Tuesday, August 03, 2021

When Broadway was BROADWAY

Here's a list of what was playing on Broadway one week in 1948.  Thanks to reader Douglas McEwan for sharing it.  As he said, and I couldn't agree more, I'd go see any one of those shows.  

WHITE LOTUS - my review

As many of you know, I love Hawaii.  Try to get there every year.   I did a show set in Hawaii and got to write off trips (although that’s not why I did the show… entirely).  I’ll watch just about any TV show or movie set in Hawaii.  I have a very low bar.  Show palm trees, the ocean, maybe a waterfall and I’m all in.  You want to throw in a tacky Don Ho song?  Doesn’t ruin it.  A Tab Hunter beach party movie?  Sure.  I even sat through the first two seasons of the awful HAWAII FIVE-O reboot.  

So when I heard there was this new limited series coming to HBO Max about a resort hotel in Hawaii set at the Four Seasons in Maui (one of my favorite haunts) I was excited.  I didn’t need Aaron Sorkin dialogue, Vince Gilligan storytelling, just a few glimpses of the pool area.  Like I said, I’m easy.

So with great anticipation I set aside last Saturday night to watch a few episodes of this new series, entitled WHITE LOTUS.  I turned it off after a half hour.   I turned it off during a scene at the pool.  

That’s how much I hated it.  

And in fact, I hate it even more.  I can’t remember the last time I hated a TV show as much.  Every character is just despicable.  This is the most cynical mean-spirited show on whatever constitutes for “television” these days.  The hotel management has utter contempt for every guest.  Every guest is so entitled and so obnoxious that Mother Teresa would give them the finger.  In particular, two teenage girls are so snotty, judgemental, and insufferable you just want to punch them in the face.  Imagine Romy & Michele as see-you-next-Tuesdays.   

Only one character is likable and we're led to believe in the first five minutes that she dies over the course of a week.  

Astoundingly, this show is billed as a “comedy.”  It’s a satire-comedy.  Such hilarity as a local Hawaiian woman so afraid of losing her job that she’s afraid to say she’s about to have a baby any minute.  Big yucks as her water breaks in the lobby and she’s still too petrified to say she’s about to give birth.  Meanwhile, things are not great with newlyweds when the husband (a hideous Matt Gaetz-type) is dissatisfied with this amazing suite they have because it’s not “the honeymoon suite.”  By the way, his parents are paying for the trip.  He further endears himself by demanding his bride give him a blowjob.  Are you laughing yet?  

The two teen c***s are staying with Connie Britton who plays a Sheryl Sandberg stereotype.  One c**t is the daughter and the other is her friend.  They also have a little brother who they make sleep in the kitchen.  And the dad is worried he has testicular cancer and we’re treated to close ups of his swollen genitals.  

The show was created, written, and directed by Mike White.

Is this where comedy is today?  We’re supposed to be amused by how hateful everyone is?   The hotel manager is the destitute man’s John Cleese, passive-aggressively screwing the guests who we can only assume overpaid for this screwing.  

And then there’s Jennifer Coolidge, who I normally like, playing a pathetic needy woman who keeps her mother’s remains in a plastic bag.  Somehow I’m missing the satire.  

What happens to these people?  How does the young newlywed bride die? I don’t give a shit.  Unless sharks eat the teenage c***s, there’s a tsunami, and the Hawaiian government seizes the property, I have no intention of watching another minute of it.  WHITE LOTUS is not the right title.  It should be called Mike WHITE LOATHE-US. 

Aloha forever. 

Monday, August 02, 2021

Should LeVar Burton be the new host of JEOPARDY?

Well now, here we are, almost at the finish line of JEOPARDY guest hosts.  This week it’s David Faber and next week, to round it out, Joe Buck.  By the way, Joe will be my podcast guest this week, dropping 9 pm PDT on Wednesday.  He really walks us through the process.  He’s a great guest so I hope you’ll tune in.  

