Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hollywood generosity (an oxymoron)

Not to be a name dropper but (okay I am a name dropper) I was having lunch with Shelley Long and grousing that I had to buy the CHEERS DVD set. Paramount didn’t give me one, which would have been nice considering I wrote a lot of episodes and my royalties from DVD sales are a fucking joke. I was amazed to learn that Shelley wasn’t provided a complimentary copy of the collection either. You’d think as just a common courtesy the studio would give the cast DVD’s.

When a recording artist makes an album the label generally gives him a copy or two. When an author publishes a book he usually doesn’t have to go to Amazon and order a copy.

But we’re talking show business and a mindset where if they don’t HAVE TO do something for you they won’t.

20th Century Fox did not offer me any DVD’s of MASH, despite my involvement. In this instance, I even called and asked. I was told giving away free copies, even to members of the creative staff, was against company policy. Like it would break News Corp.

A few years later I received a call one late morning from the 20th publicity department. The MASH DVD’s were being released in the U.K. and they were arranging a telephone press conference with British critics. Since I had worked on the show for four years and had a popular blog, would I mind representing the show at the conference? It would take about a half hour; I would just answer questions, etc.

I asked when this conference was scheduled for. 2:00 PM my time. It was now about 11:30. I said, “I tell you what. If the complete box set of the entire series of MASH is delivered to my door by 2:00 I will participate in the conference. If not, I’m not doing it. And that’s every year, any bonus material, suitable for Blu-Ray.”

Needless to say, faster than a Domino’s pizza, the DVD’s were on my doorstep.   That's what it takes for them to be generous -- they need something from you. 

I always wondered – if at the last minute the press conference was cancelled, would they send someone to get the DVD’s back? Seriously, I wouldn’t put it past them.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Come see a Levine & Isaacs pilot

The Whitefire Theatre in fabulous Sherman Oaks (the heart of the San Fernando Valley theater and auto repair district) is staging a night of three TV pilots that never made it to air. One is a pilot my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote called UNDER ANDREA. We’ve turned it into a one act play and I’m directing it. It’s very funny as are the other two (by Russ Woody and Rick Dresser). 

The program is called DEAD PILOTS SOCIETY and will run for four Monday nights beginning TONIGHT. (The others are July 6, July 13, and July 20. )

 You can get tickets here.
Now a little background. And it’s a typical Hollywood story. UNDER ANDREA is about a Devil Wear’s Prada head of a magazine empire like Conde Nast. She gets three new assistants – the best and the brightest – and informs them the first day she’ll fire one after the weekend. She then gives them impossible tasks to complete over the weekend. This was before THE APPRENTICE and I think before the movie of DEVIL WEARS PRADA. What seemed fun to us was Millennials who were ambitious and whip smart, not slackers or bar flies that only existed to hook up.
The only note we got from Fox after we turned in our first draft was “put a hot babe in it.” We said “to do what?” They replied, “We don’t care. We’re Fox. We want a hot babe.” So we did. Ultimately, Gail Berman, who was president of Fox then passed, saying it felt too sophisticated and too much like an NBC comedy. (Those apparently were bad things.)

One of the executives at Fox at the time moved over to NBC a few years later. Kevin Reilly was in charge. He said he wanted to go back to the “Must See TV” era of great urban sophisticated NBC comedies. The executive remembered ours and suddenly we were in play again at NBC.

We did a quick polish, they were all excited. We were on the fast track. And then….

MY NAME IS EARL premiered, got good numbers and Reilly decided to change his game plan. No urban sophisticated comedies. Now they wanted rural goofy comedies. Within 24 hours UNDER ANDREA was dead.

But it’s a script we always loved. A good friend, Russ Woody (MURPHY BROWN, BECKER, I forget what else but he has a bunch of Emmys) told us about this program the Whitefire Theatre was mounting – three unsold TV sitcom pilots – and invited us to submit one.

Like most writers we had several to choose from. Of those, we felt UNDER ANDREA would translate to the stage easier than the others. We took a day and adapted it into a one act. Happily, it was accepted.

We put together a terrific cast and I volunteered to direct it. I’ve directed many multi-camera sitcoms, but this was my first venture into theater directing. When I had my play, A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre last year I wisely let Andrew Barnicle, a seasoned veteran, direct, and I learned a ton. Helming a half hour theater piece is a good way to get my feet wet. It’s play directing with training wheels.

The process has been fun and challenging. I’m not used to working with small spaces, limited props, and finding creative ways to convey time and place. On the other hand, I don’t have cameras to deal with. I’m really enjoying the intimacy. Of course, that’s the beauty of Equity Waiver (that Equity is trying very hard to destroy, despite 2/3rds of its local membership demanding that things stay the same.)

Last week we had our  “tech” rehearsal, which means setting all the light and sound cues, nailing down the costume changes and props, figuring out the scene transitions, etc. All the details you put off till later?  Later is now.  It’s somewhat laborious and very exacting. I just kept thinking, “What must tech rehearsal on PIPPIN be like?”

As I said, this has been a learning process for me. For example: I’m used to saying “Action!” to begin a scene. They don’t do that in the theater I found out. They say: “Anytime you’re ready” or “Curtain up” or just wait for the actors to begin. Fuck it. I still say “Action!” In TV if I need a prop I call for the prop master. Here I go and buy it.

What’s made the experience so pleasant and fun is that the Whitefire provides great support. My eternal gratitude to Bryan Rasmussen, Jake O’Flaherty, David Svengalis, and the entire theater company.

Tonight is opening night and I’m very excited. If anything, watching the pilot come to life, both David Isaacs and I had the same reaction – Fuck NBC and Fox for not making this. It’s a helluva lot better than most of the crap they did make.

See for yourself. And if you come, I’ll be around. Stop by and say hello.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Blow in her face and she'll follow you everywhere.

Are you having withdrawal symptoms now that MAD MEN is over?  Well, to help you through these difficult times I thought you might enjoy these actual magazine ads from Don Draper's day.   Noted without comment except to say, JESUS EFFIN' CHRIST!!?"

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How to sell a one-hour drama to USA, FX, A&E, TNT, or whoever

It's very simple.  I have discovered the basic cable one-hour formula.  Follow these steps and you premiere right after BURN NOTICE. 

Start with a handsome likable actor. Heavy on charm, athletic, has a dimple, and can deliver a joke without needing a stunt double. For background, he was in some branch of law enforcement. Cop, U.S. Marshall, CIA, secret service, security guard at Warner Brothers.

And we learn he’s a real rogue. Does things his own way. Often gets in trouble with his superiors. He’s just incorrigible. But he’s the best cop/Marshall/CIA agent/gate guard at Warners that has ever been. Lightening fast draw, sharp shooter, explosives expert, Mensa candidate. He’s absolutely fearless but super cool. He drinks beer. He sleeps with any woman he’s assigned to protect.

