Wednesday, January 30, 2019

EP108: What’s it like to be an Extra in Hollywood?

A great entry-level job in the industry is becoming an extra – the background people you see in movies and TV shows.  Ken explores that world, the requirements, pay, future, how to get one of those jobs along with some stories including who was “that girl” on the MASH opening credits?

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

North American Freeze-out

My heart goes out to everyone in the Midwest and East suffering through the latest arctic blast. (But of course, there’s no Global Warming. May everyone who doubts it get frostbite today.)

I got out of the East just in time although I was in New York for the huge cold snap last week. Understand that I’m from Southern California where there are frost warnings when the temperature dips below 50.

Last Monday the temp in Manhattan was 0 degrees with a -19 degree wind chill factor. By the way, what’s the real difference? If it feels like -19 degrees it IS -19 degrees!

I watched the local weather forecasts on Channel 2 and 7 and it was like those scenes in every James Bond movie where the super villain tells Bond his doomsday scheme in delicious intricate detail. “You see this big pink blob on the map, Mr. Bond? By 4 PM it will be over Manhattan and all life as we know it will cease. But by the weekend we should warm up.” And I kid you not, one of the WABC-TV weather reporters is named Amy Freeze.

I’m normally traumatized when I can see my own breath so last Monday was an adventure. I needed to go outside a couple of times (once to lunch and once to Brooklyn for a rehearsal) so I made sure I dressed warmly. And by that I mean Under Armour, layers of shirts, a ski sweater, heavy parka, scarf, gloves, and hat. God forbid I needed to go to the bathroom. I looked like a blue Michelin Man. But I figured I was suitably protected against the elements. And maybe someone with actual blood would have been.

I walked outside and that wind went right through me. GAAAAA! For lunch I ducked into the first restaurant I saw. Thank God it wasn’t White Castle.

My other fear was ice, which there was plenty of because it had rained the day before. That’s the other thing: the temp dropped from 50 to 0 in just a few hours. (I really hope climate change non-believers all meet for a picnic today in Grant Park.) I was told how to walk – like a penguin taking tiny steps and keeping my weight above my feet at all times. Tis' the season of broken hips so I was super careful walking.

Again, please be safe and cautious and stay warm. And for God sakes, don’t worry about getting in your 10,000 steps today.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My latest multi-camera rant

As you know I’m a big proponent of multi-camera sitcoms. I’ve always maintained that they force you to be held accountable. An audience will tell you whether something is actually funny so you really have to up your game to make sure them laugh. And I’ve proudly been associated with several series that lived up that — and still are funny to this day.

The criticism often leveled at multi-camera shows is that the laughter is not genuine. It’s sweetened with a laugh machine.

For the past number of years I’ve been writing plays and those are even tougher to get people to laugh. Not only is there no laugh track, there’s no warm-up guy, and the audience isn’t familiar with the premise or characters like they would be with a popular sitcom. Laughs have to really be earned.

But that’s part of the challenge and when I do make audiences laugh it’s that much more rewarding. And it seems a worthy goal as a writer to push yourself and continue to raise your standards.

That said, I recently watched some current multi-camera shows. And I was appalled. The jokes were terrible and yet the laugh machine was orgasmic. The most obvious lines, the lamest quips were met with explosive laughter. Half the time I was saying, “What are they laughing at?” I’ve been in multi-cam long enough to know the difference between real audience laughter and the machine. And these shows, some highly regarded, were drenched in canned laughter.

I can only assume the studio audience didn’t laugh (and why would they?) so the show runner sweetened the shit out of the show. But that defeats the purpose of the audience. If you’re presenting subpar material you’ve got to circle the wagons. You’re not trying hard enough, you’re settling, you’re fooling yourself, or you have the wrong writers.

Again, as someone who believes in the form, please step it up. I can’t believe that show runners and writing staffs can objectively look at the final product they’re turning out and not say, “this is unacceptable. We’re better than this.”

Imagine you can’t use the laugh machine one week. Imagine every laugh has to be earned. I guarantee you’ll turn out a better show. You might stay up later rewriting. You might have to throw out a whole scene or subplot. But as a comedy writer, if you don’t believe you can write something that will make strangers laugh out loud you shouldn’t be on staff. If nothing else, have some pride. Your names are on these damn shows.

Monday, January 28, 2019

What's better -- first or last?

Casting calls are always stressful for actors – especially if they find they have to go either first or last. There are disadvantages to either but actors always wonder which is worse? I can tell you my impressions from sitting on the other side of the room as a producer.

First off, if you don’t give a good audition it makes no difference where in the line up you are. You won’t get the job. So for now I’m assuming you are good, even good enough to land the part.

And it goes without saying that if you absolutely hit it out of the park it makes no difference when you come in.

Okay, enough disclaimers…


Generally there are expectations that we are going to see good people. They’ve been hand-picked by the casting director so the quality should be somewhat high.

But that means if you give a terrific audition we might think, “Promising. If that’s just the first person there will probably be others who are better.” So you’re somewhat penalized. But you’re now the yardstick. Can the subsequent actors beat you? It’s not an enviable position.

However, if you’re first and you tank then we producers get worried. Are the rest of the hopefuls this bad? The good news for actors is that we then subconsciously lower our expectations. So if you come in later and do a terrific job it’s elevated in our eyes. There’s also a sense of relief. “Oh good. At least we now have ONE person we can go to if need be.”


The big problem here is if others have already impressed us our minds might be made up before you walk in the door. And then to win the part you have to blow us away.

The other problem is that we’ve now heard the same scene numerous times and we’re tired of hearing it (especially since half the time we hear it performed poorly).

The advantage of going last is that if we haven’t found someone by the time you enter we sooooooo want you to nail it. Even an okay audition gets elevated.


I would think going first is preferable. At least we’re fresh and hopeful. And by going first you know you’ll really be considered. Like I said, if you go last often times the decision has already been made and now you and we are just going through the motions. You have to really pull a Hail Mary.

