Monday, April 30, 2012

The Bastard Sons of Lee Marvin

Last Saturday was the 35th Occasional Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena.  Sort of the anti-Rose Parade.  This is a goofy affair with irreverent floats and bands and attractions.  Typical participants in the past have been the BBQ & Hibachi Marching Grill Team, the Shopping Cart Drill Team, the Bastard Sons of Lee Marvin, the Men of Leisure Synchronized Nap Team, The Marching Lumberjacks, Claude Rains & the 20-Man Memorial Invisible Man Marching Drill Team (although one year I counted 22), and the Committee for the Right to Bear Arms, a group that marches in precise formations while carrying mannequin arms.   

What does it say about me that I've been to a couple of Doo Dah Parades but have never been to a Rose Parade?  Give me absurdity over pageantry any day!  Sadly, the Doo Dah Parade seems to be scaling down.  Last Saturday's extravaganza was only a couple of blocks. Hardly enough to get Bob Eubanks and Stephanie Edwards out there to cover it, even though both are unemployed.    

My daughter, Annie and her writing partner, Jon were there however -- this blog's dutiful correspondents, and they file these photos.  

I'm taking it as a personal crusade to see that the Doo Dah Parade next year is restored to its usual luster and goes three blocks.  Finally!  A cause I can believe in!   C'mon, who's with me?

The flying baby cannon
Lawnmower races
Altar boys
Kid swap.  Unburdening oneself of children seems to be a recurring parade theme
Mobile Banquet.. although it looks like rabbis having lunch
Can't you just hear Bob & Stephanie gushing over that one?

Every parade needs it's royal queen
If Hell had a Kiwanis Club, this would be their entry
This parade doesn't just look good, it smells good
All eight members strong
Thanks again to Jonathan Emerson & Annie Levine.  Maybe next year you'll be the queen, sweetie.  Or I will.  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Thanks, Mom

My mother, Marilyn, would have been 84 today. She passed away several years ago. A day doesn't go by when I don't miss her and think about her. In addition to everything else she did for me, she is responsible for my career in television.

My partner, David and I were writing spec scripts, going nowhere, not even getting read at most shows. Then one day my mother found herself playing golf with Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSON. Like any good mom she said her son was a brilliant young writer and would he consider reading a script? Frankly, I’m a little surprised she didn’t have a copy in her bag but still. As a favor to her, Gordon did read our spec, liked it, and to our amazement, gave us our first assignment. In so many ways my mother has been a true angel in my life.  And never once asked for her 10%.   Happy Birthday, Mom.  I love you. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Comedy writers can be bad ass!

In the summer of 1990 I was broadcasting for the Tidewater Tides, the AAA affiliate of the New York Mets. It was a Sunday afternoon game and I had to read a commercial for the Day’s Inn at Military Circle – “Home to the visiting teams of the International League”. I noted that our dreaded rivals, the Columbus Clippers (Yankees ) were coming to town next and said, “Why don’t you call them all at 5 a.m. and welcome them to Tidewater.” Now you have to bear in mind that no one listened to minor league radio broadcasts other than players’ wives.

Or so I thought.

The next afternoon I arrived at the park only to learn that the Clippers had been besieged with pre dawn wake up calls. Needless to say they were pissed.

I guiltily went down to their clubhouse and apologized to their manager, Rick Down. He was very gracious, said he had heard it on the air and thought it was pretty funny. He also felt this would stir up the team, I might have done him a favor. (It did. They won that night. So now I had pissed off both teams.) But Rick was very forgiving.

The Clippers’ trainer however, was not. He went ballistic when he saw me, calling me words that were too harsh even for DEADWOOD. And he vowed to get back at me when we were in Columbus the following weekend.

I calmly asked if he ever watched CHEERS. He said, “Yeah, why?” wondering why that was relevant to anything. I then asked if he ever caught some of the bar wars episodes between Cheers and Gary’s Old Towne tavern? Again, he said, “Yeah. So what?” “Well, I wrote those shows, motherfucker, “ I said, “Do you really want to get into a practical joke war with me?”

That was the last I heard of the trainer.

The moral is clear.

Do NOT fuck with comedy writers! EVER!

We may appear harmless but we can fill your office with sheep just for looking at us funny.

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Nerdist Writers Panel podcast is now up

Hello, from Santa Barbara where I'm speaking at a writers conference at UCSB.  Last month I participated in a very worthwhile program -- the Nerdist Writers Panel.   On the panel with me was Bill Lawrence (SCRUBS, COUGAR TOWN), and Richard Hatem (GRIMM).   It was a GREAT session.  Everyone was funny and informative -- even me at times.  

The podcast of that session is now available along with their other podcasts.  They're worth checking out.   Here's where you go.  I'm podcast 36 (the most recent one).  Enjoy!

Does Frasier make too much money?

Friday Questions sometimes spark much  heated debate. Such is the case with our first Q. This was originally posted last Friday in the comments section (where you should file yours). Many responses followed. Join the fun.

Craig asked the lightening rod question.

How is Frasier so wealthy??

He seems to spend at will and is never wanting for anything. He is a semi successful radio guy, but radio does not pay well at all. Yes, he's single with no dependents to provide for, but I'm assuming he makes alimony and child support payments. It seems to me he is living FAR ABOVE his means. I've been wondering about this for years as Frasier is one of my favorite shows. Thanks!

