Tuesday, December 31, 2019


It can't come fast enough.

May you have a happy, healthy, prosperous new year.  And may we be better off in a year than we are today.  

Monday, December 30, 2019

The new STAR WARS: My review

The final STAR WARS (final as in Cher’s “Final” tour) is of course a boxoffice smash. Director/co-writer, J.J. Abrams tries to tie up all loose ends. So everyone except Jar Jar Binks seems to make a cameo appearance. As someone who has seen many of the STAR WARS movies but not all, there were a few times I was saying “Who’s that?” (or “What’s that?”)

Personal flashback: I saw the very first STAR WARS in a preview screening. I had no idea what it was about going in. Within ten minutes I was knocked on my ass. It was maybe the most fun I ever had watching a movie. The film was so fresh and exciting that even the clunky dialogue and Carrie Fisher’s ear buns didn’t bother me. The next few episodes were highly entertaining, but nothing matches “your first time.”

Once Jar Jar Binks and Natalie Portman and trumped up absurd plots started filling the IMAX screen my zeal for the franchise subsided. Way more fun was to go on the Star Tours ride at Disneyland than watch a new installment.

This final chapter should be called STAR WARS: EVERYBODY LOVES REY. Daisy Ridley stars again as Rey, leading a politically correct very diverse crew on yet another journey to save the world. (Droids Lives Matter) Adam Driver is along to provide actual acting in the film. And Oscar Isaac tries his best to be Tom Cruise.

I apologize to all the STAR WARS faithful who will doubtless watch this chapter a hundred times, but for me it was one long string of every cliché and battle scene from the franchise. What makes a sequence thrilling is not the CGI effects, it’s the fact that we’re seeing something NEW. And in this picture there was NOTHING new. Meticulously staged and filmed but NOTHING new.

And worse, several of the same scenes were repeated over and over. How many characters can be told they have what it takes by wise (and often dead) elders? How many times do they have to remind each other that if they don’t succeed with this mission that everything that has gone before will have been for nothing? I’ll answer that question. At least ten.

Now for a lot of fans, they don’t care. That, in fact, is what they want. But after a half hour I was already yawning.

And this time the clunky dialogue DID get to me. “What are you most afraid of?” “Myself.” “Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what you are.” “Don’t blame yourself.” “I will always be here. I will live within you.”


And to hammer home these trite nuggets of overwrought palaver, John Williams score is so intrusive and on-the-nose you want to ask for two of his Oscars back.

Again, none of this matters if you’re a STAR WARS fanatic. I’m sure it was gut wrenching to have to say goodbye to these beloved characters. But for the rest of us, this final chapter was the dinner party where the guests should have left two hours ago.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Weekend Post

The best week of the year in Los Angeles is always this one, the final seven days of the year. More property taxes and obligations are on tap for me in January but here in the waning days of December I can bask in the glory of the city that Zorro once called home.

First of all, the town is practically empty. Most people from the industry are gone, terrorizing the help in Hawaii and Aspen. There’s very little traffic. You can actually make the fifteen minute drive between Brentwood and LAX on the 405 Freeway in only forty minutes. It’s like you’re flying! Hard to get into restaurants? Not this week. Spago will even make reservations for people they don’t know. And at 7:00 not 10:30. (Unfortunately, their chefs are probably in Aspen and Hawaii.)

Los Angeles is so deserted I heard of a friend who found a parking place at the Grove shopping mall. But that’s still just a rumor.

For industry guild folks there are free screenings of movies and better yet, free screeners.  In the hopes of snaring nominations from any organization that gives out awards (even the WGA), studios let eligible voters and guests see contending movies gratis. It’s also their way of giving back to the community.

Most of the city’s attention this week is on the upcoming Rose Parade and Bowl. If you have six friends over to your apartment to play poker, the Rose Queen and her court will come and speak to your group.

Highlight of the Rose Bowl festivities is the Lawry’s Beef Bowl. Lawry’s is the greatest prime rib restaurant in the world (a more popular attraction to Japanese tourists than Disneyland). Every year they invite each team (this year Oregon vs. Wisconsin) and feed them as much prime rib as they can eat. Usually the winning team tops out at around 630 pounds of beef. During the Rose Bowl, you’ll notice half the players sleeping the bench. That’s why.

