Saturday, November 30, 2019

Weekend Post

While it's still the Thanksgiving weekend..

I finally found a portion of an episode of THANKS. Created by Mark Jordan Legan & Phoef Sutton, this was a short-lived CBS show about pilgrims. Period piece multi-camera shows are hard to pull off. This and Earl Pomerantz's BEST OF THE WEST are the two best in my opinion.

So enjoy a sample of THANKS.  The humor really holds up after almost 400 years. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Black Friday Questions

Get out there and get that big screen! And when you come home enjoy some Friday Questions.

Wm. Adams starts us off:

A trivia question led me down a twisted path that ended up at "Love, American Style." It seemed to be a place for lots of writers to get a credit or two. Did you ever pitch a script for it?

That show was over before we got into the business. It’s too bad because you're right, that was a great launching pad for young writers. If you check the list of contributing writers you’ll find quite a few names of people who went on to big careers.

From Inkstreet:

In many Norman Lear comedies, black characters on occasion used the N-word (Fred Sanford, Aunt Esther, James Evans, both the Jeffersons, etc.) Today, people would probably have a problem with this, but during the run of the shows, was there any public reaction or backlash for the use of the word?

Well, accounting for the fact that there is that faction that thinks Hallmark shows are too offensive, the short answer is no.

We were not such a sensitive society back then. But we were way more puritanical. How bizarre that you could say the N-word but no euphemism that even hinted at being a sexual organ reference.

In fact, the networks had long lists of slang words to describe offending body parts. And many were expressions I had never heard. Sweater meat? Seriously???

JS asks:

How Long is Too Long? "The Irishman" is 3.5 hours long. I can't sit through that. I have a 2 hour limit How long is too long? My ideal movie - 1.45 minutes or less. If you are going over 2 hours I have to love the actor to sit through it or it has to be "Gone With the Wind" quality and I can watch it on DVD and split it up over 4 nights. There is absolutely no way I can sit in a theatre for 3.5 hours. +4 if you add coming attractions.

If the story is really engrossing and warrants it, I don’t mind a long movie. I love every frame of THE GODFATHER, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, and GONE WITH THE WIND for that matter.

But I find that most movies could be shorter. Mark Evanier teases me about that, but I believe it. Especially comedies. They seem to play better if they’re between 90-105 minutes.

Even if a movie is funny, audiences get tired of laughing. Get out while you’re still getting laughs.

And finally, from ReticentRabbit:

When you write an episode centering on a "villain," a Frank Burns or a Roy Biggins, is it challenging to move that character to the center from the fringes? Or is it kind of fun because those characters are somewhat less featured and it's a chance to develop them more?

The trick to giving them dimension is not necessarily to soften them but to justify them. Why is that character acting like an asshole? What physical or mental insecurities have led them down that path?

I also don’t mind a villain doing something nice once in awhile. Unlike Trump, no one is all bad.

Happy Black Friday.  Get me something nice.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

EP151: Thanksgiving Turkeys

Once again Ken plays some Thanksgiving Turkeys, songs that don’t try to be funny but just are.  Get ready to laugh and cringe, but mostly laugh. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Let the holiday season begin

Okay, you can put up your Christmas lights now.

Allright, you can start playing Christmas music on the radio.

It’s safe to cart out Charlie Brown’s Christmas again.

Studios are free to unleash their big holiday tentpole releases.

Take that bottle away from Santa and send him out to the center of the mall.

The tree can go up at Rockefeller Center.

You can open the ice skating rink now.

The Radio City Holiday Show can now officially open. Please close it by March.

Bring on the baseball winter meetings.

It’s still not okay for CBS to colorize and air classic black-and-white sitcoms, but that’s another story.

Networks prepare for their live musicals. Too bad the novelty has worn off.

Hollywood officially shuts down until January. The only business that gets done now is firing known celebrities and executives charged with sexual harassment. And of course their shocked reactions.

Travel today becomes an absolute nightmare. If it happens to snow a quarter-inch in Seattle, all flights in and out of O’Hare are cancelled till January. 

Frantic cooking is taking place. People all over America are making that string bean casserole with Campbell’s Mushroom Soup. (“Why?” I ask.)

And finally, it’s time to stop and give thanks to all the people and things in your life that you’re grateful for. In my case, I start with you.

Travel safe this holiday weekend.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

My 14th Anniversary

Wow.  Today marks my 14th anniversary doing this blog.   I couldn't imagine when I started this in 2005 that I'd still be doing it.  And who knows how much longer I'll continue?  But for now I'm going to keep going.   I've had over 35,000,000 page views although that could just be the same 35 people coming back a million times. 

But thanks to all of you for reading it.  I know by the comments that folks come, stay for awhile, then move on.  Hopefully enough new people arrive to replace them.  But thanks to everyone (even the ones who left but will never see this because they, well... left).

It's heartening (and a little odd) that people I don't know care about my opinion about anything.  And also have affection for shows I worked on (and am very proud of) from years gone by. 

For the ten year anniversary I had a party.  This year I'll just finish the rest of the leftover Halloween candy. 

I thought it might be fun to revisit my very first post.  Here it is. 

And in terms of an appropriate picture to mark this auspicious occasion, what better? 

Monday, November 25, 2019


Wow. That expression took off fast. Can an expression go viral?

