Saturday, December 05, 2020

Weekend Post

 This was my favorite cheesy Christmas special growing up.  I wrote about it in my memoir, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (the PERFECT holiday gift available in Kindle, paperback, and audiobook formats.  Hint hint.) 

I still can’t fathom why anyone watched the ANDY WILLIAMS variety show on NBC if they didn’t own a color TV. It was so wholesome your teeth ached. Whatever “edge” the show had was provided by the Osmond Family. But it was in color and production numbers always featured grinning All-American yahoos in brightly colored sweaters holding brightly colored balloons. Not having a color TV and not being gay I never watched THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW… except…

During their Christmas special.

It was the one time of year Andy had his beautiful family on the show and this became a 60s American tradition. Mom and dad and the Williams kinder would sing Carols, exchange presents, and their message of love and holiday good cheer would absolutely entrance you. That’s not why I watched it, of course. I wanted to screw Andy’s wife.

Claudine Longet (Mrs. Williams) was a willowy brunette with exquisite doe eyes and luscious lips. Laura Petrie but French. She was also a successful recording artist but believe me, if she looked like Charles De Gaulle she couldn’t give away one record. But I found her incredibly sexy, even when she was singing Silent Night in front of a crucifix. She and Andy would divorce in the 70s and two years later she shot her boyfriend, Olympic skier Spider Sabich to death. I still wanted to screw her, but not as much.

So as enjoyable as those holiday shows were in the mid 60s, watching them now on PBS they take on a whole new level of absurdity. Two of their kids are named Noelle and Christian. How much more seriously can you take Christmas? And yet, twelve years later, there’s mom in a different winter wonderland with a loaded revolver. She was ultimately convicted on a lesser charge and married her defense attorney.

I’ll be on parole for Christmas.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Friday Questions

Here we are in December.  I’d say “already” but it’s been the longest year ever.  Let’s have some Friday Questions.

FFS gets us started.

Question from a non-writer. What the hell is a "beat"?

Any new element in the story.

Think of the story as the spine and beats as the vertebrae.  

Examples of beats:  

A couple starts an argument.

A father shows his son how to tie a knot.

Bob takes out the ring and proposes.  

Fred arrives with the Christmas tree.


In an outline you start with the beats.  First this happens, then that, then the next thing.  It gives you an overview of the story.  Are there too many things (beats) happening in this act?  Are there not enough? Is it repetitious?  Is there a step missing?

Once you’re satisfied that all the vertebrae are in the right place, and the story spine holds up then fill out each beat.  

The couple that starts an argument.  Over what?

Father showing son how to tie a knot?   Does the son not want his help?  Is this a bonding experience?  

Bob takes out the ring and proposes.
  Is he clumsy?  What is his proposal?  Was she expecting it or surprised?    Does she accept or reject his proposal?  I would say that’s a separate beat.  The story very much turns on whether she accepts or not.  

Hopefully you get the idea.   I write my beats on the computer then move them around.  A lot of writers use index cards.  One beat per card.  You can also use note cards in certain scripture programs.  

Ere I Saw Elba asks:


What would be your personal theme song, if you got to have one?

From an existing TV show?  “Mr. Lucky.”

From Lorimartian:

Have you ever talked about working with Nathan Lane? He is so talented, and I remember that series. Was it a good experience?
 

It was a wonderful experience!

I directed three episodes of his short-lived NBC sitcom, ENCORE ENCORE.  I found him to be a delight.  He’s very inventive and nimble.  

There are two sides to Nathan Lane— “on” when he’s performing, and “off” when he’s very quiet and introspective.  

If I had to tell one story about working with Nathan, it would be this:  Episode 13, our final episode in the series order.  Two days into rehearsal we get the word that ENCORE ENCORE has been canceled. (There would be no “encore” much less two.)   Everyone knew this episode would never air.


Nathan had a choice. He could just pull the plug and not bother or tough it out another three long days.   Nathan chose to complete the episode because he didn’t want the crew to lose out on a week’s pay.  

And not only that, he worked just as hard or harder those final futile three days.  The man is the consummate professional and a mensch.  I would work with him again in a second.

And finally, from Bill Slankard:

I recently read how The Big Bang Theory wrote around Kaley Cuoco's riding accident and it made me wonder what happens when the unexpected happens, and the writing staff has to come up with a fix immediately and some future episodes.  Does this happen a lot?  And what do you do? 

It happens all the time.  You just have to deal with it.  A cast member gets sick and you have to write him out of the episode… or several episodes.  Someone breaks their foot is on crutches.  You have to explain it away.  

During the course of a season I just expect curve balls like that.  You have to film a show after 9-11.  Your star is doing a movie and you have to shoot all his scenes separately for next week’s episode.  One of your stars goes into rehab.  The guest star you had planned cancels on you the night before you go into production.   The possibilities are endless.

Current TV writers have had to readjust their scripts to accommodate shooting during the pandemic.  They’ve had to remove crowd scenes, any scene with extras really.  Even four or five characters in a scene is now two scenes with two or three characters.  

Bottom line: you just gotta roll with it.  You can’t prepare.  Consider it another challenge and why they pay you the big bucks (or bigger bucks than you’d make at Starbucks).

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

EP203: Mistletoe Miscellaneous & Why I hate making holiday episodes


Ken riffs on the holiday season and gives an insider look on the making of Thanksgiving and Christmas-themed TV episodes.  The tropes and the traps revealed.  

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A TV writer with security? Is that even possible?


As you know, I’m a big JEOPARDY fan.  I’m way too dumb to be on it, but I like watching other smart people being rewarded for having intelligence.  So my readers tend to ask numerous JEOPARDY-related Friday Questions.  Here’s one that warranted its own post since I went right to the source to provide the answer.  

Cecil Newson asks:

Can a person make a living writing questions for Jeopardy? Is it a stressful job?

Billy Wisse is the Co-Head Writer of JEOPARDY.  I posed this question and he was gracious enough to respond.

Hi Ken. Yes, you can make a living writing questions for Jeopardy!. It can be a stressful job but you get to learn a lot, exercise your creativity and work with great people. And there is not a lot of turnover, so job insecurity is one stress we are generally free from. Or should that be “from which we are generally free”? As you see, the job does bring out one’s nitpicking side.
 
Hope this is helpful.
 
Billy Wisse
Co-Head Writer, Jeopardy!

Very helpful and greatly appreciated.   Thanks, and I’m ashamed to say I got the Final Jeopardy question wrong on Monday night and the category was “Movie Comedies.”   This is why I’ll never be on that show.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

The NFL is a joke

Last weekend the Denver Broncos had no quarterbacks.  All three of their QB’s had tested positive for COVID.  (Why?  Starting quarterback Drew Lock admitted they did not strictly adhere to mask policies.  Hint hint, everyone.)   A wide receiver had to fill in.  They lost to New Orleans 31-3. You sort of need a real quarterback in the National Football League.  

The San Francisco 49’ers can no longer play their games this year in their home stadium.  Santa Clara County has banned contact sports due to spiking levels of the virus.  So now they’re going to play three home games in Arizona.  They still don’t know where they’re going to practice.   If you have a big yard, give 'em a call.

A big Thanksgiving showdown was canceled and rescheduled, then rescheduled again for tonight and now is rescheduled for tomorrow night (Steelers - Ravens) because so many of the players tested positive.   Ten Raven starters are out (assuming the game actually get played at all).  

The White House has a tighter bubble.  

Cancellations and postponements have become commonplace this season.  And it’s not like baseball or basketball.  When you only play a limited number of games a year, missing one or two is huge.  

I get it.  The NFL is merely a television show.   Networks pay insane rights fees so if Rudy Guiliani has to play quarterback for the Denver Broncos they’ll still play (he'd have more success with that than being an attorney).   But players are at risk during a worsening pandemic.  Teams are depleted so they’re not at their competitive best.  You never know when games are scheduled.  Teams aren’t allowed to play at home.  

I look forward to Super Bowl Thursday (rescheduled from Sunday because one team’s entire offensive line is out with COVID), and the game will be moved from Tampa (because, well it’s Florida and by then everyone in the state will test positive) to Dallas (where they don’t care if everyone tests positive) and everybody has their traditional Super Bowl parties for three.  The halftime show with Weeknd should be spectacular -- one guy on the field.  

