Saturday, January 30, 2021

Weekend Post

As a playwright, one of the only advantages of this pandemic is that I'm able to get actors to be in Zoom readings who ordinarily would be way too busy.  Such was this case this week when I had a reading of my baseball comedy, GOING GOING GONE.  George Wendt stars along with some Broadway heavy-hitters.  I put it up on YouTube for all to see.   With pitchers and catchers reporting in just a few weeks, come get your baseball and comedy fix.  (Although you don't have to know or even like baseball to enjoy it.)

Play ball!  And thanks again to my amazing cast -- George Wendt, Kate Loprest, Jawan Jackson, Kevin Pollack, Jason Benetti, and Jim Aud.  

Friday, January 29, 2021

Friday Questions

Last Friday Questions for this rather uneventful month.  What’s yours?

Blair starts us off.

Was Martin’s chair designed and created for “Frasier” or was it an actual historic piece of furniture?

No, I think it was just an old junky chair that I suspect came out of the prop department.   The producers probably had several to choose from and just selected that one.  

The idea was for the chair to really look out of place in Frasier’s chic apartment.  Our motto: find ways to make Frasier frustrated. Kelsey plays frustration and angry so funny. 

I believe in time a second identical chair was purchased or made just as a back up should anything happen to it.  

I used to kid John Mahoney “Do you have your blocking down this week?”

From Paul W:

When you did Dancin' Homer, did you know that you wanted Baby Elephant Walk for the music or do you have to give different option in case there are licensing problems?

Yes.  We wanted that song specifically.  The studio had to pay for the rights, which was very nice.  And unusual.

Most studios have a music catalog of songs they own.  And most producers are asked to only use those tunes.  That’s why on Paramount shows you’ll hear “Moonlight in Vermont” on every show.  

Scotty B wonders:

I've seen you mention in a number of your posts about those TV actors who seem to always be *everywhere*. I grew up in the 1960s-70s, and I remember several child actors who seemed to be *everywhere* all the time, too -- often in character roles on Starsky & Hutch or Emergency. Lisa Gerritsen and Michael Link are two that I remember well. Who are some of those child actors that you remember?  

I’m afraid my answer will be shorter than your question.

Moosie Drier, Billy Mumy, Rusty Hamer, Angela Cartwright, Ann Jillian, Moochie, Annette, Eddie Hodges — to name but a few.  

And finally, from  Philly Cinephile:

Have you ever had to change the name of a character because of clearance issues?

Yes, and the extreme example was when were doing MARY, the 1985-86 Mary Tyler Moore comeback vehicle.  We were in the week of production for the pilot and legal research wouldn’t let us use James Farentino’s character name, which I think was Frank DeSantis.  

An added problem was that we had a frosted door to his office with his name beautifully painted on the front window.  Every day there was a new script and new name.  Finally, on the fourth day they let us keep the name, Frank DeMarco, which was good because we were running out of doors.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

EP209: My worst reviews

Every writer gets bad reviews. Sometimes really bad reviews. These are Ken’s worst. Listen and feel better about yourself.

New Podcasts Here.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Table Readings

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

It’s from Marka.

I've wondered about table reads and how much you can trust them. Especially when you're directing and aren't familiar with the cast.

I assume there are folks who laugh at things that aren't funny because they want it to be funny, or want to be supportive. Others might be grumpy, hung over, or whatever and don't laugh at funny things because of that. Other casts must have honest and accurate reactions.

How accurate are table reads as a means of judging a script? Are these pitfalls things that happen? What other things are you looking out for with them, other than listening to them read the script

Believe me, it’s not an exact science.  All of the factors you mentioned do come into play.  

But generally you can get a sense of whether the script works or not.   If it doesn’t it becomes glaringly apparent at a table read.  

If the table read goes well that still doesn’t guarantee the show won’t go south during the week.  But it’s a decent indication.  

If you have physical comedy or humor that depends on sight gags or costumes, none of that will be realized in the table read.  So you have to factor that in.  

Also, some actors are just bad at table reads.  If you know that going in you at least don’t get scared, but it’s hard to judge when the actor stumbles through the script or reads it flat.   Or, in the case of some stars, eat through the table reading.  

Laughs can be deceiving.  Sometimes a line will get a big laugh at the table reading then nothing during the week.  Your inclination is to keep the line since you heard it work.  But when lines are delivered on their feet the dynamics sometimes change.  I’ve learned not to completely trust stage reading laughs.  If a line dies on the stage, despite its reaction at the table read, I replace it.

What I look for mostly during the table read is whether the story works.  Does it track?  Are the attitudes right?  Are steps missing or rushed or repetitive?  I’m also keeping track of the actors.  Does a character drop out of the story?  Is he in a big scene with only three lines?  If there’s an argument, do both sides get to make decent points?   Are there too many zingers?  Do dialogue scenes seem forced?    Does someone come off unintentionally hateful or stupid?  

But like I said, it’s a very inaccurate yardstick.  There have been times when a show had a compressed production schedule.  So we had the table reading in the morning, the cast then got the script on its feet and we went back for a run-through that afternoon.  During their rehearsal time we would get a jump on the rewrite for tomorrow’s script, but when we saw the run-through, occasionally there were lines we were prepared to cut that worked.   So the takeaway there was fix the story but give jokes a chance to work on stage.  

