Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Okay, I'll make you a deal

A number of you have asked why I posted my Oscar review exclusively on my podcast this year.  The simple and completely honest answer is that I'm trying to build an audience for the darn thing.  I put a lot of time and effort into it and would like to not just be talking to myself (the way I do the rest of the time).  There are lots of podcasts and they're hard to launch.

But I totally get that for some, reading the review is an easier and less time consuming endeavor. 

So I'll make you a deal.  Subscriptions are huge to the success of podcasts.  So are five star reviews.  Why this is so, I have no idea.  I'm still trying to figure out Nielsen boxes.  But they are, especially subscriptions.  Even if you subscribe and don't listen that's a big help.   So I tell ya what, if enough people subscribe today (which just takes a couple of clicks) and maybe a few toss me a star or five I will post the review tomorrow in the blog.  

You just click on the DOWNLOAD ON ITUNES button above, click on "view in iTunes", and subscribe.   Or go here

There are also ways of doing it on your smart phone apps but I'll leave that to you to figure out (translation: I have no idea).

Thanks so much for your support of the podcast.  I'm trying to present different types of features and interviews -- stuff that I can't do in print and keep the blog content as fresh as its always been.   Oh, and have a life. 

So that's my deal.  I hope you take me up on it. 

Your obedient blogger,


Oscar follow-up

There’s always the second day autopsy on the Oscars after the first day’s initial reactions.

As expected (certainly by me), the ratings were among the lowest ever. I think the combination of Trump supporters not wanting to hear about tolerance and acceptance and diversity and a lackluster slate of movies that no one saw or gave a shit about caused that rating slide. Don’t blame Jimmy Kimmel.  Or the Starline Tours.

I wonder how many people on the east coast actually saw the trainwreck ending live. Lost in all the hoopla about the snafu was that the Oscarcast was way over time.

They could have dropped Mean Tweets (that’s a TV bit not an Oscar bit), cut the tour bus schtick in half, lost the tweet to Trump (it took forever and had no great payoff), and not parachuted in donuts. Or played walk-off music halfway through Viola Davis' speech.  That would have saved half an hour.

Thanks to those who listened to my review on my podcast. If you haven’t heard it yet you can go right here. And please subscribe. Subscriptions are vital in the podcasting world. I know some people prefer just the written version, but a lot of you are saying it added another dimension to actually hear me say the jokes the way they were intended. It was fun to do although I got to bed at 4:30 in the morning. I won’t be doing this with the ESPY’s.

I felt bad for Jimmy during the finale clusterfuck. He clearly was overwhelmed. This is where a seasoned pro is needed. Hope, Carson, even Letterman might have been more in control. It’s like when Al Michaels was calling the 1989 World Series and there was a major earthquake. He instantly turned into a news anchor and handled that emergency with complete assurance and grace. Give Jimmy a few years to really settle into that role and he’ll be that guy too. Remember, when you’re hosting a live event, you have to be ready for the unexpected.

Considering the money that studios pour into Oscar campaigns, when the producer of one film says he happily gives the award to another, behind the scenes the studios are freaking out! Lots of money changed hands as a result of that blunder.

Mixed reaction from commenters on Viola Davis’ speech. Also, some real nasty comments overall, some I just rejected. Again, this is a humor blog. If you want to poke a little fun at something, fine, but several times over the last few days I’ve had to put a halt to threads that were getting out of hand. Play nice, kids.

I'm sorry but I thought Jennifer Aniston's choking up during the IN MEMORIUM intro was over-the-top and fake.  

There weren’t any real fashion disasters this year, at least none that I saw.

HELL OR HIGH WATER picked the wrong year to be in Oscar contention.

Nicole Kidman is taking some internet flack. Everyone has that fine line between deciding whether an actress is still glamorous or scary. For many, that line has been crossed. I thought she is still a procedure away. 

And finally, my friend Earl had a fascinating observation. What if the snafu were reversed? What if MOONLIGHT originally won and then were told that the lily-white LA LA LAND beat them instead? I can’t even imagine the brouhaha that would have caused.

Monday, February 27, 2017

My Oscar review

Normally in this space I post my annual snarky bitchy Oscar review.  But this year I'm trying something different.  I'm doing the review exclusively on my podcast.   That way you can hear the jokes as drippingly sarcastic as they were meant to be.   And what a truly BIZARRE ending to that ceremony.  Yikes!  I talk all about it. 

To listen, just click on the podcast arrow above or right here.   Enjoy. 

Episode 9: My Annual Snarky Oscar Review

Ken reveals the most jaw-dropping Oscar ceremony in history. The winners, the losers, the blunders, the fashions, the politics, the red carpet, the facelifts, the glamour, the whole self-important ego-palooza. Join Ken for Hollywood's finest hour and most embarrassing moment.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Writing the Academy Awards

I’ve never written for the Oscars. I would very much like to, just for the experience. But from what I understand it’s a horrible thankless job.

I did have the chance once, but had to turn it down. My partner and I were showrunning ALMOST PERFECT in 1996. We got a call from Quincy Jones (who was producing the show that year). He had first asked Larry Gelbart who passed. Quincy asked if he could recommend someone else and bless him, Larry mentioned us. I can’t tell you how many writing offers we received thanks to Larry Gelbart. He got us way more work than our agent. But we had to turn it down because we were already working 90 hour weeks.

All of the following information is second and third hand, but from what writers of award shows have told me, this is pretty much the assignment.  You might find it somewhat less than idyllic.  

The hosts generally have their own people. But they may want you to assist. And of course, the host’s people are in charge. Depending on who that is, you may serve at the pleasure of some asshole you wouldn’t hire to write a laundry list.   Or someone you've fired. 

You write the banter between presenters. Then it has to be approved by each presenter, their manager, agent, publicist, dog walker, and psychic. Also the producers, network, and standards-and-practices. When revisions come back you don’t know if they’re from the star himself and must be followed or his pool man in which case they’re just suggestions. And more often than not these revisions are way worse than what you wrote.

Still, when they bomb you’ll be blamed for it.

There’s also the issue of writing for some actors who couldn’t be funny if it meant world peace. They will take your genuinely funny lines and trample them into the ground.

You’ll be blamed.

Or worse, they will ad lib. We’ve all seen excruciating examples of that.

It’ll be your fault.

Sometimes presenters come in with their own schtick. So when Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller do a bit that bombs you’re the one who takes the heat.

From what I hear the weekend of the show (i.e. now) the rehearsals are insane. Presenters jockey for position, things get changed, stars are in, stars are out, your lines get cut, you’re scrambling to write new ones then don’t know who to give them to for approval.

The night of the show you’re on call to feed ad libs to the host so that he looks good. And if he doesn’t pull them off you-know-who is held responsible.

Meanwhile, some presenters can’t read off the teleprompter so they inadvertently kill a few of your jokes that have worked every rehearsal. Pin those on you, too.

