Wednesday, July 31, 2019

EP134: Meet comedian/writer Jeff Cesario

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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


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

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

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

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

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

Onward and sideways...

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Who's out there?

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks much,


Monday, July 29, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: My review

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was the only one there.

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

So what did I think? B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 28, 2019

In praise of Baltimore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Weekend Post

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 26, 2019

Friday Questions

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

VP81955 starts us off.

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

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

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

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

From Viv:

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

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

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

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

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

marka asks:

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

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

Well, first off there is no handbook.

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

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

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

And finally, from DrBOP:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

EP133: Pilots I Have Worked On

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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sometimes more is more

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

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

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

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

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


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

That’s so sweet.

Thank you.

Whatever happened to her?

She’s now a bounty hunter.

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

That’s so sweet.

Thank you.

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

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

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


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

Whatever happened to her?

She’s now a bounty hunter.

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

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

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

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

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

So much to think about! Yikes!

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

Knowledge can be a good thing… even in comedy.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Handing a monkey a gun

A couple of weeks ago during Friday Questions I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 22, 2019

In defense (again) of Sitcoms

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

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

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

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

Josh: Sitcom writers often go for the laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Weekend Post

This is how the story goes.  I never confirmed it with either of the players but Vin Scully once told it on a Dodger broadcast so I assume it's true.  And even if it's not, it's a great story.

The San Diego Padres were playing the Braves in Atlanta.  Nate Colbert of the Padres was having a big day.  He got hits his first three at-bats.  His name was announced for his fourth at-bat and the crowd leapt to its feet and started cheering wildly. 

Colbert was so touched he returned to the on-deck circle now occupied by teammate Cito Gaston.  Colbert said, "Cito, I can't believe it.  These are the most amazing baseball fans I've ever seen.  I mean, here I am, an opposing playing, and they give me a standing ovation."

Gaston said, "Look up at the message board."

Colbert glanced up at the big stadium message board and it said, "We have landed a man on the moon."  

It's been 50 years, but those of us who were alive to see it will never forget those spectacular few days when "the Eagle had landed."  What an extraordinary achievement -- especially in hindsight when we see how primitive all the equipment and computers were. 

I remember my grandfather was so choked up he cried.  He was born before the Wright Brothers lifted off the ground.  To go from no flight at all to landing on the moon in his lifetime was overwhelming. 

When my son graduated from Tufts, the commencement speaker was Neil Armstrong.  I generally don't get star struck, but HOLY SHIT!   There he was.  In person!  I was in awe.  

Congratulations to everyone who made this monumental achievement possible.   Oh, for the days I was sooooo proud to be an American. 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Friday Questions

Time for sunscreen and Friday Questions.

Bears, Beets, and Battlstar Galactica start us off.

This Friday Question is inspired by my recent YouTube viewing of successful and failed auditions for roles in The Office (US). 

I was amazed to see how, right from the audition, right from word one, Rainn Wilson had the whole character of Dwight Schrute down. Meanwhile, I've seen audition tapes of other actors who ultimately got the role and they didn't even seem like necessarily great actors in the audition, though they ultimately won the role and went on to be great in it. 

How do you know when an auditioning actor is right for the role? Is it all gut feeling, or are there boxes you check? 

There’s no checklist. It’s all subjective. You’re looking for certain qualities, you’re looking for something a little fresh, you’re trying to keep in mind the entire ensemble and how this actor will fit in, you’re looking for someone funny (if it’s a comedy), and yet all of that is thrown out the window if an actor comes in and does something completely different and unexpected and you say, “That’s the guy!”

There are times you know instantly if someone is right. Other times you’re not sure and need the actor to come back several times. Maybe he has certain qualities you like but needs adjustments to really hit the mark. Like I said, it’s really a big crap shoot.

And sometimes we make mistakes, which is why casting is so crucial — because everything else you can fix. You can rewrite scripts or digitally improve camera angles, but if the actor isn’t right you’re screwed.

Mike Doran wonders:

Lately, I'm hearing this old phrase more and more - and never correctly:

"If you think that things are as bad as they can get - then you've got another THINK coming!"

NOT "another thing coming".
"Another think coming."

Think first as a verb, then as a noun.
Because that's the only way it makes sense.

It's been driving me nuts for years.
Just had to say so.

Well, Mike, I hate to tell you, but I’ve always heard the expression as “Another THINK coming.” Grammatically it might be wrong, and I don’t know the derivation, but that’s the way people say it.

