Wednesday, June 19, 2019

EP128: Ken’s Commencement Speech and Welcoming in Summer


If Ken were to ever speak at a college graduation, this would be his speech.  And then he reflects on summers past.


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Comedians in cars getting coffee

Okay, I may be the only person on the planet who thinks this but I don’t like COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE. I know I’m spitting on the comedy cross and numerous friends swear by it, but I’m unimpressed.

In a half-hour show with A-list comedians I learn little or nothing. Instead, I’m treated to a five-minute introduction to the vintage car Jerry is driving that week (who cares?), the obligatory call from the car to the comedian, stock shots or Jerry and his guest walking, and once they get to the coffee shop, seventeen close up shots of coffee being poured.

The interview itself is always clipped, Jerry can’t help but try to top his comedian guest, and there’s a general condescension that only Jerry and his guests really know “funny.” It’s like the cool kids in high school graciously letting us sit at the next table and eavesdrop.

When not trying to top his guests Jerry is generally doubled-over in laughter – at stuff that is just not that funny.

Here’s what I learned from the half-hour John Mullaney episode – he writes his ideas in a notebook. Wow! How revealing!

From Kate McKinnon – she liked school as a kid. Otherwise it was pretty much Kate doing schtick.

When I interview someone I try to get them to really reveal information we didn’t know. If it’s a comedian I want to know his process, how his mind works, how he’s evolved, what’s his worldview, background, goals, amusing anecdotes, etc. But this show is a slickly produced hodgepodge with background music, beauty shots of cars and percolators, and Jerry being the smug host.

The message is clear: YOU’LL never be this funny, YOU’LL never have a career like this, YOU’LL never drive a car like this. Well, you know what? I’ll grab a ride elsewhere.

Now I expect to take a lot of heat for this because like I said, most people love this show. But I’d rather see a comedian in an Uber talking his process for a half-hour and he can grab coffee later.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Best game show host. "Who is Alex Trebek?"

I’ve always been a fan.

He’s done a great job hosting JEOPARDY. And it’s not easy. You need laser-focus, the ability to pronounce foreign names and other tongue-twisters correctly, to keep the game moving, and successfully engage with the contestants, many who are nervous and ill-at-ease.

When we did the CHEERS episode where Cliff went on JEOPARDY we also discovered that Alex was very funny. So much so that we wrote him into another scene and he appears at the bar.

A couple of months ago I went to watch them tape JEOPARDY. They do five shows in one day – three in the morning, and two after lunch. That’s a lot of clues to announce, money totals to keep track of, and be accurate in allowing and disallowing answers. The time between shows is like twenty minutes – just enough time for Alex and the winner to change clothes and maybe down a Red Bull.

It would be understandable if Alex had a little less energy on the fifth show of the day (or even fell asleep), but that’s never the case. He is up and present every episode regardless of when it was taped.

And what you don’t see at home is that during commercial breaks he steps out and answers audience questions, again displaying his great dry wit.

So under normal circumstances he does a remarkable job.

As I’m sure you know, he revealed to the world that he has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Let’s be real – that’s a bad one. According to reports, his treatment is going well and he is in remission, but that treatment has been brutal.

Apparently, there are times between shows when he’s in his dressing room in tremendous pain. Producers have offered to cancel the rest of the day’s taping, but he always says no. And somehow he rallies to go before the cameras and do his usual outstanding job. I watch the show every day. I’ve been watching for a long time. I would never know he’s in pain if I hadn’t heard the story.

That, to me, is the ultimate professional.

My admiration is through the roof. And I’m sure, like you, I offer my best wishes and prayers.

If the answer is “courageous” the correct response is “Who is Alex Trebek?”

Monday, June 17, 2019

Bring back sparkling dialogue

I received a lot of good buzz from this weekend's post where I featured a scene that wasn't shot in the original movie of ARTHUR by Steve Gordon.

What everyone reacted to was the sparkling dialogue.

And I don't think it's an age thing.  As many younger readers responded as older.

The sad thing is you don't hear dialogue like that in movies today.  Or TV.  Or even a lot of plays.  Theatrical comedies have to be dark black comedies as is the current trend.

And I say why?

Now, I must admit I'm not an objective bystander here.  I've always loved smart, character-driven funny banter.  Steve Gordon is one of my idols.  Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Herb Gardner are a few others.    So that's the kind of dialogue I try to write.

Happily, that style was in vogue during my TV writing career.  MASH, CHEERS, and certainly FRASIER appreciated and celebrated the value of witty dialogue.   Every play I write I strive to reach the level of ARTHUR.  And it's very rewarding when lines get big laughs from the audience.

And understand, I'm not talking about "jokes."   I'm talking about dialogue that is in character, moves the story along, is generally attitude-based, and is funny in context.

