Saturday, March 31, 2018

A discovered treasure

Tomorrow is the Real Don Steele's birthday.   He would have been 82.   He was the world's most exciting disc jockey and proud to say -- a dear friend.  We were jocks together at two stations in the '70s -- K100 and TenQ, both in Los Angeles.  This was when I used the air name Beaver Cleaver.

Steele was famous for his Friday night sign-offs.  They were wild rants designed to get you amped up for the weekend, delivered in machine-gun fashion.   From time to time I would follow him on Friday night (which was like being the next act after the Beatles on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW) and noticed that he always had the sign-off typed out.   So one Friday I asked if I could keep it and would he autograph it for me?   Gracious person that he is, he said sure. 

And now, in honor of his birthday, I am sharing it with you dear readers.  Try reading this whole thing in one take without making a single mistake... in about thirty seconds.

I love you and miss you Don and always will.   You and Tina Delgado will always be alive!


BIG treat. Thanks to friend of the blog, Kevin Gershan, here are a few Real Don Steele Friday night sign-offs. Get ready to have your mind blown.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for Passover and Easter with traditional Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Bob Paris starts us off:

I felt that FRIENDS was running out of steam at the end of its run. When the spin-off JOEY was announced, I thought if I were Matt LeBlanc I would agree to do the show with Kauffman & Crane as show-runners but replace most of the others with the creative staff of FRASIER, that was also ending its run that season. Can you contribute your 20/20 perspective on writer's burn-out with the same characters year after year and if you think this may have helped avoid the creative fiasco that JOEY became.

I do know a little about failed spinoffs. A big problem with JOEY was that the premise wasn’t great. Nothing really distinct or interesting about it. They just took a character and plopped him down in a different setting. Matt LeBlanc was also a supporting player. Matt is GREAT in the right role like on EPISODES, but I don’t think he could or even today, can carry a show by himself (MAN WITH A PLAN).

Getting the FRASIER writers would not have helped. The writers they used were FRIENDS writers so you’d think they’d know the character, tone, world, etc.

At the end of the day it just felt like… a spinoff – nowhere close to the brilliance of the original. Hey, it happens. Like I said, I KNOW.

Edward weighs in.

You were associated with three television series that lasted 11 seasons. There was cast turnover on MASH and Cheers. What about Frasier? Was there any contemplated turnover that has not been discussed? Any drama with that show?

To my knowledge, no. Everyone on FRASIER was happy to be there the entire run of the series. And I’m being 100% totally honest here – there was ZERO drama at that show. All eleven years. It all springs from the star, who sets the tone on the stage, and Kelsey was as gracious and nice as a star could possibly be. I know it’s boring to not have any real “dish” to spill, but the FRASIER set was truly a love fest.

Mike Bloodworth asks:

In the days before Google and Wikipedia how did you deal with all the research needed for any given script? Did studios have a reference library? Did you hang out in the PUBLIC library reading the Encyclopedia Britannica? (Or the 24 volume, Grolier Encyclopedia? {Another obscure reference.}) I'd love to know.

The studios all had research departments, and for a fee (that went against your budget but was accounted for in your budget), would look things up, Xerox articles, etc. It was kind of a racket because the studio was essentially charging itself.

When David and I were working on something on our own I’d go to the UCLA library. Or we would interview someone privy to the information we sought.

And finally, from Ted:

A lot of articles are calling Golden Globes a far better managed awards show than Oscars. Their arguments are based on bringing the stars to grab the eyeballs and keeping the show short and funny, and cutting off other "useless category" awards.

I know you hate Golden Globes, but do you also think that NOW, Globes are better than Oscars?

No, for the simple fact that the Golden Globes awards are meaningless. Their award shows might be more entertaining and better for star gazing, but there’s no way of even approaching the honor and gravitas of winning an Academy Award.

Thus, there’s way more at stake with the Oscars. There’s genuine suspense (sometimes).

The best that PR flacks in the industry can do to hype the Golden Globes is to say they might help predict who will an Oscar. Find me a movie trailer that touts an actor as being a former “Golden Globe” nominee. But someone wins an Oscar – that’s a distinction that stays with you proudly the rest of your life.

A Peoples’ Choice Award can’t compete either.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Sneak previews

Who remembers sneak previews?

What I don’t know is if it’s an age thing or an LA thing. Did they have sneak previews in Kansas City? Here in Los Angeles they were the suburban rage.

Some background…

There once was a time when there were “first run” movies. They’d be released with great fanfare and play in big movie palaces. There were other movies that were released that didn’t have the star power, the budget, the Red Sea parting. They were called “B movies.” They opened in secondary neighborhood theatres and Drive In’s.

Those neighborhood theatres generally had double-features. Interesting that people could cheerfully sit through five hours of movies back then. (What this says to me is that two well-paced movies feels shorter than a single feature that is a half-hour too long.)

Once “first run” movies cycled out of the big movie palaces they too wound up in the neighborhood double-bills, sharing the marque with these B-movies.

But every so often there were sneak previews. The theatre would advertise that in addition to the former first run feature a brand new upcoming movie would be shown. What that movie was was always a secret.

Yes, it was a crapshoot for the theatergoer but also kind of exciting. It was our only chance to see movies before they came out. Today, of course, there are test screenings prior to release, but often you know something about the movie going in. Why? Because studios are only interested in target audiences so only specific people are recruited and to entice them into the theatre they’re told “It’s a new Will Ferrell comedy” or “It’s a superhero flick.” Etc.

Not so with sneak previews. You paid your ticket and took your chance.

As best as I could remember, the few times I attended sneak previews the mystery movie was a disappointment. I vaguely recall some Rick & Kris Nelson comedy. Ugh. On the other hand, I did see HUD as a sneak preview and that was startling. Paul Newman played this mesmerizing asshole and I was riveted.

But good or bad, you felt privileged because you saw a movie three months before everyone else. You were a Hollywood Insider even if it only meant you screened a Ricky Nelson film that would go on to sell eighteen tickets total.

My favorite personal sneak preview story takes place in, I believe, 1962. I was just a kid. We took my grandmother to the Lido Theatre in Pacific Palisades to see Billy Wilder’s new movie ONE TWO THREE and then a sneak preview. Going to a sneak preview was such a big deal that we drove thirty miles to get there.

The first run movie always screened first.  ONE TWO THREE was a great movie. Smart, biting, hilarious. Usually the sneak preview is a film that complements the first run. It only stands to reason that whatever new movie follows be geared to the same crowd. So we all had very high expectations – especially my grandmother.

There was that big moment of suspense. The lights went down and roaring onto to the screen was FOLLOW THAT DREAM starring Elvis Presley. My grandmother loudly called out, “What the hell is this?” Laughs from the whole theatre.  For the entire movie she grumbled. “Who watches this crap?” “This is stupid.” “Even these songs are no good.” I can only think of four or five screen comedies that ever made me laugh as hard as FOLLOW THAT DREAM with commentary by Pearl Levine. And I’m sure if Billy Wilder had been in that audience he’d be saying the exact same things she did (in a similar accent).  

God, I miss sneak previews.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

EP65: Meet Writer Phoef Sutton Part 1

Ken interviews the versatile Phoef Sutton who has written sitcoms, dramas, screenplays, and novels.  Among his credits: Cheers, Newhart, Boston Legal, Terriers, a Robert DeNiro movie, and novels, including one with Janet Evanovich. Part 1 deals with comedy, features, and how he got that rather unusual name.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Roseanne re-boot

Many have asked if I saw the ROSEANNE reboot last night. 


It got huge ratings and I'm happy for a number of the writers I know who are on that show. 

But I am not a fan of hers nor her political position so I didn't watch a minute of it.   If you saw it and loved it, great.  It's just not for me. 

"Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling"

HBO has premiered a documentary on the life of the late comedian, Garry Shandling. Produced by Judd Apatow.

