Wednesday, October 31, 2018

EP96: Tell the truth, make it matter, never be boring: Learn the keys to successful communication.

Ken’s guest is media consultant, Valerie Geller. Her keys to success are invaluable for anyone wanting to start a podcast, host a radio show, YouTube channel, or just deliver a speech, sales pitch, or powerpoint presentation. Some terrific insights into the art of communication and storytelling.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

My favorite Halloween TV episode

It’s always hard to write Halloween episodes. Especially in sitcoms. How many costume party mishaps and botched attempts at scaring people can we write? Dramas at least can do spooky episodes if they fit within the genre. I’m sure you will want to keep the lights on the night the CRIMINAL MINDS Halloween episode airs.

But there’s always the danger that the Halloween show will get just a little too weird and go off the rails. Such was the case with my favorite idiotic Halloween episode (although I don’t know if it were designed specifically for Halloween) – THE MAN FROM UNCLE – “The Deadly Games Affair.” It aired in late October, 1964 so I’m guessing that’s why it was slotted there.

First some background for the (overwhelming majority) of readers unfamiliar with THE MAN FROM UNCLE. In the early ‘60s James Bond movies were first introduced and were a huge sensation. So naturally television wanted their version. Thus, THE MAN FROM UNCLE starring Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo on NBC. In fairness, the first year was pretty good. It was still in black-and-white and attempted to be gritty and suspenseful (for the most part). In later years it went to color and became more camp and was less James Bond and more Austin Powers.

However, “The Deadly Games Affair” was a first season episode. It was an early episode so I give them the benefit of the doubt that they were still trying to nail down the tone of the series.


This was the plot. Some Nazis in suburban New York had Hitler’s body in suspended animation. To reanimate him they needed someone with the same blood type. Namely Napoleon Solo.

Now this Nazi mad scientist, like I said, lived in a New York suburb and somehow has a secret laboratory underneath his house. Imagine Rob Petrie kept Adolph Hitler in his basement.

This Frankenstein plot is so absurd on every level that it’s my favorite Halloween show and no other has come close.  And no, I won't tell you how it ended up.   It would keep you up nights for weeks!

Happy Halloween and as you trick-or-treat (I'm going to trick-or-treat with my granddaughter) be careful of houses that have secret underground labs.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Death of Hollywood's Middle Class: My Thoughts

Lots of people have asked me about this article, which basically maintains that with the new streaming services and all the short orders for series instead of the established 22 episodes per season it is really affecting mid-level actors and writers. In a business that was never secure in the first place, now it’s really hard to cobble together a career unless you’ve made it and then you’re greatly overpaid. Additionally, there are no residuals or they’re greatly reduced so what was a fifty-year safety net is now gone.

So… my thoughts.

First off, an irrefutable law of the universe: Networks and studios will try to screw you any way they can.

Any time there’s a new delivery model they will screw you until the unions fight for fair compensation (often after a strike and often not getting enough).

And it’s getting harder because of consolidation. Giant mega corporations can hold out a lot longer than a writer with mortgage payments.

The good news is with more scripted shows there are more options and opportunities for writers and actors. The bad news is they don’t pay well and many are short orders so just landing a staff job on a show might not be enough to pay the bills for a year.

When I broke in (a thousand years ago) there were just three networks. You either sold something to one of the big 3 or you didn’t work at all. It’s like there was the Major Leagues and no minors. So breaking in was very hard, but if you did and you had the talent to remain in the business you could maintain a decent career over a number of years.

Now it’s easier to break in (especially if you’re diverse) but harder to get any real traction. I also suspect, and I have no numbers to back this up, but there were fewer people trying to break in in 1975 than today.

The article makes a compelling case that it’s tough in this current landscape and it’s hard to argue with that.

All I can say is cream rises to the top. The most talented actors and writers will be in demand just as they’ve always been. You be one of them. Yes, it’s harder to make a living in this new multi-platform world, but name me a profession where it’s not more difficult these days.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Open letter from a Dodger fan

Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox, winners last night of the 2018 World Series. They beat the team I grew up rooting for, the Los Angeles Dodgers, but in every way they deserved to win. They were the best team in baseball, they are a class organization, and they have a rookie manager who completely out-managed his counterpart.

This will be less about analyzing plays and games of the World Series (there are a thousand articles and talk shows for that) and more about my disappointment with my boyhood team. And I offer this as hopefully constructive criticism because I love this franchise and it breaks my heart to see what its become.

I attended the Saturday night game. That’s the one where they blew a 4-run lead with three innings to go. I’ve probably been to six or seven World Series games at Dodger Stadium. This one was different. I was at the famous Kirk Gibson home run game. Everyone stood on their chairs and cheered and screamed for at least fifteen minutes (and I’m not exaggerating). There was a real love affair between this town and this franchise. These were our “guys,” whether they were Orel Hershiser or Sandy Koufax or Fernando Valenzuela or Mickey Hatcher. You invested your emotions in them because they were YOUR Dodgers. You didn’t worry that Sandy Koufax had an opt-out in his contract.

Sitting in the stands, the same stands I’ve sat in since I was a kid, I felt a real disconnect to these Dodgers. These weren’t my “guys” – these were pawns management was putting out there on this particular night. Analytics have taken over Major League Baseball. And no team tries so hard to crunch numbers to get an advantage than the Dodgers. Their top management team is a collection of Wile E. Coyotes who clearly believe they’re smarter than everyone else. There is so much maneuvering during the season it’s ridiculous. Hardly a day goes by when they don’t change the roster. The message is clear to the players: “we have a game plan and the minute you don’t fit it you’re gone. Oh, and we change the game plan at our prerogative.”

How can you ask players to give their hearts and souls to an organization that does that? The answer of course is that the players don’t; not really. Yes, they want to succeed, they want their numbers to go up (so they can make more money), and they have pride so they want to win, but that’s for them, not for the Dodgers, not for the community, and not for the fans. Under the circumstances I can’t blame the players.

Analytics are fine but these are human beings. They have emotions. They’re not just pawns. Win or you’re fired is not a real incentive. Some things analytics can’t measure so they dismiss as non-factors. Things like team chemistry. I’ve been around Major League Baseball long enough to know that team chemistry does matter. How many assholes on the club matter. How good is the food on the plane matters.

Ownership groups are hiring young managers, some with no managerial experience because they “relate better to the players” and embrace analytics. In many cases the real reason is they’ll agree to be puppets for upper management who will make all their decisions for them.

In 2014 the Dodgers made a deal with Time-Warner Cable for $8.35 billion for their television rights for 25 years. Time-Warner figured they could strong arm other cable companies and satellite services into paying big bucks to carry the Dodgers. They all rightfully said, fuck you.

Five years into the deal and 70% of the Southern California market can’t watch Dodger games. For the first few years fans were denied Vin Scully’s final seasons. What message does THAT send to the fans?