By the way, sometimes an actor who knows he’s scheduled first will come in late so he has to go later. Don’t pull that. We know what you’re doing, and if nothing else your tardiness sends a message you're unreliable. Wherever your scheduled, just do the best job you can. Remember, a truly great audition will get you the job whether you’re first, third, eighth, or last.

My heart goes out to all you actors. Auditions are brutal. It’s not enough how good you are but where you are in the day’s call sheet. But remember one thing, ultimately we want you to do well. We want you to crush it. And we’re thrilled when you do.

As always, the very best of luck. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Weekend Post

The thing about living in Los Angeles – today’s waiter could well be tomorrow’s super star.
Lots of actors starting out taking jobs as waiters or bartenders. The hours can be flexible and you can get night shifts, which allow you to audition for parts and take classes during the day.

Among the actors who once took your order were Jon Hamm, Megan Fox, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Rene Zellweger, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Amanda Seyfried, Marisa Tomei (at Tony Roma’s), Kristen Wiig, Chris Pratt, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Aniston, Russell Crowe (he probably beat the shit out of diners who didn’t tip well enough), Sandra Bullock, and Amy Adams (who worked at Hooters). Julianna Margulies was one of the smartest. She knew to work in a high end restaurant because the tips were better.

The point is when you dine in LA there’s a very good chance your waiter is an aspiring actor or writer or director. And usually you can tell. They emote when reading the specials.

I’ve always said that my heart goes out to young wannabes. There’s no guarantees, there’s lots of rejection and frustration, and customers who eat half their meals then complain and want whole new orders.

I must say that on a few occasions I’ve learned that my waiter is an actor and have arranged for them to read on projects. And in a couple of cases even hired them. So take heart. It does happen. Not often, but it does.

My only truly awkward experience was one time when casting for a guest star role I rejected a certain actor and two hours later he was my waiter. God knows if he spit in my food. Although if his aim was as good as his reading I was pretty safe.

But if you’re a waiter I hope you make it. And if by chance Sarah Silverman was once my server I think you forgot the side of toast.


Last two performances of UPFRONTS & PERSONAL at the Gallery Players Theatre in picturesque Brooklyn, NY.  7:30 Saturday and 3:00 Sunday.  After Sunday's final performance I will be doing a talkback.  Join the fun.  Here's where you go for tickets. Thanks. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Friday Questions

Hello from Brooklyn, NY where my play UPFRONTS & PERSONAL runs this weekend. If you’re east of St. Louis, come see it. Info here.

But no matter what’s happening in my life I always make time for Friday Questions.

Julie Burlington has the first question.

I love vintage sitcoms. (Rediscovering) so many old shows on Antenna TV, plus all of the shows I've watched over the years, I've watched so many main female characters get arrested mistakenly for prostitution, so many characters get locked or stuck together in storerooms or elevators, or have a ghost of Christmas past visit in a dream, or have an item donated in error to a charity sale that contains that envelope of money ... What do you think has been the most overused story premise in sitcoms?

I would have to say “the dinner party to impress someone and everything goes wrong.” And if I’m being honest, I’ve gone to that trope myself. (No, not on MASH.)

Mark Solomon asks:

Margaret Houlihan became a much more interesting, three-dimensional and nuanced character once she was no longer comedically linked to Frank Burns.

Ken, was that a conscious decision of the MASH braintrust to humanize Hot Lips at about the same time that the much more estimable Charles Winchester character effectively filled the vacancy left by Larry Linville’s departure from the show?

Yes, there was a conscious decision.

The tipping point was an episode called “The Nurses” written by Linda Bloodworth & Mary Kay Place and directed by Joan Darling (who also directed the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW).

There’s a famous scene where Margaret pours her heart out to the other nurses that really took her character in a new direction. Here’s Loretta describing it.

YEKIMI wonders:

Do you think it was easier to make a show [less network interference, not as many crew members, etc.] in the earlier days of TV as compared to today or maybe 30 years ago?

GOD YES! The interference is maddening, but that’s a given. (You can probably find fifteen rants about that in the archives.) Having to put everything in writing to be approved by seven different people and then having to wait until you hear back from everyone and often repeating the steps three or four times before you can move on is really what kills momentum, not to mention morale.

On MASH and CHEERS (at the beginning) we had very small staffs. But the work was much more efficient. We didn’t waste weeks going up blind alleys. We knew what we were doing and we did it.

You could argue the value of all this current interference if it meant the ultimate product was better, but it’s not. In most cases it’s worse.

Now it's just layer after layer of suits trying to justify their jobs.  And if they were all swept away the shows would all continue to be produced and aired.  So if someone is not integral to the process, why keep them?  But that's the TV world we live in today.  And why we look back fondly at the "Good Old Days."  

And finally, from Oliver:

How do you shoot reveal gags on sitcoms that are recorded live in front of an audience?

If you want the audience surprised, you generally pre-shoot those gags the day before and show that scene (or that part of the scene) to the audience the night of filming.

Sometimes there are sets you don’t want revealed. Usually rolling screens are set up to block off that set to the audience and they’re not removed until just before you’re ready to shoot.

Hope to see you at the Gallery Players this weekend.  After the Sunday matinee I'm going to do a talk-back.  What’s your Friday Question? Just leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

EP107: More with writing partner, David Isaacs

Ken and David share lessons they learned in comedy writing, both good and bad – along with discussions on casting, directing, the series they developed for Mary Tyler Moore, and David’s year working on MAD MEN

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Come see my play... FINALLY

One of the reasons I got into playwriting was that I was frustrated that it took sometimes years for screenplays to actually become movies (assuming they get made at all). With a play, you write it, get some actors together, find a barn, and you can do it. And sell concessions. 

Well, I’m proud to announce that my play UPFRONTS & PERSONAL opens tomorrow night at the Gallery Players Theatre in Brooklyn and gets its world premiere.

