Monday, December 31, 2012

May 2013 be for you what 2012 was for...

Adele, Jade Jones, Ben Affleck, Usain Bolt, Lena Dunham, the San Francisco Giants, the New York Giants, Claire Danes, Barack Obama, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Nicholls, Michael Phelps, Jermaine Paul, Aaron Paul, E.L. James, Octavia Spencer, Bon Iver, RANGO, Judy Kaye, Alabama Crimson Tide, THE ARTIST, Meryl Streep, Jon Cryer, Jon Stewart, Mike Trout, Umami burgers, MODERN FAMILY, Dario Franchitti , Taylor Swift, vampires, Julianne Moore,
Jean Dujardin, James Bond, Jennifer Lawrence, ONCE, One Direction, Damian Lewis, LeBron James, Raylan Givens, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga, Stephen Amell, Audra McDonald, Frank Ocean, R.A. Dickey, Phillip Phillips, Missy Franklin, Michel Hazanavicius, Big Bird, Andrew Rannells, Christian Bale, Christian Borle, Kung Fu Panda, the Kentucky Wildcats, SHERLOCK, the Foo Fighters, Louis C.K., Cassadee Pope, Nathan Adrian, Seth McFarlane, Felix Hernandez, Melissa Rycroft , the Miami Heat, Maggie Smith, Julie Bowen, Allyson Felix, CLYBOURNE PARK, Jay-Z and Kanye West, Carly Rae Jepsen, Bob Costas, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the other Ken Levine, and me for having great readers like you.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

LA is a great town when there's nobody here

The best week of the year in Los Angeles is always this one, the final seven days of the year. More property taxes and obligations are on tap for me in January, but here in the waning days of December I can bask in the glory of the city that Zorro once called home.

First of all, the town is practically empty. Most people from the industry are gone, terrorizing the help in Hawaii and Aspen. There’s very little traffic. You can actually make the fifteen minute drive between Brentwood and LAX on the 405 Freeway in only forty minutes. It’s like you’re flying! Hard to get into restaurants? Not this week. Spago will even make reservations for people they don’t know. And at 7:00 not 10:30. (Unfortunately, their chefs are probably in Aspen and Hawaii.)

Los Angeles is so deserted I heard of a friend who found a parking place at the Grove shopping mall. But that’s still just a rumor.

For industry guild folks there are free movies. In the hopes of snaring nominations from any organization that gives out awards (even the WGA), studios let eligible voters and guests attend contending movies gratis. It’s also their way of giving back to the community. However, the nanosecond the nominations are announced this lovely gesture ends instantly. And they go back to the business at hand – busting the unions.

Most of the city’s attention this week is on the upcoming Rose Parade and Bowl. If you have six friends over to your apartment to play poker, the Rose Queen and her court will come and speak to your group.

The Rose Bowl is the "Granddaddy of Bowl Games" and this week.  It's the 99th edition and fourth being sponsored.  So this year we must refer to it as the "Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO". How fucked is that?  The combatants are Wisconsin vs. Stanford. And again we have to suffer through Brent Musburger doing the play-by-play.  Keith Jackson, please come back!!!

Highlight of the Rose Bowl festivities is the Lawry’s Beef Bowl. Lawry’s is the greatest prime rib restaurant in the world (a more popular attraction to Japanese tourists than Disneyland). Every year they invite each team and feed them as much prime rib as they can eat. Usually the winning team tops out at around 630 pounds of beef. During the Rose Bowl, you’ll notice half the players sleeping the bench. That’s why.

This will be the first Rocking New Years Eve without Dick Clark.  Which means another three minutes of air time for Ryan Seacrest -- who really needs it. 

The Rose Parade is Tuesday morning. Today some idiots will start staking out spots along the parade route. Every local channel will broadcast the parade. KTLA gets a 50 share, everyone else gets a 2. Why these other stations still bother is beyond me. KTLA coverage begins at like 3:00 a.m. Five hours of watching people paste flowers on floats and the idiots from today freezing. KTLA will begin replaying the parade immediately upon its conclusion. Then they replay it again. And again. Sometime around January 15th they return to regular programming.

Bob Eubanks has been hosting the parade since the floats were powered by horses. For many of those years his co-host was Stephanie Edwards, a popular local personality who was mostly known for being the carny for Lucky Markets. She was replaced in the booth a few years ago by local KTLA morning news anchor, Michaela Pereira. This caused quite a stir. Most people felt that Michaela was horrible and resented her in that Deborah Norville/TODAY SHOW way for squeezing out our beloved Stephanie. (Fans would show their support for Steph by shopping at Lucky but Lucky no longer exists.) Now Stephanie is back. Although she will have to go by "Stephanie Edwards Presented by VIZIO".

Then on New Year’s evening all the locals will go out to dinner, have to wait 45 minutes for a table since the Wisconsin rooters got there first, and things will return to normal.

So for my fellow Angelinos – enjoy it while you can!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Stuff they don't buy on SHARK TANK

SHARK TANK has become a guilty pleasure.  Enterprising people trying to interest billionaires into investing in their new miracle products or inventions.  Most are ridiculous.  You think -- they can't be serious.  Who would buy this crap?  But then I get on an airplane and open the SKY MALL magazine.  That's who buys it.  And the prices are goofier than the items.   Here are some of the chotzkes in my most recent Sky Mall.

Vuzix iWear – Glasses that are supposed to simulate the big screen experience. $249. More if you want the iMax experience.

Gravity Defyer Shoes. Somewhat self-explanatory. $200. Or, for $4 you could tape Slinkys to your current footwear.

HairMax LaserComb – it’s a comb, it’s a laser. It’s the miracle answer to hair loss. Only $449! Perfect for that cue ball who spends thousands on a toupee that looks like a toilet seat.

X5 Hair Laser – See LaserComb but substitute metal ice pack. $299.

A Portable Alarm Clock for your iPhone. Uh, doesn’t the iPhone already have an alarm clock? $99.95.

