Saturday, August 17, 2019

Weekend Post

Before we had #MeToo, before we had PC, we had these ACTUAL ads.    Noted without comment except to say, JESUS EFFIN' CHRIST!!?"

Friday, August 16, 2019

Friday Questions

Heading into the “Dog Days of Summer” with some Friday Questions. You ready?

Vincent Saia is.

D.C. Fontana said that when she was teaching screenwriting at AFI she knew the students who had been working on the same script for years were probably not going to become professional writers and Tom Wolf said, "It only takes six to eight weeks to write anything. The rest of the time you're just dancing around the project." Do you also feel the ability to write quickly and on demand necessarily separates the professional writer from the amateur?

I agree with William Goldman.  Writers should go at their own speed but write as much and as quickly as they can. The danger of going too slow is you tend to obsess and try to make every word perfect, which results in stilted scripts. But if you go too fast you miss things.

The distinction between professional and amateur has more to do with the ability to be creative on demand.

From John Schrank:

I really like the two posts on wording and the importance of setup! In Dick Cavett's first book, after some very interesting sections about writing for other comedians, he tells about some of the material he wrote for his own act. He says the right wording is almost always the way it comes to you first. Tweaking it sometimes weakens it. 

Have you found that to be true? His major example was his joke about wedding that was done on the cheap. "I don't know much about caviar, but I do know you're not supposed to get pictures of ballplayers with it." Then he wondered if "cards" was better than "pictures"... or if there needed to be some reference to trading cards in the line before to set it up. He finally decided it was good the way it was.

I disagree with him. Often times the first thought is the most obvious. When David Isaacs and I are writing we often bat around lines back and forth until truly, we can’t remember who came up with it.

However a caveat (to Cavett): In the writers room if someone pitches a joke and everyone laughs it goes in exactly as pitched. Even if it had a funky construction, if it got a laugh it goes in untouched.

To fool with those lines is when you start to over-analyze and kill the joke.

But there is value to tweaking. We’re not Mozart.

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

You've written before about "Good-bye, Radar" originally being written as a single episode to close Season 7, but it was the network that insisted it a two-parter for sweeps, and that when you and David Isaacs re-wrote it as such, you added the subplot about the generator to pad it out with filler for the extra time. So, does that mean everything else about your original script for the episode was still the same? Radar meeting Patty Haven? The circumstance of Uncle Ed passing away? The sudden arrival of wounded canceling Radar's farewell party?

Yes, the whole Radar storyline was in place the end of season 7.

We may have added a couple of new steps to go along with the generator story (which was there for padding), but after Henry’s death we wanted a character to leave and have a happy ending. Giving Radar a possible love interest seemed interesting and showed a side of him we’ve never seen.

The overall theme was his maturity and we felt he now was ready to have a real relationship.  Leaving his teddy bear behind was also our idea.  It seemed the perfect symbol for his having grown up. 

And finally, from JS:

Why when shows get desperate they bring in a baby? It never works. It is the sign of death.

Yep and amen. An argument can be made that a baby opens up a whole new vein of stories, but especially for a romantic comedy, it forces you to put the romance on the back burner while your couple is managing an infant. And those stories are just not as fun and interesting in my opinion.

However, if it’s a supporting character, like say Frasier then the baby really doesn’t alter the series. Frasier’s bar habits didn’t change (although they should have).

A REMINDERFor the next two weeks I am working on a big project and will not have as much internet access as I normally do.  So it will take longer to moderate comments.  Hang in there and continue to comment and ask Friday Questions.  I will get to them eventually.   Thanks much.  Ken

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

EP136: Howard Michael Gould Part 2

Ken and Howard discuss their writing process and how it applies to teleplays, features, stage plays, and novels.  And probably whatever task you’re undertaking.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Shocking revelation! The internet got it wrong!

I’ve touched on this before, but a recent on-line article has prompted me to revisit it in more detail.

It concerns a 7th season episode of MASH when David Isaacs and I were the head writers called “Preventative Medicine.” This is one of my least favorite episodes, but it’s not for the reason you may think.

The premise was that to prevent a reckless field commander from sending his unit to battle Hawkeye and B.J. performed an unnecessary operation and removed his healthy appendix. That kept him in post op for several days and seemingly prevented some of his men from dying in combat.  Like most stories on MASH, this one came from our research. This incident actually happened.

In our original script, Hawkeye and B.J. were both on board for this operation. At the table reading, Mike Farrell had an issue with it and didn’t think B.J. would cross that moral line.

Now the article seemed to suggest that this disagreement caused some friction between Alan and Mike. It said that Mike “refused” to do the episode as written. And he “fought the production team.” They go on to call this a “tiny rift” between Alan & Mike and eventually “they reconciled.”

This is how things get blown out of proportion and nonsense is spread on the internet.

So here’s the real story:

Yes, after the table reading Mike balked at having B.J. go along with this operation. But there was no tension whatsoever. He and Alan debated the point for a couple of minutes and right there we all decided that this debate would be great for the script.

Here’s how contentious it got: We thanked Mike.

Far from being angry or even annoyed, Alan was energized. After rehearsing the scenes from the other story in the episode, Alan came up to the room and we all did the rewrite together.

Alan found the rewrite to be such a positive experience that he wrote about it at the time in an article for TV Guide. In the piece, he mentioned that after the rewrite we all went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant called Anna’s (which sadly is no longer there). The owners of Anna’s were so thrilled that I was treated like a VIP for the next 20 years there.

The episode clearly benefited from Mike’s objection and I’m proud of the result.

So why is it one of my least favorites?

At the time, MASH had not yet gone into syndication. Episodes from the first six seasons were never aired after their year ended. CBS during season seven began airing one episode a week Friday nights at 11:30. We had just completed shooting “Preventive Medicine.” David happened to watch the late night rerun that Friday and called me in a panic. “They already DID that episode!” he exclaimed.

Sure enough, there was an early episode called “White Gold” that had the exact same storyline, although in that case Hawkeye and Trapper were on the same side. Obviously, they got it from the same research.

I was mortified to think we’d repeat a story on our watch. That’s why that episode always bothers me. Many fans think ours is better than the first. I don’t care. (I also don’t agree. Nothing we ever wrote was as good as what Larry Gelbart wrote.) But what amazes me to this day is that numerous people on the staff and crew were at MASH during the production of “White Gold.” NOBODY, not ONE PERSON said “Hey, didn’t we already do this story?”

I would think that had someone said THAT at the reading, vs. Mike’s objection we might have just thrown out the whole script and written something else entirely.

After that we told the cast and crew, “If there is ever ANYTHING in a script that you think looks familiar and you might have done in the past, tell us IMMEDIATELY. We will check it out and if indeed you had done it before we will remove it and do something else, even if it means throwing out an entire episode.”

But back to the original point, there was no animosity, no rift, no clash with the production team, no disgruntled rewrite, and it was certainly not an incident worthy of a whole article. But I get it. Click bait. I’m sure more people would rather read an article where Alan Alda & Mike Farrell were at each other’s throats than one where a genuine collaboration led to a better product.

