Friday, August 31, 2018

Friday Questions

Ending the month with Friday Questions.

SwiftPope leads off.

Norm on Cheers seems to drink quite a lot of beer. I don't mean he must, given the level of his glass, I mean he is seen to be drinking a fair bit. Assuming that some scenes require a few takes, I have to wonder whether Norm was drinking real beer or non-alcoholic beer?

George Wendt drank near-beer (3.2 alcohol) that was warm. Delicious it was not. Especially by the fourth take.   George earned his money on that show. 

notworthreading asks:

Ken, FQ, even thought it isn't going to happen, would you ever consider a job at a network, something along the lines of VP of Development? If so, how would the job look and what would you do?

No. I’m not a corporate guy. The thought of putting on a suit every day, “answering” to someone, dealing with office politics, and ultimately not having the power to make any real decisions is not for me. I suspect I would be a loggerheads with the other executives because my style would be so different from theirs. I would buy scripts from people I trusted then leave them alone. This would cause a major kerfuffle I’m sure. Better to just let someone who really wanted the job have it. 

From Rod:

Whose idea is it normally to re-cast a pilot when it gets picked up? The new Cedric the Entertainer sitcom "The Neighborhood" recast two central roles, the new neighbors, played by Josh Lawson & Dreama Walker to Max Greenfield and Beth Behrs. What does a re-shoot cost? Did the showrunners not think their original choices were not strong enough? Was there pressure form the network to get a more "name" star?

The network makes those calls. They either test the show and replace actors who didn’t test well, or if they get a chance to get more well-known actors like Greenfield & Behrs (let’s say the pilots they were in didn’t get picked up), they’ll often make the switch.

At one time it happened very rarely. Now it happens all the time. Unless the show has your name on it, you’re no longer safe.

And finally, Bob Paris asks:

I have been watching GLOW on Netflix and noticed that the episodes are various lengths. I imagine that in your career you have had episodes run long where material that you deemed too good to cut had to be eliminated in the final edit. Since there are no time-slots on a streaming site, this allows episodes to run "long." Do you think this is good or bad - it allows stuff to make it to the final cut that maybe would have been rightfully left on the cutting room floor.

It would be nice to have the flexibility, but the truth is cutting shows down to time usually improves them.

However, on the BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot we had a hot audience, which resulted in a ten-minute laugh spread. Cutting that down was a bitch.

And there were some MASH episodes that I thought suffered by having to edit them, but normally less is more so I’m okay with adhering to a set time.

Don’t you wish someone forced Judd Apatow to keep his movies down to 90 minutes? Oh, how much better they’d be.

What’s your FQ? Have a safe Labor Day Weekend.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Happy Birthday, Annie!

First off I want to wish the happiest of Happy Birthdays to my fabulous, funny, phenomenal daughter, Annie.  You make me proud everyday.  And you make me laugh everyday.  Could a father ever ask for more?  I love you, kiddo. 

Okay, the rest of you can now scroll down to today's post.  Thanks. 

Flipping the Bird

Do you have this in your town? If no, you will soon. Motorized scooters. Here in LA we have Bird scooters. These are on practically every street corner and in retail areas of the city there’s an infestation of them.

You sign up for their app, you just grab one that’s lying around, activate it, and zip around town, going up to 15 miles per hour, paying a designated fee. When you arrive at your destination you get off and just leave it. Each scooter has a GPS system and people come around and collect the scooters.

This has become quite the rage on the Westside of Los Angeles, particularly in Santa Monica and Venice. The law says you’re supposed to wear helmets. 99% of the riders don’t. The law says you can’t ride them on the sidewalk. 99% of the riders do.

And by just leaving them when they’re done, they’re usually lying on a sidewalk where someone can trip over them.

If they were just annoying I wouldn’t be concerned. People trying to get you to sign petitions are annoying. But they’re not hurting anybody.

These scooters are dangerous. And even then I would be less concerned if they were only the users that were getting hurt. You want to ride one without a helmet, hit a pothole and wind up in traction for a month, fly your freak flag. But it’s the innocent bystanders who get hurt that rankles me.

Pedestrians are getting hit by these scooter drivers. And hey, it’s not like there’s a specific license to drive them. Any moron can climb aboard. Pedestrians are tripping on these scooters just strewn on the sidewalk. Drivers are getting into accident avoiding these idiots.

The Bird company, here in LA, says riders sign a waiver that Bird is responsible for only up to $100.00. Good luck when that comes up in court. The truth is law firms are getting calls every day. I expect the Bird company to be flooded with lawsuits. If you were injured as a result of one these I say sue the shit out of them.

And just wait until the first person dies as a result of this.

Some cities, like Beverly Hills (God bless ‘em) have banned these scooters. Roll two feet across the city line and pay a fine large enough to buy four scooters.  Other disgruntled citizens are vandalizing them or putting dog shit on them. 

Promoters of these scooters claim they will help ease urban traffic problems. People will opt for scooters over cars. What a joke. You’re going to ride a scooter 20 miles to work? Everything in your car trunk you’re just going to keep in your backpack? You’re going to ride it in the rain?

People ride these scooters short distances. They zip around Venice. They ride them for a mile. And who are most of the customers? Millennials. Millennials can’t walk one mile?

Westside residents are up in arms over these scooters. All I can say is “lawyer up, people!” A couple of unfortunate wrongful deaths and hopefully the Bird will be cooked.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

EP87: Meet Comedy Writing Legend Earl Pomerantz

Ken discusses comedy writing with Earl Pomerantz whose Emmy winning career spans from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to TAXI, CHEERS, shows he’s created like MAJOR DAD, two Garry Shandling series, and variety specials with Lorne Michaels. Earl has had a fascinating career and offers great insight and humor. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What I miss

Nowadays TV shows are “dropped” (as the expression goes). All of a sudden 13 episodes of your series appears on Netflix. What you don’t get is “opening night.”

There are still opening nights on broadcast networks. But even then, the episodes are immediately available on other platforms, and depending on the network, time slot, and promotion – you may draw a ridiculously small audience.

Ah, but “back in the day” (which always struck me a stupid expression), audiences flocked to see new shows because their only means of TV entertainment was live TV.

And for me getting a show on the air was not just a feat, it was magical.

Think about it…

David Isaacs and I dream up an idea. We toss it around, see if it has legs, see if it’s something we’d like to be doing for five years, etc. If we decide to commit to it we then pitch it to the only three buyers there are out there.

One buys it. Hooray!

We dream up characters, we stockpile future stories, we write a pilot. Now this idea of ours is on paper. There’s a cover with the studio logo. It’s a “thing.”

After who-knows-how-many drafts the network gives us the go-ahead to make it. We now cast the show and assemble a crew. The idea in our head has sprouted a giant soundstage, complete with sets. Forty guys named Dave are running around hanging lights and painting flats. Now it’s really a “thing.

