Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Why I won't be reviewing the Oscars

It started in the late ‘90s.  For fun I wrote a snarky review of the Oscars and sent it to the folks in my address book.  The response was positive so I kept it up.  In 2005 I started this blog so the first chance I got I posted my review publicly.   More positive feedback and eventually the endeavor took on a life of its own.  At one point newspapers in Toronto and London were running my reviews.  I was guesting on various radio shows around the country.   

To make sure no one could accuse me of stealing anyone else’s material, I always wrote the reviews right after the show and posted them immediately.  That generally meant pulling an all-nighter.  

The reviews certainly resulted in increased traffic.   I transferred them to my podcast its first few years to help build an audience there.   So now we’re talking over twenty years of Oscar reviews.  (The feature became so popular that for a long while I expanded to Emmys and Golden Globes.)  

I am officially now discontinuing my Oscar reviews.  

There are a lot of reasons for it.  A big one is that no one gives a shit about the Oscars anymore.  (More on that topic tomorrow.)  

But the major reason is the current woke culture.  God forbid I offend anybody.  What good is being snarky if you’re not allowed to criticize?  And it goes beyond possibly being insensitive.  Now you’re branded as a racist.

In the privacy of our homes, part of the attraction of watching the Oscars (and especially at Oscar parties) is taking shots at the horrible gowns and stupid tuxedos and ridiculous hairdos.  What makes them so funny is how those offenders thought they were looking so glamorous and elegant.  Bringing down people who take themselves too seriously is a comedy staple.   And you may not be proud of yourself for making fun of these entitled people, but you do. 

However, if I say one despairing thing about Viola Davis’ dress I’m loudly pegged a racist.  If Penelope Cruz mangles her turn announcing the nominees and I point it out, I’m a racist.   If I’m happy for a deserving winner who happens to be white I’m a racist.  

So who needs that?  Who needs to put a target on their chest?   It’s a shame because comedy suffers.  And as a society we need comedy.  Now more than ever.  But if those who provide it have to walk on eggshells, then what’s the point?  

And that’s where we are today.  So no snarky review on Monday.  And forced apology on Tuesday.  

Monday, April 19, 2021

Stars I claimed to have discovered even though I really didn't

Anyone who has been producing TV series for any length of time will have similar stories. They can look back at actors they worked with or hired that since became big names. Here are some of mine.

Shelley Long – played a nurse once in MASH when I was there. I don’t remember much except she looked very cute in army fatigues.

Rita Wilson – same thing. Also cute in army fatigues. Worked with her again when she starred in VOLUNTEERS. Amazingly, she remembered me. I looked awful in army fatigues.

Katey Segal – From one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes to a series regular on the MARY SHOW. We knew from day one that she’d become a star. And that’s without even hearing her sing.

Leah Remini – She played one of Carla’s many daughters on CHEERS. One of my favorite episodes (written by me and David) was “Loathe & Marriage” from the final season where Leah’s character gets married. I also directed her in FIRED UP. She was funny before she was even old enough to drive.

Tim Busfield – He’ll probably cringe but one of his first acting jobs was playing a patient on AfterMASH. Yes, it was, Tim, don't deny it.

James Cromwell – Okay, he wasn’t an unknown when I worked with him but he wasn’t on anyone’s A-List either. He was pretty much a character actor who bounced around. I knew him as Jamie then. We used him on an episode of MASH as a real goofball. Couldn’t quite tell from that role that he’d go on to be nominated for an Oscar. By the way, did you know he was in both BABE and THE BABE?

David Letterman – did a cameo on an OPEN ALL NIGHT we were involved with.

Maggie Lawson – You loved her on PSYCH and seven other shows. I’ve loved her since writing and directing IT’S ALL RELATIVE.

David Ogden Stiers – Before he became Charles Winchester on MASH he was talk-show host Robert W. Cleaver on a TONY RANDALL SHOW David and I wrote. That was the episode that got huge laughs during rehearsal but silence during the filming. Later we learned that the bussed in audience spoke no English.

Annette O’Toole – had a small role on a TONY RANDALL SHOW. Tony didn’t like her at first. By show night he was pleading with us to bring her back. The English speaking audience loved her too although I must say she was beautiful in any language.

Lisa Kudrow – Did an episode of CHEERS. Very funny even in a small role. I was not surprised. She went to Taft High in Woodland Hills.