I will say this:  table readings for pilots have gotten out of hand.  There are so many executives and industry people that arrive for the table read that instead of the cast sitting around a conference table, they’re all on a dais facing out to the audience.   How the hell are they supposed to relate to one another?   Zoom calls are more intimate.  

Stage play rehearsals often have “table work” days planned in.  More than just reading the script the actors and director will spend a few days really analyzing the text.  But in TV there’s no time.  So it’s a tool — often useful — but sometimes misleading.  

Hey, why should any part of the process be easy? 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

WANDAVISION -- My review

DISCLAIMER: I know I’m not the target audience.

DISCLAIMER 2: I am not fully briefed on the Marvel Comics Universe.

DISCLAIMER 3:  I will probably get more hate comments than a anti-Trump post.

And that brings me to WANDAVISION. 

I watched the first two episodes of WANDAVISION on Disney +.  I can honestly say, “What the fuck is it supposed to be?”  

The first episode is Wanda & Vision (two aliens? creatures from an alternate universe? A fever dream?  What????) move into a 1950’s black and white sitcom.  


They’re clearly poking fun at the genre, but here’s the thing:  for an audience to get the joke they have to understand the reference.  I assume this show is designed for Millennials.  How many Millennials know the tropes of bad 1950’s sitcoms to appreciate what’s going on?   And it’s done in a very smug manner.  Non-comedy writers trying to write comedy.  So they load the show with lame jokes and assume the fun is the hip audience laughing at just how lame the jokes are.   Granted the actual 1950’s sitcoms were lame, but they were earnest.  This is just cynical and condescending.   They say it's a loving homage to THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  As someone who reveres THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I thought the tone was very snarky. 

Would it have been so terrible to try to write a show in that genre that was genuinely funny?  Instead, it’s just a big long sketch that’s a one-joke premise.  

Writing didn’t seem important but the production values were.  BEWITCHED-type animated opening titles, lots of special effects — dishes flying,  a character walking through walls, etc.  But all the characters are one-dimensional and you just don’t care about them.  Why should you?  The story is a standard trope, the characters are cardboard thin, it’s not funny, and there’s nothing emotional to hang onto.  

Episode two also starts in black-and-white, also is spoofing a genre only AARP members get, but from time to time flashes of color appear.   I’m guessing this takes the story in another direction, and for all I know that new direction is great.  But why did we have to see essentially an hour of the bad ‘50s sitcom?   As of this writing, only two episodes have dropped.  Maybe a third has come along.  I haven’t gotten to it yet. (So is that DISCLAIMER 4?) 

Again, aficionados of the Marvel Universe might find this completely understandable.  Maybe if you know the legend of WANDAVISION it all makes sense and is necessary for telling the whole story.  

But for Joe Lunchpail like me, it was confusing, not entertaining, and the cheesy plots, mugging, and one-liners made for an unpleasant hour of television.   

Prove to me you can write a good retro sitcom before you trash it.    And you better tell me why I’m watching this by the end of Episode 3 or it’ll be WANDA-WATCH-SOMETHING ELSE.

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Bernie Meme and how it applies to comedy writing

It's always a concern in a comedy writing room -- A joke or a bit or sight gag gets a huge laugh.  So to get the most out of it you bring it back, maybe in a slightly different form.  And that gets a big laugh too.  

So you repeat the process.  

Until you run the joke into the ground.  

Comedy writers have to be vigilant because it's a lot easier to go with the 57th variation of the same joke rather then come up with a brand new one.   My position:  stop it before it even becomes a question of whether the joke has been driven into the ground.  

I bring this up because of the recent Bernie Sanders Meme.  By now we've all seen the shot of him at the Inauguration. 

Later that day a few photoshop posts appeared on social media inserting him into various scenes.   And they were very funny.  I really laughed at the first seven or ten.  And I get that it represented a relief and joy after four years of sheer hell. 

But by the weekend half the posts on my Facebook news feed were Bernie and his mittens. -- inserted into family photos, movie one-sheets, famous paintings, historic scenes, rock concerts, the moon, etc.  

So tell me, do you still find them funny?  They stopped for me.  

Be careful in your writing.  Don't milk every joke for the last drop of comedy.  Don't use the same catchphrase five times in one script.   

When I see that in spec scripts I immediately say, "Lazy writer."  

"Callbacks" are a useful and handy tool.  Trying to get out of the scene?  Think back to one of the things that happened in the scene and make reference to it in the final joke.   

But beware!  Too many callbacks and you suck the life right out of them.  A good example is the Reverend Jim TAXI scene I posted over the weekend.  There is a repetition on "What does the yellow light mean?"  When they were filming, Chris Lloyd (who plays Reverend Jim) got so many laughs he just kept repeating it and repeating it.  But the producers wisely knew that there was a cut off point -- from when it was funny to when you wanted to kill everybody on the screen.

I'll be interested to see just how long this Bernie-mitten/"Where's Waldo?" phenomenon continues to dominate Facebook.  Hopefully, by the middle of June some people will be screaming, "OKAY! WE GET IT!"  

It's a comedy trap.  Don't fall in. 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Weekend Post

 A number of you commented yesterday that you thought the Reverend Jim Driving Test scene from TAXI was one of the all-time classics.  I totally agree.  However, eleven years ago I posted it and was surprised to find a lot of readers didn't find it funny.  Surprised isn't the right word.  SHOCKED is.   I realize comedy sensibility changes over time and different generations find different things funny, but I thought (wrongly so) that this scene would make anybody laugh.  

