Monday, April 30, 2018

Reporting from the trenches

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

Covarr asks:

Have you ever made substantial changes to a script based on input from an actor? Respectfulness aside (I would hope and assume that one is obvious), what factors influence the extent to which you heed their concerns?

Yes. In some cases it’s because the star is just difficult and wields the power to force wholesale changes. In practically ALL of those instances, the resulting script is worse. Or, at best, lateral.

I’ve been relatively lucky. I haven’t written for the more notorious of the monsters.

There have been times when an actor’s reluctance to do the script as written comes with a good reason. And those generally result in better scripts. We had a script on MASH where Mike Farrell took issue ethically with something we were asking BJ to do. We used that argument and did an extensive rewrite. The end result was a much more layered episode.

Look, as a showrunner I always assume that during the course of a season there are going to be a few scripts that are just snake bitten. We’ll be rewriting late into the wee hours night after night. The problem is you don’t know going in which scripts those will be. (If you did you would have addressed the problems before it went into production.) So if there’s a particularly hard week based on an actor balking at something and he’s right, that’s just the way it goes. I never resent the actor for that. We’re rewriting because we didn’t get it right the first time.

But here’s what really pisses me off: Actors objecting to something in the script and trying to justify it as a character issue when in truth it’s a vanity issue. The actress doesn’t think the actor we’ve cast to play her boyfriend is attractive enough for her. But she won’t say that. She’ll say her character wouldn’t date this person for some bullshit reason. We end up getting into this argument about motivation and the character when we KNOW that’s not really what this is about at all. And we can’t just call her on it. We can’t say, “The real issue is your ego. You think people will find you less attractive if you’re with this guy instead of George Clooney. You don’t give a shit about the character or the show. You just care about how YOU look.” So instead we engage in this fifteen-minute discussion of nonsense.

At the end of the day it’s all about who’s the most powerful person in the room. And there’s a great quote from the brilliant late producer, Steven Bochco regarding actors.

“The first year they work for you, the second year you all work together, and the third year you work for them.”

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Thanks, Mom

My mother, Marilyn, would have been 90 today. She passed away several years ago. A day doesn't go by when I don't miss her and think about her. In addition to everything else she did for me, she is responsible for my career in television.

My partner, David and I were writing spec scripts, going nowhere, not even getting read at most shows. Then one day my mother found herself playing golf with Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSON. Like any good mom she said her son was a brilliant young writer and would he consider reading a script? Frankly, I’m a little surprised she didn’t have a copy in her bag but still. As a favor to her, Gordon did read our spec, liked it, and to our amazement, gave us our first assignment. In so many ways my mother has been a true angel in my life.  And never once asked for her 10%.   Happy Birthday, Mom.  I love you. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

I hate PowerPoint

Imagine you had to give a presentation to a fairly large group. The topic is something you know something about. The quarterly report. The latest advances in merkins. Whatever.  And while you're delivering this presentation you also have to put on rock climbing gear. Bulky jacket,boots, lacing up the heavy boots, attaching one or two harnesses, stocking up on flares and picks. All this while you're analyzing T.S. Eliot poetry.

Well for the most part, that's what it's like when you do a presentation with PowerPoint. Ive been to a number of conferences lately where good speakers with interesting topics were derailed by PowerPoint presentations. They spent half their talks fumbling around with slides. At first the audience is patient and has a little empathy. But after five minutes you want to scream, "Hey, numnuts! They're friggin' bullet points. Who gives a shit?! Just talk!".

PowerPoint and similar programs kill more lectures than they help. Yes, if you need visuals, fine. Let's say you're explaining how Facebook works or just "what is pornography?"  Slides would help -- in some cases the bigger, the better.

But now you can easily make graphs and graphics to just underscore the text of your talk. 68% of homeowners have spice racks.  "I don't believe you. Oh wait, I'm now looking at a slide of a spice rack and underneath it says 68% of homeowners have these. Okay, you sold me!".

The truth is speakers now use PowerPoint as a crutch. They think the can jazz up their presentations with visual aids. All too often though this results in technical snafus, fumbling around, the wrong slides, and takes the speaker right out of any rhythm. And most of the time the slides are boring, hard to read, and unnecessary.

Some people think if they don't arm themselves with PowerPoint that the audience will think they're unprepared. That's bullshit!

As a speaker, your job is to communicate. Talk to us. Share ideas, if it's a topic you're excited about let us see that.  You don't have to be the worlds greatest speaker. But your genuine enthusiasm will sell your message. Not a dizzying display of pie charts.

A helpful tip that will mean more than a slide proclaiming "4 warning signs of gum decay" is to start your talk with a story. People love stories and it puts them at ease. People think you have to begin with a joke -- the great woody Allen intro: " I'm reminded of the incestuous farmer's daughter...". No. You don't have to do that. If you got a great joke and you're good at delivering jokes then yeah, kill 'em. But a brief story, preferably personal, will achieve the same goal of disarming your crowd.

Speak with passion. Again, you don't have to be Billy Graham or Zig Zigler. But make us understand why the topic is interesting to you. In this case, a well placed word is worth a thousand pictures.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Friday Questions

Closing out another month with NEW Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Dave Wrighteous is up first.

Do you think, in this era of network TV struggling to stay relevant with the rise of cable and premium channels like HBO, that it could/would be a good idea to rerun shows on prime time network stations? It's cheap (no actors, writers etc. to hire and the cheap to make reality shows have proven networks like cheap content!) Popular shows that have been done to death in syndication wouldn't fly, but maybe some shows that never found an audience and were cancelled may find a new life and audience… like Big Wave Dave's!"

No, as much as I’d like BIG WAVE DAVE’S to make a triumphant comeback.

In today’s world networks have to be more competitive, not less. Rerunning even their hit shows tend to be a liability. For decades networks would just fill the summer months with reruns. Their ratings would suffer but all networks suffered equally. But now, with 1000 other channels, many offering original programming, networks can no longer afford the luxury of coasting.

And as for putting reruns or former cast-off shows on during those periods where networks traditionally offer original fare, that would be tantamount to waving a white flag and surrendering. Yes, they’d save money but “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Roger Owen Green asks:

Has the proliferation of these old shows coming back to life pleased you, bothered you, or it depends? Does having the bulk of the original cast make a difference?

And, given the frequency of these, would you now suggest that an aspiring writer consider a script for a Cheers reunion or All in the Family, The Next Generation (Meathead and Gloria's kid is more conservative than Archie!)?

What this new trend of rebooting screams to me is that networks are just out of ideas and will try anything. Old shows are a known entity so at least offer some value in initial sampling.

Ultimately some will succeed and others won’t and after a few years this trend will run its course.

Remember there was a period when Hollywood studios were doing movie versions of TV shows? BEWITCHED, THE BRADY BUNCH, BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, GET SMART, MAN FROM UNCLE, ADAMS FAMILY, etc. A few like ADAMS FAMILY were fun but most fizzled out. That’s what I think will happen here.

Having the original casts back is both a plus and minus. They’re the people you are comfortable with in the roles. But I fear in some instances their advanced ages will be disconcerting. In most cases, it’s better to remember these shows and characters in their original form.

By all means DO NOT do specs of old shows having reunions.  It's a stunt that will backfire.  If you want to do a spec ROSEANNE or WILL & GRACE do the current version.