Sanaa Lathan – Directed her in LATELINE. I must’ve given her great notes on that three-page scene because she went on to become a movie queen. I went on to write a blog.

Willie Garson – Directed him in the stellar ASK HARRIET. When that show got cancelled he was free to take another assignment – SEX IN THE CITY. He also was a regular on WHITE COLLAR a few years ago.

Julie Benz – Another ASK HARRIET alum I directed. Probably best know for getting killed and chopped up in DEXTER.  Or getting killed and chopped up in SAW V.

Robert Pastorelli – Later to be a stalwart of MURPHY BROWN, but his greatest role was for us on the MARY show. He played sandwich guy, Mr. Yummy.

Jenna Elfmann – first cast in an ALMOST PERFECT as a whack-job secretary. She had no experience at the time and we knew it was a risk but there was something just so damn special about her. She killed in front of the audience. If ever there was someone I knew was going to make it besides Katey Segal it was Jenna.

And before I slap myself on the back too much for being such a great judge of talent, here are a few of the people I didn’t cast who once came in to read:

Martin Short, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, Jane Lynch, Tea Leoni, Don Johnson, and Andrea Martin (although that was the network’s fault; we wanted her. They wanted Toni Tennille. Don't ask.),

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Weekend Post

Now that more people are allowed to fly again, I want to share a personal story.  You're going to think I'm making this up, but I'm not.  Compare my flight on a commercial airliner to any you've ever been on. 

This is an excerpt from my memoir, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) still available in all formats and still the perfect gift.  Order several TODAY!!!

It's 1969.  I've lived in the San Fernando Valley my entire life but always wanted to go back east, New York in particular.  So I saved my money and hit the road. 

The plan was this: Three weeks. First week in Gotham. Then meet-up with one of my radio freak buddies and drive with him to his home in Pittsburgh. Spend a day or so soaking in the wonders of the Steel City and then fly to D.C. See those sights and stop off in Louisville to visit my cousin on the way home. I had introduced him to the Sunset Strip a couple of years ago. He could return the favor and show me where they filmed some scenes from Goldfinger.

The airlines were all regulated back then; all required to charge the same fares. The carriers all cried that they couldn’t make money this way so in the ‘80s the government relented and dropped pricing regulations. Within months several long established airlines went bankrupt.

But in 1969 fares were standard. And all the airlines had a great deal for students. You could fly for half price. And you could get huge discounts on hotel rooms if you were a student. So for maybe a couple hundred bucks I booked all my flights and reserved a room in New York at the prestigious Statler Hilton across the street from Madison Square Garden for $9.50 a night.

My how traveling has changed. I checked in my suitcase (for free) and my family escorted me right to the gate. People dressed nice to fly on airplanes. You didn’t see one “SHIT HAPPENS” t-shirt.

I flew TWA. This was one of the major carriers, equivalent to United or American – now dead (yeah, deregulation was a GREAT idea). Once in the air they distributed free headsets so we could listen to seven channels of music. Moments later, carts were wheeled down the aisles and we were all served a hot breakfast – omelets or French toast. And the utensils were genuine metal! Then a big screen was lowered and they showed a free movie (Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner). But that was nothing. Here’s the kicker: I’ve never seen this on any other flight I’ve ever taken – they set up a big brunch buffet. We all lined up down the aisle and helped ourselves to lox, bagels, cold cuts, and fruit and various salads.

And this was coach!

The guys in First Class must’ve been getting blowjobs.

Landed at JFK around 4:00 and taxied into the city, getting my first look at that Manhattan skyline. Wow! The Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies didn’t do it justice. I was Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy – a wide-eyed rube taking in the “big city” for the first time. This was a world unlike any I had ever witnessed. Just the sheer number of WIGS stores was staggering to me. How many New Yorkers need wigs?

Was deposited at my hotel, a grand old structure of stature and grace, and then shown to my elegant $9.50 a night room. It was the size of litter box. There was one single bed, a window that looked out at the back of the Gimbels’ Department Store neon flashing sign, and a TV that was so old it said “the Dumont Network” above channel 5. But I didn’t care. I was really in New York. I turned on my transistor radio and there was Dan Ingram on WABC trashing some sponsor’s frozen clam dip.

