Saturday, February 23, 2019

Weekend Post

As you read this there is probably a rehearsal going on at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood for the Academy Awards. The show airs Sunday night on ABC and yes, I can see you yawning. For the third year in a row I will be reviewing them on my podcast. I will write and record it immediately after the telecast and it will drop Monday morning. Why do the review for the podcast instead of the blog? Simple. I’m trying to get MORE LISTENERS.

But this weekend is when the real production work takes place. The director fine tunes all the camera assignments. Dance numbers and song performances are rehearsed, and presenters try their luck reading the teleprompter. I should amend that to say the presenters who bother to show up read the teleprompter. Most do not.

Hopefully they’ll get all of the set malfunctions out of the way and no one will get trampled when the giant Lazy Susan stage spins the wrong way.

There will also be a dress rehearsal. Stand-ins will double for nominees. The director will run the show in its entirety. There are rehearsal envelopes, they are read, and the stand ins get up and give bullshit speeches. Sometimes these speeches are way more entertaining than the actual ones given by the winners.

They do this to get a sense of the timing. Ordinarily they have a host and one of his functions is to either move things along or fill if need be. But this year there is no host – one of the many things the Academy has bungled for this Oscarcast.

Rain is not expected so we won’t have the pleasure of seeing stars in their million dollar gowns and hoodies.

I wonder if they rehearse those Red Carpet shows. Does Jessica Holmes or Sam Rubin ask stand-ins whether they conferred with Freddie Mercury before playing him?

One year for the Emmy rehearsal the bogus envelope had David Isaacs and I winning. We lost during the actual ceremony. But they gave us the envelope. Gee thanks! So with that in mind, congratulations to all the rehearsal winners. What a moment.

See you on the podcast. By the way, the current podcast episode is filled with Oscar trivia like who never won – rehearsal or otherwise. Check it out.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Friday Questions

More exciting than the Oscars – Friday Questions.

Rock Golf is up first.

Kelsey Grammer was on The Late Late Show with James Corden and discussing a possible Frasier revival. He claimed to have been talking with "a group of writers" about getting this going.

So a two part question: Are you one of those writers? And do you think a Frasier revival would be a good thing?

I am not one of those writers. If I had an idea and called Kelsey I’m pretty sure I could be one of those writers.

Would a reboot be a good thing? It really depends on the premise and more importantly who is writing it? If the original FRASIER writers are involved then I might be optimistic. If a whole new group is coming in then I’d be very wary.

There’s a real legacy to FRASIER and those characters. I think you risk really tarnishing that legacy with a reboot that’s not as good or better than the original. I don’t think the recent revival of MURPHY BROWN did their legacy any favors.

From Bruce P:

I sometimes am amazed looking at old sitcoms / dramas that either had a short run or were on the decline in both quality and ratings. I realize the actors and crew are professionals and will do their jobs whether their shows are ranked #1 or #120. But is there a discernible difference in attitude on the set of a hit compared to the set of a soon-to-be cancelled show? I can understand disappointment on a low rated show set. But isn't there also tension on a hit show set as the writers, crew and actors feel like they have to continue to produce quality to maintain their high ratings.

No. Hit shows tend to have relaxed sets. There’s not that dread that “it isn’t working.”  There's something that's a rare commodity in show business: stability.   If anything, I’d say there’s too much confidence on some sets.

But if you’ve been in the business for any period of time you’ve undoubtedly worked on shows that were struggling, or just plain nightmares. As a result, to find yourself on a hit, most people involved – from the actors, writers, and crew – appreciate more what they have and don’t take it for granted.

BUT…

This is all predicated on not having a monster for the series star. The star sets the tone and a monster, fortified with a modicum of success, will become even more insufferable and obnoxious. And that will poison everything.

Oh, and to be fair, there are monster showrunners too.

Happily, those are more the exceptions than the rule. Hit shows don’t come along often. If you’re fortunate enough to be on one I hope you enjoy every single minute of it.

Brian Phillips wonders:

In your latest podcast (the one on ageism), you say that you are working solo. Do you find when you are writing that you hear your partner's voice in your head even if you aren't working with him?

Absolutely. All the time. I’ve always trusted David Isaacs’ judgment and valued his high standards. So consciously or unconsciously I’m always thinking “Is this good enough? If we were writing this together would it get in?” (In a sense he’s helping me write even though he’s not there.)

I think the proof of this mindset (for both of us) is that on those few occasions when we split a script up and each wrote one act separately and then put them together, I swear you could never tell which of us wrote which act.

And by the way, when I write a new full-length play, the first person I give my first draft to for notes is David.

And finally, from cd1515:

One thing I see in bad shows is characters constantly calling each other by their names.....like every sentence or two. It almost feels like the writers were padding the weak script with useless words. No one talks that way. Do writers have rules or theories on that?

There’s no written rules. I can only share how I address it. Generally I’ll avoid the characters calling each other by their names. You’re right, people don’t do that.

I have two exceptions: People do call each other by name if they’re particularly mad at them. “Mary, you and I are through!”

The other time I use that convention is in pilots. I sprinkle the names in there a few times to help the audience learn their names. By week three of a series I discontinue that.

