Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Highlight of my career

On tonight's JEOPARDY. 

And Alex even pronounced my name correctly. Prior to this the high point of my year was getting an Instacart delivery time.

My thanks to the writers and researchers of JEOPARDY.   Happily, a contestant got it right.  I was relieved when someone rang in. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

EP172: Bringing Live Theatre to YOU

Ken shares a one act play he wrote called SIGNING OFF. It’s about a late night talk host who’s put out to pasture meeting his young replacement. It’s a comedy/drama, performed last year at the Atwater Theatre in Los Angeles starring Nick Ullett & Clayton Ferris, directed by Tony Pasqualini.  With all stages dark these days, here’s a way to enjoy live theatre presented in the safety of your speaker or ear buds.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A final thought on audiences

They’re not always the best indicator of what’s genuinely funny.

You think they would be. There’s that old adage: The only way to know if something is funny is if people laugh.

But that’s not always accurate.

I learned that doing multi-camera sitcoms for thirty years that were shot before a live studio audience.

There were some weeks when the audience was super hot and everything got guffaws. We’d feel pretty good about ourselves until we saw the first rough cut of the show and would say to ourselves: “What the hell are they laughing at? This sucks!”

And the reverse was also true. An episode would get a tepid audience response and we’d see the rough cut and the episode came alive. Performances and facial expressions played great for the camera but were missed by the audience.

I did the warm-up the first year of CHEERS and would have the same five-minute monologue each week. Based on the reaction to that I knew whether we had a hot or cold crowd.

And like I mentioned yesterday, if you have an adoring audience that moved mountains just to get precious tickets, they’ll laugh uproariously at anything. You don’t have to earn laughs.

As a playwright I’ve experienced another phenomenon. Different audiences laugh at different jokes. For the life of me I don’t understand that dynamic. Why would 200 strangers collectively find one line funny enough to laugh out loud one night and 200 other strangers the next night react in silence? And the following night a joke met by silence by the first group gets a huge laugh by the second.

Comics know this all too well. They kill on Friday and bomb on Saturday with the exact same routine.

The point is there are lots of variables that stand between a joke and a laugh. You need to trust your own judgment . Again, don’t use the audience as your crutch.

So how do you really know if something is funny? You just do. Unless you’re wrong. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Being funny without an audience

Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah were on Stephen’s show bemoaning the fact that without an audience they can’t gauge their comic timing.

Bear in mind they both do shows for adoring audiences that are thrilled to be there, and are TOLD to laugh uproariously. So what comic timing do they really need? Their audiences guffaw at everything. It’s not like they have to earn the laughs.

But they both said that they’ve never had experience doing comedy that wasn’t in front of audiences.

Well, there is a training ground for that. Or at least there once was.


In radio you learn to trust your humor and trust your delivery. Your comic timing comes in conjunction with the music, or pauses for silence for effect. You have to determine in a vacuum just how long a bit should go.  You have to know just how much material to do at any one time.

Some of the funniest performers I’ve ever seen (or, more accurately, heard) hailed from radio. Bob & Ray, Lohman & Barkley, Dan Ingram, Gary Owens, Dick Whittington, Dick Purtan, Don McKinnon, Klaven & Finch, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Howard Hoffman, Dale Dorman, Gary Burbank, Jack Carney, Bob Hudson, Larry Lujack, Howard Stern, the Greaseman, and many others didn’t need a packed house of adoring fans to confirm whether something was funny. They knew it in their gut.

The difficulty Colbert and Noah are having is now doing shows from home they no longer have that crutch. It’s forcing them to communicate and it’s making them both better entertainers if not broadcasters. They’re both enormously talented. They don’t need that crutch. Lean into this.

The one late night talk show host who seems more comfortable in this environment is Jimmy Kimmel. And guess what? He started in radio.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Thank you, celebrities

Just had to share this.

I must admit, I thought the same thing. Any time celebrities try to come off as "just regular folks"it always feels forced and disingenuous.  That said, if somebody stays home instead of protesting because Ellen said they should stay home then thumbs up to Ellen.   The thing is, most of us don't need to be told by Ellen or other celebrities that this pandemic is real and we need to protect ourselves.  We also are smart enough not to drink Lysol because the president of the United States said it might cure COVID-19.  But for those that do -- thank you celebrities.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Weekend Post

A lot of people ask me about the Coke scene in the movie David Isaacs and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS. We took a lot of heat for it because the studio that produced it also owned the Coca Cola company. It was viewed as a shameless plug. The truth is it was a complete coincidence.

Here’s the notorious scene but first an earlier scene setting up the animosity between Lawrence (Tom Hanks) and Beth (Rita Wilson). They are flying to Thailand to begin service in the Peace Corps in 1962. Lawrence is a rich preppy who is only there because he switched places with his roommate Kent to skip a huge gambling debt. Beth is an idealistic coed. They’re about to land.



Bangkok already? I can’t believe it.

Yes, we’ve been talking now for … (checks his watch) … Ooh, ten hours.

Kent, I’m really lucky to be assigned with you.