I just walked around that first night. Saw the Empire State Building, Macy’s, seventeen WIGS stores. I had dinner at Howard Johnson’s. I didn’t feel self-conscious that I was eating alone because everyone there was eating alone.

After dinner I wandered into Madison Square Garden. There was a Billy Graham Crusade that week. Billy Graham was a charismatic TV evangelist who rose to great prominence with lavish stage extravaganzas… I mean, religious services. But admission was free (donation cups were passed around like joints) so I checked it out. I didn’t find God but I did see where the Knicks and Rangers played.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Friday Questions

Since just about anybody can now get the vaccine, GET THE VACCINE!  Here are some Friday Questions while you wait fifteen minutes after getting the shot.

maxdebryn starts us off.

Ken, a few of the other movie/TV/pop culture sites that I read have floated the idea that they will become "pay" sites (ie: subscribers/readers would have to pay upwards of $10 per month in order to access the sites). What do you think about paying to read online content ?

That’s fine for them, but I don’t plan on charging people.  Part of why I do this blog is I feel I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career, was blessed with amazing mentors, and this blog is a small way of paying it forward.  

Besides, I’d have to write way better to charge $10 for this drivel.  

Bob Paris asks:

Ken: In the past, if an actor got signed to a series they would be working on at least 22 episodes a season. Now an actor may sign for a series where as few as eight to ten episodes are shot for the year. Are these "exclusive" deals where the actor is precluded from taking other work? Makes you wonder if attaching yourself to a series that makes a very limited number of episodes per season makes economic sense.

You’re right.  Since there are fewer episodes produced, the deals tend to be more flexible these days.  Case in point:  Kelsey Grammer is attached to a sitcom project for ABC also starring Alec Baldwin.  At the same time it’s been announced there will be a reboot of FRASIER sometime in the future.   I have zero details on either of the deals other than to surmise he’s permitted to do both.  (I’m actually looking forward to both of them.)  

Ere I Saw Elba queries:

This is a Friday question that is somewhat related to your recent podcast on changes in the TV biz:

When did Standards and Practices become a common part of network television, and how much do they continue to affect the content of shows? Also, do the same network standards and FCC regulations apply to internet streaming?

Standards & Practices have been around since the dawn of television.  It’s just that the restrictions have changed.  But as far back as the ’50’s married couples couldn’t sleep in the same bed.  And when Lucy was pregnant they weren’t allowed to say that word on CBS.  

In the ‘70s ALL IN THE FAMILY got away with racial slurs they could never say today.  But back then they were very prudish about sex.  Now you have shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS that would have no jokes at all if they couldn’t say vagina.

Over-the-air TV stations are held to much higher standards because there are only so many channels and the license holders are obligated to broadcast  in “the public’s interest.”   Not so with cable and other platforms.  I believe their only obligation is to post warnings at the beginning of shows alerting the audience to violence, nudity, or vagina jokes.  

And finally, from Bob Gassel:

Have you ever seen a situation where a writer (or team) has pitched an idea that the showrunner liked, but then assigned it to someone else, thinking it was more suited to their style?

They’re not allowed to do that in the strict sense.  If a writer pitches a story and the show runner wants to do it, he’s obligated to  at least buy him out, if not let him write it.  

However, if a writing staff is sitting around a table just spitballing ideas and random notions, a show runner might say, writer X might be better at writing that one but the guy who pitched it will be given an assignment as well, maybe one he’s more suited for.

Then there are the Chuck Lorre rooms where everything is room written, and in that case credit is just assigned and rotated.  The show that you pitched won’t have your name on it, but another that you had little to do with will.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

EP220: Meet actor/Broadway star, Chip Zien

Chip Zien has been in 13 Broadway shows, has over 65 TV and movie credits, and was the voice of Howard the Duck.  He starred in INTO THE WOODS and discusses working with Stephen Sondheim along with many great showbiz tales.  Chip is a great storyteller and has great funny stories to tell.

More podcasts at Wave!

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Welcome to Mayberry

To the surprise of no one (except maybe networks), vintage sitcoms are seeing a renaissance during the pandemic.   In the same way that oldies stations are flourishing on radio, TV audiences are flocking to comfort food comedy.  Call it nostalgia, call it an escape to a more innocent time — but whatever draws them to these chestnuts, one thing is clear — they’re funny.  