What’s your Friday Question? Remember I will be reviewing the Oscars on my podcast. You can hear it Monday morning.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Podcast update

Apparently I was given the wrong information (i.e. alternate facts) on a couple of the actors who never won Oscars.  But the good news is you guys actually pay attention to this nonsense I transmit.  And it creates a sort of fun "Where's Waldo" game to this week's entry.  So you're invited to play along.  Find the mistakes.  You don't win anything but it will heighten your listening experience. 

Just scroll up to the big gold arrow and click.

And besides, what better way to prepare you for the Oscars than with a screw up? 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

EP111: “And the Loser is…” Academy Award Trivia


Getting you ready for the Oscars, Ken has compiled lots of fun facts about the Academy Awards including people who never won. This interesting and fact packed episode contains many surprises! A must listen for all movie lovers!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Comedy needs to be Cold

If you went to a taping of the DAVID LETTERMAN SHOW you noticed that the Ed Sullivan Theatre was freezing. David insisted the temperature be 60 degrees.  You could hang meat.

Why so cold?

Because cold audiences laugh. Hot audiences don’t.

Cold audiences are more alert. Warm audiences are sluggish. If you’ve got a comedy on stage and see people in the audience fanning themselves with their programs just know you are dead.

Audiences for CHEERS filmings were almost always great. The 200 people in the bleachers were thrilled to be there. They were already fans of the show, it was so exciting to see everyone in person, they were primed to laugh. If I’m being honest, there were jokes that got way better response than they deserved. But one night the air conditioning went out.

And the laughs stopped.

Even for CHEERS.

Same with the dress rehearsal for my play GOING GOING GONE at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. We had an invited audience and those poor souls were melting. The actors couldn’t see, there was so much sweat in their eyes. Needless to say I got no laughs. I’m just happy no one had a heat stroke. Every night during the run I made sure that the theatre was COLD. And the laughs thankfully returned.

Great attention is always paid to the lighting, set design, and sound of a production but often times the theatre temperature is taken as a given. It’s worth noting before a performance. I mean, when Sam & Diane can’t get a laugh…

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

My suggestion to save theatre as we know it

Scene from my ten-minute play, THE FUGITIVE with Penny Peyser & Andy Goldberg
It’s probably half urban legend, but the concept of Top 40 radio supposedly began when radio station owner Todd Storz was in a restaurant/bar with some friends in the mid ‘50s. There was a juke box and as new customers arrived they all seemed to play the same three songs. At the end of the night the restaurant staff was cleaning up, putting chairs on the tables, etc. and they too selected those same three songs to listen to. Now it’s one thing for the customers. They come in, hear the song once then leave. But the staff must’ve heard those same songs twenty times and yet they STILL chose to select them.

A lightbulb went on over Storz’s head. People want to hear their favorite songs over and over. So his station began playing the big hits of the day over and over, and the ratings skyrocketed.

Sure, people wanted to hear new music too, but just sprinkled in. Most of all they wanted the hits.

This applies to other forms of entertainment as well. How many cable channels are playing multiple daily episodes of MASH, I LOVE LUCY, LAW & ORDER, NCIS, and THE BIG BANG THEORY? People want to hear (and see) the hits.

Unfortunately, for us playwrights it’s the same thing in the theatre. Why take a chance with a new play by me when you can just schedule THE ODD COUPLE by Neil Simon? It makes it hard to get a new play produced if you don’t have a Tony.

And lots of theatres who do accept new material want to make sure the play has never been produced. They want the “World Premier.” It’s a big deal to them. They can ask for subsidiary rights for taking the risk of mounting your untried material. And if the play goes on to be a big hit they have bragging rights that they were the first one to discover it.

Okay, I get that. I’m not happy about it, but I can see their point.

What I don’t get is when theatres want unproduced material only for ten-minute play festivals. I submit a lot of ten-minute plays to festivals (been very lucky in some and not so much in others) and it frustrates me how many of them only want unproduced plays. Why? What’s the advantage? You can crow about a ten-minute play that goes on to other competitions? There’s no subsidiary rights. And what the artistic director and his staff are left with is a blizzard of terrible plays to go along with the few good ones. Happy sifting. Part of the reasons so many of these plays are bad is because the writer never had a chance to see and fix it once it was on its feet.

And the audience doesn’t give a shit that they’re watching a “World Premier.” In fact, brand new work might make them leery. If you think it’s tough sitting in a movie theatre watching some stink burger, imagine how much harder it is when the performance is live and the actors can watch you.

Seems to me it would be better to mount plays that have proven to be successful. If I were running a ten-minute festival I would require two things: 1) They play must have already been produced, and 2) The play must’ve WON something (“Best Play,” “Audience Favorite,” etc.)

Instead of 600 submission for ten slots I’d have 150 (and let’s get real, those are the same 150 that are really in competition even if there are 600 submission). It’s just simple logic –

PLAY THE HITS.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hey, Alexa!

You know how paranoid I am about Alexa. It scares me to have an open microphone in my home.  I'll walk the extra three steps to turn on the light or adjust the thermostat myself.

Of course “they” say Alexa is perfectly safe, there are firewalls galore, and your privacy is guaranteed. Alexa only responds to specific commands and knows the difference between casual conversation and a request.

And if you believe that there’s a certain real estate training university you should sign up for.