I suspect witty dialogue is not so prevalent because it's very difficult to do.   Easier to do a gross-out scene, sophomoric sex jokes, dripping irony, or moments that are mildly-amusing at best.   And of course, those who can't do it or are intimidated by it claim it's a style that's "old school" and passe today.

But ask an audience.  Or, more accurately, listen to them.  Listen to them laugh at well-crafted funny lines.   Watch ARTHUR again (only the original.  The sequel and remake -- neither by Steve Gordon -- suck!).  Forget that it's a timepiece and in today's sensibility you couldn't do a number of the things they did in that film.  You're going to laugh your ass off.  For 90 minutes you're going to be bombarded with one hilarious line after another.

It's a style that I feel should come back, and I'm out there every day doing what I can to revive it.  This one's for you, Steve.

UPDATE:  from Jon Emerson.  This is a Twitter video from Nicole Silverberg on 90% of movie jokes now.  Couldn't like agree, y'know, more. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Weekend Post

One of my favorite comedies of all time is Steve Gordon’s ARTHUR.  I love the screenplay.  Steve tragically passed away waaaaay too young.  Parts of the film don't hold up today because you can't have a roaring drunk just driving around Manhattan.  But viewed as a timepiece it still holds up to be hilariously funny.  No one could write dialogue better than Steve Gordon.   

Believe it or not his first draft was 147 pages. (Do NOT try this at home, kids.) Steve was kind enough to give it to me.   At 147 pages there obviously were scenes that never saw the flickering light of the projector. But here’s one of those missing scenes. Don’t you wish you could write this well? I do.

When Arthur (Dudley Moore) goes to Linda’s (Liza Minelli) apartment after proposing to Susan:

INT. LINDA’S BEDROOM – NIGHT

It is a small room. Linda sits at the edge of the bed. Arthur paces.

ARTHUR
Nice. Really a nice place.

LINDA
I’m thrilled. A lush likes my furniture. Talk.

Arthur reaches for a yearbook that is on the table.

ARTHUR
Is this your yearbook?

Linda jumps off the bed and rips the yearbook out of Arthur’s hand.

LINDA
God damn it! I have to get up and go to work tomorrow! Now stop fooling around. What do you want? You want to see a funny picture?

ARTHUR
Yeah.

Linda flips through the book. They are close.

LINDA
This is me in the school play – I played Juliet. Martin Feinberg played Romeo. Look at the hair. God! Martin Feinberg became a lawyer.

ARTHUR
What did you become?

LINDA
I’m a waitress. I’m studying to be an actress.

She flips through the book.

ARTHUR
You want to be an actress?

LINDA
No, schmuck… I’m studying to be an actress because I want to be a carpenter. (in the book) Look at this! Me playing vollyball! This guy went to prison.

ARTHUR
Sure… he probably got a lawyer who wanted to play Romeo. Did you go with anyone?

LINDA
Not really. My mother was sick then. I came home from school and spent as much time with her as I… anyway… it wasn’t a good time. This girl here…Mona… used to get laid 20 times a week.

ARTHUR
She looks tired there.

LINDA
Where did you go to school?

ARTHUR
I went to eight prep schools. I was thrown out of all of them. I was real unhappy as a kid.

LINDA
With all your money?

ARTHUR
Yeah. I had a big house. But nobody wanted me in it.

Linda puts her hand on Arthur’s face.

LINDA
You’re a lovely man.

ARTHUR
Lovely?

LINDA
Don’t worry about it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever said to anyone. Why haven’t you called me?

ARTHUR
Uh… that’s why I came here tonight. I think about you all the time. I am so fond of you…

LINDA
If you’re breaking up with me… I think it’s only fair to tell you that we’ve never had a date.

ARTHUR
(smiling) I am breaking up with you. We were so good we didn’t need dates.

LINDA
Why don’t we see each other and then break up?

ARTHUR
Listen… there’s stuff. Let’s not get into it. I can’t see you. Remember that ring?

LINDA
I had a feeling about that ring… you don’t clean that… you guard it.

ARTHUR
I gave it to somebody tonight.

LINDA
My ring? So what are you doing here?

ARTHUR
I had to see you to tell you I can’t see you.

LINDA
Neither of us is crying. Everything’s okay. You are the strangest person in North America.

ARTHUR
Yeah. Well… goodbye. It would probably be a mistake for you to come to that party Wednesday.

He starts toward the door.

LINDA
Yeah.

He turns.

ARTHUR
It’s the best way. There’s a lot involved.

LINDA
Right.

Arthur kisses her on the lips.

ARTHUR
(after the kiss) Goodbye. I guess this is it.

He continues to hold her.

LINDA
You’re holding me and kissing me. In my bedroom. With what you drank… you may be clearing up my sinuses.

