Tuesday, June 22, 2021

IN THE HEIGHTS and WEST SIDE STORY

Hollywood is scratching its head.  All indications were that IN THE HEIGHTS was supposed to be a blockbuster hit.  Surveys showed it was the one movie that would actually get people back into their local cineplex.  Its creative force was golden boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  

And then it opened… to meh.  

It underperformed in both theaters and on HBO Max. Prospects for a rebound are slim.  

So now comes the blame game.  There was no recognizable star.  The musical wasn’t well-known enough.  COVID.  Wrong weekend to open.  Mercury in retrograde.

But there was one factor they didn’t list, and I suspect it’s because of how PC-charged the world is now.  Could it be that a certain portion of the audience just didn’t want to see it?  A musical about inclusion set in New York — in these here Divided States of America, is not a big attraction for everyone.  

I did want to see it.  And I have to say I was disappointed.  It’s waaaaaaay too long.  I also had story problems. There were some high points certainly and a few great songs, but in general it was just a slog.  That’s just me.  Your results may vary.  But maybe that’s a factor Hollywood should also consider — not everyone loved it.  And in this social media universe, negative feedback is available to all from all.  

Finally, there is the stupid controversy.  The skin shades are not accurate enough for some vocal groups.  Things have gotten so absurd that even Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created HAMILTON casting African-American and Latinx actors as our founding fathers, gets accused of being insensitive.  So now you have a film that some people feel is too inclusive and others who claim it’s not inclusive enough.  Where does this madness end?  

We’re talking a musical here.  Giant production numbers with huge crowds dancing in unison on the streets and in a public pool — that’s not an accurate portrayal of Washington Heights either… if you want to nit pick.  Nor is unseen orchestras and dancers defying gravity by dancing on building walls.  But I don’t see any scientists who are outraged.  

Repeat after me:  It’s a MUSICAL.  

I’ll be interested to see how the upcoming new WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg does.  It is a well-known musical although will kids care about seeing a 60 year-old musical?  Will the songs play as classics or anachronistic?   No big stars in this reboot.  Yeah, in the original Natalie Wood couldn’t sing but she was Natalie Wood.  Looking at the trailers of WEST SIDE STORY and IN THE HEIGHTS, they look very similar.  WEST SIDE STORY has more depth but also more cobwebs.   Time will tell, but if I were Spielberg I’d be saying, “Is there time to do some additional filming and add ET?”   Of course, now there would be groups saying ET wasn’t tall enough and the movie should be pulled.  

REMINDER:  No Anonymous or Unknown listed comments will be posted.

Monday, June 21, 2021

What the theatre needs to do to survive (in my humble opinion)

Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be a controversial post.  But in today’s woke world it is.  So be it.  

Like many other industries legitimate theatre has really been thrown for a loop due to the pandemic.  Most theatres, from Broadway to small Community barely hang on in good times.  Lots of people lose money.  I’m pretty sure that’s always the way it’s been.  And theatres close.  One or two bad seasons is enough to sink a theatre.  Okay, that’s background.  

Most theatres are being allowed to re-open after more than a year of the pandemic, and as you can imagine, they’re reeling.  If they have trouble making ends meet if only half the seats are filled, imagine 18 months of no one in the seats.  

So here’s my radical, controversial, hot-button suggestion:  Schedule COMEDIES.  Lots and lots of COMEDIES.  

Why is that so controversial?  Because theatres are under enormous pressure to present material more inclusive, more socially relevant, unheard voices, challenging work, etc.  And that’s great, and theatres should embrace those areas; in some cases they are areas too long ignored.  

But this year, it’s less a matter of artistic choice and more a matter of survival.  Theatres need people in the seats.  Lots of people.  Every performance.  And the surest way to do that is to schedule COMEDIES.  

I believe that in this moment of time, audiences want to escape.  They’re still going to be a little shaky sitting indoors with a crowd of people.  They’re not going to do it unless they feel they’re going to be entertained.   Audiences have to want to be challenged, open to new ideas and voices.  If they’re not, they just don’t come.  

