Friday, February 26, 2021

Friday Questions

Wrapping up February.  Are you staying safe?  Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

-30- is up first.

"You're not writing for you; you're writing for them."

That raises the question--Can you write comedy that you don't think is funny? Is it possible because you're trying to please the audience, your showrunner, get or keep your job? Can writers serve an audience by writing to a formula and turn out jokes to fit a template? Is "hold your nose and type" really possible, no matter how the bills are piling up?


When you start out you’ll take any job.  I would have written on any sitcom that would hire me.  And I’d do my best to give them the type of material they wanted.  Yes, I would not feel comfortable, but I’d still be way more comfortable than holding out and waiting tables and writing spec scripts for shows I admired.

At this point in my career, no.  I would have no interest writing a show I didn’t think was funny, no matter how popular it was.  

But I think it’s less about the quality of the humor and more about the sensibility and characters of the show.   I could not write not a show about today’s high school students.  I don’t really know them, I don’t know their voice, I don’t know what they’re thinking.  

What’s somewhat ironic is when my partner, David Isaacs and I were young we got approached to write a movie about comics during the Borscht Belt Era and turned it down because the characters were too old and we had no handle on them.    I wonder if that assignment is still out there. 

Anthony Strand asks:

Cheers season 9 has several cold openers that take place outside of Cheers on the street. Did the cast actually go to Boston to shoot those scenes? Were they all shot at once?

Yes.  They spent about a week there and filmed a bunch of scenes for multiple episodes.  I don’t think I was on that trip.  And if I were I skipped the shooting, probably to get lobster.  

Here are two from Anonymous.  Please leave your name.

Mr Levine, how much of your writing that was filmed/broadcast no longer survives?

Quite a bit.  Let me know if you ever see JOE AND SONS (pictured: above), THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, AFTERMASH, THE TORTELLI’S, BRAM & ALICE, THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES, IT’S ALL RELATIVE, and the pilots of SNOBS and CHARACTERS.   Same is true with shows I directed.  KRISTIN, LATELINE, ASK HARRIET, BROTHER'S KEEPER, ENCORE ENCORE, STARK RAVING MAD, FIRED UP, CONRAD BLOOM. 

None of the three series we created (MARY, BIG WAVE DAVE’S, and ALMOST PERFECT) are currently in syndication although ALMOST PERFECT was for about ten years and you can still see episodes of all three series on YouTube.  

How many of your appearances on radio or TV, including your work as sportscaster or DJ, survives ?

Very little.  I have a few airchecks of my DJ work, and a few of my baseball play-by-play games.  But considering I was doing it every day for years, only a very small percentage remains.  

From time to time I play portions of my radio work on my podcast.   

On the one hand, I wish I had more.  On the other — when would I listen to it  all?  

But I do have the Dodger game I broadcast with Vin Scully.  That baby is a keeper.  

And a Mariner game I did with Dave Niehaus is an exhibit in the Baseball Hall of Fame (because of him, not me).  And fortunately, I happened to be good that night.  

And finally, from Phil:


David Isaacs was listed as the sole writer for Frasier’s season 6 finale, “Shutout in Seattle”. How come you weren’t involved with those episodes?

He did WHAT?  

No, actually, I was off directing in New York during that period.   Those are two really good episodes.  Turns out he’s a pretty great writer without me.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A couple of things

 Lots of you have asked me about the FRASIER reboot.  I will discuss that in the Weekend Post.

My Zoom play reading of AMERICA'S SEXIEST COUPLE with Tim Daly & Joely Fisher is getting rave reviews and lots of traffic.  If you haven't seen it, I invite you to check it out.  You can find it here.

In days to come I deal with ALLEN V FARROW, Disney + adding disclaimers on THE MUPPETS, and much more.  


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

EP213: Elton John Sings Jingles


Jonathan Wolfert, president/founder of Jam Creative Productions is this week’s guest discussing why today’s music is different from yesterday’s (you decide which is better). Also, the unique business of radio station jingles and how they have ties to both Clayton Kershaw and Elton John. Hear Elton John sing radio jingles.

More podcasts on Wave!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

No pictures tell a story

I had occasion to look back at photos from 2010 to see who was at a particular party I attended.  While there I swiped through my other photos of that year — most I haven’t looked at in a decade.  Memories came back (mostly good), but the thing that struck me was how much I had done during that one random year.  And nothing spectacular.  I won my Nobel Peace Prize a different year.  But it was a year filled with travel, family gatherings, milestones, sightseeing, meeting with friends, ballgames, concerts, restaurants, theatres, rehearsals, writing rooms, TV tapings, improv shows, holiday events, weekly visits to the gym, pretty much everything but a selfie.  

And then I thought about last year.  I did none of that.   Went nowhere, saw no one.  Nobody did.  For the world this has been a lost year.  My photos are very few from 2020, most of them screenshots.  This will go down as the period in our lives of the least nostalgia.  No one will want to relive these “good old days.”

You live long enough you’re going to face some crises.  Wars, the Depression, natural disasters, pandemics.   And as tough as this has been, it’s still only a year and hopefully over by the end of this year.  Wars and Depressions have lasted longer.  

But my point is, to return to all those things we’ve missed, we’ve got to all, collectively, do the things that will get us there.  Get the vaccines when you’re eligible.  It won't result in chips inserted into your brain. Wear masks.  It's not denying your First Amendment rights.  You can still say stupid things with a mask on. Social Distance.  Wash your hands.  Stay out of Mosh Pits.  We know a lot more about the virus than we did a year ago.  We also have an administration that sincerely cares about you and your welfare.  Listen to the experts.  Follow their advice.  They won’t tell you to drink bleach.  Scientists know things.  Their warning on climate change -- ask someone from Texas if he now thinks that's just a hoax. 

