Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Questions

Rolling out the weekend with some Friday Questions. What’s yours?

VP81955 starts us off with a screenplay FQ:

I've been told that when you're suggesting musical or song & dance segments, you should not specifically list the song (and certainly not play choreographer -- that's why God made Toni Basil!), but write "in the style of 'Pump It Up' by Elvis Costello (or whatever)." At the same time, I understand the screenwriter for "Guardians of the Galaxy" -- whom I'm guessing is far more experienced regarding this stuff than I am -- insisted on several '70s songs for the soundtrack. How would you suggest a neophyte screenwriter handle this situation?

The issue about specific songs is that the studio will need to secure the rights. And that can get complicated and expensive.   Good luck getting a Beatles or Springsteen song.  It’s generally better to leave yourself some options.

In the case of GUARDIANS, ‘70s music was key to the character. But they had enough wiggle room that if they couldn’t get “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries they’d be able to get clearance for something comparable.

For your screenplay you could suggest a specific song and add:  or something like it that the studio could clear without needing to sell off the backlot.

As for choreography, be sparing for several reasons. It’s hard to convey and the last thing you want to do is bog down your reader with extensive stage direction. As you said, it’s Toni Basil Magic.

David wonders:

John Astin so under-rated. Have a question - I remember that MTM series (short as it was) and remember the Astin character had a thing where he always said the full name of Mary's character. When you develop a character do you also develop those "hooks" (is that the industry word?) or does it evolve during the creation of the show, as you hear the characters interacting in real time?

You do look for quirks that help define a character. The best of these come from observing real behavior from real people.  When David Isaacs and I are creating a character we'll often say, "What about that thing that Fred does?"    (Poor Fred, we use him all the time.) 

But again, the point is to help inform the audience as to who the character is. It’s not just giving him a funny catch phrase or goofy walk just to have him stand out.

Actors are always looking for these “hooks” to lock onto a character. Sometimes it’s a speech pattern, a physical quirk, a piece of wardrobe, or even a certain music genre preference a la GUARDIANS.

As a writer, the more specific I can make a character the easier it will be for the actor and the audience to get what I’m going for.

Another helpful hint for writers -- take acting classes and improv workshops.  Learn to develop characters for yourself.    I always recommend Andy Goldberg's improv class.  It's the one I'm in.

Micah queries:

Ken, you've diversified so much of late with playwrighting (a word?), TCM hosting. I'm curious if you've thought about doing a podcast? Given your broadcasting chops, storytelling and showbiz connections, I'd think you would be pretty successful with it. Have you considered that at all?

I have. I would like to do a podcast. I just need the equipment and someone to show me how to use it, how to upload it, how to link to it from my blog. I am not computer savvy (a nice way of saying I’m a blithering idiot). I also worry a little about the time and obligation a podcast would require.

Oh… and just what the hell I’d say on one of these things?

But I’m definitely interested.

From Allan V:

Like yourself, I have also called games on-air (high school, not MLB), and like yourself, I like to use the occasional profanity in my casual, everyday speech. What approach did you use to keep from accidentally blurting out an f-bomb or similar word when things get exciting during a game? Frankly, I was always a bit worried that I might let one fly during the heat of the moment.

I can only speak for myself. I am always conscious of the fact that I am “on the air.” Usually I’m listening to headphones so my voice sounds a little amplified and that provides a constant reminder that I’m in broadcast mode.

I have been known to drop a profanity or two during my daily life. But when I’m in the booth I try to curtail the casual use of such language. However, I know announcers who take great delight in saying the most disgusting things between pitches – clicking the mic on and off. That’s a high wire act I choose to avoid. All you need is one slip up.

Back in the ‘90s when announcers were calling a game on TV it was carried by satellite to the station and anyone who had a dish could access it. The mic was always on and there have been instances where announcers have sworn a blue streak or been extremely candid assessing a player’s lack of talent during commercial breaks only to have a few thousand listeners (including the kid's parents) scattered around the country eavesdropping. Oops. I forget the particulars but Al Michaels once got in trouble during a World Series by saying something between innings that was not meant to be broadcast. Double oops.


AAllen said...

One of my favorite memories is arriving at the Kingdome early for an old-timers game before the main game. The Dome was practically empty, so I went to the seats just above the broadcast booth. Someone mentioned the possibility of The Blue Jays and The Expos playing each other in The World Series, and you said "CBS would just shit!" There's commentary you can't get over the radio.

Dan Ball said...