OK BOOMER is the new way Millennials brush off Baby Boomers for having outdated ideas, archaic solutions, old school thinking, or just breathing.

It’s the new “whatever.”

We're old fashioned.  Irrelevant.  Over the hill (which is an old fashion expression so maybe they're right).  

Some of my contemporaries take offense at this. Personally, I find it amusing.

I think that comes from being glad I’m a boomer and glad I grew up in the era I did, and especially glad to be in the TV industry back then as opposed to now. Our shows were seen by millions and we were paid accordingly. I loved our music growing up, times weren’t nearly as dangerous (except in cities), bullying was confined to the schoolyard not the world through social media, and we had the sexual revolution.  The sexual revolution alone is enough for a mic drop. 

So if a Millennial wants to take a shot at me because I’m not tech savvy, still watch television on a television, and think "load management" in the NBA is totally bullshit, this BOOMER is OK.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Weekend Post

Haven't posted this in a few years, but it's my public service to you as we approach Thanksgiving.  My timely travel tips. 
Leave for the airport NOW.

Bring no luggage. Wearing the same clothes for a week is a small price to pay. Plus, the airlines now charge you for check-in luggage AND blankets. Pretty soon pressurized air will also be extra.

Southwest has no reserved seating. Get in one of the latter groups boarding. You don’t want to be one of the first to sit then watch as fifty people glance at the empty seat next to you, then to you, and decide to sit somewhere else. Even in the last row.

If you have children under the age of five tell your relatives one has an earache and make everyone come to YOU.

Those people in the Stand-By line – those are the same people who think they can get rich selling Amway products, and the Tooth Fairy really exists. Don’t fly Stand-By unless you like sleeping in airport terminals for five days.

If you rent from Hertz plan on a two hour wait just to get your car. Unless you’re one of their “preferred” customers in which case allow only one hour.

When rental car companies recommend you use premium gasoline put in regular. It’s cheaper, it’ll run just fine, and it’s not your car.

Before you pull off the road to a Chuck E. Cheese for lunch, remember their namesake is a rat.

Air travelers: avoid O’Hare. Better to land in Dallas, even if your destination is Chicago.

If you’re dropping someone off at the airport don’t even think you’ll be able to stop. Have your travelers practice the tuck and roll from a moving car. The first couple of times they’ll bounce but by the fourth or fifth try they should have it down.

Watch the DVD of HOSTEL on your laptop. The bigger the screen, the better.

There’s more legroom in Exit rows. When the flight attendants ask if you are willing to help out in case of emergency just say yes. Like it’s going to make a big difference anyway if you crash.

If you’re flying on an airline that doesn’t have reserved seating never sit next to anyone who is already eating or reading Ann Coulter.

Before you fly to New York and have to negotiate JFK just remember – the parade is on TV. And it’s the same friggin' balloons as last year. The only difference is that the stars of NBC’s big new hit from last year, I FEEL BAD, won’t be there (thank God).

Put a big strip of duct tape on your luggage so you’ll recognize it easily. And it makes a nice fashion statement.

If you’re flying with small children see if there’s such a thing as “Flintstones Valium”.

In-flight alcoholic beverages are expensive. Better to drink heavily at the airport before boarding.

And finally, watch PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES again and think of it as a “best” case scenario.

Happy trails to you all.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Friday Questions

It’s been so long that many people don’t automatically equate November 22nd with the day John Kennedy was killed in 1963. But we need to remember. And it was also a Friday. Here are this week’s Friday Questions:

scottmc is up first.

I am curious about a Becker episode which you directed. The episode involved two groups of extras, a group of construction workers lining up to use the diner's bathroom and a group of Backer's neighbors in the lobby of the building. Was the number of extras in both decided upon before you began working on the episode? Is there a way of directing a scene to make it look like there are more extras? Could one of the construction workers have doubled as one of the neighbors, if necessary? Is a scene with a lot of extras any more difficult to direct?’’

Lots of questions. I’ll try to address them.

The line producer and the 2nd Assistant Director coordinate the hiring and placing of extras, typically during the week of production. They wait because the scene might change or be cut.

There are stand-ins for the actors during camera blocking that are permanent extras. So they pop up every week.

Generally extras don’t double up unless one scene is a big crowd scene and they can fill in in the background.

On multi-camera shows, extras are usually hired just for the day a show is shot. But sometimes you bring them in the day before if their scene is very complicated. Case in point this pie fight scene I directed in ALMOST PERFECT. I rehearsed for two days using rice cakes and choreographing the whole thing to get specific gags, not just have a free-for-all.

I always liked directing scenes with a lot of extras. Yes, the scenes were more challenging but way more fun than just two people sitting at a table. I felt like a real “director.”

For an episode of DHARMA & GREG I had over 100 extras for a scene shot up in San Francisco. I had scaffolding, ten guys on walkie-talkies. I was David Lean directing a sitcom.

To make it appear there are more extras than there actually are, I will have extras cross in front of the actors. That gives the scene more depth. It’s not just your lead actors and people in the background. With extras occasionally in the foreground it gives the impression that there are more extras in the scene, just off camera.

To my knowledge it was Jimmy Burrows who came up with that trick.

From tb:

Ken - I keep seeing something on sit coms that I don't get: People are talking - then we suddenly have an exterior shot, and music-then right back to the same conversation! Not the next day, or that night or anything. No passage of time. Not even a joke we need to laugh at or let breath. What's going on? Why? I keep seeing this and it just seems bizarre to me.