Computer Speakers for your iPhone. Not to be confused with any speakers that are the same size and use the same plugs. $149.99.

Retractable Banner Pens – Okay, this you could really need. A thousand for only $950.

Hand Therapy Bars -- $59.

Water trappers -- $169. And they’re fade resistant!

Exclusive Microfibres Trellis Mat to protect high-traffic areas. Here’s the good news: it’s low profile so it will never obstruct your door. $149.

Ingeniously engineered EZ Bed that features an extra-plush mattress, a highly supportive frame, and new dual comfort zones. $299. Who buys a bed from a catalog? "I dunno, it sure seemed firmer in the picture."

Wolfgang Puck-designed toaster – otherwise known as a “toaster”. $99.50.

Cinema style Popcorn Maker – Who doesn’t crave seven tubs of popcorn while watching the National Geographic Channel? $199.

Electric Vortex Solo Heater – Nothing heats a room better than Vortex power. $169.

All-in-one Recycling System – patent pending. Perfect for the person who has compacted and non-compacted items. The idea Christmas gift! $299.

Personal Breathalyzer -- $199. Because expensive gadgets know when to say when.

Feature-laden solar emergency radio – Ideal for those sunny day emergencies. $80.

A Bill Sorter – for only 199 of them.

The Custom Keeper -- 25 cubic feet of storage -- A far better name than laundry hamper. $199. Pretty much everything is $199.

The world’s largest write-on map mural – Only $149. The house with cathedral ceilings at $2,000,000 is not included. But what a mural!

Voice activated R2-D2 – “makes any home feel like it has been transported to a galaxy far far away”. The ad goes on to say it features “distinctive happy and sad sounds faithfully mimicking the real thing… right down to his occasional bad mood." If you buy this (at only $169.95) you are too nerdy to live.

The Electric Tint Changing Ski Goggles – No changing goggles while hurtling down the diamond course. $249.95.

The Upside-Down Tomato Garden – $79.95.

The Hand Crank Two Way Radio – Think of all the money you’ll save on two dollar batteries! Only $99.95.

The only Digital Camera Swim Mask – And it’s waterproof! $99.95.

The Sleep Regulating Sun Lamp – It produces no harmful UV radiation so that’s a plus. $249.95

Adjustable Sheepskin Slippers – You wake up in the morning, it’s 20 degrees in the house, you want your feet to be comfy as you putter around the kitchen. $49.95.

The Motion Sickness Relief Wrist Band – It keeps time and reduces nausea! $139.95.

The Finger Drum Mousepad -- $39.95.

The Mind Spa – This comes with a Catwoman type mask and a control unit that combines soothing sounds and calming lights. $349. From SuckerBornEveryMinute Industries.

The Carbon Fiber Heated Vest --$149.95

The Continuously Freshening Feline Drinking Fountain – What cat would be caught dead drinking out of a bowl these days? $69.95. For an extra ten dollars they should throw in a cat.

The Million Germ Eliminating Travel Toothbrush Sanitizer – It uses “proven germicidal UV technology ". And it sanitizes a toothbrush in only seven minutes! $29.95.

The Foldaway Lateral Stepper – $99.95. Or you could just step from side to side yourself for free.

And finally…

The Children’s ATM Bank – No more breaking into piggy banks, kids! Get a debit card and go to town! $39.95.

The road to Hana

Here are some great photos on the road to Hana and other assorted Maui locales taken by my son Matt.  He has the kind of camera that's just a camera and you can't make phone calls on it.  I didn't know they still made those.  Anyway, take a look.  And check out his website for more and even better photos.  

Friday, December 28, 2012

HOMELAND for the holidays

Last Friday Questions of the year.  I hope I do them justice.

Brian starts us off:

Ken - what do you think of Homeland and The Last Resort? I heard that Homeland was renewed up for another season, but that Last Resort was cancelled.

I love HOMELAND. Absolutely riveting television. And Claire Danes & Damian Lewis are extraordinary together. That’s not a surprise. What is is Mandy Patinkin. Usually I can do about five minutes. He makes Al Pacino seem understated. But in this show he’s so controlled. You can’t take your eyes off him. He’s finally learned that less is more, and I hope the result is an Emmy (although I worry about his acceptance speech). 

Also, HOMELAND has one of my favorite writers on its excellent staff – Meredith Stiehm.

As for LAST RESORT, I loved the pilot, but the series never lived up to it. In fairness, I don’t know how you sustain that premise. But as I’ve said here before, they should rethink it as a movie.

Lou H wonders:

When NBC bought your pilot and then killed the project, were you allowed to shop it to anyone else?

Usually you can. And ironically, that particular pilot was first sold to Fox. They ultimately passed saying it felt too much like an NBC show. When one of the Fox executives moved over to NBC she remembered and liked the project and bought it again.  Thank you, Jane!

For awhile, networks didn’t release projects, even if it meant they couldn’t recoup their investment. I think one reason for that was 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN. It was originally made for ABC. They passed and it became a big hit on NBC and ABC was quite embarrassed. But in today’s economy, networks are all too happy to take that risk if they can get the money back that they spent on developing a project they had no further use for.

Shai asks:

Have you ever been given notes (from anyone) that make perfect sense and would likely improve the screenplay/teleplay/book but are not necessarily in line with the current tone nor do they fit in directly with your writing style? What happens in such a situation?

Yes, that has happened on numerous occasions. I just politely tell the person those are great notes but that’s not the story we’re telling. And sometimes their story is equally valid but we’re just as happy with the one we chose. Often we've already considered their story path and decided for whatever reason to discard it.  If their story is considerably better however, we generally change it. Our motto has always been: Best idea wins.

The Comic Scholar queries:

When a writer in television uses a pseudonym, do people usually address them by their real name or the pseudonym? Also, on contracts which name do they sign?

They’re addressed by their real names and sign all legal contracts with their real names. Writers take pseudonyms if they hate the final product but still want to receive the royalties they’re entitled to.

