Thursday, November 30, 2017

Where have all the executives gone? Long time passing

Whenever I read the industry trades (which is now various websites instead of daily magazines), there are always daily articles about executive job changes. This person is out as “Head of Scripted” for some company, and that person has been named “VP of Development” for that studio, etc.

With the incoming announcements come press releases praising the new hire as the second coming. For exit articles the organization thanks the person very much for their service and the ousted party is quoted as saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

By the way, “more time with his family” is confirmation that the person was fired.

But what has amazed me over the years is how many executives come and go. It truly is the revolving door of Hollywood. Names pop up in important positions and you wonder “who are they and where did they come from?”

And then… where did they go? Because being a mid-level executive has about the same shelf-life as a porn star. I think back over my career at all the people I took meetings with – network execs, D-girls, studio honchos – and most of them are now gone. They’ve disappeared. How do you go from VP of Development for a major broadcast network to out of the business completely in a year? And this was BEFORE sexual harassment claims.

My longtime agent, Bob Broder put it best. When we had a project we were hoping to sell, he said, “You pitch the chair not the person.” He's right.

It’s just the mercurial nature of the business, and yes, writers make a lot of fun of suits, but I’ll be honest. I miss a lot of these folks. They were smart passionate people, and I hope that wherever they are now they can finally buy a house, or at least not live in one that’s on wheels.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

EP48: Dishing The Dirt On Celebrities - Part 1

Ken grills entertainment reporter Arlen Peters who has interviewed hundreds of major Hollywood stars.  In Part 1 they discuss Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand, Lucy, John Belushi, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Kelly and more. Lots of craziness behind-the-scenes and many stories I promise you’ve never heard.   If you like gossip and dish this one’s for you.  And we’re just getting started.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Meghan Markle is leaving SUITS?

Just because she’s engaged to a prince?
Oh sure, leave the security of a hit TV series for the chaos that has always been the British monarchy.

What kind of agent does Meghan have? Doesn’t she know that leaving a series might make it hard for her to book a role on a coveted LIFETIME movie about teen pregnancy?

It just seems like a real step down after being on the USA network.

And there are so many hungry actors out there. Landing a part on a hit series is way harder than marrying into a royal family. Get real!

Meghan obviously doesn’t know how good she had it. Oh sure, she’ll have servants, but they’re amateurs compared to PA’s. When Duchess Meghan wants a donut she’ll have to ring a bell, the servant will have to cross to the kitchen, wait for the donut to come out of the oven, prepare the silver service, and cross the length of the palace to deliver it. On set, Mergan says “where’s my fucking donut?” two seconds later the Second AD is on the wireless saying: “Donut flying in!” and a PHD in Literature from NYU appears one second later with two donuts, just in case she wants a second one. PA’s anticipate!

But I guess she’ll learn the hard way. And wait till the prince has to cut the budget to pay for exterminators at the summer castle. Meghan will really wish she had those season eight residuals (excuse me -- "royalties").

But it’s her life.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

From the small stage to the small screen

Photo from LA Times
There was an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times recently about playwrights who transitioned into TV. You can find it here.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve been fortunate enough to be in both worlds (although WAY more successful at TV than the theatre).

The current trend in television now is that studios, agents, showrunners, etc. are looking for original material. It used to be they wanted spec scripts of existing shows. Those are now just supplementary writing samples. Original fare is what they seek.

That often means spec pilots but playwrights have drawers full of plays. And playwrights are in demand. Why? A number of reasons.

They tend to be prolific. Someone writes a pilot and the executive doesn’t know whether this is the only thing he's ever written or the tenth thing. But playwrights stick with it. Most playwrights I know have written at least three full-length plays.

Playwrights do it for the craft and need to tell stories. It’s almost impossible to make a living being a playwright. And this news comes as no surprise to them. They live in one room studios in Brooklyn with four other playwrights.  So executives know these are “writers.”

They've studied story structure and character and theme.  They know the power of dialogue.  

Playwrights often have the advantage of seeing or at least hearing their work. There are readings and workshops and I can’t begin to tell you how invaluable those are for the growth of a writer. So showrunners are hiring baby writers who already have experience.

And finally, in Hollywood’s quest to increase diversity, the theatre offers a great talent pool.

So kudos to the playwrights who have made the move over to television.

One thing struck me about the article though. 24 young playwrights were featured. And along with lovely photos, each offered their perspective. Many went to great lengths to justify the move. Some acknowledged that TV “paid the bills.” I kinda got the sense many of them were defensive – worried that they’d be accused of selling out.

So let me just say this. You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to justify. Playwrights starve; TV writers make good money. Embrace that. You’re getting paid handsomely for the thing you love to do. And all the playwrights who scoff and say you’re selling out – half of them would trade positions with you in a New York minute.

Your stuff is being seen by way more people than might see your plays. Yes, it’s not as intimate and not live, but more people will see an episode of THIS IS US that you wrote than all your plays combined. Hey, I’m writing plays. I’m thrilled to have productions in 99-seat theatres. It’s a great experience. Writing for the theatre is my favorite thing. But way more people are watching a rerun of one of my MASH episodes at 4:00 in the morning, and God bless each and every one of ‘em.

Also, we no longer have to apologize for the content on television. We’re in a golden age. There are better, more brilliant and complex dramas on TV than in the movies. There is more experimentation and breaking the form.  No longer is TV the second-class citizen to films.

And… you can always continue to write plays. They will probably improve as a result of your experience in television.

So congratulations again. Now you can finally get an apartment of your own with two or more rooms. Ain’t TV grand?!

Sunday, November 26, 2017


During the Christmas holidays CBS colorizes old classic sitcom episodes and airs them in prime time.  It started with I LOVE LUCY.  Last year they aired two colorized DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episodes and this year they're colorizing two more.   They always look awful.  And of course they're cut down to accommodate the larger number of commercials networks now inflict upon us.

But I thought you'd like to see what I LOVE LUCY looked like in REAL color.  

This is an amazing video. Someone in the audience of a 1951 taping of I LOVE LUCY took color home movies. Because of the sprockets I'm guessing he only shot when there was a lot of other noise on the set, or between takes. But anyway, here are scenes of the Copa nightclub and the Ricardo apartment, intercut with clips from the actual episode. This was the first time in my entire life that I saw the color scheme for the Richardo apartment. If you're a TV historian (or geek like me) you'll love this video.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Binge watching began at Thanksgiving

Why do I say that? Because one of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions was always the TV marathons. One station would show TWILIGHT EPISODES all day long. Another would air THE HONEYMOONERS (happily, WPIX in New York still does!). And depending on your local market, stations might trot out I LOVE LUCY marathons or DICK VAN DYKE SHOW marathons or ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW marathons. I kept hoping one station in Los Angeles would show an I’M DICKENS/HE’S FENSTER marathon but alas it was not to be.