Several reasons why I have no problem with it:

Certain radio performers do make very good money. Or at least they did back in ancient times. (BC means Before Clear Channel and Before Cumulus.) Frasier’s shift was afternoon drive in a major market so it’s conceivable he pulled in well over six figures.

Also, sitcoms take a certain license that’s just accepted. Mary Richards was a lowly Associate Producer for a low rated local newscast in Minneapolis and yet she wore exquisite clothes and never donned the same thing twice. If she sold drugs on the side and had a brothel she still couldn’t bring in enough to pay for that wardrobe.

The FRIENDS apartment is rather spectacular for young New Yorkers just starting out. They explain it by saying it was inherited and rent controlled, but still, who we kiddin'?

The truth is, audiences don’t want to see people in dingy uninviting hovels. And if the show is shot before a live studio audience, the apartment set has to be big enough for four cameras to get in and shoot.  For awhile, when shows starred young people with very limited means, producers hedged by putting them in "lofts".  Lofts were funky.  And lofts had room.  Lofts have now become a cliche.

And finally, last weekend at the Veterans Writing Workshop I asked fellow mentor, Peter Casey (one of the creators of FRASIER) this question. He laughed and said Frasier made a killing when he sold his place in Boston. So there ya go.

Anonymous asks (and again, please leave your name):

Is it true "the writers often gave Kelsey Grammer deliberately bad lines as a game to see if he could make them funny"? (imdb trivia page)

I don’t need to consult Peter Casey or anyone on this one. I can answer with absolute assurance. That is FALSE. More than false. It’s ridiculous. We FRASIER writers always gave him the very best material we had. And he still made it better.

From Mark:

Would you ever consider trying the other Ken Levine's game out (even like, the first ten minutes or so), and sharing your reactions?

I’m not a video game person. I think I maybe got to the third level of Mario Brothers. That said, I would love to try out one of his games. You have one.  How hard is it to learn?  Who knows? I might get hooked like everybody else. That Ken Levine made the TIME magazine list of 100 most influential people so obviously someone likes his work.

Michelle wrote in.

I wonder what you think of recording and archiving seasons of shows on a computer, or recording a show and automatically having the commercials edited out. This is separate from Hulu or Netflix which pay a fee to carry and stream the shows over the internet. This is one person with a catalog of shows recorded from cable or antenna in HD (1080 or 720).

Years ago I watched a couple of episodes of Lost without the commercials and it was so much more enjoyable, the show just flowed better. If I had the technical wherewithal to set up such a process, I probably would. It is really convenient.

You know you can rent or buy the DVD’s of any current show and they come without commercials. No real need to clog up your hard-drive with seasons of television you can easily access other ways. Unless you’re talking about some rare shows that you covet and can’t get elsewhere… like say ALMOST PERFECT. Then it makes perfect sense. 

But if you do save shows you’ve recorded off the air – this will surprise you – I recommend you keep the commercials. Trust me, years from now when you revisit that show, you’re going to have more fun watching the commercials than the show itself.

When I used to record MASH and CHEERS off the air back in ancient times (BC means Before Cable) I saved the commercials, and it’s a hoot going back and seeing them again. You’d be surprised how many current big stars you spot hawking soap or soda. And how nostalgic you get for the old cheesy jingles you haven’t heard in years.

Looking back, there are a number of our old episodes where I wish I kept the commercials and edited out the show.

What’s your controversial or non-controversial question?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The speech that launched our career

My writing partner and I were bouncing around trying to get freelance assignments early in our career. We were pitching and writing any show we could get. We got hired to write a back-up script for a pilot that didn’t go. We did two episodes of a series that was canceled in five weeks. But then we lucked out and got a MASH assignment. It was the episode where a gas heater blows up and Hawkeye is temporarily blind. I know: hilarity can't help but ensue!  As part o the episode, we wanted Hawkeye to convey what it was like for him to experience blindness. To better understand her predicament we consulted someone who worked with the blind. To simulate the experience she blindfolded us and had us try to walk up Beverly Glen Canyon with cars whizzing by.  I can't say how many times we were almost killed because I couldn't see the cars.  But judging by screeching brakes and horn blasts -- fifteen. 

The end result is we wrote Hawkeye a big speech. We didn’t know whether the producers even wanted a monologue. It wasn’t in the outline. But we felt (a) it was a good character moment, and (b) showed initiative on our part.

The only problem is: it took us FOREVER to write it. Literally three days. We just kept revising and revising, looking for better examples and imagery, trying to be heartfelt and touching without being maudlin and cliché’d, and if possible, work in a small laugh. At times it was too long. Other times it was too short. We just kept going around and around until we were finally happy. I remember saying to David, “How does Paddy Chayefsky bang these out like they were fortune cookies?” (I now say that about Aaron Sorkin.)

We turned in the script. Gene Reynolds, the showrunner, loved it – especially the speech. From then on he kept giving us assignments and that first script, as our new writing sample when our agent submitted us for things, was our golden ticket.

I do believe that speech was the turning point in our career. Please consider that when you’re writing your spec. Not saying you need to include a poignant monologue (especially if you’re writing a WHITNEY), but you do need to put in the effort, time, and diligence necessary to make your script just that much better than whatever else is out there. Wait. Let me amend that. Do everything necessary except blindfolding yourself and walking up Beverly Glenn. You’re not going to get a lot of job offers if you’re dead.  Even Chayesfksy's phone no longer rings. 