If the NFL was smart it would just junk the rest of the season and play it out on Playstation. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

To the victor go the spoils

In general, Hollywood stars are not beloved in Hollywood. Why? Because they make so much money AND they now take jobs away from people who don’t make much money.

I think this started with commercials. Young actors could make an okay living picking up commercial work. Then in Japan, companies would pay absurd amounts to American stars to be spokesmen for their commercials. And the actors felt the commercials would never be seen here so no one was going to accuse them of selling out, so what the hell? Think: the plot of LOST IN TRANSLATION. Bill Murray is in Japan to film a whiskey commercial.

Eventually, Madison Avenue came calling and started offering commercials to Hollywood stars. We had moved past the era where selling out was a bad thing. So stars became spokespeople squeezing out the brick and mortar actors who just scraped by as it was.

Similarly, voice over work started going to stars. Why hire a seasoned voice over artist who studied for years when you can get Jon Hamm?

And by the way, I don’t begrudge Jon Hamm or the stars who take these deals. Why not? Someone is offering it to you, it’s a lot of money for just a few days work, and if you pass they’ll just ask another star instead. Might as well take it.

Another area where stars have taken over is animation voice over. Here too, gifted voice over actors who have worked for years perfecting their craft are now being replaced by Ellen DeGeneres and Tim Allen. Does Ellen do a good job? Yeah. Could seventeen voice over artists do just as good or better a job? You bet. Will Ellen’s name in the trailer bring people into the theatre? My guess is of course not. So what’s the big whoop in hiring Ellen DeGeneres?

Cartoon voice over people can do many voices, can shade their voices, add nuance. That’s what they do… or at least, did.

How many extra takes are required by stars because they’re not really used to working in animation? Considering the extra money it costs for stars and the extra production time, is it worth it? It is for the producers or, in the case of advertising, the Mad Men who get to meet and hobnob with the stars.

The latest example I’ve found is game show hosting. Yes, it looks easy but there’s an art to hosting a game show. To move things along, be spontaneous, follow the game, make the contestants feel comfortable, read the questions without stumbling – it takes a certain polish and charm. There’s a reason you see the same guys hosting shows over the years. Very few have the necessary skill.

And I’ll tell you who sure doesn’t have the skill – Anthony Anderson or Elizabeth Banks. (To be fair, Alec Baldwin has a flair and is funny and brings a lot to THE MATCH GAME – and it’s a game not to be taken seriously anyway.) Plus, I'm a fan of Anthony Anderson and Elizabeth Banks -- but in the right role, which is not introducing lightening rounds.

That said, I’m sure if ABC had their way, they’d do JEOPARDY by replacing Alex Trebek with Tracee Ellis Ross.

So you want to come to Hollywood and be an actor?  You better have a day job and hope that Starbucks doesn't offer barista positions to Ellen. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Weekend Post

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire weekend post.

It’s from Ben Scripps:

Ken--you're clearly a fan of "Jeopardy!". My question for you is: what would be your six dream categories--your "Clavins", if you will--if you ever made it up to the lectern? And what would be your six nightmare categories? (And you have to stick to "real" categories--no fair listing "The 1991 Baltimore Orioles" or "Little Known Facts About 'Big Wave Dave's'".)

Categories I would not embarrass myself answering:


1960s Top 40 Hits

American Theatre

Los Angeles landmarks

Screwball Comedies

Radio Station call letters (they give the call letters, I have to name the city the station is in)

Baseball Rulebook

Now there are many many categories that I know absolutely nothing about.  These are just the first six that popped into my head.

Anything about Africa

The Bible

The Periodic Table

Roman Numeral Math

Before and After

Opera

The episodes with Alex continue until early January.  No new host has been announced. The plan is to do some on-air auditions.  First interim host will be Ken Jennings.   But if they're still looking -- I’ll tell you my totally-out-of-left-field choice — NBC News’ Hallie Jackson.  



Friday, November 27, 2020

Black Friday Questions

Hope you had a good Thanksgiving even if it was a little weird this year.  Enjoy some leftover Friday Questions. 

Jay starts us off with a little something different.

Hey Ken,
Pointless (and fun?) Friday question/survey for you:

Name a movie you like or love that the rest of the world universally hates:


That’s easy. SHOWGIRLS.  The funniest movie ever that’s not meant to be funny for a second.  Nudity and laughs.  You’d have to go back to RETURN OF THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS to find that combination.  

Name a movie a bad movie that you *know* is bad and yet you'd still sit down to watch it:

AT LONG LAST LOVE.   Peter Bogdonavich’s mangled attempt at a sophisticated throwback musical.  Cybill Shepherd attempting to sing is up there in yucks with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.  

Name a movie you absolutely hate and would never watch again:

HATEFUL 8.  

Kendall Rivers asks:

As a writer myself I'm curious about your process with outlines? Do you include dialogue and go into supreme detail or just do beats with no dialogue etc?

It depends on the project.  For television I outline extensively, adding lots of possible dialogue.  You’re under such time constraints that you need to have every beat well worked out in front.

For plays, I want my characters to have room to take me where they want to go.  So I might work off essentially a beat sheet.   

What I normally do is start with the bare bones then keep filling in more detail in each scene.  Eventually I reach the point I think I’m ready to start writing and go from there.  

But I’m very tough on my outlines and change them constantly.  I’m always looking to make the story better.  Story is primary in my estimation.  

From William Adams:

Opening Credits range from excellent (Cheers, Deadwood, etc.) to cookie-cutter (Three's Company, Full House, etc.) to (lately) non-existent. Who is responsible for putting together the opening sequence? Is it a writer, a producer, or maybe the network marketing team? Do you have any favorites?

Usually the show runner.  There are some production companies that specialize in opening titles like Castle-Bryant, who did CHEERS.  But since there are fewer shows with opening titles, these production houses are becoming endangered species.  

My all-time favorite is MASH.  Then maybe CHEERS, MIAMI VICE, THE JEFFERSONS, BONANZA, and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE.  And I’m sure I’m forgetting some other favorites.  

And finally, Unknown (please leave a name) asks:

What was the most political script you ever wrote/episode you directed?  In a sitcom like MASH, Almost Perfect or Big Wave Dave, were there times where you felt, 'I'd like to squeeze a topical political issue into this for the laugh value’?

David Isaacs and I wrote two pilots about the White House Press Corps (first for ABC then for HBO).  I’ve talked about those a few times on the blog and podcast.  

There were certainly politically charged episodes of MASH that we wrote.   Practically all of them.

We wrote an election episode of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW.   Tony’s character runs for Superior Court Justice.  His opponent dies during the campaign and beats Tony anyway.

I directed five episodes of LATELINE, starring Al Franken that was very much a political show.  

On BIG WAVE DAVE’S and ALMOST PERFECT we were way more interested in exploring relationships than politics.  But a number of feminism issues did come up in ALMOST PERFECT.   Nancy played a character who was the boss of an all male writing staff on a male-oriented cop show.  

Stay safe this weekend.  What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

EP202: The Annual Turkey Show


Ken plays some of the worst (and most amusing) songs you will ever hear.  A Thanksgiving tradition.

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My 15th anniversary

 

Actually, it's tomorrow.  November 26, 2005 is when I launched my blog.  Since tomorrow is Thanksgiving and no one reads blogs on Thanksgiving, I thought I would celebrate it today. 

I honestly would have been shocked if someone said to me that first day that I'd still be doing this 15 years later.  Especially since I post at least five new pieces a week, and for years posted seven.  I figured I'd run out of things to say by June 2006.  (And maybe I did but just don't know it.) 

How long I'll keep doing it?  I don't know.  This was a pandemic year and I was home every day anyway.  

But I sincerely want to thank you all for reading.  I can tell by the comments section that often someone will find the blog, read it every day, comment every day, and then just lose interest I guess because they go away and never return.  At least to the comments section.  But happily, others seem to take their place.   So thanks for reading however long you stay with me.

One feature I began very early on was Friday Questions.  I figure that I've answered roughly 3,500 FQ's so far.  147 were the correct answers.

For today, I thought I'd go back and re-post my very first entry.  It's kind of a wandering mess, but in there somewhere are kernels of what the blog eventually has become.  Enjoy.  Since this post, over 35,000,000 visitors have stopped by.  I so appreciate that you're one of them. 

For everyone who has said to me "you should start a blog" here it is. Now what?