You’ve hit upon a personal pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen this practice less in sitcoms but more in movies. It’s the old “montage of the city” while two characters have an uninterrupted conversation. You’ll never see that on any show I direct, write, or produce.

And finally, from Sue T.:

I have watched on youtube some completed TV pilots that were never aired because the shows were recast before their network premieres. For example, ALL IN THE FAMILY (recasting of the son-in-law character), BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (recasting of the best friend character), and DICK VAN DYKE (recasting of the lead actor). Can you suggest any other popular TV series whose pilot episodes were recast and remade, and thus never aired?

There is a version of the THREE’S COMPANY pilot that was written by Larry Gelbart and starred Valerie Curtain. Not sure if it’s online but it’s worth seeking out. The tone of the humor is way more sophisticated (as you’d expect with a Gelbart-penned script).

I don’t think any of it survived the eventual pilot, but Larry continued to get royalties throughout the run of the series.  And at one time it was up against MASH so Larry was making money off two competing shows at the same time. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

EP150: The Reality of being a Reality Star: Meet Susie Meister

Former MTV Reality Star Susie Meister shares her experiences, what it’s really like being on a reality show, and what life is like after your fifteen minutes of fame are up. It’s a compelling and sometimes heartbreaking re-entry in real reality. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

How long will you wait in line?

Cities are getting more crowded (Los Angeles certainly is). It seems we stand in more lines these days. And in longer lines.

The irony is a lot of lines we used to stand in we don’t anymore. When was the last time you stood in a long line to get into a movie theatre? Trips to the bank which used to mean lengthy teller lines are now skirted thanks to ATM’s or on line banking (or being broke).

But if you want a hundred rolls of toilet paper or eight cartons of Cheetos you’ve got to deal with Costco. If you want to go to a sporting event allow an extra half hour for security. And don’t even get me started on the airport.

The question becomes: Is my time more valuable than waiting in line? When Taco Bell gives out free tacos is it really worth standing in line for 40 minutes to save $3.00?  Are the Black Friday discounts that amazing? 

I spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how I can avoid lines. Going to the Department of Motor Vehicles is a nightmare. It’s imperative I make a reservation beforehand, even if that means setting it up two months in advance. I pay the money for TSA Pre-Check. I never go to In & Out at noon. (I never go to Taco Bell at all so that’s moot.) I never go to Costco (although I do love their hot dogs). I book rental cars way in advance. I don’t go to any clubs that have velvet ropes.

I think a way of testing our tolerance is Disneyland.  We all know there are long lines at Disneyland.  They've instituted "Fast Passes" which help, but still plan on 60% of your day standing in line for Peter Pan.   This past summer they opened up a big Star Wars Land attraction.  Disney figured this would be an absolute bonanza.   And instead people avoided Disneyland like the plague.  Everyone just assumed that the crowds and lines would be insane so they avoided it.   There's a tipping point.

What lines will you stand in and which will you avoid?

The Peter Pan ride, by the way, takes like a minute and a half.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Movie Magic

I had the extreme pleasure of watching Billy Wilder direct his last movie, BUDDY BUDDY. The movie itself was not very good, but what an awesome treat watching the great Billy Wilder in action. And yes, he wore the hat. 

They were filming a scene where Jack Lemmon was gagged and tied to a chair. He shimmies the chair over to a heating vent and is able to singe the rope enough to loosen its grip and escape. Mr. Wilder explained this to the crew and one member popped up saying there was a problem. Mr. Lemmon was supposed to click on the heating unit with his foot, the filaments would then glow and he would set about freeing himself.

The crew member said that filaments don’t just turn on and glow, they take several minutes to warm up.

Wilder shot back at him: “Young man, ve are making MOVIE MAGIC here! Did you ever notice that there is ALWAYS a parking space? Right out front? Always a window table at a restaurant? MOVIE MAGIC!”

Mr. Lemmon clicked on the unit and the filaments instantly glowed.

Someone once said movies are “Life with the boring parts left out.”

When was the last time you found a parking space right out front?

Monday, November 18, 2019

TV can make your house a star!

Anything can become a must-see attraction if you first see it on TV. Ordinary buildings suddenly become Kodak Moments (although no one uses film anymore).

You’d think growing up in LA I’d be immune to that, but recently when my wife and I flew to Copenhagen, as we were on approach I spotted the bridge from Copenhagen to Malmo and I became a total geek. “Ohmygod! There’s the BRIDGE from “the Bridge!” We had watched the limited series on Netflix that featured that bridge prominently. It was a bigger thrill than seeing Tivoli Gardens. Had it been a year ago I probably would’ve glanced out the window at the bridge and gone, “Hunh.”

I guess I’m immune to LA landmarks because I’m used to seeing them. “Hey great, they’re at the Hollywood sign,” but when I go out of town I get excited just as much as anybody. My first time through downtown Minneapolis I was looking for the WJM building and outdoor restaurant where Mary ate in the opening titles of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. And when I broadcast for the Mariners I had to see the Snoquaimie Falls, used on TWIN PEAKS.

Television exposure doesn’t just make people famous, it does the same for inanimate objects as well. The Bull & Finch bar (exterior for CHEERS) is a more popular tourist attraction in Boston than the Freedom Trail. The corner diner shown on SEINFELD is a huge New York attraction (and that’s a town that has lots of attraction).