From Mr. Hollywood:

Could you do MASH today in today's political climate?? In today's "TV climate"?

MASH benefited greatly by the country being in a very unpopular war and a similar war to the one fought in Korea. We don’t have that now.

As for the political climate – we’re so polarized now that the numbers MASH got are impossible to achieve today.

ROSEANNE is this huge “hit” getting 14,000,000 viewers. MASH routinely got numbers that are higher than today’s Academy Awards. You’re not going to find 30,000,000 Americans to agree on anything these days.

So, to answer your question – no.

And finally, from Mark Solomon:

Ken, I just watched, on Antenna TV, a wonderful episode of "Wings", written by you and David, in which Frasier and Lillith Crane are in Nantucket in order for Frasier to conduct a self-help seminar on the island with paying attendees.

I'm curious about the genesis of that cross-over episode. Was it that NBC execs were seeking to bring the cachet of the higher rated "Cheers" to an episode of "Wings", or did you and David initiate the idea, perhaps knowing that your association with "Cheers" would make it likely that all the parties involved would be willing and eager to make the episode happen?

Thanks for another terrific episode.

Thank YOU.

I don’t recall the exact details but networks are always looking for stunts, and one is crossover shows. The creators of WINGS, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell were veterans of CHEERS and both shows were produced by Paramount, so a lot of obstacles were eliminated going in.

I suspect one of the WINGS guys floated the idea by Kelsey and Bebe of guesting and they were agreeable to it. Once the deals were set, Peter, David & David approached David Isaacs and me to write it. We were writing and consulting on both CHEERS and WINGS at the time so we were the logical choice.

We broke the story with Peter, David, and David and wrote the script. I seem to recall that most of our first draft remained. I was very pleased with the final result.

How’s this for trivia? David Isaacs and I are the only writers to write Frasier Crane in three series. Like Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, I don’t think that record will ever be broken. If only it meant something.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The pilot process -- where everything currently stands

This is nervous time for pilot producers/creators/agents/actors – pretty much anyone associated with the many pilots currently under consideration for a fall or midseason network pick up.

Decisions will be made as soon as next week and production teams are scrambling to assemble and ready their pilots for presentation.

It’s also the time when rumors are flying left and right – which show is hot, which show is dead, which dead show is suddenly hot again? Industry websites are buzzing with speculation.

The big X-Factor, of course, is testing. Studios now pre-test their pilots in anticipation of the networks audience testing. Those test results completely shuffle the deck.

There are also existing shows currently on the bubble. Some have gotten tryouts in different time slots to see if their fortunes improve. Others simply wait to see how well the pilots test. If your network has a strong slate of pilots you’re probably dead. If the development season is a flop you might get a reprieve.

Add to the mix commitments, network needs, how many holes in the schedule need to be filled, compatible shows to fill an hour, pressure to increase diversity, ownership of shows, and license fee costs and you get a pretty good idea of the craziness that lies ahead for those with a dog in this race.

And as super-agent Bob Broder once said, “Everything turns to shit over Mississippi” – meaning show that the network loved while screening in LA often lose their luster once the test results are in as they fly to New York for the final decisions.

Best of luck to all the contenders. And I always leave you with my quote for the Upfronts process. “The winners go to work and the losers go to Hawaii.”


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

EP69: Celebrity Fist Fights

Ken tells stories about various altercations he has had in his career – none were his fault. Okay, maybe one. He also plays some fascinating radio clips and shares with you some celebrity fistfights that you won’t believe. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Who is the guy with that weird laugh?

Once again I'm slipping in a ten-year-old Friday Questions post.  This has been a crazy month, I need a bit of a break, and I bet 90% of you are reading this for the first time.  So stagger back down memory lane with me. 

Here are answers to some of your Friday questions.

velvet goldmine wondered this last week:

I know that even shows filled before a live audience sometimes used to "sweeten" them with recorder laughs. But there's this one man's laugh that you hear on TONS of shows from the 70s, from MTM to Taxi. You know the one I mean? First there's a startled "Haw!" as the setup gets underway, then this extended "Haw Haw Haw..." when the joke reaches its zenith.

Why in the world would they keep using this familiar, even annoying laugh? And if by chance it was the same guy at all the tapings -- say, a superfan, or a self-impressed writer -- why wasn't he muzzled?

This is less of an answer than a confirmation. As several people correctly mentioned in the comments section, the distinctive laugh you hear belongs to James L. Brooks (pictured above). It’s less annoying when you realize it’s genuine. And when he laughs at something I’ve said or written, it’s sheer music.

There are also two very distinctive laughers on the last seven years of CHEERS. Phoef Sutton and Bill Steinkellner. I can’t describe them but watch any episode from those middle and later years and you’ll know what I mean.

Jim Stickford asks:

What's the procedure for deciding what particular line to use. I saw Carl Reiner in an interview years ago and he said one of the reasons he stayed in the writer's room for Your Show of Shows was that he could type, which was a bid deal in the days before computers and photocopiers. When the writers threw out lines, Carl picked the one he liked best and typed it in.

Is there a procedure? Is it decided by the show runner? Do you vote on it?

It’s either the showrunner or the person designated to run the room in the showrunner’s absence. Someone has to have the final say otherwise you have the scene in GODZILLA with all the people running through the streets crazed. Although, wait a minute. It's like that normally.

From Jaime J. Weinman:

Do you prefer writing sitcom episodes with a tag before the closing credits (M*A*S*H) or episodes that have no tags and end the episode with the second act (Cheers)?

Also what are the reasons for having tags or not having tags: is it usually network policy (like in the '80s when almost none of NBC's sitcoms used tags), or is it sometimes the showrunner's decision?

Tags are those little two minute scenes at the end of sitcoms. They serve the purpose of rewarding the viewer for staying through the last spot break. Some shows have them, others don’t. It depends on their format and needs of their network. There seem to be fewer today as networks are going more to a three-act format -- again, all in the cause of audience maintenance; none in the cause of better storytelling.

I MUCH prefer writing tags to the teasers we employed on CHEERS. At least with tags you could draw upon content established in the episode and just do a call-back. Teasers were completely independent of the story that followed. The Charles Brothers thought it would be novel and help establish the world of the bar. They were right of course, but teasers were a bitch to pull out of our ass every week.

What’s your question???

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What does Improv really teach you?

People think the reason to take improv classes is to learn how to be funnier (or even just funny).


Studying improvisation is so important because it teaches you how to LISTEN.

The best actors are not the ones who can emote or do seven accents. They’re the actors who can commit to a character, connect with his fellow actors, remain firmly in the scene even when he’s not talking. And that requires LISTENING.

On a multi-camera show, all four cameras are recording simultaneously. So when I was in the editing bay I saw all the footage of actors when they were talking and when they weren’t. And I could tell who the good actors were just by screening the footage you never see. The good ones were clearly into the scene. They were reacting, often subtly, but they were engaged in the moment. The bad actors were standing there blank, just waiting to deliver their next line.

As opposed to comedy, listening is a skill that can be learned, or certainly sharpened. And improv class is a great training ground for that. Since you have no idea exactly what your scene partner is going to say, you can’t have your next line already in mind. What you say depends entirely on what he says first. The idea is not to score a laugh with every line out of your mouth, it’s to establish a relationship and build a scene.

