Saturday, May 30, 2020

Weekend Post 2

Every so often I’ll read an article or term paper or passage in a book that references a MASH episode my partner and I wrote. The piece is most always complimentary; sometimes overly so. But invariably the authors will analyze the episode. They’ll identify the symbolism, how when Hawkeye hangs up his laundry he’s really representing the Anti-Christ, and they’ll find all kinds of mythological parallel, subliminal messages, and odes to other works of literature. They’ll compare Klinger to Jane Austin, find significance in jeep license plate numbers, and detect hidden codes in Radar’s dialogue.

I’d like to be able to shrug my shoulders and say yes, all of that is in there. David and I write on many levels. Our scripts are challenging intellectual puzzles to be solved by only the most advanced sophisticated minds. Thanks for noticing.

I’d like to say that but it’s all bullshit! There’s no symbolism in our MASH scripts. There’s no attempt to send covert messages in Hawkeye’s Groucho routine. Sorry, we’re not that deep. We were just trying to write a funny show with substance and heart. Our goal was to entertain. Period. Even the Viet Nam comparisons to Korea – we never pointed to that. We didn’t have to.

There are series that do consciously employ symbolism. LOST did for example. MAD MEN for another. Pay attention because every detail has added importance. I love both of those shows. And I was always thrilled when I caught one of these symbolic nuggets. But don’t go looking for them in MASH, at least in our years. They’re just not there, folks. We used names of ballplayers, former girlfriends, and my family dog, but that’s about it.

People have deemed MASH a television classic and I’m humbled and grateful but at the time we were making the show we never for a moment thought we were writing a “classic”. We probably would have been paralyzed if we had. Or, at the very least, pretentious as hell.

And it makes me wonder -- all through school our teachers have analyzed and interpreted the crap out of great works of literature. We’re tested on intent and correct meaning. Well, what if the teacher has no fucking clue what she’s talking about? What if she has no idea what the author was trying to say? Or worse yet, has grossly misinterpreted it? If my personal experience has taught me anything it’s that books and plays and scripts and Billy Joel records may in fact be just what they seem.

I imagine if you asked Shakespeare about the ambiguity of HAMLET he might say, “Yeah, about that. I was really slammed for time. I figured I’d just clarify during rehearsals but something came up. The Globe needed some repairs and I had to interview a few contractors. Jesus, those guys will soak you. But people seem okay with the play as it is, so what the hell? Plus, I’m working on my next and that bad boy just does not want to fall into place.”

The next time you watch one of our MASH’s, trust me, I will be more than pleased if you just laugh at the jokes and enjoy the story. There’s something wrong when the viewer spends more time analyzing a script than the writer.

Weekend Post

Here's a fun video.  First listen to the Partridge Family with the actors singing, notably David Cassidy.  Then the same song after studio singers get done with it.   Where were they when I had to sing "Tumbling Tumbleweed" in the 7th grade? 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Friday Questions

Last FQ’s in May. Savor them.

Brian leads off by asking:

How soon before the networks, who are all putting out their own pay-for-streaming channels, transition slowly to streaming only and broadcast vanishes completely? (Or, if not completely, becomes the least desirable platform.)

I can’t even say for sure when it’s safe to leave my house, but I have the same prediction you do. At some point things will flip, and new shows will premier on the networks’ streaming channels and then re-appear on the broadcast network.

I think we’re a few years away from that, but this pandemic could easily hasten or slow that process by one or two years.

Seems to me it’s a safe bet though that five years from now television, as we know it, will be very different. I hope I can get out of my house by then.

RyderDA wonders:

On your advice, I've been listening to Rick Bro Radio and Great Big Radio; they're both awesome, so thanks for the recommendation! But a question regarding them: they are advertising free, and free to listen to. I don't understand the business model. If they are paying license fees for the music they play, that's gotta be funded somehow. So how does it work?

The honest answer is that both Rich Brother Robbin ( and Howard Hoffman ( lose money. Their stations are a labor of love. And as long as the royalty fees aren’t too exorbitant, I suspect they’ll keep pumping out the hits. They do it because they love radio, love to entertain, and love the music that radio, in its futile quest for demographics, has forgotten.

Both Rich and Howard are providing a great service. If you would like to donate to either or both, I’m sure they’d be very grateful.

From cd1515 comes a baseball question. 

If you were still doing games, how tough would it be to do them now with no fans in the stands?

And what do you think about announcers doing games remotely from a studio?

It would be extremely hard to call games from an empty stadium. The crowd really provides the excitement, both to the announcers and the players. Players talk about “the tenth man” – they really do feed off the energy of the crowd.

Same with announcers. In the minors I’ve called games where the stadiums were essentially empty. It’s very difficult. You feel like you’re in a vacuum.

And if there are no people in the stands, why not call the game from home or a studio? Especially for the older announcers – why put yourself at risk? How well will stadiums be sanitized? Even with a reduced crew you still need stadium operations people, you still will be in close quarters in elevators, and small broadcast booths.

Then there are the other logistics. Will everyone be quarantined in a hotel? How sterilized is the hotel? Will hotel workers be quarantined? Will stadium operations crews be quarantined? What about travel? How sterilized will team buses be, and airplanes?

So if I’m an announcer and know that the background sound will be the same at my house as it would be in a stadium, then I’d rather do it from my living room.