This can become a problem however. A number of people have been approached by production companies asking if they could use the exterior of their house for a particular show. A hefty fee comes with that. At first the homeowner thinks he’s won the lottery. Free money! But then tourists come and gone is any privacy and serenity. Again, I go back to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Remember the cute little duplex she lived in for the first few seasons? That homeowner got inundated with tourists. To drive them away and prevent the endless snapping photos the homeowner put up big signs saying “IMPEACH NIXON.” Eventually the producers moved Mary to a high-rise apartment.

I feel sorry for the poor owners of the Walter White house from BREAKING BAD.  How many people tried to flip pizzas onto the roof?  

And scarier still are the people who saw landmarks like Mary’s TV house and believe Mary really lived there. How many people went into the CHEERS bar actually expecting to see Norm & Cliff? Judging by the mail I used to see when I was on that show – PLENTY.

But I find it intriguing that any crummy apartment building, any bowling alley, any tollbooth on the Jersey expressway can become as big a tourist attraction as the Liberty Bell. So if your house is the exterior for a popular TV series and the looky-loos are bothering you all hours of the day and night, there is a solution. Just put up a big sign that says “IMPEACH TRUMP.”

Actually, put up one of those signs anyway. 

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Weekend Post

You know we're fast approaching the holiday season when James Bond marathons begin popping up on every cable network except HGTV. Caught one I hadn’t seen in years – THUNDERBALL from 1965. I saw it originally at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on the big BIG screen. I remember loving it at the time. From the stirring THUNDERBALL theme sung by Tom Jones I was hooked. So I wondered, did it hold up after all these years?

Well, the theme song sure does. And there’s no question that Sean Connery was the best Bond. There is just a level of insouciance in Connery’s Bond that none of his successors had – even light-comedy master Roger Moore never had that twinkle. Connery’s Bond enjoyed the gig, and why not? He sure got laid more than the later Bonds. Too bad it was in the 60s though and most of these women had helmet hair and raccoon make-up.

Note to PLAYBOY magazine: NEVER do another layout showing Bond girls as they are today. No one wants to see Octapussy as octogenarian.

The dialogue, which seemed so sparkling at the time, now comes off as cringeworthy.

Bond Girl: What sharp eyes you’ve got.
Bond: Wait til’ you get to my teeth.

Yikes! Since when did Bob Hope become a British Secret Agent?

And the sensibility was soooo sexist. Women were objects, easy, submissive, disposable, or evil. In the world of James Bond, Gloria Steinem is as much a super villain as Ernst Blowfeld.

The chief baddie in THUNDERBALL is Emilio Largo (these guys never have names like Mike or Skip) and you know he’s evil because he has a black patch over one eye. In typical Bond fashion, when he’s not trying to kill 007 he’s inviting him to lunch (women always refer to him as “James”, super villains call him “Mr. Bond”, M always uses “007”, and U.S. military officers call him “Jimbo”.). When I say they try to kill Bond, that of course means through some elaborate contraption only Wile E. Coyote would purchase instead of just taking out a gun and shooting his sorry ass.

As a kid I never let plot holes get in the way of a good James Bond yarn. I remember first seeing THUNDERBALL and having no idea what the hell was going on? Now someone is trying to kill him in his hotel room, now he’s taking pictures of a boat and dodging hand grenades, now he’s in a car chase and the evil Spectre woman blows up the car that’s trying to off him, now he eludes four gunmen during a big Junkanoo celebration and the next morning just strolls through town unnoticed, now he’s in a tuxedo, now he’s in an underwater battle, now he’s shot and the next day he’s completely healed. What the fuck??!!

A plane on a routine training mission has two atomic bombs on board and takes off from a NATO base conveniently located right next door to the health spa where James just happens to be staying at the time. The plane is hijacked and lands in the shallow water outside of Nassau. It can land in water without giant pieces splintering off? Really? There’s no radar to track this? And no one in Nassau sees or hears a fighter plane land in the ocean just off the coast? Now scuba divers move the bombs. On the side of one hydrogen bomb it says (and this is absolutely true, you can see for yourself) “handle like eggs”.

But I didn’t care.

Other minor story points didn’t bother me either like how do super villains amass large armies and trained scuba divers? How clueless are the British Intelligence and CIA that they have no knowledge of 200 henchmen being recruited? And where do all these people sleep? How do secret compounds with launch facilities large enough accommodate Gemini rockets get built incognito? If Spectre is a secret society why do their agents wear rings that have its logo?

These issues didn’t concern me then and they still don’t. In later movies he goes to the moon and shit and that crossed a line but a yacht carrying one of the atomic bombs crashes into the shore and explodes and doesn’t set off a nuclear explosion that wipes out three million people – sure, why quibble?

THUNDERBALL did hold up in the sense that it was still fun to watch and now because of all the cheese there were way more laughs then when I first saw it in 1965.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Friday Questions

Hello from Minneapolis where my holiday play, ON THE FARCE NIGHT OF CHRISTMAS gets performed tonight! And yet, I still have time for Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Ryan Hall seeks some writing advice.

I am currently taking a class on comedy sketch writing, and wonder if you have any advice with regard to sketch. Pretty open ended question I understand, just things that you think are important. Thanks.