These are all a small price to pay to remain healthy and be able to take pictures you’ll actually want to see again in the future. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Rush Limbaugh is (or now was) really Jim Morrison

This is a repost from June 1, 2017.  In light of Rush Limbaugh's passing (at least he lived long enough to see Biden inaugurated), I've gotten a number of hits on this post.  And I thought you'd find it amusing.  There was a claim in 2017 that Jim Morrison didn't die.  He reinvented himself and Rush Limbaugh was in fact the Lizard King.  That prompted this essay:

Yes, this absurd conspiracy is indeed going around the internet.  Instead of trying to prove that our US president is guilty of obstruction of justice and helped Russia subvert the national election, people are instead insisting that Doors' front man, Jim Morrison, faked his own death in 1971 and resurfaced as right wing talk show host, Rush Limbaugh.  

I'm not kidding. 

No.  Seriously.

You can look it up. 

Okay, forget that Limbaugh was born in 1951 and Morrison was born in 1943, for this to happen, Morrison would have begun his new life as a top 40 disc jockey in a Pittsburgh suburb.   Later, as all rock stars aspire to do, he worked in the promotions department of the Kansas City Royals.   Later, of course, using a completely different voice he became the radical talk show host he is today.   

What psychedelic drug turns you into a Reagan conservative?

What makes this conspiracy so much fun is that there are nimrods out there who actually believe it.   There are some bizarre YouTube videos claiming to PROVE this theory.  And of course they're all Mad Hatter Productions.  But I'm sorry, unless they can show a bill of sale to Rush Limbaugh for size 50 leather pants I ain't buyin' it. 

Now if you want to claim that Donald Trump is really Captain Beefheart, then hey, I'm listenin'.  

Monday, February 22, 2021

Confessions of a night person

 

The U.S. Army once had a recruiting slogan that proclaimed, “We do more by 9:00 in the morning than most people do all day!” Excuse me, but… that’s an incentive? By 9:00 in the morning I’m hopefully still sleeping.

I must admit I’m a night person. Always have been. Practically every job I’ve ever had since high school was a night job. Of course, now that I think about it, I bet I would have sold more Amway products door to door if I didn’t start out every night at midnight.

I know a lot of writers who are morning people. They get up at dawn, go right to work, and get as much done as the Army without cleaning toilets. Notice in that Army slogan they never specify exactly what they do? The truth is, a lot of potatoes get peeled, floors get buffed, and trenches get dug before 9.

But I prefer working late at night. It’s quiet for one thing, and when I write during the day I’m always wondering – what’s going on out there that I’m missing? I never feel that way when the option is watching "A Little Late with Lilly Singh."

Morning writers contend that they can enjoy the day more knowing they’ve already done their allotted work. That makes great sense to me. Until the alarm clock sounds. Then I’m thinking, “What the fuck?! I don’t get up this early to go to the goddamn Rose Parade. I’m going to drag myself out of bed to write five pages for this play when there's no theatre until maybe the fall?”

Back when I was hosting Dodger Talk on XTRA 1150, I filled in on the morning show for about a month. The program director then offered me the position full-time. I graciously declined. He asked why? I’d be done at 9:00 and then have the whole rest of the day to write and direct. I said, “Yes, but see, here’s the thing: by 9:00 I’M FUCKING DEAD!!!” I don’t know how morning men do it.  I’m just now catching up on the sleep I lost.

There’s also a practical reason why I like to write during the wee hours. Lots of writers feel they have to finish a scene before they can put it down for the day. So they’ll sit for as long as it takes to wrestle that bad boy to the ground.

I’m the opposite. If I’m stuck on a tough story point or a long character speech I just stop – in the middle of a sentence even. I find that it’s much easier to solve story problems when I’m relaxed. So I’ll go to sleep and let my subconscious work on it awhile. Invariably, in the morning, after just mulling it over in bed or taking a shower, the solution will present itself. Then I’ll return to the script to finish the scene.

So maybe I don’t get that much done before 9:00 but from 9:15-9:25 I kick ass!

How about you? Are you a morning or night person, and why?

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Weekend Post

My play, AMERICA'S SEXIEST COUPLE is now online!  It's a romantic comedy starring Joely Fisher and Tim Daly.  Also featured is Erik Odom.   

So what's it about? 

Two actors, who were "America's Sexiest Couple" on a popular '90s sitcom reunite for the first time in 25 years.  They face a lifetime of unresolved issues, longings, resentments, and regrets.  Like I said -- a comedy.  

My thanks to the New Works Theatre and Kevin Pollack for hosting this Zoom production.  It's a benefit for the Actors Fund so if you like the play we hope you'll donate to this very worthy cause.  

Thanks much.  Now sit back and enjoy AMERICA'S SEXIEST COUPLE. 



Friday, February 19, 2021

Friday Questions

What?  No holiday this weekend?  Guess you’ll have to settle for Friday Questions.

Matt gets us started.

I noticed David Ogden Stiers did three episodes in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" final season (as station manager) around the same time he was brought onto MASH. Was he doing both shows at the same time? Or was it a matter of MTM ending in the spring and then joining MASH in the summer/fall? If it's the latter, was he on the radar for MASH because of his appearance in MTM?

David did the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW the year before he began on MASH.  In fact, it was his appearance on MTM that got him the job on MASH.  Producer Burt Metcalfe saw him on that show and thought he’d be perfect for the new character of Charles we were preparing.  

David Isaacs and I were on staff of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW at MTM at the time David was on MARY TYLER MOORE, and we used him in an episode of TR we wrote.  In ours he was a talk show host — Robert W. Cleaver.  

