Wednesday, May 18, 2022

EP275: What it takes to be a Showrunner

Television is facing a shortage of qualified showrunners. Ken discusses why and offers advice on how to be an effective showrunner. This is a must episode for anyone in TV. More podcasts at WAVE:

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Is it just me?

 I have long awaited the return of BETTER CALL SAUL and BARRY.  They are two of my favorite shows.  It’s been too long since both of these series was cranking out new episodes.  Certainly you can blame COVID for the interruption in production, and perhaps it’s unfair but with each passing month the anticipation grew.  At least for me.  

I was so excited because both returned recently.

And I have to say — so far — I’m disappointed.  

Now the BARRY season is young and BETTER CALL SAUL is almost at the halfway mark of their final season — perhaps each series builds to a slam-bang conclusion — but for now, I find myself completely underwhelmed.  

BETTER CALL SAUL is now slow to the point of indulgence.  And they seem to have lost sight on what made BREAKING BAD so good — exceptional storytelling.  In BETTER CALL SAUL this year it seems like every episode is just setting things up, and not in a particularly entertaining fashion.    I don’t need to see Howard making cappuccino for five minutes.   Last week I didn’t need to see Gus gazing at the underground meth lab he built for five minutes.  I get it!  Clearly they're padding.

At this point I’ve almost stopped following the disjointed story lines and ultimately all I care about is ‘are they going to kill Kim?”   Everything else — whatever.  With BREAKING BAD I cared about every character and was riveted at each unexpected ingenious story turn.  It’s tough when it’s a prequel because you know who’s going to live by who’s in BREAKING BAD (which is why Kim is a big question mark).    

I hope they make it worth my while.   I'm told they have a major cliffhanger next week.  We'll see.

I’ve seen the first two episodes of BARRY and that show seems to have lost its way.  I don’t particularly like the new manic-depressive Barry.  They don’t seem to know what to do with Henry Winkler.  And how did Sally go from struggling actress taking lessons to star and showrunner of a series?   Everything about her character seems to have completely flipped.  I used to love Sally and now she’s Lena Dunham.  Plus, the show is doing a lot of inside baseball TV industry stuff.   The sessions with casting and executives play funny to me because I’ve been in those meetings, but I suspect 99.000% of the audience hasn’t.    

Would I be as disappointed if I didn’t have to wait an extra year for these shows to return?  Maybe.  You figure — they had all this time.  They could really craft something incredible.  And they’ve done great things in the past.   But the only suspense now is: are they going to get better?    I sure hope so.  Like I said, at one time I absolutely loved both shows.  

What say you folks?

Oh, and HACKS started their second season last Thursday.  Only one episode has dropped but it seemed to pick up right where they left off.  What that tells me is “Hey, it’s not like every show disappoints.”  

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Everybody needs FRIENDS


A number of readers have asked “Why do you always point to the success of FRIENDS?  Shows like FRASIER and SEINFELD and EVERYBODY LOVE RAYMOND make lots of money too."

And this is true.

But not like FRIENDS.

The fact that I wrote on FRASIER I believe allows me a certain objectivity here.  It would be nice to say that the show I was involved with towers above the other, but the truth is FRIENDS is beloved around the world with every generation.  FRIENDS gets way higher ratings in syndication than any other sitcom of that era.  It just does. 

Netflix suffered a big blow when FRIENDS was taken off that platform.  The money it commands is much higher than comparable sitcoms.  

If you’re picking the “best” sitcom of the ‘90s (a very subjective and perhaps fool's errand) then those other shows are certainly in the conversation.  I "objectively" cast my vote for FRASIER.  But for sheer “success” — there’s only one clear winner (and I don't get any residuals on it).  

Precious few sitcoms are so enduring that their popularity continues decade after decade.  I would have to say there are three and possibly a fourth.  I LOVE LUCY, MASH, and FRIENDS with GOLDEN GIRLS fast approaching.   And some others still draw audiences like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, CHEERS, SEINFELD, FRASIER, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, THE BRADY BUNCH, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, THE OFFICE, 30 ROCK, and I’m sure five or six others.   But will they still be around in 2050?  I have no idea.  But I’m certain I LOVE LUCY, MASH, and FRIENDS will.  I hope to write a follow-up post at that time. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

No comedies for CBS

Not a good year for Linda Lavin.  

CBS on Friday picked up none of their comedy projects and axed three others (B POSITIVE, UNITED STATES OF ALL, and that horrible bowling thing).  Significant is that two of the comedies were from Chuck Lorre.  I watched an episode of one of the Chuck Lorre canceled shows (I won’t say which one since I have friends on both) but it was not good.  I think even the laugh machine had trouble getting it up for some of the jokes. 