The pilot gets made, we fly back to New York, miraculously get it on the schedule, and then really go to work. For the next five months we put together the writing staff, and completely immerse ourselves in the show. Scripts are written, episodes are filmed and edited.

And finally, on a night sometime in September, the show is slated to premier. We have an opening night party. And that’s when the excitement builds. Multiple TV monitors are set up (usually in a restaurant) and the countdown begins. Being on the West Coast the show is delayed three hours and already I’m getting calls from friends and family who watched it back east.

Now it’s 2 minutes to air. People start gathering around the TV’s. They turn the sound up. Commercials air. Getting close now. And then station ID. That’s when it really hits me. Holy shit! I’m on CBS.

Then the show begins, usually to huge applause from those of us who work on it. And for the first time there are our sets and actors exposed to the world. By now I’ve watched countless roughcuts. But now the entire country is seeing it. And since this is before all the other viewing options, that probably means 20,000,000 people. That kernel of an idea is now a national TV show.

I would hope that in some form or fashion producers of today’s debuting shows get that thrill. Many shows today are shown in relative obscurity. And yet those involved work just as hard and put in just as much time and effort as we did.

When people say “Why do a show on CBS when you can do it on Starz?” – THAT’S why. And it’s only a matter of time before broadcast networks go the way of the dinosaur but it was sure fun while it lasted.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Size matters (but the smaller the better)

I love writing plays. It’s liberating to write whatever I want, characters of any age, and no network executive insisting I make my antagonist more “likeable.” But one issue I have is that because of today’s economics, cast size and production requirements must be minimal to even hope for a production. Yes, Tom Stoppard can have a play with seventeen characters, but I’m not Tom Stoppard.

The generally accepted cast size for lowly playwrights like me is four. Three is better. Two is even better still. And one-person shows where someone discusses their childhood for ninety minutes is best. But the magic number seems to be four.

And that’s restrictive. I’ll think of an idea that might make a great play but realize I’d need six characters to do it justice and decide to just shelve it. Even THE ODD COUPLE, which you think of as a two-character play has roles for seven. Reginald Rose did not write a play called FOUR ANGRY MEN.

Recently I was talking to a New York theater director and he was bemoaning the fact that young playwrights are so used to writing scenes between two people that they find it very difficult to write scenes with four. Keeping all four characters active in the scene is a real juggling act for them. This stunned me. I had never even thought of that.

I come from TV where there are almost always multiple people in scenes. On CHEERS there were usually six to eight characters in any given scene. That was simply what I was used to.

So for me, writing a four-character scene in a play, especially if it’s a long scene, is way easier if I have four voices instead of two. All four can have differing points-of-view and there are way more relationship combinations.

If you’re a young playwright and you’re only comfortable writing two-character scenes you are really handcuffing yourself. You need to be facile in writing four or even eight-person scenes. And where can you go to see good examples of this? I hate to say it. In fact, I better just whisper it.


Monday, August 27, 2018

A mouse walks into a bar

Here’s a FQ that became an entire post… WITH a visual aid.

Coram_Loci asks:

Was there any talk (do you wish there was any talk) of an animated episode of Cheers or Frasier?

For Mickey Mouse’s Birthday (I forget how old he was at the time, mice age well), Disney did a big special. And there’s a scene where he goes to CHEERS. So our characters interacted with a cartoon mouse.

Someone from Disney wrote the scene and it wasn’t very good. So Michael Eisner called Jim Burrows and asked as a favor whether we CHEERS writers would take a fast look at it.

We did a rewrite one afternoon, sent it in, and everyone at the Mouse House was thrilled.

So they filmed the scene and the animation was added later.

But a week after we turned in the script a big truck from Disney pulled up and each of us received these giant gift bags filled with Disney merchandise. There were stuffed animals and jackets and tapes and phones and books and assorted toys. Looking back, each bag probably cost $500 retail so maybe $20 out of their pocket, but we all had small children at the time so this was the coolest gift EVER.

And now, here’s the scene. Watching it for the first time since it aired, I think they were overly generous with their gift. Either that or the original script was REALLY terrible. Anyway, enjoy.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Neil Simon

I am out of the country with limited internet access.  I’m devastated but will discuss fully next week.

the Comedy Writing Rule of 2's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. GOOD LUCK CHARLIE was a Disney Channel show but so clearly superior to other series on that network.

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

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Hey, weren't you "Jerk at the Bar?"

A trainer in my gym is also an actor. (I know – knock you over with a feather). He appeared on the Showtime series CALIFORNICATION playing the fan favorite, “Hollywood Asshole”. And knowing him, I bet he was good in it. Some of his previous roles included “Jerk at the Bar”, “Thug #2”, and to prove he has range – “Jogger”.

An actress I know has these impressive credits: “Vegas Showgirl” on CSI. Also “Bikini Girl”, “Sheik Girl”, “Cute Girl”, and “Homewrecker”.

Another actress friend boasts these credits on imdb: “Waitress”, “Saleswoman”, “Assistant Candidate #1”, and the part she’s best known for -- “Desperate Woman”.

And one of the most talented comic actors I know lists these on his resume: “Caterer”, “Waiter”, “Delivery Boy”, “Great Great Grandfather” (he was in his 30’s at the time), “Husband”, “Exterminator”, and my personal favorite – “Squid”.

Forget being a star, most actors in Hollywood would be thrilled for a role that actually had a name.

Usually these parts are one or two lines, usually day player roles. But not always. Remember the old guy who used to sit at the bar at CHEERS. His name was Al Rosen. He became a semi-regular. He had lines in probably thirty episodes. His name on the show was “Man Who Said Sinatra”.

“Sinatra” was the first line he was assigned, he got a good laugh, and a few weeks later the writers were looking to give a line to a bar patron and someone suggested, “What about the man who said Sinatra?” And thus a legend was born.

It’s not easy being an actor. And for every one who gets a part as “Punk #2” and “Guy in the Sewer” just remember – there are five others who auditioned for those parts and didn’t get them.

Yours truly,

Schmuck with blog

Friday, August 24, 2018

Friday Questions

Time to roll out some more Friday Question.

Roger Owen Green asks:

I've been noticing over the last few years how certain TV shows are starting to use great songs during important parts of the story, many of which are covers.

I have always wondered who is responsible for selecting the songs, because they always seem to be spot on in regards to how it fits with the scene.

Usually the showrunner, although sometimes he might confer with the studio music department.

Using great songs comes with some problems. First off they’re expensive and you need permission in addition to paying a hefty fee. Secondly, when you get into syndication you often find that the use of these songs would be prohibitive because of the royalty costs.

It used to be that if a show were taped, like WKRP IN CINCINNATI they wouldn’t have to pay huge fees to air songs. This was in the days when variety shows were still around and all recorded on tape. But when WKRP went into syndication, all those songs had to be removed. Not only was that costly, but substituting generic versions really hurt the show and its syndication numbers.

