Monday, August 19, 2019

You never know who you'll find

Remember phone books?

I think they still exist to a certain degree, but there was a time (pre-Google) where to find someone’s phone number you had to go to this real thick book that weighed a ton and look them up. I know – how quaint.

You could have an unlisted number, but most people didn’t bother. And there was no robo-calling in the pre-Google era. Celebrities had unlisted numbers but not all. Stan Laurel was in the phone book.

In 1973 I was on vacation in New York. As some of you know, I also dabble in cartooning. My idol was Al Hirschfeld, who did caricatures for the NY Times for like 70 years. (He’s the one who wrote his daughter’s name, Nina, into every drawing.)

On a whim, I looked in the phone book one afternoon and found an Albert Hirschfeld. I decided to call. A gentleman answered. I introduced myself and asked if he was the Al Hirschfeld who did the caricatures. He said yes. I told him I was an amateur cartoonist and would love to meet him. To my astonishment, he said “Sure, come on over.” He had to give me directions, which subway to take, where to get off, etc.

An hour later I was knocking on his door. He welcomed me into his brownstone, ushered me upstairs to his studio (where he made the magic), and I spent the afternoon watching him work and discussing drawing (how to draw hands, how to draw hair, shadowing, etc.)

IT WAS AMAZING.

Hirschfeld died in 2003 at age 99. His last day was spent drawing. He had dinner, went up to bed, and just slipped away. Talk about the way to go!

Just before I left he took out a piece of paper and did this for me:

What an incredible day.  I miss phone books.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Weekend Post

Before we had #MeToo, before we had PC, we had these ACTUAL ads.    Noted without comment except to say, JESUS EFFIN' CHRIST!!?"


Friday, August 16, 2019

Friday Questions

Heading into the “Dog Days of Summer” with some Friday Questions. You ready?

Vincent Saia is.

D.C. Fontana said that when she was teaching screenwriting at AFI she knew the students who had been working on the same script for years were probably not going to become professional writers and Tom Wolf said, "It only takes six to eight weeks to write anything. The rest of the time you're just dancing around the project." Do you also feel the ability to write quickly and on demand necessarily separates the professional writer from the amateur?

I agree with William Goldman.  Writers should go at their own speed but write as much and as quickly as they can. The danger of going too slow is you tend to obsess and try to make every word perfect, which results in stilted scripts. But if you go too fast you miss things.

The distinction between professional and amateur has more to do with the ability to be creative on demand.

From John Schrank:

I really like the two posts on wording and the importance of setup! In Dick Cavett's first book, after some very interesting sections about writing for other comedians, he tells about some of the material he wrote for his own act. He says the right wording is almost always the way it comes to you first. Tweaking it sometimes weakens it. 

Have you found that to be true? His major example was his joke about wedding that was done on the cheap. "I don't know much about caviar, but I do know you're not supposed to get pictures of ballplayers with it." Then he wondered if "cards" was better than "pictures"... or if there needed to be some reference to trading cards in the line before to set it up. He finally decided it was good the way it was.

I disagree with him. Often times the first thought is the most obvious. When David Isaacs and I are writing we often bat around lines back and forth until truly, we can’t remember who came up with it.

However a caveat (to Cavett): In the writers room if someone pitches a joke and everyone laughs it goes in exactly as pitched. Even if it had a funky construction, if it got a laugh it goes in untouched.

To fool with those lines is when you start to over-analyze and kill the joke.

But there is value to tweaking. We’re not Mozart.

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

You've written before about "Good-bye, Radar" originally being written as a single episode to close Season 7, but it was the network that insisted it a two-parter for sweeps, and that when you and David Isaacs re-wrote it as such, you added the subplot about the generator to pad it out with filler for the extra time. So, does that mean everything else about your original script for the episode was still the same? Radar meeting Patty Haven? The circumstance of Uncle Ed passing away? The sudden arrival of wounded canceling Radar's farewell party?

Yes, the whole Radar storyline was in place the end of season 7.

We may have added a couple of new steps to go along with the generator story (which was there for padding), but after Henry’s death we wanted a character to leave and have a happy ending. Giving Radar a possible love interest seemed interesting and showed a side of him we’ve never seen.

The overall theme was his maturity and we felt he now was ready to have a real relationship.  Leaving his teddy bear behind was also our idea.  It seemed the perfect symbol for his having grown up. 

And finally, from JS:

Why when shows get desperate they bring in a baby? It never works. It is the sign of death.

Yep and amen. An argument can be made that a baby opens up a whole new vein of stories, but especially for a romantic comedy, it forces you to put the romance on the back burner while your couple is managing an infant. And those stories are just not as fun and interesting in my opinion.

However, if it’s a supporting character, like say Frasier then the baby really doesn’t alter the series. Frasier’s bar habits didn’t change (although they should have).