But it’s not like all sitcoms fail.  YOUNG SHELDON and GHOSTS are doing fine at CBS.  ABBOTT ELEMENTARY is an audience and critics’ darling.  THE CONNORS is hanging in there. Even CALL ME KAT on Fox is getting okay numbers.   ABC renewed three sitcoms in addition to ABBOTT ELEMENTARY. 

But the genre that for decades was a cash cow thanks to first-run syndication now no longer has that promised land to shoot for.  New platforms and new economic models have all but erased that mega payday for any show producing 100 episodes are more.  

And yet, if one should hit — FRIENDS has made way more money for Warner Brothers than the entire Batman franchise.  And it continues to.  Hit comedies still can demand decent back ends.  Netflix losing THE OFFICE was a big deal for them.  It’s rarer now, but a big hit sitcom can still be a monster asset.  

What I don’t know is this:  Were the CBS comedy pilots and presentation just not that good?  Would CBS have picked one or two up if they were?  Or are they just sour on comedy?   Networks made fewer pilots and presentations (i.e. pilots on the cheap) this year than ever before.  You stand a much better chance of finding the next FRIENDS if you make 20 pilots instead of 4.”  

NBC picked up two, but talk about conservative — a reboot of NIGHT COURT and the 15th sitcom attempt by George Lopez.  If you’re looking to mount the next breakout comedy, don’t reboot a 40 year old show or retread some journeyman sitcom star.

Fortunately for writers, there are other outlets besides the (former) Big Four.  Again, all it will take to reverse the trend is ONE.  One truly funny sitcom that strikes a chord.

Television programming is a pendulum; always has been.  So comedies will come back.  They were declared dead in the early ‘80s and then CHEERS and COSBY came along.   Find the next “FRIENDS’ and suddenly comedy is back.

So that’s your assignment for the week — create the next mega hit like FRIENDS.  Papers due on Friday.   The state of network comedy depends on it.  But no pressure.  

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Weekend Post

Time to plug my book again since summer is coming as well as Father's Day.  It's THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s). You can find the Kindle version here.  Here is an excerpt.  Think of how much fun you'll have on the beach reading this. 

1964, Woodland Hills

Must viewing: THE LLOYD THAXTON SHOW. Each afternoon from 5-6 Lloyd Thaxton hosted a live dance party show on the cheapest cheesiest independent station in LA – KCOP. If his budget was more than $4.95 a show I’d be shocked.

His set consisted of four panels (probably cardboard) with musical notes drawn on them. Kids from local high schools were invited to dance on a soundstage the size of an elevator. This was appointment television for every teenager in Los Angeles.

What made the show special was Lloyd Thaxton. Most shows like this were hosted by disc jockeys. They were content to just introduce the records and step aside while the kids did the Twist, Jerk, Fly, Popeye, Monkey, Frug, Mash Potato, Locomotion, and whatever other inane dance was the rage that minute. Lloyd was the first to realize “this was TELEVISION”, you had to do something VISUAL. So he would find ways to comically present the songs. This elf-looking redhead would lip sync, mime playing instruments, use finger puppets, don wigs, do duets with rubber masks, cut out the lips on an album cover and substitute his own – anything to make the songs fun. In many ways, Lloyd Thaxton was a local version of Ernie Kovacs, finding innovative new ways to use the new medium. Music videos these days are all ambitious elaborate productions. Back then we were quite content to watch a guy sing into his hand.

I always wanted to be on his show but of course didn’t qualify because I was still in Junior High. The indignities continue! However, I did get to appear on NINTH STREET WEST.

With the success of THE LLOYD THAXTON SHOW every local channel had their own dance party show. Over the next few years there would be SHEBANG on Channel 5 with Casey Kasem, SHIVAREE on Channel 7 with KFWB D.J. Gene Weed, and NINTH STREET WEST on Channel 9 hosted by KFWB D.J. Sam Riddle. Stations hired the D.J.’s with the best and most teeth.

I sent in requests to all of them but only NINTH STREET WEST bit. Talk about a great date. Taking a girl to a TV show and dinner at nearby Carolina Pine’s coffee shop in Hollywood. Thanks again for driving, mom!

I asked my friend Marcia. You always want to be seen on TV with someone hotter than you, but not so hot that it screams “pity date”. Marcia was very cute yet believable as my escort.

The show originated from the Channel 9 studios on Melrose Ave. The soundstage was nothing more than a one-car garage (for a Kia maybe). About forty of us were jammed into this tiny space. It’s hard to rock out with reckless abandon when at any moment you could get an elbow in your eye.

