Monday, September 30, 2019

The new TV season so far

So last year the MURPHY BROWN reboot opened to disappointing ratings. 1.1 in adults. This year not one debuting new show has gotten that high a number.

Are you surprised? I’m not.

Name me one broadcast network new show you were excited to see? Patricia Heaton in yet another sitcom? I love Patty Heaton but this just screams of network desperation. Shows must be populated with known names. Hence Patty Heaton Walton Goggins, Brad Whitford, Cobie Smulders, Billy Gardell… and in years past, Kevin James, Matt LeBlac, Matthew Perry, Joel McCray, Martin Mull, Max Greenfield, Katy Sagal, Judd Hirsch, and pretty much anyone who had a network show between 1995-2017.

I just don’t get it.

Practically every Emmy went to a non-broadcast network show. When clearly the taste of the audience is leaning towards more original fare, why do networks continue to just recycle faces and ideas?

Patricia Heaton goes back to school. How many times have we seen that?

Walton Goggins – widowed father with kids trying to get back in the dating scene. Exact same premise as the last season of KEVIN CAN WAIT. And it was a tired premise then.

Is Walton Goggins, a fantastic character actor when playing a creepy guy, really a romantic lead big enough to build a network sitcom around? That’s like when the Seattle Mariners spent a gazillion dollars for Robinson Cano. Did Robinson Cano put one extra butt in the seats?

I have to laugh when I pick up ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’S TV Fall Preview and there’s all these interviews with stars and showrunners touting how unique and special their shows are when they’re anything but.

Interestingly, most of these shows were not helped by 3 Day adjustments. And those were the premiers. What do you think is going to happen this week and next?

And the networks’ takeaway of course: Comedy is dead. No one wants to see comedy. Meanwhile, the young audience they’re so desperately trying to attract are watching FRIENDS in record numbers.

There are other actors out there. There are original ideas out there. Why not seek them out? What do you have to lose? You CAN’T do worse than you’re doing now. Except for next year if you stay on the same path.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Friday, September 27, 2019

Friday Questions

I have a short play opening at the Hollywood Short + Sweet Festival tonight. Come see it. In the meantime, your Friday Questions for the week:

Andrew gets us started.

I've heard that on some sitcoms, when a character became an unexpected breakout sensation, the rest of the cast were frustrated about being overshadowed and/or the show's direction changing. Examples would be Good Times (J.J.) and Family Matters (Urkel). Have you ever experienced this on any shows you worked on? What are your thoughts on why some shows seem to adjust better than others (like Happy Days)?

More than anything else it depends on the star. If the star is gracious then fine. In cases like that the star is aware that high tides float all boats and a breakout characters means success for the show – thus more money and accolades for YOU.

But if the star is an idiot or must hog the spotlight then the new dynamic is hell. Cybill springs to mind.

So kudos to Kelsey Grammer for being so supportive of David Hyde Pierce. Same with Ronny Howard on HAPPY DAYS. He embraced Henry Winkler’s Fonzie.

I’m reminded of the great Jack Benny (who had his own radio and TV variety show for 274 years). Someone said to him, “I don’t understand it. You let all your supporting characters have the big jokes” to which he said, “Ahhh, yes, but the show is called THE JACK BENNY program. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore understood that as well.

Gary ask:.

Ken, when you were directing a show that was written by others, were you still thinking of funnier lines to replace those in the script? If you've written comedy I imagine there's no way to turn off that trigger in your brain. And did you ever suggest a funnier line while directing, or would that be a serious breach of show business protocol?

I would ask the showrunner beforehand if I could do that because yes, lots of times I thought of better jokes than were on the page.

Some showrunners welcomed that and were very appreciate. Others said no, show us what we wrote. In those cases, if something didn’t work I would pitch the new line back in the room and occasionally it would go in.

But the short answer is it was the showrunner’s call and I bowed to his wishes. And by the way, if he didn’t want me offering suggested new lines, that was okay too. I never took it personally. I wouldn’t let a freelance director toss in lines in one of my shows before approving them with me first.

From Susan:

You are a good writer, you had scripts and also the directing experience. With your money and maybe some raised from outside, why didn't you make your own independent movie, than be dependent on these horrible studios?

Too much money coupled with very little likelihood I would find a film distributor (unless I had a big star in my little film).

Most small independent movies cost well over six figures and wind up as DVD’s on coffee tables or are forever being entered to film festivals.

For every BLAIR WITCH PROJECT there are a thousand movies that lose a fortune. I’ve known a number of my writer friends who boldly took that step and wiped out their life savings to make movies that maybe twelve people have ever seen.

Doesn’t seem like a good bet to me.

And finally, Mike Bloodworth queries:

Have you or a show you've worked for ever been accused of stealing someone else's idea? In other words, have you i.e. you staff ever come up with a story so similar to someone's who's spec script was rejected that it caused problems?

A couple of times on MASH. 20th Century Fox did a deposition with us at our office and they took it from there. I don’t know the details but do know we always won.

My Friday Question is “what’s YOUR Friday Question?”

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

If I could do it, then ANYONE could

When David Isaacs and I decided to try writing TV scripts in an attempt to break into the business a lot of my friends thought I was crazy. Then we landed an assignment on THE JEFFERSONS and were on our way.

Within a couple of months a number of friends then began pairing up and writing spec scripts themselves. Their motivation was pretty clear. “If these guys could make it, we certainly could.”

Only one of those teams broke through. Larry Balmagia & Dennis Koenig. Both had terrific careers, both together and apart. A couple of the other teams at least finished their spec script. A number of others abandoned the project halfway through. Who knew is was HARD to write a good half hour sitcom episode?

