Tuesday, September 25, 2018

5 great writing tips

I’m often asked for writing tips. Recently saw a Facebook post by a writer I greatly admire, Tom Straw. You may remember I once had him on my podcast (You can hear it here). Tom’s TV credits range from NIGHT COURT to NURSE JACKIE and Craig Ferguson’s late night show. As an author he wrote all of the CASTLE books and has his own thriller, BUZZ KILLER.

In his Facebook post he humbly offers five great tips. I thought they were great and Tom graciously permitted me to share them with you. They’re well worth reading, copying, and pasting. I did. Thanks, Tom.

1. Trust your instincts. This is something I discovered once under huge deadline pressure, and something of which I have to constantly remind myself. If it feels right, follow it. You can always revise.

2. Always revise.

3. Create the space to create—and guard it. Whether it’s a place, a time of day, word count, silence, music, the use of a candle, whatever it is, find the routine that works for you and let nothing interfere. Nothing. Love the Picasso maxim: “Inspiration comes but it has to find you working."

4. Notice what you are noticing. Recognize the living organism of your page and be observant about what it is telling you. Pay attention when the whisper comes.

5. You’ll never go wrong putting yourself in the shoes of the readers. Honor them. Then, when you have finished every draft, join them.

Monday, September 24, 2018

NANETTE

For the last month or so I’ve heard all this positive buzz about a new Netflix comedy special called NANETTE delivered by Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby. When I hear hype like that I always have two reactions: “ Uh oh, it won’t be nearly as good as they say,” and “Please please please be as good as they say.”

In this case, it started out the former then soared into the latter. By the end I was giving it a standing ovation alone in a room.

Gadsby is quite popular in Australia although I must confess this is the first I’ve heard of her. Her opening jokes and style were fine. Her delivery seemed a little tentative but the material was quite good. Still, twenty minutes in I’m thinking, “What’s so special about this?”

And then the show takes a turn. Gadsby steers us into darker territory, more personal, more reflective, more explosive. By the last half hour I was absolutely riveted. Insights and truths and pain burst forth like a tsunami. I don’t want to tell you anything specific about the material. I want you to experience it for yourself.

Within the hour set she transforms. Her delivery, her tone, her body language – it’s a butterfly emerging from the cocoon.  She's brilliant, she's hilarious, she's fearless. 

One note of caution: the subject matter gets rough at times. I don’t mean vulgar or smutty – but she does go after certain groups and ideologies (and famous artists) with guns a'blazin'.  

The special was indeed SPECIAL.  But it does pose the question:  What's next for Hannah Gadsby?   This was not the kind of stand-up concert that lends itself to sequels.   I'll be curious to see where her career... and life goes from here. 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Girls, don't let this happen to you

Oh, the humanity!  The heartbreak!  Imagine if she had slept with a roadie.  Or worse -- a writer.

Let this be a cautionary tale.  Never sleep with a celebrity until you've determined he's important enough.   Now this poor girl has to go through life with the shame of knowing she only slept with a bass player.    Let the years of therapy begin. 

My favorite related concerns a certain character from the '60s and '70s.  He was in a series of commercials for a gasoline company.   At the same time he was acting in dinner theater.  One night he goes to bed with one of the ushers.  They're in the throes of passion and she yells out, "I'm fucking Mr. Dirt!" 

You gotta love show business! 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

If I wrote the Superman legend

EXT. CORNFIELD – SMALLVILLE, KANSAS -- DAY (2000)

A rocket hurtles out of the sky and lands with a crash, a plume of smoke trailing behind it.

A 1998 Kia comes down the road. Inside are Yetta and Morris, a middle-aged Jewish couple.

YETTA: Morris, stop the car!

MORRIS: Why?

YETTA: What do you mean why? Didn’t you just see that?

MORRIS: Let’s not get involved.

YETTA: Stop the car or so help me I’m taping over BAYWATCH.

MORRIS: Alright. Alright. I’ll stop the car. Leave it to you to want to examine every little object that falls out of the sky.

YETTA:  You know that's a terrible show, right?

MORRIS: Look, I stopped the car, okay?!

YETTA:  Let's have a look.

She gets out of the car.

MORRIS: What?  We're getting out of the car?  Aren’t we trespassing?

YETTA: Oh shut up.

He follows her across the field.

MORRIS: Who knows? Someone may come and think we did this.

They arrive at the scene.

YETTA: It’s some sort of rocket.

MORRIS: Great. You happy now? It’s a rocket. Let’s go.

YETTA: Aren’t you even curious as to how it got here?


MORRIS: No. It’s a rocket. Who shoots rockets? Kids. Skinheads.  For all we know there’s a Hitler Youth group in Smallville and it's der Fuehrer Air Power Day.

YETTA: That’s ridiculous.

MORRIS: You haven't been to the Dairy Queen lately.

YETTA: (examining closer) Wait a minute. Morris, I think there’s a baby inside.

MORRIS: Okay. Now we’re leaving for sure.

YETTA: I swear I'm erasing all eight episodes of BAYWATCH. 