Gee, I wonder if there’s other misinformation on the internet as well.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Tips on attending TV Tapings

LA is a big tourist destination, and one of the cool things to do is see the taping of a national television show. You can’t do much of that in Cincinnati. Another plus – TV tapings are free. There must be some law because I can’t imagine Hollywood studios leaving even a dime on the table.

There are online services that offer tickets. If you’re in LA, there are stands in the Grove and Hollywood that offer them as well. You can also contact the show you want and find out how to procure tickets. Or contact the network.

But here’s some helpful things you should know:

If you attend a multi-camera sitcom taping expect to be there at least three hours. They do multiple takes of each scene. Sometimes writers huddle for ten minutes and change jokes. There are also set and costume changes.

Some sitcoms have long waiting lists. Others have to pay services to bus in audiences. Those people are paid to sit through crappy shows.  It's hard-earned money. 

If you go to reality competition shows like AMERICAN IDOL or DANCING WITH THE STARS, wait until they’re far enough into the season that they do live shows. In those cases you’re in and out in a couple of hours.

If a reality competition show is just being taped for later airing, you could be there for seven hours. I’m not kidding. And trust me, the novelty wears off real fast.

Oh, whenever they say you HAVE TO STAY, that’s bullshit. You’re not held captive. If you get tired and want to leave, leave. Unless they’re paying you, you have no obligation to stay.

Late night talk shows like Kimmell or Corden are good because they’re almost live. So you’re generally in and out in two hours. Note: Talk show hosts usually like their studios to be freezing. They feel the audiences are more responsive. Bring a sweater (or parka). Demand for tickets for those shows is very high. Plan ahead and order early.

One problem with some of these shows is that you stand in long lines for quite awhile before they let you in. That depends on the individual show.

Daytime talk shows (like ELLEN) are similar to late night. Once cameras roll it’s almost as if it were live. They tend to go straight through. (Although I understand Stephen Colbert often does pick ups and repeats things that didn’t go perfectly -- but that's in New York.)

Game shows are fun because they tape two or more episodes at a time. Shows like JEOPARDY will tape a week’s worth of episodes in one day (three in the morning, two after lunch). So you get a lot of bang for your buck.  Your ticket will be for either the morning or afternoon (not both).  And they generally go straight through, although they may do some quick pick-ups if the host screwed something up. Alex Trebek has been known to muff a clue or two in 35 years. For some game shows you need to write in months in advance. For others you can get tickets in the morning and be in the studio that afternoon.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT is one where there is super-demand, obviously because contestants are chosen from the audience. Should you get tickets, start lining up at 6 in the morning. There is a motel across the street of CBS called the Farmer’s Daughter and I understand it’s filled with with PRICE IS RIGHT ticket holders so they can just get up and get in line.

This is Hollywood so privilege is everything. Expect there to be VIP lists and roped off areas in the audience for VIP’s. But there are generally monitors and every seat is a pretty good one.

All of these shows have warm up people and some offer prizes. You may win something. And if they know the taping will take awhile they often offer free candy and snacks and water.

Finally, some shows have an age requirement.  Make sure that's not a problem.  

So those are some tips on attending TV tapings. It’s a fun thing to do and there’s one additional perk – depending on the show YOU MIGHT GET ON TELEVISION. And the price is right (both upper and lower case).

Monday, August 12, 2019


NOTE: The movie’s been out for several weeks. I won’t spoil the ending but will discuss elements within the film. If you haven’t seen it and want to know nothing other than there are great samples of KHJ radio, then see you tomorrow.

Okay, you’re still here? Then let’s move on.

One thing you can say about ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD: People are talking about it. And no two people seem to agree.

Some buy the story completely. Others say it’s about a guy whose only problem is that he’s not as big a star as he was but he’s still working and in demand so boo hoo.

Many applaud Tarantino for creating a rich buddy relationship. Many others note that women hardly ever talk and when they do they don’t have anything interesting to say.

Some critics said Margot Robbie was luminous in the scenes where she was watching her movie. Others say she could have phoned it in. And others still contend that whole sequence was unnecessary.

Plotwise, some moviegoers were annoyed that Tarantino didn’t follow a typical three act structure. Others loved his alternative storytelling.

People I know LOVED the ending. Others felt it was derivative. (In any event, it helps to know the Charles Manson/Sharon Tate/Jay Sebring story beforehand. Seems that Tarantino just assumed everybody knew it, but that is not the case.)

Some felt his movie was style over substance. Others (like me) considered that a big draw. All the KHJ stuff was like porn to me. Is Quentin Tarantino cool or too cool?

One writer friend said all the vintage TV shows characters were watching during the film were more interesting than the scenes themselves and he would have preferred watching the vintage shows.

Tarantino’s trademark violence is another polarizing element. A certain percentage of viewers think it’s over-the-top while fans find it visceral and highly entertaining.

And then there is the length. I’m in the camp that thought the movie was too long. You didn’t need almost three hours to tell that story. Or if you did, you could have thrown in more KHJ. But those in sync with Tarantino loved every frame and probably can’t wait for the DVD to see the additional scenes that were left on the editor’s floor.

No matter where you fall on any of these debates, you have to love the fact that people ARE talking about it. What other movie this year has sparked this much discussion? Most movies today – you sit numbly in your seat and are bludgeoned with special effects. You walk out going “that was cool” or “that sucked” and put it out of your mind completely. With this film, people are thinking about it afterwards. They’re generating real opinions, yay or nay. So for me, that makes ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD the hit of the summer season.

NOTE:  For the next two weeks I am working on a big project and will not have as much internet access as I normally do.  So it will take longer to moderate comments.  Hang in there and continue to comment.  I will get to them eventually.   Thanks much.  Ken

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Weekend Post: Come see my plays

Hey LA peeps!   I've got two short plays in the finals of the Brisk Festival in Hollywood Saturday at 7 and Sunday at 6 at the Broadwater Theatre on Santa Monica Blvd. just west of Vine.   It's a strong program of the 10 best plays of the 54 produced.  I'm lucky enough to have both of mine in the finals.  Anyway, it's a fun night and I could use your votes.   Here's where you go for tickets.  I'll be there both nights so say hi.   Who says there isn't great theatre in Los Angeles?   Well, until you find it swing by for a night of laughs and fun. 

Friday, August 09, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions coming at ya.

Bryan Thomas starts us off:

When a new character is introduced to an existing series and becomes a regular, are the writers of the episode in question credited as creators of that character and given residuals or can a producer or someone else create it, assign them to write it, and take credit and any pay?

Usually it’s the writer of the episode. David Isaacs and I got creator royalties on the Eddie LeBec character of CHEERS. We wrote the episode that introduced him. And then he was a hit and eventually married Carla. We thought we were in the money.

But then when the actor playing him, Jay Thomas, said something very unflattering about Rhea Perlman on the air and she heard it; that was it for Eddie LeBec. We wrote the episode that killed him. RIP our money.

Colin Stratton wonders:

Have you ever thought: "Wait a minute! This asshole is getting a $100,000 for acting out lines that I wrote! Why I aren't they paying me a $100,000? Motherfuckers!"