Yes, I’ll miss daily interaction with the manager and players, but I can Zoom so I’ll still have my pipeline to the skipper.

Jason Benetti of ESPN is calling those Korean League games from his house and he sounds just fine. (Although he sounds great whatever he does.)

And finally, 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?

Readership is up, which sort of surprises me. A large percentage of my readers log on at work during business hours. Sure, many can still work from home, but quite a few can’t and have lost their jobs. I was expecting my traffic to go down. But happily it has not.

Podcasts, on a whole, have gone down during this lockdown. That surprises me too. You figure folks would now have more time to catch up on podcasts, but most people clearly must be listening during outside workouts or commuting under normal conditions.

Fortunately, my numbers on HOLLYWOOD AND LEVINE have held steady, and I thank you for that. I’ve got some nifty guests coming up – a comedy writer who’s had a very colorful career, and an eight-time JEOPARDY champion who won $228,000.

What’s your Friday Question? Stay safe. Wear your mask.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

EP176: A Master Class in Directing Part 2

More expert advice in directing from Andy Barnicle.  Dealing with actors, the difference between TV and theatre, blocking, rewriting, lighting, interpretation, the technical part of the job.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Entrance applause

If you’re a showrunner on a multi-camera show taped before a studio audience, one decision you have to make is whether to allow entrance applause.

In the theatre, when you go to see a performance featuring a star they traditionally get a huge round of applause when they make their first entrance. And usually that first entrance is with a flourish to allow for that adoration.

On Norman Lear shows in the ‘70s that became standard. Same with Garry Marshall shows. Watch an episode of GOOD TIMES or LAVERNE & SHIRLEY. J.J. or Lenny & Squiggy enter and you’d think we just landed on the moon.

Other shows like those done by MTM during the same period took out the applause.

The Lear/Marshall camp contends that the viewer knows there’s a studio audience and the show is being shot like a play. They’re not fooling anybody so why not include the audience’s appreciation of first seeing those stars they came to see?

The MTM camp contends that the applause is intrusive and takes you out of the story. They went so far as to tell audiences not to applaud during entrances. I was at a filming of RHODA where Vivian Vance was the guest star. You know her entrance would get a standing ovation. So the producers introduced her to the audience before they started filming. It gave Ms. Vance her entrance applause without affecting the show itself.

So where do I stand on this most controversial subject? I side with no applause. But for a different reason. I feel it’s self-congratulatory and I try to avoid that. If the audience spontaneously claps later in the show at a big laugh or a story turn, well that ovation was earned. But just to have the audience go nuts the minute the show starts when someone enters the house with the mail – that feels like we’re all patting ourselves on the back for no reason.

Also now, entrance applause sounds dated, retro, very ‘70s. At least to me.

I bet it’s something you haven’t thought much about, despite its incendiary nature. But we all have a lot of time on our hands these days, and many of us are binging – either current or vintage shows. Notice whether there’s entrance applause, and whether you like it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Happy Birthday Becca!!!

Our granddaughter turns 4 today.  Wish we could be with you and hope next year and all the years after we can celebrate it in person.  Happy Birthday, Becca.  We love you.  See you on FaceTime. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day 2020

It always seems weird to me that a festive occasion should be called “Memorial Day.” The purpose of the day is to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces who have given their lives for our freedom. There is a national cemetery near my home and every Memorial Day American flags are posted in front of all the tombstone. It’s a startling sight – endless rows of matching white gravestones with American flags. When my kids were teenagers they helped plant the flags.

Having served in the Armed Forces Reserves, I've always considered myself incredibly lucky that I didn't have to fight in a war.  Back in those days we were drafted.  And it's all the more reason to give thanks to our current military personnel.  Not only are they there putting themselves in harm's way in awful hellholes, but they volunteered.

And this year is even weirder because traditionally Memorial Day signals the beginning of the summer season.  But most of us are still hunkered down at home.  I see all those people on beaches and the protesters and I'm reminded of my friend, Tom Straw's line for what they should write on their protest placards:

                                  Give me Liberty AND Give me Death 

There will be no summer traveling, no summer camps, no summer stock theatre.  But when you consider the sacrifice our servicemen are making -- not to mention the first responders, medical personnel, and folks providing essential services to keep this country even limping along -- all we can do is express our extreme gratitude to those brave men and women.  And that's what this Memorial Day is for. 

Thank you.  And stay safe. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Weekend Post

This is very cool.  Top TV ratings from 1951-2019.  It's like a horse race.  Watch to see if your favorite show comes up in the backstretch.  Also, make note of network dominance.  CBS kicked ass for years, NBC had its day, ABC under Fred Silverman, rose briefly to the top, and Fox hit the big time with AMERICAN IDOL.  AMC even sneaks in there. 

Also, you'll notice how there are times when comedy rules and others when it's almost nowhere to be found.  Early on Westerns ruled.  Then disappeared.  And some shows you wouldn't think cracked the Top 10 like BECKER proved to be more popular than folks assumed.    The reboot of ROSEANNE goes straight to the top and then disappears in a blink.   All interesting stuff. 

And it's kind of mesmerizing.  Light up a joint and enjoy. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Friday Questions

The only way to know it’s Friday these days is by Friday Questions. Happy to provide that service.