You know, Beth, we’re going to have so much to do when we get to…

A beat.

Loong Ta.

Of course. What do you think about taking tonight for ourselves? A bit of dinner, a few drinks, see a little of the city. And then, who knows? (taking her hand) There’s only one thing we haven’t shared together yet.

Beth smiles, not taking him seriously.

Very funny.

Lawrence smiles back at her. He’s serious. She looks at him, takes her hand back.

(cool) Thank you just the same.

Oh, come on, Beth. We’ve been moony-eyed since Istanbul. Why fight it?

(flustered) Kent, why are you doing this? I thought we were becoming friends.

This is what I do with my friends.

You’ve just been trying to go to bed with me?

(checking his watch) Well, I think I’ve put in the hours, don’t you?

Okay. And a few months later they’re in Loong Ta, a dirt poor village of thatched huts and nothing else. We needed a way to break the ice, to start getting them together. In interviewing former Peace Corps volunteers we learned that Coca Cola was one of the things they missed most, especially if stationed in a hot jungle. So taking that info, we wrote this scene.  Thank goodness we didn't do a scene where they both caught COVID-19. 


Beth enters to find that Lawrence has transformed the hut into an exotic, albeit small, nightclub. There are bamboo chairs and tables, plants, and a makeshift bar, fully stocked with liquor. Lawrence, wearing his dinner jacket, sits at the corner table smoking a cigarette. An old villager sits off to the side, trying his best to play, “As Time Goes By” on his primitive Thai sitar.

Welcome. I call it “Lawrence’s”.

I don’t believe it… even from you.

It was easier than you think.

How did you…?

Lawrence waves at the villager to stop playing.

A little elbow grease, a few connections and voila: Loong Ta’s first public service. Are you as proud of me as I am? Can I get you a drink?

What’s this for?

For a job well done. I’ve got Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam… the whole gang.

You’ve got liquor?

And wine. The house special is a delightfully articulate Chablis.

I haven’t seen a tube of toothpaste in two weeks and you have a bar?

Don’t fight it, Beth.

Goodnight, Lawrence.

You’re taking the narrow view again.

She starts for the door, then stops and turns back.

Do you have a Coke?

Plain, cherry, lemon or vanilla?

Plain. A plain Coke.

Lawrence reaches beneath the bar, grabs a bottle of Coke, and with much panache, removes the cap.

(handing it to her) You more than earned it.

Beth takes the Coke, looks at it, then takes a long swig.

Oh, that is fantastic… I miss these so much. Lawrence, damn you, you’re a life saver.

(toasting her with another Coke) To friends. Would you care to dance?

Beth thinks it over, takes one more good chug of Coke, and steps into Lawrence’s arms.

(to the villager) Try it again, Sam.

The sitar player strikes up “As Time Goes By” in the same monotonous way. Lawrence snaps his fingers, ordering him to pick up the pace. THE CAMERA SLOWLY PULLS BACK, and THROUGH THE WINDOW we watch Lawrence and Beth dancing slowly around the room, Beth shyly looking into Lawrence’s eyes. Electricity flickers.


We wrote that Coke scene in the first draft, 1980. It stayed in every draft and wound up on the screen. Originally the movie was set up at MGM. After a couple of years it went into turnaround, finally landing at HBO Silver Screen in partnership with Tri-Star. This was 1984. Tri-Star was a division of Sony, as was the Coca Cola company. No one from the studio ever asked that that scene be in. No one from the studio ever mentioned that scene period.

A year later the film was released and we walked into a major shitstorm.

I look back and think, all of this could so easily been avoided if he just offered her a joint.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Friday Questions

After all this self-quarantining, the only way to know if it’s Friday is with Friday Questions. What’s yours?

trail of bread leads off:

Watching a few clips of UK Sitcom Victoria Wood's Dinner Ladies (Lunch ladies for you, I think) they said that each (of the very few) episodes was filmed twice (Friday/Saturday) in front of a live audience. This is of course expensive (VW was indulged by the BBC on the basis that she was actually brilliant), but allowed for rewriting and tweaks to get the best from the episode. I wondered if any USA sitcoms had done something similar.

Yes. In the ‘70s the Norman Lear shows (ALL IN THE FAMILY, MAUDE, GOOD TIMES, ONE DAY AT A TIME, JEFFERSONS, etc.) were all shot on tape.

There were two performances with two different audiences. 5 PM and 8 PM. After the 5 PM the writers would sometimes tweak the script. What you saw on the air was the best take from each of those performances.

From Joe:

I've been watching a lot of MASH during social distancing, and it seems like Charles Emerson Winchester was Frasier Crane before Frasier Crane: Smart, snobbish, thrown in with a group of zany characters, with whom he's initially standoffish but comes to be more a part of the gang and displays a lot of depth. So with that long-winded intro, I think if any MASH spinoff would have worked, it would have been with Charles. What do you think?

It was my understanding that David was approached about doing the sequel but was not interested. And in future years he rarely took part in any MASH retrospectives. He didn’t want to only be associated with Charles Winchester.