So until I figure that out, I thought I'd post the kind of stuff I have been writing -- namely humorous travelogues and award show reviews that up until now have only gone to those unfortunate souls in my address book. As I learn how this works and come up with original thoughts I shall add to it. Or take requests. Or go on to podcasting.

Interests will include pop culture, show business, baseball, radio, the 60's, the theatre, baby boomers, bragging about my kids, hawking my various projects, and general bitching.

But for now, here are examples of what I've done should anyone care what I do in the future. And if you're reading this, congratulations, you're probably the first to ever log on to this blog site.

****************

November 2005 -- Halloween in Frisco

I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately. That means more travelogues. The good news is more material for a possible book. The bad news is you’re hearing more from me than the prince of the Contonou-Benin republic and he at least has a fabulous business opportunity. So at the risk of becoming spam, here’s another travel report. This is actually a compilation of two recent trips up to the bay area to visit my son, Matt. Enjoy….or delete.

As part of Debby’s social work doctoral program at the Lilith Sternin Institute she had to attend a convocation the first weekend of October in beautiful Emeryville, nestled cozily between the hills of Berkeley and the gang wars of Oakland. We decided to fly up to San Jose, hook up with Matt, and continue on to the Baghdad of the East Bay.

First stop was the Apple campus for a tour from Matt. As opposed to the last time I was there I thought I actually saw a pretty girl. Probably 600 engineers have taken secret pictures of her with their cellphone cams and now use it as their screen saver.

Debby got her first look at Matt’s apartment – the New Dehli Arms. He is the only resident of the building not named Kumar and not living with eight people in a one-bedroom unit.

On to San Francisco but veering off to Emeryville. That’s like bypassing New York City to vacation in Yonkers.

Emeryville is merely a collection of airport hotels without the airport. Why anyone would stay there that doesn’t have a 5 a.m. flight is beyond me.

While Debby spent the weekend listening to lectures on dementia Matt and I went to Berkeley to see the effects of it. The 60’s are alive on Telegraph Avenue. It’s as if a retirement village put on a production of HAIR. Tie-dyed shirts, head shops, hat shops. What better father-son bonding experience than shopping for bongs together?

I hate to tell these people but the Janis Joplin look did not even look good on Janis Joplin.

A panhandler went up to Matt claiming to be Jerry Garcia. (True story) But when Matt didn’t give him enough change he proved to be a member of the Un-Grateful Dead, or at least the Not-Sufficiently-Grateful Dead.

Bumper stickers seen: “Clinton lied but nobody died”. “Impeach Bush”, “FUCK LBJ”.

The Krishnas have a copier service. Considering they chant the same thing over and over it only makes sense.

But Berkeley does have Amoeba Records, the mecca of music stores. Now in three California locations, the Telegraph Ave. Amoeba was the first. And it’s still the best place to replace your Moby Grape and Joanie Sommers albums. Only drawback: Everyone who works there is weird. And by that I mean Manson Family with a knowledge of showtunes and the entire “Biff Hitler and the Violent Mood Swings” catalogue. Dress code consists of mohawks, tattoos, turquoise hair, tongue studs, nose rings. What kind of sex life can they have when the only person who will ever touch their genitals is the one doing the piercing?

Telegraph Avenue was quite a contrast to University Avenue in Palo Alto, the Stanford equivalent, which Matt and I visited last weekend. Upscale, yuppified. The funkiest thing you can buy there is relaxed fit jeans at the Gap. Their sports bar has a wine list.

We were there to see the big Stanford-UCLA football game. Bad enough the UCLA marching band tried to do a salute to Queen, but the team itself played like crap. And the stadium with its backless aluminum benches could not be more uncomfortable if it was designed for Al Queda prisoners. So with Stanford humiliating UCLA 24-3 with less than seven minutes to go we did the smart thing and left. We beat the crowds, we beat the traffic…and we missed UCLA’s stunning 30-27 miracle comeback win in overtime – one of the most dramatic finishes in the school’s history. What a couple of SCHMUCKS!!!

For the rest of the weekend we did nothing but bang our heads into walls.

Meanwhile, Debby went into San Francisco. At Golden Gate Park she stumbled onto the “Wonder of Cannibis” festival. Everything you wanted to know about marijuana but had no more brain cells to ask. I’m sure a lot of former comedy writers had booths.

Stayed at the Galleria Park Hotel in the city. Charming or musty depending on whether you’ve been to the Cannibis festival. Our room was the inspiration for the Sam Spade pistol whipping scene in Maltese Falcon.

There’s not one radio station in town that will play Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. But six will play “Gangsta Sh**” by Lil’ Eazy-E.

And no longer will the bay area be blessed with the rich vocal tones of Bill King. The longtime voice of the Raiders, A’s, and Warriors passed away recently. You gotta love a sportscaster who was an aficionado on opera and ballet, a history buff, lived on a houseboat, never married the woman he was with for well over thirty years, turned down numerous lucrative network TV offers because he didn’t want to shave, never wore socks, and never paid more than $300 for a car. And was by far the best overall announcer in the country.

Hit the Original Pancake House in Cupertino. Try their famous German apple pancake. It’s the size of a manhole cover and one would give the entire Von Trapp Family diabetes. For something less sweet you could order (and this is true) clam pancakes.

How could we leave that game early? What were we thinkin’????

Halloween weekend in San Francisco. You can imagine the costumes. It reminds me of the time I was announcing for the San Diego Padres and we were in town to play the Giants. The team bus headed from the hotel to the ballpark but took a wrong turn and wound up in the Gay Pride Parade. The team couldn’t understand why everyone was cheering. What a good sports town San Francisco must be.

For Halloween Matt plans to hand out “Slim Jim” beef jerky sticks. The Kumar kids should love that.

Side note – Halloween: Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in it. So the one night of the year when people would open their doors to them they stay home.

Must be sweeps. News4 at 11 on Monday night begins a five part series on gang members now in the army. Will they return home and use their military tactics on YOU? And by that do they mean you might catch them sleeping under your jeep?

Even though it was Halloween weekend I did not make it out to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. Built by some insane woman in 1884, this Victorian mansion has staircases leading to walls, hallways that go nowhere, fireplaces every which where, dead ends left and right, windows in interior rooms, etc. The Haunted Mansion meets the United Airlines Terminal at O’Hare. If they held the Cannibis festival there no one would ever or could ever leave.

Happy Halloween. And once again, how could we leave that game??????

Next stop New York and that’ll be it for awhile. I promise.

Ken Levine
***********
November 2005 -- New Yawk, New Yawk

Back from Gotham where I helped out on a musical going into workshop production called THE 60’s PROJECT. It’s a fun and poignant journey through the decade, complete with all the music and assassinations you remember. My main contribution was getting them to take “Who Put the Bomp?” out of the Tet Offensive section. But it’s a terrific show despite the fact that an audience member called it “important”.

Stayed again at the Shelburne Murray Hill. But no Diane Lane this time. They should tell you that when you make your reservation. Seven whole days I stayed in that dump!

The tree is back! The world’s largest Christmas tree was delivered to Rockefeller Center this week. It was their second attempt. The first time no one was there and they had to leave a note. Usually city workers decorate the 75 foot Norwegian Spruce, adorning it with 25,000 lights. This year the task goes to Martha Stewart’s APPRENTICES.

Big Broadway show in town is the revival of ODD COUPLE with Matthew Broderick, and inexplicably, Nathan Lane as the slovenly “guy’s guy” Oscar Madison. I know it’s stunt casting but Jesus. Why not just go the whole way and cast Carol Channing?

Best panhandler: the guy at Broadway and 42nd holding a sign that reads: “YOU CAN YELL AT ME FOR A DOLLAR”.

Close second: The Naked Cowboy. This skeesix has long blonde hair, wears nothing but a Speedo and a guitar. I would still believe him as Oscar Madison before Nathan Lane.

Had a meeting at NBC at 30 Rock. The security has gotten ridiculous. They now even take your picture for a visitor’s pass. If they were really worried about someone bringing down their network they should just keep the producers of FEAR FACTOR out

There is barbed wire around the Plaza Hotel. It is being converted to condos. But the Oak Room will remain. The city was able to get its upscale hookers at the bar registered as historical landmarks.

Had breakfast at “Friend of a Farmer”. New York has officially run out of restaurant names.

The best pizza in New York is no longer Ray’s. It’s now John’s. So expect “Original Johns”, “John’s Original”, “Jon’s”, “Original Jon’s”, and “Jon’s Original” to pop up all over the city.