Michael starts us off:

Am I correct in assuming that it was unusual for relatively inexperienced writers like David and yourself to be made head writers on an established hit show like MASH? If so, did you feel any extra pressure or have any doubts you would be successful?

VERY unusual. We were promoted to head writers of MASH in the middle of season six when the previous head writer left to do other projects. I was 26.

To be honest, my partner David and I felt a little handcuffed by the previous head writer, who was a lovely guy and terrific writer but was very slow and deliberate. And that pace drove us nuts. So when he left and we were finally able to work at our pace we felt more relief than nerves.

Plus, at the time we had no idea the show would become so iconic and that 40 years later it would still be rerunning ten times a day around the world. We probably would have been petrified had we known. It’s the one time I was glad to be ignorant.

From Brian:

In light of the Jean Carroll anecdote, have you ever seen your material show up in other sitcoms?

No, but when I first started doing my snarky Oscar reviews I would email them to everyone in my contacts list. One was a very prominent talk show radio host in San Francisco. I heard from friends in the Bay Area that he would steal my material and claim it was his.

How coincidental that he had no funny observations after the following year’s Oscarcast once I took him off my distribution list.

PolyWogg wonders:

Did you ever have writers in your "group writers" rooms where someone went several weeks without getting any of their material "in"? Not really the same dynamic I guess...maybe more about needing to fire writers who just didn't fit in / couldn't produce over time?

Writers are like athletes. They all have strengths and weaknesses. A lights-out shooter in basketball might be terrible on defense, or a great catcher can’t hit.

Some writers might be shy and not great in a room but turn in terrific scripts. Neil Simon was like that. So if you have Neil in the room you don’t expect him to be a joke machine.

Likewise, some guys who are fantastic in rooms can’t write a decent draft to save their lives. And some are very good at breaking stories and solving story problems but jokes are not their strong suit.

All of that is to say if the quiet writer is contributing in other areas we are more apt to overlook his lack of jokes in rewrites. But if he’s not pulling his weight in other areas, then yes, we’ve been known to let writers go.

And finally, from Kendall Rivers:

Speaking of live tapings have you ever attended ones for The Odd Couple? I heard that back then it was as hard to get into an Odd Couple taping as it was for All In The Family at that time.

No, but even better, I saw Tony Randall & Jack Klugman and the TV cast do the ODD COUPLE play live at the Shubert Theatre. To hear them do Neil Simon’s words was a sheer joy.

Ironically, I did see a taping of ALL IN THE FAMILY.

What’s your Friday Question? Stay safe.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

EP175: A Master Class in Directing Part 1

Everyone says: “what I really want to do is direct.”  Then this is the episode for you.  Meet Andy Barnicle, who has directed over 300 full-length plays.  In part 1 of this 2 part series, Andy concentrates on directing actors.  It’s a fascinating and eye-opening look into the creative process.    

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Shows on the bubble

Wow. What does this say about the future of network television?

For many years I was in network television. As a kid I worshiped network television. I knew all the shows, all the actors in all the shows, and once I got into writing – all the writers and producers of every show. And not because I felt it was an obligation. I did this because I wanted to. I cared.

How many thousands of hours of commercials did I sit through before VCR’s and DVR’s until fast forwarding? And half the time so I could watch the end of PETTICOAT JUNCTION or junk like that.

But I didn’t care. It’s was TELEVISION. CBS, NBC, ABC – my portals to the wonders of entertainment.

Recently, I came across an article from listing the network shows that are on the bubble for cancellation. Trade websites and papers list them every year. But what was startling about this year was that as I was scrolling down the list I was shocked at how many of these shows I had never even heard of. And again, what not talking some obscure cable channel – we’re talking the major broadcast networks.

What the heck is A MILLION LITTLE THINGS? Or COUNCIL OF DADS? EMERGENCE? GOOD GIRLS? INDEBTED? Something called LINCOLN RHYME: HUNT FOR THE BONE COLLECTOR? You’d think that just the long title alone would catch my attention. But no.

And the list continues. MANIFEST? OUTMATCHED? SINGLE PARENTS? ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST? That’s another long title that should have registered based on its length alone. It didn’t.

Here’s the sad part: I bet some of these shows are very good; certainly worth sampling. But how would I know? No one has recommended them to me. And I don’t watch network primetime so if there are promos I never see them.

I don’t know the solution. When I have sampled new network shows, especially sitcoms I’ve been disappointed. Is it network interference (which continues to be oppressive), or writing staffs that are hired based on agendas not necessarily talent, or an overall fear of anything that’s not safe (which included recycling the same tired TV actors over and over again)? Poor promotion also has to be a culprit. What good are promos on NBC if you don’t watch NBC?

Networks are going to be faced with an even bigger challenge this year. Nobody knows what the world is going to look like come this Fall. They will be forced to work outside their comfort zone. Will that result in more innovation, a new look and approach that possibly results in a resurgence of network television, or more of the same and a shorter path for the lemmings to get to the cliff? As someone who grew up loving the networks, I hope it’s the former.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Stealing Stand Up Material

I’ve talked about stand-up comedians stealing material before, but this is a great story about payback.

Before women comedians Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Elayne Boosler, there was Jean Carroll. We’re talking ‘40s/’50s. I’ve seen some of her ED SULLIVAN SHOW appearances on YouTube and she was damn funny. There’s an article in Emmy Magazine about her and she talks about comedian Alan King stealing one of her signature bits. Here’s that excerpt:

I wrote 95 percent of my material. When he was starting out, Alan King stole "That Dress Is You!" but changed it to buying a suit. One time, when we were, coincidentally, doing the same charity show, I insisted that I go on first — and I did his entire routine, word for word, about sending a kid to camp.