I wasn’t there for the origination of AfterMASH. It was Larry Gelbart who came up with the concept and wrote the pilot. Larry also was present most of the first season.

The reason David Isaacs and I joined AfterMASH was the chance to work on a daily basis with Larry Gelbart. And it proved to be an experience worth its weight in gold. We learned so much and so enjoyed his company – despite the outcome of the series it was a once-in-a-lifetime incredible experience because of Larry Gelbart.

WB Jax queries:

I wanted to know if you ever met the late (film music composer) James Horner or if you and/or David attended any of the "Volunteers" scoring sessions. If so, can you share some memories about the sessions or about James Horner?

Unfortunately, no. Our only involvement in the music was to select the oldie used over the main titles (“Blue Moon” by the Marcells).

Otherwise, we were totally out of the loop. And to be honest, James Horner, at the time, was not as established as he would become, so we didn’t go “Wow! We got James Horner!”

But he was a phenomenal talent and died way too young (61). The music might be the best part of VOLUNTEERS.

And finally, from Bryan Price:

Ken - You mentioned in a previous post thinking that the SF Giants were loaded with some of the best broadcasters on a team. (I agree - it's a great foursome.) Can you think of another team that has four broadcasters with such high talent?

This is subjective, of course. But in my opinion: The Mets, the Padres, the Rangers, the Rays, the Phillies, the Braves, the Cubs, the Brewers.

Other teams might have a great TV crew and lousy radio guys or vice versa.  Pretty much every team has at least one good announcer. 

But for my money, the best of the best in radio and TV combined are the Giants, the Mets, and the Padres.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

EP171: Ken's Top 5 List, For 25 Different Categories

On this week's Hollywood & Levine podcast, Ken shares 25 different top 5 lists in categories that range from movies, TV, radio, actors, comedians, singers, announcers, and steak houses. Listen to this hilarious podcast, as Ken shares his years of experience and expertise in the world of entertainment. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Cereal Killer

In Monday's musings about stay-at-home life I mentioned I eat Grape Nuts cereal. This led to a thread in the comments section about Grape Nuts. Apparently, a lot of you are not fans. I was surprised to learn (thanks to a JEOPARDY question) that C.W. Post invented Grape Nuts in 1894. Since they’re still around I can’t be the only one who doesn't consider them gravel.

But it got me to thinking of breakfast cereals in general.

Cereal played a big part in my diet growing up. As a kid, my mom would make a big breakfast (bacon & eggs, or pancakes, or waffles) on Sunday mornings. Every other day breakfast consisted of cereal and milk.

From the time I was maybe 5 until 12 my cereal of choice was based solely on what toy they were offering. Back then you could send in two box tops and fifty cents and get a plastic Munchy, Crunchy, or Spoon Size to fit on your spoon (the space men characters from Nabisco’s Shredded Wheat Juniors – a truly horrible cereal).

I sent away for a lot of that junk. I think the big thrill was not playing with the toys, but the rush of seeing them actually arrive in the mailbox. The anticipation was agony for this 6 year-old.

Back then cereal companies would sponsor kid shows, usually on Saturday mornings. Kellogg’s sponsored THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. I sent away for a lot of crap to Battle Creek, Michigan. There were a number of cheesy cartoon shows sponsored by Post (e.g. LINUS THE LIONHEARTED). MIGHTY MOUSE on CBS was sponsored by Ipana toothpaste. I always found that ironic amidst the plethora of sugar-coated teeth-rotting cereals.

Once I reached the mature age of maybe 12 my cereal habits became binges. I’d eat Special K every day for several years, then switch to Rice Chex, Raisin Brand, Cheerios, and Grape Nuts for extended periods each. (Corn Flakes never did it for me, neither did Rice Krispies, Trix, Kix, or Wheaties – I was never going to be a champion so why bother?)

I got out of the habit of eating cereal until this pandemic. Now I’ve settled into a routine and that includes cereal for breakfast. My current jag is Grape Nuts. When I’m eating it I start to feel a little nostalgic. It’s almost like I’m a kid again – until I finish and then realize I can’t go out and play.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Before you call out the grammar police...

When I can't think of an appropriate picture I always just use one of Natalie Wood.

These posts would be so much eazier to write if I didn’t have to worry about spelling and punktuation. That was always one of the beauties of riting dialog. People don’t talk in grammatically correct sentences and who cares about the spellling because the audience is just hereing the words and not seeing dem. (Shit. That last sentence is in fact a question. I forgot the question mark.)

After having proper grammar drummed into my head in school it was difficult at first to not write dialogue stilted but correct. Eventually you learn that flow and writing conversationally is the key. Then its (or it’s) fun. All bets are off.

Until you have to write prose again (or FRASIER).

(This is the punctuation that is the screenwriter’s best friend -- … Use it to represent any pause. Believe me, it… works!)

It’s (or its) amazing how much grammar you forget. And part of the problem – at least for me --, is that if you (or in my case, me) tend to write quickly, you’re trying to get your ideas on the page while their in your head and I can’t do that when your stopping midthoughtwse to ponder whether there’s a comma here or this participle is dangling or there is no such word as midthoughtwise. (That last sentence may or may not be a question. I’m not sure.)