Flash forward and I’m now writing stage plays. Mostly full-lengths. But to complement them I also write ten-minute plays. Ten-minute play festivals have become a “thing.” And I’ve been extremely fortunate. Amid all the rejections, I’ve gotten into a considerable number. Unlike full-lengths, they take a day to write and not four months. And they’re fun to write.

So just like with my TV writing venture, a number of friends have also tried their hand at ten-minute plays. I’ve had three of them so far.

But unlike TV, all three have stuck with it, all three are really talented, and all three have broken in. Dan O’Day, Elden Rhoads, and Andy Goldberg each are enjoying multiple productions of their ten-minute plays around the world.

At this point, let me say that breaking in is no easy feat. These festivals now receive upwards of 400 submissions for eight or ten slots. It’s not just, “If he could make it, I certainly could.”

This Friday begins two weekends of the Short + Sweet Hollywood Festival. I’m lucky enough to have two plays in. DATING THROUGH THE DECADES this weekend (Charlie Chaplin program) and PLAY IT AGAIN, SIRI next weekend (Cary Grant program.

But it’s not just me. Andy and Dan have plays in the festival as well. (Elden has a play too but it’s in Australia.)

So how good are we? Come see for yourself. They’re playing at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre (she was married to a playwright once) at the Stressberg Institute in Hollywood. Here’s where you go for information and tickets. Stop by and see what I wrought upon the world. I guarantee you’ll be delighted. I’ll be there for every performance of my plays so please say hi. Dan's play is in the Stanwyck program and Andy's follows mine in the Grant program. 

Note to all my friends: Next up I want to try skydiving.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

My favorite TV themes

Here’s a FQ that became a full post.

ScottyB asked:

Hola, Ken. I’m of the same mind as you regarding opening theme songs. I’m roughly your age, and I mourn them to this day same as you. So — what would be your Top 5 TV show theme songs?

Happily, an astonishing three of them are from shows I worked on. MASH, CHEERS, and THE JEFFERSONS.

Johnny Mandell wrote the theme for MASH, originally for the movie. There were lyrics but we never once used them on the TV show. Think of all the times you’ve watched MASH, have you ever fast-forwarded through the opening credits?  Bet you'll click on the video above. 

The CHEERS theme, written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo fit perfectly with the visual montage created by Castle-Bryant. By the way, that’s Gary Portnoy singing the theme.

Actress Janet DuBois, who sang the iconic JEFFERSONS theme also co-wrote it with Jeff Barry. Has there ever been a more infectious TV theme song than THE JEFFERSONS? Even college marching bands can’t fuck it up (although they all try).

Now, among the 99.99999999% of shows I didn’t work on:

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Lalo Schifrin’s heart-pounding theme over preview highlights while the fuse burned was the perfect adrenaline rush to launch you into the show. And admit it, when watching a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie, didn’t you love it when that theme began blaring?

And finally, maybe my favorite TV theme of all-time – PETER GUNN way back in the ‘50s written by Henry Mancini. That sinister guitar/piano bass line that just pulses through the song gets me right in the kischkis. And the horns build to a thrilling climax. Younger readers may not be familiar with it, so here it is:

Other honorable mentions:


And I'm sure there are another ten I just can't think of offhand.  What are your favorites?

Monday, September 23, 2019

Last night's abomination

Like an idiot, I watched the Emmys last night. Happy for the winners. I sure prefer Phoebe Waller-Bridge to be the Flavor of the Month instead of Lena Dunham.

And I’m glad I chose not to review them because this year’s show was utterly and completely classless. That’s all I can say. Felicity Huffman jokes. Cosby jokes. Roseanne jokes. Instead of having a host they had Anthony Anderson and his mother steal Emmys.  Think about it.  That looks good. The show was a pathetic attempt to be funny and edgy and thus obliterate any stature and prestige the ceremony was supposed to celebrate.

And since it was on Fox we got the fucking MASKED SINGER shoved down our throats.  More excellence in television.  Oh, and can we NEVER see Ken Jeong again?  NEVER EVER.

The nominees deserved more respect. The winners deserved more respect. And it’s time the industry take a good hard look at how they present themselves to the viewing public. Last night’s ceremony was a disgrace.  

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Friday, September 20, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions roll around again.

Kubelsky starts us off:

I read that at the 31st Emmys (1979), the "ceremony [was] remembered for problems with the Pasadena Civic Auditorium's air-conditioning..."
Ken, you were nominated this year for "Point of View." Can you shed some light on this? Was it sweltering in there? Noisy? Too cold? 

Also, this seems to be the only year where sitcom and comedy/variety categories were merged... how did it feel to be up against an SNL episode in the writing category? They are completely different animals!

For those keeping score, the other nominees that year were the "All in the Family" episode where the Bunkers visit Mike & Gloria in California, Michael Leeson for "Blind Date" (Taxi) and Alan Alda for the M*A*S*H episode "Inga" (which won, prompting Alda to do a cartwheel on his way to the podium).

Oh, that’s right. The Emmys are this weekend. I may or may not even watch them. No review. As I’ve said before, the nominees and categories are now a joke. At this rate, WALKING DEAD will soon win for Best Variety Special.

Yes, it seemed unfair to be lumped in with SNL simply because it was a different genre. It wasn’t fair to any of the nominees including SNL.

To be honest, I don’t remember an air-conditioning problem that night. The auditorium may have been hot but I was sweating for other reasons. I was, of course, disappointed that we didn’t win for POINT OF VIEW but I was really furious that Charles Dubin didn’t win for directing POINT OF VIEW. He did a masterful job.

