Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Gene Simmons Halloween

This has always been one of my favorite holidays, especially when the kids were little. Taking them trick-or-treating and seeing them so excited and happy was one of the true joys of parenthood. And then eating the candy they collected was fun too. Of course there’s always that one eccentric house. We had a dentist who gave out toothbrushes. Thank goodness he wasn’t a proctologist.

And where I live, near UCLA, there was always a second wave of trick-or-treaters.  After the kids had turned in for the night, sorority girls in yummy costumes would ring the bell. I’d be holding the candy bowl for them in one hand and my Emmy in the other.

During Matt & Annie’s elementary school years there was also the annual Halloween carnival. This was a public school catering to the local neighborhood but we were hardly a typical neighborhood. One year I volunteered to make snow cones and Hugh Hefner and his six bimbos strolled up to my cart. He had a kid in the school. A noted soft-porn actress whose children attended the school offered this for the silent auction: A two hour nude session where you could photograph or paint her. The principal graciously declined that offer, but I bet it would have brought in a lot more money than the autographed WINGS script I donated.

For the school’s “Haunted House” Gene Simmons participated. He would pop up and stick out that four-foot tongue. One mother was so freaked she literally sued the school.

Ah, good times.

One thing I learned though -- Halloween is an OUTDOOR holiday.

My son’s birthday is November 2nd. (Happy upcoming birthday, Matt!). When he turned five Halloween night fell on a Saturday. So for his party we invited a bunch of his friends to the house where I would take them all out trick-or-treating and then they’d come back for pizza and cake. 5-7 PM. No muss. No fuss. Great plan.

Except it rained. No, it POURED.

First off, as parents deposited their kids they asked if we’d take siblings since they couldn’t take them trick-or-treating in the rain. Of course we said yes, and so at 5:00 I had forty screaming crazed children running around my house – chasing each other with hatchets, and fairy wands, and Star Wars blasters. After relentlessly trying to wrangle this supercharged mob I finally sat down on the stairs and took a breath. I was so proud of myself. I had gotten through it. It’s almost 7. Then I checked my watch. 5:20.

If you have little kids enjoy these precious Halloweens. Soon enough they’ll outgrow you, want to be with their friends instead, and trade blasters for tequila shooters. At least I still have my memories… and the sorority girls keep coming around.

One last Halloween note: I’ve always found it odd that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in this holiday so they stay home…on the only night of the year when people would actually open their doors to them.

Happy Halloween.


The best CHEERS Halloween costume ever

This gives me a great idea. How can I dress up in my BIG WAVE DAVE'S credit?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My new book MUST KILL TV is now available!

Finally!  My first novel (with story by me and David Isaacs). The ebook of MUST KILL TV is now available. The price is only $2.99. Here’s where you go. It’s a comic novel about a beleaguered TV network president who can only save his career and primetime schedule by killing his big star’s ex-girlfriend. In Hollywood this is not an unreasonable request.

The paperback version will be available soon.

I’m very proud of this novel and would love for you to check it out. (Wait. Check it out is a library term.) I would love for you to BUY IT. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you know my writing, you know my style. This is me unleashed.

To further entice you, here are some blurbs:

“A brutally funny look at the television business from an Emmy-award winning writer/producer who has seen it all. MUST KILL TV rings so hilariously true that it makes me wonder how much of this story is actually fiction."

-- Lee Goldberg
Author of The Heist (with Janet Evanovich)

“Ken Levine proves himself as much a master of the novel as he is of TV writing and blogging. MUST KILL TV is the 21st Century answer to NETWORK – a blistering and hilarious satire of the television business as it is now. Part thriller, part comedy, it could only have been written by someone who knows this world as well as Mr. Levine. What more, the author pulls off the impossible – he makes a network executive a sympathetic character. Read it; after all, there’s nothing on TV tonight.”

--Phoef Sutton
Writer/producer Cheers, Boston Legal, author of Fifteen Minutes to Live

"Everyone who works in television has wanted to commit murder from time to time. Ken Levine has managed to make that murder funny -- which is not surprising considering his years in the broadcast comedy trenches"

-- Bill Prady
Co-creator of The Big Bang Theory

Again, it’s only $2.99. You can download yours here. Thanks.  And by the way, it makes for the perfect Halloween gift. 

FREE OFFER (sort of)

 UPDATE:  The offer has expired.  I have given away my 100 copies.   Thanks to those who requested one.  But if you didn't get one, they're now available and only $2.99. 

I’m giving away free copies of my new book, MUST KILL TV. Well… sorta free. Details after this story.

One great thing about Amazon Kindle is that uploading your ebook is easy. Unless you’re me.

You just follow the simple steps. Fill in the boxes, upload the files. Couldn’t be easier. Unless you’re me.

There’s a phenomenon called Y2Ken. Somehow, when I try to upload something… or download something... I wreak havoc with the internet.

Yesterday I attempted to upload my book. I was on the phone to an author friend of mine, asking him some questions. I told him I was a little nervous uploading the book. “I know I’m going to click one box and the entire computer infrastructure of Europe is going to go out.” He laughed, not realizing I was serious, and I hung up to begin my simple easy task.

Sure enough, I complete the first three steps then it asks me to click “Save so far.” I do – and I swear this is true – the little ball spins for five seconds and my entire internet goes down. I call TWC and am told there was some power surge and internet service was down in my whole area. This lasts for two hours.

I wait until 3:00 to resume. I figured, make sure Wall Street had closed first. Again, I swear this is true. I complete another couple of steps. I was asked again to click “Save so far”, I do, and this appears on my screen:

Seriously.  I'm dangerous.   If you ever see me about to install something, tackle me.  Unless you don't mind a complete blackout of the east coast.

