Monday, July 31, 2017

The new TV season begins

With August almost here, network shows are going back into production. New shows are hoping for November pick ups, returning hits see the horizon as March.

And believe me, for the writing staff, March seems like five years away.

But hiatuses are done. Pre-production is done. Long lunches and leaving early is done. Here come the actors and it’s time for cameras to roll.

I have to say, honestly, when I was on staff of a show, by this point in the process I was ready to start production. It’s all prep until the cast and crew go to work. But once you get going you start making headway through the season.

And I never got over that excitement of writing something one day and seeing it performed the next. That’s one of the things I love most about television. As opposed to features where it can take years before your script gets made (if ever), in TV you serve it while it’s hot.

And you’re making something. Sets get built, actors get hired, stuff as a writer you envision in your head suddenly comes to life.

Of course, along with all the positives come production problems, actors balking at scripts, network notes, technical snafus, weather issues, and unforeseen emergencies. Who hasn’t had a set swept out to sea in a hurricane? We’ve all been there.

But for all the frustrations, I suggest everyone associated with a show going into production this week just stop, take a second, and appreciate the fact that you’re making a network television show and how cool is that? Enjoy every minute of it… that you can.

And one last thing: Just get to Thanksgiving. You can worry about the rest of the season later. Just get to Thanksgiving.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


When I was six I could draw Popeye. The only time I was popular in my entire sixteen-year school career was in the first grade because I would draw Popeye on paper towels for everybody. Unfortunately, by high school that no longer worked. Still, cartooning became a big hobby. By the time I was ten I was drawing entire comic books. Forget that nobody read them. (It’s kinda like when I started this blog.)

When I became a teenager I thought seriously about cartooning as a profession. The idea of having my own comic strip was very intoxicating. I’d seen articles about Charles Shulz (creator of PEANUTS) and it seemed like a great life. You have this nice art studio at home with large picture windows looking out at lush gardens or the beach or the Alps (depending on which side of the house your office was situated). You send in your panels to a big syndicate and voila, your comic strip appears in 300 newspapers. You’re right there with HI & LOIS and LITTLE LULU. Hollywood eventually comes calling, an animated Christmas special follows, a series, and then the Holy Grail – action figures!

But, I thought, there’s a problem. I would have to come up with seven jokes. Every week. Like clockwork. Who could possibly perform under that kind of unimaginable pressure?

Later I became a Top 40 disc jockey where I had to come up with a new joke every three minutes for four hours, six days a week. For way less than the artist of BLONDIE makes.

From there I gravitated towards sitcom writing. Here I was expected to come up with thirty or forty jokes a day for ten months.

Recently I picked up the comic section of a major newspaper. It had been years since I scanned the funny pages. Without naming names, I was shocked by how bad they were, how painfully unfunny they were. And these are the current cream of the crop? Getting a national syndicate to pick up your comic strip is like winning the lottery only with worse odds. So you’d expect each strip would kick ass.

I read THE NEW YORKER every week and their one-panel cartoons are always funny and sharp. Their batting average is probably .900. But that’s what you’d expect. THE NEW YORKER has the pick of cartoonists. Why doesn’t the same high standard apply to the comic strip world?

Or is it me? Or is the level of humor designed strictly for kids? There are a few exceptions but for the most part I was disappointed.

And then it occurred to me, back when I was such a fan of comic strips were they any better? Was BEETLE BAILEY really funny? I thought THE PATTY DUKE SHOW was hilarious back then, too.

What do you think about comic strips? Do you have a favorite? Has the quality of a favorite gone downhill over time? Is it lame comic strips and not the internet that is killing the newspaper industry?

Comic books were different. I favored the action hero genre – Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Isis (you know – the classics). They didn’t have to be funny. I had MAD magazine for that (although there's a rumor that MAD is folding.  That would be tragic.) 

But it seems to me daily comic strips could be better. Underground comics are. I know what you’re thinking – then why don’t I submit a comic strip? Are you kidding? That’s seven jokes a week.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Welcome to the Hall of Fame

This is a re-post from last year when I heard that Bill King had been selected to enter the broadcasting wing of the baseball Hall of Fame.   But today's the actual day so I figured, what the hell?  The man was one of my mentors... and idols. 

It is a well-deserved honor. Only wish it wasn’t posthumous. He died in 2005 after being a mainstay in the Northern California sports scene. He broadcast for the A’s and Giants, also was the Voice of the Raiders and the Warriors.

King was maybe the most articulate play-by-play man in the business. His use of vocabulary and descriptive terms were extraordinary. And it seemed effortless. He always had just the right word, just the right adjective right there at his fingertips.  At some point he must've swallowed a dictionary.

He also could call an exciting play in a way that was positively electrifying. I know he received this honor for baseball, but for money Bill King was the best radio football announcer of all-time. That’s right. ALL-TIME. His Raider calls were thrilling. Here’s just one example:

Bill King was truly an original. He sported a beard and with deep-set eyes and looked like the devil. But a sweeter, kinder, more generous man you’d never find. I’m honored to say he was one of my mentors. When I was learning to broadcast baseball he critiqued several of my tapes. I learned a lot from him. And I’m sure I’m just one of many.

He was also very eccentric. He lived on a houseboat in Sausalito. He only drove beat up used cars. When one would conk out he’d just buy another. He was a history buff and an opera buff. When he did television sports he wore a suit jacket, tie, and (out of camera range) shorts and flip-flops.

Bay Area sports fans have long cherished Bill King. So glad that the baseball world has finally recognized his contribution as well.

Ken Korach, who was Bill’s partner and is now the Voice of the A’s, wrote a terrific and loving book about Bill. I recommend it for anyone interested in reading about a larger-than-life personality and a time in professional sports when personalities, not generic-sounding interchangeable robots, were valued. Congratulations to Bill King. Only wish he were around to give the acceptance speech.  I'm sure it would be so eloquent you wouldn't think it was a sportscaster.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday Questions

Use sunscreen and read Friday Questions.

Brian begins this week:

What do you think of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"? I thought the first two seasons were pretty funny, but it’s getting repetitive in season 3.

I have not watched season 3 yet although I have seen seasons 1 and 2 and quite enjoyed them. I think the show is very funny. It’s a live cartoon. I appreciate that they strive to really make you laugh and the jokes come at you fast and furious. And there are even jokes in the margins. If I have a problem it’s that they will break reality at times to get a laugh and that undermines any honest emotional moment they try to have.

But I’m actually looking forward to season 3. I hope it’s as good, or at least as funny. 

It's still hard to believe NBC let that show get away. 

cale Blalock asks:

I'm just curious to when you do radio, how do you not feel like a nut talking to yourself?

Is there something I should know???

In my headphones I listen to the station coming in over the air. That allows me the sense that I’m actually broadcasting and there may just be, by some miracle, another person or two listening. But that’s on the radio.

When I record my podcast I could just be some nut talking to himself. Hopefully not. But that’s up to you. Please listen.   Just click the big gold arrow under the masthead.

From Shelly:

When you were nominated for an EMMY how was the experience? Were you expecting it? Who gave the news first. Share your happiest moment Ken.....