My two suggestions for sketch writing: Have a definite ending in mind and make the sketch as funny as you possibly can.

The first point is especially important. So many sketches start with a funny idea but then peter out. (See 90% of SNL sketches over the last 40 years.) Part of the problem is that the sketch is built on one joke. See if there is comic mileage in the premise beyond just one joke. Otherwise, it gets very repetitive.

Also, (I know this is more than two suggestions): shorter is better. Don’t let your sketch drag. Be ruthless.

DARON72 asks:

I would love Ken's take on eight turkey day themed episodes of "Friends" being shown at your local megaplex this Thanksgiving as one of those Fathom Events.

I think it’s great UNLESS the writers don’t get paid for it. Because if theatres are charging for tickets, Warner Brothers is making more money off the franchise. And the writers need to be compensated.

Perhaps they are. I hope so.

But there may be loopholes in their contracts. Same with the actors.

This is why it is imperative you have an entertainment attorney go over your contract. There is always tons of fine print. Attorneys will strike most of it and the studios automatically cave. But if you don’t flag those things then the studio’s got you.

Here’s one from Anonymous. Please leave your name.

Friday Question: Ken, do you think sometimes reviewers "grade" a new show more generously when it stars a well-known or likable actor? For instance, I thought the pilot for "Carol's Second Act" was lame and unfunny, and I was surprised that many of the reviewers weren't that harsh. They didn't all love it, but many of them gave tepid reviews or were willing to withhold a harsher final judgment, and even the critical reviews managed to say nice things about Patricia Heaton. I like Patricia Heaton too, but I'm wondering if you had that same pilot with an unknown actor (even if this unknown delivered a similar performance) in Heaton's role, it would get much worse reviews. Do you think this is true, and if so, should it be? Should an actor who's done two great long-running sitcoms deserve more benefit of the doubt that her new show will find its way?

Yes, there is a certain amount of good will that comes from actors who have been kind to the press, agreed to do interviews, etc. Critics like to keep those pipelines open. And it’s human nature to want people you like succeed.

But I don’t know a single reputable TV critic who will praise a show they hate simply because they’re friendly with the star.

On the other hand, I do believe some critics base their reviews not on the relative merits of the show but on its prospects for success. In other words, they don’t want to be caught giving THIS IS US a bad review if they think it’s going to be a hit show. They don’t want to look foolish or out-of-step.

Not all critics do this, but I have seen a few. I suspect more than one or two of the glowing reviews for EL CAMINO were predicated more on the zeitgeist than the actual product.

And finally, from Astroboy (since baseball is just around the corner):

Ken, in your opinion, what announcer working today, radio or TV has the best home run call?

Jon Miller of the Giants. And there’s the knock-off version of his call as stolen by Charley Steiner of the Dodgers.

Y’know, there was a time in radio when disc jockeys would steal each other’s acts. But these stations were local and if you were in Cleveland you never heard the San Francisco DJ who originated some Cleveland jock’s act. So you thought the Cleveland guy was original.

But Jon Miller’s home run highlights are on Sportscenter and MLB TV. Every other night you can hear him and then Charley’s imitation. The only real difference is Jon’s calls are actual home runs. Many of Charley’s home run calls are caught at the wall.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

EP149: Keeping it Real: a lesson in comedy

Ken discusses the importance of reality in comedy and shares a one act play to serve as an example. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Adventures in Bad Make Up

What’s with this new trend of ending movies or series with everybody made up to look old? Without giving away any story points, the series finale of THE DEUCE, THE AFFAIR, and portions of THE IRISHMAN all have actors in old age make up.

And no matter how they do it, whether by CGI or good old fashion rubber masks, it always looks ridiculous. Right away you’re taken out of the story because the actors look like they’re in a dinner theatre production of THE GIN GAME.

It’s hard to predict what someone will look like in thirty years. There was that Facebook feature going around recently that would project what you would look like old. Why would I want to see that? And certainly why would I want to post it? Especially if I were dating someone I hoped would turn into a long-term relationship. Hard enough to seal the deal without her thinking I’m going to morph into Keith Richards.

I remember once on CHEERS we did a dream sequence where everyone was old. It was weird then and even weirder now that you can actually compare the projection to real life.

For all the magic that Hollywood can do – making people fly, blowing up planets – they still can’t age actors to where they look natural. And what’s worse is when older actors get work done and as a result don’t look real in real life.

The only way I would ever end a series by projecting into the future is by hiring Clint Eastwood to play the older version of the lead character – even if the lead character was a woman. Otherwise, I’d find a different finale.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

And while we're on the subject of actors...

And as if the auditioning process wasn’t hard enough…

Now most casting directors for TV shows want actors to put themselves on tape at home and just email the auditions. This makes it more convenient for casting directors. They don’t have to arrange pre-reads.

But for the actor it requires decent equipment, professional lighting (you’ve got to look good), someone to read with you if the role requires it, and someone to run the equipment. A little editing might be required as well as any technical work needed to send the file. It would also help if the actor memorized the scene.

If you don’t have said equipment there are places you can go to do it, but of course you’re charged for all that.

Yes, one could argue it was a pain in the ass for actors to drive all over town to do these auditions, but there is real value in making a personal connection. Being able to talk to the casting director is very helpful.

