Friday, December 31, 2021

Betty White

So sorry to hear of the passing of Betty White, just weeks from her 100th Birthday.  Why are the good taken too soon?  

I never worked with her but did meet her on several occasions.  The last time was for a panel I moderated.  She was just a kid then — maybe 94.  We sat backstage beforehand and she was working a crossword puzzle.  We chatted a little.  She was sharp as a tack.  

My father actually knew her way better than me.  He was in local advertising in the early ‘50s and hired Betty on several occasions to do live TV commercials for him.  

No one I’ve ever met in the industry had a single bad word to say about Betty.  Everyone loved her.  She was nice, she was kind, she was professional, and ohmygod was she funny.  

Did you know she was literally the first woman on television?  In 1939 in an experimental broadcast she was the one on camera.  Fitting, no?

For more about this National Treasure, there’s a great new book out called BETTY WHITE: 100 Remarkable Moments in an Extraordinary Career by Ray Richmond.  You can find it here.  I really recommend it.  

Over the next few days I’m sure you’ll see tons of tributes and film clips.  I just want to add my appreciation.  She was the best that ever was.  

And what an almost poetic way to end this shitty year.  

RIP Betty.  May you now be reunited with Allen and after-live happily ever after.  

Friday Questions

Last Friday Questions of the year (if my math is correct).  What’s yours?

CJMiller starts us off.

What was your 9-5 job after radio? I don't remember you ever talking about it.

In 1975 I got a job teaching radio at the KIIS Broadcasting Workshop on the Sunset Strip.  This was one of those diploma mills — not that an actual degree in broadcasting was a gateway to anything.   

The school's big lure, which was pretty ingenious, was that the students could actually go on the air on KIIS-AM from 2-4 AM.  The station made way more money with this arrangement than if they had sold the time to sponsors, and the school had a perk no other broadcasting academy had.  Talk about OJT. 

The Workshop also provided assistance in making an audition tape and getting that elusive first job.  

I will say this, we had some pretty impressive people on the faculty.  Art Hannes, who had been the announcer on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and was the original announcer on Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.”  Also Gene Taylor, who had been a jock and then General Manager of WLS Chicago when they went rock n’ roll.  Lee Marshall, whose booming voice was heard on CKLW, KHJ, and KABC among others.  He also became the voice of World Federation Wrestling and then the voice of Tony the Tiger.  Gary Theroux was also there.  He wrote the syndicated “History of Rock n’ Roll and has done major market radio as well.

For me, the attraction was 9-5, Monday-Friday and that’s it.   It was my “survival job” as it’s now called.  My “real” job was writing spec scripts nights and weekends with David Isaacs and trying to break into the business.

Brian Phillips asks:


Do show "bibles" still exist? What were some of the good ones that you have seen?

Some shows might still have internal bibles, but I’m guessing not many.  Now that we have the internet, episode guides and loglines are readily available.  

MASH used to have a great one.  Each episode received a full page with a detailed description of what happened in the episode.   It was very helpful when we were trying to come up with stories to pitch.  We knew what had already been done.  

None of the other shows I worked on ever had a bible.  

From Kendall Rivers:


Now, I'm sure you've already been asked this at least a few times but I'm still gonna ask. About Alan Arbus' Sydney Freedman being such a beloved and popular character, do you know why he was never made a regular? You would think that what he brought to the show and how well he fit in with the cast that he would've eventually become a regular and frankly more Sydney could only have helped the show, especially its last few years.

We didn’t want his character to wear out his welcome.   We wanted audiences to be delighted when he made appearances, which was usually a couple of times a season.   Same with Colonel Flagg.  We made a point to use him only once a season.  We just didn’t want to go to that well too often.  He was very funny but the character was so extreme that a little went a long way.

There are some characters that are great if used in small doses.  Another was Harriett Harris as Frasier’s agent, “Bebe.”  

I’m not a TV historian, but I imagine it might go back to Hans Conried as “Uncle Tonoose” on THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW.  It was always a special treat when he appeared, but those appearances were doled out very carefully.   (And now I feel 100 years old.  Anyone else remember Uncle Tonoose?  See the photo at the top of this post.)

DyHrdMET closes it out for the year.

I follow a few YouTube channels that post old games for viewing/listening (some are TV broadcasts, some are radio broadcasts). Do you know if any of your broadcasts are available for public consumption?

I also follow a channel which posts some old radio commercials and bumpers, etc. Do you know if your anything from your radio DJ days is on the internet?


To my knowledge, none of my baseball games are online.  If someone finds one, please let me know. There are airchecks of my disc jockey days as Beaver Cleaver and later, Ken Levine on several radio aircheck websites like reelradio.com.   Consult your local Google.

Happy New Year.  Be safe tonight. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Remembering 2021

As we end the year we look back and remember those we lost.  Award show tribute segments are always disappointing, incomplete, and half the time the honorees aren't even full screen.  

TCM put together their piece and it's truly beautiful. I also suspect it's fairly complete.  Take five minutes to remember those in the entertainment industry who brought so much joy and enrichment to our lives. 

RIP all of these wonderful people. 


 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

BEING THE RICARDOS -- my review

I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing.  I wish I could do what he does.  When he is on his game I’m amazed someone can write that well and that deep that fast.  It almost seems like the brilliance is effortless.  What an extraordinary gift. 

But there’s one thing I can do that Sorkin apparently can’t and that is write comedy.  I’m certainly not saying it’s a better skill, just different.  But I think it drives Sorkin crazy.  (Not because of me specifically but all comedy writers.)   It’s the one club he can’t join.   Why it bothers him, I do not know.  His skill garners Oscars.  Mine —  $.02 residual checks.  

But it obviously does.  There’s a pattern.  We’ve seen it in STUDIO 60; we see it in BEING THE RICARDOS.  Comedy writers are always portrayed as talentless hacks that get the shit beaten out of them by smarter, better producers or actors.   Even in THE WEST WING, a show I adored, the president’s staff were enlisted to write jokes for the president because his assigned comedy writers were not funny. 

Sorkin takes every opportunity to belittle the writers.  At one point “Bill Frawley” says something amusing and writer Madelyn Pugh points out it was funnier than anything her partner, Bob Carroll has written.  Ouch!  And they're a team.  Why was that necessary?   It seems that any flashes of humor, from anyone in this movie, is put downs.  

Not being a member of the club, Sorkin has a somewhat distorted view of the sitcom process.  In his conception, as seen in both STUDIO 60 and certainly in BEING THE RICARDOS, the production of a comedy show is an utterly joyless endeavor.   Now, that’s not to suggest it’s a 24/7 party — it’s not.  It’s hard work, long hours, and lots of analysis as to what’s funny and what could make it funnier.  

But there’s also lots of laughter.  Even on bad shows.  You laugh every day.  You’re not doing O’Neill.  Are there actors who hate each other?  Yep.  Are there stars who make things unpleasant for everyone on the set?  You betcha.  But I want to tell you — the worse it is on the stage, the funnier it is up in the room.  The humor may be vicious as we blow off steam, but there are belly laughs.  When was the last time you had a belly laugh in your job?  

Now in the case of I LOVE LUCY, I was privileged to know two of the writers (not shown in the movie) — Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf.  They wrote on the show for years.  I heard plenty of Lucy stories.  I was envious of their experience.  I sure wouldn’t be if the process was as dreary as this film suggests. 