Personally, I had no trouble watching six TWILIGHT ZONES in a row. And neither did a lot of people because these marathons were repeated year after year.

Now of course, with Netflix and Hulu and the others, you can have Thanksgiving every day. You can create your own GILLIGAN’S ISLAND marathon if you want to (although why would you?)

TV pundits wondered whether viewers would take to binging. Well, gee, we’ve been doing it for twenty-five years.

The only problem is, why watch the Thanksgiving marathons at all now? Now you can watch the same TWILIGHT ZONE episodes without the annoying Kohl’s commercials.

But it’s sad to see a tradition die. Oh well. Now I must get back. I just started season three of THE EQUALIZER.

Friday, November 24, 2017

(Black) Friday Questions

While you’re standing in long checkout lines, amuse yourself with some (Black) Friday Questions.

Stylus is up first.

My question: years ago, I was watching Frasier via a mirror (in the days before smartphones, it was a way to see the TV while having a bath), and I noticed how odd it was to have everything flipped: the front door on the right of the screen etc. Thinking on it, I can't remember a multi-camera sitcom where the main 'point of entry' wasn't on the left side. Is this deliberate design, so the joke 'flows' from left to right, the same way we read? Are there any other common set designs that you would expect to use as a writer?

There were a lot of shows where the entrance was on the right. ALL IN THE FAMILY, Mary’s first apartment on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (along with the WJM Newsroom), Penny’s apartment on BIG BANG THEORY, Jerry’s apartment on SEINFELD, Ray's house on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, Grace's apartment on WILL & GRACE, the JEFFERSONS' apartment, etc. To my knowledge there’s not a conscious decision to place the entrance on the left.

Sometimes it has to do more with the way the stage is structured and which side is easier to get to the dressing rooms. I have no idea whether that’s remotely true but it could be, right?

cd1515 asks:

How far in advance do writers plan story arcs for smaller characters (ie, non-stars)?

For example, would you introduce someone’s father in season 2 because you plan to give him cancer or something in season 3?

Or do you not even know what you’re gonna do with him when you introduce him?

More the latter. The truth is we only bring back guest-star characters (like a regular’s “father”) if he really scores.

You sure don’t want to get locked into anything set for the future. Unless you pay the actor to keep a hold on him he is free to seek other work. So when you come back to him a season later he may be unavailable, working on something else.

THE GOOD WIFE had this problem all the time. They created a rich stable of guest-star characters. The good news is they were all terrific actors. The bad news was they were all terrific actors. Numerous times they’d check on an actor’s availability for a cool storyline they’d developed only to learn he was in Rangoon filming a mini-series.

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

It's been reported that Jill Soloway and Amazon Studios have been hit with fines for not crediting directors when their material ended up in I LOVE DICK episodes other than the one they were credited for. The story is here:

I understand the points about credit and compensation, and even the directors' complaints that Soloway (apparently) gave notes directly to cast.

But it's an interesting situation because Soloway's shows seem, more than usually for a TV series, like lengthy movies. So which needs to change: Soloway or the rules?

Boy, that’s an easy one. Soloway needs to change. I’ve seen this before. A show receives some recognition and suddenly the creator believes he or she is God. Union rules don’t apply to them. They’re special. They’re creating brilliance.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Katz Television Group found that only 2% of Americans have ever seen a single episode of TRANSPARENT – even with all the hype. So she’s like the power-hungry dictator of a country the size of Lichtenstein.

And finally, from Theo:

Ken here's an article about how writers are working overtime because of one sleazebag.

Friday Question: Will writers, cast and crew get paid extra or will some other compensation be paid to them because of this one scum. Can they sue him or the network for shutting down the show/their livelihood?

My guess is no. The writers are indeed working like mad to find a new direction and salvage the season, but the sad fact is there is a lot of collateral damage to the Kevin Spacey debacle. On the one hand you could say that it was because of Kevin Spacey that all of these people have jobs on the show in the first place because without him there was no show originally. But there’s no question his behavior has caused a lot of heartache for a lot of people who have worked very hard on his behalf.

And unfortunately, collateral damage of a fact of life in Hollywood because jobs are so transient. An industry strike, a quick cancellation, a new studio regime, an actor getting injured or sick, production moved to Vancouver to save money – all of these can cause financial hardship for lots of workers.

What’s your Friday Question? And have a safe holiday weekend.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

Probably half the plays about families and half the family-themed movies in your neighborhood art house take place on Thanksgiving.

Relatives fly in from wherever just to have a dinner that blows up into a huge family fight. Secrets are revealed, longtime resentments bubble to the surface, hurt feeling abound. It’s WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF with stuffing and yams.

With that in mind, try to make sure that your family feast doesn’t fall into this trap. And now that Black Friday sales begin Thursday evening, you have a great excuse for getting the hell out of the house before it’s revealed that your uncle sent dick pix to all the Rocketettes.

I’m in New York this year – mostly thankful that the year is almost over. There’s this large parade going on outside making it hard to sleep.

Have a happy, safe, and conflict-free Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

EP47: Leftover turkeys and tales from the Hollywood front

Ken tells more crazy anecdotes of pitching projects, wants to know more about you, and serves some turkeys that are both hilarious and hard to digest. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Thus begins the Holiday Season

Okay, you can put up your Christmas lights now.

Allright, you can start playing Christmas music on the radio.

It’s safe to cart out Charlie Brown’s Christmas again.

Studios are free to unleash their big holiday tentpole releases.

Take that bottle away from Santa and send him out to the center of the mall.

The tree can go up at Rockefeller Center.

You can open the ice skating rink now.

The Radio City Holiday Show can now officially open. Please close it by March.

Bring on the baseball winter meetings.

It’s still not okay for CBS to colorize and air classic black-and-white sitcoms, but that’s another story.

Networks prepare for their live musicals. Too bad the novelty has worn off. And Christopher Walken isn’t playing the dad in A CHRISTMAS STORY for Fox.

Hollywood officially shuts down until January. The only business that gets done now is firing known celebrities and executives charged with sexual harassment. And of course their shocked reactions.

Travel today becomes an absolute nightmare. If it happens to snow a quarter-inch in Seattle, all flights in and out of O’Hare are cancelled till January. 

Frantic cooking is taking place. People all over America are making that string bean casserole with Campbell’s Mushroom Soup. (“Why?” I ask.)

And finally, it’s time to stop and give thanks to all the people and things in your life that you’re grateful for. In my case, I start with you.