Still, it’s gotta be a trip to at least experience this once. Even if Dustin Hoffman muffs your joke, hey, you can say you wrote for Dustin Hoffman. For two days you rub elbows with Hollywood royalty. Perhaps Amy Adams or George Clooney will say hello. (Good luck with the twins, George.)   I don’t know if you’re invited to any post-Oscars parties. Or whether you get any swag. I doubt it but maybe you do.  Like I said, it would sure be worth doing once. 

Of course if I wrote the show I couldn’t review it. Hmmm. That’s probably reason alone to hire me.

But since they didn’t this year I will be reviewing tonight’s Academy Awards. For the first time I'll be delivering my snarkfest personally on my podcast.   And if you don't like it, blame the Oscar writers. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

New choice!

There was another great exercise for comedy writers in Andy Goldberg’s improv class recently. This one was called “New Choice!” Two people would do a scene and periodically someone would say something and Andy would interrupt with “New Choice!” The performer then had to devise an alternate line. If Andy wasn’t satisfied he’d again bark “New Choice!” Sometimes it would take two or three lines before the scene was allowed to proceed.


Me and Fred are in a Costco.

Fred: What are you here to buy?
Me: Cheerios.
Andy: New choice!
Me: 300 rolls of toilet paper.
Andy: New choice!
Me: A case of Trojans and a dozen oysters.

Later in the scene:

Fred: I don’t have cash. Do you take American Express?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take the Diner’s Club card?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take second-party Group-ons?

You get the idea.

Why is this such a good exercise?

When writing a script, it’s human nature to come up with a joke and want to just go with it. But more times than not you’re settling. You need to be tough on yourself. Write down the original joke for reference then say “New choice!” And don’t restrict yourself. You’re not limited to the number of choices. Come up with a crazy choice or two; let your imagination really run wild. Who knows? From time to time you might stumble onto something truly brilliant that you never would have thought of otherwise. But the point is, get in the habit of looking for alternatives.

Now that may sound obvious, but just wait. It’ll be the end of the day, you’re tired, or you’re behind schedule and all of a sudden you’re rationalizing that “Cheerios” is the best, funniest reason why anyone would ever shop at Costco.

Improv class in general is a great training ground for young comedy writers. It teaches you spontaneity.

New choice!

It teaches you character development.

New choice!

It forces you to challenge yourself.

New choice!

It’s a helluva lotta fun!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday Questions

Gather around kids for some Friday Questions.

John E. Williams gets us started.

On the many shows on which you worked, which actors in your opinion played their characters the most distant from their real personalities? For instance, I know you've told us Nicholas Colasanto was nothing even remotely like Coach, and I think we all know Kelsey Grammer in real life couldn't be less like Frasier Crane. I have always assumed Alan Alda is very much Hawkeye in a lot of ways, but for all I know I could be wrong.

Ted Danson – twice. Sam Malone was a former athlete and womanizer. Ted knew very little about baseball and was as far from a Lothario as one could be. It actually took him a while that first year to get into a groove because he was so the opposite of Sam.

And then as Becker. Ted is the world’s nicest guy playing a disagreeable crank.

Alan Alda was indeed a lot like Hawkeye, but I’ve seen him in roles where he pays villains and assholes and he’s great in all of them.

Did you ever see him in that Louis CK series, HORACE AND PETE? He plays a bigot that makes Archie Bunker look like Mother Teresa.

I emailed him to say how much I enjoyed him in that role and he wrote back saying it was great fun to do.

From Alec Nickopopoulous:

"Friday Question" - Ken, I love the podcast. What is your studio setup? Quiet garage? Professional soundproof booth at home? And what mic are you using?

I do it out of my home office. I’m very lucky. The acoustics are great. When I close all the doors there’s no echo. Everything I record is edited and assembled on the computer, assisted by Adam Butler, who is an audio wizard.

It’s pretty amazing actually. People can now get studio quality or near-studio quality out of their homes or garages or sensory deprivation tanks.

Not sure of the mic.  It looks like a baby Sennheiser.   Or one of those mics you use to say "Number 12, your pizza's ready!"

GlennNYC asks:

I've been watching the TV show "The Good Place", which recently ended it's 13 episode first season. They've made "Extended Episodes" available on the NBC website and ON-Demand on some cable systems. It's been fun seeing extra dialogue and extra scenes which sometimes have good jokes or plot points which clarify later events. Other times, I can see why they felt the need to tighten the show up. I was wondering what you thought about it; is it a gift to the fans or does it dilute the impact of the show? Also, would you have liked the option to release Extended episodes when working on MASH, Cheers, Frasier,... or would you rather just leave well enough alone once things are final?

On the one hand, anything you can do to generate more fan interest in the show is a good thing. So if people are willing to log on to watch supersized versions of your series, great.

On the other, often less is more. Even if it means cutting some good jokes, usually the shorter version of a show is tighter and better. So the extended version is like serving a dish that is still under-cooked.

Of the shows I’ve worked on, the only one I wish we could offer longer versions is MASH. We crammed so much into those shows and if we had to cut for time we sometimes lost some real great stuff, but we had to in order for the stories to make sense. There are a few episodes during my watch that I feel are choppy and could use an extra two or three minutes.

But CHEERS and FRASIER – I prefer the air versions.

Longtime friend of the blog, Wendy M. Grossman has a FQ:

Over at his blog, Earl Pomerantz has a post up marveling at the number of outlets current writers have to pitch to. This is a situation freelance journalists are familiar with, and standard advice to beginners is always to study the markets (magazines, newspapers) you want to sell to and tailor your pitch to them. You can still, if you do it right, resell the same story to multiple non-competing outlets if you find different angles or ways to tell it for different audiences. So I'm wondering: do today's aspiring sitcom writers need to tailor their pitches differently for HBO, AMC, CBS, etc. Do they need to do more rewriting and rethinking for different outlets than they did in the past when there were just three networks?

You’re right, Wendy, pitches today do have to be tailored for each potential buyer. Every network has their own “brand” even if they really don’t but just think they do. Gone are the days you come up with one pitch and just peddle it from network to network. Today you have to illustrate how your show fits into their distinctive (even if its not) brand. A series you might pitch to CBS would never fly at Fox. Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and AMC and USA and TV LAND, etc. all have their agendas and a young writer would be wise to learn what those are.

The downside is you may only have one or two options per idea, but the upside is if you get lucky you can sell three different projects to three different networks.

What’s disheartening on the broadcast network level now is that you almost have to come in with a package deal. It’s not enough to have a million dollar idea. Now you have to have a director attached, or a star attached, or an A-list pod producer attached to get their attention. And it helps a lot if your idea is just an adaptation of a foreign show that is a success in that country.

And finally, from another longtime friend of the blog, Johnny Walker:

Ed Catmull talks a lot about the major benefit that Pixar experiences from visiting the places their stories are set in, and I know that you're from a school of TV writing, Ken, that benefited a lot from primary research (M*A*S*H, and the Charles Brothers on Taxi).