Certainly a theatre season should include one such play.  I think theatre has an obligation to introduce people to new ideas and worlds.  But in 2021 their primary need is self-preservation.  And the way to achieve that is through COMEDIES.  

Yes, this might sound a little self-serving since I write comedy plays and am always trying to land as many productions as I can.  But theatres have other fine options.  Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, Terrence McNally, Michael Frayn, Neil Simon (of course), and many others.  Oh, and that Shakespeare guy.   So it’s not about me (entirely).  

I think there will always be a place for comedy on the stage.  But for now there is a huge appetite for it.  In two years, things may be very different.  Going to the theatre to be thrilled and challenged and shaken to the core might be the number one trend, but for the moment — TRAGEDY TOMORROW, COMEDY TONIGHT. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Happy Fathers Day

Happy Fathers Day to all you daddios. 

Here's me and my dad.  I had just questioned the validity of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 


 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Weekend Post

 

Lots of discussion about multi-cam shows this week.  So why not one more?

When you do a show multi-camera in front of an audience you always run the risk that unforeseen circumstances will affect the crowd’s reactions.

There have been a number of times in my erstwhile career when shows that should have played through the roof played through the floor. Here’s why.

The most common enemy of all multi-cam shows: the air conditioning going out. I've have had this happen a number of times. And with all the blazing hot lights and no cross-ventilation a sound stage becomes Satan's rumpus room in ten minutes. Comedy evaporates at 80 degrees.

Power failures can also curtail things. I’ve found that audiences do not enjoy sitting in pitch-black darkness. Who knew???   Generally generators restore the electricity pretty quickly, but the audience is still unnerved. Anxiety is not the best warm up for promoting laughter.

And when the power goes out, so does the air conditioning. See paragraph three.

Rain is a problem. Usually an audience is asked to line up outside the stage before being let in. There are no retractable roofs over movie studios. Sometimes you can find shelter for the two hundred brave souls or let them in earlier, but more times than not they’re exposed to the elements. It’s hard to really yuck it up when your sweater smells like a dead raccoon and your socks are soaked.

There are companies that help fill audiences, especially for new shows. Once a show is a hit there’s a big demand for tickets. (FRIENDS used to have two audiences for every taping. They took forever to do that show. The first audience would come in at about 4:00. By 8:00 they were burned out and the show was only half done. So they were mercifully released and a new audience took their place. Fans were just so excited to be at a FRIENDS taping they didn’t care. Good luck pulling that on a new show that hasn’t even premiered.) These companies arrange for buses and in some cases even pay people to attend the tapings. (Considering some of the shows I’ve seen lately that’s a hard way to earn a buck.) They are not always conscientious when it comes to selecting groups for specific shows. Imagine a hundred 80 year-olds attending a UNITED STATES OF AL taping.

One time we had a group of convicts. Who did they kill in the yard to warrant that punishment? Again, there’s that unnerving factor for the rest of the audience seeing armed prison guards. And then at 9:00 they were herded out – right in the middle of a scene. Then we were left with a half-empty house. 

I’ve told this story before but a script my partner David and I thought was very solid died on the stage. And only later did we learn that half the audience couldn’t speak English. 

But the worst audience I ever had was for an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore comeback show David and I created. And this was no one’s fault but ours. We had a terrific show. One of our funniest. We were very excited.

And then the morning of the filming the Challenger disaster occurred. Seven brave astronauts perished. Our first instinct was to cancel the filming, but the studio (protecting its investment) argued that we should film anyway. Their reasoning: after a full day of inescapable sorrow, people would gladly welcome the diversion. They would love the opportunity to just laugh for a few hours.

So we gave in. After all, we had a good episode. Sometimes the release of laughter is a Godsend in times of grief and this show was funny.

We filmed as planned. And the show absolutely died. Silence. Crickets. Tumbleweeds. DEATH. I don’t think there were three laughs the entire night. Even the audience that couldn’t speak English laughed at a few things. Not this group. If someone dropped a coin on the floor you could tell by the sound whether it was a quarter or dime – that’s how quiet it was.