Meet Rocco the African grey parrot. He’s already somewhat infamous. He was kicked out of an animal sanctuary in the UK for swearing too much. (This, by the way, is true.) His previous owner must’ve been a writer for DEADWOOD (that is not true).

So now he’s home with his new owner, Marion Wischnewski. And when Marion is away Rocco engages in conversations with Alexa.

And orders things.

So far the parrot has ordered strawberries, watermelon, raisins, broccoli, ice cream, and (it gets better) a kite, kettle, and light bulbs. If only he’d order one of my books.

Every night Marion has to cancel all of these orders.

The point is, someone is listening. How do we know for sure it’s not just Alexa?

“Polly want a hacker.”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Weekend Post

Writers.  Do you think ageism is a new thing?   Here's an article from 1927.  Thanks to reader Ron Rettig for sharing it. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Questions

Did you survive Valentine’s Day? Here are some FQ’s as a reward.

First question is from T.K.D. Sandberg.  And comes all the way from Sweden.

I was wondering whether you could talk about how sitcoms and certain other shows have to retain the status quo, meaning how each episode (usually) must end with nothing essential being altered even if the episode might foreshadow some possible change in character or even a location change. Is real change usually saved for "end of season?" Do you have some good examples of reasons for this and reasons why it may or may not be a good idea to make a drastic change to a show in this manner?

Several reasons. Networks like to air shows out of order on occasion (they may feel one episode is stronger than another) and they can’t do that if the show is serialized. It would be like showing reels of a movie out of order.

Also, the real endgame for sitcoms is to have enough episodes to go into syndication. If you’re planning on 100 or 200 episodes you’d be wise not to be making drastic changes constantly. People tune into these shows frankly, because they’re comfort food. When they turn on an episode of FRIENDS they don’t want to spend ten minutes trying to figure out where in the course of the series this episode lies. So in general sitcom storytelling is baby steps at best.

And yes, it does make it hard.  How many times can you tell essentially the same story in a different way?  

From Jen from Jersey:

Why aren’t networks consistent as to when they air their shows? For instance, The Good Place had a “fall finale” so it wasn’t on air during the holiday season. Then in January they only aired two episodes. The show hasn’t been on in a few weeks. How is a struggling show supposed to build an audience when they show isn’t consistently shown? Fox also did this with Last Man on Earth.

That’s the problem with short order series. In the case of THE GOOD PLACE, it was agreed upon between the network and producers to make just 13 new episodes a season. It’s a lot easier to have continuity if you have 22 or 24 episodes a year.

So it’s a scheduling dance the networks must go through to try to maintain audience interest while only having a few episodes to dole out.  Do you play them all in order, take short breaks, take long breaks?  I don't envy network schedulers these days. 

Janet Ybarra wonders:

Have politics (I don't mean office politics, but politics politics) on the part of actors ever become a serious barrier on any projects you and David have worked on?

No. In fact one of my favorite actresses to work with is Patricia Heaton and I am 180 degrees from her politically.

I’ve worked with other actors whose politics I disagree with and so far it’s never been an issue.

But I should point out those are philosophical differences. If I came across an actor who was openly racist or homophobic or wore a MAGA hat I would steer very clear of him or her. Life’s too fucking short.

And finally, from Jim S:

The process of solving story problems has always interested me.

Have you ever sweated a story logjam trying to figure out a solution, only to have someone walk in and solve the problem by saying "why don't you do X?"

Oh yes. And it’s why you have partners, and script doctors (consultants) and colleagues.

For some reason it is infinitely easier to solve other writers’ story problems than your own. Probably because you’re not as close to the story as he is. You can see the overview. You’re also more relaxed. The writer has been wrestling with this thorny problem for hours or days or weeks. You come swooping in and see other possibilities.

And remember, story problems are going to happen. If you never have story problems it means you’re not working hard enough to tell stories in an original surprising unexpected way.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

EP110: TV in the age of Ageism


Ken discusses the realities of the television industry and how he has faced and learned to cope with ageism. It’s a candid personal look into longevity in Hollywood. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Whatever happend to Romantic Comedies?

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day and also my birthday.  I turn 39.   America celebrates my birthday by jacking up prices at all nice restaurants.

For those not celebrating their birthday, it's supposed to be a day of romance.  And it got me thinking, whatever happened to Romantic Comedies?

Time was Hollywood made tons of them -- and they were both romantic and FUNNY.

And now the few that we still have are by-the-numbers studio formula pictures.  It's shocking to me the praise for CRAZY RICH ASIANS as a Romantic Comedy.   The celebration of a culture -- great.  But as a Romcom, a typical predictable trifle that at best was a date night movie.

Compare that with FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ANNIE HALL, GROUNDHOG DAY, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, PHILADELPHIA STORY, THE LADY EVE, THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, MOONSTRUCK, CHASING AMY, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, PALM BEACH STORY, PAT & MIKE, BRINGING UP BABY, THE GOODBYE GIRL, ENCHANTED, HEAD OVER HEELS, KISSING JESSICA STEIN, DOC HOLLYWOOD, WHAT'S UP DOC, ROXANNE, L.A. STORY, ARTHUR, PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, FOREIGN AFFAIR, THE WEDDING SINGER, SAY ANYTHING, NIGHT SHIFT, ADAM'S RIB, HOLIDAY, ROMANCING THE STONE, SPLASH, LOVE ACTUALLY, TOOTSIE, HONEYMOON IN VEGAS, GOODBYE COLUMBUS, A NEW LEAF, THE GRADUATE, BROADCAST NEWS, and I'm sure you can come up with ten more.

