Saturday, April 20, 2019

Weekend Post

It's been over five years since I posted this.  It's one of my all-time favorites.  Written by my partner, David Isaacs.  Definitely worth a rerun. 
 
Once again it's time for a memo from Mr. Special Effects.

Now more than ever, showrunners are implored to KEEP THE BUDGET DOWN! Like that's
ever been easy in Hollywood. This town is notorious for huge mark ups, studios charging their own shows outrageous rent for their stages and facilities, etc. And if God forbid you need a special effect look out. In writing rooms whenever we propose even the smallest stunt we turn to my partner, David Isaacs, who has created a great character – Mr. Special Effects. He will then describe what is required to pull the stunt off and how much it will cost. Here is an example, in the form of a memo.

And believe me when I say this is TYPICAL.


*******

Report from TV Special Effects Department:

RE: Frasier

Situation: In a dream sequence, Frasier is on the air and his board explodes.

Proposal---If I'm to understand correctly from our conversation you all want the entire radio board to explode in Frasier's (Mr. Gramner's) face. filling the studio room with smoke. It's quite a coincidence since my dad created the same effect for Mr. Al Ruddy for an episode of 'The Monkee's. (For your reference it's the one where the Monkees try to outfox a Russian agent played by Mr. Lloyd Bochner). The good news is that with all the advancements in explosive delivery it's a much easier effect. (The real reason you never saw Mr. Mike Nesmith at any Monkees reunion is that he had four fingers of his left hand blown off. It's certainly not true that he was sick of being a part of a third rate Beatles knockoff. That and feeling responsible for Yakima Canutt losing a testicle on "How the West was Won" haunted my father till he fell to his death rigging Mr. Demetrious 'George' Savalas for a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in 'Kojack.)

Anyway, the effect is fairly simple, but of course we want it foolproof and safe. (within reason) First of all we will rig a series of explosive charges across the board. That will control the blast as oppossed to one big blast which is harder to control. I will set off the charges in sequence from a specially designed phaser. That should supply our explosion and still create the effect. We also set a charge inside the board so that in the case of a fire breaking out from the initial explosion (small possibility) I'll blow that charge which in turn would smother the flames. That, of course, would also preclude a second take.

Now I'm to understand that Mr. Gramner would like to do the stunt himself (concurrent with an 'Entertainment Tonight' segment profiling sitcom actors who do their own stunts.) That's fine but we will take the precaution of covering his body in an inch to an inch and a half of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly under a flame retardant herringbone suit. (It's uncomfortable but the guy works, what, twelve hours a week?) That will protect him vis a vis a mistake in explosion deployment. (Just to warn you in spite of caution it can happen---Sometimes to a serendipitous result. My dad worked for Mr. George Roy Hill on 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KId." Liitle known fact, the boxcar being blown to smithereens was not in the script. It was what we call in the S.E. business a happy accident. Thankfully the only injury was a prosthetic arm that was mangaled up pretty good. It belonged to my dad's assistant 'Spider' who had lost his real arm and half a foot working with my dad on 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Long story)

So we will protect Mr. Gramner. Safety for the cameramen and crew are at your discretion. Should be a do it every day, piece of cake effect. Still it's S.O.P. for me to ask you one question that's in the order of a final safeguard. Was there originally an actor you really felt could have played Frasier in the event that Mr. Gramner was unavailable or... "a handful"? Have to ask. It many times makes a tougher call but I will remind you of 'happy accidents'.

I'm going to ball park a cost for you then come up with a final tally later. I know you have budget concerns but it's a heck of a stunt. Figuring explosives , equipment rented from the studio electrical dept., special costuming from the studio costume dept., crew, overtime, dummy board and console from studio props, studio fire chief standing by, and I figure you'll want to throw in pizza for a hard working S.E. bunch, I think I can bring the whole thing off for you, on the cheap, for about 110 thousand dollars. Again that's if we're not figuring on another take.

Loved the script by the way.

Mr. S.E.

Friday, April 19, 2019

(Good) Friday Questions

Happy Easter and Passover and whatever else you’re celebrating. Here are this week’s FQ’s.

blinky is up first.

I just saw a post on Reddit that the medical adviser and Alan Alda co-wrote an episode of M*A*S*H. Tell me more!

Well, first off, it was after we had left the show. But yes, the episode called “Life Time” was written by Dr. Walter Dishell and Alan Alda. Dr. Dishell was our medical advisor (and a great guy).

It’s the episode all done in real time. The idea was really Gene Reynolds'. But it was one that required a lot of medical knowledge. Dr. Dishell asked if he could write it since he would be contributing so much, and Gene agreed as long as he wrote it with a real MASH writer (I think Alan qualified).

The episode is also noteworthy for the clock in the corner of the screen. That idea, apparently, was Dr. Dishell’s.

MASH was always experimenting and trying different ways to break the format. “Life Time” was one of the best.

From Jen from Jersey:

In terms of continuity, do writers forget details about the characters and events from earlier seasons. I notice this all the time when I binge watch. One recent example is that the first episode of Wings, Joe introduces Brian to Lowell but in later episodes we find out that they all went to high school together.

Sometimes you have different writers who weren’t on the show when the first factoid was aired. Other times writers forget, especially if it seemed like a small detail buried within an episode. There are times I’ve been on MASH and CHEERS trivia sites and there will be questions from episodes I wrote that I still don’t know the answer.

Some shows used to keep a detailed bible, but that’s pretty time consuming, and now you have the internet to post episode guides.

And seriously, this was much less of a problem before series were all available for binging or cable networks ran eight episodes a day. Now these continuity problems are glaring.

All I can say is that for a long running series writers do the best they can to maintain continuity. Unfortunately there are getting to be fewer and fewer long running series.

Sean queries:

While binging Game of Thrones recently, I noticed something new. The opening credits only feature the actors in that particular episode. I've been an avid TV nut for decades and have never noticed that before. Is that common? It seems to me that even if Jamie Farr or William Christopher didn't appear in a particular episode, they were still credited in the opening.

Have I missed out on something?

It depends on the actor’s contract. Some stipulate their credit must be in every episode whether they appear or not, and others only get a credit on the shows where they actually do appear.

Where the credit appears and how the credit appears also are up for negotiation. Along with size and screen placement.

And finally, from Madame Smock:

Aloha Ken,

I listened to the "How did I get talked into this ?" podcast Ep. 116.I thought the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild story could have been a story premise on Frasier. Do writers use their personal experiences to come up with a storyline?

ALL the time. Our most humiliating life experiences are all golden fodder for sitcom stories.

The best stories are the ones that are the most relatable and those come from real life. I think it was Carl Reiner, when he was running THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, who said to his writers: “Go home this weekend, have a fight with your wife, then come back and tell me about it.”

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

EP119: NBC’s Al Michaels Part 1


In the first of two parts, NBC sportscaster Al Michaels, who has called 10 Super Bowls, numerous World Series, and will be forever known for his “Miracle on Ice” call, joins Ken for an in depth discussion.  In Part 1 Al talks about his baseball career, covering an earthquake, working for the Dating Game, MNF, and moving from ABC to NBC.  You don’t have to love sports to love Al Michaels.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What were they thinking, Part 2?

We've come a lonnnnnng way since 1962.  Smack dab in the middle of the MAD MEN era comes this actual commercial.  Where was #MeToo when that generation needed it? 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What were they thinkin'?

You know how you watch something on YouTube and that leads you to another video and pretty soon you go down a rabbit hole and hours go by as you discover different nutty things? That was me last night.

And I came upon this. It’s so absurd I had to share it.

