Tuesday, September 21, 2021

A question for young readers

Now today’s post might sound like a rant, but it’s actually not (or not entirely).  It’s a sincere question.  

If you’re a young person in your early 20’s and you’re funny and want to go into comedy somehow, what current direction would you like to go in?   

Would you like to write for sitcoms?  Late night shows?  Do stand up?  Do improv hoping to get on SNL? Podcasts? Feature writing?  Playwriting?   Essays on websites like The Onion?  Acting?  Radio?  Comic novels?  Comic strips? Animation? Cartoons for the New Yorker?  Directing? Producing? Talk show host?  Game show host?  Or something else?

Usually one enters a particular field because they’re inspired by the work being done in that field.  They want to be like Bob Newhart or Mel Brooks or Norman Lear.  

When I was starting out I was inspired by everything.  It was a matter of choosing.  TV sitcoms were enjoying a golden age.  You had MASH, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, in features you had Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, radio was filled with master funnymen like Dan Ingram, Robert W. Morgan, Lohman & Barkley, Bob & Ray, Klavin & Finch, Dick Whittington, Larry Lujack, Dale Dorman, Gary Burbank, Gary Owens.  The Comedy Store was starting to take off.  Every night you’d see Richard Pryor or David Letterman or Robin Williams.  SNL premiered and was a revelation.  Neil Simon was writing hilarious plays.  The National Lampoon was writing brilliant satire.  

I don’t mean this to sound like “back in the good old days” but I’m curious, based on what is considered comedy today, what inspires you?   What makes you say, “Yes, I know it’s hard to break in but I HAVE TO write for sitcoms/late night/the theatre, etc.”  

Obviously some of today’s comedy doesn’t resonate with me — and that’s okay, it’s not meant to — but I seriously wonder, if I were 21 today, what area of comedy would I gravitate towards?  

So if you are in that situation, I sincerely would love to know what your objectives are and why?  And what inspires you?    Thanks.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Emmys afterthought

I didn’t watch the Emmy Awards last night. I had a play performed at a theatre.  Not that there was any suspense.  TED LASSO, THE CROWN, and THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT took home most of the gold.  Glad to see HACKS and Jean Smart getting her Emmy, although if ever there was a shoe-in (if that’s the way you spell it… I’ve never seen shoe-in spelled).  In any event, the awards were deserved.  Congratulations. 

But did I miss anything (assuming any of you watched)?  

I did come home and caught the In Memoriam segment and it was shocking how many people I knew.   Of course the actors got most of the attention, but we lost some magnificent writers.  Allan Burns, William Link, Charlie Hauck, William Blinn, Ann Beatts.  How lucky we were to have them, and me especially for being friends with Allan Burns and Charlie Hauck.   Roy Christopher, who was the set designer on FRASIER, BECKER, and quite a few Emmy ceremonies, was also included and that warmed my heart.  

My other takeaway was what an embarrassment for the major broadcast networks that they were almost entirely shut out of any category that had a cable or streaming competitor.  Netflix and HBO and Apple + dominated.  Major networks aren’t even competitive.  They don’t even get nominees.  

Why these networks continue to air the show makes no sense.  First off, the ratings are horrible, and why would CBS last night want to devote three hours to how great Netflix is?   At some point the networks are going to say fuck it - let Amazon Prime carry them.  

I’ll be writing this same article next year during the Oscars when Netflix wins everything there too. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Weekend Post


I talked about this yesterday -- NBC Week.  Today I thought I'd go into more depth.  

The networks are rolling out their new fall shows.

I think.

The premieres are scattered; some not even airing in their regular time slots. Or they premiere and are re-run later that same week. Or re-run on a sister cable network.

Some shows premiered in August. Others will debut after the World Series (which is now what, Christmas?).

And many shows now have two premieres. This is primarily a cable convention. A series is on for six weeks in the summer and then returns in January.

A few network series don’t even premiere on television. They get sneak previewed online. I once got a DVD of some new show in my ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.

And the notion of the Fall Season itself is becoming antiquated. Shows are premiering all year long. What’s a TV nerd to do?