Let’s cut to the chase (something this documentary doesn’t do). It’s 4 ½ hours long. Four and a half hours. Devoted to Garry Shandling. Documentaries on the Civil War are shorter.

Not that it isn’t well done and filled with diary entries and behind-the-scene footage – but 4 ½ hours? Really?

Let me save you some time. Garry Shandling was a very talented guy who was always miserable, always searching for happiness, could be difficult to deal with, kept journals, achieved a certain level of success in the world of comedy, and was the creative force of the sometimes brilliant cult hit HBO series, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. In some ways it was a groundbreaking show. But for all his success, Garry Shandling remained tortured.

Does it require 4 ½ hours to tell that story? Judd Apatow, who is notorious for churning out good work that is always marred by excessive length, outdoes himself here. I suppose if you’re a huge Garry Shandling fan you could easily sit through 6 hours of footage of colleagues saying over and over he was complicated and generally unhappy. But if you’re the average person, even if you were a Garry Shandling fan (which I was), I wonder if 4 ½ hours might be a tad much (like by half).

Even the excellent PBS documentary on Walt Disney, who was one of the most influential cultural forces of the 20th Century and created an entertainment empire that was groundbreaking in many areas – from animation to television to theme parks – even with home movies never seen before and a career that spanned forty years leaving behind a legacy that may last hundreds of years – that documentary was only 4 hours. THE SORROW AND THE PITY was 4 hours and 25 minutes. Garry Shandling’s life required more time than that?

And the result is the documentary does Shandling a disservice because the length might scare off people who otherwise might tune in. And what’s more important – tracing his life in day-to-day depth, or attracting more people who might for the first time appreciate him and his contribution? I bet you could do a two hour documentary and not feel cheated.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The CHEERS conspiracy

This article was brought to my attention yesterday by several of you loyal readers. Apparently there was a local sitcom in Boston in the late ‘70’s called PARK ST. UNDER that bore many similarities to CHEERS.

You can read the article here.

And of course I was asked to comment on it.

First off, I can’t speak for the Charles Brothers or Jim Burrows – the creators of CHEERS.

All I can do is talk from my experience, and I was there since pre-production of season one.  

I have never heard of the existence of this other sitcom until yesterday when I read the article. And that’s the honest-to-God truth.

No one ever mentioned this in the room. There were never any rumors about it. I have friends who lived in Boston and none of them ever brought it up. I was in Boston on several occasions for CHEERS-related events and no one mentioned it.

However, in the article Jim Burrows said the show was modeled somewhat after the radio series set in a bar, DUFFY’S TAVERN, and that I heard mentioned numerous times.

Also, in the original first draft of the CHEERS pilot Sam Malone was a former football player, an ex-Patriot. The switch was made to baseball when Ted Danson was hired and it was more believable that he had been a ballplayer. Coach originally was addled because he suffered so many bone-jarring gridiron concussions (it’s not like this is a new phenomenon in the NFL). Frasier wasn’t brought on until season three. Carla was created specifically for Rhea Perlman, who the guys knew from playing Zena on TAXI and being married to Danny DeVito.  The Cliff civil service character evolved during the first season.  He had very little to do the first couple of episodes. 

And finally this – I’ve mentioned numerous times that when we were breaking stories on CHEERS, if we learned an element even approximated something done on another show we automatically threw it out. That was one of the Charles Brothers strictest rules. In eleven years I never saw them waver from it, not even once. So it seems odd to me that they would lift an entire series from an existing show that had aired. I can’t imagine them leaving themselves open to premiering the CHEERS pilot and have the whole city of Boston up in arms because they had stolen a show everyone there was familiar with. And by the way, there was no uproar. Not even a peep. No Boston papers brought it up in their reviews. Like I said, this is the first I’m hearing of it.

Why didn’t the creators of PARK ST. UNDER sue? It says in the article they didn’t think they’d win. Episodes of this show are not available on line. Apparently they’re very hard to track down.  There are just a few clips, which I've seen (and for a local production they are pretty good). 

From the article it sounds like there were definite similarities. And I wasn’t there when the Charles Brothers and Jimmy batted around ideas for this new show they were creating. All I can tell you is from my perspective on the inside, and knowing the integrity of Glen & Les Charles and Jim Burrows, any similarities were purely coincidental. And if Robert Mueller calls, I’m happy to go before the committee and say the same thing.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Who's your favorite...?

Who’s your favorite Superman?

Who’s your favorite James Bond?

Who’s your favorite Darren Stephens?

Who’s your favorite Dolly (as in “Hello”)?

Who’s your favorite Olsen twin?

Who’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes?

Who’s your favorite RoboCop?

Who’s your favorite Danny Ocean?

Who’s your favorite Captain Kirk?

Who’s your favorite Lois Lane?

Who’s your favorite Norman Bates?

Who’s your favorite Elizabeth Bennett? (“Pride & Prejudice”)

Who’s your favorite Batman?

Who’s your favorite Spiderman?

Who’s your favorite Catwoman?

Who’s your favorite Wonder Woman?

Who’s your favorite Anna Coleman (“Freaky Friday”)

Who’s your favorite “King Kong” heroine?

Who’s your favorite Sarah Conner? (“Terminator’)

Who’s your favorite Incredible Hulk?

And finally, who’s your favorite Dr. Who?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

My all-time favorite TV job

Readers have asked me what was my all-time favorite job? Here’s how blessed I am – it’s really hard to pick. I could easily say MASH, CHEERS, or ALMOST PERFECT; each for different reasons. Throw in FRASIER too. But that’s like trying to pick which of your four kids is your favorite? So putting those shows aside, I’d have to say the winner was BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

For the 95% of you not familiar with BIG WAVE DAVE’S, it was a short-lived series that my partner David Isaacs and I did for CBS in 1993. You can watch the pilot here.

We made the pilot in March of that year. It was multi-camera, in front of a live audience. Usually you’ll have a laugh spread of two or three minutes, which allows you to trim out the things that didn't work. BIG WAVE DAVE’S had a ten minute laugh spread – pretty good for a twenty-two minute show.

We tried to edit it down to time but it was impossible. So we figured, “what the hell?” and submitted a rough cut that was seven minutes too long. The heads of CBS noted it was too long and offered to watch it with us and determine further cuts. They couldn’t find additional trims either. We were allowed to turn in that version. (When the show got picked up we had reshoot some scenes so characters didn't fly across the room when certain lines were cut out.)

It tested great. Jane Kaczmarek tested better than Bob Newhart did on his new show. We went back to New York for the May Upfronts feeling we had a real shot at getting on the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, CBS had commitments to Diane English and Linda Bloodworth and there was no room for us. But we knew they loved the show and figured we’d at least get a pick-up for mid-season.

Several weeks went by. We heard nothing.

Finally they came to us with this proposal: As an experiment they wanted to try putting new shows on in the summer. They had success with that strategy with NORTHERN EXPOSURE. They wanted to air six episodes of BIG WAVE DAVE’S on Monday nights at 9:30 following MURPHY BROWN (their top sitcom at the time).

Here was the problem: it was the beginning of June. They wanted the show to begin airing mid-summer. We’d have to assemble a staff, hire a crew, rebuild the sets, and go into production in two weeks. We had no scripts, nothing.

So we came back to them and said, “We will do it… but only under one condition. There can be NO NETWORK INTERFERENCE.

At all.

We will not run story notions by you. You will see no scripts ahead of time. No notes after runthroughs. No casting input. No rough cuts for approval. Nothing. You could watch the show on the air." (We gave them that.)

Every show must deal with Standards & Practice but even then, we said their notes had to be minor and any disputes easily resolved or we had to shut down production.

This was not about us being prima donnas; we physically could not do the show if we had to go through those hoops. As it is we would be making a lot of decisions on the fly. And we understood if that kind of autonomy went against CBS’ policy but then we’d respectfully pass on their offer. We’d take our chances that they still would order us for mid-season.