After 18 years.

Okay, some backstory. I made a BIG rookie mistake. I had a cast of eight. When I finished the draft I sent it to Garry Marshall who had his own theatre in Burbank. He called me a week later and said, “Verrrry funny!” I said, “Great. Can we do something at the Falcon (his theatre) with this?” “TOO MANY PEOPLE!” he replied.

Apparently with costs, etc. it’s now pretty much understood that plays shouldn’t have more than four people in the cast, and fewer if possible.  (The ideal cast size is none.)

FACTOID: My next play did get produced at the Falcon Theatre. The cast size was two.

Again, I was a novice. Who knew? I was used to all plays having large casts – even ones you don’t think of. Look at the ODD COUPLE. Yes, it’s primarily Felix & Oscar but there are seven people in that cast. And as funny as that play is, it wouldn’t nearly be as good without the poker players and the Pigeon sisters.  Big casts are a good thing -- and give more actors work. 

UPFRONTS has eight roles and they can’t be combined. So I had a few all-star readings (that all went great), just kept rewriting and updating, and leaving the candle in the window. I’ve always felt it was a terrifically funny play and deserved a shot. My eternal thanks to the Gallery Players Theatre for finally giving it a production. Also thanks to my wonderful director, Scotty Watson and awesome cast: Timothy Paul Jobe, Mark Hudson, Rachael Schefrin, Michelle Conti, Mike Sause, Jared Wilder, and Logan Hurd.

I’m in New York for the performances and have been here a week for final rehearsals. It’s so exciting to finally see it come to life (although it was 0 degrees here in Gotham last Sunday night).

Here’s the synopsis: The process of getting a TV show on a network schedule is examined as one studio attempts to place two sitcoms on the Fall line-up. How far will everybody have to go, what compromises must they make, which ethics will they have to abandon? And yes, it's a comedy. Really. It is.  And loosely autobiographical.  "What doesn't kill you only makes for good story material."

If you’re in the area, the play is very funny, the theatre is heated, and for your money you get to see eight actors instead of two. And I’ll be there to apologize for anything that doesn’t work.  Here's where you go for tickets.  If you come Thursday night enter the promo code BOX10 and all seats are $10.

And by the way, 18 years is still faster than some of my screenplays.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Stan & Ollie

I loved the new movie, STAN & OLLIE about the longtime comedy team of Laurel & Hardy. In the '30s and '40s they were the biggest comedy movie stars in the world.  Steve Coogan was amazing as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly did a nice job capturing Oliver Hardy. The two recreated some of Laurel & Hardy’s classic bits and I found myself laughing out loud.

But the movie also made me very sad.

Why? Because I figure that 99% of people under 40 have no idea who Laurel & Hardy were. Not that I blame them. You rarely see their movies or shorts on TV anymore. And practically everything they did was in black-and-white and good luck getting a Millennial to watch something in black-and-white.

And it’s a shame because Laurel & Hardy were really funny. Yes, it was slapstick but the attitudes and timing was just priceless. And it was all Stan who wrote their material, essentially directed, and edited the films. Hardy would play golf and come in when Stan said they were ready to shoot. Both gentlemen made me laugh but Hardy was my favorite. His slow burn kills me. And his attempt at all times to preserve his dignity in the face of utter humiliation made him the perfect comic foil.

So I recommend the movie. But more than that, I recommend you see the real thing first. Even if you are loathe to watch black-and—white, if you are a serious student of comedy or even just someone who loves to laugh, I implore you to watch the following video and be introduced to Laurel & Hardy.

The short I'm featuring is famous. It won an Oscar. Please treat yourself to the Music Box by Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy. Set aside a half-hour and enjoy.

Monday, January 21, 2019

My approach to writing movie reviews

There are college courses on film criticism. I never took one. If I did, I think I’d fail it. Having to write a long analysis of a movie, comparing it to Russian speculation fiction films and uncovering all the symbolism and providing overview and perspective and literary references is not what I do. God bless those who can.

I read some of these reviews and tip my hat while also saying, “What a bunch of shit?”

Reviews can get pretentious. Reviews can get precious. Reviews can be self-indulgent.

There are a few reviewers however, that I admire (even if I don’t always agree with them). Anthony Lane in THE NEW YORKER is one. He’s occasionally very droll and funny, and it’s clear he puts a lot of thought and effort and research into his weekly reviews.

Way more than I ever do. Or ever would.

Now that we’re in award season (God help us), I’ve been reviewing more movies for this blog. (Thank you studios for the screeners.) But I’m not a professional reviewer. (That’s probably clear by simply reading one of my reviews.)

So to better understand my reviews (for you to decide whether to give my opinions any credence at all), I thought you should know my approach.

It’s more a “take.” It’s more of a “reaction” to what I’m seeing. Did I like the damn movie? Yay or nay and why? How were the actors, director, writers, explosions? Would I recommend the movie to you and why?

But I try to write in broad strokes, with some laughs along the way. I have very definite tastes and generally will not see a movie I have no interest in just because it’s a “contender.” Life’s too fucking short. You could make the world greatest horror film. I’ll never review it because I’ll never see it. Sorry.

When I was young I felt almost an obligation to see every movie that came out. It was homework I needed to do. Now? If it looks like something that will bore the crap out of me I give it a pass. Will I miss seeing some good movies that I am stupidly avoiding? Sure. But so what? The good news is if I’m reviewing your movie it’s because I’m expecting to like it. The bad news is if I don’t, watch out.

But in any event, a few paragraphs should cover it. I read three page reviews for movies that can be distilled down to “formula comedy” or “avoid.” You should get the idea by paragraph three what my take is. I try to write them as soon as I can so the film is still fresh in my mind. And sometimes that’s 2:00 in the morning so factor that in.

