Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Les Moonves mess

It is worth really following the Les Moonves saga as it unfolds. There have been numerous grand poobahs in the industry who have fallen from grace as a result of #MeToo. Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Bill O'Reilly, Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, various producers, showrunners, and on-air talent.

But this one is different.

When Harvey Weinstein was brought down it was a huge story. Here was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood dethroned and exposed. But see, here’s the thing: His company was losing money. He no longer had the clout he once had. And as a result, his inglorious exit from the business had little or no affect on it.

Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were high profile personalities. Their shows didn’t nose dive upon their departures. Kevin Spacey was removed from a movie he had already shot and his replacement received an Academy Award nomination. Spacey’s TV series goes on without him.

Ah, but CBS…

Les Moonves has done a spectacular job of leading CBS. And with the current corporate showdown with Viacom, his presence at the helm is more vital now than ever. Les Moonves has made a lot of money for the shareholders. And CONTINUES to make a lot of money. So it’s not so easy for the board to just say, “We’re shocked! We can’t have this! He has to go! Banish him!” No. The absolute last thing the board wants to do is replace Les Moonves.

On the other hand, the case against him appears strong enough that if he’s not removed there will be public outrage. Does the CBS board want to weather that shitstorm?

If Les steps down would CBS collapse? Of course not. Their stock will dip and my guess is creatively the organization will suffer considerably. The stock has already gone down 11% since Friday. There is no succession plan in place. So things will be chaotic. But CBS will survive. Apple has done okay since Steve Jobs passed away. Disney didn’t disappear after Walt went the way of Bambi's mother. And there’s still Warner Brothers without, well… the Warner brothers.

But this is a big test for Hollywood.  Money vs. principles. 

The CBS Board yesterday voted not to act on the matter, instead saying they would select outside counsel to conduct an investigation and then determine their course of action. In other words, it buys them time. They could either work out an exit strategy or find some way to excuse the charges and go forward with Les. And buying time puts distance on the story. In another month Trump will undoubtedly do something else appalling or idiotic and the country will be up in arms over that. Or, by that time, he will have done seven heinous things.

So stay tuned. There is obviously more to this story.

Julie Chen, by the way, is standing by her husband. Of course CBS is the network that aired THE GOOD WIFE.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Why I love living in "Hollywood"

Every so often Hollywood lives up to its reputation as the “dream factory.” Yes, we have crazy traffic and every loopy fad, con artist, opportunist, and cult gravitates here, but every so often the uniqueness of the area offers perks you can’t get anywhere else.

Like bumping into celebrities. Like Jennifer Garner on the next treadmill. Or Tom Hanks recognizing you.

Since so much filming takes place here it’s not uncommon to come upon a shoot. There’s George Clooney down the block waiting for a set-up to be lit. Here’s a location manager wondering if they can use your pool for a pilot starring Eliza Dushku?

To be fair, often times these location filmings are a royal pain in the ass. They snarl traffic even more.

But there was one recently that really tickled me. As many of you know, I love the ‘60s. Especially LA in the ‘60s. Well, Quentin Tarantino is currently filming his next movie that is set in Hollywood in 1969. Not sure of the premise. Probably a tender love story set against the Manson murders.

But for authenticity his crew has transformed a couple of blocks of Hollywood Blvd., recreating Hollywood in 1969. This includes bus signs, ads on benches, etc. Talk about entering a time machine.

So recently I went to dinner at Musso & Franks, which is right in the middle of the recreation. Took a couple of photos, and it was so cool to be back in 1969. With all due respect, you can’t do that in Baton Rouge.

Sure, amusement parks and Vegas can erect recreations, but it’s not like being on the actual boulevard.

What I really appreciate is that Tarantino made the choice to physically recreate it and not just use CGI.

I only hope I get half as much enjoyment out of the movie.

See for yourself.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The greatest drum solo ever!

John Bonham from Led Zepplin.  If you like drums (and who doesn't other than my mom when I tried to learn them?) you've got to hear this.  Ringo, eat your heart out.

Ladies and gentleman, the beat goes on... and on... and on. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Friday Questions

Last Friday Questions of the month. Is one of them yours???

Bryan leads off.

Friday (Baseball) Question: did you keep your scorebooks from your baseball days? Could you show what a page looks like? Any funny story associated with one (especially if while working with Dave Niehaus)?

Yes. I’ve kept all of my scorebooks, even from my minor league days. I keep waiting for Cooperstown to ask for them but so far I haven’t received that call. Maybe they have the number wrong.

Here’s a typical scorecard. Good luck deciphering it. But I can go back and instantly recap every inning and all the scoring. I can give you pitch counts, where every ball was hit, how every player moved from base to base, when there were pitching changes and pinch hitters. And that’s in addition to stats and notes at my fingertips along with the defensive alignment.
As for funny stories, Dave Niehaus and I were doing a game from Texas. It was the end of the season, 100 degrees at 8 at night, both teams were eliminated, and it was a TV game for us. So I did the first 4 ½ innings on TV and the rest alone on the radio. The game went 17 innings. And each team had 40 players on their roster and we set a major league record for the number of players used in a game. Needless to say, my scorecard was an utter mess. Trying to recap for the postgame show I said "I have no idea what I wrote.  Check tomorrow's paper." 

Jim S has left a question after listening to Episode 79 of my podcast about the realities of the writers room.

You said some interesting things about having to write when you're angry or distracted.

You obviously want to avoid asshole actors. When thinking of hiring someone, and you know the people he or she has worked with before, do you do a quiet check to see if they are Harry Morgan or Kathryn Heigel?

Oh you bet. We check with other writers who’ve worked with them. If possible, we check with crews as well. I want to know how they treat crew members.

There is a real “life’s too short” factor.

Not only will I do my due diligence, if I hear another producer is considering an actor who I know personally is a monster I will make a point of calling the producer and warning him. There are too many deserving actors who I would rather see get breaks then established “stars” who show no respect to anyone but themselves.

UPDATE:  Harry Morgan was GREAT, by the way.

Tom Galloway queries:

What if instead of Shelley Long/Diane leaving when she did, Ted Danson/Sam left (and she stayed)? Any thoughts on how y'all would've handled that?

If Ted left the show I think the Charles Brothers would have ended the series. It was Sam’s bar. Diane entered the world, but it was Sam’s world.

When Teddy finally did decide to leave after the eleventh season there was some talk about continuing without him but the decision was made to close up shop. Sam Malone was the heart and soul of CHEERS. I believe it was the right decision. 

And finally, here’s another baseball question, from opimus:

If you had it your way, who would be in booth with you and what teams besides the Dodgers?

Happy to broadcast for any big league team. And there are many current baseball announcers I would be thrilled to partner with.

But if I were hired and allowed to choose my partner, it would be Dan Hoard. Dan is the voice of the Cincinnati Bengals and U of Cincy, but he’s a great baseball announcer and we were partners in Syracuse. We have a great chemistry and together I think we would produce a top flight broadcast.

What's your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Will there be a FRASIER reboot?

An article appeared on trade websites saying a FRASIER re-boot may be in the works. So naturally I was bombarded with inquiries about it.

Here’s what I know:

Very little.