LeVar Burton just finished his audition week.  Of all the candidates he’s the only one who really campaigned for the job.  He pretty much did everything but skywriting.  He also has a large legion of fans who remember him fondly from READING RAINBOW.  Personally, I like him very much.  I had the chance to direct him once on BECKER.  Great guy and a very talented actor.  Going in I would have been very pleased to see him get the JEOPARDY gig.

But after watching his week-long audition, he’s not the guy.  Sorry.  But he’s just not.  

He was too hyper, screwed up way more than the others, and basically just doesn’t have a feel for the rhythm of the game.  

Alex always maintained that the contestants were the star, but LeVar managed to place all the emphasis on himself.  He was very overbearing and had very little connection to the contestants.  On his first show one of the contestants was completely overwhelmed.  He set a record for the worst one-day showing.  The only acknowledgement from LeVar was “You won’t be joining us for Final Jeopardy.”   I recall a few years ago a woman contestant also struggled and Alex went out of his way to console her throughout and cushion the blow of being humiliated on national television.  He said something like, “this just wasn’t your day” implying on another day with other categories she might’ve done much better.   LeVar just cast the contestant aside.  

Now, I’m sure in part that’s because he didn’t realize this contestant was digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself.  And without question, there are a lot of moving parts the host must negotiate at one time, but constantly taking the temperature of the room, making each contestant feel comfortable is a big part of the gig.  He was overly excited when someone got an answer right, often screaming “YES!” as if they had won a million dollars instead of $400, and a curt “no” if someone answered incorrectly.  

Could he get better over time?  I’m sure.  But there were other guest hosts who just felt it in their bones.  They were comfortable, engaging with the contestants, quick-witted, at ease with the teleprompter, and in confident control of the game.  With LeVar you would have to land the plane by radar.  He would need months of notes and adjustments.  A half-dozen other candidates could just step right in.  It’s like some musicians just feel the groove.  You can teach anyone to play an instrument but some just have that innate groove.  

There’s another part of the job that’s hidden.  How do you deal with unexpected circumstances?   Things are going to come up.  A contestant had a mild stroke once during a game.  The board and clues don’t match on occasion, a contestant freezes up, the board malfunctions, whatever.  You need a PRO when this happens.  Alex was amazing at this.  It stemmed from his natural talent and decades of experience as a broadcaster.   LeVar Burton would be a deer in the headlights.  Aaron Rogers wouldn’t have a clue.  Dr. Oz — well, he was so terrible at everything it’s not worth mentioning.  

The fan verdict on LeVar falls right along the line of who watched READING RAINBOW and who didn’t.  Those that did have great affection for him.  Those that didn’t are very underwhelmed by his performance.   Some newspapers and websites are taking polls and LeVar shows up high, but remember, he’s campaigning.  His fans are actively participating.  There’s no worldwide Buzzy Cohen fan club.  And even then, LeVar is not blowing away the competition.  

Sorry, but he’s not the guy.  

My picks?  I loved Mayim Bialik.  She brought a fun infectious attitude, and has a great feel for the game.  Her diction was also terrific.  I was surprised by how good Robin Roberts was.  I shouldn’t be.  She’s a seasoned pro and her years at Sportscenter really prepared her for spitting out those clues.  But she was warm and excelled way beyond my expectations.  

Ken Jennings is also a favorite.  He certainly has a connection to the game.  My only concern with Ken is his voice is a little weak.  Buzzy Cohen also did a great job, in my opinion, although he was a little hyper and would need some adjustments.  

And my other pick is Mike Richards.  I doubt they’ll go in that direction, but as the executive producer he handled the game and contestants beautifully.  You know you’re in good hands.

I noted previously how smooth and polished Anderson Cooper was.  But he's a CNN guy so enough people probably hate him to cause producers to shy away... which is a shame.

Let’s see how David Faber and Joe Buck do.  But a decision needs to be made soon, and I have a feeling the producers are close to making one.  

And now I’ll throw it open to you.  Who would you like to see get the job permanently?  Ground rules: you must leave a name and you must honor other readers’ choices.  No name calling.  No attacking.  Even if they think Dr. Oz should get the job.   The comment section is open.  And I’ll be looking up to see if there’s skywriting. 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Weekend Post

Sometimes writers have to hold their ground.