Afterward, I said to the audience, "You like that routine? It's not mine. It belongs to the fellow backstage who now has no act to do for you. Maybe this will teach him not to steal people's acts anymore."

So Alan didn't go on because he couldn't. Years later, he admitted that he'd stolen my act. His cop-out was that he was a poor kid and couldn't afford writers.

I love that story sooooo much. God bless you, Jean Carroll.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Postmates scam

So like everybody, I started using Postmates. A quarantine is a marvelous incentive. And when something is “too good to be true” it generally IS too good to be true. And such is the case with Postmates.

I started off with a promo code -- $100 free. Used it a couple of times and it was convenient. And I enjoyed watching the little car on my screen navigate streets to arrive at my house.

My first red flag was a delivery guy without mask or gloves. That lowered his tip considerably. I’ve since learned that some restaurants now won’t use Postmates for the very same reason. Public safety is paramount.

But how can Postmates monitor that? It’s all freelancers working on their own time. Okay, so there’s a quality control issue. There’s been enough flak from this that the company is supposedly really putting their foot down and insisting their drivers wear gloves and masks. Good luck enforcing that.

For Mother’s Day I placed a rather sizeable order at a restaurant I like to support. I looked at the bill before clicking CONFIRM and it was shockingly higher than I was expecting. Even with “free delivery” and some “$5.00 off offer” the bill seemed way too high. I checked and saw a service charge of $35.00. What the fuck was that?

I called the restaurant. They said, that was all Postmates. If I picked up the order myself that $35.00 would be gone. According to them, Postmates charges the customer a service fee, the restaurant a fee, and takes a percentage of the driver’s tip. And talking to a friend who used to be a driver for Postmates, I was told they jack up the service fee at peak hours (as does Uber – try getting an Uber from JFK into NYC at 5:00 pm and see what you pay).

I want to know what “free delivery” means when I’m charged $35.00? Also, assuming the driver is wearing gloves and a mask, I tip at least 20% and sometimes more because those people are working their asses off for very little, providing a great service during the pandemic. So if I have a bill of say $200 and have to pay a service charge and tip, that’s an additional $75.00. That's INSANE!

My takeaway: They better send me a lot of those $100 promo cards or say goodbye to Postmates.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The CHEERS Zoom reading (a.k.a. Weekend Post)

Jason Benetti, the terrific TV voice of the Chicago White Sox and I put together a Zoom reading of a CHEERS script my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote called "The Big Kiss-Off."   We thought it would be fun to have sportscaster colleagues play the various roles.  With one exception:  George Wendt graciously agreed to play Norm.  So here it is. 

Plus, this is the full version of the script.  Some lines and bits had to be cut for time once the episode was filmed.  So you're hearing them for the first time.

This is the amazing cast:

Chip Caray of the Atlanta Braves plays Sam.
Alanna Rizzo of the Los Angeles Dodgers plays Rebecca
Suzyn Waldman of the New York Yankees plays Carla.
Jason Benetti of the Chicago White Sox & ESPN plays Frasier
Mark Grant of the San Diego Padres plays Woody
Dave Flemming of the San Francisco Giants & ESPN plays Cliff.
Beth Mowins of CBS & ESPN plays guest star Caroline
Dan Hoard of the Cincinnati Bengals plays guest star Larry
Steve Physioc of the Kansas City Royals reads the stage directions.
And I play "Man Who Said Sinatra."  *

* Hey, it's my script - I might as well give myself the starring role. 

My thanks to all these incredibly talented people.  Hope you have as much fun watching it as we had making it. 

Cheers and stay safe. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Friday Questions

Let’s get some Friday Questions going, shall we?

Fed by the muse leads off:

Who in show business do you consider one-of-a-kind talents (be it actors, writers, musical artists, etc.), say your top five-to-ten (persons, more or less, of your time)? Thanks.

Hard to narrow it down to just ten. But here are some standouts, and I’m probably forgetting ten more (so please don’t write in angrily saying “why did you leave so-and-so off the list?”).

Larry Gelbart, Vin Scully, Cary Grant, Stephen Sondheim, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Oprah, Billy Wilder, Dan Ingram, Neil Simon, Paddy Chayefsky, George Gershwin, Meryl Streep, Jack Benny, Stanley Kubrick, Patsy Cline, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, and Billy Shakespeare.

From Erich617:

Is it possible that podcasting will replace radio as a training ground for performers? I am curious about your opinion in particular since you have done both.

Podcasts are an ideal training ground for talk radio but not music.

Podcasters have to pay license fees if they play music so very few do. All of my bumpers and jingles were done custom for me.

So if you want to be a radio DJ, podcasting won’t help you.

Of course, who wants to be a music DJ these days? So few stations employ live jocks so you’ll likely be recording voicetracks. And any personality is discouraged.

Sheila has two questions.

I wanted to know if the audience gets paid to watch the taping of the TV shows? Or at the least do they get some snacks?

It depends on the show, but there are services that do provide audiences. The show pays them. Especially if you have a new show that hasn’t aired yet, it’s difficult to get audiences off the street. So an audience service is employed.