My two favorite pseudonym stories: Larry Gelbart hated what Blake Edwards did to his script of ROUGH CUT.  When he turned in his draft I asked what Blake thought and he said, "Blake loved it up to and including the title page."  So Larry took the pseudonym Francis Burns. In other words -- Frank Burns.

My other favorite is from Paul Rudnick. He came up with the idea for SISTER ACT and wrote the first nine  or twenty drafts. After he left, every writer in Hollywood took a stab at it. He was ultimately not pleased with the result. As this was a Disney movie he wanted his pseudonym to be “Goofy.” The studio balked for some reason.

A common pseudonym for some reason is Alan Smithee.  If you see that guy wrote or directed anything you might want to think about seeing something else.   Anything else.    

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section. As always, many thanks, and I’ll try to get to as many as I can.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Engineers in paradise

Here's Part 2 of my recent Maui travelogue.  Part 1 was yesterday.

After a week of exploring the wonders of the island and exchanging rental cars, daughter Annie and her friend Jon arrived followed shortly by son Matt and his wife Kim. Suddenly our little condo became the stateroom scene in NIGHT AT THE OPERA. So Debby and I took exile at the Grand Wailea resort.

There was a swimming pool industry convention so the only room we could get had a breathtaking view of the parking structure (being in their membership club does have its privileges). Meanwhile, one of the Jacuzzis was out of order. 1400 pool experts and not one knew how to fix the fucking thing?

They were then followed by the IEEE Control Systems Conference. I kid you not – 1200 engineers hanging out at the beach in black dress shoes, dark slacks, and long-sleeved shirts. I guess they only wear their shorts and Hawaiian shirts at home in their labs. And still no one knew how to fix the damn Jacuzzi.

Had to put the Elizabeth Taylor book aside for awhile. She’s now slept with every man in Hollywood including Joan Crawford.

Employed Apple Maps on my iPhone for a little GPS assistance. Siri sure had fun with Hawaiian street names. She’s still trying to pronounce Kaahnumanu Avenue.

Not much legroom for the kids in the Mazda 3. I called the backseat “American Airlines coach.”

The Maui Barbershop uses the following classy slogan: “We want your head!” Guess I’m not the only one reading the Liz Taylor book.

Saw a woman guest at the Grand Wailea in a black bikini with a shovel. I can only assume she’d just come from a Jewish funeral.

Did not sign up for the Hip Hop Hula class at the Grand Wailea. Didn’t pack my grass skirt or “Fuck All Da Bitches” jersey. And it’s not like I could borrow any of these items from one of the engineers.

Matt & Kim took the drive (part-way) to Hana. After exchanging their Enterprise rental car (they were originally given a giant old Chevy Impala that smelled like Larry King’s suspenders) they set out for a day of spectacular scenery. To quote the island natives: “Man oh Manischevitz, what a view!”

Annie & Jon left so we moved back into the condo just in time for construction to begin at 7 A.M. in the next unit. We were awakened every morning by the chirping of the Hawaiian red-breasted power drill.

Best sushi and karaoke is late Friday and Saturday nights at Sansei. Nothing gets you in the mood for the holidays faster than a 300 pound tatted dude singing Karen Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas, Darling” in Pidgin English.

President Obama still plans to vacation this year in Hawaii. What better place to take your mind off the fiscal cliff than Diamond Head?

Like everyone else on the islands, I was greatly saddened to hear of the passing of long time Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye. He was a politician who deeply cared about his constituents and believed in a strong moral code. In other words – a maverick. In the last election he received 75% of the votes. We can’t afford to lose any Daniel Inouyes. They’re so few of them.

Saw SKYFALL (a Bond film so good theatergoers stopped texting) and when Albert Finney came on the screen all I could think of was: which chapter does he sleep with Elizabeth Taylor?

Can you toast Hawaiian Gods with Manischevitz? I did and caught a cold the minute Matt & Kim left so probably no. On the other hand, it made for a nifty cough syrup!

We left on December 20th. Winter started the next day and you know how brutal Hawaiian winters can be. Last year an umbrella blew over. But a great time was had by all, and I returned to LA relaxed, refreshed, and dressed like the Fruit Juicy guy. Happy holidays and as they say on the islands:

Aloha Aku No, Aloha Mai No -- I give my love to you, you give your love to me.

Come to think of it, that’s also what Elizabeth Taylor used to say. On every page.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

the house of sand and vog

Hope you had a great Christmas.  As my longtime readers know, whenever I venture out of town I return with a travelogue and rental car horror stories.  Here's my latest:

Aloha! Back from another three weeks in paradise – our annual jaunt to the magic island of Maui to pay tribute to the Gods and apologize for Walmarts. My wife and I again rented a condo and the various kids/significant others arrived in shifts.

Stayed at the lovely Tax Shelter Village in Wailea. 24-hour security is provided for your safety. Never saw anyone at the guard shack, but when we brought one ceramic plate down to the pool area, holy shit! It was the Raid on Entebbe. Note to burglars and terrorists: bring plastic.

Rented a car from Enterprise. Big mistake. They didn’t have the compact we had reserved so they gave us an “upgrade” – to a Mercury Grand Marquis that was the size of Molokai. It’s easy to “Remember Pearl Harbor” when you’re driving the U.S.S. Arizona. One thing I love about Maui – the perfumed scent of Plumeria that wafts along on the trade winds… until you got in our car. Then it was like being in Edward R. Murrow’s mouth. It reeked with smoke. I decided to trade it in. Considering the size, I wanted them to give me two cars. We settled for a Hyundai Elantra.

Then we learned a few days later my son reserved a car from Enterprise and was charged $1200 less for the same car. When we protested they of course would not change our rate. So our third car (much cheaper) was a Mazda 3 from Hertz. If you take one thing from this travelogue it’s don’t rent from Enterprise!

At the Longs Drugs in Kihei they sell Manischevitz wine. It's the only Hawaiian drink that wouldn't be sweeter with a pineapple slice added.