This is understandable, of course. With the current dizzying number of channels and series, anything conventional or unconventional a network can do to scare up an audience is good programming.

But what’s lost in all of this is the “event” status that the Fall Season used to have. Back in the Pleistocene Era when there were just three networks (there’s a real good book about life in the ‘60s written by… oh wait – that’s my book). Shows premiered only twice a year – the Fall and Mid-Season (January). New programming in the summer was either “Failure Theater” (airing the pilots they didn’t pick up) and variety shows hosted by guys hoping to snare a regular slot (some like Johnny Cash made it, others like John Gary didn’t).

There was great anticipation for the Fall Season. Promos ran all summer. And by promos I mean fifteen seconds, not the movie trailers we see today.

By September we were whipped into an utter frenzy. Only two weeks left before the world premiere of CAMP RUNAMUCK! How will I last that long?  After a summer of interminable reruns, suddenly there was NEW STUFF again! Oh, the joy!

Of the three networks, no one did premieres better than NBC. First off, you have to really use your imagination to picture NBC as a major influential network but it once was. And they billed their rollout as NBC WEEK. All of their shows – new or returning – premiered over one seven-day period in mid-September. You knew the date as well as your birthday.

They also offered a written program – like a yearbook – that you could send away for. Uber geek that I was (am) I used to send away for that sucker every year. There were big color pictures of all their new shows. Wow! PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES! I would pore through those pages with awe and wonder. 90 BRISTOL COURT – three sitcoms set in the same complex. What a concept!! (Forget that two were canceled by January.)
In a way, I think the anticipation made the shows seem better than they actually were. I call this the “Dark Knight Rises Syndrome.” But there were usually enough cool new shows that NBC WEEK was never a disappointment. It’s not like the Oscars.

Today I don’t even bother to watch premieres. Most are so dreadful anyway. Kristen Bell moves into a neighborhood of space aliens. No thanks. If a show is good and gets decent buzz I will catch up with ON DEMAND or find it online. But I miss the days when the Fall Season was important to me. On the other hand, spending an afternoon studying a glossy multi-page brochure for NBC WEEK is the true definition of “Get a Life.”

Friday, September 17, 2021

Friday Questions

Your mid-September Friday Questions.

Ted starts us off.

Hey Ken, I think you might have discussed this before, but what's it like directing child actors? Do you have to make sure they don't have that annoyingly "cutesy" acting style that used to be common on TV shows? And do you find that most comedy writers are good at writing for kids, or are they too often tempted to make them sound like wisecracking junior adults?

Obviously, it depends on the child.  But with kids it’s not only their performance but their ability to concentrate.

For the most part I’ve had good luck.  The key is being patient, especially if they’re really young (5-7). Plus, they rehearse less than the other actors.  A certain portion of the day is reserved for school so 70% of the rehearsal time is dealing with their stand-ins.  

My heart goes out to child actors.  They’re in a world of adults being asked to do things that are difficult for grown-ups, much less youngsters.  My job is to make them feel as comfortable possible. 

And every so often I’ll come upon a kid with impeccable  comic timing — they instinctively in their bones know just how to get every laugh.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with one or two of those.  

As for giving acting notes, I just want them to be real -- not be cutesy to get a laugh.  The more I can get them to just act naturally, the better will be my chances that they really deliver.

Final thought:  Kids aren’t easy to direct but by and large they’re way easier than professional athletes.  

Chris wonders:

Watching old sitcoms I notice that sometimes they'll use a humorous "smash cut," like switching suddenly to a new scene to contradict what a character just said, etc. The thing that surprises me is that the studio audience seems to laugh at these... But how on earth could they see the smash cut to laugh at it? Surely it takes too much time to change scenes in the actual studio to keep that laugh. Same question for camera pullout reveal jokes.

You must be talking about multi-camera sitcoms that are filmed in front of a live studio audience.  Often, to achieve that surprise, the first scene will be pre-filmed the day or two before.  The studio audience watches the scenes on monitors then the flip happens when they turn their attention to the stage and they see what happens after the cut.  

And some shows won’t go to those lengths.   They’ll just lean on the laugh box. 