My hope is that my reviews are somewhat unique in that they’re in my voice and style (if it turns out I happen to even have one – the jury’s still out). And they’re also an excuse to invite you to weigh in on your opinion. So this isn’t film criticism; it’s a cyber water cooler.

Thumbs up.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Weekend Post

This video made me laugh really hard.  A woman tries to put gas in a Tesla. 

Also, this video shows the value of some sort of laugh track.  When you watch the first time keep the sound on.  The guys' laughter is infectious.  Then watch it again on mute.  Not nearly as funny, is it?

I hate a laugh track as much as anybody, but I do have to concede the point that hearing laughter promotes laughter.



Rehearsals are going well on my play, UPFRONTS & PERSONAL that opens Thursday night at the Gallery Players Theatre in fabulous Brooklyn. I'll be there all weekend. Come for laughs and stay to say hi. After the show next Sunday there's a talkback where you can heckle. Here's where you go for info and tickets. Thanks. Hope to see you there.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Friday Questions

Hello from New York.  I'm very excited to announce that my first play gets a production next weekend in Brooklyn.  It's called UPFRONTS & PERSONAL is about the process of getting TV shows on network schedules.  (Right.  What do I know about that?)   Anyway, it's very funny and I'll be there to say hi (if you like it).   Here's where you go for info.   Please come.  It's one of my better efforts. 

But just 'cause I'm out of town doesn't mean the Friday Questions stop.  No sir.  Here they are.

Jen from Jersey has a question about the FRASIER set:

Did you make any changes to the set as the show progressed? I noticed that the lighting in the radio studio was much darker during season 1.

The Director of Photography (cinematographer) is always tweaking. FRASIER stayed pretty consistent.

On the other hand, look at CHEERS. Notice how different the bar looked on the pilot to later seasons. Lighting can really change a set’s appearance.

The problem with lighting multi-camera shows is that they have to accommodate actors walking all around the set so everything needs to be lit well enough that actors don’t disappear in shadows.

Boomska316 asks:

I was wondering if you were a fan of old fashioned radio and if so what some of your favorites were? I'm partial to the old Sherlock Holmes shows starring Rathbone.

First let me establish that old time radio was before my time.

I did love the comedies. THE JACK BENNY SHOW and THE FRED ALLEN SHOW. EDGAR BERGEN (Candice’s dad) & CHARLIE MCCARTHY were also funny, although how bizarre to have a ventriloquist on the radio? That’s like a magician hosting a radio show doing card tricks. Oh, and it’s not PC anymore but the old AMOS & ANDY SHOW always made me laugh.

As for the dramas, I liked old episodes of THE SHADOW. And SUPERMAN.

Michael has another FRASIER question.

Do you know why Daphne's psychic abilities were dropped on FRASIER? Was it based on network or audience feedback or just something the writers decided to discontinue on their own?

The writers decided the bit had pretty much run its course. And they were always trying to give the characters more dimension – and it’s one of the reasons FRASIER was such a cut above – instead of just going to the same well over and over they sought to find other aspects of her character to explore.

And finally, from Matt:

You said it is easier to find jokes now than when you were younger. Do you ever go back to your earlier work and think to yourself, “what idiot wrote that?” Do you think your comedy style has changed as you have aged?

ALL the time.

I can only watch maybe three of the MASH episodes I wrote. As for the rest, just give me one more day to rewrite each one of them. There are better jokes, story turns, speeches, etc.

I don’t know if my comedy style has changed per se but I think I’ve honed it. I’m more skilled and write with more assurance. So the improvement is more a matter of craft.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

EP106: Ken’s writing partner, David Isaacs defends himself

Ken welcomes his long-time writing partner, David Isaacs to the podcast. We discuss how we broke in, how we work, writing together vs. separately, script problem solving, and David tells his side of the prank I pulled on him.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Guest blogger: Abraham Lincoln

Hello, this is Abraham Lincoln. Ken is letting me guest blog today. I asked if I could just lob in some random thoughts and he said sure.

The difference between my White House and the current one is that the crazy spouse wasn’t the one who was president.

I don’t believe in labels. For instance – I’m way more than just a “vampire hunter.”

Note to current Commander-in-Chief: Stay out of my bedroom.

Why is it always the South?

Of all the actors who portrayed me in movies, my favorite was Gilbert Gottfried in A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST.

How many of you knew that Hannibal Hamlin was my Veep?

People remember speeches, not tweets.

Come to my monument. Bring the kiddies.

They used to call me Honest Abe. That’s one nickname they’ll never give the current guy.

I want to be remembered for two things: Being the greatest president in U.S. history, and Lincoln Logs. Those things are really fun!

If I had it to do all over, I’d lose the beard.

Boy was I right when I said “you can fool some of the people some of the time.”  Jesus! Do you people have eyes?

Everyone asks what I thought of Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN. Meh. I only saw the screener. I suppose it’s better on the big screen but you know me and theaters.

I also said, “Those who look for the bad in people will surely find it.” That’s right, Robert Mueller, I’m talking to you.

Lincoln Town Cars have more room. I’m just sayin’. 

And finally, subscribe to Ken’s podcast.


Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

I Love Eve

Someone asked who my favorite TV comedienne was, fully expecting me to say Lucy. He was shocked when I told him Lucy was number three. Number two is Audrey Meadows who played Alice on THE HONEYMOONERS, and number one is someone you might never have heard of.

Eve Arden.


Eve Arden. 

Yes, you have to be a certain age to remember Eve Arden, but mid-century she was a comic star of stage, screen (big and little), and radio.   No one could deliver a line with better deadpan delivery than Eve Arden. Her voice, her attitude, her timing – she was impeccable. Bea Arthur and Betty White are close, and Carol Burnett is hysterical but in a different broader way – yet for sheer delivery of a pithy line, no one could touch Eve Arden.

She’s been on my mind lately because there’s a character in my new play that I thought, “Ohmygod, Eve Arden would have KILLED in this part.”