I don’t think the plan is to reboot like WILL & GRACE where everyone in the original cast comes back and the show picks up where it was. I understand the plan for FRASIER is more of a spinoff in another city with other characters. The article says Kelsey is meeting with writers.

Has anyone come up with an idea that he likes and wants to do? I have no idea. Who are the writers he’s meeting with? Don’t know that either.

I do know this: the new series will be compared to the original and that will be a tall order.

I’m more interested in who the creative team will be. Remember, so much of FRASIER was the writing. If some of the original writers want to come back then I’d be interested too.

The sense I get is that this is still a long ways off. But it’s certainly intriguing, isn’t it?

Hey, what about if he opens a surf shop in Hawaii? BIG WAVE FRASIER’S. Where’s Kelsey’s number?

UPDATE (since a few of you have asked):  One of the big attractions of participating in this new version of FRASIER (should all the planets line up) is the opportunity to work again and write again with David Isaacs.  "Levine & Isaacs" would return!  

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

EP82: Casting Director Sheila Guthrie: Part Two

Casting Director Sheila Guthrie talks to Ken about casting FRASIER, how to audition, mistakes to avoid, and some crazy casting stories you won’t believe. Lots of useful information, tips and laughs.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

FRASIER reboot?

Getting a lot of questions about a possible FRASIER reboot, whether I'd be involved, etc.  Will address all of this in tomorrow's post.  How's that for a teaser? 

"You tell 'em, Hamlet!"

Here was an interesting question posed to me as a writer – do I mind if audiences talk back to the actors during performances of my work? It’s a cultural issue. For some cultures it’s accepted and even encouraged.

I’m referring specifically to talking back to the actors. Feel free to laugh out loud, cheer, spontaneously applaud, even gasp. And of course yakking to the person next to you or taking a cellphone call should result in the death penalty, but what about calling out encouragement to the actors or warning them that the butler has a gun?

It’s a tough one because when I write for a live audience (either in theatre or multi-cam TV) I generally don’t expect the audience to respond. I write in a certain rhythm and that flow would obviously be disrupted if folks were calling out things between lines.  On the other hand, I've written two short plays, THE HOOK UP and AVOCADO TOAST that are both interactive with the audience.  Those have been great fun and audiences really love to participate. 

I’ve had limited experience with paying customers just calling things out to actors on stage,  but I can tell you one time on a multi-cam sitcom I wrote we had an audience who engaged in this behavior and it really threw off the actors’ timing. Also, it was hard to eliminate the audience “feedback” from the soundtrack so we were unable to use it and had to resort to the laugh track that week, which I truly hate.

I also don’t know how the non-talkers feel about this. I imagine if they’re not expecting it it can adversely affect their theatergoing experience. But I’ve been to movie theatres in cities where this practice is common and since the audience is prepared for it, no one seems to mind. It's all part of the fun.

So I guess my answer is this: If the actors are prepared for it and don’t mind, and the other theatergoers are prepared for it and don’t mind then what the hell? My ultimate goal is to please audiences and have them leave happy and fulfilled so if this is part of their enjoyment talk away.

But if it’s a few isolated people sprinkled in the audience then no, you’re just spoiling the experience for everyone else. You’re rude and self-centered and don’t care about anyone else’s feelings. The beauty of live theatre is that you have live human beings on stage. They’ve rehearsed for weeks and they’re busting their ass on stage to entertain and move you. At least have the courtesy to let them perform uninterrupted.

This debate underscores the thing I so love about writing for the theatre (or multi-cams) – live audiences are part of the experience. And every audience for every performance is different. There’s always a sense of excitement and suspense. You never really know how an audience will respond. Last year on Broadway I saw THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. There was wall-to-wall laughter; one giant guffaw after another. Seemingly bulletproof. But talking to one of its producers he said there are occasional nights when the cast is just a little off or the vibe is weird in the theatre and the entire evening falls flat. You can’t take anything for granted.

But the upside is you could also go see a live performance one night that is absolutely thrilling and far exceeds your expectations.

So in conclusion, I think it depends on the circumstances, although I would be very curious one time to see one of my full-length plays in this environment.   Who knows?  I might get into the spirit of it and spontaneously call out "Brilliant!  Who wrote that?" 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The life and genius of Robin Williams

Well worth watching is the new Robin Williams documentary on HBO. They do an excellent job of capturing his genius and delving into the man behind the mania. I felt it was balanced and fairly accurately conveyed the Robin Williams I knew.

I won’t go into details of my relationship with Robin because I’ve spelled them out many times already on this blog, but I was in improv classes with him. And after class would get something to eat with him and others in the group. Later I had a movie idea I thought he’d be great for and he invited me up to his ranch in Northern California to discuss it, but the timing never worked out -- he went off to do some other project, and I was involved with something else.

The thing I always said about Robin (and they touch briefly on this) was that he had an on-and-off switch. During class he was the zany brilliant Robin we all know, but later in the restaurant he was quiet as a church mouse. Funny but at the time I almost felt a little cheated. It’s like if you were hanging with Frank Sinatra in the ‘50s (and he couldn’t get you girls) you’d at least want to hear him sing.

But after watching the documentary I got a new perspective. Looking back, I’m now somewhat thankful he wasn’t “on.” Because my reaction to the two-hour profile was that it was exhausting. Robin was truly a force of nature and it seems almost tragically inevitable that a light that bright would burn itself out, but it was comforting to see he had quiet moments along the way and that his life wasn’t just one super intense fever dream.

The end of course is so sad. For the extraordinary gift that he was bestowed it came with a very steep price. This documentary is filled with rare footage (even stuff with my improv classmates Andy Goldberg, Wendy Cutler, Paul Willson, and Susan Elliott), and even revelations. Like everyone else, I always assumed Robin left his first wife for his son’s nanny, but it turns out he and his wife had been separated for a year before he began a relationship with the nanny.

If you love Robin Williams (and who doesn’t), treat yourself to this profile of a once-in-a-lifetime entertainer.

Monday, July 23, 2018

It might not be your fault

I know this sounds like a convenient excuse, and you’re welcome to use it, but it’s also true.

Comedy writers should realize there are a lot of people who don’t know how to read comedy scripts. They just don’t have the ability to visualize how something will play based on reading the text. Likewise there are people who can’t read blueprints and people who can’t read music. Personally, I have trouble with mimes. Someone is on stage pantomiming an activity and I have no clue what he’s doing.

Even some other writers have trouble deciphering comedy scripts. I have a friend who’s a wonderful dramatic playwright. When she saw a reading of one of my plays she said, “I had no idea it was so funny. On the page I couldn't tell.”

(NOTE: This is yet another reason why I suggest you gather some actors or friends and have a reading. At least YOU’LL know if it works.)

But take heart. This is not a skill most folks require. It’s not like you’re trying to drive and you have no depth perception.

The problem is this: Many of these people who can’t read comedy scripts are in positions to judge your work. They judge festivals and contests, they do coverage on your screenplay, they are network, agency, and studio gatekeepers. I once had an agent who admitted to me he had no idea reading a script whether it was funny. No problem for me since I was established; big problem for a young writer hoping to get representation by sending this man a writing sample.