 See for yourself.  Here it is.  Written by Glen & Les Charles and directed by James Burrows.  

UPDATE: Because a number of commenters have complained about the laugh track -- the laughs are REAL.  You're hearing the actual audience laughter.  Along the way you also hear scattered applause -- that's a dead giveaway.  There's no scattered applause in laugh tracks.  And you don't get scattered applause unless the audience is really delighted and laughing.  I will grant you that most multi-cams not only use a laugh track but use it way too much and too loud.  But please accept the fact that 200 strangers in the bleachers that night found this scene genuinely funny and laughed out loud.  


Friday, January 22, 2021

Friday Questions

Friday Questions, anyone?

Mark Harvey Levine (no relation but one of the funniest playwrights in the biz) starts us off:

Hey I just learned (I'm slow on the uptake) that Nick, the bartender in "It's A Wonderful Life" was played by Sheldon Leonard, the famous producer of sitcoms. I did know that the two main male characters in "The Big Bang Theory" are named after him. And I just found out that his last acting job was a role on "Cheers". What was it like working with him as an actor? Did he threaten to throw you pixies out, t'roo the door or out the window?

Sheldon was lovely.  One of the few guest actors who never threatened me.

The sad thing is that most people on the set had no idea of his amazing iconic background.  I talked to him a little bit, primarily thanking him for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.  It was his company that produced it and his foresight to tell Carl Reiner the show would be much better if Dick Van Dyke starred instead of Reiner himself (as he did in the original pilot).   Credit also to Reiner for putting ego aside and going along with that suggestion.  

Darlene asks:

I saw a promo on TV that Tim Allen's Home Improvement character would be appearing on Last Man Standing this season as a crossover (both played by Tim Allen of course). Question: When that happens, does Matt Williams or anyone from the original series get credit or money? Related, if you write an episode of a sitcom and a character becomes a break out star, are you entitled to any of the credit or money or does that all go to the show? Do writers ever wonder if they're ever creating the next Mork from Ork?

Good question.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but my guess would be yes, Williams would be entitled to some compensation.  

There is a provision in the WGA contract that allows for writers to get a royalty if they create a character that goes on to reoccur or become regulars of a series.  No on-screen credit but $$$. David Isaacs and I got creator royalties on Eddie LeBec (which is why weren’t too thrilled when we had to kill him).   The money isn’t huge, but it’s sure better than nothing.  

Along those lines, Brian wants to know:  

From what I understand, Reverend Jim Ignatowski was supposed to make one appearance as the officiator of Latka Gravas' paper marriage, but Christopher Lloyd's portrayal was so good, he was brought back.

Is it easier to get "one-shot" sitcom characters to join the regular cast? Is there less red tape and network approval to go through?

Usually what happens is if a character really scores he’ll be brought back once or twice to see if indeed they have lightning in a bottle.   Usually there’s little network resistance because the actor has already proven he’s an asset to the series.  

Beyond that, it’s all negotiation.  Is the actor interested and available?  How much does he want?  

Adding cast members can be tricky because the other cast members might resent having to give up screen time to the new darling.    They have to be convinced that a high tide lifts all boats.  The new guy might bring in more viewers and raise the ratings.  Everyone benefits as a result.  But it can be a dance.  

And finally, from Bob Gassel:

During your time at M*A*S*H, did weather ever play havoc with shooting at the ranch? If so, did scenes ever get relocated from the ranch back to the studio?  

We shot mostly in the summer when it never rains so that was not a problem.  Heat was. In the early fall we might get some unexpected rain and I do recall a couple of scenes being rewritten to be filmed on the stage.  

More often than not though, we would rewrite to shoot on the stage because they ran out of time (and daylight).  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

EP208: All Things WINGS Part 2

Ken talks to Rob Leszczak, who wrote “The Complete Guide to the TV Sitcom WINGS.”  More reminiscing, including a prank I pulled on NBC, and a story about Lana Clarkson & the late Phil Spector. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

We made it! THANK GOD!!!

This is the revival I've been waiting four years for.  The return of THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.  

It's so nice to hear a president who sounds like a president.  We all took it granted, didn't we?  

We can once again go to bed at night knowing a deranged madman doesn't have the nuclear codes.  

We can wake up in the morning secure that someone is finally in charge.  The pandemic, the economy, the military -- they're in good hands.  

Science and facts and justice and truth and fairness and the Constitution are again valued.  Stupidity is not celebrated.  Hate is not encouraged.  Violence is not condoned. 

Tumultuous times are indeed ahead as Joe Biden is left to repair the immeasurable damage his vile loathsome predecessor left, but at least he'll be trying.  

I wish him and Kamala Harris the very best.  Thank you for restoring order and hope and humanity.  And allowing me to sleep for the first time since November 2016.  

Trump apparently left the traditional letter to the incoming president.  "Please pardon me.  PLEASE PLEASE!"

Enjoy the world's greatest palindrome:   1 20 2021

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

RIP Don Sutton

So sorry to hear of the passing of Hall of Famer, Don Sutton.  He was 75.  As a Dodger fan growing up I was always a big fan.  Koufax and Drysdale got all the attention, but Don Sutton holds many Dodger pitching records and quietly finished his career with over 300 wins.  With the way the game is played today I don’t think you’ll see many 300 game winners from now on.  