Today we get these Nancy Meyers paint-by-the-numbers snooze-a-thons, or R-rated raunch-fests with unearned emotional moments tacked on.   It's sad but romantic comedies are becoming a lost art.  And there are so few of them that the bar has been so lowered that the producers of CRAZY RICH ASIANS actually thought they had an Oscar contender.

Instead of going out to some overpriced prix fix dinner, stay home with your certain someone special, watch one of those movies I listed, or the first season of CHEERS.   And you can use all that money you save on a present for me.

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Fair Laura

When I was in New York I saw the recent revival of MY FAIR LADY. It’s my all-time favorite musical. I just think the music is spectacular beyond belief. If a musical has one song that ultimately rises to the pantheon of American Standard it’s considered a triumph. MY FAIR LADY has like six.

And the truth is I had never seen a really first-rate production of it. Jane Powell at the Valley Music Theatre in Woodland Hills, California done on a stage the size of a manhole cover didn’t really cut it. But even then, if you can get people who can sing and an orchestra that’s a grade above middle school the magic is still there.

The current production at Lincoln Center is gorgeous with all the Broadway bells and whistles you now come to expect when tickets cost what you paid for your first house. Rotating stages, elaborate sets, terrific cast, a multitude of dancers, and in the case of MY FAIR LADY — street lamps.

But the highlight was seeing Laura Benanti star as Eliza. One of the true thrills of live theatre is seeing an extraordinary performance, one you remember, and that’s what this production offers with Laura Benanti. (If you’re unfamiliar with her, she’s a Broadway mainstay, has done a lot of television — was Supergirl’s mom for one — and appears frequently on COLBERT as Melania Trump.).

My only problem with the show was that they changed the ending. I’m not going to spoil it but will just say it’s more in line with current sensibilities. And although I agree with those sensibilities I don’t see the need to alter something that was of its time so it could be more PC today. And looking around at the audience, I was probably the youngest person there. I submit that 90% or more of the audience knew the story and knew the ending. No one had a problem with the original ending going in. And to accomplish this they had to adjust Henry Higgin’s character, making him a little less sympathetic. To me it was a case of don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.   Yes, this was the original ending in Shaw's play PYGMALION, but it's not Lerner & Lowe's vision and MY FAIR LADY is their take. 


Fortunately, no one leaves a theatre humming the ending. And as long as they didn’t mess with the songs (which they didn’t — no “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Facebook”) I can heartily recommend you see MY FAIR LADY if you’re in New York. Who knew Melania Trump could sing so well?

Monday, February 11, 2019

Why I didn't watch the Grammys

People always ask why I don’t review the Grammys. Well, mainly because I don’t watch them. I know my “hip factor” is going to take a hit here, but the problem is I don’t know most of these acts.

At one time I was a rock n’ roll D.J. and I knew everybody. I followed the trends, who were the hot new bands, what were the latest underground movements, etc. Which group used which drug -- that sort of informed thing.  The Grammys were must-see. I was even rooting for people in various categories. I knew all the performers and loved hearing them do live versions of their hit songs. Whitney Houston – Wow. Aretha Franklin stepping in and doing opera – WOW.

But as I got older I found it harder and harder to stay current. I would really make the effort. I’d listen to the hot rock stations and try to familiarize myself with the new artists. I watched MTV when they actually played music.   Eventually it got to be too much work, and I had a realization. None of these songs resonated with me. And that’s because none of them were meant to. They were geared to a younger generation – which is how it should be. But at that point I got off the train.

Now I like what I like, regardless of era or style, and am just fine with that. And if there’s a contemporary singer that knocks me out – like the year of Adele – I watched. Otherwise, I have no idea who most of these artists are. Also, (my “hip factor” is about to take another huge ding), I don’t enjoy Hip Hop. Yes, some of it is very clever poetry, but give me Otis Redding and Darlene Love.

About fifteen years ago I was doing research for a project on the music industry and got to attend Dick Clark’s AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS. Afterwards I was invited to the post-show party. Most (not all but most) of these artists were incredibly full of themselves and arrogant. I remember thinking at the time, “Who the fuck are you? In another year you’ll be out of the business and completely forgotten.” Sure enough, that’s what happened to 90% of them. Even the winners.

Another thing I noticed about the Grammys – every year there seems to be an artist or group that is the Academy’s darling and they win nine Grammys. Two years later they’re often an afterthought.

So I didn’t watch last night. If there were memorable moments – if Miley Cyrus twerked with Ringo Starr I’ll see it on YouTube. But truthfully, I still can’t get the image of last week's horrific Super Bowl halftime show out of my mind and figure the Grammys could be three hours of this. Better to use the time writing about it rather than watching it.

Oh, and congratulations to all the winners, whoever you are.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Weekend Post: RIP Frank Robinson

So sorry to hear of baseball great, Frank Robinson’s passing this week. He was 83. There are lots of tributes to Frank on the net, praising his many on-field accomplishments and the barriers that he broke. I want to talk more about Frank Robinson as a person.