Especially if your comedy comes out of character and attitude is this problematic. You may write a hilarious scene but there are no “jokes” per se. A big audience laugh might be “Ohhh-kay” but on paper it just looks like a word. Some readers look specifically for “jokes.” “The last time I was this pissed was when…”  And those scripts tend to feel jokey and artificial when they get on their feet. 

So if your script or play is rejected, know that among the possible reasons is that the reader just wasn’t capable of “getting it.” And hey, that IS a great excuse, isn’t it?

Note for new readers:  Whenever I can't think of an appropriate visual I post a photo of Natalie Wood.  Enjoy.  

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The music "bumpers" on CHEERS

That's what we call those little musical passages that transition scenes -- bumpers. 

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post because I have a special guest to answer it.

Dan Ball asks:

When I watch CHEERS, I always wonder how music was handled? I know Craig Safan scored the whole series (along with some great scores for THE LAST STARFIGHTER and REMO WILLIAMS), but would he actually score each episode or record a bunch of cues at one recording session per season that the director/editor could whip out in the editing room? Was it actually the director and editor who chose those cues? You've probably had to sit in this music chair plenty times in the past, so what's your strategy for picking the best ear candy for us, the audience? Are you more/less demanding in your scoring tastes because of your background in radio?

I didn't select the music cues.  For the shows I ran I had our line producer handle that.  Nor was I involved in the music on CHEERS.   So I personally don’t know the answer to Dan's question, but I figured why not go to the source? Craig Safan was nice enough to provide the answer.

You’re both right! I would score around half of each season’s episodes specifically for individual episodes. Usually these were recorded in groups of three episodes per session as there were union minimums and only one episode’s worth of music wouldn’t fill up that minimum amount of the musicians’ time. But I didn’t score each and every episode… I also recorded a “library” of musical cues in the “Cheers” style at the beginning of each season. Then that library was used for the shows that weren’t individually scored. Of course any new music I’d write for shows during the season would get added to that library so it would become quite extensive and after so many seasons… well you get the idea. It wasn’t the director or producer or editor who would choose the library music cues… it was the music editor. That would be Chips Swanson who was the music editor during the entire run of “Cheers”.

Thank you so much, Craig. And just know I’d be happy to return the favor. If you ever want me to conduct a session for you sometime, just say the word. But seriously, how cool that actual artists give their time to contribute inside info to this blog?

Saturday, July 21, 2018

If Chrisopher Nolan re-booted MARY POPPINS


FROM: Christopher Nolan
TO: President of Walt Disney Pictures


After watching the original 1964 movie once I know how we could improve this beloved children’s classic and make it relevant for today’s theatergoers.

The color scheme must be grey.  Most of the film will take place at night.  

It is still a period piece but we update it slightly. It now takes place during the bombing of London in World War II. Let’s take some creative historical license and blow up Big Ben and the Parliament building. We have the means to do that in a very cool way. To punctuate the moment cut to an Englishman saying “SuperFUCKINGcalifragilisticexpialidocious!” as a double decker bus almost decapitates him. We can still say two fucks and keep our PG-13.

Bert, the street performer, is a loner with a dark past. Dick Van Dyke was fine for his day but I see Steve Buscemi. He should always be an ominous presence. He himself was abused as a child and we must always be afraid when he is around children.

His fellow street people are all damaged due to the horrors of World War I. There might be some comedy in seeing them act silly as long as we understand it is because they are deeply traumatized.

There will be no singing, dancing, or animation in this new version. Anything to take us out of the reality of innocent people being slaughtered is counter-productive. Modern children don’t want fuzzy bedtime stories. They want to be scared shitless. Let’s do that for three hours.

Mary Poppins arrives. She too has a dark past. Sexual abuse and forced into prostitution has caused her mind to snap. Her sunny optimistic disposition is really psychotic repression. She thought she was applying for position of madame not nanny. but to avoid a savage beating from her pimp she takes the job. Julie Andrews was serviceable for the time. But now we need a warrior. Casting suggestion: Katee Sackhoff as Mary Poppins.

The kids take to her right away. She still has the magic bag filled with wonders that they’ve never seen. But those wonders are dildos and handcuff and cock rings. The kids play with them. We get our heart, our comedy, and our bonding. If time allows, Bert comes over and teaches them how to play doctor.

Keep some of the familiar conventions but justify them. The floating tea party is the result of the children being drugged. The dancing penguins is a bad acid trip. I have some leftover designs for the Penguin in DARK KNIGHT. We can use those.

Keep the scene where Mary takes the kids to the bank to see their disinterested banker father (who has a dark past, by the way) and it turns into chaos. But let the chaos be a bank robbery. Let the children be held hostage. Let their father learn to appreciate his children by seeing guns to their heads. Let Mary impale one of the robbers with her umbrella. Let it go right through him. This starts a gun battle. One of the children dies. That will get the dad’s attention to really love the remaining ones.  Let the dead child be his favorite.  That ups the anguish -- always a crowd pleaser. 

Eventually the family’s home is bombed so there’s no further need for a nanny. Mary moves on thus setting up the franchise for sequels. I have some ideas for how she can clash with Mr. Belvedere but I’ll save those for MP2: THE WAR OF THE APRONS.

As always, these recommendations are non-debatable. Please confirm their brilliance at your earliest convenience so I can get the wardrobe people working on Mary’s armored house dress.



Friday, July 20, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day. And Natalie Wood's birthday.  She would have been 80.  Happy Birthday, Natalie!

DARON72 is up first.

You wrote a few episodes of "Open All Night" which was based on the British series "Open All Hours." Have you seen the 2016 sequel series "Still Open All Hours" and do you think a show with a format like that would work today?

I’ve never even seen the original British series. I didn’t know there was a British series. So… no.

Sure the show could work today. It’s a fun workplace setting that you could populate with colorful characters.

Although, the best comedy about a convenience store for my money is Kevin Smith’s movie, CLERKS.

From Carson:

I notice that HULU now has all 11 seasons of M*A*S*H. By the way, it's in 16x9 HD and it looks great. I was wondering, do you get residuals off of this? I don't care to know how much, I'm just curious if you still get some type of compensation or if things in the 70s were just structured much differently.

I am supposed to get something but I don’t know the formula and so far I haven’t received much if anything from streaming platforms.

I still do receive residuals from syndication and cable, and since MASH is now on three or four cable channels and numerous broadcast channels I continue to see some compensation. Not a lot, but hey, it’s something.

I’m also thrilled that episodes I wrote decades ago are still being seen and enjoyed.

Dhruv has a question after reading my post on Pepe Le Pew.

Since today's blog is about cartoons, thought I would ask the question I wanted to ask for a long time.

Why do many people in Hollywood hate Disney?

Family guy makes a whole lot of parody about them and none of them paints them good.

Oscar hosts like Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg too made fun of them in their monologues. Billy about Walt and Whoopi about Euro Disney.

This is just a guess on my part. But it’s because Disney is the establishment. And wildly successful.

The criticism is like people throwing rocks at the palace wall.

Also, Disney has a very clear image. And it’s easy to make fun of that image.