There’s a Home Depot on Lexington Avenue in Midtown. How do people get anything home? They have to lug their new garage doors or Jacuzzis or lumber on the subway?

Went to Carnegie Hall for the first time to see singer Linda Eder. Both were quite spectacular . (Andrew Carnegie, for those who didn’t know, was one of those American robber barons who made his fortune in fatty corned beef.) Linda received a standing ovation the moment she appeared. Very different from her July performance at an outdoor venue in San Diego when the only person who stood was a guy in a Hawaiian shirt trying to flag down the vendor for his fifth pina colada.

There are five balconies. The top one is above the timber line. Scalpers could easily sell $35 top balcony seats for $2000 saying they were the only Barbra Streisand tickets still available.

The only weird moment of the concert was when Linda said “Judy Garland had a huge influence on my life” and I was the only man in the audience who didn’t say “me too”.

The after-show party was fun. And when people asked what I was working on now I was able to say Broadway musical instead of failed Fox pilot.

There is a strange woman who always makes and hands out commemorative Linda Eder refrigerator magnets. Mine will be proudly displayed next to the Clippers 2003 home schedule.

You are no longer allowed on Avenue of the Americas unless you have a Blackberry. There are checkpoints.

A hotel was bombed in Jordan so currently there is extra security and SWAT teams at certain NY hotels. (Nothing at the Shelburne. They don’t even provide valet service). So now for your $700 a night at the Parker-Meredian (actual charge this week) you are in the heart of the theatre and terrorist target district.

Debby flew in just in time for the best sidewalk food vendor announcement. A bratwurst hawker on Broadway who was presented his award and arrested for not having a permit.

Cathy Rigby is doing her final performances of PETER PAN at Radio City. Next year she segues right into ARSENIC AND OLD LACE.

Meanwhile, Nathan Lane is segueing from THE ODD COUPLE to PETER PAN.

With all the amazing Italian restaurants in New York there is an Olive Garden. And it was packed. This is why “three card monty” takes in more money annually than the Statue of Liberty.

Languages spoken by my cab drivers: Urdu, Russian, Czech, Farsi, Klingon.

Forgot to set my alarm (all five days) for 5 a.m. so I could stand in the window of the TODAY SHOW, wave my arms like an idiot, and hold up a sign that says “HI JANE! HI BRYANT!”.

Now that all hotels employ recorded wake up call messages, this should be the one they use: “Good morning. This is your wake up call….(beat) Hey, fuck you too. You asked to be called.”

A street vendor on 6th Avenue was selling one of our SIMPSONS scripts for $15. Linda Eder magnets were going for $20.

Went to my favorite museum – the Margo Feiden Gallery, home of the glorious Al Hirschfeld collection. I was there so long I counted 4,362 Nina’s.

Latest fashion trend: kids wearing Yankee baseball caps two sizes too big. They all look like Sluggo.

Actual radio station press release: Clear Channel Urban WWPR (Power 105) and PREMIERE syndicated morning duo Star & Buc Wild have replaced newsman “Crossover Negro” (Reese Hopkins) with “Chris the Queer” (aka Chris Hart).

Bring back Dan Ingram!!

The MET LIFE building will always be the PAN AM building.

Annie flew in from Chicago for the weekend. First stop was Long Island and a big gathering of Debby’s relatives. We all met at an Italian restaurant on Queens Boulevard (Friend of an Undertaker) and had lunch. Just like a Sunday dinner scene in the SOPRANOS except Tony and the family never said “No cheese, I just had meat”, “what comes with that?”, “are the capers fresh?”, “I can make the same thing at home for fifty cents,” and “the last time I had cannelloni I went into labor”.

Stephen Sondheim came to our show on Sunday. And wound up sitting next to Annie. She’ll be dining off that story for years. The performance went very well until one of the leads, in the middle of “Sugar Sugar” broke into “Being Alive”.

If you put a Linda Eder refrigerator magnet together with a Barbra Streisand refrigerator magnet would they attract or repel?

JFK has been remodeled and refurbished, now sporting humongous Tomorrowland-like terminals and a monorail system. Once Zagat rated the worst airport in America, now with all the improvements it’s rated even worse. Instead of building bigger terminals how about providing more than two ticket agents at 6 pm on a Sunday?

Spending a week as part of the New York theatre scene was very heady indeed. Everyone was so friendly, so gracious. All of that will end of course when they find out I write for TV. But at least I met Stephen Sondheim. And he and Annie are now exchanging recipes.

Thanks so much to Janet, Richard, cast & crew, Dave, Ronni, Linda, and the Naked Cowboy for everything. I feel very lucky.

YOU CAN RUB ME FOR A DOLLAR.

Ken Levine
************************
Oscars 2005

Welcome to my 7th annual bitchy Oscar review. Where has the time and my feature career gone?

Hiring Chris Rock to host provided the only buzz and suspense of the show. His piece at the Magic Johnson theater said it all. No one outside of LA or NY has SEEN these films. It’s the Tonys but for two cities instead of one. And we’re supposed to watch to see stars? The nominees were Imelda Staunton, Sophie Okonedo, and Catalina Sandino Moreno. It'll be 2016 before any one of them appears on INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO.

The pre-Oscar coverage is always amusing. Most inane (as always) was Hollywood tool/footstool/bootlicker Sam Rubin and his co-host this year, the brainless Toni Senecal (who I assume is Sam’s gushy sycophant counterpart in New York) on KTLA. Sam to Catalina Sandino Moreno: “Did you spend a lot of time getting ready?” Has he ever actually talked to a woman?? Toni then asked her: “It’s your first movie, you’re the first Columbian to ever be nominated – call me crazy – how do you feel?” Toni asked Sophie Okonedo what was the best gift she had received.

Nominees I never heard of or recognized were blowing them off. Maybe if they weren't trying to lure them with Tic Tacs.

The KTLA fashion expert said about Hilary Swank; “It’s a surprise to everyone. She looks fantastic.”

Sam to P. Diddy: “People watching at home, having an Oscar party, what can they learn from you?”

There should be a spam blocker on my TV to save me from ever seeing Joan and Melissa Rivers. This year they’ve been relegated to the TV Guide channel which answers the question “what could possibly be less entertaining than a 24 hour program guide crawl?”

Chris Rock was as funny as he could be under the circumstances. Certainly they didn’t need the five second “dull-ay”. But when he went into the Bush bashing you could hear a loud collective CLICK as 49% of the nation turned off the show and went bowling. Expect this to be the lowest rated Academy Awards show ever. ABC will wish it showed DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES instead.

Everytime they came back from commercials you saw a stagehand running for backstage. For about an hour that was the only amusement.

Paul Giamati was robbed. He should’ve been nominated.

Thomas Hayden Church was nominated for being himself. The rest of the WINGS cast has been on suicide watch since the announcements.

The set looked like THE WEAKEST LINK.

Halle Berry now has a rival for most beautiful – Beyonce. Wow! And such an amazing singer. I could almost sit through all three of the nominated songs she sang.

I hope Natalie Portman enjoyed her nomination. She’s sure not getting one next year for STAR WARS VI: ENOUGH ALREADY.

Kathryn Hepburn wins Academy Awards even when she’s dead.

Adam Duritz from Counting Crows looked like a bottle washer.

Thank God the Pope didn’t die. The “In Memoriam” tribute is always dicey. I’d hate to see his photo followed by Russ Meyer’s.

And by the way, they forgot Sandra Dee.

Scarlett Johanson’s dress was a work in progress.

Steven Spielberg was a no-show. Guess if he’s not nominated there’s no need to come and support “the community”. I’m sure he’d say “why sit through an excruciatingly boring three hour show?” and I would say “how do you feel the rest of us felt watching TERMINAL?”

Drew Barrymore came as Morticia.

Selma Hayek and Penelope Cruz are stunningly gorgeous. But presenters have to actually be able to pronounce names.

The three trophy models (now there’s a job that requires an advanced degree) were all 6’ because as director Louis Horvitz said “the stage has a lot of verticals. I wanted them to be very tall and thin so in the wide shots they blend in and become almost architecturally pleasing.” Mr. Horvitz, ‘Now’ on line three for you.

$20,000 goody bags were given away again this year…as if Thomas Hayden Church or Sophie Oronedo wouldn’t have come otherwise. And KTLA was offering Tic Tacs.

Just remember – Cher has won an Oscar.