And if you don’t listen, you often kill scenes. Because believe me, the audience IS listening. Here’s maybe the most hilarious example of that I can give. It’s from the brilliant radio comedy team of Bob & Ray.

Trust me, I’ve seen scenes like this in improv class. From now on, whenever you get on stage, think Komodo Dragon. You’ll become a better actor.

Monday, April 23, 2018


I was late to the party with BREAKING BAD. By the time I started watching, the show had just completed its run. As a result I missed out on all the BREAKING BAD hubbub on social media. I was out of the loop when BREAKING BAD was “a thing.” But the good news is I was able to watch the series the whole way through without having to wait the year or so between seasons. Once I went down the rabbit hole and got hooked, I couldn’t imagine waiting a day to get back to it much less a year.

Extended hiatuses are just one of the new ways we now watch television shows (although you can’t even technically call them television shows since many you watch on your watch). What a nice luxury for the production team. They’re not on constant deadline.

But asking audiences to wait a year and sometimes longer comes with a big risk. By the time you get back they may have lost interest. In that year interim another darling or three might have come along. Ask any restaurant owner how fickle the public is.

It’s hard for a show to build momentum and losing that momentum can be the kiss of death.

Also, expectations become much higher when viewers have had to wait. If the hiatus is only over the summer the viewer might watch the season premier and go “That was okay,” but if he had to wait eighteen months he might say this about the exact same episode: “Really? I waited all that time for THAT?”

So I ask producers (and the networks and streaming services that distribute the shows), do you really need THAT much time to prepare a new season? Could you shave off three months? Or six? For sixty years broadcast network shows churned out 24 episodes a year (and sometimes 39) and produced some series with extraordinary quality. You really need a year-and-a-half to make ten? (Some shows with hugely ambitious production requirements like GAME OF THRONES, sure, but most of these shows don’t have dragons.)

I have another fear for down the line. Industry strikes. Audiences have been accustomed to seeing their shows on a regular basis, and any extended interruption was potentially very damaging to the networks. Well, not anymore. If a strike means the Fall Season starts a month later, big whoop.

But, that’s the world we now live in. However, I’m sure if we wait another year and three-months it will all change.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writers' Indignity #4826

A few years ago I got a call out of the blue from Twentieth Century Fox Publicity. The 7th season of MASH was being released in Great Britain and they wanted to know if I would do a phone conference call with British journalists to promote the new DVD’s.  It would take about an hour.  I asked when the conference was planned. “3:00 today she said, cheerfully.” “Great,” I said, “If the first seven seasons of MASH are delivered to my house by 3:00 I will do the interview.” An hour later a messenger was at my door.

The point is this: not only do writers not make a lot of money off these DVD releases, the studios won’t even give us free copies. Unless of course, THEY need something. And it’s not just writers. I was having lunch with one of the cast members of CHEERS and she said Paramount never sent her a copy of the DVD’s.

I love how in the new WGA contract, if a studio plans on having bonus tracks on a film DVD they must invite the writer to do one. That’s only fair, of course, since directors always get to do them. But here’s the catch: The studios are not obligated to USE the writer’s bonus track, nor are they obligated to pay him for his time and effort. Reminds you of Lucy teeing up the football for Charlie Brown, doesn't it?   I don’t think we’ll strike over this issue, but it’s yet another example of how the studios view us.

And this brings up another point – one that Mark Evanier brought up once in his fine blog – should writers, directors, whoever get compensated for recording bonus tracks? If you’re a director and own a piece of the film then it’s certainly in your best interests to do a bonus track and sell more copies, but what about the rest of us? Yes, it’s fun to do and nice to have your contribution recognized, but are the studios using your ego to take advantage of you? I’ve only done a couple – my two SIMPSONS episodes. It was fun. It was easy. Gracie Films gave me copies of the DVD's without my even asking for them. And the way they recorded the track was just to screen the episode and we chimed in as it rolled. So the whole thing took maybe a half hour. I never thought about compensation. 

But what if the studio that made VOLUNTEERS came to me and said they were doing a big anniversary edition and wanted me to do a bonus track for free? First of all I would plotz that anyone would want to do an anniversary edition, but then I would be faced with a dilemma. Should I or shouldn’t I?

It reminds me of a great Woody Allen joke from his stand-up days. (That's two Woody Allen jokes in two days.)  He was offered a Vodka commercial and didn’t feel it was morally right. But the pay was great. So he went to his rabbi for counsel. The rabbi told him to take the moral high ground. So he passed on the commercial. And then a few months later he saw it and who was selling the Vodka? His rabbi.

I would probably agree to do the bonus track.

And they wouldn’t use it.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

How do you know if your script is any good?

That’s always the big question for young scribes writing a spec script. You may like it but will anybody else?

Giving it to friends and family rarely yields objective reactions. Of course they’re going to love it. They want to love it. (Or hate it depending your family).

And the truth is most people not in the business don’t know how to read a script (as opposed to those IN the business where only half don’t know how to read a script). It’s difficult for many people to read stage directions and dialogue and be able to picture the scene. That’s not a knock on anybody. I can’t read a blueprint or a shopping list.

This is why I always recommend young writers take classes and meet other aspiring writers. Surround yourself with peers. There will usually be one or two whose opinions you value. Give the script to them. Be mindful that there may be some jealousy or competitive dynamics at work but you can generally sift through that.

Teachers are another good source of feedback if you value their assessment.

Generally, it’s best to give you script to several readers. There is a downside to this of course. You may get five different reactions from five different people – and some of the notes might be contradictory. Just like you'll get when you do make it in the business. You have to decide who (if anybody) is right.

But the good news is if you hear the same note from four sources it’s a pretty good bet they’re right. You can address all these issues before sending out your script.

There’s no clear-cut formula on how to know whether a note is a good one or bad. And especially, with people not in the business (dreaded “non pros”), their notes might be bad because they’re not adept at solving script problems, but you as the creator have to see beyond that. Don’t just dismiss the notes. Something bothers them and they don’t have the experience to identify just what it is. That’s your job. Based on their note, try to work backwards and guess what exactly might be the problem.

Always consider seriously the note, “I don’t get this.” You may think you’ve explained something sufficiently but you haven’t. We often get too close to our work. Those are generally helpful notes.

The very best way to judge your script is to arrange for a table reading. HEAR IT. Taking into consideration that the actors you use will often times be busboys at Costco and a foreign exchange student from Norway – not exactly Meryl Streep and Christian Bale, and the small audience will be somewhat biased in your favor (don't invite your family if they're not) – but you can hear the rhythm, hear the flow, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And if you have a comedy, laughter (or lack of it) will tell you what’s funny.

At the end of the day though, it’s up to you. YOU have to decide whether your script is good.  Just remember, Universal passed on STAR WARS.

Best of luck!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day with new Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Gary starts us off.

One of the most annoying trends in family sitcoms is that the children always talk like adults. In fact this is so ingrained I don't think it can even be called a trend anymore. The last TV comedy in which the children actually spoke realistically may have been Leave it to Beaver.

My question is, have you ever had to write any extended dialogue for children? Did you find it unusually challenging? And if so, how did you go about it?

Okay, first off, I agree with you. Smart-ass sitcom children drive me up a wall.