Once the show becomes a hit and enough fans are requesting tickets then the services aren’t needed.

The services can provide specific types of audiences – like skewing older or skewing urban.

I should mention that tickets to TV tapings are always free. That is, when there are TV tapings again.

Depending on how long the shows keep their audiences they will often provide snacks, candy, and even sandwiches. You don’t want to be at a taping that offers sandwiches because it means you’ll be there forever. And trust me, after a couple of hours it gets old.

Which brings up another issue. The warm-up person will tell you you are forbidden to leave. Of course you can leave. Anytime you want.

However that doesn’t apply to people provided by audience services. They’re being paid to stay till the bitter end.

Are they allowed to ask the TV stars for autographs. Please share your experience on this, like if any of the stars are kind enough to walk and shake hands with the audience and sign a few autographs.

Some stars are gracious enough to volunteer to give autographs. But remember, they’re working. They’ve memorized a script, they’re about to perform, so they really have to concentrate on the task at hand.

A few will stay after and sign autographs, but a lot of times after the audience leaves they continue shooting pick ups. So their work is not done when everybody files out to go home. You wouldn’t hold it against an actor to not give an autograph in the middle of a play he’s performing in. So I ask everybody to please not hold it against them if they won’t sign an autograph or pose for a selfie. It's just a bad time. 

I don’t know if this is the case with all Disney Channel shows but the one time I was on the set of GOOD LUCK CHARLIE the audience was invited to come down to the stage after the filming and meet the cast. Selfies and autographs were permitted.  (See above photo) The cast was lovely with everybody and I really applaud them. This was coming after a very long and demanding day.

What’s your Friday Question… or Questions?

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

EP174: The Broadcaster’s Nightmare

We’ve all had the “nightmare” – it’s the day of your college final, you never went to class, your life depends on this grade, etc.  Every profession has its own custom version of that dream.  As a broadcaster Ken experienced several of these nightmares that actually came true.   Terrifying then, hilarious now.   Enjoy his pain.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Garry Marshall Tribute

Last night ABC aired a beautiful tribute special to Garry Marshall.  (Kudos to John Schienfeld who produced and wrote it).  What struck me was how genuine the outpouring of love was for Garry Marshall.  He was a very special man.  As for my feelings and personal dealings -- I want to re-post the tribute I wrote for Garry the night he died, July 19, 2016. 
It’s 3:00 in the morning in New York. But I just had to write this now. If I don’t get any sleep, so be it. But I am devastated by the loss of Garry Marshall, who passed away Tuesday at only 81.

Garry Marshall was an extraordinary man. In the world of comedy where anger is a primary tool for getting laughs, Garry Marshall built an empire by showing that comedy could be humane, comedy could have heart, and comedy could be funny without being mean-spirited, spiteful, and crass. He was a rebel.

Garry Marshall was one of my inspirations. I feel so honored that he did my play, A OR B? at his Falcon Theatre. I will always treasure opening night, sitting two seats away from him and hearing him laugh at my jokes. Ohmygod! I made Garry Marshall laugh.   I have arrived.  

A main reason I wanted to get into comedy in the first place was from watching THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. The writing was so smart. And my favorite scripts were always the ones written by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson. There was just a slight edge, a touch of inspired lunacy, they were funnier. The writing credits for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW were at the end and when my partner, David Isaacs and I were starting out we’d watch the DVD show every afternoon and try to guess the credits. Marshall & Belson scripts were easy to pick out. They were just a shade better. We made it our goal to be Marshall & Belson – to have young writers think our scripts were just that discernible fraction better than the rest.

Garry went on to great success building a sitcom empire at Paramount in the ‘70s and ‘80s. From HAPPY DAYS, to LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, to my favorite – THE ODD COUPLE, Garry not only produced wonderful comedies, he also discovered many terrific young writers who would go on to have spectacular careers. And he introduced the world to Robin Williams.

Garry was naturally and effortlessly funny. With his distinctive Bronx cadence he could say “Have some coffee” and somehow get a laugh. I never knew how he did that. But you just wanted to be around him. He always made you feel good about yourself, which is a lovely feeling – especially when you’re also laughing at the same time.

And in my case, he made me want to be better. That started with the first script I ever wrote and extended all the way to A OR B?

My love and prayers to Barbara, Ronny, Kathleen, and the entire Marshall family. We used to see them every Christmas vacation at the Kahala Whoever-owns-them-now. If ever there was a close-knit family that truly loved each other it was his, and I’m sure in large part because of him. Hey, I wanted to be his grandkid.

I’m sure there will be many tributes today. That’s what happens when everyone you ever met loves you. Like I said, I feel so blessed that I got to work with him. The greatest compliment I may ever receive as a playwright was from Garry after that opening night. All he said was, “Welcome to a new career.” Who needs Tonys after that?

He will continue to live in my heart, not to mention TV LAND, TCM, and whoever plays PRETTY WOMAN. To sum up: In an industry that’s built on meanness, Garry Marshall was “nice.” Nice to everybody. Writers, actors, executives, pool boys.

If I could say one last thing to Garry it would be “Thank you.” He would probably respond with, “Get some sleep already.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

People aren't always what they seem

I was watching an ESPN documentary on the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the ’80s. I watch a lot of TV these days.