Nope. Not ever. I marvel at great actors and know I could never do what they do. I’m just thrilled they’re making my script work.

Also, the commitment and amount of rejection an actor faces would kill me. I don’t have the temperament for it. Nor do I have a burning desire to get in front of an audience. So I’m fine with the actor making $100,000 reading my lines as long as I don’t have to be the one to pay him.

From Tammy:

I once wrote a fan letter to a screenwriter (I cringe thinking about it now). I didn't necessarily need him to reply (though he kindly did), I mostly just wanted him to know how much his film had meant to me. I think in this kind of interaction, the fan's need to give praise is greater than the artist's need to receive it, as the latter has heard it all a 1000 times already. As an established writer yourself, what's your take on it, if you don't mind sharing? Thanks!

I’m thrilled when my work moves someone or really entertained them. And I’m delighted when they tell me so. Never feel shy about reaching out. That’s why I have an email address I give out on my podcast.

I love to hear from people. When shows I wrote go out on television I never know how of if they affected people, so by all means, I wanna hear from you. And I’m very flattered that someone would take the time and make the effort to get in touch.

When I give out the email address at the end of the podcast I always say that I will write you back.

And finally, from Janet:

You've mentioned that you are finding it harder to write the blog.

Is that due to lack of ideas, lack of research to develop those ideas, something else?

After almost 14 years of daily posts, it’s hard to keep finding new things to talk about. And fewer people are now reading blogs. They’re less of a “thing.” I love doing it but I don’t want to be the last blogger on the net.

That’s why I’m devoting a lot of time and effort to my podcast. At least there I can elaborate more and add things I’ve never shared before. Also I can interview people and bring you different perspectives besides just mine.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

EP135: Meet Writer/Director/Playwright/Novelist Howard Michael Gould

Not what you’d call an under-achiever -- Howard Michael Gould has been a TV writer, a screenwriter, showrunner, TV and film director, copywriter, playwright, and novelist. A varied background with great stories about running Cybil Shepherd’s sitcom of horror and an amazing association with Mike Nichols. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Jeff Lasky answers your JEOPARDY questions

Everyone LOVED Jeff Lasky’s account of being on JEOPARDY! And why not? It was AWESOME. He received lots of well-deserved kudos. And thank you readers for sending along your thanks to Jeff. This was great for me. Two of my better posts and I didn’t have to do anything.

Jeff read your comments and noted that a few of you had questions, so he graciously volunteered to answer them. How is this guy NOT an all-time champion???

Here’s his reply:

Thanks for all the nice comments on my guest blog. I'd trade all of them to have not finished in third, but oh well. A few answers for folks who brought up good questions. By the way, since it's the big topic of discussion -- it's not just hotel but also airfare that the contestants pay. So it's very possible that the third place prize won't cover your travel expenses. Since I drove up, I only had to pay for hotel and gas.

Hope you all enjoy part two! I don't like it as much- it's the one where I lose.

For Ed from SFV: For the Tuesday taping, people from out of town can be alternates because they've already planned to stay overnight and be in Los Angeles through the second tape day. However, the Wednesday alternates are always "local", which they consider to be Southern California. Unfortunately for me, that includes San Diego, which is a two-hour drive, so I put up the money for the hotel twice, once when I was an alternate and didn't get on and once when they brought me back.

Jax- it's generally about two months between tape and air, but not always. When I appeared on the show, we shot at the end of March and it aired in mid-July, so more than three months.

Wallis Lane- they do not require a hotel stay. I just decided it was easier and I wanted to get as much sleep/rest/stress avoidance as possible. If you choose to drive yourself to the Sony lot, they require you to be there by 7:30.

Tom Galloway- There are a few changes to the audition process. They don't reveal who passed the written test at the audition anymore. Everyone there participates in the full audition process. We were told that 80,000 people took the online test that I passed and that they were auditioning 2,000 of them for 400 spots on the show.

Andy Rose- correct, the producers do give the law firm some suggestions on contestant match-ups to avoid having three people from the same part of the country in one game, etc. They also let the lawyer know which players are back as alternates and that they would prefer those players be on as early as possible in the day.

MikeN- Correct, Sam had opened up a huge, unbeatable lead on second, who in turn had more than twice what I had. One of the things I did in preparing to be on the show was to study betting strategy. It's generally not complicated- almost everyone follows the same basic philosophy. If the game is competitive, the leader should always bet to beat second place by one dollar. The second place player has the most options, depending on how much they trail by. The second place player should assume the leader will bet correctly, so the only way they can win is if the leader gets the question wrong. In addition, you should be able to figure out exactly what the leader will bet (if she has 20,000 and 2nd has 15,000, second should know the leader will bet 10,001). Second place needs to bet enough to clear the third place person and beat the leader if the leader gets the answer wrong. Make sense?

Another point on betting- you're seeing the entire strategy of Jeopardy! change on the daily doubles. The strategy that has taken over is to bet big. James Holzhauer took it to an extreme, but it's not new. Austin Rodgers put up big scores with big gambles. Sam Cavanaugh did that to great effect in my game, essentially locking up the game early in Double Jeopardy. I saw it in person pre-Holzhauer. I was an alternate during 4-game champion John Presloid's run (aired in January). He did the same exact thing in his fourth win, using a true daily double to lock up the game early. Such aggressive betting is essentially a force multiplier to the "returning champion advantage". The champ has already been through that pressure cooker, so they're now trying to be really aggressive early while the new players are still trying to get their footing in the game and on the buzzer.

Thanks again to Jeff Lasky, guest blogger supreme.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

What it's like to be on JEOPARDY! Round 2

This is the second part of guest blogger, Jeff Lasky's account of being a contestant on JEOPARDY!  The first part was yesterday.  Jeff did a great job (both on the show and in the piece).  I appreciate how candid and descriptive he is.  And I will get him that dollar.  I just don't want to spend extra sending it through the mail.  So I'm waiting for someone to drive down to San Diego so it won't cost me anything more than one dollar.  Within the five years I'm sure I'll find someone.  

In the meantime, a huge thank you to Jeff Lasky.

At least I wouldn’t have to deal with nerves mounting throughout the day. That’s because I ended up in the first game, the Monday episode. Had I not been previously been an alternate and seen how the day would go, I probably would have preferred watching one or two shows first. But because I had already sat in the audience for a full day, I was fine with being picked for the first game. I was loose and relaxed. I also had some confidence because I did well during the rehearsal, including getting some feel for the timing on the buzzer. Plus, as a TV news reporter, I’m used to being on a set with lights and cameras. I figured if I got lucky with the categories, I might even have a small advantage because of that. We were each taken back to makeup again for a final touch-up, then brought up to the stage. I had just enough time to see where my family and friends were sitting before the countdown began.