The Rose Parade is Wednesday morning. Today some idiots will start staking out spots along the parade route. Every local channel will broadcast the parade. KTLA gets a 50 share, everyone else gets a 2. Why these other stations still bother is beyond me. KTLA coverage begins at like 3:00 a.m. Five hours of watching people paste flowers on floats and the idiots from today freezing. KTLA will begin replaying the parade immediately upon its conclusion. Then they replay it again. And again. Sometime around January 15th they return to regular programming. 

I still miss longtime hosts Stephanie Edwards and Bob Eubanks. Mark & Leeza do an excellent job, but the parade is all about tradition and Bob & Steph are both still alive and can read teleprompters, so for my money they should still be there (pretending to like marching bands and sniping at each other).

Then on New Year’s evening all the locals will go out to dinner, have to wait 45 minutes for a table since the Wisconsin rooters got there first, and things will return to normal.

So for my fellow Angelinos – enjoy it while you can!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Friday Questions

I’m getting a little nostalgic. Last FQ’s of the decade.

PolyWogg is up first.

What is the most number of episodes you think you can do in a season before actors and the writers are starting to phone it in because they're just tired? The number has decreased for other reasons over the years, 26+ was common long ago I think, but lately 22 seems to be considered "high". Lots of procedurals tap out between 20-24, and some below 20 even.

For many years shows did 39 episodes a season. Some sitcoms in the ‘50s did them live.  That was a killer.

For most of the years I was lucky enough to be on hit shows we did between 22-27 a year. It was a crunch but doable. Anything more than that and I think you start cutting corners.

Hour shows have it tougher.  Even at 20 they're in production most of the year. 

Today of course there are short orders. 6 or 13 a year is becoming commonplace. Yes, it gives you more time to craft the episodes, but if you’re getting paid BY the episode (which most producers and staff writers do) you sure don’t make what we did churning out 26 a year.

I’ll take the money.

Cheryl Marks wonders:

Who "hires" the show runner after the original show runner moves on? I'm thinking of a situation when the show has been on the air for several years and there have been several iterations of show runners. I figure the person, or persons, are promoted from the writers room and have held the position of Executive Producer. So who makes the decision especially if the original creator is no longer in the picture. Also, is it the case that another one of the Executive Producers (aka seasoned writers) that didn't get the job might leave if they didn't get the promotion?

In most cases the original creator/showrunner still is involved although no longer in the trenches. He would make that call.

And yes, sometimes there are more than one candidate and it’s a tough decision because the losing party may just bolt. That has to be taken into consideration.

There are times when the original creator/showrunner is fired and no longer has say. Such was the case with Aaron Sorkin on THE WEST WING and Dan Harmon on COMMUNITY. In those cases the studio or network (often they’re now one and the same) choose his successor.

You know a show is in trouble if it goes through three showrunners in one year. And that happens.

From Waylon Mercy:

If you could redo things, would you have welcomed the idea of Shelley Long coming back not just for the last episode but say for most of or the entire season 11 to wrap up her storyline with Sam?

No. The problem with bringing Shelley back was that we didn’t want her presence to upstage the rest of the cast. I think it would have diminished Kirstie Alley’s role and after putting in six years herself, she didn’t deserve that.

I thought it was great that Shelley came back for the finale. It made that episode very special and allowed the series to come full circle, but to bring her back for more would have been a mistake in my opinion. And you know I love Shelley Long.

And finally from Brian Phillips:

What current or recent cartoon show would you like to submit a script to or work for, Simpsons exempted?

Are they still making Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons? I don’t watch a lot of nighttime animation. You sure they’re not still making CLONE HIGH? I guess I’d have to say SOUTH PARK.  But in my episode they won't kill Kenny.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The other "Levine" writing team

Great article about my daughter Annie & her husband/writing partner Jonathan.  By the way, they're currently writing for THE UPSHAWS, a new multi-camera sitcom for Netflix that stars Wanda Sykes. 

Here's the article.

This has been a shameless proud father post.  Thank you. 

The Best Of...

Usually on Thursdays I post my new podcast episode.  But once a year I take a week off.  This one.  That's because podcast listening during the holiday season goes way down.  Everyone is stuck in airports. 

But this week, if you haven't already listened to the most recent episode (just click the big gold arrow above), I invite you to scroll down and check out some of the episodes you might have missed.  For instance:  my interview with James Burrows, my interview with Al Michaels, my commentary tracks, and sage advice (that should be taken with a grain of salt). 

Come January I begin my fourth year podcasting.  Thanks so much for listening.   At one time I was on KABC Los Angeles; now I have a podcast.  And more people are probably listening to my podcast than KABC. 