As a Lakers fan I hated Kevin McHale. First of all, he was an exceptional player for the dreaded Boston Celtics. He could also be a bully. There’s a famous play where he just clotheslined Kurt Rambis of the Lakers. Trust me, Lakers fan still remember.

Then in 1991 in season ten of CHEERS, David Isaacs and I wrote an episode called “Where Have All the Floorboards Gone?” in which a Celtic shows up at the bar to give Norm a jacket for his birthday and gets caught up in one of those stupid bar discussions. This one involves how many bolts are on the storied Boston Gardens parquet floor? The gang winds up going to the Garden to find out, which causes comic complications (as things like that usually do).

We wanted a real player and were able to get Kevin McHale. I was not looking forward to shaking his hand.

But Kevin arrived and proved to be the nicest guy in the world. This caused real mixed feelings. But those were resolved when Kevin also turned out to be really funny. He sold his lines and got every laugh. I’m here to tell you, for a professional athlete, that’s RARE.

Kevin was so good we just kept giving him more to do during the week. And we even brought him back for a second episode.

Besides that, we got to go to Boston to film the scenes at Boston Gardens. That was amazing.

We also went back to Boston for the CHEERS 200th episode and Kevin invited us to watch a shoot-around before a game and got us tickets to the game.

How can you not love this guy?

When you’re young and you’re a sports fan it’s easy to get really riled up. You find yourself genuinely hating opposing players who broke your heart on the field or court.

When you get older or you’re lucky enough to meet these athletes in person you often find they’re not villains at all. The hatred turns into respect. Besides, today there are real villains that have a direct effect on your life. Kevin McHale is a good guy. I bet Larry Bird is too.  Probably. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

The HBO Natalie Wood Documentary -- My take

Lots of people have asked if I saw the Natalie Wood documentary on HBO. Of course I did. Saw it the first night. Figured I’d wait a few days to comment so more people will have seen it.

A writer friend of mine described it best – an infomercial. It felt like the family’s attempt to close the matter once and for all. Besides that, it was slow, offered nothing remotely new about Natalie Wood or her life, and I didn’t believe their spin for a second.  Apparently, I'm not alone.  I just read a New Yorker Magazine review that called it a "P.R. job." 

I refuse to believe there wasn’t some cover-up. No, I don’t think Robert Wagner pushed her into the water. But I do believe the many accounts of other boats farther away claiming they heard cries for help. RJ didn’t hear them? Let’s just say he made no immediate attempt to rescue her.

Some reports claim other boats heard a fight between Natalie and RJ and guest, Christopher Walken. It was acknowledged even in the documentary that she had a real temper and could go batshit. Did they try to calm her down? Did she slip and fall into the drink? The point is it’s unlikely she was off the boat for any length of time before RJ realized she was missing. And his calls to the shore patrol and coast guard were way too little too late.

When the LAPD announced they are re-opening the case based on new evidence, that would suggest to me there’s way more to the tale than teary-eyed Robert Wagner shared on this informercial. In the documentary they mention that, but discredit it quickly. They discredit Lana Wood quickly. They point out all the sleaze tabloids exploiting the story in such a light as to make them seem ridiculous and salacious (although some clearly were – I’m surprised one didn’t accuse space aliens of killing her).

Did Natalie learn something RJ was afraid she was going to tell the world? Was he concerned that she could be a loose cannon when she felt horribly wronged? In his drunken/high state, could he not have been thinking clearly? Could he have heard her cries for help and thought, “All these problems could just go away if I just turned a deaf ear?”

Natalie’s daughters seem to believe him. I’m sure that’s preferable to thinking their father (or step father) is a monster. I guarantee you, therapy has been administered.

And maybe they’re absolutely right. Maybe Robert Wagner did have nothing to do with it. But his testimony and this three-hour sell job didn’t convince me.

The title should have been: NATALIE WOOD – LEAVE US ALONE ALREADY

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Weekend Post

You've heard the CHEERS theme. Ever seen the gentleman who performed it? Here's Gary Portnoy, who wrote it along with Judy Hart Angelo. So proud to have spent nine years writing for that show.  Enjoy!

Friday, May 08, 2020

Friday Questions

How you holding up? Here are some Friday Questions to get you through another week.

Janet leads off.

What do you anticipate what the lockdowns and social distancing is going to do the networks' fall TV schedules?

Wreak havoc.

Very few, if any, of the pilots for the fall are completed. And at this point nobody knows when shows can go back into production. I don’t think there will be a fall TV season. In about another month networks will run out of new material. It’s going to be an interesting summer.

VP81955 wonders:

If social distancing continues for a prolonged period, or even if it doesn't, could it spell the end of multi-cam shows filmed before a studio audience? Having attended four of them over the years, I'd hate to see them discontinued. (Actors I know feel likewise; they feed on the energy found in that environment.)

No. At some point things will get back to normal, sports stadiums will have large crowds (except for the Oakland A's), theatres will re-open, and audiences of 200 (TV tapings) will be allowed.

The big question is when?

From -30-

Dodger broadcasting legend Vin Scully always worked solo during his entire career, never with a partner on-air at the same time. Do you think he would have become as famous and respected if he had been just a play-by-play or just a color guy? I don't think he would had a chance to shine, that he would have been JUST a solid professional.