MORRIS:  Well then just kill me!

YETTA: Who do think would do such a thing?

MORRIS: I told you, the skinheads.  There's probably a new chapter -- Hitler Toddlers.

YETTA: Well, we’ve got to get the poor thing out.

MORRIS: I’ll call the Auto Club.

YETTA: We can’t wait forty-five minutes. Give me a hand. We’ve got to get it out ourselves.

MORRIS: What? Us? Are you crazy? That thing is hot. What if I order a pizza? They’ll be here in thirty minutes or less. Let the pizza boy open the rocket.  I'll  tip him.

YETTA: I should have married Saul Gazin.

MORRIS: Oh, again with the "Saul Gazin". Mr. Perfect. He’d get the baby out. He probably has oven mitts right there in his glove compartment just for an emergency like this.

YETTA: My mother and the entire congregation was right about you.

She takes off her sweater, wraps it around her hand for protection and begins pulling at the latch. Out of guilt he wraps his jacket around his hand and joins in.

MORRIS: Move away. I’ll do this.

YETTA:  Thank you. You're such a prince.

He yanks and pulls and strains.

MORRIS: If my back goes out, good luck getting the Nazis to pay for my medical bills.

YETTA: Maybe if you exercised more than once every fifteen years.

MORRIS: Do YOU want to do this?

YETTA: No. Fine. Keep going.

MORRIS: Stop nagging. I’ve never broken into a rocket before.

YETTA: Sorry… but you really do have no muscle tone.

Finally, the latch opens.

MORRIS: There!

YETTA: Oh thank God!


She sweeps the baby up into her arms.

YETTA: He is so cute.

MORRIS: He? Then that rules out China.

YETTA: Why would anyone do this to a precious little baby?

MORRIS: You’re looking for answers? In this crazy world? Why can't they solve the Middle East?  How could a thing like the Exxon Valdez oil spill happen?  How is George Bush running for president? I think the real question here is what are we going to do with him? Does Protective Services have a UFO division?

YETTA: Morris, why don’t we keep him?

MORRIS: What?!

YETTA: We always wanted a baby.

MORRIS: Yetta, that’s insane. We also want a time share in Hawaii. 

YETTA: We talked about adopting. Y’know, after learning that your sperm count was low.

MORRIS: You gotta bring that up, don’tcha? I bet Saul Gazin could repopulate the world!

YETTA: I’m just saying.

MORRIS: Look, you can pull the cable out of the wall.   I’m not keeping this child.

YETTA: Don’t you see what this is? It’s a sign from God, Morris. It’s like when Bithiah found baby Moses floating on the Nile and raised him. Change boat to guided missile and it’s the same thing. Morris, this child – I just get the sense he’s… special in some way. And there’s a reason we found him. These things are not by accident. If that had landed five minutes earlier maybe Martha and Jonathan Kent would have found him and fifteen years from now he’d be selling dope.

MORRIS: (softening) Well… I always did want a son to take over the Woolworth store. But what if his real parents do come after him? What if we see a milk carton and there is the baby or a picture of the rocket?

YETTA: Then we’ll call Protective Services.

MORRIS: This is so nuts.

YETTA: Morris, I won’t ask you for another thing for months.  Not even a new garbage disposal that if you have a nose you know we need desperately. 

He considers, then finally:

MORRIS: Alright. We’ll take him.

YETTA: Seriously?

MORRIS: Yes, because my life isn't stressful enough.

YETTA: Oh, darling. I’m so happy.

MORRIS: What do we name him?  And if the answer is "Saul" then the deal's off.

YETTA: How about Zvee? After my grandfather.

MORRIS: A perfect name for a kid growing up in Kansas.   Zvee Sugarman.

YETTA: I love you.

MORRIS: Yeah yeah. Let’s go eat.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody?

Michael leads off.

I enjoyed the new Vanity Fair article on Frasier and was glad to see you were interviewed. The article mentioned the "Three Valentines" episode from season 6 in which Niles starts a fire in Frasier's apartment. I re-watched it immediately and was astounded by David Hyde Pierce's performance. My question is this - Given the live fire was that scene filmed in front of a live audience and in real time? If so would fire staff have been located actually in the apartment but out of frame?

That was pre-shot without an audience. And filmed in pieces... with half the fire department of LA on the stage.  It’s still my favorite sequence in FRASIER. Step aside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Lucy – make room for David Hyde Pierce.

Howard Matthews asks:

Ken, for those of us blessed/cursed with living on another continent, are any of your play scripts available online? I'd love to read some of your plays.

Stay tuned. I am in the process of putting together a website dedicated to licensing and selling my plays. It’s coming very soon. My goal is to get my work out there for more people to see (and hopefully enjoy).

From Frank Beans:

One thing I've been wondering: Do you ever reuse your rejected pilots/scripts later on down the road, with a different network or even the same one? Is this a common thing to do?