As they were filing out I happened to glance at the set and suddenly it all made sense. This was a large newspaper bullpen set along the wall most prominent to the audience was photos of current events. Right in the middle, in plain view of everyone, was a photo of the Challenger.

Oops.

Still, part of the fun of shooting in front of a live studio audience is the unpredictability. Each filming night is different. And the pros outweigh the cons. Plus, the cons leave at 9.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Friday Questions

Ready for some Friday Questions?

Joel Keller starts us off:

Here's a Friday Question for you, Ken, something that has had me curious for almost 40 years (I saw these episodes in reruns):

Did Mike Farrell grow a mustache on his own between seasons 6 and 7 or did you and David ask him to do it? It seems to have come with a change in BJ's character, where the clean-cut guy from Mill Valley is showing cracks in the armor due to all the horrors he's seen since he came to Korea. So it could have been part of a purposeful shift in his character.

Or he grew the 'stache over the break, didn't want to shave it, and you and the staff found an opportunity there. The irony is that Mike was stuck with the lip hair until the end of the series, even though it got fainter and shorter as time went on.

He was requested to grow the ‘stache to give him a different look.  We had read in research that lots of folks in MASH units grew mustaches and beards out of boredom.  And you're right, since Mike was so clean-cut, we all thought it might be fun.  And he could cut it at any time. 

But like I said, it was just a request.  Mike could have said no and the issue would have been dropped.   As always, Mike was a good sport.   And it looked good on him.

From Steve:


Is there a point in a series where lead actors/actresses are expected to take control of their characters? (For example, whether their character would say—or react to—something as written in the script.) Is it a source of frustration when they start exerting that control? Conversely, are there situations where showrunners / writing staff feel the need to encourage feedback from an actor to ensure they are capturing the essence of the character properly?

Steven Bochco used to say, “The first year the actors work for you, the second year you work together, and the third year you work for them.”  

The actual answer is it depends on the actor and the character.  I’ve mostly been very lucky in that I’ve worked in collaborative environments.  The actors’ input is invaluable.  They’re the ones playing the character, they generally gave way more thought to them.  Good actors can bring things to the characters and their lines that you never thought of.  On the other hand, characters are the vision of the writer.  

But with mutual respect you can usually come up with a script that incorporates the best of both camps.   Again, I’ve been verrrry lucky.  There are a lot of contentious actor-writer situations.  I've been in very few. 

Brian asks:

Have you ever written or thought about writing a play for radio?


No.  Very few radio plays are performed in front of an audience and since I write comedies, I prefer to hear the laughter.  I have featured some of my plays on my podcast, and a number of my short plays could easily be adapted to radio (they’re very dialogue heavy), but I’ve never set out to write a “radio” play.   

I wish there were more done here (with an audience).  This still seems to be a viable in the UK.  And of course, longtime readers know I love all forms of radio.  

And finally, from jcs:


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?

When I was directing LATELINE, starring Al Franken we had a scene we shot in Griffith Park where Al and Robert Foxworth ride horses.  It was one shot, they each had a couple of lines.  

Robert had been in Westerns and was very adept at riding.  Al, to be charitable, was not.

We rehearsed the scene a couple of times then shot it.  

On the first take, just after he got out of camera range, Foxworth screamed.  His back went out on him.  We had to have paramedics physically lift him off the horse onto a gurney.  

Fortunately we got the shot because there was no way we’d ever get a retake.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

EP229: Meet ESPN/NBC’s Jason Benetti


Jason Benetti is a rising sportscasting star. He calls baseball, football, and basketball for ESPN, is the TV voice of the Chicago White Sox, and will be calling Olympic baseball this summer for NBC. But more than that, he announced Korean League Baseball last summer on ESPN — from his apartment… during a riot. He and Ken swap crazy stories.

Get Honey for FREE at https://joinhoney.com/LEVINE

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


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Oh no! Mike Myers is back.