People forget that when he was a national broadcaster (baseball and golf on NBC, NFL football on CBS) he did have analysts (e.g. Joe Garagiola, John Madden) and he was as great as ever.

Vin Scully was always a play-by-play guy.  Analysts tended to be former players.

Scully came up at a time before anyone had analysts, and he learned to work without them. Truth be told, there was nothing any analyst could say (especially regarding baseball) that Scully didn’t a) already know, and b) couldn’t articulate better.

When Scully began, young announcers were encouraged to have styles and personalities. Very different from today where young announcers are all brought up to be generic and safe (and for the most part, dull).

And finally, from Jim S:

Friday question. I was watching "Bob hearts Abishola" because it was something to do before "Better Call Saul" comes on and it takes place in my hometown of Detroit.

I notice the show is filled with actors from the Chuck Lorre stock company. Got me to thinking, showrunners will often bring actors they've worked with from prior shows. What's the thinking behind that?

You’ll also notice that those actors who appear in his stock company are funny. Yes. Over time, showrunners return to actors they know can deliver. On more than one occasion I’ve had an idea for a guest role and would ask the casting director about a certain actor’s availability.

Movie directors have always done this as well. Preston Sturges had a stock company of actors who appeared in film after film of his. How many times did Billy Wilder use Jack Lemmon? Or Mel Brooks use Gene Wilder?

The danger is that the actor becomes too familiar, but if you have enough of them it’s a God send – like a baseball manager with a deep bullpen.

What’s your Friday Question? Stay safe.

UPDATE:  Many of you have asked -- on Monday I will be sharing my thoughts on the new HBO Natalie Wood documentary.  This will give more of you time to watch it on the weekend. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

EP173: The Early Days of My TV Career

If you're trying to make it in the television industry, this is the podcast for you. Emmy winning writer Ken Levine walks you through his early days as a freelance writer in the business working with David Isaacs. Ken shares all his experiences, including all the ups and many downs. Pitching stories, pilot episodes, backup scripts and dealing with rejections!  

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Keep the future -- Just let me go back to the past

As you know, as a big fan of ‘60s music, I often listen to It’s a deep dive into the ‘50s-‘70s not just Proud Mary and Pretty Woman played on an endless loop.

Rich Brother Robbin who hosts the site reports his listenership is way up during this pandemic. Which makes sense. He contends that research has shown a big reason listeners are attracted to the oldies format is because “it makes them happy.” Rich also sprinkles in classic radio jingles to spice up the sound that much more. And I think now more than ever people are seeking an escape to a happier, more innocent time when the music was fun, you could leave your home, and we had actual intelligent leaders.

For younger listeners who want the same experience but with fun cooking music from the ‘70s, ‘80’s, and ‘90s – there’s

And that yearning for comfort and reassurance extends beyond music. Here in Los Angeles, two ‘50s themed restaurants – Bob’s Big Boy and Mel’s Drive In on Sunset – have reinstated car hop service. You sit in your car, a waitress brings your food on trays you attach to your windows. And you eat in your car.   The menu is your standard comfort food – burgers, shakes, and entrees covered in gravy. The result: People are flocking to them.

Drive-In theatres are also making a comeback. And you know it’s not because they’re the best way to see a movie. They’re the worst. And you can see movies with far better picture quality and surround sound in your living room. Those clunky speakers you attach to your car window always sound like the muffled voice of the kid at McDonalds when you drive through.

But it’s a chance to get out of the house and relive a more pleasant experience from your past. (Still, bring protection)

So instead of listening to irresponsible press briefing that are costing Americans their lives, I’d much prefer to sing along with Lesley Gore, who expresses my feelings exactly about the longing for retro and the world today.  .

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

A trick we learned

The subject of audience response has come up a lot lately.  Here's something else along those lines.

I’ve talked about how we shot multi-camera shows in front of studio audiences. At times we pre-shot scenes for one reason or another. The scene took place outside, we had a guest star only available for one day, kids or animals in the scene, tricky special effects, they were in cars, etc.

What happens is those scenes are usually filmed the day before the audience filming. The editor would hastily put together a cut and during the audience filming they would be shown on monitors at the appropriate place in the story. The audience laughter would be recorded and eventually married to those finished scenes.

But when David Isaacs and I were showrunning we had a trick.

We noticed that the laughs were never as good when the audience was just watching the scenes on monitors. So we tried an experiment. Instead of showing the scenes we tried to recreate them live.  We didn't film them.  Only the audience audio was recorded.

Now this was not always possible, but when it was we felt it was worth a try.

A good example was car scenes. If they were filmed on the stage you would pre-shoot them with either blue screen to add scenery out the windows in post production. Or, for night scenes there is a process with whirling lights that simulate headlights and traffic.

But for the audience, here’s what we did. We set two chairs on the stage (like an improv show) and just told the audience what we were doing. Imagine they’re in a car. Same if a character was at a gas station. We’d say “pretend he’s holding a pump.” They did and we were rewarded with laughter.

We found we got much bigger and better laughs even with two actors sitting on chairs. The lesson learned here:  You just can’t beat the immediacy of a live performance.

Monday, May 04, 2020

My 8 seconds of fame

Last Thursday night on JEOPARDY my writing partner, David Isaacs and I were a clue! Needless to say, it was a thrill. Even more so when one of the contestant got the answer right. Remember a recent clue showed Tom Hanks and no one even rang in. Yikes.