Remember an episode of CHEERS called Rat Girl?   Lilith's pet lab rat dies and she couldn't part with it so she kept it in her purse. It's a heartwarming tale.  My writing partner, David Isaacs and I wrote that episode and won the WGA award for Best Comedy Script that year (beating out Larry David who brings it up every time I see him. I've offered to give it to him for only .00001% of SEINFELD and so far the award remains in my office.).

But the point is it was a pretty well-received episode.  You can see it here.

But the whole show almost blew up. Over one little note.

Bebe Neuwirth, who plays Lilith and I dearly love, announced on the second day of rehearsal that she had a problem.

Lilith didn't carry a purse. Well, okay.  We asked her to make an exception this week for the story.  But she said it wasn't consistent with her character.  She explained that Lilith is a scientist and scientists don't carry purses.

Oh really? NO scientist? Ever?

Again, the whole writing staff asked if she'd graciously overlook that TINY inconsistency and please have a purse?

Were there alternatives?  

One thought was that she could keep the rat in her pocket (do scientists have pockets?) but that seemed even too creepy for Lilith, and it was important that the gang in the bar discovered the critter while she was out of the room.  We needed Frasier to explain away her rather bizarre behavior.  Our primary concern was that Lilith didn't come off like a complete loon. 

I do admire that actors take great care in wanting to be as true to their characters as possible, and details that are seemingly unimportant to us are very meaningful to their defining their roles. But sometimes, Jesus! As the great David Lloyd used to say, "It's just pretend!".

To her credit, Bebe backed down.  Most of the time (practically ALL of the time) writers make adjustments to accommodate the actors.  Sometimes we have to stand our ground.   In this case, the entire episode depended on it.   Bebe was a team player.   She embraced the purse and the episode went off as planned.

Ironically, we did expect a note, but it wasn't from Bebe and we never got flagged for it.  At one point in the script the guys around the bar get out junk food.   When David and I were writing it we wondered out loud if anyone could eat a Hostess Snowball in one gulp?   So how best to settle it?  We made Woody do it.   His favorite food was Hostess Snowballs because they were "bite size."   God love, Mr. Harrelson, he downed one of those babies in one bite.  Excuse me, but THAT'S acting! 

Happy to say that in all these years and all the many airings of Rat Girl, not once have we received a protest from a scientist.   Or Hostess bakeries. 

Friday, July 30, 2021

Friday Questions

The summer is whizzing by… for those who are vaccinated.  Here are this week’s FQ’s.

cd1515 starts us off.

Ken, how much bigger a deal we’re the Emmys in the Cheers/MASH days?
Did people working on those shows genuinely care?

As a viewer I’ve never cared and would have no idea who won what in what year.  I suspect most of America agrees.

Look, if you’re nominated ANY year you care deeply. But in past decades Emmys had more meaning because a larger percentage of the viewing public knew the shows and had a rooting interest.   

Also, an Emmy win could save a show from cancellation.  CHEERS received a big bump in audience after it won the Emmy the first season.   

Networks might also keep shows on the air that weren’t getting great ratings but were getting recognition.  Having Emmy-winning shows on your network was a huge source of pride “back in the day.”  Now it seems the broadcast networks have just given up in that regard.  

Brian Phillips wonders:

Earlier in the blog, you mentioned that you and David Isaacs spoke to people that served during the Korean War to write stories for MASH. Did you or any of the writing staff interview any blind people for "Becker" storylines?

I don’t know if others did on BECKER, but I did not.

However, when David Isaacs and I were writing our first episode of MASH — the one where Hawkeye is temporarily blind — we did consult experts and even walked around with a blindfold to try to simulate the experience.  That was scary on Beverly Glen.

From Janet:

Ken, your discussion about family sitcoms got me thinking about the old 70s series FAMILY.

It wasn't a sitcom, to be sure, but I was curious as to your thoughts.

I've been watching episodes on streaming, and to me, it just seemed terribly morose. There seemed to be precious little joy in that family. But maybe that's what was "edgy" in the mid 70s.