To our shock and amazement they said okay; they’d go along with that arrangement.

We quickly assembled a staff (Dan Staley, Rob Long, and Larry Balmagia), brought on Andy Ackerman to direct and Larina Adamson (who I mentioned yesterday in Friday Questions) to gather a crew. The next three months were insane. We were writing around the clock, editing, casting, post production. But God bless CBS, they were true to their word. They did not interfere even once.

And that’s what it made it my all-time favorite job. I can’t tell you how creatively invigorating it was to have the chains removed. I think we did some of our best work (even under ridiculous circumstances). The truth is I’m sure we were tougher on the scripts than the network would have been. Rewrite nights tended to go long. But we all had so much fun.

The show aired and got a 19 share every week. We kept close to 100% of MURPHY BROWN’S audience. The headline in the LA Times entertainment section when the first week’s rating came out was BIG WAVE DAVE SAVES CBS. If you got that number today you'd get a five year pick-up.

Everything was going great (except for the Tom Shales review – he said we single-handedly destroyed television, which I view as a pan and was not tearful when he was later fired) and thought we were on our way. But after the six episodes CBS cancelled us. Why? They felt they didn’t need us. They had sitcoms coming on in the fall starring Peter Scolari, Faye Dunaway, and Shelley Long and there was no need. Besides, they felt our star, Adam Arkin wasn’t strong enough to carry a series. A couple of years later he proved them wrong with CHICAGO HOPE on their network.

But that was my all-time favorite job... in television. (I have all-time favorite radio and baseball jobs too. Subjects for future posts.) And I still believe television would be better today if selected writers who have proven their worth were given that kind of autonomy.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

TV Theme Song medley

Even though they didn't do CHEERS or ALMOST PERFECT (how could they leave that out???), this is still pretty cool. Jimmy Fallon & Will Smith on a recent TONIGHT SHOW. Sing along.

Crocodile Levine

Happy to say my play, THE HOOK UP, has made it into the "Peoples' Choice" playoff round of the Sydney Short + Sweet Festival. So if you're anywhere in that hemisphere, please come see it this Tuesday and Wednesday. I need your votes.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday Questions

Closing out a rather soggy week in Tinsel Town, here are this week’s FQ’s.

Xmastime is up first.

Thanks! My question: what are your thoughts on British sitcoms? Thanks to streaming services I've discovered dozens over the last few years, including the greatest of all, "Only Fools and Horses." Would love to know if you've ever had any favorites.

I love British sitcoms. They never write down to the audience. And yet they often manage to combine sophisticated comedy with sheer silliness.  They're allowed to be political, historical, deal honestly with sexuality, and feature age groups over 27. 

Another thing I appreciate about British sitcoms is that great actors will do them without feeling like they’re “slumming.” Judi Dench can go from an Oscar winning movie to AS TIME GOES BY, a sitcom.

My three all-time favorites are COUPLING by Steven Moffat, BLACKADDER by Richard Curtis and Rowen Atkinson, and YES, MINISTER by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.

UPDATE: Make that four.  How could I forget FAWLTY TOWERS?  That's maybe my number one.  

I must confess, I haven’t seen the current crop. Feel free to recommend some.

Steve Hoffman has a question regarding my recent post on pilot updates.

The article you posted here describes the premise of this new pilot, and I'm struck by how this reads as the same exact premise as "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Does this happen often? Wouldn't networks want to green light pilots that don't sound like exact duplicates of something that's already out there and is reasonably successful? Or do they really not care?

It baffles me too, but that happens more frequently than you would expect. Sometimes the same network will develop projects similar. Remember when NBC had STUDIO 60 and 30 ROCK? Both were behind-the-scenes looks at SNL. Usually though, the network will pick just one of the two contenders. In this case NBC ordered them both.

This also happens in features. Suddenly you’ll have two Snow White movies or Wyatt Earp movies that come out around the same time. And in both cases – why????

From ODJennings:

How common is it for actors to get stuck on a show they hate? The reason I'm asking is that the Steppenwolf Theatre comment reminded me of a story I once heard from someone in Chicago who was in a position to know.

He swore that a supporting actor on a popular sitcom only took the part because they were 110% certain that the show would be a flop. They bragged to their friends and coworkers that the money would pay for their home remodeling, and they'd be back in Chicago before anyone even noticed they were gone. The show became a hit and they were stuck in LA for 6 seasons hating every minute of it. (And no, it wasn't John Mahoney although I've read that he didn't think much of LA either.)

John didn’t love LA (he was a Chicago boy), but he did love working of FRASIER.

As for the Steppenwolf actor – Fuck him.

You know how many actors would KILL to be on a hit series? You know what a privilege it is to be on a hit series?

If an actor thinks a part is wrong for him or the series is beneath him then don’t take the role. Make way for an actor who will appreciate the opportunity.

Sometimes actors will grow unhappy during the course of a series, but in most cases the producers are happy to let them out of their contracts. Who needs that cancer hanging around?

But I see how hard actors try to get on series, how few openings there are, and when I hear of one who took a pilot just for the money, hoping it would fail I again say Fuck You!

Liz asks:

Jennifer Lawrence says that she is gonna take a year off to educate young people about politics. What's your take on that? 

God bless her. A whole giant subculture is reaching voting age. Let them get involved and begin carving out a better world for themselves. And cleaning up the one we left them.  Unlike 2016, Millennials can now really make a difference.


And finally, from Kirby:

I recently saw a "Wings" episode where David Schramm appeared in the background but had no lines. I seem to recall a similar situation on "Cheers," where Kelsey Grammer could be seen sitting at the bar, but Frasier didn't speak the entire episode. In these instances, would the characters have had lines that were cut during editing? Or are there occasions where there isn't room for a main character to speak, but the actor is called in anyway just to be present in the background?

Almost ALWAYS, when that occurs it’s because their lines were edited out for time. On both of those shows we would NEVER ask an actor to appear in a scene where he didn’t have lines and contributed.

There’s the common misconception that all actors want as much screen time as possible, but that’s not true. Most actors would much prefer to not be in a scene rather than having little to do with it other than lobbing in a line. And I have to say, I absolutely agree with them. It’s hugely disrespectful to ask an actor to just sit in a scene and do nothing.

What’s your Friday Question? I answer as many as I can.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A modest question

I’ve been watching THE GOOD FIGHT on CBS All Access. (It’s even better than the GOOD WIFE … at least since Will was killed.) And since it’s not on a broadcast network, they’re able to get away with language and nudity they never could before. And it’s somewhat startling to hear a character you’ve watched for seven years suddenly say, “Fuck you!” (Startling and refreshing.)

This week’s episode featured a storyline where a young woman contestant on a BIG BROTHER-type show was drugged and had sex without her consent. As expected with the creative team headed by Robert & Michelle King, the story was handled very responsibly and very elegantly. The nudity was not overtly gratuitous. It wasn’t like CALIFORNICATION where women take off their clothes to read their mail.

But a young woman had to be topless for more than a few fleeting seconds and even completely naked although in a long shot and not full-frontal.

I’m sure the casting office has to declare that there will be partial nudity required in the initial breakdown. It’s not something they just spring on the actress during the audition, or worse, after she’s agreed to the part. But there must be times it’s very hard for an actress to decide whether the nude scene is worth it. THE GOOD FIGHT is a classy show. But what if some sleazy cable show demands it? Assuming you even consider it in the first place, are there personal boundaries? Example: CBS All Access and HBO yes, FX and Cinemax no.

An actress friend of mine said she loved going on auditions where being topless was required for a scene. “They’re just tits,” she used to say and it meant most of her competition for the part dropped out. She got more gigs as a result.

Other actress friends contend that especially now, with things staying on the internet forever, it makes no difference whether you’re doing it for a classy show or soft-core porn, the world can and WILL at some point see you. Your topless shot, although it occupied only five seconds of screen time, could be the wallpaper on the president’s computer.