I’ve rarely had to write for small children, but part of that is by design. I tend to avoid projects that require very young kids. And the few times I have had to I didn’t place any comic burden on them.

The other thing is that most child actors can’t deliver these lines. There are a few exceptions like Rusty Hamer (pictured: above) on the old DANNY THOMAS SHOW, but for the most part, they don’t have the skill, discipline, or diction to hit jokes out of the park. And frankly, it’s not fair to expect them to.

I did like the Richie character in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, played by Larry Matthews. Here for the first time was a truly goofy kid.

But for my money, the best use of children was on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Those kids were used very sparingly. There were some episodes devoted to them, but in many others they didn’t appear at all. And I don’t think the show suffered as a result.

Duncan Randall asks:

Why would a network launch a new show on Sunday nights, starting the first two shows when the time will undoubtedly be delayed by the NCAA games? I'm talking about Instinct on CBS.

CBS did that show a favor. The NCAA games brings a large holdover audience. Folks who normally wouldn’t be watching CBS are tuned in for the games, and a lot of them stick around. Ever notice what a big deal it is for a show to follow the Super Bowl?

Secondly, in that case, INSTINCT also followed 60 MINUTES, which that week aired the Stormy Daniels interview, and that program got huge ratings.

One final note, Sunday night traditionally has the most viewers of the week. That’s why big network specials air on Sunday night. That’s why HBO puts their marquee shows on Sunday night. So even if your show doesn’t win its time slot, it can still attract more viewers than if it did win its time slot on Friday.

Mike Doran wonders:

I've often read about how members of the Writers Guild register pseudonyms that they can use on scripts that get "noted" beyond recognition by network or studio suits. The red-flag pen names enable the writers in question to maintain their payments and future royalties for work that they slaved over, only to see the work mishandled this way and that.

What I was wondering was if you and Mr. Isaacs (separately or together) had such a pseudonym, and if you ever had occasion to use it; I won't ask exactly where you used it (unless of course you'd like to tell us ...).

No, David and I have never used a pseudonym. If I did, I think I might go with the name Aaron Sorkin.

The guiding creative force of the TV show MASH, Larry Gelbart wrote the screenplay for the movie ROUGH CUT. He so hated how it came out that he took a pseudonym. Frances Burns. (Think about it.)

José María González Ondina rounds it out.

Have you heard about the Spanish version of Cheers. I think it was aired on 2012, to very bad ratings and was cancelled after very few episodes (the original version was very successful in its time). The actors are well known Spanish comedy actors, although I don't find them very funny.

I wonder if you know anything about it. At the time it was said that the original creators "overview" the production.

Here is the awful version of the intro:


I did know about it. And actually saw a few dollars. They just redid actual CHEERS script, and in one case, David Isaacs and I got screen credit. I have not seen any of the episodes, but I remember at the time the reaction was quite negative. But I liked the money.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Earning moments

Nothing elevates a sitcom episode like a big emotional moment.  It gives the show depth.  The audience doesn't just come for the jokes; they become invested in the characters.  They start to really care about them.   Their problems are meaningful and you root for them to succeed. 

Shows that can pull that off tend to have staying power with audiences.   Especially if the problems are universal.   That's why you can watch a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW from 50 years ago and still identify with it.   The issues are the same.  We're just no longer in black-and-white. 

But those emotional moments need to be earned.

Some sitcoms will do 20 minutes of broad burlesque and then take a huge left turn and have a super sappy moment.   And it feels bogus.  Your teeth rattle.  You throws shoes at the screen.  All it succeeds in doing is reinforcing that sitcoms can be lightweight and disposable.   In those cases, the moments only make the show worse. 

So how to avoid that?

You ground the show going in.   The tone has to be realistic throughout.  When a character says something and another character says something no normal human being would ever say but it gets a laugh, there goes your credibility.  When characters act like idiots or two-year-olds and sacrifice any shred of dignity for the sake of a joke you do so at the expense of true emotion. 

What world do your characters live in?   If it's heightened and cartoonish, fine.  Just don't switch gears and suddenly become WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?    At this point, some readers will race to the keyboard to point out exceptions.  Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this is the rule and it behooves a writer to try to do it right.

The litmus test we have in the writers room is that the moment must be earned

And as for the moment itself, generally speaking, the more economical the better.  Avoid cliches.  Avoid going over-the-top.   Often times the best moments are one or two sentences, not long overwrought speeches.   When David Isaacs and I wrote GOODBYE RADAR for MASH we purposely designed the story so that there were casualties arriving when Radar had to leave.  So his final goodbyes were all on the fly.   Each character got a sentence or two.  To me that was way more effective than long heart-to-heart speeches where each character revealed how much Radar meant to them.  

In short, beware of sentimentality.   Like a good spice, you need just a pinch. 

Usually I find the shows that do moments that aren't earned are also the shows that do the least artful moments, which is not surprising. 

Emotional moments, like I said, are worth striving for.  But they require effort.   Along the way, don't settle for jokes that compromise characters.  Don't do stories so silly that they can only be called sketches at best.  It's the difference in being a sitcom writer and a writer writer. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

EP68: Meet Nancy Travis

Ken talks with actress Nancy Travis about her career, her process, her ups and downs, and lots of fun stories along the way. Nancy is very candid and you’re going to love her. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Could this be the end of Oscar?

Don’t look now but the movie industry as we know it could well be going the way of newspapers and bookstores and Atari.

The movie industry’s target demographic (18-34) has been fleeing the Cineplex in alarming numbers. Double-digit defection. Other demographics have already abandoned the movie house – all in favor of staying home and watching on their own devices.

And why not? Ticket prices are absurd, popcorn is ridiculous, people around you are texting and talking, you have to sit through ten minutes of commercials before the show, and none of that includes the cost of parking, maybe dinner, a baby sitter, and online charges for reserving your seats.

Compare that with watching comfortably at home on a big screen TV with surround-sound and your own bathroom.

Yes, you miss the communal experience of seeing a film in a full theatre, and everyone is either laughing or screaming or cheering. But those experiences are happening less and less. Instead, we’re force-fed more TRANSFORMERS movies.

Studios are making fewer and fewer films and the ones they are making are expensive comic book action summer tent pole franchise flicks that hopefully will do well globally. The smaller budget films, like comedies and God forbid films for grown ups are being phased out. Again, do you want to spend $60 to see an Amy Schumer movie?

Streaming services are now picking up the slack. Netflix, and Amazon, etc. are making movies direct-to-TV and attracting top talent.

Pretty soon the only reason to see a film on the big screen is if it is a huge spectacle. No need to see LOVE SIMON in IMAX. Studios tried to sell 3-D but after a short while audiences found that meh. Now some theatres are offering waiter service, but that too is just a novelty (not to mention expensive). 

AMC stock dropped 70% last year. Mark Cuban is trying to unload Landmark Theatres. The writing is on the wall.

So my question is, if the movie industry essentially goes away, what happens to the Academy Awards? If they continue to insist that eligible films must be shown in theatres they’ll be left with DESPICABLE ME 9 vs. FAST & FURIOUS 17 for Best Picture. Vin Diesel will edge out the Rock for Best Actor.

And if they relax their eligibility to include movies made for Netflix et al, then what is the difference between the Oscars and the Emmys? Might the Academy Awards eventually become meaningless? Considering how ratings for the Academy Awards continue to dwindle year after year, we may just reach a point where they’re no longer relevant. Robert DeNiro’s statuette won’t mean as much when Vin Diesel has one too.

