Sunday, July 15, 2018

Come tonight to see the play I haven't written yet

Today I am participating in another one-day Cafe Play festival at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica.  At 9:00 five half-asleep playwrights will be given a topic and assigned two actors and will have 3 1/2 hours to write a ten minute play on that topic all set in a cafe.  Actors and directors (hopefully more awake) then spend the afternoon blocking, rehearsing, and memorizing and at 7:30 and 9:00 PM they perform the show.  This will be my seventh time.  One of the other playwrights, Keith Sumrall, is writing his 49th. 

This has been a great exercise for me for several reasons.  I get to skip my gym appointment for one.  But I'm the kind of writer who really likes to plan everything out first.  And you can't in this instance.  I have to come up with an idea and just go.  And what often happens is that I veer off into interesting directions I would not have gone in normally.   It's scary yes, but also kind of exciting.   Writing out of your comfort zone always is a good thing. 

So come tonight and see how we all do.  There's always a certain charge of electricity because no one really knows what's going to happen.  But that's the fun part. 

Also, I'm continually amazed at how good the plays tend to be and how terrific the acting is -- all without the luxury of weeks of rehearsal and rewrites.  You're watching talent, instinct, and pure adrenaline.  If you're interested in joining us, here's where you go.  Warning: the 7:30 show sells out quickly. 

Wish me luck. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Disney imagines the Jetsons

This is from a 1958 Disney show predicting what transportation would be like today. They got the GPS system and rearview TV cameras right. The air conditioned tubes through Death Valley, and driving under the ocean -- maybe next year. Their most extraordinary prediction is that at any one time there would only be four cars on the road. Anyway, it's great fun to watch.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday (the 13th) Questions

This Tuesday is the All-Star Game so with baseball in the air I’ve got a couple of baseball-related FQ’s to go among the others.

Rory Wohl gets us started.

Now that every team broadcasts every game on a cable regional sports network, how does the camera positioning work at the ballpark? Are there two sets of cameras, one for each team? Does the visiting team have to schlep their cameras from one stadium to another on a road trip? Are the positions fixed, home and away right next to each other?

There are separate cameras for both team broadcasts along with some shared cameras either can use (like the one looking in from centerfield).  And yes, often two cameramen are in position side-by-side.

Visiting teams hire crews from the local venues to provide the equipment and manpower. A team will generally travel their own producer, director, and graphics person.

But you need your own cameras. If, for example, the announcer wants to talk about something happening in his team’s dugout the director needs a camera to show it.

There are times when a broadcast won’t have its own crew and just has to use someone else’s feed. Foreign language broadcasts typically. And that’s murder.

I called a game like that once. I’m talking about something and for no reason they cut to a guy sitting in the bullpen chewing bubble gum. Obviously the announcer from the host feed was talking about him but I wasn’t, and sometimes I didn’t even know who the guy was. Lots of scrambling. The way I dealt with it was to cop to it. I let the audience know we were using a borrowed feed and had fun every time they showed something that seemed completely random. But that was my approach. Other announcers try to scramble and justify what the audience is seeing. Good luck to them.

Today’s other baseball question comes from Rick.

You were my favorite color commentator with the Orioles. How would you even begin to go about repairing the current situation??

Thanks, Rick. I loved doing Orioles games and still root the birds on.

The announcer solution is simply to hire people who have a personality. Be less concerned with voice, age, even gender. Hire for content. Don’t be afraid of offending six listeners.

Don’t judge a demo tape based on an exciting inning. Everyone sounds great calling a ninth-inning come-from-behind rally. When the Orioles hired me they wanted three continuous innings where absolutely nothing happens. They wanted to hear how I sound when I have nothing else to fall back on other than my ability to hold an audience’s interest.

Good guys are out there. You just have to find them. Or not stupidly pass on them.

UPDATE:  I'm referring to the general state of announcers, not the Orioles specifically.  In fact they have two terrific announcers in Gary Thorne and Joe Angel.  As for fixing the Orioles, replace Peter Angelos.  

Rock Golf (which might not be his real name) asks:

Friday question: A follow-up to your comment about Robert Altman's son making more money from the (mostly) never-heard lyrics of the M*A*S*H theme.

What kinda money are we talking about?

Barenaked Ladies were asked last year if they made enough money to retire from the Big Bang Theory theme they wrote & perform.

Here's their reply:

"No," laughs Robertson. "I would have to radically alter my lifestyle to be set for life from that song."
"I believe a single woman living in Meductic, New Brunswick, would be set for life," Stewart adds.
"A single woman … no children … and a part-time job," Robertson clarifies.
"And, she inherited the house."

-- And that's on the biggest show in the world that gets syndicated several times daily by multiple outlets. I can't think of any more often played TV theme. (And they also wrote and perform the closing credits music too!)