This just in – the Red States have voted and CATWOMAN is the best picture of the year.

As long as Robert DeNiro continues to do movies like MEET THE FOCKERS Thomas Hayden Church will have a better chance at getting future nominations

Laura Linney looked like a raccoon.

I loved the Johnny Carson tribute. Were the Academy Awards ever better, ever classier than when he presided over them?

I’d like to thank the academy for honoring Sidney Lumet.

And for showing his Jessica Rabbit daughter. Or at least, I think that’s his daughter. She was very architecturally pleasing.

It’s bad enough to be nominated and lose but to be on stage when it happens? Yikes. Talk about pulling the rug out at the last second. I wonder if the losers then got to go to the backstage interview rooms and not be allowed to speak.

When the winners were announced from the audience I thought I was watching “Stump the Band”.

Mike Myers is never funny. Robin Williams used to be.

Where else can you see Mickey Rooney and Prince in the same audience?

For best song why not just use anything from RAY?

Johnny Depp came as Alfalfa this year.

What could the fun motif be for the HOTEL RWANDA after-party? Hopefully they consulted P. Diddy.

Boy, I bet Kevin Spacey was surprised when he wasn’t nominated for best actor, director, producer, writer, art director, hair stylist, and Gene Hersholt award for BEYOND THE SEA. Maybe if there was a category for largest ego, best mimic, and creepiest 50 year old playing 20.

Every academy member who received a screener tape of SPANGLISH gave it to their housekeeper.

Annette Bening should have been in the AVIATOR since she is married to Howard Hughes.

My vote for movie of the year: THE INCREDIBLES. But in all fairness, I haven’t seen WHITE CHICKS.

Of the 28 billion people who supposedly were watching I was the only one who appreciated just how good the off-screen announcer, Randy Thomas, was.

If you have Tivo I bet you zipped right through the Gene Hersholt award. And every non-actor acceptance speech. And the last twenty minutes of Jaimie Foxx’s.

Prince and Rene Zellwegger had the same hair style, used the same motor oil.

I don’t care what Sean Penn says. Jude Law was in every bad movie. And contributed to each of them.

Okay, now that Hilary Swank has thanked everyone in the world let’s give the award to someone else.

My son, Matt, is convinced that Hilary Swank is a man. So he was less impressed with her performance since it was a man portraying a woman acting like a man.

Leave it to a writer, Charlie Kaufman, to make the most refreshing speech.

If ever there was a lock it was Jaimie Foxx. No way he’d be singing “Cryin’ Time” tonight.

Julia Roberts looked pretty good for a new mom. Assuming she wasn’t wedged into that dress like a sausage.

Poor Martin Scorsese gets shut out again. And he talks fast. At least his speech would be quick even if he thanks a hundred people.

Clint Eastwood’s mom is still alive? I thought that was Warren Beatty.

Barbra Streisand is fast turning into Lainie Kazan. And seeing like Ray Charles.

The theme for the Best Picture nominees seemed to be “guy looking to cheat on his wife or girlfriend”. All except MILLION DOLLAR BABY. At Clint’s age all he can lust after now is pie.

I was happy MILLION DOLLAR BABY won….I guess. Oh hell, I didn’t care. And I’m sure at the Magic Johnson theater ticket sales for it won’t go up by one.

At least Jim Carrey wasn't on the show. See you at the DVD rental store.

Ken Levine
**************

Okay, that's me and what you'll get. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Thanksgiving Plans

 It’s downright surreal listening to the two distinct realities that various news outlets are spouting.  With Thanksgiving just days away and COVID cases skyrocketing in America at an alarming rate, you would think everyone in the country would be scared shitless and heeding the CDC’s warnings to not travel and not have large gatherings on Thursday.

But instead you have Fox News mocking the CDC’s warnings.  Meanwhile, over at MSNBC you have Rachel Maddow relaying the horrific story of her partner’s battle with COVID and telling viewers to re-calibrate their risk acceptance because “you do NOT want to get this thing.”  

Two diametric opposites.  It’s mind-boggling to me.  

The states that are getting hit hardest are the states that believe the threat the least.  Utterly mystifying. This isn’t a debate over whether zombies are real.  Actual footage (even on Fox) of hospitals being overrun are dominating news coverage.  CNN keeps a running total of cases and deaths on the screen at all times.   By now, practically everybody knows someone who has it or has had it.   Soon we all know someone who died of it.

So you’d think, at the very least, people would take this pandemic seriously.  And news outlets would not politicize it for the sake of appeasing a deranged madman.  Folks would err on the side of caution.   We’re just talking common sense.   Wearing a mask does not qualify you for Mensa. 

But you know how this will play out.  Millions will ignore the warnings, get horribly sick, and some will die.  Needlessly.  To have one stupid meal.  

It won’t be many of my friends.  They take this seriously.  They social distance.  They wear masks.  They don’t travel through crowded airports and sit on packed airplanes that keep their ventilation systems turned off until they’re taxiing.  They live without Aunt Carol’s jello mold (which isn't very good anyway).  

So two realities.  One where people stay healthy, and the other where people get gravely sick and die by their own choosing.  

What are YOUR Thanksgiving plans? 

Monday, November 23, 2020

RIP Charlie Hauck

 

So sorry to hear of the passing of comedy writer, Charlie Hauck.  He was 79.  One of the funniest people I knew.  

Here’s how I first met Charlie.  My partner, David Isaacs and I pitched him story ideas when he was the story editor of MAUDE.  He rejected us fifty times.  

In fairness, it was the show runners above him.  We’d bring in ten ideas.  He’d like two, send ‘em upstairs, they’d get rejected, and Charlie would ask us to come in with ten more.  I really liked him.  And if you can like someone who rejected you fifty times he has to be a pretty decent guy.  

We worked together on FRASIER and ENCORE ENCORE (the Nathan Lane sitcom).  Some comedy writers are loud and brash and desperately want to be Mel Brooks.  Charlie was soft-spoken, erudite, laid back, and funny, insightful, and deliciously sarcastic lines would come out of his mouth effortlessly.  If I had to pick one colleague who deserved a seat at the Algonquin Round Table it would be Charlie Hauck.  


And don’t take my word for it.  Charlie wrote a comic novel called ARTISTIC DIFFERENCES that is the best satire on the TV industry ever.  And I say that having also written a satire on the TV industry.  If you only have time to read one, read Charlie’s.  

Worth sharing: On one page of his book he explains how you can tell a bad sitcom.   Simple rules, worth repeating here.

Any show in which any character at any time during the life of the series says the words “Ta da!” is a bad sitcom.


Any show in which one character says to another, “What are friends for?” is a bad sitcom.


Any show in which a character says “Bingo!” in the sense of “Eureka!” is a bad sitcom.


Any show in which an actor or actress under the age of seven says cute things in close-up is a bad sitcom.


Any show in which an actor or actress over the age of seventy-five says vulgar things in close-up is a bad sitcom.


Any show that resorts to the use of Dr. Zarkov dialogue (named for the villain in the FLASH GORGON series, where one character tells another character something they both already know, for the benefit of the audience) is a bad sitcom.


Any show in which a character, in the closing minutes, says, “I guess we’ve all learned a lesson,” and then goes on to explain what that lesson is, is a bad sitcom.  


He’s also helped launch careers, including Michael Keaton’s.  

I will miss him always, but particularly this time of year.  Charlie used to send Christmas cards with his yearly “update.”  They were always spectacularly funny.  The two things I will miss about Christmas are the Andy Williams/Claudine Longet TV specials and Charlie’s annual card.  

If anyone’s reading this from the Great Beyond, do yourself a favor, invite Charlie Hauck to your next dinner party.  You can contact him at the Algonquin Round Table. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Weekend Post

When my partner and I started out we would lock ourselves in a room whenever we wrote. We couldn’t have any distractions. Most of the time that meant working in one of our apartments so it was easy to do… except for the neighbor across the courtyard who kept playing the Jethro Tull WAR CHILD album over and over. But we eventually killed him so that problem was solved.

When we finally went on staff of a show and got our first office we would always keep the door closed. Just the idea of people going by or our secretary answering a phone was too distracting. How could we be funny if we saw two people walking down the hall?

Then we got a job on MASH.   By then we had worked on staff of a show and were somewhat used to being in a writers room... with other writers.  It's a different form of writing, everybody pitching at once.  You learn to fit in.  