Back in those days the nominations weren’t broadcast. (Can you imagine???)  A press release was just sent out, and so at about noon we’d get a call either from the studio or our agent with the word that we were nominated. It was always a tremendous thrill but I think my two favorite times were our first nomination and last CHEERS nomination.

The first one was for the “Point of View” episode of MASH. I wasn't expecting it, but I was hoping.  When I got the word I remember calling my parents and girlfriend. My parents were very proud and my girlfriend ended up marrying me so I guess they all were suitably impressed.

Our last CHEERS nomination was in 1989 for an episode called “Death Takes a Holiday on Ice.” I was announcing minor league baseball for the Tidewater Tides the day the nominations were announced. We were in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to play the dreaded Paw Sox, and I got word while up in the broadcasting booth. Cheri Steinkellner, one of the showrunners, gave me the good news. As before, I was hoping but not expecting the nomination. 

I was able to then announce it over the air.  Anything to fill a pitching change. 

And when the players got word after the game I was given a huge round of applause when I entered the clubhouse. Not many Emmy nominees in the International League. That was a special moment.

By the way, we lost both of those Emmys.

And finally, from Richard:

Friday Question related to Actors.

Ken, have you ever helped a friend or an acquaintance or anybody who asked for your help, get a gig (at least a walk-on part) in one of the TV series that you have worked on?

Sure. I got my dad into a bunch of shows. And my trainer who is also an actor. I got a couple of radio buddies a couple of one-line parts. One time I got Rick Dees on CHEERS but he was cut out.

Also on CHEERS, although they had no lines, I got a few friends to sit at the bar so they could at least be on camera.

But that was in the good old days. Today networks are so controlling that you have to send them three choices for every part, even one-line parts, and they select. It’s ridiculous, not to mention insulting. My dad used to do great, and never once did he bring down CBS.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

For those who want tickets...

Here's the info.  It's a 10 minute one act festival and one of mine was selected.  Tickets available through Goldstar.   Hope to see you there.  Thanks.

My new play opens next week

If you're in LA, come see it.  
Thanks to Howard Hoffman for the great poster. 

Laughs per minute

Lots of interesting debate on last weekend’s post about laugh tracks (or more accurately, the lack of same). But I want to delve into a deeper aspect – how often are jokes necessary in a multi-camera sitcom? This speaks to the tone you set. As a showrunner are you looking for two laughs a minute or seven? Do they need to be big laughs or a steady stream of smaller laughs? It makes a big difference in the type of jokes you employ and the overall rhythm of the show.

On BIG BANG THEORY they go for LOTS of jokes. Almost every line has a joke or humorous turn. That’s one of the reasons the laugh track sounds more intrusive on that show – a studio audience can’t laugh at every single sentence.

A writer I know who worked on THE NEW ODD COUPLE for CBS said the network’s constant note was “more jokes, more jokes!” Maybe using the successful template of BIG BANG THEORY, or maybe just fear, but they believed if there wasn’t a laugh every few seconds the viewers would flee en masse.

Now you might say, what’s wrong with a laugh every few seconds? Nothing if you can do it. But that’s like saying “what’s wrong with hitting a home run every at-bat?” What often happens is that many of the jokes are forced or unfunny or both. It’s not natural for people to talk in punchlines. Especially if there’s nothing particularly comic going on. Two people are sitting at the kitchen table talking offers way less comic possibilities than two people with claustrophobia trapped in an elevator. And yet, if the same amount of jokes is required that kitchen scene is a holy bitch to write.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Shows with fewer jokes can be funnier than shows with more jokes.

It’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. Having a scene with three big genuine laughs is better than one with twenty zingers, even if a few of the zingers score.

On CHEERS and FRASIER and the shows I created, we were never afraid to go even an entire page without a joke if it meant setting the audience up for a big payoff. The risk of course is that the payoff better pay off, but the reward is so much greater. That’s when you get a real laugh from the audience. It also makes the show feel less stylized, less exhausting, and less desperate.

But I can tell you from experience, it’s hard when you’re watching a runthrough and thirty seconds go by without a laugh to resist the impulse to just pump in a few more jokes. The key is to remember the big picture. Does the episode have a good comic premise? Are the jokes you do have good enough? Is there a funnier way to tell the story?

Now some may say this creates sitcoms that are slow, and that today’s style is machine gun-fast. Maybe. But I would ask you to watch episodes from the first season of CHEERS. See how many jokes still evoke outright laughter thirty-five years after the shows were produced.

Also, laughs come not only from funny lines but from attitudes and pauses and reactions.

On my podcast right now is a reading of a failed pilot David Isaacs and I did for Fox in 2003. (You can hear it by just clicking the big gold button underneath the masthead.) We put a group of actors together on a stage, invited a small audience of about fifty, and recorded the results. So what you’re hearing is the actual laughter. There’s no laugh track, there’s no sweetening. As a result some lines and moments got better laughs than others. And that’s as it should be. There are lines in there that are cute asides and little zingers. They don’t get giant laughs. They aren’t meant to. There are other moments that depend on seeing the show on its feet and since we didn’t have that visual capability those laughs (costume jokes, reactions, throwing a cat out the window) aren’t as big as they would have been. So be it.

And happily, there are still a lot of real laughs in the reading and that tells me they were earned. See what you think?

What I didn’t include in the podcast was this: Earlier in the day I had a runthrough and recorded it just for protection. The cast did a terrific job. But the energy level in the room with a live audience added a real sparkle to the nighttime performance. It even got laughs we didn’t expect. Forget the number of jokes, that’s when you know you’re on to something.

In the cast photo of the SNOBS reading (from left to right): Harry Murphy, Bernadette Birkett, Oliver Muirhead, Mark Elliott, Dane Oliver, Suzanne Mayes, Jack Zullo, Barbara Howard. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

EP30: A TV Pilot for Your Listening Enjoyment

Listen to a failed TV pilot that Ken Levine & David Isaacs wrote and produced for Fox in 2003.  Now with a new (and better) cast, you’ll hear a reading of the pilot produced exclusively for this podcast.   Hear how the authors envisioned it and why they still think this is a damn funny show that would do well on TV today. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sam & Diane in the golden age of film

Here’s a fun Friday Question. And it’s one you can participate in. I’ll give my answers. You share yours.

Justin Russo asked:

Ken, with your affinity for classic films and stars of the era, I have a bit of a whimsical question for you. Were you to cast "Cheers" using classic stars, who would you choose for each character? I keep picturing Thelma Ritter as Carla and David Niven as Frasier.

Assuming that all are age appropriate…

Well, Thelma Ritter as Carla for sure. I wouldn’t go with David Niven myself. I might pick William Powell for Frasier.

For Sam, who else? Cary Grant. And for Diane? The young Katherine Hepburn.

The Coach might be Charles Coburn. (You younger readers might have to look up some of these people.) For Norm, how about Wallace Beery?

Cliff is a toughie. Edward G. Robinson perhaps?

The young “No Time For Sergeants” Paul Newman would make a good Woody.   Note:  This was the live TV play version of "No Time For Sergeants," and yes, it was Paul Newman not Andy Griffith who starred.

