Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Trying to solve one of the great mysteries of life...

I love this SOOOO much.  Two 17 year-olds trying to figure out how to use a rotary phone.  They have four minutes.  Can they do it? 

Monday, August 10, 2020

I'm looking over a Boom Shadow...

Here’s a FQ that became an EP (entire post).

cd1515 asks:

You said this about retakes: “The director needs additional coverage, new lines are inserted, actors slip up, there’s a boom shadow, a camera missed a cue to move, an actor is off his mark, etc.”

Serious question from someone not in your business: how many of those things would the average viewer have even noticed or given a shit about?

Sometimes I think TV and movies are too perfect in that no one in real life ever makes a perfect impromptu speech (See: any Sorkin project) without pausing, stumbling over a word, repeating something, etc.

I get that you all want it be as good as possible but is that always completely necessary?

Could some of it just be inside baseball stuff that no one else would see?

The answer is: you’re absolutely right. 99% of the audience wouldn’t notice a boom shadow or a hair out of place.

You try to avoid those things and not look sloppy, but most imperfections go unnoticed.

James Burrows is TV’s best multi-camera director. Period. He’s always way more interested in the performance than the pretty shot. And if an actor gives a great performance on a take but the shot isn’t framed perfectly, he’ll opt for that one over the re-take where the shot was perfect but the performance wasn’t as good. And I agree. My job as a director is to get the best possible performance on film, not the best Terrence Malick cinematic feat.

Normally, when you direct a multi-cam (in front of a live audience), after a scene you say “cut” and reset the cameras for any pick ups or additional coverage. Invariably, the minute I say “cut” make up people rush out to touch up the actors for five or ten minutes and someone with a ladder is checking some lights. This happens every single time.

So I stopped saying “cut.” I would say “still rolling,” run out and tell the camera guys where I wanted them to be, told the actors what I wanted in this take, ran back, said “action,” and did the pick up on the fly. Had I not done that the ladder and make up kits would be on the set for five or ten minutes. And those add up over the course of a night.

No one ever noticed if a forehead was shiny. Line producers would say I was wasting film (these were the days when we shot on film), and I said “what’s the cost of unused film versus paying everyone on the crew overtime because the showrunner wants these additional shots?” Line producers then thanked me.

Matching is another issue. You try hard for continuity, but sometimes you get trapped. The level of wine in a glass varies from take to take. Your choice is either keep one performance so the wine level is uniform, or stitch together the best performances and the wine level goes up and down. You can guess what my choice is.

There are classic glitches in TV shows and movies. There’s a shot in SPARTACUS by the great Stanley Kubrick where you see part of the Ventura Freeway in a shot. (Above photo is Kubrick filming that movie on the Universal lot.)

In our first MASH episode, “Out of Sight/ Out of Mind” in the final scene in the nurses’ tent one of the nurses is reading a paperback. Clearly you can see she was reading JAWS, which came out long after 1951. How many times have you seen that episode? Have you ever noticed that?

Hollywood craftsmen take great pride in their work, and the level of dedication and detail is extraordinary. These people are the best in the world!  I always maintain that crews don’t get nearly the credit they deserve. And it’s admirable that each department wants his or her contribution to be perfect. But the truth is, you can get away with a boom shadow once in awhile.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Weekend Post

Hollywood is all about meetings. You get them. You have them. You take them. You reschedule them. Generally, you’re pitching someone or they’re pitching you. The last thing said in most meetings is, “Great. We’ll get back to you.”

Some of these meetings are awkward. And the longer you’ve been around, the more of them you amass. I’ve had more than my share of these train wrecks and recounting them seems to be a popular feature on this blog.

So here’s another.

This happened sometime in the early ‘00s. My partner, David Isaacs and I had a development deal at Paramount. We were mentoring two young writers who had a great idea for a pilot. So we set up meetings with networks.

Based on the idea, we concluded that the perfect place for it was The WB. So we lined up that meeting first.

David and I had never had a meeting at The WB. We didn’t know any of the executives personally and had never been to their offices.

The four of us dutifully showed up at the appointed time in their modest lobby. The WB headquarters was an elongated bungalow on the Warners annex lot, which is closer to Burbank Airport than the actual Warner Brothers studios. It looked like a glorified real estate office.  Clearly, space was at a premium.  THE MIDDLE was filmed there (for you trivia buffs). 

An assistant popped his head in and invited us to “come on back.” We followed him through a maze of narrow hallways, passing the Xerox machine, coffee maker, etc. At one point he wanted us to turn left and go down another hall but we mistook his gesture and entered a large office instead.