Frank was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles when I joined the team as one of their announcers. I had heard that Frank could be, uh… prickly. I had only met him once before. When I got the job I flew back to Baltimore for a press conference and had dinner with him and a few other Orioles officials. He was very pleasant, somewhat low-key. Hardly a volatile figure.

One of my responsibilities was hosting the manager segment of the daily pre-game show. I would huddle with the manager and lob questions for five minutes. It was early in spring training, maybe the third or fourth day. We were in Dunedin to play the Blue Jays. I wandered into his office about two hours before game time with my trusty tape recorder. The door was open, he was finishing up a conversation about hockey with some people I didn’t know. I sat patiently on the couch and waited until they finished their conversation and left and said to Frank, “Hi, wanna do the manager’s show?”

At that point he exploded. “You’re so pushy!” he yelled at me. “Joe Angel (my predecessor) was never that pushy! What’s so goddamn important that I’m keeping you from that we have to do this NOW?” I said, “Lunch.” He instantly dropped the anger and then said, “Oh, then let’s do this.” Clearly, he was just testing the rookie. I guess three years in the minor leagues taught me not to be intimidated by players and managers.

From that point on we got along great. A few weeks later, on Opening Day in Baltimore I arrived at the park way early to get the manager’s show. I knew it would be a media circus. And I was right. We did the interview, I brought it up to the booth, and got the bad news about an hour later that something had gone wrong with the recording. It was unusable. I had to go back down and re-do the manager’s show. Now understand that Frank didn’t love doing the manager’s show in the first place. I thought, “He’s going to kill me.” But nope, he couldn’t have been nicer and even pushed off some other interviews to do mine.

And those manager’s shows were always good because Frank was very candid. I could ask him any question and he’d answer honestly. And this was during a period where the club was terrible and fans were lobbying for his head. He would take the blame for mistakes and not sugar-coat the club’s performance. Most managers would just deflect and speak in a series of clich├ęs. Not Frank Robinson.

One reason Frank and I got along was our shared sense of humor. A side of Frank that most people didn’t know was that he could be very funny. He had a terrific dry wit. So just shooting the shit with him was very entertaining. (By the way, one night he and I went to dinner on the road, he paid for the meal with his credit card, and I said to him “You realize your signature on the slip is worth more than the cost of the meal?”)

Another thing you didn’t know (unless of course you read my book, IT’S GONE… NO, WAIT A MINUTE! – available on Amazon for like one cent), Frank was antsy on flights. So to kill time he would become essentially a flight attendant. He would go up and down the aisle and ask if you wanted anything to eat or drink. Just imagine, the great Frank Robinson, Hall of Famer, MVP in both leagues, was bringing me a Coke and sandwich.

A couple of months into the season Frank was fired as manager but hired to work in the front office. I’m not sure what his responsibilities were, but let’s just say he had a lot of time on his hands. My family was still back in LA (they moved out later in the summer) so I had nothing to do all day when the team was home. One day I decided to get to the park real early and noticed that Frank was in his office. I popped my head in to say hello and he invited me in. We talked baseball for about an hour before I had to go. He said “Stop by anytime,” and to make a long story short – for the next month or so I stopped by practically every day. I can’t begin to tell you how much I learned during those sessions or how fascinating it was to hear his war stories. And a day didn’t go by when I didn’t think to myself, “Holy shit! I’m sitting here talking to Frank Robinson.”

He was a brilliant, fearless, complex, passionate, kind, and funny. He was a gifted athlete. He was the ultimate competitor. And if I ever needed honey roasted peanuts on a flight I could always count on him.

RIP Frank Robinson, although I prefer to forever think of him as MVP Frank Robinson.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody?

J Lee has the first one.

Since you've just gotten back from New York, anything that stuck out for you about the logistics of staging a play (or for that matter, a TV show) in New York, versus doing the same thing in Los Angeles?

There’s not much difference staging plays. Some union rules are different but the process is pretty much the same.

However, doing a multi-camera sitcom in front of a studio audience in New York is like reinventing the wheel. I’ve talked about this before in posts about my time directing the Al Franken sitcom LATELINE in Astoria-Queens.

Camera crews are not used to working multi-camera shows. The crew I had worked Mets baseball for WOR, Channel 9. They would whip the cameras around as if following a shortstop. That took adjusting.

As did construction crews striking sets during rehearsal. In LA all of that is done in the middle of the night before the next day’s rehearsal. Not so in Gotham. These were all lovely people, by the way – they just weren’t used to this format.

From J. Lee to Leen:

What I was wondering is if you have ever worked with Craig T Nelson. I loved him in Coach and re-watch it all the time on Antenna TV. He seems like such a nice guy and would be an awesome person to talk to. Thanks!

Nope. Never worked with him. He was also great as the voice of Mr. Incredible.

Interesting factoid you might not have known:  Early on in his career he did improv with the Groundlings in Los Angeles and formed a comedy team with now-director Barry Levinson.

Bob Gassel is next.

More of a Friday "comment" than question...would love to your thoughts: I fear we will soon arrive at the day when no quality shows have seasons longer than 10-13 episodes. So many great moments and supporting character explorations come when they need to do 22.

Networks need product and if they have a hit show they need as many episodes as they can get. So I suspect we’ll be seeing 22 episodes or more for some time now.