Back to script writing, you see this in rewrite sessions. There are monitors in the room allowing the writers to see the script as the assistant is typing it. Someone pitches a joke, everyone laughs, the assistant starts transcribing it, and there’s always one asshole who sees himself as the Grammar Police barking out that there should be a comma there, or that’s a semi-colon. That shit is “Proofer’s challenge”. Let whoever proofs the script deal with that. Don’t slow down the process by blurting out that dad needs to be capitalized.

Back to prose: Spellcheck and grammar programs help somewhat. A wiggly green line will appear under something the computer doesn’t feel is right. Half the time it’s (or its) useful and half the time I’m thinking, “what the hell is wrong with this?” Or, “the computer just doesn’t get me.”

Same with spell check – it catches a lot of mistakes but misses others. If a word can be spelled correctly two ways or if you write in the wrong word but it’s an actual word -- : that too won’t get caught. Sometimes I remember the little hints we got in school. Principle or principal – the principal is your “pal”. But as I get older my brain is beginning to fill up with the Infield Fly Rule and where I put my keys and those little tips are fading from memory.

I actually do know the difference between it’s and its (it’s is only used as a contraction for it is) but there are others that I’ll admit, I’m guessin’.

And there are certain words I just don’t know how to spell. So I type in some approximation and let Spell Check correct it. If I ever have to write a letter in longhand I am so screwed. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

The point is… from time to time… you will see grammatical mistakes, misspelled words, made up words, tenses changing, inconsistencies, italics for no reason, and other egregious clerical errors. I do try to proof these posts but things still slip by. So I beg your indulgence. I don’t have an editor. And even one of those doesn’t guarantee (that’s one of the words I always struggle with) 100% accuracy. When I got the galley proof for my book IT’S GONE… NO, WAIT A MINUTE (notice the ….?) this is what it said on the cover:


Monday, April 20, 2020

Self-Quarantine Musings...

Don’t you find the highlight of your week is when food deliveries arrive?

I never remember how many days the virus stays on cardboard vs. plastic. I just wipe everything. 

When you order from Instacart, if the market is out of the item you ordered they ask if it’s okay to substitute something very similar. We said yes. Instead of Grape Nuts cereal they gave us Coco Puffs.

God forbid an appliance breaks down.

Maybe it’s my generation, but when I order from Postmates on my phone and it actually arrives I’m amazed.

Same when I link into a Zoom meeting. Magic.

I happily over-tip delivery people, but if a Postmates guy doesn’t wear a mask and gloves his tip goes way down.

There are restaurants in LA that now won’t use delivery services that don’t strictly adhere to masks and gloves. I love the Apple Pan but not enough to risk ICU.

You know who really loves this lockdown?  Your pets.  You're home all the time now. 

I see people walking on my block I’ve never seen before.

When you take your walk don’t you find yourself resenting any other person you see approaching? Are you going to have to now cross the street or will they? I find that 90% of the time it’s me.

For variety I now sit in different chairs around the dinner table.

Like Maggie Smith said in DOWNTON ABBEY: “What is a weekend?”

Don't post your senior photos on Facebook.  You're giving potential hackers information you don't want to share, and for the graduating class of 2020 that is being denied their fun activities, your pictures are just rubbing it in.  

I spend a lot more time listening to Hearing music from an earlier, happier era is very soothing and comforting.

Oh no! Tonight is the season finale of BETTER CALL SAUL.

You know what's harder to get than toilet paper?  Hebrew National Salamis.

I sometimes now will skip a day showering.

But every day I still brush my teeth and wear pants.  

There is a Zoom feature where you can improve your video quality. I click on it and look no better. I guess there’s only so much technology can do.

How many of you are listening to my podcast during your walks? And if not – hint hint.

You’d think the networks would be thrilled that they now have a captive audience. And yes, ratings have risen, but they’ve lost a ton in advertising. And if inflated numbers don’t translate to advertising dollars they’re essentially worthless.

I'm starting to lose interest in KILLING EVE. And speaking of things I'm tired of watching...

Why do reputable news organizations even bother to broadcast Trump’s daily slew of lies and misinformation?  People are dying as a result.

Note to Trump spokesperson/cretin, Kellyanne Conway: The reason the White House wasn’t informed of COVID until COVID19 (as if they were numbered and there were 18 previous COVIDS) is because the 19 stands for 2019. The level of ignorance and incompetence is just staggering. Good luck to the idiots who follow their advice instead of doctors’, scientists, and intelligent human beings.

Half the people I know are using this time to really be productive and the other half just can’t get motivated to do anything. Where do you fall?

I have a lot more garbage these days for some reason.  

No new episodes of AMERICAN IDOL. Okay, now this has gotten real.

I know people are passing the time on Facebook asking fun survey questions and that's great, but I hate when they end with "GO!"  As if I'm required and ordered to play.  When I see that, my response is to call out two more words that follow "go" and the second one is "yourself." 