So again, thanks.  And please tell your friends.  I don't want KABC gaining on me. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


I miss Darlene Love singing her Christmas song on LETTERMAN.

Letterman now looks like Santa Claus.

Subway is still open if you’re hungry.

Remember when the Lakers playing on Christmas was a big deal?

Please don’t dress up your pets like Santa or elves and post them on Facebook.

“Don’t shoot your eye out.”

You just don’t get the same great store windows with Amazon.

Live Nativity Scenes give me the creeps.

My bold prediction: STAR WARS tops the boxoffice this weekend.

Ham retains water. I’m just sayin’.

You realize most of the classic Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers?

My favorite Scrooge is McDuck.

“Say the magic word, say Mission Pack
And it's on its merry way
No gift so bright, so gay, so right
Send a Mission Pack magic way”

Monday, December 23, 2019

David Hyde Pierce: Guest Blogger

Here is a post that was buried in the archives. It's from 10 1/2 years ago. So I'm guessing 90% of you haven't read it. And it features a pretty special guest blogger. So here again is a Friday Question with the best person ever to answer it.
This Friday’s question comes from reader Alyson:

I recently rewatched Frasier - great show, even better than I remembered. I'm curious about the fencing scene in "An Affair to Forget" from season 2. Awhile back, you wrote a nice post about Jane Leeves and how she learned how to shoot pool for an episode. So my question is: We all know David Hyde Pierce is a great physical comedian. Did he learn how to fence for that episode, did he already know, or was he just winging it?

Not knowing the answer to this I asked someone who does – David Hyde Pierce. Alyson, here is his response:

As I recall, the writers asked me about my fencing experience before they wrote the episode. I’d been trained in stage combat by a guy named B.H. Barry, and I’d done two big sword fights for B.H., one in Cyrano and one in Kevin Kline’s Hamlet. ( In each case I both fought with and understudied the lead, which meant I had to learn both sides of the fight So, theoretically I could challenge myself to a duel and lose.) Coincidentally the actor who played Maris’ fencing instructor had also trained with B.H., so since we spoke the same language fencing-wise, we were able to learn a fairly elaborate fight in a relatively short time.

Hope that’s helpful.

Many thanks to David Hyde Pierce along with David Lee.

The episode was directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie and the script by Anne Flett-Giordano & Chuck Ranberg won the Emmy that year for writing, beating out the more famous “Matchmaker” episode.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Weekend Post

Everyone thinks success in show business is directly related to talent.   I would argue that it's not.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Friday Questions

Only five more days to get me something. Just remember who answered your Friday Questions.

KLAC Guy has the first one this week.

Was the romance between Niles and Daphne on Frasier conceived at the inception of the series, or did the idea develop as the series evolved?

It came about during the course of the first season.

And that’s why show runners and staff need to not get so far ahead on scripts that they can’t discover things along the way and make course corrections if they strike gold (or if something doesn’t pan out).

As I recall, from conception Daphne’s only real trait was her psychic ability and you’ll notice that that went away over time.  The jokes had run their course.

The key is to always be looking for ways to make characters more dimensional and ways to integrate relationships with your other characters.

If you want a masterclass on how to develop and nurture a series look no further than FRASIER.

RyderDA asks:

You write hilarious stuff. It amazes me that actors can deliver it without busting a gut (like Harvey Korman every time Tim Conway got him). So... how do the actors do it? Are they just such good actors that they can listen to a line that any human would guffaw over and just stand there with a straight face (and, do they go to Comedy Clubs to practice this skill of not laughing at funny stuff?) Or do they read and rehearse it so much that they become "immune" to it's humor, so it's not longer funny to them? Or do they stab themselves with hidden porcupine quills to mask it?

It does take lots of concentration and sometimes in early rehearsals actors will break. But eventually they lock in. And then, in front of an audience, they need to hold for laughs. And the good ones do. They’re equal part actors and technicians.

I'd say the key word is concentration.  But actors are humans and some of the best of them crack up.  On sitcoms you don't see that because they re-shoot the scene. 

But occasionally you see them have a hard time holding it in.  An example is the "Roz and the Schnoz" episode of FRASIER I directed.  I have some priceless shots of cast members almost losing it.  Meanwhile, Peri Gilpin and Kelsey Grammer somehow managed to keep it together. 