Here is that “speech”. It’s from the episode “Out of Sight/Out of Mind”, season five. Hawkeye has been rather manic and BJ tries to get him to settle down.

BJ: Listen. Why don’t you just settle down for five minutes? I know what you’re trying to do, and I know how you feel.

HAWKEYE: I don’t think so.

BJ: You don’t want to think about what might happen to you. So you keep running…

HAWKEYE: That’s not it. Look, when Dr. Overman walks in tomorrow and unwraps my pacage, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back. But in the meantime, something fascinating has happened to me.

BJ: How’s that, Hawk?

HAWKEYE: One part of the world closed down for me, but another part opened up. Sure, I’ve been seeing myself sitting on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers. But, I’m going through something here I didn’t expect. This morning I spent two incredible hours listening to a rainstorm. I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it. I’ll bet you never realized that rain hitting the ground makes the same noise as steaks when they barbecue, or that thunder seems to echo forever. And you can’t believe how funny it is to hear someone slip and fall in the mud. Had to be Burns. Beej, it’s full of trapdoors, but I think there may almost be some advantage to this. I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Google and Facebook piss me off!

Playwright and theater director, George S. Kaufman went back to see a musical he had directed some months before. Afterwards, he sent a note to the cast that read: Rehearsal tomorrow at 10 AM to remove all the improvements.

Can I send the same note to Blogger? And Facebook?

Warning:  I'm cranky. 

Recently, Blogger (operated by Google) flipped to a new interface. Why? I didn’t ask them to. And it’s not like they added any great new features. You still can’t play mp3s. The server still won’t fix my bad jokes.

It’s not that I’m one of those malcontents who resist any change. When my RCA Model 17-PD-8096 Black & White breaks down I will get another TV. I am happy to embrace change if it makes my life better, more interesting, or costs less. But change for change sake makes no sense to me.

This is always a big issue in the writers room, especially on multi-camera shows. You see runthroughs every day and hear the same jokes. So naturally, by the third time you hear it it’s not funny. You have to resist the urge to change it. Most of the time you’ll make a lateral change or write a worse joke.

But getting back to Blogger, they tout this new interface as a big upgrade. But now if you compose your blog entries on Word you can no longer cut and paste them in the window provided for new posts. From paragraph to paragraph the font suddenly varies wildly in styles and sizes. Blog posts look like ransom notes. And if you paste them in the HTML section and switch back to compose, all of the spaces between paragraphs are removed. You’re left with one giant block of text.  So your posts now look like Chuck Lorre vanity cards.  

Fellow blogmeisters, don’t most of you compose your posts on a word document and then just transfer them over? What good are new features when you can’t do the most basic and necessary task of all – cutting and pasting content?

Trade in your car for our new model. It’s sportier, with new design, and now has heated door panels. The only thing is, you can no longer shift the car into Drive.

Didn’t anybody at Blogger TEST this new template? Not being able to post content seems to be a pretty big bug.

Blogger has allowed users to go back to the old template (for at least another couple of weeks). Facebook won't even let you do that.
I hate the new Timeline template. It’s confusing, clunky, and makes my home page look like Martha Stewart’s To-Do list. Entries now are in two columns. This is fine if you’ve taken the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course and you’ve trained your eyes to scan back and forth on the page. But for the rest of us, we don’t like playing visual tennis.

In theory, you are supposed to fill in your Timeline, year by year. Now there’s a little task. Go back through every year of your life and post pictures, stories, videos, and maps. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but just think how many people will be coming to your Timeline to see what shoes you bought in 1993! And again, Facebook will tell you the purpose is to better express yourself when in reality it just gives Zuckerberg more marketing data about you.

By the way, if you would like to Friend me, unfortunately I’ve reached my limit. But you can follow me on Twitter and everything I post on Facebook I post on Twitter first. And since I don’t plan to upload photos of my first haircut, you’re not missing much.

People have said to me, “You’ve had your blog for six years. Why don’t you change the template? Spiff it up. Customize it.” And my answer is always, “Why?” Will it make my content any better? Will it bring in new readers? Will Miramax finally buy the movie rights to Friday Questions? I think not. So for now I see no reason to change. Although to increase traffic I am considering changing the title of my blog to “By Kim Kardashian.” What do you think?

Yes, I realize these are not earth shattering problems but BLOG stand for Bitch Loudly Over Google.   Feel free to share your rant in the comments section.  We may not solve things but we feel better. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My response to your respone on VEEP

Some great non-partisan debate on today’s post. Thanks so much for all the comments. Let me respond to your responses.

I still believe it’s necessary to reveal which side of the aisle the Veep is on, not so much because I want the show to be about issues but because it really helps us define her character. Republicans and Democrats have very different worldviews. And you could say, yes, but they’re all just people and in other areas they’re all the same, which is true. But this is a series set in the arena of POLITICS. And in that arena the participants take a stand.

As someone points out, she is for the environment, which suggests Democrat.  And that's great.  But if so, why be on the fence? 

Readers have noted that VEEP creator, Armando Iannucci’s British work – IN THE LOOP and THICK OF IT – also skirt party affiliation and are hilarious. I have no doubt that they are. But I think the dynamics of U.S. politics are different. At least today, this sorry moment. The utter hatred between the two sides and the unwillingness to compromise even for the good of them all is sadly now what defines our elected officials. How can you do a show about politics and ignore that elephant/donkey in the room?