The expression that drives me insane is when a baseball player leaps in the air to try to catch a ball, most announcers will say he “Left his feet.” He didn’t leave his feet. He left the ground.

This is why I need to be the Commissioner of Baseball so I can correct egregious wrongs like that.

From PodFan:

Who are the people you thank at the end of the podcast each week and what are you thanking them for? The mysterious Adam and Susie Meister-Butler and so forth.

My podcast is on the Wave Podcast Network. That’s Adam & Susie Meister’s company, and I couldn’t be in better hands.

Howard Hoffman provided the opening theme and did all the graphics for me.

Jon Wolfert is the president of JAM Creative Productions. He graciously made my singing jingles.

And Bruce & Jason Miller chipped in my bumper music.

Yes, it takes a village. I happen to have a great village.

Chris asks:

How about a Friday question about Friday Questions? Have you ever considered recording Friday Questions as a weekly “bonus mini episode” for your wildly entertaining podcast “Hollywood and Levine”? I think for some questions hearing the answer from you directly could provide additional insight.

I’ve answered a few from time to time, but that’s a good suggestion. I don't want to do bonus episodes per se, but will consider devoting an entire episode to FQ's.  

Now if I could just get Alex Trebek to ask the questions.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

EP132: Legendary Director Jim Burrows, Part 2

This week in part two of the interview, Ken and Jim Burrows discuss the technical aspects of directing, the challenges of filming a live show, and the unique requirements of sitcom pilots. They also discuss some very interesting stories about the huge hit sitcom Friends. Some of Jim's credits include; Cheers, Friends, Wings, Will & Grace and many more.  

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

I will not be reviewing the Emmys this year

I’m sorry. They’re just too absurd. Nominations came out yesterday and I throw my hands up at the whole affair.

RUSSIAN DOLL nominated as Best Comedy? I liked RUSSIAN DOLL, but shouldn’t a comedy be funny… for at least one second?

Christina Applegate as Lead Actress in a Comedy Series? Again, funny for one fucking second? Just one? How is Christina Applegate, who played this sour one-note widow on DEAD TO ME in the same category as Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Catherine O’Hara?

BETTER CALL SAUL, which does have very funny moments in it, is nominated for Best Drama Series while RUSSIAN DOLL is nominated for Best Comedy.

And of course THE BIG BANG THEORY and MOM and MODERN FAMILY and SUPER STORE and YOUNG SHELDON and KIMMY SCHMIDT and BROOKLYN 99 and half a dozen other series that ARE comedies and do try to make people laugh are shut out. But shows like RUSSIAN DOLL and DEAD TO ME are getting Emmy love.

Meanwhile, there were more laugh-out-loud moments on THE GOOD FIGHT than any drama or comedy this season. They got zilch. 

Look, there are now so many shows on so many platforms and so much overlap in style that the Emmys in its current form is a joke. Practically every category is now comparing apples to oranges.

And TV ratings will continue to plummet because most people will not have watched these show, or even know what they’re about or how to find them. Not to mention the shows behind pay walls that they can’t watch.

The Academy still doesn’t know if it’s going to hire a host. Like that will make the difference.

Well, I’m done.

And I’m guessing America is too so why review something no one has seen? What ballgame is on that night?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Has it really been ten years?

I've been answering Friday Questions for over twelve years.  That's probably close to 3,000 questions.   And since very few people actually go back and read the archives I occasionally will repost a Friday Questions segment.  I bet it's new to you.  This is from February 26, 2009.

Randall has some questions about end credits:

1. In recent years a lot of television stations have shrunk the end credits in order to show promos for their upcoming shows. Did the stations have to be union approval for this?

2. Some credits go by so fast I don't know how anybody can read them. Conversely, sometimes on talk shows the end credits will stop for a few seconds, apparently to highlight the name of a staff member or company that has provided a product. Are there any rules / restrictions that regulate how fast or slow credits can crawl?

3. Are stations that show movies or stripped television shows required by contract to show the credits in their entirety?

No, there are no restrictions, which is why networks and stations get away with it. Trust me, if there were union rules this deplorable practice would cease immediately. The trouble is, with there being so many more pressing issues for unions to deal with during contract negotiations this indignity gets lost in the shuffle. Not too many members are going to strike over this.

But it is a huge insult to the thousands of people who work tirelessly to make television shows as good as they are. And it’s bad enough these people have to share a card with thirty others and are up there for maybe a fraction of a second, but they’re expected to go that extra mile and really take pride in what they do while the networks can’t give them so much as a full screen. I say a network executive's name on his parking space should be as large as the smallest credit on his network. That would change things instantly.