Travel safe this holiday weekend.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In search of great burgers

My name might as well be Wimpy. I love me a good burger. And they’re healthy too! (They have lettuce in them, right?) So today I thought I’d survey some burger places. The opinions expressed are my own and you might disagree. Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Getting it out of the way right off the bat, McDonalds’ burgers are awful. Unless you have kids and you’re trying to get them toys from Happy Meals there’s no reason to ever go to McDonalds.

Maybe you have to be from the east coast to appreciate them, but I also think White Castle is disgusting. I need a shower just walking in there.

Burger King to me is airport food court fare. Not terrible and you can customize.  I wouldn't bring one on a plane and eat it four hours later though.

Carl’s Jr./Hardees and Wendy’s are for when you’re on a cross-country driving trip, you’re hungry, and it’s the last rest stop before New Mexico.

Of the more upscale fast-food burgers, there’s much debate on the west coast between Five Guys and In ‘N Out. I like ‘em both. In N’ Out used to be more of a treat when there were fewer of them. But they’re always made to order, the burger is hot and the lettuce and tomatoes are fresh and crispy cold. The fries are meh.

I think I prefer Five Guys. I like when you order a bacon burger the bacon is broken up so you get bacon in every bite. People rave about their fries. I’ve never tried them. They offer free peanuts so I eat those.

In LA we also have Fat Burger and they have their fans. My daughter Annie has a rule: Never eat in an establishment where the consequences are right in the title. So that would disqualify Fat Burger, In N’ Out, and probably Tombstone Pizza. Fat Burger is not as greasy as it sounds. Just order the burger broiled and you’re good to go.

Fuddruckers has two things going for it. Big buns (easy to eat) and a condiment aisle so you can customize it yourself. Last time I was there Jay Leno was right in front of me. So it’s the place to go to see stars.

Do you have The Counter where you live? Might just be a west coast thing. Partially owned by Jon Favreau I’m told, but very good quality beef, lots of condiment options, and somehow they always cook it just right. You order medium rare it comes out medium rare.

We’re now starting to get Shake Shacks out here. I must say the very first time I had a Shake Shack burger I was knocked out by it. Each subsequent time I’ve liked it a little less. Not sure why. Nice soft buns and the fries are tasty. Am I spitting on the cross not saying these are the greatest burgers ever?

Umami Burgers are popular out west. I had one I quite enjoyed and one that was so bad I returned it and got my money back. I’m not hipster enough to appreciate Umami Burgers.

Tommy’s at Beverly & Rampart in LA has yummy chiliburgers, but only if you’re young or have a cast-iron stomach. And whatever you do, don’t eat one in your car. You will NEVER get rid of that chili smell.

Moving up to sit down restaurants, there once was a chain called Hamburger Hamlet. Mostly LA but sprinkled throughout Chicago, Washington DC, and a few other eastern haunts. Their burgers were a cut above and their #11, their “greatest burger” with cheese, bacon, etc. and thousand island dressing was pretty great. The chain went out of business but in LA the one in Van Nuys has re-opened under new management and although they’ve done an okay job of recreating the old menu, their #11 is not even “the goodest.”

A delicious burger can be found at the Apple Pan in West Los Angeles. Only problem there is it’s one horseshoe counter with people standing behind you waiting to take your seat. To me that’s unnerving and I always feel compelled to just shovel down my food.. But if you go off-hours things are more relaxed. The service is spectacular. These waiters have been there for forty years. I once saw Warren Beatty munching at the counter. Not as big a star as Jay Leno but still considered a celebrity I suppose.

I’m told the Burger joint at the Parker-Meridian is supposed to be spectacular. I’m flying to New York today so plan to check it out this trip.

Speaking of New York, I haven’t been there in ages, but I remember a place called Jackson Hole. Their burger was so huge you couldn’t eat it. They must grind an entire cow for every patty. Too big. If I can’t get my mouth around a burger it loses points.

Boll Weevil hamburgers in San Diego were half-pound, real cheap, and surprisingly good.

Call me sentimental, but I still love Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Bob’s was the originator of the double deck hamburger and I enjoy it as much now as I did when I was nine. Some nights they still have car service.

Mel’s Drive-In is another ‘50s throwback diner. Remember them from AMERICAN GRAFFITTI? Decent burgers and more big Hollywood stars. I saw Andy Kindler once in Mel’s.

And finally, my all-time favorite burger place has re-opened but don’t be fooled. Cassell’s now sucks. This breaks my heart. Cassell’s used to be in a corner dumpy spot in the Wilshire district. The grill was on a slant so the grease rolled off. The buns were large, and they had a condiment bar that included homemade potato salad that was out of this world. Now it’s re-opened down the block in a Hotel on Normandy and the condiment bar is gone, the potato salad isn’t nearly as good and it’s no longer free, the buns are different, and it seems to me the quality of the meat has gone downhill. A great burger is more than just a name.

Depending on where you live I’m sure there are awesome burger places I have no knowledge of. If the TRAVEL CHANNEL would let me do a show where I go around the country sampling them, I would be more than happy to give yours a try.

As Wimpy used to say, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Wait a minute. It IS Tuesday. Never mind.

Note:  Since I will airborne most of the day and I moderate the comments there may be a lag before yours is posted.  But I will get to it.  So comment away.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nothing's changed

Here's a helpful writer tip:

Even though people change, there are traits that always stay the same. You see this a lot at high school reunions. Someone may now be a big hotshot lawyer but he still slouches and wears a pocket protector hidden under the jacket of his $1000 suit. 

When people ask I tell them I’m still 13.  I'm only half-joking.

When I was 13 I used to repair to my room, sit at my desk, and draw comic books. I don’t even think I ever showed them to anybody. But they were fun to draw and fun to create the elaborate stories for them. (Think: Rocky & Bullwinkle) God knows if they were any good.

Also, I would be listening to KFWB Channel 98 “Color Radio.” They played the hits of the day straight off the “Fabulous 40” survey.

Flash forward to today, and I’m in my office, at my desk, writing a new play. Meanwhile, my speakers are blaring – bar none the best oldies station on the internet – and I thought to myself, “Ohmygod. Nothing’s changed. Only the jokes are different.”