Did you get a chance to do any research before starting Big Wave Dave's? That would have been fun! :)

As a matter of fact, yes, I did. I went to the North Shore of Hawaii, interviewed owners of surf shops, and took a lot of photos. I also connected with Ron Jacobs, a radio icon who was born and raised in Hawaii, and got a lot of background from him. Ron remained aboard as our technical consultant.

And the best part, of course, is that I was able to write off a trip to Hawaii as business and have it legit.

David Isaacs and I once met with a movie director who was very hot at the time, coming off a series of big hits. He said he didn’t care what his next movie was about as long as it was set in Hawaii. He wanted to spend several months in Hawaii. That’s what I call “artistic vision.”

What’s your Friday Question? I answer them on my podcast as well. Please check it out. You can leave your FQ’s in the comment section. Mahalo.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE -- My bat review

It was nice seeing Batman without Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder there to turn him into a dark brooding tortured soul. Instead we get the more Donald Trump version. He thinks he can save the world all by himself, he hurts other peoples’ feelings, he never wants to share credit, and he thinks he alone has all the good ideas. The difference is you like this Donald Trump. Or at least tolerate him.

This sequel to the LEGO MOVIE has the same dizzying amount of stimuli coming at you, but it doesn’t have the same writers and suffers somewhat as a result. That is if you can stop to take a breath and compare. I appreciate their desire to fill every frame with as much as possible and cram in as many jokes, pop culture references, and silliness as they can, but after awhile it gets to be overkill. And the trouble with that is some real great jokes get lost in the relentless tornado.

MAD Magazine frequently does that, filling every inch of space with gags. But MAD Magazine you can read at your leisure. You can savor every hidden laugh. But this movie, at least for me, felt like I was watching a 90 minute version of THE BIG BANG THEORY opening title sequence.

Certainly there is the desire to constantly entertain, but it’s okay to slow down and take a breath once in awhile. I know the thought is that Millennials have no attention spans and must be distracted every second or they’ll get bored and will play the LEGO BATMAN VIDEO GAME on their phones while watching the LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, but I think Hollywood is doing Millennials a disservice. If the story is good they’ll get into it, if the jokes are funny they’ll laugh. Even at a normal pace.   But when everything is a wild chase scene, the real chase scenes don’t carry the same wallop.

Slowing the action from time to time allows the audience to recharge, get their second and third winds. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is brimming with ideas and like I said, there are many wonderful moments and snappy lines. I just think it would please more if it tried to please less.

Before the film, they showed the
trailer for a new LEGO NINJA MOVIE. I’ll be skipping that. I’m waiting for THE LEGO TWIN PEAKS MOVIE.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Episode 8: The Romantic Comedies You Need to See

Ken reveals his favorite rom coms and why you need to see them. Some you know, but others you might not. Find out what you’re missing. For anyone who likes to laugh or swoon. Also, he’ll be introducing you to a very young Albert Brooks. And finally, Ken comes clean on his recent appearances on CNN.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Another case of Hollywood nonsense-speak

I read a recent article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY about the upcoming live version of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Director Bill Condon was asked why he chose Emma Watson to play the plum role of Belle. He said, “With actors who got to choose their roles, you look at their resumes and you start to see a kind of autobiography emerge.” He goes on to say that Emma was involved in quite a few women’s equality causes and then: “From what I’d seen of Emma, she seemed to be the person, both on screen and off, who best reflected the qualities that Belle embodied.”

How lovely. What bullshit. Not that Emma doesn’t have all those marvelous qualities, but is that really what a director is looking for in an actor – that he or she personally mirrors the character they are hoping to play? Because for every actor hired for that reason, there is an equal number who get hired because they play against their real personality. Actors who play villains aren’t necessarily scary. Actresses who portray innocent young waifs nowadays have sex tapes about to go viral. Did Condon hire Luke Evans to play Gaston because he’s a narcissistic blowhard in real life?

And not to be too cynical but had the part already been offered to Anne Hathaway and Anna Kendrick who turned it down?

The truth is there is no real answer to why an actor is hired. But that doesn’t stop directors and producers and studios from waxing poetic on the intrinsic courage and spiritual honesty their stars embody that make them so perfect for Aquaman.

Casting is an inexact science. It’s subjective at best. And commercial at worst. Studio movies need stars. If you can’t get Damon get Denzel, and if you can’t get Denzel get Eastwood. So what if the age range and ethnicity are totally different? If you wrote a movie based on the life of Teddy Roosevelt and the studio could get Julia Roberts you have to somehow change the script to make it work. When the studio says “We’re looking for a project for Kate McKinnon” that could mean your COOL HAND LUKE remake.

And otherwise, quite simply, the actor just has to be right for the role. He brings an impossible-to-define quality to a part that the other hundred actors didn’t have. He just felt… right. Then, once you hire him you make up bullshit rationales to tell the press.

Is an actor’s actual personality and worldview important in casting? Sure. It’s a factor. But so are his looks. His age. His hair color. His voice. His chemistry with his co-star. His ability to be funny, or sing, or be scary or whatever the role calls for. His level of exposure. His price. His TMZ baggage. His reputation. His ethnicity. His believability in the role. His global appeal. His recent boxoffice performance. His availability. His previous awards. His previous relationship with the director. His experience riding a horse.

Any one or several of these could be the determining factor in why one actor gets the gig over a hundred equally talented colleagues.

I’m guessing Emma Watson will be fabulous as Belle. Not because of her emerging autobiography, but because she’s a talented actress, can sing and dance, is very pretty, and has a big fan base from the Harry Potter movies – the same audience this film is trying to attract. Or Condon really wanted Emma Stone but the casting director fucked up and offered it to Emma Watson instead.

Just once I’d love to hear a director say, “I hired her because the studio made me.” Or “Meryl Streep wasn’t available” or “She gives the greatest blowjobs in Hollywood” or “They love her in China” or “She came cheap.” At least those explanations I could buy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

It never rains in Southern California

Any time it rains in Los Angeles, even if it’s a couple of drops, the local TV channels go nuts. STORM WATCH ’17. After all, this town is not built for clouds, much less rain. When buying a car, windshield wipers are an option like racing stripes.

But local channels scramble to report the showers with team coverage. Field reporters are dispatched to outlying intersections where there are large puddles. We’re told to stay inside until May. And that’s fine until…

We REALLY have a storm.

Like we experienced last Friday. Holy shit! A five-year drought ended in five hours. This was an Irwin Allen disaster movie. The rain was torrential, the winds were howling. And the field reporters were getting drenched.

Poor Eric Spillman of Channel 5 has been doing these reports for fifteen years. He must say “this is Eric Spillman Channel 5 News” every time he steps into a shower.

The other stations just send out their Barbie doll reporters. So poor Heather and Amber and Ambyr have big make-up crises. But those are the kinds of sacrifices you must make to be considered a serious journalist.

