Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s close out the month of June with Friday Questions.

Brad Apling starts us off.

Frasier spun off of a character in Cheers; Empty Nest spun off of an episode in Golden Girls. What's the thought process that makes this happen? Was there ever a character or story you and your partner spec'd out for a spinoff, but the network didn't share the same 'this would be great!" vision?

Spin-offs are not written on spec. Usually a series commitment is in place. And if not, at least the pilot script. So we’ve never written a spin-off on spec nor had any desire to.  Spin-offs only occur if a network has a desire for it. 

I always wanted to spin-off “Jack” from BIG WAVE DAVE’S into his own show but since we only made six BIG WAVE DAVE’S that seemed a little impractical.

From Jeff R:

You have posted so many interesting things about MASH - I am curious of the role of your Medical Adviser, Walter Dishell. How did you use his knowledge when writing and how engaged was he on a daily/weekly basis. With so many medical shows on TV, my wife is an ER nurse and just laughs at the "reality" they show! Thanks.

A lot of the stories we used were based on interviews with doctors, nurses, soldiers, etc. who served in Korea. In some cases they would involve a medical condition. We would call Walt and ask him to brief us on just what the condition was.

In some cases we would come to him and ask him to find a medical condition that fit what we wanted to do in the story. I remember one example. I called him and said, “We need a disease where a patient comes in with a fever. He gets better but suddenly dies.” He said he’d call me back. An hour later he gave me the name of some exotic fever. I said, “And he could die, right?” He confirmed that he could and I blurted out, “Yes!”

If we had a complicated medical procedure or operation he would walk us through it.

Then, when we wrote the script we would send it him and he would make the necessary adjustments. Our O.R. scenes were filled with: “Nurse, hand me the frabberzabber and begin draining his crenelemuffin.” Walt would put in the correct terms or at least spell-check frabberzabber.

We also had a nurse on the set to ensure that the actors didn’t hold the surgical instruments upside down.

In short, we took a lot of care to make sure the medical portion of the show was as accurate as possible.

Terry asks:

Ken, your talk of crossovers brought to mind a possible Friday question (or questions as the case may be): Can you elaborate a little more on the logistics of writing crossover episodes? Who writes what? How is the story fleshed out? Who has ultimate creative control? Etc.

Usually crossovers are requested (demanded?) by the network as a rating stunt. In most cases, if the two shows agree the showrunners collaborate on the logistics. And there are many.

On ALMOST PERFECT, when we did a crossover scene with CYBIL. The first thing that had to be determined was whether Nancy Travis would film the scene on Cybil Shepherd’s set or whether Cybil would do it on ours. I don’t have to tell you which way that played out.
Then I got together with CYBIL showrunner Howard Gould and sketched out the scene. I believe Howard did the first draft. From there we kept going back and forth revising it. And I must say this was a completely enjoyable process. Howard is a terrific writer and a pleasure to work with. All the while I kept thinking, how could we steal him away from CYBIL?

Eventually, the scene was filmed on the CYBIL set with the CYBIL director. And if memory serves, it aired on CYBIL, but that was a network decision.

As a viewer, I’m a fan of crossover shows. It’s fun to see characters appear on other shows. I'd love to see Saul Goodman show up on GAME OF THRONES. 

And finally, from Jahn Ghalt:

Are Academy member required to cast votes - or can you abstain - a great tradition honored for centuries by American citizens?

Would they kick you out for not voting? If you quit (one way to avoid getting those screeners) what would be the consequence - what are the benefits of membership?

My own policy is to abstain from voting when uninformed (or indifferent) - why add to the noise? Indifferent would seem to apply to mediocre shows.

There’s no penalty for not voting. I only vote for shows and categories I feel I’m qualified to judge. I don’t want a deserving show or artist to be denied a nomination because I made an ill-informed choice instead.

The advantages of membership are that you’re part of the creative community. The various academies have yearly seminars and programs. And for the TV Academy you get screeners! I’m catching up on a lot of amazing TV thanks to those screeners.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A stunt I may regret

Part of the fun of doing my weekly podcast is just being able to try stuff. There’s no program director telling me to just shut up, read the liner cards, and play the records. And no PD banishing me to the midnight-to-six shift (although, ironically, I record most of my podcasts between midnight and six).

But I’m trying to cobble together a fun mix of stories, interviews, features, advice, general silliness, and stunts. I’m always in the experimental phase, which to me is exciting. Kind of like what I do in the blog but with more freedom. So coming up, along with some cool interviews and tall tales, I plan on doing the following:

I’m going to stage a reading of one of the (many) failed pilots David Isaacs and I wrote. I was never completely happy with the cast (in some cases dictated by the network) so I never felt the material got a fair shot. I think I’ve assembled a much better cast for the reading, which I will record and play back on the podcast. I rented a small theater and am making limited tickets available to podcast listeners. Tune in the latest episode (Episode 26). It just dropped and is as easy to access as clicking the big gold arrow below the masthead.

Also, on that episode I discuss stand-up comedy and talk about why I never did stand-up. Improv, motivational speeches, warm-ups, story telling – yes, but five minutes at the Laugh Factory – no.

Except, I thought it would be fun, for the podcast, to finally sign up for an open-mic night. I’ll put together material, arrange a time and venue, and record the results. And I promise to play it back in its entirety no matter how spectacularly I bomb. This is one stunt I know I’m going to regret.

And finally, as another experiment that could go either way, one week I plan on playing a short one-act play I wrote. Then I’ll re-play it and provide a commentary track. I’ll break it down and explain my thought process, why I made certain creative decisions, objectives and how I got there, etc. Does that sound interesting?

To better interact with you guys I’ve now got a new email address for the podcast. Any comments, questions, requests, complaints, Natalie Wood photos – just drop me a line.

I’m going out of my way to make this a super fun listening experience. All I ask in return is that you check it out, subscribe (very important), and if you’d be so kind – give it a five-star review. Apparently those really help attract new listeners (I don’t know how but whatever). I’d like to get a thousand by the end of the week. Currently I’m stuck at 49.