From Zach Haldeman:

What is the typical relationship between writers and actors? Naturally the show runner gets to know the actors, but is Star #2 gonna be friends with Staff Writer #5, or even know Staff Writer #5?

Depends on the cast, depends on the staff. But usually the staff writers and the supporting cast tend to gravitate towards each other. Sometimes the cast members are a little intimidated by the show runner or the star of the show is a huge time and energy suck so these supporting players will cozy up to the lower tier writers to get their suggestions and concerns heard.

The ideal situation is when everyone in the cast and on the writing staff feel comfortable talking with each other. And that usually stems from show runners who are receptive to actors’ input and actors who view writers as colleagues not waiters.

And finally: D. McEwan has a M*A*S*H question.

In the movie, The Swamp had 4 residents, who were the primary characters: Hawkeye, Trapper, Frank Burns, and Duke Forrest, played by Tom Skerritt. Duke was as important a character as Hawkeye & Trapper John.

So why was Duke conspicuous by his utter absence from the TV series? I've been curious about this for over 30 years.

Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds felt the need to pare down the number of characters since they only had a half hour to work with. Duke was odd man out. In the original TV pilot there was also a Spearchucker but he too faded into the mist.

Another casualty of war was the lovely Marcia Strassman. She was a regular the first season as Nurse Cutler. She of course went on to play Kotter’s wife, Julie and had to look amused anytime Gabe Kaplan spoke.

Strassman is best known however for her hit record, “the Flower Children” in the late 60s.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Interesting Facts (if they're true)

Since nobody actually fact-checks anymore or when they do people ignore the facts, I thought I would post this.

There’s a diner in West LA called “Café 50’s.” It’s a very cool retro eatery plastered with posters and memorabilia from the last time we hated Russia. They also hand out a monthly newsletter that has fun trivia and reprints old ads from the era. (Buy a GIANT TALKING CLOWN for only $1 that’s a whopping 42” tall!)

One feature they have is “Interesting & Useless Facts!”

And they are, except who knows if they’re accurate? But, for fun purposes, I thought I’d share some of them with you. You are welcome to take them at face value or do the fact-checking yourself. The parentheticals are me.

Men get hiccups more often than women. (does this have anything to do with drinking?)

Men can read smaller print than women; women can hear better.

Chances that an American lives within 50 miles where he/she grew up: 1 in 2. (numbers probably vary in Hawaii)

State with the highest percentage of people who walk to work: Alaska. (Makes sense, the weather is always great.)

Percentage of American men who say they would marry the same woman if they had to do it all over again: 80. (My wife guessed 30.)

Chances that a burglary in the US will be solved: 1 in 7.(And it's probably the same idiot multiple times.) 

Only first lady to carry a loaded revolver: Eleanor Roosevelt. (Melania is not allowed because she’s on suicide watch.)

They have square watermelons in Japan. They stack better. (Okay, this one is true, so maybe the others are as well – I wonder if Eleanor was a good shot.)

Iceland consumes more Coca-Cola per capita than any other nation. (There are rednecks in Iceland?)

The phone book in Iceland is alphabetic… by first name.

In the Caribbean there are oysters that can climb trees. (usually right before Happy Hour)

And there you have ‘em. Feel free to impress your friends at parties, unless these nuggets are all bullshit, in which case – what are you quoting a stupid blog for in the first place?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Weekend Post

Is there a more interesting or weird actor than Christopher Walken? He's also an amazing dancer. Someone from the Huffington Post put this together. It's a phenomenal music video of Walken dancing. Great editing by whoever did this.  More cowbells not needed.  Enjoy. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions?

Frank Beans is.

When does a spinoff cease to be a spinoff? That is, when and how do networks, producers, audiences see the series as an original show in itself?

Classic examples like LAVERNE & SHIRLEY and FRASIER come to mind, just to name some of the most popular ones. How do they establish an identity outside of the show where their characters were created?

You establish your identity by not relying on guest star appearances from the original series. You create new interesting characters and a venue that can stand on its own. You also spin-off a character (or characters) that can carry a series. Lots of supporting characters can’t make that jump.

Oh, and you hire really good writers.

Bryan Thomas asks:

How do you keep coming up with fresh ideas for your blog? I tried twice a week and burned out but here you are 13 years, 5600 posts. Curious how far ahead you plan posts, if you do, and how you generate ideas.

