Friday, June 05, 2020

Friday Questions

Friday Questions have arrived.

Liggie asks:

Have you seen any of the Korean baseball games ESPN has been showing as a substitute for everybody else's lack of live sports?

I have because my friend, Jason Benetti of the White Sox calls the weekend games.  He’s the perfect announcer because he has a sense of humor and perspective (and calls a great game).  He does his best to fill in the viewer on some background, but who are we kidding?  No one gives a shit about KBO baseball in the U.S.   Especially in empty stadiums.  

There's a reason the games are carried live in the middle of the night.

We watch because we’re baseball junkies and just want to see baseball of any kind.  Happily, Jason keeps it entertaining. 

Someone unknown wonders (please leave your name):

Is there any room within sitcoms to address major social issues — I’m talking about beyond the bullshit 1970s “Tonight ... on a very special Blossom/Family Ties/Diff’rent Strokes”?


Let’s put it this way – no one’s stopping sitcoms from doing it.  MOM sometimes deals with social issues, BLACKISH does as well, I guess you could say THE NEIGHBORHOOD does if by social issue you mean one joke played out week after week.   I’d also give a shout out to ONE DAY AT A TIME.   And I’m sure there are others (and you will enlighten me in the comments section). 


But it’s not like the ‘70s where there was a real appetite for that.   I think people want more escape from their comedies now.  It’s pretty clear we’re not going to improve things by shedding light on social issues; we’ll improve things by voting out Trump and his despicable cronies in the senate.   


From Fed the Musez:


If you and David had started your writing careers ten years earlier (ca. 1966) what shows would you guys have tried to write for (knowing that the "Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn't an option as it had just concluded its five-year run)? I'm guessing something like "Good Morning, World" (because of your interest/experience in radio).


Definitely GOOD MORNING WORLD, also because it was created by Bill Persky & Sam Denoff who produced THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. 


I would want to write for BEWITCHED (just so I could meet Elizabeth Montgomery). 


Beyond that, HE & SHE, LOVE ON A ROOFTOP, and OCCASIONAL WIFE.  And I list those knowing most people have never even heard of them.  But unlike the stupid GILLIGAN’S ISLAND fare, these were shows that tried to be romantic comedies about real people. 


And finally, from John E. Williams:


I've been watching the final season of Cheers and noticed that several times there were teasers filmed "outside" the bar, in front of Melville's. Were these all filmed in Boston or L.A., and were they filmed at the same time or were they separate shoots?


Filmed at the same time.  Someone took a home video of the shoot.






Wednesday, June 03, 2020

EP177: Meet comedy writer Billy Van Zandt

Billy Van Zandt has written on sitcoms for such stars as Bob Newhart, Don Rickles, Martin Lawrence, Richard Lewis, Andrew Dice Clay and many more.  It’s a wild journey I know you’re going to enjoy. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

FAME isn't always what it's cracked up to be

Scrolling through upcoming movies I could record and watch during this quarantine siege I noticed that HBO was showing FAME. I always loved FAME. Great music, some wonderful performances, Irene Cara, and really evocative of those exciting days of starting out. I always thought it would be great to go to a high school like that. Only trouble is, I can’t sing, dance, play instruments, or act so what the hell would I do? They didn’t have a section for potential baseball announcers.

So when FAME showed up on my menu a few nights later, my wife and I sat down to watch it. First we were surprised to see Kelsey Grammer in it. I don’t remember him in FAME. And Kelsey has always looked older than he is, but here he looked really old. Then Bebe Neuwirth was in it. She looked great. But I never knew they worked together before CHEERS. How did that never come up?

The movie continued. The story and the steps seemed right, but I said to my wife, “I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie, but I don’t remember any of this.” She felt the same.

And we were fifteen minutes into it and I was saying, “Where is Irene Cara?”

So finally I went to imdb and discovered we were watching the 2009 remake. There was a remake in 2009? I have absolutely recollection of it.

I also can’t recall ever watching ten minutes of a movie I thought I had seen but hadn’t.

Lesson learned. When setting up recordings, check the year.

We watched the rest of the reboot of FAME. Meh. I look forward to finding the original. But isn’t that true in most cases?

Other reboots to avoid:


Tuesday, June 02, 2020

We're number 29!!!

ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE recently did an article rating all of Tom Hanks' movies from worst to first.  Did you realize he's made 53 movies?   Going down the list I must admit there are titles that either I've never heard, don't remember, or didn't know he was in. 

I, of course was holding my breath to see where VOLUNTEERS would fall.  


I'll take it. 

First off, I'm just thrilled it wasn't rated 52.  So it's in the middle of the pack.  The authors take issue with some of the un-PC elements, which is absolutely fair, but again, remember this was 35 years ago.  I think you'd find some objectionable lines and attitudes in THE APARTMENT today too. 

But getting back to this list.  Tom has made some brilliant movies, iconic movies, and he has some Oscars to show for them.  So I knew we weren't going to be in the top 10.  There are also animated films (TOY STORY series and SIMPSONS movie) so I'm not counting those.  Then there were a few of their higher choices I didn't agree with and a few I felt should have been rated higher. 

So when you eliminate those, let's say there were 15 of them, you're left with 38 of Tom's "other movies."  And in that list we're 14.  So in this list we're in the top 15. 

VOLUNTEERS kicks ass. 

Thank you ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE.   This was an unexpected surprise. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

The latest worst week ever

Like most people I’m sure, I’m at a complete loss for words.  The events and riots over the last week have been horrific, fueled by gross injustice, decades of building frustration, and an absolute disgrace for a president.  Calming a nation might hurt him politically so this despicable psychopath would rather stay silent and allow American cities to burn and be trashed.   (I’m turning off the comments today.  I have no interest in hearing any opposing views.) 


I always try to offer something you won’t find in any other commentary.  There’s really nothing I can say about this calamity you haven’t heard, read, or said yourself.  So to provide perspective I want to take you back to 1965.  This is not the first race riot I have witnessed.  That dubious distinction goes to the Watts Riots here in Los Angeles.  In my memoir, THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60S) I reference the Watts Riot.  I want to share it today, not to sell any more books, but for you to see how eerily similar that riot was to the ones we’re currently experiencing.   


You’d think we’d learn something in 55 years.  If we have, we won’t know until November. 


Here is that excerpt.  Stay safe.


In August, a California Highway Patrolman stopped an inebriated black man in Watts. When the cop tried to have the car impounded a crowd gathered and things escalated. The bottled up frustrations and oppression that had been simmering for generations finally exploded. Within 24 hours there was a full-scale riot.

For nearly a week, I watched on TV stunned and horrified as these people destroyed and looted their own neighborhood, the same neighborhood I drove through looking for Shindig. Storefronts were set on fire. Windows were smashed. The National Guard was sent in. It was insane. You’d see two kids hauling a couch down the street as bricks and rocks flew and fistfights raged on in the background. Not a movie, not a re-enactment. Live. Real reality television. In a place I’d been.

This was an utter shock to me. In my sheltered suburban life I had no real clue that there even was that degree of intense frustration. On those few occasions when I listened to something other than KHJ, one of my favorite stations was KGFJ. I’ve always loved Rhythm & Blues, and KGFJ was the soul station in Los Angeles. Watts, South Central, Compton – these were not ghettos; they were all just part of the “Big K Kingdom.” Now they were all on fire. And KGFJ was unfairly assigned some of the blame.

Their most popular disc jockey was the Magnificent Montague. When he played a record he really liked he would yell, “Burn!” Some rioters adopted that phrase and “Burn, baby, burn!” became the unofficial rally cry. Some later thought that Montague was inciting the crowd on the radio but, in truth, he was doing just the opposite. And I know because I was listening.

On the other hand, there was Joe Pyne.

Joe Pyne was one of the first belligerent radio talk show hosts. He discovered that you could get big ratings by telling callers to “go gargle with razor blades.” In the mid ’60s he also had a local Saturday night television show on KTTV. He sat behind a desk while a studio audience of Cro-Magnons grunted support. On this night he waved a handgun saying every citizen should have one and be willing to use it. He was not fired for this. And the next year NBC hired him to host a daytime game show.

By Sunday the riot had run its course, leaving about $200 million in property damage. Shockingly, public opinion polls at the time showed as many people blamed the Communists for the riot as those who blamed social issues and prejudice.