But it was still a writers room.  And a writers assistant sat in the outer office keeping anyone from disturbing us.  Genius at work -- that sort of thing.

The first day of filming every episode was a rehearsal day. The cast would move from set to set on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox and rehearse their scenes. Once they were satisfied, David and I were summoned to come watch the scene and then go off and do any rewriting that was necessary. But since it made no sense to keep schlepping back and forth between our office and the stage every half hour, we just did our rewrites right there on the stage. We commandeered a table in the mess tent and that’s where we worked – with actors, crew people, extras, God-knows-who walking by. And in some cases just sitting down and joining us. We’re trying to fix a scene and some extra plops himself down at the table and begins eating a burrito. We eventually killed his character.

Again, it’s a skill that most writers have to learn.  A lot of writers prefer working in public, like Starbucks.  There was a lot more of that before the pandemic.  So for them, I'm sure the Mess Tent would not present a problem.  

What you realize when you're lucky enough to enter the business is that a big reason TV writers are paid more than police dogs is that they're not only talented, but they can create on demand.  We couldn't afford the luxury of isolating ourselves because we felt more comfortable that way.   You work when you're sick, you work when you're tired, you work when you're aggravated, and you work on a soundstage.

On multi-camera shows in front of an audience, writers will huddle to fix jokes that didn't work.  So there's a hundred member crew and two-hundred member audience staring at you.   Oh, for the halcyon days when it was only the Mess Tent. 

 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday Questions

 

It’s the Friday between Friday the 13th and Black Friday.  Here are some FQ’s.

Marka starts us off:


When stars come into the commissary do they have to wait in line? If not, how do they cut the line? And, what level of star is able to get away with that.

A lot of studios have two sides to their commissary.  One is more cafeteria style and one is more a sit down restaurant where they take reservations.  Stars generally have reservations.  That said, usually at 1 PM (everyone makes reservations for 1 PM) there can be a brief line while the parties are seated and the stars generally stand in line.  

Star treatment is more in evidence at regular restaurants.  Many stars do require special treatment, but not all. 

I was in an Italian restaurant in Brentwood a few years ago.  There were no reservations.  The line was about seven deep.  Harrison Ford came in and asked how long the wait would be.  The maitre ‘d said, “Oh no, we will take you in right away,” and Ford, to his credit, said, “No.  I’m happy to wait.”  And he did.  

You gotta love Indiana Jones.

Bradley wonders:


I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole, watching random episodes from one season sitcoms. Among them was an episode of "Pearl" that you directed. It's certainly not a beloved series, but I remember enjoying it at the time. It was a good episode that still made me laugh. Does any one memory from the set while you were there come to mind?

Yes.  I was talking to a writer friend the night before I was supposed to start directing.  I told him I was a little intimidated.  Malcolm McDowell was in the cast.  I’d be directing Malcolm McDowell.  I said to my friend, “This guy starred in CLOCKWORK ORANGE.”  And he said, "Yeah, but he also starred in CALIGULA.”   

Suddenly, the intimidation was gone.  And by the way, Malcolm was perfectly charming and a pleasure to direct.  

My other memory is talking to one of the supporting cast members who had very little to do.  Lucy Liu.   Whatever happened to her?  

From Sparks:

When a show gets rerun or put into syndication, who gets residual payments? I assume it depends to some degree on one's agent, but generally, who? Stars, director, writers?

Not just stars — all actors with a speaking role.  Residuals are negotiated with the unions.  Agents are not involved.  In fact, agents do not receive commission on residuals.

However, “created by” and “developed by” credits are negotiated within the guidelines of the WGA credits manual.  

And pilot directors sometimes command a royalty on all future episodes.  That’s negotiated by an agent.  

And finally, from Jim S.:


Are there any genres you'd like to tackle. For example, Alexa Junge wrote for both Friends and The West Wing. Two very different styles of shows.

So, say, someone you knew said "we're bringing back Columbo and looking for writers with all different kinds of experience, would you care to take a crack?"

Would you? Are there genres you would wish to avoid?


I’d be happy to write a COLUMBO.  Among current fare I’d love to write an episode of THE GOOD FIGHT, BARRY, or BETTER CALL SAUL.  

Having written MASH for so many years, I have no interest in writing a medical show.   I also hate horror shows, disaster shows, zombie shows, and I'm the wrong guy to write something like THIS IS US. 

Shows I would have liked to have written on in their day — THE SOPRANOS, JUSTIFIED, SUITS, THE SHIELD, THE ROCKFORD FILES, LOST, BREAKING BAD, 24, PERRY MASON (the original), HILL STREET BLUES, MIAMI VICE, SPORTS NIGHT, LOU GRANT, DEXTER, THE PRACTICE, LA LAW, and THE FUGITIVE.   And THE WEST WING now that democracy has been restored.  

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

EP201: Author! Author!


Ken takes you through the world of publishing and self-publishing as he discusses the four books he’s written and his adventures in trying to sell them.   You can publish your own books and make money! Ken shows you how. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Is this carton of eggs okay?

In 2003 or 2004 (the years blend together), David Isaacs and I did a half-hour multi-cam pilot for Fox.  One day during rehearsal I got a call from the stage that a network person was snooping around.  This seemed odd.  The network run-through wasn’t until much later in the day.  So I decided to go down to the stage and investigate.

I arrived and found this mild-mannered young man poking around on the set.  I introduced myself and asked what he was doing?  He said he was there to “approve” the set.  Approve the SET?!  

I wanted to be diplomatic so I nodded and asked him to follow me to the kitchen set.  I then opened the refrigerator.  I said, sometimes a character may open the refrigerator door and for a split second you might see what’s inside it so you need to approve that too.  I was hoping that the absurdity of that would send a message to him, but it didn’t.  He actually looked around inside and said it was fine.

At that point I told him we were not changing anything on the set.  They also wanted photo choices of wardrobe and I said that wasn’t happening either.  I was the show runner; I approve the set and wardrobe.  And the make-up, and stage food, and any props. 

He shuffled off and that was the last I heard of it.  Whether it meant I had earned a network demerit of some kind I do not know.  Nor care.  We had the network run-through later in the day and the network president loved the script.  She had no notes on the furniture. 

The point is, the level of interference has just gotten more and more intrusive.  And remember, that was 16/17 years ago.   From what I understand, it’s only gotten worse.  My heart goes out to writer/creators today trying to protect their vision. 

Postscript:  Our pilot did not get on the air.  The problem:  the star, who the network forced us to take.  Meanwhile, the refrigerator tested great. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Like a Jokes

There’s an expression we have in the writers room — Like a Joke.  

A “Like a joke” has the rhythms of a joke but is not funny.  It’s just a straight sentence delivered as a joke line.  “I’m so hungry I could eat a meal.”  

It’s the equivalent of playing an air guitar.  

Remember a few years ago there was a Robin Williams series, THE CRAZY ONES?  It was near the end of his life.  In his prime, Robin would just fire off hilarious jokes like a machine gun.  His ad libs were amazing.  I knew there was something wrong when in this show he delivered a steady stream of “Like a jokes.”

For some reason I hear “Like a jokes” on quite a few “dramadies.”  Maybe they think that by delivering a line in a comic rhythm it will pass for comedy.  But when I hear them I think either they’re not trying, or (more likely) they aren’t really funny.  Real comedy writers are always trying to beat jokes.  Is there something funnier?  Is there a sharper way of phrasing this?  

Now some may argue that they’re not going for a hard laugh.  They’re going for irony.  Okay, you can convince yourself of that.  But you can’t fool the audience.  If something is not funny, if something is on the nose, or tepid it will fall flat no matter how dazzling the rhythm is.  

Just something to keep in mind when you’re writing a comedy script.  When someone orders an In & Out Burger he knows if you’re trying to slip him tofu. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Queen's Gambit: My review

I always find it interesting that networks are reluctant to buy period pieces and yet they’re very popular with audiences.   From MAD MEN to more current period (sounds like an oxymoron) fare like THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, FARGO, THE GOLDBERGS, THE CROWN, and TV’s newest darling, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, which is set in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  

One advantage to these trips to yesteryear is they provide a great escape.  And boy, do we need that now.  After being stuck in our homes for nine months, just the thought of being transported is inviting.  And in THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT there’s also a lot of travel.  Remember when you could get on a plane and fly to Las Vegas or Paris (or the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas)?   And when you flew in the ‘60s the blankets were free.  