In BEING THE RICARDOS, only Lucy knows what’s funny.  Not the writers, not the milquetoast director, not the other actors, not the network.   Just Lucy.   And she operates in a tactless emasculating manner.   Sorkin tries to show that she was under a lot of pressure to justify this behavior, and it’s hard to justify when all the crises were lumped into one week that never happened.  It was a creative convention.  And I don’t fault him for that.  That’s just good storytelling — consolidate events to make one manageable narrative.  Sorkin takes a lot of creative license and liberty with the facts in all of his biopics (no one said "firewalls" in 1952 - they were invented 35 years later).  And I know it's a tricky dance.  The alternative is generally boring linear stories.  The trouble comes when you're dealing with real life individuals.  Juggling events or combining events to create a story is fine when the events themselves are truly depicted.  There are a few times in this film where that is not the case.  The ending, for example, never happened and is absurd. 

But getting back to the process, good sitcoms are collaborative.  I LOVE LUCY wasn’t just good; it was great.  Are there stars that have no respect for writers and run roughshod over them?   Hello Roseanne.  Hello Cybil.  Hello Bret.  And what happens?  The writers leave.  Actually they run.  But that wasn't the case here.  Shortly before her death Lucy did a commentary about I LOVE LUCY.  This is what she actually said: 

"Many times when we would review at the beginning of the season, they would say Viv and I ad-libbed our way through some mediocre writing.  They have since found out that that was ridiculous. They know how great our writers are because hundreds of people have copied from them. I have such respect for those kids, my writers I call ‘the kids,’ Bob and Madelyn.”

So that bothered me.  But I’m in the industry.  If you’re not in the industry, you might not be bothered by it at all.  There’s a lot to like in this film.  Javier Bardem stole the picture for my money. “I Love Desi.”  J.K. Simmons gave him a run for his money as Fred.  Nina Arianda was fantastic as Ethel.   As for Nicole Kidman, she's a gifted actress who gave it her all, but how do you cast someone who can't move her face to play Lucille Ball, who thrived on her many comic expressions?  There was nothing about Kidman's performance that even suggested this was a funny lady, much less the all-time queen of TV comedy. She got the voice down, and I appreciate that she tried to make the character real and not just an impersonation, but I'm sorry, if you're playing Lucy, moving your face is as signature as red hair.

Again, the pluses: For Sorkin fans like me, his signature whip-smart dialogue was all there.  Some great lines and speeches.  And these characters don’t all sound alike (although it would be fun if they did… if they all sounded like Desi).  

I guess I just felt a little hurt by the film.  As a proud comedy writer I felt lumped in with the writers who were portrayed as hack footstools.  Is that how Aaron Sorkin sees me?  It stings a little because I think the absolute world of him.   

Note:  If you're interested in the subject, I did a whole deep dive into the history of I LOVE LUCY on my podcast.  You can find that episode here. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Exciting announcement

Well, I think it's exciting. My first cartoon is in this week's NEW YORKER.  I can now eat at the Algonquin.  Many thanks to Julia Suits, Emma Allen, and Colin Stokes.  It seems a talking mouse is a good way to start a cartooning career.  In a few weeks on my podcast I'll talk about my journey as a cartoonist. But for now, enjoy.  



Monday, December 27, 2021

Is it just me?

As we are knee-deep in the travel season, I wonder whether I’m neurotic or normal.  

I’m on a flight (this was before the latest COVID surge).  The plane lands.  Everyone is trying to get off.  If I’m up front and have a bag in the overhead compartment, I can not get it out fast enough.  Why?  Because I am aware that this procedure is holding up 150 people, and that drives me CRAZY.  Who am I to inconvenience 150 people?  

And yet, I wonder — am I the only one who thinks like that?   Because I see folks take their sweet time, adjust their hair, finish their text, and slowly extricate their bag as if they had all the time in the world.  

Well, you might say it’s only another thirty seconds.  But thirty seconds here and twenty seconds there and passengers in the back of the plane get off ten minutes later.  Should they be trying to make a connection those ten minutes could be key.  

Same is true when I’m ordering something at Starbucks and there’s a long line behind me.  I figure my order beforehand, have my credit card ready, and complete the transaction as fast as I can.  I don’t get to the counter and then look up at the menu.  I don’t ask seventeen questions.  I don’t pay in pennies and meticulously count them out.  I don’t change my order four times.  

Now I recognize that this could just be my own OK Boomer hang up.  I should just chill.  This is merely the new normal.  But I’m the guy you want to be on the plane with or in front of you in line.  Hopefully I'm not the only one.

Friday, December 24, 2021

All About (Christmas) Eve

Friday Questions were on Wednesday this week.  But today is Christmas Eve.

You would think that being Jewish on Christmas Eve I would feel left out. Actually I love Christmas Eve. Here are two reasons why:

The first is an excerpt from my book, THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60s) – the perfect last minute gift.

On Christmas Eve, (my brother) Corey and I went to Disneyland. This is a secret only Jews know: Disneyland is empty on Christmas Eve. Practically all Christians are preparing for the big day so the park is wide open. No lines for anything. And when they have the big Christmas parade down Main Street there’s maybe twelve people watching it. In 24 hours they’ll be hanging on the light poles, but on December 24, the Magic Kingdom was ours.

The other great thing about Christmas Eve for me was that back in my disc jockey days I always worked that night (along with Christmas). In addition to making double-time for the long shifts ($5.00 an hour in Bakersfield! Multiply that by eight hours and suddenly I’m rich!!), the jocks who I substituted for always owed me. At one station the program director got the brilliant idea that it would be a great stunt for me to ride a rollercoaster for six hours. One of my fellow jocks graciously “volunteered” to go in my place. He grumbled to me that it wasn’t a fair trade-off and I said waa waa. “I had to play The Little Drummer Boy every 45 minutes,” I replied. “At least you’re allowed to throw up.”

But I generally enjoyed those shifts because I knew no one in management was ever listening. In between Brenda Lee and Nat King Cole Christmas standards I was out of control. Howard Stern woul’ve said “Jesus, man, tone it down.”   
 
Whatever your plans are, have a safe and happy Christmas Eve. I’ll probably be at a Chinese restaurant.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

All I Want for Christmas...

No new podcast episode this week.  I'm taking a break until the new year.  But instead, I have a treat.  I love the Mariah Carey song, "All I Want for Christmas is You."  But did you know there's an even better version?  Enjoy.



Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Friday Questions on Wednesday

Since Friday is Christmas Eve and everyone has better things to do, this week's Friday Questions will be on Wednesday.  I hope that doesn’t throw your schedule too out of whack.

Philly Cinephile starts us off:


Ken, I have a Friday question about billing, although I think you've discussed this before. Each December, I watch a favorite made-for-TV movie called HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS. It features several well-known actors and this is how they are listed in the opening credits. Each name and descriptor is shown by itself, centered on the screen.

Starring Sally Field
Jill Haworth
Guest Star Julie Harris
Special Guest Star Eleanor Parker
Special Appearance by Jessica Walter
And Walter Brennan as "Benjamin Morgan"
Co-starring John Fink
Featuring Med Flory

Do these various descriptors have specific, set meanings? What distinguishes a "Special Guest Star" from an ordinary "Guest Star"? Does listing the name of an actor's character carry a certain cachet? And why does poor Jill Haworth have no descriptor?