I will say this: it’s harder when you’re doing improv. You’re hearing the laugh line the first time as is the audience and that takes real concentration to not laugh.

I must admit, there are times I break. But I’m not that great.

There are improvisers who are amazingly funny and still commit to their characters and the scene and maintain full control. I’m in awe of those people.

By the way, regarding Tim Conway and Harvey Korman and Tim’s ability to crack up Harvey on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, they used to tape two shows – one in the afternoon and then one later at night. For the afternoon taping Conway always adhered strictly to the script. So a clean version of the sketch was in the can.

At the evening taping he would sometimes go off book to get Korman to break, figuring these scenes would just wind up in the Christmas gag reel. But some were so hilarious (like the dentist sketch) that they used it instead.

One final note: Jimmy Fallon cracks up a lot and I find it incredibly annoying.

Finally, from Chris Dahl:

When you were a baseball broadcaster, did you need to make your own travel arrangements or was that taken care of by the team's travel coordinator? Did you fly/stay with the team on the road? And was it different between the minor leagues and the major leagues?

Each team has a Traveling Secretary who took care of all those details. So I traveled with the team (either plane or bus) and stayed in the team hotels. Both in the minors and majors.

But in the majors you fly chartered jets and stay in lovely hotels. In the minors you mostly travel by bus. In AAA though, you fly but commercial. And to ensure you make your next destination, teams are required to take the very first flight of the day to the next city. So we would finish an extra-innings game at 1 AM, get back to the hotel at 2:30 and have to be packed and down in the lobby at 5 to get to the airport for our 6 AM flight.

In the big leagues you fly right after the game. So you might get to your hotel at 5 AM but then you can sleep all day. There are times in the minors when you get to your hotel at 10 AM and the rooms aren’t ready. So after two hours sleep the previous night you sit in the lobby for three hours until your room is ready, and you hopefully get two more hours of sleep before having to go to ballpark at 3 PM. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

And that's way better than the newspaper reporters who cover the team.  They don't fly with the team or stay in team hotels.  They need to write their stories after the game and don't get out of the ballpark until at least two hours after the game.  The team has left for its next destination long before that.   So sportswriters have to make their own travel arrangements.  

The only upside is they rack up tons of frequent flier miles and usually stay at Marriott Hotels and accumulate hotel credit points.   After the season they can have a nice Hawaiian or European vacation all on miles and hotel credit.  

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

EP154: Holiday & Levine

This week on Hollywood and Levine, Ken tells tales of his Christmas childhood growing up in ole’ LA.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Another "controversial" post

For my last weekend post a loyal reader of my blog posted this:

I know it's probably meant well, but this is racial primitivism under the guise of enlightenment.

When I saw that I thought, in this highly charged super PC atmosphere we find ourselves in now, that's going to cause a shitstorm. Sure enough. An avalanche of responses.

I am particularly sensitive to this because as a comedy writer if you can't write something for fear that it will offend someone then there's nothing to write. And it's gone beyond the offended person thinking the joke was merely inappropriate or in bad taste.  Now the offender is often labeled. Racist. Homophobe. Whatever. In some cases that may be true, but I suspect in most it's an over-reaction. You've never in your life laughed at a racial joke? You've never mimicked a foreign accent? The truth is we can't all be Mr. Rogers, and who knows what ever he said or did behind closed doors?

This was addressed beautifully I thought in the Broadway musical, AVENUE Q (lyrics by Robert Lopez). Give a listen. And everybody, please, just lighten up.  Thanks.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Load Management

I’d love to ask Larry Bird or the late Wilt Chamberlain what they think about “Load Management.”

This is the new thing – NBA players not wanting to play certain back-to-back nights to save themselves from injury and stay fresher for the playoffs.

I’m sure part of the thinking is that the NBA plays an 82 game regular season that essentially means nothing. Other than maybe four teams, everyone gets into the playoffs and those have what seems like ten rounds.

I understand the thinking, but a couple of points.

First of all, these players are making an ungodly amount of money. One year’s salary and you and your family would be set for life. You could even afford tickets to NBA games (well, almost). 

Players contend it’s not about playing less, just not as often. When they play they rack up lots of minutes. And that’s fine, except…

When I’m paying a year's salary to see an essentially meaningless NBA game in early December I don’t want to hear that the star I came to see (especially if he’s an opponent) is just going to take the night off so he'll be fresher for May.  