In movies she often played the droll wise-cracking best friend, but she was probably most famous for starring in a radio show and then TV series called OUR MISS BROOKS. It was produced by Desilu which also produced I LOVE LUCY. Like I LOVE LUCY, it was done in the multi-camera format in front of a live studio audience that Desi Arnaz originated. In fact, both shows shared the same crew. As a result, OUR MISS BROOKS was recorded on film and copies of all the episodes still exist (as opposed to all the shows done on Kinescope that are either gone or not of broadcast quality).

I remember liking OUR MISS BROOKS when I was a kid and saw the show in syndication. But it was more of a distant memory.  She played a High School teacher in a small midwestern town. 

Now, with Eve Arden in my head I looked on YouTube and sure enough, there were some episodes available. They were from 1953. That’s even before my time in front of the tube. I figured the show would be really musty, but there might be some nostalgia value to it so I clicked on one at random.

I was stunned at how good it was. I even laughed out loud a few times. I haven’t laughed out loud at a current network sitcom in years. And this was an episode produced over 60 years ago.  The story was clever, the character actors were all pitch perfect, and there was a plethora of sharp funny lines. Oh, and Eve Arden was awesome.

Some amazing things about how good that show was: They made 39 episodes a year. And the same man co-wrote and directed them – Al Lewis (not the actor Al Lewis who played Grandpa Munster). Where did he find the time? I then watched a couple more and those stories were all clever and well-constructed – way better storytelling than any episode of THE BIG BANG THEORY ever. Lewis wrote the episodes with Joe Quillian, and a lot of what they did still holds up.

And then I thought to myself, this must be what it’s like when a Millennial discovers CHEERS for the first time. He or she is probably amazed that an ancient show written by old guys could actually still be funny.  Who knew?  /And guess what -- there are lots of gems out there that are still great and just waiting to be discovered (or rediscovered). What an enormous treat is in store for anyone willing to seek them out.

If you’re 20 I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t respond to OUR MISS BROOKS. It’s just too far back and is in black-and-white. You may or may not appreciate Eve Arden’s brilliance. But classic sitcoms from the 70s and 80’s (some of which I never wrote for) are out there and available. Believe me, it’s a gift. Take advantage. Your own Eve Arden may be out there waiting.

Monday, January 14, 2019


As anyone who reads this blog knows, I always have my finger on the pulse of popular culture. Something comes out – you can bet I’m on it instantly. And so this weekend I focus on the Hulu documentary, TOO FUNNY TO FAIL. What? It premiered October 21, 2017? Yes, but it never caught the zeitgeist until yesterday.

In any event, it’s terrific! Check it out.

In 1996 Dana Carvey, who was white hot coming off of SNL made a deal with ABC for a primetime variety show (after a bidding war). He enlisted the help of brilliant writer, Robert Smigel (Triumph the insult comic dog) and assembled a cast of players that included then-unknown Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. For good measure throw in then-hireable Louis C.K. Writers included Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock who went on to guide 30 ROCK and KIMMY SCHMIDT, Bob Odenkirk (“Saul Goodman”), Spike Feresten (coming off of SEINFELD), and Greg Daniels (creator of the US version of THE OFFICE).

You would think that with that line-up of All-Star talent the show would be a huge hit.

It bombed. Horribly. Disastrously.

Placed in ABC’s best time slot at the time (following HOME IMPROVEMENT) the minute-by-minute ratings showed that within the first five minutes 6,000,000 people tuned out. The opening sketch was Bill Clinton breast-feeding and managed to completely alienate an entire nation.

The ratings were a disaster. The reviews were brutal.

And from there it was like a battleship trying to make a U-Turn in a river. They made eight episodes. Only seven aired.

But I have to say, based on the segments and sketches they showed, the show was really funny. Clearly it was in the wrong time slot on the wrong network. And yes, that first sketch was a bad miscalculation, but the show deserved a better fate.

At first when I started watching this documentary I was intrigued at how so many extraordinary talented people could turn out such a trainwreck. But like I said, they did not turn out a bad product. If SEINFELD had premiered on the Trinity Broadcasting Network I don’t think it would have been a hit either.

But the interviews are all great and very candid. Everyone admits to mistakes and yet has a tremendous fondness and pride for the show. Interestingly, a few of the sketches were later aired on SNL and KILLED. Dana Carvey as Tom Brokaw pre-recording obits for Gerald Ford doing many alternate insane causes of death was hysterical.

For a TV show to become a big hit all the planets have to line up. But to me the takeaway of THE DANA CARVEY SHOW is that cream rises to the top, and real talent will somehow emerge and blossom. Ask Michael Keaton, Swoosie Kurtz, Merrill Markoe, and David Letterman – cast members of the MARY TYLER MOORE VARIETY SHOW (cancelled after three episodes).

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Weekend Post

Oh no!  The nudist restaurant in Paris is closing!   Say it ain't so!

It lasted a year.  Customers would have to take off all their clothes before entering the dining room.  If you wanted to steal the silverware you had to be really creative.  A fig leaf was considered overdressed.  The good news is you never got any stains on your clothes.  Spill all the wine you want.  Nothing had to go to the cleaners.

I assume the air conditioning was not on too high.  You do not want shrinkage in a public setting.  

The cuisine was high end -- lobster, etc.   You would think if you had to be naked in public you'd be less likely to eat dishes that put on an extra pound or five.

Anyway, the joint closed because of lack of customers.

How many nudist foodies are there?

And I'm guessing it was not a big first date destination.

One promotion that many restaurants use is "early bird specials" for senior citizens.  But boy, do you really want to see that?  On the other hand, customers can't stick rolls into their purse.

Who in their right mind thought it would be a good idea to invest God knows how much money into a fine restaurant where everyone has to be naked?   Isn't it hard enough, especially in Paris, to fill restaurants anyway?   As gimmicks go, you're shooting for a limited customer base.