I'm imagining lengthy contract negotiations over billing…


Lengthy and INSANE.  Each actor wants some special recognition so these credits such as “and…” or “guest star”  were created.  

Size of the credit is an issue, placement on the screen is an issue, order is an issue.  

Then when you have three or four stars all jockeying for special recognition it gets ridiculous.  Glad I don’t have to negotiate those deals.

From thomas tucker:


What are the table readings for, and what are they like? Is it to work out timing, try out new lines, and are the lines said the way they will be when the cameras are rolling? What happens during those table readings? Inquiring minds want to know!

A table reading is when all the actors sit around a table and just read the script out loud.  This is done at the beginning of any production — TV, plays, movies.   Usually writers, the director, key crew members and executives are in attendance.

It gives everyone involved a chance to hear the script from start to finish.  It’s a great tool for writers.  We learn a lot from table readings.  Does the story work?  Does it track or get confusing?  Is it too long?  Are some characters underwritten?  Or overwritten?  In the case of a comedy, do the jokes work? 

Table readings give us a real jump on polishing the script.  

jcs asks:

I started to systematically watch all SEINFELD episodes a few weeks ago. Pretty soon it became clear to me that Jerry Seinfeld is the weakest actor of the ensemble. He proved himself to be a grandmaster of creating and polishing hilarious dialogues, but he has less range, displays less emotional depth and often can be seen on the verge of corpsing. To his credit, Jerry Seinfeld admitted in at least one interview that he possessed less acting skills than his three colleagues. - Should he have done what Carl Reiner did in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and handed his almost autobiographical role to a more talented thespian?

It’s hard to argue with success and SEINFELD with Jerry as the lead proved to be a mega hit.  

Although Jerry is not a great actor, he certainly set the tone of the show.  Not sure anyone else could.   

Also, give him credit for really allowing the ensemble to shine.  The Rob Petrie part was key to that series.  Jerry’s character didn’t have that pressure on him.  

I think Jerry made the right call.   And I’m sure he’s relieved that I think so.  

And finally, from Wild Bill Hagy:

There's a new podcast out about the rumor around Baltimore that Carl Ripkin once had them cut the lights in Camden Yards because he would have lost his consecutive game streak. The reason he would miss the game is because he just beat up Kevin Costner for sleeping with his wife.

Thoughts on this old story?


As someone who was associated with the Baltimore Orioles I can tell you that story is absolute bullshit. 

Don’t believe a word you hear on podcasts… except mine.

What’s your Friday Question (or Wednesday Question if you post it today)?

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

How is this idiot on the air?

If you listen to my podcast this week I play several classic comedy bits.  One is the iconic Abbott & Costello "Who's On First?" routine.  

Well, Fox News with Laura Ingraham do a real-life version.  It's both hilarious and horrifying to think that this person is allowed on the air and that millions of morons actually believe the nonsense she says.  But then it's Fox News.  Check it out.  This is for real. 




Monday, December 20, 2021

Where were you in May, 2012?

I try to do this once a month now.  Since readers rarely go back into the archives (and I've done well over 6,000 posts), I thought I'd re-post Friday Questions from many years ago.  This one is from May 2012.  Some of the answers I give are still valid.  


71dude is first up.

Were you and David invited to work on the "MASH" finale?

No. But at the time we were co-producing CHEERS and they had a very large staff at MASH.  We didn't feel slighted in the least.   Had we been asked we wouldn't have been able to do it. 

The way that final MASH script was written was fascinating. It got broken down into half-hour portions and divided up among the writers or teams of writers. Those writers would then co-write their section with Alan Alda. And trust me, that final episode was long enough without adding another half hour for me and David.

Jim S. asks:

Have you ever called a game that went down in the history books? What's it like to call a game that has the potential to make history. Are you more nervous, do you get charged up more? (I guess that's like 18 questions, but you get my point?)

I’ve called two no-hitters, the last game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, the first game at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, the Padres winning a division championship, a triple-play, a balk-off win, and was there the day Glenn Davis made three errors on the same play. Talk about a “bobble” head.

I’m both charged and nervous. The beauty of baseball is that those big moments are deliciously suspenseful (except the Glenn Davis one) so I always feel my job is to just describe what’s happening and let the drama take care of itself. I try not to get too excited or hype the situation too much.

When I called the first game at Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) I was alone on the radio for the Mariners describing the scene – all the pregame pomp and circumstance, President Clinton throwing out the first pitch, the stadium decorations, presentations, etc. Little did I know, CBS radio picked up our feed and I was actually broadcasting worldwide on the CBS radio network and the Armed Forces Radio Service. Thank God I didn’t know. I probably would have been so petrified I’d sound like Porky Pig.

From Jim S. to James P.:

In re-watching Cheers, I noticed that Diane was mentioned infrequently after she left. However, in the 10th and 11th seasons, she came up pretty frequently, the point where in the last season, she was being mentioned every few episodes.

My theory is that you guys wanted to minimize references to the character after she left to let viewers get accustomed to Rebecca on her own terms. But when you were planning the finale, you realized Diane returning would make for a great end and wanted to foreshadow that. Any thoughts?

What we found was that when Diane was mentioned it always got a laugh. So it became a running joke. She jilted Frasier at the altar and he couldn’t let it go.

That said, we only did it sparingly, not wanting to beat the joke into the ground.  And they were not in preparation for the finale.  At the time, we didn't know when the finale would be, whether Diane would be involved, or if Shelley was even interested and available. 

But that’s when you know a show has really arrived – when you can get character laughs from characters who are no longer even there.


From DouglasG:

Any recollections of the actress Rachel Roberts? She met such a tragic end, but was a gifted comedic (Foul Play)and dramatic actress (Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Rachel Roberts played the nanny on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. She was a wonderful British actress. At one time she was married to Rex Harrison.

She had a lovely subtle way of giving us notes. I remember one time she questioned some activity David and I gave her to do. She approached us and in the sweetest voice possible said, “So what is my motivation here, darling? I’m an out-patient?”

I still miss her.

From Paul:

You have such an interesting background. From DJ, to Hollywood big-wig (IMO), to MLB broadcaster. Quick question, did you pick the Mariners or did the M's pick you? How did that process work?

I was broadcasting for the Baltimore Orioles in 1991. We were finishing a road trip in Kansas City and heading home to host a series with Seattle.

The Mariners got into town early and their great announcer, Dave Niehaus, had a transistor radio and was listening to my broadcast from KC while in the bus heading to the hotel. Very fortunately for me, he really liked what he heard.

When there was an opening that Fall he remembered, called me, and invited me to apply. I did immediately. So in a sense they came to me and I came to them.  Thank goodness they did. 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Weekend Post

 One of the many reasons I became a writer is that I got tired of being fired as a disc jockey. Today marks the 47th anniversary of the last time I signed off my show with “see you tomorrow” and was never heard from again.

1974, I’m Beaver Cleaver on KSEA, San Diego, playing “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” five times a night and seriously considering blowing my brains out. Yes, I know – why “Beaver Cleaver”? Ken Levine sounded too Jewish.

The fall rating book came out, the numbers were not good, and at 3:00 I was told to hurry down to the station for an all-important staff meeting at 4:00. We all assembled and were told the station had decided to change formats to gospel and we were all being let go. “Even me?” I said in mock amazement. “Especially you.” “But I could change my name to Eldridge Cleaver.” “I’m going to need your station key”.

