others on the way down. In this case it was two writers on the way up and two writers in a holding pattern (which is still better than on the way down).

Go see DOLEMITE. It’s on Netflix.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

All about Maris

There was an article in the Atlantic by Megan Garber assigning much significance to "Maris jokes" in FRASIER. 

Here is the article.  

I read it and decided to respond by emailing her.  This is what I wrote:

Hi Megan,

As a contributing writer of FRASIER and author of some of those Maris jokes, I must say I quite enjoyed your article but respectfully feel you over-thought the significance of them. If there are reflections of society and veiled commentaries on '90s era women in Maris jokes I can assure you they were not intentional. At least in my case. I’m not that deep. :)

I was not one of the creators or showrunners but my understanding was that they were simply jokes written at a time when America was less sensitive to offending any single viewer. If anything we wanted to clear the way for Niles to lust secretly after Daphne without the audience resenting him for it or feeling sorry for Maris. Beyond that, I for one was going for the laugh.

All that said, I’m so proud to have been a part of a 20 year-old sitcom that is still appreciated and discussed today. So in that regard, thanks again for your thoughtful article.

Happiest of holidays,

Ken Levine

This was several weeks ago.  I was hoping she'd write back so I could include her response, but she never did.   

What do you think? 

Monday, January 27, 2020

Kobe Bryant and "passengers"

Like everyone else, I am heartsick over the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and eight others who died in a helicopter crash yesterday.  Among the victims was his daughter and one or two more children.

This isn't a post about Kobe, his accomplishments, etc.  But it's about the "passengers."

When first reported yesterday the story was Kobe Bryant and 5 other passengers perished.  Later it turned out there were more victims and their names slowly were revealed.  And even then they were generally a footnote at the end of the story.

And the truth of course is that no life is more important just because the person is famous.   And yet, that's how it's always been reported.

I almost was a victim of that myself. 

I was broadcasting for the San Diego Padres. We were in New York to play the Mets. Superstar Tony Gwynn and I shared a cab out to Shea Stadium. At one point in Queens the driver hit an oil slick, lost control of the car and we spun into a 360 degree turn. He was finally able to bring the cab to a stop, no one was hurt, but we were all quite shaken up. (Tony was so rattled that he only went 3-5 that night).

As we resumed our commute I said to Tony, “You realize if we had crashed there would have been news bulletins breaking into every network, huge front page headlines the next day and they all would say, ‘Baseball star, Tony Gwynn and a passenger were killed in a auto accident’.

My entire life would be reduced to “passenger”.

Tony felt bad. And mind you, this was not a ploy to get him to pay the fare (although it worked). He felt it was wrong that one person should be valued over another just because they’re famous. It was sweet of him to say but I was still feeling bummed out. You can’t change the way the world operates, yes it’s unfair, but some people are special and others are just considered nothing. And I fell into the latter category.

We arrived at the stadium. Tony paid the fare and the driver said there was an additional charge. Why? Because he had a passenger. Yes! It turns out my life is not without value! It’s worth $3.50!

My blessings and deepest condolences to the passengers. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Weekend Post

This is one of those “please indulge me” posts. Like most scriptwriters, I’ve got a drawer full of unproduced screenplays. But now I also have a blog. So if I can’t sell these scripts I can at least occasionally share some of my favorite scenes. Here’s one from a movie I originally wrote in the late 90’s, and have been rewriting ever since. It’s a bittersweet comedy called SATISFACTION and it’s set in the exotic world of Bakersfield radio. (I know what you’re thinking – with that topic and locale how could it NOT sell??? I wonder the same thing.)
 
Here’s the set up: Barry (picture Jason Alexander) and Jimmy Lizard (picture Zach Galifianakis) were DJ’s together in Bakersfield 30 years ago. Barry left town and the industry and finds himself aimless and depressed. Lizard remained a jock in Bakersfield, playing the same goddamn ten oldies all these years but has a much better attitude about the world…even though he’s now in the hospital battling Leukemia. Barry comes to visit and they have a heart-to-heart.

LIZARD
Y'know, Barry, you lie in bed all day facing your own mortality and listening to oldies, and you start to do a lot of thinking. Stuff you never even worried about before. The existence of God, the meaning of life, that sort of crap. And hopefully you come to some conclusion, something that gives your world a little order. And I'm happy to say I have reached just such a conclusion.

BARRY
Yeah....?

LIZARD
We all spend most of our lives doing stupid shit.

BARRY
(after a long beat)
That's it?

LIZARD
That's it.

BARRY
So what's the point?