I'm sure that's what most articles will focus on.  But that’s just part of his career.  Don got into broadcasting after he hung up his cleats and became one of the best, most accomplished play-by-play men in the game.  Lots of former players become announcers but most become analysts.  They sit back and offer observations and insights when they occur.  That’s not an easy job as is evidenced by how many are terrible at it.   But play-by-play is a much tougher assignment.  You control the broadcast and have the added responsibility of describing the action and keeping the patter going.  Especially on radio.  I can think of maybe a dozen who mastered that art, and along with Bob Uecker I think Don Sutton was the best.  

He had a distinctive style, very relaxed and sooooo easy to listen to.  For years he’s called Atlanta Braves games with partner, Jim Powell and for my money they were in the top five of team broadcasts.  They had a great chemistry, Powell is superb, and they were fun and informative to listen to no matter the score, no matter who was winning.  

I have the MLB app and listen to a lot of out-of-town broadcasts when I drive around LA (back when I was driving around).  If there’s a Braves game on I usually go right to it and more importantly, stay with it.  And trust me, I could care less about the Braves.  

Don’s greatest gift as a broadcaster was his ability to really communicate one-to-one with his listeners.  When you were driving in your car he was talking directly to you.  It’s a skill surprisingly few announcers of any sport have mastered.  Don had it in spades.  

Off the air he was just as easy going and approachable, only a little more candid.  He had a sly sense of humor, told great stories, and was always generous in sharing information with other broadcasters (like me).   I always thought he should have been the successor to Vin Scully of the Dodgers.  Or, for that matter, the voice of the Angels.  He played for them as well.  

He will be missed.  Thanks for the wins, friendship, and keeping me company all those hours on crowded freeways. 

This explodes like Gwyneth Paltrow's V-jay

WARNING:  Today's post is a tad raunchy and insensitive.  But I couldn't resist.  Sometimes a news story will come along that a comedy writer can not resist addressing.

Okay, this sounds like a joke but it’s a real thing.  Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP company sells a candle called “This Smells Like My Vagina.”  

And they say actors have huge egos and are too self-absorbed.  

I mean, the hubris of that — to put out such a product and think that enough people will want to buy it to make it profitable.  

"Thank you so much for starring in my play.  Here’s a little token of my appreciation.”

Oh, and by the way, they’re $75.  

Anyway, Gwy’s v-jay is in the news because a woman in North London bought one, lit it, and it exploded into a big fireball.  They were able to contain it, but Ms. Paltrow’s vagina almost burned down her house.   What a fun lawsuit that would’ve been.  

Here’s the story.  See?  I’m not making this up.

Despite the ridiculous price, I’m thinking of buying one just so I could call customer service and complain. 

I would say, “Excuse me, but this doesn’t smell like Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina.  Certainly not the way I remembered it.  Maybe I just got a bad one.  Could you send me a replacement?  No?  Then I want my money back.  I’m sure Ms. Paltrow would not like to see a bad review in Yelp… or Rotten Tomatoes.”   I’m considering it.  Of course, you’re welcome to do it yourself.  

As absurd as a product called “This Smells Like My Vagina” is, at least it’s Gwyneth Paltrow putting it out and not Ivanka.   

Monday, January 18, 2021

Ted Leitner

My subject for today’s post is someone 99% have probably never heard of.  But he means a lot to me so he's worth a shout-out.

Ted Leitner is leaving the San Diego Padres radio booth after 41 years.  Proud to say I was his partner for three of those years. 

Ted is a San Diego institution.  He did TV sports for many years, has also called the Chargers (who still belong in San Diego), and San Diego State football and basketball. 

In a word, Ted is unique.  He’s opinionated, an excellent play caller, master storyteller, warm, bombastic, insightful, sarcastic, and very funny.  His play-by-play is unlike anyone I’ve ever heard and that’s probably what I love best about him.   Especially now, when personality is discouraged and announcers tend to be very generic.   In today’s social media world, generic means “safe” which means fewer complaints on Twitter and Facebook and blogs. 

But it also means less fun, fewer surprises, and no reason to still listen if your favorite team is behind by 7 runs in the 4th inning. 

When the team was playing well, Ted called them “My Padres.”  When they played horseshit they were “Your Padres.” 

Off the air he was a terrific guy.  Let me share this story.

In 1993 I was calling games for the Seattle Mariners.  During the offseason I got a call from Jerry Coleman (then the Padres number one announcer) asking if I’d speak at his charity banquet.  He put together a group of speakers from among Major League Baseball announcers every year.  I was happy to oblige. 

On the panel was the great Harry Kalas of the Phillies, Ralph Kiner of the Mets, Jerry, me, and Ted.    It was a good crowd.  My speech killed.  Ted then had to follow me.  His speech did not get the laughs it deserved. 

The next day as I was packing to leave I heard Ted on the radio with the morning hosts talking about the previous evening’s event.  He said he had bombed (not totally true) and learned never to follow a comedy writer.  I thought, well, shit, Ted Leitner now hates me. 

Flashforward a couple of years.  Jerry Coleman gets the assignment to do the CBS Radio game of the week every Saturday so the Padres need someone to fill in every weekend.  The president of the Padres was Larry Lucchino who had been the president of the Baltimore Orioles when I broadcast for them.  He was having dinner with Ted discussing who might fill that position.  Larry recommended me. 

What a perfect job that would be.  I could continue my writing career in Los Angeles and every weekend join the team and call baseball.  Best of both worlds. 