Yes, they’re harder to do, but you get paid a lot more money. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Also, the more episodes you amass the better the syndication deal you can make.  And syndication is really the Clampetts hitting oil

Finally, Dhruv has a question for me and my writing partner, David Isaacs:

Did you guys think of creating an animated series like The Simpsons?

No. For me the fun of television is serving it while it’s hot. Even the best run animated shows take months and months to produce the final product.

That said, I love animated shows. My daughter and her husband are working on one for Apple TV and it seems very exciting.

But I like dealing with actors and seeing my words come to life on a stage. And most of all, hearing a live audience respond. Laughter is a big reward for me. (Not as big as money but still very close.)

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

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

EP109: The Art of Magic, w/ Bruce Kalver


Ken talks to master magician Bruce Kalver. Learn about the world of magic and how to get out of handcuffs. It’s a fascinating and fun look at the artists who amaze and delight us. No rabbits or doves were harmed during this interview.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Duking it with Earl

If you’re not reading Earl Pomerantz’s blog, you should. Earl is a terrific comedy writer who views the world with a fresh, often hilarious, perspective. He was a guest on my podcast last year and it’s an episode well worth checking out.

On January 29th I posted a rant about multi-camera sitcoms – how recent ones were not funny and worse, were pumped full of canned laughter. On February 1st Earl weighed in, contesting some of my points. This is his piece.

What you’re seeing here is very unique – two people who disagree on something but still manage to carry on a civilized discussion while never personally attacking the other person or those who have similar beliefs. In fact, this might be the only such debate you’ll find on the internet dated after 2015.

Earl maintains, if I’m paraphrasing him correctly, that the heightened laughter from studio audiences is more genuine because they are fans of the show and are thrilled to be there. And that is certainly valid. (Seriously, if you’re looking for mud slinging this isn’t the place.) I always maintained the latter years of CHEERS we didn’t have to earn the laughs because the studio audience was so crazy excited to be there they laughed at safety instructions.

Add to that a warm up guy who TELLS you to laugh and react. Ironically, both Earl and I did the warm-up for CHEERS during various seasons. So the heightened laughter might be real but it’s somewhat artificial.

And I can tell you, as a freelance director, I worked a lot of different shows – not all of them beloved hits. And whereas there is the novelty factor of attending a TV taping that wears off in a half hour. The freebie laughs stop. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s when you have to really earn the laughs. And I contend that most of today’s multi-camera shows don’t. Instead they rely on the laugh machine. And news flash: they’re fooling NOBODY.

Earl claims that sex jokes almost always work with studio audiences but less so with home audiences. I totally agree. And there’s a real danger to try to please the studio audience first as opposed to the nebulous home audience. But that’s catering to 200 people at the expense of several million. I’m a firm believer in jokes that come out of characters and behavior and that might make it harder to coax laughs from the studio audience but to me it’s worth it. Shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS or TWO AND A HALF MEN would disagree.

Earl points out something else that’s very true. Just because a studio audience goes wild over an episode doesn’t mean it’s automatically good when all assembled. And by the same token, shows that might play a little flat to the audience turn out to be terrific shows at times.

You’d like to think you’re a genius when the audience is in convulsions but there have been times I’ve watched the first edit of one of these love fests and said, “What the hell are they laughing at? This is not very good.” And other times the performances are fabulous but maybe too subtle for folks in the bleachers but at home they really emerge. Now in those cases the showrunner has a dilemma. Clearly the episode is funnier than the audience reaction would lead you to believe. Do you boost the laughter with the machine? Personally I don’t. I’d rather the audience appreciate the show and maybe feel they’re smarter than the tepid audience.

Ultimately Earl says it’s less important what veteran sitcom writers think about today’s crop of sitcoms than what young audiences think. These shows, after all, are meant for them. I would agree with that too. But how do we measure? Ratings are down for these shows but is it because they’re bad or just that Millennials have way more choices and being on CBS is no more an incentive than being on epix!

The way to find out is for someone to do a really GOOD multi-camera sitcom and see if the numbers go up. I think Earl and I would agree that at least we’d be watching.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

FYRE in the hole


I can’t think of a sitcom or recent comedy movie that made me laugh as much and as hard as FYRE: THE GREATEST PARTY THAT NEVER HAPPENED. I saw it on Netflix. There's a competing one on Hulu.  It is more of an examination of the organizer and the scams he ran.  Well worth watching.  I just found the Netflix one more fun and dealt more with the actual event.  

Anyway, here’s the scoop:

A slick charismatic sleazeball named Billy McFarland decided to stage a Woodstock-like music festival/fantasy/wet dream for rich entitled Millennials. He was going to secure a private island in the Bahamas, put everyone up in luxury beach villas, fly them all there on private jets, provide top chefs to feed them, top shelf booze to lubricate them, and hear such super groups as, uh, Blink 182. All for only $12,000 a person. But hey, it was a way to kill a weekend.

Billy (short for Bilko I believe) and his in-groovy organizers put together a promotional video filled with super models and all the excess one one-per-center would want. These guys knew how to exploit social media and completely sold out within days.