Friday Question:

After your epic tirade against ONE BIG HAPPY, how pissed and/or disillusioned are you that TV comedies haven't evolved more in the years since MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER? I know a lot of show business is about getting lucky with the right audience among other things, but do you get frustrated that making good TV is just a vicious cycle of discovery and ignorance instead of just steady evolution--like science or technology? We know you get bummed as a viewer, but as a person who's contributed to the betterment/evolution of good TV, what are your thoughts on this matter? How do you explain/reconcile it?

I'm plenty pissed and/or disillusioned about it, too. Not just TV comedies, but most of the arts. How come music and movies aren't getting better after all this time? There's some damned devolution at work here and it don't make no sense! We want science and technology to get better because we want to learn more and do things more easily, but why are we letting the arts get crappier?

ScottUSF said...

I'd love to hear Ken [and David] on a Nerdist Writer's Panel podcast. Might be interesting to hear how the writing partnership works.

Any ideas how to hook up Ken with Ben Blacker?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Ken was on a panel for Nerdist w Ben. I'd look it up but I am lazy.

The "hook" discussion reminds me of Les Nessman, who always had a bandage on his face. Well, frequently, at least.

And I used to be a teacher - always had to watch the language habits, and avoid every possible double entendre.

Oat Willie said...

But if this was a podcast you wouldn't get all us wonderful people in the comments section cursing you or showbiz for not buying our actionsexy scripts!

Anonymous said...

You're a smart dude. As a aside question, I just heard Dustin Hoffman said that "" no one dreams of becoming a critic.."".

Is it true no one dreams or aspire to be a critic or a reader when they are in high school?

Most people in high school want to be actors and directors and models, not a critic or reader.

Is this true?


John N. said...

The Al Michaels incident was during the '87 Series, St. Louis at Minnesota. He had some fairly innocuous gripes about Minneapolis or the Metrodome that were relayed in the local paper. Up here, mind you, we don't cope well with criticism. The next night during commercials, Michaels ripped the writer. Apparently Al doesn't cope well, either.

Igor said...

Ken wrote: I just need the equipment and someone to show me how to use it, how to upload it, how to link to it from my blog. I am not computer savvy (a nice way of saying I’m a blithering idiot).

Isn't that why having-kids was invented?

Igor said...

Or, as Rufus T. Firefly said (note - he was a man who was willing to offer a gal a Rufus over her head):

"Clear? Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child."

Kevin Schmitt said...

Friday Question:

Having recently binge-watched Frasier with my family, we discovered one scene everyone wants to revisit: the first act of Season 6's Three Valentines, where Niles' quest for perfection before a date leads to some unintended consequences.

The nearly wordless farce that David Hyde Pierce puts on is simply brilliant, but on subsequent viewings, I'm interested to know how such a scene comes to life from both a writing and directing perspective. How difficult is it to write a dialogue-free scene, and what are the directing challenges in choreographing something that relies on a single actor and, in this case, an animal?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Tips for podcasts coming directly later on...


Michael said...

Ken, you should make a review of the new THE ODD COUPLE that stars Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon

Mike Schryver said...

Regarding Dan Ball's comment...

TV comedies may not be getting any better, but I don't think they're getting any worse, either. It's easy to forget that for every M*A*S*H there were three HELLO, LARRYs, with a couple of FLYING HIGHs and CO-ED FEVERs thrown in for good measure.

Nathan said...

@Dan Ball: I don't know about Ken, but it neither pisses me off nor disillusions me. Crap has always been with us in the arts, and it always will be, for the simple reason that lots of people LIKE crap. Many of us here, for example, may roll our eyes at drivel like 2 BROKE GIRLS and see it as nothing more than a snark-target, but obviously there's an audience for it. As someone pointed out yesterday during the Ellen hate-a-thon, it's been renewed for a fifth season. There are more than a few people out there watching it.

I have a friend, a dietitian and fitness consultant, who remains in a state of perpetual frustration because, even though we know and understand more now than we ever have before about nutrition and about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, people are fatter and more out of shape than they've ever been. You just cause yourself frustration expecting people to be anything other than what they are. There's always been a sizeable audience for junk and there always will be, whether you're talking about food or television.

Dan Ball said...

Mike & Nathan,

Thanks for making me feel better! lol You're both right, but Nathan, your point about nutrition vs. obesity is exceptionally right in every disturbing way.

SER said...

@DanBall: "After your epic tirade against ONE BIG HAPPY, how pissed and/or disillusioned are you that TV comedies haven't evolved more in the years since MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER? "

SER: There is a tendency to look at past eras in entertainment (music, TV, film) based solely on what endured. So, if you compare the 1970s in film to now or the 1980s in TV to now, the present day comes out short but that's because the drek vanished into oblivion.