There was an afternoon show on ABC in the mid ‘60s called WHERE THE ACTION IS. Dick Clark hosted and basically it was a music show consisting of rock groups of the day lip syncing their songs at the beach. The idea was to capture that whole California Myth (which did exist if you had a car and could get to the beach). I recall seeing Paul Revere & the Raiders wearing their heavy felt Revolutionary War uniforms rocking out at the beach.

To my knowledge, WHERE THE ACTION IS was gone long before 1973. But then I found this music video, which is very reminiscent of WTAI. I don’t know the story behind it. But it’s Vicki Lawrence singing her only big hit, THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA at the beach. And it sounds like Dick Clark introducing her.

But here’s what’s so bizarre and made me laugh out loud. Hardly anybody at the beach is paying any attention to her. They’re all running around, throwing the football, tackling each other, kicking sand. She’s just standing in the middle of this scene for no reason whatsoever. And the content of the song is about a murder in the south and an innocent man being hung. So the few people who are in the background dancing to this look like complete idiots.

I love Vicki Lawrence and would someday like to ask her about this. But in the meantime, enjoy today's surreal music video.


Monday, April 15, 2019

The WGA-ATA dispute -- Where do we stand?

Too early to tell.

The WGA and agents (ATA) could not reach a deal by zero hour this past weekend so we all are obligated to fire our TV and movie writing agents.

Where does that leave everybody? 

Well, we’re now in the first stage – name calling, posturing, threatening, animosity. Lawsuits and counter-suits.

I think it will be interesting so see if writers can in fact get staffed using only managers, lawyers, a submission website, recommendations, etc. and skirt the agency process. If so, writers will have a lot more leverage.

If not, if it’s very chaotic and just a mad scramble, agencies will gain more leverage.

But for either of those scenarios to play out a few months must go by. Just sitting on the sidelines, that’s where I see things going at this moment.  (But I hope I'm wrong.)

Look, producers, networks, studios, agents, whoever – only make concessions when they have to. And unfortunately, that usually requires a work stoppage or mass exodus or some other major protest that hopefully will have enough of an impact to force compromise and concessions. Deals that could have been made amicably eventually do get done but at a big cost with lots of collateral damage. Welcome to Tinsel Town.

Here’s how I imagine it will end, and this is based on nothing more than my observations from the bleachers (so take them with a grain of salt). Package deals will remain, but writers will share in the profits – significantly enough that they’re willing to agree to a deal. What that percentage is, when that will be, what other compromises will be made – that I don’t have a clue.

Now I’m getting on my soapbox. None of this would be an issue if anti-trust laws were still upheld and conflict-of-interest practices were shut down. Agencies need other ways to supplement their income in this era of mass consolidation and will find them (opening sports divisions, representing products like Coca-Cola, etc.) and writers would still have enough on their hands fighting injustices that were shady but still legal.

There was a time in Hollywood when major players like Lew Wasserman of Universal controlled the town. There could be a writers’ strike for three months and when Wasserman decided enough was enough the strike was settled in two days.

There’s no Lew Wasserman.

So for now we just play it out. For the vast majority of you, this battle will have no impact whatsoever. This is not a work stoppage. Your shows will still be produced on schedule. No DEXTER reruns on CBS to fill some gaps. And considering how many other global and national crises we all face daily, it’s probably a relief to know there’s one you don’t have a stake in.

But for those of us in the industry, these WGA-ATA issues are important and will affect the way business is done for years to come. So however it falls, let’s get it right.

UPDATE:  I thought it was clear from the post but apparently not since a number of you keep asking whether I went along with the WGA and fired my agent?  And the answer is yes.  

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Weekend Post

I thought if might be fun for some of these weekend posts to recommend vintage movies I love that are probably available on streaming services so if you're home alone on Saturday night or looking to kill a couple of hours this might just fill the time nicely.  (But if you're in Minneapolis come see my play, OUR TIME and me tonight.  Here's where you go for tickets.)

Today's recommendation: BODY HEAT.

 I’m going to start talking film noir in a few minutes but let’s cut to the chase – I love BODY HEAT for the sex. That’s why I went to see it, that’s why I went back to see it, that’s why I’m recommending it. There’s noir and great breakout performances but all that is a bonus.  And you don't have to worry about getting caught surfing Pornhub. 

BODY HEAT, released in 1981, marked the directorial debut of Lawrence Kasdan, who also wrote the film. Today he’s known as Jake Kasdan’s dad but back then he was writing STAR WARS sequels and INDIANA JONES movies – enough Hollywood currency to warrant a directing nod.

The movie is very noir. I don’t actually know the definition of that word but it seems to be the genre that encompasses night, mood, lust, guilt, illicit passion, double-crosses, triple-crosses, seduction, and if really done right – a hopelessly confusing plot. BODY HEAT satisfies all of that plus a lot of nudity!

The film stars William Hurt as Ned Racine, a two-bit lawyer in a small Florida town who meets Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), an unhappy rich married woman. There’s an instant smoldering connection. They’re both horny, wildly attracted to each other, and share the same penchant for talking like a Raymond Chandler novel.

It’s hot (100 degrees at night), they’re hot (one reviewer actually used the word “slender” to describe her back then), and the heat is never turned down.

In short order Ned and Matty are in her mansion getting it on as often and graphic as possible. You are so wrapped up in the steamy sweaty animal sex that you don’t ask the question, “Hey, if she’s so rich and lives in a mansion, how come she can’t afford air conditioning?”

Matty eventually talks Ned into killing her husband (that’s how good the sex was) and the plot takes off. If this sounds a little like DOUBLE INDEMNITY that’s because it’s almost a direct lift. But you never saw Fred MacMurray giving it to Barbra Stanwyck from behind.

Some notable other performances: Ted Danson as the tap dancing D.A. (this was well before CHEERS) is a riot and Mickey Rourke as an explosives expert (well before he went nuts) is riveting.

The ending gets very confusing and Byzantine so you might want to rewind and replay it a time or two. Just like guys will be rewinding and replaying the first part of the movie twenty times.

BODY HEAT – see it with someone you hope to get lucky with.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Friday Questions

Hello from Indianapolis where I am attending the opening of my play, GOING GOING GONE and conducting a Q&A afterwards. It’s at the Westfield Playhouse. Come join us. Tomorrow I’m in Minneapolis for OUR TIME and a Q&A. Stop by there if you’re anywhere in the Midwest.

In the meantime…

Janet Ybarra has a Friday Question.

Whether it's one of your contemporary stageplays, a teleplay you wrote with David or what-have-you: how do you come up with good, satisfying names for your characters so that everyone isn't a Jones or a Smith?

I’ve written posts on this before. I try to find names that might fit the ethnicity, personality, and age of the character. If I’m writing a period piece there weren’t too many Beyonces in the 1920’s.

I prefer not having two characters with names that start with the same letter (e.g. Janet & Jennifer). It’s easier writing in Final Draft when I only need one key stroke instead of two when typing the character name.

Many times I’ll use names of people I know. Friends and ex-girlfriends show up all the time in MASH and CHEERS.

I also consult my high school yearbook.  Lots of great names in there. 

On MASH we always needed patients and visiting military personnel so my partner David and I in season 7 just went down the Los Angeles Dodgers roster. You’ll find Cey, Garvey, Rhoden, Rau, Hooten, Russell, Lopes, etc.

To be honest, I try not to spend too much time on this because you could devote three days coming up with just the perfect name when all you’re really doing is procrastinating.

Brian Phillips asks:

What are your thoughts on physical humor in a script that you write/co-write?

I love physical comedy and even in shows with sophisticated humor like FRASIER I will try to fit in some physical comedy. The key is having the actors who can pull it off. FRASIER had that in spades.

But even in my plays, which rely on dialogue to get the lion’s share of laughs, I will find spots for physical comedy.

If there’s any form of comedy that is universal and guaranteed to stand the test of time, it’s physical comedy. Laurel & Hardy make me laugh hysterically to this day.