From -30-

If you were a major league baseball player, what would your walk-up music be?

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion.

Edward wonders:

What are your thoughts on season-ending cliffhangers to hopefully keep the viewer's interest so they stick around to watch a new season?

The problem with cliffhangers is the audience has to really be invested in your show to care. I see some shows doing cliffhangers and laugh. No one other than the people who work on that show give a shit. And probably half of them don’t.

If your show is doing well enough that a sizeable audience does care then it’s unnecessary to inflate the ratings.

And it can really be ludicrous if your show is on cable or a streaming service because you can go a year or more between seasons. No one is going to sit at the edge of his seat for 18 months. By the time the show comes back most people will have forgotten that there even IS a cliffhanger.

All that said, if you’re the type of show that does cliffhangers and you’ve got a real doozy, then by all means do it. And if it captures the audience’s imagination it might become an “event” like “Who shot JR?” from DALLAS.

And finally, from Chris in Cleveland

I know the old adage; If you want to write for Hollywood TV and films, you need to BE in Hollywood. But in this 21st century age of Netflix and other streaming services, is there a way to pitch scripts or series ideas to any of these content providers living outside of LA LA Land?

Yes. If you’re Aaron Sorkin. If you’re established. You can Face Time from Bhutan.

Otherwise, you need to be available for face-to-face meetings. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t live elsewhere and just fly in for the meetings. But that could get expensive.

And if you hope to get on staff then at some point you need to move to LA. For freelance screenwriters, once the meetings are through and you’ve got the assignment, you can go off and write the draft at the Starbucks in Bhutan.

So I wouldn’t say, no, you have to live in LA. But this is an incredibly competitive field and NOT being “in the room where it happens” puts you at a distinct disadvantage.

Best of luck. 

What’s your Friday Questions?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

EP141: Taking Meetings in Hollywood

Ken discusses the various and wacky movie meetings he and his partner, David Isaacs have “taken” over the years. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Uh oh. Another one of my rants

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post because it gave me a chance to rant. And you know I LOVE to rant.

Kendall Rivers asks:

You've been doing the TV comedy thing for quite a while. Now in this current oversensitive climate we're in how much hell is it for you as a comedy writer to have more pressure than ever to not offend anyone when writing a joke? These days writing a slight against string could wreak havoc.

I can’t think of a worse time. Ever.   Mostly because things are so confusing. You have people who are offended by the smallest slight and you have a president who makes blatant racist remarks, insults women, belittles soldiers that fight for the country, and mock the handicapped and millions of followers are totally fine with that.

How do you write satire when what’s actually happening in America is so much more bizarre than the Onion or SNL or late night comics could exaggerate for comic effect? And it’s hard to laugh because it’s so tragic.

So that’s one side of it. Focusing more on your  question, there’s the enlightened side whose feelings must not be hurt at all costs.

Some stand up comedians won’t play colleges anymore because the students are too overly sensitive. College kids are supposed to be irreverent, subversive, anarchistic. Up until now they thumbed their nose. Now they shield their ears.

How did this happen?  

Humor should push boundaries. It should shine a light on our absurdities, hypocrisies, and foibles. That doesn’t necessarily mean “mean spirited,” but it also doesn’t mean we must avoid offending everyone at all costs. Yes, some of the humor is pointed at us, but we used to be a society that could handle that. We used to be able to laugh at ourselves. We didn’t need safe rooms.

So TV writers do have it harder these days. Networks won’t let you do anything controversial. The concession is you can now do sophomoric sex jokes. Not a fair trade-off as far as I’m concerned.

Personally, I get my comedy from stand-up specials these days. And the best one I’ve found is the new Dave Chappelle Special on Netflix. It’s so refreshing to see a fearless comic, who is also devastatingly funny and insightful. But warning: He pulls no punches. Spares no sacred cows. Like I said, it helps that he’s brilliant. But as I was watching it I thought: Lenny Bruce would be proud.  He's taken a lot of shit for it (good for him), but I find it interesting that on Rotten Tomatoes critics give him a 27% score but Netflix viewers give him 99% approval.  

Could the tide, ever so slightly be turning?

We need MORE comedy today. And we need to allow the artists who make comedy more freedom to take chances and swing for the fences.  Otherwise, we’re all marooned on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

An argument for writing scripts

I’ve read a number of articles lately about life in the writers room. A long one about FRIENDS, one about Chuck Lorre shows, and they all tout the benefits of most of the script writing being done by the collective group. FRIENDS at least used to send writers out to craft a first draft, but then the staff would have at it and it would be a feeding frenzy. Chuck Lorre shows even avoid that step. First drafts are written at the table by committee and then writers’ names are just assigned. No writer ever gets to do a “first draft.”

And other shows are set up similarly.

One could argue that the system works. I would say especially in the case of FRIENDS. Those episodes are little gems and the reruns have become a worldwide sensation.

But I think at a price to young writers.

Young writers need to write drafts by themselves for their own development. If you’re a young writer on staff YOU need to come up with those big jokes that end scenes, YOU need to make adjustments when the story outline doesn’t work, YOU need to write that tender speech. And then YOU need to do the rewrite, find new better jokes, find more artful ways of making story turns, discover ways of satisfying notes you don’t agree with but are obligated to do.

In a room you let the big joke guy come up with those zingers and you let the story guy figure act 2 fixes. You can zone out when the staff bats around a thorny story issue and rejoin the conversation when it’s been resolved. Even in the FRIENDS article it said that creators David Crane and Marta Kaufman did most of the heavy lifting when it came to emotional moments, arcs, and the direction of the series. The writers were told that “Comedy is King” and their job primarily was to pepper the show with killer jokes.