As always, thanks for your support. Without you I’m just annoying my family with all my crap.

Note:  Photo by Tom Caltabiano

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Episode 26: From Stand-Up to Sit-Com--Transitioning from Stage to Screen

Ken discusses the transition between comedians to comedy writers, and interviews EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND writer, Tom Caltabiano.   Tom and Ray started in stand-up together and wound up sharing an apartment together along with Kevin James.  This episode has lots of great stories including an embarrassing one from Ken.  Then he reviews the new television show about stand-up comedy, I’M DYING UP HERE.  Also, your chance to see a live reading of one of Ken’s pilots, and hear how, for the sake of this podcast, he is probably going to humiliate himself.  You can’t miss that!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Why I didn't work on WKRP IN CINCINNATI

Here’s another of those days where I sneak in more Friday Questions since they’ve really stacked up and I want to get to as many as possible.

Chris Gumprich starts us off:

This may be a Friday Question that you've already answered a few times, but this post made me wonder -- you're an ex-disc jockey working for MTM on a show with Hugh Wilson. Why didn't you ever write for WKRP IN CINCINNATI? It seems natural.

I had left MTM and was on MASH at the time. I did call Hugh with an offer to be a technical consultant. There are a lot of radio inaccuracies in WKRP, but Hugh was quite happy with the show the way it was. And he obviously was right.

Although I never worked on the show, I remained a big fan. Even watched the new WKRP.

therealshell wonders:

Do you think that it's ever "too soon" to make jokes about tragic events?

It really depends on the event. There is now a hilarious SEINFELD spec about 9-11. A few years ago that would be unthinkable.

It also depends on the venue. You can say stuff on Howard Stern you can’t say on NPR.

But basically, if you have a joke and worry that it might be “too soon” then it probably is.

Graeme Perrow asks:

What's the reasoning behind many shows that now split the season into two, with a "fall finale", a two month break, and then a "spring premiere"? Is it just a way for them to get away with producing fewer episodes per season, or do they simply bunch all the rerun weeks together instead of spreading them out? Or are there other reasons behind this recent trend?

The thinking is that viewers would rather watch a batch of new episodes without interruptions or reruns, especially on serialized shows. And since cable channels have been breaking up series into 13 episode chunks (a la BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, SUITS, etc.), networks feel the audiences are conditioned for it.

But here’s the problem – if the audience watches a show but doesn’t really give a shit about it, they often times don’t return for the “second” season. And if too much time passes and the viewer realizes he’s existed quite happily without this show he too may not return. So networks are taking a risk.

I couldn’t wait for BETTER CALL SAUL and FARGO to return (that was before the FARGO finale last week). I don’t think I really care about QUANTICO.

And finally, from Mitchell Hundred:

I've noticed that when you talk about your days as a radio DJ, you tend to gloss over the actual music that you played (with a few exceptions). So my question is: How much attention do you pay to that stuff when you're on the job, and how much leeway are you given to be snarky about a song that's really obviously terrible?

I was very fortunate. I worked at stations and formats where I genuinely liked the music. Never had to play Mantovani or polka records. So quite often I would have the speakers up while I was playing the songs.

As for leeway in making fun of the music, that depended on the program director although most understood that when they hired me, snarkiness came as part of the bargain. Most of the PD’s gave me a lot of latitude. So thanks to Bob Whitney, Bobby Rich, Jimi Fox, Johnny Mitchell, Jhani Kaye, and Mike McVay. I’m no longer in radio but it’s not cause of you.

What’s your Whatever-Day Question?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Back back back back

Every post I’ve ever written is available in the archives. Close to 5,000. Very few people actually do go back and read through archives. Jesus, who has the time? But they're great for people Googling things. They're there if you need them.  

And with 11+ years in the books, a lot of the content is now dated. Not many readers are seeking old AMERICAN IDOL reviews (although some are pretty funny). But that’s okay. The point of this blog is to be topical. If I wanted to write something I know people will still be reading in fifty years I’d write a book on how bad AT&T is.   (And by the way, ABC is rebooting AMERICAN IDOL.)

However, now that I’ve been posting for over a decade, there is a nostalgia component that has crept in. Not that this was remotely my intent, but this blog has become a nice chronicle of pop culture and events during that period. The fun of course is when you read back the posts are in the present tense. I don’t know about you, but I love watching vintage television shows that still have their original commercials. The commercials are sometimes more entertaining than the shows. You really get that “time machine” feeling.

So too, with the archives. There are probably weeks or months from the past eleven years that you’d like to relive – happy events and memories. Hey, maybe you won AMERICAN IDOL one year. I bet if you picked a month and year and read those posts they would give you a good feeling. And I bet a good laugh or two might be hiding in these dated entries.

Now, more than ever, I personally am longing for the past. If you are too, a good way to immerse yourself (or distract yourself) might be to scroll through the archives. See how wrong my predictions were. Re-read award show reviews and marvel at how many winners have now disappeared. Skip the baseball posts like you did when they first appeared. Enjoy the many photos of Natalie Wood.

Hey, the alternative is the present. Enjoy.

Monday, June 26, 2017


No SPOILER ALERT necessary. You know what you’re going to see.

The first half-hour (or maybe hour) of WONDER WOMAN was startling. It took place on Xanadu or Shangri-La or Lesbo or Neverland or Young Boys’ Fantasy Island – whatever it was called and it was shocking. Why?

Because the sun was shining.

Ohmygod, there was a blue sky, and shadows, and everything. The fight scenes (girl on girl so that’s an extra $100mil at the boxoffice right there) were, dare I say it, bright. Pleasant to look at even.

But once Wonder Woman crosses into the real world everything goes typically grey and stays that way. Can DC superheroes only use their powers when there’s a cloud cover? Okay, London I can buy. But Belgium has Seattle weather?

DC must stand for Dreary Cinema.