Quick aside: a year earlier at KMEN San Bernardino they wanted to get rid of me by moving me from the evening shift to the all-night show. The cheap bastards were hoping I’d quit so they wouldn’t have to pay severance (maybe $300 at most) and be on the hook for unemployment insurance. I asked the program director to at least do the humane thing and fire my sorry ass. “Nope”, he said, “Starting tonight you’re midnight to six.” So I stopped off at the local record store, picked up an LP, and dutifully reported on time for my shift.

Like KSEA, we were a high energy Top 40 station. (Our program director was in love with WLS whose slogan was “the Rock of Chicago” so we became the much catchier “Rock of the Inland Empire”.) I signed on and started playing the hits. Then at 12:30 segued smartly into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF….in Yiddish. The entire album. I was fired during “Anatefka”.

Back to the KSEA staff meeting -- Our morning man, Natural Neil asked when this format change was taking place. A month? A week? The program director looked at his watch and said “45 minutes”. And with that we were all canned. KSEA was gone…along with the promotion we were running at the time --

“Christmas the way it was meant to be!”

That was it for me.  Another station in San Diego offered me a job that day and I turned it down.  It was time to go to LA to starve.  I moved home, got a 9-5 job to pay the rent, and David Isaacs and I began writing script after script.  I was officially a writer -- okay, an out-of-work with no guarantee of ever getting work writer.  But I was loving it.  This was what I meant to do. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Friday Questions

8 more days till Christmas.  Stuff your stockings with Friday Questions.

Jeremy Buechner is up first.


In “Goodbye Radar” part two, is it true you named Radar’s love interest after one of your exes? And is it true they wanted to have a goodbye for you and your writing partner in the credits?


The answer to the first question is yes.  Named after one of my former girlfriends, Patty Haven. 

The second answer is no.  And that’s fine because usually when they do that it’s usually because the person died.

Steve Lanzi has a question about spec scripts.

How many scripts would you recommend I have in the can and ready to show people, before looking for an agent?

At least two.  If the agent likes the script he/she reads, his/her first question will be “what else do you have?”    

That goes for TV or screenplays.

For TV, have an original pilot and a spec from an existing show.  If you’re doing comedy, you might want to have three scripts — a pilot, a spec for an existing single-camera show, and a spec for an existing multi-camera show.  Having two pilots (one of each) is also not a bad idea.

Actually, the more scripts you have, the better.  If you write three pilots chances are the third one will be better than the first.  

Remember, you only have one chance to make a first impression.  Make sure your scripts are as good as they can be and make sure you proofread them fifteen times.  

Good luck.

From Liggie:


I saw this article stating that movie dialogue has become increasingly hard to understand in recent years. Although there may be stylistic reasons for hard-to-decipher dialogue, like Altman's overlapping lines, the article cites a lot of technical reasons for this. Primarily, the emphasis has been so much on visuals that the sound crew can't get their mics close enough to the actors to properly record the actor's voices, and there's only so much sound editing software can do with subpar source material. Have you found this dialogue comprehension to be an issue, and how did you manage the sound crew's operations when you were showrunning?

Personally, I was a stickler on that because for comedy the audience has to be able to clearly hear every word.  If the sound wasn't good we did it again. 

I also see no excuse for incomprehensible dialogue in movies.  I think it’s a cop out that they can’t place the mics closer to the actors.  And they can always loop later.  

Producers and directors and actors know the script so often times the words are clear to them.  But for the audience they’re sometimes not.  And “sometimes” is becoming prevalent.   You shouldn’t have to utilize the Closed Caption feature for English speaking programs.  

And finally, Mike Bloodworth asks:

When did you officially decide to be a comedy writer? That is when did it become more than just a whim or fantasy.

Almost 47 years ago to the day.   Tune in tomorrow for the full story.  

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

EP255: Classic Comedy Routines


Ken features some remarkable comedy routines featuring Richard Pryor, Albert Brooks, Bob & Ray, Steven Wright, Abbott & Costello, and a surprise. NOTE: Some very explicit language (hey, it’s Richard Pryor). End the year with laughter.

Get 20% off your first order at https://dadgrass.com/HOLLYWOOD

More podcasts at WAVE: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/artist/wave-podcast-network/1437831426


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What's the story with WEST SIDE STORY?

So far, Steven Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY is a box-office flop.  Now it’s only been one week, and there have been holiday movies that started slow and picked up over time so it’s too early to proclaim it HEAVEN'S GATE, but it’s certainly not what the industry expected.  

And now Hollywood is scrambling to figure why so few people have gone to see it so far.  Especially since the reviews and the audience reaction has been fantastic.  By all accounts, Spielberg achieved everything creatively he set out to do.  And this is a guy who knows how to make a movie.

One reason could be that a large percentage of the audience that would want to see this still isn’t comfortable going into a movie theater.  I fall into that category.  At some point it’ll be on a streamer or On Demand and I’ll see it then.  (Or I get sent a screener, hint hint.) I very much want to see it, but I can wait.   It’s not like everyone is talking about it and I don’t want to be left out.  Other than concerned industry folk, no one is talking about it.  

WEST SIDE STORY is a classic to those of us who grew up with it.  But I wonder if it has the same cache to those who haven’t.  Other than theatre-geeks, do younger generations give a shit about a musical about young people that was written over sixty years ago?  No one gave a crap about IN THE HEIGHTS, and that was more contemporary and about similar subject matter.   Of course this question is clouded by IN THE HEIGHTS being a bad movie.  WEST SIDE STORY is supposed to be good.  

Did TICK TICK…BOOM! steal its thunder?  TICK TICK…BOOM! was terrific and available for streaming.  Had audiences gotten their musical adaptation fix?  

Hollywood is VERY worried.  Why?  They have other big budget musicals currently in production… including a two-part WICKED.  WEST SIDE STORY cost $100 million.  This genre becomes a big gamble, especially since no one flies or wears a cape.   Which brings me to another issue, will the only movies that do well in theaters be CGI comic book explodaramas?   (Ironically, the big tentpole blockbuster began with JAWS… directed by Steven Spielberg.)

What are your thoughts?  Have you seen it?  Do you want to see it?   Would you see it in a theater if Natalie Wood was still in it?

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Beatles and MASH

If you haven’t seen the documentary, THE BEATLES: GET BACK on Disney +, I highly recommend it.  It’s six hours and worth it except when Yoko Ono pathetically tries to sing.  Any animal who wailed like that would be put out of their misery.  It would be an act of humanity. 

But I digress...

The game plan changed during the rehearsal period (they were originally going to do a TV special), but for the first couple of weeks they rehearsed in a cavernous soundstage in London.  Also present was the camera crew making the documentary, Yoko (ugh!), construction crews for the movie that was going in after the Beatles left, the sound and lighting crew, technicians setting up recording equipment, George Martin, various record executives, girlfriends Peter Sellers dropping by, and a couple of Hari Krisnas.  

Somehow the Beatles had to write and learn new songs in the middle of all this commotion.  Eventually they moved to their Apple recording studio and were so much more comfortable.  But for a couple of weeks it was like rehearsing in the food court of the Mall of America.  

I thought to myself — I would be so self-conscious.  I couldn’t possibly work that way.  And then I remembered, I did work that way.  Every week for several years.

This goes back to MASH.