Arthur kisses her again.

ARTHUR
Let’s just say goodbye. This is silly.

He kisses her again. This time it grows into a passionate kiss.

LINDA
(after the kiss) How long ago did you get engaged?

ARTHUR
About four hours ago. Jesus… this is wonderful.

LINDA
Make sure you come by your honeymoon night. Let’s stop. I enjoy you… but there are certain rules.

ARTHUR
Right… Goodbye.

He exits.

In the actual movie this scene was rewirtten and is much shorter. He goes to her apartment to give her $100,000 guilt money which she doesn't take. (Great shot of her dad outside the door, practically dissolving into tears.)

By the way, in the first draft Linda is not Italian. She's Jewish. Davidorf is her original last name.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Friday Questions

It's Flag Day. What better way to celebrate than with Friday Questions?

Patrick Wahl leads off.

Lots of questions about producer credits. There are Executive Producers and Producers. Does either one rate higher than the other in the producer pecking order?

The highest position is Executive Producer. There may be multiple Executive Producers but generally only one or one team is considered the “show runner.” Ironically, there’s no credit for that.

After that the general order from highest importance to lowest is:

Co-Executive Producer
Supervising Producer
Consulting Producer
Producer
Co-Producer

Below that are staff level jobs, now often relegated to end credits.

But make no mistake, those roles are being filled either by writers or non-writing pod producers.

You’ll also see a “Produced by” credit. That’s for the line producer – the person really in charge of mounting the production. He/she hires the crew, oversees budgets, post production, and basically is the one producer who actually produces things.

From David (not my partner):

What do you think the odds are that there'll be another writer's strike in the next year or two?

There’s always that possibility, but let’s be real. Management dictates that. If they lay out proposals that are untenable like cutting back on health insurance or not sharing in streaming income then the WGA has no choice. If management wants to avoid a work stoppage and make a deal then a deal is struck.

Meanwhile, let’s see how this battle with major talent agencies plays out.

And finally, from Jeri:

I wonder about the people that get series announced at upfronts as a midseason premiere and then every year some of those don't see the light of day. Have you ever worked on a pilot or show that was a mid season replacement that didn't end up airing?

David Isaacs and I were supposed to write an episode for an NBC series called SNIP starring David Brenner. 13 episodes had been ordered and I believe it was even on the NBC fall schedule. But they cancelled it. Not sure if some episodes were filmed. I suspect they were and the network so hated them they just shelved the whole thing.

But there are examples of six to thirteen episodes of a show in the can that were so apparently un-releasable that the network was willing to just eat the money.

There have also been shows that got cancelled after one airing, even though more episodes were already shot. Two that spring to mind are PUBLIC MORALS and EMILY’S REASONS WHY NOT.

In terms of getting paid, it depends on the deals the actors and writers made with the studio. Were they to be paid for all episodes ordered (even if the show is then cancelled) or only for the episodes that were produced? If the latter, they got screwed.

Happy Flag Day. On this date many years ago I enlisted in the Army Reserves.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

EP127: Meet Kara Mayer Robinson: celebrity journalist


Kara Mayer Robinson has written for the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter, and has her own podcast, “Really Famous.” She and Ken discuss the world of celebrity interviews with a little gossip and goofy banter along the way.


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Take the Pan Am Experience yourself

Yesterday, I shared the Pan Am Experience.  Today I thought I'd show you some photos.
Daughter Annie & Jon hanging out in the lounge.

The First Class Lounge -- you got drunk before you flied.

The Upstairs Lounge, accessible via spiral staircase.  Even Don Draper never got up here.

First Class cabin where we were.  The decor and everything was authentic to a T.

Clipper Class -- the first Business Class section ever.  Peasants.

Actual menus, actual snacks.  They were still tasty after almost 50 years.

The fashion show.  I love the derbies.

Two actual former Pan Am stewardesses who joined us for the flight.

Carved right at your seat.  Good luck seeing that today on any carrier.

Dinner is served.  They didn't know about cholesterol back then either.

Fashion show part two

Who remembers Braniff?

Love those outfits!

Pan Am merch on display.

What?  My daughter is smoking? 
If you're interested in the Pan Am Experience you can find out more here.  Tell him I sent you and maybe they'll send me little wings. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Pan Am Experience

One of the things that is gone forever is the golden age of air travel. Flying used to be part of the fun and anticipation of a trip. Now it’s a fucking ordeal. People would dress up to fly. Even if you flew coach you were treated royally.

My first coast-to-coast flight was on TWA in 1969. I was served a hot breakfast and for lunch they set up a huge buffet and we all lined up and filled our plates. It wasn’t a flight; it was a Long Island bar mitzvah reception.