Five hours later I complete the download.  I'll pause and wait for applause.  The official launch is whenever it goes up on Amazon.  Official blog launch is tomorrow. 

But as a preview I have this super keen offer! I will give the book away – either in Kindle or pdf format – to the first 100 people who email and ask for it.


there is a catch (there always is). You have to agree to post an Amazon review. It doesn’t have to be a rave (although that would be nice). Your honest opinion is all I’m asking for. So if you will PROMISE to file an Amazon review (and it doesn't have to be a long one, especially if you don't like it), I will send the book to the first 100 of you who request it.

REPEATING THE UPDATE:  The offer has expired.  I have given away my 100 copies.   Thanks to those who requested one.  But if you didn't get one, they're now available and only $2.99. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The best show on TV just got better

Sunday night I watched THE GOOD WIFE and HOMELAND. Both are hour long dramas. Both star extraordinary actresses (Julianna Margulies, Claire Danes). I’m fans of both series. In HOMELAND this week the main character, Carrie is playing a dangerous game of espionage trying to capture a scary supervillain terrorist leader. Her life is in jeopardy every minute. She’s under constant surveillance. One tiny slip, one innocent misstep and thousands of people could die. Add to that: she’s mentally unstable, the leadership of the CIA is about to change in a bad way, and she’s trying to protect the most hated man in America.

On THE GOOD WIFE, the lead character, Alicia, is leaving her law firm to start another one.

THE GOOD WIFE was riveting. I was spellbound for sixty-minutes. Halfway through HOMELAND I was yawning.

You don’t need guns and car chases and suicide bombers to create compelling suspense. THE GOOD WIFE trumps it with delicious human drama. We’re watching a conflict we’ve never seen in a lawyer show – senior lawyers splitting off from a major firm to start their own. It involves poaching clients, severing ties, betrayal, establishing territory, blocking each other’s moves, and seeing trusted friends and lovers (Alicia and Will were so hot together!) now hating each other. Watching two middle-aged security guards gently escorting Alicia out of the firm was more disturbing than the comparable HOMELAND scene where two terrorist thugs hauled Carrie out of her house with a bag over her head after forcing her to strip at gunpoint.

As Twitter follower @raylancon referred to Sunday's GOOD WIFE: Unbelievable. That was the most thrilling restraining order hearing in TV history.

Great drama is great character interaction. And no show does it better right now than THE GOOD WIFE. I not only marvel at the inventiveness of the stories and complexity of the characters, I just can’t believe this show is on a broadcast network.

By the way, THE GOOD WIFE is also one of the best comedies on the air now. I laughed out loud when Alicia, all professional and lawyery in her business suit realized she wasn’t wearing panties.

Like I said, this high end corporate civil war is subject matter I’ve not seen dramatized before. And of course the acrimony and shifting alliances for personal gain resonated even more with me because well… that’s also Hollywood. I’ve been on the other side of it. Agents splitting off from big agencies to form their own. I was once forced to choose between staying with my TV agent (whom I loved) and going with my feature agent (whom I equally loved). Today I’m at neither agency. The only thing certain about all the upheaval is this: it’s never to benefit the clients; it’s ONLY to benefit themselves.

Congratulations to Robert & Michelle King for mounting the best show on television, even if the cool kids don’t know it.  Ha ha.  Us uncool kids know something you don't. 

Robert & Michelle have totally flipped their show on its ear.  And the result is mesmerizing.   Special bonus:  more for Josh Charles to do.   Maybe now he'll finally get that elusive Emmy he's long deserved.  Sorry Jon Hamm.  I'm voting for Josh. 

I can’t wait to see what happens next week on THE GOOD WIFE. Meanwhile, Carrie will figure out how to deal with the terrorist on HOMELAND. She always does.

Monday, October 28, 2013

7th time is a charm

SITCOM ROOM 7 is in the books (as baseball announcers would say).  Twenty scribes spent the last two days immersed in the world of TV comedy writing.  They learned a lot about creating sitcoms, themselves, poor nutrition, story construction, the Tango, network notes, spec scripts, and sleep deprivation. 

We had quite an international turnout this year.   Three from Germany, one from Vienna, one from Norway, one from Peru, one from Canada, and one from Glendale.  They learned the American way of sitcom writing and ordering Chinese food.
Thanks to everyone who attended.   With a special thanks to our actors:  Andy Goldberg, Harry Murphy, Wendy Cutler, and Ri Versteegh.  And great actor/former President of SAG Barry Gordon who portrayed the part of the "network."  
Every year we finish with a panel.  Thanks to this year's  members:  David Isaacs (the man's been in my home), CHEERS showrunner Bill Steinkellner, and the hot young writing team from INSTANT MOM -- Annie Levine & Jon Emerson. 
Me, David, Billy, Annie, Jon
Here are some photos of the event. 
Wendy, Harry, Andy, Ri
One group's roadmap.  Don't steal any of it.
One team went the "Romy & Michele post-it" route.
View from my hotel room window at the LAX Embassy Suites.  Considering the frosted glass and instructions not to open the sliding door for fear of prosecution, I can only assume the view is not of the ocean.
There's nothing like watching your words come to life!
Hope to see YOU next year. 

Switched at birth of pilot

It’s not unusual for there to be major changes during the production of a TV pilot. I’ve helped out on many, coming in to do punch up, and I’ve seen pretty much everything.

Characters change. On Tuesday the best friend suddenly becomes the sister. At the first table reading mom and dad are both present. By mid-week dad had died ten years ago and it's just mom. The scene at the coffee shop is gone replaced by one at a bank and the waitress is now a teller.

Actors are fired and hired all the time.  It's quite frankly brutal (and often unnecessary). I helped out on one pilot where a new actor was hired every day to play one particular role. It was a horribly written role. 