Also, where’s the competitive spirit? I come from baseball and believe me, if there’s a player who would rather sit out a game he’s resented by the rest of the team. Yes, it’s a grind. But that’s why you’re getting paid more than Bird and Chamberlain ever made in their prime. Suck it up.

And Chamberlain claims he had sex with 20,000 women -- so he NEEDED a few nights off.  

Last month while in Minnesota I went to a Timberwolves game and was shocked that the arena was 2/3rd empty. And they have a good young team on the rise in a terrific venue.   I’m sure one of the season’s big attractions is the Golden State Warriors. If I buy tickets well in advance to that game I don’t want to arrive only to learn that Steph Curry is sitting this one out. Or LeBron is sitting out the Lakers game.

If a player is hurt that’s one thing. But if he’s healthy and can play I believe he owes it to the fans to play and play hard.   Only screw 17,000 women during the season. 

Yeah, I know.  OK Boomer. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Where is Perry Mason when we need him?

I still sometimes channel surf. Is that no longer a thing? That used to be how we found shows to watch. We’d settle on something after saying “100 channels and nothing to watch!” Now we say “1000 channels and nothing to watch” and go to Netflix.

But this night I stumbled upon an old episode of PERRY MASON on MeTV. By old I mean black-and-white from the late ‘50s/early '60s. I always enjoyed Perry Mason when I came across it but never loved it like my parents and grandparents. If there was a Western on another channel I was gone. But it wasn't written for me back then. 

PERRY MASON was on the air well into the late ‘60s. In much the same way that NCIS and LAW & ORDER are sort of comfort food TV, PERRY MASON was a very popular show, regularly pulling in 30,000,000 viewers a week.

It was clearly formulaic. There would be a murder, Perry would defend the leading suspect, there were always four or five others who could have done it, and ultimately Perry corners the real killer into admitting the crime. How District Attorney Hamilton Berger kept his job I’ll never know because he always lost.

Raymond Burr played Perry and had all the things you need to be a TV star – very likable, good looks, and a giant head. The writing was pretty decent. Perry generally figured out who the killer was before you despite you being privy to the same clues.

The acting was generally terrible. Very melodramatic and overblown. Burr was the only actor who didn’t recreate the death scene from CAMILLE any time anybody was asked to state their name on the witness stand. But it was cheesy nostalgic fun.

And looking back, there are great cameos by actors who went on to become big stars and young directors like Arthur Hiller would cut their teeth megging episodes.

But the thing that struck me about the show, and why I ultimately think it became such a big hit for so many years was this – We as a country celebrated intelligence back then. Perry Mason won because he was SMART. He was smarter than anyone else. His super power was his brain. America, regardless of the State color, admired his ability to see through smokescreens and find the truth. The “comfort” comes from justice always winning out. We had faith in our institutions and those sworn to protect them.

So even though there are a thousand channels and another few thousand options on streaming sites, it was fun to watch a 60 year-old program and long for the days when justice and education were actually valued. And Angie Dickinson looked amazing in 1959.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Weekend Post

I love this. A rapper hearing Frank Sinatra for the first time. Check out his reaction.  I don't want to say anything more than that. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Friday (the 13th) Questions

These are a bunch of Friday Questions from one person.

Andrew asked them.

What sitcoms are your guilty pleasures?

ONE DAY AT A TIME -- the original and the reboot

What formerly popular shows do you detest?

GOOD TIMES – Way too preachy. Characters spouting statistics. A weekly soapbox.
TWO AND A HALF MEN – Toilet humor
2 BROKE GIRLS – See above but worse

What are your favorite episodes from classic shows?

THE HONEYMOONERS -- $99,000 Answer
SEINFELD – Master of my Domain
SGT. BILKO – Private Speakup
THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW – Chuckles Bites the Dust
THE BOB NEWHART SHOW – The Thanksgiving episode
WKRP IN CINCINNATI – The Thanksgiving episode
MASH – The General Flipped at Dawn
CHEERS – Showdown Part 2
FRASIER – Room Service
DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – Coast to Coast Bigmouth
ALL IN THE FAMILY – the one with Sammy Davis Jr.

And what are your favorite shows in other genres - detective shows, for example?