I didn’t watch it too often.  It was a little sappy for my taste.  But they filmed it on the 20th Century lot where we were doing MASH.    So I would see Kristy McNichol and other cast members around the campus.

My one real FAMILY memory is being in the 20th commissary and there was little Quinn Cummings, who was probably 9 or 10 at the time, screaming at her agent near the host stand.  Yikes.

And finally, from Philly Cinephile:

I've often noticed that people on TV shows clearly have no idea how to work with food. I'm obsessing over CHEERS these days and noticed that, when working with lemons, Ted Danson appears to be hollowing them out, rather than slicing, wedging, or zesting them. Eric McCormack on WILL & GRACE was often shown preparing food, but he clearly had no idea how to use a cheese grater or a Pyrex measuring cup. (I'm surprised that no one took a moment to teach him how to pick up the cup by the handle...) Do directors usually leave actors to their own devices when they work with food? Do shows ever use consultants to teach actors the correct way to work with it?

We generally don’t have chef consultants.  Dealing with food is usually an excuse for actors to have some business — something they’re doing besides just standing like a statue while they deliver their lines.  And most directors are way more interested in the text than the business.  

That’s how I am as a director.  My feeling is if the viewer is paying more attention to the cheese grater than the content of the scene I’m in big trouble.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

EP235: The Golden Age of TV Comedy

The early ‘70s gave us amazing comedy shows — ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, THE CAROL BURNET SHOW… and one year they were all on the same night on the same network. They were all very different shows but had one key thing in common. It’s that common denominator that is missing today. What is it and why is it important? Ken fills you in.

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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

In & Out (not the hamburger chain)

So instead of the Olympics Opening Ceremony I re-watched IN & OUT (recorded off of TCM).  This is a comedy from almost 25 years ago written by the great Paul Rudnick and directed wonderfully by Frank Oz. 

It stars Kevin Kline as a high school English teacher in rural Indiana who is days away from marrying Joan Cusack and is outed on national television when a former students wins an Oscar, thanks him, and mentions that he’s gay. 

At this point the movie’s “1997” starts to show as the whole town is horrified.  I’d like to think that today a certain number of students and townies would be a little more enlightened.  Not all certainly.  Indiana is still a red state.  But some. 

Of course by the end of the film everyone accepts him, but it’s a Hollywood studio film so of course the ending is happy and touching and lessons are learned. 

But along the way, much of the film’s message still holds true.  And the comedy still holds up.  Way better than I thought it would.   Paul Rudnick is wickedly funny and whether there are set pieces like Kevin Kline listening to a cassette that is supposed to help you determine whether you’re gay, Joan Cusack’s hilarious and heartbreaking speech after being dumped on her wedding day, and a plethora of very funny lines.  The running joke about Kline’s appreciation for Barbra Streisand provides laugh-of-loud moments throughout. 

The casting is pitch-perfect.  Kline, as always, is wonderful.  Joan Cusack crushes it.  And supporting characters like Bob Newhart, Matt Dillon, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, Shalom Harlow (what a great name that is) and even Tom Selleck get every laugh they’re given. 

Oh, for the days when major studios put out smart comedies and they were successful.  They would lead the box-office.  Today, no studio would make this film.  You’d be lucky if Netflix did.  Comedies are all “TV movies” now.  Studios have all but abandoned them.  They’re not going to win awards.  They’re not going to attract eleven-year-old boys.

Thank goodness for TCM and the fact that funny is funny. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Back when the Olympics were fun

In contrast to this year’s Olympic Spreader Event, 1984 was a magical year.  The games were held in my hometown of Los Angeles. 

For months it had been predicted that the tidal wave of tourists would turn our beloved freeways into parking lots.  But as a result of that fear, locals were so afraid to get in their cars that traffic was a light as it’s ever been. 

From start to finish it was a celebration — a three-week party.  The athletes were housed in the UCLA dorms (Olympic Village).  Living close to UCLA I would walk to the area around the student store and there were these athletes just hanging out.  I met kids from Korea and Chile and places I’ve only heard of because of JEOPARDY.  Very informal.  Everyone was having fun.  Vendors were selling food and drink and commemorative pins.  Those pins were a big collector’s item during the games. 