Then Scully retired and the 70% who can only follow the games on radio are saddled with a announcer who makes chronic whopper mistakes, has trouble seeing, doesn’t know the finer points of the game, and has the world’s most inflated opinion of himself. The ratings are a 1.0 share, even with championship teams – so what message does that send? For a team where its greatest asset for 67 years was its announcer, you’d think they’d realize the value of a good announcer and find someone better than Charley Steiner. They don’t care. Screw the fans. Again, if he got big numbers the Dodgers would have every right to say, “he’s very popular, you just don’t like him, that’s too bad.” But a 1.0 share when there are no other options. That’s flat out appalling.

This World Series game is the first time I attended Dodger Stadium this year. For eight years I hosted Dodger Talk, ending in 2010, so I went to every game.  Saturday was quite an eye-opening experience. First off, they charged $60 for parking. Then they directed you to the farthest reaches of the stadium, a million miles from your seat. When Walter O’Malley designed Dodger Stadium on levels it was so you could park close to your seat. The new ownership group doesn’t give a shit where your seats are. Roads are blocked off and the motorist has no choice but to park where they tell hin. And getting out is an absolute nightmare. Cars all jockey for position trying to wedge into a few lanes. Instead of having parking attendants direct traffic and keep the flow moving they literally just stand there. It can easily take over an hour to get out of the parking lot. And once you are out you’re fed into the exit they select. Too bad if you live in Long Beach because depending on where your car is you’re fed into the exit that leads to the San Fernando Valley.

The stadium opened in 1962. You think they could have figured out the fucking parking by now.

I went to the concession stand for some food. A Coke cost $9. I said that was outrageous. The disinterested clerk just shrugged and said, “It’s the World Series.” Oh… so it’s okay to just jack up the prices? THAT promotes good will.

Originally the exterior of the stadium was designed with planters featuring flowers throughout the park. Now those planters looked dingy, unkempt, and just a collection of weeds. The seats are faded and in desperate need of a paint job. The great thing about Dodger Stadium was that, like Disneyland, it always looked brand new. Not anymore. It shows its age and then some.

I can’t stress enough that all of this pains me greatly. I love the Dodgers. I worked for the Dodgers. My greatest achievement in broadcasting was one day when I got to call the play-by-play alongside Vin Scully on a Dodger game. Dodger Stadium was mecca. As a kid I’d fall asleep with my ear to a transistor radio listening to a Dodger game. One day on MASH we were watching a Dodger playoff game and Mel Brooks came into the office. Usually that was a major treat because he is even funnier in person. But after a few minutes we gently ushered him out because we were watching the game. I went to downtown Dodger parades. I almost got the shit beaten out of me because I wore a Dodger cap at a Giants game at Candlestick Park in 1974. My son’s Bar Mitzvah party was at Dodger Stadium. I made Dodger Stadium sand castles when I was a kid. I begged my parents to take me to Vegas to see Maury Wills sing (they wisely said no). I would listen to games on the radio and keep score. I made a pilgrimage to Dodger Town in Vero Beach, Florida. I keep Sandy Koufax’s autograph in my wallet. So when I point out the ways in which I believe the organization is letting down the fans and not putting out the best product it can, it is with the sincere hope that they can restore the love and commitment we had for them.  And they won’t have to win the World Series to win our hearts: we’ll once again be TRUE blue.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The day NBC thought I had gone insane.

Just because I was directing my very first episode didn’t mean I couldn’t take time out to punk NBC.

My first episode was WINGS. There was a steep learning curve to be sure, especially in terms of the technical aspects of the job. WINGS was a multi-camera show so it was shot like a play in front of a studio audience. As the actors move about the set performing a scene I had four cameras all in motion, capturing the action from different angles. At any one moment I would have some assigned for close ups, or two-shots, or wide masters. And if someone in the cast crossed from point A to point B that would necessitate a change in all four cameras.

As a result, every moment, every movement is carefully choreographed. Add to that my inexperience. I had a crew of a hundred people waiting around for me to assign them shot for shot.  No pressure there.

To assist me, I had a “quad split.” This is a bank of four monitors displaying what each camera was showing. I would stare at the quad split and after each blocking move I would assign everyone’s new camera mark. This can be time consuming and tricky even when you do know what you’re doing (which I of course did not). I can camera block a half-hour sitcom in four or five hours these days. For WINGS I think it took me twelve. Maybe thirteen. I lost all sense of time and the use of my limbs after maybe nine hours. 

The routine for filming day is that the cast and crew assembles at noon. I have three hours to fine tune the shots and rehearse with the cast. A dress rehearsal follows at 3:00 with full cameras. The producers give final performance notes to the actors then generally go back to the room to tweak four or five jokes or make little trims. Everyone eats, the cast gets into hair and makeup and costumes, the studio audience is let in at 6:30 and at 7:00 it’s showtime.

On this particular episode I get the new pages after the dress rehearsal. And I almost plotz.

They’ve added a new scene.

It’s now 6:30 and the audience is already streaming in. No time to block the scene, much less camera block it. The set is in full view of the audience.

I go backstage, round up the actors who will be in this scene, and say, “Okay, after the audience leaves we’ll block and shoot this correctly, but now, for their sake, just go out there, move wherever you want to move, but don’t worry about it. We’ll do it once then come back to it later tonight.” They were fine with that.

I went to the camera operators, gave them a rough idea of where people might be moving and said, just get what you get. We probably won’t use any of it anyway.

I also told my plan to the showrunners, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angel.

So we’re filming the show. Huddled around the quad split are me, my script supervisor (also in on the plan), the showrunners, and the executive from NBC assigned to cover the show.

We get to that new scene. I say "Action!" The actors glide around the set, and the audience enjoys it. Meanwhile, what’s on the quad split is utter chaos – cameras swishing around looking for actors, people being out of focus, actors heads cropped off, moments where none of the four cameras have the actor who is speaking, etc.

Out of the corner of my eye I see that the NBC exec is completely gobsmacked. I realize I never told him what we were doing. So I decided to have some fun.

When the scene was over I yelled, “Cut!” then turned to Peter, David, and David and said, “I got what I needed. You guys good?” They instantly picked up on what I was doing and said, “Yes, we’re fine.” I yelled “Moving on!” and the cameras and crew rolled into position for the next scene.

The NBC exec was in a panic. “Whoa, whoa!” he said. “Don’t worry,” I said, cutting him off. “This is by design. I’m doing something stylistic here. It’ll look really cool when it’s cut together.” He then turned to the three showrunners who confirmed they were on board with this.

For the rest of the night the NBC exec was scratching his head. I’m sure he was thinking, “What am I going to say to my bosses when the rough cut comes in and there’s this bizarre Felliniesque scene in the middle of a WINGS episode?”

Once the audience left and we were about to do pick ups I spilled the beans so he wouldn’t have to stay an extra two hours while we re-shot stuff and did that scene for real. I had known him for ten years and he took the prank in good spirits. But curiously, every other NBC show I ever directed I noticed that the network exec watched me like a hawk.