For six days I remained glued to my TV. The images were inconceivable.


Saturday, May 30, 2020

Weekend Post 2

Every so often I’ll read an article or term paper or passage in a book that references a MASH episode my partner and I wrote. The piece is most always complimentary; sometimes overly so. But invariably the authors will analyze the episode. They’ll identify the symbolism, how when Hawkeye hangs up his laundry he’s really representing the Anti-Christ, and they’ll find all kinds of mythological parallel, subliminal messages, and odes to other works of literature. They’ll compare Klinger to Jane Austin, find significance in jeep license plate numbers, and detect hidden codes in Radar’s dialogue.

I’d like to be able to shrug my shoulders and say yes, all of that is in there. David and I write on many levels. Our scripts are challenging intellectual puzzles to be solved by only the most advanced sophisticated minds. Thanks for noticing.

I’d like to say that but it’s all bullshit! There’s no symbolism in our MASH scripts. There’s no attempt to send covert messages in Hawkeye’s Groucho routine. Sorry, we’re not that deep. We were just trying to write a funny show with substance and heart. Our goal was to entertain. Period. Even the Viet Nam comparisons to Korea – we never pointed to that. We didn’t have to.

There are series that do consciously employ symbolism. LOST did for example. MAD MEN for another. Pay attention because every detail has added importance. I love both of those shows. And I was always thrilled when I caught one of these symbolic nuggets. But don’t go looking for them in MASH, at least in our years. They’re just not there, folks. We used names of ballplayers, former girlfriends, and my family dog, but that’s about it.

People have deemed MASH a television classic and I’m humbled and grateful but at the time we were making the show we never for a moment thought we were writing a “classic”. We probably would have been paralyzed if we had. Or, at the very least, pretentious as hell.

And it makes me wonder -- all through school our teachers have analyzed and interpreted the crap out of great works of literature. We’re tested on intent and correct meaning. Well, what if the teacher has no fucking clue what she’s talking about? What if she has no idea what the author was trying to say? Or worse yet, has grossly misinterpreted it? If my personal experience has taught me anything it’s that books and plays and scripts and Billy Joel records may in fact be just what they seem.

I imagine if you asked Shakespeare about the ambiguity of HAMLET he might say, “Yeah, about that. I was really slammed for time. I figured I’d just clarify during rehearsals but something came up. The Globe needed some repairs and I had to interview a few contractors. Jesus, those guys will soak you. But people seem okay with the play as it is, so what the hell? Plus, I’m working on my next and that bad boy just does not want to fall into place.”

The next time you watch one of our MASH’s, trust me, I will be more than pleased if you just laugh at the jokes and enjoy the story. There’s something wrong when the viewer spends more time analyzing a script than the writer.

Weekend Post

Here's a fun video.  First listen to the Partridge Family with the actors singing, notably David Cassidy.  Then the same song after studio singers get done with it.   Where were they when I had to sing "Tumbling Tumbleweed" in the 7th grade? 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Friday Questions

Last FQ’s in May. Savor them.

Brian leads off by asking:

How soon before the networks, who are all putting out their own pay-for-streaming channels, transition slowly to streaming only and broadcast vanishes completely? (Or, if not completely, becomes the least desirable platform.)

I can’t even say for sure when it’s safe to leave my house, but I have the same prediction you do. At some point things will flip, and new shows will premier on the networks’ streaming channels and then re-appear on the broadcast network.

I think we’re a few years away from that, but this pandemic could easily hasten or slow that process by one or two years.

Seems to me it’s a safe bet though that five years from now television, as we know it, will be very different. I hope I can get out of my house by then.

RyderDA wonders:

On your advice, I've been listening to Rick Bro Radio and Great Big Radio; they're both awesome, so thanks for the recommendation! But a question regarding them: they are advertising free, and free to listen to. I don't understand the business model. If they are paying license fees for the music they play, that's gotta be funded somehow. So how does it work?

The honest answer is that both Rich Brother Robbin ( and Howard Hoffman ( lose money. Their stations are a labor of love. And as long as the royalty fees aren’t too exorbitant, I suspect they’ll keep pumping out the hits. They do it because they love radio, love to entertain, and love the music that radio, in its futile quest for demographics, has forgotten.

