Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The surprise of Broadway

A surprise to everyone but me.

The current show at Circle in the Square is CHICKEN & BISCUITS.  And it’s a big success.  Here’s what so surprising about it to the Broadway community:

It’s a comedy.

God forbid!

And not just a comedy — a conventional comedy.  

Kind of a familiar plot — relatives fighting after a funeral.  But apparently it’s funny.  


While every other play on the Great White Way is heavy, experimental, and “important,” audiences are turning to a show where they can laugh.  

As disturbing as this concept might be, people occasionally want to go to the theatre to enjoy themselves.

They don’t always want to be challenged, to be lectured, to be made to feel guilty.  

What really surprises me is how this is always a surprise to Broadway.  For every THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG there are five award-winning OSLO’S that close.  They named a theatre for Neil Simon yet don’t seem to remember what his contribution was.  

The big issue in theatre this year of course is diversity.  And that’s fine.  But that shouldn’t dictate subject matter and genre.   Douglas Lyons, the playwright of CHICKEN & BISCUITS is Black.  So what?  People are going because they want to be entertained.  And Lyons delivers the goods.

I congratulate everyone involved in the production of CHICKEN & BISCUITS for taking the daring courageous step of staging an actual show that people want to see. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

When game shows were naturally funny

 Since we seem to be on a nostalgia kick following this weekend's post...

The remake of classic game shows is a current network trend.  And they try desperately to be funny.  As a result they are so forced and for my money, mostly unwatchable.  When ABC has to rely on Anthony Anderson's mother for laughs you know we've reached rock bottom. 

Some of the original game shows elicited laughs, but usually they came out of the double meanings of certain questions and answers.  They weren't desperate quips by celebrity guest stars.  And unlike today, these shows were done live.  Bloopers and unexpected moments were part of the fun.  I'm sure the current prime-time game shows are edited to death in order to eke out a semblance of actual entertainment.  

Here is an example of a classic game from the 1950's.  It's called WHAT'S MY LINE?  Four panelists have to guess the occupation of the guest.  So the occupations tend to be somewhat unusual to better stump the panel.  Part of the charm (and bonus humor) of the show is John Daly, the moderator.  His attempts to clarify points are so long-winded and precise that he forever confuses everybody.  

Enjoy a segment from WHAT'S MY LINE?   Remember, this was 1958.  I don't want any "This is inappropriate and offensive" comments.  No one was offended then.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Weekend Post

I was at lunch recently with a writer friend and we got onto the topic of role models. We each had writers, parents, other individuals we admired, and then another name occurred to me – one he found surprising. And I imagine you will too.

Those of you who have even heard of this person.

Okay. Ready? One of my role models was Shari Lewis.

So who’s Shari Lewis? Younger readers will have no idea I’m sure.

Shari Lewis was a kids’ show host in the ‘50s-‘70s. She was also a ventriloquist. Remember the puppets Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse? Those were Shari Lewis’. They weren’t particularly hilarious but they were endearing.

And some other things about Shari Lewis: she won twelve Emmys, was a magician, juggler, singer, dancer, and was considered one of the finest ventriloquists in the world. Oh, and she co-wrote an episode of STAR TREK.

So why is she a role model?

In 1974 I was a disc jockey in San Diego.  A friend was visiting and we went to Belmont Park, which is an old-time amusement park, complete with rickety roller coaster, a boardwalk, etc. It’s still open. Neither Sea World nor Legoland could kill it. 

Well this was an afternoon in the middle of the week during August. Crowded it wasn’t. How it’s still open today I don’t know.

Oh wait.  Wrong lamb chop
We walked by an auditorium and saw that Shari Lewis was performing. Next show in ten minutes. What the hell? A little nostalgia. And it’s not like there were a thousand other great things to see or do at Belmont Park. So we went in. The auditorium seated probably 200. There was one person sitting there. We figured, well when it gets closer to showtime people are going to stream in. So we took a seat right up front. I had heard she was a great ventriloquist so I wanted to be close enough to see her lips. (How many people go to a show because they want to see the star’s lips?).

You see where this is going, don't you?