MURPHY BROWN faced the same music problem, although their syndication woes had more to do with content – the topicality of the show meant it didn’t age well.

Jon H wonders:

Have you ever done any 3-camera live audience sitcom episodes that featured flashbacks in the body of the show? DICK VAN DYKE SHOW had a few of these. I was wondering if the shows would be filmed/taped in order or if the flashback portions would be prefilmed/pretaped before the main part of the episode from which the flashbacks happened. On one hand the production would have the benefit of live audience feedback for all scenes and not just those in current time, but on the other hand, the audience would have to wait while the characters changed costumes back & forth from current time to flashback time again & again. Is one method preferred to the other?

We shoot the flashback scenes in advance. Same with dream sequence scenes, which I’ve had in my shows. And we show them back to the studio audience when they come to see the taping of the rest of the episode.

The problem with flashback scenes is they usually require a lot of make up and it might take the actors an hour or more to be ready to shoot. That hour would kill a studio audience. So it’s easier to just pre-shoot the flashbacks the day before.

From Andrew:

Has any line you've written ever taken on a life of its own outside the show or movie? Have you ever heard your own writing quoted out of context, in "real life"?

Several lines from the movie VOLUNTEERS. “We’ve got to be a mile from the sun.” “It’s not that I can’t help these people, it’s just that I don’t want to.” And after Rita Wilson is appalled that Tom Hanks has come on to her after chatting in a long flight, Tom’s character says: “Well I think I’ve put in the hours, don’t you?”

On CHEERS, Frasier saying “Everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight” is still remembered and quoted.

And from FRASIER I’d say, “Food in the bathroom?”

But we never landed a big catch phrase, nor did we ever intend to.

And finally, from Joseph Scarbrough:

I understand when Larry Gelbart did the M*A*S*H episode "The Interview," it was filmed with Clete Roberts asking the questions, the actors responding in-character, then Larry sort of building the script around that material, as opposed to the other way around. When you, David Isaacs, and Burt Metcalfe did "Our Finest Hour," did you take that same approach?

No. We used the interview strictly as a way to get into the clips. We were looking for something a little novel; a way to do a clip show unique to MASH – but looking back I regret that decision to reprise the “interview” format. I think it tarnishes the original a little. It’s hard for me to watch that episode because I’m still kicking myself .

What’s your Friday Question? Note: I will have limited access to the internet for the next week so I will not be able to post your comments as swiftly as I usually do, but I do see them all, and I will get to them, and any Friday Question will be duly registered. Thanks much.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What to say to an agent?

Here’s a FQ that became an EP (entire post).

It’s from Rat Billings:

If a writer ever gets so lucky to go out and meet with potential representation, what should they expect, what are some questions worth asking, and how can that writer make the best impression possible?

First off, dress decently. No jeans. No shorts. No T-shirts. No flip-flops. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie or formal dress but you’re going on a business meeting. Make yourself presentable. You’d think that was a no-brainer but it’s not.

Be punctual. Be prepared. Be enthusiastic. And try, if possible, to be relaxed.

If an agent is meeting you chances are he wants to sign you so he has to sell himself as much as you have to sell yourself.

And if an agent is interested in signing you it’s usually because he thinks he can place you (i.e. make money off of you). So you need to ask how he sees your career path.

He will of course ask you the same question and as long as you’re on the same page things are fine. But if you see yourself as a future screenwriter and he sees you as a sitcom writer who will one day have his own show then it’s not going to work.  Move on.  

So I would ask specifically what this agent plans to do for you. And how will he go about it? How will he use his contacts or other clients to forward your career? How will his intell give you an edge? Will he be able to package you into a deal?

Ask how many clients he has. Ask who some of them are. If he has a lot of big players he may not have time for you. Who’s he going to devote his day to – getting Aaron Sorkin’s next movie placed after it’s gone into turnaround, or getting you a meeting with DOG WITH A BLOG?

Ask how the agency works. Some operate in “teams” and others operate like little fiefdoms. When you call or email the agent, realistically how long until he returns your query? How accessible is he?

He’s going to have some questions for you, and here’s what he most likely wants to hear:

Be very clear about your career objectives. Pick a lane. Comedy or Drama. TV or movies. It helps if an agent can brand you. That’s not to say that you can’t branch out in time, but going in it’s like college where you have to declare your major.

You are 100% dedicated to your career and are willing to do whatever it takes. Assure him that you are good in meetings. If the agent can just get you in a room with someone you feel confident you can impress him. You are available for anything the agent needs of you to land a sale. If this means taking a meeting or writing a treatment you’re happy to do it. Ask the agent what you can do to make his job easier?

If you have any contacts in the industry that might open some doors that’s very helpful to agents.

Assure the agent that you’re prolific. You’re working on a new spec, a new screenplay, whatever.

And finally, don’t be too picky. Don’t say you’ll only work on single-camera comedies for streaming services. You won’t work on network shows, or multi-camera shows, or family shows. First of all, who the fuck are you? You’re just starting out. Who are you to be so choosy? And secondly, if you only give the agent a narrow target he’s less likely to represent you.

So there you go. Beyond that just play it by ear. More than anything else it’s whether you and the agent click, and you can get a pretty good sense of that early. Best of luck.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

EP86: Peri Gilpin Interview Part 2

Ken and Peri have a free-form discussion on FRASIER, the process, acting, directing, writing, careers, publicity, matching, Broad City, etc. and Peri interviews Ken

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

"Could you argue a little slower? I'm writing this down."

My wife always claims that she’s just a “character” in any story or blogpost in which I include her. She insists it’s not the real her but one heightened for comedic or dramatic effect. And that’s probably true. She’s a therapist so she likes to keep a low profile (hence no photo for this post) so she doesn’t mind that she’s referred to infrequently.

She does have one beef and I must admit it’s a valid one. There have been times in arguments when I’ve thought: “Ooooh, this would be a great scene.” I bet the wives of every writer have this pet peeve.

But if you want to write from real life and personal experiences, arguments are a great source of conflict, which is a key element of good storytelling.

Two of the very best family sitcoms relied on writers sharing personal moments. THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND always rang so true because they WERE.

The truth is we don’t always come off so noble, so praiseworthy. We are often petty, foolish, dunderheads. This too is a hallmark of comedy.

We laugh because we recognize this behavior. But it also means we have to be willing to reveal to the world our foibles. “Characters” allow us to do that with a thin veneer of anonymity and safety.

And yet there is that line in real arguments – things said that are not meant for anyone to hear but your opponent. So for most writers they have two things going on – How do I win this damn argument and can I use it? And if they had to choose between the two, most writers I know would opt for the second.

Stories are just too fucking hard to come by.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Richbro Radio is BACK

If you like great music from the 50's-70's and you have a computer or a device, is for YOU.

Rich Brother Robbin has put together the best oldies station on the net.  Lots of songs you haven't heard in forever along with vintage radio station jingles and fun features.

