Monday, December 31, 2018

How did I do on my New Year's Resolutions?

On January 1st I posted my New Year's Resolutions.  Let's see how well I did.

Throw out my Miramax DVD's.

They're gone. Sorry Harvey.

Finally watch THIS IS US.

Next year for sure.

Get ALMOST PERFECT on Netflix or Hulu.

It's on Netflix in Europe I'm told. So that's something.

Go to the gym at least twice a week. (My gym is usually packed in January and by March it’s me and two other guys.)

I meant to say "twice a month." And then yes, I crushed this one.

Stay off the 405 freeway when it’s crowded (so only take it between 2-4 AM).

That's an impossible resolution.

Get more productions of my plays.

I had a very successful year. 37 productions and 10 readings. And some exciting things on tap already for the new year.

Meet Claire Danes. (I resolve this every year)

One of these years for sure.

Learn to do an accent in my improv class.

Does "Valley Girl" count?

See a Broadway show I wish I had written.


Go somewhere in the world I've never been.

Rome. And Valley Vista. Check.

Recover from the jet lag.


Impeach the president.

No, but we're sure getting closer.

Finish writing my new play (almost done with the second draft).

Done and the first reading is in two weeks.

Learn what half the features on my car are.

I figured out the seat warmer so I got the important one.

Finish watching THE DEUCE. It's been on DVR for months.

I did. And even watched the first episode and a half of season two.

Champion strict gun control.


Get a humor piece in the NEW YORKER.

No, unless I can get you to believe I used the pseudonym "Paul Rudnick."

Get a cartoon in the NEW YORKER.

I suppose I'd have to enter one to make that happen.

Avoid the incredibly tasty fried chicken wings at the Hamburger Hamlet.

Proudly, yes, I succeeded!  But only because the Hamlet closed.

Keep Tetris playing down to three hours a day.

I failed miserably.

Answer more Friday Questions (which I'll be able to do if I keep the previous resolution).

I did add a few bonus question days so I'm going to say check.

Clean my desk (a perennial resolution but this year for sure!)

Or next year for absolute certain.

And finally, solve the Natalie Wood case.

No, but will watch the new HBO special. 


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Weekend Post

I’ve talked about this before – this is the best week of the year to be in Los Angeles. No one is here. You can actually get around. You can get restaurant reservations. You can find a parking space.

The sad thing is this is the way LA used to be all the time. We’ve always gotten a bad rap for traffic, but in the 50’s – 70’s there was rush hour traffic in the morning and afternoon and that was it. If you drove the freeways midday or after 7 at night you just flew. And weekends were always a breeze.

But the area has grown so fast (I blame the Rose Bowl – people snowed-in in the east see the sunshine and pack the SUV) that the freeways can’t keep up with it.

Believe it or not we have a subway. No, seriously. We do. Honestly. I’m not kidding. But it doesn’t go to most of the places that Angelinos (yes, we’re called that) need to go.  That's why locals don't even know we have a subway. 

Okay, back in the 60’s and 70’s there was terrible smog, but if you could see through the brown haze and didn’t have a choking fit, you had an easy commute on the 405.

You could claim that the mass exodus this week is because the entertainment industry shuts down for the holidays, but they’ve essentially been closed since the week before Thanksgiving. They’ll be back after the Super Bowl. No, it’s the whole town. The only distinction is that entertainment folks all flock to Hawaii or Aspen, where as the rest of city scatters everywhere.

So I try to take this week to eat in restaurants that are schleps and normally I’d avoid because of the commute. I might even venture downtown. No. Strike that. It’s still downtown.

But I will try to take as much advantage of this week as I can. I may drive over Laurel Canyon at 5:00 PM just ‘cause I can. I know – that’s crazy talk – but I might just do it. Come January it’s back to the house, Amazon home deliveries, and Post Mates.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Friday Questions

Last FQ’s of the year. Over 250 answered this year alone.

Pam has a question regarding VOLUNTEERS:

Did you meet and talk to Tom Hanks? How was he? Or was it always Producers, studio executives and the director who were the go between?

I spoke to Tom numerous times and even went out to lunch with him. Most of the time we discussed baseball and radio. He used to listen to me on KYA when he was growing up.

And I’ve continued to bump into him and chat. One time in a restaurant, he and Rita came to the table and we all spitballed on a school paper my daughter was working on at the time.

Also, when Tom was filming SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE I was broadcasting for the Mariners and he would come out to the Kingdome. He even went on the air and provided color during a game. Damn, the man is multi-talented!

Douglas Trapasso asks:

How common is it for radio folks to socialize with each other after hours and even years after working at a particular station? Did you try to stay in touch with your fellow fire-ees whenever the ax fell?

You bet. I’m still friends with a lot of the jocks and program directors I worked with over the years. Sadly, some have passed. But of my closest friends, many are radio related. And I attend radio reunions whenever I can.   You can easily find me.  I'm the one not forcing my voice. 

Interestingly, in LA in radio’s heyday in the 60’s and 70’s there was a watering hole in Hollywood called Martoni’s and EVERYONE from every station would hang out there. You’d be drinking with your competition. People who were asked to play Osmond records had a bond, much like soldiers stuck in foxholes during World War I.

From Mike Bloodworth:

In a desperate attempt to find new source material, some producers have started turning to podcasts for ideas. DIRTY JOHN is one example. Here's my question. Have you ever considered making your podcast more like a scripted series? Sort of like a radio play?