There were three guests scheduled to lip sync their songs. It was impossible to do them live. One amplifier and ten dancers would be pinned against the wall. The guests were the Beau Brummels (a group out of San Francisco), a very young Marvin Gaye, and British imports Peter & Gordon.

Kids were so crazed over the Beatles that they started buying records from any group that came out of England. It’s the same principle where girls who can’t sleep with rock stars wind up in bed with their roadies. First it was the Dave Clark 5, and then the floodgates opened. Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (who sang one of the creepiest songs EVER – “Little Children”. The story of a guy threatening little children because they caught him diddling their sister. Ugh!), Gerry & the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, the inane Freddy & the Dreamers (whose entire act was to wear suits that didn’t fit and do jumping jacks), and Peter & Gordon. The harder edged Rolling Stones, Animals, Who, and Lulu would come a bit later.

During a commercial break they set up for Marvin Gaye’s number. Surprisingly, he seemed incredibly nervous. His hands were practically shaking. Hardly the super cool image we’d come to expect. I assured him he was great and had nothing to worry about. It must have meant a lot coming from a white kid in his bar mitzvah suit. He gave me a quick smile, the red light went on and he did his song. Afterwards when he was off camera he thanked me. Not necessary but a lovely gesture.

The next day in school Marcia was quite the celebrity. Everyone had seen her on NINTH STREET WEST. Maybe two or three had seen me. I wanted to say, “Hey, screw you, people. I’m the one who saved Marvin Gaye’s career!”


Friday, May 13, 2022

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Try not to walk under any black cats or let ladders cross in front of you.  It’s Friday the 13th complete with FQ’s.

Brian Phillips gets us going.

Do you prefer writing a script that is straight humor or one that is humorous but has dramatic moments?

It sort of depends on my mood.  Scripts with dramatic moments tend to be more grounded and there is less emphasis on the comedy.  

Other times I just want to write something strictly comedic and make it as funny as it can be from start to finish.

Guess which one is harder to write.  The balls-out comedy by a mile.  

From Manny:

Do you think cellphones hurt modern day comedies? I know there are ways around this (poor service, dead batteries, etc), but often their prevalence seems to stifle a lot of comedic potential. It’s hard to imagine Cheers or Frasier, for instance, being as funny if everyone was constantly looking at their screens. Plus a lot of plots would’ve been rendered moot.

Absolutely.  So many comic misunderstandings come from characters not having access to what the situation really is.   But with cellphones anybody can be contacted (or warned or set straight) at any time and place.  

On the other hand, sometimes that can work in your favor.  Let’s say you need a character to share some information with another.  It’s vital to the story that that character learns the info.  But what if the person transmitting it has no idea where he is?   Or if he’s in a public place like Fenway Park?  Technology to the rescue.  

One thing for sure:  At CHEERS they would start calling Cliff out on his bullshit since they could look anything up.

slgc asks:

This has been an exciting season of Jeopardy, with an unusual number of high win streaks.

Why do you think that so many contestants have won so many consecutive games? Have they deciphered the code to winning?

No, I think it’s sheer luck.  Remember, there was also a pretty long stretch where nobody won more than twice.  Whatever year you put Matt Amoddio and Amy Schneider on JEOPARDY that’s a year you’re going to have a super champion.  I may be making this up, but didn’t one of them say they were rejected a time or two for JEOPARDY?  So it’s not like the producers knew going in that these were superstars.  

But I do think they've deciphered the code to wagering.  These super champions know how to wager better and how to build up their totals so the game is a runaway by Final Jeopardy.  I think the reason Mattea Roach had so many close games was because she was way too conservative in her wagers.  And your chances of losing increase considerably when you’re not a guaranteed winner, and there you have another incisive Levine’s Law.  

And finally, from Kyle Burress:

What moments, if any, in television have made you cry or at least made an impact on you?

Too many to count.  I get choked up easily.  And as a writer I love to make others choke up.  

The end of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Lady Sybil dying on DOWNTON ABBEY, Adele’s performance a few years ago at the Grammys, Tony Bennett’s recent special on CBS, Vin Scully singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” to the Dodger Stadium crowd on his final home broadcast, the last moment in CHEERS, Whitney Houston’s National Anthem at the Super Bowl, the child ventriloquist on SOME COUNTRY'S GOT TALENT,  Rachel watching the prom home video on FRIENDS, Mrs. Landingham’s death on WEST WING, and I’m sure a hundred more I just can’t think of right now.