Is there a current sitcom on the air funnier than THE GOLDEN GIRLS?  And just know, I never worked on THE GOLDEN GIRLS.  Or FRIENDS.  Or THE OFFICE.  Or ROSEANNE. But those shows really delivered.  

And then there’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW from the early ‘60s.  Talk about a show that hits just the right tone of humor and warmth and Americana — it’s the folks in Mayberry.  Over the last year, its audience has grown by 29% to 58.3 billion viewing moments.   Pretty good for a sixty year old show I'd say. 

I have another theory as to why THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW has struck such a chord.  People are nice to each other.  There is a level of caring the characters share for one another.  I think subconsciously that’s what we’re really nostalgic for in these polarized hate-filled times.  Yes, it feels dated (the show is not even in color), but the sensibility is what we crave — now more than ever.  

So let’s look at the formula — humanity, kindness, and really funny.  Seems like a proven winning combination.  Why do they have to be vintage sitcoms?   Development season begins in a few months.  Are there lessons to be learned? 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

New meaning to the expression "dead air"

There’s a recent article that says that Rush Limbaugh’s syndicator is going to keep his voice on his radio show even though he passed away (happily not until learning that Biden is now president).  That may sound a little ghoulish to keep his voice on the air, but at least they’re acknowledging he’s dead.

Back when XM and Sirius were two competing satellite radio providers (i.e.. the good old days), XM had Wolfman Jack shows they were playing nightly.  You’d think they were live because they included phone calls.  And I don’t recall any disclaimer explaining that Wolfman Jack had long since shuttled his mortal coil.  

But the weirdest one I can remember started in the ‘60s.  

There was literally a ma and pap radio station called KCHJ 1010 in Delano, California.  Carl & Jean Johns owned the station.  Carl had done a ton of voice tracks for the morning show including weather reports, intros to songs, good morning wishes for Monday and Thursday and Easter, whatever.  

He died in a car accident in 1968 and  they kept playing his voice tracks in the morning.  His loyal audience never knew he was dead.  This went on until 1991 when Jean sold the station.   It’s a good thing they didn’t bill themselves as “the new music station.”  But how weird is that? 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Aaron Rodgers on JEOPARDY

What does it say when a complete amateur hosts JEOPARDY and is still way better than Dr. Oz?  

I like Aaron Rodgers.  He’s a truly great quarterback in the toughest league there is, and he seems like a very decent guy.  It’s very clear he’s taking this hosting job seriously and really giving it his all.  But I’m sorry, it’s like there was a contest and one lucky viewer got to host JEOPARDY.  

For the same reason you don’t just decide you want to play football and they let you be the QB of the Green Bay Packers, you can’t come in off the street and host a major franchise like JEOPARDY.   There’s a reason Aaron played football in high school and college before breaking into the NFL.   

If you want to host the world’s most popular national game show you need to get in some reps in local markets, hosting… anything.  Being on camera, learning how to read the teleprompter, developing a presence, feeling comfortable, being in total control (even when it’s just a facade for chaos).   And you need to get your on-the-job training in a less pressurized situation.  

That said, I admire his willingness to take on such a challenge.  Most former athletes get into broadcasting as analysts, and they may not be very polished but they’re experts in what they’re analyzing.  Rodgers is a smart guy, but he’s not being asked to read the defense.  

This is pretty much the reverse of PAPER LION.   PAPER LION was a book by journalist George Plimpton.  He worked out a deal with the Detroit Lions to go to training camp in 1966 and become a quarterback.  Eventually in a pre-season exhibition game he was allowed to QB for one set of downs.  I don’t have to tell you how well it worked out for him.  It’s actually a terrific book and later there was a movie version with Alan Alda playing Plimpton.   At least Rodgers won’t get a concussion hosting JEOPARDY (which wouldn’t be his first).

Next week someone else will run the game.   Eventually they’ll find the right person.  He or she will know how to move the chat section along, keep the pace up so clues aren’t left on the board, be supportive and helpful to the contestants, have a sense of humor, be able to pronounce obscure foreign words, put the home audience completely at ease, and be ready to handle any technical curveball that is hurled their way.  

Six or seven other candidates will get their shot in the next few months, plus I understand some “surprise” guest hosts are also being booked.  

But I will say this — the more you see other people trying to host JEOPARDY the more you realize how amazing Alex Trebek was.   Of course if he we were asked to quarterback the Green Bay Pakcers he’d be carried out on a stretcher his first play.