No. That would be way too much work. I do, from time to time, play one-act plays of mine (and occasionally break them down as a teaching exercise), but my focus on the podcast is to be very conversational and talk one to one to my listener. So it’s a much looser and spontaneous presentation.

To script plays, cast them, record them, maybe get an audience – way too much effort for this lazy podcaster.

And finally, from Nathan:

My Friday question on your spec scripts:

You have previously said that you had sold spec movie scripts to studios. After that, do they inform you about any progress like anyone interested in the script or other studios expressing interest in buying from this studio?

Generally they keep you in the loop – more as a courtesy, depending on your relationship with them.

And if there appears to be movement (either going forward or putting it turnaround), usually they will want your agent to get involved.

But there often comes a time when the phone just stops ringing. When studios put on other writers they frequently don’t tell you (although they’re contractually obligated to). So the project continues to be developed but for you there’s nothing but radio silence.

Remember this: Hollywood is only gracious when it suits them.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What a meh year for movies

This is the week in LA and New York when movies that hope to be contenders for the Oscars must run in theaters.

Being a member of the WGA and DGA, I’ve received a lot of screeners of the hopeful films. And I have to say I am singularly unimpressed.

Maybe it’s just that I’m an old guy and remember when Pictures of the Year meant THE GODFATHER, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. These were epic motion pictures, with scope, brilliant performances, and masterful storytelling.

And now any movie that Michael Bay doesn’t direct is considered Oscar-worthy.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS? It’s a frothy romcom. There used to be one a week released a few years ago. The producers of PILLOW TALK never felt they deserved an Oscar. CRAZY RICH ASIANS may be delightful and entertaining (I haven’t seen it), but it’s just a Friday night date movie.

Every year now it seems there are six movies about the British monarchy.  They're starting to feel like Oscar grabs. 

THE GREEN BOOK was very enjoyable, but when you remove the racial element it’s just a by-the-numbers buddy road picture. Good performances, and scenes that hit all the desired emotions but nothing you haven’t seen before fifteen times. And factually inaccurate.  As a way of passing the time for a couple of hours it was just fine. But again – Best Picture?

ON THE BASIS OF SEX was good (see my review posted yesterday), but not in the league of similar fare like THE VERDICT or A FEW GOOD MEN.  

Have we really lowered the bar or is it just that Hollywood now makes so few movies without an Avenger that every one with less than a half-hour of CGI thinks they’re a serious contender?

I haven’t seen all the screeners yet and one may just blow me away, but for now, for me – THE BLACK PANTHER is the Best Picture of the Year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

ON THE BASIS OF SEX -- my review

Warning: ON THE BASIS OF SEX is the least sexiest movie with “sex” in the title that you will ever find. It’s about a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And when you think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sex is usually not the first thing that pops into your mind. This is a biopic/trial movie.

SPOILER ALERT for any film in the legal genre. Don’t read this if you plan to watch THE VERDICT tonight.

Ever notice that all trial movies are essentially the same? A lawyer takes on a seemingly impossible case, all the odds are stacked against him/her, the opposing attorneys are the best in the land, the judge is predisposed not to like our hero, and our hero is facing some personal issue (family or alcohol related). To make matters worse there is a sample trial or mock trial or some scene where we show our lawyer protagonist to be way in over his/her head.

If the issue resolves around an insurance company there’s usually the scene where the company is willing to settle and the poor schlep has to decide whether to take the money and walk away or fight for justice although in all likelihood he’ll then end up with nothing. Guess which path he always takes.

The big trial comes, it’s going really badly, our hero is circling the drain, and then somehow he/she pulls a rabbit out of their hat and wins the case. If you don’t believe me then “you can’t handle the truth.”

The trick is to make the movie skillful enough and enjoyable enough that you can just skim over these tropes. And that’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Felicity Jones plays young Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The other term you don’t automatically think of when you think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is “plucky,” but that’s how she’s portrayed here. I happen to really like Felicity Jones and I love Ruth Bader Ginsburg so I was totally on board. On Rotten Tomatoes it received a 100% audience score, which tells me the film has not opened in any Red States. The script by Daniel Stiepheman was smart (although I did get lost in some of the legalize from time to time), and TV vet Mimi Leder directed with style (good to see her out of Movie Jail after directing PAY IT FORWARD).

The screenwriter’s uncle was Martin Ginsburg (Ruth’s husband) and he comes off as the most likeable flawless character in the history of cinema (although all reports say he WAS that likeable and terrific). And apparently, Ruth gave the writer extensive notes after one of the drafts (and who can overrule a Supreme Court Justice’s notes?).

I look forward to this being adapted for television with Tea Leoni as Ruth. (although if it’s developed by the CW it’ll be Laura Benanti and she can fly).

ON THE BASIS OF SEX is worth seeing – just remember it’s about the early years of Justice Ginsburg not Kavanaugh.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas (Darling)

This is my favorite Christmas Song.  And if you check out my podcast this week there's a great story behind the song. (Just scroll up and click on the gold arrow.)

It of course is Merry Christmas Darling by the Carpenters.  To my knowledge, no radio station has banned it yet.

And interestingly, it's one of the few Christmas songs that doesn't have a million cover versions.  Karen's voice is so integrated with the song that it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it.  

Christmas is a very special time.  This is the one day of the year you can wear those ridiculous sweaters.  So my wish to you is a joyous holiday filled with movies and Chinese Food.  Oh wait -- that's me.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The United States of Pottersville

Hard to get into the Christmas spirit this year. Everybody proclaiming “Peace for all mankind” – not in this country. At a time we should be charitable and kind to each other we have leaders trying to take away health care for millions. And we have parents being separated from their children. Folks think that’s okay and still celebrate Christmas?