And here’s the thing – it doesn’t preclude them from doing anything they’re currently doing. It just adds to it. And if they want to go to town and show that each party is the devil’s marching band I say have at it! They don’t have to take a stand. The characters do.

Plus, it's so much easier to do a show when you can go after something instead of avoiding something. 

Yes, I know politics and religion are hot box topics. But how many Tonys do you think BOOK OF PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE IN GOD would have won?

My vote on VEEP

Imagine an episode of WEST WING, with rat-a-tat, wall-to-wall dialogue but funny.  Well, keep imaging because VEEP isn’t that.  It wants to be.  And oh Lord does it try.  But what you’re left with in this new HBO entry is an exhausting half hour that manages to waste the talents of one of TV’s best comediennes, Julia Louise-Dreyfus.
Good luck following the story.  Or caring.   She’s championing cornstarch silverware or something and coming up against the big bad plastics lobby?  There’s something called the Clean Jobs Commission that’s she for because it’s good for her.   Why, I don’t know.  She calls someone a retard in a speech and is surprised it causes a shitstorm because she said it as a joke?   Meanwhile, we never know her politics.  Is she a Democrat or Republican?   Isn’t that sort of important when defining a character who is the Vice-President of the United States? 
So here’s what we do know – she’s ambitious, she’s kind of ditzy, she can deliver lines as well as anyone ever could because she’s the wondrous Julia Louise-Dreyfus.  She surrounds herself with a WEST WING-like support staff (more wasted talent in ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’S Tony Hale and yummy Anna Chlumsky) who are relegated to toadies.
There are some real lessons in comedy here.  One: Pace needs to be varied.  Yes, it can be zippy but the audience needs to breathe.  When the pace is relentless, things don’t land.  And eventually the audience gives up.   Laughs come from reactions, from little behavior.  Take the time. 
Comedy is specific.  If you’re going to do a political satire you have to declare your position.   I know the danger, that you may alienate the Blue States or the Red States, but so what?  You’re a show about politics.  Take a stand!  Being edgy and fearless doesn’t only mean your characters get to say fuck.

And that’s another thing.  Fuck is not an all-purpose, universal-go-to punch line. Half of the laughs on VEEP depended on someone saying fuck.  “Are you fucking kidding me?”  “She’s a fucking bitch!” This is lazy writing.  Give us smart, sophisticated jokes.  Anyone can write "She's a fucking bitch!"  The shock value of hearing the Vice President of the United States say fuck lasts all of maybe two minutes.

Comedy is characters.  Audiences get drawn in because they care about the people.  Especially in a pilot, devote the time to letting us know who they are and what their relationships are.  Does Julia’s support staff like her, admire her, thinks she’s a nightmare, what?   Instead of all this talk about plastic forks, let’s learn who these people are. 
And finally, don’t try so hard.  The desperation to entertain is palpable.   Have faith that your characters are compelling enough, your story engrossing enough, and your jokes are funny enough that you don’t have to create an artificial razzle-dazzle to hold our interest.  
What’s most disappointing is that I was so looking forward to this show.  The trailer was intriguing.  I love the arena.  The cast is awesome.  And it's a comedy geared for grown-ups.  Please live up to your campaign promises. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kick back and come to Iraq!

The WGA Foundation has many terrific programs. One is the Veterans Writing Workshop. A group of 28 working members of the WGA agree to “mentor” about 100 military veterans for a weekend of writing exercises and advice. The mentors all had great credits in film and TV. This year I volunteered to be one of them, and I cannot tell you how rewarding an experience it was!

We were all broken up into small groups of two mentors and three or four vets. So everyone got lots of personal attention and feedback. My co-team leader was Dave Hackel (creator of BECKER, producer of WINGS) and I presided over three extremely talented young men. So much so that (a) I’m threatened, and (b) I want to share their work. 

Like I said, all the groups were given various writing exercises (depending on the mentors). Write a paragraph that starts with “I remember…”, “What is the one thing you cannot live without?”, etc. We decided to make one up. All three of our guys had served overseas and were sharing stories around the table of the horrific conditions. So I said, “Okay. You’re the head of the tourism board of Iraq or Afghanistan or Kuwait. Write a one paragraph sales pitch convincing people to come to your country for vacation. This was the result:
Logan, Dan, Andy

IRAQ – Logan Knight

 Come to Iraq and bask in the beautiful summer sun all year long! Free yourself from Western distractions like women and running water. Take time to explore our beautiful caves, then pick one to live in! And Iraq hold the award for “Most Attractive Camels” three years in a row! So kick back and come to Iraq! 

AFGHANISTAN – Dan Anderson

Do you like open skies? Magnificent mountain ranges? The finest black tar heroin in the world? Then come to the unconquerable land of Afghanistan! Experience life as it was lived two thousand years ago when Jesus walked the earth. You will stay in a mud hut closely located near a stream that serves as both your toilet and bath. Going to the moon too expensive? Then come to the barren fields and mountains of Afghanistan! Personal rifle or machine gun recommended.

KUWAIT – Andy LaBrune

Are you tired of slouching away your life behind a desk? Then you need to shut your Facebook, turn off your smart phone, and embrace new adventures in Kuwait! Exotic animals like the giant lizard known as Dub-dubs run free on our low impact sand. And you can too! There are also unique examples of Mother Nature’s deadly creativity, like the Yellow Scorpion, or the Hairy, Jumping Camel Spider! Come to Kuwait!