When creating characters for your screenplay or pilot or novel, one thing to keep in mind is “who they were.” You can often take character traits of your youth or others and apply them to help define characters in adulthood. It’s just another great tool. Your bratty annoying sister might have just done you a favor by being bratty and annoying.
And by the way, let me double back and recommend  It’s programmed by Rich Brother Robbin, one of the great jocks and PD’s of the golden Top 40 era. If you like oldies from the ‘50s-‘70s this is the station for you. Primarily because he has a deep playlist. Unlike terrestrial stations that play the same 100 tunes (How many times can you hear “Proud Mary?” Ugh!), you’ll hear songs you haven’t heard in years. Also vintage radio jingles and NO COMMERCIALS. I listen on iTunes but you can find it here. Who knows? Maybe it’ll help you write a great play. Or comic book.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

My daughter the pole dancer

This is a re-post from January 2013.    My daughter Annie taking a pole dancing class.  Flash-forward and she and her now husband/partner Jon are co-producers on KEVIN CAN WAIT.  One of their episodes (co-written with Dan Staley) airs tomorrow night at 8 on CBS. But as you'll see, she and Jon were already funnier than me four years ago. 
My daughter, Annie recently took a pole dancing class. Here's her account of it (with help from her writing partner, Jon). As a father I couldn't be more proud.

Everyone likes to think their coworkers respect them…

Mine bought me a Groupon to a pole dancing class for my birthday. (Based on the average age of my coworkers, I chose to take this as a sign of admiration for my functional hips.)

I didn't plan to actually use the thing until my dad demanded I do a blog post about it. Most parents tend to discourage their children entering the world of erotic dancing. Mine bought me kneepads and offered to drive.

I'm lucky to have found the place at all. There was no sign out front, no mention on any directory, absolutely no distinguishing marks of any kind. Areola 51.

I finally discovered the way in and was rewarded for my perseverance with a dimly lit studio whose windows were blacked out by feather boas. It was like stumbling into RuPaul's doomsday bunker.

The class was called Pole Diva (Level 1) and the teacher was a pocket-sized Latina woman who kept criticizing everybody's "sexy pushups."

For the uninitiated, "sexy pushups" are when you caress your body before Shamu sliding along the hardwood and pulling yourself back up. Making sure to rub your hips again for good measure. Based on how my classmates looked doing them, I think "sexy pushup" is meant to be one of those ironic terms like "FOX comedy."

Not that everyone was bad at it. The woman in front of me was clearly the star pupil, and by the end of class even I was throwing her a few singles.

The humiliation of the "sexy pushup" (thoughtfully enhanced by the floor to ceiling mirrors we performed in front of) finally came to an end. It was time to strap on our kneepads (thanks again, Dad!) and pick our pole.

They offered us bottles of alcohol to disinfect the poles before use. I requested penicillin.

We learned a few different spins over the course of the hour. They all had fun names like "the sunburst" and "the firefly." Each one a new way to wind up with my ass on the floor and legs spread wide. The actual spinning was fun, though, until my teacher scolded me for yelling, "Wheeee!"

A large part of pole dancing seems to be walking around the pole, doing a sort of Igor foot drag. I pictured Martha Graham spinning in her grave every time this was referred to as choreography.

I did find one maneuver especially difficult, but was assured it would be much easier once I performed it in high heels. Pole dancing has to be the only physical activity in the world where that's true. "The Lakers are down fifty in the fourth quarter! Get Kobe his stilettos!"

By the end of class, I was so black and blue my dancer name would have been Hematoma. (In actuality, I would choose something a little more exotic if I ever entered the profession. Right now the top candidate is Treif Magnifique.)

The staff knew most of us were only in it for the one class. Still, they kept pressuring us to come back. On our way out, they made sure we knew that they were available for parties. I'm still not clear if they were talking about the studio or the instructors.

I'm sure if I kept at it, I could graduate to Pole Vixen (Level 2). I would love to see that ceremony. No gowns or mortarboards; just the tassels.

That said, I think it's safe to say pole dancing is not going to be added to my list of hobbies. I'd much rather bake the cake than jump out of it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Comedy Geography

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?) A few years ago we  had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Questions

Happy St. Patricks Day.  Oh wait.  That's MARCH 17th.   But Friday Questions come every week. 

Gazzoo starts us off:

Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) till the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

No one had any special requests, but David and I were very adamant that we didn’t want a sappy ending. That’s why we constructed the final sequence so that all of the final goodbyes were during triage and the farewells had to be quick and on the run.

I’m a big fan of “little touches”. Hawkeye discovering Radar’s teddy bear on his bed says more about how Radar matured from the MASH experience than any speech could have ever done, no matter how eloquently it was written.

We also wanted to send Radar home happy. Henry Blake was killed and Frank went bonkers. We wanted Radar to return home having benefited somewhat from the experience. He grew up and found love in Korea.

Originally it was a just a single episode but when CBS decided to push it back into the 8th season they asked that it be expanded into a two-parter.

The new staff rewrote very very little of our draft (thanks for that, guys). I don’t believe a line was changed from the entire final act. One day I’ll get Gary Burghoff to write about the episode from his perspective.

Mirror James (from England) wonders:

Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, his predecessor on Doctor Who, often seem to be the targets of abuse from people who claim to be fans. Everything from saying they can't write to accusations of running a so-called "gay agenda", in which the mere acknowledgement that gay people exist is apparently "shoving it down their throats".

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan who claims to love a show yet can't seem to do anything other than hurl insults?

Only all the time. Fans are passionate about their shows. I got a hate letter on MASH from someone who thought Hawkeye was being too mean to Radar. Other loyal MASH viewers claimed in profanity-laced missives that I was a liberal Commie dupe hell bent on destroying America.

The "gay agenda" complaint was a staple on FRASIER.  Referring to this and the "we're too liberal" charge on MASH, I like to think we had an "open minded agenda". 

My favorite was a letter I received when David and I were showrunning the MARY series. It started out like this:

Dear Producers,

Recently I read an article in TV GUIDE that spoke of the growing cocaine problem in the television industry. At first I thought they were grossly exaggerating, but then I watched an episode of your show…

And of course Roseanne called me an “asshat”.

And finally, from Chris:

How do they shoot/do those scenes when the audience laughs just when the camera zooms on something, like a silent opening with the camera zooming on what a character is reading and just then the audience starts to laugh?

I assume you mean a studio audience. There are always monitors overhead and they will be invited to watch them for particular scenes or moments. Often special scenes will be pre-shot and just shown to the audience. What they see is what you’ll see at home so they receive the same surprise.

What’s your Friday Question?  I think I'm going to eat corned beef today anyway. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sitcoms could be better

Here’s a Friday Question worth a whole rant (I mean "post".)

Sean S. asks:

In her book IN SUCH GOOD COMPANY Carol Burnett repeats the following from a conversation she had with Larry Gelbart.

BURNETT: I don't know, but when I watch a comedy show on TV today, I know exactly what's coming so far as the writing goes. No surprises. No originality. Usually it's the 'setup' first, and then comes the obvious joke, and then you hear that awful laugh track. It's as if all the shows are alike and repeating themselves.

GELBART: I think it's because most of the writers today grew up watching television. That was their childhood, so they're writing about life once removed.