Ted had to sign-off on it.  It would have been so easy for Ted to say, “Oh, THAT guy?  NO.”  Instead he said, “That’s a great idea!  Get him.”   Believe me, there are many many many others in the business who are insecure and would feel threatened.   Not Ted.    We always had fun together on the air, and I think we each made the other sound better.

Ted is still doing the Aztecs football and basketball, and he’ll be an ambassador for the Padres.  I hope he gets to enjoy the first summer in 41 years.  I wish him nothing but the best.  His successor, Jesse Agler, is a top flight young announcer and I wish him the best as well. 

But I’ll miss Ted on the air.  Now and forever they are “HIS Padres.”  

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Weekend Post

 Welcome to a little respite from the news.  We all could use a half hour escape with a little comedy. 

I'm always saying that the bar has been way lowered when it comes to today's multi-cam sitcoms.   Here's another episode of ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis, this one from 1996.  We were always looking to stretch ourselves, find interesting new ways of telling stories, and taking advantage of the many talents our cast had to offer.  This is an episode from season 2.  It was not a "special" episode.  It was more a typical episode.  Nothing would please me more than to see today's sitcoms try things like this.  See what you think. 

NOTE: If you're seeing this on a phone scroll down to "view web version" to access the video.  

Friday, January 15, 2021

Friday Questions

Halfway through the month, which means we’re much closer to the 20th.  Here are this week’s FRIDAY QUESTIONS.

YEKIMI starts us off.  

I've noticed recently [and this goes back for decades] but it seems that when the credits at the beginning of a TV show/movie roll the director is always listed last. Any reason for this or is it just something that has always been done and Hollywood just doesn't like breaking with tradition?

This is something that has been negotiated by the Directors Guild of America.  If credits come at the start of a movie or TV show, the director receives the last credit.  If the credits are at the end, the director gets the first credit.

Now that’s the rule in America.  Internationally, it might be different.

From kcross:

I remember that you would take improv classes a few years back. Have you tried any since the shutdown? How were they better (or worse)?

Yes.  I’m in Andy Goldberg’s workshop and we’ve been doing Zoom improv since last March.  Usually two-person scenes with everyone else off camera.   

I have to say it works better than I thought it would.   But I do miss being able to do physical comedy or just be active during a scene.    Still, as a placeholder, improv on Zoom has been a great creative outlet.  

Scotty Watson in New York also teaches improv on line and is terrific. 

ReticentRabbit queries:

When an actor directs himself or herself in an episode, how does that work?

First of all, when an actor of a series directs an episode it’s usually one where he’s light in it.   The hard part is obviously an actor having to judge himself and the others while performing.  Sometimes they’ll have someone to rely on off-camera who can provide some feedback.  Otherwise, it’s just their judgement.

The technical part is easier because the Director of Photography or Camera Coordinator can keep an eye on the camera to make sure it’s shooting what the director planned.  

Actors are generally good directors because they know how to talk to other actors.  They’ve also experienced multiple directors so they themselves know what they like and don’t like in a director.  

The only time it got weird was on this one show where supporting actors occasionally got to direct.   Normally a lovely person, this one actor became Jekyll & Hyde when he directed.   Snapping at people, even his fellow cast members.  Then the following week he was back to his usual lovable self.  I don’t know why the rest of the cast didn’t kill him.  

And finally, from DEJ:  

How long would it take you to write a half hour show if you were doing it on your own? You will probably answer, "how long is a piece of string"? but a ball park figure would be of great interest.

It has changed over the years.  It used to take me much longer when I was starting out.  But now, after more years than I care to reveal, I can write a half-hour script in probably four days — three if there was really a time crunch.    

But like I said, in the early days the same script would take me two weeks.  I’ve put in my 10,000 hours (probably times 5).  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

EP207: All Things WINGS Part 1

Ken talks to Rob Leszczak, who wrote “The Complete Guide to the TV Sitcom WINGS.”  Between Rob’s research and Ken’s personal recollections of working on WINGS,  it’s a fascinating insider’s look at a sitcom that deserved way more respect than it received.  


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Stephen Sondheim -- TV sitcom writer

 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."  

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Steven Wright on ALMOST PERFECT

Yesterday I posted some great lines from Steven Wright.  And you guys provided a few more.  We used him once on ALMOST PERFECT -- our mid 90's series starring Nancy Travis -- and he was hilarious.  Here, for the first time, is that episode.  Enjoy.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Wright stuff

Few comics are as original as Steven Wright.  He also has a unique deadpan delivery.  I got to direct him once in an episode of ALMOST PERFECT where he played a party planner.  Here are some of his famous quotes.  Enjoy.

The Quotes of Steven Wright:
1 - I'd kill for a Nobel Peace Prize.
2 - Borrow money from pessimists -- they don't expect it back.
3 - Half the people you know are below average.
4 - 99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name.
5 - 82.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot.
6 - A conscience is what hurts when all your other parts feel so good.
7 - A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.
8 - If you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain.
9 - All those who believe in psycho kinesis, raise my hand.
10 - The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
11 - I almost had a psychic girlfriend, ..... But she left me before we met.
12 - OK, so what's the speed of dark?
13 - How do you tell when you're out of invisible ink?
14 - If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
15 - Depression is merely anger without enthusiasm.
16 - When everything is coming your way, you're in the wrong lane.
17 - Ambition is a poor excuse for not having enough sense to be lazy.
18 - Hard work pays off in the future; laziness pays off now.
19 - I intend to live forever ... So far, so good.
20 - If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?
21 - Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.
22 - What happens if you get scared half to death twice?
23 - My mechanic told me, "I couldn't repair your brakes, so I made your horn louder."
24 - Why do psychics have to ask you for your name
25 - If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.
26 - A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.
27 - Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.
28 - The hardness of the butter is proportional to the softness of the bread.
29 - To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.
30 - The problem with the gene pool is that there is no lifeguard.
31 - The sooner you fall behind, the more time you'll have to catch up.
32 - The colder the x-ray table, the more of your body is required to be on it.
33 - Everyone has a photographic memory; some just don't have film.
34 - If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.
35 - If your car could travel at the speed of light, would your headlights work?