Still, Gal Gadot was so luminous and radiant that even the DC Universe couldn’t darken this movie. Yes, she was hot in the Wonder Woman costume. But she also rocked that blue ballroom gown with the giant sword tastefully semi-hidden behind her back.
Sidenote: Robin Wright in Amazon armor was a nice look too. I can see President Underwood asking her to put that on one night in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Sidenote 2: All the women on the island speak in clunky Israeli accents to justify why Wonder Woman speaks that way. The Amazon women supposedly speak thousands of languages. All with slight accents?

WONDER WOMAN is a fun ride. Great action sequences, ridiculous story that at least you can follow some of the time. And when Gal is crushing the entire German army if you’re asking logic questions you’re in the wrong theater.

Chris Pine is the co-star basically playing Captain Kirk. As much cash as WONDER WOMAN is going to bring in, it could make even more if it was billed as a crossover with the STAR TREK franchise.

My only problem with the movie was that it was waaaaaay too long. You could cut forty-five minutes EASY. There’s no reason a summer popcorn movie should be 2:21. Yes, they needed to show the origin, but it was done with shameless exposition. “Come here Diana, and let me explain jumbled mythology for ten minutes.”

But these are quibbles. The bottom line is Wonder Woman may not save the world, but she sure is saving Hollywood this summer. And she can save me any day.  (Please bring the lasso.) 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Being on Instagram

This has become my new time suck -- checking out everyone's photos.   Most social media sites invite people to stay in their chair and just keep browsing.  But Instagram prompts me to get out there and take pictures and do stuff.   It's not going to get me a job or get me elected as president, but Instagram is a fun diversion when I'm waiting in line to get into the Boiling Crab.  You're welcome to follow me.  Hollywoodandlevine. 

Here's a sample of the crap I post.

Writing problem: What to do if you get stuck?

This happens often as you write your script or novel. You come to a point where you think you’ve written yourself into a corner. A plot point requires something and you just can’t get there. Wait a minute, he can’t swim to safety; he’s in a wheelchair. Exactly how is she going to get to the Pope to sell him Girl Scout cookies?

This is one of the benefits of a being in a partnership – sometimes he can solve it.

But when working alone, here are four handy tips:

First, don’t be afraid to go back. Yes, you spent an hour on the last page and there’s a great joke about renal failure but if it drops you off at a dead end replace it with something that works. Once you have it you’ll probably be able to make up for lost time and more.

So now that you’ve freed yourself, let your mind wander. Come at the problem from different angles. What if he doesn’t get drunk? What if she gets drunk instead? What if he kills the cable repairman tomorrow and not today (right away that makes more sense because the cable repairman is always a day late)? Way too often we get stuck thinking there’s only one way to solve a problem. There’s not. On LOST once there was some crisis and the solution was to “move the island”. Now that’s not the first thing you normally think of. Look for other options. They’re out there.

Second, go past it if you can. If it’s a joke you just can’t find, stick a pin in it and move on. Do the heavy lifting first and then come. It’s a lot easier to tackle the problem when you know it’s the final thing you need to do. But I say “if you can” because if the issue is a major plot point or character definition it’s usually better to solve it now. You don’t want to have to go back and rewrite six pages before the problem and then sixty pages after the problem once you’ve solved it. Or that could just be me. However, long speeches, specific jokes, finding the perfect paragraph to describe a setting – save that crap for later.

Third. Don’t panic. You’ll get it. It might not be in five minutes but you will. My partner and I always joke when we come to a bump that “that’s it. A thirty year career comes to end because we can’t figure how to get Daphne out of the room.” Yes, it’s frustrating but you’re a writer. You welcome pain.

And finally, just walk away. Take a break. Do anything else but write. For some this is hard. They don’t like to stop until they’ve finished a scene or a certain number of pages or NCIS comes on. But it’s okay to stop in the middle of a scene, the middle of a speech, the middle of a word. Clear your head. Go for a walk. Go see a movie. Go to bed. Let your subconscious mull over the dilemma. It will, trust me. Many times I’ll go to sleep with a pad and pen by my bed. In the morning the solution is somehow there. I also do a lot of problem solving in the shower. It’s hard to read back later because the pad is wet, but letting your mind drift while you’re in a relaxed state often unlocks the lock.

Let me show you an example. I don’t really know how to end this post. So for now I’m ju

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here's my really angry rant for the month


This post discusses the season three finale of FARGO that aired earlier this week. So if you haven’t seen it yet, come back when you do. Or you don’t watch FARGO and don’t care, stick around if you want to read an angry rant.

Last chance. The next paragraph I begin.


Readers of this blog know I am a fan of FARGO. Especially season two, which I thought was extraordinary. This season has had its moments and I even did a post about how clever they introduced exposition.

Over the last few weeks the season seemed to go off the rails. There was the police chief who was the cliché cockblocker every time Officer Gloria came to him with a plausible case. Then there was all the metaphysical mystical bullshit and if they weren’t trying enough to be TWIN PEAKS, they hired Ray Wise (from TWIN PEAKS) to deliver the nonsense spiritual babble.

But then came the finale. That ended on a cliffhanger or (worse) ambiguity (we'll never know the outcome). My reaction (which you can probably guess) in a second.

But out of curiosity I read a number of respected TV critics’ to see what they thought. One said the ambiguity “plays into exactly what this season has been about: the fluid nature of truth.” Another defined the two main storylines: “One is an act of capitalist savagery. The other is the culmination of personal animus.” And yet a third praised the storytelling that up until the finale he had issues with. All was forgiven as he gleefully stated: “The weird hiccups and sideways jerks of the narrative, the structure that never entirely coalesced into anything coherent — was on purpose.”   That's a good thing I suppose. 

Now may I offer my opinion – and granted I’m not as enlightened or perceptive as these professional television reviewers – I’m just a schmuck with a blog and podcast? But here’s what I thought:

The ending was a fucking cheat! I sat through ten hours for THAT? Ten hours of watching cast members just pick each other off and speak with accents that get more fake each year? And then we’re left with -- NOTHING? Does Varga get put away or doesn’t he?   Really?  Ooooh, that's for me to decide.