But the strangest pilot I worked on was this:

I think it was about two married couples and the guys worked together. It’s been a long time and the pilot didn’t go. Patrick Warburton was one of the guys. I had never seen him before but remember thinking, “Wow! This guy is a find!”

The runthruogh was uneven and the assembled writers went back to rewrite and eat Red Vines late into the night.

Traffic was bad the next day so I arrived for the runthrough just as it was about to begin. The first scene was a married couple in bed. Except now Patrick Warburton was in the bed. I thought, “This is weird? We’re now saying that Patrick is sleeping with his best friend’s wife?” The dialogue was pretty much what we wrote last night. Not only was there no explanation of why these two people were having an affair, the dialogue made no sense in this new context.

After the scene I cornered the creator to ask, “What the fuck?” That’s when I learned that the decision was made after we had left the night before to just flip Patrick and the other guy. So now Patrick was her husband.  Yeah, that's fine, Patrick's funnier, but the problem was that these were two very different characters. So the rest of the runthrough was completely weird. Imagine Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer just switching roles one week on TWO AND A HALF MEN.

When something doesn't work is it because the joke is bad, the actor didn't deliver it well, you don't believe that actor having that attitude, or you just remember it better yesterday with the other guy saying it? 

The rewrite that night was insane. I wasn’t the only one confused. The creator would say, “We need a line for Fred,” I’d pitch something and he’d say, “No, that’s a Gary line,” and five writers would say, “Which one is Gary again?” We couldn’t keep the two actors and the two characters straight.

Like I said, the show never aired. Whose decision it was to make the flip I do not know (but I suspect the network).  I totally forget who played the other guy and clearly Patrick Warburton has gone on to prove he’s a gifted comic actor.

Actors switching roles is not unheard of certainly. It happens in the theater a lot, especially if there is a company of actors. The director will mix and match until he arrives at the best combination. And there have been cases on Broadway where two stars will just flip roles. Art Carney and Walter Matthau did that in the original ODD COUPLE. But I had never seen it in a pilot.

Thank goodness one of the characters didn’t also have multiple personalities. I’d probably still be in that writing room trying to figure it out.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

R.I.P. Marcia Wallace

So sad to hear of the passing of Marcia Wallace. She was 70. Marcia and I became good friends after working together… for one week. She starred in a pilot of ours in 1979. The project didn’t go, but I remained friends with her ever since. What a brave, courageous, funny lady.

Depending on your age, she is best known as “Carol Kester,” the receptionist on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW or the voice of schoolteacher, Edna Krabappel on THE SIMPSONS.

I’ve never met anyone who could deal with adversity with as much good humor as Marcia. And she dealt with a series of them. Breast cancer, her husband dying, a fire in her house.  How she did it I'll never know.  Every year Marcia would send a Christmas card that included a two-page letter detailing her past year.  Oy.  To read the way she handled one calamity after another, you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I told her I both looked forward to and dreaded receiving her Christmas cards.

A few years ago Marcia wrote her autobiography. I recommend it. Typical Marcia: her teenage son announced that he wanted to be an actor. Marcia said, “Oh really? You want to be an actor. Act like you like me.”

One of the weirdest occurrences of my life involved Marcia.  A number of years ago I was in the Nashville airport getting ready to fly back home to Los Angeles.  Over the PA they paged "Bob Hartley."   That was Bob Newhart's name on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.  That struck me as kind of odd and then five minutes later Marcia Wallace walks by.  She was on her book tour.   We both hummed the TWILIGHT ZONE theme. 

She weathered career ups and downs like she weathered everything else – with grace and perspective. I was so thrilled that she landed the SIMPSONS gig. If anyone deserved good things in their life it was Marcia. I hope there’s a heaven because she was made for that place.  Talk about perfect casting.

And if there is an afterlife, Marcia, could you please still keep those Christmas cards coming?  And maybe pop up in an airport?   With Marcia anything is possible. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

It's that time of year again

This is the weekend for my annual SITCOM ROOM seminar. Twenty lucky participants will be split into four “rooms” of five and experience exactly what it’s really like to be on a comedy writing staff. They’ll fix a script, eat way too much junk food, and either form deep bonds or kill each other. They’ll learn a lot, laugh a lot, and sleep very little. They’ll see their work performed by professional working actors, and they’ll discover talents they didn’t even know they had.
This will be the 7th SITCOM ROOM I’ve staged. Proud to say that some alums are now in the business, working on such shows as NURSE JACKIE. And a number of attendees from overseas are now doing well in their home countries. To think – I may have had a hand in some good jokes being seen on Australian and German TV (not the same jokes I'm sure).

I only do this once a year because it’s a big undertaking. Lots of preparation goes into it, and the weekend itself is very intense. But it’s great fun for me, and I love the idea of a writing class that is both hands-on and unique from any other.

I have shifted venues this year. Former students will recall THE SITCOM ROOM was held for a number of years at the LAX Hilton. But we found that there tended to be distractions – like a Japanese anime convention with hundreds of people in costume, and a porn convention. One of our groups was trying to re-write their scene while a porno movie was being made in the next room. So they really got to experience what it’s like to be in a film studio late at night.

This year we’re at the LAX Embassy Suites. If there’s a convention it’s insurance salesmen or the like so very little chance they’ll be dressing up…or down.

More reports next week. Next year I hope to see you here.

Friday, October 25, 2013

People are not watching the World Series

Great essay by Keith Olbermann on the ratings decline of the World Series. 

Stealing jokes

Getting ready to hold my annual Sitcom Room seminar this weekend. Here are some Friday Questions before I go. One even involves Alf. 