I guess the only hope movie studios have in turning things around is making better pictures, but I’m sure their analysts are working overtime to find solutions that don’t involve that. In which case, would the last person out of the door please turn off the lights.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

RIP Harry Anderson

I can't believe this isn't just one of his ingenious hustles. Come on Harry, show yourself.   There's so much that doesn't make sense.  Harry was only 65.  He can't be gone.  This must be a trick.

I first met Harry during pre-production of the first season of CHEERS.  So June or July 1982.  He came into the office wearing the full Harry the Hat outfit.   We were looking to sprinkle in some colorful characters and boy did he fit the bill.  A few weeks later Harry invited us all to the Magic Castle to see his act.  Sure, the magic was dazzling, but what impressed us the most was how FUNNY he was. 

And authentic.  All of the little hustles Harry did that first season were things he contributed.  He was a fun character and the audience loved him, but we worried if we used him too often he wouldn't be as special.   I was so thrilled when he then got the starring role in NIGHT COURT.  He was getting the spotlight he deserved. 

We used Harry again the final season of CHEERS.  David Isaacs and I were assigned to write the final Bar Wars episode.  We thought this would be a perfect time to bring Harry back one last time. In all previous Bar Wars chapters David and I concocted the story.   This time Harry was the mastermind.   We called him and said we really wanted to put a final exclamation point on the Bar Wars saga.  For once we wanted CHEERS to win and we wanted them to win big.  We even thought, "What if somehow Gary's Old Towne tavern gets destroyed?"   Harry came up with the sting.

He was a lovely guy, mischievous as hell, and just naturally hilarious.

Okay, Harry, you had your fun.  Show yourself.   It's too sad otherwise. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Is that your line?

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

It is from Rob:

How do you handle it when someone compliments you on a line from a particular episode from a particular show that you didn't happen to write? Has that ever happened to you?

It’s happened quite often. I always thank them and say a lot of people contributed to the writing of that script. Which is usually accurate.

I’ve written with a partner for my entire career. Often someone will say to me, “I saw your show last night and that joke about (whatever), that was yours, wasn’t it? It was so you. It had to be your joke.” Invariably they’re wrong. It was David’s joke.

Or they’ll say, “Y’know that joke about not being able to get it up? That had to be your joke. It had you written all over it.” What? You think I’m impotent?

Most of the time I will tell people that I don’t remember who wrote what joke. And that’s not being coy, it’s the truth. David and I volley jokes back and forth. One of us will pitch something, the other will say, “Okay, but what if we changed this word?” Before you know it the line changes five times until we arrive at the final version. And both of our fingerprints are on it.

When you’re on staff you learn to check your ego at the door. The best joke you write all year might be for someone else’s script. And likewise, one or two gems may come your way.

On year three of CHEERS to hide Shelley Long’s pregnancy they created a story arc whereby she and Frasier go to Europe. All of the scenes were filmed at once and shown the end of the season when Shelley was showing. So I’m watching an episode on the air one night and this scene appears. Diane and Frasier are shown into a hotel room and Frasier overtips the bellboy. I thought, wow, this sounds so familiar. Is this a re-run? No, because I haven’t seen the rest of the show. And then it hits me – David and I wrote that scene. It got lifted from our episode for time and was inserted into someone else’s show.

Lots of sitcoms today are room written (“gang banged” as the delightful expression goes) and writing credits are just arbitrarily assigned. So you may be complimented on a script you didn’t even know you supposedly wrote.

So the bottom line is to be gracious, just thank the person for the compliment, and in my case remind them I’m not impotent.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Diagnosing problem scripts

This is a repost from five years ago.  But it's a Friday Question worth an entire post and an encore:

It’s from Charles H. Bryan:

Are there times when you look at a script (yours or someone else's) and think "There's something missing, but I don't know what?" Or can you always pretty specifically nail down the problem?

I only wish in my dreams that I could detect all script problems and what the fixes are. But the truth is, there are plenty of times something’s not working and I’m completely stumped as to why.

This is another reason it’s good to have partners or a writing staff. And I’ll be honest, there have been many times during a rewrite when as a group we arrive at what we think is the problem, spend six hours rewriting, and then send the script to the stage not having a clue whether we really solved the problem or just did an alternate version. Generally, we’re right about 75% of the time. But once or twice a season we find ourselves right back at square one the next night.

Why do we find ourselves in these pickles? Because we strive to be original, tell stories in a fresh inventive way. If you just follow the same story structure week after week you rarely have these problems. Personally, I think the trade off is worth it. (Of course I say that now. Sitting in a rewrite at 5 A.M. I may not be such an artiste.)

On one show I worked on early in my career we would have a scene that didn’t work in a runthrough or a story that was problematic and one of our producers would say “Don’t worry. I got the fix.” So we would just move on to the next scene. Then we'd get back to room and say, “What’s the fix?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was just saying that so we could move along. I didn’t to stand on the stage debating this all day with the actors there.” We wanted to kill him… and then ourselves for letting him fool us again.

But if you find yourself in this situation, you can take great comfort in knowing you are not alone. Practically all writers face this, even the great ones.

In his autobiography, the great Neil Simon talks about mounting his classic play, THE ODD COUPLE. They had their original table reading before the first rehearsal and the first act played like gangbusters. Huge laughs all the way through. Same with the second. During the break before the third act, Walter Matthau (one of the stars) pledged to invest a lot of money in the play. it was a can't miss!  Then came the third act. Big laughs until the last scene and then it just died. Playwright Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols (no slouch himself) were stymied. Neil rewrote and they took the show out of town for tryouts.

Night after night the same thing would occur. Monster laughs until the last fifteen minutes. Neil and Mike would then sit in the hotel lobby staring at each other. They would decide on a course of action, Neil would sit up all night rewriting, and the next evening the new version would be presented to the audience. And the cycle would be repeated. Night after night after night.

Finally, a Boston critic casually mentioned he really liked the Pigeon sisters – two characters that appeared in a second act scene. He wished they had come back. A lightbulb went on. Yes! Bring the Pigeon sisters back.

Neil wrote them into the last scene and suddenly THE ODD COUPLE played through the roof. The rest is (Broadway, motion picture, and television) history.

When geniuses like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols can't put their fingers on a problem, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

So when you get stuck just know, there is no Dr. House for writing. At times we’re all Frank Burns.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

75 years of Superman in 2 minutes

Cool animated video that celebrates Superman through his many looks and reboots. What more can I say other than, "Great Caesar's Ghost!"?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Friday Questions

Here are NEW Friday Questions. Friday the 13th Questions.  What’s yours?

Sean Savage starts us off:

Might you pull back the curtain a bit on your podcast, specifically the retro theme and bumper music? Where do you find those angelic radio jingle voices? Is there stock library music involved? (Somehow I doubt you hired an orchestra.) And is it matter of cashing in some favors on the production of it? In short, it's very slick and impressive.


The jingles were done by JAM Productions in Dallas. They are far and away the best radio and commercial jingle company in the world and they have been for decades. Pictured above are the singers from my session.

Most of the radio station jingles you hear come from three or four companies.