 Thanks to my friend, David Fury, for turning me on to these quotes.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Weekend Post

I get a lot of questions about the “Bar Wars” episodes of CHEERS that my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote. So here are the FAQ’s.

Did we purposely plan for the Cheers gang to lose every time?

Yes. Except for the last one. Frustration is much funnier than victory. The trick however, was to find different ways for them to lose – or screw themselves. Guess I grew up watching too many Road Runner cartoons.

What about the last Bar Wars in the final season?

Ultimately, we decided to not only let Cheers win but to demolish Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern once and for all. We’re nothing if not vengeful. Trivia note: That is the only episode of CHEERS that I appear in. I’m sitting at the bar in an early scene.

Who played Gary?

The answer is: which time? We had two actors who played Gary, in no particular order. The first time the character appeared, Joel Polis played him in a 1985 episode called “From Beer to Eternity”. When we wrote the first Bar Wars episode Joe wasn’t available. It was the very end of the season. We had no other scripts so we just had to recast. Robert Desiderio became Gary. For Bar Wars II we went back to Joel Polis and used him one other time. Otherwise, it was Robert Desiderio. Confusing? Not as confusing as WONDER WOMAN 1984.

What is your favorite Bar Wars episode?

Bar Wars V. My partner came up with this idea. Sam’s prank kills Gary. Or at least that’s what Sam thinks. If you can’t get laughs with a man digging up a grave you’re not a comedy writer.

What is your least favorite Bar Wars episode?

Bar Wars VI. The gang thinks a wise guy buys Gary’s bar so a prank unleashes the Mafia after them. We were reaching. And sometimes too clever for our own good. In Bar Wars II, there’s a Bloody Mary contest. We had a number of twists and turns, and after turning in the script, the staff added a few more. By the end I think there were maybe six too many. It was the BIG SLEEP of Bar Wars episodes – no one alive can tell you exactly what happened.

Was it hard to plot these episodes?

Yes. Very. These episodes were a bitch to conceive and then hard to write because there was always so much story. By nature, exposition and set ups are not inherently funny and entertaining. We had to pull a lot of jokes out of nowhere.

What was your favorite gag?

Filling Rebecca’s office with sheep. That’s the power of being a writer. You come up with a goofy idea. And voila, there are fifty sheep being herded onto the set. I’m sure the guy who came up with snakes on the plane had the same heady feeling.

There are some Bar Wars type episodes not called Bar Wars. How come?

Those were episodes not originally designed to be bar wars but evolved into them. Or they were competitions not practical joke wars, per se. In other words, I dunno. I’m still trying to figure out BAR WARS II.

And finally, are you that diabolical?

Let’s just say I hope you’re not allergic to sheep.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Friday Questions

First Friday Questions of the new year.  What’s yours?

John Royal leads off.

I have a question about “Becker” (which I still believe to be one of the funniest shows ever). Why didn’t Becker wear a lab coat? Every doctor I’ve ever had has worn either a lab coat or scrubs. And how is working with Ted Danson?

Especially in private practice, there’s no law that a doctor has to wear a lab coat.  Becker was a great doctor who also did things his own way.   Not wearing a lab coat was more in his character.  

To answer your second question: Of all the actors I've ever worked with, Ted is my favorite.  So a "thumbs up" on that. 

Brother Herbert asks:

Reading the Q&A about when filming for M*A*S*H started and wrapped, you mentioned having a "stable of top notch directors" and it got me wondering: How were/are directors assigned to helm episodes? Is it more or less a rotation depending on availability and specific needs for an episode?

All of the above.  Because directors were given a few days to prep, plan their schedule, arrange for particular things required in their episode, etc., they couldn’t direct back-to-back episodes.  

Our primary director was Executive Producer, Burt Metcalfe.  And we had several directors we’d used and liked and depending on their availability we folded them into the schedule.  We also tried to bring on a couple of new directors each year.

Additionally, some of the actors directed.  Alan directed several episodes, Harry Morgan did one a year, and Mike Farrell also got behind the camera.  

Occasionally we would marry a particular episode with a director we felt would be strong for that subject matter.  Case in point was getting Charles Dubin to direct our “Point of View” episode.  It still pisses me off that he didn’t win an Emmy for that. He did an absolutely masterful job. 

From Sparks:

Have you ever done product placement in one of your shows? Been asked to? How about dropping in a name of a business you like as a free plug?

I mentioned this several times in the blog and on the podcast, but for the movie VOLUNTEERS we do a scene where Rita Wilson drinks a Coca Cola, but that was only because it was organic to the story.   Later, Coca Cola owned the studio and we were accused of pandering.  But that was eight or nine years after we wrote the scene.

As a show runner, I’ve never been approached to insert a product for payment or a favor.   Nor would I entertain it.  