Both Rich and Howard are providing a great service. If you would like to donate to either or both, I’m sure they’d be very grateful.

From cd1515 comes a baseball question. 

If you were still doing games, how tough would it be to do them now with no fans in the stands?

And what do you think about announcers doing games remotely from a studio?

It would be extremely hard to call games from an empty stadium. The crowd really provides the excitement, both to the announcers and the players. Players talk about “the tenth man” – they really do feed off the energy of the crowd.

Same with announcers. In the minors I’ve called games where the stadiums were essentially empty. It’s very difficult. You feel like you’re in a vacuum.

And if there are no people in the stands, why not call the game from home or a studio? Especially for the older announcers – why put yourself at risk? How well will stadiums be sanitized? Even with a reduced crew you still need stadium operations people, you still will be in close quarters in elevators, and small broadcast booths.

Then there are the other logistics. Will everyone be quarantined in a hotel? How sterilized is the hotel? Will hotel workers be quarantined? Will stadium operations crews be quarantined? What about travel? How sterilized will team buses be, and airplanes?

So if I’m an announcer and know that the background sound will be the same at my house as it would be in a stadium, then I’d rather do it from my living room.

Yes, I’ll miss daily interaction with the manager and players, but I can Zoom so I’ll still have my pipeline to the skipper.

Jason Benetti of ESPN is calling those Korean League games from his house and he sounds just fine. (Although he sounds great whatever he does.)

And finally, from -3- :

With everybody hunkered down to avoid the Trump Flu, is traffic going up on the archives? Or is it just old weirdoes like me reading through?

Readership is up, which sort of surprises me. A large percentage of my readers log on at work during business hours. Sure, many can still work from home, but quite a few can’t and have lost their jobs. I was expecting my traffic to go down. But happily it has not.

Podcasts, on a whole, have gone down during this lockdown. That surprises me too. You figure folks would now have more time to catch up on podcasts, but most people clearly must be listening during outside workouts or commuting under normal conditions.

Fortunately, my numbers on HOLLYWOOD AND LEVINE have held steady, and I thank you for that. I’ve got some nifty guests coming up – a comedy writer who’s had a very colorful career, and an eight-time JEOPARDY champion who won $228,000.

What’s your Friday Question? Stay safe. Wear your mask.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

EP176: A Master Class in Directing Part 2

More expert advice in directing from Andy Barnicle.  Dealing with actors, the difference between TV and theatre, blocking, rewriting, lighting, interpretation, the technical part of the job.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Entrance applause

If you’re a showrunner on a multi-camera show taped before a studio audience, one decision you have to make is whether to allow entrance applause.

In the theatre, when you go to see a performance featuring a star they traditionally get a huge round of applause when they make their first entrance. And usually that first entrance is with a flourish to allow for that adoration.

On Norman Lear shows in the ‘70s that became standard. Same with Garry Marshall shows. Watch an episode of GOOD TIMES or LAVERNE & SHIRLEY. J.J. or Lenny & Squiggy enter and you’d think we just landed on the moon.

Other shows like those done by MTM during the same period took out the applause.

The Lear/Marshall camp contends that the viewer knows there’s a studio audience and the show is being shot like a play. They’re not fooling anybody so why not include the audience’s appreciation of first seeing those stars they came to see?

The MTM camp contends that the applause is intrusive and takes you out of the story. They went so far as to tell audiences not to applaud during entrances. I was at a filming of RHODA where Vivian Vance was the guest star. You know her entrance would get a standing ovation. So the producers introduced her to the audience before they started filming. It gave Ms. Vance her entrance applause without affecting the show itself.

So where do I stand on this most controversial subject? I side with no applause. But for a different reason. I feel it’s self-congratulatory and I try to avoid that. If the audience spontaneously claps later in the show at a big laugh or a story turn, well that ovation was earned. But just to have the audience go nuts the minute the show starts when someone enters the house with the mail – that feels like we’re all patting ourselves on the back for no reason.

Also now, entrance applause sounds dated, retro, very ‘70s. At least to me.

I bet it’s something you haven’t thought much about, despite its incendiary nature. But we all have a lot of time on our hands these days, and many of us are binging – either current or vintage shows. Notice whether there’s entrance applause, and whether you like it.