James L. Brooks, co-creator of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, which begat TAXI, which begat CHEERS, which begat FRASIER always had a saying: “At some point you’ve got to be a writer.” I’m so glad I was weaned in that camp. You had to write first drafts. And the goal was to get as much of your original script into the final show despite whatever rewriting was done after you turned it in. There’s a real sense of author’s pride when 90% of your script makes it to air. And it’s a real learning experience when only 10% does.

I’m so glad I was part of that group. That system down through the years produced some great young writers like the Charles Brothers, Earl Pomerantz, Gary David Goldberg, Hugh Wilson, Peter Casey, David Lee, David Angell, Heide Perlman, Christopher Lloyd, Steve Levitan, Sam Simon, Ken Estin, Barry Kemp, Bill & Cheri Steinkellner, Phoef Sutton, Dan O’Shannon, Tom Anderson, Dan Staley, Rob Long, Joe Keenan, Anne Flett-Giordano, Chuck Ramberg, and quite a few others. Some of those names might not sound familiar today but they all had major careers filled with Emmys and hit series they created.

And I’ll go back a step further and say it’s the way Carl Reiner worked when he created and ran THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. He developed such writers as Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Bill Persky & San Denoff.

When I was directing DHARMA & GREG I was talking to a young staff writer at the wrap party. D&G was a Chuck Lorre show so all room-written. And again, that system turned out consistently funny scripts — but the writer was worried that after two years of this he couldn’t write a script on his own again. It eroded his confidence. After two years on a show you’re supposed to feel better about yourself and your skills as a writer, not worse.

Now a show runner could certainly argue that his job wasn’t to teach young writers but to turn out the best shows he can. Young writers were hired who had the talent to contribute to his agenda in his system. And that’s certainly true, but I come from a generation where it was important to pay it forward. I had Jim Brooks and Larry Gelbart and the Charles Brothers as mentors. I was truly blessed. I would not be a quarter of the writer I am without their tutelage. So I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to mentor young writers on my staff. And that means my young writers have to write drafts. It’s more pressure on them, more responsibility, more work, but in the end I believe it is so worth it. (And, by the way, it’s more work for me as well — giving outline notes, giving second draft notes, rewriting their drafts. But still, it’s worth it.

There’s another more self-serving benefit to grooming young writers. In time on a successful show you can step away a little and they can assume more important roles.

I know this may sound like one of those “back in MY DAY” rants, but I do believe it’s essential that young writers be allowed to write scripts. Isn’t that why we all wanted to get into the business in the first place?

Monday, September 16, 2019

Happy Birthday Dad

This is always a tough day because it was my father’s birthday. Cliff Levine would have been 92. He made it to 89. Only the good die too soon.

People ask where I got my sense of humor. It was from my dad. I was hoping for his looks, but the sense of humor has served me well.

I was lucky enough to have a great father. He’s always been my role model… except when it comes to playing golf or fixing things.

He was always supportive, which took some real doing. When your kid wants to be a Top 40 disc jockey or TV comedy writer and at 8 years-old was announcing Little League Games instead of playing them, I’m sure it took real willpower to not lock me in a crate. I see parents wrestling with their child wanting to be transgender and I think, yeah but it’s not like he wants to go into radio. And not only did Dad let me go off and follow my DJ dream, he even listened to me (once or twice). Forget FIELD OF DREAMS – that’s a father’s love.

Cliff (as I never called him) had a distinguished career in broadcast management and followed that up by doing charity work and acting on television. Eventually he became a star on our Nancy Travis series, ALMOST PERFECT (he really sold those two lines a show).

One of the great days of my life was May 15, 1982. Dad and I happened to both be in New York and on that Saturday he took me to Washington Heights to see where he grew up. And we got a drink together. There was a guy with a pushcart who had a fully functional bar (true story). So we stood in line and got a drink. This was 10 a.m.

I love him and miss him everyday. So please, whatever street corner you’re currently on, have the bartender pour you a cool one and raise a glass to Cliff Levine.

Cheers, Dad.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday the 13th Questions

Hopefully they’ll bring you good luck.

Tom in Vegas starts us off:

For those of us not in the business, what exactly is a "Spec Script?”

Tom, it’s a script that is written on speculation. In other words, no one is paying you to write it. It generally is a sample script of an existing show.

At one time producers only wanted specs of existing shows. Then the trend turned towards spec pilots. Now I’m getting the sense it’s slowly coming back the other way.

If I’m a showrunner I want to see that the writer can write in the style and voice of an existing show. He or she may have a fresh voice in pilots but I’m not looking for a fresh voice. I’m looking for someone who can adapt to my show.

Along those same line, Mike Bloodworth has a question.

I've been told that when one is trying to get on a staff he or she should not submit a script for that show, but samples of other shows they've written to demonstrate their skill, I guess this is to avoid the old, "Hey! You stole my idea!" accusation. Is this true? Or was I given bad information.

That’s one concern although if it’s submitted by an agent there’s an understanding that the writer won’t sue. I’ve talked about this before. Spec scripts will come in that are coincidentally similar to stories already in development.

Even on a general level. Their script may be Klinger falls in love with a hooker and a script already out to a writer could be the story Klinger falls in love with the general’s daughter.

Typically writers have a tough time winning these types of lawsuits. And they do it at their own risk because no one will hire them afterwards. So you damn well better win. (And some have and have ridden happily off into the sunset.)

The real concern for writers is that the showrunner and staff of that show know it so well that any tiny infraction you make will be flagged. The thought is you’re leading with your chin.