Lately, Rich has experienced technical problems that kicked him off the air for a couple of weeks, but now he is BACK.

You can listen here.

The music we baby boomers cherished is slowly fading into the mist.  So (no matter what age you are) if you love the Beatles, Beach Boys, Doors, Motown, Lesley Gore, the British Invasion, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, the Brill Building Sound, Otis Redding, instrumentals, girl groups, folk music, Doo Wops, the Mamas & Papas, the Wall of Sound, Sonny & Cher, your favorite dances, one hit wonders, Jackie Wilson, Jefferson Airplane, Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Sun records roster, surf songs, hot rod songs, soul, blue-eyed soul, follow-ups, flip sides, million sellers, bubbling unders, and the Monkees then is for YOU. 

It's always hard when you go off the air.  You've got to reclaim your listeners.  But if you're returning or you're new you're going to be thrilled that it's back pumping out the hits 24 hours-a-day.

Tell 'im Beaver Cleaver sent you. 

Vintage Friday Questions

I've had a number of readers say they really liked when I reran Friday Questions from 10 years ago since who bothers to sift through the archives?  And there was some good stuff in them.  So here's another post from many years ago.  Let's see if my advice still holds. 

willieb asks:

Any truth in those "everybody has a screenplay" stories ("My hairdresser/valet/dry cleaner gave me a screenplay to read")? Have you been bombarded with sample scripts? If so, what's the weirdest situation you've had to deal with?

I’ve received scripts at my high school reunion, I’ve told the story about getting pitched a movie while making funeral arrangements for my grandmother, and a couple of years ago one of the host helpers during my mother’s condolence wanted to pitch me a pilot idea. When I announced minor league baseball people would come up to the press box all the time with scripts. It's not like there was great security in ballparks in Rochester and Toledo. If someone had the lung capacity to climb those stairs they could get in.

A director I know was attending High Holiday services one year at his temple and a fellow congregate pulled a script out from under his prayer shawl.

I’m sure a few of the working writers who read this blog could weigh in with their own appalling stories.

Cap'n Bob Napier wonders:

I just saw a M*A*S*H episode written by MacLean Stevenson. When actors do this are massive rewrites usually required or are they pretty good to start with?

I don’t know about that particular episode but yes, massive rewrites usually are required. One reason: they often give 90% of the good lines to themselves. But in fairness, they’re not writers. If I were to suddenly have a big guest role in a MASH or CHEERS episode I’m sure I’d suck. I’m not an actor.

I will say this though, Alan Alda’s scripts were terrific and we changed very little.

From Steve:

On a show like Cheers, do the showrunners or writers know where they want their main characters to wind up by the end of the series (e.g., Sam & Diane will finally get and stay together), or is that unusual and more typically the story arcs are just thought of season by season, or even every few weeks?

First off, it’s unusual that shows are so successful that producers can determine when the series will end. Usually it’s America.

In the case of CHEERS, we always thought it would be great to bring Diane back for the finale but Shelley Long had to be available and agreeable to doing it. If she were in Norway making a movie we were shit out of luck.

If producers know where the finish line is they’ll usually work towards it in the final season. Sometimes it’s a five or six episode arc that leads up to the conclusion. For LOST it’s a three year arc.

I still think David Chase doesn't know how THE SOPRANOS end.

A bigger question than what to do for the finale is how long the finale will be? Networks try to make huge events out of these and stretch them from a half hour to (if they had their choice) nine hours plus an intermission. This greatly affects the storytelling. MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, and SEINFELD were waaay longer than they needed to be but the networks got one last massive payday out of them. In my opinion, as good as all of them may have been, they would have been far better if they were only an hour.

Kudos to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND for ending their series with half hour episodes. For my money they’re three of the best finales ever. And that's one reason why.

My partner and I have had three series and none of them had a planned final episode. Once the network says, "You're canceled! Now get out!" that pretty much puts the kibosh on your glittering two hour finale. If we knew we were doing a last episode of ALMOST PERFECT the plan was to bring back all the characters from our other two series and end all three at once. Well, maybe when our next series is canceled.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Another secret of comedy

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG does pretty much everything right. It started in England and continues on Broadway. For all the heavy “important” plays that have come and gone over the past year, this hilarious farce continues to bring in and delight audiences.

The premise is simple. We’re there to watch a drawing room mystery and every conceivable thing that could go wrong does. Missed cues, scenery falling, effects going off at the wrong time, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. The cast was wonderful and the play was a masterclass in comic timing.

But there was something else that made the play work, something under the surface. But it was key, and without it the entire show would fail. What was it? Simply this:

The characters did not know they were in a comedy.

In other words, the actors played it straight. There was no winking at the audience. There was no acknowledgement that they were acting extraordinarily silly. To the characters, these events were real. And they were catastrophic – to THEM. To us, the audience, they were uproarious.

For my money, you get stronger heightened comedy when the characters don’t ham it up. You can put them in absurd very broad situations, but if they take it seriously then their reactions to the absurdity make sense.

The fact that the drawing room play failed was so funny was because the characters so wanted it to succeed. As the world was collapsing all around them they struggled to persevere, maintain their dignity, and control the damage. Instead of taking the stance of “Did you all see that?” they chose instead “I hope you didn’t see that.” And that one attitude made all the difference in the world.

If you’re writing a comedy, or directing a comedy, keep that principle in mind. It requires the actors to trust the material. If they don’t they sometimes get too big or try to save the day by milking laughs or breaking character. That’s the fastest way for a show to go into the tank.

Keep it real.

UPDATE:  I will have limited access to the internet over the next couple of weeks so comments may not appear in as timely a manner.  I will get to them but maybe as long as a day later.   Feel free to curtail use of comments  during that period.  Things will be back to normal soon.  Thanks.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Another Opening, another Closing -- the same night

I'm participating in another one-day play festival at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica.  That's where five playwrights meet at 9:00 AM, are given a topic, two actors, and three hours to write a ten-minute play.   Actors and directors learn and stage them in the afternoon and tonight at 7:30 and 9:00 they're presented to you the lucky public.

It's a great writing exercise.  As fellow playwright, Matthew Weaver, observed:  You don't have time to question whether something is "good."   In a sense, the speed of the exercise forces you to get out of your own way.

A number of plays I've written for this project have been accepted in festivals around the world.  Two of them will be included in the Short + Sweet Hollywood Festival next month in, of all places, Hollywood.  One I'll be directing as well.

In fairness, some other plays I wrote for the Ruskin will mercifully never see the light of day again.  But that's part of the fun.  You never really know what you're going to get.  And that adds a charge of electricity to the night.

Anyway, here's where you go for more information.  And if you're there, stop by and say hello.  I'll be the one either beaming in the corner or hiding behind a plant. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

My favorite Aretha Franklin moment

So many deserving tributes to the Queen of Soul.  But do you know this story?