But a mention on JEOPARDY is like we’ve somehow crossed into pop culture. Pretty cool for a couple of guys who spent long nights in a tiny apartment banging out spec scripts in hopes of someday somebody thinking we had talent besides our parents.

So my sincerest thanks to the researchers and writers of JEOPARDY for honoring us with the shout-out. And to Alex. He actually pronounced my name correctly. The last time a celebrity got the pronunciation right it was Tony Randall in 1977.

My only personal encounter with Alex was on CHEERS when we did the “Cliff goes on JEOPARDY” episode. Alex was so funny that we actually wrote him into a second scene. He was the one bar patron who everybody did know his name.

I also want to thank everyone who wrote, texted, liked on social media, and commented on the blog/Facebook/Twitter, etc. I was touched and overwhelmed by the reaction. Some people I hadn’t heard from in years checked in. Most were congratulatory. Only a few expressed utter shock and disbelief.

Again, it’s the power of television – and a pandemic that forces people to stay home.

But it was a definite career highlight. Also cool to be on the same episode as Geoffrey Chaucer.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Weekend Post

There’s a guy who imitates baseball players’ batting stances. I once saw him at Dodger Stadium. He’s uncanny at it but it got me thinking – how the hell do you make a living imitating Nomar Garciaparra’s batting stance?

And then I starting wondering – how many other gifted people are blessed with a talent that ultimately does them no good?

There’s a guy in San Francisco I once saw who did amazing reproductions of great works of art in chalk on sidewalks. Very impressive but THAT’S his calling? Of all mediums why select chalk?

A few years ago at the Hollywood Bowl an incredible mimic did the Danny Kaye Dodger song and you could swear it was Danny Kaye. How do you support your family as a Danny Kaye impersonator?

Here are a few other artists that only Broadway Danny Rose would consider representing:

There’s a guy who can snap his fingers the fastest. I guess he's the world's fastest hipster. Another can hold the most eggs in his hand. Who’s going to pay good money in Vegas to see that?

Someone claims to be the fastest texter (besides my daughter). Another is the fastest clapper. I feel sorry for the second fastest clapper because the first fastest has to be starving.

There’s a gentleman who can draw a perfect circle. Other than getting chicks I don’t see the point.

I’m sure there are others. What do baton champions do? What kind of legacy can gingerbread house makers have?

Meanwhile, Gallagher makes a handsome living smashing watermelons and Vanna White is rich from turning over vowels.

My heart goes out to these talented individuals. Oh, I just thought of another talent that yields no discernable profit.


Friday, May 01, 2020

Friday Questions

MAY DAY! Celebrate with Friday Questions.

Sharon Alford is up first with a FQ about a CHEERS episode David Isaacs and I wrote.

Just watched "Hot Rocks." Now the questions are: how did you manage to get Admiral Crowe to do his part? Did you think of the idea first and say "gee wouldn't it be great if we actually could get the Admiral to do this?" or did you think you might have to get a replacement actor in his stead and just wrote the script without a commitment? I was just wondering how it all got started - a chicken or the egg kind of question! Because without his cooperation, the episode would not have worked as well, if at all! Great episode!

Thanks.  Actually, we wrote that episode for Larry Bird in the role (which made a tad more sense that he would know Sam Malone). After we finished Bird bailed. Yet another reason why I’m not a fan.

To replace him we wanted someone prominent. The absurdity of the situation is that someone like Larry Bird would steal Rebecca’s diamond earrings. Anyway, our casting director somehow had a connection to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We said, great. How bizarre is that?

So David and I went back and took another pass at the script. I’m quite happy with the way the show turned out. Admiral Crowe proved to be a good sport. And it was weird to see the guy hovering nearby with a case handcuffed to his wrist. Every 90 minutes the Admiral had to call in. These guys weren’t playing around. But this was back when he had a government. 

Another CHEERS FQ, this one from msdemos.

I had written this in a previous blog post:

In the first year of CHEERS, three days into rehearsal for an episode Nick Colasanto went into the hospital with pleurisy. So we worked all night writing him out of the episode. Then came the weekend and on Monday (day four) he was back. So we had to write him back in. That was a fun week.

Wait.......why would you have to write Mr. Colasanto "back in" to the episode?? Wouldn't you just automatically have gone back to the original script he was planning on being in, in the first place ??

No, because by then we had drastically changed the story and the actors had memorized the new script and all of the camera assignments had been set. The best course of action was find a couple of places to add the Coach, which is what we did.

Gary has a FRASIER FQ.

I read online today that for the final episode of Frasier, the writers wanted to have Tony Randall appear as Niles and Frasier's "Uncle Felix." But apparently Randall was in ill health by then and couldn't appear. Ken, do you know if there is any truth to this? Seems like it would have been a great idea.

I had never heard of this so I consulted one of the creators of FRASIER who said the rumor was completely false and Randall was never approached.

And finally, from WB Jax:

For me, neither MASH nor Hogan's Heroes (both, for a time, benefitting from the writing talents of Larry Marks, Richard Powell) have any bad segments. What sitcoms do you consider not to contain any truly bad (or at least embarrassing) episodes?

FRASIER, TAXI, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and THE HONEYMOONERS.  I'm sure there are others.  And there's a "worst episode" of even those shows.  But their worst is way better than other shows' best. 

What’s your Friday Question?