I’ll be very honest. It’s hard and getting harder. I’ve cut back from seven new posts a week to five, and that has helped. Also having features like Friday Questions has been a big plus. But there are days when I wonder what the hell I can write about?

I do try to stay somewhat ahead with posts that aren’t time sensitive, but it depends. Usually, a flurry of ideas will come so I try to write a few posts at one time and bank them. Other times I’ll react to something current, write it, and post it the next day. But like I said, it’s getting more difficult.

I’m also devoting more time to my podcast.

Mike Bloodworth asks:

Have you ever considered turning one of your existing plays into a musical? Have you ever considered writing a musical in general?

I co-wrote a musical in 2006 that got produced at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut. It was a very different experience. Honestly, I didn’t love it.

It is so hard to make any little change without effecting the choreography, score, lighting, etc. There's a domino effect that is maddening. 

There are also Equity rules that at times handcuff the process. You can’t really get in there and make the kind of necessary changes you would like to make.

Musicals also take YEARS to get on the stage. I truly love musicals and the good ones are thrilling, and if the right composer came to me with the right idea I might consider collaborating on another one, but for now, I’ll leave it to the Broadway pros.

And finally, from slgc:

When you were making Volunteers, did you have any idea of what kind of star potential Tom Hanks had? Was there anything during his time on set that gave you an inkling that he was a truly talented actor?

We wanted Tom Hanks when we first wrote it in 1980 and he was on BOSOM BUDDIES.  At the time, no one would greenlight a movie starring Tom Hanks.

But flash forward to 1984:  VOLUNTEERS might not have been made at all if Tom Hanks didn’t agree to do it. Remember, by then he had his breakthrough movie with SPLASH. So he was already the flavor-of-the-month. But what we didn’t know at the time was just how exceptionally good he was.

We and world would soon learn.

What's your Friday Question?  Leave it in the comments section.  Thanks and have a great summer weekend.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Bonus Post

I wanted to tie up some loose ends.

But first, do check out my new podcast episode featuring director and (dare I say?) legend, Jim Burrows. He's directed over 1000 episodes, co-created CHEERS, and did the pilots for such shows as CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, WINGS, WILL & GRACE, DHARMA & GREG, THE BIG BANG THEORY, and over 40 more.  He's won 10 Emmys.  He IS a legend.   Knowing Jimmy for more years than either one of us wants to admit, I ask questions he’s not usually asked. We really get into the process of directing, his style and approach, dealing with Shelley Long on CHEERS, and other revealing topics. Just click on the big gold arrow above.

A number of you have pointed out that from Yesterday’s post (or yesterday’s post), high school and college kids are not in point of fact Millennials. They are Generation Z or Generation ZA or Generation Aught, or whatever. And Millennials have a wide breadth of knowledge and would know who the Beatles were. Maybe. I hope so. But my point was that it’s understandable if they don’t.

More surprising was the recent Teen Tournament on JEOPARDY where three extremely bright teenagers didn’t know that Tom Holland was the current Spider Man. (And for my money, he’s the BEST.)

The All-Star Game ratings were the lowest ever. And it was a good close game. Part of the problem I realized was that after the first four innings when the marquee players come out, the game is ultimately decided by All-Stars most people have never heard of. Not saying that those players don’t deserve to be there, they do, but many play for teams that get little national exposure so they shine in obscurity. And for the casual fan it means watching a meaningless game played by anonymous players.

Yesterday was the worst day of the year for sports fans. There was NOTHING. No baseball, none of the other major sports (pro and college) are in season. I wound up watching a replay of an old Dodger game from 1988. God, I miss Vin Scully. He made a 30 year old game way more interesting than Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

And finally, I have two short plays in the Brisk One Act Festival in Hollywood. I’m very proud of both. The first opens tonight and runs for four days. The second one is next week. I'll be pimping that one later.   If you’re in LA, swing by. I’ll be there every night so please say hi. Here’s where you go for info and tickets. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

EP131: Meet Director Jim Burrows Part 1

On this week's Hollywood & Levine, Ken interviews 10-time Emmy winner, Jim Burrows, who has directed over 1000 episodes of sitcoms including the pilots of CHEERS, FRIENDS, FRASIER, and WILL & GRACE. They discuss his career, and focus primarily on his process.  It’s a master class on TV directing. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

YESTERDAY -- my review

YESTERDAY imagines a world where only one person knew of the existence of the Beatles and took ownership of their songs as if he had written them. I wonder how many Millennials watching this movie DON’T know the existence of the Beatles.