I never saw the gag reel that year. I’d be shocked if that scene wasn’t in it.  I'm only sorry I don't have a copy.  How great to have that start off my demo reel! 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

How to get a record on the air or a Golden Globe

Here’s another one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post. It’s from Bill Jones (who did not pay me to answer it):

I was wondering if you could talk frankly about "payola" in the radio industry. From what I know, record labels and radio stations got caught in pay-for-play scandals in the 1950s or so, but the practice lasted for decades beyond (including on MTV, and may still last today in both media). Did you ever witness or hear of such conduct while you were a DJ? Who did the labels try to bribe--station managers? Playlist supervisors? DJs? And was it with money or, um, other substances? Just wondering -- thanks!

Payola was a big scandal in the late ‘50s. Record companies realized that only songs that got radio airplay became hits. Back then radio stations had huge audiences and great influence. There was no Pandora, and the only satellite was Sputnik and they only played Russian hits.

Disc jockeys in those days had much more freedom than they do today. They could select their own music. So needless to say, they were the targets of the record companies. DJ’s were paid under the table to play their songs. Many radio stations knew about this practice and looked the other way. In fact, they sometimes didn’t pay their disc jockeys very high salaries, knowing their income would be padded by the record companies.

But of course this practice was dishonest. Disc Jockeys were recommending crap just because their palms were being greased.

The result was a big scandal. Back in those days congressional hearings and witch hunts were quite the fad. Lots of DJ’s lost their jobs, including the great Alan Freed. Somehow, however, Dick Clark managed to escape unscathed. Clark didn’t take payola per se from record companies, he owned a whole bunch of them. He also received royalties from tons of hits that he essentially made by giving the artists exposure on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. Clark divested of all his record company holdings and walked away clean. Alan Freed was not so lucky. His career was essentially ruined.

Stations assumed more control over the programming. By the mid ‘60s most Top 40 stations had music directors and program directors who ultimately decided which songs received airplay. So to pay off a Disc Jockey was like the stupid starlet who tries to get ahead in Hollywood by sleeping with writers.

Record companies found other ways to “encourage” the PD’s and MD’s to play their songs. Women, drugs, trips, wining and dining, free T-shirts. Is it legal? No, not really. But is this practice any different from what Washington lobbies do to win favor? Is a free junket “payola?” Or an expensive dinner? Or tickets to the Super Bowl?

Does payola still go on? Of course it does. Maybe not as overt, and certainly not as widespread – not because the radio industry is cleaning up its act, but because radio now has way less impact. Why pay to get a record on a station when you could get just as many listeners with a boombox sticking out of your car window?

As for MTV, I don’t think they even show music videos anymore. I don’t know what Music Television means if they no longer play music. To court MTV execs is like that stupid starlet sleeping with writers’ assistants.

Personally, I never took money when I was a Disc Jockey. Hey, I was never approached. A record promo man took me out to lunch once when I worked in San Bernardino. So I played his record on every station I ever worked for from then on. It was a really nice lunch. Dessert too. (Of course it helped that the record was a monster hit and every DJ played it all across the country.)

No record people ever offered me girls. I would have played polka tunes on a rock station if someone offered girls. But alas, they knew I had a very strict playlist, and in some cases the actual order of the songs was predetermined before I got on the air. So there was no reason to court me. Plus, I made fun of most records.

The key is whether the person or organization or congressman can be bought. I’d like to think that most can’t, but then I see the Golden Globes.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Friday Questions

First off, birthday wishes to my partner, David Isaacs. I won’t say how old he is but we were 9 when we were writing MASH so do the math. Now on to this week’s Friday Questions.

Sandra starts us off.

I was reading one of your Friday questions on MASH movie.

You said "we always had great respect for the movie". Did you like the script of Ring Lardner Jr.?

It is said that the poor guy was cheated out of proper praise, since Altman went around saying that he re-wrote the script and took all the praise - which seems to happen all the time in Hollywood.

And also in the same answer you have said that Richard Hooker earned just peanuts. Was he compensated later for the successful TV show, or just stiffed as usual by Hollywood.

I did mean the screenplay for the original movie. Altman gave it a more naturalistic tone, allowing dialogue to overlap, some ad libbing, etc. But it was there in Ring Lardner Jr.’s script.

Richard Hooker (a pseudonym) sold away his rights to MASH, including TV rights. Remember, at the time his book was not selling well so for a major studio to offer to buy it and turn it into a major motion picture, I’m sure Hooker was happy to make the deal and take the money. Little did he (or anyone) know that a TV series would stem from the movie and that it would be a giant cash cow. Thus he was very bitter and understandably did not want to participate in the series in any way.

Robert Altman was not thrilled with the series either I understand but eventually came around. Robert was also not too happy that his son made way more than him on MASH because he wrote the stupid lyrics to the MASH theme. 

Brian asks:

When I was watching reminiscences about the Dick Van Dyke Show, Rose Marie said that when she saw the script, she had a great guy for the Buddy Sorrell part, which was Morey Amsterdam. Keeping in mind that there are many levels of approval and the writers have their own ideas about who they want when the script is written, do you have any stories of actors recommending someone that may or may not have been your choice, but ended up getting the part?

It hasn’t happened to me very often in television but it happens a lot in the theatre. Especially when there’s no budget for a casting director. I have to rely on relationships I have with certain actors, and I will frequently ask them to recommend people. And for the most part that has paid dividends. I’ve cast a number of these recommendations and they turned out to be sensational.

That said, I’ve become my own casting director. I will go to one-act festivals or local productions and keep track of which actors I thought were great. Then I keep them and their contact info in a file for further use. I’ve hired quite a few actors this way.

Mike Bloodworth queries:

I'm fairly sure that you don't write on a typewriter. But, I'm curious as to whether you use some of the other modern conveniences. For example, do you use "Final Draft" or similar script writing software? Do you have "Grammarly" on your computer? Etc. Are they essentially requirements these days? As someone who still composes in longhand on a legal pad I'd like to know.

I use FINAL DRAFT. It’s pretty much become the industry standard. I used to use MOVIE MAGIC, which was similar and I actually liked better, but FINAL DRAFT has improved and like I said, that’s what everyone uses.

One thing I like about FINAL DRAFT is their tech support has been great. At least for me.

But all of these script writing programs are amazing when compared to typing and always shifting the tabs then needing white out to erase things and “A” pages if you wanted to add to a scene but not have to rewrite the entire scene.

And finally, slgc asks:

Do you ever listen to the current broadcasters of baseball teams whose games you used to call?

I love Ted Leitner of the Padres, but otherwise no. It’s not like I’m boycotting them, I just have other announcing teams I like better.

What’s your Friday Question? And again, happy birthday, Dave.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


Networks are so quick to claim victory. A show premieres to good numbers and immediately the network is crowing. “The Breakout hit of the season!” “America’s New Favorite Comedy!”

And then week two comes along.

And many of these “breakout hits” sink like a stone. In a number of cases these “favorite new comedies” quietly get cancelled at the end of the year.