Not me.  Sorry.  Bah humbug.  

SNL did a sketch recently that parodied IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. In it, Trump is shown an alternate world where he wasn’t president. I thought it was funny. It must have been hilarious because Trump tweeted his displeasure. In typical Trump fashion, his solution was to abolish the First Amendment for belittling him.

In the movie IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, we are shown an alternate world if George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) had never been born. And here’s the scary thing:

We ARE in that world. It exists. “Pottersville” – named after the evil businessman Mr. Potter – is our reality. The nightmare has come true.  (Potter even looks like Trump minus the comb-over.) 

George Bailey, please wake up!

Here's what I want for Christmas: 

More George Bailey.

And more Wise Men.  

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Weekend Post

Just in time for Christmas.  How many of you have had this happen to you?  A package is delivered to your front door, you're not home, and someone steals the package.

Well, it happened to the wrong guy.   Mark Rober, a gadget virtuoso, built a booby-trapped Amazon package.  Woe be the thief who steals it.

And Mark also provided video cameras for recording reactions.   It's quite ingenious and hilarious.  And let this be a warning to you as you walk by your neighbor's house and an Amazon package is on the front porch.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Friday Questions

Last Friday Questions till Christmas. Don’t wait until the last minute to read them.

Steve Jay gets us started:

How important is it to have a “Hawkeye versus Frank Burns” dynamic in a sitcom?

Having an antagonist like Frank Burns is certainly an element that works for most sitcoms and gives you conflict, but it’s not altogether necessary. In fact, I’d say most successful sitcoms don’t have that dynamic. From CHEERS to FRASIER to FRIENDS, having characters that all basically like each other creates kind of a “family” that audiences find appealing.

On the other hand, if you have a great antagonist like Louie on TAXI or Newman on SEINFELD you can get a lot of comic mileage out of it. The “Newman” character in particular is interesting because it almost feels like the series was doing a spoof on antagonistic relationships.

Boomska316 asks:

Are cast photos as awkward and forced as they appear? I don't think I've ever seen one that looked natural?

Usually they’re taken at the very end of a long shooting day or night when the cast is all there and in costume. But they want to go home.

They’re forced to stand around while lights are adjusted, the photographer shifts them around, etc.

So if smiles are somewhat forced that’s usually why.

And of course, in some cases, you might have cast members who dislike each other and avoid each other when possible. Yet, here they are, side by side, grinning through clenched teeth.


I see that ABC has ordered additional episodes of "Black-ish", "The Goldbergs", "The Kids Are Alright" & "Single Parents". How hard is it for writers/producers/etc. to come up with these additional episodes? Are there scripts sitting around that they didn't get to or in the pipeline for the next season that they just move up? And if everybody's has basically wrapped production for a season and has spread to the four corners of the earth how big a pain in the ass is it to get them back together or are there episodes in the can just in case the network suddenly decided they needed more shows?

Generally you have a pretty good idea whether the network wants to order additional episodes. And sometimes they’ll pay for additional scripts just in case.

Scripts are rarely just available in the pipeline. Often you’re budgeted for one or two additional scripts but that’s so you can kill scripts that for whatever reason you just don’t want to go forward with.

But yes, you get to the end of the season and you salivate over that finish line, and when suddenly it’s pushed back it can be a real emotional letdown.

It’s like a pitcher thinks he’s coming out of a game after his team bats only to learn that he’s being sent back out there. The air has been let out of the emotional balloon and now you have to get it back. Ask Boston Red Sox fans and Pedro Martinez about this.

However, it networks order early enough and you’re mentally prepared for it, the additional episodes are not much of a burden. And remember, everybody gets more paychecks.

On MASH though we had this particular situation: The original order would be for 22 episodes. They would increase it to 24 with about a month to go. We anticipated that and were fine. Then, with a week to go they’d order a 25th episode. We would really have to scramble. Usually, David Isaacs and I would write the script over the weekend.

The next year when the network ordered the 23rd and 24th episode we said, what about the 25th? They assured us they would not order any beyond 24.  You know what's coming. 

A week before we wrapped they ordered the 25th. If you ever see the episode “Night at Rosie’s” – David and I wrote that over the weekend and it started filming on Tuesday.

And finally, from Smitty:

I saw an interview recently where Ted Danson thought -- at the time -- that he was terrible as Sam Malone on the first season of Cheers. Because Ted is nothing like Sam in real life, he felt like he came off as a phony. When you were there during that first season, did you witness him having doubts about his performance?

I was there that first season. On the set every day, watched every runthrough and every filming. I remember Ted asking the director, Jim Burrows, a lot of questions on his way to really nailing down the character.  But he did not seem uneasy. 

And here’s my opinion:

Ted was never better than that first year. It may have been a struggle for him, and he would probably disagree, but Sam Malone was never smarter, more at ease, and interesting than he was that first season.

But then I’m partial to that first season. I would put the first year of CHEERS up against the best year of any sitcom. And most of the credit for that goes to the cast, Jimmy, and the Charles Brothers.

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

EP103: Merry Christmas Charlie Brown… and Everyone

In this holiday-themed episode, Ken explains how one of the most successful TV specials in history almost didn’t get on the air, the fascinating backstory of a Christmas classic, and you’ll hear a one act Christmas play that Ken wrote. Ho ho ho. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

BlacKkKlansman: My review

You’ll notice this is a short review. There is a reason for that which I will explain later.