Is it just me?  

I find Mike Myers incredibly unfunny.  And what’s worse is, HE thinks everything he does is pulverizingly funny.  The disconnect is Grand Canyon-wide.  

He’s had enough flops like THE LOVE GURU that we’ve been mercifully spared Mike Myers for the last few years.  

But now comes word that he’s making a new Netflix “comedy” series.  As if that wasn’t enough to make me almost cancel my subscription, he plays seven parts.  

“NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!”

So we get seven un-funny cartoonish characters probably in ridiculous make-up.   Gallagher is more subtle.

I think back to the plot of THE PRODUCERS when they were intentionally trying to make the worst musical ever so the show would flop and investors would be be screwed.  Thus “Springtime for Hitler.”   In that case it backfired.  With this project they’re taking no chances.

Because to ensure this show will be unfunny they’ve now hired Ken Jeong to be in it.  Why not just give Mike Pence a stand-up comedy special?  

Hopefully, this is like the Mister Mxyzptlk storyline in Superman where every six months he appears and Superman has to get rid of him.  This new sitcom could be another LOVE GURU and Mike Myerszptlk goes away for six more years.  One can only hope. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Setting the record straight

Since we seem to be on the subject of multi-camera sitcoms this week....

No one hates phony laugh tracks more than me.   Longtime readers of this blog (all six of them) know this.  But I must set the record straight.

Number one:  There is a big difference between genuine audience laughter and the phony canned laughter you so often hear, which to me is like taking a new car and tagging it. 

A reader recently commented on a sitcom being given the “Charley Douglass treatment.”  Charley was the man with the laugh box.   Many of the laughs in that box were compiled from shows as far back as the ‘50s.  There are people laughing on your television who have been dead for 30/40 years (talk about getting the last laugh).  Some tracks have been used so frequently on so many shows that they’re actually identifiable. 

But here’s the thing —

There is no “Charley Douglass treatment.” 

Let me be very clear. 

It is the show runner or someone representing the show that makes all the decisions.  They’re the ones who determine when there should be a laugh, how big a laugh, whether to go with the dead woman’s guffaw.  Charley just pushed the buttons. 

So when you watch a show and cringe at how the laugh track is going crazy for every stupid lame line, don’t blame the box.  Blame the insecure or deluded show representative who felt the need to create bogus hysterical laughter where none was justified. 

I watched an episode of TAXI recently and was struck by the fact that several jokes didn’t work.  And there was no effort made to hide that with fake laughter.  You’d hear the line clank and then silence for a beat until the next line was spoken.  It was so refreshing.  And it made the lines that did get laughs seem funnier and more genuine. 

As we ease out of the pandemic, multi-camera shows will again start filming in front of live audiences.  Let’s hope producers write funny enough shows that no “Charley Douglass treatment” is ever needed.  

Monday, June 14, 2021

Kevin Can Go F*** Himself

 THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN UPDATED

There’s a new show on AMC and AMC + (I didn’t know there was such a thing as AMC +) called KEVIN CAN GO F*** HIMSELF.  (Is there anyone on the planet who does NOT know what the F*** stands for?  If so, they’re pretty FUCKing dumb.)  

The title is a send up of KEVIN CAN WAIT, the ill-fated Kevin James CBS show that went from highest rated new comedy in year one to cancelled in year two (a nifty trick indeed).  In the typical family sitcom set up, Kevin was the buffoon husband and Erinn Hayes had the unenviable job of playing his tolerant wife.  Eventually her character was unceremoniously killed after the first season (which some might argue was a little hostile and harsh for no reason).  Guess who made the decision to explain away her departure with death?  (Hint: He can go F*** himself.)  

Playing the wife of a typical dufus sitcom husband (Tim Allen, Kevin James, Ray Romano, Bill Engvall, Sherman Hemsley, Jackie Gleason, Patrick Warburton, Jim Belushi, Drew Carey, Matt LeBlanc, Mark Addy, Anthony Anderson, and dozens more) is the world’s most thankless role.   You’re either the wet blanket always scolding the star for wanting to sell their children for whiskey, or you go along bemused thus looking like an idiot yourself.   