But Disney is still the gold standard when it comes to animation (especially with Pixar now in the fold).

I think the palace walls will stand.

And finally, Nancy wonders:

I am binge watching "Entourage". Is this anywhere near the real Hollywood? The abusive agent, over the top lifestyle, the girls throwing themselves at the stars and other excesses showcased in the series.

The abusive agent is real for sure. He was my agent for eleven minutes.  I believe the series was loosely modeled on Mark Wahlberg’s rise to fame. Mark was also one of the show’s executive producers.

I would hope the lifestyle excess is an exaggeration (although it probably isn’t). Surrounding yourself with toadies is certainly real.

The women throwing themselves at these people, that unfortunately I would have no way of knowing. All I can say is it has not happened to me. And I keep waiting.

And waiting.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 19, 2018

An Emmy for Megan?

The most interesting Emmy question for me is whether Megan Amram wins.


Megan Amram is a TV writer with impressive credits (THE GOOD PLACE, SILICON VALLEY, THE SIMPSONS, PARKS & REC). She may have figured a way to practically steal an Emmy. There is a category called “Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series” and one for “Outstanding Series.” Essentially a six-episode web series. Anyone can mount one of those.

Megan figured that if she did a web series that qualified she could win an Emmy. The title of her series clearly tells you her intent. AN EMMY FOR MEGAN. The whole point of this exercise is to win an Emmy.  Credit her for an ingenious idea. 

And because Megan is in the business she was able to get cameo appearances from such Hollywood luminaries as Ted Danson, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Rogen, Rian Johson, and even J.J. Abrams. Plus, she’s well enough connected in the community that I’m sure she has plenty of Academy member friends who voted her in.  These same friends will doubtless vote for her to win.   So she probably will.  

All of this is fun. And her website is amusing. But if she wins, I think it makes the Television Academy look like idiots. If someone can beat the system as a goof that easily and actually walk away with an Emmy then the award itself is cheapened and the credibility of the Academy comes seriously into question.

Once the TV Academy starts letting web series with minimal requirements eligible for Emmys then the whole award means nothing. It is supposed to represent excellence in television. If GAME OF THRONES receives the same award as some amateur prankster making a homemade video how prestigious is the award? Jesus. Even the Golden Globes don’t give out statues for home movies.

The television landscape is changing, that’s for sure. More platforms, more ways to watch. It's clearly a dilemma for the Academy.   My heart goes out to them.   But they better find a way to preserve the honor and dignity of Emmys or they’ll just become trinkets you can buy for the price of six five-minute episodes.  Actually, they don't even have to be that long.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

EP81: Casting Director Sheila Guthrie: Part One

Casting Director Sheila Guthrie talks to Ken about what it takes to get hired on a TV show. The do’s and don’ts. Every actor and waiter needs to hear this episode and take notes.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Political plays

Scene from my political play -- with Hudson Long & Cloe Kromwell
I want to see a political play last Saturday night. It was a period piece so the issues were more historical. And although I enjoyed the play very much, I have to say that when the characters were debating politics I glassed over. My interest returned when there were emotional problems.

But I guess politics were rattling around in my brain the next day when I participated in the Ruskin Theatre one day-play festival. The idea I came up lent itself to politics, and I figured, as an experiment, I would write a political-themed play.

The writing of it was not that difficult. The current administration is a rather easy target for comedy. I was happy with the finished product although I felt a little distanced from it. Like I said, it’s not the kind of subject matter that really excites me. I was also aware that the shelf-life of topical plays is like eleven minutes. Especially today when every time you turn around Putin’s Puppet is doing something else despicable that you never thought you’d see in your lifetime.

The one thing I didn’t worry about is whether I’d offend anybody. I didn’t care. If you’re going to write a political satire you have to take a stand. And with political plays it seems more important to get your message across than to get laughs. Laughs are a bonus.

The audience response was okay. They laughed where they should have. I suspect I was preaching to the choir. And the cast and direction was excellent so anything that fell flat was on me.  But I just didn’t get any real joy out of the experience. I think there is such a dark cloud hanging over the world right now that theatregoers prefer not to be reminded of it. It’s more than available on TV, radio, and the internet – any form you want – satire, anger, false reporting, analysis, whatever.

In a sense I felt a little like I had cheated the audience. There was nothing NEW I was going to present, no issue they weren’t already familiar with, no fresh perspective. It was a comedy with laughs but it wasn’t fun, if that makes any sense.

I’m glad I did it. I’m always looking to try new things. And there are political play festivals so who knows? There may be more productions. That would be great. In the meantime I think I’ll go back to writing about human foibles.  I'm way more comfortable celebrating humanity, or what's left of it. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Now batting: Babe Ruth

With today being the All-Star Game, I thought I'd share with you a remarkable video.  Early Movietone News footage.  These were actual sights and sounds from a Yankees-Red Sox game in April of 1931.  Step into the Wayback Machine to a time where there was no walk-up music, all the men wore hats, and Ruth & Gehrig were in their prime.

UPDATE: From my friend David Halberstam. The 1968 All Star Game - 50 years ago played in primetime did a 25.8 vs. last year's 2017- did a 5.5 -

That's a 79% drop in the Mid-Summer Classic ratings in 50 Years

Monday, July 16, 2018

Okay, that explains it

One day last week I noticed that within five minutes I had lost 2,000 followers on Twitter. Wow. What did I do? I hadn’t even tweeted. Did 2,000 people suddenly hate me because of the tie I wore on CNN? My blog post that day was something really controversial – how I mixed the sound for opening title sequences.

I never know how these statistics are compiled. Or how accurate they are. I get a notification that ten new people are following and my total goes down by three.

I’ve tried live tweeting as an experiment, like during the Super Bowl and I got thousands of retweets and twenty new followers. I’m beginning to feel I’m at a distinct disadvantage because I’m not one of the lady wrestlers on GLOW.

But getting back to the mystery of the mass exodus it seems that Twitter recently purged millions of accounts belonging to Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, all implicated in the Russian tampering of our election (which by the way, is NOT a witch hunt). And when you see how many accounts were purged you start to get some idea of just how insidious and pervasive the Russian interference was (except for the cretins who still believe it’s a witch hunt). I imagine there are people in the Red States who lost all their followers as a result of this purge.

I hope the purge continues and more Russian meddlers are weeded out. None of them were going to submit Friday Questions or go to my play readings anyway.   So screw 'em! 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Come tonight to see the play I haven't written yet

Today I am participating in another one-day Cafe Play festival at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica.  At 9:00 five half-asleep playwrights will be given a topic and assigned two actors and will have 3 1/2 hours to write a ten minute play on that topic all set in a cafe.  Actors and directors (hopefully more awake) then spend the afternoon blocking, rehearsing, and memorizing and at 7:30 and 9:00 PM they perform the show.  This will be my seventh time.  One of the other playwrights, Keith Sumrall, is writing his 49th. 

This has been a great exercise for me for several reasons.  I get to skip my gym appointment for one.  But I'm the kind of writer who really likes to plan everything out first.  And you can't in this instance.  I have to come up with an idea and just go.  And what often happens is that I veer off into interesting directions I would not have gone in normally.   It's scary yes, but also kind of exciting.   Writing out of your comfort zone always is a good thing. 