...So I had heard good things about Spike Lee’s new movie, BLACKKKLANSMAN. It got fantastic reviews. Spike Lee is hit-or-miss with me. Some of his movies I’ve loved, quite a few I haven’t.

But this one was getting near universal raves. And the plot was very intriguing. Based on true events, a black cop and Jewish cop go undercover and infiltrated the KKK. John David Washington and Adam Driver starred – can’t do much better than that.

So I was excited to see this film. Not excited enough to pay when it came out this summer. I figured that Spike Lee was an awards whore and we’d surely get screeners. Yep. One of the first received.

The reason this review is short is because I lasted an hour before just turning it off. Jesus. It was so heavy-handed, so on-the-nose, so relentless in pounding its messages across that halfway through I said, “Got it. Done.” Even though I AGREE with the messages I just couldn’t take the constant haranguing any longer.

Now the critics didn’t feel that way, and you may not feel that way. If you love BLACKKKLANSMAN just know you’re not alone. I however, am not obligated to stay till the end of a movie I'm reviewing  so I switched over to the way-more-enjoyable GOLDEN GIRLS rerun.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Getting fired during Christmas

One of the many reasons I became a writer is that I got tired of being fired as a disc jockey. Today marks the 44th anniversary of the last time I signed off my show with “see you tomorrow” and was never heard from again.  

1974, I’m Beaver Cleaver on KSEA, San Diego, playing “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” five times a night and seriously considering blowing my brains out. Yes, I know – why “Beaver Cleaver”? Ken Levine sounded too Jewish.

The fall rating book came out, the numbers were not good, and at 3:00 I was told to hustle down to the station for an all-important staff meeting at 4:00. We all assembled and were told the station had decided to change formats to gospel and we were all being let go. “Even me?” I said in mock amazement. “Especially you.” “But I could change my name to Eldridge Cleaver.” “I’m going to need your station key”.

Quick aside: a year earlier at KMEN San Bernardino they wanted to get rid of me by moving me from the evening shift to the all-night show. The cheap bastards were hoping I’d quit so they wouldn’t have to pay severance (maybe $300 at most) and be on the hook for unemployment insurance. I asked the program director to at least do the humane thing and fire my sorry ass. “Nope”, he said, “Starting tonight you’re midnight to six.” So I stopped off at the local record store, picked up an LP, and dutifully reported on time for my shift.

Like KSEA, we were a high energy Top 40 station. (Our program director was in love with WLS whose slogan was “the Rock of Chicago” so we became the much catchier “Rock of the Inland Empire”.) I signed on and started playing the hits. Then at 12:30 segued smartly into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF….in Yiddish. The entire album. I was fired during “Anatefka”.

Back to the KSEA staff meeting -- Our morning man, Natural Neil Ross (a former guest on my podcast) asked when this format change was taking place. A month? A week? The program director looked at his watch and said “45 minutes”. And with that we were all canned. KSEA was gone…along with the promotion we were running at the time --

“Christmas the way it was meant to be!”

Monday, December 17, 2018

Why don't women have these jobs?

So the current hot radio format is AC or Adult Contemporary. AC stations in most markets are ratings leaders or creeping up. AC stations tend not to have a great “cool” factor. Some play Michael Bolton for God sakes. Primarily AC stations play established pop artists and oldies that only go back to 2000. Some of their core artists have not had hits in awhile yet they’re still popular. John Mayer, Pink, Daugherty, and all the other AMERICAN IDOL finalists who are desperately trying to stave off that career as UPS driver. AC stations play new music but not as much as Top 40 stations. But Top 40 stations are more teen-oriented.

And yet teens are starting to listen to “Adult” radio. I’m guessing more to hear Pink than Michael Bolton. And who in high school doesn’t still love the Backstreet Boys? Among Millennials AC is now their third favorite format behind pop and country. A few years ago it was fifth. The polka format has apparently gone out of favor with kids.

AC formats tend to appeal to a broader audience, and in this day of niche programming, that can seem like a refreshing alternative. So AC stations might not be someone’s favorite, but if he likes it well enough and there are enough people who like it well enough that’s often enough to make it number one.

There have been a number of articles about the AC format on industry sites and they focus on the music rotations, and research, and relationships with record labels – ZZZZZZZZZ.

But one thing stood out.

The target audience of AC stations is women, specifically women in their 30’s. However, most the people programming these stations and consulting these stations suggesting the music selection are men.

WTF? Seriously?

If ever a woman should be put in charge it’s to program a radio station geared to women. Doesn’t that seem like a no-brainer?

If I were the General Manager of an AC station that’s the FIRST thing I would do. These articles go into great detail about the music blend and crossover songs and percentage of new vs. recurrent product, etc. And none of that is as important as the overall “sound” of the station, it’s attitude, authenticity, relationship with the community, and personality. What do women in their 30’s REALLY want to hear? You can hand me spreadsheets but that won’t tell me shit. What will attract them on an emotional level? What are the topics most relevant to them? What are they yearning for from a radio station? Is it to make them laugh? Inform them? Offer support? Keep them company? Distract them from their jobs or their lives?

I couldn’t begin to answer these questions. But a woman program director could. She could also hear if the station sound is working or not being realized. I would just be hearing John Mayer records.

Women deserve way more of a chance than they’re being given. And if nothing else, how about starting with positions they are way more qualified to handle than men?