One great feature about the Kindle is that no one can see what book you’re reading. This was especially helpful when I was reading the sleaziest biography of Elizabeth Taylor EVER. By the time she had made NATIONAL VELVET she pretty much slept with everyone in Hollywood including the horse. She was twelve.

The first day we weren’t allowed in the ocean. One guy gets eaten by a shark and he ruins it for the rest of us.

December in Maui is always Roseanne watching season.

Lots of major league ballplayers were in town for Shane Victorino’s golf tournament – the “I Used To Be A Good Hitter Open” – and also the Ryan Howard wedding. The Phillies slugger got married at the nearby Four Seasons. Among the registered gift items he requested a set of wash clothes. I wonder which zillion-dollar superstar popped for those.

Best fish tacos in Maui can be found at Coconuts in a Kehei shopping mall right near the elegantly-named gourmet shop, Who Cut The Cheese?

The sunsets get more breathtaking every year. What am I going to do with 593 photos of them?

For a week the islands were enveloped in “vog.” This is volcanic smog that periodically turns Honolulu into Gary, Indiana. It’s caused by someone opening all the windows to that Mercury Grand Marquis Enterprise tried to saddle us with.

Oh my God! Elizabeth Taylor just had a three-way with Jack Kennedy and Robert Stack. I’m on Chapter 2!

And speaking of indiscriminate sex, Steve Garvey was staying at the Four Seasons. Expect Maui’s population to double come August.

The Cineplex in Kihei closed two weeks ago. What could possibly be worse than that Billy Crystal-Bette Midler movie? Answer: Now you have to drive 45 minutes to see it.

You watch HAWAII 5-0 and think the islands are just a war zone with umbrella drinks. Well, the lead story on the December 3rd KHON 10:00 news: a traffic light was being installed at a busy intersection near Zippy’s. “Book ‘em Dano for not slowing on a yellow!”

We found the only Jewish masseuse on the island. The tip-off was the soothing New Age Klezmer music.

Hawaii is the land of Spam and my wife got into the spirit by having her email hacked and then sending out spam to thousands of addresses. We called her provider. She wanted to know how to stop this. I wanted to know if we could tag each email with a plug for my book.

Part 2 is tomorrow.  And of course for more travelogues you can always go hereNote: all photos, even the one of wine were taken by me on my iPhone.  Aloha y'all.

Monday, December 24, 2012

R.I.P. Jack Klugman

Sorry to hear of the passing of Jack Klugman.  He was 90.  You may remember him as either Oscar Madison or Quincy M.E.  For years before that he was a character actor.  My favorite role of his was as the father in the movie GOODBYE COLUMBUS.  He had the rare ability to be hilariously funny one minute and then heartbreaking the next.  And he was always real.  Lines never felt "written" when he delivered them.

In the '70s when there was a golden age of TV comedy (ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE) the one show that was always overlooked was THE ODD COUPLE and yet it was one of my favorites.  Consistently funny and if ever two actors "were" their characters it was Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar.   My partner and I began our career by buying an ODD COUPLE TV script and studying it.  So I guess, in an offhanded way, Jack Klugman was an early inspiration.

I can't speak of him personally.  I never met the man.  But I was always a huge fan of his work.  If there is a heaven I can just picture him standing there, looking around, and immediately spotting Tony Randall.  His first words in the afterlife will be "Oh no!"

R.I.P. Jack Klugman.  You will live on in my heart and on MEtv. 

All about (Christmas) Eve

You would think that being Jewish on Christmas Eve I would feel left out. Actually I love Christmas Eve. Here are two reasons why:

The first is an excerpt from my book, THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60s) – the perfect last minute gift.

On Christmas Eve, (my brother) Corey and I went to Disneyland. This is a secret only Jews know: Disneyland is empty on Christmas Eve. Practically all Christians are preparing for the big day so the park is wide open. No lines for anything. And when they have the big Christmas parade down Main Street there’s maybe twelve people watching it. In 24 hours they’ll be hanging on the light poles, but on December 24, the Magic Kingdom was ours.

The other great thing about Christmas Eve for me was that back in my disc jockey days I always worked that night (along with Christmas). In addition to making double-time for the long shifts ($5.00 an hour in Bakersfield! Multiply that by eight hours and suddenly I’m rich!!), the jocks who I substituted for always owed me. At one station the program director got the brilliant idea that it would be a great stunt for me to ride a rollercoaster for six hours. One of my fellow jocks graciously “volunteered” to go in my place. He grumbled to me that it wasn’t a fair trade-off and I said waa waa. “I had to play The Little Drummer Boy every 45 minutes,” I replied. “At least you’re allowed to throw up.”

But I generally enjoyed those shifts because I knew no one in management was ever listening. In between Brenda Lee and Nat King Cole Christmas standards I was out of control. Howard Stern woul’ve said “Jesus, man, tone it down.”

New Year’s Eve shows were also off-the wall. I didn’t do too many of those but an absolute classic was Howard Hoffman on WABC, New York in 1979. And for the first time since it originally aired it will be replayed in its entirety on Great Big Radio, one of the internet’s best radio stations. Also, from now until New Year’s Ever Great Big Radio will be playing the hits of 1979 along with stories that went along with that year. At the moment I can't think of any significant event that happened that year or any musical trend that was groundbreaking but I'm sure there were.  Check it out here

Whatever your plans are, have a safe and happy Christmas Eve. I’ll probably be at a deli.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Full confession

I have a good friend who, back in the ‘90s, used to work for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Every holiday season he would send me an SI holiday gift box. Inside would be handsome coffee table books of golf tournaments and classic World Series and also an engagement calendar. This is a handsome desk calendar broken down into weeks with photos of swimsuit models accompanying each week.

So I began using them. I’d fill in appointments, lunch dates, when scripts were due, which weeks I was scheduled to direct, etc. And yes, I’d look at the pictures. These girls are all in bikinis I should add. Tiny, microscopic even, but still. It’s not the Pornhub Engagement calendar.