Vivien Leigh would be my Lilith. The young Shelley Winters would be my Rebecca.

Okay. Those are mine for now. But you may some better suggestions and I’ll go, “Yes. Of course.” So I reserve the right to change my mind. Blogger’s privilege.

Thanks much.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

BABY DRIVER: My review

BABY DRIVER is a fun summer movie thrill ride. Imagine FAST & FURIOUS but not idiotic and Quentin Tarantino without Samuel L. Jackson. Writer/director Edgar Wright has crafted a super stylish adrenaline rush that has the best soundtrack I’ve heard in years.

The car stunts (all 2,000 of them) seemed real. They may be CGI – today they’d use CGI if they were making MY DINNER WITH ANDRE -- but they felt real. I don’t know many cars that could handle those turns, but then “getaway” capabilities are not a high priority for me when auto shopping. The story has some holes you could drive the entire Atlanta Police Force through, but you don’t go to this movie for Chekhov.

(I haven’t read any reviews but how many of them start with “Fasten your seatbelts!?”)

Young Ansel Elgort plays “Baby” the driver with a heart of gold and foot of lead. He has a baby face and sweet quality. He’s like Jesse Eisenberg but without that smugness that makes you want to just punch him in the face. I predict this will be a breakout role for Ansel.   He won't have to play a teenager on some CW show. 

Kevin Spacey is the mob boss for the thirtieth time. Yes, it’s familiar but at no time does he do his Bobby Darin or Johnny Carson impression. And as toupees go he’s sporting a good one.

Jamie Foxx is playing Django gone bad, and Jon Hamm is playing Don Draper gone bad.

Two notable cameos – Brogan Hall as Sam and Paul Williams (yes, Paul Williams) as “the Butcher.”

Enough people get killed that you think you’re watching an episode of 24 and nobody wears seatbelts (even though they could all be cited), and again, none of that matters when “Nowhere to Run” or “Harlem Shuffle” is blaring. And yes, they feature Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver.”

This is one of those movies I’d recommend you see on the big screen. It won’t be the same on your phone. Okay, fasten your seatbelts. Damn! I just couldn’t go the entire review without saying it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The value of talk-backs

David Mamet now has added a new wrinkle to theaters and producers staging his plays. They are no longer allowed to have talk-backs with the audience directly afterwards.

Talk-backs have become very popular. Audiences get the chance to meet members of the creative team and discuss the play. Talk-backs can be very informative. The type of thing I did on my podcast recently (Episode 27 – Comedy 101), sharing my thought process on the writing of a one-act play, is a great way for the audience to appreciate just what goes into the making of a project (I’m not going to say the making of “art” because I always find that so pretentious).

For theaters it’s a nice perk, increases attendance, and boosts subscriptions.

Mamet argues that it reduces his work, that often the people on the stage (directors, producers, actors) misinterpret the meaning of his “art,” can smooth over ambiguities, and the audience’s perception of what they have just seen can be altered by idiotic observations by some theatergoers.

And to that I say, SO WHAT?

If someone is interested enough in your play after having just seen it to stay and discuss it further, you’ve won. I’ve done a few talk-backs and I’m always thrilled when most people stick around for them.

As the playwright I’m interested in what people have to say. Yes, some of the comments and questions are insane and I have to resist the urge to say to them, “What fucking play were YOU watching, because it wasn’t this one here on earth?” I’m nice that way. But more often I’ll get good questions and I will learn from the experience. I’ve done rewrites based on talk-backs. At the end of the day the play is for the audience. If they’re confused when I don’t want them to be, or they’re angry at something when it’s not my intention then it’s my job to fix it.

Let’s say there's something I thought should have gotten a big laugh and it didn’t. It’s nice that I can say, “Why didn’t that work for you?” and someone will say, “Because I didn’t know that reference.” (Of course someone else will say “You’re just not funny.”)

Also, as a playwright I have to feel that my play can stand on its own and the audience’s appreciation of it won’t be swayed by a talk-back. If I’m worried that someone is going to say, “I thought I liked the play but then the talk-back convinced me I didn’t” then I shouldn’t be sending it out in the world.

Look, I do understand that when community theaters or college productions or even regional productions do your work they can sometimes screw it up. I’ve seen work of mine miscast and moments missed by directors. It’s to be expected. I’m sure GLENGARY GLENROSS has been done by the WAITING FOR GUFFMAN company players and it’s jaw-dropping. But so what? Theater pieces are exciting because they’re done live. And they are open to interpretation.

But the good news is sometimes those interpretations, from the actors or directors, are better than your original conception. Or at least add a shading that wasn’t already there. Boy, is that exciting.

So uncertainty comes with the territory. Not being able to control all the elements also come with the territory. Yes, they can be frustrating. I was in the audience of a talk-back of a Neil LaBute play. He was on the panel. It was a terrible fucking play. He’s written some fabulous ones but this wasn’t one of them. When I pointed out a character inconsistency that he couldn’t defend he became very hostile. Meanwhile, all the actors on the stage were smiling and nodding. I talked to one of the actors afterwards and she thanked me. She said the cast all had the same issue and LaBute just refused to change anything. They loved that someone else called him on it. My intent was not to challenge him but to get him to clarify for me something that was confusing and preventing me from enjoying the play.

At the end of the day, David Mamet can decide to impose any restrictions he wants on his plays. He is also free to deny any production of his plays if he so desires. There are some claiming this is a “violation of free speech” issue; I think that’s stretching it. But for my money, hearing from the public is always a good thing. And once you stop caring what they think, they have every right to stop caring about what you think.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why you can't let rejection dash your hopes

Our first agent wasn’t very good. When David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, living on Kraft macaroni, and trying to break in we managed to get an agent. She was a legitimate WGA signatory but she wasn’t top tier. She wasn’t third tier. But shows would accept her submissions, which was all we really needed.

She sent our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to the late great David Lloyd, who was one of their producers. When she didn’t hear back in a few weeks she sent him a blistering following up.

Several days later he responded. It was a rejection letter. The opening sentence was:


He then went on for three paragraphs to rip her a new asshole for questioning his integrity and accusing him of shirking his responsibilities.

Almost as an afterthought, he finally got to our script in the fourth paragraph and basically said it was a complete amateurish piece of shit (although I don’t think he put it that nicely).

Years later we worked together on CHEERS and I mentioned the letter. David being David, he said, “Well, I’m sure it was a piece of shit.”

I’m also sure he was right.

You won’t be surprised to learn that once we got our first assignment (that this agent had nothing to do with), we moved on to more reputable representation.

In my career, I’ve been on the other side numerous times. I’ve been the one reading and judging. I always write nice rejection letters, even if the script sucks eggs. I feel that good, bad, or indifferent, the person (or team) went to the effort of writing a script and the least I could do is let them down easy.

Plus, who’s to say I’m always right? I’m not. Along the way, I’ve rejected a few great people who went on to long and successful careers.  When a writer friend of mine was story editor on ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE he rejected a script by the Coen Brothers. It happens to all of us.