JAM also will do jingles for podcasts. Just get in touch with Jon Wolfert. And they also own the former PAMS jingle company that made most of the classic jingle packages in the ‘60s. So JAM can make you retro jingles that sound just like the ones you loved on your favorite station growing up.

The instrumentals are from a 1969 package performed by studio musicians.

Glad you like my jingles. They’re my nod to the golden days when radio was fun and hopefully my podcast is too.

Matt asks:

The interior M*A*S*H set was on Stage 9. Did the set stay up all eleven seasons, or was it taken down between seasons and used for other productions?

No. The sets stayed up all year. The cost of striking everything and then putting everything back five months later was way more than rental income for the use of the stage during MASH’s downtime.

Fun fact: The sets for CHEERS and FRASIER stayed up for their entire runs too on Stage 25 at Paramount.

From Chris:

How much ownership do networks retain over series they've aired after the initial run concludes? In other words, could NBC re-run Cheers or Seinfeld nowadays with at no additional cost besides the residuals or do new contracts have to be drawn up? Is that a reason why this virtually never happens? Unless it's some sort of anniversary or eulogy, networks never re-run their old shows, no matter how popular they used to be (and in some cases still are, such as Friends).

Once upon a time networks couldn’t own shows. They’d pay a license fee to the production company (like Warner Brothers) allowing them to air the show twice. If they wanted to rerun it more they had to pay extra for it. But the network got all the money from the commercials. The studios owned the shows but never shared in the advertising revenue.

Then laws were relaxed and networks now can own their own shows. So now they can do whatever they damn well please with them. They also have complete creative control over these shows. It’s one of the reasons why network shows tend to be generic and uninteresting. When the creative “voice” of a show is a corporate committee the end result is usually uninspiring.

And finally, from Sam,

How does camera switching work when filming a multi camera sitcom? Does the director choose which angle to show the audience? Is he physically pressing a button for Camera 1, 2, 3, 4? He is calling out the switch to someone else like during a live sports event?

Also is the multi camera edit used during the edit of the show or do they start over?

In a multi-camera show, all four cameras are recording simultaneously. They’re synced up in the editing bay and then the shots are selected. It’s not done on the fly like tape shows used to be in the 70’s. In those cases the director did sit up in the control room and either called the shots himself or had an assistant director do it.  Normally, multi-cam directors remain on the floor, usually at the bank of monitors showing all four cameras.

But with film and now HD, all of the actual editing is done after the show is in the can.

That said, on any sitcom where there’s a live audience, several monitors are provided so they can see over the heads of the cameramen, crew people, etc. There is a switcher who IS cutting the show on the fly to show to the audience. But that is completely separate. In editing, we never even look at that cut.  And the show director rarely confers with the switcher person. 

I have to say that a few of these switchers are pretty damn good and can cut the show on the fly to where you could air it.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Podcast confidential

I get lots of questions about my podcast (besides “why don’t you give it up?”). I’m well into my second year and starting to figure it out. Like with my blog, when I started I just tried a variety of things to see which would stick. I’m still on the lookout for new and different things to shake it up once in awhile – like doing my first (and last) stand-up and assembling actors for a reading of one of our pilots.

But the two types of episodes that have received the best response are me just gassing off about some showbiz related nonsense and interviews. And that’s fine with me.

The easiest episodes, to be honest, are when I have a couple of topics, jot down some bullet points, turn on the mic and just jabber for a half hour. One of my radio idols was Jean Shepherd. He would go on WOR radio in New York and just tell stories for an hour. And he was such a wonderful storyteller that I would listen spellbound. I’m not in his league, but I hope to at least carry on his spirit.

I’m often asked why I don’t do interviews every week? Because then my life would just be about booking guests. And there would be weeks where I needed a warm body and would have a guest who’s not that scintillating. I’d rather pick and choose and make the interview episodes really count. I’m also trying to bring you guests you don’t often hear. Upcoming guests include actress Nancy Travis, a former studio development person to discuss the do’s and don’t’s of writing screenplays, and blogger/writer/Renaissance Man, Mark Evanier.

Another question I’m asked is why I don’t have a co-host? I hear a lot of podcasts that do feature two hosts and some of them are terrific. But others are not. And nothing drives me crazier when listening to a podcast than two idiots just prattling on for the first ten minutes talking about nothing. I don’t care what they did that weekend. I don’t care that they took their dog to the groomer.

When there are two hosts I, as the listener, just feel like I’m eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation. I would much prefer to talk directly to YOU. I’m sure some of that stems from former Dodger broadcaster, Vin Scully. He was the only TV baseball announcer left who worked alone. Every other broadcast you have two or three knuckleheads debating every pitch. It was so refreshing to have Vin Scully there to tell ME what was happening.

So when I begin an episode I try to tell you within the first thirty seconds what that week’s show is about and why you might find it interesting. Just assume I had an okay weekend and BBQ’d.

I try to avoid politics on this podcast. Sometimes it’s hard, but I want the podcast to be a respite from the world’s insanity.

I’m also asked about the jingles. In fact, there’s a Friday Question tomorrow that goes into just that. I talk about it and show you the lovely singers. Clearly, I come from a radio background and my show reflects that. It’s probably a little less ragged than most podcasts but that’s me, so what the hell?

This week is one where I take center stage. I discuss the craziness of doing sports talk radio, introduce you to some real whack jobs, and play a sample of me calling Mariners play-by-play. In upcoming episodes I talk about Hollywood feuds, and do a commentary track for a FRASIER episode I directed. More surprises, contests, snarky reviews, giveaways and ways to interact with you guys is also on the way… along with the aforementioned interviews.

Thanks again for listening. And if you’re not, how come??? HOLLYWOOD AND LEVINE. You can click on the big gold arrow under the masthead or find it on iTunes and most podcast apps and servers. I’m still trying to build an audience so anyone you could recommend it to would be greatly appreciated… as would be a five-star review (which I’m told is important but never told why).

As you can see, I’m very passionate about this podcast. It’s great fun to do, and I hope that comes through over your ear buds. I’ll keep trying to improve it. You keep listening. And of course, if you want to get in touch with me for whatever reason, my email is

Does anybody have an email address for the Pope?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

EP67: Sports Radio Daze

Ken tells crazy stories of hosting sports talk call-in shows and shares a sample of his baseball play-by-play. A fun show even if you’re not a sports fan.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Setting the Way-Back machine for 2008

Full disclosure.  This is a re-post... from ten years ago.  Why?  Several reasons.  I've answered over 3,500 Friday Questions.  But since people rarely go back through the archives, most of these questions are are buried yet deserve another look.  Also, I'm juggling a number of things and need a break.  So from time to time this month I plan on slipping in some of these "vintage" Friday Question days.  Readers always tell me Friday Questions are one of their favorite features, so I figure it wouldn't hurt to sprinkle in a few more this month.  Enjoy all over again

Friday questions day. You can’t start a weekend without them.

Eric L has two things he wants to know:

Weird question I've always wondered- where exactly did those paintings from the opening credits of CHEERS come from?

The opening credits were created by Castle-Bryant. They found old pictures of folks in bars and built that montage. I understand though one or two photos are actually people in a barbershop.

And secondly…

After CHEERS ended was there ever any thought given to spinning off another character besides Frasier? In retrospect Frasier was obviously the perfect choice and besides Rebecca was probably the only character who could have had a life outside of the bar environment, but when the time came to discuss a spin off of CHEERS were there any other options?