So my question, in this era of #MeToo, social media, but jobs-are-hard-to-come-by, what is your position on partial nudity? Do you have boundaries? Has your position changed due to any social sea changes or financial pressures? And this is one time you’re welcome to post anonymously. Reminder: I moderate all comments so anything juvenile or inappropriate to a legitimate grown-up discussion will be deleted. But this question comes from me watching THE GOOD FIGHT episode and wondering, would I do that? It was a good part and the actress had lots to do including a couple of wonderful speeches. Would it have been worth it to me? I honestly don’t know.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

EP64: Surviving Hollywood Rejections

Everyone in show business gets rejected. Ken shares some of his most memorable rejections and offers tips to help you rise above them. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

I miss comic strips

There are fewer and fewer comic strips these days. Not surprising considering there are fewer and fewer newspapers. And the one still hanging on are shrinking.

Yet fans of comic strips are DIEHARD fans. Whenever I bring up the topic on this blog I get a flood of comments; most very passionate. And I think that’s great. Keep 'em coming.

There is something about comic strips that instills fierce loyalty. Next to politics I think our country is most divided over Calvin & Hobbs.  But TV series can only dream of such loyalty. 

Since I no longer get a daily paper (I used to for years but they just started stacking up unread – I followed the news through the internet like everybody else), I rarely see the comic page. But when I do I’m usually disappointed. The jokes just aren’t that funny.

Were they funnier when I was a kid and there were way more strips? Probably not. My sense of humor was less than razor-sharp when I was 10. But I loved them. I loved the draftsmanship. I also loved the link to the past. Most of these strips were created before I was born. There was a sense of history and legacy to them. It was kind of cool that my dad and I both loved Popeye as a kid.

At one time, when I was in high school, I thought having a nationally syndicated comic strip would be a nifty way to make a living. I was a pretty fair cartoonist back then. In researching it more closely I learned that it was extremely hard to enter the field. Very very few new strips broke through.

But that wasn’t my biggest deterrent. It was the fact that I would have to come up with seven new jokes a week. Every week. Who could possibly survive under that pressure? Now of course, in television, I had to come up with seven jokes every fifteen minutes and do it for decades. But at the time it was a daunting task.

I did however get a comic strip into one paper. It was the local Woodland Hills weekly paper and this is when I was in high school. My strip was about teenagers (duh!), and I delivered a finished panel (all in pen & ink just like the big boys) every week. The strip ran for maybe three months. But then I was downsized. The paper was cutting back and my strip was a real luxury. I was making $5 a month.

Ultimately, I think I made the smarter choice to go into screenwriting. But it breaks my heart to see the slow decline of comic strips. At its best it’s a wonderful art, and today more than ever, we need all the creative outlets we can find.  Good Grief! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A writers' dirty little secret for actors

There are numerous situations on television series where the actors are at odds with the writers. Usually over the way actors treat the scripts.

But here’s what these actors don’t understand:

If you are respectful of the writers, if you present your concerns in a positive way, if you don’t antagonize them you will only be helping YOURSELF.

I’ve been in both situations — casts that were lovely and casts that were nightmares. Usually in those latter cases it’s one monster (no names but see the picture) who poisons it for everybody.

On the shows where the actors were lovely the writers bent over backwards to give them great stuff. They were also incredibly protective of the actors and their characters. More protective sometimes than the actors were themselves. We made sure characters didn’t come off too stupid or insensitive. We made sure every actor was being serviced. We’d say so-and-so has gone three pages with really nothing to do. Let’s give her a big joke.

Listen actors — we don’t need YOU to tell us you need more jokes. We don’t need YOU to tell us your character is being unnecessarily heartless. But if you do, if you throw the script back in our face, if you just tank scenes you don’t like you do so at your own peril. Yes, we may fix something you screamed about. But in the room you’ll have no advocates. No one will want to stay one minute later to see if we might give you a better joke. We’re professionals and we’ll turn out professional product. But don’t expect any allegiance. Don’t expect anyone to fight on your behalf. Don’t expect one of the writers to be bothered by a story point and have it keep him awake for one minute.

On the other hand, treat us with respect, consider our feelings, think of us as partners not enemies, and we’ll walk through walls for you. Like I said, YOU’RE the one who most benefits. And all it takes is simple human decency. Well, simple for some actors.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Will the real David Letterman please stand up?

It’s been a Letterman weekend. The OPEN ALL NIGHT clip I posted Saturday and then I watched his new Netflix series where he conducts in depth interviews. The one I watched (of course) was the one with Barack Obama.

Obama, of course, was magnificent. Charming, funny, articulate, smart, and caring. But what struck me was Letterman. I thought to myself, “Who is this guy?” It’s like he’s adopted a new public persona.

This David Letterman has grown a ridiculous gray beard, let himself go, and now seems to pass himself off as a man of great conscience and concern for humanity. Huh? We see him walking the bridge in Selma with John Lewis and at one point to Obama he makes this confession that when the Civil Rights marchers were there originally he was on a cruise to the Bahamas, and he almost mists up when he says, “Why wasn’t I in Selma?” WTF? David Letterman a freedom fighter? He made it sound like he’s been haunted by this guilt his entire life. That’s a lovely sentiment, but I’m sorry, I don’t believe it for a second.

I have been a fan of David Letterman’s dating back to when I first knew him as an aspiring stand-up at the Comedy Store in the mid-‘70s. I LOVED his NBC morning show, also loved his NBC late night show, and thought his CBS show was… okay. But in every case he was playing a “character.” Originally the wholesome kid from the Midwest who had a mischievous edge eventually morphing into a cranky curmudgeon and now an… I dunno, national treasure? But none of those are really Dave.

At first he was a very ambitious young man. Eventually he became very sullen, very bitter (why I don’t know), very closed off.

But all the years I’ve watched him, both on stage and on television I never feel I’m seeing a genuine person. And it's one thing if you’re a comic and do your one hour set. Steve Martin is not a wild & crazy guy. But if you’re going to be on television for an hour a night for thirty years I would like to think I’m getting to actually know you. Jimmy Kimmel feels more genuine to me. So does Jon Stewart. Even John Oliver. Yes, he’s revved up but I get the sense that’s the real him.

David Letterman keeps trying on characters. Maybe the problem is HE doesn’t really know who he is. But I'll become a much bigger fan when he figures it out. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

If you have no plans for tonight

And in you're in the LA magnificent megalopolis, come see a Cafe Play I wrote for the Ruskin Theatre Group in Santa Monica.   These are plays we wrote this morning, are being rehearsed now, and performed tonight at 7:30 and 9:00.  Here are details.  It's always a fun night.  Say hello if you come.  I'll be there for both shows. 

The comedy rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Lakers tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. 

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Here's a TV rarity

There was a very short-lived show called OPEN ALL NIGHT.  I believe it was 1981.  It lasted 13 weeks on ABC.  David Isaacs and I wrote two of the episodes and appeared in one.  Shockingly, we were nominated for a WGA Award for one of our OPEN ALL NIGHT episodes.  (Yes, we lost. The show was off the air by then and the company disbanded.)   But it was a very funny show about an all-night convenience store created and ran by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, who produced the best years of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.

The show was very nutty.  And from time to time they had bizarre cameos.  Here's one of strangest.  David Letterman on OPEN ALL NIGHT. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday Questions

This turned out to be an all MASH Friday Question day.

Joe starts with a question about the MASH article that ran in the Hollywood Reporter a few weeks ago.

Great article, but I have one question, Ken. They said Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart both left after season 4, but Gene stayed another year, right?

Also, he was listed as a creative consultant for the rest of the show. How much was he involved when you and David were running the writers room?

Yes, Gene stayed for season five and was the showrunner. He left after that to run LOU GRANT for MTM. But he remained a consultant.