When it was time for the show to begin there were literally three people in the audience. Now remember, Shari Lewis at the time was a big name. She had done network shows for over a decade. She gave not one but two command performances for the Queen. And here she was, on a hot August afternoon in an amusement park performing for three idiots. Oh, and it was free admission.  How much could she have been paid?  I picture some supervisor handing her a big bag of quarters from the Whack-a-mole game. 

I would not have blamed her if she had come out and said, “Sorry guys. I never do shows for audiences smaller than the number of puppets I have.”

Redd Fox essentially did just that once.  He was a long-time nightclub comic who became the star of SANFORD & SON.  As the story goes, he was playing in some Vegas showroom.  It's the midnight show.  There are four people in the house.  The band plays the SANFORD & SON theme, he walks out on stage, surveys the audience, says something to the effect of "Four fucking people?  I ain't plain' for four fucking people."  He then walks off.  The band again plays the SANFORD & SON theme, lights up in the auditorium.  End of show, goodnight.  

But that’s not what Shari Lewis did.

She came out and started her show.

At first, I have to admit, I was really uncomfortable. I felt so self-conscious. She was essentially doing her act just for me. And it’s not like I could leave.

But as her show continued my discomfort slowly gave way to admiration. Even though there were just three audience members, she was performing her heart out. It would have been so easy to just go at half-speed, drop a bunch of bits. But Shari went through her material with energy and class. (She probably did drop some of the jokes geared for kids but that's all the more reason to thank her.)  There could have been 10,000 in the venue. I was in awe.

And the show itself was great. She was a phenomenal ventriloquist. I remember a bit she did with an auctioneer, puppets talking a mile a minute, she chiming in -- it was amazing. Another time she had her puppets sing and even yodel. How do you yodel without moving your lips?

When the show was over – and it was about 45 minutes. We stood up and gave her a standing ovation. And since it was just the three of us, my friend and I approached the stage, shook her hand, and told her how knocked out we were by her performance. I also joked that she should consider changing agents. She laughed.

But if ever there was the definition of a trouper; that was it. Over the years I’ve been on the radio in the middle of the night knowing no one was listening (a 15 inning Syracuse Chiefs game from Denver on a station that covered less territory than your Wifi router), been in an improv group that would occasionally play to audiences of seven, and wrote everyday for a blog that when I started out was being read by maybe ten people a week. But I always thought back to Shari Lewis. I learned from her that day what it means to be a consummate pro and I have emulated her ever since.  Sadly, she left us way too soon.  She was only 65 when she passed.   But I'm proud to say she's one of my role models. 

Do you have a surprising role model?  If so, who and why?  And can she yodel?


Friday, October 22, 2021

Friday Questions

It’s getting dark earlier.  I don’t know anyone who likes that.  Here are some Friday Questions to enjoy by candlelight.

JS  starts us off.

What is your Favorite show that lasted awhile but got lost in Time? Mine is "Early Edition" -that show was so good and different and launched Kyle Chandler into a great career. William Devane was really good in his guest appearances.

Since it’s lost in time you probably won’t know it, but there was a show called THE PRACTICE in the mid-70’s that starred Danny Thomas as a crusty but lovable neighborhood doctor that was a treat.  The creator and primary writer was Steve Gordon, who later went on to write and direct the movie ARTHUR.  

Sadly, Steve passed away very young.  But he wrote crackling dialogue that was effortlessly funny.   He's one of my comedy writing idols.  The show lasted a year.  It too was gone before its time.  

Neil wonders:

What's your opinion of the proposed Additional Literary Material credit for all participating writers who do not otherwise receive writing credits on motion pictures.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing.  Why should everyone who works on a movie including craft-services assistants get credit except for the writers?  That's the way the system is set up now. 

From Tom Asher:

LOVE Christine Baranski... you ever work together, Ken?

I love her too.   I never really worked with her.  She was a finalist for a part in one of my pilots and I got to spend the afternoon with her.   Ultimately, she wasn’t totally right for the part, but I really wanted to work with her.  

By the time we had our next series she was already on CYBILL, but I’d still love to do something with her.   

She’s also a very classy and lovely lady.

And finally, kcross has a question about the HISTORY OF SITCOM debacle that CNN ran.

How would you have approached the assignment? If someone came to you with a lot of money and a really good staff, what would your sitcom history look like?