As the pilot begins his rogue-ness gets him in trouble. He’s fired or reassigned. If fired, he’s trying to get his job back. If reassigned, he’s sent to the most fish-out-of-water locale you can find. Let's say he's from Chicago. Ship him off to the Everglades.

If possible, set the show in some sun drenched city. Miami, San Diego. Great excuse to show hot girls in bikinis, bright beauty shots, and easier to duplicate when you shoot in San Pedro, California.

Also, try to set him in a town where he has ties. Give him a hot ex-wife or ex-girlfriend that he still sort of loves and still sort of loves him. They broke up because of his rogue-ness or some fault that he has that every woman in America would ignore in two seconds to snare a prize like this.

He has a dark past that he needs to work through… when it’s convenient. Former lover died.  Former partner died.  Steve McQueen died.

For good measure, throw in an eccentric parent (preferably one who was hot and starred in a show his or herself in the 80s).

He also has to have a partner who’s either crazier than he is, or the total opposite. Someone has to say, “You’re going to get us KILLED!” at least once an episode.

It’s very important that your hero have a moral code. He only kills bad guys. He has a soft spot for innocent downtrodden saps who are in trouble. Yes, he’s tough but he’s empathetic, and don’t you dare make a big deal of thanking him. He’s adorably shy.

In addition to solving crimes, and dodging ten thousand stray bullets an episode, there’s always a larger story arc. Some secret to uncover, or an elusive nemesis he needs to catch… when it’s convenient.

Throw in some action sequences, chase scenes, explosions (at least for the pilot), and there has to be a helicopter in at least one scene (I have no idea why but you do). Then mix in some "character" scenes so we see the hero is sensitive as well as strong. 

Give the show a snappy title that’s no more than two words. JUSTIFIED, TERRIERS, THE GLADES, BURN NOTICE. And you’re good to go.

Best of luck. Give me shared creator credit when you sell your show. And you better hurry. Other writers have figured out this formula too. And John Corbett is not going to be out there forever.

This is a repost from five years ago, but nothing's changed.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Questions

Live from New York! It’s Friday Questions!

Julia Littleton gets us started.

Can you explain something about the art of the setup that won't, as it were, kill the frog in the process? Probably you've explained it before, but I can never get enough of this stuff. The setups on Frasier were so elaborate that the reward, when it came, was truly memorable.

The key to the set-up is providing the information the viewer needs to make the joke work. A Donald Trump hair joke makes no sense if you don’t know that Donald Trump has a ridiculous comb-over. Make sure the audience has the information it needs to know in order for the joke reference to connect.

The other thing set-ups have to be is very specific. You want to lead the viewer down one specific comedy path. If the punch line can be viewed as ambiguous (is the joke about Donald Trump’s hair or his money?) you shoot yourself in the foot.

People underestimate the importance of set ups. Often when a joke doesn’t work the first thing we do is not throw it out and find another joke, it's analyze the set-up. Maybe the punchline was right; the set up was not.  Changing a word or two or clarifying can save a good joke.

Griffin asks:

I'm a crew member on a network show who has been guaranteed a directing assignment. I don't have an agent, and I'm wondering -- is now a good time to try to get one? Should I wait until the episode goes well?

No. Get one now if you can. Strike while the iron is hot.  Hopefully your episode will go great, but you’ll have no more clout than you do now. Agents sign people based on their marketability (and thus commissions), not how brilliant their work is.  The credit is the main thing, which you will now have. Congratulations on the directing assignment. Break a lens.

Jose wants to know:

Ken, not that you would, but at the height of your career (or even now), could you have "blackballed" someone starting out that you didn’t like?

No one has ever asked me that question before. No. I don’t know any writer or producer who has that power. Showrunners do talk and maybe a bad experience on one show could keep a writer from landing on a few others, but it’s not like the blacklist of the ‘50s where certain writers and actors were essentially banned from the industry.

And honestly, even if a writer gets a bad rap, sometimes it’s unjustified, and you put that same writer in a better situation then suddenly he thrives.

For the record, I’ve never tried to get anybody blackballed. Nor would I. Life’s too short to engage in that kind of toxic bullshit.

UPDATE: In reflecting on this further today, I would have to say that I do know some writers who are vindictive and try to derail people.   It's a loathsome practice and regardless of how successful they may be at it, they're still taking advantage of their power position (whatever level it is) to hurt someone who is in a lesser position.   Like I said, I don't condone it and have little respect for those who practice it.

Usually I don’t answer questions from Anonymous readers but this MASH-related one was worth addressing. That said, please leave a name. Thank you.

Winchester's sister was HonORRia, or a something like that (make sure to use the Boston accent). Near the end, maybe even in “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (the series finale), someone pronounced her name so it rhymed with gonorrhea.

Was that always a joke in the pocket from when the sister was named, or a happy coincidence? My lowbrow mind thought it was one of the funniest jokes on the show, especially in the last couple years.

The name Honoria comes from a girl I dated briefly in college. She made it very clear that she wanted to be referred to by her proper name, no nicknames like “Honey.” So when we were looking for a name for Charles’ sister, someone rigid and a little snooty, I thought of Honoria.

The mispronunciation by Hawkeye to needle Charles was a happy accident.

I always wondered whether the real Honoria was flattered or pissed that we used her name.

Johnny Walker queries:

Were there any unaired episodes of Big Wave Dave's? Wikipedia says there were only ever six produced. Is it right?

Only six made. All six aired. All six did great in the ratings. Maybe double the audience BIG BANG THEORY enjoys now. CBS cancelled us.  I'm not at all bitter.

From Bert:

You've frequently provided insightful advice for aspiring TV writers. What would you suggest for a young high school kid, a sports buff, who wants to be a sports broadcaster?

Take English courses. Read voraciously. Develop your communication skills and build your vocabulary. It’s not just about “sports.”

Study the sportscasters you admire, but don’t copy their style. And then practice the 10,000 hours. The best way to do that is to grab a taping device, go to games, sit high in the stands away from others, call the game, then listen back and critique yourself, really being brutal. It’s not the same sitting in front of your TV with the sound down. You don’t want someone else to show you the pictures. You want to be able to see for yourself -- check out the defensive alignment, or what’s happening on the bench or in the dugout (depending on the sport). And it’s great to have that crowd ambiance.

It doesn’t have to be a Major League baseball game or NBA or NFL game. Go call a college game or even a high school game. The more experience you get, the better. Oh… and keep giving the score.

What's your Friday Question?  Please leave it in the comments section.  I'll try to get to it no matter what coast I'm on.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Striving for the BIGGEST laugh

The biggest laugh I think I ever had was from a joke on THE HONEYMOONERS. I must’ve rolled on the floor for five minutes straight.   If LMFAO is bigger than LOL, what is bigger than LMFAO because that's what I did?

