Tuesday, April 07, 2020

What I won't write

A lot of playwrights are busily writing their Coronavirus plays. I’m sure there are 800 plays about couples cooped up in self-isolation. (Forget that there’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?).

Since the current theatre trend is to stage as many zeitgeist-themed plays as possible, what better? Suddenly all the playwrights with immigration and trans plays are out of luck. Coronavirus is the new hot thing.

I will not be writing one.

Once TV series go back into production I imagine there will be a slew of Coronavirus-themed episodes as well. Certainly on the doctor and hospital shows. But I suspect every show will have at least one main character who comes down with it. 

I will not be writing one.

And I’m sure screenwriters are busily cranking out their post-virus doomsday movie scripts.

I will not be writing one of those either.

Here’s my feeling: After this horrible ordeal, who the hell is going to want to watch a Coronavirus play, or movie, or episode of STATION 19?

I believe we will watch anything BUT Coronavirus stories.

When this is all over, it might be a good time to revisit a little genre called COMEDY.

That I will write.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Working from home

I know for many people it’s a big adjustment. But as a writer I have to say I love working at home. I know other writers who feel they need to get out of the house, go to Starbucks, or an office, even if that means renting one. One writer I know likes to write in the produce section of Gelsons’s Market.

Of course today those away-from-home options aren’t available. There’s not even produce at Gelson’s.

I do miss the camaraderie of being in a writers’ room and being on sound stages, but when it’s time to sit in a room by myself and write a script, I prefer to do it where I don’t have to wear pants.

There’s also the commute factor. Not a lot of traffic between my kitchen and office. And think what I’m saving at the pump!

I know for me this began at the beginning of my career. David Isaacs and I would meet in one of our apartments and write our spec scripts at night after going to jobs during the day. When we finally got a toe-hold in the business and were able to quit our day jobs there was something almost decadent about getting together in an apartment at 10 in the morning and being able to make a living writing. It almost felt like we were playing hooky.

The downside of writing at home is that for many people it’s harder to concentrate. Too many other things going on around you… like life. And of course, when you are writing no one takes that seriously. People feel free to interrupt you at any time. You want to say, “If I were a doctor performing an operation, would you just come in and complain about your Aunt Rose?”

Another problem some writers have working at home is they feel they can never set it aside. It’s much easier when you go to an office and carve out hours for dedicated writing, but when you can sit down at the home computer anytime it’s hard to just set work aside without feeling a little guilty.

On the other hand, an advantage (at least for me) is that when I get stuck I just can just shut it down and do something else, regardless of the time. I’m not chained to my desk. When I do get stuck I often take a shower. In a more relaxed state the solution usually comes. I can’t take a shower at Starbucks (not that I’ve ever inquired).

But writing is only one job. Lots of you are conducting your business from home now. How has that adjustment been for you? Aside from all the self-isolation annoyances and cabin fever we all feel, do you find you like working from home? Or hate it? I bet for some it’s the very first time you have worked from home.

Stay safe and remember – you don’t need your pants.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Weekend Post

I don't care what the haters say, Joe Buck is an excellent sportscaster. And he's got a great sense of humor. During this pandemic when there are no sports to call, Joe offered to do play-by-play on anything, personalized just for the person who requested it. Here's a mash-up of the results. I'm telling ya, the guy is FUNNY.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Friday Questions

Hello fellow shut-ins. How about some Friday Questions to give you something to do for ten minutes?

Jeff Alexander leads off.

With everyone encouraged (and almost mandated) to stay at home during this coronavirus pandemic, can you recommend a TV series available on DVD to "binge-watch"?

I'm sure that you would recommend "Cheers" or "Frasier," but I was thinking of ones in which you were not personally involved.

For sitcoms I would say EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, 30 ROCK, BECKER, FAWLTY TOWERS, THE COUPLING (British version), BLACK ADDER, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, and TAXI. And if you want to go way back, THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and the 39 classic episodes of THE HONEYMOONERS.

For dramas, BREAKING BAD, THE SOPRANOS, MAD MEN, JUSTIFIED, KILLING EVE, HUSTLE (British show), THE FUGITIVE, THE ROCKFORD FILES, COLUMBO, HILL STREET BLUES, THE PRACTICE, L.A. LAW, and LOST (just don’t count on a great finale).

I’m not a sci-fi or horror guy so there are a lot more if you’re into those genres.

From -3- :

With everybody hunkered down to avoid the Trump Flu, is traffic going up on the archives? Or is it just old weirdoes like me reading through?

Just curious.

Traffic has gone up since our National House Arrest, but it’s hard to tell with the archive. The stats will show that someone logged onto a particular post, but it won’t know if it’s a regular reader or someone just finding that post on Google.

Interestingly, more people go back and listen to archive episodes of my podcast, which delights me.

I invite you to dive in to either or both.

Bob Gassel asks:

When MASH episodes were being performed, shot and edited, was any consideration given to leaving time for the laugh track? I always assumed there was, but recall Larry and Gene claiming that wasn't the case.

No. None. The laugh track was always an afterthought and we sprinkled it in as judiciously and unobtrusively as possible.

We never asked actors to hold for laughs when filming.

And finally, from C. Warren Dale:

More and more shows these days - almost all streaming dramas, more and more network and cable dramas, and even a few streaming (The Kominsky Method) and network (The Good Place, The Conners) comedies embrace a serialized story structure. This can make for good television but it makes it impossible to write a spec. Any assumptions you make about the characters, setting, or storyline could be blown apart by the next episode that airs. As television moves in this direction, how do you think new writers will be able to demonstrate their skills in that context?

There’s no question this is a big problem. I always tell young writers to just pick a place in the run and begin your episode there. You’re obviously not expected to know how the series really goes, but if you can find a place in the season where they take a breath, that’s usually the best place to jump in.

Hopefully your writing and handling of the characters and tone will make up for not knowing where their story is going.

I know of one producer who read a spec script of a serialized series and said, “Shit, his way was better than ours.”

Best of luck.

Stay safe. Take a deep dive into the archives.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

MASH and the coronavirus

Enough people have sent this to me that I feel I should share it with you.  Good advice from the 4077th.   Even though we were writing about the 1950's we were ahead of our time.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

EP168: Free Association Podcasting


As an experiment, Ken just free associates from one random topic to another. It’s a little of everything including throwing Neil Young out of a record store. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Real Don Steele

The Real Don Steele would have been 84 today. You've probably heard me talk of him before. He's one of my idols.

He passed away on August 5, 1997. For thirty years The Real Don Steele ruled the Los Angeles airwaves, most notably on 93/KHJ “Boss Radio” in the 60’s and 70’s. Outrageous, electrifying, thrilling – that was Real on…and OFF the air. If you want to hear the greatest cookin’ jock to ever crack a mike in the heyday of top 40. You can check him out here.

Real also appeared in some highly prestigious films such as EATING RAOUL, DEATH RACE 2000 (starring Sylvester Stallone), ROCK N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, and Ron Howard’s first directing effort, GRAND THEFT AUTO. Television credits are equally as impressive: TALES FROM THE CRYPT and HERE COMES THE BRIDES.

I had the pleasure of working with him at two radio stations, K100 and TenQ in LA in the 70’s. He also fell off my couch stinking drunk one night and my wife still invited him to dinner again.

His catch phrase was “Tina Delgado is alive, ALIVE!” shouted by some unknown frenzied girl. No one ever knew the story behind it. Who Tina Degado was. How he came to use it. Even what the hell it meant. But it didn’t matter. It was all part of the excitement this larger-than-life personality created for “the magnificent megalopolis of Boss Angeles” three hours every day…and especially on “Fractious Fridays”.