The big problem in Southern California is we have terrible drainage, especially in the suburbs. Housing tracts sprung up like weeds in the early ‘50s and proper drainage was not taken into consideration. Geologists rarely were consulted so many canyon homes were built on topsoil. My aunt’s home slid into their swimming pool during the downpour of ’62.

Beachfront homes offered little protection against high tides and angry oceans so to this day you see major celebrities filling sandbags to buttress their glass palaces against the raging sea and storm.

And then there are the mudslides – that effectively cuts off travel along the Pacific Coast Highway and the canyons. Poor Barbra Streisand can’t go anywhere!

Trees always seem to get uprooted. And this hits close to home. Behold our next door neighbor’s tree a few years ago. Yes… YIKES.

Power is out for much of the city because it seems the entire metropolis gets its electricity from one power line. So if a tree takes it down we’re blacked out from the future Mexican wall to Santa Barbara.

And everyone’s house leaks.  Roofers will be busy for the next three years. 

Then there are those pesky sinkholes.  Two cars fell into this one Friday night.

We came through the storm fine. Thank you to those who expressed concern. The next time there’s rain (probably later this week) unless cars are floating by my TV screen I don’t want to see the graphic STORM WATCH ’17.  And let Eric Spillman cover something that's indoors, willya? 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Can comedy save the nation?

I thought this appropriate to write on "Presidents' Day."  

In 1870 a corrupt mobster known as Boss Tweed led an organization that basically controlled New York City politics. Through his influence he was able to stack the city with elected officials who were in his pocket. He then used these officials to defraud the city the equivalent of billions today. Personality-wise, he was quite ostentatious, proudly wearing large diamonds while living in an opulent mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Harpers Weekly magazine wrote piece after piece denouncing this criminal, but most of his supporters were essentially illiterate so the articles were not widely read.

But then their political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, decided to go on a crusade against Tweed. Week after week his cartoons exposed Tweed for the despicable criminal he was, and the public was finally able to get the message through the visuals.

In the next election most of Tweed’s cronies were unceremoniously booted out of office and a few years later Tweed himself was convicted and sent to prison.

So why do I tell this story? Substitute SNL for Thomas Nast cartoons.

I can’t begin to applaud SNL enough not only for their stand against Boss Trump but for how well they are delivering the message. The writing is superb and the performers are amazing. Kate McKinnon is the next Lucy or Carol Burnett. Melissa McCarthy and Alec Baldwin have absolutely nailed their targets, as did Tina Fey in previous elections. And the rest of the cast is equally terrific.
SNL is now getting unheard of numbers – especially in the coveted 18-34 demographic. But it goes beyond that. They are attracting viewers of all ages. And they’re drawing a larger audience than practically every primetime network program. Add to that the Live +1 and +7 and the clips from the show that now go viral each week, and it’s clear that Saturday Night Live has become a genuine force.

This says two things to me. One: If you show something on TV that everyone wants to watch, large broad audiences are still possible. The argument that TV has to be niche now to succeed doesn’t necessarily hold water.

And two: Just as Thomas Nast’s cartoons got the population’s attention, SNL might just have a big impact. Lots of young folks who really didn’t care much about the last election are now opening their eyes to the chaos this administration has wrought. And we can only hope that they will react accordingly.

Boss Tweed tried to discredit Nast and even strong-arm Harper’s Magazine into silencing him. (Sound familiar?). To the publication’s credit, it stuck by its cartoonist. NBC is not backing down anytime soon, that’s for sure.  Not with THOSE numbers. 

Sure there are news commentators that are railing at the disarray in the White House. And newspapers are pointing out daily that the support team the president is surrounding himself with is every bit as corrupt and self-serving as Boss Tweed’s lackeys.  They (Trumps appointees)  have absolutely no interest whatsoever in serving the voters who entrusted Trump to lead on their behalf.

But that public is not reading those articles. Or watching those commentaries.

They are, however, watching SNL. Just as with Mr. Nast’s cartoons, COMEDY can reach people where other outlets can’t. At one time Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite delivered the message. Now it’s Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin.

Boss Trump continues to lash out at the press, but like everything else, he’s missing the point.

COMEDY is mightier than the sword.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Meet Treva Silverman

CNN (when it's not being the enemy of the people) is airing an excellent new documentary series on the history of Comedy.  This week's episode focuses on women -- comedians, actresses, and writers.   One of the writers they feature (all too briefly) is Treva Silverman.  Five years ago I wrote a post introducing you to Treva and I thought now would be a good time to re-post it.  If you watch the show (and I recommend that you do) you'll have a better appreciation for how much of a contribution this super-talented lady has made to comedy and television.
A lot is being made of this being the year of women comedy writers. All the WHITNEY/CHELSEA crude girl sitcoms were created by women. So by inference it's easy to get the impression that TV's ladies of laughter studied their craft at frat houses.

Not so. There have been many women writers who travel exclusively on the high road. One in particular is Treva Silverman.

Her comedy comes from character – keenly observing the behavior and absurdity of real people and real situations. Her laughs are hard earned because they derive from humanity not the easier route – cynicism. I’ve always believed that “only the truth is funny” and Treva’s built a nice career doing just that.

You probably have seen her name on many episodes of the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Without making her sound like Jackie Robinson, Treva was one of the first women TV comedy writers and really did pave the way for others to follow. As with Jackie, she did it with talent, poise, and the ability to steal home.

Treva’s career began in New York. While playing and singing at piano bars at night, she wrote songs and 13 off-Broadway children’s musicals. That led to writing sketches for musical revues at the prestigious “Upstairs at the Downstairs”. Other revues employed as many as twenty sketch writers. “Upstairs” had one – Treva.

Carol Burnett caught her show one night and hired her to write for her first variety series, THE ENTERTAINERS. She was the only woman on staff. Knowing how writing rooms can be a bit raucous, Treva set out to prove she was one of the boys by dropping a few F-bombs the first day. One of the writers took her aside and said, “Please don’t swear. It makes us so uncomfortable.”

MADEMOISELLE magazine included her in an article about women on the rise in professions traditionally held by men. All that did was put extra pressure on her. It’s hard enough to succeed under the best of conditions, but she felt if “If I fail I bring down all womanhood”.

Treva moved to LA to write for THE MONKEES, THAT GIRL, and GET SMART. So far all womanhood was safe. And then in 1969 Jim Brooks (who she first met when she was playing at a piano bar) called and said he and Allan Burns were creating a show for Mary Tyler Moore. Would she like to be involved? As a writer not a pianist.

She stayed with the show for five years, wrote 16 episodes, won two Emmys, and was one of its major creative forces. Allan Burns credits her with being the “voice of Rhoda” (although in person Treva could not be more different from the brassy Rhoda character) and Valerie Harper called her the “Feminist conscience of the show.” The guys, to their credit, never fought her…although the feminist attitudes did have to be pointed out to them.