I never heard iconic Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert say my name until my episode aired (we shot at the end of March, it finally ran in mid-July). That’s because Johnny is 95 years old and doesn’t come in to the studio until after the lunch break. He does the last two shows live, but records his part for the first three. So the Clue Crew’s Sarah Whitcomb Foss is the one I hear saying those words “This is Jeopardy!”. I took a few beats to just enjoy it, soak it all in. I did that from the moment the theme song started playing until the moment Alex Trebek walked out on stage to greet us. But from that point on, it goes by in a flash. Alex reads off the categories. You don’t have enough time to really process them, although I noted there was a TV category- could be good for me. Also Rhyme Time- a gimmick category that I always enjoyed.

The three-time defending champion, Sam, got the first question, but I got on the episode’s first roll when I answered a question in the horses category. I shifted to TV and reeled off three more in a row. Sadly, this was my high-water mark. To the left of the game board and above the studio cameras, our scores are listed. Ten questions in (a third of the way through the opening round) I had the lead, but never held it again after that. I screwed up the only Rhyme Time question I tried and was in third place with $800 total by the time we went to the first break. The leader had $3,600.

During each commercial, Maggie comes to the stage. She explained what I did wrong on the Rhyme Time question, which I knew I’d messed up immediately. Aside from that, she makes sure anyone who wants water gets some and gives little reminders about what was to come. I can’t speak for any other game, but I never chatted with the two other contestants during the game itself. Once the break is over, Alex comes over for the interview segment. I figured I had a pretty good story- trying to make Mel Brooks laugh at a book signing. Being a TV veteran, I even cheated with a look straight at the camera at one point to talk directly to my comedy hero (I knew he was a devoted Jeopardy! watcher).

The Jeopardy round continued and I did okay, picking up a few more questions, including the $1,000 one in the TV round, which turned out to be my best category (I got four of the five and was beat out on the buzzer on the other one). I pushed myself back into second by the end of the round with $2,800. But Sam had gotten the Daily Double and bet big, opening up a large lead. I’d have to get really lucky with the Double Jeopardy categories and Daily Doubles to have a chance.

I didn’t. I only liked one category when Alex read them off- something about the Supreme Court. I’d end up getting three of those questions and only one other the entire rest of the round. In fact, even though I’d remembered a lot about the experience when I finally watched the episode four months later, I was stunned at how quiet I was during that Double Jeopardy round. I wish I could say I couldn’t get the buzzer timing right, but the sad truth was that I just didn’t know enough. I took a dumb gamble on the very last question and got it wrong, so Final Jeopardy was meaningless. Sam had locked up the win and the other contestant, Christina, had locked up second. The category was Women Authors- not great, but not bad for me. I had $5,200 and decided to bet $5,199. I figured if I got it right, I’d end up in double-digits and it would look good. If I got it wrong, I’d end up with $1, which was funnier than $0 (that’s already turned out to be true- it let me make that joke in the first paragraph about Ken being cheap). Alas, I had no idea when the clue came on the board. The best I could do was guess a female author from the right period, but I knew it was wrong. Thus, I ended up with the buck-, although third place actually gets $1,000, while second gets $2,000 and the winner gets whatever their score was.

People had told me for years that I should go on Jeopardy! My stock answer was always that I didn’t think I was well-rounded enough. I turned out to be exactly right. I think my performance was pretty good- I wasn’t nervous and felt fine on the buzzer. If I got a good category draw, I would have had a shot. But I didn’t, and so I lost. I was very disappointed when I came off the stage. That will probably be the only chance in my life to make that kind of money in one day, unless Ken casts me to play myself next time he writes a Jeopardy! episode of a sitcom (he probably won’t after that joke about him being cheap, now I’m kicking myself for writing it). But even more than the money, I would have loved to have belonged to that exclusive club of Jeopardy! champion. It just didn’t turn out that way.

Still, the experience was amazing. My friends and family had a great time living it vicariously through me. I love talking about the show and answering all the behind-the-scenes questions. It’s a story I’ll tell the rest of my life. Plus, as time passes and memories of what happened fade away, I figure maybe I can start telling people I won. Who’s going to take the time to look it up?

Thanks again to Jeff Lasky. 

UPDATE:  Jeff was kind enough to answer some of your reader questions and that will appear tomorrow.  

Monday, August 05, 2019

What it's like to be on JEOPARDY! Round 1

It's so cool to have a friend actually be a contestant on JEOPARDY!  A few weeks ago a San Diego buddy, Jeff Lasky was on the show.  I asked if he'd graciously agree to be a guest blogger and recount his experience.  Jeff said yes and did such a great job that I don't want to edit a word.  So I'm presenting this as a two-parter; part 1 today and part 2 tomorrow.   I'm an avid JEOPARDY! watcher and I've attended the taping of JEOPARDY! episodes and there were still a lot of things in Jeff's piece that I didn't know.  So a big thank you to Jeff Lasky.  certainly an all-time JEOPARDY champion on this blog.  And Jeff, your dollar is the mail. 

I feel really honored that Ken asked me to write a guest blog about my experience as a contestant on Jeopardy! When I think of the incredible list of guest bloggers Ken has had over the years, I really feel like I don’t belong. Which, some could say, also applied to my appearance on Jeopardy! Although at least the $1 I finished with on the show is more than what Ken is paying me to do this.

Being on Jeopardy! is an intense experience. The show itself goes by in a blur, but the shooting day is a long one. They do five episodes in a day, the Monday through Friday show all in just a few hours. They do this two days a week during only two weeks each month. Usually the episodes shoot about two months before they air. So when Alex is wishing you a Merry Christmas, it isn’t even Halloween yet (not that that’s stopped Costco from putting out their holiday decorations for sale). The day begins when a shuttle bus arrives at the hotel to pick you up at 7 AM. By the way, contestants pay for the hotel. The only one who gets expenses paid is the defending champion. The producers call this the Ken Jennings rule. You don’t get your prize money until 120 days after the show and he was going broke flying himself from Utah to Los Angeles every few weeks during his unprecedented run. That’s why Sony started ponying up for the champ’s travel expenses.

Once you arrive at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, you’re ushered into the green room. All 16-17 contestants (15 who will appear on the show that day and one or two alternates in case someone gets sick or doesn’t show) sit at tables or on sofas to fill out paperwork. One of the contestant coordinators goes to each person to make sure they know how your name is pronounced. She also goes over your interview with Alex. The coordinators put three stories on a card and Alex chooses which to ask about.

Legendary Jeopardy! producer Maggie Speak then does orientation, which lasts an hour. She walks you through the process, explains how everything works, and answers whatever questions you might have. She also spills some great behind the scenes stories- it’s a pretty amazing performance, which I got to hear twice because I had previously been an alternate. Each contestant also goes through makeup. During this whole time, some contestants are mingling a bit, others are silent. Everyone is probably checking out the competition, although they were all nice- seemingly no gamesmanship.