Stay home. Social distance. Wear masks. Ignore Trump. Save lives, maybe even your own.

Coco Puffs???

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Weekend Post

In the '80s and '90s a lot of multi-camera shows all shot on Tuesday – both at Paramount (where I was) and other studios like Gower-Sunset, Raleigh, and Ren-Mar – the writing staffs and casts from these shows began stopping off at the Columbia Bar & Grill for an after-filming drink. The C-BAG (as it was known) was on the corner of Gower and Sunset.  Now, sadly it's long gone. 

But there was a golden period where this was the Algonquin Table west. It was not unusual to be sitting with the show runner of FRASIER, creator of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, Ted Danson, Nathan Lane, the President of CBS, two producers from FRIENDS, director James Burrows, and Jennifer Aniston.

I’ve always believed that the best shows were the ones where the writers and actors worked together, not at odds. Being able to socialize with them once a week established a real trust. And their stories were always GREAT. Actor stories tend to be more colorful than writers’. Ours are usually horror stories, getting fucked over by networks or studios or spouses or doctors or American Express. Theirs are about hilarious anecdotes in the theater, filming mishaps, and who slept with who on what set. We would always try to steer the conversations in that direction.

The C-BAG was the place to go for juicy TV gossip and dish. If there was trouble on any set in town we learned about it. Anyone institutionalized, we knew it (usually because someone would ask, “Hey, where’s so-and-so tonight?”)

Interestingly, rarely were agents there. They were welcome. Anyone was welcome but Brett Butler. Agents were always present at the filmings. Why, I don’t know. They didn’t know either. There was nothing for them to do. They’d sit, bored to tears, and watch the monitors. I always found it ironic then when you needed agents you could never get them on the phone. And when you didn’t, there they all were at the ready in full-force. The only time I ever asked my agent for something he didn’t come through. Despite repeated pleas on my part he would not kill the network vice-president and his entire staff. So truly, what’s the point of even being there? But I’m guessing when the director yelled “That’s a wrap!” they bolted so fast they never knew everyone was invited to a post filming celebration.

Why did it end? The shows ended. And a new regime at Paramount placed far less value on writer/producers. The entire stable was either let go or encouraged to move on. But Tuesday nights for about a decade were magic. For any current showrunners, once we're all out of captivity and there are enough actual shows in production, find a C-BAG of your own. And let me know if you need a designated driver.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Friday Questions

How is everybody holding up? Stay safe and enjoy some FQ’s.

Michael starts us off.

If I recall some game show hosts in 60's and 70's were first disc jockeys in the Los Angeles area - is this something you ever tried to pursue?

No, but it’s something I would have loved to have done. It’s a much harder job than it looks and the great ones make it appear easy. So I can’t say for sure I wouldn’t suck. But I’m pretty quick-witted and can count so I might’ve pulled it off.

However, when I came back to LA after bouncing around the country as a Top 40 DJ, my sole focus was breaking in as a TV writer, so I never pursued it. Who knows? I could be Pat Sajak today.

MikeKPa wonders:

What do you think of the proposed baseball alignments around Cactus (Florida) and Grapefruit (Arizona) locales? Makes better sense than all games in Arizona (enjoy those 100-degree plus games),

If you want baseball this year there's going to have to be some alterations.  The alternative is no baseball at all.  I don't think the Cactus League/Grapefruit League idea is going to fly because players are not going to want to play in hot steaming Florida all summer and take three-hour bus rides to get to games. 

Arizona makes much more sense if they go that route.  Personally, I'd like to see baseball in some form.  What that might be I have no idea.  But I'd bet against the Cactus League/Grapefruit League realignment. 

From kcross:

What is parking like at the studio? Is a special area allocated for each show? Do show-runners get names on their spaces? Are you given a parking pass to hang on your mirror to get past the guard, like we do in college?

It depends on the studio and how important you are. Shonda Rhimes is going to park right in front of her office with her name on the parking space regardless of the studio. I’ll be assigned a general lot somewhere.

Parking is usually at a premium, especially as movie studios have added office buildings and increased the number of employees. Many have erected large awful parking structures. The one at 20th is the worst.

Universal is more spread out so there’s a better chance your parking space will be near your office. On MASH we parked behind our office in the Western town set for Butch Cassidy. Those were the days.

Generally, employees park in big structures. The real nightmare is for visitors.

As for getting on the lot, most studios issue employee magnetic cards that allow them to enter, and all studios have separate entry lanes for visitors and employees.

I think the last time my name was stenciled onto my parking space was 1986.

Vincent wants to know:

I once asked you if you ever lied about being a professional - and Emmy-winning - comedy writer to avoid amateurs pitching story ideas to you. But what about when, like everybody, you are around someone who thinks he's funny but REALLY isn't (they are all over Facebook, BTW)? Have you ever been so irritated by the person's "jokes" that you reveal your true identity?

No. I just find an excuse to get away from the jerk. I never want to use my position as a way of belittling someone.

But more often if someone does know my background and tries to dazzle me with their terrible sense of humor I fake an awful headache and excuse myself (leaving him to wonder if the headache was caused by him).