And I even knew one of the models – Stacey Williams (pictured: right). She worked out in my gym. (She came to a FRASIER filming one week, saw me on the floor with the other writers, called for me, came down and gave me a big hug, and I thought the other writers were going to have strokes.) So there was the added benefit of … uh, supporting a friend’s work.

After about five years my SI buddy retired. The holiday swag ceased. Now I was left with a big decision. Do I still get the SI engagement calendar even if I have to pay for it? When I would get a funny look from someone who saw the calendar on my desk I could always say, “Hey, it was a gift.”

I decided to continue. After all, it was easier to go back through the years if they were all in a uniformed format. And if I was ever audited, hopefully the inspector would be so distracted by the photo of Brooklyn Decker he wouldn’t see that I wrote off lunch with Stacey Williams as a business expense.

Still there are those who roll their eyes. At my age I should be getting American Presidents Engagement calendars or Antique Walking Cane Engagement calendars.

So that’s my full confession. If you think I’m a pervert so be it. But I ordered next year’s calendar on Amazon and just got an email saying that my shipment has been delayed. They ran out of stock. So I may be a perv but now I know – I’m not the only one!!!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dear Santa: All I want is a Fizz-Nik

What’s the dumbest holiday gift you’ve ever received? Mine was a Fizz-nik. And understand, I really WANTED this thing. In my dumb kid-ness I thought this was the coolest invention EVER.

It was a plastic straw with a big bubble in the middle. This was actually two half spheres that twisted together with straws on either end. You put a scoop of ice cream in the bubble and twisted it shut. Then you jammed one end into a bottle of root beer. That was it. Voila! Instant root beer float!

You would take a swig and (in theory) the root beer would mix with the ice cream and by the time it reached your mouth you were in soda fountain heaven. And the best part – no muss nor fuss.

Except for one thing…

It never worked. To mix the two elements you had to hold the bottle at almost a 90 degree angle and crane your neck way back. Not exactly ideal.

And then there was this tiny flaw – there was no way to stop the rushing ice cream float as it hurtled its way to your mouth. What a mess. Within a week my mother had confiscated my beloved Fizz-Nik.

Let’s just say that as a result of the Fizz-nik I have more empathy for hookers.

Hope you get what YOU want this holiday season.

A Christmas show by Matthew Weiner & me

Here's a BECKER Christmas episode, written by Matthew Weiner (creator of MAD MEN) and directed by me.  I wonder -- whatever happened to Matt?  For that matter, whatever happened to me?

Merry Christmas

Friday, December 21, 2012

Judge Judy, NFL stars, and other actors

Back in LA, ready with Friday Questions.

Cap'n Bob begins:

Do non-actors like Judge Judy need to be in an actor's union? How about non-actors who make one-shot appearances on TV shows?

You can be Taft-Hartley’ed if you just do one, but anything more you need to join SAG.

Interestingly, when I had to join SAG about twenty-five years ago, I had to go right down to their office, fill out the forms and pay the initiation dues – in either cash or a cashier’s check. No credit cards or personal checks were allowed. I guess they had been stiffed too many times. New SAG members, is that the same policy? (Hey, I can ask Friday Questions too.)

Chris asks:

Is it easier to write for a sketch show? I assume the networks can't really give you notes since you don't have any stable characters or stories.

It’s hard for me to say because I’ve only written on one sketch show and we had no notes. That was on THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW for James L. Brooks at the beginning of the Fox network and Jim’s deal was no interference whatsoever. The network wasn’t even allowed to attend tapings. It was a beautiful thing. 

I imagine Lorne Michaels has a certain amount of autonomy at SNL save for standards & practices.

In many ways I found sketch writing harder than sitcom writing. You don’t have established characters. You don’t have stories the audience will be invested in. You have to quickly create a situation, establish everyone, have a beginning, middle, and end and be funny throughout since you live and die by the laughs.

My big problem with most sketches is that they start with a good premise and then have no payoff. You get a few big laughs off the premise and then the sketch fizzles.  Endings are important, kids. 

I suppose on SNL they have the added task of working the guest host into the sketches. Sometimes these hosts are – to be charitable – not gifted sketch comedians. It’s always a pain to write around NFL wide receivers.

From Liggie:

As a former radio guy, can you speculate why the (opinion) talk format has been a bonanza for conservatives but a non-starter for liberals?

Conservative talk show hosts tend to be more extreme and project bigger personalities. They make more noise and draw more attention. And that makes for more dynamic programming.

Most liberal talk show hosts I know are rational and measured. Who wants to listen to that?  And they're also not as entertaining.

However, if there is a rating trend it’s that people are getting tired of loud right-wing radio. Ratings have steadily declined. Folks are getting tired of the act. 

Molly B. wonders:

A couple years ago, PARKS AND RECREATION was running promos welcoming Rob Lowe to the cast at the same time that BROTHERS AND SISTERS was running promos about the season finale in which "someone" was going to die. Obviously that someone was Rob Lowe's character since he was already a regular on another TV show. Is there no clause or at least professional courtesy that would prevent one show from announcing a new series regular before that actor's character on another show has been written off?

Professional courtesy? In Hollywood? What’s that?

Seriously, I doubt if there are clauses in actors’ contracts that if they’re killed off they have to stay silent about it. On the other hand, it’s only fair that the actor should try to get another job. And if he does, and it spoils a surprise, that’s the way is goes.

If you read one of the on-line trades you’ll see who has been hired to appear in pilots. And it’s the same thing. When I saw that Elizabeth Mitchell had signed to star in the pilot of V I figured, “Uh oh. They’re killing her on LOST.” But like I said, you can’t blame the actor for looking elsewhere.

Happy final weekend of Christmas shopping. My book would look great in someone’s Xmas stocking. Just sayin’.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The scam of the century... or at least bicentennial

Yesterday I talked about about my days teaching radio at the KIIS Broadcasting Workshop. This was during that period where my writing partner, David Isaacs and I were churning out spec scripts and getting rejected by RHODA every other week.