At this point everyone is paraded out to the set. We’ve all seen it a million times on television, but there’s still something magical about seeing it in person. What struck me was how big the board looks when it’s in front of you, which it needs to be because the clues have to be big enough to read. Before we get a chance to play, pictures need to be taken and each player does a little video called the “hometown howdy”, which will be sent to you to post on social media. Everyone then gathers around the podiums while the floor manager explains the set-up. That includes how to write your name, how to put in your bid and answer for Final Jeopardy (there’s a piece of paper and a marker just in case the screen fails during the show), and the elevator. What? Yes, each podium has a little elevator behind it that can lift up shorter people so that everyone looks the same height. But the most important part of the set-up you’re shown is the buzzer. They actually never refer to it as the buzzer because, duh, it doesn’t buzz. They call it the signaling device. I still call it the buzzer. It’s a little thicker than I had imagined, about the length of a pen. As soon as Alex reads the question, a production assistant flips a switch. A light which runs around the entire game board flicks on, although the camera shot is framed in a way so that you can’t see it at home. Once the light appears, you can buzz in. However, if you hit it too early, you get locked out for a quarter of a second. It doesn’t seem like much, but everyone is so smart, that will almost always allow one of the other players to get in. Of course, wait too long, and they’ll beat you anyway. So the key is timing, trying to figure out that sweet spot between when Alex stops talking and when you see the light go on. The producers tell you to keep buzzing until someone is called on. After all, maybe all three buzzed too early and got locked out, so you want to be the first one in after the quarter-second is up.

Once all the explanations are over, there’s a rehearsal. We’re called up to the stage three at a time to play just like they do on the show. Jimmy McGuire from the Clue Crew hosts. Once the producers think you’ve gotten a feel for the buzzer, they pull you out and put another player in. By the end of the rehearsal, the studio audience is arriving. We’re all rushed back to the green room with the strict admonishment that we’re not to have any contact, verbal or visual, with our guests in the crowd. This is near impossible, so no one yelled at me for smiling at my wife. Once back in the green room, the producers reveal who will play in the first game against the returning champion. No one, aside from the champ, knows when they’re going to play until it’s announced before each game. Another interesting note- the producers don’t pick. There is a third-party law firm hired to keep everything on the up and up. This all stems from the quiz show scandals of the 1950’s. I guess this prevents any of us from becoming the next Charles Van Doren, although I’ll admit I’m more likely to be compared to Herb Stempel. The lawyer chooses which set of categories and questions go with which show and which contestants will play each game. Security is so tight; contestants are not allowed to leave sight of the coordinators. You need to be escorted to the restroom and you’re kept far away from anyone else involved in the game. This means the only moments you spend with Alex Trebek are the ones on stage during the show.

To be continued tomorrow.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Weekend Post

On Monday I filed my review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, the new Quentin Tarantino movies set in 1969 Los Angeles.  One of their locations was Westwood, near my house so I went out and took these cool photos.  I ended up seeing the movie in that same Bruin Theatre.  So I guess you could call this "ONCE UPON A TIME IN WESTWOOD."

It's amazing how much detail goes into every set and every scene although you never really see it on the screen.  These people are truly artists.  It was a pleasure to see their work close up.

And once you've seen all the photos I have a surprise.  

For me a big attraction of the movie was its salute to Boss Radio, KHJ.  That station was the soundtrack of my life and it was thrilling to hear it again.  For you fellow Boss listeners and fans, here's a tribute to KHJ:

Friday, August 02, 2019

Friday Questions

Here are your mid-summer Friday Questions.

Kevin Kozoriz is up first with an interesting FQ:

If you were given the chance to write a spin off of any show, at any time period, which one would you spin off and what characters would you choose?

I know I’m going way back, but I would spin off Eddie Haskell from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. That character would be soooo much fun to write.

Bryan Thomas wonders:

You talked about working with Jenna Elfman when you directed Dharma and Greg. How about Thomas Gibson? He has a bit of a rep now but how was he to work with?

He apparently got into physical skirmishes on CRIMINAL MINDS and was eventually replaced. But I have to say, for me, and seemingly everyone involved with DHARMA & GREG he was a dream to work with.

Totally professional, took direction well, polite with the crew, and delivered on show night.

But the folks on CRIMINAL MINDS saw a different guy.

So the question becomes which is the real Thomas Gibson? I don’t know. Just happy I got the good one.

James Marshall has a question about “Boys in the Bar,” a first year episode of CHEERS that my partner David Isaacs and I wrote.

What struggles did you face when writing sitcom episodes that addressed important social themes and how did you and David keep the balance between seriousness and humor in those episodes?

I’ll start by saying what we didn’t want to do – and that was deliver a heavy-handed message.

We tried to be true to the subject and use humor to make our points.

But I will say this: We were sensitive to peoples’ feelings, but today it’s gotten so ridiculous that you’re always walking on eggshells worried that you might possibly by chance offend somebody. I don’t think we could do “Boys in the Bar”, which dealt with homophobia. We won a GLAAD Award for it, but today there would probably be outrage.

I don't think we'd even attempt it in 2019.

I can’t write on eggshells. I don’t know who can.

And finally, from Kevin from VA:

Ken, You've sure had a varied career. Disc Jockey, Baseball Announcer, TV writer/director, and now Playwright. That being said, whose career of the following four people would you have picked to have had as your own? Howard Stern, Vin Scully, James L. Brooks, or Neil Simon.

This is just career, not personal lives. I wouldn’t want to trade personal lives with any of them. But for careers, it would be a tie between Vin Scully and Neil Simon.  They're the two very best at what they did. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

EP134: Meet comedian/writer Jeff Cesario

Jeff Cesario has been a stand-up who’s appeared often on LETTERMAN, THE TONIGHT SHOW, CONAN, KIMMEL, and has had his own SHOWTIME special.  He was also a writer/producer on THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW.   He and Ken discuss comedy, Garry Shandling, what happened to Dennis Miller, and his alter ego, sportscaster Chet Waterhouse.  Lots of laughs and insight this week.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


Thanks to everybody who heeded my clarion call and checked in yesterday. (And you still can.  Go to the Comments Section of today's post or yesterday's post.)    I write in a vacuum all year and it's nice to know some folks are still out there.    Since I started this blog way back in 2005 I've gotten over 32,000,000 page views, but that could have been the same four people.

When I started this folly I just assumed 90% of my readership would be in the 310 area code, with another 7% in the 818.  I'm always amazed when people all over the country and the world log on.  And even more shocked when I am sometimes recognized -- although these days that's mostly from my appearances on CNN.

In any event, your comments were very gratifying.  And I wanted to take a day and really acknowledge that; not just mention it in passing.   Since I've yet to find a way to really monetize this blog (which is probably why so many blogs are discontinuing), knowing people are getting something out of it is my big perk.

How long will I continue?  Not sure.  At least for now certainly.  And yesterday's response helps. When I started I never thought I'd still be doing this 14 years later.  Of course I never thought I'd be creating a little global community either.   Okay, so that's another perk.

Oh, and for those new readers who are wondering -- if I can't find an appropriate photo to go along with day's entry I post a picture of Natalie Wood.  I'm sure there's a large percentage of my readers who log on just for that.

Onward and sideways...

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Who's out there?

I haven't done this in about a year and I'm overdue.

Every so often I take a day and ask YOU to write in.  This blog goes out into the internet and I have no idea who is reading, where you're from, etc.