So what determines royalties on TV themes? Is there a fixed price? Is it negotiated?

Composers make their real money on record sales. The theme from MASH was covered extensively. Young Altman literally made millions.

When a group is hired to sing a TV theme song usually a fee is agreed upon. The big money for the group is if the song itself becomes a huge hit, or the exposure from the show helps catapult the group. But none of that is a given.

Gary Portnoy’s career didn’t skyrocket after singing the CHEERS theme. Neither did the group that sang the FRIENDS theme.

I’m sure Barenaked Ladies have enjoyed increased popularity from the BIG BANG THEORY theme, but no, the fee itself is not enough set you up for life.

On the other hand, Paul Anka wrote THE TONIGHT SHOW theme (actually as a record for Annette Funicello) and that got played every night for decades. Anka made a pretty penny.

And finally, from Peter:

Ken, I was in a bookstore earlier today browsing the film section and flicked through a book called Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency by James Miller. Have you read it? The guy has interviewed almost everyone who's ever been connected to CAA in some way. I love juicy industry gossip.

I read it and enjoyed a lot of it. But I think it’s because I personally know many of the players. But I know a few former CAA agents and they felt it was a lovely piece of fiction.

I think if you can cut through the ego and spin you’ll find it quite informative.

Mike Ovitz is coming out with his memoir this year. That should be interesting too. And I expect it to be 70% fiction too.

Stay away from black cats.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Emmy nominations are today

Today is the day the Primetime Emmys are announced. This was written before the nominees were released. I love to review things before they happen or before I know what I’m talking about. So here’s what I can predict:

Many of the nominated shows you will not have watched.

Many of the nominated actors you will not be familiar with.

Even once they’re nominated, you still won’t watch these shows.

The Emmy campaigns in Los Angeles will be the biggest ever this year. Look for billboards everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before robo-calls.

With so many competing shows and talent there will be way more snubs this year.

There will be shows and actors nominated in categories they don’t belong in.

The Academy will be trying to cut down on the number of actual awards shown live as if giving out writing awards is what causes their four-hour show to be ponderous.

There will be no talk of omitting directing awards from the primetime telecast.

Broadcast networks will get just a sprinkling of nominations while cable and streaming services will get the vast majority.

The debate will be renewed as to whether a streaming show is considered “television.”

Most people will watch the nominated shows on their computers or devices, not their TV’s.

And finally, here’s the big difference between now and decades gone by – once upon a time shows could be good AND popular. Now they’re one or the other. So the Emmys are no longer really a shared national experience. 30 million MASH fans squared off against 40 million ALL IN THE FAMILY fans. Nothing like that exists today, which to me is a shame.

Congratulations to all the nominees. The ceremony will be Monday, September 17th and I plan to review them again for my podcast. A day later is the Jewish High Holiday so I can repent for whatever snarky bitchy thing I say.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

EP80: A tour of the Paramount Lot


On this week's Hollywood and Levine Podcast, Ken gives you a VIP tour of the Paramount lot where many classic movies and TV shows were filmed. Ken called Paramount home for twenty years and has tons of stories and history on this iconic lot. Only thing missing is a tram. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

BARRY -- My review

I didn’t vote for BARRY for the Best Comedy Emmy because it’s not really that funny, and there are dramas that are more powerful, but I sure like the show.

BARRY is an eight episode series that has been on HBO since March. (Yes, I’m late to the party. What else is new?) And it stars Bill Hader (who always seems nice when I see him at the gym) as a disillusioned hit man who gets the acting bug when he comes to LA to kill an actor (one of the more common occurrences in Los Angeles).

There are fun quirky characters and comedic moments (although I honestly laughed at loud more from THE GOOD FIGHT), but the characters are rich and the storytelling is terrific. Kudos to Bill Hader and Alec Berg.

The writers do a very smart thing. Hader’s character (“Barry”) is constantly pulled in two directions – his hit man life, which gets more complicated, and his acting pursuit, which includes a relationship with lovely and very real Sarah Goldberg. Watching him juggle these two worlds is compelling and fun.

They also do something really clever – maybe the best device ever for getting out backstory exposition. Barry pours his heart out to acting teacher, Henry Winkler, who mistakes it for an audition monologue and accepts him into the class. So not only was the exposition dispensed to the audience, it also was a great character piece and a key plot point. That’s some nifty writing right there.

Besides Hader, whose only better performance is when he does his Alan Alda impression, Henry Winkler is great as the self-absorbed bullshit acting teacher, Stephen Root shines as Barry’s handler, and Anthony Carrigan steals every scene as an insouciant Euro (or Eastern Euro)-trash mobster. I also love Paula Newsome as the police detective on Barry’s trail (although, in fairness I’ve loved her since I directed her in CONRAD BLOOM and am relieved I didn’t kill her career). Oh, and Jon Hamm was convincing as Jon Hamm.