Jason V asks:

How does it affect an actor to be the punchline character in a show? I'm thinking Cliff in Cheers, and of course, Screech in Saved By the Bell.
 
They cry all the way to the bank.

From Jeff:


Ken, I believe you mentioned you were in the audience for All in the Family one time. Being that it's my favorite sitcom ever, would love if you would write about that sometime.

I was in the audience for the episode where Archie and Michael were stuck together in the cellar.   We were out of there in less than an hour.  Both actors knew their lines and as I recall, they went straight through as if it were a half-hour one act play.

One the one hand, I didn’t see a typical episode with all the characters in the living room, but on the other I saw a special episode.  

And I was very impressed.  

I only attended two Norman Lear tapings — that one and THE JEFFERSONS we “wrote.”  In both cases, the actors knew all their lines and the level of professionalism was unmatched.  

And finally, from Brian:


Have you continued to watch Brockmire and what do you think of it?

I watched every episode of BROCKMIRE.  Absolutely loved it at the beginning, liked it in the middle, and hated the last season.

I give them credit for taking a big swing at the plate, but going into the future and making him the commissioner stretched all credibility and reality.  

The first season was magic.  By the end they went off the rails.  That said, I loved Hank Azaria in the role.

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

EP212: Your Questions, My Answers


Ken answers listeners’ questions ranging from television, actors, to child actors, comedy, continuity, and cop shows.

More podcasts on WAVE!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Pretend it's a City -- My review

 

Fran Liebowitz is an acquired taste.   When she arrived on the scene in the late ‘70s /early 80’s with her acerbic magazine articles and wildly successful book of comic essays, METROPOLITAN LIFE, she was somewhat of a sensation.   Here was a 30 year-old very funny curmudgeon at a time when New York, Woody Allen, and Jews were enjoying the zeitgeist.   She was a fresh voice.  And I was a fan. 

In the mid ‘80s when my partner, David Isaacs and I were creating a show for Mary Tyler Moore we thought, “wouldn’t it be great to have a Fran Liebowitz-type character for dear sweet Mary to play off of?”   Hence the character we created for Katy Sagal.  She was easily the most fun character to write for in that show.   And why not?  Cranks are funny.  They can say things others thought but were afraid to say.  BECKER was another.  For the ultimate example — Ignatius J. Reilly in the hilarious novel, CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. 

Fran stopped writing in the ‘80s.  That’s a long time for writers block.  And yet she has somehow managed to remain a public figure and earn a living through speaking engagements.  And freeloading.  She truly has become “America’s Guest.”  Her calendar is filled with dinner party invitations and Hampton weekend invitations from Manhattan and Hollywood movers and shakers.   She’s essentially a court jester, someone to amuse the others at these gatherings.  I sure don’t blame her for accepting.  How would you like to live the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” just by being witty?  I would be pithy at Martin Scorsese’s 4th of the July BBQ, wouldn’t you? 

Speaking of Scorsese, he’s the producer/director of a seven-part documentary series on Netflix about Fran Liebowitz called PRETEND IT’S A CITY.  Basically it’s seven half-hours of Fran Liebowitz spouting her disgruntled philosophy.   Even fans of Ms. Liebowitz (like me) would argue that three half-hours would have been more than plenty.  Edit, Marty, edit!

We see clips of Fran on talk shows down through the years, along with panel discussions, speaking engagements, and an intimate conversation in the Players Club. 

The series has gotten mixed reviews.  Even the New York Times dismissed her act as tired and tedious.  I found a lot of it amusing but could not totally disagree. 

I see Fran Liebowitz as a stand-up comedian.  She has a definite persona, a definite shtick.  Comics will often drop the persona when they’re not on stage.  Jack Benny wasn’t cheap, Larry David is not an asshole, Joan Rivers wasn’t really "the queen of mean," Steve Martin is not a “wild and crazy guy,” and I can only hope Andrew Dice Clay was just playing a character.  But we are led to believe that Fran Liebowitz actually IS this put upon kvetch in real life.  And if so, she feels like a walking anachronism.  A writer friend put it perfectly — she was once ahead of the curve and is now way behind the curve. 

But if you like the persona, the same way you might like Lewis Black’s angry persona, or Dave Chapelle’s edgy persona — you will get some laughs out of this documentary.  And she talks fast so there’s a lot to choose from.  I enjoyed a good deal of it.  But even if Fran Liebowitz were my all-time favorite comedian/humorist, I sure as hell would not want to sit through a 3 1/2 hour concert.  That’s what this was.   So if you like Fran Liebowitz, binge-watch this series… but maybe one episode a month. 


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Residuals

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.  It was asked originally by Daniel with a whole bunch of you following-up saying you wanted to know too.  So here you go.  

Daniel’s FQ:

Since you mentioned residuals in your post today, could you explain how they work?

Do you get a monthly check? Quarterly check? Annual check?


There’s no simple answer except maybe “Yes.”   Writers receive residuals based on different formulas depending on whether their shows were re-aired on first run networks, local syndication, cable networks, DVD sales, and streaming.   When in syndication, the amount may vary based on the financial arrangements of the deal.   If FRIENDS sells in syndication for a huge number, writers will receive more than if they wrote for RULES OF ENGAGEMENT which sold for much less.  

Residuals are on a sliding scale.  Especially in first run network reruns you make less each time it airs.  

The good news is that since 1976 or 1977, residuals are in perpetuity.  Prior to that you got ten airings and were done.   Same with actors.  Ed Asner no longer gets residuals on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  And residuals didn’t even come into play until 1960.  Vivian Vance & William Frawley made no residuals on I LOVE LUCY.  