However, I don’t subscribe to this. I would MUCH rather a writer do a spec of my show. I don’t expect him to know all the ins and outs. But can he write my characters? Are his jokes funny and in the style of the show? Even if the story has flaws, is it the type of stories we tell in an approximation of the way we tell it?

I’ve been burned in the past by good spec scripts for one show and a lousy draft for mine.

From JAS:

Friday Question: I saw an article today about Adele Lim quitting the Crazy Rich Asians sequel because she was being paid 1/10 what her (white) co-screenwriter was being paid. Warner Bros. put out a statement that compensation is based on experience, etc. However, Lim seems to have a ton more experience than her co-screenwriter. The difference is that she's written a lot of TV, while her co-screenwriter's (very few) credits are on features.

As someone who has written for both TV and features, can you give an insider's take on this situation? Is it pure racism/sexism? Or is there really that much of a disparity between how Hollywood values experienced television writers versus more inexperienced feature writers? Do you think you would have made more on the movies you've written if you didn't a television resume?

I would be so far out of line to speculate whether there’s racism or sexism. But it is true that the more experience you have the more money you can generally command.

When negotiating with agents, the first thing the business affairs person will ask is what were her “quotes?” In other words, what was she paid on the last assignment? The goal is to work your way up the ladder to a high quote because it’s easier for the agent to get that price again or better it.

But at the end of the day it’s up to the studio to determine how much this writer is worth it to them. Can they lowball a writer knowing it might insult him and he could break off negotiations? If they don’t give a shit that he walks then yes. But if they need the deal to be done they won’t start with a bullshit number. The writer’s quote is the bottom line. And here again the studio has a decision. Do they want this writer enough that they’re willing to match or beat the quote?

So was racism or sexism in the equation? I have absolutely no idea. But I know this: IF a studio has a chance to screw you, pay you less money than your co-writer assuming he’ll never find out, they’ll do it every single time. Regardless of race, sex, age, experience, blood type. 

And finally, from Liggie:

A baseball question. I've heard MLB would like to expand from 30 to 32 teams, to consist of two leagues with four divisions of four teams each a la the NFL. Which cities would you like to put these hypothetical two teams, and in which league? (Assuming they can get a stadium built, of course.)

Montreal and Charlotte, North Carolina.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

EP140: Inside the Writer’s Mind

Listen to a ten-minute play that Ken wrote and hear him walk you through his thought process. Lots of creative decisions need to be made. It’s a great lesson in how you craft a comedy scene. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

9-11 and David and Lynn Angell

I re-post this every year on this date and always will. 

9/11 affected us all, profoundly and in many cases personally. Two of my dear friends were on flight 11. David and Lynn Angell. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of them, missed them, and not felt grateful that they were in my life.

David and I worked together on CHEERS, WINGS, and FRASIER (the latter two he co-created). We used to call him the “dean”. In his quiet way he was the one we always looked to for final approval of a line or a story direction. He brought a warmth and humanity to his writing that hopefully rubbed off on the rest of us “schickmeisters”. And he could be funny – sneaky funny. During long rewrite sessions he tended to be quiet. Maybe two or three times a night he’d pitch a joke – but they were always the funniest jokes of the script.

For those of you hoping to become comedy writers yourselves, let David Angell be your inspiration. Before breaking in he worked in the U.S. Army, the Pentagon, an insurance firm, an engineering company, and then when he finally moved out to L.A. he did “virtually every temp job known to man” for five years. Sometimes even the greatest talents take awhile to be recognized.

I first met David the first season of CHEERS. He came in to pitch some stories. He had been recommended after writing a good NEWHART episode. This shy quiet man who looked more like a quantum physics professor than a comedy writer, slinked into the room, mumbled through his story pitches, and we all thought, “is this the right guy? He sure doesn’t seem funny.” Still, he was given an assignment (“Pick a con…any con”) and when the script came back everyone was just blown away. He was quickly given a second assignment (“Someone single, someone blue”) and that draft came back even better. I think the first order of business for the next season was to hire David Angell on staff.

After 9/11, David’s partners Peter Casey & David Lee called me and my partner into their office. There was a FRASIER script David Angell was about to write. (It was the one where Lilith’s brother arrived in a wheelchair and became an evangelist. Michael Keaton played the part.) Peter & David asked if we would write it and for me that was a greater honor than even winning an Emmy.

David’s wife, Lynn, was also an inspiration. She devoted her life to helping others – tirelessly working on creating a children’s library and a center that serves abused children.

My heart goes out to their families. To all of the families.

I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

So tragic, so senseless, and even eighteen years later, so inconceivable.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

WHY we need to stick together

Hypocrisy in Hollywood? Nooooooooo.

Studios all say that they embrace diversity and parity for women.

And then they do this:

For the CRAZY RICH ASIANS sequel the studio, Warner Brothers, approached the two writers of the wildly successful original.

Peter Chiarelli was offered between $800,000 and a million. His co-writer, Adele Lim (pictured above) was offered $110,000. Lin wisely told them to go fuck themselves.

Warner Brothers claims Chiarelli received more because he was more experienced. Here are his extensive screen credits:

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (story by)
THE PROPOSAL (written by)

At this point I should say I don’t at all blame Chiarelli. If he or anybody can get that kind of money then more power to him. He’s not the bad guy here.

But let’s look at the facts.

Adele Lim has multiple writing credits on 14 TV series. The first one coming in 2002. She’s also produced 9 TV series. Beginning in 2006.

The more experienced Chiarelli’s first writing credit is 2009.