Every year on his birthday, April 1st, I wish that maybe his passing is just an April’s Fool joke. That would be so like him. And at 3:00 I could turn on the radio, “Devil with a Blue Dress” by Mitch Ryder would come blazing out of my speaker and I would hear “The Real Don Steele is alive, ALIVE!”

He is in my heart. And always will be.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What I learned from Neil Simon

Thomas Tucker posed a Friday Question asking what was so remarkable about Neil Simon? Yesterday, I gave an overall perspective. Today, I want to share my personal feelings.

I never took a course in comedy writing. I never read a book on how to write comedy. I may have skimmed a few while standing in a bookstore (historical note: At one time physical books were available in stores that sold them.) I learned by watching shows I admired like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and by reading plays by my playwright idols.

George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart were particular favorites. Comedies they wrote in the ‘20’s and ‘30s still held up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I was drawn to them because their comedy was very character-based. Smart interesting people were put in funny situations and reacted in surprising ways, and more than that, said really funny things as a result. I love verbal humor. Not “jokes.” Funny lines that stem from attitude.

And I discovered early on that no one did that better than Neil Simon. He has a couple of thick volumes of his collected plays. And those were my “graduate school.” I studied his construction, the types of jokes he went for. I tried to figure out his thought process. I studied his plays for rhythm, flow, for making every character seem real and yet endlessly funny.

What kind of joke goes where? When does a joke get in the way? How do you set up misunderstandings? How do you find humor in serious situations? He doesn’t just hit you with a string of jokes. He structures scenes and situations so that the comedy builds. He employs various tropes, like “call backs.” There’s tremendous craft in a Neil Simon play.

So a lot of what I know about comedy writing I learned directly from him, or more accurately, his example.

Once he moved out to California in the ‘80s he started writing his plays here and instead of taking them out of town before Broadway, he would mount them here. New Haven’s loss is LA’s gain. I used to go to the first or second preview and a few months later, fly to New York to see the finished Broadway version. I was fascinated by what changed, what he did to improve it – and improve it he always did. I would watch the previews and figure out what I’d do to improve it. Then I was always heartened to see the final product and in many cases the issues I saw as problematic he did too. But he addressed them better and funnier than I would have.

At the previews I used to see him in the last row with a pad and pen taking notes. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have one of those pads! Or even just read one.

So I’ve now spent two days hyping Neil Simon, and Thomas, all I can say is if you ever saw a really GOOD production of THE ODD COUPLE on stage, I guarantee you a light bulb would go on and you’d SEE what all the praise is about. He changed Broadway, and he changed comedy, and he changed me.

Monday, March 30, 2020

What's so great about Neil Simon?

Here’s a Friday Question that became two complete posts. Part 2 is tomorrow.

It’s from Thomas Tucker:

I just re-watched The Odd Couple and still find myself wondering why people thought Neil Simon's works were so good. I don't but I see that as a fault in myself rather than a fault with Neil Simon. I know you saw him as a master playwright and wonder if you could give some details about why that is. What made him so good, and what am I missing?

Okay, first of all, you can’t judge his plays by his movies. None of his movies crackled the way his plays did. A few are just awful. What the movies should be are just filmed versions of the plays with a live audience, like a multi-camera show using the original Broadway casts.

Instead, studios would tamper with them. They would “open them up” and take them outside their normal settings to make them more cinematic. So they’re unnecessarily adding content when none is needed. You don’t need scenes of Oscar and Felix at a diner. You don’t need to see Jane Fonda & Robert Redford in the park in BAREFOOT IN THE PARK.

Also, they tamper with the spirit of the casting. PLAZA SUITE is supposed to have the same two actors play all three acts. In the movie it’s Walter Mattau and three different actresses.

The movies also don’t know how to judge for laughs, how long to pause. And when you’re watching alone at home the punch lines fall flat.

Add to that, Hollywood casting. Matthau and Jack Lemon were great, but Jane Fonda instead of Elizabeth Ashley for BAREFOOT IN THE PARK? I love Jane Fonda. I admire Jane Fonda. In her younger days I was in love with Jane Fonda. But she’s not funny. She always has this “clenched” quality that certainly goes against a character who is a flighty free-spirit. Many theatre adaptations were killed by bad Hollywood casting, shoehorning stars into roles they’re not equipped to play.

Finally, sometimes the studio rewrites the scripts. Simon’s first hit play, COME BLOW YOUR HORN, was totally rewritten and destroyed by Norman Lear, miscast with Frank Sinatra, and was a total piece of shit.

Now, for the plays themselves. Remember he burst upon the scene in the early 1960’s. What was American comedy like then? Other than THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, all sitcoms were single-camera mindless fluff. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE FLYING NUN. Or variety shows with quick sketches.

Movie comedies were frothy romcoms like PILLOW TALK and GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM. And bad remakes of plays like COME BLOW YOUR HORN. Attempts to do laugh-out-loud comedy were overblown affairs like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD WORLD. The jury is still out on whether it’s hilarious or just an exercise in excess. It was in Cinerama and loaded with stars so it was more a gimmick than well-structured comedy.

And on Broadway, plays were mostly dramatic, although there were a few comedies that broke through. But it wasn’t like the ‘20s or ‘30s when you had playwrights like George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart turning out blockbuster comedies like THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Most of the “comedy” on Broadway in the early ‘60s was found in musicals (better known as musical comedies).

Then along comes Neil Simon with plays loaded with fantastic jokes that are all character-based and all move the plot forward. Audiences would go to the theatre and laugh out loud for two hours. No one else was doing that. Not to that degree. Not with that consistency. He was a revelation. Lines for tickets would be around the block. It’s a lesson that Broadway still hasn’t learned. People like to LAUGH. They stand in line for tickets for comedies, not dark depressing dirges on society’s woes.

But I digress…

Around the same time Herb Gardner wrote A THOUSAND CLOWNS. It’s my all-time favorite comedy play. It also has a lot of heart. But he never topped it. Never came close. And it took him years to write a play. Tony Shaloub was in a new Herb Gardner play and I asked how he rewrote. You need to be able to rewrite quickly while in rehearsals and previews. How does a guy who takes a year or more to write a play, rewrite on the fly? Tony said he didn’t. He over-wrote the play. It was originally way too long and he just pruned it as they went along.

Neil Simon was a master re-writer. He was super-tough on material and would rewrite constantly, sometimes whole new scenes over night.

The end result was a body of work that was remarkable. The older he got, the more depth found its way into his plays. But make no mistake; Neil Simon is the single most successful playwright in the American Theatre. (Maybe not the best, but the most successful.)

MORE TOMORROW

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Weekend Post

MASH episodes tend to be complicated and I’m often asked how we plotted out stories. So here’s how we did it.

First off, we chose the best stories we could find – the most emotional, the most interesting the best possibilities for comedy. Plotting is worthless if you have a bad story. Chekhov would pull out his hair trying to make “B.J.’s Depression” work. (Side note: stories where your lead character is depressed generally don’t work in comedy. Moping around is not conducive to laughs. Better to make them angry, frustrated, lovesick, impatient, hurt – anything but depressed… or worse, happy. Happy is comedy death.)

We got a lot of our stories from research – transcribed interviews of doctors, nurses, patients, and others who lived through the experience. But again, the key was to find some hook that would connect one of our characters to these real life incidents.

Some of these anecdotes were so outrageous we either couldn’t use them or had to tone them down because no one would believe them.

For each episode we had two and sometimes three stories. If we had a very dramatic story we would pair it with something lighter. The very first MASH we wrote, Hawkeye was temporally blind and Hawk & Beej pulled a sting on Frank.

We would try to mix and match these story fragments so that they could dovetail or hopefully come together at the end.

All that stuff you probably knew. What you didn’t know is this:

We broke the show down into two acts and a tag. Each act would have five scenes. Brief transition scenes didn’t count. But go back through some episodes. Five main scenes in the first act and five in the second. As best we could we would try to advance both of our stories in the same scenes. But each story is different and we tried to avoid being predictable.