And rarely do you get to be funny.  With the possible exception of Audrey Meadows’ Alice Kramden, the “voice of reason” is not funny.  

My heart goes out to Erinn Hayes, and Nancy Travis, Jamie Gertz, Patricia Richardson, Patty Heaton, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Megyn Price, and all the others.  

This new series is seen through the eyes of Allison McRoberts, as played by SCHITT’S CREEK Emmy winner, Annie Murphy.  She’s the mom on a witless multi-cam sitcom starring “Kevin” (Eric Peterson).  And she loathes it.  But that supposedly is either a fantasy or alternate world because the other half of the show is apparently her real life marriage to Kevin, which is also a nightmare.  Those scenes are played very dark. 

The show is shot two ways — multi-cam when you’re watching the actual sitcom, and single-camera when the red light is off.  So it’s a meta behind-the-scenes look at sitcoms and an exploration of a woman trapped in a horrible marriage.  I haven’t seen it.  Obviously, I’m curious and will give it a look. 

It seems intriguing and odd.  Will the sitcom scenes seem like a bit that wears out its welcome?  And is there escape from either nightmare?  There certainly is for the sitcom actress. She takes her money, quits the show, and does something else.  Even if she sticks it out, it's only for a few years.  Extricating yourself from a real abusive marriage is something else. 

The premise is ambitious and I'm anxious to see it.  I'm sure it'll be an interesting follow-up when I do. 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Weekend Post

 

Here’s one of those questions worthy of a Weekend Post.

It’s from Nancy Knechtel:

You have captured the history of the studios you have worked at so well - Did you ever find out who occupied your offices at the studios in the past? Rumor has it that some writers have worked in Shirley Temple's old dressing room bungalow at Fox. Were your offices old dressing rooms or writers buildings? Any great writers occupy your space before you?

For history you can’t beat the Fox lot on Pico. I never had an office in the building that was Shirley Temple’s dressing room, but I was in it frequently since at one time it served as the headquarters for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW and my partner David and I wrote several episodes.  Shirley had nice digs for a six-year-old. 

But for years on MASH and AfterMASH David and I had offices in the Old Writers Building (back before we were old writers). It’s a gorgeous Swiss chalet, and to this day it was my favorite office.

You’ve seen it in many movies and TV shows. BABES IN TOYLAND with Laurel & Hardy for one. Could you ask for better ghosts when trying to create comedy than Stan & Ollie?

They were always filming CHARLIE’S ANGELS and STARSKY & HUTCH outside our office. It was always fun to look out the window and see either Jackie Smith in a tight jumpsuit or a drug dealer being gunned down in a hail of bullets.

In our time there we had three offices. The first was supposedly once F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. We found a few of Zelda’s empty gin bottles behind the couch so we have confirmation.

More impressive to me was when we became head writers of MASH and moved into Larry Gelbart’s old office. That was like having Babe Ruth’s locker.

We used that as our main writers room and one afternoon I noticed several people in the nearby apartment building looking in at us. I didn’t think four guys sitting around a table writing a Radar speech was much of a show but who knows? Later I learned that the Hello Dolly New York set was on fire across the lot. That’s what the apartment dwellers were looking at. Now I feel like an schmuck for waving at them.

Both of those offices were on the second floor. For AfterMASH we took over the entire first floor. Larry Gelbart didn’t have an office but we said whenever he was there he could use ours. The only thing better than having Larry Gelbart’s old office was actually SHARING an office with Larry Gelbart. Babe Ruth using your locker.

Back in the MASH days we parked behind the building and the old Western town from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was still up. My spot was right in front of the saloon (which explains why I was often late).

For several years we had a development deal at Fox and this was our office. Since it fronts a street it is always used as a location. I’ve seen it at least two dozen times on shows. And I’m always yelling, “Hey, get the fuck out of my office!”