THE HONEYMOONERS, for many of my younger readers (and hopefully I have more than six), was a 1950’s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason (who was a guy) as Ralph Kramden, a New York bus driver who was always looking to get rich.

In one episode, called “The $99,000 Answer” Ralph goes on a live national game show (very much like 500 QUESTIONS). He has to identify songs. At any time he could stop and keep the money he’s earned, or risk it all for more money if he answers the next question. You know the drill. He enlists the help of his best friend, Ed Norton (no, not the actor – the character played brilliantly by Art Carney) to prepare for the show. He rents a piano, gathers sheet music, and Norton tests him by playing various songs. All well and good but Norton has a quirk. He starts every song with the opening riff of “Suwannee River.” It drives Ralph insane.

By the time he has to go on the show he knows every song ever written. Now the joke. 60 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT. The very first song they give him is “Suwannee River” and he doesn’t know it. Maybe because I was like eleven at the time but I didn’t see it coming. That joke utterly killed me.

Today we are more savvy. We’ve all seen a billion more sitcom episodes. It’s hard to imagine an audience not anticipating this punch line.

But I always loved it, and I always admired the courage of building an entire episode around one payoff. Talk about all or nothing. Plus, like I said, it’s harder to pull off today because audiences are more sophisticated to sitcom-plotting-ways.

Still, as a comedy writer, it’s something I always wanted to do. On CHEERS I got my chance. David Isaacs and I had an idea – what if Frasier and Lilith are worried because their toddler Frederick still hasn’t spoken? Lilith questions her own parenting skills. So Frasier takes over as primary care-giver. Frasier, of course, brings little Freddy to the bar every day. And this is what happens. (They won’t let me embed it so you’ll have to click on the link.)

Happily, the studio audience did not see it coming and erupted in huge prolonged laughter. It was both a rush and a major relief.

Writing it proved to be a bitch, but not for the reason we expected. We had to somehow set up the joke without telegraphing it.  That part we knew.  To do that we established that parking meters were now installed on the nearby streets and Norm had to feed the meter every couple of hours. That way he could enter the bar four or five times and Frederick could learn the pattern. But what it meant for me and David was that we had to write four or five Norm entrances. At that point in the series run writing one was a bitch. We kept grumbling through the entire first draft, “We are such schmucks! We did this to ourselves!”

Ultimately, the show worked like a charm. The episode title, by the way, is “Breaking In Is Hard To Do” and it’s available on Hulu Plus if you want to watch it. I can’t embed that either.

But I owe it all to THE HONEYMOONERS and writers Leonard Stern & Sydney Zelinka. Another great example of an entire episode based on one gigantic payoff is the “That’s My Boy” installment of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I won’t spoil that if you haven’t seen it (I gave you sixty years to see “the $99,000 Answer”), but thanks to writers Bill Persky & Sam Denoff.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The funniest movie of the year!

Finally I can recommend a Hollywood comedy that’s actually FUNNY. Go see SPY. I can’t remember the last time I watched a supposed comedy and laughed out loud repeatedly. Or at all.

Thank you Paul Feig. It’s like you’ve taken the best of Judd Apatow and eliminated all the pretense, indulgence, bullshit, and Adam Sandler and crafted an action-comedy that is both smart and silly.

And Melissa McCarthy is flat-out hilarious. With this role she takes her place among the best screen clowns of all-time. And in the hands of Paul Feig she absolutely soars.

SPY is a pitch-perfect spoof of the James Bond genre, down to the opening title sequence complete with a Shirley Bassey-esque theme song that makes no sense whatsoever. Along the way, Feig doesn’t miss a trick, touching on every Bond convention from the high stakes Baccarat game to the formal reception to the exotic worldwide locations. On the screen a graphic will come on that says Rome and a few seconds later one that adds Italy – as if audiences needed to be told this.   There are big laughs, little laughs, laughs on the way to other laughs. 

The key to the comedy, and it’s always a good lesson, is that everything is played straight. No one in this film knows they’re in a comedy. It might as well be an espionage thriller but the situations are absurd and the dialogue is funny.

McCarthy is also surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast. Allison Janney never misses, Bobby Cannavale is solid, Rose Byrne is always comic gold (Why isn’t she a major star yet? Or at least Elizabeth Banks?), but the real surprise here is Jason Stratham. You know him as the perpetually scowling bad ass bad guy who has killed more men in any one movie than Jack Bauer has in a whole season (except the third). But in SPY Jason satirizes the role. And crushes it. What does it say when Jason Stratham is funnier than Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Seth Rogen, and certainly Adam Sandler?

Is SPY a comedy classic? Is it SOME LIKE IT HOT? Is it ANIMAL HOUSE? Is it VOLUNTEERS (Okay, had to slip that one in there)? No. But it truly delivers. How refreshing to sit through a summer comedy and not squirm, check your watch, groan, fall asleep, or hate your life. Hey, by today’s standards maybe it is a classic.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My thoughts on TRANSPARENT

Emmy voting has begun.

TRANSPARENT is a wonderful show. It is filled with rich characters, novel situations, tremendous heart, superb performances, inspired writing, and it courageously tackles a delicate subject with compassion and conviction. It’s far and away the best new show of the current season.

But I’m not voting for it.


Because it was submitted as a “Best Comedy” candidate.

I’m sorry, but TRANSPARENT is not a comedy. There are humorous touches, but it is a deeply affecting drama. It’s like a rightfielder winning the Cy Young Award for Best Pitcher because he’s got a good arm and throws accurately from rightfield. He’s not PITCHING. Or a girl from Italy comes to the U.S. on a work visa and wins Miss America.

If TRANSPARENT was vying for “Best Drama” I would vote for it in a second. I would cheerfully vote for it over MAD MEN. And sorry Jon Hamm, but I would vote for Jeffrey Tambor. I’d also vote for Amy Landecker, but not if I have to judge on the basis of comic chops.

Just because TRANSPARENT is a half-hour doesn’t make it a comedy.

The objective of a comedy should be to make people LAUGH. And yet, that goal is viewed as being almost unimportant. Comedy again gets no respect. It’s lightweight, frivolous. Anybody can do comedy. So to gain respect, comedies must now be dramas disguised as comedies.

Here’s the dirty little secret: Anybody CAN’T do comedy. Writing comedy is HARD. Getting genuine laughs is HARD. Filling a half hour with them, telling a compelling story with them, conveying truths with them, reflecting society with them – that’s FUCKING HARD. And those few who can do it really well deserve an Emmy category to honor them. There used to be one. It was called “Best COMEDY.”

Again, nothing to take away from Jill Soloway’s (pictured: left) writing on TRANSPARENT. I’d vote for her over Matthew Weiner were her show in the Drama category. And it’s unfortunate that it falls somewhere in between Comedy and Drama. Perhaps there should be a Dramedy category, although, who are we kidding? The Emmy Awards are too long with too many categories as it is.