Production of each episode would begin with a rehearsal day.  We’d have a table reading of the script on the stage and then the director and cast would go from set to set and block each scene.  David Isaacs and I would then be summoned to watch the scene, and based on that we did the rewrite.   Our office was a five-minute walk to the stage and it usually took about twenty minutes to stage and rehearse a scene.  

So by the time we’d walk back to the office it was pretty much time to walk back to the stage.

What we decided to do instead was just rewrite the script on the stage.  We could work in twenty minute chunks and then go watch the next scene.  So it was somewhat like what the Beatles experienced.   There was the cast and crew and sometimes swing sets were brought in and constructed and extras were milling about.  There was plenty of constant activity.

Meanwhile, David and I would grab a table in the Mess Tent and do our rewrite.  

But…

It was just the two of us.  We were somewhat off to the side.  And more importantly, no one was watching us.  Watching the Beatles sing three feet away from you is way exciting than two writers staring at each other trying to come up with a Father Mulcahy line.  

Still, ideal conditions they were not.  And from time to time an extra or crew person would sit at our table, which was off-putting.  But we didn’t want to be assholes and tell him to move.  But very little work got done on those occasions.   It’s somewhat stifling to write comedy with a Teamster maintenance guy listening in and eating a breakfast burrito.   What I wouldn’t have given to be able to sing “Get Back!”  

So I give the Beatles credit.  They turned out some great work under horrible conditions.  But I’d still like to see 'em come up with a killer joke for Father Mulcahy. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Riffing with the Beatles

A couple of additional thoughts about the documentary, THE BEATLES: GET BACK (available on Disney +) — one today and one tomorrow:  

I’m always fascinated by the creative process.  There are segments of GET BACK where you see Paul and John write and finish songs.  Notably, “Get Back” where they’re trying out different lyrics and building the song as they go along.  I’m sure students of lyric writing would be horrified, but hey, it sure worked for them.  

They also did a lot of tweaking of their arrangements along the way.  And in between we see a lot of them riffing.  They’ll just start singing some Chuck Berry song or imitate Canned Heat.  They’ll break into a chorus of one of their songs, goofing on it.   I’m sure it keeps them loose and helps them stay energized.  

In many ways, the riffing is integral to the process.  

The same is true in comedy writing rooms.  We’ll go off on a tangent, someone will do a bit or improv a character, or we start pitching truly offensive things that the characters would never actually say but we wish they could.  

Yes, it stops the process of writing the script (and we don’t go home until it’s finished even if that means 6 AM), but it generates laughter, keeps the room fun, and helps relieve the pressure (of knowing we might not be done until 6 AM).   

Those “breaks” are necessary.  And often they lead to ideas that do go into the script or, in their case, into the song.  

Whatever differences the Beatles had among themselves (and the documentary shows that there were plenty) all of that disappeared when they spontaneously launched into some old Drifters tune.   They were all on the same wavelength.  It was wonderful to see.

I’ve described a comedy writing room as seven cats all fighting for the same ball of yarn.  To say that there are a variety of personalities and neuroses is an understatement.   But everyone joining in on some truly appalling subject, making us all laugh like idiots at 2 AM, helps meld the minds.  

The trick is to just play a few bars of a goofy song, or two or three minutes of a room bit — not 45 minutes.   From what I saw on documentary, the Beatles were better at that than we were.  

Another thought comparing the Beatles process to our writing process tomorrow. 

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Weekend Post

Of the many movie lots I was fortunate to work at, 20th Century Fox was probably my favorite.

Especially during MASH.

Back then I drove into the studio past the New York street built for HELLO DOLLY. Today there are office buildings. Goodbye Dolly. I drove past the MASH stage (9) – actually I raced past the MASH stage so I wouldn’t be stopped by an actor who had a script question. My parking space was in the old western town square used for BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I was mere steps from the whorehouse.

Our office was in “the Old Writers Building”. And that was before I was one. It was a two story Swiss chalet, featured in BABES IN TOYLAND and any other film that had elves. Supposedly, our office on the second floor once belonged to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda’s empty gin bottles were still behind the couch so it must be true.

There was always filming going on. CHARLIE’S ANGELS were there every other week. I guess the angels broke up a lot Swiss drug rings. But I’d walk out of the building and there would be Jackie Smith in a tight jump suit pointing a gun at me. This is why I wanted to be a writer, by the way.

The Old Writers Building still exists but western town is a memory, replaced by trailers. Jackie Smith can still get into that jumpsuit so that’s pretty cool.

The commissary was in the PEYTON PLACE town square. Remember the white gazebo? That was still there. Not anymore. Replaced by a massive parking structure.

What is now Century City used to just be part of the 20th Century Fox lot. But they lost so much money on CLEOPATRA that they had to sell some of it off. But in the late 70s a good portion still remained. There was a private bridge over Olympic Blvd that led to a back lot where a ton of scenery was stored. My partner and I would walk to Century City for lunch past several of the original STAR WARS sets.

Today the bridge is gone as is the back lot. There is a large office building and a parking structure. (“Pave paradise, and put up a parking lot”) The STAR WAR sets are in the Smithsonian or some prop guy’s den. They would have been in my den if I were smart back then.

A trip to the prop building was like a day in the greatest Hollywood museum ever. Priceless props were just collecting dust. Yul Brynner’s belt buckle from THE KING AND I was even there! Why didn’t I steal that too?! I am such an idiot!

Every afternoon we could watch dailies. The screening room was right behind Commissioner Gordon’s office from the TV version of BATMAN. Remember how the Batmobile would park right in front of the building and Batman and Robin would bound up the stairs? On the other side of the fa├žade was probably the producers watching the Julie Newmar in her cat suit from the day before.

And all of this was before even going on our set and watching them film scenes that are still being shown today.

It was a golden time that I cherish now and happy to say, recognized and appreciated at the time. Dream factories were more dreams and less factories. When I have occasion to drive onto the lot today I usually pass by the former site of the old western town and think of that great exchange in BUTCH CASSIDY.

BUTCH: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.
GUARD: People kept robbing it.
BUTCH: Small price to pay for beauty.

 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day!!! What’s yours?

Kendall Rivers starts us off:

Seems like the art of the opening credits\theme song is truly lost. I get that networks like the two second title card thing because it allows more commercials, but don't they realize that part of what can make a show super successful and overall memorable far after its off the air is a catchy and iconic opening credits? Look at Sanford and Son for example: there's not a person in the world who wouldn't instantly recognize that tune by Quincy Jones if they heard it even if they had never actually seen the show.

It’s short-sighted on the networks’ part.  They talk about wanting to “enhance the viewer’s experience,” which is fine, but a good opening title will do just that.  Who skips past the MASH opening titles?  Or GOLDEN GIRLS or CHEERS?  Or THE SIMPSONS that you’ve seen a billion times?  

A good opening title sequence and theme is like hearing your favorite song.  You know you’re going to settle in for a good time.  Doesn’t that enhance the viewer’s experience?  

But let’s be real.  One of the main reasons networks’ discourage opening titles is that they’ve already cut so much program time by adding extra commercials and promos that producers need those extra seconds to try to tell their story.  

How do extra commercials and promo clutter enhance the viewing experience I wonder?  

You’ve hit on a sore subject.  

Brian Phillips asks:


Have you or David Isaacs ever written for an advertising firm? Do you know of any writers that have come from the world of advertising?