Okay, for detective shows:


UPDATE:  Let me clarify.  My definition of Guilty Pleasure -- not a highly recognized or Emmy-awarded show.  It has nothing to do with the actually quality of the show.  A lot of these shows deserved more recognition than they received.   The only real exception on the list is GOLDEN GIRLS.  It did win some Emmys but I still feel it didn't get the respect of say TAXI or CHEERS although it should have.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

EP153: What it takes to be a good Comic Actor

Ken puts on his director hat and shares his thoughts on how to become a good comic actor. And he offers some great examples.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Push

There’s a fascinating special on Netflix that’s called THE PUSH. Now be careful because there are two shows on Netflix called THE PUSH. The other has to do with a snowboarder or something. I watched the first five minutes of that and thought, “this can’t be about human manipulation.”

So turning to the other PUSH: 

The mastermind is Derren Brown who is described as an English mentalist, illusionist, and author. Through the power of suggestion and our need to conform to society he gets unsuspecting people to do unimaginable things. In THE PUSH the goal is to get someone to push a person off a roof to their death – in other words, commit murder. And do this within one hour.

The ruse is very elaborate, requires lots of actors, ingenious pre-planning, and carefully orchestrated steps to mold the subject’s behavior and bring him to the brink where he would push someone off a roof. You say people can’t be that gullible but look at who’s president.

It's almost like a sting-type movie or the brilliant British series, HUSTLE, about sophisticated con artists pulling off spectacular heists (like stealing the Crown Jewels).  

THE PUSH is an amazing (and frightening) study of human behavior, but what struck me is this what comedy writers often do. When characters get out of their comfort zones and all reasonable options are cut off, they do crazy (and hopefully hilarious) things.

Comedy writers are sadists. We find a character’s weakness then put him a pressure situation and just keep tightening the vice. We heap on more and more things to keep him off-balanced. Two great examples of this are the movies THE OUT OF TOWNERS (the original version) and TRAINS, PLANES, AND AUTOMOBILES. Everything that can go wrong, SHOULD.

Farces are built on this. A character must lie to preserve some dire secret. But circumstances prevail that complicate the situation. So the lies increase, and the complications expand, the stakes get even higher, and characters wind up saying and doing things they never would, often with comic results.

THE PUSH is worth seeing for its psychology, and if you’re a writer, a great example of how to structure a comic story and work out your anger issues.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Knives Out -- My review

I had a great time with KNIVES OUT. Writer/director Rian Johnson has fashioned a modern day Agatha Christie who-done-it that is smart, well crafted, and endlessly entertaining. Since we’re in the two-month period of the year when adults can actually go to the Cineplex (because there’s fare for them), put this one high on your list.

Johnson has put together a star-studded cast. Even Millennials will enjoy seeing some of their favorite film icons in different roles. James Bond (Daniel Craig) with a southern accent. Captain America (Chris Evans) as an asshole.

And frisky performances by Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer (who now is the patriarch in every movie made this century).

The one actor I didn’t really know was Ana de Armas, who pretty much was the lead. But she held her own beautifully, shining bright against all that star wattage.

The real standout for me though was Rian Johnson. Known (at least by me) for writing superhero popcorn movies, the screenplay for KNIVES OUT was beautifully crafted. Everything was set up and paid off. The story was complicated and convoluted, but not to where you’re lost.  Billy Wilder lives! 

As for the plot, he keeps you guessing and keeps you delightfully off-balanced. I just imagine Johnson plotting this with a thousand multi-colored index cards constantly moving them around the board. Well, he found the right order.

There’s also some good laughs, which all come from character. And the tone is consistent. A lot of times this type of movie veers off into silly or overly dramatic. KNIVES OUT walks that fine line, keeping the suspense up, the humor organic, and eccentric characters flashy but grounded.

It was sort of like a superhero movie for grown-ups – an enjoyable diversion, a fun ride. And it wasn’t a sequel! Or prequel!

KNIVES OUT is playing everywhere. Go see it before it’s bumped from your favorite theatre by DESPICABLE ME 9.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Advice for young writers you won't hear anywhere else

If you’re a young writer trying to break-in to the world of today’s sitcoms here’s some advice you probably won’t hear anywhere else.

Obviously, you have to write spec scripts. And they have to be good enough to impress the people who can launch your career. But what script to write?

Here’s my advice that veers off from the norm. Existing thinking is that you need to write single-camera edgy shows, preferably pilots. Everyone is looking for that “fresh unique voice.” And if you want to write one or two of those, great.


My philosophy is to look for where there is a real need and go in that direction. More desire on the part of the buyer and less competition for the seller. A win/win.

So in this case, I recommend you write a multi-camera spec. Existing show or pilot – your choice (or both). There are more multi-camera shows being produced than you think, and when you talk to producers of these shows they bemoan the fact that when they’re looking to staff there are precious few multi-camera specs submitted.