But if you look at the entirety of what was released in the past, I don't think there's evidence of a devolution in quality. There are also fallow periods for certain genres (say, the sitcom) but that was the case in the early 1980s when they were pronounced "dead." And dramas had a low period before LAW AND ORDER became successful.

VP81955 said...

Ken, thanks for answering my question (and I hope you appreciate that at least one other person here knows Toni Basil for more than "Mickey"). Just wondering if you caught the documentary "The Wrecking Crew" about the great Los Angeles session men (and woman, bassist Carol Kaye), which finally is in finished form. Saw it the other night at the Nuart, and while it's ended its run there, it will show tonight at eight SoCal theaters from Camarillo to San Diego; find out where at

The Crew played on such classics as "Be My Baby," "Don't Worry Baby" and "California Dreamin'." One of their alums, Glen Campbell, used them on his sessions well into the '70s. See what I wrote about the movie at

Lou W said...

Kevin, Ken already did two blog posts on that exact (brilliant) scene.

Dan Ball said...

SER: I understand that these are the shows that have endured from the past amongst the crap that was around when they aired, but why is this a cyclical process instead of a growing crescendo of knowledge and ability? Art is like anti-Darwinism. Survival of both the fittest and the worst habits of the unfittest.

Johnny Walker said...

Re: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. It's worth remembering that one of the screenwriters was also the director. When it comes to films, it appears that a screenwriter could never insist on anything (once the script has been sold at least) -- but the director on the other hand...

By Ken Levine said...

I saw THE WRECKING CREW Tuesday night at the Nuart. I recommend it to EVERYONE.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, you should go on Marc Maron's show -- and when you're done ask him to show you how he does it :) I'm sure he'd love to share all he's learned over the years (he's talked a little about it in a few episodes -- mic choices, computer equipment, etc.). I bet he has it streamlined to the simplest method possible by now.

And when you've got some content and need a website, give me a call :)

My portfolio is here:

(Same goes for anyone reading this.)

#shamelessselfpromotion #sorry

jcs said...

Friday Question

Peter Mehlman's excellent IT'S LIKE, YOU KNOW... had a fairly similar fate as ALMOST PERFECT five years before. The show ran for one and a half seasons and was critically acclaimed. (ABC threw Mehlman's show under the bus to make more room for WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE.)
Did you and Mehlman by any chance ever discuss this?

Johnny Walker said...


Now you're back, I was hoping you could answer some WINGS questions for me. I've been re-watching the entire series and it's really grown on me. (I think the biggest problem it had for new viewers was that Joe and Brian were too similar -- we always being TOLD how different they were, but it was only when Joe got married that their lifestyles finally diverged -- I digress.)

One thing amazing about WINGS was its sets. One very unusual thing it had (which I've never seen before) was a two tier primary set. The second tier was hardly ever used (they tried to use it in early seasons, but they gave up after a while).

Technically how did this work? How did they film on the second level? Didn't having such a high ceiling make lighting the lower level difficult? Could the audience see up there OK? How were cameras supposed to make use of it?

How did it even come about? Was it an experiment by a maverick set designer, or was there a good reason for it? (They ultimately didn't work out?)

The other sets on the show always seemed big and incredibly detailed, too. How could they afford such intricate sets?

Anyways, thanks!

VP81955 said...

"'s like, y'know" was indeed an excellent series (has it ever been issued on DVD?), but the chief criticism of the series was that it was trying to view Los Angeles in the same way "Seinfeld" did New York. Maybe it was true to a small extent, but just as LA and NY are entirely different, so were the shows' approaches and sensibilities.

One reason for my interest is Peter Mehlman, a classmate of mine at the University of Maryland in the mid-1970s (and briefly a co-worker at the university newspaper, the Diamondback.) We weren't that close, but the acerbic nature of his best "Seinfeld" scripts as well as "it's like, y'know..." was definitely in tune with his personality.

Diane D. said...

He could have used your help with the title!

Diane D. said...

Dan Ball
One reason might be that in many public schools, the arts have almost disappeared. Children really do need to be taught art appreciation. It should not be considered superfluous.

Thomas Mossman said...

Any plans to see the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy? Early reviews on that movie have been good.

Charles H. Bryan said...

It was Nerdist Writers Panel #36 from April 2012.