So come tonight and see how we all do.  There's always a certain charge of electricity because no one really knows what's going to happen.  But that's the fun part. 

Also, I'm continually amazed at how good the plays tend to be and how terrific the acting is -- all without the luxury of weeks of rehearsal and rewrites.  You're watching talent, instinct, and pure adrenaline.  If you're interested in joining us, here's where you go.  Warning: the 7:30 show sells out quickly. 

Wish me luck. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Disney imagines the Jetsons

This is from a 1958 Disney show predicting what transportation would be like today. They got the GPS system and rearview TV cameras right. The air conditioned tubes through Death Valley, and driving under the ocean -- maybe next year. Their most extraordinary prediction is that at any one time there would only be four cars on the road. Anyway, it's great fun to watch.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday (the 13th) Questions

This Tuesday is the All-Star Game so with baseball in the air I’ve got a couple of baseball-related FQ’s to go among the others.

Rory Wohl gets us started.

Now that every team broadcasts every game on a cable regional sports network, how does the camera positioning work at the ballpark? Are there two sets of cameras, one for each team? Does the visiting team have to schlep their cameras from one stadium to another on a road trip? Are the positions fixed, home and away right next to each other?

There are separate cameras for both team broadcasts along with some shared cameras either can use (like the one looking in from centerfield).  And yes, often two cameramen are in position side-by-side.

Visiting teams hire crews from the local venues to provide the equipment and manpower. A team will generally travel their own producer, director, and graphics person.

But you need your own cameras. If, for example, the announcer wants to talk about something happening in his team’s dugout the director needs a camera to show it.

There are times when a broadcast won’t have its own crew and just has to use someone else’s feed. Foreign language broadcasts typically. And that’s murder.

I called a game like that once. I’m talking about something and for no reason they cut to a guy sitting in the bullpen chewing bubble gum. Obviously the announcer from the host feed was talking about him but I wasn’t, and sometimes I didn’t even know who the guy was. Lots of scrambling. The way I dealt with it was to cop to it. I let the audience know we were using a borrowed feed and had fun every time they showed something that seemed completely random. But that was my approach. Other announcers try to scramble and justify what the audience is seeing. Good luck to them.

Today’s other baseball question comes from Rick.

You were my favorite color commentator with the Orioles. How would you even begin to go about repairing the current situation??

Thanks, Rick. I loved doing Orioles games and still root the birds on.

The announcer solution is simply to hire people who have a personality. Be less concerned with voice, age, even gender. Hire for content. Don’t be afraid of offending six listeners.

Don’t judge a demo tape based on an exciting inning. Everyone sounds great calling a ninth-inning come-from-behind rally. When the Orioles hired me they wanted three continuous innings where absolutely nothing happens. They wanted to hear how I sound when I have nothing else to fall back on other than my ability to hold an audience’s interest.

Good guys are out there. You just have to find them. Or not stupidly pass on them.

UPDATE:  I'm referring to the general state of announcers, not the Orioles specifically.  In fact they have two terrific announcers in Gary Thorne and Joe Angel.  As for fixing the Orioles, replace Peter Angelos.  

Rock Golf (which might not be his real name) asks:

Friday question: A follow-up to your comment about Robert Altman's son making more money from the (mostly) never-heard lyrics of the M*A*S*H theme.

What kinda money are we talking about?

Barenaked Ladies were asked last year if they made enough money to retire from the Big Bang Theory theme they wrote & perform.

Here's their reply:

"No," laughs Robertson. "I would have to radically alter my lifestyle to be set for life from that song."
"I believe a single woman living in Meductic, New Brunswick, would be set for life," Stewart adds.
"A single woman … no children … and a part-time job," Robertson clarifies.
"And, she inherited the house."

-- And that's on the biggest show in the world that gets syndicated several times daily by multiple outlets. I can't think of any more often played TV theme. (And they also wrote and perform the closing credits music too!)

So what determines royalties on TV themes? Is there a fixed price? Is it negotiated?

Composers make their real money on record sales. The theme from MASH was covered extensively. Young Altman literally made millions.

When a group is hired to sing a TV theme song usually a fee is agreed upon. The big money for the group is if the song itself becomes a huge hit, or the exposure from the show helps catapult the group. But none of that is a given.

Gary Portnoy’s career didn’t skyrocket after singing the CHEERS theme. Neither did the group that sang the FRIENDS theme.

I’m sure Barenaked Ladies have enjoyed increased popularity from the BIG BANG THEORY theme, but no, the fee itself is not enough set you up for life.

On the other hand, Paul Anka wrote THE TONIGHT SHOW theme (actually as a record for Annette Funicello) and that got played every night for decades. Anka made a pretty penny.

And finally, from Peter:

Ken, I was in a bookstore earlier today browsing the film section and flicked through a book called Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency by James Miller. Have you read it? The guy has interviewed almost everyone who's ever been connected to CAA in some way. I love juicy industry gossip.

I read it and enjoyed a lot of it. But I think it’s because I personally know many of the players. But I know a few former CAA agents and they felt it was a lovely piece of fiction.

I think if you can cut through the ego and spin you’ll find it quite informative.

Mike Ovitz is coming out with his memoir this year. That should be interesting too. And I expect it to be 70% fiction too.

Stay away from black cats.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Emmy nominations are today

Today is the day the Primetime Emmys are announced. This was written before the nominees were released. I love to review things before they happen or before I know what I’m talking about. So here’s what I can predict:

Many of the nominated shows you will not have watched.

Many of the nominated actors you will not be familiar with.

Even once they’re nominated, you still won’t watch these shows.

The Emmy campaigns in Los Angeles will be the biggest ever this year. Look for billboards everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before robo-calls.

With so many competing shows and talent there will be way more snubs this year.

There will be shows and actors nominated in categories they don’t belong in.

The Academy will be trying to cut down on the number of actual awards shown live as if giving out writing awards is what causes their four-hour show to be ponderous.

There will be no talk of omitting directing awards from the primetime telecast.

Broadcast networks will get just a sprinkling of nominations while cable and streaming services will get the vast majority.

The debate will be renewed as to whether a streaming show is considered “television.”

Most people will watch the nominated shows on their computers or devices, not their TV’s.

And finally, here’s the big difference between now and decades gone by – once upon a time shows could be good AND popular. Now they’re one or the other. So the Emmys are no longer really a shared national experience. 30 million MASH fans squared off against 40 million ALL IN THE FAMILY fans. Nothing like that exists today, which to me is a shame.

Congratulations to all the nominees. The ceremony will be Monday, September 17th and I plan to review them again for my podcast. A day later is the Jewish High Holiday so I can repent for whatever snarky bitchy thing I say.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

EP80: A tour of the Paramount Lot

On this week's Hollywood and Levine Podcast, Ken gives you a VIP tour of the Paramount lot where many classic movies and TV shows were filmed. Ken called Paramount home for twenty years and has tons of stories and history on this iconic lot. Only thing missing is a tram. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

BARRY -- My review

I didn’t vote for BARRY for the Best Comedy Emmy because it’s not really that funny, and there are dramas that are more powerful, but I sure like the show.