In conferring with the other mentors, all of the participating veterans wrote wonderful, funny, touching, surprising pieces. Sign me up to mentor again! If you’d like information on the many fine programs the WGA Foundation sponsors, or if you’d like to contribute, please click here. For tour packages to Iraq you’re on your own.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Levine's Laws

I find these laws to be self evident…

There are more New York cab drivers who speak English than all the night nurses in all metropolitan hospitals combined.

Theatre audiences will always boo an Adam Sandler trailer yet he will keep getting movies.

If you're only doing a limited schedule of broadcasting for the Mariners, you won't get to do the perfect game.  

There is not one mohel who doesn’t think he’s a comedian. There is not one mohel who is right.

If a waiter doesn’t write down your order he will get it wrong.

If you’re telling a joke in a restaurant the waiter will arrive and interrupt the minute you get to the punch line.

There will always be one young couple that brings a baby to a slasher movie.
A hostess in an empty restaurant will always lead you to the worst table.

In every article that mentions you, no matter how complimentary, there will always be one thing said or misquoted that will prevent you from forwarding it to your family.

The heavier and more cumbersome your carry-on luggage, the farther your gate will be from the terminal.

No pregnant woman looks good in a bikini.
Networks will always say they want cutting edge new shows then pick up whatever pilot Paula Marshall is in.

When a hostess tells you it’ll only be five more minutes, they just have to clear off some tables – it’ll be twenty.

The minute you begin eating on an airplane, turbulence will begin.

When a couple from the mainland gets married in Hawaii the marriage doesn’t last.

Nine out of ten tourists at Disneyland are overweight. Ten out of ten if they stay two days.

The screw up because the hospital forgot to bill the correct insurer will never ever ever be resolved.

Women will always claim the number one thing they’re looking for in a man is a sense of humor and then pick the best looking guy.

The driver in front of you is an idiot.

And of course, my most famous law...

The lead-off walk always comes around to score... unless he doesn't.   (I've never been proven wrong.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Can you watch this without laughing?

Laughter is infectious. For all the great jokes we try to write, nothing evokes laughter like seeing someone else completely lose it. The harder they try to stop, the funnier they become. Here are some examples of laughing jags. See if one or two of these don't get to you too.

Friday, April 20, 2012


Some Friday Questions to get your weekend off on the right foot. Leave yours in the comments section. Thanks!

Chris starts us off:

Any thoughts on Lena Dunham's show, GIRLS?

Do you think a 25 year-old having their own show on HBO (as creator, executive producer and head writer) is a good thing or just a very unlikely accident?

I’ve only seen one episode so my opinion might change in subsequent weeks. I liked it but wasn’t knocked out. Not like the critics. If you believe the hype, Lena Dunham is the greatest thing since Velcro. Reviewers are all raving about how fresh her voice is, but people in the ‘20s I’ve talked to all feel she’s not saying anything new. It may seem new to me and 50 year-old critics but not them. I’d be interested in your review, especially if you’re a member of that generation.

I’m just a little surprised by how completely enamored critics have been with this show.  The plot hinges on Lena’s parents cutting her off financially, which is fine, but they do it effective immediately. I'm sorry but that's not real.  They’d give her some warning -- a month or two maybe.   For a show that is supposed to be so authentic that is just a contrived plot device. And not one critic questioned that?

Everybody is doing backflips over the writing. And it’s certainly good – very clever rhythms and at times fearless -- but you go the whole pilot without knowing anybody’s name or fully understanding the relationships. Um, funny insightful lines are great but these are important elements, folks.

Still, I thought the show was very promising and I look forward to more episodes. Nothing would please me more than to do a follow-up in a few weeks and say I was pre-mature – the show is great!

And to answer the second part of your question – I love that a 25-year-old with such talent and potential has her own show on HBO. Age isn’t important to me. All I care about is that the creator have a strong voice.  Lena certainly has that.  And better tattoos than Diablo Cody.

From Smelvis:

Hi Ken, you mentioned that there are some TV critics you like.
With a trillion websites doing recaps & critiques, whose voice cuts through the clutter for you?

After taking critics to task in the last answer, the ones I admire (even though I don’t always agree with them) are Maureen Ryan at the Huffington Post, Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, Ken Tucker at ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Aaron Barnhart at, Phil Rosenthal at the Chicago Tribune, Matt Roush at USA Today, and the always hilarious Melanie McFarland at AOL TV.

John wonders:

What show is your biggest disappointment for cancellation because of time slot / time changes?

ALMOST PERFECT, starring Nancy Travis. They put us behind a show called PUBLIC MORALS, a comedy by Steven Bochco that critics loathed, and it became a big cause celebre because they said the word “pussy.” It premiered to horrible numbers and ours were abysmal too as a result. Whoosh! We were both axed. Just like that.

The week before when we had a decent lead-in we got good numbers. In fact, we might have even won our time slot. But we were behind the eight ball from day one because we were an inherited show. The previous regime developed and picked up the series. When we were renewed for the second season (by the skin of our teeth) somehow in the big People Magazine two-page ad for CBS’s fall lineup our show was “accidentally” left out. Every other show but ours made it. Not one person in publicity, programming, or marketing apparently noticed this.

Les Moonves once told me ALMOST PERFECT was the best show he ever cancelled. Somehow that didn’t make me feel any better.