So today I'm asking YOU to check in.  Where are you from?  What demographic?  How long have you been reading?   How did you find the blog in the first place?   What topics do you like and dislike?  Are you also  listening to my podcast?  What do you like or dislike about that?

I especially want to hear from new people and lurkers.  And don't worry, no salesmen will call.

Just click on the Comments section and introduce yourself.   Hey, this is a lot easier request than "buy my books" (although they are all still available).

Thanks much,


Monday, July 29, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: My review

Full disclosure: I’ve been waiting a year for this movie.

I love the ‘60s (even wrote a book at it which you need to buy immediately), love LA in the ‘60s, and the soundtrack of my life was KHJ radio. And other than HATEFUL 8’s I very much like Quentin Tarantino movies.

Instead of resorting to CGI, Quentin painstakingly recreated the Los Angeles of 1969 and it was fun to see all the familiar facades return along with all the authentic ads from that year. I was in Westwood when he was filming there and took lots of pictures of the vintage cars and recreated storefronts. (This weekend I will post a bunch.)

Tarantino also put together an amazing all-star cast. Leo, Brad, Al, Margot – all so big you don’t need their last names.

So it was as if Quentin made this movie specifically for me.

I had to see it opening day, and the 11 AM showing no less. I chose the Bruin Theatre in Westwood, the same theatre featured in the film. I bought my ticket in advance because I didn’t want to get shut out if there were big crowds. I arrived a half hour early. I was taking no chances.

I was the only one there.

Maybe ten people ultimately were in the theatre when the picture began.

So what did I think? B+

Tarantino is a real student of film but the one aspect he never grasped is that scenes should begin as late into the scene as possible.  In some cases scenes that should have taken three minutes took twelve.  The movie is 2 hours and 41 minutes. He could have easily cut a half hour. And this is from the guy who couldn’t wait. Ironically, the whole sequence where Sharon Tate goes to Westwood to watch her movie – the scene I was there for – could have landed on the editor’s floor.

So that knocked it down from an A. Otherwise, it was a fun Tarantino ride complete with requisite cool, great acting performances, a killer soundtrack, some tense sequences, in-your-face violence that teeters between gruesome and cartoon, twisted storytelling, some good laughs, and lots of my beloved KHJ radio in the background. The attention to detail is remarkable. This is as loving a tribute to Los Angeles as MANHATTAN was Woody Allen’s love letter to New York. The big difference is that in Tarantino’s movie the hero chooses not to sleep with the underage girl.

Certainly for me a big plus was the nostalgia of the period. Hearing a “Heaven Scent” commercial and seeing local horror movie host Seymour again was fun for me, but anyone not part of the ‘60s? All these touches will help sell the time period, but I doubt they’ll have any value beyond that. And the question becomes: how vital are those touches to the success of the film? I'm guessing very little since the hipsters came out at night and Tarantino had his best opening night ever. 

Leo & Brad gave Oscar-worthy performances.  I don't think Margot even spoke for the first hour.  There's a sequence where she's watching herself in a movie.  We see her reacting to the crowd and enjoying her performance.  It's something Margot could phone in.  But for whatever reasons some critics have singled out this sequence as one of the acting highlights of the film.  Huh???? 

Oh, and what is it with Tarantino and feet?  There are several scenes where barefoot girls have their feet up.  In another case a woman character directs Brad by pointing her foot.  Looking back, there was that scene in PULP FICTION where John Travolta and Samuel Jackson were discussing whether a foot rub was an act of adultery.  And isn't there a bare foot scene in JACKIE BROWN? 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is worth seeing, especially if you’re a Tarantino fan. There are flashes of brilliance.  This is his 9th film. He says he’s only going to make 10. I suspect 10 is the number of people in the entire world who believe him. I don’t see Quentin Tarantino retiring and playing golf with Alice Cooper.  And if he in fact is going to only make one more movie, judging by his fetish, shouldn't it be a reboot of Cinderella? 

And even though it’s too long, stay for the closing credits. Some nice little bonuses reward those who do.

I wanted to absolutely love it.   I liked it a lot.   But then KHJ airchecks are my "feet."

Sunday, July 28, 2019

In praise of Baltimore

I try not to get too political on this blog, but every so often something comes along that I can’t just ignore.

I spent a year in Baltimore as a play-by-play announcer for the Orioles. Baltimore was a wonderful city. The people were great, there was tremendous civic pride, and the Inner Harbor is fabulous. Ft. McHenry is there for God sakes. Annapolis is nearby. It’s a history rich AMERICAN city.

As an outsider, the thing that struck me the most was how proud Baltimore residents were of their city. During the season I moved my family there and was happy to raise my children in Baltimore. I found it to be a wonderful environment.

There was no “infestation” of anything. It was clean, welcoming, and had its own regional charm.

Spend some actual time in a city before you trash it and its citizens, you National Disgrace.

Sometimes sports teams will hope to gain a regional following so won’t put the name of their city on their road uniforms. When I was there the Orioles made sure “Baltimore” was on the front of every Jersey. It remains that way today.

I loved my time there and the friends that I made. I have many wonderful memories of Baltimore but perhaps my favorite is every night at the ballpark during the National Anthem, everyone in attendance (sometimes 50,000) stood and yelled out “O!” when the lyric “Oh, say does that…” was sung. That’s pride in the country and pride in their city. And everywhere the Orioles go on the road you can still hear people in the ballpark yelling “O!”

And “O” is my rating of you, Mr. President.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Weekend Post

An article in the UK’s GUARDIAN speculates that the golden age of streaming television is about to come to an end. Now that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are thriving while network television is dying, content providers want to get in on the action with their own subscription streaming services.

Why do you think Disney bought 20th Century Fox? For it’s library. For its franchises. Later this year Disney will roll out their own streaming service. If you want to see Snow White and Captain America and MASH you better pay the mouse.

Apple is debuting their own service. WB is soon to follow. As will be NBC-Universal. The article states that the most watched show on Netflix (by a wide margin) is the U.S. version of THE OFFICE. That goes away to Universal. FRIENDS is probably next. Bye bye FRIENDS unless you sign up for the WB.

So the article suggests that television viewing is going to get a lot more expensive in the next few years.

A number of readers have what I thought. So here’s what I think:


It’s one thing when a couple of services have most everything you want. But it’s another to shell out $12 a month or more to Netflix, AND Hulu, Amazon, Disney, Apple, Universal, Warner Brothers, CBS All-Access, HBO, Facebook, YouTube, Showtime, and does the Vice Channel continue to exist?

So you’ll be picking and choosing, maybe subscribing to two, possibly three. Are you a big STAR TREK fan? Then CBS All-Access will be your dish, although the rest of the programming is primarily old episodes of CBS shows. You can spend your weekend binging MAN WITH A PLAN episodes.

Eventually some services will work and others won’t. Disney will be a runaway success. A huge library and who doesn’t love Disney? You have a kid? You’re getting Disney. They’ll also have THE SIMPSONS, MARVEL UNIVERSE, Pixar, and STAR WARS franchises. CBS All-Access has STAR TREK, THE GOOD FIGHT, and KEVIN CAN WAIT Big whoop.