Jeff asks:

Back in the day, network star(s) would often host these shows or appear in mini-skits to introduce new or returning programs. Were you or any of your colleagues ever involved in any of these (e.g. to write dialogue for an actor appearing in character as their sitcom alter ego)?

No.  To be honest, those big preview shows died out in the 70s or 80s.  Their heyday was before my time.  

Oh, for the days when fall premiers were a big deal.  For NBC Week (as they called it) you could send away over the summer to get a free handsomely mounted program saluting all the new shows.  I wish I still had my copies.  I’d send away every year.  

I think one of the networks did a preview show this year.  I rarely watch network television anymore so I couldn’t tell you which network did it.

And finally, from PolyWogg:

I was wondering about voice direction in TV scripts. For example, in Friends, Matt Perry's delivery of "Could it BE any more (blah)" only works with the right rhythm and direction in delivery. So my Q is if you have similar examples of phrases/lines that were delivered but only work through voice inflection, and how much it was in the script vs. the actor finding a way to say it?

I think it started out with Matt delivering a couple of lines in that rhythm and the producers recognizing its potential.  It’s a mixture of irony and a touch of sarcasm.  And you have to remember, when Matt started delivering lines that way it was a very fresh approach.  Now half the actors on sitcoms adopt that.

I never worked on FRIENDS so I’m hardly an authority, but I suspect when the writers saw how well he scored they started writing to that.  

We had a writer in the CHEERS room named Jerry Belson.  He was one of the funniest writers I’ve ever met.  (At one time he was Garry Marshall’s writing partner.)  He would work one day a week on CHEERS.  And he had a fantastic delivery.  He would pitch lines that had us on the floor.  We’d put them into the script and the next day at run-through most of them came back out because none of the actors could deliver the line as funny as Jerry.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

EP242: Flights from Hell

You’d think that flying charter with MLB teams would be dream travel — and often it is. But any seasoned traveler knows there are unforeseen circumstances at times. Ken relates three crazy charter flight stories from his days calling big league play-by-play. Lockdown will not seem so bad after listening to this episode.

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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Goodbye Larry

WARNING: Political Rant.  Red States best move on to another blog. 

I must say I take a personal glee at the outcome of the Republican attempt to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom, not just because it’s another setback for the party that advocates stupidity, the end of democracy, and the death of its members (don't wear masks, don't take vaccines, COVID is a hoax)— no, I’m thrilled because I personally know the candidate who lost — Larry Elder.

We worked together at KABC radio and may I just say I am not a fan.  And that’s not even based on issues.  Women aren’t as smart as men, there should be no minimum wage, no mask or vaccination mandates.  Those alone would be enough to despise a person.  He was always one of those talkshow hosts that took the contrarian point of view to stir up controversy.  The ultimate opportunist (as this governor run illustrates). 

Aside from all that, I just found him a dyspeptic pompous pain-in-the-ass with an ego the size of Canada. Based on... nothing.  He was not well-liked by his staff.  And for good reason.  He had the production director create wonderful comedy bits for him, which he pressed as a CD, took all the credit for it (even though he contributed nothing) and called it “the Best of Larry Elder.”   And for the record, the man has zero sense of humor. 

I was persona non grata to him.  He wouldn’t speak to me.  He wouldn’t acknowledge my existence.  Why?  Because I was hosting Dodger Talk and during Spring Training we were contracted to do an hour Dodger Talk show from 6-7 pm, which cut into one of his hours.  For whatever passive-aggressive reason, he blamed me.  Needless to say the change-overs at 6 were a barrel of laughs.  He literally ignored me.  So what I started doing was talking to him.  “Hey, Larry, how are you?  What’s going on?  Seen the new Clint Eastwood movie?  What do you think of my shirt?  What’s your favorite pie?”   You’d think one time he’d acknowledge what was happening.  I’ve worked in radio for more years than I care to mention, have changed-over with hundreds of different performers and never had that experience.   How hard would it be to just say hi?  He didn’t have to go out to dinner with me.  But that’s Larry.  He’s the king of dick moves.