TRANSPARENT won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy, but that’s the stupid Golden Globes. They mean nothing. I hope TRANSPARENT wins every Pulitzer, Peabody, GLAAD, you name a prestigious prize. It’s a revelation. But it’s not a comedy in the strict sense. Maybe I’m in the minority but I’m going to vote for comedies the fit the definition of the word.

UPDATE:  The Academy designates comedies and dramas by whether they're half hours or hours.  So TRANSPARENT would essentially be trapped in the Comedy category although it really isn't a comedy.   But reader RockGolf provided a link that shows the Academy will make exceptions.  Here's the link.    TRANSPARENT could have been submitted as a Drama if they had applied for a waiver. 

And that brings up another question.  Since they did have a choice, did they submit as a Comedy because they strategically felt they had a better chance of winning?   Something to think about. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Can comedy stand the test of time?

A Friday Question from last week sparked a lively debate on comedy and how it changes with each generation.   Comedy is a product of the times, reflecting our attitudes and sensibilities. Millennials have a different worldview than we Baby Boomers (or, if I want to lie about my age, we Gen-X’ers) have.

On a Sirius/XM comedy channel recently I heard an old Steve Martin routine. All he had to say was “Ex-cuuuuse meeeee” and the audience was pulverized in laughter. I thought, what if some 19 year-old is listening to this for the first time? My guess is they’d say, “what the fuck do all these idiots find so funny?” And if I said, “But it really was!” they could justifiably say, “Why?” I would then try to explain that he was goofing on the form, and his exaggerated persona was part satire/part silliness. He wasn’t doing “jokes” like standard comedians of that era, he had created an original character. The 19 year-old would nod politely and think I was a hundred years old.

Hey, my parents' generation thought Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis were a comic revelation (“the bees knees?”). Their schtick would receive howls of laughter. I just scratch my head. To me they’re painful.

Like with fashion, sometimes comedy styles come back into vogue. My generation rediscovered the Marx Brothers movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. We loved their anarchy and insanity. Every generation following mine found them tiresome.

And then there is the comedy you loved at the time but now can’t understand why. LAUGH IN is an example for me. This was the number one show in America in the late ‘60s. Like everyone else in the country I roared. Now I watch clips of episodes and they’re more excruciating than early Jerry Lewis. Horrible old Vaudeville clams that make my teeth rattle. How was I EVER so unsophisticated that I found this show funny? But I was and I did.

But if comedy evolves how do you explain comedy that continues to be funny generation after generation? How do you explain I LOVE LUCY? Or MASH? CHEERS? THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW? Monty Python? Richard Pryor? George Carlin? Loony Tunes?

You really can’t. I suppose there’s a universal aspect to them. The issues the characters are going through hold true today. But do we identify with Daffy Duck? How many of us have stomped on grapes? The Minister of Silly Walks holds up as well as Hawkeye.

And yet, they all still work. Now of course there are going to be people that don’t respond to some of these perennials. I expect a bunch of comments from readers saying “I don’t find I LOVE LUCY funny” and “Loony Tunes are stupid.” But IN GENERAL, these franchises continue to stand the test of time.

Sometimes things are just… funny. You can’t explain it. And even if you don’t think you’re going to find something funny you wind up laughing anyway. You can’t help it. I’m going to try to leave you with an example.

This is from Jonathan & Darlene Edwards. (Really Jo Stafford & Paul Weston). See if you can make it through this song without laughing. I couldn’t.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Happy Father's Day

Especially to my own father, Cliff, who is both my hero and role model.

Note to those wives and kids planning to celebrate: no brunches. That’s Mother’s Day stuff. Let the old man sit in front of the TV and watch NASCAR or the WNBA. 

Or watch


And now, as a public service, here are some movies NOT to watch on Father’s Day:


Some TV shows and telefilms NOT to watch:

Any CBS family comedy

Some unfriendly father plays:

DEATH OF A SALESMAN (any Arthur Miller, actually)

Some books to avoid:

Any Bing Crosby biography
Any Frank Sinatra biography
LOVE STORY (for so many reasons)

Records to skip:

PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE by the Temptations
BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash
The sappiest record but a lot of people like it:
MY DAD by Paul Peterson

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Again, happy Father’s Day – the most sacred of the bullshit Hallmark holidays.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

My botched attempt at a summer romance

More from my book, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s).   By the way, it's the PERFECT Father's Day Gift.   And now take the Way-Back machine to 1969

I started going out with Rhonda. She lived in Philadelphia and was just out here staying with relatives, one of whom was my friend Jay. Might this be one of those “summer romances” where you meet, fall madly in love, she goes home in September, you’re heartbroken, you remember her always, she forgets you the minute she enters the jetway? But you get laid so she may injure you like no woman ever has but screw it, you got what you wanted.

For date #1, I suggested we see EASY RIDER, a movie that had been getting a lot of buzz. The saga of two hippies (starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) traveling across America had struck a real chord. The ending where rednecks shoot and kill them stunned and startled young audiences. It was the one “You’ve got to see this movie” movie of the summer. But Rhonda had no interest. So we saw her choice instead -- CHITTY-CHITTY BANG BANG starring Dick Van Dyke.

I got a goodnight kiss.

Since I knew that time was of the essence I decided to just pull out the stops for date #2. I offered to take her to Disneyland. That should be good for at least some hands-inside-the-sweater action. She didn’t want to go to Disneyland. She had already been there.

But she did want to go to Japanese Village and Deer Park.

What the fuck?!

L.A. had a number of animal-themed attractions back then. Jungleland was way out in Thousand Oaks. The most bizarre was Lion Country Safari. You’d drive around slowly while jungle animals roamed freely around you. Good idea to keep your windows up so the lions wouldn’t stick their heads in your car and eat your children.

In Buena Park, not far from Disneyland, was Japanese Village and Deer Park. This featured a Japanese-themed tranquil Zen-like atmosphere with gardens and koi ponds, and a tea house, and dove pavilion. Deer were allowed to wander. You can’t believe how crushingly boring this place was.

Another goodnight kiss.

For date #3 I suggested Lion Country Safari figuring I would roll down the window on Rhonda’s side of the car. But she wasn’t interested so there was no date #3.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday Questions

Get your Friday Questions answered here!

VincentS is up first.

Was it ever on the radar to make Bebe Neuwirth a regular on FRASIER?

Since I’m not really qualified to answer that, I got one of the shows creators, David Lee to graciously respond for me.

One always considers such things if for no other reason than trying to find areas that will open up stories. The problem with making the character of Lilith a regular on Frasier was both creative and pragmatic. We liked the focus on Frasier's extended family and it felt like if she were around things would shift too much to Freddie the kid and plots about the ex-wife. Those seemed to serve us well when we did do them--indeed gave us some great moments--Frasier faking an orgasm jumping on a bed for one--but it didn't seem like material we wanted to visit too much. It was special when she did appear every year, usually in sweeps, and very promotable. We wanted to keep it that way. Then there is the fact that Bebe Neuwirth, a creature of the theater, loved living in NYC and was not interested in moving to LA for extended periods. Now that I think about it, that sorta makes all the creative concerns moot, doesn't it? Bottom line: it worked out great for everyone.