In West Hollywood there used to be a sushi restaurant where you ate sushi placed on naked girls.  I have no idea if this still exists.  I can't imagine the health department giving that place an A.   New York has (or had) one too.

Oh, the money they save in placemats.

What will they think of next?

In the meantime, sorry but the nudist restaurant is clothesed

Friday, January 11, 2019

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions?

YEKIMI leads off.

Was watching a M*A*S*H* marathon on one of the cable channels and noticed one of the co-writers of that episode was Mary Kay Place. Checking IMDB shows she wrote for quite a few shows other than M*A*S*H*. I knew her more as an actress and didn't realize she did all that writing. Any other writers on M*A*S*H* [or other shows] that went on to become more recognized as actors than writers?

Not an actor per se, but Conan O’Brien was a writer with us on THE SIMPSONS. Carol Liefer was a writer with on ALMOST PERFECT. And then of course there’s Larry David. Mindy Kaling was a writer on THE OFFICE. Tina Fey was a writer first on SNL. And I’m sure you dear readers will think of others.

Ben Varkentine has a question about the first MASH episode David Isaacs and I wrote.

In "Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind" there's a moment I've long wondered whether it was improvised.

When Klinger is leading the blind Hawkeye out of the Swamp, Alan Alda bumps into the stove and Klinger just says "Don't hit that," and Hawk replies "I'm sorry."

It just seems like such a real moment.

It was.

Good actors know how to stay in character when unforeseen things occur. This was a small one, but both Alan and Jamie (Farr) made the most of it.

Thanks for the question and not saying that was the best joke of the show.

From Michael:

I agree that the CHEERS first season stands up to the best season of any series, but was wondering if you think it would be even remembered today if NBC had elected to cancel it after that season due to low ratings? Also would Ted Danson have been able to become the big star he did?

Forget Ted. What about ME if the show had been cancelled?

But seriously, when you see how sensational Ted is in any role he’s asked to play I’m sure he would have done fine. Plus, the hardest part to cast in a comedy is a handsome leading man type with comic chops.   Ted would have offers galore.  (As would Shelley Long.) 

But would his next show or the one after that prove to be a huge hit? No one can predict. So much of success is luck. The planets just have to line up. I think that’s why that first year of CHEERS, even though we struggled in the ratings, everyone involved (certainly me) recognized and appreciated that they were a part of something special. And those opportunities don’t come along very often.

Had CHEERS been cancelled after 13 it would probably be remembered by some as one of those “brilliant failures” like Larry Gelbart’s UNITED STATES or Steve Gordon’s GOODTIME HARRY. Bootleg episodes recorded off the air might circulate. But in time it would be forgotten. Unlike BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

And finally, from Coram_Loci:

Have you ever purposefully gone easy on a critique because of the race, sex, or orientation of the actor, or because of its political viewpoint?

No. But the great thing is that I’m not obligated to review everything. I try to be as objective as I can – positive or negative – without regard to race, gender, or politics. And I would rather just not review something than to whitewash an opinion.

So when you vehemently disagree with one of my reviews please just think of me as someone who has no taste and no idea what he’s talking; not someone who is prejudiced.

What’s your FQ?

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

EP105: 129 Ways to Get a Husband and 1 Way to Get a Wife

Ken shares a hilarious and jaw dropping article from 1958 on how
to get a husband. You won’t believe some of these tips. And finally, a prank Ken pulled on his writing partner to get him a wife. You won’t be alone after listening to this podcast.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


In my never-ending quest to introduce you to the most insane reality shows I have a new favorite — THE MASKED SINGER that premiered last week on Fox. Episode 2 is tonight.

Here’s the premise. B-List celebrities (or more likely C-List) put on outlandish head-to-toe costumes and compete head to head in a singing completion for the chance to… uh…  keep doing it. At the end of each episode one celebrity is voted off and reveals himself. Last week it was superstar/household name Antonio Brown. (If you don’t know who that is it just proves my point.). Ultimately one Masked Singer will survive and win…um… nothing. Maybe the winner gets to keep his costume.

What would a singing competition show be without an idiot panel and THE MASKED SINGER is well represented. Is there anybody on television dumber and less talented than Jenny McCarthy? She offers such insightful comments like “Oooooh, yeah.” Then there’s Ken Jeong who’s painfully unfunny (especially since he thinks he is funny), Nicole Scherzinger (listed as a “television personality”), and Robin Thicke.

Panels are there to offer critiques, but there’s nothing to critique. Panels are there to make decisions but the audience decides who wins and loses so the panel is useless in that regard. Panels sometimes solve mysteries but this panel hears clues and makes moronic guesses as to who the celebrities really are. One thought Lady Gaga — like Lady Gaga, on the verge of winning Oscars, is going to put on a fifty pound peacock costume and parade around incognito on a Fox reality show. So the panel is as functional as cufflinks on pants.

Nick Cannon is the hip hop hipster host. And the singing performances range from professional to your drunk cousin at a wedding. Oh, and don’t forget the audience. Shots of emo Millennials alternating between utter astonishment and crippling bereavement.

In other words, this show has it all!

Already the show is a Social Media sensation. Lots of speculation as to who the celebrities are. I have a feeling that within a few weeks all the celebs will be unmasked on the internet long before they officially take off their hippo heads.

As idiotic as this show is, there’s something addictive about it. Assuming I can tolerate Ken Jeong’s woeful attempts at humor and Jenny McCarthy’s 52 IQ I will continue to watch THE MASKED SINGER. I want to be a part of the mass mania when the ultimate Masked Singer is unveiled to be Kellyanne Conway.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

What I learned NOT watching the Golden Globes

I didn’t watch a minute of it. Didn’t watch a minute of highlights from it. To me the Golden Globes are a waste of time. The Foreign Press is a tiny number of people, some actual waiters, who can be bought. And their awards are essentially hosting a big party with lots of alcohol, fine wine, and when has Hollywood ever passed up a free meal where they can be on television and go home with prizes? It’s a night out on the town at someone else’s expense. Women get to dress up. It’s nothing more than the industry’s Senior Prom.