These are all new songs to them. In the movie, Himesh Patel as failed street musician Jack Malik, becomes a megastar and the Lennon-McCartney songbook is universally recognized by the new audience as genius. They are, of course, but what about to virgin ears? Would kids today be blown away hearing “Yesterday” or “In My Life” or “The Long and Winding Road” for the first time? I’d say there’s a good chance. But what about “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “I Saw Her Standing There?” Did these early Beatles songs strike a chord because they were part of the Beatlemania phenomenon? Their later, more mature work stands a better chance.

And it’s not a hypothetical question per se because I’m sure millions of young adults and teenagers have never heard these songs. So compared to songwriters of their age, speaking directly to them, I wonder whether Beatles songs – even the greatest ones – would be so well received.

Then my follow-up question: Is this subject matter Millennials even WANT to see? Not that the movie can’t be a success regardless. There are enough older adults who do know and revere the Beatles and are just thrilled no one is in a cape to produce robust boxoffice receipts. But I’m curious.

For those, like me, who wanted to see it, it was a fun ride. The music alone is enough to carry you through. And the all-star combination of director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis assures that you’re in very good hands. Besides the tunes, there are some hearty laughs, they do have fun with the crazy premise, and the cast is very winning. Patel is great, love-interest Lily James is suitably adorable, and Ed Sheeran is very believable playing himself. Kate McKinnon also steals some scenes as his new bloodless manager. But I have one concern about Kate McKinnon. I LOVE her on SNL, think she’s a brilliant comedienne, one of the top ten all-time performers on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but I’ve never seen her play “real.” She’s always playing a sketch character – masterfully, but a sketch nonetheless. Such is the case here. She’s funny, but she’s a cartoon. I would love to see her drop all voices and exaggerations and just play a genuine person. I believe she can do it; I just haven’t seen it yet.

High concept romcoms like this used to be a summer staple. Now they’re few and far between. I think I’m just as nostalgic for that as the Beatles music. But I found YESTERDAY immensely enjoyable, charming, funny, and even touching in places. What’s it like to live in a world without the Beatles. Either go see this movie or ask any 8th grader.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Why network television is like Major League Baseball

With the All-Star game happening tonight, I thought this would be an appropriate post. 

I know this sounds like a Fairy Tale, but there was a time when a broadcast network would pick up a show and a showrunner would run it. He would make all the creative decisions. He would decide on casting. He would choose the stories, and he would hire writers to write them and directors to stage them.

During filming, he was the one who determined whether they needed a re-take. He was the one who approved the wardrobe. He alone determined that a new line was necessary, or that a close-up was required.

He would have a vision for the series, which he would carry out. If he was right the series became a hit. If he was wrong the network cancelled him, which was fair.

In Major League Baseball a team would hire a manager. He would hire his staff. He would have a certain approach to how he thought he could build a winning team. He would work with the front office to bring in the kind of players that fit his approach.

During the game he would make all the on-field decisions. He would substitute players, he would determine when a starting pitcher needed to come out and just which pitcher would relieve him. When to bunt, and when to hit-and-run, and when to walk batters intentionally was his call alone.

How he chose to motivate his team was his call as well. Was he fiery? Fatherly? Scholarly?

And if his team continued to lose he got fired. And that was fair. Another manager with another approach would take his place.

But that was “Once Upon a Time.”

Today networks own their shows. They hire showrunners to carry out their vision, whether they have a vision or not. They tell the showrunner who he can cast, which writers and directors he can hire. They approve the stories. Based on research, they call the shots.

During filming, they must be satisfied before moving on to a new scene. They dictate camera angles. They request new lines. For the most part, the showrunner is an order taker. And when the reviews are bad, the showrunner is expected to take the blame.

In baseball, the front office now firmly controls the on-field direction. Armed with analytics, they cobble together a roster that looks best on paper. They hire a young manager who will slavishly follow their approach.

During the game, the front office texts the manager telling him when to remove his starting pitcher. They often make out the line-up for him. They make strategic decisions and expect the manager to carry them out. And when those decisions blow up, the manager is expected to take the heat.

The parallel is obvious. And so are the results. Broadcast networks continue to lose audiences. The few hits they have are piloted by old school showrunners who have earned the right of autonomy – Chuck Lorre, Dick Wolf, Shonda Rhimes. And even they are fleeing for other platforms.When they're gone they will be replaced by young showrunners who will fall in line. 