Interesting side note:  Audrey Meadows, in negotiating her deal with THE HONEYMOONERS in the '50s proposed taking less money but getting a residual.  She wound up making millions, probably more than Jackie Gleason.   I love that story.

I have no idea what the formula is for DVD sales or streaming but it sure ain’t much.  Or additional platforms.  Example:  One of the episodes of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND I directed was part of American Airlines in-flight programming packaging for six months.  It was shown on every East to West Coast flight for half a year.  So thousands of airings.  I received a check from American Airlines for $1.19.  That doesn’t buy a packet of their crappy salted peanuts.  

How do we receive residuals?  Studios are expected to send the checks to the WGA who then distribute them to us.  The WGA is tasked with policing this, but who are we kidding?   For all the residuals I’ve received I’m sure there’s a lot of money I’ve been cheated out of.  If you know specifically what you’re entitled to but haven’t received yet you can ask the WGA to investigate.  And that has proven to be successful.  

For years my partner and I never got residuals from the TV airings of VOLUNTEERS.  I called them, pointed out how it had run twice on ABC, hundreds of times on HBO, and been seen in syndication on independent over-the-air stations and cable networks.   A month later I got a five-figure check.  Had I not raised the issue I never would have received that money.  

Today writers can go to a website and monitor their own residuals so it makes it easier to keep track of what you’re entitled to.  

You must have writing credit on an episode to receive residuals.  Showrunners and producers don’t receive any royalties.  And if a showrunner or other staff members rewrite your script they have to send the final draft to arbitration.  The arbiters will then decide the credit.  

I should also point out that agents and managers are not entitled to commission residuals.  

Usually we’ll receive a check for multiple episodes (if we’ve written multiple episodes).  So I may get a check that includes recent residuals for seven CHEERS episodes or nine MASH episodes.  They come sporadically.  

I’ve received checks for as low as one cent.  

People ask if I can live off the residuals.  No.  Certainly not now.  Each MASH episode has aired probably a thousand times so I’m getting just a few bucks an airing now.  But still, that’s money I’m making for something I did 40 years ago.  How amazing is that???  

But residuals have been a big part of a writer’s income for the last sixty years.  Especially in an industry where there’s very little security — you go from assignment to assignment and show to show — residuals can get you through some pretty hard times.  

Now however, with everything changing and streaming clearly becoming the wave of the future I worry that writers won’t enjoy the same protection we did.  There are formulas in place, but I hope in upcoming negotiations we can secure a more equitable share.  And then actually see the money.  

That’s a very brief overview.  Someone could probably write an entire book on the residual structure, but book royalties are terrible.

Monday, February 15, 2021

THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT - follow up

When I posted my review of THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT back in November I said I would circle back to the problems I had with it once more people had a chance to see it.  So have you???

Mostly I loved the series.  But I did have a couple of issues.  So with that in mind...

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

One minor and one major quibble.  Minor:  I was thrown that the series was set in Kentucky.  I've spent a good deal of time in Kentucky -- around that period.  And it's the South.  You hear accents there.  If it were set in Indiana, or Illinois, or Upstate New York I wouldn't be bothered at all, but I felt they really missed the flavor and distinctiveness of Kentucky.  

Now my major issue:  And this stems from my writer's background -- all of Beth's problems were solved easily and usually by other people or convenient outside forces.  If she needed money, people would swoop in to provide it.  If she needed strategy support, all of her fellow chess whizzes would converge to provide it (even if they been on bad terms with her).  Angels in her life always showed up at just the right time.  Her ex-classmate, the gay guy she had a crush on -- they could have called the series "You've Got a Friend."  

When the Russian chess masters were plotting against her, they did it in her hotel, down the hall from her room, with the door to their room open.  And Beth happened to pass by at just the right moment to eavesdrop.  

Personal taste, I prefer when characters actively solve their own problems.  Or at least taking those steps.  That's one of the reasons why I love LUPIN on Netflix.  It's great fun watching him ingeniously wriggle out of seemingly impossible situations.   I just think it makes for better storytelling.  

I never read the QUEEN'S GAMBIT book.  Maybe all of those moves are in there and the series is just being faithful to the material.  And like I said, for the most part I loved the series, but that aspect bugged me. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Weekend Post

It's Valentine's Day weekend.  My birthday is Valentine's Day and usually it's a problem.  I can never go out to a restaurant to celebrate because everyone goes out to restaurants. Prices are usually jacked way up, service is rushed, and there's something very artificial about the whole thing.  But this year, with the pandemic, no one is going out to restaurants on Valentine's Day.  Welcome to my world, kids.   And within a couple of weeks, everyone will have celebrated a birthday during the pandemic.   Not sure what candlelight Zoom dates will be, but Happy Valentine's Day however you celebrate it.  

And in honor of this (potentially) romantic holiday I'd like to offer an explanation for what love really is. It comes from that font of romance -- an episode of TAXI (written by Ken Estin).

Louie is trying to win back his girlfriend, Zena. He asks if she loves him. She says she doesn’t know what love is. He tells her she’s in luck because he does. And he’s the only person alive who can say that. He’s read what everyone else says love is and they’re always wrong. She finally asks him what it is, and Louie says:

“Love is the end of happiness!

The end. Because one day all a guy’s got to do to be happy is to watch the Mets. The next day you gotta have Zena in the room watching the Mets with you. You don’t know why. They’re the same Mets, it’s the same room…but you gotta have Zena there.”

****
That to me expresses more heartfelt love than any bouquet or bling or blowout dinner.  Which is good this year because you can't have any of those things unless they're delivered.  