Once a week, David Isaacs, Burt Metcalfe, and I would go up to Gene’s house with outlines. Gene would go over them and make suggestions for improvements. It was a weekly master class on story structure. I can’t begin to calculate how much I learned from those sessions. Gene has the uncanny ability to hear a story and almost instantly know what’s wrong with it and what would make it better.

To this day, when I’m stuck on a story I think to myself: What would Gene do?  He's the best I ever worked with in that department. 

From Pete Grossman:

The show was peppered with Yiddish words - Hawkeye yelling "Dreck!" (Shit) during the river of liver and ocean of fish scene; "Mazel Tov" (Good Luck [said with a congratulatory tone] uttered from Pat Morita's character; Col. Potter responding with "Emis" [truth] later in the show's run. For the last one, I remember watching it with my father when it first aired and my dad asking me, "How does Col. Potter know Yiddish?" Sure, there's a certain conceit, but wondering how much it was discussed if at all, as most of the population isn't quite up on their "farshtand" (understanding) of the language. Thanks!

I suspect that was Larry Gelbart’s sensibility. And I think it stems not so much from Larry trying to make the characters more Jewish but from his love of words and language. Larry was always looking for colorful words and expressions you might not expect. It’s one of the many reasons his writing was so sharp and layered.

Podcast listener Chris Dellecese asks:

Why did Henry Blake get a huge goodbye episode on MASH but nothing for Trapper John? Did it involve the timing of who left when?

The producers knew ahead of time that McLean was leaving the end of season three. So they had time to plan his exit.

Wayne decided not to come back after the season wrapped. So Gelbart & Reynolds just had to explain away his disappearance. Whether he was asked to come back and do a farewell show or not, that I don’t know. That all happened a year before David and I came aboard.

But when Larry Linville left after season five we invited him back for the season six opener to explain away Frank Burn’s departure, but he chose not to return.

And finally, from Cedric Hohnstadt:

You've written before that flaws are what make characters interesting and entertaining. During a recent bout of insomnia I was lying in bed trying to think through the flaws of various MASH characters. I got stuck when I came to BJ. Hawkeye could be idealistic, impulsive, mischievous, womanizing, and a bit self-righteous. BJ, on the other hand, was mostly just a warm, friendly family man - intelligent and funny but (aside from an occasional mischievous streak) he was overall a very balanced and grounded guy. I'm sure that made him a good compliment to Hawkeye but I would think there was also a real danger of him becoming a "vanilla" character. How did you get around that problem?

There was a huge distinction between Hawkeye and B.J.   B.J. had a mustache. 

But seriously, it was a problem. We tried to make him more stubborn than Hawkeye, more obsessive with patients, a practical joker, and we gave him a higher moral standard than Hawkeye. There were times when B.J. and Hawkeye would clash over medical treatment. Still, we felt somewhat handcuffed by B.J.’s lack of flaws. Mike Farrell is such a wonderful actor and if I'm being honest, there were times he was not well served. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Levine & Isaacs partnership process

Here’s a three-part Friday Question that takes up a whole post. It’s from Mike Bloodworth and is about my longtime partnership with David Isaacs.

I know some writers prefer to write alone, but previously you've stated that there are advantages to having a partner. However, did you always agree on scripts? Did you ever feel reluctant to compromise on a line? How often, if ever was there conflict?

No, we don’t always agree. And sometimes the arguments have gotten spirited. But the key is we never make it personal. We can argue tooth-and-nail over some story point and then break for lunch and talk about baseball.

When it comes to specific lines, we have a rule. If one of us pitches a joke the other doesn’t spark to and can’t convince him in like two minutes we just throw the line out completely and go for something entirely different. Usually it takes less time to come up with something new than to argue over a line and ultimately one person is unhappy.

All that said, for the most part we're in agreement.  

The key to this and the partnership in general is that you have to have respect for your partner’s opinion and talent. So if I pitch a joke and David thinks we can do better I trust his judgment.

Do you guys have specialties? Having worked with you I know that you're a great "straight man." Is one of you better at set ups, punch lines, story, exposition, etc.?

No, we’re surprisingly similar. Normally we work head-to-head. But early in our career we would take one script assignment a year and break it up. I would write one act and David would write the other. We would then put them together and do the polish together. I swear, you couldn’t tell who wrote which act.

One difference is that very early on I tended to go to fast and David tended to go too slow. We were each a good influence on each other.

Eventually we fell into a groove and write together at a good comfortable clip.

And as for jokes, people always ask if I wrote a certain joke and I tell them I don’t remember. It sounds like I’m being coy, but the truth is one of us will pitch a joke, the other will modify it, and together we will further shape it. So I really don’t remember.

Not all Lennon and McCartney songs were written by both John and Paul together, especially toward the end of the Beatles. Was every Levine & Isaacs written by both of you? Or is that billing just part of your agreement?

Every Levine & Isaacs script was written by both of us. In some cases one more than the other, but that’s the value of a partnership. If one of us had the flu and the script had to be in by Friday the healthy one would do the lion’s share of the work on that draft. Or if I was off doing baseball, one of us would take the first draft and the other would then do the second draft. Then we always did the final polish together.

But the overwhelming majority of our scripts were written with me and David in a room together dictating to a writers’ assistant.

Every partnership is different. There is no right or wrong way to collaborate. It depends on you. But this is our process and I’d say it works for us since we’ve been partners for over 120 years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

EP63: Ben Mankiewicz, The Voice of TCM

Ken interviews TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. They discuss TCM, how the network works, how he works, classic movies, his career, and even a little baseball.  It’s movie buff heaven.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Pilot season update

All of the networks are in the process of casting their pilots for the upcoming TV season. Having been a part of that on numerous occasions I can tell you it’s the world’s most insane version of musical chairs.

Actors race from audition to audition. Producers must decide quickly because often someone they think might possibly be good for a role is on the verge of taking something else. Do you take him pre-emptively or keep looking? Might somebody better come along? Or will it turn out you let the best guy get away?  It's maddening!

Like swallows returning to Capistrano, New York actors fly in for pilot season. These are the casting Olympics. It’s a wild time and everything is up in the air.

But here’s what I’m seeing more and more now: Deadline Hollywood, the online trade website de jour, posts announcements on who’s been cast in what pilot. And invariably, I’d say almost 100%, it’s an actor who has already been in at least one series. They’ll have his name and in parentheses, the show or shows he’s been in before.

So my question is: How does a new actor break in? What do you have to do? It’s not like these actors with a previous series are necessarily that great. A third of them will be fired during pilot production or after. Do the networks really believe that someone who was a supporting player on THE REAL O’NEALS has a big enough fan base that he’ll actually bring in an audience?

Having done primarily multi-camera pilots I do see where it’s an advantage to hire people who have had multi-cam experience. They’re used to working in front of an audience. They’re used to memorizing entire scripts. But you get that with theatre actors too. You don’t need someone who had a recurring role on DR. KEN.

I feel bad for young actors. I wish I had the answer. But just know that if you somehow, someway DO break in, then all the network casting people who dismissed you two years ago for a one-line part will today be shoving your name down the throats of producers with ultimatums to use you or else.

And so it goes in pilot season.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


WARNING: Political Post. If you’re a Trump supporter, have a lovely day. We’ll hopefully see you tomorrow.

WARNING #2: I moderate comments so any pro-Trump rant gets deleted. Yes, I know, that’s not very democratic of me. Complain to the unbiased folks at Fox News.

Now to the post.

Oh joy! Our fucking idiot toxic treasonous elected official (I can’t even bring myself to use any term even resembling “leader”) is coming to California today.

First he’s going to San Diego to see prototypes of this ridiculous wall that will never be built. I guess he doesn’t realize that the people of Mexico know about ladders. You’d think he would tour the Navy base there, but I doubt he even knows there’s a Navy base there. I doubt he even knows we have Navy bases. I’m sure he’ll be disappointed that the Gaslamp area of San Diego has been cleaned up and his favorite strip joints are gone. Expect him to try to endear himself to the San Diego population by wearing a Chargers hat.