Usually, we wrapped up the heavy story last. That’s the one you cared most about.

The tag would callback something from the body of the show, generally drawing from the funny story.

And then we had a rather major restriction: We could only shoot outside at the Malibu ranch for one day each episode. So no more than 8 pages (approximately a third of the show). And that was in the summer when there was the most light. By September and October we could devote 6 pages to exteriors. And once Daylight Savings was over that was it for the ranch for the season. All exteriors were shot on the stage. So if we wanted to do a show where the camp is overrun by oxen we better schedule it for very early in the summer. Those 20th guards never let oxen onto the lot without proper ID.

If possible we tried to do at least one O.R. scene a show. We wanted to constantly remind the audience that above all else this was a show about war.

We always feared that a sameness would creep into the storytelling so every season we would veer completely away from our game plan for several episodes just to shake things up and keep you off the scent. That’s how all format-breaking shows like POINT OF VIEW, THE INTERVIEW, and DREAMS came about. And during our years we extended that to a few mainstream episodes. We did NIGHT AT ROSIE’S that was more like a one-act play. Everything was set in Rosie’s Bar. (I wonder if a series like that but set in Boston would work?) We moved them all to a cave. We did an episode set exclusively in Post-Op and assigned each of our characters to a specific patient. Letters-to-home was another nice device.

I should point out here that I didn’t come up with the MASH guidelines for storytelling. That was all Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (pictured). We just followed the template. And for the record, in all my years in the business, no one was better at story than Gene Reynolds. He passed away recently and you can read my tribute here.   It was amazing how he could zero in on problems and more impressively, find solutions. The story had to constantly move forward, it had to have flow, logic, surprises, the comedy had to real as well as funny, and most of all – the dramatic moments (especially during the conclusion) had to be earned.

So that’s how we did it, based on how they did it. And when I occasionally watch episodes of MASH from our years there are always lines I want to change or turns that could be made more artfully or humorously, but those stories hold up beautifully. Thank you, Gene Reynolds.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday Questions

Self-quarantining and answering Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Troy McClure starts us off.

I've often wondered if directors, writers and stars ever watch one of their own works when relaxing at home. Like, does Steven Spielberg ever chill out by putting on a blu ray of Jaws. So, my question is when was the last time you put on an episode of Cheers or Frasier you wrote or put on Volunteers? I'm guessing you've never felt like putting on Mannequin 2.

No. Haven’t seen MANNEQUIN 2 in twenty years. I know how it ends.

I did watch VOLUNTEERS a couple of years ago. I talk about that this week in my podcast (listen by clicking on the big gold arrow above).   I was pleasantly surprised. I like it more now than when it was released.  I actually recommend it while we are all on House Arrest. 

If I’m doing a commentary track for my podcast I will seek out episodes I co-wrote. Otherwise, if I’m channel surfing and come across one of my episodes I will probably check it out. As you can imagine, there are episodes I like better than others. I tend to stay with those, and the ones I wish I had back I click over to Sportscenter.

Brian wonders:

In the (five-star!) podcast, you and Jay Kogen mention a "Put Pilot Penalty". What is that?

In truth, it’s bullshit. It means the network guarantees they’ll make the pilot. If they don’t they agree to a financial penalty. But it’s rarely enforced and usually just rolled over to another project.

From cd1515:

If a studio or network told you today that they needed a coronavirus related episode of ——- ASAP, how long would that take to write and ultimately get on the air?

And how different would it be for a half hour comedy versus a one hour drama?

There are so many variables it would be hard to say. Certainly a half hour show would be easier than an hour. It’s shorter. But especially today, with shows serialized, would I have to deviate from the season arc? Are there restrictions on what sets I could use or which actors I could use? Will I have to create my story around those roadblocks? Will I able to set aside my other duties to just write this episode

And not every writer writes at the same pace. Some could knock it out overnight; others would need a week. I could probably write a draft in two to three days of a half hour, especially if I already knew the characters and series intimately.

But at the moment it's a moot point.  Everything has been shut down.  

And finally, from longtime fan of the blog and successful graduate of THE SITCOM ROOM, Wendy M. Grossman:

It seems to me that it's going to be a really tough job for sitcom writers mapping out the next season. I remember that after 9/11 every show had to decide whether the attacks had happened in its world; the NYC shows that included the WTC in their credits imagery had to decide whether to keep it or not . I was watching the latest episode of BOB HEARTS ABISHOLA, for example, and there were scenes of loads of people jammed in together in church. My immediate reaction was to marvel: "Look at all the *people*." In a few months, audiences may be uncomfortable looking at a scene like that. How does a writer's room start to think about this?

My sincere hope is that within my lifetime people will be able to be packed together again. This current pandemic is a topic that will be explored and referenced on most shows, but as time moves on so will the public and entertainment.

I remember after 9/11 people predicted that American audiences will change forever and no more will they want to see stupid trivial entertainment. How long until DUCK DYNASTY, HONEY BOO BOO, TEMPTATION ISLAND, THE OSBOURNES, THE KARDASHIANS, Jessica Simpson, Jenny McCarthy, 2 BROKE GIRLS, and FEAR FACTOR came along?

Stay safe.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

EP167: Comedy Suggestions While Quarantined


On this week's Hollywood and Levine Podcast, Ken Levine puts together a list of over 60 of his favorite comedy movies worth seeing whilst you're locked on in quarantine. There’s nothing you can do and nowhere you can go, so you might as well spend the time laughing at some of the best comedies of all time. 

The list includes: Beverly Hills Cop, All About Eve, Blazing Saddles, Groundhog Day, Road To Morocco, Something About Mary and many more. Enjoy!

 

 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Podcasting in captivity

Kids in the ‘50s-‘70s who were radio geeks and dreamed of being disc jockeys (what a lofty goal) would often have “bedroom stations.” Generally, this was when no one else in the family was home because you sounded like a blithering idiot, but you would get a tape recorder, a microphone, your record player and records, and you would do faux radio shows. I also used to grab magazines for commercial copy. The hell with “more music,” I wanted to talk.

Thank God those tapes of me no longer exist. I can’t even fathom how terrible I was. My emphasis, of course, was on comedy. I did different voices and characters (not my gift) – tried to be Bob & Ray, Lohman & Barkley, Stan Freberg, Dick Whittington, Don McKinnon, Elliott Field, Gary Owens, and Emperor Bob Hudson all in one. I only had about twenty records so even the music part would have be excruciating if God forbid I did have listeners.

Some radio geeks were way more elaborate than me. Some had two turntables, some had thirty records, and some even made transmitters so they actually did broadcast, even if it was only five yards. For the sake of my neighbor, thank goodness that wasn’t me.

Looking back in my development, the bedroom station was probably very helpful. By the time I did get on a real station – KLA, the UCLA campus station – I had shed all the voices and skits. I was still abysmal but marginally better.

Thus launched a fifty year radio career as a disc jockey, talk show host, satirical commentator, and play-by-play announcer for major markets and at times nationally.

And now I’ve come full circle. Podcasting. Out of my office not bedroom, but otherwise the same. Yes, there are a couple of slight differences. I think I’m a slightly better broadcaster, and my podcast can now be heard in every corner of the world.

Fortunately, I can do my podcast from home. The acoustics are excellent and I don’t need to rent a studio somewhere. And it’s a great diversion during this time of self-quarantine. Usually I try to have guests half the time, but for the immediate future it will just be me. I am not reprising one of my hilarious voices. I also don’t like doing phone interviews. I think they sound awful.