LIZARD
There's no point. It's just a conclusion. If you take the time we use to do something productive versus the time we spend chasing some girl who doesn't exist or watching "the Amazing Race" the ratio is probably 10-1 Race. Why we're programmed like that? I don't know. I was kinda hopin' being on my deathbed would make me smarter.

BARRY
C'mon, man, you're not on your deathbed.

LIZARD
Yeah, I know. Just trying to evoke a little sympathy. When I really do go I want it to be at home. On my death futon.

BARRY
So the point here is to do more with your life. Cut down on the stupid shit.

LIZARD
No, that's not it. Because the stupid shit seems to account for all the fun in life.
(beat)
But you want a point? Here's a point. Do what makes you happy. I've used my one precious existence to be a fucking disc jockey in Bakerspatch for 32 years, and you know what? I've had a blast. I'm never going to achieve great deeds, or leave a lasting legacy, or even bang those few select women I've always longed for, but Christ, how many of us do? The odds gotta be worse than Leukemia. So you might as well dig on the stupid shit.

BARRY
(with a smile and nod)
Okay. That's good. Real good.

LIZARD
Maybe the most important words ever written are on that billboard outside of town. "Sun, fun, stay, play".

BARRY
Deep.

They sit quietly for a beat. Then:

BARRY
So who are they?

LIZARD
Who?

BARRY
Those select women you want to nail.

LIZARD
Well, that's a little personal, but...

Lizard lies back and smiles, almost picturing them.

LIZARD
Jessica Alba and Halle Berry.

BARRY
Alright! Two of the very best.

LIZARD
Jennifer Love Hewitt..

BARRY
There's more?

LIZARD
Ann Coulter, Jenna Fischer, Linda in accounting...

BARRY
Linda in accounting?

LIZARD
Bob Harlow's wife, Bonnie Bernstein from ESPN, Cousin Ruth, both Gilmore Girls...

BARRY
Okay, I think I got it.

LIZARD
Ellen DeGeneres just to see if I can, Sister Mary from church...

And Lizard continues what is sure to be a long long list.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions? Leave yours in the comments section. Thanks.

Tommy Raiko starts us off.

One recent rom-com success story folks point to is Crazy Rich Asians. It did very well in many international markets, but based on its domestic box office alone it'd certainly be considered a success. What do you think Crazy Rich Asians had going for it, that other recent modern rom-coms lack, that contributed to its success?

Some movies just hit the zeitgeist at the right moment. I couldn’t tell you why because I didn’t love the movie. The same with MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING. Huge sleeper boxoffice hit. I always hated it.

I could speculate, but those conjectures would be based on nothing . So I’ll just say luck, timing, and they must’ve done something really right (although I don’t know what it was).

marka asks:

Say I appear on a tv show as a guest star. I get paid for that. Two seasons later my scenes are used in a flashback episode. Do I get paid again for the second use of my work? Still later my scenes are used on a "funniest moments in tv" show. Do I get paid for that use as well?

It depends on how many seconds of your episode they use, and I don’t know the formula.

But the short answer is, YES. You do get paid – for flashbacks, for retro episodes, for Dick Clark specials.

When Dick Clark was doing his blooper show, I made a nice chunk of change because they used several bloopers from episodes I either co-wrote or directed. It was a beautiful thing.  Crystal Bernard dropping a whole cake on WINGS made me a lot of money. 

And when CHEERS and MASH did their retrospective episodes -- Ka-ching!

Now… I don’t know how it works in streaming. Although I imagine if they use part of your episode on another episode as a flashback you still get paid. But streaming is the Wild West.

From Blogger Terry:

I was watching "Goodbye Radar" the other day and I noticed, particularly in Part 2, that Gary Burghoff's voice sounded different. It sounded deeper and gruffer. It didn't sound like the innocent kid Radar that we had come to know and love. Do you know if that was a deliberate choice, either on Gary's part or the part of the director, to make Radar sound older as he was growing up and going back home? Or did Gary just have a cold that day?

Not so much the voice but he refused to wear his hat. And we felt that made him look too old. Obviously the goal was to show that Radar had matured as a result of his MASH experience but without the hat we felt he went from 20 to 40.

Still, I think the episode worked well and Gary was great in it.

And finally, from Mike Bloodworth:

You've mentioned in the past how being in the army helped you write for M*A*S*H. You've also talked about you and other writers using real life situations in their scripts. But surely there were times when you had to write about something with which you were NOT familiar. e.g. I've never heard you mention a sibling. (Maybe you did and I missed it) But, if you don't have a brother how did create such brilliant dialog between Frasier and Niles? I seriously doubt that you're an alcoholic, ex-jock, yet you were able to successfully write for Sam Malone. You're not an asshole, but you wrote dialog for Becker. Etc.

