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?


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? 


Michael said...

Friday question: I noticed in the end credits of some MONK episodes that there was a writing staff in New Jersey even though the show was mostly shot in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Are you aware of any sitcoms that had a similar arrangement with a remote writing staff?

Andrew said...

"Turns out he’s a pretty great writer without me."

That reminds me of the early Columbo episode, "Murder by the Book." Jack Cassidy plays the villain, and Spielberg directed. One half of a writing team does all of the actual writing. His partner enjoys all of the success but doesn't really contribute anything except his name. The mediocre writer kills the talented writer who wants to end the partnership and go off on his own.

Thanks for not killing David.

dac719 said...

Seeing a lot of the shows you listed are on YouTube, in some form or another

Tom in Vegas said...

Friday question:

You mentioned that some of your shows that are no longer in syndication are available on YouTube. I'm guessing that you don't get any residuals from this, but how do the people who post these get around the copyright issue?

Chris G said...

I remember watching the Marshall Chronicles during its broadcast run and really liking it. It's a shame it's vanished so completely - I think there's one random episode on YouTube and that's it.

Glenn said...

Ken, it looks likes the Frasier reboot is a go. What do you think it will be like?

Mike Doran said...

I don't know how much this would help, but one of the first DVD collections I ever bought was the complete run of Lateline.
As memory serves, my purchase predates even Al Franken's election to the Senate, which must count for something ...
Anyhow, I still have the DVDs - and I really do mean to watch them again - eventually ...
( ... particularly the Buddy Hackett show with Reich and Gebhardt ... )

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Hm. A friend taped a lot of sitcoms for me back in the 1990s when access from overseas was more limited...I digitized some of the more obscure ones some years back so I didn't have to keep all the tapes. I figured the obscure stuff was more worth keeping because the hits would remain in commercial release.

I have on my hard drive three episodes of STARK RAVING MAD: numbers 2, 4, and 8
I know I *had* at least one episode of ENCORE, ENCORE. It may still be on a tape. Fairly sure I have most of ALMOST PERFECT (season 2 was broadcast here), and at least the first couple of episodes of BIG WAVE DAVES.


Michael said...

Regarding my earlier question about MONK, I found this from Hy Conrad which explains how the show was written in New Jersey. - the show was written in New Jersey, but there was one writer on set during filming for any last-minute re-writes that were needed. Guessing that wouldn't work too well for sitcoms.

Bob Uecker Is A National Treasure said...

When I see the IMDB page of someone like yourself who is a TV director and something else (writer) or someone who is an actor/TV director, there will be shows where they only directed one episode. Is that a sign that the person wasn't a good fit for that show? It seems like when producers/showrunners really like a director for a certain show, they will use them over and over again.

Bob Sassone said...

Friday Question: What TV episodes do you think are perfect in every way, especially the writing?

I bring this up because I was watching the "What's With Robert?" ep of Everybody Loves Raymond last night (the one where the family think he's gay) and it's incredibly funny. Not an ounce of fat on the script and flawlessly acted. Just perfect.

Any other episodes from shows, maybe The Dick Van Dyke Show or one of yours?

This could probably be an entire podcast episode...



Troy McClure said...

Ken, the entirety of AFTERMASH is on YouTube.

Season 1:

Season 2:

Brian said...

Just about all of Stark Raving Mad is on YouTube. The quality isn't great, but it is there.

Very funny show, but I wonder if it could have made five seasons with the initial premise of Stark not being able to finish his second book.

thomas tucker said...

OMG- I loved Joe and Sons!

Jahn Ghalt said...

I could not write not a show about today’s high school students.

Did you EVER write a single episode about high school students? Of ANY generation - including the 60s - your's?

Your memoir doesn't count as "a show".

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.

Yeah, but you got to meet Alan King - he gave you a private performance (like all of those from Mel Brooks over the years)

Whataminnit - OK, I remember Coach's daughter (in her 20s?) - and Carla's son (or was that her daughter?)

jcs said...

Friday Question

I recently watched a blooper reel from "THAT '70S SHOW". Ashton Kutcher was shown having several small onstage accidents. Kutcher - to his credit - ignored the pain, stayed in character and played right through them.

Did you ever a witness an unforseen event onstage that resulted in a decent take which was later aired?

Buttermilk Sky said...

There are fragments of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW on YouTube. Why do people do this? It's like those silent movies that exist in bits because the film stock deteriorated. Really, somebody just posted the opening and closing credits. I want the whole thing!

Fleur said...

Since you mentioned Encore, Encore...

Friday Question: What are your memories and opinions of the short-lived Grubstreet sitcom Encore, Encore? David Lee has said they couldn’t get it to work no matter what. Did you agree with that assessment or think it just needed time to grow?

YEKIMI said...

Friday question: Do you tend to get stuff done faster when writing with David or when writing alone?

Viscount Manzeppi said...

Ok, strictly from memory, and not verbatim:

JOE'S TEENAGE SON has just been shown a prospect of a potential BLIND DATE.

JTS: Ernest Borgnine?

JOE: Her family owns sixteen garbage trucks.

JTS: And she looks likes she's been over by every one of them.

I love it. Hopefully not too shabby for 44 or so years ago.

David G. said...

I would hope that there's a misinterpretation on that question regarding which of you writing from TV "no longer survives" -- meaning which work is just not "easily available" vs. what work is "totally gone, like a reel of 'London After Midnight' or an early 'Tonight Show' with a dark-haired Johnny Carson."