A REMINDERFor the next two weeks I am working on a big project and will not have as much internet access as I normally do.  So it will take longer to moderate comments.  Hang in there and continue to comment and ask Friday Questions.  I will get to them eventually.   Thanks much.  Ken

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

EP136: Howard Michael Gould Part 2


Ken and Howard discuss their writing process and how it applies to teleplays, features, stage plays, and novels.  And probably whatever task you’re undertaking.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Shocking revelation! The internet got it wrong!

I’ve touched on this before, but a recent on-line article has prompted me to revisit it in more detail.

It concerns a 7th season episode of MASH when David Isaacs and I were the head writers called “Preventative Medicine.” This is one of my least favorite episodes, but it’s not for the reason you may think.

The premise was that to prevent a reckless field commander from sending his unit to battle Hawkeye and B.J. performed an unnecessary operation and removed his healthy appendix. That kept him in post op for several days and seemingly prevented some of his men from dying in combat.  Like most stories on MASH, this one came from our research. This incident actually happened.

In our original script, Hawkeye and B.J. were both on board for this operation. At the table reading, Mike Farrell had an issue with it and didn’t think B.J. would cross that moral line.

Now the article seemed to suggest that this disagreement caused some friction between Alan and Mike. It said that Mike “refused” to do the episode as written. And he “fought the production team.” They go on to call this a “tiny rift” between Alan & Mike and eventually “they reconciled.”

This is how things get blown out of proportion and nonsense is spread on the internet.

So here’s the real story:

Yes, after the table reading Mike balked at having B.J. go along with this operation. But there was no tension whatsoever. He and Alan debated the point for a couple of minutes and right there we all decided that this debate would be great for the script.

Here’s how contentious it got: We thanked Mike.

Far from being angry or even annoyed, Alan was energized. After rehearsing the scenes from the other story in the episode, Alan came up to the room and we all did the rewrite together.

Alan found the rewrite to be such a positive experience that he wrote about it at the time in an article for TV Guide. In the piece, he mentioned that after the rewrite we all went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant called Anna’s (which sadly is no longer there). The owners of Anna’s were so thrilled that I was treated like a VIP for the next 20 years there.

The episode clearly benefited from Mike’s objection and I’m proud of the result.

So why is it one of my least favorites?

At the time, MASH had not yet gone into syndication. Episodes from the first six seasons were never aired after their year ended. CBS during season seven began airing one episode a week Friday nights at 11:30. We had just completed shooting “Preventive Medicine.” David happened to watch the late night rerun that Friday and called me in a panic. “They already DID that episode!” he exclaimed.

Sure enough, there was an early episode called “White Gold” that had the exact same storyline, although in that case Hawkeye and Trapper were on the same side. Obviously, they got it from the same research.

I was mortified to think we’d repeat a story on our watch. That’s why that episode always bothers me. Many fans think ours is better than the first. I don’t care. (I also don’t agree. Nothing we ever wrote was as good as what Larry Gelbart wrote.) But what amazes me to this day is that numerous people on the staff and crew were at MASH during the production of “White Gold.” NOBODY, not ONE PERSON said “Hey, didn’t we already do this story?”

I would think that had someone said THAT at the reading, vs. Mike’s objection we might have just thrown out the whole script and written something else entirely.

After that we told the cast and crew, “If there is ever ANYTHING in a script that you think looks familiar and you might have done in the past, tell us IMMEDIATELY. We will check it out and if indeed you had done it before we will remove it and do something else, even if it means throwing out an entire episode.”

But back to the original point, there was no animosity, no rift, no clash with the production team, no disgruntled rewrite, and it was certainly not an incident worthy of a whole article. But I get it. Click bait. I’m sure more people would rather read an article where Alan Alda & Mike Farrell were at each other’s throats than one where a genuine collaboration led to a better product.

Gee, I wonder if there’s other misinformation on the internet as well.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Tips on attending TV Tapings

LA is a big tourist destination, and one of the cool things to do is see the taping of a national television show. You can’t do much of that in Cincinnati. Another plus – TV tapings are free. There must be some law because I can’t imagine Hollywood studios leaving even a dime on the table.

There are online services that offer tickets. If you’re in LA, there are stands in the Grove and Hollywood that offer them as well. You can also contact the show you want and find out how to procure tickets. Or contact the network.

But here’s some helpful things you should know:

If you attend a multi-camera sitcom taping expect to be there at least three hours. They do multiple takes of each scene. Sometimes writers huddle for ten minutes and change jokes. There are also set and costume changes.

Some sitcoms have long waiting lists. Others have to pay services to bus in audiences. Those people are paid to sit through crappy shows.  It's hard-earned money. 

If you go to reality competition shows like AMERICAN IDOL or DANCING WITH THE STARS, wait until they’re far enough into the season that they do live shows. In those cases you’re in and out in a couple of hours.

If a reality competition show is just being taped for later airing, you could be there for seven hours. I’m not kidding. And trust me, the novelty wears off real fast.

Oh, whenever they say you HAVE TO STAY, that’s bullshit. You’re not held captive. If you get tired and want to leave, leave. Unless they’re paying you, you have no obligation to stay.