The Soviet Union boycotted that year, but that’s like Republicans not participating in the Congressional Investigation of January 6.  Who needs ‘em? 

I went to a day of track and field events at the Memorial Coliseum.  Unlike this year where only 50 spectators are allowed to each venue, 100,000 people filled the Coliseum to watch Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses  perform their heroics.  Buses provided transportation so the party libations came out before 10 am.  Our seats weren’t great, but who cares?  We were there.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime event and I didn’t have to park my car in a bad neighborhood. 

We also got tickets to see the women’s gymnastics at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus.  No traffic problems there either.  We walked to the venue. 

Four or five events were going on at once and there was no real scoreboard.  I had purchased a portable TV that looked like a big walkie-talkie.  Through that I was able to follow the scores.  But it didn’t take any assistance to see that Mary Lou Retton was crushing it.  I was there the night she won all her various medals.  It was truly thrilling. 

As the competition continued, a few of the winning athletes would show up at the student store with their medals around their necks.  If my Emmy wasn’t so bulky I would have done the same thing. 

This year the Olympic Village is in somewhat of a bubble, although that’s a joke since athletes themselves are spreading the virus.  The athletes can’t go out and sight-see, which is always one of the perks.  They can’t mingle with adoring fans.  They play in empty stadiums.  And if they are on TV, NBC might have farmed out their event to cable channels no one’s ever heard of.   In many cases the announcers are not on-site, they’re in Secaucus, New Jersey calling the events off a monitor.   If only the athletes could be in Secaucus. 

The LA Olympics were a blast.  That’s the way they’re supposed to be.  And hopefully will be again.  

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Olympics Opening Ceremony, which I skipped

I think for the first time ever I didn’t watch the Olympics Opening Ceremony.  I love the pageantry of all the athletes from all the countries entering the stadium, generally followed by the world’s biggest and gaudiest Orange Bowl halftime show.  

Instead I watched a rerun of IN & OUT.

I’m usually transfixed by the Olympics, no matter the event.  Skateboarding, the way the Greeks did it way back when.  There are always great human interest stories, records are broken, and stars are born (for fifteen minutes).  As a sports fan it's porn.  In 1984 they were held in Los Angeles and I was really immersed.  (More on that in tomorrow’s post.)  

But this year I have zero interest.  None. This year it’s just a big money grab.  And many lives will be needlessly put into COVID jeopardy because organizers don’t want to cancel and give up all that broadcast rights money.  

Cities spend fortunes to construct spiffy new Olympic venues, generally bankrupting their budgets for a three-week event.  But the influx of tourism and the income that generates makes it worth the process.  Not to mention the pride of showing off your gleaming city to the world.  

But this year, because of COVID, spectators aren’t allowed.  The 40,000 seat venues will have 50 people watching.  

80% of Japan’s population is against holding the games there this year.  How do you ignore 80% of the population?  Oh, right. Money is involved. 

Not all athletes are vaccinated.  Not all nations can provide it.  Suspense should be whether these strapping your people win gold medals, not whether they avoid ventilators.  

Already, some of the top athletes have tested positive and can’t compete.   So in some cases you’re not even watching the best of the best. 

I find the whole event irresponsible.  People are getting sick so we can have a TV event to watch.  

And then I see people in America getting sick and dying simply because they won’t get vaccinated, even though the vaccine is free, safe, and available.  Yet certain athletes from certain countries who would do anything for the vaccine can’t get it and might have to pay a horrible price just to compete in these hollow games.  I don’t need to be reminded of it.  I don’t need to get angry all over again because of the sheer stupidity of some people.  

Ratings for the Opening Ceremony were way down from 2016 in Rio.  Hey, maybe I’m not alone in my feelings.  

I’ll watch again next time when hopefully it’ll be the Olympic Games and not the Hunger Games.  

IN & OUT was really funny, by the way.  (More on that this week too.)