One year at the Grammys, Pavoratti was supposed to sing “Nessun Dorma,” the famous final act opener from Giacomo Puccini’s Turnadot. He developed a sore throat and couldn't go on. So who stepped in last minute? Aretha. And all she had to do was perform it at Radio City on live national TV later that night. My R-E-S-P-E-C-T has no bounds.

UPDATE: Thanks to some astute readers, here is that performance.    Check it out.  What a spectacular and courageous talent. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Friday Questions

Friday Questions everybody. Come and get ‘em.

Dsull leads off with a question about the five sitcoms I listed as my all-time favorites.

With the exception Seinfeld, all your favorite sitcoms come from your younger days. Do you think you have a bias toward that era or do you genuinely believe the shows were just better then? And if that's the case, any thoughts on why? Or is it possible that after writing professionally for so many years, the shows just don't feel as fresh to you? Granted, many lists would have quite a few of your shows on it so obviously your list will look different than most!

Part of the reason those older shows were on my list is because they inspired me and made me want to become a writer. Are they “better” than more current shows? That’s a matter of personal taste. But I will say this. These older shows still hold up some fifty or sixty years later. Will 30 ROCK or VEEP (I selected series that won Best Comedy Emmys) be seen and appreciated sixty years from now?

When I taught a “Foundations of Comedy” course at USC and screened an episode of BILKO to a room of a hundred Millennials, it received uninterrupted laughter. If you are a student of comedy it’s worth going back and watching these iconic series.

SK has a question regarding my recent podcast where I talked about the process of making an episode of CHEERS. Check it out if you haven’t already.

"The Making of CHEERS" podcast had a detail I never considered: there is more time to write (and rewrite) episodes earlier in the season; but episodes written later are sometimes only single drafts. That inspired me to ask ask my first-ever Friday Question (and it's multi-part!): Do those time considerations affect the order that episodes are written? Are episodes written in the planned order of production/broadcast? Or were "important" episodes (like those broadcast during sweeps, or season finales) addressed earlier to provide more time to refine them?

One of the reasons networks don’t like serialized shows, especially sitcoms, is because they like the flexibility of airing them in whatever order they please. This often leads to fights between the showrunner and the network and most of the time the network wins.

Some episodes are programmed specifically for sweeps. Those usually involve stunt casting or weddings. And if filming is subject to availability of the big stunt guest star, those episodes might be filmed early and held back.

Also, holiday-themed episodes are locked into air dates regardless of when they’re filmed.

Personally, as a showrunner I liked the flexibility of being able to shuffle the cards. If we had a show that didn’t come out great that’s the one we would save to go up against the World Series or the finals of THE VOICE. Being able to hide your weaker shows is a blessing.

Tim Cabeen also listened to my podcast about the making of CHEERS.

I have one curious question: Was there ever an episode that was so good from the first draft that little or no rewrites were needed? There are so many good ones that it would be cool to know that any one of them was perfect from the get go.

There was only one CHEERS script that received no rewriting whatsoever, and it was one that my partner David Isaacs and I wrote. Now before you think, “Wow, it must’ve been the greatest first draft ever” just know that the reason it wasn’t rewritten was because there was a WGA strike and no one was allowed to rewrite it. It’s the first Bar Wars episode. It came out okay, but you know what? It could have used a rewrite.

Finally, from Mike Bloodworth:

Have you heard of or seen MASTERCLASS? It’s a series of online classes taught by some really big names. They run the gamut from Comedy with Steve Martin, Cooking with Gordon Ramsay and Photography with Annie Leibovitz. But how its applicable to this blog is they also have writing classes. Including Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes and David Mamet. The reviews I've read have been mostly positive, but not all. And of course it’s not free. What's your opinion of this kind of instruction for T.V./screen/theater? If they asked you and David to do one, would you?

Sure I would. To get folks like Aaron Sorkin and Steve Martin on board you gotta pay big bucks.Sign me up!

Are the MASTERCLASSES good? I’m sure they are. I have not seen one. I suspect some are better than others. The big question, which I can’t answer is, are they worth what customers have to pay to take them? Would love to hear from some readers who have taken one or more of these courses. Thanks.

Please leave your Friday Questions in the comment section.  Thanks for that too. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The one reboot I want to see

The reboot craze continues. There’s talk of ALF returning (thank God!) along with FACTS OF LIFE (dear God!). 24 may get a prequel. I guess the MAD ABOUT YOU reboot won’t happen, but as you all know there’s talk of FRASIER possibly returning to the airwaves.

Networks are basically admitting they can’t develop anything new. So I figure, since every show from television’s past is suddenly being considered for a revival, what about the series that began originally with a 49 share? Obviously America was in love with that show.

So I think one of the networks should do a reboot of AfterMASH. Let us finally get that show right.

First off, casting.  We need to go a year or two younger.   Liam Hemsworth for Klinger. Will Poulter for Colonel Potter. And we need to go diverse so Michael B. Jordan for Father Mulcahy. Roz Chao, who played Klinger’s young Korean wife, hasn’t aged a day in thirty years so she can still keep her role.

The show was originally set in a Veteran’s Hospital. What a goldmine for comedy that was! For the reboot we set it in the infirmary of a luxury cruise ship. That way we can work in a little LOVE BOAT action.

The show is still set in 1953 right after the Korean War (we must preserve the dignity of the franchise) but all the patients are in their 20’s and hot. The Korean War was brutal and only the handsome survived.

To ensure that the dialogue reflects the comic attitude and style of today, only Millennials will write the show. I may come by once or twice to explain what the Korean War was.

The stories will be more upbeat. Prosthetics is an area for comedy that bewilderingly was not covered the first time. Same with shock treatments.

Keep the haunting AfterMASH theme but just have KISS re-record it.

Whattaya think?

AfterMASH could be the reboot to end all reboots.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

EP85: Meet Peri Gilpin of FRASIER

Peri Gilpin, who played Roz on FRASIER talks about the possible
FRASIER reboot, working with that cast, her career, and her dad who was a celebrity himself.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The one I'd take back

There was a good article in a recent NEW YORK MAGAZINE called “the One I’d Take Back.” They asked six comedians (like Patton Oswalt) which joke or jokes they’ve told in the past that now they now regret and wish they could take back. 

There are a number of scripts I’ve written I wish I could have back, but that’s just because with the benefit of experience I think I could do a better job. It has nothing to do with questionable content.

But the article did get me thinking back to my days as a wise-ass Top 40 DJ. Very rarely did I “get in trouble” because of things I said on the air. I was pretty good at walking that line. The biggest brouhaha I ever got into was on TenQ in Los Angeles in 1977. I was playing a commercial for a Donna Summer concert that was going to be held at the Fabulous Forum (then-home of the Lakers and Kings). I said, “today the Forum, in ten years Magic Mountain.” Someone from her record company had a shit fit and raised a stink. I was told to not make fun of Donna Summer. (By the way, I was right.)