My hope is that in time the weaker services will merge and after a shakedown of a few years there will once again by two or three giant streaming services. But they’ll be charging you $40 a month instead of $12.

Remember the days when your biggest complaint was that your favorite shows had too many commercials? Trust me, you will long for those days.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Friday Questions

Is it just me or is the summer going by really fast? Here are some Friday Questions to close out July.

VP81955 starts us off.

Ken, did you ever go to any PCL games? I understand the Angels-Hollywood Stars rivalry was fierce, though the passion had apparently waned a bit by the mid-'50s.

I went to a couple of Hollywood Stars games when I was real little. They played in Gilmore Field, which was eventually torn down and replaced by the famous CBS Television City.

Unfortunately, CBS has sold the property although the complex has been ruled a historic monument and the new owner can’t tear it down. The sound stages are still being used on a rental basis.

Recently they took down one of the CBS signs and there was an uproar. They put it back up.

From Viv:

For some reason, I find that older, standard definition sitcoms with brighter lighting somehow seem funnier than today's HD, super sharp, warmly lit affairs. Besides the quality of writing, do you think the method a show is lit and shot can affect how the humor comes across at home?

Most definitely the look of the show is important. 35 mm film is richer and more beautiful than HD. It just is. I saw a comparison once of LOST on film and HD and the contrast was startling.

But as you said, it’s also the lighting and sets themselves. I’ve always maintained one of the reasons CHEERS was so much better received than TAXI (which was an extraordinary show) was that TAXI was set in a grimy garage and CHEERS was set in a beautiful inviting bar.

It helps if you have attractive sets if you’re asking the audience to visit every week. I don’t know of many New York apartments as bright and colorful as Monica’s on FRIENDS but you sure liked hanging out there. Same with Sheldon & Leonard’s LA apartment in THE BIG BANG THEORY. And certainly Frasier’s Seattle digs.

In general, comedy works better in brightness. Darkness creates a mood that often is not conducive to evoking laughs.

marka asks:

How are you given the parameters for script logistics? Like: how many non-cast member actors are you able to write in an episode? How about the sets, are you given directions on how large or how many additional sets you can build for an episode? Does it matter if you can argue that those new sets would be very useful in future episodes?

I just assume there would be guidelines for these things, perhaps in the staff handbook???

Well, first off there is no handbook.

Writers work with the showrunner in breaking stories and the showrunner will give you the parameters. It’s generally in the budget to have guest stars and day players and depending on the episode you may have just one or two or a bunch. Let’s say it’s a wedding episode. Expect to have a large additional cast.

As for sets, certainly for multi-camera shows, a factor is the size of the sound stage. You may only have room for one swing set a show. So it makes no difference if you can reuse the diner set – if there’s no room for it they’re not going to construct it.

Hopefully, all of these issues are determined before the writer goes off to pen his draft.

And finally, from DrBOP:

By any chance, are you a fan of professional basketball? According to many, including Magic Johnson, LA is the new "King Of Basketball" after all the very recent free agent signings.

Being in Ontario Canada, I think Toronto has earned the right to carry that title UNTIL someone takes it from us.

MANY sportswriters are acting like the Lakers and Clippers are the ONLY two teams to watch during the 2019-2020 season. (Blasphemously) I'm a long-time fan of both those LA teams.....but sheeesh! Your thoughts?

The city of Los Angeles leads all leagues in hype. This is one of the reasons why local teams are always serenaded on the road with chants of “BEAT LA!”

Realistically, both teams are better this year and will be very competitive. But last year everyone thought the Lakers were going to rule because they had LeBron. How’d that work out for them?

There are a lot of good teams in the NBA. My prediction: The Western Division Finals next year will not be between the Lakers and Clippers. There will be at least one other team in there. You heard it here FIRST, unless I’m wrong, and then I’ll just deny it even though it’s here in print because now in this country you can do that.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

EP133: Pilots I Have Worked On

Ken shares stories of various sitcom pilots he’s worked on and a couple of these tales you won’t believe.   Go behind-the-scenes of how TV pilots are made.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sometimes more is more

Here’s a follow-up to yesterday's post on set-ups.

If the goal is create a specific image in the mind of an audience member it sometimes helps to add a couple of straight lines. And that's not something you normally think of.

I think one of the problems with today’s multi-camera sitcoms is that every single line is a joke or quip and it (a) gets exhausting, (b) is not the way people really talk, and (c) prevents setting up any big laughs.

Take a couple extra seconds to sharpen a joke if need be. Here’s an example:

This is from a play I wrote. Brad & Chanel are a young couple enjoying their first romantic slow dance.


The happiest moment of my life was when I was in the 7th Grade. We had coed dancing in gym, and I got to hold this angelic girl who was way out of my league in my arms, and for just those precious few moments she was mine.

That’s so sweet.

Thank you.

Whatever happened to her?

She’s now a bounty hunter.

The bounty hunter line gets a big laugh. My guess is it would get an okay laugh if I left out this couplet:

That’s so sweet.

Thank you.

It’s five extra words. But they tell you his story affected her. The construction of this joke is to set up a very sweet innocent image of this girl and then pull the rug out with who she is now. Really create a tender moment and then burst its bubble.

Descriptive words help too. I describe her as “angelic.”

So going back to yesterday and trying to “beat” jokes (i.e. improve them), if I had constructed the joke this way:


The happiest moment of my life was when I was in the 7th Grade. We had coed dancing in gym, and I got to hold this angelic girl who was way out of my league in my arms, and for just those precious few moments she was mine.

Whatever happened to her?

She’s now a bounty hunter.

… my first thought might be, is there something funnier than bounty hunter? And of course there may be (knowing my readers you’ll have seventeen suggestions, which is great). But there’s also the possibility that bounty hunter is perfect but the set-up can be improved. You have to train yourself to not just replace punchlines.

Yes, it makes the job a little more complicated, but the really good comedy writers are craftsmen. “Why” something is funny is important.

Mixing up the rhythm so every joke isn’t the same pattern is also important.

Example: the rule of 3’s. This is a standard trope and it has worked since the beginning of time. The first two items establish a pattern and then you break it with the third. Soft music, fine wine, and handcuffs.

The trouble is if every line is a “rule of 3” then it makes no difference how funny each one individually is, the sameness of the cadence gets annoying real fast. So in writing a script you also have to consider the variety of joke constructions.

So much to think about! Yikes!

But here’s the good news: most wannabe comedy writers don’t think in these terms. Jokes don’t land and they don’t know why. If you’re a real student of comedy you will have a leg up. You and another writer might independently come up with the same basic joke, but yours works and his doesn’t.

Knowledge can be a good thing… even in comedy.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Handing a monkey a gun

A couple of weeks ago during Friday Questions I wrote:

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a gun.

I also, in that post, talked about how I constantly try to beat jokes (i.e. come up with better ones).

One of the joys of this blog is the comments section and the contributions that you guys make every day. On this one day a reader, in the spirit of fun, tried to beat my monkey joke, suggesting it might be funnier if I used ferret or penguin.