The school was somewhat shady. I mean, what is there to teach really? This is how you announce the time? Seven ways to turn off your mic? But I did all that and more. I discussed programming philosophies, rating book strategies, and which records were long enough to go to the bathroom during.  ("Hey Jude," "Layla", and "El Paso".)  I also helped students make their audition tapes.

One of the big selling points of this school was that they offered a placement director who would (in a perfect world) get you that coveted first job (in Elephant’s Breath, Ga.). This was a tough assignment because (a) there weren’t that many entry level jobs, (b) the ones that were generally were weekend all-nights and paid minimum wage so it was hard to justify moving to Elephant’s Breath for that, and (c) a lot of the kids were God awful.

So the pressure was always on.

And then one day a gift from God. This was 1975. Our placement director was contacted by a gentleman from the Ford Foundation. As part of the upcoming Bicentennial celebration the Foundation was hiring several young women to be ambassadors of sorts. They would drive around the country, guest on various radio shows, and talk up the Bicentennial and history of America. It was a one-year job that paid $50,000 and all travel and expenses were paid for.

Now bear in mind the other employment opportunities paid $850 a year – maybe.

So the placement director notified the student body and posted a sign-up sheet for interviews. The Ford Foundation exec would be in town the following week. I think every woman in the school signed up.

The Foundation exec came to Los Angeles, the interviews were conducted in his hotel room at the Hyatt, then the exec left town. A couple of weeks went by. No word. Our placement director made some follow-up calls and couldn’t reach him.

Then the truth surfaced. He had slept with probably six of the women – promising them the job. It was all a giant scam. The women were irate. I believe there was even a lawsuit or two against the school. I liked the placement director very much, but honestly, he should have vetted this guy before sending starry-eyed gullible coeds his way.

When I found out about this I was incensed. As an esteemed member of the faculty I placed no greater value than that of our integrity. Plus, I was sleeping with one of the students who banged this guy for a job.

I left the school shortly thereafter. I didn’t want my good name associated with such a sullied institution. And we sold a JEFFERSONS script.

I broke up with that girl as well. Was she just using me to get an ‘A’ in Record Cueing?  Not that I care but I'm curious. 

I don’t know what happened to the sleazeball – whether he ever got caught. I tend to think he didn’t. I tend to think he’s still out there. Donald Trump is looking to hire young ladies to go around the country and speak on various radio stations about President Obama’s passport information. The job pays $250,000.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Before I was a writer...

So when I got fired from KSEA a week before Christmas (see yesterday's post), that's when I decided to give up radio and pursue writing. 

Like all starving writers, when I was banging out specs trying to break in I had a crummy job. All I cared about were the hours. I had to be free at night to work with my partner, David Isaacs on our scripts. As long as I made enough money to pay the rent and get a burger at Tommy’s I was fine. Which is good because that’s all I made.

The job I landed was teaching broadcasting at the KIIS Broadcasting Workshop. It was actually a very easy job. I taught kids how to give the weather and back-announce Doobie Brothers tunes. (Proud to say one of my students made it all the way to Flagstaff where he did weekend all-nights for two weeks.)

The primary purpose of this school was to make money.  You don't need a school to teach you how to cue up records.  I think we had more salesman than instructors. And their big selling point was the physical school itself. Our facilities took up half the top floor of the Playboy building on Sunset Blvd. We were right in the heart of the strip, baby. Dino’s nightclub was just a few doors down. The Liberace museum was directly across the street. And our facilities were honestly very impressive. Decent enough broadcast studios with a spectacular view of the city on clear days. So for a week each year the panorama was breathtaking.

We shared the top floor with the photo studio Playboy used to shoot their nude models. Several times I rode the elevator with Miss November or one of the Girls from Big Ten. Playboy was very discreet about the studio. You’d get out of the elevator and there was a big splashy sign for our facility and just an unmarked door for theirs.

Every Tuesday at 11:00 our salesmen would bring around a group of ten or so prospective students to tour our digs. We were on alert to look busy and engaged. I arrived at work at 10:00. I stepped out of the elevator and there were all these huge props in the foyer.  Obviously these were for that day’s shoot. I stuck my head in their door and asked if these would still be here in an hour. Yes, they said. They weren’t scheduled to be used until after lunch.


So just before 11:00 I returned to the foyer and waited for our tour group. Sure enough, the elevator doors open, ten people step out and are met by five giant seven-foot dildos and three 7-foot vaginas that looked like that lips couch set on its side. Shrieks and gasps from the potential students. Talk about a great first impression! I had to duck into the stairwell to laugh for ten minutes.

I can only imagine what the poor salesman said to them just before the doors opened. “I think you’ll be impressed with how first-class and professional our school is. And wait’ll you see our equipment!”

Now that, ladies and gentleman, is a sight gag!

Tomorrow:  Another KIIS Broadcasting Workshop story.  You won't believe this one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Christmas I got fired

One of the many reasons I became a writer is that I got tired of being fired as a disc jockey. Today marks the 38th anniversary of the last time I signed off my show with “see you tomorrow” and was never heard from again.   This is a blog tradition:  the anniversary of the Christmas I was fired. 

1974, I’m Beaver Cleaver on KSEA, San Diego, playing “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” five times a night and seriously considering blowing my brains out. Yes, I know – why “Beaver Cleaver”? Ken Levine sounded too Jewish.

The fall rating book came out, the numbers were not good, and at 3:00 I was told to hurry down to the station for an all-important staff meeting at 4:00. We all assembled and were told the station had decided to change formats to gospel and we were all being let go. “Even me?” I said in mock amazement. “Especially you.” “But I could change my name to Eldridge Cleaver.” “I’m going to need your station key”.

Quick aside: a year earlier at KMEN San Bernardino they wanted to get rid of me by moving me from the evening shift to the all-night show. The cheap bastards were hoping I’d quit so they wouldn’t have to pay severance (maybe $300 at most) and be on the hook for unemployment insurance. I asked the program director to at least do the humane thing and fire my sorry ass. “Nope”, he said, “Starting tonight you’re midnight to six.” So I stopped off at the local record store, picked up an LP, and dutifully reported on time for my shift.