TV used to be a step down but not anymore.  Top flight screenwriters are fleeing to television as if someone yelled "FIRE!" in a movie theatre.  

Sorry but Warner Brothers argument doesn’t hold up.

What really happened is that Warner Brothers thought they could pull a fast one.

And this is yet another reason why writers need to stick together when negotiating against studios or networks or (currently) talent agencies. If there’s a chance they could screw you they will. They’re not going to be “fair.” At the end of the day they look for any weakness and exploit it.

So I double back to the WGA faction that believes inviting the agencies back to the bargaining table and negotiating in good faith is the way to secure a fair and reputable deal. That’s the LAST THING the Guild should be doing.

So again, I urge WGA members to vote for David Goodman and his team. Make no mistake, we’re all Adele Lim in the industry’s eyes.

Monday, September 09, 2019

There is some justice in the world (not much but I'll take what we can get)

This is a follow-up to a blog post from March.  Remember that "Neil Simon Festival" theatre in Cedar City that had the unmitigated gall to charge $150 submission fees to all struggling playwrights entering their festival?  The Heritage Theatre.   I wrote about it here.

In short, I said FUCK YOU a lot and called them greedy bastards.  It was one of my more eloquent rants.

At one point I said this:

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

Well, it turns out I was right.

The Neil Simon estate has pulled his name from the Festival and even forbid the theatre from doing any of his plays.   And the reason is the unconscionable $150 fee.

You can read that article here.

At a time where we are being screwed left and right by greedy corporations and government officials who only are looking out for their own self-interests and could give a shit about ours, at least there's this one tiny almost microscopic bit of good news.  

Oh, and if losing their affiliation with Neil Simon wasn't enough to send the Heritage Theatre reeling, I won't let them do any of my plays either.   Let's see if they survive now.  

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Weekend Post -- The WGA-Agencies Dispute & WGA election

A number of you have asked what my position is on the dispute between the WGA and talent/literary agencies. Also my thoughts on the current election of WGA officers – an election that will be decided based on the members feelings of that standoff and the way it’s being handled.

So here’s my position. 

The Guild is trying to do a heroic thing – get major agencies to stop making more money off their writer clients than the writers are making themselves. By cleverly instituting “package deals” the agencies get a bigger share of the pie than writers despite the fact that the writers do all the work. And some agencies have formed their own production companies. Can you see where that might be a huge conflict of interest? If an agent is negotiating a deal for you at their production company the agent is negotiating against himself.

Writers now work for agencies instead of the other way around.  

A similar situation occurred in the 1960’s when talent agency MCA also owned Universal. Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy said that was illegal and broke it up. (The company chose to keep the studio and unload the agency -- a wise choice.) The WGA is going to Federal Court to try to get the same result. I believe they have a good case. But it might take some time.

What’s happened so far? First, let me back up. When whatever form of “management” there is in show business – either the studios, networks, or in this case agencies – WANTS to make a deal then deals get done. And they get done quickly. When they don’t want a deal and think freezing out the writers will force them to cave then there is no deal. Negotiations in that case are a sham. And that’s what these negotiations have been so far. Sabre rattling, blaming the other side, stonewalling.

Let’s say this goes to court and it looks like the WGA will win. The agencies will want to get back to the bargaining table and make a deal so fast your head will spin.

What the WGA is attempting is unprecedented. Make no mistake, it’s a David & Goliath situation. The only possible leverage the Guild has is withholding services to the agencies. Staffing season and development went on this year without the agencies. New deals that are being made without agencies mean they are not entitled to commissions. That’s a nice 10% bonus to the writer. And no package deals to boot.

What happens when the industry discovers it can function without agencies? It might not function as well but the gears keep turning. Playing this out is not necessarily a bad thing.

Personally, I wish it could be resolved in a timely manner. I have lots of friends on both sides. I love my agent and appreciate all that he’s done for me. But for us to go back to the bargaining table now would be a huge sign of weakness and we might as well just run up a white flag.

There is a faction of the WGA that wants to do just that. They naively feel a deal can be reached by being "reasonable."  History has taught us otherwise. The way the industry has screwed writers for decades  has taught us otherwise.  And yet (another history lesson) they want to be Neville Chamberlain.  He brought "Peace in his time."  Yeah, how did that work out?

Sometimes you have to sacrifice. I’ve been through numerous lengthy strikes. They're not fun and they eat through your savings and you have to hold off buying that house.  But writers before me suffered so that I could enjoy residuals, health care, and a pension. It’s my obligation to fight on behalf of future generations of writers.

Whenever there’s a difficult situation like this there is always the faction of writers who want to settle. They don’t want to be inconvenienced, they don’t want their paycheck to be affected. The issue at hand might not immediately benefit them personally so screw it. Studios, networks, and now agencies are hoping that contingent gets large enough that they’ll force the Guild to settle. Why was there no strike the last time the WGA dealt with studios? Because well over 90% voted to authorize a strike. If 60% had authorized it we would have come away with nothing probably after a four month work stoppage.

Solidarity is NEEDED. And granted, it’s hard when you have TV writers and feature writers and hyphenates. Not all writers are on the same career path. We’re not longshoremen. But feature writers struck in the early ‘60s for residuals for TV writers. We NEED to stick together. If not, that’s how management breaks unions. And if there was no union protecting writers studios would be paying $100 for feature scripts (and desperate writers would take it).