I love radio. I always have. Radio is like a member of the family. But it breaks my heart because unfortunately, that family member is Fredo.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Weekend Rant

 This touches on something I talked about earlier in the week in discussing the song "Baby It's Cold Outside."

There’s a scene in THE KOMINSKY METHOD in an acting class where a white student does a black monologue from an August Wilson play. It’s actually a hilarious scene. But one of the other young students stops him in the middle saying she’s not comfortable with this. Quick aside: Is it okay to do that now? I mean, if someone is uncomfortable they can certainly leave the room, but is it okay to actually stop the performer because of your discomfort? Just askin’.

But the point is she found it offensive for a white person to perform a monologue obviously meant for a black person.

In a recent discussion of THE HONEYMOONERS I received a comment from a college professor. He observed that kids today are almost looking to be offended by things. They find something objectionable in almost everything.

Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and a lot of comics won’t play colleges anymore because the audiences’ are too PC.

This is all very surprising to me because when I went to college (back in the Pleistocene Era) my generation was at its most rebellious. We scoffed at anything PC. The comedy we gravitated towards was the most irreverent and outrageous it could be. Richard Pryor, THE CREDIBILITY GAP, THE FIRESIGN THEATRE, the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks. Imagine college kids today seeing BLAZING SADDLES.

Some legitimate theatres now will post trigger warnings of the things in the play they’re showing that might be offensive. Have we become that sheltered? And the next step of course is that these theatres will not produce plays they think might offend some portion of their audience.

We need to lighten up, people. We can still be good caring human beings and be amused at the absurdity of a young white guy trying to do an August Wilson monologue. We can still enjoy CHEERS even though there’s not a lot of diversity (or FRIENDS or SEINFELD or FRASIER). We can still marvel at Richard Pryor even though the language is raw to say the least.


It’s supposed to be offensive.


Friday, December 14, 2018

Friday Questions

Take a break from Christmas shopping to check out some Friday Questions.

MikeKPa starts us off.

A lot of William Goldman's work was adaption. Have you ever done adaptations and did you find it easier or harder to work with an existing narrative?

Have never done an adaptation. In one of Goldman’s books he discussed how he went about that. He would read a book with a colored marker and underline anything he’d want to use. Then he’d read it again with another color pen and do the same thing. After a third reading and underlining he would go through and only keep the things that were underlined three times.

From Rick from Minnesota:

What can you recall from the Cheers episode entitled, Where Have all the Floorboards Gone and how was Kevin McHale as an actor?

Well, David Isaacs and I wrote that episode. And it’s one of my favorites.

The thing I remember the most was how surprised and delighted we were by Kevin McHale. First off, as a Lakers fan in the ‘80s I hated McHale during his Celtic years (and the cheap shot hit he put on Kurt Rambis).

But he turned out to be the nicest guy. And the biggest surprise was how great a natural comic actor he was. We even brought him back.

Usually when you have an athlete guest star, like Wade Boggs or Luis Tiant, you don’t place any real comedy burden on them. As a director I once had to coax a performance out of Karl Malone, Terry Bradshaw, and Mike Ditka. Oy. But Kevin was terrific.

Jonny M. asks:

Just watched the Cheers episode "Simon Says" with John Cleese. Cleese is hilarious, definitely one of the top five guest stars on Cheers. I have no idea if he was cast before or after the episode is written, but I imagine that once the writers knew it was him they tailored the script to his talents. How do you approach writing for a major talent who you know has the ability to knock it out of the park? Is it more fun? Harder? Both?

It’s way easier. As long as the actor embraces playing the character.

We once wrote an episode of FRASIER with Michael Keaton guesting. We wrote his character fun and zany like the one he played in NIGHT SHIFT. He was playing a TV evangelist; a real larger-than-life character. But he insisted on playing against that – very studied and buttoned-down. Our director was Jerry Zaks, a huge Broadway director, and even he couldn’t get Keaton to loosen up. To me the episode never lived up to its potential.

Cleese was totally on board and was a pleasure to work with. He also turned in a spectacular performance. Peter Casey & David Lee wrote that episode and really captured his voice and strengths.

And finally, Pam has a question about our involvement with VOLUNTEERS.

Are writers allowed on the set? Did they invite you to the shooting at Mexico? And were you invited to the premiere of the movie? How was it? Please share your experience.

It all depends on the director whether writers are allowed on the set. Some directors really welcome it and have them available for any last minute polishing. Other directors don’t want writers’ prying eyes.

In the case of VOLUNTEERS, director Nick Meyer did invite us to come watch the filming, but at the time we were rewriting JEWEL OF THE NILE for Michael Douglas on a deadline and were unable to go.

Douglas then wanted us to be on set for JEWEL OF THE NILE but by then we were writing the pilot for the Mary Tyler Moore series we created.

We were invited to the premiers of both films (which we attended), and in the case of VOLUNTEERS allowed to watch the dailies and the editing process. Thank you again, Nick Meyer.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

EP102: Short Attention Span Podcast

Ken tackles a variety of unrelated, but hopefully humorous, topics. You’ll learn the amazing thing Mary Tyler Moore said in his living room, a discussion of actors not saying their lines, and Ken’s handy tips for how to create a hit procedural. Laughs and riches can be

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Maybe the most ingenious radio contest ever

This was in the early ‘70s. There was a big radio war going on in San Diego between stations KCBQ and KGB. The program director of KCBQ was Buzz Bennett. Picture Frank Zappa.

The competition was fierce. They each had promotions and were giving away money and prizes.  Lots of bells and whistles.  (Stuff like this used to routinely happen when one company didn't own every station.) 