And finally, Kev asks:

Any thoughts on episode titles? I recently read a blog entry somewhere (wish I could remember which blog it was so I can give it credit) where the author was critical of any titles which gave away the direction of the story. Are there anything you aim for/try to avoid when naming episodes?

I’ve never liked when episode titles are made public – either on screen or now on your cable, satellite, or DVR menus. There is the chance they could give away the plot. When we write our episodes we’re always conscious of this and purposely assign titles that are vague. Of course the network promos then pretty much kill any plot points so who cares what the title is?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

From the "meetings from hell" file...

Hollywood is all about meetings. You get them. You have them. You take them. You reschedule them. Generally, you’re pitching someone or they’re pitching you. The last thing said in most meetings is, “Great. We’ll get back to you.”

Some of these meetings are awkward. And the longer you’ve been around, the more of them you amass. I’ve had more than my share of these train wrecks and recounting them seems to be a popular feature on this blog. (Readers especially seem to love this one.)

So here’s another.

This happened sometime in the early ‘00s. My partner, David Isaacs and I had a development deal at Paramount. We were mentoring two young writers who had a great idea for a pilot. So we set up meetings with networks.

Based on the idea, we concluded that the perfect place for it was The WB. So we lined up that meeting first.

David and I had never had a meeting at The WB. We didn’t know any of the executives personally and had never been to their offices.

The four of us dutifully showed up at the appointed time in their modest lobby. The WB headquarters was an elongated bungalow on the Warners annex lot, which is closer to Burbank Airport than the actual Warner Brothers studios. It looked like a glorified real estate office.  Clearly, space was at a premium. 

An assistant popped his head in and invited us to “come on back.” We followed him through a maze of narrow hallways, passing the Xerox machine, coffee maker, etc. At one point he wanted us to turn left and go down another hall but we mistook his gesture and entered a large office instead.

There was some dude at a desk on the phone. Again, we had never met the VP of Comedy Development we were pitching. But we figured this must be him.

So we all flopped down on his couch and made ourselves at home. Slouching, crossing our legs, just stretching out.

The fellow looked a little shocked to see us. But he continued his call and we patiently waited – setting our water bottles on his coffee table, getting out the notes for our pitch, etc.

Finally, he finished his call, stood up, and said, “Who the fuck are you guys?”

I figured, “Swell. He forgot our meeting.  Yet another reminder of how important we are in this business.” I introduced us.

Still confused, he said, “So what the hell are you doing in my office?”

Clearly, he was a little annoyed, but hey, it wasn’t my fault he forgot our damn meeting.  Not only did we remember.  We had to drive to the valley and find this place.  TV networks are not usually down the street from strip malls.

But in awkward cases like this I find the best thing to do is lighten the mood. So I said, “Uh… pitching a pilot and maybe if it goes well, using your shower.”

Now he was really pissed. And we couldn’t understand why. All we had done was show up on time, prepared, for a pitch meeting.

The panicked assistant dashed in, mortified. There’d been a terrible mistake. That wasn’t the VP of Comedy Development. That was Jordan Levin, the president of The WB.   Oops. No wonder he didn't find it funny that I wanted to use his shower. 

We didn’t help matters by then laughing. We found it funny. Jordan Levin did not. I can’t blame him. He’s a major figure in the television industry and the Marx Brothers suddenly barge into his office.  Thank goodness we didn't help ourselves to any of his liquor.  

Needless to say we didn’t sell that pilot. Or any pilot. (We did, however, sell that pilot to NBC. President Warren Littlefield was out of the office that day.)

Ultimately, of course, The WB merged with UPN and disappeared. Looking back, all the signs were there. What network president doesn’t have an outer office? I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

R.I.P. Dick Clark

The world’s oldest teenager has died. Dick Clark passed away today at 82. For years, as the rest of us grew older, Dick Clark seemed to stay the same – not only in youthful appearance but being contemporary as well. I remember him once on AMERICAN BANDSTAND interviewing Alice Cooper and thinking: “why does this not look weird?” I’m sure his Roledex went from Lady Godiva to Lady Gaga. And the secret?   He genuinely did love all the performers and the evolution of popular music.

Every generation found him cool, from the boomers of the ‘50s and ‘60s who danced to AMERICAN BANDSTAND every afternoon, to the kids of the ‘70s-‘90s who know him through game shows and blooper specials, and everyone else who couldn’t usher in a new year without Dick counting down the final seconds. He was a mainstay in our lives, projecting a calm personable presence that put us all at ease at a time when everything else was making us crazy.

And his on-air work was just the tip of the iceberg. Behind-the-scenes, Dick Clark was a giant in the music industry. His influence on Rock n’ Roll was immeasurable. He provided exposure to so many artists and championed so many emerging music styles that the line of musicians, arrangers, song writers, and music executives who owe him a great debt could stretch from the Capitol Records building in Hollywood to the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

It was a shock to all of us when Clark suffered a stroke in 2004. His first year back on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was heartbreaking but courageous. He had really made a statement for coping with disabilities with grace and dignity. I always winced the subsequent years seeing him on the show because I feared that’s how people were going to remember him. Please don’t.

Remember Dick Clark as a vibrant personality -- boyish and totally together. The Fonz in a suit. The man who for fifty years drank from the Soda Fountain of Youth.

I will miss him… year after year after year.

Where have all the TV executives gone?