Thanks so much, David. And thanks for letting me and David Isaacs write most of those Lilith episodes. They were great fun to do.

From Gregg B:

I'd like to know your opinion on the whole Seinfeld flap going on. He says he won't play college campuses because they are too politically correct. Some say his jokes are no longer funny, he is a hack and that he is just doesn't get the modern generation's humor like Louis CK and Amy Schumer. Others say that he is right and they are too PC. What is your take on this?
First of all, I don’t know Jerry personally so what I’m writing here is pure speculation (as opposed to what I normally write, which is pure heresy).

Jerry Seinfeld has nothing to prove. Nor does he have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. I’m thrilled that he still does stand-up – in any venue.

I saw him recently on Seth Meyers and he was still very funny. He probably reached more college-aged kids with that national TV appearance than any college tour.

To his point that college audiences are too PC and are quick to accuse comics of being racist or sexist based on material, this charge obviously comes from his experience. And I guess it’s happened enough that he feels it’s not worth it. That said, I’m a little surprised. Current hot comedians like Louis C.K. and the divine Amy Schumer don’t just push the envelope, they shred it. Maybe Jerry has been playing Oral Roberts University.

But in fairness, Chris Rock will no longer play college campuses for the same reason. So it’s not just one comedian’s perception.

MikeK.Pa. has left a follow-up to last week when I partially blamed network development departments for the dearth of good sitcoms.

If approached would you ever consider working for /heading up a network development dept.? Do any of those development execs have any writing background?

I have no desire to do that. I’m not the executive type. I own only two suits. The big problem is that development people have no real power. Unless you’re the one deciding what shows get on the air and where they’re scheduled you can’t really have an impact.

I think that’s one of the reasons why development executives give so many notes. They can. (Although, in the spirit of fairness, some of their notes are good and helpful.)

There have been development executives along the way who have had some experience writing and producing, but they usually return to the trenches where there’s more money and fewer staff meetings.

For years now in comedy, once a pilot is in production the showrunner usually brings in top flight writer friends to help punch up and rewrite. I always thought networks would be wise to adopt the same policy. Put together a list of proven writers who know how to spot and solve problems and let them give notes after network run-throughs. Pay them a nice per-night fee. Showrunners would much rather get notes from people they trust. To me it’s a win-win. Networks get the benefit of experienced writers and executives would never feel threatened because the writers clearly would not want to take their jobs. And the pilots would come out way better.

And finally, YEKIMI asks:

On the issue of Jay Thomas dissing Rhea Perlman: If you had another sitcom in which he would be a good fit.....would you use him again or do you consider him "persona non grata" as far as you are concerned?

I’d definitely use him again. Jay is a very talented and funny guy. I still feel bad I had to kill him.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Let's introduce Tennesee Williams and the band

One of my pet peeves going to concerts is when the singer interrupts a song to throw in some patter or introductions. Songs tell a story and the illusion is destroyed once the singer steps out of the moment. It’s insulting to lyricists. What if performers did that in dramas? 

Imagine a production of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh on stage. The play is barreling to an explosive finale when:

Blanche: So, farewell, my friend! And let there be no hard feelings....

Stanley: Was this before or after the telegram came from the Texas oil millionaire?

Blanche: What telegram? No! No, after! As a matter of fact, the wire came just as -

Stanley: AS a matter of fact there wasn’t no wire at all! Hey, how ‘about this dialogue? Tennessee Williams, ladies and gentleman!

Blanche: Oh, oh!

Stanley: There isn’t no millionaire! And Mitch didn’t come back with roses ‘cause I know where he is. Playing Mitch, the great Karl Malden. Wasn’t he something, folks?

Blanche: Oh!

Stanley: There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination!

Blanche: Oh!

Stanley: And lies and conceit and tricks! Which reminds me, we couldn’t do this without great lighting and Harold Foonman and his crew is the best.

Blanche: Oh!

Stanley: And look at yourself! Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras outfit, rented for fifty cents from some rag-picker! And with the crazy crown on! What queen do you think you are? A nice hand now for Lisa Moorvoritz and her wardrobe department.

Blanche: Oh – God...

Stanley: I’ve been on to you from the start! Not once did you pull any wool over this boy’s eyes! Wow. I sound like an Elvis record. You come in here and sprinkle the place with powder and spray perfume and cover the light-bulb with a paper lantern, and lo and behold the place has turned into Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile! Sitting on your throne and swilling down my liquor! I say – Ha! –Ha! Do you hear me? Ha –ha –ha! You’d be laughing too. This is real liquor, folks! I love doing this show!

Somehow I think you’d lose the impact.  It's great to introduce the band, just wait until the song is over.  Thank you. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reviewing shows on NETFLIX

It can’t be done. Not without totally ruining them. Since everyone watches NETFLIX series on their own schedule there’s no way to review anything without being a spoiler.

This is fine for me, but my heart goes out to poor TV critics. Some of the best shows on television are on NETFLIX (or AMAZON for that matter).  How often can you analyze EMPIRE?

I guess the best you can do is say you liked one series or another. Or discuss in very general terms. I liked season two of HOUSE OF CARDS better than season three. I loved season one of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK then gave up after four episodes of season two. Why? I can’t tell you without spoiling the storyline.

Obviously, this is the wave of the future. It’s only a matter of time before networks as we know them will either cease to exist or become a subsidiary form of programming. It may be five years; it may be ten. At the rate things are going it may be July.

But one casualty in the wake of this new trend will be the water cooler. No more will people gather the day after a show is aired to discuss it. Instead, someone will mention a show and six co-workers will wave their hands and say, “Don’t tell me anything. I’m going to watch it this weekend.” I will miss that shared experience. We as a nation have so few anymore. Making ass-fun of Donald Trump today is one. (I’d add bitching about all the characters they killed off on GAME OF THRONES as another but for all the hoopla, still only a tiny fraction of the country saw or cared.) But Donald Trump? Everyone knows that moron.

Word-of-mouth and social media will take on bigger roles in attracting audiences. TRANSPARENT has become a big sensation sans a network promotional campaign. Imagine if it were on NBC. “And after UNDATEABLE it’s “unwearable” as Mort tries on a new dress. TRANSPARENT – all part of NBC’s ‘Racy Monday’!”

The trouble will come when there are more and more of these new series premiering on streaming sites. For now there are only a handful. If you’re a baby boomer you have the Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin show, so there’s some buzz about it among its target crowd.

But what happens when there are ten series aimed at that audience – when Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn and Geena Davis and Oprah Winfrey have their own sitcoms? It will be easy to come and go in absolute obscurity once there is a glut of product.