I quite enjoyed THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT.  Anya Taylor-Joy was riveting as damaged orphan chess genius, Beth Harmon.  Bill Camp, the new Gene Hackman also shined (as he always does).   And the production values and costumes were fabulous.  Great attention to detail.  

Yes, the movie was sort of HOOSIERS with chess but knowledge of chess isn’t necessary for enjoying this seven-hour mini-series on Netflix.  What I appreciated most is that it celebrates intelligence.  You remember intelligence?  People who believed in science, people who accepted reality and didn’t just make up their own alternate universe to suit their needs.   Chess requires complexity and complexity requires smart people.  If you’re losing you can’t pretend your pawn can go diagonally four squares every move and there’s no such thing as checkmate.  That’s how stupid people play the game.  But to play it right, you have to outsmart your opponent, which is tough because your opponent is also smart.  You can’t say “that move doesn’t count” because it wasn’t to your liking.  And you can’t just tear gas him.  

There’s also sportsmanship, and concession speeches.  See why so many people want to get in the Wayback Machine?  

Some are calling this the greatest show they’ve ever seen.  I won’t go that far.  I thought they could cut an hour.  It bogged down in places.  And I had one issue with the storytelling.  But I don’t want to spoil anything so in a few weeks I’ll circle back to this when more of you have seen it.  

For now I recommend THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT.  It’s a series for people who long for that mystical magical place called the real world. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Weekend Post

 

Writing alone is a lonely enterprise and having that social interaction can make the process a lot more fun and (if you have the right group) expedient (unless you're writing over Zoom).

But what if you have to write alone? How do you develop the discipline to face the tyranny of the blank screen?

This is a task made even more difficult these days because we have the internet and worse, Angry Birds at our fingertips.

There’s no right answer; just various methods and tricks others have used. You have to find the one that’s right for you. But here are a few options:

Pick a specific time of day and force yourself to sit down and work at that time. Could be early morning or the middle of the day while the kids are at school. I’m a night person. I will tend to write late at night when the house is quiet and there’s nothing on TV but infomercials and GOLDEN GIRLS reruns. Many like to get up early, get their writing out of the way and be done for the day.

Pick a specific amount of time. An hour, several hours. Writer/goddess, Jane Espenson goes on half-hour or hour “writing sprints” where she clears the deck and works non-stop during those periods. 

Some people need goals. They have to write a certain number of pages or scenes before they step away. If they finish that script by Tuesday they'll treat themselves to a Thai massage at that new parlor next to the bail bonds place.

Finding comfortable conditions is key for some writers. Are you a “must be isolated with no noise whatsoever” kind of a person? Or are you a “must be in public where there’s activity and energy all around” kind of guy?   That might be harder these days due to the pandemic.  Proust used to write in bed.  If Shakespeare were still alive I'm sure he'd be a Starbucks man except there was a plague in his day too. 

Does music provide some inspiration? A noted poet friend of mine has Jackie Wilson records blaring while she writes poetry. They all end up reading like “Lonely Teardrops” but still.

One method I don’t recommend but writers have been using it for centuries is getting completely shit-faced before writing.  Get your supplies at Staples, not BevMo. 

Another method that works for some (but not for me) is waiting until the last minute and then just blasting forward. They need that self-imposed pressure and prelude to their next heart attack.

Look, writing is hard. If it wasn’t then Kim Kardashian would be doing it (especially if she could do it in bed). But if you find the right way to work (for you), it can make the process far more manageable. Personally, I’m not the best person to ask. I checked my email twice while writing this post.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Friday (the 13th) Questions

It’s Friday the 13th but so far a very lucky month.  Here are Friday (the 13th) Questions:

Blinky starts us off.

We were looking for a new comedy to watch and saw UNICORN with Justified's Walton Goggins. The pilot was laugh out loud funny but after that, the later episodes collapsed into a made for Hallmark channel, Family Values, Treacle infested blob of cliched mediocrity. It was as though they had A-list creatives for the pilot and then handed it off to a Liberty University creative writing 101 class. How can a show end up being so different from the pilot? (Plus I saw it was renewed for a another season.WTF?)

The writers have months to write the pilot then must slam the rest of the season together in short order.  The show runner is bombarded with network and studio notes, he might be forced to put writers on his staff not of his own choosing, change the tone of the series based on testing, and the show runner might not be adept at guiding a series.

As for THE UNICORN, I can’t speak to that.  I don’t know any of the particulars, don’t know anyone associated with that show.   Are the writers not delivering?  Are the actors constantly complaining?  Are the notes suffocating?  Is the production schedule too short?  Is the show runner not organized?  Are they getting mixed signals from the network, studio, and testing?  I have no idea.

Then there’s the other thing to consider:  Maybe it’s just you and the subsequent episodes are connecting with an audience.  I don’t watch the show myself so I can’t personally weigh in one way or the other.  But if it got picked up, they must be doing something right.  

Mike Bloodworth asks.

Have You and David (Isaacs) ever inserted an "inside" joke into a script that no one else would get, but that makes you laugh every time you hear it?

Only all the time.  We’d work in names of girlfriends, pets, friends, former teachers, former colleagues, relatives, grudges, you name it.  

Moral: Be nice to writers. 

From Mark:

When it comes to radio broadcasters flying solo -- no records, no partners, no guests – just one person alone talking into a mic late into the night, who would be in your hall of fame? Arthur Godfrey? Henry Morgan? Jean Shepherd? Possibly Phil Hendrie though he’s kind of in a genre to himself.

Who am I missing?


All that you mentioned, although Godfrey was a well-known asshole in the industry.  

Names I would add (and it’s a very incomplete list) would include Doug McIntyre, Vin Scully, Paul Harvey, Ray Briem, Garner Ted Armstrong, and Ronn Owen.

And finally, from Troy McClure:

One of my favorite character actors is Stephen Root. He can do comedy and drama, and he was terrific in the Frasier episode Detour. Have you ever worked with him?

Not really, but he’s always been one of my favorite actors too.  

He just morphs into whatever role he plays and whatever genre.   He’s TV’s answer to John Lithgow or Gene Hackman.
 

I’m currently loving him in BARRY and PERRY MASON.  He plays judges a lot — notably in JUSTIFIED and THE GOOD WIFE.  And I first noticed him in OFFICE SPACE and NEWSRADIO.   I knew I was a big fan when he made me laugh more than Phil Hartman.  

Someday I’d love to work with him.  Hey, Stephen, you free? 

Don’t walk under any ladders today.  What’s your FQ?  

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

EP200: Episode 200!


Ken celebrates his 200th podcast with a super-sized episode featuring highlights, surprises, rarities, giveaways, laughs, and more.  Join in the fun!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Veteran's Day

For Veteran's Day, ME-TV is airing the last MASH episode along with interviews we did six years ago.  It'll be on from 7-10 PM on the West Coast.  Check your local listings.  I can't tell you what channel ME-TV is on because it's different for each carrier.  

For so many reasons I'm proud of my association with MASH but especially because the show reminds people of the Korean War and the courageous men and women who fought there or made the ultimate sacrifice.  I think without MASH the Korean War would now just be a tiny footnote in history, if even that.  I'm honored that I could help keep that flame alive.  

How much of me you'll actually see  on the show-- I suspect very little.  Five seconds here and eight seconds there.  Don't blink.  But to my surprise, I am on the promo.  I say something profound like "a lot of people watched this show."  

Most of the talking heads will be the actors.  And that makes sense of course.  When they're on the screen the audience isn't going "Who's that dork?"   In my case, they're already saying it because I'm on the promo.

Some final thoughts:  As a member of the US Army Reserves I take pride in my military service but recognize it was nothing compared to going overseas and fighting in a war.  To military personnel past and present, I salute you and this country owes you a great debt of gratitude.  And for the first time in four years, I celebrate you and not apologize for what our country had become.  You deserve way more respect and just know that starting January 20th you'll get it.  

Happy Veterans Day. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Misc-Takes

In no order of importance, here are some random thoughts:  

I wish I knew who, but someone from North of the Border compared Canada to the USA.  He said, “Living in Canada is like having an apartment over a meth lab.”  

I never watch movies set in arctic conditions.  I so hate cold weather that even watching others brave brutal sub-zero conditions is uncomfortable for me.  Are there genres you can’t watch for the same reason?   Meanwhile, it was warmer yesterday in Minneapolis than Los Angeles. 