I don’t think David ever did, but I tried.  During my flailing days as a Top 40 disc jockey I applied at the J. Walter Thompson Agency.  I was given some copy to write as a test.  Obviously, I failed it because I never heard from them again.  

The fact that I was relieved, even then, told me I was not meant to become a Mad Man.  So thank you JWT for not hiring me.

Janet queries:

My FQ involves streaming. Specifically, so many streamers -- particularly the free ones -- pick up classic series for streaming, which I very much enjoy.

My question, however, is do the actors, directors, writers, etc., ever see royalties from this given that streaming didn't even exist when they signed their original contracts?


If they’re older vintage series before 1977 then no. Nothing. After ’77 a number of Guilds established residuals in perpetuity.  And then there was the WGA strike a number of years ago to (presumably) guarantee that writers would share in the revenue from streamers.  Other Guilds followed suit. There were all these fancy formulas in place.

But here’s the truth:  it’s a joke.  We don’t get shit — certainly not what we’re entitled to considering the number of plays these shows get.  Between writing and directing, I have close to 200 episodes running on various streaming channels.  I make practically nothing.  Like I said, it’s a joke.

Another sore spot.

And finally, from Darwin's Ghost:


Friday question. I'm sure you've heard the old saying about never meet your heroes. Have you ever met someone you admired and he or she turned out to be a piece of shit? Obviously I know you can't name names, but I'd like to know if that's happened to you.

Wow.  We’re hitting all my sore spots in one post.  

The answer is yes.  I won’t reveal the name.  But the good news is it has only been that one.  

Happily, 99% of the people I’ve looked up to — be it writers, actors, directors, baseball announcers, disc jockeys, musicians, comedians, whatever — have been lovely people.  They’ve served as my mentors and inspiration and I feel blessed that I got to meet, and in some cases, work with some of my idols. You can't ask for much more than that.

My play,  THE FARCE DAY OF CHRISTMAS is playing this weekend at the Best Medicine Rep in Gaithersburg, MD.  It’s the closing weekend.  Come see it! 

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

EP254: The Obscure Sounds of the Season


For all the radio stations playing Christmas music, there are still forgotten songs you’ve never heard. Ken has found them. Enjoy holiday music you won’t hear anywhere else. Okay, there’s a reason you don’t hear some of these. But others are great. Happy H&L holidays!

More podcasts at WAVE: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/artist/wave-podcast-network/1437831426


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

THE BEATLES: GET BACK - my review

THE BEATLES: GET BACK is a fascinating, engrossing six-hour documentary on the Beatles preparing for their final live concert and TV special in 1969.   It’s six hours culled down from like 150 hours of footage that was shot.  LORD OF THE RINGS director, Peter Jackson (who must be used to sitting through 150 hours of film) did a masterful job of sifting through a mountain of sand to find the gold.  

I will say this, I wonder if younger generations will find this documentary as compelling as us OK Boomers.  If you’re interested in the creative process, yes — if you’re interested in the personal dynamics of four strong personalities trying to collaborate under time pressure — yes, but if you wonder who these old geezers are, then no.  

The Beatles were such a part of my life growing up.  They changed and shaped popular culture. And yet, what’s so interesting is to watch them as just four individuals — creating, goofing off together, arguing, and exhibiting talents you might not have known they had.  

Did you know that Ringo plays piano?  So did John.  George played drums.  I knew that Paul could play all instruments including the Latin zither, but didn’t know about the others.  Considering how sophisticated their music became it shouldn’t come as any big shock, but when in public has Ringo ever played piano?  

The highlights were watching brilliant songs being written in real time — chords changing and lyrics thought up on the spot. Paul was particularly impressive.   My other favorite part was hearing them just jam now and again, playing snippets of oldies, rocking out on guitars — showing a side we’ve never publicly seen.  

The lowlight was whenever there was a jam session where Yoko sang.  Ohmygod!  Imagine a cat being strangled while its tail was set on fire.  Yoko Ono is bar none the worst singer on the planet.   John was okay with this?  As Larry Gelbart once said, “Love isn’t just blind, it’s also deaf.”  

The documentary is six-hours.  There are moments that are not PC.  You really have to pay attention because they talk quickly and often subtitles are also provided.  So it’s an intense watch.  I can’t imagine seeing the whole thing in one or two sittings.  Hour chunks seemed to work well for me.

THE BEATLES: GET BACK is on Disney +.  After you watch FROZEN for the 50th time and put your kid to bed, check it out. 

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Is this still "the Date Which Will Live in Infamy?"

It should be of course.  

It should be remembered forever.  

But the truth is: it was eighty years ago today.  Eighty years is a long time.  In ten years probably no one who was alive for it will still be here.

What was the Date Which Will Live in Infamy?  On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked the US Naval Base in Honolulu, Hawaii.  They destroyed or damaged nearly 20 naval vessels (including eight battleships) and over 300 planes.  More than 2400 Americans died (including civilians) and another 1000 were wounded.  

The next day President Roosevelt declared war on Japan.  He spoke to the joint session of Congress and said, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy...”

Roosevelt’s speech helped unify the country.  Today, half the country would say the Japanese attack was a hoax.  We were not stupid back then. 

When huge events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor occur, we assume their impact and memory will live forever.  It’s hard to believe that such a monumental event could someday become merely a historical footnote.   But I’m sure they said that about the Battle of New Orleans.  

If you go to Hawaii, take an afternoon and go to the Pearl Harbor memorial.  Let’s not let our reminder of the Date that Will Live in Infamy be the awful Michael Bay, PEARL HARBOR movie. 

Monday, December 06, 2021

How much time do you give new shows?

Do you find that you’re giving shows less time when you sample them?   I am.  But I wonder if that’s because of the new varied options or my different situation.

By “different situation” I mean this: When I was active in television I made it a point to watch every new program, especially the comedies.  At the time I also knew a lot of the writers on these various shows.  When I was starting in the biz I watched everything and memorized entire writing staffs.  

But now that I’m no longer writing for TV it takes me a lot longer to get around to pilots.  It's no longer homework; it's pleasure viewing.  And I now have the luxury of not having to sit through everything.  At least in a timely manner.  I finally saw GHOSTS last week.  I didn’t love it, but I stayed for the entire show.  My wife left in the middle.

The other factor is that now with streaming services there are so many more options.  It used to be that you’d watch entire episodes because there was nothing else on.  Now, five minutes in you can say “this isn’t for me” and go exploring the thousands of other shows and movies available at your fingertips.  

I must admit, that’s what I do.  

But putting myself in the showrunner's shoes— that places a huge burden on him or her or them.  You have no time to adequately develop your show.  You gotta wow ‘em in the first five minutes. You also have to introduce the premise, the characters, their relationships to each other, start the story, and establish the tone.   Pilots were not easy before.

It’s the new reality, however.  And it’s never going back.  

So my viewing habits have changed.  How about yours in this regard? 

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Weekend Post

How do you know if your script is any good?  That’s always the big question for young scribes writing a spec script. You may like it but will anybody else?

Giving it to friends and family rarely yields objective reactions. Of course they’re going to love it. They want to love it. (Or hate it depending your family).

And the truth is most people not in the business don’t know how to read a script (as opposed to those IN the business where only half don’t know how to read a script). It’s difficult for many people to read stage directions and dialogue and be able to picture the scene. That’s not a knock on anybody. I can’t read a blueprint or a shopping list.