Yes. NBC wanted to spin-off Norm & Cliff. They must have approached us five times about writing it. We always passed. One AfterMASH a career is enough. There was also some discussion of spinning-off Carla but that went nowhere. Remember, there was another spin-off of CHEERS (besides FRASIER) – THE TORTELLIS. Carla’s creepy ex-husband Nick (played to slimeball perfection by Dan Hedeya) and his new wife Loretta (the delightfully daft Jean Kasem) move to Las Vegas with one or two of her kids. It lasted maybe thirteen weeks. The Charles Brothers (who were just consulting it) asked David and I to write one as a favor. We met with them all day trying to come up with a story and couldn’t do it. Finally, I said, “What episode is this we’re trying to break?” The answer was five. I said, “Five? Jesus. If stories are that hard to break by episode five you are in shit shape with this show!” They were.

Remember kids when creating a pilot: It’s not just about the funny characters and setting. Make your show ABOUT SOMETHING.

Allen Burns (not to be confused with Allan Burns who co-created THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) asks:

Some older shows (I think Cheers was one) feature a voiceover of a lead actor saying "[Name of show] was filmed before a live studio audience." All in the Family had a kind of pretentious one with Carroll O’Conner saying something to the effect it was "played before a studio audience for live responses". Was this just to say "Hey, we aren't using a laugh track!" (Pretty obvious in shows with teen stars where actors have to wait for entrance applause and squealing to die down. And the ever annoyng "Awwww!" and "Ooohhhhhh" that greeted any emotional dialogue.

Yes, CHEERS employed that disclaimer after the first few episodes because we were getting complaints about the laugh track when in fact the laughs were real.

I agree there is nothing more insipid than audiences “Awwwwing” at those awful treacley moments in bad sitcoms. First of all, the moments are rarely earned and the audiences sounds like the biggest simps on the planet. Webster cleaned his room like his mommy asked. Awwwwwwwwwwwww.

On CHEERS and any other show I worked on, those cringeworthy reactions were lifted from the soundtrack.

Same with applauding when actors entered scenes. It obliterates any reality and is there anything more artificial and unbelievable than people wildly cheering Fran Drescher?

The other audience we would lose from the soundtrack is any talking back to the actors during the scene. One night on CHEERS we had a particularly rowdy and vociferous bunch. Diane headed for Sam’s office and they yelled, “DON’T GO THROUGH THAT DOOR, GIRL!!” And my favorite: Diane standing up to Sam and someone screaming, “YOU TELL HIM, BITCH!!!!” Needless to say, that threw off Shelley Long’s timing just a wee bit.

Leave your questions in the comments section. Thanks.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The latest ROSEANNE "controversy"

Wow. Big flap over a ROSEANNE joke from last week. Roseanne and Dan were in bed at 11 and he mentioned that he slept through the last few hours. “We missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” (meaning of course BLACKISH and FRESH OFF THE BOAT). Roseanne then says: “They’re just like us. You’re all caught up.”

Various industry people and folks on social media are outraged. It’s dismissive, it’s racial, it’s inappropriate, it’s offensive, it’s divisive.

I’m not going to argue the merits of the line either way. I’m just going to say I’m glad I’m not writing network television at the moment. Because if that little throwaway line is enough to spark a huge controversy I don’t know how comedy writers today are supposed to do their jobs.

So to be clear -- I’m not reacting to the line itself; I’m reacting to the reaction. Was the line inappropriate? Maybe. It certainly was to some and I respect that. But was it so inappropriate that it warranted a whole national brouhaha?

I’m trying to imagine myself in a current writers room, now having to walk on eggshells and analyze every line super carefully to make sure I don’t offend anyone even inadvertently. I like to think of myself as a compassionate person and I try to interject humanity into any project I undertake. But I’m also a comedy writer. And characters need to have flaws, there has to be some edge. I never want to be irresponsible, I never want to needlessly hurt another person or collective group. But one-time innocuous lines with no malice intended are now considered irresponsible.

So I’m glad I’m not the one in that writing room at 3:00 AM trying to come up with a killer joke that no one in America will take exception with. Censorship is bad. Self-censorship might just be worse.

NOTE: I am traveling around a lot today so may not get to moderating your comments for a while. But I will get to them and post them.

Monday, April 09, 2018

My ingenious plan to save the radio industry

Radio is in such a bad state these days. Other than 24-hour Christmas music, no station can really make an impact. Among the many things the industry needs to do to right itself is provide better programming. I was talking with my son, Matt recently, who is a big sports fan, and I came up with this BRILLIANT idea.

Oldies stations (excuse me – “Classic Rock” stations) are getting good ratings. Sports talk stations do okay. And every big league team in every major sport has a talk show dedicated to themselves. For eight years I co-hosted Dodger Talk.

So what if you combined the two formats?

Introducing, as an example, “Retro-Dodger Talk.”

Fans call in and argue over games that took place years ago. For “Retro-Dodger Talk” fans could call in and bitch about Tommy Lasorda not walking Jack Clark with first base open in the 1985 NLCS when Clark hit a pennant-winning home run for the Cardinals. Or last year’s World Series when manager Dave Roberts pulled starting pitcher Rich Hill after four innings of game two.

You’d never run out of topics. Why did the Dodgers trade Jose Offerman? Should Nate “Pee Wee” Oliver get sent back down to the minors for more seasoning? That game against the Chicago Cubs in June of 1965 when Ron Fairly was thrown out at the plate – should he have been held up at third base? Should the Dodgers trade Willie Davis after he dropped all those fly balls in the 1966 World Series?  Did umpire Jocko Conlon blow that call at second base in the 1962 Dodger-Pirate game at Forbes Field? 

24-hour a day grousing about things long in the past that nobody can do anything about and even if they could, so what? I smell a WINNER.

This is why radio needs more people like me. Retro-Dodger Talk or Retro-Hornets Talk could save the industry. You’re welcome.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

The time I thought my career was over

Every writer has doubts. Some mild, some nagging, and for me in one case – crippling. This might surprise you since I seem fairly prolific – banging out a new post every day (a few even decent). And my list of credits is rather lengthy (more than you know -- imdb doesn’t even include our classic BRAM & ALICE). But there was one point in my career when I seriously thought I was done. The well had run dry. It was fun while it lasted. That’s all she wrote (actually “he”).

It was 1986. My partner David Isaacs and I had created and produced MARY, the comeback series for Mary Tyler Moore (actually comeback two of four). It was an exhausting, grueling experience. The specifics are for another post. But suffice it to say a typical day was writing from 10 AM to 5 AM, getting two hours of sleep, and heading back to the office to repeat the process. Yes, I’m exaggerating; there was one night we finished at 4.

But after six months of that, when we finally completed the order, we were completely fried.

I had lost 35 pounds. I couldn’t write a grocery list much less a script. David wasn’t much better.

We decided to just take time off. “How much time?” our agent wondered. We didn’t know. Maybe a few months. Maybe a year. Maybe forever. We were that burned out.

For the next few weeks I just sort wandered around in a haze, eating stuffed potatoes in malls just to get my weight back up above Nicole Richie’s. Usually ideas for pilots or movies will pop into my head when I’m just out doing something else. But now – nothing.