Airline carriers back then all had to charge the same fares so the way to attract passengers was to offer better service. The very best at is was Pan Am. And Pan Am First Class was second to none. For dinner they carved Chateaubriand at your seat.

Hey, just the fact that you had actual metal silverware – you’ll never see that again ever.

They called it the Pan Am Experience and now it’s been faithfully and lovingly recreated down to a T in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley.

Anthony Toth is the creator of this experience. A lifelong collector of aviation memorabilia (Pan Am in particular), he somehow put this together.

An actual 747 that had been rusting for ten years in the desert was rescued. The first class section, business class section (Clipper Class) and upstairs lounge were restored to its Pan Am greatness down to the most minute detail. The seats, the fabric, d├ęcor, even scent through the ventilators is the exact same as the plane that flew the world in 1970.

It is now housed on a soundstage (nice name for a warehouse) in an industrial area of the Valley. In nearby stages are airplane interiors and airport interiors. TSA is not going to let you actually film at LAX anymore. Needless to say these stages are rented out constantly.

But every Saturday night they hold the Pam Am Experience. It’s a journey back into the early ‘70s. Unlike THE DEUCE, this is something you’d want to relive from that period.

So longing for the days when Carroll O’Conner played Archie Bunker and not Woody Harrelson, I took my wife, daughter and son-in-law on a trip in the Wayback Machine.

Tomorrow I will share a bunch of photos.

You arrive at 6:00, all dressed up. There were some guys with afro’s. I wore a jacket and paisley tie. You check in at an actual Pan Am ticket booth. There’s a rotary phone on the desk. I’m reminded of that YouTube video where two Millennial idiots couldn’t figure out how to dial a rotary phone. I weep. There’s also a TWA and Northwest Orient counter for people who bought counterfeit tickets (because they go nowhere).

Then we entered a replica First Class Lounge complete with open bar, Pan Am displays, and posters from the era.

At 6:30 you are invited to board. The stewardesses (and yes, they were called stewardesses, not flight attendants or empowered service providers) were all in authentic wardrobe. You were ushered to your seat. We sat in the First Class cabin. There was enough leg room to stage one of my plays. More drinks (in Pam Am glasses… that were made of glass, believe it or not) and oversized packets of snacks.

In the Clipper Section there was a full-bar you could belly up to at any time. Up the spiral staircase there was a lounge section – very exclusive.

The crew showed reverence to the experience, but there were enough funny quips to let you know this was a fun recreation, not some creepy fever dream.

We were offered vintage magazines, complete with all the cigarette ads and even a few for this new thing called FM stereo. Considering the world today, reading TIME magazine my nostalgia extended to Nixon.

Speaking of cigarettes, the one concession to now was that there was no smoking allowed. But back then everyone smoked of course. So they had these fake cigarettes. You would blow through them and bogus smoke would disperse. At first it was fun to be Don Draper. After two minutes I felt like an idiot and stopped.

The piped in music was a blend of pop hits from the '60s and '70s.  Lots of Beatles and Burt Bacharach. Can't go wrong with that.   Also a few Pan Am jingles.   These were the days you'd hear an airlines commercial and not yell "Fuck you!" to the speaker.

As unbelievable as it might sound, fifty years ago people actually LIKED certain airlines.  No, I'm serious.  Really.  Truly. 

Dinner service began. Fresh warm rolls, more drinks (I had to watch myself. It’s not like there are many great motels in Pacoima.), appetizers that included shrimp cocktails or fresh mozzarella salad, and then the main course.

Not only did they carve Chateaubriand right at your seat, they gave you a decent portion. An airline “steak” today (pre packaged and swimming in God knows what sauce) is generally the size of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Other entrees were chicken and pasta. Since gluten wasn’t invented in 1970 there was nothing that was gluten free.

A fruit and cheese cart followed, and then a cart with lovely cakes. After dinner drinks were offered as well as coffee.

For entertainment, there were fashion shows – first of all the Pan Am stewardess uniforms and then uniforms from other airlines. They were fun, but I was powering down the beef.

Final touches like a Duty-Free cart came around and we all took a Pan Am trivia game, which no one knew any of the answers.

No one tried to hijack the sound stage to Cuba.  Only ten people tried that joke. 

To be fair, it’s crazy expensive, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or so I thought. There were repeat passengers. One was going on his fourth journey. The steaks at Maestro’s are good and way cheaper than this. And you can buy candy cigarettes. That said, if somebody invites me I’d be happy to go again. I could use the additional miles.

It’s gourmet nostalgia porn and just a reminder that yeah, we have iPhones and Waze, but some things were better back then.

Come back tomorrow for photos.  And for more info on the Pan Am Experience you can just go here.  Tell them Ken Levine sent you.   Maybe they'll send me a Pan Am swizzle stick.