A recent post on Roseanne and her accusation that a joke of hers had been stolen prompted Kay to ask this:

I'm not sure how a writer should handle that. Ken, what you would suggest? Do you abandon or re-write your own original joke, after you hear a similar joke, for fear someone will accuse you of having stolen it or that it might sound stale? Or do you say, "This is my original joke; it works where I need it, and I'm leaving it intact."?

Personally, when my partner David Isaacs and I are writing a script and are made aware that a joke we’re considering is similar to one that had been aired we’ll scrap the joke immediately. It’s not so much that we’re afraid of being sued or even accused of stealing; it’s that as professionals we would be horribly embarrassed. We take pride in our work and try to deliver the best and most original material we can.

Are there writers who will keep a joke anyway and try to rationalize it to themselves? Sure. But they wouldn’t work very long for me.

Daniel has two questions:

I've seen many TV writers make comments about residual checks being only a few cents.

Is that true or are you exaggerating for comic effect?

And secondly, without getting into specific dollar figures, can a writer ever get significant residual checks (thousands of dollars (or more)) when a series first goes into syndication?

I’ve actually received residual checks for one cent. Yes, miniscule residuals are a reality. There is a bar in the San Fernando Valley called Residuals. And if you brought in a royalty check of less than a dollar you could trade it for a drink. But so many people were doing that that they had to discontinue the offer.

One time I got a letter from MTM saying that the year before they over-paid me by three cents and demanded I return the money. Take a guess as to whether I complied.

On the other hand, yes, you can make significant dollars on first run syndication… assuming you’ve done multiple episodes. Thank God for residuals because there are a lot of writers, directors, and actors who are now living off them.

From Michael:

There appear to a large number of deals being signed for pilots this year being produced by actors for shows they will not appear in. Examples include Rashida Jones, Zooey Deschanel, and Kristen Ritter. Do they have an inherent advantage in being able to get meetings with network executives and/or more skilled at pitching projects?

I’ll be honest, it’s a head scratcher to me too. Networks always have “hot” people they want to be in business with, but in most cases these actors bring nothing to the project other than their names. Maybe network people just like taking meetings with stars.

If Zooey Deschannel showed up for meetings dressed like this I'd certainly hear her pitch.

It used to be major stars for a network would get a vanity production deal – like Kelsey Grammer’s Gramnet Productions – but that was when Kelsey was starring in FRASIER. NBC needed him.  They don't need Kristen Ritter.  (They didn't even pick up the pilot she was in last spring.)   Production deals are a way of keeping stars happy. And in Kelsey’s case, he did get a few series on the air. But that was thanks to the executives he hired to run his company.

This is just the newest trend in non-writing producers. First it was former executives, now it’s stars with production deals. And top flight writers, whose talent and experience is more than sufficient to selling and executing a pilot on their own now have to get in bed with one of these non-writing producing units. That said, I’d rather be hanging with Rashida Jones than Jeff Zucker.

And finally, two from 404:

Have you ever been completely surprised about a sitcom? You were convinced it would be a big hit and then it just tanked?

Yes. Ours. ALMOST PERFECT… although to the fair, it did not tank. It lasted into the second season and had respectable numbers when it was cancelled. We actually won our time slot for the first three weeks and then we were paired with a show that was so bad it was cancelled after only one episode. We were collateral damage.

Or the opposite, you felt it wouldn't last two episodes and it turns out to be a huge hit (and I don't mean "hanging in there" like TWO BROKE GIRLS, I mean the breakthrough hit of the year). Or anything like that?

Not that I assumed it would be yanked after two airings but I received a tape of the ALF pilot and thought, “This is funny but I can’t really see a puppet show really catching on.” And then my kids watched the pilot and loved it. They kept watching it all summer. And that’s when I figured, “Y’know, they might just have lightening in a bottle here.” So by the time it finally aired I was not surprised by its major success. The networks should have given my kids all the pilots.

What’s your question?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What's the best spec script to write?

The Friday Question I get asked more than any other is probably this one:

Ken, if you had your choice of current sitcoms on air to write for, which show would you write a spec for and why?

The real question is what show should YOU write for? There are several factors.

Pick the show that best shows off your strengths. Are you a great joke person? Write a Chuck Lorre multi-cam show. Good with characters? Select a single-camera show that’s more quirky than funny.

Also, determine which show best fits your comic sensibilities. Do you like the sick humor of DADS? Hip coolness of THE NEW GIRL? Rural edge of RAISING HOPE? Surrealism of COMMUNITY? Retro feel of HOT IN CLEVELAND?

Generally, it’s a good idea to spec a show that’s on the rise. There must be a million MODERN FAMILIES and BIG BANG THEORIES. Readers are probably a little blurry eyed from reading them. And your script won’t have much shelf life if you write a HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

The trick is to find a new show that will have legs. You don’t want to spec a SUPER FUN NIGHT (well, I don’t know why you would anyway) and in a month it’s cancelled. Follow the ratings. See which shows appear to be catching on. Networks start handing out back nines around this time. See who gets a full production order.

Don’t spec an animated show unless you’re applying specifically for jobs in animation. A spec FAMILY GUY or BOB’S BURGERS will not normally get you a job on a live-action show.

Watch out for traps. LOUIE is a trap. That show is so specific to Louis C.K. that it would almost be impossible to write one that clicks. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is another trap since so much of the show is improvised. Write a real “scripted” show.

Some shows go for easy cheap laughs like 2 BROKE GIRLS. The word “vagina” is the punchline for five jokes an episode. As a result, the show doesn’t get a lot of respect from other writing staffs. So beware.

Whatever show you choose, don’t write a “special” episode of it. Don’t do a dream show, kill off one of the characters, have George Clooney guest, or do a crossover with MIKE & MOLLY. I always tell the story of a spec WINGS I read that was seen through the eyes of a fly on the wall. Do the best version of a typical episode.