The only time I choked up from something David Isaacs and I wrote was the last scene in Goodbye Radar on MASH.  The teddy bear on the bunk killed me even though we came up with it.  

What’s your Friday (the 13th) Question? 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

EP274: The Best of Your Worst

After Ken’s picks last week for the worst songs of all-time, the listeners now weigh in with theirs… along with a few egregious samples. Is your least favorite tune on the list?

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The difference between amateurs and professionals

Bob Mankoff was the cartoon editor of the New Yorker for many years.  I recently watched on YouTube a lecture he gave at an art school.  He made one point that really stood out to me.  I had never thought of it this way, but upon reflection I think he’s right.

He talked about the difference between an amateur and a professional.

I’m paraphrasing but he said, “An amateur thinks everything he does is great.  A professional always feels he can do better.”  

In a nutshell that says it.  There’s a reason Neil Simon, despite all his success, rewrote his plays like crazy.  There’s a reason stand ups will record and analyze every set to fine tune it.  I can give examples in any creative field.  

But when you think everything you do is fantastic there’s no room for growth, no room to learn.  

Another quote:  This one from Kurt Vonnegut.  He once said something to this effect:  When you get a group of writers together usually they’ll all squawk about how hard it is to write.  And there will be one writer who says it’s easy, he loves it, piece of cake.  Vonnegut says invariably that will be the worst writer in the group.  

Be tough on yourself.   That’s how you get better, that’s how you become a professional. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Misc. Takes


In no order of irrelevance…

There’s a terrific article on the lack of qualified show runners on  A number of you have asked my thoughts.  I will devote my entire podcast to this subject, dropping the middle of next week.  Stay tuned.  

Back from New York where the traffic is even worse.  Enough people are concerned about taking public transportation in the pandemic that more cars than ever are clogging the streets, tunnels, and expressways.  Meanwhile, I braved it and took the E train at 2:30 in the afternoon and it was practically empty.  

Usually I record shows and watch them while fast forwarding through the commercials.  Last week, in New York, I had to watch BETTER CALL SAUL live.  My God!  How does anybody put up with these commercials?  There was one break that had to be close to ten minutes.  By the time they returned to the show I had forgotten what the story was about.  And once you get to the last twenty minutes it seems there is more commercial time than program time.   I don’t understand why an advertiser would pay to be the ninth commercial in a spot break.  No one is watching.  Especially now.  I got out my computer.  I’m sure there were viewers who knew they had enough time to mow the lawn or test drive a car before they had to get back.  It’s insane.

If you’re anywhere near Englewood, New Jersey tonight come see a reading of my new play WHAT IS ‘MURDER’?  It’s a fun comedy/mystery with a terrific cast.  Here’s where you go for info.

Apple +’s coverage of Major League Baseball is just awful.  They’ve opted for gimmicks instead of solid coverage.  One of their analysts, Katie Nolan, just stopped talking after the fifth inning of her first game.  Why?  She made the mistake of reading tweets and freaked out.  She was afraid she was going to get fired after just one game.   The truth is, there are probably two hundred baseball analysts who know more and have more experience but don’t have the job.  

Compare that to NBC/Peacock’s Sunday morning Major League game of the week.  They went out and hired the best young sportscaster in the business today — Jason Benetti, and each week will team him with the TV analyst from each competing team.  Sunday’s inaugural broadcast came off smooth as silk.  Benetti, Steve Stone, and Kevin Youkilis sounded like it was their 200th broadcast together, not their first.  But it’s what you’d expect from a national telecast.  Nolan said she hopes to learn new things each week.  Hey, this is a global broadcast, not on the job training.  That’s what the minors are for.  

The Tony nominations were announced yesterday.  Is this the first you’re hearing about it?  Usually if you’re a Hollywood star slumming on Broadway you can always get at least a nomination.  Not this year.  Snubbed were Daniel Craig, Debra Messing, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jane Lynch, Patrick J. Adams (SUITS) along with Beanie Feldstein and everything FUNNY GIRL.  A STRANGE LOOP led the pack with the most noms and will doubtless clean up in the ceremony that will air… I don’t know where this year.  

And here’s the most interesting and telling thing about current Broadway:  Neil Simon’s PLAZA SUITE got terrible reviews — the show is old, musty, out of date, etc.  And yet, it’s packing ‘em in.  The run has been extended.  PEOPLE WANT TO LAUGH.  MR. SATURDAY NIGHT with Billy Crystal is doing well.  It’s supposedly very funny.  PEOPLE WANT TO LAUGH.   Meanwhile, a revival of a very well respected but super heavy play was supposed to run through August 14th.  It closes May 22.  What do people want to do?  LAUGH!