One afternoon KCBQ was having technical problems. The station would periodically go off the air. The engineers scrambled and usually got it back on in five or ten minutes. But five seconds of dead air is an eternity in radio. Add to that, the afternoon shift was considered “prime time.” Other than in mornings, a station’s largest audience would be in the afternoon.

So KCBQ really had a problem.

Until Buzz Bennett came up with a solution.

He instituted a contest. If the station went off the air again, the first person who called when it came back on would win $100. As a result he had thousands and thousands of people listening when the station was OFF THE AIR. Now to me, THAT’S a program director.

It’s one of the reasons I mourn the death of terrestrial radio. KCBQ off the air sounded better than most stations today on the air.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A STAR IS BORN -- my review

It seems like every twenty years or so someone remakes A STAR IS BORN. There was the original with Janet Gaynor in 1937, Judy Garland took the stage in 1954, and then Barbra Streisand in 1976 starred in the horrible reboot that should have been called A STAR IS (still)BORN. Now comes the version for the Millennials starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also directed).

Lady Gaga was a revelation. Her musical talent was well known, but her acting ability is surprisingly off-the-charts. This is not a woman who needs to dress in meat. This is a super talented lady (Gaga) who can sing, compose, play piano, dance, and now act. Don’t be surprised if she wins an Oscar. Hey, they gave one to Cher.  (Actually, two Oscars because she's a lock for "Best Song.")

Lady Gaga steals the movie, although, in fairness, how much credit should go to Bradley Cooper for coaxing that performance? Cooper, in his first “megging” stint, also proved to have a strong visual eye. Talent-wise, he's in the wunderkind category too. 

My only quibble is that it’s 2 hours and 16 minutes long. I could take a half hour out of that film in well…. a half hour. You could too. It’s easy. As you’re watching the movie, whenever you yell out “WE GET IT!” you could lose the rest of that scene and the five-minute montage that follows.


I’ve heard people complain that the ending was “sad.” Well, of course it’s sad. Every version of A STAR IS BORN is sad. Streisand’s was the saddest because I was with people and couldn’t just leave in the middle.

Like BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, the music is the real attraction, and A STAR IS BORN more than delivers. If there are still any doubters that Lady Gaga is a superstar this movie should put those doubts to rest. She’s not just a meat model. But truthfully, I thought she looked the best when she wasn’t all glammed up. It was a joy in the early part of the film to watch her act and sing as “Stefani Germanotta” not “Lady Gaga.”

Oh, and if you need another reason to love her, when there were those horrific brush fires in California, my high school, Taft in Woodland Hills was an evacuation center. Lady Gaga showed up one night with pizzas for everyone. There was no publicity attached, no photo ops. I learned about it from someone who was there. (Barbra Streisand, on the other hand, dealt with the fire by hiring her own fire department to protect HER home.)

I expect A STAR IS BORN to receive a lot of Academy Award nominations, primarily because it’s one of the few contending films that people are actually going to see.

I look forward to the 2038 version starring Princess Charlotte.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Baby It's Cold Outside

A number of people have asked me to comment on the recent flap where a Cleveland radio station banned the longtime American Songbook standard, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because in light of today’s sensibilities the lyrics are potentially offensive to some. Now it used to be a reader would ask my opinion on something, I’d give it, and folks either agreed or disagreed with me.

That was then.

Today even a simple issue like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is a loaded question. Because if I say, sure, play the record, I will be accused on condoning date rape, just as saying that Woody Allen once made funny movies unleashes a flurry of angry readers who will accuse me of condoning child molestation. A shout out to the “Honeymooners” means I’m all for spousal abuse. And I’ll be reviewing BLACKKKLANSMEN later this month. Take a guess what I’ll be labeled if I dare to not like that movie.

The point is, what should be a simple question is not. Not in 2018. So I ask you to take my answer at face value, not use it to label me, ostracize me, or blow it up into something way bigger than it is.

I happen to like the song. There’s a version played on (the best oldies station on the internet and planet) by Dolly Parton & Rod Stewart that I find charming. You can listen yourself at the bottom of this post (unless you’re in Cleveland — your ears need to be shielded). I’m all for #MeToo but I believe the spirit of the song is flirty not sinister. Yes, there are a couple of lines that today the lyricist might deftly avoid like “what’s in this drink?” But I never get the sense that he’s a dangerous predator. That’s just me. I don’t fear for Dolly’s safety.

I also understand the song "Kiss da Girl" from Walt Disney's LITTLE MERMAID was just taken off the 20 year repertoire list of a singing group due to 'concerns'. Huh????

I think you have to consider the context. Was the song considered objectionable before the #MeToo movement? A song I still hear all the time on Classic Rock and oldies stations is “Getting Better All the Times” by the Beatles from the classic Sgt. Pepper’s album. I’ve yet to hear an outcry to ban it. Ever listen to the lyrics?

I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved

To me that’s worse — even if it’s the Beatles and even if it’s a song on what many herald as the greatest rock album of all-time.

On the other hand, there is a song from the ‘60s sung by the Crystals called, “He Hit Me — It Felt Like a Kiss.” Now you NEVER hear that one on oldies stations (terrestrial or internet or wherever) and for good reason. Good God! A woman’s being abused and thinks it’s a good thing. Even when it came out people were saying “Really???” By the way, it was written by Carole King.