Like I said, there is an election going on. For all WGA writers, I urge you to stay the course. Agencies won’t go back to the bargaining table because there’s a new friendlier regime. They’ll go back because the Guild stands by its current leaders and they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Was this the right course of action? I don’t know. This is all uncharted territory. But the only way we’ll know is if we play it out. If you’re a WGA member, this is the slate I urge you to vote for:

David A. Goodman for President
Marjorie David for Vice President
Michele Mulroney for Secretary-

For the Board of Directors:

Liz Alper
Angelina Burnett
Robb Chavis
Dante Harper
Zoe Marshall
Luvh Rakhe
Meredith Stiehm
Nicole Yorkin

Remember, deals ONLY get done when management feels the pinch enough to want to make a deal. And when that happens, as if by magic, deals get done quickly. No posturing, no bullshit. Let’s not make it easier for them.

Thank you.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions with several MASH-themed ones this week. But not the first one.

Frank Beans has a question about attending TV tapings.

"Some shows have an age requirement..."

Could you elaborate on that a bit more? Is it too young, too old, or some other random criteria, and on what kinds of shows typically? Do you think this is a practical, ethical, or wise practice?

For adult oriented shows the age limit is 16. Time is money and the show doesn’t want to hold up filming for screaming babies and unruly children. And since we’ve all seen this behavior tolerated by parents in movie theatres and fine restaurants, and considering tickets to TV filmings are free, they have every right to set restrictions. Take kids to Chuck E. Cheese, not CHEERS.

However, if the show is a Disney Channel show or one that is geared to kids and pre-teens, the age restriction is either eased or eliminated.

Chris Thomson wonders:

At the end of MASH are big part of the story is dealing with him and BJ probably never seeing each other again, after their time together.

And BJs difficulty with saying good-bye.

I just wondered after a long running series like MASH, Cheers, and Frasier, especially given in interviews everyone seems to get on with each other, how much people do still meet up when in town etc, cast and crew etc.

I think it’s a lot like college. How many of your close college friends do you still see on a regular basis? People move, they drift out of the business, they establish new families with new long-running series, etc.

I’m still friends with all the writers on MASH, CHEERS, and many on FRASIER. We email, get together for lunch occasionally, help out on each other’s pilots, etc.

From time to time I also meet up with actors from these shows and especially the shows I co-created. And they’ll pop up from time to time either as podcast guests (like Jamie Farr recently) or guest bloggers.

But it’s difficult to maintain as close a relationship with someone when you no longer see them every day.

From Wayne Carter:

My agent submitted a spec script of mine to MASH in 1979-80. Though well received, we were offered only $500 for the story instead of a chance for me to sell the script ($10,000?) and get a chance for revisions or credit. We were basically told the writers' staff was locked and no outside script assignments at this point of the show were available (except supposedly one by a producer's girlfriend). Do you remember such a situation at that time? It's always bugged me, but I can understand staff writers locking the gates once hefty syndication residuals come into play. It was just frustrating. We didn't accept the deal.

First of all, this was after my time. We never bought a spec script during my tenure. So it’s hard to speak with any authority. I’ll tell you what I think happened just reading between the lines.

They liked your story but not the writing. And they didn’t like the story enough that it was worth it to them to pay for a full script and then do a page-one rewrite. That’s just my guess.

My policy was never to buy a spec unless it was so good and the story was so good that I could keep most of it. And I never found one of those.

However, if I really liked the writing I would bring the writer in and give him another story and script assignment. So the spec didn’t sell but it got his foot in the door, which realistically is a home run with spec scripts.

And finally, from Edward:

In the scheme of things, wasn't CBS' decision to have Radar leave at the beginning of Season 8 a smart move? Ending the season with a cast member leaving might take the wind out of a show during the hiatus.

It was a smart move but not for that reason. The key benefit for CBS was that it had an event show to promote for November Sweeps. Lots of shows lost characters at the end of a season. It’s less of a big deal than one exiting in November.

CBS was also able to make it a two-parter to really take advantage of the situation with double the programming and double the commercial intake.

November, February, and May Sweeps are not as big of a deal now, but back in the broadcast network-only days they were HUGE. Imagine movie studios during summer and Christmas breaks. That’s when everybody gets out their big guns. Radar leaving MASH was a big deal as was reflected in the ratings I’m happy to say.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

EP139: From Russia With Like

Ken takes you on a wacky tour of Scandinavia and Russia – filled with absurdities and atrocities.  What more could anyone ask of a summer vacation?

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What are the mistakes that first time showrunners make?

I was asked by reader Brian Hennessey: "what are the mistakes that first time showrunners make? 
(Note: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

1. Not communicating with your staff. It’s not enough to have your vision for the show; you need to clearly share it with your other writers. Don’t just assume. It’ll be hard enough for them without trying to figure out what’s in your head. Same is true with your editor and directors.

2. Be very organized. Time will go by much faster than you think. From day one lay out a plan. You want so many outlines by this date, so many first drafts by that date, etc.

3. Don’t squander that period before production begins. It’s easy to knock off early or move meetings back. But this is golden time before the crunch when actors arrive, cameras roll, and a thousand additional details require your attention.

4. Accept the fact that the first draft of the first script you receive from every staff member will look like a script from the last show they were on. It will take them time to adapt to your show.

5. Remember that every writer is not a “five-tool player” as they say in baseball. By that I mean, some may be strong at story but not jokes, or punch-up but not drafts. Not everybody is good at everything.  Consider that when putting together your staff.

6. Hire the best writers not your best friends.

7. Hire at least one experienced writer. Otherwise, on top of everything else you're doing, you're re-inventing the wheel. 