Also, you’re shooting at a moving target just putting yourself on tape. When you’re in a room you can ask questions. You can tailor your performance to what they’re looking for. Additionally, the casting director or maybe producer can give notes and allow you to do the scene again. Often when casting, an actor will come in and I’ll like something about them but they miss on some level. Once given direction, they can hopefully give you the quality you want. And you hire them.

When you’re watching a series of taped auditions it’s much easier to just say “No, let’s move on.”

I’m all for changing the casting process if it gives the actor a better chance to shine. That’s not what this new process appears to be.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Awkward Actor Moment

From time to time, folks in show business try to use contacts to get house seats for various plays and musicals. Some participants of a production – like playwright, director, actors – are entitled to a certain number of house seats for each performance and often they don’t use them. So through agents, casting directors, friends, or on those rare occasions, actually knowing the participants yourself, you can sometimes score their house seats.

A number of years ago at the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Los Angeles there was a new play by Herb Gardner starring Judd Hirsch that my wife and I wanted to see. In this case, I did not know anyone. I had met Judd on a couple of occasions when I was on CHEERS and he was still doing TAXI on the same lot. But those were only momentary “Nice to meet you” encounters. Still, through the casting director of the show I was working on at the time I got Judd's house seats.

We go to the theatre, they’re great seats, and about ten minutes before the performance Judd’s assistant approaches and says Judd would like us to come back to his dressing room after the show. Okay. That’s a little strange. Often as a courtesy, you will go backstage to thank the person for the seats or just leave him a note acknowledging your gratitude. It’s a little odd to be summoned.

All through the play I’m wondering – what does he want? Does he have an idea for a show he wants to pitch? Is he just a big fan of my shows? Does he want to go out with my wife?

After the show the assistant reappears and escorts us backstage to Judd’s dressing room. And here’s where it gets weird.

We walk in and immediately, by the look on his face, it’s clear he doesn’t know me from Adam. He must’ve thought I was somebody else -- someone that he did know. But of course he doesn’t want to be rude so he pretends that he does know us. At which point we don't want to embarrass him by saying he doesn't know us so we pretend that we know him as well.

So now the three of us engage in the most excruciatingly awkward conversation ever. I don’t recall what we talked about. I just remember a whole lot of pauses. All the while I kept hoping the assistant would pop her head in and say there were other well-wishers or the theatre was fire. Nothing. There was no escape.

After what seems like an hour (it was probably ten minutes) we go to the babysitter card and gracefully make our exit.  Moments later our car screams out of the parking lot. 

The next day the casting director who arranged for the tickets said Judd called her and asked, “Who the hell was that?” Then, when she told him, he said, “Oh. Glad he stopped by.”

The next time I’m just buying tickets.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Weekend Post

Well, she got her wish.

Yesterday ABC cancelled FRESH OFF THE BOAT. 

Last season when the show was picked up Constance Wu very publicly expressed her crushing disappointment.  She says she literally "cried."

Because of a network sitcom that put her on the map and paid her more money than she ever made in her life, she couldn't do a play, the poor thing.

Wu of course tried to walk it back after the backlash but of course no one was buying it.   This was just an ungrateful selfish actress who bit the hand that fed her.

I hope she's happy now.   Forget that the cancellation also meant over a hundred other people are now out of work.  Too bad for them.  But Wu can now do a play.

I'd be anxious to see how Constance Wu's career takes off now that she's not saddled with that annoying successful network sitcom.  How many big movie offers come flooding in?  How many Oscars and Tonys are in her future? 

The real question is:  How long until she's begging producers to put her in a sitcom?   The over/under is one year.   I'm picking the under. 

UPDATE:  Because Wu is Asian I of course have been accused of being a racist.  Welcome to 2019.   If that's what you really believe please find another blog where you will never be offended by anything ever.   If there is such a thing.  Thank you.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Friday Questions

Time once again for Friday Questions.  Are you ready?

MellaBlue starts us off:

You've worked on a couple shows now with much-discussed but never seen characters -- Vera Peterson, Maris Crane. I'm wondering how and why that decision gets made. Is it a case of painting yourself into a corner in terms of description (who could ever look like Maris is described)? Is it just easier?

No. We do it to save money.

But seriously, it forces the audience to use their imagination and I bet what they picture in their heads is funnier than if we ever actually showed it.

And it saves money.

From Daniel:

I'm currently re-watching "Thirtysomething" (don't judge--it actually kinda holds up). The opening title sequence is a montage of shots from episodes in the series, and it has been the same since the second episode. I noticed that there are two shots in the title sequence from episode 10 (which I think aired after Christmas that year), which means that they put the title sequence together (and only started airing episodes) after they shot 10 episodes. Which makes me curious: How far in advance are episodes shot before a series airs? Is it normal to have almost three months of episodes in the can before the series airs?

I wasn’t on THIRTYSOMETHING so I can’t speak with any certainty.

No, shows are usually not that far ahead. But I don’t know the circumstances. They shoot out of order anyway.

Perhaps the producers wanted to get a certain guest star and his only availability was September. So even though the show didn’t start filming until late July, they did the Christmas episode early and just held it back.

On MASH we would film the episodes early on that required time at the Malibu Ranch. But once we went off Daylight Savings Time there was not enough light to justify a whole day’s worth of shooting.

So shows that didn’t require the ranch were held back. On the air we moved some shows up and held some shows back.