So when you get rejected – and we all do – take heart. You never know who’s going to turn out to be an A-lister.

My favorite story of that was from Larry Gelbart. Larry was one of the most gifted and successful writers of the last half-century. Among his credits: creating the TV version of MASH, TOOTSIE, OH GOD!, FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, SLY FOX, CITY OF ANGELS, CAESAR’S HOUR – it goes on and on. But when he was 18 he had a screen test for an acting part in a George Cukor movie at MGM. He did his test, he wasn’t chosen, and that was that. Many years later when he was an accomplished writer he happened to bump into Cukor at a party. He told him the story and Cukor said to him, “Well why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

Good luck and may you become who you hope to be.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A comedy scene without a laugh track

I found this to be very interesting.  Thanks to a reader for alerting me to it.  This is a scene from THE BIG BANG THEORY but with the laugh track surgically removed.   Are the jokes really funny on their own?   You can imagine that on the air with the laugh track this stuff was getting screams.  Here of course, the scene feels very flat.

But I must say, in all fairness, that by removing the laugh track they also removed the actual audience reaction.   So some of these jokes that appear to evoke silence might have gotten legitimate laughs on the stage.   You have to keep that in mind.   Some of this stuff did work although you can't tell from this version. 

That said, this clip does give you a sense of the amount of jokes and rhythm of jokes in a BIG BANG THEORY scene.   And like I said, you decide yourself without any help from the machine whether these jokes or some of these jokes work.    It's kind of a fun exercise and takes less than two minutes.

Enjoy and let me know what you thought. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day.

Jim starts us off.

So here's a sort of Friday question if you want an excuse to talk about old comedy. Are there any actors around today who still have those physical skills? The only one I can think of is Jackie Chan, who's getting on a bit I suppose.

Steve Martin is a great physical comedian. So is Michael Richards. I would add Kevin James. A lot of people like Jim Carrey. Just not a fan. Melissa McCarthy has game. For my money, Kate McKinnon can do anything. Nathan Lane is pretty physical too.

But David Hyde Pierce is a master.

And then of course there are the British comedic actors – from the Monty Python guys, to Rowen Atkinson. And you can throw in Hugh Laurie.

I’m sure I’m leaving a few out. Physical comedy is a true art form requiring grace, coordination, and expert comic timing.

Brad Apling asks:

I call this question "Where Everybody Knows Your Tune (almost)". Some shows have memorable tunes that people recognize instantly; others have to be Googled. Who decides the theme song for a series, any side input from the writers or showrunners?

Well, it used to be the showrunner… back when there WERE theme songs. Most network shows today are deathly afraid you’ll tune out so opening themes are five seconds. Not many people are going to hum five second jingles.

Some cable networks and premium services allow for opening credits and themes. Personally, I think they add a lot. The GAME OF THRONES opening is extraordinary.

But when theme songs are allowed, it’s usually the showrunner’s call although he very well may enlist input from the staff.

I remember the Charles Brothers playing the demo of the CHEERS theme for us and asking what we thought. I rather liked it actually.

From MikeN:

There is a clip from Cheers that gets used at professional sports events. I'll let readers try and guess which one.

My question is, does the studio get paid for use of these clips, and if so do you get a share?

The studio might but we don’t.  And I'm sure in a lot of cases the studio doesn't know about it.  Unless they're alerted, they probably don't know if AA minor league stadiums feature the clip in question.   I’m guessing this is the clip you mean.

And finally, Peter has another CHEERS question.

With so many sitcoms returning for "limited event series" like Roseanne, Will & Grace,etc, perhaps it's only a matter of time that TV executives ask for a limited run of new Cheers. Obviously this can only happen if the Charles brothers and Ted Danson say yes. Do you think they would and if they did, would you and David also get on board?

I don’t think it would ever happen. I can’t imagine Ted or the Charles Brothers ever going ahead with something like that. CHEERS is locked in time. Remember the characters as they were.

As for me and David, obviously I can’t speak for my partner, but the only reason I would participate is to work again with Glen & Les. But again, it ain’t gonna happen. Trust me on this one.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Why become a stand-up

So revealed to the world on this week’s podcast is my attempt at stand-up comedy. (You can listen by just clicking the big gold arrow under the masthead or by clicking here) It was quite an experience, and I talk about that as well in this episode.

But what the exercise didn’t explain is a question I’ve wrestled with for years – of all the forms of comedy, who do some people gravitate towards stand-up?

Yes, it’s intoxicating to get laughs, but you don’t have to be standing all alone on a tiny stage surrounded by potential hostile drunk people to get the joy of producing laughs. As a writer, I get that feeling every time a play or show of mine gets laughs from an appreciative audience. Actors get the same rush when comedies they’re acting in work. Maybe they didn’t write them, but their talent and ability to deliver is what sold the material.

When I’m doing improv I have the safety net that I’m working with other performers (the comedy burden is not entirely on me thank God) and the audience understands that this is stuff being made up on the spot. So they give you a little more leeway (not much but a little).

And doing comedy on the radio is unique because you know going in you’re never going to hear laughter. You just have to assume you’re making the audience laugh. But you don’t hear that deafening silence if you’re not. Radio also affords you a certain level of anonymity. No one sees you. No one is judging you on your appearance.  They can't see you sweat. 

So why choose stand-up? Why subject yourself to hecklers, angry patrons, people who look at you with pity? Why risk embarrassing yourself in front of strangers?

Sure, there are funny people who grow up admiring certain stand-up comedians and want to follow in their footsteps. Their love of comedy stems from these comedians.

But what about the more general person who thinks he’s funny and just wants to express himself? Why take this particular path?

Here’s the reason I came up with – and this is based on nothing substantial at all – this is just my hare-brained theory.

Stand-up comedy is the most accessible.

Anyone can sign up for an open-mic night. If they bomb they can sign up again or sign up elsewhere. No one has to hire you. If you’re an actor someone has to hire you to be in a play or on a show. Same with radio. There are only so many openings and you have to beat out lots of people to get one. At five minutes a set, over fifty comics can sign up for an open mic night. And that’s one club, one night. Here in Los Angeles there are dozens of clubs. You can sign up for four open mics on one night.

You could always write and produce your own material and put it up on YouTube but that costs money and enlisting others' help.  No one pays you for open-mics but they don't cost you either.  

Obviously the goal is to get hired as a comedian, but at least you have a way in. You can showcase yourself. You can gain experience. You can fail.

And you can do it yourself. You don’t need to be part of a group. You can generate your own material. And get immediate feedback. One major frustration with writing spec scripts is you send them out and often times hear nothing back. Or just a rejection. You don’t know why. You don’t know what didn’t work. When you’re on stage you get your answers (whether you like them or not).

So there’s that immediate rush and opportunity to continue improving your craft. And as a bonus, there’s camaraderie. You’re alone on stage, but you’re not alone with your dream. Understanding that they’re also your competitors, these other stand-up wannabes are your support system. They get it. They probably have the same neuroses.