This is why I always recommend young writers take classes and meet other aspiring writers. Surround yourself with peers. There will usually be one or two whose opinions you value. Give the script to them. Be mindful that there may be some jealousy or competitive dynamics at work but you can generally sift through that.

Teachers are another good source of feedback if you value their assessment.

Generally, it’s best to give you script to several readers. There is a downside to this of course. You may get five different reactions from five different people – and some of the notes might be contradictory. Just like you'll get when you do make it in the business. You have to decide who (if anybody) is right.

But the good news is if you hear the same note from four sources it’s a pretty good bet they’re right. You can address all these issues before sending out your script.

There’s no clear-cut formula on how to know whether a note is a good one or bad. And especially, with people not in the business (dreaded “non pros”), their notes might be bad because they’re not adept at solving script problems, but you as the creator have to see beyond that. Don’t just dismiss the notes. Something bothers them and they don’t have the experience to identify just what it is. That’s your job. Based on their note, try to work backwards and guess what exactly might be the problem.

Always consider seriously the note, “I don’t get this.” You may think you’ve explained something sufficiently but you haven’t. We often get too close to our work. Those are generally helpful notes.

The very best way to judge your script is to arrange for a table reading. HEAR IT. Taking into consideration that the actors you use will often times be busboys at Costco and a foreign exchange student from Norway – not exactly Meryl Streep and Christian Bale, and the small audience will be somewhat biased in your favor (don't invite your family if they're not) – but you can hear the rhythm, hear the flow, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And if you have a comedy, laughter (or lack of it) will tell you what’s funny.

At the end of the day though, it’s up to you. YOU have to decide whether your script is good.  Just remember, Universal passed on STAR WARS.

Best of luck!

Friday, December 03, 2021

Friday Questions

Wow.  December already.  Let’s begin the month with Friday Questions.

Michael starts us off.

Recently saw an old PETTICOAT JUNCTION episode where it was obvious they were using a stand-in in some scenes for the brunette daughter where spent entire scene without speaking and with back to camera or with hands covering side of face as walked past camera. Googling confirmed this was done in a few episodes. Couple questions: 1) Have you ever had to resort to this on any of your shows. 2) Growing up in the sixties, did you ever watch the show just for the daughters and, if so, did you prefer the blonde, brunette, or red head?

When Shelley Long was pregnant in season 3 we had to find ingenious ways of hiding that fact since we didn't want Diane to be in a "motherly way."  You’ll notice she holds a tray in front of her, and in one case we had her trapped in the floor -- so the usual hiding techniques.  

I did occasionally watch PETTICOAT JUNCTION, and it must’ve been to ogle the girls because the show itself was seriously stupid.  I can't tell you one memorable thing about that show except wondering why, in the opening titles, the girls bathed in the town's water supply. 

But back then (the Stone Age) we just had three networks so I must’ve watched hundreds of hours of utter crap.  I did draw the line at THE FLYING NUN however.  Some of you will doubtless comment that it was a great show, but I don't feel cheated not having watched it.

From CheersFanFromBoston:


You and David Isaacs are listed as co-producer for Cheers in season one and then while you wrote more episodes, it looks like you weren't on staff any longer. What happened? Why did you leave the staff?

We left to create our own shows but did come back.  We were Creative Consultants and wrote 40 episodes.  But we were non-exclusive and were able to work on other shows, pilots, and primarily movies as well.  We had a feature career at that time.  

Daniel wonders:

Do you think that the characters in "Frasier" knew that they were funny? They often made objectively witty remarks that someone of their intelligence would recognize as witty or funny. But did the writers feel that the characters were that self-aware in-story?

This was always a fine line to walk, but I would say this.  If a character intentionally said something witty usually it was recognized.   

For the most part, however, the characters did not know they were in a comedy.  The laughs come from attitudes and character, not “jokes” per se.  

And finally, from Snow Too Soon:


What can you share about the musical talents of the M*A*S*H cast? I always felt sorry for Gary Burghoff and William Christopher, who had to be great musicians to sound that bad (especially Radar with the trumpet).

The cast only sang only on rare occasions.  But many of them could sing.  Alan had been in Broadway musicals.  Gary was in the original YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN.  I’m assuming everyone else could carry a tune as well.  They were all so talented.  

It was such a joy that pretty much anything we dreamed up they could do.  Of course, now I wish we had them perform an opera.  How did we miss that?

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

EP253: Shari Lewis Remembered


Shari Lewis was a remarkable entertainer — ventriloquist, children’s show host, singer, dancer, actor, author, conductor, co-writer of a STAR TREK episode. Ken talks to her daughter, Mallory to get a real sense of just who Shari Lewis really was. You’ll learn about Lamb Chop too.

More podcasts at WAVE: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/artist/wave-podcast-network/1437831426


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Yet another reason why Mel Brooks was an inspiration

One of the reasons hetero males get into comedy writing is to impress girls.  Probably why most hetero males get into comedy writing.  

In High School the world belongs to the jocks.  And I grew up in LA at a time when surfing was the rage.  So every guy had a decent physique (except us nerds... but we now have better skin).  

Life was hopeless.   I’d be alone at 60.  Losing my occasional dates to over-the-hill athletes now playing in beer leagues.  

But then I saw THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  It was a revelation to me.  You could get a girl like Laurie Petrie by being skinny, dorky, and a COMEDY WRITER?   All is not lost. I’m funny.  Where do I sign up?

My sense of humor in High School was the only skill I had to wow the opposite sex.  Okay, so none of the cheerleaders would actually go out with me, but they would sign my yearbook and say I amused them.  So at least they knew who I was.  (It also helped that there weren't a lot of other funny people in my High School class.)

I thought about that recently when I read an excerpt from Mel Brooks’ upcoming autobiography.  He talks about being smitten by Anne Bancroft and eventually marrying her.  Here is another case of a beautiful woman who could probably have anyone she wanted and she chose this short gnome.  Being able to make people laugh is a real gift — even as valuable as the ability to throw a spiral.   And resulting in far fewer concussions…unless you wrote for Roseanne.  

I look forward to reading the rest of Mel’s book.  The small portion I read sure made me happy. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Sitcoms are the Rodney Dangefield of network television

I had talked about how NBC is holding NIGHT COURT back for whatever excuse they gave, and now I see that CBS has cut the order for Pete Holmes upcoming sitcom from 12 to 10.  The show hasn’t even aired yet.

CBS insists it’s a scheduling issue not creative, but really?  Two more episodes?  What if the show is a hit?  What do they have in the pipeline so sure-fire they can’t squeeze in two more episodes of a sitcom trying to build an audience?   They don't even have a premier date or timeslot for the Pete Holmes show yet.

They also changed the title and recast some parts.  Interestingly, they knew at the outset they were going to recast some parts.  They made a “presentation,” not a pilot — a cheaper version of a pilot — with a couple of parts just slugged in when the actors they wanted weren’t available.   I bet there wasn’t a “presentation” for THE EQUALIZER.  But comedies?  Why spend the money when they’re probably not going to pick them up anyway?  

The article I read in Deadline Hollywood also said “Episode orders across the linear broadcast networks are becoming more flexible, accelerated by the pandemic.”

Right.  Speaking of excuses.   

Episode orders are more flexible because broadcast networks are operating out of fear.  

Meanwhile, this “flexibility” places an added burden on the show runner and writing staff.  How do you plan a season arc if two or three or six episodes are lopped off your order?   How do you plan budgets amortized over the number of shows you expect to produce when that number changes?   