And one way to draw attention to your show is through reviews. But again, how do you review these streaming series? Maybe you can discuss that around the water cooler today. Nah, you’re going to dump on Trump. I don’t blame you.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Another one of my rants

As if they do any good.

This is for all the showrunners of new multi-camera sitcoms (i.e. shows shot in front of a live studio audience) that the networks have recently picked up.   The format is much maligned, but hopefully this will help you avoid the audience complaints and ride your new series to success. 

I have a number of friends who are on staff of various multi-cams . They report that the one note they now get incessantly from the networks is MORE JOKES. Networks are terrified that if there’s not a joke literally every two seconds that the audience will flee en masse to something else.

What they don’t understand, of course, is that the viewer needs to be invested in the characters and story. He needs to CARE what happens to these people. Although in a stylized setting, the characters have to appear at least somewhat REAL. They have to be relatable on some recognizable level. Characters just firing a barrage of one liners at each other for a half hour is what causes audience defection.

Then things get worse. And I don’t know whether this is the network or showrunner’s fault – but the laugh track goes crazy over every line.  It's exhausting.  When viewers have shouted for years that the laugh track is what turns them off the most about multi-cam shows, they’re now being fed more, not less.

The truth is not every joke is going to land, especially when there are a thousand of them per half hour. Even if they all were genuinely funny an audience would not laugh at every one. If they did, they’d be worn out by the second act.  They need to breathe. So when the laugh machine punctuates every single line with an orgasmic burst of laughter it sounds ridiculous and moderately offensive.

I understand that the pace of today’s sitcoms has been accelerated. Some multi-camera shows from the ‘70s and ‘80s may appear sluggish today. But trust me, it’s better to go six lines to set up one big genuine laugh than seven one-liners that are titters at best. When there are jokes every second the show reeks from desperation. And an audience can sense that.

As regular readers of this blog know, I love the multi-camera format. I also believe that sitcoms need to strive to make viewers really laugh, and in many cases that means jokes. But GOOD jokes. And presented in a respectful way. It’s not the number of cameras that turns many viewers away, it’s the abuse of the format. Take a step back. I guarantee you studio audiences are not laughing at every line. Don’t pretend that they are. Either lay off the laugh machine or don’t go for so many smart-ass remarks. At the end of the day the goal is to make the show FUNNY. Do that with clever surprising stories, do that with reactions, do that with ten big belly laughs or one big block comedy scene. Sometimes sluggish isn’t such a bad thing.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Cutting remarks

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a whole topic.   I talked recently about the exercise to thin down your scenes.  Well, what happens when you can't?

dwgsp asks:

I can imagine that you have been in situations where a script simply ran too long and you needed to cut something out, but the task seemed impossible because every line was integral to the story. Do you have any suggestions for how to identify what to remove? Would the same advice apply to other forms of writing, such as a short story or an essay?

You are right in that the one thing to preserve at all costs is the story. That sounds obvious, but it’s not. Sitcom writers will fall in love with jokes and trim story beats, hoping the audience will make the connection and still be able to follow the story.

If the audience is confused or is not involved in the story you’ve lost them. Jokes are just lipstick on a pig.

But that’s one of the reasons why I prefer stories that aren’t too complicated. Sometimes we writers can get too clever. We construct stories with four more twists than it needs. And what happens is you have so much story to tell that you leave yourself precious little room for fun.

I like my stories to be clever. I don’t want the audience to be able to predict the ending. But I also want to leave room for the show to breathe. I’m sure part of that is my belief that the best comedy comes out of characters. I want to see them interact. I want to be able to throw a topic in the air and have characters come at it from different points of view.

When I do a multi-camera show I hope that by the time it is filmed in front of a live audience it’s pretty much to time. Then ideally I get a two or three minute laugh spread. That allows me to go into editing with some room to play with. I can tighten things up, remove jokes that don’t work, etc.

But sometimes you get a bigger laugh spread or you find yourself still thirty seconds over after you’ve taken out everything you want, and then it’s tough. You occasionally have to lose good jokes. It’s a killer, but as the saying goes: sometimes you have to kill your babies.

David Isaacs and I faced a situation with the pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S that was somewhat unusual (for us). It was a nice problem to have. The show was to time when we brought in the studio audience. But the filming went through the roof. We ended up with a ten-minute laugh spread – on a twenty-minute program.  That's great until you have to cut it.

There comes a point where you can’t edit out too many jokes because characters will suddenly jump all over the room.

In this case, we whittled it down to seven-minutes over and decided to turn it into CBS. If they picked up the show we would just go back and re-film a couple of scenes, reblocking to accommodate the lifts.

The next day we got a call that Jeff Sagansky, the president of CBS, wanted us in his office. Uh oh. We called our agent saying, “I think we’re going to be handed our heads.  Do you know if Orange Julius is hiring?” He said it was a good thing that CBS summoned us. If they weren’t happy with the project they wouldn’t bother. They only had time to concentrate on the show they felt had promise.

It turns out he was right.

Jeff said he loved the pilot but of course, it was too long. He offered to screen it with us and help suggest further cuts. So we watched it together. Along the way there were times when David and I would chime in that you could cut this bit or lose that joke, and Jeff would always say, “No, I like that line.” After the show ended we had another thirty seconds in cuts. He said, “Screw it. Just turn it in as is.”

We did. The show did get picked up. And we did reshoot a couple of scenes to get the show down to time. This was before anyone had come up with the idea of “Super Size” shows. And even then, that was a privilege reserved for big hit series like FRIENDS, not summer tryout pilots like ours.

It’s a problem all showrunners face, but today it’s worse because networks insist shows be shorter (to accommodate more commercials and promos). You’d think that would make it easier for writers because they had to write less, but it’s actually harder because it’s more difficult to tell good stories in a more condensed period of time.

So that's how we attack the problem.   Then there are those mysterious editors hired to trim shows for syndication.  They use a different method.  They just hack indiscriminately.  Or at least that's how it seems.  I'm so glad that you can now see MASH episodes in their original form.  Some of the syndicated episodes were absolutely butchered.   At times they would just lift entire scenes.  All of a sudden nothing made sense.  For years I couldn't watch MASH reruns because I got so furious with the editing.

That's why it's best to do it first.  Don't let "them" fix it.   

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The most difficult character to write for

Recently I spoke at a UCLA writing class and a student asked, “Of all the shows you’ve worked on, which character was the most difficult to write?” I had to really think. Finally, the answer I gave was Fay from WINGS.

But first, understand that I love the actress who played her, Rebecca Schull. She’s both a wonderful person and actor and did a remarkable job with what she had to work with.

But Fay, the character was hard to write for. Why? Because she was so NICE. She was sweet and kind and cheerful and wise, and those traits are all death to a comedy writer.