On serialized shows the audience puts trust in the showrunner that the time and effort they expend will be rewarded at the end.  It’s a huge burden and if not handled properly ruins the entire experience.  Look at LOST or HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.  Not only do you need to make a choice, you need to make the right one (whatever that is for your particular show) otherwise you destroy all the good will you’ve built up over the years.  So to present an ambiguous ending is avoiding that decision.  To me that’s chickenshit.

Noah Hawley, in an excellent interview with Alan Sepinwall, admits that the "This is a true story" was lying to the audience.  You know what?  I get enough lies from my fucking president. 

I know it’s currently chic to embrace ambiguity and complexity and existentialism – hour dramas are so DEEP with so many LAYERS.  “Oh, the real world is messy. There are no neat conclusions.” But fuck that. Someone gives you ten hours; give them a fucking ending. The open-ended finale is not even original or fresh. THE SOPRANOS did it so much better.  And at least they were groundbreaking.   Plus, it was the end of the series.  David Chase did not ask the audience to continue taking the ride with him.   I wonder how many FARGO viewers feel like me.  

I'm certainly not saying you have to have a happy ending. It can be unsettling, sad, horrific, shocking, surprising, hopeful, weird, wistful – whatever. And you don’t have to tie up every loose end. You don’t have to wrap everything up in a pretty package. But give us SOMETHING. And I’m sorry but characters killing each other off like ducks in a shooting gallery is not SOMETHING.

Sometimes you can be just too artsy, too quirky, too clever for your own good.

They just lost one viewer.   And Emmy vote.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions comin’ at ya.

John Leader leads off.

Occasionally I’ll spot an “Easter Egg” in a show I’m watching…something that may or may not be obvious enough for everyone to notice, but it’s there for some (comedic?) purpose. An example would be Les Nessman, the News Director on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” always wearing a bandage somewhere on his person. Week-to-week, the bandage would be in different places, but it was never referred to…it was just there.

Have you and David ever stashed such “Easter Eggs” in any of your creations? And, what do you think of the whole idea of doing so?

On a couple of occasions if a character is reading a book on one of our shows, he’ll be reading my book, “It’s Gone… No, wait a minute” (and we make sure it gets on camera).

On ALMOST PERFECT, anytime Nancy’s character was watching TV at home she was watching CHEERS.

In THE BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot we needed a bar so called it “Matt’s” for my son Matt. In the ALMOST PERFECT pilot we needed a restaurant and called it “Annie's” for my daughter Annie. She got the better of the deal. ALMOST PERFECT lasted 34 episodes and that set (with her name prominently featured) got used in probably 30 of them.

Other than that, just slipping in names of people we knew for an inside joke. Example: One of the happiest married couples I knew was Bill & Sherry Grand. So in a CHEERS we wrote, Diane was on jury duty about a married couple trying to kill each other. They were named Bill & Sherry Grand. Maybe six people in America got that joke. 

Paul Dushkind asks:

How did it come to be that Admiral Crowe, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became a guest star on Cheers? That has to be the strangest choice of a guest appearance on a TV show ever.

Oh, it goes beyond that. In the first draft, we originally wrote it for Larry Bird. He initially said he’d be interested. But then backed out. So then we thought, who would be the single most unlikely replacement? The premise was that Rebecca thinks he stole her earrings. Absurd choices were batted around and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came up. I think we had a list of four or five crazy options. Our casting director inquired and the good Chairman agreed to do it. We then wrote the second draft making the necessary adjustments.

How often was Larry Bird and William J. Crowe offered the same role?

Admiral Crowe did a great job. There was even talk of a spinoff.

From David C:

I wrote a spec of Kimmy Schmidt a while ago and the newest season did some things very similar, joke setups, themes, in one case a specific plot point. It's not close enough for people to think I stole specifics just close enough that someone may see it as lazy if they were unaware of when it was written. I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time. Should I make a note on my script to say it was written before the latest season or should I not say anything?

No. Just leave it. That will be only one aspect of the script. You’ll be judged for your comedy chops, ability to capture the characters’ voices, and storytelling skills. Let your script stand on its own.

Also, you probably will have some readers who are not so familiar with KIMMY SCHMIDT that they'll notice the similarities. Why alert them?

Best of luck.

And finally, Andrew Radford wonders:

You said some young writers "maybe can’t write multi-cameras". Since you've written for both single and multi camera shows, can you explain the difference in how to write for each format?

For multi-camera shows you have to write more hard jokes. You have 250 strangers in the audience you need to make audibly laugh. And believe me, they’ll tell you whether something is funny or NOT. You can’t just rely on irony or smiles.

On single-camera shows you’re not held accountable. If the showrunner thinks something is funny it stays in. The problem is he won’t always know. And that’s not a knock at him or single-camera shows. Some are very funny. But I’ve been doing this a long time and there are plenty of instances when things I thought would kill died in front of the audience. But at least I then had a chance to fix them, to replace the jokes that didn’t work. Or edit them out.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Remember, you're always ON THE AIR

Wow. This is odd. Some public figure made an innocuous off-colored remark in this ultra-PC climate and he wasn’t buried on Twitter. In fact, people seem to take it in stride. Thank you Mets fans. The reaction (at least from what I’ve seen) has been amusement. Besides, there’s enough real shit to get furious over that it’s stupid to waste your outrage on something like this.

We're talking about a comment Mets’ TV analyst Keith Hernandez said during the Mets-Dodger game on Monday night. Oh, by the way, he didn’t say it on the air. He said it during a commercial break but his mic was still hot and if you had a satellite receiver you were able to hear it. So to 99% of the audience, it went unnoticed. More reason why this should be a non-story… although it’s not. Deadspin and the Huffington Post both had stories on it.

So what did Keith actually say?

He was talking to his broadcast partner, Gary Cohen about a pitcher who has been getting hit hard lately. And he casually remarked: “Roark’s been getting his tits lit.”

That’s it.

First off, “getting his tits lit” is a baseball expression. And sorry PC’ers, it’s a fairly common baseball expression. And not that dissimilar to “colder than a witch's tit.