From MikeN:

Would you write episodes differently for Netflix because there are no commercials?

Not really. My act break might not come directly in the middle, but good dramatic structure is good dramatic structure.  I still want a strong act break even if its purpose isn’t to retain an audience through a commercial break.

What excites me more about writing a show for Netflix is not having to squeeze a half hour episode into 18 minutes. I can better tell stories when I have a little more time.

And finally, Frank Beans has a FQ in a similar vein.

Curious, Ken--are there any episodes that you have worked on from any show that you wish could have been longer, or even multi-part so that they could tell a story arc better and in more depth?

Yes, primarily on MASH because we would always weave at least two storylines into every episode (sometimes three). There were instances when we had to cut the show for time and lost good stuff.

I always loved when script assignments that started out as a single episode expanded into a two-parter. Easier to tell the story and twice the money (the latter being the BIG incentive).

But here’s the dirty little secret: Most two-parters you see are really part-and-a-halfs. There is generally padding to fill out the whole hour. I’ve written any number of two parters and could take fifteen minutes out of any of them.

But did I mention I get paid twice for two-parters? I can’t love ‘em enough.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. And hope to see you this weekend on the theatre circuit. Thanks.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

EP118: More Celebrity Dish w/ Arlen Peters


Entertainment reporter Arlen Peters is back with more tasty inside stories and profiles of celebrities, famous writers, and iconic movies.  You know you love this stuff!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

I'm going to miss Ralph Lawler

Tonight is the final regular season broadcast of longtime LA Clippers announcer, Ralph Lawler. For 40 years he has called Clippers games. And during that time no team in the NBA has lost more of them. Other than maybe being the announcer for the Washington Generals (the team that loses every game to the Harlem Globetrotters), I can’t think of a tougher assignment.

And yet, every broadcast, every year (even the year they only won 13 games all season) is a gem. Not only does he know the game inside and out, his play calling is superb, his voice is rich, enthusiasm infectious, and he has a great dry sense of humor. Ralph is retiring at 80. He sounds as good as he did at 40. Maybe better.

I have always been a Clippers fan. I loved the Lakers when Chick Hearn was their voice and Magic was their star, but there’s the draw of the underdog, and tickets were so much cheaper for Clipper games. I was an original Clippers season ticket holder. So I’ve seen my share of horrific basketball myself. Benoit Benjamin?  Give me a break!

I only gave up my season seats when I started to learn how to do basketball play-by-play and the Clippers graciously gave me a press pass. Back then they played in the old LA Sports Arena (now demolished) and I would have entire sections to myself.

That’s when I met Ralph. Not only was he gracious and supportive, he was also a mentor. He would sit with me and listen to my tapes offering great critiques. Some teachers point out what you did wrong. He always pointed out what I could do better. He showed me tricks, things to look for, ways of approaching game situations, and how to use my voice to tell the story. Even though I never called games professionally, I owe him a great debt. He had his work cut out for him because I was never that good. 

Ralph Lawler also had the misfortune not only of bad teams but being in the shadow of some iconic broadcasters. Here in Los Angeles we had Vin Scully, Chick Hearn, Dick Enberg, Bob Miller, Tom Kelly, and for a few years when the Raiders were here, Bill King. So Ralph never received the appreciation he deserved. He was inducted this year into the NBA Hall of Fame, which was maybe the best decision the NBA has made in five years.

I only wish he got to call a Clippers championship. Who knows? He’s got one last shot. It’s ironic that in the future the Clippers will be better, but with the loss of Lawler, not as good.

Have a great retirement, Ralph. And thanks for 40 years of championship broadcasts.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

The world's worst jingle

Years ago I did a post about the worst, most annoying songs of all-time. (I stand by "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro.)   I still get readers offering their suggestions.  During a recent Lyft ride to the airport I was forced to, heaven help me, listen to terrestrial radio.   The ride took twenty minutes; at least ten of them were filled with commercials.

Side note:  Why does anybody listen to terrestrial radio?  With all the other options available now, why subject yourself to ten straight minutes of commercials?    End of side note.

Anyway, one of those commercials (I think the 15th one) inspired today's post.  It's the follow-up to worst song.  It's "the worst jingle."

And in this case, the winner was clear by a mile.  No lengthy debates here.

The KARS 4 KIDS jingle.

You know it.  You hate it.

This little ditty is like an airhorn pressed right against your ear.  It's so insipid and so annoying that I will immediately click off any station that is playing it.  I don't understand why any product would want to be associated with such a turn-off.    If I had a car to donate I would set it on fire before giving it to them.  And yes, it's a worthy organization, but I don't care.  If I gave them a car they might think the jingle is working and keep it another ten years.   No one can afford to take that chance.

Now normally in a rant like this I would just post the jingle so you could hear for yourself.  But I care about you way too much to do that.

I'll be interested to see in the comments section whether anybody actually likes that jingle and defends it.  I'm also curious as to what other advertising jingles annoy the crap out of you.

Who knows?  This may be the first and only topic everyone in America can agree on.  But probably not. 

Monday, April 08, 2019

WGA vs ATA update

Here’s where we stand:

??????????

The good news is at the eleventh hour both the WGA and ATA agreed to extend the deadline from last Saturday night to this Friday.

No talks were scheduled before the Saturday deadline so it seemed pretty bleak that there would be any movement.

At least this is a sign that both sides would like to work something out and avoid the uncertainty that would arise should WGA members all fire their agents at the same time.

The issue – well, there are two really – are packaging deals that the agencies make which skims money off the license fee and goes directly into the agency’s pocket, and agencies becoming studios themselves, which would appear to be a conflict-of-interest if you’re negotiating on behalf of your client against your studio.

WGA members overwhelmingly, (over 95%) voted to support the Guild’s efforts in trying to work out an agreement. Such a show of strength sends a powerful message to the agencies that the WGA members sense the importance of these issues and are willing to sacrifice on their behalf.

On the other hand, it’s hard to believe agencies will give up two major sources of their income, especially in this age of consolidation and corporate greed.

So far negotiations have been little more than posturing and grandstanding. And that is typical of Hollywood labor disputes. There are formal talks and then there are back room talks with the major players and those are usually where things get resolved.  

How will it ultimately come out? I truly have no idea. I imagine both sides will have to make some concessions, but what they are and will they be enough for the 95% of pro-action WGA members is yet to be seen.

I have friends and people I respect on both sides of this issue. But I will say this, the president of the WGA, David Goodman, is really a mensch. I truly believe we are in great hands. As an introduction to David Goodman, if you don’t know him, he was a guest on my podcast. I invite you to listen to this episode.

And hold your breath. All of this in uncharted territory. How it will play out is anybody’s guess. And we don’t have the benefit of tuning to CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, hearing analysts and experts give their predictions and know they’re wrong and the exact opposite will occur.

Anyway, this extension is the first positive sign. Let’s see if we can have a happy ending – Hollywood is known for those too.

Thanks to Deadline Hollywood for the image. 

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Weekend Post

I have a number of theatre events coming up in the next month or so and want to let you know about them should you be in Indianapolis or Sydney looking for something to do.

Next weekend I will be making my “apolis” trip.

On Friday night I will be in Indianapolis for the opening of my play, GOING GOING GONE that will be playing at the Westfield Playhouse from April 12-27th. I’ll be there opening night (the 12th) at 7:30 and will do a Q&A after. You can get tickets here.

The next night, April 13th I will be in Minneapolis for the staged reading of my play, OUR TIME at 7:30 at the SPNN Production Soundstage in St. Paul. I’ll be doing a Q&A after that one too. Here’s where you can go for info and tickets.