There was some dude at a desk on the phone. Again, we had never met the VP of Comedy Development we were pitching. But we figured this must be him.

So we all flopped down on his couch and made ourselves at home. Slouching, crossing our legs, just stretching out.

The fellow looked a little shocked to see us. But he continued his call and we patiently waited – setting our water bottles on his coffee table, getting out the notes for our pitch, etc.

Finally, he finished his call, stood up, and said, “Who the fuck are you guys?”

I figured, “Swell. He forgot our meeting.  Yet another reminder of how important we are in this business.” I introduced us.

Still confused, he said, “So what the hell are you doing in my office?”

Clearly, he was a little annoyed, but hey, it wasn’t my fault he forgot our damn meeting.  Not only did we remember.  We had to drive to the valley and find this place.  TV networks are not usually down the street from strip malls.

But in awkward cases like this I find the best thing to do is lighten the mood. So I said, “Uh… pitching a pilot and maybe if it goes well, using your shower.”

Now he was really pissed. And we couldn’t understand why. All we had done was show up on time, prepared, for a pitch meeting.

The panicked assistant dashed in, mortified. There’d been a terrible mistake. That wasn’t the VP of Comedy Development. That was Jordan Levin, the president of The WB.   Oops. No wonder he didn't find it funny that I wanted to use his shower. 

We didn’t help matters by then laughing. We found it funny. Jordan Levin did not. I can’t blame him. He’s a major figure in the television industry and the Marx Brothers suddenly barge into his office.  Thank goodness we didn't help ourselves to any of his liquor.  

Needless to say we didn’t sell that pilot. Or any pilot. (We did, however, sell that pilot to NBC. President Warren Littlefield was out of the office that day.)

Ultimately, of course, The WB merged with UPN and disappeared. Looking back, all the signs were there. What network president doesn’t have an outer office? I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Friday Questions

As we enter the dog days of summer and the pandemic, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

blinky gets us started.

Some great shows have exceptional seasons. While re-watching 30Rock from the beginning, we were struck by season six. It seems like they hit their stride to an exceptional degree. The writing, the character development the acting, all were firing on 12 cylinders. In fact I would say season 6 episode 3 was the peak.

Did any of your shows have a exceptional season and a best episode? I bet you would say Cheers season one, but what about Frasier or MASH?

Yes, I would put the first year of CHEERS up against the best year of any sitcom.

I would also say the first year of FRASIER was its best. 

For MASH, season four (a Larry Gelbart/Gene Reynolds year that we had nothing to do with).

Don R asks:

I'm watching M*A*S*H on ME-TV and they seem to be playing them in order. Last week you and David were listed as story editors, but this week you're listed as executive story consultants. Had you moved on from the show by that time, or were you still part of the staff?

They’re all just “titles.” In the middle of season 6, while we were listed as “story editors” we became head writers when the gentleman who had been doing that job left.

Season 7 we got a loftier title but remained in that role.

If I’m not mistaken, Larry Gelbart had the same credit season one.

From Kevin B:

What 1980's sitcom did you like that would surprise your friends/colleagues? Like "I Married Dora" or something.


Probably one or two that I’m forgetting.

And finally, from Houston Mitchell:

I happened across a "Happy Days" rerun the other day, and I had forgotten how annoying the live audience, particularly in the later seasons, was. Every cast member got a huge ovation on entrance and the crowd seemed to think they were part of the show. Did you ever have this trouble on any of the "live in front of a studio audience" shows you wrote or directed? Did the audience ever try to say "Norm!" when George Wendt walked in for example? And if so, how did you combat that?

One time on CHEERS we had audience members shout back at the cast and it threw them. The warm-up guy (me) had to politely ask them please STOP IT.

On my shows, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve always discouraged applause at entrances. The cast and guest stars were introduced before shooting and the warm-up guy (not me) would ask the audience not to applaud when people entered.

If they applauded spontaneously during the course of the show over a line or story turn or performance that warranted it, those we kept in. But never applause that we didn’t feel was earned.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

EP186: Another Free Association Podcast

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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The AVN Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

The Last Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 03, 2020

Hollywood Insanity

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

But here’s what I find so interesting:

Deadline.com is the industry website. It’s the current version of a trade magazine, as it were. And as such is very Hollywood-centric. This was their headline the morning of the quake:

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

Celebrity residents react?


Who gives a shit?

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

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

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

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


And then in much smaller letters:


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