But I’m not at all worried. I can usually talk for a half hour even if I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. I’m planning some interesting things for the coming weeks including an “experiment,” commentary tracks, and I’m waffling on whether to do this one week: For a media class at UCLA, fellow-classmate Bill Pearl and I made an audio documentary for our term paper. It traced the state of Top 40 radio from the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s complete with samples, programming analysis, and a lot of bullshit intellectual blather. At the time it went viral in the industry. Copies circulated throughout radio stations around the country. My question: would enough listeners be interested were I to play it on my podcast? You tell me, and my feelings won’t be hurt if you say, “God no. I could care less!”

For now my podcasts will continue every week with no interruption due to self-quarantine. Coming up in the next episode: I recommend comedy movies you might want to see while under House Arrest yourself.

Stay safe and thanks for listening (if you do).

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Maybe the greatest movie trailer EVER

Okay,

First you should know.  This is for REAL.  This movie was released in 2003.  It actually exists.  How they got these actors and how they still have careers (and in one case won an Oscar) is beyond me. 

I promise you won't believe it.  My guess is you'll watch it multiple times.  Enjoy. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

How's everybody doin'?

I was never grounded by my parents. It took the governor of California. Being over… uh, 40, I’ve been asked for my own safety to stay home. There are worse places to be. And it’s helped that over the last week we’ve had some rainy days, so it’s not like I’d be going out anyway if I didn’t have to.

What’s tough is getting exercise. On those rain days when I stay in I make sure I get my 10 steps a day, even if I have to push myself. On nice days I can walk, careful not to touch anything, or look at any surface that anyone else has touched in the last two weeks.

I listen a lot to oldies and there is no better source than Richbroradio.com.  Even still, "wow" songs pop up that I haven't heard in years.  It's a deep dive into the 50's, 60's, and 70's. 

My heart goes out to all those workers in all those industries that are currently not working and not making the income they need to survive. I think of all those businesses like restaurants and bars and theatres that work off such a small margin that if this continues for any length of time they’re out of business.

Meanwhile, fucking casinos want a bail-out.  How about giving me my money back when I lose, assholes? 

And the president, who disbanded the pandemic department, claimed the virus was a hoax, said it would disappear like a miracle, was woefully late in responding to the crisis leading to the panic and increased shitstorm we have now – he claims he “takes no blame.” (I’m going to just disable comments for today because that's what we libtards do.)

I am very fortunate in many ways. And one is that as a writer I can use my work to escape into another world. People ask, “How can you write comedy during such dark times?” And my answer is: that’s exactly when you SHOULD write comedy. The governor can tell me not to venture into the world, but he can’t keep me out of my own world.

For all writers, I invite you to use this time – especially if you find yourself home with hours of free time. These few months are such a waste. At least something useful can come out of it.

During the Black Plague Shakespeare was confined to home and used the time to write KING LEAR and MACBETH.  Luckily for the world he had let his Netflix subscription run out.  

And if it’s not writing, it’s whatever project you’ve been putting off. Make those photo albums. Learn Garage Band or iMovies. Read those books that have been sitting on your nightstand for years. Set up virtual conferences. Four new terms Americans have learned this year: coronavirus (NOT China virus), COVID-19, social distancing, and ZOOM.

Be safe. Be productive.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Weekend Post

Haven't done this in awhile -- posted a snippet from my memoir, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s).  You can buy a copy here.  Let's stagger back to Quentin Tarantino's favorite year, 1969 and happier times when we could all go outside.   

I started going out with Rhonda. She lived in Philadelphia and was just out here staying with relatives, one of whom was my friend Jay. Might this be one of those “summer romances” where you meet, fall madly in love, she goes home in September, you’re heartbroken, you remember her always, she forgets you the minute she enters the jetway? But you get laid so she may injure you like no woman ever has but screw it, you got what you wanted.

For date #1, I suggested we see EASY RIDER, a movie that had been getting a lot of buzz. The saga of two hippies (starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) traveling across America had struck a real chord. The ending where rednecks shoot and kill them stunned and startled young audiences. It was the one “You’ve got to see this movie” movie of the summer. But Rhonda had no interest. So we saw her choice instead -- CHITTY-CHITTY BANG BANG starring Dick Van Dyke.

I got a goodnight kiss.

Since I knew that time was of the essence I decided to just pull out the stops for date #2. I offered to take her to Disneyland. That should be good for at least some hands-inside-the-sweater action. She didn’t want to go to Disneyland. She had already been there.

But she did want to go to Japanese Village and Deer Park.

What the fuck?!


L.A. had a number of animal-themed attractions back then. Jungleland was way out in Thousand Oaks. The most bizarre was Lion Country Safari. You’d drive around slowly while jungle animals roamed freely around you. Good idea to keep your windows up so the lions wouldn’t stick their heads in your car and eat your children.

In Buena Park, not far from Disneyland, was Japanese Village and Deer Park. This featured a Japanese-themed tranquil Zen-like atmosphere with gardens and koi ponds, and a tea house, and dove pavilion. Deer were allowed to wander. You can’t believe how crushingly boring this place was.

Another goodnight kiss.

For date #3 I suggested Lion Country Safari figuring I would roll down the window on Rhonda’s side of the car. But she wasn’t interested so there was no date #3.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody?

cd1515 starts us off:

Why does seemingly every movie have the “no way in hell“ moment in the first 5 to 10 minutes, where the main character insists there is no way in hell he’ll do whatever the plot of the movie has him doing (climbing Mount Everest, teaching third grade, meeting his ex for lunch, etc)?
We know he’s going to do it. There’s no movie if he doesn’t do it. Couldn’t we skip this part and just get to the story?

I couldn’t agree more. It’s such a cliché and you’re right, the audience KNOWS he’s going to do it. We call that “schmuck bait.” The MADAM SECRETARY pilot was like that. She was offered the job, she didn’t want to take it, but that’s the title of the series so you KNOW she is going to take it.

Similarly, in sitcoms when someone quits their job or gets fired – you know they’ll be back.

Rich wonders:

Do you think the new Matthew Broderick/Sarah Jessica Parker production of "Plaza Suite" will work on Broadway, or is the comedy too specific to the 1960's/70's?

Well, assuming it ever gets on – I think parts will work better than others. There are three acts with Matthew & Sarah playing three different characters.

The last act is a killer – that’s the one where the bride locks herself in the bathroom. It’s uproariously funny.

The second one about the agent and his reunion with an old flame may come off musty.

And the first act about a marriage breaking up probably will still work.

I will say this, George C. Scott played it originally on Broadway It’s hard to picture Matthew Broderick and George C. Scott in the same role.

From Dave H:

Is there a topic on your blog about old shows that have not aged well? Where you cant believe that people thought they were funny.

LAUGH-IN. I thought it was hysterical at the time (like everyone else), but it is painfully unfunny.

GET SMART got stupid.

THE MONKEES. I still love their music but their show is hard to watch.

And finally, BATMAN. Hilarious for two months and then just awful.

And finally, from Glenn:

What do you think of the sitcom "Night Court"? Some of the actors admit they had the reputation for being too lowbrow or silly, but damn if the show wasn't hilarious. (The character of Dan Fielding is one of my all time favorites.)

NIGHT COURT was broad and silly but always made me laugh. They had some great goofy characters and the writers serviced them beautifully. I miss the days when shows just tried to make you laugh out loud.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

EP166: More with Comedy Writer Jay Kogen


This week, comedy writer Jay Kogen discusses his time working on FRASIER, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, and shares stories about his work on the huge hit TV show THE SIMPSONS.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Who is Robert Redford?

As you know I’m a devotee of JEOPARDY. But what amazes me more is not what these contestants know but what they don’t know. They can rattle off Egyptian mythological figures or obscure rivers in Tunisia or fourteen-letter words, but there are interesting black holes.

I base this not on wrong answers. I base this on no one ringing in. So clearly none of the three contestants were even willing to take a guess.