The line of acceptability changes as society does (although that Crystals song — Yikes!). Intent and era a song was released need to be factored in. If you don’t like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” or feel it’s inappropriate fine. But should it be banned from a radio station? Jesus, don’t we have bigger problems to worry about?

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Weekend Post

Mike Nichol's & Elaine May were two improv performers in Chicago who really clicked. So much so that they became a comedy team.  And a sensation!  

This was in the late '50's/early '60s.  Nichols went on to be an incredible director, as did May.  Sadly, Mike has passed away but Elaine is alive and well and starring on Broadway.

Here is a bit they did on the 1959 Emmys.  It's nice to know that nothing has really changed.  Enjoy.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s always a little more poignant to spend December 7th in Hawaii. Let us never forget the day that will live in infamy.

Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

YEKIMI starts it off:

Do you find it harder to write comedy [or other stuff] nowadays then you did when you were younger? I can remember back in my high school years and later just writing joke after joke after joke. [Actually started writing jokes for morning DJs in my senior year of high school...and kept it up even after I went into radio myself, although I never did mornings.] Now that I'm way older, it seems the jokes are few and far between then they were in my younger days. I'm guessing maybe it's because every internal organ on me has malfunctioned except my spleen [and I'm keeping a sharp eye on that] and after several surgeries and other medical problems, things just don't seem that funny anymore.

Actually it’s the opposite for me.  I would have to say it's easier.  I guess the years of experience have allowed me to discover different ways of drawing out laughs. Or the world is just so horrific these days that I need the escape that comedy writing provides me. So as long as my organs continue to work I’ll keep writing.

From -30-:

A follow-up question about working late into the night. How productive are you
3 A.M? Can you really think of something better that didn't come to you at 10:30? Isn't your brain fried? I sometimes (rarely) had to work 16 hours at a non-creative job simply because the job had to be done by morning and I know the results weren't always stellar. I can't imagine trying to be funny when 99% of your brain is screaming "Let me out of here." Also, what time did these sessions start?

When I run a show I will usually end a late night rewrite at 1:30 and have everyone return earlier the next morning to finish and just send down to the stage what we have with instructions that the rest will eventually follow.

This is because you’re right. Something that takes an hour to fix when you’re fresh at 10 in the morning will take three hours at 3 in the morning and probably not be as sharp.

Another thing I do – if there’s one whole new scene or tough section to address we’ll do that first then go back and do the rest of the script. You don’t want to get to that tough section at 2 in the morning after you’re already burned out..

For late night sessions we usually don’t begin actually writing until 8 or 9. From 6-8 we’re discussing the attack and in many cases re-plotting the story.

I’m reminded of writer Earl Pomerantz taking a break at 1:30 in the morning from a late night rewrite and saying, “There has to be an easier way of making $300,000 a year.”

J Lee asks:

When you and David got your first writing assignment for M*A*S*H, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", it was right after the show changed the relationship between Frank and Margaret, with her engagement to Donald. Was there anything you had thought about writing for them in terms of situations or lines (or rejoinders to them from Hawkeye) when you made your pitch for a script assignment that you now couldn't use, because what was good for Seasons 1-4 no longer worked for the dynamic in Season 5?

Gene Reynolds, who was the showrunner then, was incredibly organized. Before we pitched story ideas we met with him and he went over where the series was at that moment. He did it for that express purpose – so we wouldn’t be pitching stories they couldn’t use.  We knew where the characters were, what elements the show wanted to emphasize that year, etc. It made coming up with story ideas so much easier. All just part of good showrunning and Gene was the best.

And finally, from Jonny M.:

You often talk about giving writers more freedom from network interference as way to making better shows. After browsing through the list of original content on Amazon Prime and Hulu (where I'm assuming interference is limited), I'm seeing a lot of stinkers. Does this not give some credence to the idea that left to their own devices writers will often stray into vanity projects with limited appeal and questionable quality? I suppose those personal projects have brought us some great shows like Mad Men, but then on the other side you have results like A Crisis in Six Scenes (shouldn't have someone interfered with this one?).

First off, remember the late William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

You never really know what’s going to work. And yes, there are stinkers, but such is the case with broadcast TV WITH all the interference.

But by giving writers more freedom you at least have the opportunity of landing something special like MAD MEN or THE SOPRANOS. Neither of those shows would have gotten on the major networks and if they did they’d be so over-managed that any truly original idea would be squelched. So as I see it, betting on talent is still a better roll of the dice.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

EP101: Product Placement or how Coca Cola almost destroyed our movie career.

Ken explores the various forms of product placement in films and TV. And how a scene he and his partner wrote involving Coca Cola caused a huge stink.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A piano wouldn't help

A couple of weeks ago in the Improv workshop I attend we did an exercise that well… produced very few laughs (I’m being charitable). One of the class members had done this exercise years before in a different venue to better results. Back then they had a piano accompanying them, waited longer between punchlines, and had different sight lines. He suggested that not having those elements may have contributed to the lack of laughter. Okay, he might have a point.

But there was something else to consider. And in this case, in my best professional judgment, it was this other factor that truly explained it. 

We all SUCKED.  

It just wasn’t our night, not with that exercise. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you have a hot night and everybody is hilarious. And then there are nights when it’s a struggle. That night was a Herculean struggle.

I bring this up because comedy writers are always wrestling with this dilemma. When something doesn’t work it’s our job to determine why and how to fix it. And it’s easy to say, “The air conditioning was faulty, his tie was crooked and caused a distraction, the actor mumbled a key word, the camera didn’t frame him properly, the audience was blocked by the boom mic,” etc. Any and all of those factors could have been the problem. But I’ve learned to first ask, “Is it us? Did it not get a laugh because it’s a bad line?”