I really miss restaurants.  But not enough.

Months ago there was absolute hysteria over COVID and now people won’t even wear masks.  

So now Trump's Chief of Staff and the advisor overseeing his campaign legal challenges have both contracted the coronavirus.  If Alanis Morissette is reading, that is ironic.

I have a lot of leftover Halloween candy this year.  No, it won’t go to waste.  

Thanksgiving won’t be the same this year without 20,000 college students stranded at O’Hare for two days.  

A lawsuit without provable facts showing a statutory or constitutional violation is just a tweet with a filing fee.” —Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.  

And to that end comes this commentary from Keith Olbermann.  I couldn't have said it any better or more curmudgeonly myself. 

If they keep moving movie release dates back, pretty soon they’re all going to become period pieces.  

When do you think Melania's going to file for divorce?  January 20 or 21st? 

Gee, the NBC pandemic sitcom didn’t fly.  Who the hell wants pandemic entertainment?  Earlier this year networks feverishly snapped up a bunch of pitches for pandemic projects.  I can imagine a meeting taking place now.  “Well, we miscalculated with pandemic pilots.  Let’s turn our attention to something the public really wants to see.  How about “losing health insurance” sitcoms?  Buy seven of ‘em.”  

It’s idiotic for MLB to give Cy Young Awards to pitchers who started like ten games.  

By the way, the World Series is not settled.  Tampa Bay is demanding a recount on Game 7.

I’m not usually star struck but one day in the Paramount commissary Sean Connery walked in.  My jaw hit the ground.   My favorite Sean Connery quote:  "I was the first actor to play James Bond.  I was also the last actor to play James Bond."

Another day in the commissary I was lunching with young writers and Tony Curtis came in.  None of them knew who he was.  And this was twenty years ago.  (Note:  Google him.  He was a big movie star.)

Why do actors get tattoos?  Won’t that limit the parts they can play?  Imagine in GONE WITH THE WIND having to explain why Scarlett O’Hara has a python on her arm. 

Monday, November 09, 2020

The two big winners last week: Joe Biden and Steve Kornacki

Now that I can breathe again for the first time in four years, some reflections on the past week.   Warning:  This is kind of a long one.  

First off, I only have myself to blame.  Everyone said don’t freak out on Tuesday night. There was going to be a Red Mirage.  Since Trump implored his base to only vote in person on election day, since those would be counted first, he would take big leads in battleground states.  Once the mail-in ballots were counted things would shift.  (And they did.  He was hoisted on his own petard.)   Intellectually, I understood that.  But watching the early results Tuesday night was like watching HOSTEL after being told it was a teen comedy.  Despite all the assurances from MSNBC (and James Carville who was Foster Brooks with better whiskey), I got 2016 PTSD flashbacks.  

That was my first mistake.  Number two was watching election coverage Tuesday night for eight straight hours. That was like being traumatized by HOSTEL then sticking around for HOSTEL 2.  And not turning off the TV just in case there was a “Making of HOSTEL” aftershow.  

I’ll never make that mistake again.  

I started the night watching CNN.  It was like being in a video game but louder and more frenetic.  Blaring fanfares, in-your-face graphics, Wolf Blitzer, and John King at the Magic Wall.  Prior to Tuesday night I was a big fan of John King and the Magic Wall.  But when they would go to him prior to election night, it was for two minutes.   John would cram ten minutes of information into those two, but then it would be done.  He was a jello shot.  

Tuesday night, however, it was wall-to-wall Magic Wall.  A relentless data dump.  I felt like I was someone just learning rudimentary English listening to Gus Johnson call a basketball game on the radio.  It was exhausting.  Not that he didn’t know his stuff, but counties were zooming in and out, and graphics and numbers and comparisons to Hilary Clinton’s performance in 2016, and who’s over-performing and under-performing, and the top of my head felt like a Jiffy Pop bag ready to explode.  Slow down!  Or take a breath.  

But what really pissed me off was when he’d show Virginia as red and say it should go blue, votes from Goober County aren’t in, but who knows?  They might not.  Virginia could surprise people and flip red.  That’s what makes this night fun.

NO!  There is no FUN this night.  This isn’t March Madness where Weber State beats Duke and you go, “Huh.  Didn’t see that coming.”  This is literally the fate of Democracy and the United States of America.  Get your FUN elsewhere.  

That would be interrupted by blaring fanfare and percussion, a giant graphic filling the screen with an ELECTION UPDATE.  Then they show a graphic of Trump and Biden.  At the top of the screen it says “Nevada.”   Under Trump’s photo it has his percentage at 93% and Biden’s is at 6%.  I’m thinking, Jesus, we’re fucked.  Then underneath the percentages are the actual votes.  Trump: 82, Biden 9.  WTF?!   

And all of this hysteria was just in the first hour.  

By the way, did you know that CNN’s Dana Bash was once married to John King for four years?  They had a child together.  I just assume when they had sex that John was still wearing that black suit.  

I decided to see what the broadcast networks were up to.  CBS was in love with swirling cameras on jibs floating all over the set.  Like someone tied a camera to a moth.  I could only do five minutes.  

Maybe it’s because I’m from a different age, but when it came to network news there was CBS and NBC.  ABC was the station that had THE FLINTSTONES and BRADY BUNCH.   I’ve never taken ABC News seriously.  If you want to eat healthy you don’t go to Shakey’s.  So I skipped ABC entirely.  

I didn’t watch Fox News for the same reason I don’t join Scientology or leave snacks in the backyard for visiting extra terrestrials.  

If I was going to watch NBC I figured I might as well watch MSNBC.   They were less frenetic than CNN and I felt like I was with my peeps.  Interesting that Rachel Maddow anchored the coverage and once-golden-boy, Brian Williams was relegated to the projection desk.  “NBC projects Oklahoma goes to Donald Trump.  Now back to Rachel for the next forty minutes.”

Rachel conveyed sanity and perspective.  Again, my fault for ignoring all the times she and her co-anchors implored me to relax and be patient.  

The highlight of the MSNBC coverage was Steve Kornacki at their Magic Board.  I love his enthusiasm.  Kornacki is the nerd in High School who got a girlfriend.  As knowledgeable as King but less polished and refreshingly goofy.   He maybe got four hours sleep in total last week.  I suspect he’s going to emerge from this coverage as the star.  

Late into the night, Biden gave a “just wait and relax” speech, and then Trump gave a truly horrifying insane victory speech from the White House to a crowd of maskless, brainless toadies who gave him a standing ovation as he spewed one shameful lie after another, standing at a podium with 200 American Flags behind him (probably stolen from local public schools).  

To both MSNBC’s credit (and CNN’s), their hosts and analyst ripped the shit out him, said he had reached a new low, which is now the reaction every time he speaks.  I thought it was interesting when he tried the same thing the next day in the briefing room, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, and ABC cut away from his speech about two minutes in when they could see it was just a blizzard of reprehensible lies.  Think about that:  All three networks cutting away from the president of the United States.  

So I went to sleep suicidal that first night.  I woke up at 4:30 and checked the website to see that Biden had pulled ahead in Wisconsin & Michigan.  Ohmygod!  James Carville (the happy drunk relative at every family function) was right.  

For the next few days I avoided TV coverage.  I’d check websites every few hours.  And day by day things started looking better.  He took Michigan and Wisconsin.  When Biden turned the corner in Pennsylvania I actually was able to keep food down.   Like everybody, waiting was frustrating.  But I took comfort in knowing that meticulous vote counting would make it harder for Trump to challenge, and the wait must’ve been extra torture on Trump.   Reports were that everybody close to him was afraid to tell him the reality of the situation.  I might’ve done it this way:  “It looks like you’ll no longer be president with all the privileges that come with that, and instead you’ll lose your empire and spend the rest of your life in prison.  But the good news is a new SHARK TANK airs tonight on ABC.”  

The announcement Saturday morning was GLORIOUS.  And with Biden winning by quite a margin and record popular vote, the Genie is out of the bottle.  All the celebrations over the weekend, victory speeches Saturday night (which reminded me of how real presidents act), congratulations from world leaders — the country and world has spoken.  Trump’s baseless legal challenges will go nowhere, as all of his legal challenges the last two weeks have.    It’s over.  Finally.  We can turn our attention to healing, justice, decency, stability, empathy, and stopping this pandemic.

As someone said on Facebook:  One plague down and one to go.