Like KSEA, we were a high energy Top 40 station. (Our program director was in love with WLS whose slogan was “the Rock of Chicago” so we became the much catchier “Rock of the Inland Empire”.) I signed on and started playing the hits. Then at 12:30 segued smartly into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF….in Yiddish. The entire album. I was fired during “Anatefka”.

Back to the KSEA staff meeting -- Our morning man, Natural Neil asked when this format change was taking place. A month? A week? The program director looked at his watch and said “45 minutes”. And with that we were all canned. KSEA was gone…along with the promotion we were running at the time --

“Christmas the way it was meant to be!”

Monday, December 17, 2012

Okay, so who REALLY REALLY created BEWITCHED

Lots of comments Friday about my post on who created BEWITCHED. A number of you suggested real credit should go to the screenwriters of the 1942 movie I MARRIED A WITCH. With all due respect to those writers – Robert Pirosh, Marc Connelly, Norman Matson, Rene Clair, Andre Rigaud, Dalton Trumbo and Thorne Smith (whose story the movie was based on) – they may have tread on similar territory but it is not BEWITCHED.

For one thing, the story is different. In the movie a witch comes back from Colonial Salem to seek revenge which results in comic mishaps.

Others wonder how Sol Saks could receive creator credit on BEWITCHED when he only wrote the pilot. Why didn’t he stay with the series? First of all, that's not relevant. And secondly, who cares? Maybe he had three other projects and didn’t want to commit to a series. Maybe he lived in New Hampshire and didn’t want to move. Maybe he and the studio hated each other. Who knows? And we’ll never know how different the direction of the series might have been had he stayed at the helm. But Danny Arnold did a fantastic job assuming the showrunner role.

Meanwhile, some commenters suggested the idea was the studio’s and he was just hired to write it.

Okay, first off – the Writers Guild has very specific guidelines for determining created by credits. So if he passed that test, he’s the creator. Period.

But it’s more than that. Let’s look at what creating a series entails. Networks buy upwards of fifty pilot script a year (more back then). Out of that they decide to make maybe ten or fifteen. Out of those four perhaps five get ordered as a series. So there’s tremendous competition. Your script has to be good enough to buck those odds.

Now, the script itself. A sitcom pilot must set up the premise, introduce all the characters, set the tone, tell a story, be funny, and clearly indicate where the series is headed – all in twenty minutes. Young writers trying to break in are now asked to submit original material. Most are writing pilots and learning firsthand what a holy bitch they are to write.

Oh, and a good series has to be about something. There has to be a theme.

So let’s look at BEWITCHED specifically. A mortal marries a witch, much to the consternation of her mother. The mortal doesn’t want the witch to use her powers. He wants her to act “mortal.” What’s the series about? Magic? Fantasy? Craziness? No. It’s about culture clashes. Remember, BEWITCHED came along around the time of the Civil Rights Bill. What a fun twist on a mixed-marriage where the white guy is the outsider. And as for the notion of Samantha not being able to use her witchcraft – how different is that from gay people being unable to be who they are? Sol Saks had a lot going on underneath the jokes, didn’t he?

And then there are the characters. Besides a central romance that’s so well-drawn, the Endora (mother) character is the perfect comic antagonist. You don’t design great characters like that by just twitching your nose. Sol Saks introduced them and brought them to life.

He also fashioned the very clever story that introduced everybody and set the series into motion. And wrote all the jokes. Execution is everything. How many shows have been set in bars? From DUFFY’S TAVERN to ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE and probably six others in between, a show set in a watering hole has been a common premise. But in the hands of the Charles Brothers & James Burrows, it became magic. It became CHEERS.

So credit where creator credit is due. Sol Saks created BEWITCHED.  And for that, I -- as a huge Elizabeth Montgomery fan -- am eternally grateful. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Xmas movies recommendations

A CHRISTMAS STORY is my all-time favorite holiday movie. I’ve seen it probably fifty times, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched it from the beginning to end in one sitting. Like most people, I catch the annual 24-hour marathon on TNT or TBS or one of those networks with a “T” and see various segments at a time. Usually, by the end of 24-hours I’ve pretty much seen the whole film, albeit disjointed.

But there are other Christmas movies I recommend as well.

DIE HARD certainly. A company Christmas party goes bad but like Santa saving the day, Bruce Willis sweeps in and kills a lot of people.

LOVE ACTUALLY – Eight different stories interweave in this delightful romantic comedy. You’re bound to be charmed by at least three.  And you get Keira Knightley before her eating disorder.

BACHELOR MOTHER – Okay, this is an obscure one. 1939 starring Ginger Rogers and David Nivens. A screwball comedy set in a department store filled with misdirection and confusion. Warning: Ginger doesn’t dance.

BAD SANTA – Very dark comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton as a Santa who robs stores. People either really like it or they loathe it.  Sort of like with IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS – All you need to know about this 1964 sugar plum is that 8-year-old Pia Zadora plays a Martian child.

ELF – worth it for Bob Newhart alone.

HOME ALONE – A John Hughes classic. The Macaulay Culkin “AAAAAAA!” movie that is still funny year after year.

STALAG 17 – Most people don’t think of this Billy Wilder classic set in a World War II German Prisoner of War camp as a holiday yarn, but it was set during a Christmas season. And it is a phenomenal movie.

SUSAN SLEPT HERE – This 1954 comedy starring Dick Powell and a very young Debbie Reynolds is one of my favorites because it takes place in my neighborhood and I think you can see my house from Dick Powell’s balcony. I don’t know if the movie’s any good. I’m always just looking out the windows.

There you go. I know it’s a short list, but if I see one more Scrooge reboot or fantasy with Jim Carrey in make-up I think I’ll vomit. Oh, and one final warning: There are a lot of bad Christmas movies and a lot of bad comedy movies but MIXED NUTS might be the very worst of both. It’s the “Aunt Edna’s Fruitcake” of holiday films.