Treva thought THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was the easiest and hardest job she ever had. Easiest because the show was so real. Hardest because the show was so real.

One thing she loved was that on the show she could write digressions. It wasn’t just story, story, story. Compare that to today’s sitcoms where there have to be B stories and C stories, and forty two scenes in a twenty minute show.

Needing a ditzy character to be the opposite of Rhoda, she created Georgette after seeing Georgia Engels in the Milos Foreman film, TAKING OFF. It was originally supposed to be just a couple of lines for one episode only, but Georgia was so funny everyone decided she should be a series regular.

Of the many episodes for MTM that Treva wrote, some of my favorites were “Lou & Edie Story” (Lou’s wife decides to separate), “Better Late…that’s a pun…than never” (Mary gets suspended when she writes a joke obit and the guy promptly dies), “Cover Boy” (introducing Jack Cassidy as Ted’s brother), and “Rhoda the beautiful” (where Rhoda enters a beauty contest).

Here's just a sample. In that last episode mentioned Rhoda loses twenty pounds but doesn't seem to be happy about it. When Mary wonders why she says, “Because I can never say again ‘gee, I’d look great if I lost twenty pounds’.”

After season five Treva left the show to live in Europe for several years. She came back to write pilots, movies, and was collaborating with Michael Bennett (CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS) on a Broadway musical called SCANDAL. With a score by Jimmy Webb, and starring Swoozie Kurtz, Treat Williams, Victor Garber, Priscilla Lopez, and Rob Morrow it was slated for production. But unfortunately, Bennett died and the project never came to fruition. To this day Treva feels it’s the best thing she’s ever written.

Michael Douglas called her to fix ROMANCING THE STONE. Test audiences hated the Kathleen Turner character -- they thought she was too cold. Plus, they only had the budget to reshoot the first scene – where Kathleen is home alone, gets a call from her sister, and has to go save her. Treva had the solution. Give her a cat. Let her talk baby talk to the cat. Just that one bit of behavior completely won over the audience. And the rest is box office success and disappointing sequel (that I helped rewrite) history.

Recently, Treva has rewritten SCANDAL as a play. A NY Times article called it “purportedly brilliant and unproduced”. Since then there has been a flurry of interest and hopefully we’ll finally get to see it soon.

I hope Treva Silverman serves as an inspiration to young writers, not because she’s a woman or that she broke barriers, but because of her work.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

What is so great about the Dumbo ride?

Since Disneyland has been sort of a theme this week (please check out my podcast this week on the subject) I thought I would share an entry from my book WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED about the day my wife, Debby and I went there.   Today is also her birthday (Happy Happy Birthday!) and I think a celebratory return trip is in order.
My wife and I went to Disneyland. Since becoming an adult this was the first time I was ever there without kids or a joint. No strollers, no giant diaper bags, no getting home and realizing we had left somebody. Also, we had never seen the adjacent California Adventure so we wanted to go before it eventually shuts down or is completely rethought.

We figured: go before the summer begins and kids are out of school. I guess that now means February. Disneyland was packed. There were lines for everything. The biggest: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Waiting, Space Mountain, and churros. The Small World attraction is closed for renovation (thank God). A big fence surrounds it. So the line was only a half an hour.

I wore a golf shirts and long pants. I was waaaay overdressed. Come on, people! At least the ratty t-shirts and torn plaid shorts should fit! You’re going to be taking pictures in those rags.

As always, the park was immaculate… although I could swear one of the 60-year-old maintenance men in an elf suit was a former producer of TAXI. And the teenagers who work there remain the nicest, perkiest, helpfulliest David Arhuleta and Carrie Underwood clones you could find this side of Stepford.

I’m guessing the teens with major imperfections like acne or no dimples are assigned to wear those bulky heavy character costumes. It was 90 degrees and Winnie the Pooh was staggering around, tripping over strollers, kicking little tykes, occasionally sticking his head in an ice cream pushcart for relief.

Happy to say that the new Pirates of the Caribbean ride wasn’t ruined by the improvements. There were a few Jack Sparrows added and a nifty Davy Jones hologram but otherwise it’s pretty much the same. Oh maybe a little less raping but the spirit of fun is still there.

To avoid standing in endless lines Disneyland now offers “Fast Passes” for most major rides. It allows you to return for wait-free boarding. We got our Fast Passes for Space Mountain at 1 PM. Our reservations were for 9:30, thus saving us fifteen minutes had we stood in the normal line.

I was a good boy this trip. I did not stand up and ask Mr. Lincoln a question nor did I buy a Mouseketeer hat, have them scroll “Vincent” then rip off one of the ears.

With all the spectacular photo-ops Disneyland provides, all day long I saw people taking pictures of each other while standing in lines. We are truly a country of idiots.

Then there are the women trying to walk all day and night in ankle strap wedges. And they wonder why they’re crippled by Fantasyland.

Gas prices are so high that for the Autopia, the cars are now just being pushed by Disney employees.

In a nod to health conscious California, Disneyland eateries now serve healthy food along with the usual fast food junk. My wife ordered a salad. It was the third one sold this year!

The irony of the Indiana Jones ride is that Harrison Ford probably can’t ride it. It’s way too violent and rugged for a 66 year-old man.

We moved over to California Adventure, which is like going from Times Square on New Year’s Eve to downtown Flint, Michigan a year after they closed the GM plant.

The only thing worth seeing is “Soarin’ Over California”. It’s a simulated hang glide tour over the state. If only I could simulate flying on American Airlines instead of actually having to fly on American Airlines.

Wandered around the park. Don’t know the names of the “lands” per se but there’s one that’s kind of rustic that my wife just called “Wilderness Shit”. They pipe in this real stirring John Williams type music and I must say, coming out of the restroom I thought there’ve been times when I could have really used this.

Next we encountered a beach boardwalk themed land. The John Williams music gave way to Beach Boys tunes on a calliope. All these years I never knew that “Surfer Girl” was a circus song.

Disney – the company that brought you “Song of the South” and tar babies now presents “Pizza Oom Mow Mow” on the pier at California Adventure.

There’s a big classic Coney Island style rollercoaster and something called the “Twilight Zone Tower of Terror”. Not wanting my first major stroke to be in a place where the paramedics all wear Peter Pan costumes I passed on both.

We returned to Disneyland, nostalgic for the days when California Adventure used to be a parking lot.

Night fell on the Magic Kingdom and it got a little chilly. No worries. There’s a clothing store every hundred feet. Me: “Excuse me, Tracy/Stacey/Kaysee/Lacy, do you have a men’s sweatshirt that doesn’t have Tinkerbell on it? Or Mickey in a wizard’s cap? Or Mulan? Or a fucking fairy castle!?” I bought a Davy Crockett coonskin cap so at least my head was warm.

Even in the evening when the crowd thinned out there was still a 45 minute wait for the aptly named Dumb-o ride.