Okay, that’s my theory. What do you think? Now spoken from a fellow stand-up who has five whole minutes of experience.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Episode 29: My Stand-Up Comedy Debut

Ken throws caution to the wind and does his very first stand-up routine at an open mic night. You’ll hear the whole set. How did he do? You decide. He’ll also take you behind-the-scenes, before and after. It’s an exercise in either courage or stupidity depending upon how you look at it.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The GAME OF THRONES season premiere

Wow! The GAME OF THRONES season premiere Sunday night shattered records for HBO, drawing a staggering 10.1 million viewers and another 6 million via same day DVR playback and streaming. That obliterated broadcast network fare. Even I couldn’t help them on CNN. I was not included in THE NINETIES episode profiling Clinton (although I’m sure some of my commentary relating to THE SIMPSONS could have just been used out of context).

But what this record-breaking performance tells me is this:

For all the options viewers now have, if you offer a show people really want to watch you can still draw big numbers.

GAME OF THRONES did a lot better than TWIN PEAKS. Is TWIN PEAKS even still on?

GAME OF THRONES was not eligible for Emmys this year but next year look out.  No reason for HAWAII FIVE-O to even send out screeners. 

People, it seems, like watching a program with no commercials.  Who knew?

Those were just the first night numbers. Expect them to grow considerably over the week.

Broadcast networks will dismiss the numbers because it’s the summer. Sure. ABC’s TO TELL THE TRUTH would have made a huge dent if this were the fall.

ABC won the night among the Big Four but still had less than a third of GAME OF THRONE’S totals.

Broadcast networks used to claim that cable was no real competition. Remember that terrestrial radio when satellite, internet, and podcast programming swallows you whole.

Viewers still like opening titles.  Also, who knew? 

How’s NBC lookin' with that big Megyn Kelly deal? Her show drew a paltry 3.1 million. Forget GAME OF THRONES. CANDY CRUSH kicked her ass (and it was down from last week).

There will be two GAME OF THRONES-knock offs in development this year by the broadcast networks (or maybe four). Except they’ll say to the producers, “Can you keep the budget down to like a million an episode?” “What if they never left the castle?” “We need more little people on our shows!”

Imagine how much greater still GAME OF THRONES numbers would be if Steve Harvey was in it somehow.

And finally, I guess I should try again to watch GAME OF THRONES.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Let's talk laugh tracks

I get many Friday Questions about laugh tracks, so I thought I would devote an entire post to the subject. Here’s the latest question:

From Homesick Canadian in Taiwan:

Many of your posts are about the importance of getting authentic laughs from the studio audience. If a joke doesn't get laughs, it's cut or re-worked, etc.

However, I don't quite get how this works. It's well known from blooper reels that actors often flub lines and have to re-shoot. How does an audience give an uproarious response to a joke they're hearing for a second, third, or fourth time? My understanding is that this is what laugh-tracks are for. It's also been part of common knowledge in TV culture that producers just add a laugh-track when jokes don't get a response -- for situations like you've written about when an audience is comprised of a busload of Japanese tourists who don't understand English but want to see a taping of a hit American show. Or simply because a joke falls flat and the director thinks the home viewer will be amused if they hear the canned laughter.

The goal is to use as much of the actual audience laughter as possible. Yes, when we re-shoot a scene the response to a joke the second or fourth time is not as strong as the first and if we use that later take we’ll insert the laugh from the first take.

But sometimes it’s weird – the same joke will get a bigger reaction the second time. Maybe they just heard it better, or the actor delivered it better, or the air conditioning was working better,  In any event, we just thank the Gods of comedy and move on.

So yes, there is some jockeying with the laugh track, but the canned laughs are all from our audience not I LOVE LUCY.

Occasionally, you have a really bad audience or one comprised of tourists who can’t speak English, and you do have to fudge a little. But in those cases we try to be very judicious and sprinkle in just enough laughs so that the show doesn’t seem flat but not to where they’re intrusive.   In my mind, once the audience is aware of canned laughter you're in trouble. 

Part of the problem with many multi-cam shows is that the producers crank up the laugh track to where it’s ridiculous. I talked about this before, viewers now feel insulted. “Do these producers think I’m that stupid that I would laugh at this truly unfunny joke just because the familiar laugh track is going crazy?”  They have a right to feel insulted.  Sitcoms have been playing this shell game for sixty years now. 

Here’s an interesting thing – audiences respond way better to things they see live actors do rather than watching finished pre-records. In other words, let’s say I’m directing an episode with a car scene. I will pre-shoot it.

The editor will put it together that night and the following night when we shoot the show in front of 250 people we’ll have the ability to play it back for them and record their laughter.

However, when I direct, instead of showing that finished scene I bring out the actors involved, place them in two chairs, explain to the audience that they’re in a car driving, and have the actors do the scene live. I record the audio and even though the audience has to now imagine the scene, they laugh much louder having real actors performing the scene.

It all goes back to why some shows are filmed in front of an audience in the first place – there’s a real energy the cast derives from a live audience.  They feed off their laughter.  Their performances go up and if the writing is good the whole show rises. It’s intangible but the home viewer can sense it.

Getting back to that car scene, I wonder what would happen if we just aired the scene of the two actors on chairs instead of the real one with them in an actual car.  I don't think the home audience would be thinking about the laugh track at that moment. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

My thoughts on the Emmy nominations

Now that the Emmy nominations are in and Hollywood has had the weekend to crow or grouse about them, I think I would offer my perspective.

Here’s the main thing you need to know: These nominations are not based on quality. They’re based on zeitgeist and who the Academy likes and doesn’t like. It’s as simple as that.

Especially now when there is so much content out there.

THE GOOD FIGHT got nothing. It was every bit as good as THE GOOD WIFE, a show that did get some Emmy love. Why? No one saw THE GOOD FIGHT. THE GOOD WIFE was on CBS. THE GOOD FIGHT is on CBS Access. So without an enormous amount of buzz it toiled in relative obscurity.

The other thing to remember: There is a big disconnect between Academy voters and the general public. Shows are getting nominated that 90% of the population has never heard of. Shows people do watch are ignored.

But I’d say the biggest factor is zeitgeist. And boy is that fickle. How hot was TRANSPARENT just a couple of years ago? How hot was EMPIRE? Not to mention GIRLS. People claim this was a good season for GIRLS. Makes no difference. It’s over. Done. Is that unfair? Maybe. Was it unfair when Lena Dunham was being nominated for everything even when other contenders may have been more worthy?

That’s the playing field, folks.

And the Academy has its favorites. Movie stars doing TV series are generally given a big boost. Jane Fonda is an actress I totally admire, and she has turned in some phenomenal performances. But I’m sorry, she’s not funny. She’s just not. Yet, she was nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy. Robert DeNiro got a nomination. You know that was a lock.

Carrie Fisher got a posthumous nomination for CATASTROPHE.  Would she have gotten it anyway?  Your guess is as good as mine.   

If THE MIDDLE, a wonderful show completely ignored by the Academy, changed not a moment of content but just added the following: “From Executive Producer Ryan Murphy” it would receive nine nominations.

The Academy hates Chuck Lorre. It’s not too fond of Dick Wolf either. Once you become your own empire there is Emmy backlash. If you have a “land” after your first name you are not winning Emmy hearts.