BURNETT: What do you mean?

GELBART: They never played stickball in the street.

Thought that was an interesting observation from Gelbart and wondered if you had any thoughts on it.

I agree with him. And right away I know that makes me seem a hundred years old. But there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying.

It’s evidenced by the pop culture references that fill sitcoms today. For many young writers their frame of reference is television, not life.

Not that my generation worked on oil rigs and pretended to be Jack London until we were 30, but our references came from literature. Most writers my age didn’t start out wanting to be comedy writers. We all sought something else. For me it was radio. Once we hit our middle to late 20’s we decided we wanted to go in another direction and that’s when TV writing called to us.

So when we started we already had some other background to draw from. As a disc jockey I bounced around the country so got to live in different cities and associate with people outside of LA. Heaven help me, I lived in “flyover” states. Also, being in the Army I was introduced to a whole new world. No way could I have written MASH without that personal experience.

As for TV itself, I turned to comedy writing back when sitcoms were enjoying a golden era. Smart, sophisticated, adult shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE, RHODA, and THE ODD COUPLE provided a high bar to shoot for. You had to really know social issues. You had to really delve into human relationships. You couldn’t get away with wry irony or Kardashian jokes.

Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, Alan Burns, James L. Brooks, Gene Reynolds, Garry Marshall and other showrunners of that era had extremely high standards – including the fact that their shows needed to be really funny. The jokes had to land. Audiences, not machines, had to LAUGH. The story telling had to be fresh. They were very tough on the material. And YOU.

So I think back then we fledgling comedy writers felt we needed a lot in our arsenals just to survive. We needed a formal education, life experience, and talent.

Today I think you can get by a little easier.

A couple of weeks ago I saw an improv show starring a group called OFF THE WALL (pictured above). They’ve been together for over 40 years, and they were phenomenal. And the thing I noticed was how literate their humor was. They knew author styles, classic dramatic forms, world history, current events, Shakespeare. And as a result their show was not only hilarious but so smart (and timely). Does UCB do any of that? I wonder.

Our society today is much more insular. We don’t hang out with friends, we follow them on social media. We spend more time looking at pictures of places than visiting them. And it shows in the shows.

Yes, I know. I’m ancient and you kids are on my lawn without permission, but isn’t it always better to strive for something higher? Pop culture references are easy. Crutches are easy. Why bust your ass to come up with a really witty joke when you can just say “vagina?”

I’m not saying go back to the style of Larry Gelbart, James Brooks, et al – just the standards.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EP46: Thanksgiving for the Memories

Ken gets you into the holiday spirit with tales of Thanksgiving – how to survive the travel, the hell that is writing Thanksgiving episodes, the Macy’s Parade, an even tackier one, and what Ken is thankful for.  Hint:  You’re included.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Email etiquette

First off, thanks to all of you who responded to my request yesterday. Great to meet you and thanks for the kind words. You can still weigh in. The more the merrier (I just made that statement up). Now to today's post:

Is this just me?

I’m emailing someone. Or texting someone. We’re going back and forth. And eventually either the thread gets pretty thin or I have other things to do. I always find it awkward signing off. I want to disengage without being rude.

Sometimes of course I can just say, “I gotta run” but if you do that too often I’m sure the other person is going to feel like I’m just blowing them off.

It’s somewhat easier when I’m bantering with some comedy writer pals. Once one of us has the topper the other acknowledges. We always go out on the best joke. (And usually it’s the other guy who has it.)

But I find myself at times reading an email (after we’ve volleyed a few times) and trying to decide, “is this a good place to just not answer?”

Sometimes I worry that I’m being unintentionally rude. I email a person. I don’t get a response for five or ten minutes. I assume he cut if off. Then I leave the computer to do something else. Two minutes after I’ve gone they respond. And of course there’s no subsequent response from me. Are they thinking, “Jesus, this guy is an asshole. I tell him I thought his play was great and he doesn’t even answer?”

And then there’s the other side to this. I’m corresponding back and forth and suddenly radio silence from their end. Did they just get tired of me? Did something I wrote piss them off?  Is this something I should be concerned about?   Just how insecure am I? 

Nothing drives me crazier on the phone than when the other person doesn’t say goodbye. When they just hang up after they’ve said what they want to say. This is a convention that is used ALL the time in TV and movies. I get it. It’s wasted screen time with people saying goodbye to each other, but in real life it’s incredibly rude. Do you feel that way about email correspondence?

I’m bothered less during texting. It’s kind of understood you’re trying to be as brief as possible. In many cases you’re delivering messages. But email conversations tend to be longer (at least mine do).

The solution might be out there but I just don’t know it. Is there an emoji for “nothing personal but I’m done with you now?” That would solve everything. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

12th year anniversary

The end of this month marks the 12 year anniversary of this blog. I still can’t believe it. Daily postings for 12 years. Over 5200 posts and over 30,000,000 page views.

For my ten-year anniversary I had a party. For 12 I’m just going to have a drink.

But I always like to know who’s out there, where they’re from, how long they’ve been reading, how they found the blog, how old they are, what subjects they liked and which (besides baseball) they didn’t? So periodically I take a day and let you guys do the heavy lifting. If you would be so kind, could you take a moment to write a comment and answer some of those questions? Your feedback helps me present a better product.  One thing I know you like is Natalie Wood photos. Note:  I moderate the comments so there may be a lag time between when you write it and it's posted.  Popularity has its trolls. 

Since this blog is, and always will be, free – a question I often receive is “How can I repay you?” I would say listen to and subscribe to my podcast (which is also free). I’m really proud of it and am trying to build a sizable audience for that too.  Got some real good shows lined up.  (Subscribe on iTunes, listen via podcast apps, this link, or just click on the big gold arrow above.)  

Thanks much. Hope to hear from you, and (if you check out my podcast) you hear from me. 


Monday, November 13, 2017

Letter, we get letters

Here’s a question that went from “possible” Friday to entire post.

It’s from Glenn:

Ken, possible Friday question, regarding viewer mail: Do you have any letters you might be able to share here (after removing names and addresses, of course)? I'd love to see what MASH fans were writing in about at the height of the show ("Where can I find that dress Klinger wore last night?")

I didn’t save the letters. I sure wish I did.

On MASH we would get angry letters saying we were anti-American, Commies, that sort of thing. If we received a letter without a return address it was a good bet it was from a troll or idiot.

The network would also get angry letters about our show and they would graciously forward them to us.

But most of the mail we received was complimentary. Sometimes a viewer had a question or wondered if we were going to bring Colonel Flagg back.  And yes, we got inquiries all the time about Klinger's wardrobe. 

We also received unsolicited scripts, which for legal purposes, we had to send back unopened.