Then he goes up to LA for a fundraiser in Beverly Hills. This will result in road closings. Obama used to come and it was a mess. But at least we knew a day or two in advance what the road closures were. As of yesterday they weren’t divulging that information. Why? The location of the fundraiser is being kept secret for fear of protests.

You can bet that when those roads are closed today the protesters will be there, letting our scumbag-in-chief know that he’s as welcome as the Bubonic Plague.

Did you ever think the day would come when the president of the United States would have to sneak into town like a wanted fugitive? In an American city? It used to be an honor to host the president of the United States. Even if he was from the other party. You might disagree with him politically but you were at least sure that he was trying his best to preserve Democracy and improve the public’s way of life. This guy’s only focus is to stay out of a prison and keep Stormy Daniels from telling the world he’s a lousy lay.

No industry people will be at this Beverly Hills fundraiser. In fact, there is talk that if one does go he’ll be blackballed in Hollywood. They want donors to pay $230,000 to attend. Who can afford that other than gun manufacturers? My guess is for that kind of money they can hold the fundraiser in one bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel. And by the way, there will be a protest at 4:00 in Beverly Hills by the political group Union Del Barrio regardless of where this fundraiser/hideout is.

The governor invited our irresponsible lying disgrace to humanity to visit the state’s high-speed rail construction projects. “You see, in California we are focusing on bridges, not wall,” Governor Brown said in a letter to our Shithead-in-chief, but since it wasn’t wrapped in a Happy Meal it was never read.

Tonight he plans to stay at our 73 story downtown hotel thus closing off two blocks in every direction and wreaking havoc, which is the only thing he can successfully do.

He’s only here for one day, thank goodness. The next time he visits I hope it’s to stay in San Quentin, and then he can remain for the rest of his life.

Since there will be a lot of traffic today I’ll just stay home and ship off ladders.

Monday, March 12, 2018

It's easier to write them than go to them

When you make your travel plans, try not to fly to New York during a Nor’easter. Back from Fun City, where I was really lucky to get INTO Fun City. I had a play in the ANDTheatre Company’s One Act Festival and was excited to see it. After all, this was my first time on Broadway. Okay, well… Broadway adjacent. But it was just around the corner from the Stephen Colbert theatre, so that’s not… Rochester.

We were leaving Los Angeles on Wednesday, just when the storm hit. Our flight wasn’t until 2:34 PM. I woke up and checked the JetBlue website. Every JFK-bound flight was canceled… except for ours. And the two or three taking off that night. I signed up for text alerts fully expecting “DELAY: Now leaving June 1st.” Shockingly, the flight took off on time. Needless to say it was jammed as they squeezed in as many of the canceled travelers as they could.

During the flight I was able to watch live TV. They had the local NY stations, all of whom had STORMWATCH COVERAGE. In LA, we have STORMWATCH COVERAGE if it drizzles. But the scenes I was seeing were horrifying. Adorable Millennial field reporters (all with darling first names like Stacy and Nina and long names with lots of consonants –we support diversity) standing in snow up to their hips with howling winds and snow gusts, saying things like: “We’ve lost New Jersey. It’s gone. No one can find it.” Yikes. Traffic reports declared that the Long Island Railroad was shut down in many areas and thousands of commuters were stranded. The Top level of the Verrazano Bridge was closed. There were fifteen shots of buried cars and guys who looked like Kevin James trying to dig them out. And this is what we were flying into.

Man, this play better be great.

The snow had mostly let up by the time we landed (on time and on the tarmac). But getting into the city was an ordeal.

Let me stop here and say NEVER EVER EVER use Carmel Car Service. The worst. We had pre-arranged a car with them. We were instructed to call when we were ready to leave. We did, they told us where to wait and said it was would be five to seven minutes. Twenty minutes went by. I called again. They put me through to the dispatcher. "A half hour, probably an hour, but maybe sooner so please stand out there." It was 34 degrees and snowing. I said, don’t you pre-arrange a car? That’s why we reserved ahead. “Sorry” was his nonchalant response. NEVER use Carmel Car Service. And please tell your friends. We called LYFT and a guy was there in three minutes.

So we made it into Manhattan. Fortunately, the storm was only one day. Most of the city was sufficiently plowed by Thursday and a hiker found New Jersey on Saturday.

The rest of the weekend was fine. Cold, but I didn’t need to put chains on my boots to walk around.

Happily, the play was GREAT. The whole program was terrific, but I was blessed with a fantastic director, Scotty Watson, and a stellar cast of Michelle Conti and Emmanuel Elpenord. They really crushed it. Big laughs (which is my meth). Thanks also to Kristine Niven for including my play, THE HOOK UP in your program.
Added bonus, I got to meet a few of my blog readers and podcast listeners.

I must say, it was a thrill to have a theatre piece done in New York. That’s always been a dream. When I was in college and Neil Simon was churning out hit plays year after year, I thought that might be a good way to make a living. Maybe live in a nice brownstone, write a play a year, get it on Broadway, make a fortune, sell the movie rights and have Jane Fonda star in it even though she’s not funny. So why did I go to LA and try my luck in TV instead?


Thank God for them (with apologies to New Jersey).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The one word to look out for

Now with YouTube, everybody makes videos. HD cameras are so inexpensive that full-length films can be produced on a shoestring budget. Recording an album no longer requires a million bucks. You can do all the engineering and processing on your iMac Mini.

But what the new technology still can’t do is provide feedback.

You still have to show it to your friends and get their reactions. But rarely, if ever, are you going to get an honest appraisal. They’re not going to insult you. They’re going to be very diplomatic. You have to learn to read between the lines.

Here’s what people say when they really hate something.

“That was really fun.”

If you hear “fun” you’re doomed.

It used to be “Well, you did it!” or “How did you do it?” or “That was something else!” but those are so old school. “That was really fun” is both a veiled compliment and right up to date.

My favorite left-handed compliment came the night of the big industry screening for VOLUNTEERS, the Tom Hanks/John Candy movie that David Isaacs and I wrote. We’re standing in the lobby receiving guests. It’s me, David, and to my right – Walter Parkes, one of the producers.

People are coming up congratulating us until one woman took our Walter's hands in hers, looked him straight into the eye with a pained expression, and said, “Oh Walter, we love you anyway.”


I laughed so hard I almost fell over.

We live in a time of superlatives. Awesome now means okay, perfect means acceptable, and epic means it will be remembered for four hours.  So "fun" has been elevated to where it now means sucks. 

Oh, for those days when people were honest and told you “I never knew you had it in ya.”  So beware of false flattery. 

I know what you're thinking.  You want to go to the comments section and respond to this post by saying "that was fun."  I'm ahead of you.   You'll have to be more creative. 

Note: For those new to the blog -- whenever I can't find an appropriate photo to go along with the subject matter I post a picture of Natalie Wood.  And the investigation has been re-opened, ya know?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The NEW Annie Hall

Or should I say the "old" Annie Hall?   A senior center in Manhattan has done a reboot of the Woody Allen classic ANNIE HALL. 

I'll pause here for a moment to say this is not about Woody Allen to hopefully cut down on all the angry comments like "how can you support a child molester?" etc.    Will this disclaimer do any good?  Probably not, but remember I moderate all comments.  This is about Annie Hall not Woody Allen.

The New York Times recently did a story about this re-boot, which you can find here.  

Two young filmmakers found that Alzheimer patients sparked to old movies and experienced temporary improvement.  Eventually the filmmakers decided to do a 30 minute version of ANNIE HALL casting all senior citizens.  There are no plans for its release, but Woody Allen has given them his blessing and apparently the project was a huge success. 