My ten-minute play, AVOCADO TOAST is in the Gala Finals of the Sydney Short + Sweet Festival and will run April 27th & 28th. Info and tickets can be found here.

AVOCADO TOAST will also be performed in May on Long Island and Michigan. For info and tickets for Long Island here is where you click. 

But wait, there's more.  My short play THE FUGITIVE will be part of the CBE "Unleavened Play Festival" on Sunday, April 14 at 6:00 pm in Brooklyn.  Info and unleavened tickets here

And finally, I have a twenty-minute one act comedy/drama called SIGNING OFF that will be part of EST Los Angeles’ One Act Festival at the Atwater Village Theatre with previews April 27, and 28th, opening the following weekend for four weekends. I’ll be there a lot. Here’s the Facebook page.
My thanks to all the theatre companies, actors, directors, and crew members for making me look better than I am.

Hope to see you sometime this month.

And remember, you can purchase or license any of my plays. Just go to KenLevinePlays.com and browse. And as you can see, if at all possible if you produce one of my plays I will make every effort to attend. I’m even going to Atwater.

So that’s what I’m up to. How ‘bout you?

Friday, April 05, 2019

Friday Questions

If the best part of your weekend is Friday Questions you need more fun in your life. But here they are:

Peter leads off.

You've previously written about working on Mannequin 2 and how awful it was. I particularly cracked up at your anecdote about the producers wanting to pay you and David in big screen TVs. My question: do you ever get residuals from Mannequin 2? I know the movie tanked but surely every movie must provide some residuals, however small.

No. And the movie has aired on TV and cable channels. I'm actually owed a good piece of change.

The problem is the company was run by a guy who later went to prison and another guy who once swindled Columbia Pictures (when he was their president) by writing bogus checks and forging Cliff Robertson’s signature. So the company and its principles are long gone.

Ryn's Sistehr asks:

It seems like sitcoms and reality shows are so much less expensive to produce, get the highest ratings, and give the most bang for the buck in syndication, versus hour-long dramas. How and why do cash-strapped networks still mount something like 911 or The Orville, or all these cable networks I've never heard of mount period pieces, or Siren on Freeform? (Not that I think it's a bad thing that they do - it just seems so unlike money-grubbing networks to do it.)

Networks felt there was a glut of multi-camera sitcoms and that viewers were turned off by their formula rhythms. So to re-energize the genre they felt there was more nteresting things in single-camera and major audiences would return.  They haven't.  

Networks were right that there was a sameness to multi-camera shows – but just the bad ones.

Meanwhile, the most successful sitcoms in syndication (save for MASH) are multi-camera. THE BIG BANG THEORY, LAST MAN STANDING, and FRIENDS are juggernauts. Single-camera sitcoms (save for MASH) don’t do nearly as well. And they cost quite a bit more.

So why don't networks commission more multi-camera shows?  Why do networks do anything

Chris Thomson has a MASH question.

When you were making MASH, was it easier with operating theater scenes to film, as I would imagine you could almost film it once and then re-write at will, as they were wearing masks and no one could see their lips. Basically just reusing the same take?

Following on from that. If this was true, was it tempting to put extra scenes in there if time was tight (sunlight at the park running out etc)?

Only one time did an actor ad lib during an OR scene and we just removed his dialogue. As you said, it’s easy because they're all wearing surgical masks.

But no, we didn’t favor OR scenes. We just tried to tell the best possible stories in the most original way. There were weeks when we had multiple scenes in OR, and other weeks where we had no OR scenes at all.

What I liked best about the OR scenes is they really were the best depiction of the reality of the war and its price. Yes, we were a comedy, but we always felt our primary responsibility was to convey the horror and senselessness of war.

And finally, from PolyWogg:

Any "I remember seeing..." tributes to share about great plays that you've seen where they came out of nowhere for you, totally unexpected diamonds in the rough?

I saw CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD at a small theatre in LA and thought it was brilliant. I saw an early production of SPRING AWAKENING in some church in lower Manhattan and knew that was extraordinary.

Another musical that I loved early on was FOREVER PLAID.

In a small theatre in Soho I saw KILLER JOE  in 1999 and was knocked out by the writing. That was my first introduction to Tracy Letts. It was also my first introduction to Sarah Paulson. I happened to see her after the performance standing on the street and said, “You’re not only terrific; you’re also one of the bravest actresses I’ve ever seen.” Getting completely naked for fifty audience members eight times a week took a real commitment to her art. 

A play that’s kind of faded into the mist but was remarkable was ZOOT SUIT and I saw an early production of that in Los Angeles.

Sadly, I can’t think of any comedies. I saw early productions of Neil Simon and Herb Gardner plays, but they were already major names.

We need more comedies!

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

EP117: My Mount Rushmore of Radio: Four greats radio stars


Ken introduces you to four of his all-time favorite radio performers.  These are the voices that inspired him and made him laugh.   Vin Scully, Dan Ingram, The Real Don Steele, and Gary Burbank.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Why are network sitcoms different from streaming sitcoms?

Writing a sitcom for broadcast television is very different from writing one for a streaming service. And not for the reason you might think.

No, it’s not because you have more freedom. You can’t say fuck on CBS (yet) but you can on Netflix. It’s not because you don’t have to worry about lead-ins and time slots on Amazon. Or even that all episodes drop at once vs. being doled out one a week.

The big difference is storytelling.

In broadcast TV your series needs to be fairly open-ended. You create characters and a world and hopefully things for them to do for 200 episodes. The audience develops an attachment to the characters and just likes spending time with them. One of the reasons multi-camera shows do so well in syndication is that the viewer is so familiar with the show he doesn’t have to pay full attention. You can have FRIENDS on and go into the laundry room to throw the clothes in the dryer while still following the show. You know what the apartment looks like. We always used to say that CHEERS was really a radio play. There’s a comfort food element to most successful traditional sitcoms.

For short-order sitcoms for streaming services you need an overall arc. Broadcast TV wants stand-alone episodes but streaming platforms prefer serialized storytelling. You’re asking the audience to go on a four or five hour journey (depending on how many half-hours you make). And to me, that’s very liberating. You really have the time to develop stories and relationships. And you don’t have to happily resolve every episode.

The trick though is to have an overall story arc that really drives the series from beginning to end. I go back to the difference between THE KOMINSKY METHOD and BARRY. There are some wonderful scenes in KOMINSKY and some laugh-out-loud moments. And even though Arkin & Douglas each have their problems, there’s still no real engine propelling the series forward, as opposed to BARRY (a hit man wanting to become an actor and how that desire jeopardizes him and everyone around him).

The perfect example is THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL. It’s so clear what Midge’s quest is. As opposed to “comfort food,” the goal is to get viewers to binge. You want them to want to watch “one more” before they call it a night. If KOMINSKY had that big hurdle to conquer in addition to all the wonderful character touches I think it could be a home run.

That said, if the show were for ABC I would plot it exactly as it is now.

Streaming platforms are still the Wild West. Writers are still experimenting and trying to find what really works. To me that’s the exciting part. Hopefully in the near future there will be a new “Golden Age of Comedy.” Even if we have to pay monthly to get it.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Abby's

First of all, a disclaimer: I really want this show to succeed. I’m a big fan of Mike Schur. I think the world is ready for the next CHEERS. And I believe strongly in multi-camera shows. For all the knocks on multi-camera series, what’s the most successful sitcom in syndication worldwide – and it isn’t even close? FRIENDS. A whole new generation has connected to FRIENDS; a generation that wasn’t even born when it first aired. Like I said, no other show comes close. And FRIENDS is as standard a multi-camera show as there has ever been.

In an attempt to preserve the form and give it some spin, ABBY’S is filmed outside. Still not sure whether that’s a big plus (audience laughter disappears when not contained, and there are the weather problems to contend with) but points for trying something new.