THE CONNERS on Tuesday night dropped almost 30% from its debut. Now a drop was certainly expected but not that much. Now that we’ve learned the fate of Roseanne and viewers saw that most of the jokes in the premier revolved around Roseanne the bloom is off the rose. Not that THE CONNERS is bad creatively (it's better than most) or lost all its audience, but I think it will now just settle into being a middle-of-the-pack show. Within one week they relinquished their top spot of the night rating. So all the victory laps were a little premature.

And again, what is even considered a hit today in broadcast television? BLACKISH got less than a 1.0 share and was seen by only 3.8 million people. Sure, you could blame World Series competition but the other networks didn’t suffer.

I’m just stunned by how low network numbers are now. They’re almost becoming non-factors. How do network executives look at these ratings – for shows that are supposedly established hits or giant stunts – and not want to jump off of Space Mountain?

At what point do networks say, “Maybe we’re putting on the wrong shows? Maybe we better re-think these tepid family sitcoms and find something that’s really different and FUNNY. And maybe we get out of the way and let talented showrunners follow their vision and not our research. “

Of course this will never happen. Primetime network television will eventually cease to exist, crushed by a runaway glacier.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

EP95: The Anatomy of a Movie: The story of VOLUNTEERS, starring Tom Hanks & John Candy.

It’s typical for a movie to take years to get made.  Ken takes you through the saga of VOLUNTEERS, from the initial idea to all the studios, ups and downs, production, release, and how it not only closed a theater but it closed a bowling alley as well.  Not many movies can say that!

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Karen Carpenter lives (sort of)

I found this on YouTube and it's pretty remarkable. I've always loved Karen Carpenter's voice (even when it wasn't cool to like the Carpenters).  This Japanese singer has her DOWN.  Give a listen.  The quality of the video isn't great but close your eyes and Karen is back. 

For comparison, here's the real thing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Let the World Series begin (already)!

So this is a World Series first: My son Matt and I are rooting against each other. I’m a lifelong Dodger fan and he’s a diehard Red Sox fan. Full disclosure: Because of my son I’ve become a big Red Sox fan too so if they should win I won't be crushed.

I know Fox is thrilled. It’s a marquee match-up of two teams that have national followings and haven’t met in the World Series in 102 years. Should be fun.

The games will be on broadcast television on Fox, not cable networks that are channel 354 on your guide (IF you even get them). I know he’s much maligned, but I think Joe Buck does a terrific job and John Smoltz is the best analyst he’s had (sorry Tim McCarver). Kill the fucking Google commercials though.

I don’t know who is calling the games for ESPN radio, but LA listeners, whoever it is has got to be better than Charley Steiner. To think that for 67 glorious years we had the great Vin Scully and now we’ve got a guy who can’t go five minutes without making a bonehead mistake. Recent case in point (and trust me there are many – there are tapes floating around of his bungled calls much to the delight and prolonged laughter of everyone in the baseball media): In the last NLCS, the Dodgers went into Milwaukee with a 3-2 game advantage. One win and they go to the World Series. But they lost game 6 necessitating a game 7. When they won, this is what Charley said:

"They came into Milwaukee, down 3-2 and won last night and again tonight to win the NLCS."


He also had the wrong pitcher in the game for an entire inning.  

And this is the man sitting in Vin Scully’s chair! This is an embarrassment to the organization. And worse, typical. (You should hear that tape.) 

So if you have the MLB app, or Sirius/XM I suggest either the Red Sox home broadcast (Joe and Tim are homers but they know which players are in the game) or the ESPN broadcast, and in Los Angeles I’m hoping that ESPN710 carries the national feed.  Or better yet, listen to Hall-of-Famer Jaime Jarrin.  Even you don't speak Spanish you'll still be able to follow the game way better than listening to Charley Steiner.

For a more in depth article on his many mistakes, the LA TIMES today offers this

As for predictions? I think the American League is stronger than the National, and the Red Sox have a powerhouse team. Their Achilles Heel is their bullpen. The Dodgers have depth, tremendous flexibility (each player can play seven positions -- further confusing Charley), Kershaw (when he’s good), a strong bullpen, and all-or-nothing hitters who either homer or strike out. I personally am not a fan of substituting players in the second inning and bringing in relievers in the third. I understand the analytics but there’s also a Wile E. Coyote element to it where managers over-manage and outsmart themselves. How many times in playoffs have you seen unlikely heroes? Well, you tend to eliminate them when they’re pulled for a pinch-hitter in the third inning because analytics recommend it.

The ideal player used to be someone like Willie Mays. Now it’s Dave Kingman.

And then there are factors that analytics can’t cover. The weather. How does that affect a team? If there is a rain delay what does that do to your pitching staff? How long does the rain have to go before you lift your pitcher? (If game 1 or 2 is rained out they would normally just push till Thursday. But Fox has Thursday Night Football that they paid a billion dollars for. They’re not going to pre-empt that. Does game 3 get pushed all the way to Friday?) Temps should be in the 30’s in Boston. That could be a factor, especially for a team that plays in sunny LA. If the Dodgers thought San Francisco crowds were hostile, that was the Queen’s Tea compared to Boston. How will the late afternoon shadows at Dodger Stadium affect the Red Sox unaccustomed as they are to that condition?

And then of course there are injuries.  

The Dodgers last played in Boston in 2010 (they were swept). Clayton Kershaw did not pitch in that series. How he will fare the first time with that Green Monster at his back is anyone’s guess – stats or no stats.

Will Chris Sale bounce back from a disappointing and injury-plagued LCS? Closer Craig Kimbrel hasn’t exactly been lights out either. Will the Red Sox get the good or bad David Price? Will the Dodgers get the good or bad Clayton Kershaw?

So I guess what I’m saying is: whichever team has the better record, Charley Steiner will report the opposite.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Poker night in Hell

One of the hardest scripts David Isaacs and I ever wrote was THE MERCHANT OF KOREA episode of MASH (season 6). It was the first script that introduced the character of Charles Emerson Winchester (although it didn’t air until later in the season) so in many ways it was a pilot. But that wasn’t the difficulty.

The reason the script was so tough was because it featured an extended poker game. We’ve written poker scenes in other sitcoms and the problems are always the same.

The first issue is that you have to be true to the game. So you have to pay strict attention to who has what cards, and how you maneuver the betting to achieve your desired result. You also have to have characters spell things out to the portion of the audience that doesn’t really understand the game. What hand beats another hand? And how do you convey that to the viewer? You need them to know enough that they can follow the story. But you come up against the age-old writing problem of characters telling other characters things they already know. So you have to very deftly dole out your exposition.

And you need to make the scene funny. Not easy with just five people sitting at a table playing cards.

But wait – there’s more!

Editing is a bitch. You can’t take out too much or the game stops making sense. Or at the very least, people are betting and making decisions way too quickly and unnaturally. They need time to call. And what about poker games where there are individual rounds of cards issued, not five cards all at once? If a player wants new cards he has to ask for them and receive them. All of that must be covered. It’s not unusual for the writing room to get confused once they dive back into a poker scene. “How many cards have been issued?” “What was Hawkeye’s hand?” “Does Hot Lips get to call before BJ?” “Which players have folded by this point?” You get the idea.