If you’re writing a sitcom pilot or comedy screenplay, take care when you’re creating characters that you give them flaws. The more, the funnier. They don’t have to be unlikable, but you’ll find you have a lot more comic ammunition if they’re not perfect. They can be vain, selfish, suspicious, cowardly, stingy, forgetful, neurotic, immature, untruthful, love sick, dim, cocky, opinionated, bossy, verbose, jealous, insecure, obsessed, or a hundred other traits.

We’d sit in a WINGS rewrite and need a joke for Fay and be stymied. We had little to draw upon. The best we could do was give her the element of surprise; have her say something unexpected. And if I may say so, I thought the WINGS writers did a fantastic job servicing that character. Fay had a lot of great lines, but it was like pushing a basketball through a garden hose.

Again, Rebecca was a joy, and a total gamer. She was willing to try anything. So she does not apply to the next paragraph.

But a lot of actors will balk at their characters having flaws. They don’t want to be seen in a bad light. They don’t want to appear vain, or foolish, or an asshole. What they don’t understand is that they are shooting themselves in the foot. Being Captain America or Mother Teresa doesn’t automatically make you likeable. What does? Being interesting. Funny. Relatable. Not taking yourself too seriously. Being a good sport.

Networks sometimes don't understand this either.  You'll frequently get the note, "Gee, he was mean.  I don't like him when he says that."  And if you bow to their notes and pressure from the image-conscious actors you'll wind up turning your show into a nice, lovely, bland rice cake.  This is one battle worth fighting.   Comedy is edgy.  Comedy is subversive.  You're not writing THE WALTONS.

I had the solution for Fay, but the producers never bought it. I said, have her be as sweet as you want. Just make her an ax murderer. I lobbied for this for years, always to no avail. It would be midnight. We would be struggling for a Fay line, I would pitch something, no one would laugh, and I’d say, “Okay, now picture her saying it with an ax in her hands. Suddenly you have comic gold!” Like I said, the producers never bit… although there were a couple of times at 2:45 in the morning when I could swear they were wavering.

This was a repost from many many years ago.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Friday Questions

Have you asked a Friday Question lately? I try to answer as many as I can. Here are this week’s:

Andreia leads off:

Hi Ken, I was wondering if you could talk a little about character ownership. A character is created, fleshed out with catchphrases, quirks and backstory by a writer and then given to an actor to embody. In your opinion, who does that character belong to? Or, who *is* that character? Especially in a long running show where an actor can be playing a character for nearly a decade or more, would you say there is dual ownership between the writer and actor? Or does a transition happen somewhere down the line if the character is old enough?

If a writer introduces a character that becomes a recurring or regular character on a series he’s entitled to a character royalty. It’s not much, but it’s something. David Isaacs and I created the character of Eddie LeBec, the hockey goalie who eventually married Carla on CHEERS. He was originally supposed to be in only two episodes. But the chemistry clicked and he was brought back for more. We received royalties on that. And would have received a lot more had Jay Thomas, the actor playing Eddie, not dissed Rhea Perlman on his radio show. We had to kill him off. Let that be a lesson to actors who find themselves in front of a microphone.

To the second part of your questions – over time actors really do embody their characters. And good writers will adjust the character to better fit the actor’s strengths.

Steven Bochco had a saying: “The first year the actors work for you, the second year you work together, and the third year you work for them.”

C. A. Bridges asks:

Sunday night, on a whim, I watched all the Cheers episodes that featured Harry the Hat. Did the Cheers writers create his scams, or did Anderson provide them for the writers to work in?

A lot of them, especially the more elaborate ones in the first season, Harry came up with. And my partner, David Isaacs and I worked with Harry on the big sting for the final Bar Wars episode against Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern.

Melissa Agar queries:

Is the network comedy dead? Why? It would seem to me that comedies are cheaper to produce and easier to sell into syndication, and yet NBC has all but eliminated comedy from its fall schedule, and the new offerings are slim. Are there too few comedies being developed? Or is this just a cycle we comedy fans have to weather?

No. For all the reasons you cited, sitcoms in success are a giant cash cow. They’re on the downswing, but all it takes is one or two big hits to turn things around. One has to blame the network development departments for not turning out better pilots. Either they’re buying the wrong things, hiring the wrong writers, going after the wrong audience, or meddling to such an extent that the finished results are disappointing.

In the case of NBC, they’ve been unable to develop anything good for several years now and they have no existing sitcom hits to help launch any promising new product. So this season they’ve scaled back. It’s unfortunate but understandable.

But someone will mount a comedy that will hit and the pendulum will swing the other way. If I might offer a suggestion: Make it FUNNY. Not ironic, not wry, not amusing, not mischievous, but FUNNY.

And finally, from Hamid:

Ken, there's a quote from Woody Allen in recent days that's crying out for a comment from you, as he's spoken of the difficulty in trying to write a half-hour comedy.

The veteran director has described his attempts to make a six-part series for Amazon as a “catastrophic mistake” with which he should never have become involved.

“I never should have gotten into it,” he admitted at the Cannes Film Festival. “It’s very hard for me. I thought it was going to be easy. You do a movie, it’s a big, long thing. To do six half-hours, I thought it was going to be a cinch. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m floundering. I expect this to be a cosmic embarrassment when it comes out.”

Then he should give back the money. Everything about his statement is insulting – from thinking writing half hours would be a cinch to confessing that he expects his effort to be a failure. Not mentioned in the above statement is that he also said he never watches half hour television. Sorry that what we do is beneath you, Woody.

Again, give back the money. There are hundreds of talented passionate writers who would give their hearts and souls to do a series for Amazon. Give them a chance instead.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


The ‘70s was a golden era of TV comedy. With groundbreaking shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, American sitcoms were elevated from mindless madcap fare to sophisticated entertainment that explored social and political issues. They didn’t insult the audience’s intelligence; they celebrated it. Not every plot on every show was about “hooking up.” And they were extremely FUNNY.
CNN premiers a new documentary series tonight at 9:00 (unless another plane disappears or there’s a freak snowstorm in New York requiring the Blizzard Mobile to reappear) called THE SEVENTIES. It’s produced by the same team that did THE SIXTIES documentary series last year for CNN, which was truly exceptional.

Tonight’s debut installment is on television. Not only did we have remarkable sitcoms, but SNL came out of that era, as did the insane “Family Hour,” SESAME STREET, Watergate and actual “news” reporting, the heyday of late night talk shows, the last gasp of variety shows, hot bad ass women like CHARLIES ANGELS and POLICE WOMAN, hard hitting dramas that today look ridiculous (like KOJAK), and for you Marvel fans, THE INCREDIBLE HULK.

I was interviewed for tonight's show and am told I made the cut. We’ll see. So far I saw a promo and I was on it for a couple of seconds but they listed me as “Ken Levine – writer of THE JEFFERSONS.” Gee, of all my credits, that’s hardly the one I would have singled out (I also wrote for JOE & SONS y'know). I talked a lot about MASH so maybe that’s in the show with me tied to that series. One can only hope. 