I seriously started contemplating what I could do besides writing to make a living? That’s what drove me to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium to try to learn baseball broadcasting. Drawing caricatures on the Redondo Pier was another option I was seriously exploring. Not a lot of money there but no pressure – just drawing big ears all day.

After about three months we got a call from the Charles Brothers. They had an idea for a CHEERS story and wondered if we’d like to write the script. We were still gun shy but our agent implored us to give it a try.

So we met with the brothers, the story fell into place rather easily. So easily that it became a two-parter. Normally when that happens you’re thrilled. Double the script, double the fee. To us it just meant extra pressure. But we forced smiles throughout the story conferences. We didn’t want them to surmise they were giving an assignment to two basket cases.

The way David and I write scripts is we dictate them to a writers’ assistant (once upon a time called a secretary). Since we weren’t working on a show we asked if we could use one of the CHEERS writers’ assistants. They said sure and we could use Les Charles’ office.

We planned to begin the script on Monday morning. Driving to Paramount I was literally sweating. Could I do this again? How embarrassing would it be if David and I just stared at each other for eight hours while a writers’ assistant sat there wondering “what the fuck?!” If that happened I was prepared to go back to the Charles Brothers and say, “You know what? We just can’t do it. But can I draw you?"

We convened at 10, our assistant Barry introduced himself and got out the steno pad.

This was it.

I was so afraid of prolonged deadly silence that I just started pitching. And somehow, amazingly, my mind began to work again. Some jokes were coming out. Same thing for David. One or two of them even keepers! Slowly we got back into a rhythm and things picked up.

I can’t begin to tell you the relief. Not to compare myself to the Man of Steel but it was like Superman when Lois got rid of the Kryptonite. I could feel my comedic powers returning. By lunch I knew – “We were BACK!”

This gift (and it is indeed a gift) was there all the time. You don’t just lose it. You may need to step away, take some time and recharge your batteries, but your ability doesn’t desert you. You may someday face a crisis like this yourself. The real lesson here is to just relax. Don’t lose your confidence. Just roll with it knowing in time you will once again be fine. Don’t be like me. Don’t make things worse by making yourself nuts. Don’t waste money on an easel.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The pilot you will never see

This is one of those posts where I will ask you to kindly indulge me. There’s no great point. No major lesson. This is just a chance for me to vent and get something off my chest. When you read why you will surely understand. Thank you for humoring me today.

Okay. Here we go…

I owned one of the first home VCR’s. Bought it in the mid ‘70s. It played 3/4 inch tapes in cartridges that were the size of today’s Mini Coopers. The machine weighed a thousand pounds. You needed two people to lift one. It cost $1500 in 1976. I bought it to tape shows David Isaacs and I wrote. The salesman was showing me all the nifty features. It had a pause button. I could freeze-frame. There was also a slow-motion feature that allowed me to advance the tape frame by frame. Now, I thought this was fine for me. I could freeze-frame my credit, but why on earth would anyone else want these features? The salesman said, “Schmuck, why do you think people buy these damn machines? To watch porno!” The slow-mo suddenly made perfect sense.

A few years later VHS became the standard. The tape was 1/2 inch, would record up to six hours of content, and the cartridge size went from Mini Cooper to Mini Mac. I bought one of those and my 3/4 inch machine became obsolete. I eventually gave it away. Let the Council of Jewish Women figure out what to do with the freakin’ thing.

But I kept the 3/4 inch tapes I had recorded. And of course I haven’t played any of them for years. God knows how much they've deteriorated over time? At best the color would be smeared and washed out. At worst I’d be looking at dust. Recently, during a spring-cleaning project I discovered a box of these clunky relics. Most were MASH episodes. I now had DVD copies that were far superior in quality to those musty cartridges and took up a fraction of the space so I got rid of them.

But there was one tape I kept – the first pilot David and I were ever associated with. We wrote it for NBC through Universal for the 1976/77 season and it didn’t go. Back then networks aired their unsold pilots in the summer. We used to call this programming FAILURE THEATER. On July 20, 1977 our pilot aired on NBC.

A little backstory: During our early freelance period we met a certain producer who took a liking to us. He had a development deal at Universal. He said if we ever had a pilot idea to bring it to him. We were newbies at the time and couldn’t get in to pitch networks ourselves, but if we were under the umbrella of this veteran writer/producer the networks would hear our spiel.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE had recently premiered and was a huge hit with the younger generation. Our idea was to do a cross between SNL and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – a local late night comedy sketch show in San Francisco where the cast also wrote the material. The sensibility of the humor would be very edgy (like SNL).   We were 30 ROCK and STUDIO 60 only 30+ years earlier.

This producer liked it. We took it to NBC and we sold it in five minutes. We came back with an outline that they approved, and a first draft that they loved. Minor notes, a second draft, and based on that script NBC greenlit the pilot. Gee, this pilot stuff was easy! 

At that point we were cut out of the process completely. A producer was brought on board, Bo Kaprall, and he did a page one rewrite, keeping only our premise, basic story structure, and characters. Let’s just say we weren’t thrilled with the results. The casting was terrible. Not that the actors themselves were bad; they were just miscast. (One of the actors we later hired for MASH.)  We had a character who was supposed to be an old Jewish Catskills writer. They hired Pat McCormick. You get the idea.

We were invited to the taping (how nice of them). And I just remember being horribly disappointed with the final result. But that was then. Would time be kind to our first official television pilot?

I have a good friend, Stu Shostak who has the facilities to digitize old tapes. (If you have stuff you want digitized this is your man.) So I brought him probably the only remaining copy of THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY and as he made a digital copy I got to screen it again for the first time in 35 years.


This was easily the single worst piece of shit I have ever seen. Watching this travesty was like having your wisdom teeth removed without Novocain. And our names were on it. And not just that. Kaprall tried to get shared writing credit and we fought him and won in arbitration. We went to great effort to get our names on this stinkburger. (Why? Because creator credit means royalties for every episode and we didn’t want to surrender any of that, especially to someone who had made the show worse).

The direction was atrocious. Everyone was playing so big and burlesque you wanted to crawl under a chair. Mugging, double and triple takes for every clam joke.  Imagine Jerry Lewis at his most insane wacky zany nutty maniacal  – he was Ben Stein compared to how these actors were asked to perform.   The also wore gorilla suits, loud jackets, cowboy outfits, and were pulled around by their neckties.  I guarantee they tested worse than the Manson Family.

And our names were on it. And back in those days there were only three networks so even if the show finished last in the ratings, more people saw it than last week’s AMERICAN IDOL.

I will give you two examples of actual jokes used in this pilot. Our idea was to have the level of humor edgy and hip like the original SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE remember? Instead, these were the types of gags that made it to air.

The owner of the station was a Gene Autry type. When he tells the writer/performers that he has a problem one says to him (and this is verbatim): “Did your horse make doo doo in the house again?”

Our names are on this!

Later at one of the character’s apartment everyone barges in around dinner time. One asks: “Is that a roast?” And another answers: “No, it’s a chicken in blackface.”

Kaprall WANTED his name on this?! Holy shit!

You will never see this pilot. No one will ever see this pilot. I will never see this pilot again. And I will never say another bad thing about 2 BROKE GIRLS ever again.