I don’t know how many episodes they’ve filmed, how much they can correct midstream at this point. My guess is most or all of the episodes are now in the can.

As for the execution, it feels like the writers are not really experienced yet in the form. But they’ll learn. The audience will tell them what works and what doesn’t and they’ll adjust accordingly. There are not many opportunities for grooming young writers since there are not many multi-camera shows on the air. Still, that’s just growing pains. All shows need time to find their way.

But in the pilot of ABBY’S they did something that might prove to be their fatal flaw. And for all their reverence of CHEERS they seemed to miss the single most important aspect of it. CHEERS was where “everybody knows your name.” More than anything else it made the customers (and VIEWERS) welcome.

Diane Chambers enters the bar for the first time. She is clearly not the sort of person who frequents that bar. And yet, everyone made her feel at home.   Diane essentially was us viewers. 

In the pilot of ABBY’S we learn that new customers are not allowed to sit at the bar. They’re not even allowed to sit in chairs just off the bar. New customers are banished to hard benches along the fence and only after a certain amount of time and approval can they earn their way up the ladder. So new customers are essentially dismissed. They don’t want to know your name. It’s not CHEERS, it’s the high school lunch room where only the cool kids sat at the good table.

So let’s say Diane Chambers entered ABBY’S for the first time. Dressed way too formal, clearly a square peg. How would she be treated? My guess: “Excuse me, you can’t sit there. You have to go over to one of those benches.”  Not very welcoming. 


They also made a point of saying there were 164 rules you had to adhere to. That’s a pretty exclusive club.

ABBY’S ratings were not great for its premier. Chalk that up to all kinds of things (they were up against March Madness, etc) but I think subconsciously that exclusivity might have turned off a lot of viewers.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks the creative team moves away from that and people find and like the show. Or, it’s just me and no one else was bothered by that.

In any event, I wish them well and hope they’ll save a spot at the bar for me.

Monday, April 01, 2019

The Real Don Steele

The Real Don Steele would have been 83 today. You've probably heard me talk of him before. He's one of my idols.

He passed away on August 5, 1997. For thirty years The Real Don Steele ruled the Los Angeles airwaves, most notably on 93/KHJ “Boss Radio” in the 60’s and 70’s. Outrageous, electrifying, thrilling – that was Real on…and OFF the air. If you want to hear the greatest cookin’ jock to ever crack a mike in the heyday of top 40. You can check him out here.

Real also appeared in some highly prestigious films such as EATING RAOUL, DEATH RACE 2000 (starring Sylvester Stallone), ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, and Ron Howard’s first directing effort, GRAND THEFT AUTO. Television credits are equally as impressive: TALES FROM THE CRYPT and HERE COMES THE BRIDES.

I had the pleasure of working with him at two radio stations, K100 and TenQ in LA in the 70’s. He also fell off my couch stinking drunk one night and my wife still invited him to dinner again.

His catch phrase was “Tina Delgado is alive, ALIVE!” shouted by some unknown frenzied girl. No one ever knew the story behind it. Who Tina Degado was. How he came to use it. Even what the hell it meant. But it didn’t matter. It was all part of the excitement this larger-than-life personality created for “the magnificent megalopolis of Boss Angeles” three hours every day…and especially on “Fractious Fridays”.

Every year on his birthday, April 1st, I wish that maybe his passing is just an April’s Fool joke. That would be so like him. And at 3:00 I could turn on the radio, “Devil with a Blue Dress” by Mitch Ryder would come blazing out of my speaker and I would hear “The Real Don Steele is alive, ALIVE!”

He is in my heart. And always will be.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Weekend Post

It's the end of the season clearance sale!

The TV season that is. 

If you've been watching coverage of NCAA March Madness (on CBS, TBS, TNT, and whatever TruTV is). or one of the other broadcast networks you've no doubt seen promos for exciting new shows premiering this month. 

Except in a few rare cases, these are the shows that networks are just burning off.   Don't expect to see anything great. 

When networks buy shows for the Fall Season in May (the Upfronts) they also buy mid-season back up shows.   They don't know where they're going to put them, but supposedly they like them and want them ready to go. 

Actually, in some cases a network will hold back a show they really love until mid-season because there will be less competition than in the Fall when everybody is rolling out tons of new product. 

Once a network picks up a series the production company usually goes right to work making them.  That way they'll be available should the network need it sooner than expected (there's usually one or two new Fall series that crash and burn immediately after take off), and in such a case the network might order more episodes of yours than just the initial six or thirteen or whatever they gave you. 

What that means is by November a network has a pretty good idea of how good all of their back-up shows are.  And invariably they fall out of love with one or three of them.   So those don't get scheduled in January; they get launched in March/April when the TV season is effectively over.  As a result these March shows have very little chance of getting renewed.   They have to spark like say THE MASKED SINGER (although that premiered months ago) or they're gone. 

So good luck to the shows premiering now.   You'll notice that sometimes networks will play "two brand new episodes back to back!"   That's a dead giveaway for burn-off.

Many of the actors in these March shows are already landing pilots for next season because it's a good bet their current show isn't coming back.    Like I said, it's a clearance sale. 

The networks are just marking time until the summer when they can load up their schedules with reality shows, cheesy game shows, and anything that can be hosted by Steve Harvey.    It's the cycle of life.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Friday Questions

Let’s get right to ‘em, shall we? Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

Carol Winter starts us off:

Hey Ken. I loved your work on M.A.S.H. and Cheers! You, and other writers on M.A.S.H., have frequently mentioned how you had a Doctor as a Technical Advisor on the show to make sure the actors were holding the scalpels correctly and the writers were accurate on the medical jargon. They were also a source for some story ideas from what I remember.

My questions is did you have a Military Technical Advisor on staff that you could use as well? If so, do you recall any episodes or stories that they contributed to? How about a Technical Advisor for Cheers (bartending and baseball)?

No advisors on CHEERS although Ted did go to bartending school and I believe Woody did as well.  There were enough writers who knew baseball to cover that aspect of the show. 

At MASH we did have a Military Technical Advisor and he was a trip. He would furnish all the necessary names for forms and procedures. But he would also pitch insane story ideas and occasionally call my partner and I “sweetie.” Imagine if Colonel Flagg wanted to be a director.

From Gary:

What are the written (or unwritten rules) for adding parenthetical descriptions to a character's line? For instance, (excitedly) or (angrily.)

Is it an encroachment on the actor's reading of the moment and character or is it a helpful aid as to what the writer intends? And does it differ for TV, movies, and stage?

Many actors do find interior direction an encroachment, but personally, I don’t care. As long as I don’t do it excessively or give indications when the intention of the line is already crystal clear, I employ them a lot.

My main purpose is to communicate to the reader my intention. And if there is any way that lines can be mis-interpreted or ambiguous I clarify with internal direction.

And here’s the other thing – for the most part your script is to be read. It’s not the actor you have to service; it’s the reader. So the clearer I can make things for the reader, the better.

I would say it's more of an issue in the theatre but that's because dialogue is so much more important in the storytelling process.  

With baseball season underway, Michael has a question about announcers:

How common is it for announcers to switch between radio and TV during same game these days? Both New York teams have had separate radio and TV teams for years that don't cross over.

It’s very uncommon. The Giants do some form of this.

A few teams however rotate announcers between radio and TV but between games, not innings. The Pirates and the Royals have that policy.

There is also some crossover with the Reds, I believe, as well as the Mariners.

And finally, from Glenn:

Ken, you directed the Pet Cemetery episode of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, right? At the end, Ray is outside digging the hamster’s grave in the rain. What's it like to shoot extended scenes in the rain for sitcoms? Are the logistics an issue?

We shot that on the stage in front of a live studio audience. A rain effect was rigged so it just rained when we were shooting. For the most part, during the week I rehearsed without the rain effect.