On every show I worked on I received mail from people saying “I look just like so-and-so. You should do an episode where I play her sister.” They would always include a picture and NEVER once did they look even remotely like the actor they thought was their doppelganger. Oh, the laughs we had in the writers room passing around those photos. Imagine Mick Jagger thinking he’s Suzanne Pleshette’s identical twin.

The majority of viewer mail went directly to the actors. And in many cases they were addressed to the characters’ names. The post office knew to send letters addressed to “Hawkeye Pierce, 4077th MASH, Korea” to 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles. They knew to send Paramount all correspondence addressed to “Diane Chambers, Cheers bar, Boston, Ma.”

You’d think this would happen two or three times a year. Try hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Sometimes "Hawkeye" would be asked for medical advice.  Or "Frasier" would be asked for relationship advice.  

Actors receive lots of marriage proposals. And fan mail from prisons. Writers don’t get any of that.

Usually if someone sends a letter to an actor on a show he will receive some response. Most of the time it’s from a staff member. Generally a thank you with a photo. Occasionally the star will write back himself. Some are very good about providing autographs, others just send printed autographed photos.

We writers get requests for scripts from time to time. I always try to accommodate them. Now if a young writer wants a script from a show I suspect they can just email the request to the show and if granted, they receive a pdf. And that’s cool except there’s nothing like getting a package in the mail with the logo of the show or studio.

I don’t know whether shows get as much mail today as they once did. Before the internet and social media the only way to express your opinion of a show, yay or nay, was to write letters. Now you can just go on a fan site and chances are the writing staff will read it.

Of course how many letters these days are not getting delivered because, unlike the postal service, the internet doesn’t know how to deliver email sent to or

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why is poker night like rewrite night

Got invited to a poker game recently. A friend plays in a regular game and needed an extra body. Poker is an ingenious game. It involves both skill and luck. If only I had either.

I hadn’t played poker in probably fifteen years so I pretty much had forgotten everything other than I always lose.

Still, I enjoyed myself.  The players were usually a group of comedy writers or improv chums so there were always more laughs than chips (especially in front of me). I likened it to a rewrite night where you didn’t have to address network notes.

This time the only person I knew going in was my friend. But it was a low stakes game so I figured what the hell? The guys all turned out to be fun, and they all came from other branches of the industry so I got to hear all-new horror stories. Nothing breaks the ice like getting fucked over in Hollywood.

I was worried that these dudes would hate me. Since I didn’t know what I was doing I would surely test their patience. And if I won they’d really despise me. Fortunately, they were tolerant, and fortunately they took all my money. So my fears were for naught.

I needed one of those little cheat sheets that told you that a royal flush beats a pair of threes. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to watch an episode of THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER and one of the finalists has the same cheat sheet next to his chips?

Remembering what beats what is hard enough for someone who needs a cheat sheet to retrieve his messages from voicemail, but we rotated dealing and the dealer got to select the game. Holy shit!

Seven card night baseball with the next card after a queen is a wild card

Hi-lo – 5 ½ or 21

Three chip buy-in pass your garbage

Seven card elevator (not to be confused with seven card crisscross)

Seven card Texas hold ‘em, 3’s are wild and 4's entitled you to buy another card if you wanted

On and on. They know you’re not a savvy player when it’s your turn and they say, “What are we playin’?” and you begin your answer with “What’s the one where…?” As the deal was going around the table I was getting progressively more anxious. What to do when it came to me?

Finally, I was up. I decided to just fake it. “Okay, five card double-draw hi-lo Taj Mahal, pig fives are wild, threes are sevens, sevens are tens, face cards are a half, and Jews get six cards instead of five.” Everyone laughed, but one guy who asked what Taj Mahal was.

The night moved along but required a lot of concentration. More than I could muster after a couple of hours. Again, it was like a rewrite night where you just zone out. “What page are we on again?” “Who’s asking who to stop doing what when?” “Has the food arrived yet?”

The food was another reason poker night is like rewrite night. Delivered pizza that you eat off of paper plates while standing . All we needed were Red Vines for me to feel really nostalgic.

You’d think as the night went along I’d get better. But actually, I got worse. I knew I was in trouble when I won a pot with nothing in my hand. Everyone complimented me on how well I bluffed. But I wasn’t bluffing. I actually thought I had a winning hand.

They should also have a cheat sheet for poker slang. Clubs were puppy paws. Pocket aces were American Airlines. Full houses are full boats. If you have a nine and a five that’s a Dolly Parton. But why do they call kings “cowboys?” When I think of cowboys I rarely imagine Richard Burton.

But it never fails.  The minute any six guys sit down to play poker they all start talking like they're in GUYS AND DOLLS.    The Pope and his cardinals get together and the Pope is dealing saying, "No help. crabs, Kojak, bitch in the bleachers.  Pony up gents."

All in all, it was a fun night, I made some new friends, now am aware of more industry shitheads, and I think after all this time I finally figured out how to win at poker. Have Jennifer Tilly play for me while I drive around for four hours picking up the pizza. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Stars I claimed to have discovered... even though I didn't

Anyone who has been producing TV series for any length of time will have similar stories. They can look back at actors they worked with or hired that later became big names. Here are some of mine.

Kat Dennings -- Star of 2 BROKE GIRLS was in a pilot of ours called SNOBS. We never had her say "vagina", which is why it never got picked up.

Aaron Paul -- Emmy winner for BREAKING BAD was in that same pilot. Okay, these first two I am claiming credit for. It's not like I'm getting any royalties off that damn project. 

Shelley Long – played a nurse once in MASH when I was there. I don’t remember much except she looked very cute in army fatigues.

Rita Wilson – same thing. Also cute in army fatigues. Worked with her again when she starred in VOLUNTEERS. Amazingly, she remembered me. I looked awful in army fatigues.

Katey Sagal – From one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes to a series regular on the MARY SHOW. We knew from day one that she’d become a star. And that’s without even hearing her sing.  Or seeing her riding a motorcycle.

Leah Remini – She played one of Carla’s many daughters on CHEERS. One of my favorite episodes (written by me and David) was “Loathe & Marriage” from the final season where Leah’s character gets married. I also directed her in FIRED UP. She was funny before she was even old enough to drive.  Now on KEVIN CAN WAIT and Scientology free. 

Tim Busfield – He’ll probably cringe but one of his first acting jobs was playing a patient on AfterMASH. Yes, it was, Tim, don't deny it.

James Cromwell – Okay, he wasn’t an unknown when I worked with him but he wasn’t on anyone’s A-List either. He was pretty much a character actor who bounced around. I knew him as Jamie then. We used him on an episode of MASH as a real goofball. Couldn’t quite tell from that role that he’d go on to be nominated for an Oscar. By the way, did you know he was in both BABE and THE BABE?