Now bear in mind these contestants tend to be from their mid-20’s to 40’s (although there are some exceptions). And they’re all remarkably bright.   They're not kids.  They've seemingly been around.

But…

In episodes within the last couple months…

No one knew who Robert Redford was (after being shown a picture of him as the Sundance Kid).

No one knew that the actor playing Mr. Rogers in BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD was Tom Hanks.

No one recognized Jake Tapper after being told he was an anchor on CNN.

No one knew Fred Astaire.

No one knew Billy Wilder.

No one knew Glen Campbell.

No one knew Fred Willard.

No one knew Neil Sedaka.

No one knew MORK & MINDY.

Now you yourself may not know all of these people, but you’re not on JEOPARDY. I just find it fascinating that for all the knowledge that these people have in so many areas, seemingly easy ones are blind spots. I mean, I can understand not knowing Fred Willard, but Robert Redford? Tom Hanks? If you follow the news, shouldn’t one out of three know what Jake Tapper is?

On the other hand, we live in kind of a bubble here in Hollywood. People are famous to us so we assume the rest of the world knows them. Same with shows. We just assume everybody watched MAD MEN. They didn’t. Only a tiny portion. Or FLEABAG or OUTLANDER or anything on ABC. It turns out librarians in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or math teachers in Altoona, Pennsylvania couldn’t pick Jon Hamm out of a lineup.

It’s either a good lesson in humility or the contestants they pick live under rocks.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Since you can't go to a bar this St. Patrick's Day, why not come to mine?

This is a scene from a CHEERS David Isaacs and I wrote. One of the many Bar Wars episodes. In this one, it’s St. Patrick's Day. Woody had been guarding the bar all night in anticipation that Gary might try to pull something.

INT. BAR – MORNING

SAM TURNS ON THE LIGHT. HE ENTERS WITH CARLA AND NORM. WE SEE THE BAR IS ENCASED IN CINDER BLOCKS. SPRAY PAINTED ON THEM ARE “HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY.”

SAM
Oh my God. Gary.

CARLA
He topped it.

NORM
Walled off from the keg. I want him dead. His family… dead. His friends… dead. His pets…DEAD.

SAM
That rat! I’ll kill him!

NORM
I thought you were going to have Woody stand guard so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.

WOODY (V.O.)
I’m sorry, Sam. I fell asleep.

CARLA
They bricked Woody up inside the bar.

NORM
First he marries a rich girl and now this. I tell you, that guy was born lucky.

NORM EXITS TO THE POOL ROOM.

CARLA
Boy, Sam. This thing is sealed up tight.

SAM
How you doing in there, Woody? You okay?

WOODY (V.O.)
I’m feeling a little light headed.

CARLA
Thank God, he’s okay.

NORM ENTERS FROM THE POOL ROOM OPENING A CAN OF BEER.

SAM
Hey, Norm, where’d you get that beer?

NORM
I’ve got a couple cans squirreled around the bar for emergencies. I always thought it would be a nuclear thing, but this qualifies.

AN IRISH BAND ENTERS. THEY’RE ALL WEARING CABLE-KNIT SWEATERS. ONE OF THEM IS NAMED SEAN.

SEAN
Where do you want us to set up, Mr. Malone?

SAM
How about right there? (POINTS UPSTAGE; THEN, TO THE GANG) See, guys? We can still win this thing. The band’s here, we’ve got the green beer… all we need to do is take down this wall and hustle like there’s no tomorrow. Okay? Now I want to see a winning attitude here. A little positivity.

THE BAND BEGINS TO SING AND PLAY A SLOW IRISH BALLAD:

SEAN
(singing) “They broke into our Dublin home, the dirty English dogs. They took away my sister and they beat my dad with logs.”

THEY BREAK INTO A QUICK UP BEAT IRISH JIG FOR A BEAT, THEN RESUME THE LYRICS:

SEAN
(singing) “Along the ring of Kerry you can hear the bleat of gulls, I’ll sip the blood of the English from their bleached and hollowed skulls.” (TO THE BAR) Everybody!!

WOODY (V.O.)
Boy, if they look as good as they sound, Gary’s doesn’t stand a chance.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. BAR – LATER

ENOUGH OF THE CINDER BLOCKS HAVE BEEN CHIPPED AWAY TO RENDER THE BAR FUNCTIONAL. WOODY IS BEHIND THE BAR. THE BAND IS STILL PLAYING.

SEAN
(finishing a dirge) “…And everywhere I looked was death, death, death.”

A SMATTERING OF APPLAUSE.

SEAN
And now for a sad song. (STRUMS A CHORD, SINGS) “Twas a baby’s crib…”

SAM
(interrupting) That’s it! You’re finished. Here’s your money. Get out.

SEAN
Go to hell.

THE BAND EXITS.

SAM
Well, it’s over. I guess we should add up the receipts and see how we did.

CARLA
What’s the total, Woody?

WOODY
(figuring on a calculator) One million five hundred thousand dollars.

FRASIER
Decimal point, Woody.

WOODY
Hold everything. A hundred and fifty even.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Addendum to Weekend Post

Boy, this weekend's post really seemed to bring out the idiots and trolls.  

Let me make your life easier.  If you support Trump, if you don't think the crisis in this country is MUCH worse because of lack of leadership, STOP READING MY BLOG.   GO AWAY.  There are many ignorant blogs and websites you can go to.  Other morons who are happy to agree this is all a hoax.  Or that Obama created COVID-19.

Don't subject yourself to me.  I'll only piss you off.  This is not required reading.  Go and have a nice life ELSEWHERE. 

I'm disabling comments for this post.  Life's too fucking short. 

Late Night Talk Shows suspended

So the late night talk shows been suspended due to the coronavirus. At first, they were going to do them but without audiences. From what I understand, some of the hosts were freaked out about that. Stephen Colbert, who I like, was awful.  Vamping with flop sweat. 

Personally, I think it would have been a good thing for them to do. Talk show hosts use the studio audience as a crutch. They play to them, and not to me.

No audience means that Fallon and Colbert and Corden, etc. will have to look into the camera and address the viewer one on one. That’s a good skill to have. Because your job is really to be a communicator.

God forbid you can’t do a monologue. What about sharing a story or just talking to your viewers? To me, the only talk show hosts who connect directly with the audience (even with a studio audience) are John Oliver, and the undisputed master, Oprah. Carson, on occasion as well.

But talk show hosts these days tend to take on “personas” – exaggerations of themselves. They’re playing “characters.” So when they’re forced to be real they have a tough time.

And now they’ve dodged the bullet. Their shows have been suspended and they won’t have to suffer through that trial of trying to be interesting and entertaining without hoots and hollers from the crowd. Honestly, I don’t think they can.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Weekend Post

Some random thoughts on the coronavirus...

Can you imagine how much money Vegas is losing by the NCAA Basketball Tournament cancellation?

And for that matter, do you really want to be in an enclosed casino with 5,000 other people?   Las Vegas is going to take a bath.

What will ESPN do now with no major sports?  Will they go back to the days of axe throwing competitions?

And how about the poor hosts on sportstalk radio?  What are they going to talk about? 

The one sport that will come out the best is the NFL.  It's their free agent signing period.

Would we be in this mess if any other person was our president?   I'm sorry it's taking a deadly virus and people getting sick to finally realize this guy doesn't give a shit about you and your well-being.  Get him the fuck out of office!

It's interesting that this pandemic only became real when Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson tested positive.

Good luck getting Postmates to deliver something to you.  They are so overwhelmed with everyone staying home.

I love Katie Porter.  All Americans should.

Wash your hands.  Stay safe. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Friday the 13th Questions

Don’t be scared. Here are this week’s Friday the 13th Questions.

h leads off:

My question's about single-cam vs multi-cam shows. Why is there no middle ground?