Again, what I’m heartened by is that Mets fans took Keith’s comment for what it was (nothing) and laughed it off.

But it does again remind us that anytime a mic is hot, or anytime we post anything on the internet we are essentially broadcasting. We all live in a giant fishbowl. Remember Al Michaels said some things between innings of the 1987 World Series that pissed a few satellite watchers off and caused a bit of a shitstorm. When I was doing Mariner telecasts I asked people between innings to send in a postcard and I got a bunch from around the country. They’re out there. (They were especially out there for our telecasts because between innings our director would often focus on hot girls in the stands.)

Still, the point remains – when you post a photo of yourself in a Speedo on Instagram or angry tweet when you’re shit-faced, you might as well have a microphone and camera open to the world. And it could get scary. Potential employers Google you and when that 2011 toga party comes up that you were tagged in and you’re seen French kissing a sump pump this does not bode well for you getting that job.

So be careful. You might not get off as easily as Keith Hernandez. You might really get your tits caught in the ringer.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Episode 25: Adventures in Television Directing

Ken shares stories of directing sitcoms. He describes what it's like to be challenged by actors, how to win them over, and almost killing an actor. Then he discusses the many times he got fired in radio and how he went out in a blaze of glory on several of those occasions.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What is a "Bono?"

One of my Friday Question Jeopardy answers was  "What is a Bono?"   Enough readers wondered what that was so I thought I'd explain it today. 

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Make sure your response is in the form of a question

I’m always looking for ways to involve my readers in the blog and yesterday’s post was a case in point. Based on a reader’s suggestion I played “Friday Questions Jeopardy” where I gave you the answers and you had to fill in the questions.  Some of them you got, some you missed (but were funny), and some you didn't even try. 

So here are the questions. How did you do?

A rotating joke, a restaurant, and a congressman.

What’s a “Bono?”

William Devane and a former Ram.

Who were the other two finalists for the role of Sam Malone on CHEERS?


What’s a word that Levine & Isaacs tried to slip past the CBS censors?


What are two failed series under the Charles/Burrows/Charles banner?

The dialogue coach on FLIPPER.

What is one of the erroneous jobs IMDB claimed Ken Levine had?

Molly Ringwald and Darryl Hannah.

Who turned down the Julia Roberts role in PRETTY WOMAN? Or… Who are still kicking themselves today?

Would have stayed in Sacramento if they had only given him a small raise.

What would have kept Rush Limbaugh from accepting an offer to go to New York and host a national radio show?

The “Abby Singer Shot.”

What’s the second-to-the-last shot during any one filming day?

55 share, 19 share.

What were AfterMASH’s ratings the first night of the 1983/84 season and the last night?

An “Up and Back.”

What’s a funny joke run that doesn’t advance the plot?

Hope Lange.

Who played Dick Van Dyke’s wife on THE NEW DICK VAN DYKE SHOW?

Starred in a TV movie about herself.

Who is Ann Jillian?

Schmuck bait.

What’s a plot point that only an idiot would buy?

Paper partners.

What is the insidious practice where scumbag showrunners hire two baby writers and force them to become partners, thus cutting each of their salaries in half?

Charlie Haid and Walton Goggins.

Who were two actors who played characters that got killed in pilots but were so good the producers decided to bring them back from the dead and reinstate them?


What are two sitcoms that started out as single-camera shows and converted to multi-camera shows?


What was the nickname writers had for MTM Enterprises during the golden comedy age of the ‘70s?

Studio 25 at the NBC Burbank Studios is named in his honor.

Who is Art Fleming, the original host of JEOPARDY?

Thanks for playing. WHEEL OF FORTUNE is next.

Monday, June 19, 2017


Reader bobgassel had an interesting thought:

How about a "Friday Jeopardy" where you post the answers and we try and guess the questions?

Okay, I’ll bite. Try your luck.

A rotating joke, a restaurant, and a congressman.

William Devane and a former Ram.



The dialogue coach on FLIPPER.

Molly Ringwald and Darryl Hannah.

Would have stayed in Sacramento if they had only given him a small raise.

The “Abby Singer Shot.”

55 share, 19 share.

An “Up and Back.”

Hope Lange.

Starred in a TV movie about herself.

Schmuck bait.

Paper partners.

Charlie Haid and Walton Goggins.



Studio 25 at the NBC Burbank Studios is named in his honor.

The “Questions” tomorrow. Good luck.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day

On this Father’s Day (the most sacred holiday of the year) I’d like to wish a happy one to my dad, who also happens to be my hero, mentor, and best friend. I love you, Dad.  I'm in therapy for other reasons. 

Here are some pithy Father’s Day quotes:

“To be a successful father… there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.” -- Ernest Hemingway

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.” -- Bill Cosby (always great to get parenting advice from this sleazeball)

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” -- William Shakespeare

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." – Mark Twain

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.” -- Charles Wadsworth

And finally, a salute to Screaming Jay Hawkins. Screaming Jay was a r&b/blues singer. His big hit was “I Put a Spell on You” in which he came out of a coffin. The man was a crowd pleaser. And also a lady pleaser it seems. Upon his death when it was time to divvy up the estate it was discovered he had 57 children. Screaming Jay will not be saluted on Planned Parenthood day.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.  Note to my family:  I hate power tools.  I'm more of a "free trip to Hawaii" kind of guy. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

My day with Johnny Carson (for those who remember Johnny Carson)

 On the Tony Awards last week (that no one watched), host Kevin Spacey did a Johnny Carson impression.  Sitting in the audience my first thought was "how many people even remember Johnny Carson?"   Probably very few, certainly very few Millennials.   Carson hosted THE TONIGHT SHOW for close to thirty years.  The Tony Awards drew an audience of just over 6 million.  In the '70s, every single night, Johnny Carson drew 17 million... at midnight.  But he's been off the air for over twenty years.  That's a long time.   And unfortunately, he's passed away, so it's not like he could guest on THE TALK. 

When he was the King of Television he rarely appeared on sitcoms.  He did a cameo in a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode, but you just heard his voice.   And yet, he agreed to be in a CHEERS episode that my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote (called "Heeeeeeere's Cliffy!").