Now that series are available On Demand, through Neflix and Hulu, and on DVD’s there’s no excuse for not really knowing the characters or their backstories. Do your homework. 

Formatting is crucial. So is spelling. The fastest way to get your script tossed onto the reject pile is to have it be in some weird format or be filled with grammatical and spelling errors.  Take the time to do it right.

At the end of the day, opt for the show you know the best, like the best, and can write the best.

And then write a second one. And a third. And a pilot. And another pilot. You never know which script is going to be the one everybody responds to, but you double or triple your chances with more specs.

Best of luck. Someone has to break in. Why not YOU?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adventures in air travel

Took a quick trip to Phoenix last week. My dear friend Bobby Rich was being inducted into the Arizona Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame and I was there to introduce him. You’d think when you’re inducted into a Hall of Fame people would know you but I guess not. It was a lovely ceremony and a well-deserved honor.

But it meant flying to Phoenix. For me that has always meant Southwest Airlines. At one time I loved Southwest. Just like the girls I loved in college: easy and cheap. But "college" reunions usually result in disappointment. Sorry to say that was the case last week.

Southwest features open seating. It used to be you’d just line up and it was first-come, first serve. Then you had to check in online starting 24 hours before your flight. You were then assigned a place in line. A 1-60, B 1-60, C 1-worst seat in plane. Usually if you checked in sometime during the first three or four hours you made it to the A group. Advantages of the A group: Room in the overhead compartments for your bags, window or aisle seat, more time to read their in-flight magazine.

My flight was Thursday at 8:15 AM. At 8:17 I checked in. My number: B 24. What the fuck? How could 83 other people check in in 90 seconds? This wasn’t like tickets for Streisand.

So I called Southwest. Well, it seems that now if you want a high number it costs extra – as much $40. So all those low fares they advertise? That’s if you want to sit in the last row wedged in between the fat guy and screaming baby.

You are now free to pay more.

However, B-groupers do get their revenge. Let's say you’re an A. You’re on the aisle. There’s an empty seat next to you. You get to watch sixty people size you up and decide they’d rather sit next to someone else. Then you glance back down the aisle and the scary dragon tattoo girl and slob eating a chilidog have their middle seats already filled. Not only did it cost you $40 for the upgrade but you now need six more months of therapy.

Or, you pay the extra $40 and Mr. Chilidog is in the B group and does decide to sit next to you. And since there’s no more room in the overhead bins he has to wedge his bag and computer and second chilidog under his seat (which spills into your seat). You’re sitting in a fetal position with mustard dripping onto your pants. Yeah, there’s money well spent.

Between the TSA inspections, X-rays, hidden fees, reduction in service and amenities, delays, and lost luggage flying anywhere is now an ordeal. And it used to be such fun. Oh well – lost love. Who says you can’t go back again? Probably a Southwest ticket agent.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The TV character I currently hate the most

And I am not alone.

HOMELAND faces the most dangerous plot in the series’ history – an insidious subversive plot more squirm-inducing than any of the Brody torture scenes, more chilling than national terrorist threats, suicide bombers, and unspeakable acts of senseless violence.

I’m referring of course to the Dana storyline in season three.

First let me say I do not blame Morgan Saylor, the young actress who portrays Nicholas Brody’s bratty teenage daughter, Dana. She got hired to play a role, she’s playing it with conviction and believability.  Cash your checks, Morgan.  You've earned the money.  

But the character of Dana is so relentlessly insufferable that every time she comes on the screen I shout, “Oh no!” Fortunately for Morgan there’s Lena Dunham and Flo from Progressive Insurance to take some of the hate heat off.

The bigger problem of course is that HOMELAND has really plummeted in quality. Once the most compelling show on the air, season three so far has been meandering, repetitious, and dull. The shocking twists aren't shocking.  We see Carrie going crazy for the fifth time, and as much as I adore Claire Danes, they’ve now got her playing one notch below Jerry Lewis in CINDERFELLA. And Brody is all over the map (literally). The episode where he was holed up in a half-constructed apartment high rise in Venezuela was PAPILLON meets HOLLYWOOD SQUARES.

And then there’s Dana. We’re supposed to have empathy for her because her father is perceived of as a monster, but sorry, we don’t. There’s a great Jewish expression I can only hope to spell correctly – Dana is farbissina, which roughly means she’s a major sourpuss.

You just want to smack her. Every boy she gets involved with is a future Norman Bates or Ted Cruz. A) You just don’t give a shit, and B) it takes time away from the main story (such that it is).

The Brody home life has never been particularly interesting. For two years luscious Morena Baccarin’s sole function as his wife was to say, “Where you going, Brody?” “Talk to me, Brody.” and finally: “Where you been, Brody?”  His return from captivity was a tough adjustment for the family. We get it. Dad’s been turned. What family doesn’t have its quirks? But especially now that Brody is harder to find than Matt Lauer, mom and the kinder are not integral to anything in the show. And every time Dana smirks, scowls, or sleeps with one of the Menendez brothers, I dive for the remote.

HOMELAND is a product of the 24 writers and you can see the parallels. The worst character on 24 was Jack Bauer’s daughter, Kim, played by Elisha Cuthbert. She got kidnapped so many times she started bringing her own rope. The Kim hate was loud and long, but that didn’t stop the producers from stuffing her in a car trunk season after season.

In HOMELAND’s case you could argue that even if the producers recognize themselves that the Dana subplot is dramatic Anthrax, it’s too late to do anything about it. All thirteen episodes are probably in the can. But America has hated Dana for two previous seasons already. The producers can’t be surprised. If so, it’s like they were crushed by a runaway glacier.  Their intelligence information is worse than the CIA's. 