Traditional multi-cam shows feel like stage plays - obviously all the cameras have to keep out of sight of each other, so they tend to be arranged on one side of the set, forming the ole' fourth wall.

Single cam shows can take us anywhere, any angle on the players, because each take is shot at a different point in time - but that can lead to continuity problems. Schitt's Creek, which I've been rather enjoying, has this problem in spades. You'll be watching one character, but they cut to a reverse shot and the character's in a completely different pose. I find it quite distracting.

So why is there no middle ground of "oh, we're shooting these two talking, so let's get the two sides of it at the same time"? They obviously can't get every shot they'll need for coverage - wides will have to be shot later - and the characters' lighting will end up being compromised a little, but at least the dialog will be perfectly in sync and continuity won't be a problem. It'd give the players more scope to act spontaneously without worrying they've got to perfectly match every move again.

There is middle ground on both.

A number of multi-camera shows don’t film before a live studio audience. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER was one. They “block and shoot” so it’s like a single-camera show in that regard, except with four cameras.  And the cameras can go deeper into the set.

Even multi-cams that do shoot with an audience will pre-shoot some scenes from time to time. If there’s a show with children, chances are the bulk of their scenes are pre-shot the day before the rest of the show is filmed in front of an audience.

Now for single camera shows, most today are double camera shows. They’ll shoot two angles at once, thus saving time and the number of takes.

If there are matching problems on SCHITT’S CREEK that’s the problem of the script supervisor. One of her/his jobs is to check on continuity.

PolyWogg wonders:

Do you think there's a market for ebook versions of scripts? I've been ordering some plays recently, and most of them are only in paper form, unless you order direct from a playwrights website. One playwright's agent will send you scripts for free if you pretend you're a theatre group (or even if you don't).

I do think there’s an appetite for scripts and plays. Maybe a problem with ebooks is formatting. It’s hard to stay in script form in an ebook when the reader can change the size and font.

If you want one of my plays, just go to kenlevineplays.com. They’re downloadable but not in ebook form.

From Waylon Mercy comes a CHEERS question.

What are some of your favorite season 11 episodes? I have to say- "The Beer is Always Greener" and "Last Picture Show" are near perfect episodes to me. Would put them in pantheon of best sitcom eps of all time!!

Season 11 is the final season. I would say the series finale written by Glen & Les Charles, and I like one that David Isaacs and I wrote called “Loathe & Marriage.”

There are a lot of really good episodes in Season 11 and one reason is that Glen & Les came back full-time to shepherd the last half of the year, and no one ran that show as well as them.

And finally, Kent Cross has a question about collaboration on one of our sitcom sets.

Can anyone from the crew submit notes (like the caterer), or are they generally only come from certain job titles?

Certain job titles. Primarily the director, actors, writers, and producers. I’m not saying I wouldn’t listen if a cameraman had a note; I’m just saying I wouldn’t encourage it. And it’s pretty well understood that crew people don’t give notes. It’s not their department.

But that’s not to say a prop master can’t have an idea for a prop that will really help a scene, or a set dresser might have some thoughts on how to spruce up the set. The right wardrobe can really enhance a scene. Within their own departments, crew members (who are all consummate professionals) add immeasurably to a show, but script and acting notes are reserved for others.

Watch out for black cats and submit your FQ in the comments section.  Thanks. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

EP165: The Birth Of The Simpsons


Ken interviews Jay Kogen, one of the original writers of THE SIMPSONS. He’s worked on many great shows and won an Emmy for a script of FRASIER. In part-one of this two-parter, Jay talks about breaking in, learning from Garry Shandling, and the early days of THE SIMPSONS. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

MASH & women writers

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post.

It’s from Dan Harrison.

How do you think M*A*S*H would have been different if there had been more women on the writing staff (that is, if the writing staff had reflected the diversity of the staffs today)? Yes, Linda Bloodworth got her start writing on M*A*S*H, and Karen Hall made significant contributions, but most of the staff were men. Just curious if you think the trajectory of the series might have been different if there were more female contributions? (I realize this is probably a horrible “what if” impossible-to-answer question).

Okay, I will try to answer this loaded question. I can see readers frantically clicking on the Comments section even as I type.

The short answer, that is both a cop out and the correct one is that it depends on who the writer is and what her strengths are. I see no difference in “talent” between men and women writers – in all aspects. Story, emotion, comedy – women are as good or better than men in any category.

That said, I think MASH would potentially be a difficult assignment for a woman writer because of this:

To write MASH well I believe you needed to have some experience in the military. I honestly don’t believe I could have written on that show without it. There is a mindset and a culture in the U.S. military that is distinct and baffling. Without having a clear exposure and understanding of it, I think any writer would be somewhat lost. MASH, at least in the early years, strove for authenticity.

A case can always be made for exceptions, but I feel you needed a command of that world to do MASH justice. And at least during our watch, we would get scripts back from freelancers and know within three pages whether this writer had ever set foot on an army base. And we did a lot of rewriting as a result.

That’s not to say a woman couldn’t have been in the service, or even been an Army brat growing up on bases and being exposed that way, but that narrows the field considerably.

However, as I alluded to briefly, MASH in the early Larry Gelbart-Gene Reynolds years evolved into a different show by the later seasons. One may argue which era was the best, but I think all would agree those early seasons were more representative of the actual mindset of the period. Think MAD MEN but ten years earlier even. In the later seasons the show became much more “enlightened.” And trust me, the US Army was anything but “enlightened,” and my guess is that hasn’t changed.

In later seasons of MASH, Margaret (no longer Hot Lips) had glamorous hairstyles, wore designer sweatshirts that had MASH stenciled on them (not exactly government issued) and had long nails. OR nurses wearing gloves did not have long nails. So you could say a woman writer would do a better job of writing a woman character but not if that character bore little reality to an actual MASH nurse.

In the overall picture, I don’t think you could do MASH today and really do it justice. The TV show, at its best, was a stylized version of the movie. And that was the REAL MASH. Try adapting a version of that in any form that would be both true to the period and acceptable in today’s PC world. I wouldn’t have a clue. So it extends beyond whether more women writers should have been employed. On series that I showran (if that’s now a word) I always had women writers on staff, sometimes 50/50. It’s not that I think women couldn’t write MASH today. I don’t think I could write MASH today.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The play that went wrong from the start

I always hate to write negative reviews of projects friends of mine are in. In this case, two wonderful actors, Patrick Breen and Margaret Colin who are in the cast of Richard Greenberg’s new play, THE PERPLEXED that opened last week at the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club. I saw a preview performance when I was in New York recently.  They both were terrific, especially considering the material they were given to work with. 

I went into it with high hopes. I want my friends to succeed, the creative team is top notch (Lynne Meadows directed), and there are so few non musical plays on Broadway that you hope a good one will spark more.

Unfortunately, THE PERPLEXED is a hot mess. It is getting terrible reviews. The NY Times hated it. I can’t imagine it’ll be around much longer.

I’m not going to review it per se because what are the chances you’ll ever see it? But what struck me and what I want to focus on is how obvious and basic the mistakes were. How many rules of common sense storytelling were broken – rules that are there for a reason (they WORK).

The play is set literally in a drawing room. But all the action (what little there is) takes place offstage in another room. There are the obligatory “bombshell” reveals but they change nothing. The exposition and relationships between the characters is utterly unfollowable. There are way too many characters, and yet the main antagonist (who drives what little story there is) is never seen. Many times the narrative just stops while two characters discuss social issues. Numerous times two characters will be doing a scene while a third character is sitting upstage reading a book. He’s in full view and earshot of the conversation but doesn’t engage. Playwriting 101 says actors HATE being onstage with nothing to do. If they don’t belong in the scene find a way to get them out. I think they teach that the first day.

Another actor disappears for an hour. When he returns you’re going “who is he again?”