The categories are idiotic. A few years ago THE MARTIAN won Best Comedy. MOZART IN THE JUNGLE won Best TV Comedy. More often than not movies that win Golden Globes do not win Oscars. In fact, many consider them Oscar & Emmy’s consolation prizes.

So by not watching them, here is what I gleaned based on Social Media and friends who did suffer through them. Those of you who saw the ceremony, tell me how accurate I am.

They didn’t announce the name of the writer nominees in the Best Screenplay category; just the name of the movies. For that alone, FUCK YOU Foreign Press.

The opening with Sandra Oh and Andy Samberg was awful.

Patricia Arquette and Regina King gave endless speeches. (Who is surprised?)

The Jeff Bridges award went on forever. And he was doing “the Dude” from BIG LEBOWSKI.

Chuck Lorre finally won something.

Michael Douglas used Yiddesh expressions.

Glenn Close was a big upset winner as Best Actress (even though she’s a great actress).

THE AMERICANS won. Of course Russia could have rigged that election too. Hell, all they had to do was send Academy members a free tin of caviar.

Diversity ruled. This year Hollywood is all about diversity. Last year it was #MeToo. Next year it will be the election. Their nod to #MeToo was not mentioning Bryan Singer who directed some of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, the big winner.

Christian Bale, who played Dick Cheney, thanked Satan and that caused an uproar. Yawn.

Foreign Press darling Alfonso Cuaron won for ROMA won although everybody I know who has seen it said it’s painfully slow and confusing. (I haven’t seen it so I don’t know… but I am sufficiently scared to skip it.)

It was cool to see Carol Burnett and she said something like no network would put on her show today.

I really didn't miss a thing.  

Okay, so how’d I do?

Monday, January 07, 2019

Three Identical Strangers

A lot of readers have said their favorite movie of the year is THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. It’s a documentary that features one bombshell after another and ultimately is a very weird and tragic story.

Without giving anything away, it’s the story of three identical triplets who were separated at birth and unaware of their brothers. And then in their early twenties they happened to stumble upon each other. How they did was interesting, but the story really takes off from there. I absolutely recommend this film.

It was especially poignant for me.

Because I had met them.

When they all found each other it became a big feel-good story. They made the rounds on TV talk shows and became minor celebrities. We had them on CHEERS. We used them in a teaser.

I had forgotten until watching the film when suddenly it hit me -- "Oh shit!  I KNOW these guys!"

They were nice happy-go-lucky trio really enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame.

Who knew the ultimate bizarre backstory?  

Needless to say, watching the film, my heart really ached for them. The movie is worth seeing. And I’m starting to think maybe it is my movie of the year.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Weekend Post

One of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles is the Apple Pan. I love it for lots of reasons but probably the main one is I’ve been going there all my life and the quality and menu has NEVER changed. There’s a dependability of excellence and they never disappoint. Waiters are fast (many have been there for 40 years), the portions are large, everything is delicious, and your order is up within five minutes no matter how busy they are.

Basically they do everything right that fellow burger peddler Mel’s Drive In does wrong.

I used to love Mel’s Drive In. Large menu, good food, decent portions, reasonable prices, open all hours, and a very cool '50s retro atmosphere. There are a number of Mel’s Drive In’s in the southland, but the one on the Sunset Strip is fabulous for people watching. Musicians and folks sporting piercings in places you didn’t know could be pierced all congregate along with families and actors who were once on a series in the ‘80s. The décor is ‘50s-themed with photos of AMERICAN GRAFFITI prominently displayed. Juke boxes at each table allowed you to hear your favorite golden oldies. It was a fun place. On the weekends there were great brunch specials, the menus were always filled with inserts featuring yummy additional items.

But over the last year they’ve made a conscious effort to scrimp, assuming I suppose, that the customers wouldn’t notice.

They were wrong.

Portions started shrinking, the menu was completely overhauled and is maybe half as big. There are fewer servers. Orders take longer to arrive. They run out of nightly specials by 6:00 pm. Even little things like napkin dispensers were removed. How much money does the company save on napkins? The meat is different, bakery products are different or gone, salads are woeful. Juke boxes are even gone. It’s as if they’re trying to distance themselves from their brand.

I complained to the manager and asked if I was the only one. “No,” she said, “There are a lot of complaints from customers on the menu and their favorite items now gone.”

The result of this penny-saving new approach is obvious. They’re losing customers. Long time customers. What’s really stupid about this is that LA offers lots of choices. If I stop going to Mel’s there are plenty of other places I can go. Hundreds. There’s even Café ‘50s that features the same retro vibe with a bigger menu.

I’m sure the corporation that owns the Mel's franchise would point to numbers and equations that show that they’re losing 39 cents a year by offering rotisserie chicken and napkins could easily bring down the entire enterprise if not doled out judiciously, but the loss of good faith and customers is a number they better take into consideration as well.

The restaurant business is fickle. They close every day. Who remembers Johnny Rocket’s? Developing loyal customers is a gift and a luxury not many establishments enjoy. And when they lose steady customers they are hard pressed to get them back. We move on. We find new places. It’s only diner food for God sakess.

I would bet 90% or more of the Apple Pan’s business is repeat customers. It’s always packed. But every burger, for example, has an inch of lettuce. I bet they’d save $250,000 a year if they cut it to half an inch. But they don’t. And never will.  When you leave they ask if you’d like more coffee or ice tea to go. A corporate number cruncher would say that’s another $100,000 a year in unnecessary costs. The Apple Pan would say, “It’s a nice touch.” Mel’s would say “Nothing extra to go and charge a quarter more for the coffee.”

And that’s why I will continue to go to the Apple Pan, and introduce friends to the Apple Pan, and wave at Mel's as I drive by on the way to Apple Pan. 