In baseball you have Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, and Terry Francona – three managers with World Series rings. And then a parade of younger managers who “relate well to the players” and embrace the front office game plan. In other words, they get those in-game texts and carry out the orders, whether they agree with them or not. Bochy is retiring after this year.  Which 30 year-old with no big league managerial experience will replace him? 

The result: Every team is working off the exact same numbers, following the same direction, and games now are all 3:30, there are a million strike outs, a ton of home runs, and nothing else. Fifteen minutes can go by between batted balls in play. Six or seven relievers come into the game for each team on a regular basis. What once was a delicious chess game is now a computer program.  Let's see what the ratings are tomorrow for the All-Star Game.  I'm not predicting a home run. 

For network television and baseball to get better, to attract more fans, I think the solution is simple.


Monday, July 08, 2019

Breaking News: A police pursuit

So I turned on the TV at about 11:00 PM recently to watch some shows I had recorded. And a local station, KTTV,  had a live police pursuit. A car was cruising down the freeway followed by California Highway Patrol squad cars. He was heading up north on the 5. He could take that well up into Northern California (assuming he didn’t run out of gas).

The freeway was very light at that hour. A few big rigs in the slower lanes but primarily empty. The renegade vehicle was going at a cruising speed of 60 or 70. He was doing nothing erratic; not switching lanes. The CHP’s were not tailgating, they were giving him room.

So picture it – the KTTV sky-cam helicopter following a car at night driving along a wide-open freeway at a safe and consistent speed followed by other cars with flashing lights. Passing through such communities as Santa Clarita and Newhall.

I watched for a half an hour.

There was nothing exciting. This was no FRENCH CONNECTION wild car chase, no celebrity in a Bronco – just cars tooling along at night. The news anchors provided commentary talking to a police expert, but there was nothing riveting there. Basically, the game plan was to give the guy space, not do anything to endanger anyone, and wait him out.

Still, I found myself strangely engrossed. 7,000 channels, numerous streaming services with 20,000 shows to choose from – and I’m opting for an SUV joy riding through Valencia.

But I dunno, there was something almost Zen about it. Maybe the late hour contributed – it was the end of a long day and I was looking to just chill, but I was way more entertained than when I watched GAME NIGHT IN AMERICA.

Eventually I got tired and just went to bed. I wasn’t engrossed enough to care how it turned out. But I can’t remember when I enjoyed anything on KTTV more over the last few years.

In New York City one local station traditionally just shows a fireplace with a roaring fire on Christmas Day. And it gets ratings. I used to think that was crazy. Now I wish Netflix would carry it.

But let’s get real – stations carry these police pursuits because people watch them. Call it the “Lullaby of Broadcasting.” How many of my fellow Angelinos got a good night sleep because of this nimrod? Is a function now of television to numb us? We tried that with AfterMASH but it didn’t catch on. Maybe if we would have had Colonel Potter drive a 1953 DeSoto through Missouri every week we might’ve been a hit.

Oh, one final note on this police pursuit. It began on the campus of Long Beach State when campus police noticed the car was driving at night with its headlights off. I heard that and thought, “All the better. I’m getting a snack.”

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Weekend Post

The All-Star Game is this Tuesday night in Cleveland. The All-Star Game is always a big deal for me, and it used to be for America, but now I don’t know.

The reason I like the baseball All-Star Game over the other sports is that it’s the only one that’s really competitive. In the NBA and NHL no one is really playing defense. NBA final scores are 154-148. The NFL Pro Bowl is after the season (so really who gives a shit?) and no one is going to play hard. It borders on Darwin Report to get injured in the Pro Bowl.

But in baseball you have the best pitchers trying to get out the best hitters while some of the slickest fielders are in the field. And by and large, the players play hard. (Sometimes too hard like when Pete Rose barreled into catcher Ray Fosse effectively derailing Fosse's career.)

World Series managers from the season before are the NL and AL skippers – so Dave Roberts and Alex Cora. I don’t envy them. I’m sure they’d like to get every player into the game, but you need reserves in case the game goes into extra innings. Teams have been burned before. Plus, it’s a delicate issue how they use pitchers. If I’m the manager of the Houston Astros I don’t want Justin Verlander pitching three innings.

One thing that seems to happen every year is several All-Star players claim injuries at the last moment (like this weekend) and other players take their place.