David Letterman – did a cameo on an OPEN ALL NIGHT we were involved with.

Maggie Lawson – You love her on PSYCH. I’ve loved her since writing and directing IT’S ALL RELATIVE.

David Ogden Stiers – Before he became Charles Winchester on MASH he was talk-show host Robert W. Cleaver on a TONY RANDALL SHOW David and I wrote. That was the episode that got huge laughs during rehearsal but silence during the filming. Later we learned that the bused in audience spoke no English.

Annette O’Toole – had a small role on a TONY RANDALL SHOW. Tony didn’t like her at first. By show night he was pleading with us to bring her back. The English speaking audience loved her too although I must say she was beautiful in any language.

Lisa Kudrow – Did an episode of CHEERS. Very funny even in a small role. I was not surprised. She went to Taft High in Woodland Hills.

Sanaa Lathan – Directed her in LATELINE. I must’ve given her great notes on that three-page scene because she went on to become a movie queen. I went on to write a blog.

Willie Garson – Directed him in the stellar ASK HARRIET. When that show got cancelled he was free to take another assignment – SEX IN THE CITY. Became a regular on WHITE COLLAR.  And now he's in fifteen things. 

Julie Benz – Another ASK HARRIET alum I directed.  She's in DEFIANCE, was in DEXTER, A GIFTED MAN, NO ORDINARY FAMILY, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and more. You can certainly understand the attraction considering she was also in SAW V.

Robert Pastorelli – Later to be a stalwart of MURPHY BROWN, but his greatest role was for us on the MARY show. He played sandwich guy, Mr. Yummy.

Jenna Elfmann – first cast in an ALMOST PERFECT as a whack-job secretary. She had no experience at the time and we knew it was a risk but there was something just so damn special about her. She killed in front of the audience. If ever there was someone I knew was going to make it besides Katey Sagal it was Jenna.

And before I slap myself on the back too much for being such a great judge of talent, here are a few of the people I didn’t cast who once came in to read:

Martin Short, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, Jane Lynch, Tea Leoni, Don Johnson, and Andrea Martin (although that was the network’s fault; we wanted her. They wanted Toni Tennille. Don't ask.),

Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday Questions

Who is up for some Friday Questions?   I also answer a few on my podcast this week.  Just click the big gold arrow above. 

Brian gets us started.

Ken, you have mentioned several times that you got your first writing assignment on THE JEFFERSONS. What was the story line and how did you come up with it?

A new cleaners moves in across the street and George begins losing his confidence. The episode was called “Movin’ on Down”. I can’t remember exactly what led us to it. But I do recall we came up with the idea in a booth at Mario’s restaurant in Westwood late one Saturday night.   That very spot is now Table 17 at the California Pizza Kitchen. 

Tyler K. wonders:

Do TV writers have a harder time writing enough material to fill the required episode time, or cutting material down to do the same? Also, how short do you see TV episodes getting as time goes on? We've gone from 25-minute episodes of Cheers and Mash to 22-minute episodes of Frasier and Friends to some current shows being less than 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, it’s MUCH harder to write a 20 minute show than a 25 minute show. You’d think it would be easier because you had less to write. But it’s much tougher telling a good story in only 20 minutes. Everything has to be so truncated. And if you have a series where you do A and B stories, it makes things especially difficult. Imagine if FRIENDS were still around today. Or MASH.

Stories are more layered, more nuanced, more emotional when you have more time. Why more emotional? Because the emotion has to be earned. And that’s harder to do when characters have to make quick turns.

Michael writes in:

I recently saw a couple episodes of "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" on AntennaTv. 5 or 6 writers shared the writing credit for both shows I saw - I assume they were the show's entire writing staff. Are there union rules that would prevent that from happening today?

Yes. For a sitcom today only two writers or two teams of writers can share teleplay credit on an episode. So if this week’s show is written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs, we each get half. If the show is written by say Earl Pomerantz and Ken Levine & David Isaacs then Earl gets half and David and I split the other half.

You can ask the Guild for a waiver, however. That’s what we did on ALMOST PERFECT. Quite a few scripts were written by David and I and our co-creator, Robin Schiff. But it wasn’t fair that she should get half and we each got a quarter so we asked for a waiver. The Guild said okay as long as all three of us got the equivalent of half – meaning the studio essentially paid for a script and a half. Still with me?

Now things get really complicated when shows are room written like THE BIG BANG THEORY or MOM. Because you can also assign story credit, which pays less than teleplay but at least is something. So if you’ll notice BIG BANG THEORY writing credits, there are usually five or six names. Some get shared story credit, others get shared teleplay credit.   And Chuck Lorre always tacks his name onto the story credit. 

It's a joke because the names on the screen have no relation whatsoever to who actually wrote what. Credits are just divvied up. To me that defeats the purpose of credits. 

From Bob Summers:

Why did the TV seasons of the 70s and into the 80s used to end in March, and why and when did that change to May? I think I have an answer, but I'd like an insider/expert opinion.

This changed when May sweeps were introduced. Most major agencies base their network advertising buys on sweep period ratings. So networks hold back original episodes and sprinkle in stunt programming to inflate their sweeps numbers as much as possible.  Was that what you were thinking, Bob?

What's YOUR Friday Question?

Thursday, November 09, 2017

That'll cost you $20

Dave Hackel was one of the best showrunners I’ve ever worked with. He created and ran BECKER and also was at the helm of WINGS for a number of years. Very organized, a great judge of talent (many of the young writers he hired went on to create their own shows like Matthew Weiner), and decisive (there’s nothing worse than a showrunner who keeps changing his mind every five seconds – you never know where you stand).

I picked up a lot of good showrunning tips from Dave.

He was also very collaborative with the actors. There was no adversarial position between the writers and cast. Everyone worked towards the same goal – making the best show possible with the least amount of internal drama.

However, Dave did have one rule with the cast. It was in jest but really only half-in-jest. BECKER and WINGS were both multi-camera shows (shot in front of a mostly live audience). Each took a week to produce. We would film three in a row then take a week’s hiatus. Production of a full-season would run from August till March.

So for every three weeks of work the cast had a week off. And they would often use that time to travel. They were making good money so off they’d fly to London or New York or Aspen for a week. We’d reconvene and they’d be asking each other about their recent adventures. And they’d also ask us writers where we went during the break.

This was Dave Hackel’s rule: If an actor asked a writer where he went for the hiatus he was fined twenty dollars.

Because the writers NEVER had a hiatus. While the cast was off doing whatever, the writers were always scrambling, often late into the night, to keep the pipeline flowing. We didn’t go to Iceland. We were stuck in the bunker. Hiatuses were a God send because it allowed us to (in theory) get ahead and (in practice) catch up.