The play is billed a comedy and has precious few laughs. It’s 2 hours and 30 minutes long. The characters are mostly all rich assholes and you don’t empathize with any of them. The story moves are contrived and unbelievable. There’s to be a wedding in the ballroom, but they’re holding the dinner and reception FIRST and then at midnight the couple is getting married. Huh? Why? Who does that and for what reason other than the writer needed it that way?

It also felt like the K-Tel version of today’s zeitgeist theatre topics. Diversity, immigration, LGBT, culture clashes, religion, politics – all touched on in a mish-mosh of indulgence and over importance. Check all the boxes.

Like I said, if these were mistakes by a novice playwright I would understand it. But Jesus, the Manhattan Theatre Company? Tony-winner, Richard Greenberg? Lynne Meadows? Didn’t ANYBODY step back and notice these neon glaring problems?

There was an article before the play opened in the NY Times where Greenberg & company were talking about how they used previews to really listen to the audience and sharpen the play. Really? Based on the review, nothing of any substance changed from when I saw it almost two weeks before opening. A number of audience members left at intermission the night I was there. When the lights went up for intermission someone in my row called out “This is a mess!” So what audience was Greenberg reading?

I’ve spent my life going to run-throughs and bad ones are apparent. There’s no gray area. You KNOW you have a dud on your hands and you’re going to have to rewrite the shit out of it – maybe even junk it and try for something else.

The version I saw ran 2 hours and 39 minutes. In two weeks, 6 minutes were added. This was really the Emperor’s New Play.

This is a play that exists solely because of the creative team's track record.   Maybe next time someone should READ it first.  

In the opening welcome announcements, in addition to asking the audience to unwrap their candy and turn off their cellphones, they should also say “If you’re a playwright, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.”

Monday, March 09, 2020

RIP Earl Pomerantz

It is with great sadness I announce the passing of Earl Pomerantz. He was 75. Earl was a dear friend and regular readers know he also had a blog, which for the moment remains up.

Happy to say Earl was a guest on my podcast. EPISODE 87. Please listen to it to hear for yourself what a sweet, funny, good-hearted person he was.

Career-wise, Earl was an Emmy-winning writer. He wrote scripts for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, RHODA, THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, PHYLLIS, TAXI, CHEERS, THE COSBY SHOW (which he also ran for a time), and created MAJOR DAD and BEST OF THE WEST. He was also a creative consultant on both Garry Shandling shows, LATELINE, and ACCORDING TO JIM. His credits alone tell you he was a terrific comedy writer.

But he was a very different type of comedy writer. His humor came from celebrating humanity and pointing out the silly absurd things we all do and can relate to. He was never mean spirited. I don’t think he could write a real put down joke. Shows that derived laughs out of humiliation held no interest for him. Earl believed that comedy was meant to provide joy.

More than any writer I can think of, Earl knew exactly who he was. He knew his strengths, he knew his point-of-view, and he knew what he could write well and what he couldn’t. When you got an Earl Pomerantz script you got the best of Earl Pomerantz.  Every time.

One thing I always admired about Earl was that he never lost that sense of childhood wonder. Earl asked lots of questions. Lot. Lots and lots. And only because he sincerely wanted to know the answers.

I got Earl interested in blogging and since 2008 his own blog, EARL POMERANTZ: JUST THINKING has been delighting readers from around the world.  I invite you to browse and go down a rabbit hole of insight, whimsy, and reflections.

Some random thoughts about Earlo:

He was from Canada.

His brother was a writer whose partner was Lorne Michaels.

Earl was offered a job on the original SNL and turned it down to concentrate on sitcoms, although he had no job at the time.

He wrote commentaries for Toronto newspapers.

He voiced commentaries for NPR.

He was an actor early on and was a series regular on the Bobbie Gentry Variety Show in the late ‘60s.

He won an Emmy writing for Lily Tomlin.

He won the Humanitas Award for an episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE. That came with a cash prize that he used to buy his mother carpeting.

He was a beloved husband, father, and grandfather.

He followed me doing the warm-up on CHEERS.

He was a Toronto Blue Jays fan. And he loved spring training.

Our families went on Christmas vacations together.

He created a series for ABC called FAMILY MAN about his own life. Richard Libertini played him.

His many questions would drive some writers nuts.

As recently as a couple of years ago, he went to Oxford to study.

He loved Westerns (what Canadian didn’t?).

He created a multi-camera Western called BEST OF THE WEST that ran for a year on ABC. It was hilariously funny. Among the writers: Sam Simon and David Lloyd.

Back in the ‘80s when writers were still making stupid money, Earl was in a long late rewrite. During a break in the wee hours he said, “There’s got to be an easier way of making $300,000 a year.”

Earl said this about blogging: I’ve never had more fun writing.

He never knew how many readers he had. He never checked his stats. I think he’d be pleasantly surprised.

He was good friends with John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful.

He wrote hilarious stage directions. Wanna see a secure door? Look at those locks. 

He rewrote every blog entry two or three times.  

He never got over the thrill of driving onto a movie lot.

His first drafts were always terrific. You could almost shoot them without any rewriting.

Earl used to claim that if you wanted to make cuts in a script that page 8 was never needed. You could always just remove page 8. Damned if he wasn’t usually right.

And finally, everybody loved him (even the writers he drove nuts with his questions). Probably because he loved everybody. He was a gentle soul with a wicked sense of humor. I will miss our lunches, our walks in Santa Monica, discussions of spring training facilities, analyzing today’s comedy, Bobbie Gentry stories, dinners at Roy’s, and much shared laughter.

Earl’s serious health problems began about five weeks ago. He suspended his blog, titling it “Intermission.” If only. But I’ll let him sign off.  Earl we love you and will miss you greatly. One last time, from Earl Pomerantz:

So long.

And as The Cisco Kid used to say,

“See you soon, Ha!”

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Sad news

It breaks my heart to announce that Earl Pomerantz passed away today.  He was 75.  I'll post a tribute on Monday.  I need some time to collect my thoughts.

In the meantime, Earl was a guest on my podcast, and I invite you to listen and get to know this remarkable man.  You can hear it here

He will be terribly missed. 

Weekend post

As you know, I truly love physical comedy.  I'm in awe of those who have the skill and timing to pull it off.  I am so fortunate that again this weekend Hilary Chaplain is in my short comedy, THE GERMAN PLAY, as part of ANDTheatre's Eclectic festival at Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th Street in New York.  You can get info and tickets here.  Come see a gifted performer.   Here's an example of her physical comedy. 


Friday, March 06, 2020

Friday Questions

Here are FQ’s for your weekend pleasure.

Houston has a problem has a question.

Where do you stand on the concept of holograms of dead singers in concert with live bands? There's going to be a concert tour in which a hologram of Whitney Houston will appear on stage while playback of her vocals are backed up by a live band. I think the whole thing is grotesque and tasteless, and I question the intelligence of anyone paying to watch such a travesty.

Well, it certainly would be weird – especially if Whitney takes requests.

Any chance they could put something together like that for Caruso?

I’ve never been to one of those. I think they have them for Sinatra, Elvis, and Roy Orbison. I love their music and enjoy watching footage of them, but if I’m going out for the evening I think I’d prefer a live performance from someone who is alive. Call me picky.

Is a Whitney Houston hologram really more preferable than a Whitney Houston impersonator?

Terry Harvey asks:

About "you OK?". Practically every show I watch has a moment where one character asks another, "are you OK?" or simply "you OK?" Rarely does a TV episode or movie not have this moment, and sometimes multiple times. Is there any way around this writing device that is used so often? Or is it simply a necessary means for quickly advancing the story by green lighting a character to have their moment and letting the emotions flow? Have you used this dialogue in your stories? Everyone else does and it is easy to see why but do you feel this is a lazy device or a needed one that can't be avoided?