Poker games are also murder during production. In terms of continuity, imagine having to remember exactly how many chips and what cards each player has at any given moment in the script. And where they are on the table (along with snacks, drinks, ashtrays, what-have-you).

And for the director, he’s always in danger of “going over the line.” What’s that? To explain simply: there is an imaginary line that runs through the middle of a scene. And if you have a shot that goes over that line it can be disorienting to the viewers. Characters may be looking in the wrong direction, etc. Camera coverage of poker games are always fraught with danger.  

Plus, if you’re doing the poker game in front of a studio audience (multi-cam), you generally don’t want someone sitting with his back to the camera and audience. None of the cameras will be able to see his face. And if you leave that seat vacant it always looks a little weird. Five people are jammed together while a chair stays empty. I tip my hat to THE ODD COUPLE TV show. They did lots of poker games. We did too on MASH but generally tried to make them very short or cut away to something else so we could come back just when we needed to without having to show all the logistics that got us there.

So that’s why I’m so proud of THE MERCHANT OF KOREA episode. Yes, we introduce a major character (pun only intended in retrospect) and wrote what I thought was a clever and funny episode, but my main source of pride is that… it seems to make sense.

Meanwhile, you will never see me and David doing to reboot of MAVERICK.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Hollywood Tours

Tourism is always big in Los Angeles. Local residents on the Westside are used to seeing kids stand out on Sunset Blvd. selling maps to the stars’ homes. Hollywood locals take it for granted that a thousand nimrods in Bermuda shorts will be milling about Grauman’s Chinese Theater and getting selfies with Spiderman or a guy dressed like Marilyn Monroe. And double-decked tour buses clogging up left hand lanes is a city staple.

But this year, for some reason, I am seeing way more tour buses. It’s almost one-to-one Hollywood Tour vans and parking enforcement vehicles. Why there are so many more tour buses these days I do not know. Especially since…

There is nothing to see.

Not really.

One tour takes you by the homes of the stars. But stars don’t live in Beverly Hills anymore. They used to. You could drive by Jack Benny’s house, and Lucille Ball’s, and Ronald Colman’s but the chances of actually seeing them have breakfast or watering the lawn is rather slim since they’re dead. And how many of you even know who Ronald Colman was? You’re driving by lawyers’ homes and guys who own furniture warehouses.

Stars live secluded in canyons and beach colonies and Upper Manhattan. Their compounds are gated. And would you even know the difference? If a tour guide took you to Bel Air, pointed to a gate, and said this is where Tom Cruise lives, how would you know it’s not really where the owner of Starlight Tours lives? Or a military academy?

As for stars’ hangouts – you don’t need a tour bus. Just go to Maestro’s or Spago’s or any super expensive chic eatery. The classic Hollywood haunts like Chasen’s, Perino’s, the Brown Derby, Scandia, Le Dome, Morton’s – they’re long gone. Sure, you can still go to Pink’s Hot Dogs as Orson Welles frequently did, but you’ll suffer the same fate as him. Musso & Frank’s is still open, and it’s worth seeing, but the only movie stars you’ll see there now are celebrating their 105th birthdays. Over the years I’ve seen dozens of big stars in LA restaurants, but they’ve all closed. Perhaps I should start a tour: “Where Robert Duvall, LaToya Jackson, and Dustin Hoffman used to eat.”

Will you see stars shopping in Beverly Hills? Maybe. You’ll more likely see their personal assistants.

These tours also show you “locations” from movies and TV shows. The truth is after a hundred years of movie making, every street and location has been used at least once. So the Coffee Bean you’re in right now was once a hamburger stand used in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. The street you just crossed was seen in an Allstate commercial back in 1967. The actual house used on BLESS THIS HOUSE might be right around the corner. Just assume it is.

LA is a great vacation destination.  Lots of fun things to see and do.   Disneyland, Dodger Stadium (good luck getting tickets now that the Dodgers are in the World Series), the Venice Beach walk, Universal, the Grove, Farmer's Market, LACMA, Costco. If you want to see television shows you can write to the networks.  TV tickets are free.  And there are kiosks in tourist locations like the Grove that offer these tickets.  You can see Ellen.   

But the bottom line is this: You want to see big movie stars? You want to see A-list celebrities? Go to a Lakers game... especially now that they have LeBron.  All the front-runners will be there.  The only problem is you'll have to mortgage your house for a seat close enough to see any of them. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Speeding up sitcoms

Back in the old days of Top 40 radio, some stations would adjust the turntables to play 45's at 47 or 48 RPM's.  The point here was to make the records seem brighter and faster.   And in comparison -- duller and slower on the competition.

Eventually this got out of hand.  The other station started playing their records at 48.  To keep up, the first station began playing them at 49, and all of sudden songs were going out of key, singers were sounding like the chipmunks, and the audience began to notice -- and dislike.

And now television is doing the same thing -- very slightly speeding up the playback of syndicated sitcoms -- not to make them brighter or funnier or enhance them in any way.   They're doing it to squeeze in more commercials.  TBS and TNT are two culprits.  By compressing the show they can add two whole minutes of spots to shows like SEINFELD.

Here's an article from SLATE along with a sample. 

Personally, I think this is insidious, and it will prove to be yet another nail in the coffin of broadcast networks.   When you can stream SEINFELD, when you can buy SEINFELD, when you can see SEINFELD on local channels, and you know the show is distorted on TBS, why would you watch? 

These networks are insulting you, and being patently dishonest.  Subliminal advertising is not allowed.  Why should this be okay?   Are there disclaimers warning viewers that the shows are compressed?    When radio was exposed for speeding up records it just sent listeners fleeing to FM and contributed to the downfall of the Top 40 format.

Networks like TBS are mortgaging their future and the future of broadcast television.  Is the mistrust of your brand and eventual audience exodus worth the revenue of those two extra minutes?    My guess is the people in charge would say yes.  They're not going to be in those jobs in five years so what do they give a shit?

So what if they speed up their demise -- by four minutes an hour? 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions?

Andrew Morton starts us off:

I've been re-watching a lot of CHEERS on Netflix, and noticed at a certain point that the character of Paul was featured almost as a regular. Was there a reason he was brought in so frequently? He's always fun, but for a show that had so many main characters to service, it had me wondering if there was a behind-the-scenes reason for his prominence.

Paul Willson is one of the funniest people on the planet. I was first introduced to him when he was part of the improv group, OFF THE WALL.

I don’t think there was any conscious effort to make Paul a regular but he always scored so we all just kept giving him more lines and even subplots.

I think part of it was to keep the show fresh. How many Cliff know-it-all and Norm beer-drinking jokes can you do? Paul gave us another option. And like I said, he always delivered.

David Isaacs and I even wrote an episode where a hot woman preferred Paul to Sam. It’s one of my favorite episodes.

From Donald:

Would you consider writing a spec "Bob Newhart Show" script as you did for "The Dick Van Dyke Show?"

No. THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was a one-time exercise. Part of the attraction was that I was too young to write a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW when it was originally broadcast. Not so with THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.

When David Isaacs and I were trying to break in we wrote specs for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, RHODA, two pilots, and we were in the process of outlining a HAPPY DAYS script. After HAPPY DAYS our next spec would have been THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. So in a sense I'm thrilled I never did write a BOB NEWHART SHOW because it meant we had broken in and were working writers. 

But you get the idea we were sort of driven?

Janet Ybarra asks:

I would be very interested in your thoughts on why--given the poor performance of so many reboots--why producers and networks remain so fixated on them as a trend?

Well, let’s see if networks continue to have an appetite for them. They might not.

What reboots give the networks is familiarity. With all of the new shows being introduced on all the various platforms, at least people KNOW the reboots. And since a couple have been successful that’s enough for all networks to grasp at that brass ring.

But clearly they’re stunts and a short-fix. If a reboot opens well, even if it then starts to slide – the hosting network is happy. I don’t think they’re looking for a possible nine-year run. They want decent ratings for thirteen weeks and a built-in audience.

And finally, from B. Alton:

Was wondering if writers agonize over the funniest numbers (such as a reference to a certain year in a line of dialogue), that is, a number that sounds funnier than another. An example that comes to mind being in Bob Newhart’s old standup routine where the Codfish’s captain announces to his crew (via intercom) that their submarine holds the record for sunken Japanese tonnage, established in 1954. Would 1953 or 1956 have sounded less funny?

Life’s too fucking short. Yes, there are writers who might spend an hour deciding on a number, but I would submit they’re insecure comedy writers. If I’m depending on a laugh based on whether I choose 1954 or 1953 I’m not delivering the goods.

For me it has more to do with rhythm. If I have to make up a date I’ll generally use a low number because it’s quicker and easier to say. “He hasn’t gotten laid since June third” has a better flow than “He hasn’t gotten laid since June twenty-seventh.” But is 3 a funnier number than 27? That’s for scholars to decide.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Hollywood Way Back Machine stops in 1969

One of the cool (but annoying) things about living in LA is that they film movies here. Annoying in the sense that it can block traffic, take away parking spaces, and just generally be a nuisance. And if you’re inconvenienced so they can film GOTTI 2, fuck them.

But many times the shooting is fun. A few years ago I got to just hang with George Clooney as they were setting up a shot down the block. The GO DADDY girl was filming a few houses over one day. (She wouldn’t let me get near her.) I was in Westwood one night and Usher asked for a light.

What’s really fun is when locations are dressed to look like period pieces. And such is the case currently in Los Angeles as Quentin Tarantino is filming a movie set in 1969 Hollywood. For the past couple of months his crew has been going around to various spots recreating the LA I knew and loved from the late ‘60s. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to stepping into the Way Back Machine. Unless someone builds BOOMERLAND, an amusement park for hippies with attractions like SUNSET STRIP LAND and FREE CLINIC LAND, Quentin’s movie locations are the best I'll ever be able to do.

Earlier this week he filmed in the Westwood Village (near UCLA). This was particularly cool for me because I went to UCLA in 1969 and the village was my stomping ground. So talk about a blast from the past. A lot of the replica storefronts looked pretty close. At one point I said to myself, “Gee, Campbell’s Men’s Store” was not on this street” and then I thought, “Idiot! Who the fuck is going to know? Just be glad you’re seeing Campbell’s Men’s Store again.”

What struck me, walking around Sunday night when they were setting up, was the incredible attention to detail. There are actual promo photos from the Dean Martin movie that is supposedly playing at the Bruin Theatre. No one’s going to see them. In the theatre lobby there are concession prices. I’m sure someone looked them up for accuracy. If a viewer is squinting to see how much popcorn was back then he’s sure not interested in following the story. At the beauty salon there are photos of different hairstyles. I can’t imagine a world where you’ll be able to see and register that. But it’s there.

I’m sure Quentin Tarantino is not examining every single storefront and saying “The LA Free Press was to the left of the LA Herald-Examiner.” But someone did.

And it again brings home the fact that Hollywood is filled with superb craftsmen who take enormous pride in their work. Their attention to detail often goes unappreciated. Their names scroll down in the end credits as the audience is making its mass exodus. But they’re every bit as important in Hollywood as any other filmmaker.

So thanks to them and Quentin Tarantino for a lovely nostalgic trip back to my youth. I hope the movie is good.

Here are a few photos I took Sunday night and Monday.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

EP94: Becoming a Voice Over Artist w/guest Neil Ross

In part 2 of Ken’s chat with legendary Voice Over Artist and Voice Actor, Neil Ross he discusses how to break into the world of Voice Overs, what it takes to learn your craft, the odds of success, cartoon voices, and what it’s like to be the announcer for the Academy Awards. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Bring back comedy

A few weeks ago when I launched I offered scripts of my plays for free on the first day. Since then I have received many nice compliments for which I am enormously grateful. All of my plays, full-length and ten-minute one acts are available to buy. But my main focus is trying to get theatres to perform them. You can license my plays for very reasonable rates.

I would hope I’m providing a service (or a couple of them).

Many theatres don’t want to do new full-length comedies. (Many theatres don’t want to do new plays period.) Comedies lack the prestige and importance that more serious fare offer. Which is fine except audiences like to laugh and be entertained. When theatres put together their subscription seasons they usually have one or two comedies but they’re often established hits by established playwrights like Neil Simon and Chris Durang. Nothing wrong with that – they’re two of my favorites and I would encourage anyone to go see their work if it’s in a theatre near you – but there should be room for new work that might resonate more with today’s theatregoer. BAREFOOT IN THE PARK is a masterpiece in my opinion, but it is a little dated. The first ten minutes is a guy installing a telephone.

Since playwrights don’t get a lot of encouragement to write comedies they either don’t or they head to Hollywood to write for TV or movies. You make a lot more money writing sitcoms than for regional theatre.

I, on the other hand, have enjoyed great success in television and now really enjoy the experience of seeing my work performed live. So I don’t care that there’s not a huge market for comedy or that plays that today pass for comedies are really dark. I write what I want and the satisfaction I get is hearing an audience laugh and have a great time. So hopefully some regional and community theatres will be willing to take a chance on one of my comedies. So far they’ve been extremely well received everywhere they’ve played. A lot of those theatres were so delighted they're doing more of my plays next year. 

And then there are the ten-minute plays. Quite a few theatres are doing ten-minute festivals. They’re less risky. If an audience member doesn’t like one play it’s over in ten minutes and they might like the next. I enter quite a few and am extremely lucky to get into some. Usually they receive around 400 submissions for six slots. So the odds of getting into even one are pretty slim. I’ve gotten into thirty this year. Although, truth be told, of the 400, probably 300 were terrible. And I understand why theatres put themselves through that because it’s a way to acquire material. But man, that has to be brutal slogging through all those awful clueless ten-minute plays.