Having spent a lot of time dealing with an aging parent in a skilled nursing facility, I can instantly see the value that having a real "project" could mean to these people.   Whether I ever get to see the finished product or not I give it a thumbs up. 

Sometimes MAKING a motion picture is more important than the picture itself. 

Photo from NY Times.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Friday Questions

Hello from Gotham. Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

Albert Giesbrecht starts us off:

Ken! I didn't know you directed Dharma & Greg! Was Jenna Elfman as nice and friendly, as Dharma was on the show?

Absolutely. I first knew Jenna from our mid-90’s show, ALMOST PERFECT. I think we gave her one of her first jobs. She guested as an daffy secretary and was hilarious. You could tell right away that she was special.

And she fit in right away. After the filming we all went out to a karaoke bar. Jenna joined us. I was thrilled that her career took off. She’s as nice as she is talented, and I would work with her again in a second.

From Bill in Toronto:

Ken, from any of your careers, can you give an example or two of times anyone on the production really rose to the challenge and performed in a standout way you’d like to recognize here?

Yes. Frankie Bellina, our propmaster on CHEERS. You have no idea what a difficult assignment he had. Think of all the glasses on all the tables. And the bowls. And from scene to scene they changed and all had to match. How he kept it all straight I will never know.

Plus, CHEERS was filmed in front of a live audience. It’s not like he had a half-hour between scenes. He was a dervish.

Also, I want to heap praise on Larina Adamson. She was our line producer on two series and three pilots. Without a doubt the best in the business. She was a magician. Any stupid thing we wanted she made happen… and within budget.

So often you will ask your line producer for something and they’ll tell you it can’t be done or there’s no money in the budget for it. Not Larina. I think she was part Genie.

These are just two of many many spectacular crew members I had the honor of working with.

Curt Alliaume asks:

Who are some of your favorite baseball announcers now working?

I’ll just stick to radio for this round.

Jon Miller & Dave Flemming from the Giants. Ted Leitner of the Padres. Eric Nadel of the Rangers. Tom Hamilton of the Indians. National Treasure Bob Uecker of the Brew Crew, Pat Hughes of the Cubs, Howie Rose & Josh Lewin of the Mets, Andy Freed & Dave Wills of the Rays, Marty Brenneman of the Reds, Jim Powell of the Braves, Steve Physioc, Ryan Lefebvre, and Steve Stewart of the Royals, and I’m sure I’m leaving someone out.

And finally, from Jahn Ghalt:

When you do reshoots that are from last week's show, are they in front of an audience?

If so, do you do them before the scheduled show? Do you let the audience "in" on the circumstance?

Most of the time they’re not in front of the audience. They’ll be filmed either the day before during camera blocking or after the audience has been released.

Sometimes though, if it’s a long scene, or a scene we felt would really benefit by having an audience we will have the warm-up person set up the situation.

But a lot will depend on actual show to be filmed that week. If it’s complicated and we know will be a long night we won't subject a tired audience to another scene. However, if it’s a simple show that should take only a couple of hours to film we may sneak in that additional scene.

I’m in New York to see my one-act play, THE HOOK UP being performed as part of ANDTheatre’s Annual 10-minute Play Festival at Theatre 54. I will be attending tonight and tomorrow night’s performance. If you’re around, swing by and say hello. Here’s info. Thanks.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Reference material

Often times when writing a script I’ll make a specific reference. Might be to a certain movie or person or fad that once was. One of the keys to comedy is specificity. If you’re looking for a dog name, Dachshund is funny but Schnauzer is funnier.

The trouble with a reference however is that it means nothing if the intended audience doesn’t know it. And over time things fade into the mist. At one time you could do a joke about a horse head at the end of someone’s bed and everyone knew that was an iconic GODFATHER reference. But now? Yes, THE GODFATHER is one of the most well-known and classic movies in history. And it’s still being shown frequently in revival theatres, on TV, and on streaming platforms. But it’s well over 40 years old. Most people today weren’t alive back then. Did you get the reference?  And don't feel bad if you didn't. 

Writers talk about a three-percenter. That’s a joke only three-percent of the audience will get. Sometimes you sprinkle one or two in not so much to get a laugh but to establish authenticity of the period. We did that on MASH. An Adolphe Menjou joke might appear. But it helped put you in the time and place and the six people in America who knew who he was laughed hysterically.

So it’s always a guessing game with references. If you know some specific reference you just sort of assume everyone does, right? But you have to stop and take stock. Do I know this because it’s of general knowledge? Or did my growing up in Los Angeles as opposed to Toronto give me a greater exposure to the reference? Other factors: gender, religion, level of literacy, length of time.

It’s just one of the many things comedy writers wrestle with.

And then there’s the flip side.

I’ll be in a writing room and someone will pitch a joke with a specific reference that I don’t know. But a few others in the room laugh. My first thought is “should I know this reference?” Why don’t I know this reference? Other people knew it, why not me? Is there a hole in my wealth of knowledge? On the other hand, not everybody laughed. Was it because they didn’t know the reference either or they didn’t think the joke was funny? I’m always a little insecure about that.

It’s like there used to be a TV game show called PASSWORD. Two teams of two people competed. One team member would be given the "password" (say HANDKERCHIEF) and with only one word clues would try to get his partner to say the password. (Notice how I felt the need to EXPLAIN how PASSWORD worked.) I always thought, what if I got on that show and was given the password to communicate to my partner and I didn’t know the word? Obviously it’s a common enough word that everyone else in the world knew it and I’d look like a complete idiot on national TV. Same with references except substitute five writers for seven million viewers.

This is the kind of shit that keeps me up at night. I should probably take a Nidol. I mean a Tylenol PM.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Finally in print: My bitchy snarky Oscar review

As promised, here's the text of my Oscar review. You can hear it on my podcast. It's better when you hear it.
The Academy Awards celebrated its 90th edition by being 90 minutes too long. Jimmy Kimmel did a nice job, there were a few laughs, more preaching than a Baptist service, little in the way of surprises and suspense, and for the most part, well… so dull I thought I was watching THE PHANTOM THREAD.

Cary Grant never won an Oscar. But Kobe Bryant now has. In this year of #MeToo and #TimesUP movements, I guess the Academy forgot about his rape charges in Colorado. But hey, he was the youngest player in the NBA to score 31,000 points.

Meanwhile, last year’s winner Casey Affleck was nowhere to be seen and Kevin Spacey didn’t appear in the Best Actor montage. It’ll be interesting to see if they ultimately make it into the “In Memoriam” section when their time comes, or maybe there will be a special section for #ThemToo/#TimesUp.

I’m guessing the ratings will be abysmal since fewer people saw all of the Best Picture nominees combined than the “Watch what whipped cream does in a vacuum cleaner” YouTube video. And the Oscarcast was longer than the actual Dunkirk rescue.

More on the ceremony later, but first a look at the Red Carpet shows.

It was unclear how many stars bypassed Red Carpet host Ryan Seacrest because of his sexual abuse allegations. This is like letting Mel Gibson host the Red Carpet show for the B’nai Brith Awards. But stars that did snub him included Jennifer Garner, Mira Sorvino, Viola Davis, Ashley Judd, Margot Robbie, Sandra Bullock, and all of the women nominated for Best Actress. His only interview for the first 45 minutes was with Sophie Carson, host of All-Access. Then he got music people like Diane Warren, Mary J. Blige, and Miguel. Oh, and Kelly Ripa. Yeah, motion picture superstar Kelly Ripa came over.

E! instituted a 30 second time delay on their Red Carpet coverage. This from a network where it’s okay to say “shit!” And 30 seconds is more than enough time for any actress to change her position twice. ABC and E! are standing behind Ryan… for the moment. But applications are being accepted for all eighteen of his jobs. And did you notice during the Oscarcast, in all the AMERICAN IDOL promos, he wasn’t pictured or mentioned once. Will he ultimately take the fall? We’ll know next year if Brian Dunkleman returns to host AMERICAN IDOL. (By then it might be on its third network – Buzzr.)