BARRY is an eight episode series that has been on HBO since March. (Yes, I’m late to the party. What else is new?) And it stars Bill Hader (who always seems nice when I see him at the gym) as a disillusioned hit man who gets the acting bug when he comes to LA to kill an actor (one of the more common occurrences in Los Angeles).

There are fun quirky characters and comedic moments (although I honestly laughed at loud more from THE GOOD FIGHT), but the characters are rich and the storytelling is terrific. Kudos to Bill Hader and Alec Berg.

The writers do a very smart thing. Hader’s character (“Barry”) is constantly pulled in two directions – his hit man life, which gets more complicated, and his acting pursuit, which includes a relationship with lovely and very real Sarah Goldberg. Watching him juggle these two worlds is compelling and fun.

They also do something really clever – maybe the best device ever for getting out backstory exposition. Barry pours his heart out to acting teacher, Henry Winkler, who mistakes it for an audition monologue and accepts him into the class. So not only was the exposition dispensed to the audience, it also was a great character piece and a key plot point. That’s some nifty writing right there.

Besides Hader, whose only better performance is when he does his Alan Alda impression, Henry Winkler is great as the self-absorbed bullshit acting teacher, Stephen Root shines as Barry’s handler, and Anthony Carrigan steals every scene as an insouciant Euro (or Eastern Euro)-trash mobster. I also love Paula Newsome as the police detective on Barry’s trail (although, in fairness I’ve loved her since I directed her in CONRAD BLOOM and am relieved I didn’t kill her career). Oh, and Jon Hamm was convincing as Jon Hamm.

I do hope BARRY gets some Emmy recognition. Bill Hader deserves a nomination certainly for Best Actor. I suspect there will be a season two. I’ll have to ask the next time I see him at the gym. But if you haven’t seen it, BARRY on HBO is worth a look.  What say you all? 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Sound advice

Now we have surround sound and I’m sure some have THX for the home, but for many years TV sound came out of little speakers. The fidelity was not great. But in those days who knew the difference? Did anyone ever say, “Gilligan sounds a little tinny tonight, doesn’t he?”

Of course we also listened to music on AM radio – in mono, compressed, with occasional static – and at the time it never bothered anybody. FM was also available during that period but largely ignored. You would think that once people got hip to the existence of FM and its way better fidelity in stereo that there would be a mad rush to the FM dial. But it took years for FM to overtake AM.

So television audio continued to squeak out of little grills for way more years than it needed to.

When I was a disc jockey on AM radio I always had a choice. I could listen on my headphones to the output of the board or a radio, which gave me an accurate account of how it really sounded. Needless to say, what was being sent to the transmitter sounded way better. Crystal clear. The “radio” signal contained all the processing, squashed sound, etc.

I always listened to the on-air monitor. I always wanted to hear exactly what the listeners heard. Sometimes the mix of voice over the music was different once it left the transmitter. But again, I wanted to hear what it sounded like in Reseda. So the Sav-On Drug Store commercials didn’t sound as good. It was a price I was willing to pay.

But when I became a TV showrunner in the ‘80s and would go in for the final mix of a show I would drive the sound people crazy because I insisted we mix it down based on a transistor radio speaker. Meanwhile, they had these gorgeous hanging speakers and control boards with 567 channels, all with EQ and special effect capability. You can’t believe how great things sounded on those mega speakers. But that’s not what the viewer would hear. So I mixed the show on a speaker similar to the one on their 15” Sony Trinatron portable.

That’s also how I mixed opening theme songs (back when there WERE opening theme songs).

If I were overseeing a final mix today I would not use a small speaker. But I would make sure ALL the dialog is heard. There’s a lot of mumbling on TV shows now. And just as I would in the ‘old days,” I would make sure the audience heard the dialogue loud and clear. And if that meant lowering the volume on the background music or the cool ambience or tropical birds then so be it.

The only thing important is what the AUDIENCE hears. Technology has changed, but that hasn’t. If you need Closed Captions to watch a show in English there’s something seriously wrong.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Pepe Le Pew

Pepe Le Pew is a cartoon character. Depending on your age you might never have heard of him. He was introduced by Warner Brothers in 1945 and has made numerous appearances in Looney Tunes.

You’re probably not going to be seeing much of him these days. He’s become very non-PC.

Pepe is an amorous skunk who is always on the make. He fancies himself a great suave French lover (accent and everything) and is hopelessly in love with a black female cat he mistakes for a skunk. He is completely lovesick to where he’s always stalking her, trying to sweep her into his arms, and the joke of course is that he’s a skunk and she’s repulsed. In short, he’s the poster skunk for sexual harassment.

But that’s today. In 1949 a Pepe Le Pew cartoon won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Today he’s a predator, back then he was a “ladies man.”

Several years ago, in my first play, A OR B? I made a Pepe Le Pew reference and it consistently got a big laugh. Bigger than I would have expected. So for fun I slipped a Pepe Le Pew joke into my next play. Same thing. Loud laugh. At that point I became curious. Was the name just funny? Was it such an absurd putdown to compare someone to him?  Why were people laughing at the mere mention of Pepe Le Pew? 

In any event, it’s now become kind of a running joke. I put a Pepe Le Pew reference into every full-length play (except one) and he appears in a number of my one-acts as well.  The one play he doesn’t appear in is OUR TIME but only because I couldn’t find an appropriate place for it and I will never just shoehorn in a joke.

But I wondered if the Pepe Le Pew jokes would work as well today in this new #MeToo era. A couple of weeks ago I had a one-act play in a festival in Brooklyn that did have a Pepe Le Pew joke. Now bear in mind I’m more than willing to remove them if they’re now deemed inappropriate. They’re just silly jokes. But guess what, both performances I saw, Pepe still got laughs.

Sometimes things work in comedy that are hard to explain. When I’m running a writers room and someone pitches a joke and the whole room breaks into laughter I tell the writers assistant to put it in just like that. Upon reflection maybe the syntax is wrong or something about it seems off, but my feeling is however it was pitched got a laugh so go with that and don’t bother analyzing why it worked when it shouldn’t have.

Pepe Le Pew is now an obscure reference and no longer acceptable in society. And yet, as I was watching the Grand Rapids production of OUR TIME I was thinking to myself – there’s gotta be a place for a Pepe Le Pew joke in here somewhere.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

The 2000's begin tonight

CNN kicks off another decades documentary tonight with the 2000's.   Happy to say that like with the '70's, '80s, and '90s I'm included in the chapter on television.  Who knows how often?  Maybe ten seconds, but I'm told I made the cut. 

And hey, I'm just thrilled I was actually in television that long.

The previous decade documentaries have been fantastic so I'm really looking forward to this installment. 

Proud to be a part of Fake News.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Ken Levine a.k.a. Beaver Cleaver

Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver on the classic 50s sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, passed away several years ago.  She was 94.  Not the star that Lauren Bacall was, but as a kid I marveled at how she cooked and cleaned and always wore a party dress and pearls.  My mom never did.   But for years it was an honor to be mistaken for Barbara's TV son.

I guess that requires an explanation, huh?