No trip to Disneyland would be complete without a harrowing bobsled ride down the Matterhorn. It always takes me back to my idyllic childhood, going on it once with my dear sweet grandmother and hearing her drop the f-bomb.

The Haunted Mansion is now inhabited by a bi-lingual ghost. He gives spooky instructions in both English and Spanish.

Never got to Toontown. There were enough over-stimulated, sugar revved, screaming, out-of-control little hellions in all the other lands.

Following the fireworks and “Disney Dwarfs on Parade” or whatever the hell that noisy thing was, we dutifully reported to Space Mountain to take advantage of our Fast Pass. Wow! Space Mountain was always great but this new revamped version is awesome. You know they mean business when they tell you to take your glasses off. As I was crawling off the rocket sled on my hands and knees I said to my wife, “Now THAT’S a thrill ride!”

Finally, it was time to leave. Where did twelve hours and hundreds of dollars go? A half hour to catch the tram and another half hour to find our car in the parking structure the size of Liechtenstein, and we were merrily on our way (to hit massive traffic on the Santa Ana freeway at midnight).

I have always loved Disneyland. I’m not ashamed to say it. I am ashamed to wear any of those sweatshirts but even as a five year-old curmudgeon I marveled at the imagination, scope, and vision of this wondrous (albeit highly profitable) world. So I will be back. Soon. My Fast Pass reservation for the Little Nemo Submarine Voyage is November 21st at 6:30 AM.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the Presidents Day weekend, here are some FQ’s.

Greg starts us off.

What's the practice for referencing famous people living or dead, specifically in comedy writing, whether it's on screen or in book form? Do you have to get some kind of clearance beforehand, especially when they're used in a joke that might not be entirely flattering? Maybe drawing on a commonly held stereotype for that person (i.e. alcoholic, adulterer).

If they’re a public figure they're fair game.  You can use their name. If you show their likeness you need clearance.

If you mention them in a derogatory manner you always run the risk of a libel suit. But that’s certainly a gray area. Look at SNL.

From Mike Lonergan, Tacoma:

Starting a new radio job, did you ever find yourself saying the wrong call letters? I swear the "red phone" call I got from the program director my first night was friendly and casual, but it went like this..."Just a couple things--I'd like you to keep the music a little more up-tempo. Oh, and do you have a pencil? Write this down, K-B-R-O. That's the name of the station, not what you've been saying."

Not as a disc jockey. But I did slip up once as a baseball announcer. After doing the Orioles games for a season I moved over to Seattle. The first time we were back in Baltimore I paused for station identification and told Seattle fans they were listening to “The Baltimore Orioles Radio Network.” Oops. My partner, Dave Niehaus laughed for ten minutes.

Speaking of Dave, next month Sports Illustrated is doing a salute to the Seattle Mariners and included is a tribute to Dave that I wrote especially for the magazine. I’ll let you know when it hits the newsstands.

Keith Bodayla queries:

In looking for scripts online of shows I want to write a spec for, I've come across several people who have posted their own spec scripts online. What are your thoughts on this practice? Seems like a bad idea to me, or at least not one that would land you a job. But I could be wrong.

That’s a very bad idea. You have zero protection. And once that content is out on the web anything can happen. Someone could steal your script, put their name on it, submit it to a show, get hired, and you are completely unaware.

Do whatever you can to protect your material. Register every script with the WGA. Go here for details.

There’s enough stealing when properties are protected. Don’t make it easy for someone to rip you off.

cd1515 asks:

How much do you think being a comedy writer helped you get into baseball?

Could a guy stocking shelves at Walmart who was practicing in the bleachers on the side gotten the same shot you did?

Being a comedy writer was a double-edged sword. On one hand there were teams that were intrigued, but on the other there were teams that didn’t take my commitment seriously because of my background.

And remember, the tapes I made in the bleachers had to be good enough to warrant serious consideration. Plus, once I got my first job, the tapes had to be good enough to advance.

I’m sure there are some who think I only got these jobs because of my TV resume, but the truth is I spent years dedicated to sharpening my sportscasting skills. I didn’t ride all those buses and call games in sub freezing weather to improve my comedy writing ability.

And finally, from Liggie:

Here's a radio question. Local DJs/hosts will give commercials for a local business (usually a car dealership) and mention the great car and customer service they got from them. Do those commercials originate because the host bought the car on his own, liked it, and approached three dealer, or because the dealer offered to give a car to the station in exchange for sponsorships?

Usually the host is approached and offered the use of a car if he’ll be the dealer’s spokesperson. The key here is “use.” When the deal is up the car generally goes bye-bye.

When I was hired to announce Syracuse Chiefs baseball my one stipulation was that the team provided a car for me. They did. But it had big ads for the car dealer on both sides. I looked like an idiot driving around town in that thing.

What's your Friday Question?  I also answer them on my podcast.  Have you subscribed????

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Speaking of Disneyland...

One of the many advantages of growing up in Southern California was having Disneyland right in our own backyard. As a kid I used to love when we had out of town guests because they all wanted to go to Disneyland.

And if you had a hot date you really wanted to impress, taking her to the Magic Kingdom on a Saturday night usually allowed you to take an extra base.

We Angelinos would schlep out to Disneyland to catch musical acts. I saw the great Louis Armstrong perform on the Mark Twain riverboat. That was kind of sad, but still.

An LA high school tradition was going to Grad Night at Disneyland. Once a year in June the park would stay open all night for graduating seniors. The big destination those nights was Tom Sawyer’s Island where you sneak off into dark corners and add to the teen pregnancy problem.

Crowds in the summer were large. And it was HOT ("Death Valley Land"). Again, we locals figured out some tricks. For instance, don’t go in the middle of the day. We would arrive at about 4:00 PM, go on the rides we had to see during the day like the Jungle Boat, have dinner, and by then the sun would go down and things cooled off. After the Electrical Parade at 9:00 lots of folks went home. It was way easier to get on primo rides. We’d leave at midnight and drive home (then sleep for 48 hours).

Of course, as time went by the crowds got larger and larger to where even that trick was rendered useless. But we natives continued to search for shortcuts and the “WAZE” version of negotiating the park.

Side note: One of my favorite Disneyland attractions in the ‘60s wasn’t a ride at all. It was the Monsanto House of the Future. You just walked through this ultra modern house made entirely of plastic. A plastic house might sound ridiculous but when they finally closed the exhibit in 1967 and tried to demolish it, the wrecking ball just bounced right off of it. The one-day demolition took two weeks. Okay, side note over.

Today there are Disney theme parks all over the world. It was bizarre being in Tokyo seeing Space Mountain.

And there are Fast Passes, Fitbit-type wristbands, all kinds of different ways of experiencing the park. And that’s just what the guests see. Behind the scenes is a whole 'nother world of tunnels, surveillance control rooms, and employee areas.

Back in the early days, you could just go, enter the park, and make your way haphazardly around to the different Lands. Today you need a game plan.