Isn't it likely that a lot of those TV programs listed there are just sitting in studio vaults someplace, unaccessible to current-day viewers and old fans because they're just not syndicated anywhere or haven't ever been put onto DVD? Plus, nearly every episode of "AfterMASH" has been uploaded to YouTube (the nicely done one with Col. Flagg is missing several minutes, and the one involving Superman is only available in some foreign language), and I would bet there are numerous people out there who taped the entirety of things like "The Tortelli's" that are in boxes of VHS cassettes in home basements all over America. The "M*A*S*H" completist in me would still love to the chance to purchase a DVD set of "AfterMASH", the "Walter" pilot, and even the really obscure "Fighting Nightingales" pilot about the 8063rd nurses that starred Adrienne Barbeau and Kenneth Mars if 20th Century Fox could locate the film reels and get them digitized!

Andrew said...

Off the subject(s), but today is the anniversary of the 2018 Oscar "wrong envelope" catastrophe. Ken, you're blog post in response was golden.

N. N. Zacharenko said...

I suspect the survival question relates to whether it still exists in some format, as opposed to currently airing on a network.

There are many English shows made on Videotape that were purposely erased by executives who believed nobody would want to see something more than twice, and they could save a few dollars on tape.

Those shows only still exist if either someone recorded it on their personal VCR (which is how at least one 1976 comedy release was able to get an official DVD release by the company who previously had erased it), or an overseas network still had a copy somewhere in their vaults.

I suspect that most of your examples are sitting in a vault somewhere, in addition to, as stated by others, being available on Youtube.

And for those who complain about not getting residuals on Youtube shows, you should be thanking Youtube from the bottom of your heart -

Youtube keeps these shows alive to those who love them, as well as being seen by new audiences, thereby upping the odds of them being released in the future on DVD or streaming devices.

I suspect this was a key indicator on why "It's A Living" was resurrected, and is now being deservedly enjoyed on TV and streaming.

There are Under 35 fans of Tony Randall Show, Aftermash etc out there who have enjoyed your work - thanks only to Youtube posters.

Kirk said...

Friday Question: You and David started writing for MASH after Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson already had left the show. Had they still been there, do you have any idea what kind of episodes you would have written for them? In particular Stevenson, since his Henry Blake was so different from Colonel Potter?

John Jackson Miller said...

I have all the Marshall Chronicles on tape — actually twice, as I got a set from someone in another market. I've long intended to convert them to digital, but -- echoing Tom in Vegas -- my assumption has always they couldn't be posted on YouTube without risk of a takedown notice. I'd imagine the Randy Newman theme would be noticed by YouTube's system.

(On the other hand, a lot of shows seem to survive on there for years regardless of the music.)

By Ken Levine said...


If you ever do digitize them I would LOVE copies. Thanks much.

ScarletNumber said...

@John Jackson Miller

Considering how many old sitcoms are on Youtube I wouldn't worry.


I have definitely seen all 9 episodes of Bram & Alice on one of the HD rerun channels in the last 10 years or so. Perhaps Paramount+ can be persuaded to add it to their lineup.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

There are some eccentrics out there that collect opening and closing credit rolls, mostly for the music I guess. There are some that bitterly complain on message boards that some sub nets like Antenna TV, "crush" the credits. It's a funny world we live in.

Philly Cinephile said...

Building on jcs's Friday question, of all the actors and casts that you worked with, who stands out in your mind as being the most adept at working through mishaps, flubbed lines, etc., thus avoiding the need for retakes?

John Jackson Miller said...

Ken -- sure thing. I'd been meaning to digitize them anyway before the tapes got any older -- no time like a quarantine!

Cedricstudio said...

Someone has uploaded over an hour of footage of the Cheers cast in Boston shooting outdoor scenes at the Cheers bar exterior. It's home video taken from across the street but kinda fascinating to watch.

Mike McCann said...

What are the odds that some of your "lost" series, such as The Tony Randall Show and the (very underrated) Joe and Sons, pop up among the promised "30,000 episodes" in the archival section of Paramount Plus?

Should this happen, does ViacomCBS have to let you know that they've been made available?

PolyWogg said...

Hi Ken, I love your take on various elements in the biz, and I have a question that I'm not sure how to frame exactly. You talk a lot about single-cam and multi-cam, but I'm also wondering if the "knock-on" effect to that is that certain types of jokes only work in one format or another.

For larger context, I tend to hate most sitcoms when I see them. Even ones that are really popular, I'm more like "meh". Yet I liked Big Bang Theory, Mash, Cheers, Frasier. Not so thrilled with Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Everybody Hates Chris, etc. When I "try" a slate of comedies each year (I generally try everything), almost none of them ever make my watch list. I'm living with B Positive and Unicorn (who could say no to Walter Groggins?), passed fast on Call Me Kate, but I absolutely hate the critic's darling, Schitt's Creek or another Canadian one, Corner Gas. The stereotypes don't work for me, they're too ridiculous.

Yet I tripped over the new animated show The Great North that takes place in Alaska. It's got some of the same stupidity that I wouldn't watch in a sitcom, but I really enjoy it in animated form. Actual laugh out loud lines, which is really rare for me.

Is it that some jokes just work in single cam, or multi cam, or animated, but not in others? Or that would work in a play but not a sitcom?

Or I just have no taste at all. Enquiring minds want to know. :)

aka PolyWogg