Late night talk shows like Kimmell or Corden are good because they’re almost live. So you’re generally in and out in two hours. Note: Talk show hosts usually like their studios to be freezing. They feel the audiences are more responsive. Bring a sweater (or parka). Demand for tickets for those shows is very high. Plan ahead and order early.

One problem with some of these shows is that you stand in long lines for quite awhile before they let you in. That depends on the individual show.

Daytime talk shows (like ELLEN) are similar to late night. Once cameras roll it’s almost as if it were live. They tend to go straight through. (Although I understand Stephen Colbert often does pick ups and repeats things that didn’t go perfectly -- but that's in New York.)

Game shows are fun because they tape two or more episodes at a time. Shows like JEOPARDY will tape a week’s worth of episodes in one day (three in the morning, two after lunch). So you get a lot of bang for your buck.  Your ticket will be for either the morning or afternoon (not both).  And they generally go straight through, although they may do some quick pick-ups if the host screwed something up. Alex Trebek has been known to muff a clue or two in 35 years. For some game shows you need to write in months in advance. For others you can get tickets in the morning and be in the studio that afternoon.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT is one where there is super-demand, obviously because contestants are chosen from the audience. Should you get tickets, start lining up at 6 in the morning. There is a motel across the street of CBS called the Farmer’s Daughter and I understand it’s filled with with PRICE IS RIGHT ticket holders so they can just get up and get in line.

This is Hollywood so privilege is everything. Expect there to be VIP lists and roped off areas in the audience for VIP’s. But there are generally monitors and every seat is a pretty good one.

All of these shows have warm up people and some offer prizes. You may win something. And if they know the taping will take awhile they often offer free candy and snacks and water.

Finally, some shows have an age requirement.  Make sure that's not a problem.  

So those are some tips on attending TV tapings. It’s a fun thing to do and there’s one additional perk – depending on the show YOU MIGHT GET ON TELEVISION. And the price is right (both upper and lower case).

Monday, August 12, 2019

The best part about ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

NOTE: The movie’s been out for several weeks. I won’t spoil the ending but will discuss elements within the film. If you haven’t seen it and want to know nothing other than there are great samples of KHJ radio, then see you tomorrow.

Okay, you’re still here? Then let’s move on.

One thing you can say about ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: People are talking about it. And no two people seem to agree.

Some buy the story completely. Others say it’s about a guy whose only problem is that he’s not as big a star as he was but he’s still working and in demand so boo hoo.

Many applaud Tarantino for creating a rich buddy relationship. Many others note that women hardly ever talk and when they do they don’t have anything interesting to say.

Some critics said Margot Robbie was luminous in the scenes where she was watching her movie. Others say she could have phoned it in. And others still contend that whole sequence was unnecessary.

Plotwise, some moviegoers were annoyed that Tarantino didn’t follow a typical three act structure. Others loved his alternative storytelling.

People I know LOVED the ending. Others felt it was derivative. (In any event, it helps to know the Charles Manson/Sharon Tate/Jay Sebring story beforehand. Seems that Tarantino just assumed everybody knew it, but that is not the case.)

Some felt his movie was style over substance. Others (like me) considered that a big draw. All the KHJ stuff was like porn to me. Is Quentin Tarantino cool or too cool?

One writer friend said all the vintage TV shows characters were watching during the film were more interesting than the scenes themselves and he would have preferred watching the vintage shows.

Tarantino’s trademark violence is another polarizing element. A certain percentage of viewers think it’s over-the-top while fans find it visceral and highly entertaining.

And then there is the length. I’m in the camp that thought the movie was too long. You didn’t need almost three hours to tell that story. Or if you did, you could have thrown in more KHJ. But those in sync with Tarantino loved every frame and probably can’t wait for the DVD to see the additional scenes that were left on the editor’s floor.

No matter where you fall on any of these debates, you have to love the fact that people ARE talking about it. What other movie this year has sparked this much discussion? Most movies today – you sit numbly in your seat and are bludgeoned with special effects. You walk out going “that was cool” or “that sucked” and put it out of your mind completely. With this film, people are thinking about it afterwards. They’re generating real opinions, yay or nay. So for me, that makes ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD the hit of the summer season.

NOTE:  For the next two weeks I am working on a big project and will not have as much internet access as I normally do.  So it will take longer to moderate comments.  Hang in there and continue to comment.  I will get to them eventually.   Thanks much.  Ken

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Weekend Post: Come see my plays

Hey LA peeps!   I've got two short plays in the finals of the Brisk Festival in Hollywood Saturday at 7 and Sunday at 6 at the Broadwater Theatre on Santa Monica Blvd. just west of Vine.   It's a strong program of the 10 best plays of the 54 produced.  I'm lucky enough to have both of mine in the finals.  Anyway, it's a fun night and I could use your votes.   Here's where you go for tickets.  I'll be there both nights so say hi.   Who says there isn't great theatre in Los Angeles?   Well, until you find it swing by for a night of laughs and fun.