Like… saying he lost the election and crying voting fraud the night BEFORE the election on his website.   A man of real integrity and scruples.  And this was the best the Republican Party could offer?

It's going to be hard to cry foul when the vote total was such a landslide -- not that that will stop 'ol Lar.  Again - scruples. He was the projected loser less than an hour after the polls closed.  He was the reason Newsom won so big.  This was projected to be a tight race until media hog Elder joined the fray.

And what did he achieve for all his efforts?  Not the shady power grab he attempted.  Once a local non-entity he became a national embarrassment.  And THAT is the "Best of Larry Elder."  

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The buzz on Buzzy

This is the one week that Mike Richards will be hosting JEOPARDY.   It was supposed to be his first week as permanent and in a reversal of fortunes that saw him lose the gig and his Executive Producer job on both JEOPARDY and WHEEL OF FORTUNE and he is now out of the business.   If only Trump could have such a fall from grace.  (Actually, no -- I don't wish Mike Richards and his whole family go to prison for the rest of their lives.)  

But it puts the parent company, Sony, in a rather embarrassing situation.  Since JEOPARDY is a competition, you can't just eat five episodes. But every minute he's on camera it just reminds the audience of what a fiasco this has become and how ultimately they're responsible. 

And now we're back at square one.  Sony needs to name a permanent host -- sometime before the polar ice cap melts.  After this week Mayim Bialik, who did GREAT, will host for three weeks.  After that, I dunno.

But I found it interesting that when they re-ran the two-week TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS, hosted by Buzzy Cohen, that started a groundswell of support for Buzzy.  Newsweek even calls him a new frontrunner.  

Personally, I thought he did a great job.  As for former JEOPARDY champion, Ken Jennings, I imagine he's still on the short-list although his voice is a little weak and you hear the voice constantly since the host reads the clues aloud.   

I'd be happy if Buzzy got the gig.  I also feel that some of his stiffness and nerves would iron out once he had the job and could relax.  

I'd also be thrilled if Mayim got the full-time gig. Of all the guest hosts I thought she was the best.  Just don't let Dr. Oz come within five miles of the studio. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Emmys have become the Grammys

What do I mean by that? 

On several occasions someone bursts upon the music scene and wins sixteen Grammys and two years later is completely forgotten.  Norah Jones, anybody?   The Emmy competition for Best Comedy is now very similar.  Shows are now really “the flavor of the month.” 

Remember all the hype about GIRLS?  And then FLEABAG?   The zeitgeist has moved on.

Now partly this is because these series are not long lasting.  They make 20 episodes not 200. Also because they’re on cable or streaming platforms and don’t have the overall exposure that a broadcast network can provide. 

But I also think today’s sitcoms tends to be so of the moment that when the zeitgeist moves on they’re left by the side of the road.  That’s not a knock on them.  It’s the current trend.  But it may come with a price of standing the test of time.

For much of the 1970’s the nominees and winners were ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, SANFORD & SON, TAXI, and BARNEY MILLER.  All are beloved shows today. 

In the 1980’s the shows that battled each other year after year were CHEERS, GOLDEN GIRLS, THE COSBY SHOW, FAMILY TIES, and THE WONDER YEARS.  Pretty good for 40 years ago.

The 1990’s featured these shows that duked it out yearly: SEINFELD, CHEERS, MURPHY BROWN, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, HOME IMPROVEMENT, FRASIER, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, and FRIENDS.  MURPHY BROWN suffered from topical references but was still enough of a "thing" that CBS chose to reboot it. 

MODERN FAMILY dominated the ‘00s and teens but competition was LOUIE, MASTER OF NONE, GLOW, THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, RUSSIAN DOLL (why that’s a comedy I don’t know) among others.  There were stand outs like VEEP, and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM but again, how many of them will mean anything in another ten years?  Or three?  Some don’t mean anything already.

Obviously, when making a sitcom you don’t spend a lot of time wondering what audiences will be watching in fifty years,   But it seems there are fewer of them now, and one factor in a great sitcom is its ability to leave a mark.   I guess what I’m saying is will somebody please create the next FRIENDS?