Fortunately for the actors, they knew all their lines and we didn’t have to redo scenes more than once or twice.

I love being able to shoot rain scenes where I don’t get wet.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

EP116: “How did I get talked into this?” Embarrassing stories during the course of my career.


We all get talked into doing stupid things. These are two of Ken’s.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The new Amy Schumer Special

When I watch a stand-up comedian’s special on Netflix or Hulu or C-Span I always think to myself: What if this is twenty years from now and the person watching has no idea who this comedian is? Would they still find the material funny? Would they still laugh?

Obviously, comic sensibilities change over time and each generation has its own new voices and comedians so some material won’t hold up.

But when you watch these specials you always have to bear in mind that the audience is filled with adoring fans who are primed to laugh at anything the comedian says. It’s the live equivalent of the laugh machine in sitcoms.  So the laughs you hear are not necessarily earned. 

I suspect a Millennial today would hear a Steve Martin album from the ‘70s and scratch his head. When Steve goes “Excuuuuuse Meeee” and the audience is in hysterics, the Millennial is probably saying, “What is so funny?”

So when I watch comedy specials I view them in two ways – how will this hold up, and is the material funny for this moment in time?

And that brings me to Amy Schumer. First off, I used to be a big fan of Amy Schumer. Loved her Comedy Central show, loved her stand up. But I found her last Netflix special to be painfully bad. Lazy, unfunny, jokes for shock value only. Almost like she was winging it. 

So when I saw there was a new Amy Schumer Netflix special, "Growing," I was not all excited to watch it. But recently I had some time to kill and figured, what the hell? Maybe I’ll like her again. Maybe all the criticism she took for the last special registered and she really put together and polished A material for this go-round.

Nope.

Just more of the same weak material as the last special. “Okay, I almost just shit on myself.” “And if I did would I just kick it into the audience? Would you guys be cool with it?” Then there were vomit jokes, pregnancy jokes that Joan Rivers might have told in 1959, slut jokes, getting wasted jokes, husband jokes, etc. Very few genuine laughs although you’d never know it from the orgasmic audience.

When the Millennial says “What’s so funny about ‘excuuuuuse meeee?;” I can say Steve Martin had a unique persona and was really poking fun at comedians and he was riding the zeitgeist. At the time, he WAS funny. What do you say to someone twenty years from now about this Amy Schumer special? Well, she sort of had this slutty persona and at one time the act was very fresh.” “But the jokes are kind of on-the-nose, aren’t they? ‘The only time a man should drop to one knee is if he’s in the NFL or eating my pussy.” And what do you say to that? “Well, she used to be better. She used to have more spin on her jokes. She used to deal with subject matter rarely heard before. “

I do think if that same Millennial had seen her very first special she’d get it; she’d laugh along with everyone else.

I always wonder if I'm just out of touch (since I usually am), but I checked Rotten Tomatoes.  Critics liked it but only 21% of the audience liked it.  I guess in this case, I'm not alone.  

Look, there are some comedians who, for my money, are just not funny. They’re annoying, their material sucks, their delivery sucks. They could get new writers, they could hone new material but it wouldn’t matter. But that’s not Amy Schumer. And when I watch other specials, like John Mullaney’s and see the care and effort that went into each and every joke, it pisses me off that Amy seems to half-ass it. She’s better than her recent special. It’s one thing to no longer be funny after twenty years; it’s another to no longer be funny after twenty months.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Why I'm not hip

This is a hard thing to admit but… I’m not hip.

And worse – I’ve never been.

When I was a teenager and everyone was gravitating towards FM progressive rock I still liked Top 40.

Everyone loved Janis Joplin. I loved (and still love) Karen Carpenter.

I miss TV opening titles.

When I went to UCLA and wanted to get into the film department I was summarily turned away because I wanted to do comedies.

I found Cheech & Chong to be hit or miss.

I eat red meat.

I would rather watch old Looney Tunes than any new animated series.

Analytics will kill baseball.

I watch vintage game shows.

Hip trendy bars tend to be too loud.

I write at home not at Starbucks.

I don’t have a Tesla.

I eat Gluten.

I can’t tell you who all the current cast members of SNL are.

I liked the NBA better when the coaches ran the teams and not the players.

I stopped watching THE DAILY SHOW when Jon Stewart left.

I didn’t watch RENT on Fox (okay, nobody did).

I like 5 GUYS over IN N’ OUT.

I didn’t see most of the nominated Oscar movies. Nor do I care.

I still love Marv Albert.

What’s the big deal with Avocado Toast?

I’ve never been to Coachella. But I’ve never been to Woodstock either.

I don’t wear a Fitbit.

I’d rather see a Neil Simon play than one by Eugene O’Neill.

I miss Walter Cronkite.

I ask for straws.

Tetris is still my favorite computer game.

Sean Connery is still my favorite James Bond.

I don’t know how to access original programming on Facebook.

When I go to rock concerts I want the bands to play their hits. And not fuck with them.

I still write a blog.

Monday, March 25, 2019

It's the little things... really little things

Are there little things that annoy you that even as you’re annoyed you’re mad at yourself for being annoyed at something so trivial and yet you are? I’m guessing we all have some of these. Yes, even you.

Here are some of mine. Feel free to share yours.

When I go to a news website, every time I click on a page a video with a commercial loads and I have to pause it.

Waiters saying “perfect” after everything I say.

Pay stations. No two in the world are alike. I’m always putting my credit card in wrong. Always.

At movie theater concession stands – salt shakers instead of little packs of salt. What if I want to add salt to my popcorn after it’s half-eaten? Then what???

Motorized scooters blocking sidewalks.

People posting the same thing fifteen times on Facebook.

Flo from Progressive Insurance.

The internet radio station I’m listening to stops and has to rebuffer. I’m telling you, this is what causes serial killers.

My health app not giving me proper credit for number of steps. If Steve Jobs were still alive this would not happen.

Idiots who still don’t know how TSA lines work.

Restaurants changing their menus – it’s never for the good.  And the prices are never cheaper.

The credit card feature on the gas pump doesn’t work and I have to walk all twenty steps to the office to pay.

Sped up sitcoms on cable networks and indie channels. The SEINFELD cast becomes the Chipmunks.

They no longer make chocolate Necco Wafers.

Automatic faucets in public restrooms. Half the time they don’t work, or I’m moving my hands up and down trying to trip the sensor. How do human beings live like this?

Not being able to submit a play to a festival because I don’t live in Kentucky.

Credits popping on and off the screen too quickly.

Paper straws. I’m sorry – they break, they get soggy. Straws are not what’s going to destroy this planet. (Watch: I get a thousand irate comments from people saying I have no regard for the environment.)

People who say I have no regard for the environment.

Going to a website to get their phone number and it’s not listed, even on the “Contact Us” page.

And finally, (saving the most infuriating for last) when I pay by credit card and they return the slip, the customer copy is on top. So I fill it out then have to fill it out again. I know – seek therapy.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Weekend Post

AMERICAN IDOL is back.  Yawn.  But 10 or 12 years ago it was HUGE.  For several seasons I would do my own snarky critiques and post them the next day.  This was back when everyone was actually talking about the show; when it was still a thing.  

I thought it would be fun to go back and re-post one of those weekly reviews.  This is from March 18, 2009.  And it was COUNTRY WESTERN night.  So enjoy... and watch where you step.

Now that the kids not attractive enough for FOX have been weeded out we can get down to business. This was Country Night and the guest mentor was Randy Travis (or, for you non Country fans: Thomas Hayden Church).

By and large all of the vocals were good. I must admit though that although I enjoy Country music I’m not an aficionado of it so I apologize if I don’t get all the titles exactly right.