And finally, from Charlie:

Why to the entertainment guilds allow closing credits in TV broadcasts to be run at breakneck speed and/or shrunk down to a small box? In either case the credits are unreadable on a TV set.

I wish I had a good answer for this but I don’t. It’s a deplorable insulting practice.

My guess is in the grand scheme of major thorny issues between the guilds and the studios/networks this is not one to go to war over. No one is going to strike over this issue. But like I said, it’s disgusting.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

EP170: The Golden Era of Radio

By popular demand, Ken shares an audio documentary he made for a UCLA class with fellow classmate, Bill Pearl. It traces Southern California Top 40 radio from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. We got an A.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A big difference between plays and pilots

Readers ask “what’s the difference between writing plays and TV pilots?” In both cases you create the world and characters.

A big difference is this: The world and characters of a play ends when the play ends. Different actors and directors may have various interpretations, but the text is the vision of the playwright and will forever remain so.

When you write a TV pilot, if you are lucky enough to get picked up for series, most of the time (unless you’re David E. Kelley or Aaron Sorkin) you’re now going to need a writing staff. As someone who has co-created three series I can tell you it’s WEIRD. Especially at the start. Other writers naturally don’t know these characters the way you do. Their first scripts tend to be wrong – at least to your eyes.

And of course, it’s not their fault. They can’t get into your head. At the start of a series YOU don’t even have the characters rock solid in your mind. You learn over the first few episodes what works and what doesn’t, what pluses and minuses actors bring, etc. So to expect another writer to hit the bullseye is unrealistic at best.

Still, it’s a little strange to read someone else’s interpretation of characters that came out of you.

I have also been on the other side. An example is CHEERS. David Isaacs and I were there right at the beginning and when we wrote our first script, the show hadn’t gone into production yet. We had the pilot to go by and a few other early drafts. Plus, we had never worked with the Charles Brothers before.

The script turned out well, but we were lucky. What got us over the hump was this: Your natural inclination is to always think “What would the Charles Brothers (i.e showrunner) do”? And that’s a huge trap. You’re never going to really know that they’re thinking. And the result is you second-guess yourself on every line. What you need to do is say “fuck it,” this is how I see it based on what examples I have to go on, and I need to bring what I can bring to the script. If it’s wrong, and a lot of it will be, they’ll change it. And we’ll learn more from that.

The way I locked into the characters on CHEERS was seeing what we did right and what we did wrong. And eventually you do lock in.

And when I was in the showrunner position for my own show, I would start to relax when it was clear the staff was starting to get it.

Then a wonderful thing happens. Other writers bring new dimensions to your characters that improve them over what you had created. And that’s when you know if your series has legs. But it takes time. It’s not like a play where you know opening night.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

How to construct a pilot

I’m often asked “How do you construct a pilot?” Pilots are very different animals. Obviously, my background is in sitcoms so that’s the genre I’ll address.

Because of my TV background, I tend to construct stories very differently. Most people construct them linearly. First this scene then that scene then the next scene, etc. Once I have my overall premise for the story I figure out the end first, then the act break in the middle, and then start at the beginning of each act and build up to the end. The important thing is that every scene is necessary. If you can just lift out a scene without it affecting the story it doesn’t belong there.

Then I take each scene and determine what needs to be achieved here? At that point I figure the most interesting, surprising, funny, clever way to do that scene. Early scenes can be particularly hard because you’re generally setting things up that will pay off later. But you still have to make those scenes entertaining on their own even though they’re often filled with exposition. This is especially true in farces.

That said, some stories start off with a bang and the narrative sweeps you along.

And then there are pilots. In addition to constructing the story you have to introduce all the characters, establish the relationships between them, set the tone, explain the premise, have a story that has a satisfying ending but still hooks the audience to want to keep tuning in for future episodes. And in a comedy it must also be funny throughout.

So I’m always looking for devices — clever ways to introduce characters quickly. Is there a specific bit of behavior that defines them? Is there an attitude that instantly tells the reader/viewer who he is?

The TAXI pilot had a great device. The pay phone in the garage was broken and everyone could make free phone calls. Who they called defined who they were.

One often used device is having a new character enter the world. As characters are introducing themselves to him they’re really introducing themselves to us.

Another hurdle: through interaction, how can I best show the relationships between them?

And it all has to flow and not seem like I’m dumping too much information on the audience at once.

Lots of plates to keep spinning in the air, huh? All that is to suggest before you start writing you take the time to really define the characters, clearly plot out the story, and know beforehand just how you’re going to introduce everybody. Also remember, with television you have a time restriction. Even with relaxed times in streaming, a half-hour sitcom needs to be about thirty-minutes.

One tip: Make the story simple. Don’t heap on lots of complications and twists. Give your audience a chance to process who all these people are and what they do. I would shy away from B and C stories in the pilot.