Very simple.  I would treat it like a history course.  I would start in the late 40’s and work my way up through the decades.  I would immerse the audience in the various decades, sprinkle in some news and societal norms for context, and maybe God forbid mention a writer or two.   

I would show trends, I would praise the shows that were genuinely funny or innovative.  

Along the way I would show sitcoms evolved and how they reflected society as a whole.

What I wouldn’t do is spend half the series pointing out all of sitcoms failings because they didn’t adhere to 2021 sensibilities in 1955.  

What’s your FQ? 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

EP247: The Art of Showrunning

Ken continues his chat with comedy writer, Dave Hackel. This week they delve into what a showrunner really does. It’s a unique and rigorous responsibility. And Dave is one of the best. They also discuss BECKER, a show Dave created and ran for five years. Lots of great info here.

More podcasts at WAVE: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/artist/wave-podcast-network/1437831426

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Many Saints of Newark: My review


If you’re a mega fan of THE SOPRANOS it’s a fun ride.  If you’re not, it’s just another gangster movie — one you’ve seen countless times.    It’s now playing in select theaters and on HBO Max.  If you have a decent sized screen at home that should be sufficient.  There’s not enough scope that it’s worth going to the theater, paying for it, and leaving yourself open for possible COVID.  

THE SOPRANOS was a TV show.  So is this.

It’s also very familiar.

People get shot, they eat a lot of Italian food, they get loud and swear, and there’s the obligatory turf war.  Young Tony Soprano witnesses these events, which we’re supposed to believe is ultimately what led him into the family “business.”  And that’s fine except you could do all that in one brief montage or have a narrator quickly walk you through it.

Alan Taylor did a nice job of directing the script by David Chase and Lawrence Konner (who my partner and I rewrote on JEWEL OF THE NILE).  

There’s one story turn (I won’t spoil it) that is so ridiculous  it takes you out of the movie. Suffice to say a character does something they never would because the writers needed the story to go in a specific direction.  Hint: The scene takes place on a beach. 

The acting was good.  The real stars are Alessandro Nivola and Leslie Odom, Jr.   James Gandolfini’s actual son plays his dad as a teenager.  Michael Gandolfini acquitted himself very well.  For my money though, Ray Liotta stole the movie.  

But here’s the thing, and I know it’s intangible — It just didn’t feel like a SOPRANOS episode.   You meet a lot of future characters, and Chase’s writing is always first-class, but the rhythm, the situations, and even the dialogue just didn’t live up to the series.   The original was very fresh.  They had great characters, a real suspense,  memorable scenes and  moments.  This new version feels like  GOOD FELLAS meets THE MUPPET BABIES.   But again, if you’re a diehard SOPRANOS fan you may get a lot more out of it. Wait.  I am a diehard SOPRANOS fan.  So why didn’t I love it?  I was sure hoping to.  Maybe it's because the whole point of the movie (how the environment turned Tony into Tony) is something I and every SOPRANOS fan already knows.

See for yourself.  It’s on HBO Max. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

10 years ago today

Here's a feature I like to do about once a month or so -- repost Friday Questions from the distant past.  Very few read the archives and there are some worthy FQ's buried in there.  Here's a post from October 2011.  My responses still hold up.

Becky is up first.

I was wondering what Harry Morgan was like in real life?

Becky, you’ll be happy to learn he’s a wonderful guy. Harry has a wicked sense of humor. Very droll. And is a great storyteller. During breaks he would regale us with stories of doing movies with Spencer Tracy and Elvis. And there were a lot of tales about DRAGNET and how, uh… “frugal” Jack Webb was. You’ll notice he and Jack were always in the same suits, every week. That’s because they filmed exterior shots of them entering and exiting buildings, their car, etc. and were able to use the same shots every week.

Harry is the ultimate pro. Could scan a page of dialogue once and have it perfectly memorized. Would lock in on a performance and do it perfectly the same way every time, every take. He was courteous to every member of the staff and crew and knew everyone’s name.

I saw him last at a tribute to MASH producer, Gene Reynolds a couple of years ago. Harry hadn’t seen me in ages. But he was still as sharp as ever. Remembered my name, that I was now involved with baseball. And he must’ve been only 93.