Friday, February 12, 2021

Friday Questions

Happy Lincoln’s Birthday (although I’m sure he’d be horrified to see what’s happening now).  Here are some Friday Questions.

Mark Solomon asks:


Ken, I just watched on ME -TV an episode of “Wings” which you directed.
Given your extensive history as a writer primarily (including past episodes
of “Wings”), did you have the latitude during table reads and rehearsals to
suggest or even unilaterally execute script or dialogue revisions that other
episodic Directors-for-hire may not have been granted?


Sometimes yes and sometimes no.  I would always ask the show runner before I started whether it was okay to throw in a joke or maybe change a joke. Some were very receptive; others wanted to see the script exactly as written.  And by the way, that’s fine.  

But I would always check first.  And if the powers-that-be did give me latitude I would always give them a heads-up on any changes right before run-through so they weren’t caught off guard. 

Also, I was never defensive.  I'm there to serve the show runner.  So if he didn't like any of my "improvements," out they came with no push-back from me. 

However, on ALMOST PERFECT, where I also was a show runner, I’d change things left and right.  I’d even move things around in a scene on occasion.  But my co-show-runners were always fine with it since it saved us a lot of rewrite work later that night.  Some script and joke problems were already solved.  

But I would NEVER do that as a freelance director.  

blogward wonders:


I've just (from Scotland) been catching up with the Bob Newhart Show - which was never networked in the UK. Don't get me wrong, I LOVED Frasier, best sitcom of its era, but to my eyes, the production similarities with early 'Newhart' are uncannny - even the credits font is the same as Cheers (Cooper Black!).

As for a stuffy, middle-aged, balding psychologist conducting one-handed consultations on the phone - he's kind of Niles Crane crossed with Dick Van Dyke!

How much do you think that Frasier - and maybe its getting greenlit - initially owed to Bob Newhart? I'm not making accusations of plagiarism, it just never occurred to me that the Frasier style is part of what seems to be a (glorious) US sitcom tradition.

I can’t speak for the creators other than to say to my knowledge THE BOB NEWHART SHOW had no influence on the creation of FRASIER.  First off, Frasier was already established as a psychiatrist on CHEERS.  On FRASIER he doesn’t even have a private practice.  And the other characters and show dynamics are completely different.  Bob Hartley is married, Frasier is not.  Frasier lives with his father, Bob does not.  Bob does not have a brother.  There’s no nutty “Howard” neighbor on FRASIER.  

I love THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.  But I’m pretty certain it was not the inspiration for what became the premise of FRASIER.  

From Vincent Saia:

Ever get a freebee from a sponsor?

No.  Never did, which is too bad because Chevrolet sponsored MASH.

And finally, from Dan in Coquitlam:


Of the many guest star appearances on your TV shows, who made such an impression that you (or the show) wanted to bring back but for whatever reason never re-appeared?

Oh, that’s an easy one.  John Cleese on CHEERS.  He was absolutely hilarious.  We wanted to bring him back and even had a script assigned, but there proved to be a conflict in his schedule and he wasn’t able to do it.  We had to scramble and change the script.  

See that episode if you haven’t already.  It’s one of my absolute favorites.  Written by Peter Casey & David Lee.

What’s your Friday Question?  Happy Lincoln’s birthday and (Sunday) Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

EP211: The Development of Arrested Development


Part two of the interview with Emmy-winning writer Jim Vallely. Most of the episode centers on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT — the making of one TV’s funniest and most revered sitcoms.

Other podcasts on WAVE!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Comedy Litmus Test

Recently, I’ve been asked to assess short plays for several theatre festivals.  And of course, over the years, I’ve read hundreds (maybe thousands) of TV spec scripts.  

This just applies to comedies — dramas are a different animal — but most comedies aren’t funny.  They just aren’t.  Now you could say it’s subjective, and that’s very true, but in most cases (especially with short plays), I don’t even see where the laughs are supposed to be.

So I propose this exercise when you write an intended comedy.  This is what I do all the time.  

Imagine an audience watching your play.  They have to all be strangers.  No fair having your mother or boyfriend who’s dying to get laid in the front row.  Or “Uncle Myron” who laughs at everything.  

Total strangers.

They can be your target audience.  You don’t have to bus in state convicts or QAnon idiots.  No one has has to have an oxygen tank. But you can’t write a play about blacksmiths and fill the audience with a hundred blacksmiths.   Play fair.

Total strangers.

You’re allowed to assume it’s a decent crowd willing to laugh out loud.  If you have a bad crowd then nothing is funny.  NOISES OFF would die a horrible death.   So it’s an audience that will give you a fair shake if you present them with something genuinely funny.  

You’re also allowed to assume you have a good cast and director.  I said “good”, not “great.”  Some actors like David Hyde Pierce and Betty White can get laughs out of middling material.  Again, play fair.  Chances are you won’t have David Hyde Pierce.  Don't count on actors to save you. 

Now imagine your play (or spec script) playing to this audience.  And be brutally honest with yourself.  Where do you see them actually laughing?  And what kind of laugh is it?  Is it a smile more than a laugh?  Is it a hip line that only a few will appreciate?  Ideally, how many laughs are there?  Do you go three or four pages between any laughs?   Are the first five pages all set-up and no laughs until the payoffs?  Are the payoffs big enough?  

Are there opportunities for laughs that are missed?  Do you just skirt over comic possibilities?  Is there more to be mined from a certain comic moment?  

How many laughs are sufficient for you?  Are the laughs big enough?  