A Friday Question: Ken, have you thought about making "It's Gone ... No, Wait a Minute" available as an eBook? Are there complications with rights or digitization? (Jeez, what a word.)

Boomska316 said...

Friday question: I just re-watched Showdown Parts 1 & 2 again. Has there ever been a "will they, won't they" storyline that worked as well as the Sam/Diane relationship in those early years? I realize it's subjective,but it's hard to think of any show that did it better.

Allan V said...

@Johnny Walker: I love 'Wings', too, and own most of the series on DVD, so I would love reading more about it on this blog.

But I was puzzled when you said "Joe and Brian were too similar". How is that the case? From the very beginning, I felt their perspectives on life were much different, and those differences showed up all the time in the way they talked to -- and often disagreed with -- each other.

(Of the two, I related much more to Joe than Brian.)

Diane D. said...

It may be subjective, but there are a lot of people who agree that it's never been done better, nor will it ever be.

W. said...

Johnny Walker : Those WINGS sets were big enough that you could film on that stage and set up your sets in front of their WINGS set without having to disturb it.

Johnny Walker said...

@Allan V: I guess it's just me, but the show introduced them as complete opposites. Joe was the straight-laced, never take risks, big brother. He was forced to become the parent at an early age due to parental absences, and he'd learned to worry about everything as a result.

Due to the same parental absences, however, Brian became reckless and self-destructive. Bright and talented he lived his life moment to moment, and had nothing but failure (professionally and romantically) behind him to show for it.

The only thing the two had in common was the messed up childhood they shared.

However very few stories (especially in the first five seasons) demonstrated those opposites. In fact, just for the situation to work, Brian needed to become extremely responsible: Joe would have fired him in a heartbeat if he wasn't. Plus, in a practical sense, he needed to be responsible or the stories to work (how many "Brian's called in sick, he sounded hungover" stories could you do?).

So, with these restrictions, Brian's irresponsible side mostly manifested itself... in a series of zany shirt and tie choices.

Their different attitudes towards life never really manifested themselves in the obvious ways that, for example, Sam's and Diane's, or Felix's and Oscar's, Hawkeye's and Frank's, or even Frasier's and his Dad's did.

In fact, when a friend from Brian's zany past showed up, and started reliving the glory days, Joe leapt at the chance to take Brian's place. He wanted that life, too.

I guess you could argue that their characters were probably more realistic in this regard (how many of us are so opposite, in real life), but as a new viewer you just had two very similar characters in the centre.

But the show rewarded longtime viewers, as the writers seemed very strict at keeping the characters true to themselves (and their backstories), and so those got to really see the differences more and more as time went on.

For me it really became apparent after Joe got married (very late in the series). Afterwards I really saw how different they were. Joe was happily married and Brian was constantly chasing women, bemoaning the fact that he couldn't make a relationship work. The stories really showed their differences, and for me it really worked.

I also think that the writers painted themselves into a corner with Fay (and possibly Roy). She was so bizarrely ill-defined. As a new viewer it was difficult to know exactly where she stood. Was she filled with biting sarcasm? Was she actually sweet-natured but just tactless? How dark was her dark-side? She remains a bit of an enigma, if you ask me.

As for Roy, he was so selfish and nasty, and positioned as the opposition to the main characters, that it must have been hard to work him into stories. He motivations where: "Don't care" (so he's not about to help anyone) and "Hope they fail" (which, if he acted on it, and actively sabotaged the characters, would have made him too unlikeable). That said, I think they did a great job of eventually showing him having a softer side, and so taking some of the bark out of his bite. He was still selfish, but he was also insecure.

While we're at it, let's talk about Lowell and Antonio :) (I haven't been able to discuss any of these thoughts with anyone -- it's nice to get them out!)

I think it's because I first really noticed Thomas Haden-Church in SIDEWAYS -- and he was such a strong presence in that movie that I kind of find it hard to enjoy Lowell. Plus his character was very limited. Antonio, however, really stepped up and filled the void in this regard. Whereas Lowell was limited to saying dumb things, Antonio could add to the discussion while being funny. I really enjoyed his character.

Anyways, I didn't intend to write so much. Lol. They're my thoughts on WINGS. Thanks for letting me share them!

John said...

Here's my question:

I've recently been rewatching Frasier and noticed the audience in the pilot is quite rowdy (hollering and clapping), more akin to Married with Children. After the pilot, this seemed to disappear and we got a more restrained audience who were still clearly having a great time and laughing a lot.

My question is - was this a conscious choice, or did it just happen naturally? Do you think it just happened to be more encouraged on other shows?