Networks love stunt casting and this was catching the biggest fish of all.

The premise of our episode: Cliff's ultimate goal in life was to have Johnny Carson read one of his jokes during a monologue. The man reached for the stars! Alas, his endless submissions kept getting rejected. Finally, as a goof, Norm intercepts one and turns it into an acceptance letter. Things get out of hand when Cliff flies to Burbank to be in the audience the night of his big triumph. And he brings his mother. Norm must tag along for damage control.

Norm bribes the cue card guy to include Cliff's joke. Johnny reads it in his monologue, it bombs, Cliff stands up and corrects his delivery. He winds up in custody while mom ends up on the couch with Johnny.

Come on. It could happen!

We wrote the script, sent it to Carson, who approved it. We arranged to film it right after a TONIGHT SHOW taping. The audience was asked if they'd like to stay for an extra half hour and be on CHEERS. Nice folks that they were, they were willing to make that sacrifice.

The crew and I arrived at the studio at 3 (my partner was out of town). The TONIGHT SHOW taped from 5:30 - 6:30. I introduced myself to Mr. Carson and said I'd be happy to make any adjustments he would like. He said, no, he thought the script was great. He'd do it just as written. I almost fainted.

During the TONIGHT SHOW taping I sat in the green room and kibitzed for an hour with that night's guest -- Elizabeth Taylor. She could not have been more approachable and fun. It was almost surreal to be chatting about life with Elizabeth Taylor.

After the taping, director Jim Burrows set up our four cameras and blocked the scenes. Not only is Jimmy the best multi-camera director, he's also the fastest. All of this rather complicated stuff was accomplished in fifteen minutes in front of the audience. Indy Pit Crews could learn a thing or two from Jim Burrows.

We had hoped to also get Ed McMahon but he wasn't interested in sticking around (a whole half hour) so we wrote him out. Guess he had to get to that Budweiser.

Now the filming began. Four film cameras were positioned on the stage. I was standing next to one, essentially between the curtain and the band. Jimmy calls action, the band (right behind me) struck up the familiar theme and Johnny Carson steps through the curtains. He's maybe five feet from me. He begins delivering our monologue. This was maybe a month before his final TONIGHT SHOW so I knew this was a precious experience that would never come again.

We tried to write jokes that would get solid laughs so that when Johnny got to Cliff's it would be noticeably bad. Much to my sheer delight, our jokes worked. The King of Late Night was getting laughs doing our material. This was more surreal than Elizabeth Taylor asking me which Disneyland ride was my favorite.

The scene played great. We shot it a couple of times. And Johnny was the ultimate professional. Happy to do re-takes, whatever we needed. So often legends and idols disappoint if and when you actually meet them but the reverse was true here. I wound up even more in awe of Johnny Carson.

After we wrapped I got a picture sitting at Johnny's desk interviewing John Ratzenberger.
Woody Allen made a movie called ZELIG where he played a normal guy who somehow managed to mingle with every important figure of his day.

Well, Zelig had nothing on me, certainly that night -- a night that will live in my memory forever... and hopefully in reruns.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions?

Steve is.

I was reminded of by the mention of 'Goodbye Radar' but I assure you is not meant as a criticism of those episodes: Why do so many two-parters seem to be so padded out? Do they start life as one script that can't be edited down to the proper length?

In many cases that’s true. I’ll be honest – most two-parters – at least in sitcoms -- are really part-and-a-halfers.

And usually this crystallizes at the script stage. There’s just too much story to tell in one episode so the choices are to cut elements, which sometimes really short-changes the story, or expand to a two-parter, which often results in some padding.

Sometimes the decision is made after a show is shot – add a few scenes and make it a two-parter, but usually not. It’s expensive to shoot way more than you originally need so usually that’s addressed before it gets to that stage.

But I will say this, and it’s happened to my partner and me a couple of times – there’s nothing greater than turning in a first draft that’s a little long and hearing the showrunner say, let’s just make it a two-parter. Suddenly we get paid for two scripts. And even if we have to do another draft to fill out the two-parter, that’s just a few scenes. It’s a beautiful thing.

In the case of GOODBYE RADAR, CBS wanted the show to be an hour so they could promote it during November sweeps over two weeks. And there is a little padding in there, I will admit.

slgc asks:

The film MOVIE MOVIE had been in heavy rotation for a long time, but now it is nowhere to be found. Why does that happen to some films? Why do some of them simply fall off the face of the Earth?

This all has to do with distribution rights. Movies are syndicated to stations in packages. A station might acquire a library of say fifty movies that they can air for three years. Over time these distributor deals with studios change, and as companies are purchased by other companies sometimes titles fall by the wayside.

MOVIE MOVIE is a very funny film, co-written by Larry Gelbart. I believe it’s available still on DVD. If so, check it out.

cd1515 wants to know:

Friday question: recently watched the John Cleese episode of Cheers, one of the finest ever IMO and I noticed you didn't write it.

Respectfully, have you ever worked on a show, seen an episode someone else wrote and been a little jealous of how good it came out?

Not per se. There are a lot of episodes I wish I had written because they are so freaking good, but those inspire me, not make me jealous.

That John Cleese episode, by the way, was written by Peter Casey & David Lee. And it’s one of my all-time favorite episodes of CHEERS.

And finally, Toby O'B queries:

If 'Brockmire' came calling, would you appear as yourself on the show [if there's another season?] Have you ever worked with any Jim Brockmire types in your broadcasting career?

You bet I’d appear as myself. It’s a great show. Can I have a love scene with Amanda Peet?  From what I understand there will be a season two. 

I have known a couple of Jim Brockmires, but only in my minor league days. I won’t embarrass him by revealing his name, but one clown actually sounded like him. I remember listening once and this was his call (and imagine the Brockmire delivery): “There’s a line driiiiive to deep right field, off the Pepsi sign, and hey, wouldn’t an ice cold Pepsi Cola taste great right about now? Mmmmm mmmm. And he’s in with a double.