With spring break coming soon I thought this would be the perfect time to devote my podcast to Disneyland/Disney World/whatever they call it in France. I’ve got a great guest, Greg Ehrbar, who worked for Disney for years and offers fantastic tips for getting the most out of your Mickey Mouse outing. We also talk about those tunnels and surveillance centers and what it’s like to work there.

Also, I tell the story of how I heard my dear sweet grandmother drop the F-bomb for the first time. So many precious memories from the Happiest Place on Earth.

I invite you to click on podcast at the top of the blog and join us for a lively discussion of Uncle Walt’s playground.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Episode 7: Tips on how to go to Disneyland and Disney World

The Magic Kingdom is this week’s theme and Ken has an expert who will give you helpful tips and secrets on how to make your stay at Disneyland or Disney World the best vacation ever. When is the best time to go? How is the best way to get on your favorite rides? Did any famous celebrities work there? And what don’t you see when you go to one of the Disney parks? Also, Ken shares some of his memories of Disneyland and how he heard his dear sweet grandmother drop the F-bomb for the first time.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

How to write an art house movie

I can’t call it a “foreign” movie per se because depending upon where you are, American films are foreign movies. But these are the flicks we Yankees find playing at the nearby art houses. They’re all subtitled. They’ve all won seventeen film festival grand prizes that no one has ever heard of. And most are very similar.

Recently I saw A MAN CALLED OVE (or, as I like to call it: FOUR FUNERALS AND A WEDDING), which is Swedish and up for an Academy Award. It was likeable and seemed to touch all the heartstring bases. And it got me thinking – what if I wanted to write a movie like this? What are the elements that I would need? After exhaustive research (thinking back to the many art house films I’ve seen) I’ve concluded these are the things that must be included:

Your protagonist must be middle-aged and cranky. Life has let him down somehow. Often he is tortured by the past. And always he feels guilty for something.

He’s very independent but usually someone looks after him – a wife, daughter, hot young neighbor.

He befriends a young person. There must be at least two “seeing life through their young eyes” scenes.

He lives in bleak surroundings. And the weather is always bad. There’s never anything in his kitchen. His modest possessions are all reminders of the past. Sonja’s favorite bathroom plunger, that sort of thing.

We watch him do boring mundane shit for half the movie.

He must begrudgingly take in a pet. Preferably a cat, but a bird will do, or he spends the second half of the film doting over his aquarium.

There’s always a fire. Some structure needs to burn down while he watches or the movie doesn’t get made.

He fights with authority figures who either want to take his house, tear down his art, fire him, commit him, take away his driver’s license, or humiliate him in front of his cat.

Flashbacks to horrific events are a must. Usually a child dies in some accident that needs to be shown – drowns, hit by a train, falls down a well – and Mr. Cranky feels it was his fault.

He is very skillful with his hands. He can fix appliances or build houses or change a Saab fanbelt. Or he builds sculptures that are brilliant but no one understands.

There are at least three scenes in a cemetery. Usually ten.

He’s a loner who ultimately discovers he needs other people.

Anytime anything that is remotely good happens to him, there is a tragedy one minute later.

He has health problems, usually a bad heart. We see glimpses of this early on – he clutches his heart, gets real dizzy – but thinks nothing of it.  Uh oh.  But we know it's coming.

The the big “surprise” – ¾’s of the way into the movie our hero collapses and an ambulance takes him to the hospital. He recovers but the ailment reappears at the end to kill him – usually one minute after he finally finds peace.

There are quirky comedy moments. Not hilarious but just amusing enough that you don’t hate him.

And finally, the film is a half-hour too long.

Hopefully these helpful tips will allow you to go off, write and direct your own art house film. See you at the Oscars, or at least the Herzegovina film festival.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

They say it's my birthday

Happy Valentine’s Day. It’s also my birthday (so good luck getting a restaurant reservation).

When you’re on staff of a show you generally are working on your birthday, sometimes many hours.

I remember turning 40 in the WINGS rewrite room. As the hour approached I said to my fellow merry men, this is it, after 40 I am officially too old to get work. Use me now because in a couple of hours I will no longer be funny, no longer be in touch with the youth of America, and no longer able to eat take-out from Taco Bell.

But that’s not my worst night-before-my-birthday story. That came the evening I was about to turn 55. I was home watching this documentary on the porn industry that HBO was running. In one segment they were asking porn stars what they wouldn’t do. One said animals, another said three guys, another said golden showers, and finally they got to this one perky young lady who said, “Hey they’re paying me. I’ll do anything… as long as it’s not with, y’know, some 55 year-old guy.” Great! Sex with goats is peachy but someone my age is where you draw the line. Happy Birthday to me.

When you’re on staff (and people in the office like you) they will often get you a cake. Their intentions are wonderful and I love them for the gesture…


Twice it has resulted in co-workers wanting to kill me.

The first was on CHEERS. We had just had a disastrous runthrough. The room was David Isaacs and me and the Charles Brothers. We had to re-break the story. We were looking at a 3:00 AM rewrite session. And just when we started getting the germ of an idea for how to fix the story the assistants burst in with a cake for me. We then had to stand around for twenty minutes while everyone ate the cake. I could see that Glen Charles was seething. That was awkward.

And then there was the year David and I were showrunning the MARY show starring Mary Tyler Moore. Normally we shot the show in front of a studio audience but this particular episode required lots of pre-shooting so we all decided to just block and shoot the entire show without an audience. That meant a long day of filming that began at 9:00 AM and ended about 11:00 PM. Plus, there was a horrendous storm that day. Flash floods, the whole deal. As luck would have it the stage sprung a couple of leaks. One was right over where Mary sat in the office set. It was the Chinese Water Test, dripping right onto her head. Needless to say, she was not pleased.

We finally wrap at around 11:00. It’s still pouring. Everyone is exhausted and knows they have long drives ahead of them. And guess what? Out comes the cake. Since I was the showrunner everyone felt obligated to stay and eat cake for a half-hour, the LAST thing anyone wanted to do. And to her credit I will say this, Mary stayed. And she was diabetic. She couldn’t even eat the cake. I spent the entire party sheepishly apologizing to our star.

When I hear MacArthur Park and "someone left the cake out in the rain" that's what I think of. 

This year, no show so no cake. But many well-wishers, which is way better and I’m most appreciative. I do feel bad about Facebook though. Lots of friends are wishing me a Happy Birthday and I don’t check Facebook every day so I rarely wish other people Happy Birthday. So I feel a little guilty. Just know that I wish all of you the Happiest of Birthdays. Except that porn star.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Lena Dunham is back (again)

You have to hand it to Lena Dunham – whether you’re a fan of her work or not – she is one spectacular self-promoter. And at no time in the history of the world has self-promotion been more highly valued. In fact, if you’re really good at self-promotion you really don’t need any other skills. Take for example our current president.