Single-camera shows now work on a similar schedule. But how about this? When we did MASH – with all that production value – we filmed the shows in four days instead of five. Actually, we filmed them in three. The first day was used for rehearsal. So we’d start an episode on Monday and a new episode on Friday. The following Thursday we were on to next one, etc. Makes for a jam packed three weeks of shooting, right? Wrong. Because we didn’t shoot three in a row. We shot eight, sometimes seven. And each episode wasn’t 19 minutes long, it was 23. Plus, we didn’t shoot 22 episodes, we shot 25. We also had a few pick-up days built into the schedule to re-shoot scenes or catch scenes we didn’t have time to film previously.

So our hiatuses were basically two to three weeks a season.   As opposed to six or seven. 

Like I said, today a half-hour show is in production from August 1-March 20. We filmed 25 episodes between July 4-December 24. It was a mad scramble to be sure, but when you see those shows they don’t feel rushed or slapped together. For us writers it just meant a longer period of pre-production and strict organization was imperative.

So you’d figure with so few hiatuses periods the MASH cast wouldn’t do much traveling. Wrong again. Alan Alda lived in Leonia, New Jersey and every Friday night would fly home, returning to Los Angeles on Sunday night.

Alan was the one actor who had it harder than writers. I’m sure Dave Hackel would have waived the twenty dollar fine.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

EP45: Why I left MASH and Other Vital TV Questions

Ken answers listeners’ questions about television including why he left MASH.  Also, Ken’s thoughts on the World Series and how being a sports fan should not ruin your life. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Dancin' Homer premiered on this date

It was on this date in 1990 that the "Dancin' Homer' episode of THE SIMPSONS, written by me and David Isaacs first premiered on Fox. Yes, I'm also the voice of the Isotopes. Still one of my favorite scripts. Back when creative genius Sam Simon was running the show. Here's a clip. Enjoy. Plus, we all need a little baseball fix. It's been almost a whole week since the World Series.

Dancin' Homer from Mark on Vimeo.

Clip shows

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

It's from marka.

My Friday question is about flashback episodes, where the only thing the actors have to say in the show is a version of “yea, and do you remember the time when...”. They seem like they’re done only to give everyone except the editor the week off.

Why do they do them? Why do the networks allow them to happen? Am I the only one who hates them? But, really, what is your opinion of them?

These are called “clip shows.” Often it is the network that requests them. They usually do well in the ratings and they’re cheaper to make than a regular episode.

But make no mistake – they require a lot of work… usually for the writing staff. Someone has to screen all the shows, flag the clips, decide on a format, and put it together. Trust me, as a writer – it takes way less time to write an episode. So it’s not exactly a free ride.

But you save a week of production.  Live wrap-arounds can either be filmed in one day.  Or they're piggybacked to a day's shooting schedule so there's no dedicated day to filming them.  

As for the format, that too is a problem because the normal conventions have been done to death. The “wrap-around” version that you mentioned in your question (“Remember the time we…?), the panel discussion (like we did on CHEERS), or the interview version (like we did on MASH). There’s no good way really. But the audience generally doesn’t care. They’re there for the clips.

I will say this though, clip shows were much more popular before you had access to DVD’s and streaming. Part of the fun of clip shows was seeing excerpts you hadn’t seen in a couple of years. Now you can see any episode at any time. Hell, you can see a lot of gag reels on YouTube. 

Not only that, it used to be that a series wouldn’t do a clip show until they had close to a hundred episodes in the bank. Now I’ve seen series do clip shows season two. Wow. They have six highlights.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about clip shows. They’re very self-congratulatory and I always try to avoid that. I hate shows that toot their own horn. On the other hand, any time they use a clip from a show I co-wrote or directed I get a royalty. I made out like a bandit on the MASH and CHEERS clip shows. So I dislike clip shows on principle but I’m very much in favor of found money.

My worst clip show experience was the night I was having an MRI. I’m in the tube, they gave me headphones, and through a mirror I was able to watch TV. The show that was on was THE NANNY clip show. I was forced to watch it for 45 minutes without moving. I almost hit the panic button… and not because I was claustrophobic.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

RIP Terrestrial Radio

Still being a radio geek at heart (not to be confused with I-Heart Radio), I read a number of online radio trade websites. Yes, I know. This is a cry for help. But invariably these sites will point out how robust terrestrial radio is when the facts would suggest otherwise. They’ll boast that more people listen to radio than make waffles, stuff like that.

And it has seemed to me over the last ten years that terrestrial radio is Nero fiddling while Rome goes up in smoke.

Now a new study has come out, published by the head of New York University’s Steinhart Music Program, that basically says terrestrial radio should look into hospice care. Here are some of its points:

Generation Z (people born after ALMOST PERFECT premiered in 1995) account for 40% of all consumers and they could give a shit about traditional media. They’ve been brought up in a digital world.

The big attraction for young people gravitating to radio was to discover new music. Between 2005-2016 50% of the teen audience has abandoned terrestrial radio. They now find their new tunes on YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora.

Hey, Nero, can you play ‘Love in Bloom’?”

By 2020, 75% of new cars will be connected to digital services. So much for terrestrial radio’s choke hold of the dashboard. It’ll be just as easy to get my podcast as it is to get a major heritage radio station that cost I-Heart or Cumulus $40 million to buy. Probably more people listen to me now than KABC Los Angeles.

“Smart speakers” like Alexa and Amazon Echo don’t have AM/FM antennas. Neither do smart phones.

Record labels prefer to offer their new product to digital services because they pay royalties whereas terrestrial radio doesn’t. At one time record labels needed radio to break hits. Not anymore. So forget the loss of listeners – there goes the payola.

These are just some of the studies salient points. (The whole report is 30 pages.)  I would also add that these mega companies that own the vast majority of the terrestrial radio stations in the United States have mortgaged their future by bombarding the listener with commercials and driven them away due to cost-cutting measures like replacing local programming with syndicated fare.

So what can terrestrial radio do to at least stem the tide? The answer is simple but they won’t do it. Provide better programming. Fill their airwaves with local personalities. If there’s somebody really funny and the only way to hear him is to tune to the FM station he’s on, you will. If the only place you can go to hear a lively discussion on your city’s politics is the local AM station at the top of the dial that’s where you’ll go. Unless, in either case, there are 25 minutes of commercials an hour.

But this takes money. This takes commitment. This takes the genuine desire to serve the public you were entrusted to serve. So it will never happen. What little funds these conglomerates spend will be on bow rosin and the sheet music to “Fiddler on the Roof.”