TONIGHT SHOW host/king Johnny Carson was playing tennis one Sunday afternoon when he got a call. It was from a new executive at NBC. The Peacock was premiering some new shows and wondered if Johnny was okay with booking some of their stars. This would be like pulling the President of the United States out of the war room to ask if he knew what time Ikea closed at night. Johnny politely said, “If you’re still in this job in a year I’ll talk to you.”

Over my years in television I’ve worked with hundreds of TV executives – network and studio – and I’m amazed by how many of them have just disappeared. This isn’t a knock at executives. I’m very fond of many of them; see some socially. But I can’t count the number who once held pivotal influential positions in the industry and then just vanished.

Now granted, that side of the business is a revolving door. Always has been. My agent once said we don’t pitch a person, we pitch the chair. It’s Hollywood’s answer to Buckingham Palace – the orderly changing of the regimes. Unfortunately, some good people get caught in the fallout. Not everyone fired thought putting Jay Leno on in primetime was such a hot idea.

But other industries are just as precarious. Baseball is even worse than television. Managers and General Managers get fired so frequently they receive gold watches if they last in any one job for two seasons. But everyone stays in baseball. You may be a manager this year, a coach the next, and in the front office the following year. There are not too many dentists who were once the manager of the Houston Astros (although Casey Stengel did go to dental school). They stay in baseball. They’re lifers.

In television many get out of the game. Not all, of course. Some leave network positions, become producers, and enjoy much success in that field. Others walk away with fuck you money. Some go into teaching or explore new media opportunities. But I would venture that for every former executive who remains in TV there are ten who have gone away forever.

A lot of the women go off and raise families. And of those I know, most say they’re happier. One told me that working with writers was great training for handling toddlers.

Still, it’s curious. Executives have to pay dues, get breaks, claw and scratch for advancement like anyone else. They’ve obviously made a career commitment to pursue television. So why do so many of them sign up for the witness protection program after a few years?

I doubt it’s the lure of glamor that private sector insurance provides. Or the flights on corporate jets that come with produce middle management.

And I guess executive functions are similar in all fields, but it must be tough for headhunters to fill corporate positions at Dow Chemical with people whose only previous experience is giving notes on TGIF comedies.


There is something nefarious going on. Perhaps these people have been kidnapped by other nations strapped for mass market entertainment. It’s like how Germany rounded up scientists during the war. Maybe that explains why Univision is routinely beating NBC. And U.S. networks are buying all these foreign shows. Is the Minister of Television of Bhutan really just the former VP of Late Night for ABC? Should we send out a search party? “Last seen picking up COP ROCK.”

Wherever these people are now, I hope they’re happier and more fulfilled than when they were developing WHO’S YOUR DADDY?

If you know of any of these lost executives, tell them to please call home. Their families miss them and the network wants the card key to the parking structure back.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Do I watch my old shows?

Here’s one of those questions worth an entire post. It’s from Nancy Knechtel.

Mash and Cheers and so many of your shows are on ALL the time. Do you ever watch the old episodes? Can you enjoy them or do the memories come flooding back? Does your family run out of the room? There really could be a Ken Levine Network....

That’s a pretty far-fetched idea but I imagine a Ken Levine Network would still garner better ratings in primetime than NBC.

To answer your question, there are some shows of mine I watch, and others I don’t.

For the most part I have a hard time re-visiting my MASH episodes. There are a few exceptions, but by and large I can’t watch them without saying, “Oh, we could do that better,” and “there’s got to be a better joke than that,” etc. We were very young when we did MASH. I would love one more pass at each of those scripts.

But some MASH episodes I still really enjoy including POINT OF VIEW, OUT OF SIGHT/OUT OF MIND, GOODBYE RADAR, THE BILLFOLD SYNDROME, and MERCHANT OF KOREA. And there are parts of the others I like.

Most of our CHEERS episodes I can watch without cringing. There are a few duds along the way (we wrote 40 total), but even those might not be too bad. I mentioned this story before – a few years ago while in Arizona for spring training I happened upon a CHEERS of ours that I hadn’t seen in ages and was pleasantly surprised. But I don’t know if it was just funnier than I remembered or the comedy bar has been lowered so it appears better than it is.

Certain episodes I can watch over and over. TO ALL THE GIRLS I’VE LOVED BEFORE, RAT GIRL, DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY ON ICE, ANY FRIEND OF DIANE’S, FINALLY, and BOYS IN THE BAR are just a few. Usually, what makes them so re-watchable is the performance by the actors.

Maybe because we didn’t do enough of them to have clunkers, but I gladly will watch any of our FRASIER episodes.

And there are a couple of WINGS we did that I still have a fondness for. Brian getting a nose job for one. Same for BECKER.

I also find it easier to watch shows I directed than shows I wrote. Good performances and good camera angles don’t diminish over time.

But you’re right, Nancy, that all of these shows bring back memories – some good; some Vietnam flashbacks. What I recall most though are the jokes we didn’t use. They were so appallingly inappropriate. But funny. Sick, disturbed, and in many cases libelous, but really FUNNY.

The family never goes screaming from the room when I watch an old re-run. Just when I watch baseball.

I feel so privileged and lucky that work my partner and I did thirty years ago is still being seen and appreciated. I’m my own worst critic so I sometimes only spot the flaws, but I’m infinitely proud of these shows and hope they keep playing for another thirty years. So even if I don’t watch them, you should.