Okay, that means a look back at my checkered radio career...

After being fired from KMEN San Bernardino in late ‘73 I sat out of work for six months. Apparently no one wanted a wise-ass disc jockey with a light voice. I couldn’t even land a gig doing all-nights in Fresno. Ironically, when I did get an offer it was to do evenings at WDRQ, Detroit. So I wasn’t good enough for market #100 but I was fine for market #4.

More on my actual adventures in Detroit in future posts but today I want to concentrate on my name. No rock station would let me use my actual name (Levine sounded too… uh, “Red Sea Pedestrian”). And in general disc jockeys had very generic names. Johnny Mitchell. Steve Clark. Bob Shannon. Take any two simple first names and slam them together.

Needless to say, to audiences these disc jockeys were interchangeable. In some cases stations changed personnel but just kept the name. So Bill Bailey could be the afternoon man but over the course of three years that could be four different guys.

In Bakersfield and San Bernardino I was Ken Stevens. When I got the job in Detroit I decided to make a change. I took the moniker Beaver Cleaver.


I wanted something distinctive. I wanted something memorable. The first time the listener heard, “Hi, this is Beaver Cleaver” I wanted him to say "What the fuck?!"   Any major program director will tell you -- if you can get the audience to say "What the fuck?!" you've won. 

It was a name everybody knew from the TV show. I figured a lot of people would wonder if I was Jerry Mathers (who played the Beav). This might even prompt some discussion in various Detroit high schools. How often did you discuss disc jockeys in your high school?

I also liked that the name was easy to say. As opposed to Illya Kuryakin, my second choice (although it would have been fun to hear jingle singers trying to sing Illya Kuryakin).

I’d like to take credit for being the first disc jockey to do something like this, but the truth is I wasn’t. Art Ferguson debuted on KHJ in 1967 as Charlie Tuna. At the time Charlie the Tuna was the cartoon mascot of the Starkist Tuna ad campaign. Whether it was Art’s idea or a program director I thought it was genius.

One other side benefit to “Beaver Cleaver” was that I could use it for double entendres. Remember this was for a teenage audience. I came on the first night and said, “This is the grand opening of the Beaver.” Yes, it was juvenile but my goal was to make noise. I'm sure I got some more "What the fucks?!" with that one. 

Anyway, it worked. People did take notice and remember. A few years ago I was having lunch with Tom Hanks. He was saying he grew up in the Bay Area and I mentioned I was a disc jockey in San Francisco at that time. “Who were you?” he asked. When I told him his eyes lit up and immediately he said, “Beaver Cleaver! KYA! Boss of the Bay!” I don’t think he would have remembered the name I used in Bakersfield.  (I bet you can't either and you just read it fifteen seconds ago.)  

So I used that handle at WDRQ and future stops as a DJ. Later that year I was hired by K100 in Los Angeles. (A year before I couldn’t get arrested in Fresno.) The station was owned by Bill Drake & Gene Chenault, the architects of the KHJ Boss Radio format that was the rage of the 60s. I was brought in to do evenings, following the Real Don Steele. It was a dream job except I hated the program director. When I say he was clueless, here’s how clueless:

The day I was slated to debut the station had all of the other jocks hyping my arrival. The PD stopped in the booth and midday guy, Eric Chase jokingly asked if I was going to have Wally and Lumpy join me my first night. The PD said, “What are you talking about?” Eric said, “Wally and Lumpy – the Beav's brother and his dufus friend.” The PD was completely confused. Eric said, “Y’know, from the TV show. From LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.” The PD’s eyes widened in horror. “There’s a TV show?!”

How the fuck could this moron not have heard of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER?

So he calls me into his office panicked. There were already promos on the air. What if we got sued? I tried to calm him down. “If we get sued,” I said, “it’s the best thing that could ever happen to us.” Now he was really perplexed. I reasoned that in the highly unlikely event we were sued this would become a big story. The local TV stations would probably cover it. K100 would get more free publicity than it could ever imagine. I would stop using Beaver Cleaver and the station could invite listeners to come up with my new name. Fortunately, owner Bill Drake thought that was brilliant and I was allowed to keep calling myself Mrs. Cleaver’s Beaver.

For the record, I was never sued. And continued to use the name until 1980. By the way, Frank Bank, who played “Lumpy”, was once Jerry Mathers’s investment adviser.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Friday Questions

Have you recovered from the 4th? Here are some FQ’s for the 6th.

Chris Dellecese starts us off:

Watching some reruns of Mad About You, I notice that as it gets deeper in the series, Helen Hunt’s name starts popping up in the Producer credits, and suddenly there seem to be a lot more references to how “beautiful” her character is in various episodes.

Can’t be an accident.

I’m guessing you don’t know the particulars here, but in general how do shows, scripts and characters change when the stars become more active in producing, directing, etc?

I personally hadn’t noticed that about Helen Hunt’s character in MAD ABOUT YOU in those later years.  Paul Riser talked so much I pretty much tuned him out. 

Some actors take the credit and involvement very seriously. In a few cases they really contribute positively. Alan Alda on MASH for example.

Other times actor/producers can become the 800-pound gorilla. It depends on the actor. Roseanne was a holy terror.

In many cases however, the credit means more vanity and more money and the actor doesn’t exert himself more into the process.

From Janet Ybarra

Ken, do you ever think about projects beyond your blog and podcast? Specifically, thinking would you want to get into radio via Sirius XM? Or go back to calling baseball for someone?

I would love to call baseball play-by-play again in the right situation. I really miss it. And depending on the project, I’d be happy to do something for Sirius/XM. I love radio (as I’m sure anyone can tell from my podcast).

Besides that I just look for projects that interest me. I have a number of plays I’m either in the process of writing or trying to find homes for. And I wouldn’t rule out TV if there’s an idea that really excites me and a venue that will give me the freedom to do it my way (which might just be wishful thinking).

estiv asks:

Got a question, but I'll admit it's kind of nebulous.

Many nights recently I've watched Frasier on Cozy TV, and I was struck watching an early episode at how well the comedy and the serious moments were blended. As much respect as I have for Norman Lear, one thing that always bothered me about his shows was the way the serious moments were frequently heavy-handed, and there would often be one character who'd keep cracking jokes no matter what. I guess that's a way to make your point and still keep your audience, but it wore thin for me.

This episode of Frasier featured a turning point in his relationship with his father, where Frasier blew up and walked out of the apartment. What stood out was how smoothly that moment followed what had to some extent been a series of jokes. True to the things you say often, those jokes were true to the characters and to the situation, but even so the dialogue was clearly meant to be funny. The moment when Frasier walked out was obviously not meant to be funny at all.

So my question is: how hard is it to do that? If you shift gears too quickly, it feels wrong. If you do it too slowly, things lag. How do you get it right?

You need to establish the tone very early on in the life of the series. You need to make the characters real and you need to protect them. You must never sacrifice your characters for the sake of a joke – no matter how funny the joke is. ALWAYS play your characters to the top of their intelligence.

Characters have to have REAL problems that people can relate to. And they must deal with those problems with behavior consistent with who they are.  The serious moments have to be EARNED.