It’s only after I honestly determine that the joke should have worked do I start considering outside influences. But the bottom line is I blame myself first. And it’s all a function of being as objective as you can possibly be.

I remember the first year of CHEERS we were rewriting a script, someone came up with a joke that Glen Charles loved, and he said, “That’s the best joke of the entire season.” The next day at runthrough it bombed and when we got to that line in the rewrite he said, “Jesus. What were we thinking with that piece of shit?”

Having a piano playing underneath would not have helped that joke. Being tough on material means being tough on yourself. But it’s worth it. At least I sure hope so because that accounted for a lot of late night rewrites I’ll never get back.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Comic strip tease

Got a lovely note recently from Duane Abel, who does the comic strip ZED. He listens to my podcast, which is really cool because I’m a fan of his work. And it reminded me that at one time I too wanted to write a comic strip. I’ve always been an amateur cartoonist. You can see an example above. And I did have a comic strip appear in the local Woodland Hills newspaper when I was in high school. It was a weekly paper and after a few months I was let go for budgetary reasons. They couldn’t afford me. I was making $5 a week. They must've really been strapped because I offered to do it for free and they still said no. 

I investigated how you got a comic strip into real newspapers. You had to go through syndication firms. The big one I seem to remember was King Syndication. I don’t know what it is now, or even if the process has changed. But I did learn this – it was HARD to get accepted by King Syndication. Lots of people submitted strip ideas and only a select few got chosen.

That was discouraging but not crushing. I knew I wanted to somehow get into comedy and figured that any avenue I chose would have strict gatekeepers.

No, what really put the brakes on my comic strip career was this: the pressure. At least the presumed pressure. The drawing was no problem. I could draw and was quite comfortable working in pen & ink. But I would have to come up with a joke every single day. That’s SEVEN whole jokes a WEEK. On Sunday it had to be a longer joke.

For God sakes, I’m not a machine!

The irony of course is that as a comedy writer I had to come up with seven jokes every fifteen minutes. Still, there’s a part of me that always thought, what a great life comic strip writers probably have. I’d see pictures of Charles Schulz (PEANUTS) working in his beautiful studio and sigh. (Of course later a Northern California fire destroyed that studio, but still.) I hope I’m right. I’ve always loved comic strip art and admired many of the artists. I just assume they love their work. And what could be better than that? Okay… a cartoon series based on your comic. And maybe a movie… and merchandising..

Monday, December 03, 2018

A Friday Question that turned into a Monday Rant

It’s from Jim S.

I seem to have read that many of today's modern comedies are sort of half-written and the actors, such as Steve Carrell, are expected to improv lines. I saw the outtakes of Get Smart and you'd see Carrell giving multiple different lines for one shot. This improv technique didn't work for Ghostbusters.

So my question. Shouldn't a script be tight before going to film. I recall a Mark Twain saying - the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Part two of the question. If actors are expected to save/contribute/improv, is that fair to the actors who are just actors and is it unfair to the writers?

For all the reasons you list I personally don’t adhere to the practice of just using the shooting script as a blueprint.

I will concede that in some cases it works – if you have the right actors, director, and all the planets line up. But with millions of dollars at stake to go into production with your fingers crossed that divine intervention will occur does not seem a feasible game plan. But that’s just me.

First off all, there’s the pride issue. As the screenwriter I would like to think that I have provided the actors a solid story and all the tools necessary to make a strong cohesive movie that everyone can be proud of. I’m not giving them a half-completed job and saying “Here. You finish it.” My name is on the screen. I take a certain pride of authorship.

And even though I do believe “the best idea wins” I don’t feel it’s fair to expect others to bail me out.

When my scripts go to the stage I don’t want them to just be “good enough for now.” As you mentioned, a lot of time goes into choosing just the right word or concept or order of words within a sentence. And that’s fine. That’s my job as a writer.

Now the reality is in many cases the writer does turn in what he feels is his best, tightest screenplay, and the studio and director just shit on it. Does the improvising then improve the script or cheapen it? You get a sense of how Hollywood values screenwriters that they feel day player actors can do it better.  So I also find the practice insulting.

Another thing, movies should not just be about stringing gags together. Comedy needs to be crafted out of character and setting up comic situations. Laughs come from attitudes and emotions. There’s always the danger when actors start improvising that they may come up with funny lines but they undermine the character or story. The director has to always be aware of the big picture.

As for the actors, you’re right, it’s unfair to ask them to also improvise and fix the script. For many that’s not their training or process. It's like saying, “I hired you to paint this room. But you’ll also have to build cabinets.”

My motto is always hire the best actor. I don’t want to pass on a better actor because he can’t improvise. It seems to me it’s a better bet to enlist the best writers and best actors rather than okay writers and UCB graduates.

But Judd Apatow would disagree and between us, who has made more successful movies? So there you go.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Weekend Post

Saddened to hear of the death of President George H.W. Bush.  Even though he was a Republican and I'm a Democrat I always respected him and always believed he had the country's best interests at heart.  He conducted himself with class and dignity, and I think it's safe to say all Americans wished him well regardless of their political affiliation.   But that was respected that was earned.

Here's a glowing example of how he put our nation above politics.  He lost the election to Bill Clinton.  And yet, he took the time to write the incoming president the following letter. 

Oh, for the days when we had a mensch in the White House.   Thank you for your service, President Bush.  I do believe history will be kind to you.