Last year we saw THE GOOD WIFE make a huge miscalculation by introducing a character the public quickly loathed. So the producers dumped him, had to scramble, and salvage what they could. They listened to their audience and reacted accordingly. (And by the way, this year’s shows are spectacular – week after week.) HOMELAND never learns. I bet next year Dana will be back with an eating disorder.

I hope HOMELAND can right the ship. It’s lost its focus, it’s lost it’s freshness – the only thing it’s kept is its farbisinna’s.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Britney Spears REALLY sounds like

This will make you laugh until you squirm. Britney's microphone is soloed and the results aren't pretty. What a fucking fraud.


BARNEY MILLER is one of those forgotten gem sitcoms from the 70s. I guess because they were taped and now look like crap you rarely see them pop up in reruns. Set in a detectives’ squad room in an NYPD precinct, BARNEY MILLER was a quirky character comedy revolving around the detectives and the nutcases that walked through their door (most in handcuffs).

It was created by Danny Arnold who was a true character. Brilliant, unpredictable (a nice term for bi-polar), demanding, and kind, Danny was an A-list show runner and a type-A+ personally. The man had a heart attack on the treadmill in his doctor’s office getting his heart checked. He had an oxygen tent installed on the BARNEY set so he could keep going during demanding shooting nights (which lasted routinely until 5 in the morning because of all the pick-ups he wanted). The results were fabulous but what a cost.

When David and I were starting out BARNEY MILLER was just starting to take off. It was one of the show we really wanted to write for. We had sold a couple of things and were making the freelance rounds. Our agent called with the good news that Danny had read our material and loved it. He wanted a meeting.

That meeting was one of the best EVER. We walked into his office and there was the nicest, most ebullient cigar-chomping uncle you’ve ever met. He was effusive in his praise. We couldn’t have been more excited. It was like the prettiest girl in school let you eat at her lunch table.

He invited us to come back with some story ideas and very much looked forward to working with us. A week later we were back in his office with our notions.

I noticed a bit of change right at the start. He was a little more gruff. Probably just the result of a long day. We started pitching and every idea was met with, “NO!!” “FUCK! ARE YOU KIDDING?” “JESUS, HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED OUR SHOW?” Needless to say we were shaken. After he had rejected all of them we started out and just before getting to the door he said, almost as an afterthought, “That Yamada gambling thing. I don’t think there’s anything there but if you want to develop it more you can.” Not exactly a sale.

But we went home and decided to develop it anyway. We wanted to show him that if nothing else we weren’t intimidated by him… although we sure as hell were.

We turned in an outline. He bought it. Had us in for notes and was very complimentary. We implemented his changes and turned in the revised outline.

He cut us off.

Well, we figured, so much for BARNEY MILLER. At least we got outline money.

Two weeks later I get a call from Danny’s assistant. Could we be in his office tomorrow at 8:30? Swell, I thought, he wants to chew us out again.

But we go and it’s the happy ingratiating Danny. “Boys! Come on in. You want a doughnut? How was your weekend?” He had read over our outline again and decided it was terrific. He had just a few tweaks. We were told to dash off a revised outline and then we’d go to work on the draft.

Two days later we delivered the new outline. And the following day…

He cut us off.

It just didn’t “jump off the page” for him. But he paid us for a second outline.

Elements of those outlines appeared in future shows but what the hell? He did pay us.

We never did a BARNEY MILLER assignment but a few years later when we were head writers of MASH he called and asked if we wanted to be his showrunners for the upcoming season. We chose to stay with MASH.

The guys who did take the job worked a million hours a week, learned a hell of a lot, got paid a fortune, and Danny gave them Rolls Royces… which they used to drive themselves to Cedar-Sinai hospital.

BARNEY MILLER is back, on some retro cable channels, DVD's, and I believe Hulu. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a treat.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

75 years of Superman in 2 minutes

Cool animated video that celebrates Superman through his many looks and reboots. What more can I say other than, "Great Caesar's Ghost!"?

The time I rewrote Neil Simon

First off, let me just say that Neil Simon is one of my comedy Gods. I’ve devoured all of his plays, used them as a study guide. There was a period in the '80s and '90s that his new plays and musicals would open first here in Los Angeles before going on to Broadway (we were New Haven with palm trees). I would see them three or four times, watching to see how he revised and polished them… and often times marveling at the craft and ingenuity of the fixes. (And amazingly, he did it without the invaluable help of network notes.)

He has two autobiographies. I strongly recommend them both; especially the first one. The process of turning around THE ODD COUPLE is classic.    That play is assigned reading for my USC Comedy class. 

For awhile, several years ago, Neil used to workout at my gym. He was approachable and very gracious. Like I said, one of my comedy titans.

But I rewrote him.

Here’s the story.   My daughter Annie was trying to get into the drama club at her high school. (This was before she wised up and became a writer.)  She was expected to deliver a comedy monologue. The one she chose was a long speech from a character in Neil Simon’s PLAZA SUITE. It might have been the mother trying to coax her daughter out of the bathroom on her wedding day; I don’t recall exactly.

The audition could be no longer than 3 minutes. Annie rehearsed it with me and I timed it. She was long by about 40 seconds. Speeding up the pace wouldn’t have helped. So I took a deep breath, said “give me the script”, and thinned out the monologue.

Even as I was doing it I was thinking, “Oh, I am surely going to hell for this!” You don’t take Moses’ tablets and say, “I think there’s a better way to phrase commandment six.” But I did. I found trims. I found some repetitions. I did not spontaneously combust.

Annie rehearsed the revised monologue and bingo! It was right on time. She used it for her audition, was accepted into the club, and no one knew Doc's speech had been doctored with.

Why am I telling you this? Do I like looking over my shoulder for fear of being struck dead by lightening. No. I’m telling you this to make a point.