But the good news for Ryan is this finally puts to rest that pesky rumor that he’s gay.

Meanwhile, over at KTLA Channel 5, not a lot of star power there either. Hosted as always by footstool to the stars, Sam Rubin and 12 pound co-host, Jessica Holmes they were in mid Oscar-season form. Sam introduced Raphael Saadiq and Tara Stinson as “Raphael Saadiq and your friend here.” Worse was when he said, “Here’s Bradley Whitford and two of his co-stars.” He meant Lil Rel Howery and Betty Gabriel. But even KTLA had no idea who they were. They posted the graphic “Cast of Get Out.”

They interviewed Eva Marie Saint who at 93 still weighs more than Jessica Holmes. Sam said she was 92. Then he said to Ms. Saint (my neighbor, by the way), “Many people are teary today having read Steve Lopez’s story in the LA Times all about you” to which she said, “No, it was about my husband.” Oh well, at least he knew who Eva Marie Saint was. I think he did. He didn’t call her Jane Fonda.

This year’s show was heavy on issues. Dreamers, diversity, immigration, gun control, women’s rights. There are two ways to achieve these lofty goals – educate and change the mindset of millions of Americans or remove one man from office.

Remember at the Golden Globes all the women wore black in support of #MeToo. Supposedly the Academy asked that they didn’t do that for the Oscars so of course they caved and all came in bright colors. In Hollywood, “conviction” means making Aquaman even though there are a billion superhero movies already. Usually, part of the snarky fun of my reviews is taking shots at the horribly dressed women, but this year I’ll be called sexist and racist and a body-shamer so I’ll refrain. Unlike you who probably took vicious shots in your living room of Andra Day who wore shower curtains, and Kelly Ripa whose train made it look like she was dragging a clown. You can say those things. I no longer can. It would be wrong for me to suggest that Jennifer Lawrence looked like she worked the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and LaBrea.

Randy Thomas did an excellent job as the Oscar announcer. More diversity is great unless you have to pronounce all those names. Miraculously, she did and did them perfectly… although who the hell would know?

Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue had some good jokes. Giving away a jet ski to the winner with the shortest acceptance speech was fun. But if they really wanted to shorten the program by a half hour – don’t put the creative arts people in the back rows. Or at least provide Bird scooters for the visual arts and make up winners to get to the stage while Faye Dunaway is still awake.

Kimmel mentioned that only two Academy members have ever been expelled. Harvey Weinstein and actor Carmine Caridi (for sharing screeners). As a result of Caridi, housekeepers and gardeners no longer decide the Oscar winners.

I was happy with most of the results, although I was rooting for Woody Harrelson. Of former CHEERS cast members, Woody has the best shot of winning an Academy Award. Unfortunately, in the pool, I have “Man Who Said Sinatra.”

Best Director, Guillermo del Toro seems like a genuinely nice man. Sally Hawkins had to really trust a director to have sex with a fish. (I bet there’s a whole section for that on Pornhub.)

Best single line of the night: Winner Allison Janney: “I did it all by myself.”

Looking spectacular this year was Gal Gadot, Jennifer Garner (Ben Affleck is an idiot), Margot Robbie, and Eiza Gonzalez.

Do you think Kobe Bryant would have won if he were a Celtic?

God bless Eva Marie Saint and Rita Moreno. Ms. Saint was elegant and added a real touch of class to the affair. She got a standing ovation even though two-thirds of the audience had no idea who she was. Ms. Moreno wore the same dress she wore in 1962 when she won. Anyone who can fit into the clothes they wore in 1962 deserves a second award.

In a pathetic attempt to attract younger viewers. The latest STAR WARS cast was carted out as presenters. It’s like when Ed Sullivan brought out Topo Gigio “for all you youngsters.” By the time the STAR WARS cast was announced it was too late. Their target audience was watching BOB’S BURGERS.

Many of the speeches were heartfelt. Even though I didn’t know them or anyone they were thanking. But you realize you’re watching the greatest moment of their lives, which is wonderful… until it becomes the greatest five moments.

Frances McDormand had the speech of the night. It was insane. But fun in that “Dennis Hopper as King Koopa in SUPER MARIO BROTHERS” way. She left the stage (eventually) with two words: Inclusion Rider. My two words: What’s that?

Was the bit where Jimmy and a bunch of stars went next door to unsuspecting people in a movie theatre really funny on its own or just because it was a break from the endless tedium at the Dolby Theatre? It gave more camera time to Gal Gadot so that was a plus, but these bits and lengthy movie montages felt like padding a show that was already hopelessly long. Other than Paul Thomas Anderson, who thinks that’s a good thing?

Sandra Bullock looks terrific in any light. Am I allowed to say that?

Viola Davis came as Diana Ross. Am I allowed to say that?

Jesus, it’s the Academy Awards. For the Best Song performances get singers who can sing. Both “The Mystery of Love” and “Remember Me” singers sounded like a cat getting a bath. Kudos to Mary J. Blige, Andra Day, and Keala Settle for crushing it during their tunes. Of course they all lost.

Have you ever seen more standing ovations in your life? Christopher Walken got one for still having a career after PETER PAN LIVE. Mexico got one for not being the United States.

Harvey Weinstein survivors Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, and Salma Hayek gave a passionate speech on the need to end sexual abuse (even though I’m not sure I know the meaning of “intersectionality”), and introduced a moving but heavy-handed short film on the movement. But here’s the thing: Don’t show it to us. Show it to studio heads. They’re the ones who can do something about it. We tweet and like the tweets.

I could not fast forward through the ROSEANNE trailer fast enough.

Credit to conductor Harold Wheeler and his expert musicians. They had to play hundreds of music clips with zero notice. There’s no time for sheet music.

Tiffany Haddish was funny. Maya Rudolph… stood next to Tiffany Haddish.

I say this every year: The “In Memoriam” segment should never cut away from full-frame shots of the people being remembered. And when you watch it, don’t you always wonder who’s going to be last? For my money it should have been John Mahoney… who they left out completely.

Another reason why ratings will likely crater – There was a time when Tom Hanks was a presenter. And Clint Eastwood. And Elizabeth Taylor. And Jack Nicolson. Now it’s Wes Studi and Danielle Vega.

Greta Gerwig now joins Lena Dunham as former “Flavors of the Month.” But I eagerly await Greta’s next project. She’s smart, talented, and not an attention whore. For example, I bet Greta won’t tell the world when she’s having a hysterectomy.

Best Actor winner Gary Oldman thanked everyone but his four former wives.

My daughter Annie points out that if the Best Editing winner gives a long speech they should take away his award.

How many times did they cut to someone in the crowd and you said, “Who’s that?” Next year that’s my Oscar drinking game and I figure to be smashed by Best Sound Mixing.

Meryl Streep has become the new Jack Nicholson. She sits front row center in a bright red dress and everyone pays homage to her from the stage. A survey showed that over the last 12 years more actresses have thanked Meryl Streep than God. And the ones that didn’t are now on the Disney Channel.

I hate when presenters single people out while announcing the nominees. “Four directors and Greta Gerwig!” “Four nominees and one trailblazing woman!” Greta and the trailblazer receive big applause but it’s disrespectful to the other nominees, who are just as deserving or more deserving. And this year two of those non-trailblazers won.

Great to see Faye Dunaway & Warren Beatty again – Hollywood’s version of Sarah Palin & Dan Quayle. They got a standing ovation for being lucid. At least this year they announced the right winner. Anything but THE PHANTOM THREAD.

At the end of the day I envied those people who were in the theatre across the street. They got to see a movie, Gal Gadot, and free Red Vines.

UPDATE:  The ratings set record lows.  Down 19% from last year's low ratings.   

UPDATE 2:  I'm traveling today so it might be a while until I post your comments.  But I will get to them.  Thanks.