Lena at least can write, act, and direct. But her real gift is focusing the spotlight directly on herself. Lately, any time you turn on a TV talk show there she is plugging the new season of GIRLS. Or open the Style section of the New York Times. She’s there too.  Hell, she's the subject of today's blog post.

But it goes beyond that. And again, I give her credit – she knows how to stand out. In a recent appearance on THE TODAY SHOW she managed to rattle host Maria Shriver by throwing around terms like penis and vagina in her live interview. This made headlines. This made for great click bait. And sparked curiosity in her subsequent talk show appearances. Was she going to say something outrageous? Was she going to shatter a TV taboo? The lady’s got savvy.

Meanwhile, no one's talking about Drew Barrymore hawking the Santa Clarita diet on THE TODAY SHOW. 

It's Lena's ability to capture headlines that has kept GIRLS on the air. The dirty little secret is that the ratings are terrible for GIRLS. They’ve been terrible for quite a while. But HBO has stayed with the show because it generates buzz. And that’s thanks to Lena.  Bill Simmons couldn't save ANY GIVEN WEDNESDAY. 

The fact that she can still attract so much attention is really impressive because face it, the zeitgeist has moved on. Lena had her day. Award nominations, million dollar book deals, New Yorker articles, hanging with BFF Hillary Clinton. But now it’s time for Lena to put her clothes back on. Kate McKinnon is the new “it” girl. So is Samantha Bee. And Melissa McCarthy is moving up fast.  Yet, we’re still seeing Lena – promising that this final season of GIRLS will be even more groundbreaking and daring than ever before. (How will Peter Pan be debauched this year?)

The true self-promoters know how to stay in the public eye even when their fifteen minutes are up. When was Madonna’s last hit? When was she last in the news? Yesterday. She’s adopting Malawian twins. Oprah was last seen hijacking the CBS Mary Tyler Moore tribute. And Lady Gaga is either wearing meat, touring with Tony Bennett, or diving into football stadiums. (Although, in fairness, she’s also an extraordinary talent… and a very agile diver.)

Once GIRLS ends I’ll be curious to see what Lena does next. Whatever it is, I know for absolute certainty that I’ll hear about it.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The CHEERS set

My favorite reader comment so far:

I've gotten familiar with Becker through the syndication. Not familiar with "Cheers".

Well, among those who are familiar with CHEERS I received a request to talk about the set.

We filmed CHEERS on Stage 25 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood (but the seedier section of Hollywood).

The set was designed by Richard Sylbert, an Academy Award winner whose credits include CHINATOWN, REDS, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE GRADUATE, and (ironically) LILITH.

It was patterned after the Bull & Finch bar in Boston. But the B&F is much smaller, and the bar itself is up against the back wall. The d├ęcor, Tiffany lamps, and stained glass is true to the B&F.

Director James Burrows had a lot of input into the design which is why it was so easy to shoot in it. You could bring cameras way up into the set, get many different and interesting angles, and even get shots all the way down the hall.

If you look closely you’ll notice a line that runs down the center of the bar. It’s on a hinge and actually the right half can swing around, allowing room for the right wall to swing back revealing Sam’s office.

There are lights underneath the bar pointing up. It was hard in the first few episodes to see Ted Danson’s eyes.

Nick Colasanto always had a tough time memorizing the script. There were dozens of his lines hidden underneath the bar.

The bar was functional. The CHEERS set was the best ever for show parties.

Whenever an outside set is needed the pool room set is struck.

There is a fourth wall section that was used a couple of times in the first season.

The audience bleachers sat 200. They were raised so even the front row could see over the cameras. To one side was a platform where a small band would play between scenes.

The beer served on tap was warm 3.2 beer. Do not envy George Wendt having to drink that swill every week.

The set was huge. If we wanted to pack the bar we needed 500 people. For our routine customers we used 30-40 extras. Anything else and the bar looked empty.

The guy who had the hardest job on the series was the prop master. Imagine keeping track of all the glasses, drinks, bowls, trays, pretzels, 5.457.432 lemons that Ted cut up every episode, etc.

The phone on the bar would move from end to end depending upon where we needed it.

The Wurlitzer jukebox was not functional. The piano was.

The set was lit differently after the first couple of episodes. Brighter, more inviting. If you have the DVD of the first season, notice the difference between the pilot and episodes later in the year.

In an effort to save money during our first season (when we were getting killed in the ratings not only by SIMON & SIMON but by TUCKER’S WITCH for Godsakes) the studio requested we start shooting the show on tape. A test scene was taped and the set looked ghastly. So much for that brilliant experiment.

The photo over the bar that is supposed to be Sam is really Boston Cy Young winning pitcher Jim Lonborg.

The wooden Indian at the front door was named Techumsa.

When the series finally wrapped I walked over to the stage to watch them strike the set. It was so upsetting I left after maybe two minutes. Of all the shows I worked on, CHEERS was my favorite. And no, I didn’t steal anything from the set. And yes, I’m an idiot. I should have. At least Techumsa.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Phantom of the Oprah

This is one of the craziest rewrite nights I ever experienced. It was on WINGS. I was the Thursday night punch up guy. They had a two-parter called “The Gift.” Both episodes were written by the great David Angell. He was back east in New England writing the scripts. He sent us part one and continued to work on part two while part one was in production.

The plot was very complicated. Most of gang was rehearsing a community theater production – “Phantom of the Oprah” (that title always makes me laugh). And Joe mortgaged his house to buy Helen a cello for some reason. I think she was trying to get a job in an orchestra. You’ll understand why I’m not clear on the details.

David pretty much worked out the story himself. When he sent in part one we really didn’t know what was going to occur in part two. But we all trusted David so didn’t worry about it.

Unfortunately, when we got part one on its feet there were a lot of unforeseen problems. We walked back to the office resigned to a pretty long night. It happens. No matter how well you prepare there will always be one or two scripts a season that are just problematic. You roll up your sleeves, wrestle them to the ground and move on.

But there were extenuating circumstances here. There were story problems but we didn’t know what we could change because we didn’t know what was going to happen in part two. Are we lifting a beat that sets up something pivotal in the second part? Does a story fix screw up a similar scene later?

Of course, the first thing we tried to do was reach David Angell. But he wasn’t home. He was out for the evening. How did we exist before smart phones?

Meanwhile, we had to write something. The actors would be on the stage in twelve hours. Thus began the goofiest rewrite I’ve ever been in. Talk about flying blind.  This was the Rubix Cube of comedy.  I remember we pumped tons of jokes into it, hoping they might mask the iffy plot points.  I think eventually we just made changes we felt were necessary and David would have to adjust the remaining script accordingly.

That’s what he did. Part two worked better but along the way during that rewrite night there were a number of places we would have done something if we could have gone back and set it up in part one. But of course, by then part one was in the can.

It’s been years since I’ve seen those episodes but I seem to recall that somehow they all came together. But truly kids, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

This is a re-post from four years ago.