Now all Billy and the gang had to do was deliver. And that’s when the fun began. Everything that could go wrong did. They were kicked off the island, had to scramble to find another one, the luxury villas were hurricane tents, the caterer quit, music acts pulled out, super models were nowhere to be found, and Billy was going through money like water, working around the clock to mount this boondoggle.

Speaking of water, they had shipped over truckloads of Perrier but they were held up in customs. So Billy asked one of the gay organizers if he could take one for the team and blow the customs guy to get their water. And he agreed to do it.

And all that is just the set up. The real comic payoff comes when the hipster partygoers arrived. The world’s greatest exclusive party became LORD OF THE FLIES. Also invited were “Influencers.” Is anyone more insufferable than an “Influencer?” Just too cool for school. To see them inconvenienced is worth the time to see this documentary. 

I suppose if I were a better person my heart would go out more to the festivalgoers who paid a fortune only to get royally fucked over. But these are the people who get into clubs while you wait in lines behind a rope. These are the Donald Trump Juniors of the world. As comedian Rob Fuches says while guesting on CONAN, “If you paid thousands of dollars to go on a trip to see Blink 182, that’s on you. That is Darwinism at its finest.”

Since every attendee had iPhones there is video of everything and like I said, it’s a Schadenfreude extravaganza. Check it out. You’ll probably see the 24 year-old asshole who cut you off last week with his Tesla.  And again, the Hulu documentary is also excellent.  It's more like young Donald Trump if he had been caught. 

Monday, February 04, 2019

Super Bowl XXILIICCXILICIXXIC review

The NFL has registered trademarks on SUPER BOWL and SUPER SUNDAY so no one is allowed to use those terms without permission. That’s why ads for TV’s boasted “you’ll be ready for THE BIG GAME.” Adhering to the law I shall resort to euphemisms.

This is a review of the 2019 BIG SLEEP.

In all the LICCXXILICCIXC years they’ve been playing THE BEER COMMERCIAL BOWL there’s never been one as boring. And that goes for the commercials and halftime show. It was like six hours of THE ENGLISH PATIENT.

The highlight was clearly Gladys Knight singing the National Anthem. They should have let her do the halftime show as well. And run the Rams’ offense. I’m only sorry though she didn’t come out in the Bee outfit she wears on THE MASKED SINGER.

Highlight number two: The Washington Post commercial heralding the value of journalism. I’m sure the person who needed to hear that message the most had his head buried in his fourth KFC bucket of extra crispy.

Highlight number three: There was no highlight number three.

CBS covered the game this year, which meant Jim Nantz & Tony Romo. Nance is always solid (although he made a few bobbles along the way) and I’m always impressed by how observant he is. More than Michaels or Buck he seems to see little things on the field. And Tony Romo is just a breath of fresh air. Even though I have no idea what he’s talking about half the time, his enthusiasm and uncanny ability to predict what is going to happen next makes him the MVP of the booth.

Is it just that the commercials were uninspired and derivative this year or after XXLLICCLXIII years of the TITANIC TILT it’s just not a “thing” anymore?

Sponsors spend millions on overblown excess commercials that are not funny for a second. Why not take $100,000 of that and hire comedy writers who know what they’re doing?

Stop with the robot ads! People hate them. You’ll notice that among all the many reboots these days no one is bringing back SMALL WONDER.

Notice all the NFL “We believe in Social Justice” and “Look how community minded our players are” spots there were? Heavy spinning to sweep under the rug all the player arrests. This year alone (and we’re only one month in): Trevor Bates for assault, De’Anthony Thomas for drugs, and P.J. Williams for a DUI. Among the charges NFL players were arrested for last year were domestic violence, eluding police, trespassing, insider trading, battery, public intoxication, injury to the elderly, vandalism, sexual assault, and a bomb threat. Yes, you want the NFL in your community.

Wow. Harrison Ford is doing Amazon commercials. To me that is a lot sadder than Han Solo getting killed.

I did like the Bud Light corn syrup spot. And their GAME OF THRONES crossover. But seeing that flying dragon really made me miss the Budweiser lizard. Am I alone in that? Hello? Dilly dilly?

This is the first year that the singing of “America” took longer than the first half highlights.

I’m sorry but that Planters Peanut car, with the ridges along the side – suggested uh… “another image.”

The halftime show was like if the Orange Bowl halftime had been planned by arsonists. Flames were shooting everywhere. For no reason whatsoever. And I know this is going to make me seem like 100 years old but Maroon 5 sucked. They’ve officially become Nickelback.

CBS took such flack when the wardrobe malfunction revealed Janet Jackson’s nipple for a tenth of a nano second, and yet Adam Levine was allowed to take off his shirt and preen around with all those hideous tattoos. Jews are forbidden from getting tattoos and one of the reasons is so they don’t look like entitled white boys trying to pass for street and hip.

And then there was Big Boi in his giant fur coat. He’ll be getting a call from PETA. And he can’t claim he needed it because it was cold. 37 booster rockets were taking off while he – it wasn’t singing – while he strung nonsense words together so fast that nobody could understand what he was spewing. If you slowed down the tape he might’ve been saying, “If you like this look, watch THE DEUCE on HBO.”

You know it’s a bad game when Jim Nantz, tongue-in-cheek, goes crazy when a 65 yard punt broke an EXCUSE TO DRINK IN THE AFTERNOON BOWL record… even though the ball bounced for 27 yards. Jim displayed a rare flash of humor when he then announced, “It’s going to get exciting now!” Alas, he was wrong.