And then there’s the backlash when one-time darlings start believing their own press clippings and start thinking they are really geniuses. Jill Soloway leaps to mind. TRANSPARENT is now out and apparently voters didn’t LOVE DICK.

Favorites can extend to delivery systems. HBO and NETFLIX are in. The CW is out.
Another clear theme this year is anti-Trump. Colbert is in; Fallon is out. SNL got more nominations than they’ve had in years -- a staggering 22. And the zeitgeist comes back into play, which is why Trevor Noah didn’t make the cut.

It’s all a high school popularity contest.

Industry people are upset over the snubs. In particular THE LEFTOVERS and THE AMERICANS. On the other hand, back in the day when there were just three networks the big complaint was that the same shows got nominated year after year after year. That is certainly no longer a problem.

Congratulations to all the nominees. I hope to review the Emmycast. It airs on September 17th on CBS with Stephen Colbert hosting. So expect some angry presidential tweets the next morning (if he’s still president).

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Comedy "Rule of 3's

This has been one of the staple of comedy for years. (It’s also been called the Comic Triple, which is different from when Prince Fielder gets a three-base-hit, like he miraculously did in the All-Star Game).

But how does it work?

The Rule-of-Threes establishes a pattern and then ends with something unexpected.

Lame example: “We serve lasagna, spaghetti, and poi.”

Usually two items are sufficient to establish the pattern. Three is overkill.

“We serve lasagna, spaghetti, linguini, and poi.” 

We get it with two. And we’re now so conditioned to the rhythm of threes that anything more seems wrong.

But there are some traps.

You must be very careful that the two first items clearly establishes the pattern you’re setting up. You don’t want the audience to have to work to make the connection.

Lame bad example: “The Giants, Detroit, and the Teamsters.”

Better would be “The Giants, the Tigers, and the Teamsters.”

In both cases you’re setting up major league baseball teams but the second version is clearer.

Another lame bad example: “The Reds, the Blues, and the Teamsters.”

Reds and Blues could be referring to how states line up politically, they could be two professional sports teams, they could be two drugs. Eliminate any confusion.

You hurt the punchline if one of the setups is funny.

“Linda, Moon Unit, and Mother Teresa.”

Some call that a joke-on-a-joke and while proponents argue it’s a laugh-on-a-laugh, more often the two jokes cancel each other out. It’s okay that the set up be straight. Save the funny for the payoff.

"Larry, Moe, and Shemp."
Don’t make your set up too convoluted.

“Women who work as nannies for children 10 years of age or younger on the Upper East during Tuesday mornings, men who lost their jobs in the recession and must get part time jobs teaching children 10 years of age or younger, and astronauts.”

By the time you get to the punchline our audience is putting in a Blu-Ray.

Think rhythm, think timing.   This is comedy.

Okay, the set up is right, now for the punchline.

The payoff has to break the pattern but not so much so that it’s a non-sequitor.

“The Giants, the Tigers, and poi.”

Huh? At least the Teamsters were a group of some kind. The punchline has to connect to the pattern. It’s not that it doesn’t belong, it’s that you don't expect it.  But something has to tie together.

Comedy writer Bob Ellison was in a late night rewrite once and pitched a joke. The showrunner said, “Too corny, too obvious” and Bob replied, tapping his wristwatch, “Two thirty.

The list doesn't have to be objects or names.  It can be words... like two.

The danger with the Rule-of-Threes is that it’s such a familiar form that audiences see it coming. Blame cavemen comedians.  They overused the device to death.  So extra pressure is now placed on your punchline. Try to find the best version of your payoff.

What’s funnier? “Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, or canned tuna” or “Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, and gefilte.” Gefilte is a funny word, and it’s not really a fish at all – it’s a jumble of different fish.

The more specific in comedy the better.

However, I will caution you that you need to know your audience. If you’re not Jewish you might never have heard of gefilte fish. First off, you’re lucky, but secondly, it’s a fallacy that funny words alone are enough to get a laugh. They may in some cases but don’t rely it.

And finally, I’ll leave you with a variation of the Rule-of-Threes. It’s the Stan Daniels’ Turn. Stan Daniels was a longtime writer on the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, TAXI, and at least a thousand others. He would pitch a form of joke so often that it stuck to him like an “Arnold Palmer.” His thing was that the punchline was the exact opposite of the first two.

“She’s hateful, she’s despicable, I’m in love.”

 Yes, it's formula, and it often works, but I'd avoid it. 

So that's the Rule-of-Threes in comedy.  There’s also a “Rules-of-Threes” for survival, photography, and celebrity deaths, but those are for later posts. (See what I did there? I also could have used thoracic spines but went with celebrity deaths.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Worth checking out...

This is another plug for this week's Hollywood & Levine podcast.  It's the making of WICKED, and my guest, Winnie Holzman (who wrote the libretto) is truly fascinating as she explains the process and pitfalls of that juggernaut musical.  If you have any interest in the theater or just the creative process in general, this episode is for you.   Click on the big gold arrow above or this link.   Thanks.

One toke over the line

First off, my thanks to Paul Pape for alerting me to this.

Back in the early days of television up until the early '70a, ABC featured THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW.  This was a wholesome variety show aimed at anyone born in the 19th Century.   Lawrence Welk was an old band leader with a strange accent who had trouble reading cue cards.  One time he announced:  "And now a medley of songs from World War Eye."

Anyway, they tried on rare occasion to do contemporary songs.  In this clip they do the Brewer & Shipley hit, "One Toke Over the Line."  Because Jesus is mentioned I guess they think it's a spiritual tune.   But clearly it's a marijuana song.   The FCC even banned it briefly.   So that makes this rendition even funnier.   Pass the doobie, take a toke, and enjoy this ode to drugs. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday Questions

How many different ways can I say it’s time for Friday Questions? I think I’ve exhausted them.

Michael gets us started this week.

Do you think if the CHEERS producers knew earlier that FRASIER was going to be spun off that they would have dropped the storyline of Frasier and Lilith having a baby? As much as I enjoyed FRASIER and understood the show creators desire to have FRASIER set far away from Boston, I always felt it reflected badly on the character that he moved all the way across the country and had very limited contact with his son.

Obviously, it would have been easier and cleaner if Frasier and Lilith were childless, but the decision was made to give them a baby years before a spinoff was even a twinkle in Charles/Burrows/Charles and NBC’s eye.

Lots of divorced couples with children live miles apart, and it’s a heartache for all involved. I think the producers of FRASIER dealt with that issue on several occasions in their usual elegant and sensitive way.

But for my money, ANY time you introduce a baby into a series you run the risk of damaging the premise. Babies need attention so characters are suddenly obligated to provide that attention. Certainly in a romantic comedy that can deflate the soufflé.

Buttermilk Sky asks:

On MASH characters often rhapsodized about their home towns -- Crabapple Cove, Mill Valley, Ottumwa, Boston. Only Toledo was characterized in a consistently negative light. My favorite joke:

Klinger: Toledo is crying out for another four-star restaurant.

BJ: The last one closed when all the pin boys quit.