Many of the edgy single-camera specs are also not really funny. Sorry but they’re not. Some are quirky, some are “amusing,” a few rely on shock humor – but rarely are they aggressively funny. Certainly, single-camera specs CAN be aggressively funny but the form is very forgiving when it comes to laughs because the writer is not held accountable. There’s no studio audience to test it.

With multi-camera specs you really have to have comic chops. Multi-camera shows need to be genuinely funny. If you feel you have the talent for that, go for it. There are a lot of wannabe comedy writers who know they don’t have that gift. Single-camera specs allow them to hide that fact in quirkiness or irony or whatever. For that reason alone, a lot of your competition falls away.

The truth is a lot of today’s hopeful young writers look down their noses at multi-cams. College students, by and large, have no interest in them (besides watching FRIENDS every night). That’s bad for multi-cam producers looking for fresh talent, but it’s sure good for YOU if you can deliver the goods.

There are more people trying to break-in now than ever before. That’s just a fact. So anything you can do to give yourself an edge, to distinguish yourself from the pack, is worth pursuing. Write a great multi-camera spec. And like I said, it’s not at the expense of a single-cam spec (write as many of those as you like); it’s in addition. Networks, streaming services, cable channels all have multi-cams. They might be your in. Take advantage (while most people don’t).

As always, best of luck. Someone has to break-in. Why not you?

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Weekend Post

Boy, how times have changed.  To go to Disneyland today you need to take out a second mortgage.  It costs hundreds of dollars (especially now that they have the new STAR WARS land).

And for that matter, try going to a major league baseball game for less than a hundred dollars.  Parking alone will kill you.

But if you lived in Southern California in 1967 you could do this -- for $5.  AND you got to meet the KMPC and KTLA personalities! 

By the way, the Angels lost that game 4-1.  And their attendance that day: 22,519.   Maybe the tickets should have been $4.50.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Friday Questions

Another month, another few Friday Questions.

Edward leads off.

You discussed how the script for "The Jeffersons" got your career going. But you also said the show was not one that you really cared for. Once your writing career was working out, did you need to personally like a show to be enthusiastic about writing an episode or does an assignment for a show fall under keeping your career going and making sure the rent gets paid?

We were thrilled to get ANY assignment. A number of projects we wrote never got on the air – back up episodes for pilots that didn’t go, that sort of thing.

We also happily pitched any show that would hear us. We wrote two episodes of JOE AND SONS. Ever hear of it? But we were over-the-moon happy to get those assignments.

Even after we had done MASH we rewrote a couple of network pilots just for the money.

Trust me – work was work. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

From chris dellecese

About those insipid network promos we see all day long on Sunday NFL games.
Is there any evidence that those actually WORK?


Having the NFL on your network elevates your other programming.  That's why networks pay ungodly sums for NFL rights. 

Those football games bring in new viewers to their network and exposes them to their programming. An on-air CBS promo for only the CBS audience is not nearly as effective as a promo on an NFL game.

That said, the audience for NFL games are primarily men, so promos for fare they might be interested in is more effective than say, promos for GREY’S ANATOMY.

I was always thrilled when a promo for one of my sitcoms aired during an NFL game.

DBenson has a question I assume about filming last episodes of series knowing the show has been cancelled and the episode is not guaranteed to air.

Was there ever a situation where an actor or other member of the production decided "S**** this!" and just goofed off or ad-libbed through a shoot or rehearsal for a doomed episode?


Every actor I’ve ever worked with in those situations was a consumate professional. Same with the crews. Everyone took pride in their work and did the best job possible.

And to this day I admire each and every one of them as a result.

And finally, from Shane:

Talking about being protective of kids, did you at anytime worry that Hollywood would be a bad influence on your kids when growing up?

We tried to give our kids as normal an upbringing as we could. They went to public school, we never tried to get them work in commercials, they never guested on my shows, and although they certainly came to sets and went to audience tapings, they never hung around stages, and we never tried to get them agents.

I believe it was a wise decision. Of course you'd have to ask them, but I think they'd agree. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

EP152: Crazy Casting Stories

This week on Hollywood and Levine Podcast, Ken shares some stories of horrible casting suggestions, and inspired casting choices that were rejected. It’s why all actors are on Lexapro.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Unoriginal Broadway Musicals

Watching the Macy’s Parade last week (who can miss a chance to see Al Roker and freezing Broadway performers?), a thought occurred.