Bottom line: What tips do you have for dealing with subjects you don't know about?

Research. Learn as much as you can about whatever arena you’re writing about.

And even then sometimes you have to let your imagination be your guide. You can’t interview any former Jedi warriors. If you’re writing TOY STORY 5 you can’t interview toys. When we wrote MANNEQUIN we studied a department store but did not bring a mannequin home with us on a motorcycle.

Do the best you can. And then, As James L. Brooks always says, “At some point you’ve got to become a writer.”

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

EP158: Concerts I’ve Attended: Seeing the great and not so great


Ken recalls some of the music concerts he’s attended down through the years.  From Sinatra to the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band he’s seen ‘em all, or at least some of ‘em.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Don't eat at La Scala

There’s a restaurant in Beverly Hills called La Scala. They’ve been there a million years. It’s an Italian place. Nothing special about the pastas or main courses. But they offer this chopped salad that is very popular. It’s very finely chopped and if you go at lunch you’ll see 9 out of 10 people order it. Like I said, it’s very good, but it’s just a salad. I don’t think you’d need ten chemists to break down its ingredients in order to recreate it. Chop finely, add items, and drench with dressing, put one olive on top. In fact, if you want to make it yourself, here's the recipe. 

But La Scala is one of those chic Beverly Hills eateries that is very status conscious. How you are treated, especially by the host, depends on how important they think you are. I must say that has always bothered me. I never feel I’m considered important enough for them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone and was offered the worst table in the place, despite the fact that the room was half-empty at the time. Either I get push-back that the other tables were reserved or they begrudgingly move me.

No attempt is ever made to make me feel comfortable. And I often think to myself, “It’s just a fucking chopped salad. I can buy a Vegematic and make one just like it myself.”

They have a seating policy where they will only seat you when all members of your party are present. That’s kind of bullshit but okay. If you say another person is coming then 99% of the time they actually do. Why inconvenience the person who arrived first by having to stand in their tiny crowded waiting area? Who knows?  He may even order a drink or appetizer while he's waiting.  But that’s their policy. Whatever.

It’s not a large restaurant. One long room with comfortable booths along the walls and two rows of small tables down the center of the room. Obviously, the booths are coveted. When I go I always get there at noon so they’re still available – and then have to plead with the host who instead wants to seat me next to the host stand where seven people can stand over me while I eat.

Recently, a writer friend and I were taking our friend Liz there for her birthday. Liz arrived first, said it was a party of three. I arrived a few minutes later and Liz asked if we could be seated? It was her birthday. The martinet host pointed to their “policy.” Even the other waiting customers gave him shit. “Come on, it’s her birthday. Set her up.” Bowing to pressure the host begrudgingly sat us at a booth. A few minutes later our third party arrived and joined us. The waiter announced that he wouldn’t serve him.

WHAT?!

They don’t serve “guests” and we were a party of two. We said, no, we were a party of three. He said that was impossible because they never seat incomplete parties. We explained the circumstances. It should be down on his list that we’re a party of three. He checked, the host hadn’t entered it so we were obviously liars.

He also kept insisting it wasn’t him, it was the “policy.” I said that was bullshit. These aren’t FAA safety rules. It was a matter of accommodating customers. He would have none of it.

I said I wanted to speak to the manager. This high-strung very young waiter said he was the floor manager. I told him they were going to lose a longtime customer over this to which he replied, “I don’t take kindly to threats!” Things got heated quickly after that and I said we were leaving. People at other tables were cheering us. Guess I’m not their only customers who finds their attitude off-putting.

Before leaving I asked for the real manager’s card. I was given the number of the corporate office. We went down the street to Porta Via, one of the ten other restaurants on the same block and had a lovely meal.

When I got home I called the number, got some woman who intercepted my call and wanted to know the nature of my complaint. I said I wanted to speak to the head guy myself, not have her relay it. She took down my contact info and said he would call me.

That was about a week ago. He’s never called. So I say, FUCK THEM. How many times over fifteen years of doing this blog have I specifically suggested you avoid a restaurant or hotel or anywhere? Answer: This is the first.

Telling this story to a friend last night he said, when his father-in-law was near death but felt well enough to go out for the first time in months they took him to La Scala where not only did they not seat him, they made him stand – an 80 year old man with stage four cancer. Needless to say, my friend now also boycotts the place.

Judging by all the one star reviews in Yelp, we're obviously not alone.  

So to repeat:AVOID LA SCALA.  Tell your friends and have them avoid La Scala.

There are twenty other Italian restaurants in Beverly Hills. And it's just a fucking chopped salad.