There are ALWAYS trims in big speeches. Whenever my partner and I finish a draft we always go back, re-examine any long speech and invariably find some cuts.

Long speeches are a bitch to write. You’re often including multiple thoughts. Usually the best way to attack them is let it flow. Just get it all on paper. Don’t go on to sentence two only after sentence one is absolutely perfect. Once you’ve said everything you want to say, even if you’ve said it five times, then go back and trim and eliminate and shape. At some point you will be satisfied that the speech is just where you want it and every word is absolutely necessary.

Then go back in a few days and take out another 10%.

I bet if he doesn’t sue me, Neil Simon would agree.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friday Questions

Hello from Phoenix where I’ve prepared some answers to Friday Questions and enlisted a special guest to help out on one.

Ben Koch leads off:

I know you hate 2 Broke Girls, but it brings up a question I've always wanted to know. Whenever Jennifer Coolidge comes on screen the first time, the studio audience goes wild with Ooohs. I remember this happening with Christina Applegate on Married With Children. I'm sure it happens with other shows too. Why do audiences do this? Is it only reserved for the sexy/slutty character? Does the stage manager encourage it? It drives me batty.

Usually they applaud because they like the character and are encouraged to cheer. Some warm up guys are instructed to ask the audience to cheer entrances. And usually, the guest stars are hidden from the audience until their entrances so there’s that surprise factor.

Personally, I hate the convention. It takes the viewer out of the show, slows down the pace, and is very self-congratulatory. On my shows, if we have a guest star or recurring character we introduce him to the audience before the show and specifically ask the audience not to cheer when they enter the scene.

But it’s just a stylistic choice. There are producers who love the theatricality of it. I don’t.

From Shawn K:

TRIO Network used to have a series called, "Brilliant but Cancelled". It was made up of shows that were well written, yet short lived.

What shows would be on your version of "Brilliant but Cancelled"?

Besides my own of course? THE PRACTICE starring Danny Thomas from the mid 70’s and GOOD TIME HARRY from the late 70’s. Both were created and written by Steve Gordon, who wrote and directed the film ARTHUR and was one of the best comedy writers I ever met.  You can read more about him here. 

Another terrific writer is Richard Rosenstock. He created two hilarious Jewish-themed comedies – THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES for ABC and FLYING BLIND for Fox.  Both deserved better fates. 
ALL IS FORGIVEN is a forgotten gem. Produced by the Charles Brothers, it starred Bess Armstrong and was set in the world of daytime soap operas. And along those lines, the producers of TAXI did a short-lived series starring Martin Short called THE ASSOCIATES.

Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses created a brilliant show for NBC in the 80’s called BUFFALO BILL starring Dabney Coleman. He played the funniest asshole in sitcom history. The series is available on DVD. Tom & Jay also created OPEN ALL NIGHT in the early 80’s about a 24 hour convenience store that was brilliant, cancelled, and weird.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS for NBC was another good one… and leads to my next question:

Chris asks:

Dave Hackel's failed 1995 show, The Pursuit of Happiness, has an interesting piece of trivia attached to it on imdb:

"The episode that aired on October 10, 1995 featured a wedding. The other sitcoms aired that night - NewsRadio, Frasier and Wings, all featured a funeral. This was an NBC promotion capitalizing on the popularity of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, but switching the ratio between weddings and funerals with one alteration (the "four" became "three")."

Were you there on Frasier/Wings for this? Do you have any info on how that happened/how much the writers hated doing funeral episodes just because the network said so?

I was around but just on the sidelines.  To better answer that question, I turned to Dave Hackel himself.

To be honest -- all I remember about that NBC promotion was the name -- "Three Funerals & A Wedding." It's been almost twenty years ago so I didn't even remember that until I got your e-mail. I don't recall if we had planned a wedding show and the others were asked to come up with funerals or if it was the other way around. NBC was always trying to find a way to promote an evening at a time. I'm sure you remember that they'd do it around holidays, too. Everyone asked to do a Halloween show, or St. Paddy's Day, etc. But two things were always true -- we worked for them and every show is always desperate for promotion -- so we did what they asked.

Thanks, Dave.

And finally, an Anonymous person has a baseball question, which is timely this time of year:

When you're doing baseball game on TV, do you watch the action live or on the monitor? I've watched baseball and football games this week where the announcers seemed clueless about what just happened.

I generally watch the field. When a ball is hit deep to the outfield or an outfielder is attempting a tough catch I quickly check to see where the umpire is. His eyes are the only ones that count really. So I’ll glance to him to see if a ball is a home run or the outfielder trapped it, etc.

Sometimes, of course, my view is obscured by the stands or an outfielder tries to make a leaping catch 400 feet away and I will sneak a peek at the monitor.

And then I use the monitor a lot to watch replays.

When I’m calling a game on TV (as opposed to radio) I watch the monitor between each pitch. My job is primarily to add captions to the pictures. If the director is showing the manager in the dugout and I start talking about the flags in centerfield I look like an idiot. So I follow the screen. On radio, to quote the great Ernie Harwell – nothing happens until I say it does.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comment section. Thanks!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Following up on the state of radio


A few months ago I wrote a post stating that terrestrial radio was heading towards its doom primarily due to all the commercials, lack of local programming, and ignoring the warning signs. New delivery systems – especially internet radio – will overtake the dinosaur AM & FM’s if they don't open their eyes. 

Several days after the article ran, Tim Conway Jr., the nighttime host on KFI Los Angeles devoted an entire half hour of his program to ripping me and the piece.  Yes, it was a very slow news day.  Tim is a good guy and I took no offense. I’ve been ripped on the air far worse.  But by defending the health of terrestrial radio he sounded like a company shill. KFI, in fact is a Clear Channel station.