What I did do was poke fun at recording artists on occasion. Believe me, I was not unique in that. Dan Ingram, Don Imus, Larry Lujack, Robert W. Morgan, Howard Stern, and others routinely teed off on artists.

So looking back, I mocked Bob Dylan. That’s still okay. I mocked Barry Manilow. Still acceptable. Mick Jagger – no problem. Psychedelic bands – safe targets. The Partridge Family – go to town. The Temptations? I’m a racist. I would goof on how hip they tried to be. But it made no difference. Had I known then what I know now, the Temptations would have been off-limits, period. I can argue that you needed to understand the context and I was an equal-opportunity-offender but that’s one I’d like back.

I’m sure these comics felt the same way – you listen back to some of the things you said that you thought were perfectly fine and funny and now you just cringe. Yes, comedy often offends someone, but in this case I offended myself. Fortunately for me, these were live radio shows. Unless I play you the tapes, you’ll never hear them. Thank God this was before Twitter.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My thoughts on Mini-rooms

Networks and studios have found yet another way to exploit writers. Their latest brainchild: Mini-Rooms. Here’s a Vanity Fair article about it.

When a network orders a pilot for a short series (6-13 episodes) they now put together a small room of baby writers for two or three weeks to come up with future stories and/or scripts. If the show is then picked up they already have a lot of the stories broken and writing completed.  They don’t have to hire a full room of writers and even if they do there’s now less work to be done so the time frame is less and the network or studio is in an advantageous bargaining position.

So writers are hired on the cheap. And in a business where stability continues to dangerously shrink, TV staff jobs start seeming like four-week freelance assignments. Writers have to cobble together a bunch of these a year to survive. And getting any TV writing job is harder these days. Way more hoops. You have to be approved by the network and the studio and pod producers. Generally it takes meetings with three or four entities before a writer is offered even an entry-level job.

Can the WGA stop this? Not really. The networks/studios have found a loophole. They’re paying Guild minimums to these Mini-room baby writers (who understandably are just relieved to be working, even if it’s for the minimum and only for a couple of weeks) so they’re not doing anything strictly illegal.

And who is there to safeguard and protect writers from this insidious practice? Well, it should be agents. That’s their job. They could fight to ensure their clients got proper above-scale compensation. So why don’t they?  Because commissions are no longer their primary source of income.  In this new conglomerate world agencies now survive by making package deals and owning a percentage of shows.  Hard to fault them.  Everybody has to adjust to this new marketplace. But writers do receive way less protection than they used to. 

This is just another reason why the WGA wants to renegotiate their long-standing agreement with agencies.

Personally, I loathe the idea of Mini-rooms. If you hire me and my writing partner to create a series for you the pilot will be in our voice. We don’t need to enlist the help of inexperienced writers for pennies on the dollar. And quite frankly, it’s insulting to us that the studio/network would even suggest it. It’s like we can’t deliver a pilot on our own? We have to surround ourselves with help?

It’s one thing if you have a multi-cam pilot in production. Scripts have to be rewritten in one night following run-throughs. Putting together a mini-room for one or two nights makes sense in that case. But guess what? Studios/networks WON’T pay for those mini-rooms. Instead, writers have to rely on their experienced colleagues to come in as a favor, usually for a nice gift that comes out of the showrunner’s pocket.

And even that is now further exploited because writers are putting together mini-rooms to punch up pilot scripts before they go to the network. And those rooms are not compensated. In those cases I lay the blame squarely on the writer who created the pilot. First of all, where is his pride? Secondly, he’s being paid a lot of money to write a pilot. I get a free lunch in Styrofoam? I’ve helped out on a couple of pilots like this (not knowing the situation beforehand) but never again. And if I ever find myself in this situation in the future, believing I was helping out during production when it was actually pre-production, I will wish the creator well and go home.

Just remember this: All these changes in the system are designed EXCLUSIVELY to help the studio and network  and agency and save money. They are NEVER to benefit the writer. They are NEVER to improve the quality of the creative process. So pretty much anytime there’s another one of these new trends like Mini-rooms or Paper Partners you can pretty much bet that my position is I’m against it.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The JEWEL OF THE NILE timeline (and while I'm still haunted by it)

Got this in the comments section last Tuesday and thought, why not take a post to set the timeline on JEWEL OF THE NILE. It’s a re-post, but warning -- it takes a horribly tragic turn and is difficult to write.  You'll see why.

Unknown wrote:

Another recollection of 'Jewel of the Nile' from Kathleen Turner in today's NYMagazine:

Were you surprised or hurt at the way Michael leaned on you to do that movie?

That was a bad blowup. I had signed a contract to do a sequel [to Romancing the Stone] but the script for it [The Jewel of the Nile] was terrible. What had happened was that Romancing was so successful that Diane [Thomas], who wrote the original script, evidently asked Michael for what he felt was a ridiculous sum to work on the sequel. So instead, he went with these two guys and what they came up with was terrible, formulaic, sentimental. Anyway, I said no. Then I found out I was being sued for $25 million [for breach out contract]. My position was that, yes, I signed up for a sequel but I didn’t sign up to compromise the quality of my work. Eventually Michael and I talked.

How’d that go?

He said, “What would it take for you to do this film?” I wanted Diane back, or at least to give input. And Michael did go to her for some alterations. But ultimately I read the script on a plane to Morocco, where the film was shooting, and I was furious. It didn’t have what Michael said it’d have. When I got to the hotel in Fez, Michael and I sat down on the floor with three versions of the script. We were trading pages to get a script that was acceptable to both of us. It was, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that.” It was frustrating. But I do have to say, when I got sick Danny and Michael called and said, “If you need anything kid…” So they’re true friends.

[Don't know if the '2 guys' were you and Isaacs or Rosenthal & Konner, but interesting anyway.]

Diane Thomas wrote ROMANCING THE STONE and did a spectacular job. Practically everything you saw up on the screen – the humor, suspense, warmth, vivid imagination, that was all Diane.

She of course was approached to write the sequel but was tied up writing a movie for Steven Spielberg. So Michael hired the team of Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner to do the screenplay of JEWEL OF THE NILE.

That was the draft Kathleen Turner had trouble with, as did Michael Douglas.

At this point David and I were brought on to do a rewrite. We did a rather extensive one, primarily trying to make sense of the story.

We also had a time crunch. In order to start filming in Morocco, their government had to approve the script. And the script needed to be translated into French, which would take a few more days. Additionally, there was the threat of a Writers Guild strike so we were pushed pretty hard to finish the rewrite quickly.

The hardest part of the script was the first act. In ROMANCING THE STONE, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) learns right away that her sister has been kidnapped and she has to go rescue her. The story is off and running.

Remember the end of ROMANCING THE STONE? Jack (Michael Douglas) buys a boat and as a grand gesture presents it to her in Manhattan and the take-away is that they’re going to sail around the world together and live happily ever after.