You can’t make up shit like that.

Have a great weekend, and I hope it includes catching my podcast this week with Kevin Smith. Just click on the big gold arrow at the top of the blog. Thanks. (See I can squeeze in a plug as good as any Brockmire.)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Misc. Takes

Is FARGO turning into TWIN PEAKS?

Can you believe the baseball season is almost half over already?

Tom Cruise is no boxoffice match for an Israeli woman with a tiara and lasso.

Apparently there were more people inside Radio City watching than Tonys than the television audience.

As always happens, shows that don’t win Tonys close ten minutes after the ceremony. Farewell to INDECENT, SWEAT, and 6 DEGREES OF SEPARATION. But CATS continues on

24.5 million viewers watched the last game of the NBA Finals. Opening night for the 2017-18 season is next Thursday.

Why I love the Golden State Warriors: they plan to decline an invitation to the White House.

You can follow me on Instagram at HollywoodandLevine. I post pictures of food and scenery like everybody else.
They keep rebooting all these movies. The one movie I really want to see rebooted is ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon will win Oscars.

I had a girlfriend in high school who wouldn’t sleep with me because she was born on June 15th. It’s the middle of the month, middle of the year, and that meant she was destined to stay noncommittal. That’s the most creative brush-off I’ve ever had. The rest all just said, “No!”

Did you ever think you’d see a Yankees team hitting so well with their first and third baseman batting eighth and ninth?

Emmy consideration billboards are up in my neighborhood. How about yours?

Check out my podcast this week. Part two of my interview with Kevin Smith and it’s even better and more personal than part one. And you get to meet my daughter Annie and her husband/writing partner Jon. Kevin interviews them. Just click on the big gold arrow under the masthead.
Oh, and please SUBSCRIBE. Thank you.

Remember when the summer meant network reruns? Now it means burning off CARMICHAEL and Steve Harvey.

Have you seen the reboot of CLARRISA EXPLAINS IT ALL? It’s on MSNBC every night starring Rachel Maddow.

I lost 3,000 steps when I flew across country and the app switched over to PDT. If only there was a diet app that did that.

Are they still calling ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK a “comedy?” If so, it’s a big waste of a billboard.

James Lipton would ask Putin tougher questions than Oliver Stone did.

Happy Father’s Day this Sunday.  Don't even think of getting me a tool. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Episode 24: Interview w/ Filmmaker Kevin Smith Part 2

Kevin discusses his directing process, the incredible story of getting CHASING AMY made, the even more incredible story of trying to write a SUPERMAN screenplay, plus terrific advice for filmmakers young and old alike. And as a bonus, Kevin interviews Ken’s daughter Annie and her writing partner/husband Jon on how they broke into the business and what networks are looking for in writing samples.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

My 15 seconds of fame

Andy Warhol coined the phrase “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." And that was before the internet where idiots who swallow live gerbils get 80,000,000 hits on YouTube.

But it does seem like Mr. Warhol was prophetic. Everyone has become a reality star in his own show. You’re somewhere in the world reading this. Without the internet I’m Cliff Clavin writing rants that I’d have to mail, which would only get my name on the FBI-watch list. Instead, I’m a legitimate commentator. Or at least semi-legitimate. I don’t warn that space aliens are controlling Time-Warner. (Even though everyone knows that they are.)

Still, in this dizzying world of celebrity I would amend Mr. Warhol’s theory and say “writers get 15 seconds.” If there are actors around, they get the media attention. And that’s only fair. Their faces are up on the screen. If a writer has a big problem with that then take acting lessons and get in front of the camera.

But the perfect example of what I’m talking about is this: A number of years ago David Isaacs and I won the WGA Award for Best Episodic Comedy Script. Our presenter was actor Jimmy Smits. After we walked off stage there were a few journalists hovering. They completely blew by us to interview Jimmy Smits. Hey, we fucking WON. And it was a WGA event. But they were way more interested in what Jimmy Smits had to say… about anything.

Example number two: whenever there is a TV documentary about a TV show (like MASH or CHEERS) they will interview the writers extensively, and then use maybe 15 seconds of it. But the actors will get five minutes apiece. Again, I can only smile. That’s just the way it is.

That’s why I have been so surprised and delighted by the CNN decade documentary series. I was on THE SEVENTIES talking about MASH. I got my usual few seconds here and there. Then I was on THE EIGHTIES and shockingly, they went to me a lot. I’m even commenting on PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE. I was on-camera enough that some strangers have made fun of my tie.

And here’s the amazing thing: CNN plays those episodes over and over again. It seems like every other week I’ll get a flurry of emails from people who just saw me on CNN. Talk about getting the most from your 15 seconds.

Recently I was up in Silicon Valley for my granddaughter’s first birthday party. I went back to the hotel, turned on the TV and yikes – there I was.

I love that they rerun those TV-themed episodes – not so much for my exposure, but it means one less hour they show Trump.

I was interviewed again for THE NINETIES, which premier on July 9th on CNN. I have no idea how much they’ll use me (or even if they'll use me at all), but if I’m going to get my 15 seconds, at least it’s on a show I’m proud of and so far I haven’t said anything stupid.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I love New York (when the weather is good and I can do stuff)

A quick look at my trip in words and pictures.

Was in Gotham for four days and it didn’t rain once. At the moment it’s 95 degrees and thunderstorms are expected (or snow), but for my long weekend, you could walk everywhere except Fifth Avenue because of the Puerto Rican Day parade.

There are still long lines for CATS. I swear, I must live in an alternate universe.
Okay, I have an excuse. I’m not the most oblivious person on the planet. I was sneezing. My wife and I were crossing Lexington Avenue at 50th at about 11:00 pm one night. Granted, it was a warm evening, but my wife said, “Did you just see that?” “What? No” I said. “The guy who just passed us, crossing the street – you didn’t notice him?” “No, “ I said, “I was sneezing.” Well, it seems a guy crossed right by me that was completely naked except for a handkerchief over his genitals. And this did not get my attention. That must’ve been some sneeze.