Monday, April 16, 2012

You've got to see this

I've already posted it on Twitter (you're welcome to follow me), but wanted to share it here.  This is maybe the coolest thing I've ever seen at a ballgame.  It was opening night in Seattle.  The Mariners have a feature between innings where a youngster gets to run out and take second base.  Watch what happens.

Thanks again to everyone who showed up at the meet-and-greet.  The over-under from my Mariners broadcast crew on just how many people would actually attend was 2.  So we went way over that.  It was a great time and so nice to meet my readers face-to-face.  Interestingly, no one introduced themselves as Anonymous.   Based on the success of this I'll try to organize more, including one in Los Angeles. 

A CAN'T-MISS idea for a family sitcom!

Comedy writers are always looking for new twists on family shows. It’s almost an impossible task. Sixty-plus years of television sitcoms have given us seemingly every relationship combination possible. Multiple wives, occasional wives, trophy wives, surrogate fathers, widowed fathers, teenaged fathers, fathers from outer space, arranged marriages, mixed-marriages, May-December marriages, April-June marriages, kids by a previous marriage, kids by a previous divorce, widowed kids, orphaned kids, latch-key kids, test tube babies, talking babies, kids with two dads, two moms, two gays, and whatever the hell that arrangement is on SHAMELESS. Dad moves back in, grandpa moves back in, adult kids move back in, Alf moves in. You get the idea. There's nothing new under the sun. 

Well comedy writers, take heart!  May I introduce you to Jerry Lee Lewis?

Jerry Lee Lewis was a rock star in the early days of rock n’ roll. Some of his big hits were “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On”, “Breathless”, and “Great Balls of Fire” (which was also the title of a 1989 movie about him, starring Dennis Quaid). Here’s an example of Jerry Lee in his prime.

He also played the piano with his feet, which of course is the prerequisite of all great musicians.

Anyway, his career hit a little snag when he married his 13-year-old cousin. Why I don't know.  But that was just the first Mrs. Lewis. And here’s where we get into family-pilot-gold –

Recently he married his seventh wife. Her ex-husband is Jerry’s cousin whose sister was Jerry’s first wife.  Now seriously, tell me you've seen that before on ABC.

As always, you're welcome.   

But alas, what happens if you’re not the first four in the door? Once every network buys this sure-fire premise then what? Fear not. Again, dipping into the relationship-rich world of music, I give you Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

At the time of his death in 2000 it was revealed he had fathered at least 55 children by God knows how many women. I say “at least” because they’re still counting and the number could eventually reach as high as 75.


Neither of these stories are made up.  They're both absolutely true.  That's what makes them so great.  And so REAL.  

Get on the phone to your agent. And Paula Marshall.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

In appreciation of Elizabeth Montgomery

Elizabeth Montgomery would have been 79 today.  I know this factoid because I have had a crush on Elizabeth Montgomery for &^%# years (gee, something must have gone wrong. The number didn’t print.) Let’s just say since BEWITCHED. There were a lot of TV actresses who were hot back then. But Samantha Stephens was the only one I wanted to marry. And not just because she could turn my math teacher into a Chia Pet. Sam truly was adorable. And funny in that unassuming way you rarely see in witches and genies.

Plus... guys, back me on this – how sexy was that nose twitch? It’s like, if she could do that, what else could she do?

When I became a weekend disc jockey at KERN in Bakersfield I turned my love for Liz into a running bit. The KERN Top 30 survey distributed at record stores featured Ms. Montgomery on the cover every week. That’s what they get for having me design it.

In the early 70s when my partner David and I were writing spec scripts David worked in the film department of ABC. Elizabeth Montgomery starred in a Movie of the Week as Lizzie Borden. David called and said “get your ass down here!” Turns out for European release there was a nude scene. I practically drove on sidewalks to get to the studio where we screened then re-screened (and re-screened again) the scene in question. Ohmygod! Samantha Stephens, naked, blood all over her, holding an ax. Be still my heart!

I only saw her in person one time. And I never actually met her. It was about ten years later. There was a restaurant in Santa Monica called the Maryland Crab House, which featured the whole Chesapeake crab experience – butcher paper, a pile of spiced crabs on the table, wooden mallets, buckets. Liz and her husband Robert Foxworth came in and sat right across from me. Ironically, I would direct Robert years later on the Al Franken sitcom, LATELINE. (He’s the one I thought should run for the senate). So picture this. The goddess I’ve adored forever… chomping on crabs, ripping them apart, contorting her face, sucking claws, swilling beer, juice running down her arm. And I was STILL ENTRANCED.

Anyone I’ve ever talked to who worked with her said she was a dream. Professional and kind and giving as an actress. She made everyone on the set feel comfortable from fellow actors to the lowliest crew member.

Most of her work was in television although she did a few movies, most of them forgettable like one with Dean Martin and a cameo in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI. But if you can find JOHNNY COOL with Telly Savalas, that’s a good B-movie pot boiler. I imagine some of her TV movies survive. If so, (in all seriousness) A CASE OF RAPE shows just how good a dramatic actress she was. And her episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE was killer. For sheer camp check out A KILLING AFFAIR in which she has an interracial affair with O.J. Simpson.

She was outspoken against the Vietnam War when that was not a popular position. She was a volunteer for the Los Angeles Unit of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, a non-profit organization which records educational books for disabled people.

Elizabeth Montgomery was only 62 when she passed away. But she’ll remain forever young, forever Bewitching, and generation after generation will continue to fall under her magic spell.