Actually, I was a little miffed. When they told me the program was THE SEVENTIES and they wanted to interview me as “an expert” I just naturally assumed it was for the Sexual Revolution chapter.

But me aside, it figures to be a compelling series. Students of television and aspiring comedy writers need to familiarize yourselves with the ‘70s. This is a great way of doing it. See you again in THE EIGHTIES (where hopefully I’ll be tagged for CHEERS and not AfterMASH).

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Truth or lies?

Okay, yesterday we played Two Truths and One Lie.   Nobody got them all right, but some came close.  I love how most of you figured I couldn't possibly get kissed by a Bond Girl.  Anyway, thanks for playing, and let’s see how you did.

I was on ABC-TV covering the National Elections when I was eighteen. – This is true with an explanation. I was covering the election for my campus radio station at UCLA. But at one point I cornered a potential future candidate and grilled him to admit he was going to run. I didn’t care if I was annoying. I wanted an answer. Little did I know that the entire interview was carried live on ABC TV. Their reporter saw what was happening, let the director know, and they cut to me for probably five minutes.

I once asked Prince Charles “What advice would you give young people thinking of getting into your profession?” This is true. He was visiting the MASH set in 1978 and I was part of the receiving line. When he got to me I don’t know what compelled me to do that but he laughed. His handlers were horrified however.

I got a tour of the Oval Office from the President. This is a lie.


For a pilot I was casting I once passed on an Oscar winner for an actress with zero experience. This is true. On the series we created for Mary Tyler Moore in 1985 we could have hired Kathy Bates but opted instead for unknown Katey Sagal. And as great as Kathy is, I think we made the right choice.

Jennifer Aniston was in a failed pilot of ours. I wish. No, this is a lie.

O.J. Simpson was at my wedding. This is true. But he wasn’t invited. We got married in the outdoor patio of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel on a Sunday afternoon. O.J. was walking by, having just played tennis. He stood in the back and watched the ceremony. No wedding gifts though.


I kissed a Bond Girl (when she was still young and hot). This is TRUE people! When I was directing DHARMA & GREG, Jane Seymour was a guest star one week. She had played Solitaire in LIVE AND LET DIE. I told her it was always one of my dreams to get a kiss from a Bond Girl, and God Bless Jane, she really planted one on me. Too bad I didn’t say my dream was to sleep with a Bond Girl.

I once announced a Dodger baseball game with Vin Scully. This is true (and everyone got this right). A Spring Training game in 2009. Scully did a simulcast on radio and TV for the first three innings and did the rest of the game on TV. Meanwhile, I finished the game on the radio. As a kid who wanted to be a baseball announcer after hearing Vin Scully, it was the highlight of my broadcasting career to actually call a Dodger game with him. I still have a tape of him tossing it to me for the play-by-play.

I had a cartoon in the New Yorker while in college. This is a lie. I did submit some cartoons a few years after college, but they were rejected.


Former madam, Heidi Fleiss’ father was my kids’ pediatrician. This is a lie. He was a pediatrician but not ours.

Diana Ross sang at my grandparents’ anniversary party. True. For my grandparents’ 50th, we had a big party at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. Diana Ross was the headliner and we all attended her show. I was hoping Diana would dedicate a song to them and then sing, “I’m Living In Shame,” but it was not to be.

I wrote comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary. Yep. True. He was a celebrity caller on a FRASIER episode we wrote.


I once picked up Stephen Stills who was hitchhiking in Laurel Canyon. This is a lie. But I did have a run-in with Neil Young. You’ll have to buy my book for the full story.

I announced a Golden States Warriors game on KNBR, San Francisco. Unbelievably, this is true. I was learning how to announce basketball by going to Laker and Clipper games and calling the play-by-play into a tape recorder in the stands. I also made friends with a number of team announcers including Greg Papa, then the voice of the Warriors. For one Laker game I just sat next to him and observed how he called the action. This was during the Lakers “showtime” period. Kareem, Magic, and Worthy were absolutely blowing out Golden State. After three periods it was already a drubbing. Both sides had already begun to put in their towel wavers and save the regulars. Greg comes back from a commercial and says on the air, “Now, for the play-by-play of the fourth quarter, here’s my friend, Ken Levine.” He gave me no advance warning.  What the fuck?!  So I called the last period. I probably sucked but was competent enough to call the action accurately. I’m still grateful to Greg for the opportunity. I also still want to kill him.

My first girlfriend starred in a movie with Natalie Wood. True. My first girlfriend (although we were thirteen so it was hardly steamy) was Ann Jillian who co-starred in GYPSY with Ms. Wood.


Larry King said I sounded like Dick Cavett. True.  King still lived in D.C. when I announced for the Baltimore Orioles. He was a fan of my work and even took me to lunch one day.  I forget how many wives ago that was. 

Al Hirschfeld made a caricature of himself just for me. This is true. I used to do caricatures and Al Hirschfeld was like a God to me. I was in New York in October 1973 and for the hell of it, looked to see if he was in the phone book. He was, I called, got him on the line, explained who I was, and he invited me to come by. I spent an amazing afternoon watching him work and discussing drawing. Before I left he made me this.

I got to fly once with the Blue Angels. Nope. Some producers from CHEERS did get this experience. They said they were so sick they practically crawled out of the plane.


Tracey Ullman hit me. This is true. I knew her from writing for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW. Her daughter was in the same class as my daughter. On parents night Tracey sat behind me and during the teacher’s presentation Tracey kept playfully whacking me in the back of the head.

I once won the Washington Sportscaster of the Year Award. Nope, unfortunately.

I once won the Virginia Sportscaster of the Year Award. This is true for one of the years I called Tidewater Tides baseball.  This was another one most people couldn't believe was true. 


I turned down writing the Cosby pilot. This is true. He forgot to drug me. We were offered this but were contractually obligated to AfterMASH so had to pass.

I turned down writing for LAUGH IN when I was in college. This is also true. They wanted me to work full-time and I would have had to leave UCLA, which meant I would have lost my student deferment. So I’d be writing on LAUGH IN for the first few months and then you can bet your bippy I’d wind up in Vietnam.

Tony Gwynn attended my son’s Bar Mitzvah. Not true, although he did send an autographed bat. I was broadcasting for the Padres at the time. And although Tony couldn’t attend, fellow announcers Bob Chandler and Hall-of-Famer Jerry Coleman did attend.


I wrote a musical-comedy stage show for the United States Army. True. I wrote about it here.

My daughter’s first word was “Norm.” That’s a lie. But we wrote a CHEERS episode where that was Frasier’s son’s first word. I'll be blogging about that episode soon.

I’m in Who’s Who in America. This is true. Don’t ask me why.