You’ve heard of the spotting the first robin of spring. Perhaps for NY, that guy is the first sign of summer.

One area of Manhattan that is now off limits to me is anywhere in the vicinity of the Trump Tower. I didn’t want to even look in its direction.

What the hell are Jewish mashed potatoes? This was from the menu at the Redeye Grill.
Happy to say the Shake Shack burger in God-knows-where Long Island tastes every bit as good as the one in West Hollywood.

I’m sorry, this will always be the Pan Am building to me.
Took the Long Island Railroad out to Westbury to see my daughter and her husband. (They’re now in New York co-producing KEVIN CAN WAIT, which films in glamorous Bethpage, Long Island). On the track going the opposite direction there was an incident. Apparently the train hit a guy on the tracks. So that train was stopped, passengers were filing out as we went by. I asked our conductor if he had ever heard of this kind of thing happening before and he said, matter-of-factly, “Oh yeah. We got three last week.” Last WEEK? It’s one thing to not see a naked guy, but a train??

Could this mean another sequel – SILVERFINGER?
How many Mets fans are going to eat here? I bet Rusty Staub’s had better food.
And finally, who is this? A Disney princess from a movie I’ve missed? Ivanka? 

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Tony Awards -- rehearsals

Almost better than attending the Tony’s is attending the Tony’s rehearsal. This week I got to watch two of them. I kept hoping that actually being in Radio City the committee might say, “Oh hell, he wrote a couple of funny plays, let’s just give him one,” but alas they felt not throwing me out onto the street was tribute enough.

Still, just sitting quietly and observing on Friday, and again on Sunday for the dress rehearsal was a super thrill. My thanks to Randy Thomas, who for the last 19 years has been the “voice of the Tony’s” for getting me in to watch.  (They requested no pictures be taken of the rehearsal so you’ll have to make do with shots around the periphery.)

What struck me was how many moving parts are involved to make this live nationally broadcast extravaganza. Talk about Murphy’s Law. And yet, director Glenn Weiss and crew make it look easy although in truth, it’s a herculean task. And that’s without a Bette Midler production number.

To me the Tony’s are the best of the award shows simply because they feature the most true entertainment and they have never asked Seth MacFarlane to host. It’s unfortunate that 99.999% of America hasn’t seen any of these shows so there’s less rooting interest. Not a lot of betting pools in Kansas I’m guessing.

There were eight or nine full production numbers from Broadway shows, and that doesn’t count host Kevin Spacey’s big opening number (not a highlight but he redeemed himself with the line of the night calling out Bette Midler for not getting off the fucking stage). Each of those shows had their own casts, backdrops, musicians, costumes, and props. That poor stage manager. Besides the host, and all the presenters, he had to wrangle close to a thousand performers. It’s the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony but with Josh Groban.

Who knows how many weeks or months of pre-planning went into last week’s final few days of rehearsal. Coordinating all the segments, preparing the numbers, doing the camera blocking (they used twelve cameras including a few flying jibs that swooped around the auditorium like buzzards) – the mind reels. Large broadcast trucks lined 51st Street and starting mid-week, the production crew took over Radio City (which is like taking over Moldavia but larger).  What a nightmare for the sound crew who had to mic and mix this uber show. 

When the Comet dancers had to put on their Russian boots they needed to put their sneakers somewhere
Each nominated musical came in and rehearsed their number. Some were incredibly elaborate. THE GREAT COMET required a gazillion dancers, and a chorus of probably a hundred that ascended the stage in two humongous elevators. And Josh Groban. The number extended into the audience with dancers in the aisles, interacting with guests, playing instruments. And Josh Groban (maybe the best singer in the whole room... and that's saying something). Miraculously, the whole piece was choreographed, mic'ed, and camera blocked in a few hours. It should have taken six years.

They rehearsed the number from GROUNDHOG DAY three times and I said to Randy, "Jesus, are they doing the entire show?"

Since these were all numbers from current Broadway hits, the rehearsal had to stop in the evening and resume after eleven once the shows closed. And they couldn’t rehearse on Saturday because there are matinee and evening performances of each show. I’d be popping Xanex like Tic Tacs.

Randy in her booth
Randy’s makeshift booth was on the fourth floor. There are four or five floors of dressing rooms, rehearsal halls, who knows what? It’s such a labyrinth I bet Rockettes get lost. With absolutely zero margin for error, Randy must read all these tongue-twisting names and of course announce those walk-up factoids. “This is Ken Levine’s first Tony win even though he has never been nominated.” And those she has to do on the fly. It’s a unique skill that combines talent, experience, and Hurt Locker nerves.

One cool thing:  Up on the fourth floor a tiny space is set up for the individual conductors of the shows.   There's a camera set up with a monitor in front of the orchestra, so each can conduct his own show.  Just picture Leonard Bernstein conducting in a shower. 

On Sunday morning I was invited to attend the dress rehearsal at 9:00 AM. There was a small invited audience – well, small by Radio City standards. You could fit the Woodstock festival in its balcony.

I was lucky enough to be assigned to the orchestra. As a bonus, I got my 10,000 steps in for the day just walking to my seat. They run through the entire show and the pre-show special awards categories that are edited for playback during the real show. An editor sits up on the fourth floor with an iMac and edits these things on the fly. I could just watch him for three hours.

Randy should never leave the booth
Kevin Spacey was there along with some of the presenters. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Hamill, Sally Field, Sarah Paulson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Sutton Foster, Glenn Close, and a few others were there. Stand-ins took the place of presenters who were not. Those same stand-ins also came up from the audience and made acceptance speeches. Some of them were funnier than the actual winners. Most of the speeches were just a string of cliché’s and you realize, that’s what 80% of the real speeches are like.

All in all, it was an extraordinary experience. And I tip my hat to the hundreds, maybe thousands of technicians and crew members who put on this dazzlingly complex show and pulled it off with grace and style. You’re the ones who deserve the awards.

Congrats to all the winners including Ben Platt who I knew as a real little kid, and thanks again to Randy Thomas.   And can I just end with GOODBYE, Dolly!