Truthfully, I’ve never thought about it, nor has it bothered me. My rule is simply this: In that given situation, is that what a person would really say?

In real life, if you see someone hit with some shattering news and wrestling with how to deal with it, “Are you okay?” seems an appropriate question. You need to hear how wrecked they are before you can deal with them properly.

But the question needs to be earned. If you’re asking “Are you okay?” because your friend can’t get good cell service in a bus, then I’d say it’s either unnecessary or get less brittle friends.

From J Lee:

Baseball question -- Any feelings, plus or minus on MLB's floating the idea of expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams and letting the No. 2-3 seeds in each league pick their opening round opponent, in some sort of reality show setting?

I hate it. It’s just another example of baseball sacrificing the integrity of the game for a stunt and a way to make more undeserving teams competitive. And it just dilutes the product. It's a money grab, pure and simple.

Pennant races used to really mean something. You could win 100 games and if the other team won 101 you went home. The last two weeks of the season were delicious. Now good teams are assured playoff spots in mid-September and the only real races are which mediocre teams eek into the playoffs?

And mark my words, after 2021, the National League will be using the DH.

And finally, from Mark:

Could you write about how budgets are set for shows? Is it a negotiation? You'll say what sets you need and they'll give you some of them to start? Is hiring actors like getting an NFL team under the salary cap, so maybe you can't hire as many regulars as you'd like because the cost is too high? Do they put new shows on the small soundstage in the bad part of town until they make good and then move them to a better location? Would, say, the number of trips to Hawaii for Big Wave Dave's be something also negotiated?

Studios will negotiate “license fees” with networks. Let’s say in round numbers CBS gives you a million dollars for each episode of your sitcom. If you go over that number the studio has to pay the overage. In the old days, before networks owned studios, that was a risk often worth taking because the studios owned the shows and if FRIENDS became a big hit, Warner Brothers, not NBC would reap the billions.

Now networks are often negotiating against themselves. But they own the show.  They might now even keep lower rated shows on the air to get enough episodes to use for their other platforms.  

The studio has to determine whether the license fee is sufficient to produce the show. Salaries, production costs, stage rental, shooting on location – all must fit within that overall budget. To save money some shows shoot in Canada, or in converted warehouses in Sylmar, or on tighter shooting schedules.

If the show becomes a big hit then license fees go up as actors salaries rise and producers salaries rise. Let’s say an actor is signed for five years initially (with raises built in). After five years the network and/or studio has to roll up a Brinks truck.

There have been times when studios feel they can’t produce the show for the license fee they’re offered and they turn down a coveted series order. It just makes no sense financially.

And it’s becoming harder and harder to negotiate because networks want to save money but audiences are now accustomed to high production values.  Today, we'd NEED to go to Hawaii on BIG WAVE DAVE'S.

What’s your FQ?

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

EP164: And now for the play-by-play


With the help of celebrity interviewer, Arlen Peters, Ken discusses his “other” career – that of a major league baseball play-by-play announcer.   How he broke in, why he broke in, the stories and lessons along the way doing both minor and major league broadcasting (while maintaining a writing career).   It’s not so much a “baseball” episode as “Walter Mitty” episode.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The "New Coke" of voting machines

In another case of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” Los Angeles County switched to a digital format of voting that was introduced in yesterday’s primary.

What a clusterfuck!

Instead of being sent sample ballots and punching in your votes (that correspond to the sample ballot), now you go to a website, register, fill out the ballot on your device, then get a bar code. You take a screenshot of that bar code. Then at the polling machine you scan it, your filled-in ballot comes up, you make changes or approve it, then put a paper ballot into the machine (you still following this?), it prints it, returns it, you double check it, then insert it again and voila, you’ve voted. Only eleven steps. 

Of course if the scanner didn’t accept your bar code you’re at square one with no sample ballot to guide you through your many choices. And if there are paper jams, which there are frequently, or if you’re not tech savvy, or if you enter the polling place expecting the old system – you are fucked.

Oh, and then there are already articles saying the system could be compromised or glitches could screw things up.

And who made this marvelous Murphy’s Law contraption? Someone in Venezuela. Who needs Russia to tamper with our election when Venezuela is so much closer?

I really feel bad for elderly voters. The ones at my polling place were absolutely terrified. They stared at these voting machines like they were MRI tubes. Bar codes and iPads and pushing “next” buttons and inserting ballots. If this is the new system the elderly should be told to vote by mail.

So the result? Lines were longer, by the late afternoon the wait was two hours in many polling places, everyone was confused, and the totals may be compromised. Good going, California. At a time when we need the most number of people to get out to vote and the time we need the most accurate vote count ever, let’s go off an experiment with a wild new system.

Aren’t things bad enough in this country without voluntarily making them worse?

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

Last week in New York at Madison Square Garden, 18,000 high school kids saw a free performance of the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The ovation when it was over was thunderous.

As it should be.

I saw the play the next night in the normally cavernous (but compared to Madison Square Garden —intimate) Shubert Theatre. It was fabulous. Aaron Sorkin did an absolute masterful job of adapting both a beloved book and movie and managed to keep the essence and integrity of both while still giving it a fresh spin.

It should have won a bunch of Tony’s last year but the Academy pretty much shut it out (having an issue with producer Scott Rudin). Meanwhile, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD continues to play to sold out crowds while none of the five nominated Best Plays are still running. I know he’s got Emmys and Oscars and probably Heisman Trophies, but Sorkin was robbed. Expect this version to play around the country (and maybe the world) for years.
MOCKINGBIRD takes on even more relevance now… unfortunately. The trial in the play might as well have been the impeachment trial. The same jury of ignorant, racist, crackers who ignored the facts to return a shameful verdict and a horrible miscarriage of justice occurred just this year in the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell was Robert Ewell, and Adam Schiff was Atticus Finch.

I know it makes little sense to review a play that most people won’t have the opportunity to immediately see, but 18,000 future voters saw it last week. 18,000 more people were exposed to the ugliness of bigotry and the tragedy that arises out of lawlessness, self-interest above all else, and ignorance.

Something to think about here on "Super Tuesday."  

Monday, March 02, 2020

Tour Buses busted

One problem we have in Los Angeles is the huge proliferation of Hollywood Tour Buses. These behemoths are clogging up streets everywhere. What iconic Hollywood location is in front of the Fox Hills Mall in Inglewood?

I always feel bad for the tourists who take these excursions because 90% of the attractions are bullshit. You can’t REALLY see the stars’ homes, you can’t get ONTO the soundstages where classic movies were made. You can’t take your picture in front of Schwab’s Drug Store where Lana Turner was discovered because it no longer exists.

Hollywood Blvd. itself is seedy. The only time actual Hollywood stars go to Hollywood is for the Oscars and they get out of limos and walk red carpets surrounded by a phalanx of security. They're not at the T-shirt emporium.  Maybe Cary Grant used to eat at Musso & Frank’s, and if you want to go there for the food I recommend it highly, but good luck seeing Emma Stone there.

Not to mention, once on the bus, out-of-towners are subjected to stand-still traffic like everybody else. So they wind up spending most of their day looking at Jiffy Lubes and Taco Bells (Emma Stone doesn’t eat there either).

One community if finally trying to do something about this. The Hollywood Hills have many winding narrow streets, and residents are forever inconvenienced by the tour bus monsters clogging up the roads. Now the city is considering regulations that would prevent tour buses from entering these narrow streets. And again, it’s not like the tourists are gong to be missing anything. Tom Hanks is not going to be shooting hoops in the driveway.

Of course, what that means is instead of the Hollywood Hills, these buses will now be in Westwood, slowing my commute, and making passage through UCLA impossible so tourists can see where Tim Robbins once bought an apple at the student union.