I bet THE EQUALIZER wasn’t asked to cut episodes last year.  And that was REALLY the year of the pandemic.  

Just another sign that if you want comedy, just like you want quality drama — streamers are the answer. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

My 16th Anniversary

It’s this blog’s 16th anniversary.   (Actually, it was last Friday I believe, but nothing can stand in the way of FQ’s.)

I started the blog to draw some attention to myself so I could get an editor to publish my travel book.  One said, “Very funny and if you were Dave Barry I’d buy this in a minute.  But no one knows who the hell you are.”  

I explored getting a PR person but that idea was quickly abandoned when I saw what they charged.  

Publicity from a blog was free — except the work involved in writing and maintaining it.   

Doing a blog and having no readers is a fool’s errand so I was very interested in ways to grow my readership.  I contacted several successful bloggers and sought advice.  One said write something new every day.  If people know there’s always new material they’ll keep coming back.  So I did that.   Another suggested a weekly feature that people could count on.  Thus Friday Questions was born.  

It also helped that at the time blogs were the rage.  I was in the Zeitgeist for a minute and a half.

I had no idea when I started this that I’d still be doing it 16 years later.  Practically everyone else who was blogging when I started have long since closed theirs down.  

How long will I keep going?  I don’t know.  I’ve had my podcast for five years now and that’s still in the Zeitgeist (for the moment).  I’m a little disappointed that more of my readers don’t listen to the podcast.  But I get it.  There’s only so much of “me” I can expect anyone to take.   That said, if I’m going to drop one it’ll be the blog.  I very much enjoy doing the podcast and that audience is growing (from other sources).  

I also vowed not to junk up the blog with ads.  Even though I never really monetized this venture, it wasn’t worth the few hundred dollars to fill the page with cheesy ads.   So this blog was truly a labor of love.  

We’ll see how it goes from here.  For my ten year anniversary I had a big party.  For sixteen I ate leftover turkey.  What keeps me going is you and knowing you’re still out there.  Over 40,000,000 hit so far.  I’ve made some lifelong friends because of the blog and it’s nice to know there are people I’ve never met who, for some inexplicable reason, care to hear what I have to say.  So thank you.  Onwards and sidewards.

Oh, and did starting a blog work?  I ended by self-publishing that travel book.

Ken
 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Weekend Post on Stephen Sondheim

Like everybody, I was devastated to learn yesterday of Stephen Sondheim's death.  He was 91 and active until the end but still!  I've read numerous testimonials that list his many accomplishments in the theatre -- all the awards he's won, etc.  But they all leave out one credit.  This is a re-post from just this January.  Usually I don't re-post anything that recent, but in light of yesterday's passing I thought it would be my way to salute him in a way you won't find elsewhere.  

I should also mention that I had the pleasure of meeting him once.  Just like in TIK...TIK...BOOM!, he attended a workshop of a musical I was involved with in 2004 and 2005.  It was a Sunday afternoon in the black box theatre of a New York performance school, on the fifth or sixth floor of a building in lower Manhattan.  I just met him.  My daughter, Annie, was lucky enough to sit next to him for the performance.  Talk about a memory.  

Anyway, here's that post.  Hopefully it introduces you to a different side of the man and an even greater appreciation of his talent... if that's even possible.   RIP Stephen Sondheim.  The WORLD loves you. 

 In 1953 a new sitcom premiered called TOPPER.  It was based on the movie TOPPER (which was based on a book) about a stuffy buttoned-down banker haunted by two carefree ghosts.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett played the ghostly couple.   On TV the hot couple was played by Anne Jeffreys & Robert Sterling, and Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Waverly from THE MAN FROM UNCLE) played Cosmo Topper.  

One of the writers was a 23 year-old kid named Stephen Sondheim.  

He showed a lot of promise.  Wrote eleven episodes.  And they're among the best. But he gave up comedy writing to go into song writing.  Pity.  He could have had a very successful career. 

But seriously, how does Stephen Sondheim wind up in Los Angeles writing for TOPPER?   His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II introduced him to George Oppenheimer, a playwright and screenwriter.  Oppenheimer had been hired to write TOPPER and wanted someone to help him shoulder the load.  

Sondheim got the job although he had never written a professional script.  He moved out to LA and was paid $300 a week.  Once he had saved enough money to rent an apartment in New York he left.  

The rest of course is history.  But for one brief moment Sondheim was slumming as a sitcom writer.  He went on to become one of the greatest Broadway composers of all-time.  And me, I'm singing, "I'm still here."  

 

Friday, November 26, 2021

Black Friday Questions

Take a break from Black Friday to peruse some leftover FQ’s.

jcs starts us off:

Traditional multi-cam sitcoms play an important role on Netflix. Otherwise the streaming service would not pay the huge licencing fees associated with shows like SEINFELD or FRIENDS. How come Netflix hasn't tried too hard to come up with their own multi-cam sitcoms? They certainly would have the budget to greenlight handful of shows each year.

Uh… Netflix does have multi-camera shows.  The one my daughter and her husband work on — THE UPSHAWS — got picked up for a second season.  In the past they’ve had the FULL HOUSE reboot, some horrible Nascar show with Kevin James, and a series called THE RANCH.  And there may be more.  

Check out THE UPSHAWS if you haven’t.  It’s actually very funny.

From Ere I Saw Elba:


I listened to a recent podcast with showrunner Dave Hackel, and you got into a conversation about casting. Specifically, Ted Danson was pointed out as someone that no one, including himself, thought was right at first for BECKER. The question is, how often do you think unlikely casting choices go right? And is there ever a case where someone is just perfect from the start?

There are times when someone is perfect from the start and believe me, you know it instantly.  Unfortunately, those are rare occasions.  In most cases you have to ponder, maybe make adjustments, call the actor back, etc. before deciding.  And even then you hold your breath.

Casting against type has always intrigued me.  Actors tend to have more range than they’re given credit for.  They get pigeonholed in one genre, which is not fair to them.

We used David Morse and Kurtwood Smith in a comedy.  Both were terrific.  Both were not easy sells.   

I remember the network casting session with Morse.  He did great, but CBS president, Jeff Sagansky had reservations.  Morse was known for drama.  Tim Flack, the VP of Comedy Development at the time (God bless him), stood up and said, “I don’t know what the problem is.  We all laughed, didn’t we?”   David Morse was approved.

Obviously, you don’t want to go so against type that you have David Spade play LeBron James, but taking a chance on an actor playing a role you’ve never seen them in often pays off.

My favorite example:  Margo Martindale as a villain on JUSTIFIED, season two.  One of the great villains EVER.  

Jessica Miller asks:


I just saw the "bathtub" episode of MASH, which is credited to you & David plus Johnny Bonaduce. Was he related to the kid from the Partridge Family?

Yes.  Danny’s brother I believe.

And finally, from DyHrdMET:


Could you and your writing partner write sketch comedy week in and week out (forget about being consistently funny), given your skills and talents? Or is it not necessarily the same skill set as writing a short play, a movie, or regular 22 minute sitcoms?

We have written sketches.  We contributed sketches for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW.   It’s a different genre but with the same rules — beginning, middle, and end.  We loved writing sketches.  Like eating bite-sized Snickers instead of one big candy bar.

What’s your Friday Question?   Buy me something nice today.