And finally, from curious Craig:

Friday Question about an actor prepping ancillary skills for a role. I just read that Riz Ahmed spent seven months learning how to play drums for an upcoming movie. I suppose that makes sense if he's the main character and his drumming is a main plot of the film. What about when it's only a smaller part? I've heard lots of stories about actors learning skills before shooting began...I can't think of many right now except Cary Elwes and the grueling sword training he had for The Princess Bride (in which his swordsmanship was just a few scenes in the film). Who decides (studio, the actor, the director) how seriously the actor needs to learn this stuff, and is the actor paid for it all even if it's several months of training before shooting starts?

Sometimes the director will request it, but most often it’s the actor taking it upon himself to really prepare for the role.  I don't know who pays for it.  But the dedication that some actors have to their craft is simply amazing.  And hey, it’s always handy to have fencing skills. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

EP206: CHEERS commentary track: Boys in the Bar

A popular feature.  Ken does a commentary track on the controversial “Boys in the Bar” episode of CHEERS that he and David Isaacs wrote.  Hear about the inspiration, execution, reaction, and behind-the-scenes nuggets.  

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Peter Gunn

Being locked down since March I’ve watched or binged most everything.  Now I’m hunting around, looking for anything offbeat.  

On ME-TV I discovered that in the middle of the night on weekends (not exactly primetime), they run episodes of PETER GUNN.  I suspect most of you are saying, “Who?”

PETER GUNN was a private detective show that aired from 1958-61 on two networks (NBC for the first two years, ABC on the third).  114 episodes were made.   (Today, over three years series would be lucky to make 39.)  

Craig Stevens played a PI but not your Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective.  He was polished, well-dressed, sophisticated — more James Bond than Sam Spade.  

It was created by Blake Edwards, who later went on to write and direct such film classics as THE PINK PANTHER series, THE GREAT RACE, and VICTOR/VICTORIA.  

But the real stars of the show were Henry Mancini, Philip Lathrop and William Spencer.    Who? Who? Who?

Okay, you might’ve heard of Henry Mancini.  He did the music including the iconic theme.   The other two gentlemen were the cinematographers.  

PETER GUNN was the most stylish detective show on the air.  Shot in black-and-white, but the cinematography was eye-popping.  The use of light and shadows would make Orson Welles stand and applaud.  Camera angles are sometimes unusual or from the ceiling.  They really created a cool mood.  And the music was modern jazz.   

The price for all this, of course, is that the show really looks like a time-piece, in the same way that MIAMI VICE does.  But it’s a fun time-piece to watch.  

Also notable is that PETER GUNN is only a half-hour.  And you know what?  You don’t need a full hour to tell detective stories.  So many of them are padded or cluttered with subplots and red herrings.   A half-hour is more than enough time to set up the problem, go through four or five steps and resolve it.   There’s always a fight scene, Gunn is held at gunpoint, and Lola Albright is making out with him.  The scripts are high on banter and Noir.  Double entendres fly.  But what would you expect when your lead character is named two euphemisms for penis?   

Another refreshing change is his relationship with the police lieutenant played by Herschel Bernardi.  They actually get along.  Bernardi never says, “Stay out of it, Gunn!  This is my territory!”   By doing that alone they’re able to cut a half-hour out of each story.  

What struck me most about PETER GUNN was that it had a clear vision.  The look, music, dialogue were distinctive.  I’m guessing Blake Edwards didn’t get a slew of network and studio notes.   I’m betting he didn’t have to get network approval for every writer and director.  Edwards was able to give a directing assignment to a young nobody named Robert Altman.  

If you’re up at 4 in the morning some weekend, check it out.  If nothing else, that theme song will be an earworm that will last for days. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

In response to yesterday's post

  Interesting reaction to yesterday's post.  

Many of you reacted to the plight of theater owners like AMC with "good riddance."   The experience of going to a theater to see a movie on the big screen has become somewhat of an ordeal.  And theater chains have let it happen and in some respects contributed to it.  

Readers cite high ticket prices, inflated concession prices, cutback on staff, endless trailers, and commercials as some reasons to avoid their local cineplex.  

And then there is the behavior of the patrons.  Texting, fiddling with their iPhones, thus shining distracting lights, talking to one another, talking on the phone, and basically having zero regard for anyone else in the auditorium.   Other than Alamo Drafthouse, I don't know of another theater chain that enforces no cellphone use or talking.   They'll throw people out.  Everyone else does nothing or perhaps issues worthless warnings.  

As one commenter stated, these chains have been getting away with this for years and the time of reckoning has come.  

Maybe you have to be from a certain generation, but I've always had a reverence for movies and the need to see them as they were intended to be shown -- on the big screen in a theater.  My sense is most people in the general public don't feel that way.  Which is a shame but totally understandable given the circumstances.   There's little or no allegiance to theater chains because they don't offer a pleasing experience.  And instead of improving, the experience gets worse and worse over time.  

And the irony of course, is that the audience that theaters are hoping to attract (young people EXCLUSIVELY) are the ones who cause most of the disruptions and the ones least likely to have any loyalty to the theater.  They're the ones no longer interested in going unless it's a big mega-event, and even then that's a few times a year max.   Gone are the Friday night "date night" movies.  

Yes, giant conglomerates are killing the theater business.  But theater owners better take a good hard look at how they contributed and what they can do in the future to get the audience back.  It's certainly worse than I even thought.  So just opening your doors won't do it. 