Others wrote in saying ferrets and penguins don’t have hands. How would they hold a gun? That’s why I used monkey they speculated.

I try not to get in the middle of these discussions. I’d rather hear what you all have to say.

But let me weigh in here because I can use it as a lesson in comedy.

First, let me thank the original reader for his suggestion. Both ferret and penguin are funny animals. And in other circumstances they probably would work better than monkey.

But I did use monkey because a monkey has hands. For a joke to work, the image has to be instantly clear. If it suggests an ambiguous image then you’re in trouble. You can picture a monkey holding a gun instantly. But penguins and ferrets have no hands. What would that look like? If you have to squeeze an image into an unnatural pose you lose that immediate identification. And if your first reaction is “Huh?” Or if you have to take ten seconds to try to create the image – the moment is gone and you’ve lost the laugh.

And in that particular joke it’s not just the monkey that has to be right. What if I said this?

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a knife.

With a gun it’s crystal clear what he could do with it. He could shoot it. With a knife the monkey could stab someone. But he could also use it to cut bananas off a tree, or chop something, or cut off his other hand. Too many options. If he had a grenade he could throw it (which would make the joke work), but he could also hold it and blow himself up – and both of those possibilities only arise if he’s smart enough to pull the pin first. That’s a lot of steps.

Now you could say specificity is key in comedy. Why just use a gun? Why not a derringer? Or an AK-47? The question becomes, what do those add to the joke? In this case, any gun will do. Specifying a Baretta causes the listener to go “Why a Baretta? What is so special about that gun? Why did he pick that gun over another type?”

Most times specificity does add to the joke, but there are times it might cloud it.

It’s all about the set-up; in this case a visual one. The set up prepares the audience to think one very clear image, and then gives it a twist.

These kinds of questions go into every joke I write. On the one hand, I don’t try analyze every joke to death, but I’m always going “This is what I want the audience to think, have I prepared them properly? Is there a better word or image that would achieve that? Does it require too much effort on the audience’s part? Am I providing too much information?  Might there be other unwanted interpretations that send them in the wrong direction?”

So often when I say I try to beat a joke, I’m not just changing the punchline, I’m changing the set up.

And that’s class for today. Remember, your term papers are due next Wednesday.

Monday, July 22, 2019

In defense (again) of Sitcoms

The Dramatist Guild puts out an excellent magazine called “The Dramatist.” In the most current issue there is a roundtable discussion between playwrights Stacie Chaiken and Mildred Inez Lewis and moderator Josh Gershick. Ms. Chaiken and Ms. Lewis are both very accomplished dramatic playwrights.

At one point the discussion turned to comedy and this was the exchange:

Josh: You’re describing a form of comedy as “sitcom.” What are the elements of that?

Mildred: When the humor is too dialogue-based and there’s not enough richness built into the human comedy. When I see plays written by people who are crossing over from television, the dialogue is very funny, and then afterwards I feel that I’ve not been left with as much as I would have liked.

Josh: Sitcom writers often go for the laugh.

Mildred: Yes. And I think it’s possible to go for the laugh and have some depth as well. I think classics like (Norman Lear’s) ALL IN THE FAMILY show us that you can do both.

Josh: I’m thinking of classic plays that do both: BORN YESERDAY by Garson Kanin comes to mind.

Stacie: Sitcom comedy is kind of glib. But real comedy, deep comedy – that’s character based, where the stakes are life and death. That kind of comedy in a moment like this, is essential.

As a television writer who did cross over to write comedy plays I’d like to respond to those observations.

We all know that the theatre considers comedy to be second-class citizens. This goes back to ancient Greece. Everyone knows Sophocles. How many know Menander (and he was a funny guy)? But to these serious writers who churn out “important” plays, let me ask you this:

Do you have any idea how hard it is to make 200 strangers laugh for 90 straight minutes?

Let me tell you, very few writers can do it. Very few.

I invite you to try. Ask a comedy writer to write a drama. I bet he or she can.

Comedy writing is a unique skill-set that audiences appreciate even if serious “artists” don’t. Numerous articles have been written lately about how daring and provocative recent dramas are and that no one is going to see them. Comedies fill the seats. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is still playing on Broadway, long after Tony nominated plays have closed. 

Ms. Chaiken claims that comedies need to be about “life and death.” That is “essential” to use her word. So there are levels of comedy now? MASH is a better comedy than CHEERS because it deals with the horrors of war? I was the head writer of MASH and find that statement laughable.

“Sitcom” is a derogatory term in the theatre. Make no mistake; whenever a review uses the term “sitcom” it’s a negative review. Theatre critics use “sitcom” the way music critics use “bubblegum.”

But name me a comedy on Broadway any better written than FRASIER (and no one died in that series). They did flat-out farces. When Kurt Vonnegut said: “I’d rather have written CHEERS than anything I’ve written” doesn’t that say something for the art form (and it is indeed an art form)? And hey, “Sugar Sugar” is not a bad song.

Ms. Lewis acknowledges there are some classics like ALL IN THE FAMILY, but she claims it’s because it has “depth.” So SEINFELD is not a classic? Nor is I LOVE LUCY? Or THE BIG BANG THEORY? For all its “depth,” ALL IN THE FAMILY is now dated and rarely shown. Lucy is stomping on grapes right this minute on someone’s TV screen.

Does every play have to “leave you” with something as Ms. Lewis suggests? Is an evening of sheer entertainment ultimately just an empty experience? Are dialogue laughs not as worthy as reaction laughs? And what percentage of dialogue laughs are acceptable? 40% is okay but 51% is a sitcom?

TV comedy writers learn to write on-demand. They are constantly fighting deadlines. They must turn out product every week, not once a year or so. They know how to rewrite and solve script problems because their rehearsal process is eight straight months year after year, not an occasional four-week workshop. There is no greater training ground for comedy playwrights than being on staff of a situation comedy. Neil Simon wrote for SERGEANT BILKO (another classic sitcom that featured an episode where a chimpanzee joined the army).

The truth is this: Almost ALL former TV writers/now-playwrights derive their comedy from characters. It’s the amateurs who load up their plays with a barrage of glib “jokes.” The crossover crowd knows that comedy comes from character and human foibles. But to maximize the comic potential you need to apply great pressure on these characters and take them out of their comfort zone. It’s the exact same principle with serious drama. But that means that true character comedy comes out of, heaven forbid, situations.

It always rankles me when someone says “Yes, it’s funny BUT…” Again, do you know how incredibly difficult it is to write something that is genuinely funny? Please don’t consider it a “given” when critiquing a comedy. Menander really hated that too. Have we not progressed from the Hellenic world?

The theatre should be encouraging TV writers to crossover, not look down their noses at them. A major reason there is so little good comedy in theatre is because those who have the rare ability to do it abandon the stage for television. And why not? They make way more money in TV. More of their stuff gets produced. Top-flight actors do their material. Literally millions of people see and appreciate their work. And there are far more Emmy categories than Tonys. So welcome and embrace the few who forgo all of that to return to the theatre.

I feel like Gordon Gekko. “Sitcoms are good.”