I did think the Shoppers Assurance commercial was funny. All the levels of hell – middle seats on airplanes, “the talk” from your dad, etc. And now you could add to that: having to sit through a replay of this game.

The INSOMNIA CURE BOWL was so boring that Tony Romo had to continually remind viewers in the second half that the game was tied.

I know Rams fans are disappointed but cheer up, MAN WITH A PLAN returns Monday night to CBS!

Really? Someone spent millions of dollars to advertise better water bowls for your dog?

And Olay needed a horror-themed commercial to sell moisturizer? With Sarah Michelle Geller who has skin so perfect she could wash her face with Lava?

Even the winning touchdown was boring.

The only thing that could have made this game worse was if the MNF crew had called it.

And at least the Rams don’t have to go to the White House. So in a sense, they won.

When do pitchers and catchers report?

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Weekend Post (and Blog Tradition)

This is a yearly tradition.

For several years I had been talking about the "Lost" CHEERS scene. David and I wrote it for the 1983 Super Bowl Pre-game show to promote our fledgling series. They ran it just before game time and it was seen by 80,000,000 people. Nothing we've ever written before or since has been seen by that many eyeballs at one time. But the scene was never repeated. It never appeared on any DVD's. It just disappeared.

Until a few years ago.

Sportswriter supreme, Joe Resnick had taped every Super Bowl including that one. And since the scene aired so close to the game, it was on the tape.  Sadly, Joe passed away a few years ago.   You can read my tribute to him here.

Thanks to friend of the blog, Howard Hoffman, he was able to digitize it and post it on YouTube.  Here's the text of the scene.

So here it is. The Super Bowl is Sunday.

GO RAMS!!!

Friday, February 01, 2019

Friday Questions

Welcome to February. What better way to kick off a month than with Friday Questions?

Donald Benson gets us started.

Recalling an interview with Gene Wilder. When Mel Brooks came aboard "Young Frankenstein" as director, he not only co-wrote the script with Wilder but made him sit in on the editing. Brooks was emphatic that Wilder needed to learn this stuff, because sooner or later he'd want to direct to protect what he'd written.

Was your own interest in directing driven by some of that thinking?

I’ve talked about this before, protecting my work was certainly a factor but not the primary one.

I was just looking to have more fun and better enjoy the process. Being on the stage, playing with the actors and crew was more fun than sitting in writing rooms till 3 AM at that point in my career.

Not that directing doesn’t pose its own challenges, but I thoroughly enjoy it. And so far no actor has locked himself in his trailer.

Next challenge is directing a full-length play. I’ve directed one acts and studied terrific theatre directors. I’m probably ready. Anybody need a guy to stage ANGELS IN AMERICA for you?

DyHrdMET asks:

I'm watching the first season of CHEERS on Netflix (I feel like you once recommended it). How do you and the other writers write a uniquely funny character like Coach? It feels like only a certain type of joke would work on Coach, and those jokes wouldn't work on anyone else (such as "they called me 'Red' because I once read a book"). Was it difficult to continually come up good lines for him?

No, it was easy. In most cases you don’t write these characters “dumb,” it’s just that they take everything literally.

I loved writing the Coach. Nick was an absolute master at comic timing. There’s a true art to playing “dumb.” You'd swear he never saw the joke coming. 

Michael has a question about my first book.

I read this book years ago from the library and my wife bought it for me for Christmas. It's called "It's Gone ... No, Wait a Minute." I enjoyed it then and enjoyed it now. But I wondered: since you were still broadcasting when it came out, did you get any reaction, pro or con, from anyone, especially the people in it?

At the time I wrote it, during the ’91 Orioles season, I didn’t tell anyone I was preparing a book. I didn’t want anyone treating me differently (or stuffing me in a locker) as a result.

When the book came out I never caught any flack from the players, coaching staff, or fellow broadcasters. If anyone was pissed they never told me. And I’m still friends with many of the folks in the book including my partner Jon Miller. I don’t think anyone from Shamrock Airlines is my biggest fan though.

I did get a nice note from Johnny Unitas saying how much he enjoyed the book – and it was worth writing it just for that.

And finally, from Jen from Jersey:

What is your opinion about sitcoms and dramas that add topical references to the show? Any show that uses Trump jokes will seem dated in 20 years. The old and new Murphy Brown used topical political humor and it doesn’t stand the test of time.

Yes, you do topical humor at your own risk because it does date the show and reduces its value in syndication.

But it depends on the premise of the series. A show like MURPHY BROWN is set in the world of current events. They're almost obligated to deal with real life people and events. 

I had more of an issue with the topical jokes themselves. As you know I loathe Trump with every fiber of my being. But the Trump jokes on the new MURPHY BROWN were so blatant and relentless that they got old. Obviously he’s an easy target, but that made for easy jokes. And Trump became the only target for topical humor. I think even the most rabid Trump-haters said, “Okay! We get it!”

In my new play, which has a character who’s a journalist, there are a few references sprinkled in about the current state of the administration. A fellow playwright said, “What happens when he leaves office?” I said, “Nothing would please me more than to rewrite.”

What’s your Friday Question?