At this point you might be saying, “Jesus!  That’s a lot of pressure you’re putting on me,” and I would say, “YEP.”   But that’s comedy writing.  People say, “Just please yourself.  Just write what’s funny to you.”  I say: “Bullshit!”  You’re not writing for you; you’re writing for them.  

In reality, unless you have a super hot crowd (and you get those from time to time), not every laugh you imagined will be realized.  But if most don’t, or if your projected big ones don’t, then it’s time to blame yourself, not the audience.  But the good news is — if you’re being truly honest with yourself — you can accomplish that before the world sees your play.  Consider each draft a tryout week in New Haven without having to suffer through bad reviews.  

Try it.  It’s a great Litmus test.  Your comedies will improve considerably.  Or you’ll give that “drama” thing a try.  But you'll know. 

Best of luck. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

My contribution to uniting the country

We are clearly a polarized nation.  (Don’t worry, this isn’t a political rant.)  And you would think it would extend to humor.  The Blue States appreciate urban humor while the Red States go for comedy that’s more rural. 

But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. 

On MASH we frankly didn’t care who was watching. We knew we had high ratings so that was good enough for us.  We never stopped to think, “Will they get this in Iowa?”  We just assumed our audience was intelligent and treated them as such.  We used Yiddish expressions, made obscure references to Adolphe Menjou (pictured above), philosophical jokes, Algonquin Round Table banter, sarcasm, political humor, word play — anything we felt was appropriate for the moment and characters.  

Several TV critics said we were too highbrow for Middle America.  They suggested we make the show more accessible.   We felt they weren't giving the audience enough credit.  They were capable of appreciating a military comedy that wasn't GOMER PYLE. 

Here’s what we found:  MASH was a way bigger hit in the “flyover states” than the big cities.  Forget Manhattan, those Yiddish expressions were for Omaha.

MASH is still a huge hit in syndication.  You would think over time, considering how ultra-liberal the show was, that maybe now Middle America would sour on the 4077.  Nope.  Doing just as well or better. 

I find that very comforting.  It’s nice to know that in a very small way through MASH I’m helping to unite the country.  And more important -- getting residuals for it.  

Monday, February 08, 2021

My snarky Super Bowl review

In one of the more boring Super Bowls of the LV, Tampa Bay won 31-9, except on Fox News where Kansas City won in a landslide.  

CBS tried to sell the game as an example of unity.  Jim Nantz said, “We all unify to watch the game as one.”  Later, Bruce Springsteen voiced an ad for Jeep extolling the virtues of unity.  Unfortunately, many of the people the Boss was trying to reach hate him because they think he’s Jewish.  

For the first time in LV years people paid attention to the announcers.  Well…maybe for the first half.   Even the 30,000 cardboard cutouts in the stands looked bored the last two hours.  

Jim Nantz deserves more credit than he receives.  He’s incredibly observant and spots things on the field even his analysts don’t.  Just wish he showed some personality.  That’s why Tony Romo gets the big bucks and Ian Eagle was standing by the stratocaster in makeup.  

I love Tony’s enthusiasm, but 80% of his analysis goes right over my head.  He needs to remember he’s talking to mostly casual fans who only know Patrick Mahomes from Allstate commercials.  

Also, I don’t know why networks feel they have to pay any analysts huge salaries.  The same number of people are going to watch the game if Tony Romo or Pee Wee Herman provides analysis.    

When a fan ran out onto the field I was only sorry I wasn’t listening to Kevin Harlan describe it on the radio.   Now there’s a guy who should be getting the mega bucks.  

I skipped the Super Bowl pre-game coverage.  Nineteen hours of Phil Sims and EQUALIZER promos.    If you’re going to devote that much airtime to preview one game (and be wrong as it turned out — so much for “the quarterback duel of the ages”), at least mix in a telethon for Jerry’s Kids.  Phil can gush over Patrick Mahomes and then Jack Jones can sing “Wives & Lovers.”  

Tom Brady wasn’t the only one to come through again. Amanda Gorman’s ode to America’s essential workers was moving and spot on.  

H.E.R. did a beautiful job of “America the Beautiful.”  Eric Church and Bleeding Gums Murphy sang “the National Anthem.”    

The G.O.A.T. version of the “the National Anthem” was done by Whitney Houston in Super Bowl XXLVIXIIXLVIXX.  

Here’s a fun nugget: “Expatriate (or “Ex-Patriot)” Tom Brady is older than Ed Asner was the first three years of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  Talk about spunk.

Jim Nantz had several fun nuggets.  Example after the coin toss:  “This is the eleventh straight Super Bowl where the winning team has deferred.”   Uh… the winning team always defers.  

Considering both teams wore red on a green field I felt sorry for anyone who was colorblind.  

Another fun Nantz nugget:  Telling us that when Tom Brady got off the bus, he walked out onto the field and gazed.”   And…?  And…?  Ian Eagle would have had a punchline.  

There were two commercials for the same audience:  One inviting passengers to fly to outer space and the other to join Scientology.  

As usual, the Halftime Show was way over-produced and cheesier than any Orange Bowl Halftime.  And the sound was atrocious.  The Weeknd sounded like he was at the bottom of a well.  You couldn’t understand a word he sang.  The golden hall of mirrors simulated the side effects of the second Moderna shot, and then there was the big finale with the “Claude Rains Memorial Invisible Man” dance troupe doing a dinner theatre recreation of “Thriller.”   

And keeping with that theme, the Weeknd’s backdrop looked like lit tombstones in a graveyard.  

If it was a salute to the dead, why not just replay the Prince Halftime Show?  That was spectacular.  

At one point they showed the big full moon over the stadium along with fireworks and I thought it was the opening to THE HONEYMOONERS.  