Did you ever get complaints from the Chamber of Commerce, or from individual Toledans?

No. They loved the attention. We also promoted Toledo landmarks like Paco’s Hot Dogs… although I do have to admit I’m pissed at them. In the late ‘80s when I was calling minor league baseball, we went into Toledo to play the Mud Hens (yes, that really is the name of their team – still is). So I went to the famous Paco’s. On the walls they had hotdog buns signed by celebrities. I introduced myself to the manager, said I was the person who wrote a lot of the episodes Paco’s was mentioned in and I’d be happy to sign a bun. He said he wasn’t interested. So screw you, Paco’s Hotdogs. How much business have you gotten over the years thanks to my plugs on a national TV show? And besides, I had never even heard of half these celebrities you did have sign your stupid buns.

But I'm not bitter. 

From Emma getting ready for some summer beach reading.

Who according to you depicted Hollywood screw-ups better in their novels? Harold Robbins?

Well, can I immodestly say me? My comic novel, MUST KILL TV does a pretty fair job of exposing all that Hollywood bullshit. Please check it out.

Also, ARTISTIC DIFFERENCES by Charlie Hauck. Very funny and unfortunately, very true.

And finally, Stoney has a disc jockey question for the old Bossjock:

What record was the hardest one to stick? For me it was Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me". Knew the intro time but could rarely get it right because it was the same note repeating.

“It’s a Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals.   Ugh! You try it.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A show I once loved that didn't hold up

I’m always fascinated by how some things hold up over time and other things don’t. You’ve all had movies you remembered loving as a kid and you see them now and go “Eeeewww. What did I like about that?” And other movies you love as much or more now as you did when you first saw them.

That goes for TV, music, theater, and radio shows.

Growing up, one of my favorite disc jockeys was Robert W. Morgan on KHJ. Great voice, smooth delivery, and a sneaky caustic sense of humor. Plus, he used to occasionally sneak in inside references for radio insiders. And since I was a radio geek I knew the references and loved them. It’s always cool to feel like you’re on the inside. Tech geeks get that I’m sure from SILICON VALLEY. I enjoy the show but know there are little asides that are going over my head.   And that's okay, if it's kept to a minimum. 

After 5 ½ years doing the morning show on KHJ Los Angeles in the ‘60s Robert W. left to work at WIND in Chicago. His last show on KHJ was in October 1970.

I got up early and listened to the entire show from 6-9 AM. And I loved every minute of it. He was particularly surly and rebellious and it was a radio geek’s delight because ALL the jokes were inside, all the references were radio industry oriented. He made fun of the station’s very tight format, had jocks from competing stations on the air (including Wolfman Jack who made an in-studio appearance), and put down the station’s music.

I lapped up every minute of it. And for years held the memory that it was a hilarious show. Recently, a Facebook friend, Greg Barman, posted it, and I listened again for the first time in a gazillion years.

And I hated it.

You can hear it here. (The commercials and songs have been cut out. It’s called a “telescoped” aircheck.)

When I listened this time it struck me that by playing almost exclusively to the radio industry Morgan was completely ignoring the listeners. What was once so audacious and hilarious now felt smug and self-indulgent.

I took it as a reminder of a great lesson. As a writer I have an obligation to think of my audience first. It’s easy these days to do meta jokes or parodies of other shows. But who would I be serving? My friends? Maybe my fellow writers? I know we’re in the age of niche TV but that’s a pretty narrow target.

I would rather concentrate on exploring emotions, universal conflicts, relatable characters and situations, comedy that comes from reality and the human condition. One of the things I appreciated about Jimmy Kimmel’s Oscar opening monologue was that the jokes were for America not the room. There were no Harvey Weinstein references.

As I was listening again to Robert W. Morgan’s last day I thought, if I was just a general listener, why would I care? There was nothing in the broadcast to suggest that he cared about me. Never did he express any sadness that he was leaving so why should I be sad to see him go?

Instead, it was three hours of thumbing his nose at everyone. I found it very entertaining when I was a kid and passive-aggressive bordering on hostile today.

I still feel Robert W. Morgan was an extraordinary talent. He came back to Los Angeles a year later, and a few years after that I was privileged to be on the same station as him (K100). But on that one day in October 1970, what I originally thought was his best show, I now consider his worst.

And if I’m being honest, I have to confess I’ve done the same thing. When B100 San Diego went on the air in1975 they held a 100 hour commercial-free marathon and invited a lot of local jocks and radio legends to do hour segments. And I played primarily to the other jocks who were listening. I’m as guilty as Morgan. Now one can argue that the station had just gone on the air and there weren’t many listeners, but that’s no excuse. Airchecks of those B100 hours circulated throughout the industry and were very well received. Still, I think back and cringe.

The audience. Never forget the audience. It’s not about entertaining me. It’s about entertaining YOU.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Episode 28: The Making of WICKED

WICKED is the most successful musical in the last fifteen years.  It’s had thousands of productions worldwide and is still playing on Broadway.  But the road to success was a long and arduous one.  This week Ken interviews Winnie Holzman who wrote the libretto for WICKED.   You’ll learn the inspiration, process, problems, solutions, and thinking behind this smash hit musical. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Why are comedies tanking at the boxoffice?

Movie comedies have really taken it in the shorts this summer season. Well, let me amend that – STUDIO movie comedies are taking it in the shorts. The Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler comedy THE HOUSE got killed at the boxoffice. SNATCHED with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn fared similarly, as did BAYWATCH (big shocker there), and ROUGH NIGHT (with Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon) failed to tickle any funnybones.

And you can go back even further and include CHIPS and something called FIST FIGHT.

So of course media experts are claiming that screen comedy is dead.

Uh no.

Bad screen comedy is dead. Formula screen comedy is dead. Unfunny, forced screen comedy is dead.

Most of these movies follow a definite pattern – load ‘em up with (seemingly) bankable comedy stars, throw in a lot of mayhem, have some unearned touching moment near the end, and hope that just by counter-programming the blockbusters and horror films you can reap a profit.

The trouble is – the public’s not buying it. Not anymore. Too many nights of sitting through idiotic frenzied shenanigans, rehashed TV franchises, ponderous films that are a half-hour too long, and silly stories that no one can relate to has taken its toll on filmgoers plopping down good money at the Cineplex.

And as for these “stars?” We’ve seen the Will Ferrell act. Again and again and again. Amy Schumer? Can play only one thing and we’ve seen it. I love Amy Poehler but she’s yet to open a movie, and until she does she’s not a movie star. And the Rock alone (BAYWATCH) is not enough.

These media experts wonder if the future of movie comedies the is Netflix? No. The future of comedy is making better comedies that are genuinely funny and have subject matter people want to see. Not raunchfests.

So why does Hollywood continue to crank them out? Because they feel they’ll fare well overseas. Pratfalls and recognizable faces transfer better to foreign screens. And if that’s their endgame then fine, but don’t cry when American audiences avoid you like the plague.

Some of Hollywood’s biggest boxoffice hits over the years have been comedies. And they cost way less to make than anything Zack Snyder and Michael Bay get their hands on. It’s low risk/high reward. You just have to make GOOD ones.