So now we pick them up in the sequel. They’re tan, they’re sipping champagne, they’re livin’ the life. No more adventures for these two. They’ve got it made.

Except we need an adventure. And a reason for them to abandon the good life and once again throw themselves in harm’s way. Not an easy task.

We could say that they’re just bored, but that’s a tough sell to an audience that would give anything to trade places with them.

Anyway, we did the best we could in the time frame allotted and turned it in. Michael loved our rewrite but still had trouble with act one. Don’t blame him. So did we.

He called me at home from Paris on a Friday night to say he did something not entirely kosher (but producers do what they have to do to get movies made). He had called Diane Thomas and asked if she’d work with us on the first act. Were we okay with that? We were thrilled. These were Diane’s characters. Who knew them better than she did?

She was only available that weekend, which meant working Saturday and Sunday. We didn’t care.

Diane was an absolute delight. So smart, so inventive, so kind. We meshed instantly. It was a wonderful weekend and I was proud of the results. So was Michael and off the script went to be translated.

The Moroccan government approved it and plans were made to start filming in the late spring.

We moved on and accepted an offer to create a new sitcom for Mary Tyler Moore.

Michael called and asked if we could be on the set during production. Normally we would have said “sure.” Morocco wasn’t a picnic, but there was also the South of France. Plus, what a cool experience. But we were locked in to the MTM project and had to pass.

So Michael did what I thought was a strange thing. He hired the original writers, Rosenthal & Konner to be there for production. So what did they do? They tossed out most of our script and put their original material back in. I defy anyone to explain the plot of JEWEL OF THE NILE.

Okay, here comes the truly horrible part. For helping Michael out that weekend he bought Diane a Porsche. A few months later, with her boyfriend driving that Porsche at 80 mph on rain-slicked Pacific Coast Highway, the car lost control and crashed. Diane Thomas and another friend were killed. Diane was 39.

That was 33 years ago and I will be forever haunted by it. I can’t drive PCH without thinking about her, I can’t see a Porsche without thinking about her, I can’t see a Michael Douglas or Kathleen Turner movie without thinking about her. I certainly can’t watch ROMANCING THE STONE or JEWEL OF THE NILE without thinking about her. And maybe now, if you do any of those things you’ll think about her too.

As a proud alum of UCLA I’m happy to say that the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program created the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award in her honor.

You can understand now why I can't tell that story without tears in my eyes.  And why I'm going to end it here. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

"What" writing partners argue about

Readers always ask if my partner, David Isaacs and I have fights when we’re writing. Sure, but the trick is to never make the fights personal. We can have a heated argument over a story point and then just go to lunch and discuss baseball. If we disagree on a joke pitch we’ve found it’s way easier to just toss it out, come up with something new, not waste a half hour on the argument, and result in someone being unhappy.

That said, we have had one disagreement that has been ongoing for literally decades.

I think characters should say “what?” occasionally when they hear a big piece of information and David thinks it’s unnecessary.

“I want a divorce.”

“There’s a tank coming.”

David thinks I rely it on too much.

“These apples are good.”

Okay, maybe he has a point there. But I contend that people say “what?” in daily conversation way more than they even think they do. And to support my point, if so many people didn’t say it, then the expression would never have evolved to “What the fuck?” I’d like to think that through our scripts I helped coin and popularize that now-treasured phrase.

And I also exercise some discretion.  I never pitch "say what?"

So how have we resolved this sticky matter?

We barter.

David will say, “I’ll give you a ‘what?’ for two ‘so’s’.” Yes, this leads to other arguments (“I have a ‘what’ banked from Thursday.” “No, you used that ‘what’ Monday.” “But we cut that speech.” “It still counts.”), but on the whole this has gotten us through hundreds of scripts. And it’s an example of the kind of stupid shit partners bicker about all day.

And don’t get us started with when to use and when to use --.  The police were once called.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Great advice for ALL writers

This quote from the late Oscar, Tony, and probably Heisman Trophy winner, Mike Nichols:

Every scene is either a fight, seduction, or negotiation.

Now you could say he’s stretching it, and you could argue that at times seductions are negotiations, but the real point here is that every effective scene needs some dynamic.

Two baseball fans in the stands just talking about the weather isn’t interesting. Umpires trying to decide whether the rain is coming down hard enough to stop a World Series game is.

A couple agreeing on what color to paint the house is boring. A couple throwing paint at each other is not.

Your scene needs some conflict, or one of the characters has a specific goal. There’s a dramatic reason for the scene.

It may be subtle. People are always looking for that little edge, couples are consciously or subconsciously trying to be in the power position in their relationship. Although a union contract might not be the topic on the table, this is still negotiation. Trying to get someone to agree with you is a form of seduction. The truth is in our daily lives we use most of these conventions all the time in our interactions; we just don’t recognize it. But for writers, they're the fuel that makes the engine go.

Rule of thumb: if you can just lift a scene out of a screenplay or TV show, or whatever without anyone missing it then it didn’t belong in the first place. We’re in a golden age of TV drama. Watch the good shows. See how every scene, every moment has a purpose, and is integral to the narrative.

A fight, seduction, or negotiation may be a little simplistic. But it gives you a good starting point. If you’ve written a scene that is just flat you can check it against those three dynamics. If it has none, or one but very mild, suddenly it’s no longer a mystery why your scene doesn’t work. Pick one or two or strengthen one or two.

Use Nichols’ quote as a guide. It may not be perfect, but it’s much more eloquent than mine.

A scene has to have… stuff.

And that’s why he is who he is and I am who I am.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday Questions

Some Friday Questions to kick off your weekend.

Chris Thomson is up first.

I am probably wrong, but you never seem to put Boston Legal in your examples of excellent series writing.

Just wondered if there was history there or whether you just didn't rate the writing or acting?

Or you just didn't watch it.

I watched it and liked it. So no disrespect intended. A couple of my friends even wrote on it (when David E. Kelley let them). It was entertaining, but there are better shows. I didn’t even think it was David Kelley’s best series. There were a few years of THE PRACTICE that were way more compelling in my opinion.  

From Marty Fufkin:

If the proposed Frasier reboot does a Lou Grant and become a drama (which I think is a great idea) would you still be interested?

No. The big attraction for going back and writing for that character would be having the chance to once again write smart sophisticated TV comedy.

LOU GRANT was an excellent show but the character Ed Asner played in that show was not “Lou Grant.” He was someone else just taking Lou Grant’s name.

Christopher Lowery wonders:

Watched an episode recently with Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter-"Rally 'Round the Flagg, Boys'"-Feb 14, 1979) with the new ensemble/tone.

Was the style of writing/timing/anything different bringing a character from the more "zany" early few years of the the show?

What were your impressions of the final outcome compared to the character's early days of the show?

I think we did a pretty good job of keeping the spirit, tone, and humor of the Flagg character. We modeled our “Flagg” after the one Larry Gelbart established.

And I thought it worked. Flagg was such a fun character to write, but we were well aware that a little went a long way because he was so broad. So in the four years that I was with the show we only used him once.