If they’re just going to have a solo singer, save the money and let Jack Jones sing “Wives & Lovers.”  

The commercials were more of the same.  This year’s theme was cramming as many random celebrities into each spot as they could.  Like mini-Superhero rendezvous.   You had the CBS Avengers climb the Paramount mountain, the Scott’s Miracle Glo X-Men with John Travolta and Martha Stewart, and the Bud Light Justice League of America.  

The Vince Lombardi spot and CGI was very stirring.  However, the only people who recognized Vince Lombardi are the ones now eligible for the vaccine.  

One good thing about Kansas City trailing (except on Fox News) was that we stopped hearing the “tomahawk” chant.   I wonder if they’re going to have to change their name like the Redskins and Indians did.   There has to be something more identified with KC.  I know there’s that Wilbert Harrison big hit song from 1959.  Maybe “the Kansas City Crazy Little Women?”  Just a thought.  

There was the M&M commercial suggesting you could apologize for anything and all would be forgiven with a package of M&M’s.  That would only fly if they showed Donald Trump giving one to everyone in America saying, “I’m sorry for trying to overthrow the country.”  

The worst commercials:  The Jason Alexander sweatshirt (yeah, SEINFELD is in the Zeitgeist), Wayne’s World (why not bring back Rowan & Martin’s LAUGH IN?), and anything with Anthony Anderson’s mother.  I am so sick of Anthony Anderson’s mother.  Oh… and the Cutwater ad that suggested you drink tequila and then go kayaking.  

Not much to say about the game itself.  Lou Grant could’ve marched the Bucs down the field.  Or, according to all the CBS promos — Queen Latifah. 

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Weekend Post

This is an annual post.  "The Lost CHEERS" scene.  Season one of CHEERS and my partner David Isaacs and I were asked to write a scene to be aired during the pre-game of the 1983 Super Bowl (carried that year on NBC).  We wrote it, they filmed it, and it aired right before the game.  80,000,000 people saw it.  Nothing I've ever written has been seen by that many people at one time.   

The scene was never re-run and never showed up in any DVD package.  I did not have a copy and I thought it was lost forever.  But the late sportswriter, Joe Resnick, had recorded every Super Bowl.  I asked if I could see that one.  Sure enough the scene was aired close enough to kick-off that it was included in his tape.  I managed to digitize it, and every Super Bowl weekend I feature it.  

So enjoy.  Monday I'll have my review on this year's Super Bowl.



Friday, February 05, 2021

Friday Questions

Leaping into February with Friday Questions.  

Max has a few MASH questions.

Did the sets at the Malibu site have INTERIORS that were used in filming, or were all interior shots in the swamp, mess tent, etc, filmed on the soundstage?

All of the interiors were shot on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox.   We only shot the exterior scenes we couldn’t film on the stage.  At the most, only a third of an episode was shot at “the ranch” (our Malibu location).  

We also couldn't get a helicopter into the stage.  We weren't MISS SAIGON. 

I’m sure I mentioned this, but of the four years I was associated with the show I went out to the ranch a grand total of once.  Too much writing to do back at the studio.   Although, when I was out there it was a 1000 degrees so I didn't feel all that deprived.  

On the DVDs, all of the episodes have titles, but the titles don't appear anywhere on the actual films in either the opening or closing credits. (This is the case with other shows as well.) Why didn't the episode titles appear in the, uhhh, titles? (If I recall correctly, they WERE used in TV listings back then…)

The decision not to put the titles on the screen was made by Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart at the start of the series run.  It’s a decision I agreed with.  Sometimes the title can give away surprises in the episodes.  

Of course when we came up with the titles we had no idea the series would someday be available to buy or rent, or that info on each episode would be available on your various screens.  

I'm learning French, so with a few episodes, I've switched the language track to French and put on English captions. Even with the little French I understand, I can tell that the dialogue is NOT a straight translation. Do you have any sense how "close" it was to the original? Did translators work at all with the writers or producers in creating foreign language versions of the show or were they pretty much on their own?

Once we turned over the finished episode to CBS for original airing we had absolutely nothing to do with it.   No say on translations, no say on closed captions, and no say on further editing for syndication.  It’s the hack-job editing that always stuck in my craw and why I was so happy that the full episodes are now available on various platforms.   Suddenly the stories make sense again!

And finally, Brian asks:

You and/or David Isaacs have run many shows. Which writers adapted to your voice the quickest?

Not that these names are household words, but I would have to say Robin Schiff, Mike & Linda Teverbaugh, Ken Estin, Tom Straw, Dan Staley & Rob Long, and Larry Balmagia.  

Unfortunately, that ability does none of them any good today.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

EP210: Comedy Writing Legend, Jim Vallely & the Golden Girls


Jim Vallely is one of the funniest people in Hollywood.  He was a big part of The Golden Girls, Two and a Half Men, and Arrested Development.  This week we focus on his unique career path, tips for writers, and life on The Golden Girls.  Next week: Arrested Development.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

"Alts"

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

It’s from Douglas Trapasso:

Did a lot of writing/rewriting of Cheers happen directly on set? 

No.  Very very little.  Maybe a new joke or two, if that.  Most weeks, nothing. But that’s a creative choice.  We worked hard all week to get the show ready to film.  We would definitely make changes after the dress rehearsal, but once the cameras rolled and the audience was in place we trusted the material.  

Other shows like FRIENDS and WILL & GRACE did a lot of changing on the stage.  They also had prepared alternative jokes (called “alts”) ready to go.   You can’t argue success so their way was as good as ours.

But we felt that too many changes burned out the actors.  It’s enough that the actors had to memorize the script, perform the script at top efficiency, hit all kinds of marks and accommodate technical demands, without also being thrown thirty new one liners a show at the last second.  