What are your favorites... and least favorites? 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A personal plea from Batman

Hi kids, this is Batman, the old Caped Crusader.  Y'know, the '60s was a glorious era.  I could still fit into my suit, Robin and I could hang out together without those rumors spreading, and even though the Batmobile got two miles a gallon, gas was still cheap enough that I could still afford Alfred.

I'm here today to tell you fans of a great new book about the '60s I just discovered -- THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) by Ken Levine.   The paperback is only $12.10.(what a great bat-deal!) and would make the perfect gift for anyone, who like me, wishes he had grown up in sunny California rather than Gotham.

Order yours today and it'll be there in time for Christmas.  Trust me, he or she will go bat-shit for it. 

Batman out. 

When not to take down your Xmas decorations

This is my friend Kevin’s house in the residential San Fernando Valley. He’s Jewish but loves to celebrate the colors and lights of the season. This tradition began (as most things do) because his girlfriend at the time really loved Christmas decorations.

There’s not another house on his block even remotely as elaborate. I bet you can see Kevin's house from space.

Now the question always arises, when do you take down your Christmas decorations? For most people the answer is usually after the first of the year. Certainly by Memorial Day.

But I guess if you take them down earlier you face dire consequences.

Last year Kevin made the mistake of striking his on December 26. This caused an absolute shitstorm with his neighbors. Their wrath knew no seasonal bounds. Kevin’s house was egged, he was left threatening notes, and people he didn’t even know called to scream at him.

But the coup de grace was this: His neighbor from across the street, who he never talks to and has no relationship with whatsoever, called him.

KEVIN: Hello.

TINA: Kevin, this is Tina from across the street. WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING?!

KEVIN: Excuse me?

TINA: Why did you take down your Christmas decorations? Are you INSANE?

KEVIN: Um, Christmas is over.

TINA: Yes, but I have a big New Year’s Eve party every year and one of the big attractions is that everybody likes to look at your decorations. And now you’ve RUINED MY PARTY!

I mean, how do you possibly respond to that other than sending invitations for their next New Year’s Eve bash to the Hells Angels?

Now to review: Out of the goodness of his heart (the girlfriend has long since moved on to David Petraeus or whomever) Kevin puts up the decorations on his own time and at his own expense.

And this is how he’s rewarded.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Who really created BEWITCHED?

Aloha from Hawaii where the tradewinds are whispering Friday Questions:

Derrick starts us off:

How is it decided who gets credit for creating a series? I was reading a piece about the old sitcom Bewitched awhile back, and while a gentleman named Sol Saks is credited in every episode as creator of the series, I got the impression from the article that nearly half of the guys associated with the series in its first season claimed at some point to have been the one who REALLY dreamed up the whole thing. While I'm sure at least some of that is latter-day glory-seeking, how (and who) decides who gets credit for creating a television series?

Fifteen guys can take credit but Sol Saks wrote the pilot and is the sole creator of the show. Period.  By the way, Sol Saks was a fabulous writer and did great work throughout his career. Check out the pilot of BEWITCHED. It’s pretty great. By the way, Mr. Saks passed away last year... at age 100.

Where things get sticky is when different writers are brought on at different times during the writing of the pilot. Then it goes to arbitration. And whoever gets story credit ultimately gets created by credit.

Bill Jones wonders:

Hi Ken. I have a question about "imitator" shows--you know, the shows that appear in the wake of a hit show, where it's clear that everyone else is trying to copy the success of the previous show. Examples include all the FRIENDS knockoffs in the mid-90s (remember TWO GUYS, A GIRL, AND A PIZZA PLACE?) or, more recently, NEW NORMAL, which is so clearly a knockoff of MODERN FAMILY.

How do these knockoffs come about?

Networks spread the word that they’re looking for the next FRIENDS. But in truth, they don’t even have to. We all know networks chase whatever’s popular at the moment. You come in excited to pitch a totally original concept and they’re disappointed you’re not bringing them “GLEE but in Law School.”

I can't tell you how many times my writing partner David and I were told by networks to give them another MASH.  We said we couldn't.  MASH was unique.  One time we sold a pilot about an improv group and a network exec said, "Great, but you make it more like MASH?"

Not that this copycat practice is new. Way back in the ‘60s when BATMAN became a big hit, camp superheroes appeared quickly on all the other networks. There was CAPTAIN NICE on NBC and another one so forgettable I can’t even tell you the name. I’m shocked I still remember CAPTAIN NICE.

A few years ago we wrote a pilot for NBC. It was a very urban sophisticated comedy. When they bought it we were told their mandate was to return to the Must See TV smart comedies of yesteryear. We turned in the first draft, they loved it. Hardly any notes. They were thrilled.

Then MY NAME IS EARL premiered, did well, and all of a sudden the mandate changed to “rural” comedies. Our can't-miss project was dead.

So not only are you chasing the elusive zeitgeist, you’re shooting at a moving target.

Of course, it's one thing when networks are all chasing monster hits.  But I'm hearing tales of NEW GIRL knockoffs.   NEW GIRL is only in its second year and struggling to stay alive.  Not exactly SEINFELD.

From Carson:

When an actor exits a scene or they are not in a particular scene, where are they? Do they go out and watch the scene? I'm of course referring to a show shot with an audience.

They generally go backstage or to their dressing rooms. Sometimes they'll go to make up. Often times they’re changing wardrobe. We discourage actors standing on the stage. It takes the audience out of the show to see the actors out of character.

If an actor wants to watch the show, there is a quad-split (the four monitors) backstage out of the audience’s view. They generally don’t because that’s where all the agents and managers congregate.

Max Clarke asks:

About actor names, did the Charles brothers get it that their good name "Sam Malone" was also "Sam Alone" when they wrote the pilot? Considering the end of the series and that last shot of Sam alone, it was perfect.

No. It was a coincidence. And at the time they created the character they had no idea he would not wind up with anybody. Also, there’s no significance attached to Norm being the “Normal” bar patron.

Do you have a question? Leave it in the comments section. Mahalo.