I find it amusing that he had to interrupt his tirade for a six minute commercial break and he took no listener calls. (God forbid someone would agree with me.) I have offered to go on his show and debate the issue. You can guess his response to my invitation.

Now Ad Week Magazine has come out with the results of a survey that show internet radio is indeed on the rise. Here are the major findings:

• Internet radio is used by the majority of online Americans (53%). (And who isn’t online these days?)
• The total time spent with audio is clearly expanding as people are now enjoying more audio from more devices in more places.
• 83% of smartphone owners listen to some kind of Internet radio on their mobile devices. (And who doesn’t have a smartphone?)

Mark Cuban also said as much last Friday on SHARK TANK.

Clear Channel itself is trying to get a seat at the table with I Heart Radio. But they’re competing with Pandora, Spotify, Tune In, and now Apple has entered the fray with iTunes Radio. Additionally, you have thousands of great homegrown internet stations that feature any kind of music format you could imagine. Pat Boone singing heavy metal is available if you’re willing to search for it.

Satellite provider Sirius/XM is making a big play for subscribers to listen on the internet. They offer a version of customizing some music channels to your liking (clearly a response to the Pandora’s of the world).   At some point Sirius/XM may say, "What do we need these damn satellites for?" 

How will terrestrial radio react to this survey? They’ll ignore it. Say it’s irrelevant. Boast about all the revenue they’re making, although the money is mortgaging their future and coming from such sources as half hour informercials on colon cleanser. They’ll finagle numbers to show that audiences still listen primarily to terrestrial radio (ignoring the fact that those numbers are dwindling both in total number of listeners and time spent listening).

And Tim Conway Jr. will have another half hour topic.

Every year it’s getting easier and easier to access the internet on your car radio. You can already program stations on some and more vehicles will be equipped with that capability soon. Thanks to Bluetooth and auxiliary patches, you can plug any smartphone of tablet into your dashboard. Thousands and thousands of options are now at your fingertips that weren’t there years ago. And they take only a minute or so to set up.  Even I can do it.   Does terrestrial radio seriously believe people would rather hear 20 minutes of commercials an hour over no commercials and music they specifically have chosen? Let’s see their study that shows that. (They probably have one.)

Make no mistake -- I love terrestrial radio. I grew up on it. Some heritage stations are sacred to me. I’m not rooting for their demise. I just want them to get their head out of the sand and fix the problem. And the first step is recognizing that there is a problem. (Is there a Greedy Broadcasters Anonymous?)

Then fight back.  There are 50,000 whats you can do.   Charge more for each commercial then play fewer of them. Hire personalities. Be local. Provide the programming that Pandora can’t. And if you’re an AM station you might let listeners know where they can still get an AM radio. Why let a radio station that you’ve paid millions for be rendered less successful than one some kid has put up in his bedroom with a used laptop, a microphone, and a music program?

Radio wars used to be legendary in the '50s and '60s.  You know how to fight.  And you know how to win.   Put down that colon cleanser and pick up a sword!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Green is the new black

I always consider October 16th as “Thanksgiving Day.” It was on October 16th, way back in the day, that I entered the Army and reported to basic training. Back then there was a draft lottery. If you drew 1-150 (based on your birthday) you got drafted. I was lucky number four. So I managed to get my ass into a Reserve Unit. You weren’t on active duty for two years, but the trade off was you had to attend meetings and summer camp and be on stand by to be called up in case of an emergency – for six years.

And you had to attend regular Army basic training for nine weeks and then learn your assigned skill for another ten.

October 16th was my reporting day and now every year on that date I pause and think to myself, “No matter where I am or what I’m doing, at least I’m not in the Army.” So it’s my “Thanksgiving Day.” (Note: this is not to dissuade any of you thinking of enlisting. You’ll love the military. Really. It’s just me.)

I was assigned to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, which is at the top of the Ozarks. We’re talking DELIVERANCE country. The nearest town was Waynesville, but so what? We trainees were not allowed off the base.

When I watched ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK on Netflix I thought, “Oh my God! This is just like me in basic training except with no cunnilingus.” Cut off from the world, being processed in, living in open barracks with maniacs, Jesus freaks, illiterates, rednecks, Rambos, and chronic snorers.

Like the main character Piper who had trouble adjusting, I found that being a princess did not help me fit in to Army life. A guy who’s not good with his hands shouldn’t be assembling rifles and throwing grenades. (Again, if you’re reading this at the recruiter’s office, you should be fine. And there’s great camaraderie when four of your buddies are doing their business in open stalls as you brush your teeth two feet away.)

Just like in OITNB, everyone was referred to by their last names. Mispronunciation was common. For instance, I pronounce my name Lee-Vine, but they thought it was Fuckhead.

The ruthless guards might as well have been drill sergeants. Both were equally stupid. And both called everyone “ladies, women, and pussies.”

We all had lights out at the same time and awoke early every morning. We had inspections, roll call, bad food (C-rations at one point -- muffins canned in 1962 that lost their freshness in 1970), and of course – communal showers (which made for terrible acoustics when you tried to sing).

We had movie nights at Ft. Leonard Wood, like the women inmates did. We could only go on Sundays however. And their choice of features weren’t exactly tailored to their target audience. One Sunday, in a theater that sat 400, five of us trained killers watched FUNNY GIRL.

There were some differences between the show and my experience. No one ever visited me. No Jewish parent misses their child enough to go to the fucking Ozarks. And if any recruit listened to NPR he’d probably be fragged.

I only had to put up with this for nine weeks. Imagine being sentenced to several years. As it is, I give thanks that I’m not doing it now.

Of course, I did meet my writing partner in the Reserves, and I never would have been able to write MASH without being exposed to the military way of thinking. Damn! I owe a great deal of my career to being in the Army. (Don’t leave that recruiting office just yet.)