And it really threw guest actors.  Actors not used to performing in front of a studio audience sometimes found the process difficult and maddening.  Throwing them new jokes on the fly only succeeded in rattling them more.  

I won't mention his name, but one time on FRASIER we had a pretty big movie star do a quick two page scene.  In movies he generally plays very cocky and in command.  He was terrified.  It took forever to film that two page scene.  Now imagine if we had also tossed him new lines. 

We also felt that series regulars would become very lax in memorizing the script if they knew it was going to constantly change on filming night.   (Although, on CHEERS, by the last few season they became very lax anyway.)  

There’s also audience management.  Stopping after every take for the writers to huddle for ten minutes takes its toll on the audience.  The novelty of being at a TV taping rubs off very quickly.  

So if you don’t move things along they just check out.  When that happens they don't laugh as much, they don’t follow the story, they just want to go home.   

And they figure out very quickly what you’re doing.  So they begin to laugh hard at any new joke just so the show can move along.  As a result, you don’t even get a true reading as to whether the new joke worked.  

FRIENDS took so long they had two audiences.  One at 4:00.  They got burned out and a second audience came in at 8:00 or 9:00.  But that’s FRIENDS, an insanely beloved show.  Good luck had they tried that on 2 BROKE GIRLS.  

So for those reasons, we chose to rewrite very little on the stage.  We wanted to send the message to the actors that we believed in the material we had given them. We committed and asked them to commit as well.  

Again, this is just a creative choice the Charles Brothers made initially at CHEERS and when my partner, David Isaacs and I were running a show, we made that choice as well.  If you were ever in the audience of one of our shows, you'd thank us.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Saturday Night Flatline

This is rather shocking.  Last Saturday night (January 30th), the four major broadcast networks COMBINED attracted an audience of only 8 million people in primetime.  That is a staggeringly low number.  

In the ‘70s CBS used to draw 30 million all by themselves (with shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, and THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW).  GOLDEN GIRLS in the ‘80s was bringing in 20 million a week on NBC.  

The addition of cable and premium services took enough of a dent into network viewing during this century that networks gave up on Saturday night long ago.  They threw in the towel, programming reruns (from shows aired earlier in the week), cheap news magazines, and reality shows.  

And Fridays are heading in that direction.  Wrestling, reality shows, and more news magazines.  

Face it, networks are one step away from showing informercials on Friday and Saturday nights.  

Broadcast networks, as we’ve known them since the beginning of TV are dead.  

Here’s what I predict will happen:  Each of the major networks (with the exception of Fox) are currently owned by a mega- conglomerate.  They all own a streaming services.  Streaming is the future.  Comcast’s main focus will be on Peacock not NBC.  CBS and ABC are set to become respective bastard children too.   Their competition is Netflix, and Hulu, and Apple, and Amazon, and HBO Max, and whoever else I’m missing.  BRIDGERTON has been seen by 80 million on Netflix we’re told.  Four networks combined get a tenth of that.  

Stick a (tuning) fork in it.   

I think there will be a flip.  Original scripted programming now debuts on the major broadcast networks and then go to their streaming services.  Very soon it will be the other way around.  A new show will premiere on Disney + and then a week later appear on ABC. Broadcast networks will be for the residue, folks that don’t want to pay for additional platforms.   For the Time-Warners and Viacoms they will become an afterthought — a way to pick up some additional change, the way their radio divisions and billboard divisions are.   How long until the Super Bowl is no longer on broadcast TV?    

Y’see, here’s why the conglomerates are so excited about streaming:  They can double dip.  Let’s say NBC has the Super Bowl.  On their broadcast network they collect the advertising revenue.  Should they go to Peacock they rake in the ad money AND you’re paying a subscription fee on top of that.   But wait!  There's more!  The Super Bowl will lure a lot more people to subscribe and THAT’S where the real money is.  

8 million people between CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox for one night?  Hold a mirror up to the body to see if it’s still breathing.  


Monday, February 01, 2021

RIP Allan Burns

One of the comedy writers I absolutely revered passed away on Saturday.  Allan Burns was 85.  Among his many achievements, Allan was co-creator and co-showrunner of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.    He later went on to do LOU GRANT, get an Oscar nomination for A LITTLE ROMANCE, but before all that wrote Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons.  

He was also one of the nicest men on the planet.  

His writing was hilarious but always rooted in humanity. As funny as THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was, to me the key was that you always cared — cared about the characters, cared about their problems — and much of that came from Allan.  The laughs were relatable, universal, and never mean spirited.  

When David Isaacs and I were doing that later show for Mary Tyler Moore, Allan was an invaluable resource; gracious with his time and advice.  

I’d go to lunch with him from time to time and never could believe he was treating me as a peer.  This was comedy royalty.  When David and I were starting out, we wrote spec episodes of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA.  Allan and his partner Jim Brooks were our idols.  Their shows were the gold standard.  We studied them.  Frankly, I was more impressed meeting Allan Burns than Mary Tyler Moore.  

In a town that runs on schadenfreude, Allan always wanted you to do well.  He derived genuine pleasure out of others success.  He welcomed your ideas, your contributions and was the first to laugh at your jokes.  In a rough and tumble industry Allan was gentle.  Decisive and always striving for excellence but kind and respectful of your feelings.  You did your best work for Allan because you wanted to.  

Allan Burns inspired me to become a TV comedy writer.  I owe so much to him.    And he wouldn’t even let me pay for lunch.  But that’s Allan.  He will be forever missed. From now on when you see Mary throw her hat in the air and it freezes, don't watch the hat, read the names on the screen.