What few people don't know is that Harry is also an excellent director. Once a season he would direct an episode of MASH. During our tenure we made sure Harry got to direct one of ours. If he wasn’t such a terrific actor he would have had a great career behind the camera.

Harry has one of those faces and voices that even when he was 20 he was able to play 60. So it’s no surprise he’s a young 96. He’s been a young senior citizen for 70 years.

From Chris:

Here's a Friday question: why do some shows give the same writer a consulting producer and a written by credit in the same episode?

Those are two different assignments. Consulting producer is a staff position. A written by credit means he wrote the script for that week’s episode.

DyHrdMET asks:

Have you ever worked a playoff game?

Yes, with the Padres in ’96.  We lost. 

From Mark:

This is a question for Friday and you may not want to answer it but I bet that tons of your readers are wondering the same thing, so what the heck, I'll be the guy who asks:

You come across as a very modest, self-effacing, middle-class (okay, upper middle class) kind of guy, and yet you've been involved at a very high level with several extremely successful TV shows. Are you collecting fat (or thin) royalties from those programs, or is that money ancient history?

I am still collecting royalties but not enough to allow me to finally become a dick. Seriously, though, since the 1977 WGA Basic Agreements residuals are into perpetuity (God bless you, Writers Guild). The amounts have dwindled down through the years but royalties are still dribbling in. Even more exciting at this point is that shows I wrote 30 years ago are still being shown and enjoyed today.

And finally, from John based on a post about Charles Winchester of MASH:

There was an episode early in Season 6 written by Laurence Marks entitled "Change Day" in which Charles' scheme to scam people out of their script comes across more like something Frank Burns would do. Was the writing staff still trying to get a handle on who Maj. Winchester was at the time, or was this an idea thought up earlier, when Frank Burns was still the show's main foil, and then reworked to try and fit David Ogden Stiers' new character?

You were right the first time, John. We were still trying to nail down Charles. This was one of the first stories broken with that character. It came from an actual incident we discovered in the research. Unfortunately, it’s confusing as hell. If I’m being honest, it was one of our worst episodes that year, and it was not Laurence Mark’s fault. It was ours.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Dave Chappelle and the current state of comedy

A lot of readers have asked what I thought of the new controversial Dave Chappelle Netflix Special.  This, of course, is a trick question that can only get a person in trouble.  Like “How often do you beat your wife?”  God forbid anyone says something positive about Chappelle’s material they’re instantly branded as a racist, homophobe, or worse.  (Remember the days when some people thought something was funny while others didn’t and it was just chalked up to differing senses of humor?)  

So I’m not going to speak at all about the trans material in his special or any of the subject matter.  All I will say is this:  I’m glad there is a Dave Chappelle.  I’m glad there’s one comic out there who is truly fearless.   In the tradition of Lenny Bruce, we need someone willing to be provocative, willing to ruffle some feathers in the cause of getting society to think.  

There’s a terrific article I want to point you towards.  It’s by David Zucker, one of the writers of AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN.  He’s a very funny guy.  I worked with him on a project once a thousand years ago. In his piece, bemoaning the current sad state of comedy, he brings out a great point.  Through social media a tiny minority now has a huge amplified voice and can dictate policies and norms for the majority — even though the majority doesn’t agree with them.  

The night ALL IN THE FAMILY premiered on CBS, they installed extra phone banks and operators to field the inevitable throng of complaints.  They got 12 calls.  12.  Now today those 12 could cause such a stink that they might be able to pressure ALL IN THE FAMILY off the air.  How horrifying is that?

So when you sit home, by yourself, and watch AIRPLANE, or the DAVE CHAPPELLE SPECIAL, or BLAZING SADDLES, are you really offended?  And if you are, does it really rock you to your very core and affect how you see the world?   Or, do you simply say, “Fuck you, Dave Chappelle or David Zucker,” turn off their show, and go on about your life?   It’s a comedy special not a snuff film.

I’m personally not a fan of mean-spirited comedy.  And if it’s designed to demean anyone, regardless of color, gender, age — then it’s not for me.  And it’s not the type of thing I write.  But I don’t think there should censorship when it comes to comedy.   I don’t think writers or comics should be blasted for things they wrote or said that may not be acceptable now but were when they wrote or said them.  

Anyway, here’s the article.  I encourage you to read it.