Is it possible? Sure it is. Mosey over to the theater showing THE BIG SICK.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Servicing actors

But not in the sexual sense.   Sorry. Although you gotta admit, that's great click bait.   

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

marka wondered:

We've been watching Friends and I'm pretty amazed at how well they give all the actors an equal amount of screen time (well, it's not exact but....).

When writing how do you work that out? Do you count lines to make sure that over five episodes it comes out pretty even? Do actors (or their agents!) do that?

What about episodes for secondary, but regular characters - are they decided before the year that Radar will get one episode and Klinger will get two and the other episodes will be "normal?"

Well, first of all we NEVER count lines. Nor would I ever stand for an actor doing that.

But there are generally two ways of approaching this issue. Either make a conscious effort to service every actor in your cast every episode (a la FRIENDS) or let the cast know that some weeks they’ll be heavy and others they’ll be light but it will balance out at the end.

The best way to work in everybody is to do multiple stories in each episode. We call those “B” and sometimes “C” stories. That’s what we did on MASH. There were always at least two stories per episode. And we tried to somehow bring them together at the end. Also, we would tend to pair a dramatic story with a comedic one. Yes, it was tricky.

Another problem with this format is that one of the stories is always not as good as the others. I know FRIENDS writers used to complain about this frequently. They would do three stories per episode and it was like the table where one leg was a little shorter than the others, so you prune the other legs to make it even and now one of the other legs is shorter. That can be maddening and make for long nights in the writers room.

A more recent problem, if your sitcom is on a broadcast network, is that shows are shorter.   We had close to 24 minutes on MASH.  Now it's like 19 or 20.   It's hard for anyone to do multiple stories in that short a time.  

My personal preference was doing one story an episode and preparing the cast that some of them might be light that week. But I also liked the flexibility that some weeks might be one story, some might be more. Someone in the room would come up with a notion for a story and we would try to flesh it out and see how many scenes we got. Rather than padding a story, if we liked it but it would constitute only half a show we would then entertain a “B” story to go along with it.

And here’s another thing: Most actors aren’t that concerned with number of lines. Their primary concern is that when they are on camera they’re doing something that matters. They’d rather have one scene where they bring up a key point or have a great moment than being in four scenes and just asking questions or sitting for five pages with nothing to do. When a character was light one week we always tried to give them at least a big joke or two.

I of course can’t speak for other shows, but on mine the cast was told before the season that there would be some weeks that they might be light but we would focus at least one episode around them.

The hardest to break on CHEERS were the Norm stories – not because George Wendt wasn’t great and could pull off anything we gave him, but because the character of Norm was inherently content with everything. The best stories come from characters who desperately want something and can’t get it. Norm was quite happy to sit at the bar all day. His marriage seemed okay (at least for them), he didn’t have kids, and he was never ambitious. So there was not a lot to draw from.

On MASH it was easy because no one wanted to be there. They all shared at least that. We could also give any one of them long distance problems back home and we could throw war-related complications at them. We couldn’t just park Norm at the bar in the Officer’s Club.

And finally, let me say that of all the series that did multiple episodes as a rule, no one did the form better than FRIENDS in my estimation. I still enjoy those shows and wonder how many nights those writers were there until the sun came up. But the results were damn impressive.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The state of theater

Nathaniel Thomsen, Eric Bischoff, some guy, and Sydney Kaser
Back from a weekend in Seattle to see my play, LOVERS’ LEAP performed at the Edmonds Driftwood Players 8th Annual Festival of One Acts. I was thrilled with how well mine came out, and all eight of the plays were terrific. Proud to be amongst ‘em.   Special thanks to Diane Jamieson, my director Eric Bischoff, and great cast -- Nathaniel Thomsen and Sydney Kaser. 

My play is a two-hander (two actors) and all of the plays had limited casts of no more than four. And truly that is the trend these days. In both short pieces and full-length plays.

OSLO just won the Tony for Best Play. It’s a huge production. Fourteen people in the cast. You’ve got to be an A list playwright with ties to theater companies or producers with big money to finance something like that. If playwright J.T. Rogers was a nobody who just sent that off to theaters and festivals he probably would get no takers – despite how brilliant the writing and concept is.

Production costs have spiraled. So theaters now want plays with no more than four actors, simple sets or (better yet) abstract suggestions of sets, and little or no complicated technical requirements. Hold off on the fog machines. 

And you can write a spectacular play under those conditions – numerous playwrights have – but it really does limit the types of stories you can tell. Neil Simon couldn’t write THE ODD COUPLE with those restrictions. You say, “Why not? It’s just about two characters – Felix and Oscar?” True, but did you know there are eight people in that cast? There are the four poker buddies and the two Pigeon sisters. And it’s a very different play without them.

Like everything else, these decisions are being made for monetary not creative reasons. Here in Los Angeles now that Equity screwed all of its members and the theater community by insisting on pay formulas that the local chapter voted against by a two-thirds vote – there are even fewer plays and productions mounted.

And to me, this is an even bigger problem for Equity actors. We playwrights just have to adjust our thinking, but we can still churn out our plays. And directors direct, no matter the size of the cast. But if there are only two roles instead of nine, seven would-be jobs for actors are gone. And if producers decide to just by-pass all the Equity bullshit and do their plays with non-Equity actors, there go more roles for actors who have worked hard to qualify for Equity.

What I need to do is write a one-man show that I can star in about my life. Needless to say, one-man shows are more popular now than ever. I could discuss my early years, career, and struggles along the way. I could dispense sage advice learned from my years of ups and downs. Yeah. That’s what I’ll do... for my next ten-minute play.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

I'm back on CNN (but don't blink)

THE NINETIES begins tonight on CNN. Like with THE SEVENTIES and THE EIGHTIES, I participate in the chapter devoted to television. I believe that’s the episode that kicks off the series tonight.

I have no idea how much I’ll be included, but even if it’s ten seconds – considering how often CNN replays these decade documentaries I’ll still get sufficient airtime to warrant my own show on MSNBC.

But unlike those other decades, the ‘90s don’t seem that far away. Especially when elements are returning today. Can’t wait for ROSEANNE. We still have rap music. We still have Power Rangers. We still have Trump (which is why look back at other decades nostalgically).

And if shows and movies aren’t rebooting like THE X-FILES, WILL & GRACE, and FULLER HOUSE they’re being prepared for Broadway musicals.

For sitcoms, the ‘90s was very much a golden time. FRASIER, SEINFELD, FRIENDS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, and even in its earlier years ROSEANNE. Oh, and CHEERS was still around for the early part. Say what you will, but those shows all drew massive audiences. Different era and marketplace of course, but I don’t think any comedy today could attract the ratings these shows enjoyed on a weekly basis. I really miss the '90s.

It was the decade of the internet, the Clinton who won the popular vote and did become president, the Gulf War (the first of many), O.J., and a World Series cancelled due to a strike (sorry Montreal Expos fans, you would have won a World’s Championship).

THE NINETIES starts tonight at 9:00 EDT/PDT. If I’m on I hope I say smart things.