And finally, from jcs:

In the first season of FRIENDS there is a wooden support beam close to the flat's door, in the left corner of Monica's kitchen. This beam later magically disappears as it probably blocked valuable camera angles.

Did sets on your shows ever lose certain features without explanation?

We had a very limited budget on the ALMOST PERFECT pilot. So for Nancy Travis’ house we just used Helen’s house from WINGS and re-dressed it. When AP got picked up to series we had to construct a whole new house. We kept the basic structure – where the front door was, etc. but suddenly her house went from Cape Cod to Craftsman.

Same with her workspace. It completely changed after the pilot.

We wanted to reshoot the pilot to make the sets consistent and Paramount just laughed. Looking back, we never got complaints from viewers.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 09, 2018

The incredibly stupid new Oscar rules

I was going to do a post about Kathleen Turner’s JEWEL OF THE NILE comments but with the Motion Picture Academy drastically changing Oscar rules I thought I would address that today and save the JEWEL for Monday.

If you haven’t heard the news: The Academy this year will add a “Best Popular Movie” Oscar and for the first time, not air some of the categories live.  A few awards will be given away during commercial breaks and snippets of acceptance speeches will air later in the broadcast. Those categories have yet to be determined.  Let the cockfights begin! 

Congratulations, Motion Picture Academy, you just screwed the pooch.  

First understand these changes have only been instituted to improve ratings. They have nothing to do with righting wrongs or ensuring that deserving artists are given their due. This is just because they want better demographics. Period.

This is just so BLACK PANTHER fans have something to root for.

So the plan is what, “popular” movies in one category and art films that no one sees in the other? What happens if a movie is both? So BLACK PANTHER is not eligible for “Best Picture” because it’s also popular? Or does it get nominated twice?  What constitutes "popular" -- Melissa McCarthy in the cast? 

And if there’s more interest in the “Best Popular Movie” category than “Best Picture, “ then “Best Picture” becomes an afterthought. Say goodbye to any credibility. Say goodbye to rewarding excellence in filmmaking.

“Popular Movies” already have an award. It’s called MONEY. The filmmakers all get rich. They don’t get an Oscar but they do get a mansion in Trousdale.  Isn't that enough?  

So the Oscars are now a joke. Next?

As for not airing all the categories, that means you don’t hear the nominees’ names read. They’re nominated for an Academy Award, probably the highlight of their professional career, and the telecast won’t provide the two seconds required to say their individual names on TV.

Yeah, THOSE are the problems. Not a stupid bit where the stars go to a nearby theater and hand out candy and take selfies for ten minutes. Not endless clip montages. Not hosts singing “We Saw Your Boobs.” Not pizza deliveries.  Not monologues all for the benefit of Oprah.  Not cringe-worthy banter by actor presenters. Not Academy president bullshit speeches on how Hollywood “cares.”

The Oscars can only re-spark interest if they actually MEAN SOMETHING. But you cheapen the award, you strip away any class and luster the ceremony had, and what you’re left with is… the Silver Globes. Not even the Golden Globes because at least they’re honest about what attention whores they are. And they serve dinner.

Having an Oscar is really going to mean something when MAMA MIA 3 wins Best Picture. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

EP84: Meet Porky Pig and the world of animation voice over

Ken’s guest is Bob Bergen, one of the most successful cartoon voice over artists in Hollywood.  It’s like having Porky Pig and Luke Skywalker give you a tour through the exciting behind-the-scenes world of animation.   

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

How to win over TV critics

Yesterday, I talked in general about the TV Critics convention, held every summer (stretching into the fall and early winter) in Los Angeles.

These bedraggled TV critics have to sit through hundreds of panel presentations of all the new shows and any other programming these 200 networks want to serve up.

I’ve been on these panels, pitching our wares, and I usually look out at a sea of bored faces.

But one of our panels proved to be a big hit.

It was 1995 and we were doing a panel for our new CBS show, ALMOST PERFECT. I was on the stage along with co-creators David Isaacs & Robin Schiff, and stars Nancy Travis & Kevin Kilner.

We gave the usual bullshit, they asked the usual questions – your typical uninspired session.

And then a critic asked Kevin what he did before he became an actor? He said he worked for a bank and one of his jobs was to audit a company that sold a popular brand of chicken to markets and restaurants. Yawn.

Then Kevin said, “Do you ever wonder how they slaughter those chickens?”

My first thought was, “Holy shit! This may go down as the worst new show presentation EVER.”

Kevin went on to explain in graphic detail how indeed they killed their chickens. 

But suddenly I saw all the critics perk up. For the first time they were actually INTERESTED. They DID want to know how chickens met their demise. And then they had follow-up questions.

I’m sure for them it was just so refreshing to not be hearing “how our show is a reflection of the angst that young single people go through… bla bla bla.”

Within minutes we had won them over. And our session was one of the most talked about of the convention. Thank you, Kevin Kilner.

So if you’re a producer and your panel hasn’t gone up yet, you might want to Google “How to kill a chicken.” Especially if your show is about a cop who doesn’t go by the book or a married couple whose adult child moves back into the house.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Imagine a convention in the Hotel California...

It’s TV critic season here in LA. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, every summer TV critics from around the country converge on Los Angeles to hear panels from all the new shows, network executives, etc.

My heart goes out to them.

Picture a convention with sessions every hour, seven days a week, and it lasts for a month. "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

Having been a showrunner who numerous times was a member of one of these panels I totally understood why the gaggle of critics could not have looked less enthusiastic to see us. We were probably show 67 of 85. I’d look out at the audience and half these people were on their computers clearly reading email or watching MLB online.

In the online trade sites they do an article for each of these sessions. And they’re the same thing. These producers are touting their new shows, explaining why theirs is different and special, praising their brilliant casts. Flash forward to October and most of them will get roundly and justifiably panned by these same critics. Come next March and 90% of them will be gone.

Hey, I don’t blame the producers. When I was up there I touted my show, and how we were elevating sitcoms to an art form. That’s the game. Producers wax poetic, critics order hiking equipment from Amazon.

Each network and cable network and streaming platform has its few days carved out. And those usually end with parties for the critics sponsored by these networks. I think without the alcohol these poor reviewers could not make it through the month.

I certainly see the reason for conference. It allows TV critics access to all the stars and producers they’ll be covering. They can establish relationships, ask questions that might be relevant to their specific location or audience, and meet executives who otherwise go out of their way to avoid them. And since there are so many shows and networks the conference just continues to grow. Originally there were three networks, they each had their two or three days, and the whole shindig was over in a week and a half. Next year the new Apple Network will be joining the party (whatever exactly that will be) and probably six more. Going to the TCA Convention will be like shipping out to Afghanistan for a year.

It ain't worth the free drinks and all the shrimp you can eat.  

Tomorrow: how one of our panels became the hit of that year’s convention.