Friday, January 04, 2019

Friday Questions

New FQ’s for a new year.

The Bumble Bee Pendant starts us off.

I'm always intrigued by how a writer of a show/screenplay/whatever can simply say, "I am going to write a totally new draft and not include anything from the old script."

How does someone's previous version not influence a new version? How do you pretend that anything you thought worked in the previous iteration, not make it into the new one?

Re a teleplay, I just go back to the original outline or make a new one and work off of that, not even consulting the previous draft.

Believe me, I would MUCH rather work off a writer’s draft, even if it’s to save a few jokes or scene that still works. But when a script requires a page-one rewrite it missed the target by a wide margin.

Same with features. In those cases, not only might the structure change but the tone as well. So even if there were some good jokes or moments in the original they would not fit with the new tone.

The big difference between the two is that for a teleplay, if I’m the showrunner it’s my job to present the best script I can no matter how much extra work I have to put into it. With features, if I know the assignment will be a page-one rewrite I ask for way more money than polishing an existing draft.

sanford asks:

I was looking up something about the famous Chuckles episode. I found this clip of Ed Asner talking about how the show was short and they needed another scene to fill the time. As he explained there was so much laughter that it filled all the time they needed. Has anything like this happened with any of the shows you worked on?

The pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S. At the dress rehearsal it was right to time. Normally you can count on a two to four minute laugh spread once it’s filmed. On this night we got a TEN minute laugh spread.

That was great until we had to edit the damn show down to time.

Tom Asher has a baseball question.

Why don't we see more stolen bases? Too many managers looking for the three run homer?

That’s the new analytics of baseball. Get used to it.  The thinking now is that it’s not worth the risk of losing an out to steal a base. Do you know that there were some teams that did not pitch-out ONCE last year?

Personally, I think it’s short-sighted. Just the threat that a runner might steal often distracts or even rattles the pitcher. And the infield is a little jumpy too, anticipating they might have to leave their position to take a throw.

But that’s the game today. You could have four infielders on the right side of the diamond, giving the hitter a free single if he hit it to the left side. And instead the hitter swings from his ass and tries to hit a home run.

Pitchers and catchers report next month!!!

And finally, from Stephen Marks:

(This is) the Friday question that will set Friday questions back 20 years. The Friday question where the answer may have me running over to Earl's blog, getting into the fetal position, and sucking my thumb as I rock back and forth. Ken, do you podcast in the nude?

Only when I interview guests.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

EP104: Meet Tracy Newman – Emmy-winning writer, musician, show runner, improviser, and wizard with playing cards.

Hope for older writers:  Tracy Newman broke in when she was 46.  She also had other careers.  She’s a fascinating Renaissance Woman who once lived with the great Ricky Jay, guested on THE TONIGHT SHOW, and wrote the famous Ellen-coming-out episode of ELLEN.   Almost an hour of fun and inspiring stories.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


I understand tickets were going for $2000 a pop. And people were saying it was a bargain. Bruce Springsteen was on Broadway. In a theatre that sat 975, which is somewhat more intimate than 80,000. Plus, it was for a limited engagement. And even though it was extended, it has now closed.

Fortunately, it was filmed and the SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY phenomenon is now available on Netflix – for the same price you pay for season two of FULLER HOUSE.

It’s not a concert film. It’s more like MARK TWAIN TONIGHT. It’s just Bruce, a few guitars, and a piano.  No E. Street Band.  No band of any street.  For 70% of the show he just talks, telling his life story.

Now there are tons of these one-person shows. If you have friends who are actors you’ve doubtless been to at least four of them. Personal memoirs that range from fascinating to who the fuck cares?

These shows can be judged on four categories. 1) Is the person himself interesting (famous helps)? 2) Does he really have a story to tell? 3) Is the person a good storyteller? and 4) is the show theatrical?

Well Springsteen is certainly an interesting individual. And how he went from a grim blue collar upbringing in New Jersey to become one of the premier artists and superstars of his generation is (with apologies to my waiter) way more compelling than not getting a call-back for DOG WITH A BLOG.

As for the storytelling itself, Springsteen is an absolute master. The show is very scripted and a lot of it is so poetic and descriptive it sounds like he’s reciting lyrics. The Boss obviously has a real presence, but more than that, he understands phrasing, vocal impact, the power of pauses. He’s funny, candid, touching, and revealing. All those songs about working in factories – he admits he never worked in a factory and made all that shit up. Unlike some artists who clearly think they’re God’s gift to the world, Springsteen considers what he does a “magic trick.” And best of all, the humility, the desire to “find himself” and make sense of the world – all comes off as truly genuine.

In terms of theatricality, well, he sings a number of songs. Who needs slides and home movies when you’ve got the Boss singing “My Home Town?”

And for a one-man show it’s pretty long. 2 ½ hours. But that’s Springsteen. His concerts generally last four hours. You may pay a lot to see him, but he always gives you your money worth – and then some.

At one point when I was watching it I thought, what if someone sees this in fifty years and is unfamiliar with Springsteen or his work? Would they appreciate it or be bored hearing some stranger’s life story? Hopefully I’ll be around to let you know. But failing that, I do think someone being introduced to Springsteen by this special would recognize what a layered, passionate, brilliant artist he is. The songs, even if heard for the first time, would resonate due to their powerful lyrics, the universal stories, and the soul in his voice.

I’ve been to several of his concerts but did not get to see his Broadway show live. I’m sorry but for $2000 I want him to do his show in my living room. However, I loved the Netflix special.

That said, if I were given a choice (for the same price) of seeing the one-man Broadway show in an intimate setting or a full-out concert in a stadium, I’d still take the concert. The stories were great. I want more music.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Happy New Year!

I have to say I'm a lot more hopeful this year than last.  May this be the year our beloved president, his family, and close associates all go to prison for the rest of their lives. 

And MLB eliminates the shift.

Happy New Year to you and yours.