Showrunners must really be watchdogs. But the results are worth it and at times you end up with sitcom episodes that have great depth along with great laughs.

And finally, from Garrett:

When you direct an episode, how many weeks do you dedicate to that process? Is there a week for preparation, a week for production and week for editing?

Built right into directors’ contracts is pre-production time. That’s more necessary in single-camera shows (i.e. shot like a movie). You need to scout locations, plan your shooting schedule, have a tone meeting with the showrunner, etc.

I’ve directed mostly multi-cam episodes and there is little or no pre-production. On some occasions I don’t even see the script until the night before the table reading.

Usually, an hour before the table reading there is a production meeting where the director will go page by page with various department heads to work out what sets, props, wardrobe, effects, food, etc. will be needed for the episode.

But you’ll notice that one director might direct every episode of a season of a multi-cam show (a la James Burrows) where as different directors are needed for single-camera shows. That’s because single-camera directors really do need a few days to prepare for their episode.

What’s you’re Friday Question?

Thursday, July 05, 2018

What if "Diane" stayed on CHEERS?

As an experiment I recently sprinkled in a few Friday Question Days from ten years ago.  Nobody goes back and actually reads the archives.  I received good response from it so I'm doing it again.  Hopefully you're not reading this in the Emergency Room having lost two fingers due to last night's fireworks. 

From Brian:

Have you ever considered or were you ever offered the chance to write commercials? Many commercials leave me thinking "What ad genius thought that one up?" and "That's supposed to make we want to buy that?"

There was a period before my writing career when I was pretty much considering anything other than movie stars’ personal assistant. I was always leery of advertising because I had always heard it was a pressure cooker, everyone had ulcers, and you had to come up with campaigns without the benefit of a wife who’s a witch. But desperate times called for desperate applications. I got a meeting at J. Walter Thompson’s and was asked to go home and write up some copy. I did and never heard back from them. I’m guessing they didn’t love it.

Several comedy writers started in advertising. Allan Katz (MASH, Rhoda, All in the Family, Roseanne) came up with the name “Screaming Yellow Zonkers”, and Steve Gordon who wrote and directed ARTHUR started as a Mad Man.

Tyroc asks:

Where do you think the Sam/Diane relationship would have gone had Shelley Long stayed on it? Do you think the show would've run as long as it did?

There were no long range plans for Sam/Diane and the thing about CHEERS is that the Charles Brothers always encouraged as many different ideas and directions as we could think of. The goal was to find the most original story arc possible. So who knows? There was resistance to marrying them but if someone came up with a fresh unexpected take on the institution we might have gone in that direction.

And from Ski:

I have noticed that on some TV shows, some writers play characters on the shows they write. Do any of these writers ever switch jobs and become actors? Or conversely, are there any actors who say "screw it I wanna write"?

A couple of writers for THE OFFICE are part of the ensemble. And of course there’s Tina Fey.

But there have a number of instances when comedy writers go before the camera. I’ll give a few examples but I’m sure there are quite a few more. Conan O’Brien went from the SIMPSONS writing staff to some talk show, I forget the name. Jay Tarses, one of the driving forces behind THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and BUFFALO BILL was in the cast of OPEN ALL NIGHT (a show he co-created) and THE DUCK FACTORY. Everett Greenbaum, who I profiled recently, made a nice living as a character actor the last ten years of his life. And most writers wind up doing little cameos, further proving that it’s the one-or-two line guys who kill you. That wasn’t the case with me, however. I was great in the two shows I acted in.

A number of stand-up comics gravitate towards the writing room. A few do both. Dana Gould on RAYMOND is one. Carol Leifer is another. And don’t forget Larry David.

Several actors also write, like Alan Alda and Jerry Seinfeld but aren’t about to trade the greasepaint for grease boards.

And then there’s Rachel Sweet, a wonderful writer with such credits as SEINFELD, DHARMA & GREG, and SPORTS NIGHT. She was an 80’s punk rock star. That's the way I wanted to break into the writing field.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

EP79: Inside the Writers Room

Ken takes you inside the Writers Room and explains what it takes to succeed. A must episode for all prospective sitcom writers.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Whitney Houston's masterpiece

This gives me chills every time I hear it. If Whitney Houston had "one moment in time" this was it. Happy 4th of July everybody.

Happy 4th of July

As I mentioned recently, I drove through Ohio and Michigan a few weeks ago and was shocked by the number of billboards for fireworks. 

Why the hell do people buy home fireworks?

How many fingers and eyebrows do they have to lose? On the other hand, it's hard to vote for do-nothing incumbent congressmen this November if you don't have fingers.

What parent in his right mind with children would set off something called a 12 inch “strike force missile”?

Or a “Mad Dog”
 “Bazooka Bear”
“Titanium Cracker”
“Dragon’s Wrath”
“Big Mama Jama"
“Brutal Force”
“Nuke Power”
“Pull String Grenade”
“Assorted Color Ammo Smoke”
“Caliber Blast”
“Car Bomb”
“Big Earthquake”
“Jumboshell Fountain”
“Cracker Jack in a Box”
“Deadly Fire”
“Battle of New Orleans”
“Pay Back”
“Mucho Grande – small” (isn’t that an oxymoron?)
“Air Raid”
Or of course the ever popular “So X*@! Good”?

Explain to me where these are “safe and SANE”.

Better to go to a city park, ballpark, or Steven Spielberg’s house. Enter a 5K race, cheer on a parade and pray that the grand marshal is someone more impressive than Flo from Progressive Insurance.

Have a wonderful day.  Don't blow your fingers off.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Dump network trailers

Several years ago broadcast networks began producing trailers of their new upcoming shows. I think this tactic is a mistake.

Or at least get better shows.

The comedies in particular look ghastly this year. If the idea of a trailer is to motivate you to watch the show (or movie) these have the opposite effect. I don’t know how anyone can look at some of these sitcom trailers and not say, “This is stupid. No way am I watching this shit.”

Your show is dead even before it airs. At least in the pre-trailer days, viewers would only catch fleeting glimpses of the new shows. They still might be curious enough to tune in. But when you watch these trailers and see how painfully unfunny they are, you're as gone as a cool breeze.

And half the casts are being replaced. So the trailers you see feature actors who were fired. Networks are not even presenting the good versions of the bad shows they’re showcasing.

Aside from that you’re seeing the same faces you’ve seen every year, now recycled one more time. Oh boy, Cedric the Entertainer has white neighbors who just moved in. Cart out the old JEFFERSON jokes from 1975. And hey, with new casting the white neighbors are the guy from NEW GIRL and girl from 2 BROKE GIRLS.  Everything about that seems stale and familiar. 

Audiences have learned that movie comedies put their best jokes in the trailer. So when those jokes suck you know the movie does too. With very few exceptions, the same is true in sitcom trailers. And what you’re left with – or at least what I’m left with – is that for all the pilot scripts commissioned and all the “notes” and then the fifteen or so that get made by each network – after a year’s worth of development – THESE are the best shows?

The decline of network television is inevitable. But it’s odd to see them contribute to their own demise. Lose the comedy trailers. So what if other networks employ them? It’s bad enough you’re running the shows. Give yourself a fighting chance.