It’s not common but it does happen, and for David and me it’s happened three times. We had a family pilot at CBS. They ultimately passed and ABC picked it up. We had a political pilot for ABC that they felt was too controversial (at the time) and HBO had us redevelop it and make it even more controversial.

And finally, we had a pilot at FOX that they passed on saying it was more of an NBC show. A few years later one of the executives in that meeting went to NBC and sure enough she bought it for the peacock.

None of those projects ultimately got on the air, but we got paid twice for the same script so you won’t hear me complaining.

And finally, Andrew has a question about the great writer, Larry Gelbart.

When he wrote Oh God!, did he have George Burns and John Denver in mind? Or did the casting come later? It was certainly a perfect match between the script and the actors.

No. And this is going to sound crazy but Larry’s original conception was Woody Allen playing the John Denver part and Mel Brooks playing God.

Yes, Burns and Denver were great, but wouldn’t you have LOVED to see the Allen-Brooks version?

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Another one of my little quirks...

For many reasons I could never become a doctor and one (although probably not the first) is that it drives me crazy to keep people waiting. Most doctors I go to have two or three little examining rooms and they flit from one to the other. Just knowing there are two other people sitting in rooms waiting while I explain for the ninth time to some idiot patient why chewing tobacco is not good for them would keep me in a constant state of anxiety. And that’s not even worrying about all the patients in the waiting room.

There is a very famous (and excellent) restaurant in LA called the Apple Pan. Great burgers, and believe it or not, pies. It’s also one of the few remaining unique dining experiences in Los Angeles. They don’t have seventeen locations. They have one. Now that Cassell’s is essentially gone (a new version has opened but pales in comparison to its old self), the Apple Pan may have the best burger in town. (I know this will spark a lot of comments arguing over this fact. I welcome this debate.) I’d eat there a lot. But…

You walk in and there’s this big horseshoe counter. Everyone sits at the counter. And it’s very popular so it’s always crowded. As a result, there are always people standing behind you, hovering, waiting to take your seat. I find this incredibly unnerving. So when I go to the Apple Pan, unless it’s a real off-time, I find myself wolfing down my food as fast as I can.  (New Yorkers having lunch in Manhattan know of what I speak.)   And yet, I look around and there are others at the counter who have finished their lunch and their drink and are just sitting there reading a book completely oblivious to the six angry people breathing down their necks. Hope they never need the Heimlich Maneuver.

Other examples: being in a public bathroom while someone is jiggling the door. I’m sure there are folks who sit on the john, check their email, and maybe even bring a magazine. I want to kill those folks.

In a car. I’m about to get out of a parking space. There is a car waiting for the space. There are seven cars stopped behind him. I don’t leisurely get in the car, touch up my make up, take a few sips from my Starbucks, scroll through my playlists until I find one I want to listen to, readjust the side mirrors, program my GPS, turn on the engine, put on the brake lights and then for no reason whatsoever just pause for another three minutes. If another car is waiting I get in and GO.

There are many other examples (feel free to add yours) but you get the idea. The point is this drives me batty, probably battier than it should.

Is it just me?

And sorry if I offend, but I wish it were EVERYBODY.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

EP90: To Rome with Like and Barcelona with Love


Ken provides a comedic guided tour of his recent European misadventures.  It’s “Lifestyles of the ‘not-rich-enough’ and ‘known by a few’.” 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Thad Mumford

It is with great sadness I must report the passing of Thad Mumford. He was 67. Thad was a wonderful writer, probably best known for his work on MASH. He was part of the regime that followed me yet we became friends. He and his partner Dan Wilcox wrote a number of terrific episodes the final three years of that show.

Thad was one of the first African-American comedy writers to break into primetime. He was smart, very funny, and great to have in a writers room. It’s true that most comedy writers don’t laugh at pitched jokes. You could come up with the funniest line of the century and most comedy writers would nod and say: “Yeah, that could work. Let’s go with that.”

Not Thad.

He laughed, loudly and from the heart. In a highly competitive business he was encouraging and supportive.

He was also a diehard Yankee fan.

When Thad was a teenager he was the Yankees batboy. That began a lifelong love affair with the pinstripes. In 1992 when I was broadcasting for the Seattle Mariners we went into New York midseason and happened to be there for Old Timers Day. Now Old Timers Day in the original Yankee Stadium 25 years ago meant Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and Whitey Ford with Mel Allen emceeing. Among the Yankee greats who put on the uniform one more time that day was Thad Mumford.

I invited him up to the booth during the game and put him on the air with me for a couple of innings telling hilarious Yankee stories. Thad was a great guest because he was so funny and so quick.

Thad Mumford was a real character. Dressed preppy. Ate more deli than most Jewish people. Studied black history. Hung out with Loretta Swit and Bobby Richardson. Wrote jokes for Joan Rivers and thoughtful pieces for the New York Times.

I will miss his wit, his friendship, his Yogi Berra stories, but most of all his laugh. And I give thanks for all the many many laughs he provided. Thanks to reruns he’ll still be providing them. Meanwhile, he’s probably up somewhere giving Mickey Mantle shit for bunting once in 1964.