My hope is through the website I can cut through some of that for theatres. If you’re looking for comedies, how many playwrights bring a background of FRASIER, CHEERS, and MASH to the party? You could present an evening, or even part of a program with quality comedies without having to read 400 scripts.

So those are my goals. Please stop by the site and look around. You can read samples of all my plays and licensing is easy. And if EVER there was a time when we needed comedy it is NOW.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thanksgiving Day

You didn't know it but today is Thanksgiving... or at least for me.

It was on this date many years ago (before the internet even) that I entered the military.  I was in serious danger of getting drafted so I signed up to be in the Army Reserves, which is a six year commitment including six months of active duty. 

On October 16th I was ordered to report to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri to begin Basic Training.  For an uncoordinated geeky kid who didn't want to touch a rifle much less fire it and clean it and hated the cold, this was the ultimate nightmare.  I barely graduated Basic Training.  

And I made a vow at the time.  I said, "As the years go by and memories fade most people tend to forget the bad stuff and remember the good.  You look back and say, "Aw, it wasn't that bad." Well, no matter how much or little I retain, always remember this:  It WAS that bad." 

So on October 16th, every year I stop and give thanks that wherever I am and whatever I'm doing, whether I'm stuck in traffic or wrestling with a tough script, or in a dentist's chair -- it's still way better than what I was doing in 1970. 

And here's the other thing:  The reason I was in such danger of being drafted (and thus sent to Vietnam) was because in the Draft Lottery my number was 4 (out of 366).  At the time I thought I was the unluckiest son of a bitch on the planet.  But you know what?  It was a BLESSING.


If I hadn't been in the army I never would have met my writing partner, David Isaacs.  He was ultimately assigned to my reserve unit and we met in Army summer camp.  I never could have written MASH if I hadn't had a military background and really understood the culture and its thinking.  And MASH was our big turning point.  I probably would have had a much less successful career without MASH (or more likely -- no career at all). 

So today is Thanksgiving Day.  Thanks that I was in the Army.  And thanks that I'm not in the Army.

I imagine we all have our own individual Thanksgiving Days.  I'm still trying to organize a parade for mine.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Going to the theatre with Jackie O.

Since a number of people who read my post yesterday asked about my brush with Jacqueline Onassis, I thought I would reprise a post I wrote on this a few years ago.

Yes, I went to the theatre with Jackie O.

Okay, pick yourself off the floor.

We didn’t go together in the sense of “arrive” together, but we did sit together.

You’re still not buying it, but it’s true.

Backstory: Larry Gelbart had a play on Broadway called SLY FOX. (Needless to say it was hilarious.) My wife and I were in New York and Larry arranged for us to have his house seats.

We sit down, third row center, settle in and I glance to my left. Holy shit! It’s Jackie.  In the seat right next to me. 

During intermission I decide to get up and go to the lobby. As I pass by her I rub up against her knees (which were bony by the way).  Okay, that was a dorky thing to do, but that was my brush with greatness.

The next day I called Larry and thanked him for the tickets. I mentioned that Jackie O. sat right next to me. He got very excited. “Did she laugh? What did she laugh at?” I said, “Yes, and hey, you never asked whether my wife and I liked the show.” He apologized, asked us, then wondered if I could remember any specific lines Jackie laughed at.

I’d like to say that’s my favorite Jackie/theater story, but it’s not. Supposedly she was at a theater and bumped into Stephen Sondheim. She asked what he was working on. He had to really hedge. How do you tell Jackie Kennedy you’re working on a musical called ASSASSINS?

Sunday, October 14, 2018

My life from A to Z

One of those dumb personal quizzes circulating the net. I'm admitting things here even my shrink doesn't know. Of course, he doesn't care.

• A-Available/Single? Not according to my wife
• B-Best Friend? My partner. I'd be a lot poorer emotionally and financially without him.
• C-Cake or Pie? I'll have to go with Elvis and say cake.
• D-Drink Of Choice? Makers & ginger ale but only after 7 a.m.
• E-Essential Item You Use Everyday? My Pocket Fisherman.
• F-Favorite Color? Green. They asked me this for the Dewar's ad, too.
• G-Gummy Bears Or Worms? Whichever one is not banned from commercial flights.
• H-Hometown? Los Angeles
• I-Indulgence? Irene Jacob movies even though I can't understand them.• J-January Or February? February. Pitchers and catchers report.
• K-Kids & Their Names? Matt, Annie, and maybe some in Bakersfield.
• L-Life Is Incomplete Without? Laughter.
• M-Marriage Date? July 8. Same date that crime boss Soapy Smith was shot to death in 1898.
• N-Number Of Siblings? 1
• O-Oranges Or Apples? Apple, if we're talking pies or computers. Orange if we're talking women's prisons.
• P-Phobias/Fears? Mimes.
• Q-Favorite Quote? Enough is as good as a feast to an idiot.
• R-Reason to Smile? Linda Eder singing
• S-Season? Bob Gaudio
• T-Tag Three or Four People? I don't know four people.
• U-Unknown Fact About Me? I touched Jackie Kennedy's knee.
• V-Vegetable you don't like? Fucking Republicans
• W-Worst Habit? Sweating the small stuff
• X-X-rays You've Had? Teeth, chest, and what kind of stupid question is that?
• Y-Your Favorite Food? Lobster...but must not still be alive.
• Z-Zodiac Sign? Aquarius man.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

A Scary Time for Boys

Discovered this video by Lynzy Lab. She took the (many) words right out of my mouth. Great video worth seeing.  It's a song called A SCARY TIME FOR BOYS

Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday Questions

Thanks as always for your Friday Questions. Here are this week’s batch:

Dhruv leads off:

In early 80s Hollywood changed forever after UA sank due to 'Heaven's Gate'. Due to the prevailing situation, were all the studios overtly cautious on script buying and approving the projects?

Were any of your scripts, including 'STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE', affected due to 'Heaven's Gate' debacle?

Studios were more cautious about big budget movies and especially more cautious about directors. Usually it was the director who would go wildly over-budget. Studios really started clamping down. HEAVEN’S GATE was not only a financial disaster but it was a huge embarrassment to the studio. Studios don’t like to be embarrassed.

As for our work, since we wrote comedies there was less concern. I don’t recall ever getting a studio note telling us to scale back a scene because it might be too costly.  David and I were never hired for our "scope."

Phil also has a question regarding that STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE screenplay we once wrote for Columbia

Do you get back your script's rights after some time. It's 25 years now. Will it revert back to you, since it's not made?

There is this strange window that after a certain number of years – I believe it’s seven – you can ask for the rights back. But that window closes after a few years. It’s pretty bizarre. We never tried to get STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE back, but we did once try to get another screenplay we had done for Columbia back and the window had long since closed.

Mel Agar wonders:

I was watching first season episodes of Cheers, and I was struck by the depth of the writing staff in terms of talent and previous experience. That got me wondering ... how does a first season writers' room get assembled?

Well, first it depends on budget. In the case of CHEERS, it was a different era. The original staff was very small – The Charles Brothers and me and David Isaacs.