I do hope BARRY gets some Emmy recognition. Bill Hader deserves a nomination certainly for Best Actor. I suspect there will be a season two. I’ll have to ask the next time I see him at the gym. But if you haven’t seen it, BARRY on HBO is worth a look.  What say you all? 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Sound advice

Now we have surround sound and I’m sure some have THX for the home, but for many years TV sound came out of little speakers. The fidelity was not great. But in those days who knew the difference? Did anyone ever say, “Gilligan sounds a little tinny tonight, doesn’t he?”

Of course we also listened to music on AM radio – in mono, compressed, with occasional static – and at the time it never bothered anybody. FM was also available during that period but largely ignored. You would think that once people got hip to the existence of FM and its way better fidelity in stereo that there would be a mad rush to the FM dial. But it took years for FM to overtake AM.

So television audio continued to squeak out of little grills for way more years than it needed to.

When I was a disc jockey on AM radio I always had a choice. I could listen on my headphones to the output of the board or a radio, which gave me an accurate account of how it really sounded. Needless to say, what was being sent to the transmitter sounded way better. Crystal clear. The “radio” signal contained all the processing, squashed sound, etc.

I always listened to the on-air monitor. I always wanted to hear exactly what the listeners heard. Sometimes the mix of voice over the music was different once it left the transmitter. But again, I wanted to hear what it sounded like in Reseda. So the Sav-On Drug Store commercials didn’t sound as good. It was a price I was willing to pay.

But when I became a TV showrunner in the ‘80s and would go in for the final mix of a show I would drive the sound people crazy because I insisted we mix it down based on a transistor radio speaker. Meanwhile, they had these gorgeous hanging speakers and control boards with 567 channels, all with EQ and special effect capability. You can’t believe how great things sounded on those mega speakers. But that’s not what the viewer would hear. So I mixed the show on a speaker similar to the one on their 15” Sony Trinatron portable.

That’s also how I mixed opening theme songs (back when there WERE opening theme songs).

If I were overseeing a final mix today I would not use a small speaker. But I would make sure ALL the dialog is heard. There’s a lot of mumbling on TV shows now. And just as I would in the ‘old days,” I would make sure the audience heard the dialogue loud and clear. And if that meant lowering the volume on the background music or the cool ambience or tropical birds then so be it.

The only thing important is what the AUDIENCE hears. Technology has changed, but that hasn’t. If you need Closed Captions to watch a show in English there’s something seriously wrong.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Pepe Le Pew

Pepe Le Pew is a cartoon character. Depending on your age you might never have heard of him. He was introduced by Warner Brothers in 1945 and has made numerous appearances in Looney Tunes.

You’re probably not going to be seeing much of him these days. He’s become very non-PC.

Pepe is an amorous skunk who is always on the make. He fancies himself a great suave French lover (accent and everything) and is hopelessly in love with a black female cat he mistakes for a skunk. He is completely lovesick to where he’s always stalking her, trying to sweep her into his arms, and the joke of course is that he’s a skunk and she’s repulsed. In short, he’s the poster skunk for sexual harassment.

But that’s today. In 1949 a Pepe Le Pew cartoon won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Today he’s a predator, back then he was a “ladies man.”

Several years ago, in my first play, A OR B? I made a Pepe Le Pew reference and it consistently got a big laugh. Bigger than I would have expected. So for fun I slipped a Pepe Le Pew joke into my next play. Same thing. Loud laugh. At that point I became curious. Was the name just funny? Was it such an absurd putdown to compare someone to him?  Why were people laughing at the mere mention of Pepe Le Pew? 

In any event, it’s now become kind of a running joke. I put a Pepe Le Pew reference into every full-length play (except one) and he appears in a number of my one-acts as well.  The one play he doesn’t appear in is OUR TIME but only because I couldn’t find an appropriate place for it and I will never just shoehorn in a joke.

But I wondered if the Pepe Le Pew jokes would work as well today in this new #MeToo era. A couple of weeks ago I had a one-act play in a festival in Brooklyn that did have a Pepe Le Pew joke. Now bear in mind I’m more than willing to remove them if they’re now deemed inappropriate. They’re just silly jokes. But guess what, both performances I saw, Pepe still got laughs.

Sometimes things work in comedy that are hard to explain. When I’m running a writers room and someone pitches a joke and the whole room breaks into laughter I tell the writers assistant to put it in just like that. Upon reflection maybe the syntax is wrong or something about it seems off, but my feeling is however it was pitched got a laugh so go with that and don’t bother analyzing why it worked when it shouldn’t have.

Pepe Le Pew is now an obscure reference and no longer acceptable in society. And yet, as I was watching the Grand Rapids production of OUR TIME I was thinking to myself – there’s gotta be a place for a Pepe Le Pew joke in here somewhere.