Everyone chastises TV for slavishly copying successful shows. But Broadway does the same thing.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST becomes a hit. SHREK follows. And Disney is adapting every animated film except SONG OF THE SOUTH.

BEAUTIFUL was a hit about rock performer Carole King, so Broadway mounts shows about Cher and now Tina Turner. Can the Lulu musical be far behind?


I think it’s time to merge both TV and Broadway. FRIENDS, THE MUSICAL. Start writing the songs.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: My review

SPOILER ALERT: Nothing blows up. No one flies. No worlds are targeted for extinction. This movie will not become a land in Disney World. So see it at your own risk.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a very sweet little feel-good movie. Tom Hanks plays beloved TV children’s show host, Fred Rogers. I have all good things to say about it except one. The documentary last year on Mr. Rogers was way better.

That documentary really gives a great portrait into the man and his mission. In BEAUTIFUL DAY, Mr. Rogers is essentially a guardian angel who warms the cold heart of an Esquire journalist played by Russian spy Matthew Rhys. Both Rhys and Hanks are wonderful actors and watching the two of them is a pleasure. And it was nice to see Rhys not having to report to the Kremlin.

As I was watching it I thought, if Fred Rogers hadn’t really existed no one would ever buy this film. We’d all be saying, “No one is that genuine and kind-hearted.” But of course he was. And my second thought was “Boy, we sure could use him now.”

The movie I'd really love to see is MR. ROGERS GOES TO WASHINGTON.  

All in all, BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is a very pleasant motion picture. And Hanks is more believable as Mr. Rogers than Walt Disney. I look forward to next Christmas when he plays Mother Teresa and the following when he plays Jesus.

Monday, December 02, 2019

The story behind THANKS

Over the weekend I showed a scene from the short-lived 1999 CBS sitcom THANKS, created by Mark Jordan Legan & Phoef Sutton.   I asked them both if they'd like provide the background on the series.  Mark was traveling (my heart goes out to him) but Phoef was kind enough to reflect on the experience. (By the way, Phoef and Mark host a fun podcast called FILM FREAKS FOREVER.  Check it out.) 

I’ve worked on a lot of fun shows over the years (CHEERS, BOB, BOSTON LEGAL, TERRIERS) but none of them were as purely delightful as THANKS. It’s only been shown once, but a faithful few remember it. It was a sitcom about The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in 1600s and it was damn funny.

I remember, I had a development deal at a network (which shall remain nameless) and they were busy hating everything I came up with, when my dear college friend and fellow sitcom writer Mark Jordan Legan came to me with this wild idea of doing a historical comedy about The Puritans, ala BLACKADDER and BEST OF THE WEST. I leapt at the chance and we wrote it in a week! I never thought the network would go for it, but I sent it off. And guess what? They hated it! Surprise!

Never ones to take ‘no’ for an answer, we sent it to another network and they decided to meet with us. (Perhaps to see if we were really serious?) We pitched our hearts out and… sold it in the room! (those were the days)

We had a glorious time making the pilot. We got our dream grandmother in Cloris Leachman; found a hilarious village idiot in Jim Rash; the perfect wife in Kristen Nelson; the delightfully precocious daughter who was always being accused of being a witch, Amy Centner. After much searching, we found the perfect Pioneer Father in Tim Dutton. We even cast ourselves, Mark and Phoef, as plague-ridden sailors.

We made only a very few episodes. People ask me if I’m sorry we were cancelled so quickly; I counter that I’m thrilled we were able to make six of these crazy things at all. The supporting cast (Keith Szarabjka, John Farley, John Fleck, Robert Machray, Michael Horse and especially the late Kathryn Joosten and the late Glenn Shadix) was everything we could have hoped for. The network didn’t give us very many notes because they couldn’t figure out what the hell the show was. We just did what we wanted to, for six wonderful weeks.

The show premiered in the summer, opposite the first run of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? It was trounced in the ratings and quickly canceled – (though it truly got some rave reviews, with Entertainment Weekly calling it the funniest sitcom of the year). It was never shown again. But, as I said, a few people remember it. Sara Vowell wrote about it fondly in her book THE WORDY SHIPMATES. People quote it to us. (“She’s a witch!” “Fornicators!”)

THANKS lives on.

Phoef & Mark

Thanks to both Phoef & Mark for the explanation and mostly, thanks for THANKS.