Now you could say, I have a fresh voice and want my pilot to break all the rules. Okay, but you do that at your own peril. Most pilots are bad because the writers don’t really know how to tackle them. Pilots have certain requirements. You can be innovative and express your unique voice, but you still need to satisfy those requirements. Once the audience or reader is confused you’ve lost them, no matter how fresh and unique your voice is.

If you struggle, don’t feel bad. I struggle when writing a pilot. Pilots are hard! But you can’t get a show on the air without one. And if you’re trying to break in, you can’t get any traction without one. So roll up your sleeves. And as always, best of luck.

Monday, April 13, 2020


THE MORNING SHOW on Apple+ is like all Apple products – very cool, very stylish, and occasionally crashes.

Sold as a starring vehicle for Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, make no mistake – it is Jennifer Aniston’s show. Witherspoon plays a character (a loose cannon in relentless search of the truth) while Jennifer Aniston plays a meta version of herself. She’s supposed to be this major celebrity that America is in love with, but underneath she’s isolated and imprisoned in living up to the public’s expectation. How many times has Aniston in real life lashed out at tabloids? How many times has Aniston taken “dramatic” roles to shake the image of Rachel Green (and maybe grab an Oscar nom)? Takeaway: It’s hard to be Jennifer Aniston. I tend to think there are one or two other people in the world who have it harder (especially now), but in THE MORNING SHOW we reserve ten hours to focus on her.

So whereas Reese plays Bradley Jackson (Really, Jen? Naming her Brad?), Aniston goes by the pseudonym, Alex Levy, but there’s not a minute you’re not thinking “Jennifer Aniston.”

At this point I must stop and say I loved Jennifer Aniston on FRIENDS. And I enjoy a lot of her movie work (even the dramatic roles). I don’t know her personally. (I once had lunch with Jennifer’s dad, but I don’t think that counts.) I know a lot of the FRIENDS writers and none of them ever said anything unkind about her. And comedy writers hate everyone.

So in theory this Jennifer as Jennifer storyline should work. But here’s the problem – unlike Rachel Green, I have no idea why America is supposed to love Alex Levy. On air as co-host of essentially THE TODAY SHOW she’s not warm, she has no sense of humor, no real presence, and frankly doesn’t handle the “broadcast” fundamentals all that well. Witherspoon’s character is supposedly thrown in as her co-host (in a ridiculous never-would-happen story turn) and in one week is handling the intros and outros better than Aniston. Jennifer just plays a less interesting version of Jane Pauley.

You also clearly see the pressure on the show's writers to make her sympathetic. Yes, she can be a bitch, and rave at male dominance, and be narcissistic, and snap at underlings. But we have to balance that with long scenes of her crying. Lonnnnnng scenes. We get it. We got it 20 years ago when Holly Hunter cried in the far-superior BROADCAST NEWS. Will she ultimately do the right thing? What do you think?

Steve Carell is in THE MORNING SHOW too, but until the second half of the season is put out to pasture. He’s Matt Lauer essentially and the series begins with him being fired. So he’s not part of the real action. He’s a cutaway. To toss him a bone, Jennifer comes to see him a few times early on. Carell was as good as I've ever seen him, and thankfully he’s way more present after you’ve watched five hours.

But for me, the one thing that kept me binging was Billy Cradup as the smarmy network News President. Yes, he was an asshole, but damn was he having fun! You could just tell. My interest level in the series always spiked when he came on the screen. He was also given some great speeches.

Overall, the casting was amazing. Other standouts: Mark Duplass, Gugu Mbaatha-Raw, Bel Powley, Karen Pittman, Tom Irwin, and Nestor Carbonell (one of the many weird guys from LOST).

Warning: There are a lot of angry monologues throughout. The writers want to be Chayefsky or even Sorkin and there are flashes where they hit it.

Warning 2: Language-wise there are more f-bombs than in DEADWOOD.

And you can play the drinking game!  Take a drink every time you see an alarm go off at 3:30 in the morning.  You'll be smashed by episode three.  

This is a tale of corporate politics and #MeToo. BOMBSHELL did it in two-hours. A lot of the same issues. I will say this -- the season finale is very strong. Forget that a lot of the story turns are absurd. Just as the iPhone delivers in the end; so does the iAniston.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Weekend Post

In an effort to keep people entertained in this international lockdown (except idiot states like Mississippi where the governor's solution to COVID-19 is just to pray), writers and directors are scrambling to find product they can either make via Zoom or find in their archives. Allow me to contribute.

In June 2015, a 99 seat theatre in the San Fernando Valley, the Whitefire, put up a program called "Dead Pilots Society." (I named it actually) Three TV sitcom pilots that never got made were presented live on the stage.  One was a pilot David Isaacs and I had done originally for Fox and then for NBC called UNDER ANDREA.

We adapted the script for the stage, knowing we had limited props and furniture.  Sets had to be defined by simple props and lighting.  It was an interesting challenge.  I directed it.   The cast included  JULES WILLCOX, SUZANNE MAYES, JACK ZULLO, STERLING SULIEMANN, PAUL CULOS, JULIE MEYER, DAVID SVENGALIS, and PAUL LAUDEN.