But it seems to me the interest in the game depends mostly on how many recognizable stars are in the game. And we’re starting to enter an era of remarkable new young talented players. They’re not household names yet (unless they play for the Yankees) but they’re spectacular athletes. Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Gio Urshela (who IS a Yankee but not a household name), and Charlie Blackman are just a few of the outstanding position players.

Not surprisingly, the Home Run Derby the day before the All-Star Game is starting to get more interest than the game itself. There used to be a TV show called HOME RUN DERBY in the ‘50s. Why hasn’t someone brought that back? Wouldn’t more people watch that than Steph Curry’s miniature golf show?

One All-Star that should be participating in the game on Tuesday is Cleveland’s fabulous announcer, Tom Hamilton. If I were commissioner he’d be calling the national radio broadcast.

Like I said, I’ll be glued to my TV Tuesday night (imagine – watching an event on TV – LIVE). Let’s see if America joins me. For several years they instituted that idiotic policy that the winning league got home field advantage in the World Series. So now “the game counts.” What a joke that was. Like the Seattle Mariner All-Stars are really going to bust their humps so the Boston Red Sox get home field advantage in the World Series. Thankfully, that policy was dropped.  Other than Pete Rose, no one bets on the All-Star Game. 

Watch because these are some of the greatest athletes in their sport, and if you don’t know who they are it’s a great way to be introduced to them.

“Play Ball!”

Friday, July 05, 2019

Friday Questions

It may be a holiday weekend, but Friday Questions get answered just the same.

Colby starts us off:

If you had to sit down now and write an original episode of any of the shows you've worked on, (your actors are frozen in time, so no nursing home requirements for the characters) which do you think would be the easiest to write fresh content for?


Don’t know why, but I never got tired of writing that show. Even after 40 episodes. I love those characters, love that setting, and could happily keep writing them for years.

FRASIER would be a close second.

But not MASH. So much of that show was based on research, and by the end those bones were picked clean. Because we were locked into a time and place and characters couldn’t grow, I think the show went on about two or three years too long.

Earl B asks:

Have you ever, in your writing, thought "This is a good, clever joke, but at this point in the script I need a belly laugh"?

All the time.

Especially if we’re looking for a joke to end a scene.

When I write a joke I always try to imagine a studio audience’s reaction. Will they really laugh at this or will they smile? Not every line in a script needs to be a belly laugh, but there are places where they are required.

Example: If you take a whole page to set up one joke, it better be a great joke.

In general, I try to shy away from “clever.” Word-plays or puns work better in prose.

But I’m always looking to “beat” jokes – in other words, replace them with better jokes. It's become an obsession.  I do it sometimes with jokes that have already aired.  I need therapy. 

From PolyWogg:

I have a question about off-set escapades. Does scandal / noise / etc. from the stars affect the writing or is that someone else's problem and you stick to the writing?

Offstage distractions make it harder for all concerned. The audience will start blending the actor’s behavior with his character’s, which often distorts the character.

As a writer you do your best to maintain the direction and integrity of the show, but it’s tough when an actor’s behavior starts turning viewers against them and your show.

I would not want to be writing FRESH OFF THE BOAT right now given Constance Wu’s disdain for the show that launched her career.

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

And finally, from Jim S:

What is the protocol for using personal stories. I imagine it's OK for a writer to think, "I remember a time when I forgot my mother's birthday and there was Hell to pay. Let's make that a story."

But what if Mom objects? And say you remember an embarassing story where a friend or even family member did something that they might not like on national TV? How do finesse that? Or are the lines one doesn't cross?

That’s always an issue, and the writer has to take it on a case-by-case basis.

One way is to ask the person's permission.  

Putting a spin on the story to hide someone’s identity is always helpful. Instead of your father who got drunk and drove his car through the living room, it’s a neighbor, or one of your regular characters. The world doesn’t have to know.

To me the tipping point is if you know it’s going to really hurt someone’s feelings. Then I would say don’t do it.

But here’s the interesting thing – let’s say you shield a family member by preserving their anonymity. But the behavior is clearly theirs. Often times the person in question will say, “I know someone just like that.” They won’t recognize that it’s them.  

And I will say this, I have had arguments with my wife where she’s said in the middle of it – “This better not turn up in a script!”    They never did.  I'm not an idiot. 

The best and safest way to go are to do humiliating stories about yourself.

What’s your Friday Question? Hopefully, you still have ten fingers to type because you didn’t lose three of them in a home fireworks accident.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

EP130: Writing Musicals for Broadway… and the U.S Army

Ken discusses what he learned writing the book for a musical  and also shares an insane story of writing a musical for the United States Army. Hint:It was less successful than “Hamilton.”