Texas redneck Michael Sarver sang “Don’t get my girl confused with my horse”. Kara (as always) pushed for bigger notes. I bet if you looked at her iPod playlist you’d find thirty Celine Dion songs, twenty Shirley Bassey songs, and the complete works of Ethel Merman.

Adam Lambert is the illegitimate love child of Freddy Mercury and Liza Minelli. He sang “Ring of Fire” but in the more traditional pre-Hitler Berlin cabaret style.

Allison Iraheta (the Little Mermaid) did a great rendition of “Take my heart but leave the beer”. Randy Jackson liked it too and gave the ultimate compliment to a Country singer – “It was dope”.

Kris Allen, this season’s tween sensation sang the touching ballad, “If you leave me now I’ll kill your dog”. Randy Jackson was shocked. “Who knew you had tender moments?” he said to the boy who looks like a girl.

Randy was on fire last night. He amazingly surmised that classy R&B belter Lil Rounds wasn’t comfortable singing Hee Haw music. It’s like he’s…psychic! Personally, I thought she did a very nice job with “Harper Valley PMS”.

Scott McIntyre did a lovely interpretation of “There’s not enough whiskey in Kentucky to get me to take you home”. Paula thought he should stop accompanying himself on the piano. She said “Audiences need to see you as a showman”. Great advice to a blind man. Let’s see Scott juggle next week. Thank you, Simon for just calling her advice “stupid”.

The judges again scolded Alexis Grace for not looking and sounding like a whore. She sang, “Picking dingleberries”.

Widower/crooner Danny Gokey did not wow the judges this week with his version of the Carrie Underwood smash, “Jesus, check the oil”.

My favorite performance of the night was by Anoop Desai. He killed with “You were on my mind”. If there’s such a thing as Hindustani Soul, he’s got it.

Why did Megan Joy Corkrey drop her last name? Her graphic just read “Megan Joy”. I thought she looked gorgeous tonight; that gown really went well with her tattoos. And despite having the flu (which should be good for at least 10,000,000 votes right there) she nailed “After Midnight”.

And finally, Matt Giraud served notice to Danny Gokey that he’s not the only frontrunner. He brought down the house with “Give me back my spurs, the wedding is off”.

I think everyone is safe on Country Music night except Michael Sarver, the only actual country boy. It’s not fair. But isn’t that what the Coen Brothers were trying to tell us in “No Country for Old Men” after all?

Friday, March 22, 2019

Friday Questions

As March Madness officially begins: 

Peter asks:

I also noticed that you and David are listed as uncredited writers on Mother, Juggs and Speed. Is that another internet error or did you really work on that film?

We did not work on the film, but ABC commissioned a pilot and David and I did an extensive rewrite on that. The pilot was filmed and aired once (back when networks would show unsold pilots in the summer as “Failure Theatre”).

We did our draft, turned it in, and for some reason didn’t get a chance to see it when it aired. So I have no idea how good or bad it was or how much of our script they ultimately used.

Also, this was before the show was cast so we just went by the characters in the movie.

Bill Cosby was not in the pilot. He was in the movie.

So why would we do extensive rewrites for no credit? The money of course.

YEKIMI has a two-part question.

As a director, it seems that you do all your directing on sitcoms. Has no one come to you to direct any crime dramas [CSI, Law & Order, etc.] or other non-sitcom directing jobs or is that just something you wouldn't be comfortable doing or just not in your wheelhouse? And are there any directors that can handle anything that is thrown their way?

I would like to direct a single-camera show. I’ve shot numerous single-camera scenes but they were within multi-camera episodes. The trouble is you get put in the “multi-camera” category and without a friend as a showrunner of a single-camera show to give you a shot it’s hard to cross over.

And it’s not just me. I read where a current network pilot was originally designed to be a multi-camera show. King of all multi-camera shows, James Burrows, was slated to direct. The network then decided to convert it into a single-camera pilot and a different director was assigned. (Personally, I would have kept James Burrows no matter how many cameras there were.)

Ironically, it’s much harder to direct a multi-camera show. Knowing how to block and shoot with four cameras going simultaneously in front of a live audience is the ultimate Rubik’s Cube.

As for directing dramas, I would need to have a feature film or at least a short that could demonstrate I could handle this subject matter. Although I would certainly enjoy the challenge of directing something way “out of my lane,” I have no burning desire to direct procedurals.

All that said there are some veteran directors who hop back and forth between comedy and drama.  Michael Zinberg is one who jumps to mind.  

Hmmmm, I wonder if I could get an assignment on GAME OF THRONES based on an EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND episode I directed. I’ll put a call in to my agent.

From VincentS:

Several writers - including yourself - have complained about civilians throwing story ideas and in some cases scripts at them and some professional writers remedy that by simply lying about what they do for a living.

One writer not only told people he was in the livestock business, he took the precaution of learning everything he could about the livestock business in case he was tested by a would-be writer!

Have you ever lied about your profession to avoid the aforementioned situations?

Yes. In those situations I tell people I’m a writer of tech manuals. Rarely are there follow-up questions.

And finally, Michael queries:

Friday question in honor of spring training: For many years, the Mets had 3 announcers, Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy, and Lindsey Nelson, who each broadcast 6 innings on TV as part of 2 man booth and 3 innings on radio solo each game. How hard is it switching back and forth from TV to radio within same game and did you have a preference on which to broadcast games on?

I enjoyed switching back and forth. In TV your role is more to provide captions and set up your analyst partner. But I enjoy the whole production aspect of it. You have a whole crew involved, from the guys in the truck, to the stage managers in the booth, to the cameramen throughout the stadium. I feel like Captain Kirk.

But my favorite is radio, hands down. As the great Ernie Harwell once said about calling games on the radio: “Nothing happens until I say it happens.” I love the freedom of radio and the ability to go wherever I want, not where the director steers me. And to me, baseball on the radio is more of an art form.

So best case scenario is when I start a game on TV and then go to radio. It feels like the handcuffs have been removed. It’s just me and you the listener. Can you believe opening day is just around the corner? Play ball!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

EP115: Meet Dennis Palumbo, writer/therapist


Dennis Palumbo is a licensed therapist and also co-wrote the comedy classic, MY FAVORITE YEAR.  He talks about common problems writers face and offers invaluable advice.  Also he discusses his fascinating career.  From TV (WELCOME BACK KOTTER), to screenplays, to mystery novels – Dennis Palumbo has done it all.  And still has time to see patients.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The WGA vs. ATA (agents)

Lots of you have asked my opinion on the recent struggle between the WGA and talent agencies over “package deals.” It’s about to come to a head and writers might soon have to fire their agents en mass if their agency engages in the practice of package deals. What we’re really talking about here is the big four: CAA, WME, ICM, and UTA.

Package deals are when agencies get a piece of ownership for ostensibly putting the “package” together, lining up their acting, writing, and directing clients. The idea is you have a much better chance of selling something if you have key pieces already in place.

But agencies now package every show, even if it’s just the creator/showrunner. And they make a large profit as a result.

Agencies are also essentially producing their own shows. This leads to conflict-of-interest problems. How can your agent negotiate the best deal for you with the studio if they’re also the studio looking to keep costs down? Back in the 1960’s a company called MCA was doing that. Then-attorney general, Robert Kennedy said they had to choose – studio or agency? They chose studio and morphed into Universal. Through some loopholes agencies are getting around that now.

I think you can see why writers are upset.

But it’s a complicated issue. With all the studio and network consolidation and writers getting fewer development deals, agencies have had to search for alternative ways to make money. Just taking 10% in a shrinking marketplace won’t cut it. They feel they need package deals and creative producing arrangements to survive in this new mega-marketplace. Realistically, I don’t see them giving any of that up without a serious fight.