Ironically, we had never worked with the Charles Brothers before coming aboard CHEERS. Usually you try to surround yourself with writers you know and have worked with. The Charles Brothers came from TAXI and since that show was still on they weren’t able to use any of the TAXI writers they were familiar with. In a sense they took a real chance with us. Considering we stayed with the show for nine years I think it worked out.

And finally, from Keith:

I'm curious--what did you think of Newhart (the later show set in the Vermont inn)? The best ending for any series ever.

I liked the new NEWHART and thought they surrounded Bob with some very funny characters. Larry, Daryl, and Daryl always made me laugh. I loved Tom Poston and Julia Duffy. I wish Bob himself would have done more. In most episodes he just stood behind the front desk in the lobby.

But overall there was a nutty level of writing and I enjoyed the show thoroughly.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Starr. To Taylor. Touchdown."

Voice of the Baltimore Colts -- Chuck Thompson
The NFL is well underway. There are even articles NOT about the protests in the papers. But I must say, watching games now I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic for days gone by when I watched as a kid.

The NFL’s first commissioner, Pete Rozelle, was a brilliant guy. One of the things he instituted was a national TV deal. Every team received the same amount from the TV rights. So unlike baseball, there is parity. Small market teams like Green Bay get just as much money as the New York Giants. Granted there are less than 20 games a season as opposed to baseball where every team plays 162, but Rozelle smartly realized that there needed to be consistency in how the game was presented.

So here’s how it worked in the late ‘50s and ‘60s – if you had an NFL team in your market you saw all of their road games. The weeks they were home you saw a different game. If you didn’t have a team in your market you got a variety of games. CBS broadcast the games.

But unlike today, CBS had no assigned announcers. Each team had their own play-by-play man. So if the Rams, for example, played a road game in Cleveland the Rams announcer Bob Kelley called the game. If Cleveland played the Rams in Los Angeles then Browns’ announcer Ken Coleman called the game.

There were several advantages to this arrangement. First off, your announcer knew way more about your team than a network guy who just flew in for the game. Secondly, and most important, each team’s announcer back then was distinctive and gave his team a real character.

I used to love listening to these men who all had very different voices and styles. Compare that to today. Especially if you get the B or C team the games are called by generic interchangeable announcers who offer nothing but rudimentary play-by-play.

Bob Kelley had a great whiskey voice and a real sense of urgency to his broadcasts. Chuck Thompson of the Colts brought an elegance to his call (and always wore his signature hat). Ray Scott of the Packers was the voice of God just punctuating plays with two or three word sentences. “Starr. To Taylor. Touchdown.” Jack Brickhouse of “da Bears” had a friendly fatherly quality, Ken Coleman of Cleveland and Van Patrick of Detroit had signature voices, and then there was Chris Schienkel of the Giants who I never liked. We rarely got 49er games so I don’t remember who called them but I’m sure he was on the same level as these other gentlemen.

Were they homers?  Some were.  But so what?   So were all the fans in the stands.  

The three number one network NFL guys, Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, and Joe Buck all are exceptional announcers. But I bet even they would agree with me. Today the games are in glorious HD color with drone cameras and amazing angles and telestraters and whiz-bang graphics – but there’s something missing – personality, localization, familiarity, team identification. Sorry but I’d trade the first down stripe for Chuck Thompson.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

EP93: The Man who Killed Jim Morrison

Well, he didn’t really, but Ken talks to Neil Ross, a voice over artist who has announced the Academy Awards, and in his prior life was a disc jockey filled with crazy and colorful stories… including one with Jim Morrison of the Doors.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Keep an open mind

Casting is always hard. Especially in a comedy. And when you cast a network sitcom pilot the actors who read for you all have a certain level of proficiency. They’re all in SAG, most have been in series or at least have guested on series so they generally know their way around a joke. They know where the punchlines are and what words to hit to sell the joke.

But when I’m casting I look for something more. A very intangible quality. There are people who on some gut level are just FUNNY. They hear the rhythm, they feel the timing, you get the sense it’s effortless. They find laughs that aren’t there. A look, a gesture, even a tiny one, a raised eyebrow – almost without trying they make something funnier. David Hyde Pierce is a prime example.

I was watching a few minutes of THE COOL KIDS last week (don’t ask me why), and I realized that Vicki Lawrence has it. I had never given her much thought actually. She was Carol Burnett-light on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, played that broad character in MAMA’S FAMILY, and spent much of her career appearing on disposable shows like YES DEAR and THE LOVE BOAT. (She also had a hit record in 1973 that I played the crap out of when I was a disc jockey – “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”)

But seeing her on THE COOL KIDS it struck me that this woman was way more special than I had ever given her credit for. And like I said, it’s an intangible quality. I can’t totally explain it, but I know it when I see it.

And to me the lesson here is to always keep an open mind. If I were assembling a pilot two years ago and my casting director suggested Vicki Lawrence I would not have been excited. And I would have missed out. People can surprise you. Be open to it.


A new Vicki Lawrence fan

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Reboots are doing even worse than expected

Yesterday I talked about the TV season so far.  And I mentioned that reboots were not faring well.  Crunching second week numbers they're doing even worse.

WILL & GRACE's season premier drew only 3 million people.   And that's with David Schwimmer as a guest and lots of promotion.   W&G is toast.

MURPHY BROWN opened with a whimper and went down 9% from that.  Every other comedy that night on CBS kept their audience.   Not good.  Based on readers' comments you guys weren't that impressed either. 

MAGNUM P.I. seems to be exciting no one.

And then there's LAST MAN STANDING.  It kicked ass its first week on Fox.  It got better numbers than it did on ABC.  But don't pop the champagne just yet.  In week two it lost 27% of its audience.  And the trend among reboots is that they go steadily down.  They never build.   Now LAST MAN STANDING, in fairness, even with the loss still is doing better on Fox than sitcoms have done in years.   But let's see how this ultimately plays out.  Fox spent a lot of money for live wrestling to program on Friday nights.  That starts sometime next year.  I'm sure Fox execs are shaking their heads saying, "NOW we get a hit on Friday night?"   One other thing about LAST MAN STANDING -- it's kind of stretching it calling it a reboot.  It was off the air one season.

THE CONNORS has yet to debut.   The expected numbers are half of what ROSEANNE got (which is still pretty decent).  But two things to consider: 1) The curiosity regarding Roseanne's departure should inflate the premier numbers, and 2) Even with Roseanne the ratings were going steadily down.

Look, in a world where we can see all episodes of the original series anytime we want, reboots are not only competing with everything else on TV but themselves as well.  Plus the actors were younger and the writing was at its best in the originals.   60 year-old actors still acting like they did when they were 30 is creaky and creepy.  And writing styles have changed so the reboots sometime feel dated even though they're trying to sound contemporary.

So how long will this reboot trend last?   Let's see how long these shows last and how many more are put into development.  If I was a betting man I'd say the chances of that BIG WAVE DAVE'S reboot are now pretty slim.