8. Don’t show favoritism to some writers over others. It destroys morale and no one loves a teacher’s pet.

9. Pick your fights with the network and studio. Don’t go to war over every little note. Antagonizing everyone all the time is a good way to ensure this will be your only showrunning gig. Yes, you’re an artist and you’re trying to protect your vision. And yes, a lot of the notes are moronic, but you have to hear them out. You have to consider them. You have to do the ones you can live with. The best way to get your way is to get them on your side.

10. Don’t overwork your staff. This goes back to being organized. There’s only so many times you can whip the same horse. Your people are dedicated to the show but not to the extent you are. They’re not getting any back end deals. They’re not getting interviewed by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. This show may be your whole life but they want to go home.

11. Praise your staff. If they turn in a good draft, let ‘em know. This sounds like such a simple thing but you’d be surprised how many showrunners don’t do it.

12. Respect the crew and learn their names. When you walk onto the set, greet them.  They’re not just a bunch of convicts picking up litter along the side of the expressway. They’re dedicated highly-trained professionals who never get any recognition. Take the time to know who they are.

13. Take care of yourself. On the weekends get plenty of sleep. Eat right. Relax. It’s a long haul.

14. Never make your staff work late nights if you’re not there with them.

15. Don’t get so caught up in the work and the grind that you forget to have some fun. You’re running your own show. That’s a rare opportunity. Enjoy it… or at least as much as you can before you have to put out another fire.

16. A good way to completely destroy any morale is to automatically put your name on every script and share credit with every writer. You may win in arbitration but you lose your troops. The trade off is not worth it. You’re getting paid more money than anybody already. Let your writers receive full credit and residuals.

17. Accept responsibility. When things go wrong (and they will) ultimately you’re the one in charge. Not saying you can’t make changes in personnel if someone doesn’t work out, but don’t be constantly playing the blame game. You’re the showrunner. You take the hit.

18. On the other hand, don’t take all the credit. When ideas and scripts and jokes come from other people, publicly acknowledge their contribution.

19. #MeToo. It's 2019. Don't be an idiot for God sakes.

The bottom line is a showrunner has to develop people skills and management skills as well as writing skills. You may have enormous talent but that will do you no good when your staff firebombs your car with you in it. Good luck. The work is hard but the rewards are enormous.  Wasn't Natalie gorgeous? 

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Valerie Harper

Unfortunately, I never met Valerie Harper. I saw her once on stage and went to numerous RHODA filmings but never actually met her. Judging by the photos on Facebook I think I’m the only one in show business who didn’t. But I know all those other people who did and they all, to a person, loved her. And she made a huge impact on popular culture. Rhoda Morgenstern was a clearly Jewish character who was embraced by America.

Trust me when I say you would create a Jewish character for a sitcom pilot and the network would say, “Uh, she’s too urban” or my favorite: “She’s too… New York.” We knew what that was code for.

But Valerie broke through all of that. Her “Rhoda” was unapologeticaly Jewish and as such, unapologeticaly FUNNY. She brought a warmth and likability to that character that not only made her accepted, but beloved by the public. When they spun her off into her own series her wedding was seen by 53 million people. THE BIG BANG THEORY grand series finale drew 18 million.

In fairness, a tremendous amount of credit for Rhoda’s success was also the “voice” of that character, MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW writer Treva Silverman. Treva knew just how to write her. It’s quite a trick to make an ethnic character authentic, universal, sympathetic, and hilariously funny. But Treva’s words and Valerie’s performance elevated Rhoda to a television icon.

I invite you to watch the first few seasons of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW when she and Treva were really hitting their stride. I’ll be honest, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was never as good after both she and Treva left.

But that was a long time ago. Valerie played many great parts, touched many lives, and took many photos in the subsequent 40 years. I’m sorry I never did get the chance to meet her. And thank her. I did get to write for her. Okay, it was a RHODA spec that was rejected all over town but STILL.

The thing is, you didn’t need to meet Valerie Harper to love her. And 53 million people did. To me that’s an even greater legacy.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Some labored thoughts on this holiday

Seems like only yesterday the Labor Day holiday songs started flooding the radio. As I sit here on this low cyber-traffic weekend I’m reminded of how, as a kid, September was always a big month. So much to look forward to.

As hard as it is to believe, when the networks unveiled their fall shows it was a BIG DEAL. A real big deal. Remember “NBC WEEK”? When they rolled out their new fare they also offered full-color glossy yearbooks you could send away for. I must’ve had six. Now it’s “NBC WEAK.” CBS had a half hour “preview show” in which they would show snippets of their new shows. It got the highest rating of the week. During the summer you would watch daytime game shows just to see the promos. ABC usually got the jump on the other networks by premiering their new lineup first. THE JETSONS was water cooler stuff.

And to coincide with the new season, US automakers unveiled their new models for the year. All summer they would tease you by showing the cars hidden under large sheets. Major speculation over whether the Chevy Impala’s fins could get any larger. They were already the size of A-frame houses. And what was this new car Ford was introducing called the Mustang?

And of course, we had the Jerry Lewis Telethon.  Almost 24 hours of the most saccharine, maudlin, cheesy glitz-filled entertainment/sales pitch hosted by the incomparable Jerry Lewis.  At a moment's notice he could go from tears to cross-eyed clown.  And always on hand was Tony Orlando, Norm Crosby, jugglers, and cabaret singers from the best Travelodge lounges in Henderson.   By hour 19 Jerry usually went totally off the rails.  All live.   That, my friends, was MUST SEE TV.

Jerry's gone.  The telethon is either gone or so practically gone that it is gone.  There's no "NBC Week."   At least BETTER CALL SAUL and the BREAKING BAD sequel are coming soon.  Screw the new Chevy!  Bring on the Fall!