A further complication: Yes, there are many instances of agents screwing writers. I’ve been the victim of this myself. I’ve fired agents over the years who I felt shafted me. But other agents I’ve had have truly worked on my behalf. They genuinely care about my welfare. It’s one thing to go to war against studios and networks because you KNOW they’re the enemy. You KNOW they’re out to screw you. They take pride in it. But if you have a good agent, he’s working FOR you. You have a real relationship with him. A good agent is your friend, not enemy. So it’s hard to fire your friend. I feel that way about my representation.

Oh, and there’s this additional wrinkle: You can fire your TV writing agent but still be represented by the agency in other areas – say directing or acting, or theatre. So you’re picketing one office but entering another down the hall. Confused yet?

So what’s the upshot? The WGA feels this course will be the most effective. The WGA has been a Godsend to writers. Our fees, pensions, health & welfare, residuals, and various other protections have only come from WGA struggles. I stand by the WGA as I have through numerous work stoppages. And I’m a huge fan of the current WGA president, David Goodman.

My fervent hope is that something can be worked out before April 6 to avoid any upheaval. But this is a tough one. There’s no RFK to step in.

All of this is uncharted territory. Oh well, Hollywood always loves a cliffhanger.

P.S.  There's an article going around by writer David Simon.  You can find it here.  In it he references a sleazy CAA agent, Jeff Jacobs, who he ultimately fired.  It's the same Jeff Jacobs that I once fired.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Talk about greedy bastards...

Talk about chutzpah!

One way for playwrights to get their plays produced is to enter festivals. Numerous theatres around the world stage festivals and invite playwrights to enter their work. Often, if your play is selected you’re required to waive your license fee. These are non-profit theatres, in many cases we’re talking ten-minute plays so the fees are not substantial, and it’s an opportunity to have your work produced and establish a relationship with that theatre, which might come in handy for future work. Another downside is that you’re generally competing with 300 other writers for eight or ten slots so you better brace yourself for rejections.

But clearly the playwright doesn’t make much money, if any. In fact, entering these competitions can cost them money. Some theatres require a submission fee. They usually range from $10-$20 and are sometimes waived if you’re a Dramatists Guild member or college student. That doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but still – you’re charging people who aren’t exactly raking it in, and if you enter a bunch of contests those submission fees add up.

This is the same scam where casting directors charge actors to enter showcases. Struggling actors can least afford it, and if you’re a casting director it’s your JOB to watch showcases and discover new actors.

I tend to weigh whether the fee is worth it for each specific festival. Is it a prestigious theatre? Is it in a major theatre city? Do they have a good reputation? A great acting company?  Certain festivals I’ll pay to enter and others I won't. 

And now comes along “The Neil Simon Festival” held in Cedar City, Utah. Registration is now closed but they wanted – are you ready? -- $150 to enter your full-length script.

$150.  

FUCK THEM.

Here’s what you get for your $150. NO money if your play is accepted. The winner receives a six-day staged reading and the following year a full production of three whole performances. Whoo hoo!  Who knows the quality of actors in Cedar City, Utah, not to mention directors? They do pay for your transportation and housing when you’re there for the festival. (That could be a Greyhound bus and they’ll “leave the light on for ya.”) Oh, and all writers get a critique of their play. Who knows how good the readers are in Cedar City, Utah?

Needless to say, they don’t get 300 entries. They’ve gotten 30. The festival organizer says that high fee has helped weed out the bad scripts. Uh… no. I would think it’s quite the opposite. Anyone who believes in their work isn’t going to waste their money with these idiots. But the desperate playwright who’s been rejected a gazillion times might enter because with so few others in competition he might finally score a win.

Clearly, the goal is not to mount the best play; it’s to make as much money as they can from struggling playwright.

So again I say: FUCK YOU.

This festival has been going for about ten year, but this new insulting submission fee is new. Gee, I wonder whether they would have done it while Neil Simon was still alive. I’m guessing no because I’m also guessing that Neil Simon’s response to this would be…

FUCK YOU.

I did not enter a play in this festival. Nor will I ever. The only way I’d ever allow this organization to stage one of my plays is if they pay me $150… for every performance. And even then I might just say…

FUCK YOU.

Monday, March 18, 2019

CAPTAIN MARVEL

SPOILER ALERT – not that you will actually learn any plot points because, well… because of the following meeting:

… where the CAPTAIN MARVEL writers had to pitch their story to studio executives.

SCREENWRITERS: Okay, first off it’s an origin story. Captain Marvel or Vers or Carol is on some planet somewhere in the desert and then she’s in a futuristic city and someone is teaching her to be a warrior and we learn there are good aliens and bad aliens and the bad aliens want to do something bad but need some fabrazabber to do it, whatever it is – take over the galaxy and shit. Yeah, they want to take over the galaxy. And they can change into anything they want so they’re hard to find.

Oh wait, her teacher/Yoda/Liam Neeson type guy tells her her one flaw is she lets her emotions get in the way. How fresh is that? We haven’t seen that character beat since at least 2016, maybe earlier.

And here’s the thing: Captain Marvel has all these fragments of memories that are all completely random and confusing but cool and maybe we find out what they are but for now we forget about that and send her on a mission to do something somewhere and it doesn’t go well for some reason and she winds up in a rocket pod that lands on earth in 1995. We do a scene where she lands in a Blockbuster Video, which is maybe the greatest idea ever in the history of movies. Can you imagine? Aren’t you just hysterical thinking about it? She walks down an aisle and picks up THE RIGHT STUFF. The audience will laugh for twenty minutes.

Okay, so now she’s on earth trying to get to a secret Air Force base because she used to be in the Air Force but doesn’t know why or when, which is fine because we do a big car chase for no reason and have an action sequence on a Metro train where she’s chasing people she thinks are bad but they get away but we meet Nick Fury so we forget that the Metro sequence was superfluous. But cool.

Nick helps her. Oh yeah, she’s trying to find out some stuff about someone and he helps her. But it’s not easy because a bunch of bad guys show up and there’s a big obligatory fight scene. Oh oh oh… forgot to mention – we introduce a cat. Real cute. And we’ll find a way to make it important and cool.

Now the good and bad aliens land on earth. We show a bunch of flashbacks, and Captain Marvel is still looking for answers so she goes to the best friend she remembers she has when he need her to remember that. The friend will be African American because Captain Marvel is not. Oh, and she has a daughter that will peg the cute meter. She and Captain Marvel will bond of course. Except she's not Captain Marvel yet.  She's still Carol or Vers. 

Now comes a few plot twists that you’ve never seen before… in this franchise.

Oh, along the way there will be funny ironic lines – at least one every fifteen minutes. Can’t be cool without funny ironic lines.

At this point we reach the third act. They get the fabrazabber. Captain Marvel becomes Captain Marvel. The little girl makes her a role model. Captain Marvel kicks serious ass and we do a giant cluster fuck of a sequence that takes place in outer space, on earth, in other galaxies, space ships, dimensions – the beauty is we make it so full of special effects that nobody cares where they are or what purpose any of this is serving other than seeing Captain Marvel beat the shit out of everyone. Which she does. 

Of course we do a dogfight like every STAR WARS movie, video game type laser fights, mega explosions, and ‘90s pop hits because that worked so well in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Needless to say we’ll have a lot to wrap up so we figure the film will end five times, maybe six. And it goes without saying we’ll set up a bunch of sequels.

Whattaya think?

STUDIO HEAD: That sounds like you merely stitched together every trope from every superhero and space adventure movie and thrown them together in a blender. You’ve jammed in every cliché and there’s not a moment that is remotely original. And it will probably cost upwards of 150 million dollars.

SCREENWRITERS: Brie Larson wants to do it.

STUDIO HEAD: You have a greenlit movie.

Hey, I went to see it.