Brian asks:

What are some of the silliest, oddest or coincidental reasons that a line you and/or David Isaacs has needed to be changed?

I had a bunch of Arnold Palmer jokes in a play and two days before it opened he died. I had to scramble to write new material. Thanks, Arnie.

The really dumb network notes were from Standards & Practices. They could take almost any word and find it on their list of euphemisms for penis.

Of course, that was then. Now you’re allowed to SAY penis and every slang expression ever invented for it.

And finally, from Edward:

I never seem to hear you discuss certain comedies of the early to mid-1970s such as "Sanford and Son" "Chico and the Man" "Good Times" One Day at a Time" "Welcome Back Kotter" "Happy Days" "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy." Are there any stories with submitting a script for any of those shows?

We pitched LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, but there was another writer waiting to pitch after we got through. She was attractive and wore a see-through blouse. She got the assignment, we didn’t. I knew I should have worn my see-through blouse, especially in those days.

But in fairness, she and the producer we were all pitching to later got married. I’m sorry, I didn’t need a LAVERNE & SHIRLEY assignment that badly.

We tried to pitch WELCOME BACK KOTTER but they didn’t like our writing sample.

Would have loved to have pitched those other shows but never got the chance.

Those were the halcyon days when you could get freelance assignments, and one or two of those a year would mean you no longer had to clean the grease traps in McDonald’s.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

EP148: Meet comedy writer extraordinaire Bob Ellison

Most of the great jokes on television you laughed at for 40 years were written by Emmy winner, Bob Ellison. Now meet the man behind the mirth. And the process of comedy rewriting. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

"Bob Ellison for twelve."

You’ve heard of the “Arnold Palmer,” but are you familiar with the “Bob Ellison?”

Lots of sitcom writers over the last 40 years are. Bob Ellison is one of the all-time great comedy writers, specializing in pitching an endless stream of fabulous jokes. Bob produced THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and wrote many of its more notable episodes, but he's probably best known as a “creative consultant.” That means he would work one night a week on a show. He would arrive for the afternoon runthrough then go back to the writers room and help rewrite long into the night, often contributing the best jokes of the script.

Bob was so in-demand that for years he worked on five different shows a week. When David Isaacs and I got a series on the air, Bob was our first call.

Okay, all that is backstory. (And in case you’re too young to know – Arnold Palmer was not just a drink but a world champion pro golfer.) ‘

When comedy writers worked late on rewrite nights they would have dinner brought in. A popular choice was Chinese because everyone didn’t have to individually order. (Decision making was way too hard.)  A variety of dishes would arrive and we’d form a buffet line.

But the question always was: what to order?

A popular Chinese restaurant on the Westside was Twin Dragons. Bob had been there frequently and knew what was good. So if we were going to Twin Dragons he would place the order.

Eventually, it got to the point where they knew him and his order. So for many sitcoms, if they wanted to order Chinese food for dinner they’d just call Twin Dragons and say, “Bob Ellison for twelve” or “Bob Ellison for nine.”

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a “Bob Ellison” during a rewrite. Ironically,  I’ve never actually been to Twin Dragons. I wonder what the food tastes like when it's hot and served on plates. Someday for fun I should go for lunch and see what happens when I order “Bob Ellison for one.”

I’d invite Bob Ellison but he is so sick of Chinese food.

Meanwhile, Bob Ellison is my guest on my next podcast episode that drops tonight at midnight in the East and 9 PM in the west.  You'll love meeting him.  

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The new TV season so far

Have you noticed there are no breakout hits this year? Not one.

Four broadcast networks, at least 50 new shows and not a single standout.

I can’t ever remember that happening.

No THIS IS US, no EMPIRE, no MASKED SINGER. Do you hear any buzz on any new series? Can you even name five?

And spin-offs of existing hits aren’t performing like they used to. YOUNG SHELDON was a hit when it premiered. But how about the BLACKISH spin-off or the GOLDBERGS’ spin-off? I can’t even name them.

At what point do networks realize they’ve got to make changes? I know writers who have had things in development this past season. Same old same old. They’re noted to death, they’re forced to take actors they don’t want, they’re at the mercy of testing, the network, the studio, and standards & practices.

Not only are Emmy-winning shows not on the Big Four, they never would have gotten on the air in the first place if it was up to them.

This is madness.

I was watching the CNN documentary on television in the ‘90s recently (okay, yes, I was on it), and former NBC president Warren Littlefield said in the ‘90s Thursday nights on NBC would draw 75,000,000 viewers. Now it’s closer to 3,000,000. What business can survive losing 90% of its customers?

It seems to me the networks’ only hope is to throw out their current model, take bold chances, give writers creative freedom, and hope that at least one new show becomes FRIENDS or SEINFELD or ER. The truth is, especially now, you can build an entire network around one hit. Look at HBO and THE SOPRANOS, or AMC and MAD MEN.

And now there’s Apple+ and Disney and Warner Brothers are unveiling their new streaming services within months. More new shows, splashy, well-produced. Not all will be great. But it just takes one. What are the networks doing about it? Again, name me five new network shows.

The clock is ticking. And it’s 11:55.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Standard Time has come today

Is there anything more depressing than the first night you go off Daylight Saving Time and return to Standard Time?    Depending on where you are it gets dark anywhere from 4:30 to noon.  (Folks in the Southern Hemisphere -- feel free to laugh and enjoy your oncoming summer.).