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

4th of July Memories

Tomorrow is the 4th of July.  Since it's a day to celebrate Americana and (in my case) a chance to sell some books for your summer reading, here are two brief excerpts from THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60s), my humorous/nostalgic/Pulitzer Prize ignored memoir of growing up during the California myth. You can get the Kindle version here. The paperback here. And the audio version (voiced by yours truly) here. It’s the perfect way to support this blog and relive happier times.

July 4, 1964

Fortunately, we were back home from Hemet in time for Independence Day. They still had 4th of July parades in Woodland Hills. Not exactly lavish affairs -- a few Jaycee Booster Clubs, school marching bands (playing nothing but “Stars & Stripes Forever” and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”), anyone who owned a horse, ice cream trucks, local dignitaries (“Hey, there’s Mr. Neider from Neider’s Auto Body!”), some elementary school classes, local politicians (“We have a councilman?”), and majorettes from as far away as Reseda. The twirling batons proved to be more dangerous to crowds than today’s maple bats.

But for me the REAL reason to stake out my spot on Ventura Blvd at Shoup Avenue was that the grand marshal was always Buster Keaton. Buster was probably 150 by then but still, there he was. Mostly forgotten today but Buster Keaton was a comic genius in the era of silent films and early talkies. His flair for physical comedy was so inspired that even today I don’t think there’s a single comic who can remotely touch him. If I couldn’t still see George Washington in person at least there was Buster Keaton.

I miss those parades. If you still have one where you live, go. Wave a flag. Cheer. Just duck when the baton twirlers go by.

July 4, 1967

We got a dog that summer. A poodle-terrier. My mother named her.


That name would not have been my choice. I don’t remember why we got a dog. We never had a pet before. But I was thrilled. And Babs turned out to be a fabulous dog and companion. If someone in the house were sick, she’d sit all day at the end of his bed. I worried that our family, unaccustomed to caring for pets might not take the best care of her – and my early fears were justified.

Our house was only two blocks from the Woodland Hills Park. On the 4th of July, they would shoot off fireworks. We always invited a few people over for a barbeque and fireworks show, comfortably viewed from our backyard. A neighbor was lying on a chaise lounge. He set his martini down on the ground. Babette approached and lapped up the entire contents in mere seconds. Ten minutes later she staggered out onto the lawn and passed out for twenty-four hours. We have a dog for one month and get her completely shit-faced. Nice.

Have a safe and sane 4th of July.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

ROCKETMAN -- My review

I was so excited to see ROCKETMAN. I’m a huge Elton John fan. And even though I vowed not to see any movies this summer where the star wears a cape, I made an exception for this film.


ROCKETMAN is five hours of self-loathing mixed with production numbers. It’s as if Eugene O’Neil wrote a jukebox musical.

And again, I love Elton John.

There’s not a moment of this movie you haven’t seen in seventeen other rock star biopics. Unhappy childhood, identity issues, stardom, unable to handle it, unloved, drugs, breakdowns, redemption.

Twenty minutes in you’re screaming: “ WE GET IT!!!”

Every point is hammered home seven times, just in case you missed it the first six. Oliver Stone might even think they were laying it on too thick.

Did I mention Elton John is one of my favorites?

Taron Egerton does a terrific job portraying Elton. The wardrobe budget on his glasses alone had to be more than the cost of GODZILLA. The person who comes off the best is Bernie Taupin, well played by Jamie Bell. The film is sort of a love letter to Bernie Taupin. 

But then the clichés are all there. Withholding father, mother who lays on mind trips, the meteoric rise, dumping the original people who believed in him, the ruthless manager, wallowing in excess, fame and fortune at the expense of his soul, tantrums, ambulances. Even the montage of LA that includes the Hollywood sign and driving by palm trees.

And for all the tedious repetitive scenes telling us things we already know going in, the one thing the film doesn’t bother to explain is how a shy kid doesn’t just become a performer but becomes this wild flamboyant showman. Where did that impulse come from? We see all of the costumes; we don’t see what about his personality would guide him in that over-the-top direction. Was it his savvy, knowing how to really entertain an audience, or was it just an alter ego that he would use to release all of his inner frustrations? That might’ve been interesting to learn rather than twenty scenes showing him drinking and snorting coke. 

If you like Elton John my suggestion would be to watch one of his concerts on line and have Spotify make you a playlist.

I now live in fear that next year we get the biopic of Tiny Tim.