Monday, January 04, 2021

The Warner Brothers announcement that shocked Hollywood... but not me

Warner Brothers Pictures recently announced they were putting their entire slate of 2021 releases on HBO Max the same time they’re releasing them to theaters.  This has theater chains and filmmakers all up in arms.   For good reason.   Media pundits are calling this unprecedented.  Uh, no.  It’s happened before.  

Let’s go back to the ‘80s and that now quaint form of entertainment -- television.   If you had a hit sitcom the studio would sell it into syndication to the highest bidders.  If you happened to be a writer or actor or director who had a piece of the show you got insanely rich.  The studios would get richer, but that’s fair.  They also laid out all the money above the license fee to produce the show.  And lots of shows fail and the studios lose money.  But still, in success, everybody scored big.  

Then the studios started launching cable networks.  And of course they needed product.  Let’s take MASH — an absolute cash cow in syndication.  Owned by 20th Century Fox.  The studio debuted FX.  The studio decided to run multiple episodes of MASH.  Its value in syndication dropped because no longer were local markets the exclusive provider of the show.  20th made less money on MASH.  But they made more money on FX.  They sold and kept all the advertising.  Anyone who was a profit participant in MASH got screwed.   As a result, Alan Alda sued 20th and won a hefty settlement.   

The point is 20th was more concerned with their cable channel than one of their shows.   This type of thing happens when giant conglomerates take over studios.  

AT&T now owns Time-Warner, which included HBO Max.  The future in broadcast platforms is streaming.  And the competition is fierce.  Once it pretty much was just Netflix and Hulu as a distant second.  Now there’s HBO Max, Apple +, Disney +, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Peacock with more on the way.  People aren’t gong to pay $14 a month to seven streaming services.  Maybe they’ll pop for two.  Each of these streaming services is owned by giant behemoths like Apple, Amazon, Viacom, Comcast, and Disney.  They’ve spent billions to launch their services.  In time some are going to go away or be swallowed up.  At the moment, the race is on and the stakes are enormous.  

HBO Max got off to a disappointing start.  I don’t know what their expectations were but they didn’t meet them.  So to give their service a shot in the arm, AT&T has decided to release all new WB movies on HBO Max.  Now they’ll say they’re doing it for the fans.  But that’s utter bullshit.  They’re doing it to bolster HBO Max.   

So what if you’re a profit participant in one of those films?  Forget about the $100,00,000 opening weekend and your cut (once the pandemic is finally over).  It’ll open at a tiny fraction of that.  You get fucked.  You see the pattern?   And add this to that:  the filmmakers who produced the 2021 slate of WB films were always under the impression their films would first be released in theaters.  When you do a picture for Netflix you know it’s destined for the small screen.  But not a WB project.  So the rug was pulled out from under them.  

Oh, and how’d you like to own AMC theaters?  

I’m waiting to see if other conglomerates do the same thing.  The theater experience is slowly coming to an end. Watching a film with lots of other people, all laughing or cheering or gasping or whatever enhances the movie experience.  And that is going away other than big IMAX CGI superhero sequels.  It’s a shame really.  The entertainment industry has always been about money.  But at one time the people in charge also loved movies.  Today, they couldn’t care less.  Which also means they couldn’t care less about YOU.   Not exactly a "happy ending." 

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Last minute holiday laughs

As the holiday season comes to a close and you begin to dread having to take down the tree and all the decorations, grab 90 minutes of late holiday spirit by checking out my Zoom play, ON THE FARCE DAY OF CHRISTMAS.   Start the year with some laughs.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Weekend Post

Edward Anhalt was one of the great screenwriters of all-time. A multi-Oscar winner he amassed a tremendous body of impressive work.

In the early 60’s he learned that producer Hal B. Wallis was planning to make a movie of the play BECKET. That subject matter was Anhalt’s absolute passion. He considered himself an expert on the era. No one knew the period as well. He went to Wallis with an impassioned plea that he and he alone was right for this assignment. Wallis made him a deal. Anhalt could write BECKET but he had another project that also needed a writer. If Anhalt would do that first he could have his coveted assignment. Anhalt happily agreed.

So in the same year Mr. Edward Anhalt wrote BECKET and GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS starring Elvis Presley and Stella Stevens.

Moral of this story: If you’re lucky enough to get an assignment on some horrible cheesy show on some streaming platform no one has ever heard of about kids in leprechaun jr. high take heart. Next year you could be on THIS IS US. 

Friday, January 01, 2021

Thank God it's 2021

Friday Questions return next week.

Usually on New Years Day, I do a feature where I hope this year is for you what last year was for... and then I list all the people who had a great year -- award winners, big successes, championships, etc.  

But last year was truly awful.  I spent 42 weeks of it in lockdown.  My last social activity around people was a funeral in the rain.  If there are two highlights of 2020 the first is that our democracy was saved when Trump lost the election -- and yes, he LOST the election -- over 80,000,000 people hate his fucking guts -- he LOST.   And second, we have two vaccines with more on the way.  

Beyond that, I can't even remember who won Oscars, sports with no fans and shortened seasons with playoff games in neutral sites seem meaningless (even though two LA teams won championships), the pandemic, the economy, a political party willing to abandon the Constitution they were sworn to follow and protect for the sake of showing allegiance to the worst president and traitor this country has ever known -- 2020 sucked.  

So on to 2021.  May this be a year of healing, rebuilding, justice, science, tolerance, and the return of the United States of America.