I know it's supposed to be great for farmers, getting extra daylight in the morning.  And hookers certainly benefit from another hour of night time.   But for most of us it's just bleak. 

How many of you go to work in the morning and by the time you leave for home it's dark already?  Doesn't it give you the feeling that you lost an entire day? 

For me the dread goes back to when I was a kid.  Daylight Saving meant I could go out and play AFTER dinner.  That was always glorious.  Come November I was in the house for the night, usually with homework staring me in the face.   Thank you rotation of the earth.

This may be more acute in Southern California because the seasons don't really change. So the weather stays relatively the same while the big difference is the clock. 

But I will be testing that theory next week when I travel to Minneapolis to attend a staged reading of my new holiday play, ON THE FARCE DAY OF CHRISTMAS.   Folks in the Midwest are all invited.  Here's where you go for details and tickets.  I'll be doing a Q&A after and you can ask why I'm still wearing a parka when we're inside and it's 72 degrees?   But I'm excited to see the reading even if I freeze and it gets dark at 3:30. 

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Weekend Post

Sitting through a Shakespeare play can be hard if you struggle with the language.  At no time does a Shakespeare character say "like" in the middle of a sentence.  But you'd be surprised at how many of the expressions we use today were originated by the Bard.   Even a Neil Young song title ("Heart of Gold").  

Anyway, here's a list:

Happy Birthday, Matt

Happy Birthday to my son, Matt who is both a great son and dad.  Love you always, "Boy."

Friday, November 01, 2019

Friday Questions

Let’s welcome in November with Friday Questions.

Jeff starts us off:

I recently had the opportunity to see a local production of The Odd Couple. Amateur/semi-pro actors, but very well staged and performed. Prior to seeing the play, I took the time to re-watch the 1968 movie and the first two episodes of the television sitcom. I enjoyed them all, and am wondering if you have any thoughts about the various incarnations of this classic and stage to screen to television in general?

THE ODD COUPLE is one of my favorite plays. Unfortunately, I never saw it on Broadway with the original cast – Walter Matthau and Art Carney, but did see the movie with Matthau and Jack Lemmon, which was terrific.

But to me, Tony Randall & Jack Klugman from the TV series are “the” Felix & Oscar.

Years ago, there was a stage production of THE ODD COUPLE at the now-demolished Schubert Theatre in LA with Randall & Klugman reprising the roles. How cool was that???

It played like the all-time greatest episode of the series.

Every so often the play gets revived on Broadway. A number of years ago there was a version with Nathan Lane & Matthew Broderick. Nathan Lane as Oscar. I love Nathan Lane, but can not picture that at all.

Michael has two questions.

With yet another round of streaming services from Apple, ATT, Disney, etc starting soon, will you even try to keep up with all of the new shows being created by big-name talent?

Unless it’s a big name talent I really want to see (and I can’t think of a single one at the moment), I tend not to watch new shows. I just wait for enough people to recommend a specific show and then I go back and sample it.

It’s not like the old days where if you missed an airing of a show it was gone. Now you can access anything, binge-watch to catch up, so why sift through a million shows when I can just focus on the cream of the crop? Word-of-mouth is the best publicity.

Somewhat related, do you think it is inevitable we will end up with everyone paying for 5-10 streaming services instead of just subscribing to a cable package plus 1-2 streaming services?

No. I think the 10 streaming services will combine in various configurations and when the dust settles we’ll still be paying for only 2 or 3 streaming services.

If there’s any kind of recession and people have to tighten their belts, what’s are the first luxuries to go? A streaming service and satellite radio would be my guess.  

And finally, richfigel asks:

Aloha, Ken! What do you think about the constant use of EXTREME CLOSE-UPS in TV shows and movies these days? In the classic movie comedies and sitcoms, wider shots allowed audiences to see actors use their whole bodies. Now we get to see every wrinkle, blemish and nose hair blown up in high def -- not flattering for actors. Plus, they could be in two different places and you wouldn't even know it since it's all cross-cutting from face to face shots. Got any theories why so many directors are doing this?

No theories other than that seems to be the current style.  I find it disconcerting but not as bad as the hand-held camera trend where the screen was always jiggling.  People loved FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.  I couldn't make it through one episode without getting nauseous.

But I digress...

Yes, with Hi-Def those crows feet and worry lines become more apparent. Especially in extreme close ups.  Time for another Botox shot. 

For TV comedy the unwritten rule is a close-up includes the shoulders. Any closer and it feels too close, as if the actor is invading the viewer’s space.  When that happens, comedy goes away. 

I’m not a fan of extreme close-ups unless they’re there for a very specific reason – e.g. an extreme reaction to something.

To me the best use of close-ups was in the 1957 movie TWELVE ANGRY MEN directed by Sidney Lumet.

Twelve jurors are sequestered in a room and tension mounts as they argue the case.

If you watch that film, you’ll see that the opening section features all master shots. And as the movie progresses the camera slowly pushes in. The wide masters give way to tight masters, then three-shots, then two-shots, then singles, then close-ups, and by the end extreme close-ups. The walls of the room seem to be closing in on you. You start to really feel the tension along with a sense of claustrophobia. As magnificent as that script by Reginald Rose is, I think the shot selection really makes that movie.

Happy November. Please ask your Friday Questions. I’ll answer as many as I can. Thanks.