So this weekend I thought I'd share with you the result.  Taped with two cameras, no color balancing, and you're going to have to imagine the different sets by the furniture, projections, and lighting.  But it's a fun half hour, and hey, what else have you got to do this weekend?

Thanks for watching.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Friday Questions

Hoping you’re safe and in need of Friday Questions instead of toilet paper.

James starts us off this week.

What's your opinion or analysis of The Andy Griffith Show? I don't remember you mentioning it before.

I’ve always liked THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW but never really loved it. The only character that made me genuinely laugh was Don Knotts the first few seasons. I appreciated the quirkiness and Americana, and the characters were very likeable. Andy, Aunt Bea, Floyd the Barber, Opie (whatever happened to little Opie???). And during its first run, if I was looking for something to watch and it was an option I always chose it. But it never was appointment TV.

Ironically, now it’s on ME-TV so I’ve been watching some episodes. And it’s better than I thought it was.

From Rick Wiedmayer:

What was the feeling like when Alan Alda first came up to the Show runner and said that he would like to write an episode and when he wanted to direct an episode?

We were thrilled.

First of all, Alan began writing scripts during the Larry Gelbart era. So he was groomed by the best.

I think we had pre-arranged with Alan that he would write three or four episodes a year. And he always turned in terrific scripts. Our only complaint was that his scripts generally came in long. We would take a pass, making trims, and adding some jokes. Alan would keep the new jokes but put back a lot of what he had taken out. So sometimes the script even got longer.

And as good a writer as Alan is, he’s an even better director. But again, the problem was he was shooting a script that was too long. And he always added lovely visual touches, especially to beginnings of scenes (interesting push-in shots, etc.).

But we’d get it into editing and it was seven minutes too long. So we had to chop all the lovely visuals and lots of jokes, just to get the show down to time with all the story points in tact.

I will say this, Alan directed one of our episodes, THE BILLFOLD SYNDROME and it’s one of my top favorite episodes as a result of his getting sensational performances out of everybody.

Vincent Saia wonders:

Since you invited us to give you questions to pass the time during what my friend Pat calls Coronafest 2020: Is there any particular reason that in sitcoms babies are NEVER born in a hospital?

They sometimes are. Phoebe giving birth to triplets on FRIENDS. Certainly the Petries had their baby born in a hospital, which led to one of the great single episodes of television.

But having babies in cabs, elevators, etc. tend to be more dramatic or comedic (depending on the approach – and as long as mother and baby are ultimately doing fine).

And finally, from Ted:

Is it true Seinfeld piggybacked on 'Cheers'to become a hit?

It helped a lot, yes. Time slots are crucial. SEINFELD on Wednesday night got tepid ratings during one of its best years. Following CHEERS gave them a huge audience to sample.

But I will say this -- just having a great lead-in does not guarantee success. We had a number of shows follow CHEERS that went nowhere. When people checked out SEINFELD they found it really delivered. So we may have brought them the audience but they sure kept it.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

EP169: For those who miss sports

On this week's Hollywood & Levine, sportscaster Josh Lewin joins Ken to discuss his new podcast, “The Throwback League” – recreating games between the best teams in baseball. It’s a great way to spend a day on lockdown. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP David Schramm

A number of readers have asked me to write about David Schramm, who played Roy Biggins on WINGS. He passed away recently. He was only 73. I spent five or six years on that show, mainly consulting, but also writing and directing.

I loved working with David, but to be honest, didn’t really know him that well. What I did know was he was a fine dramatic theatre and Shakespearian actor, but we never got the feeling he was “slumming it” playing comedy on a sitcom. He threw himself into the role and got every laugh we gave him. Most people don’t realize that it’s extremely hard to play the antagonist on a sitcom and still be liked by the audience. David straddled that line perfectly. And he really committed to the character. He did not mind playing a real asshole at times. And yet he did it with such a flair that you couldn’t wait for him to return to the screen.

He was also a terrific physical comedian; very light on his feet. To me he was reminiscent of Jackie Gleason. He was not afraid to look silly. The entire cast of WINGS was wonderful, but if I had to pick the two who were inspired casting I would say Tony Shalhoub and David Schramm.

He was also somewhat eccentric. In 2006, long after WINGS had ended, I was doing a reading of my first play in New York. There was a leading part I thought David would be great for. I knew he lived in Upstate New York somewhere. I figured I would just get his email address and contact him and send along a pdf of the script. Well, David didn’t have an email address. I had to track down his phone number. He graciously agreed to do the reading without even reading the play. I sent it to him anyway, via snail mail.

We only had one rehearsal the day of the performance. David nailed it. Just nailed it. In a high-powered cast of Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Andrew Rannells, Malcolm Getz, and David Rasche – David Schramm stole the play. He got every laugh and more. I was in awe.

I lost touch with him. Not having an email address will do that. After WINGS he went back to the theatre. But I am forever grateful for his kindness in doing my reading and his making my time on WINGS such a joy.

I invite you to binge watch WINGS. You’re in for a real treat seeing David Schramm, a gifted actor and comedian at his best.

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.



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.