Friday, June 11, 2021

Friday Questions

If you haven’t already, this is the time to get vaccinated.  Our president and the CDC is being very diplomatic, but let me just say if you’re not getting vaccinated you’re just stupid.  And maybe in needless danger of your life.   And with that public service announcement, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

An unknown reader (who submitted this before I banned unknown and anonymous readers) asks:

How do you feel about studio audiences that go "Awwww!" when something sweet happens, or "Woooo!" when one character insults another or a hot woman walks in? Do any warmup guys try to discourage such behavior?

I hate it and will eliminate it from the audience track.  Emotions need to be earned, not prodded by the audience.  “Wooo’s” are distracting and in some cases rude.

I do tell my warm up people to ask the audience not to do that.  

I also hate applause when actors make their first appearance.  It takes the audience out of the show and it’s self-congratulatory.  

Personal bias but I go to great lengths to avoid any hint of self-congratulations.   Like I said, everything has to be earned.  YOU decide whether the show is good. 

DougG. wonders:


Would you like to have been a writer for Johnny Carson on THE TONIGHT SHOW?

No.  I never had any desire to do that and never applied.

I like writing stories and having my humor come out of characters and attitudes.  I don’t enjoy just writing “jokes.”  

Having to sit in a room and bang out fifty one-liners hoping I get one in is not why I became a writer.  

My first "writing" job was coming up with jokes for Joan Rivers.  I think I got $5 for every one she used.  So basically $5 for every twenty jokes. 

Not for me.  

Mike Reiss, on my podcast, also said that THE TONIGHT SHOW was a revolving door, and that it was not uncommon to get fired once or maybe twice.  

Not for me.

That said, there were some brilliant comedy writers who did work on THE TONIGHT SHOW, several who are friends.  I greatly admire what they did.  It just wasn’t my strength.  Or interest.  

From Yakimi:


A radio question: In all your radio travels, did you ever work at a station that had horribly outdated equipment? I mean, consoles that Fred Flintstone would have been using long before you got there?

Oh yes.  My first job in radio.  KERN, Bakersfield.  I think it said “Hail to the Kaiser!” on the transmitter.  

But here’s the irony: The station also had the best Chief Engineer in John Barcroft.  So even though everything was old and outdated, the station ran like a top.   And it sounded fantastic on the air.  

I’ll take that over new state-of-the-art equipment that breaks down, needs to be rebooted, has glitches, and sounds lousy.  

And finally, from Buttermilk Sky:

Friday question: Commercials. As someone who has written for movies and stage as well as TV, do you find it difficult to remember to break down scripts into ten-minute segments because of the ads? Or does it help you to structure the show?

It helps to structure the show.  When I construct a story I’m always mindful of act breaks and the best, most suspenseful way of telling the story.   Even if I did a show for a streaming platform with no commercials I would still create my own act breaks.

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

EP228: Another Free-Association Episode


Ken riffs from topic to topic; everything from Jean Smart’s new show “Hacks,” to Toronto, Kurtwood Smith, Gal Gadot, a power failure, making Claire Danes laugh, advice from Red Barber, and getting smacked by Wayne Newton.

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


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Misc-Takes

In no particular order of importance…

It was announced yesterday that HACKS has been picked up for a second season by HBO Max.  I guess my review really did the trick.  You're welcome.

Sure glad I’m not competing in the Olympics this year (I just missed out).  NBC will be televising 500 hours of what could be the last major super spreader.  

I ate indoors at a restaurant for the first time in 16 months this week.  I was going to eat outside but it was cold and rainy.  I always say I’m very diligent about my own safety unless it inconveniences me.  

But I’m still not ready for stadiums.   I already risked my life once going to a stadium — that was when the Raiders played at the LA Coliseum.  

Mayim Bialik is my current pick for new JEOPARDY host.  I don't care how she dresses. Ken Jennings & Buzzy Cohen are tied for second.   Mayim has a great voice, poise, kept the game moving, and really looked like she was having fun.   

Bill Whittaker from CBS looked like a guy who won a school raffle to host JEOPARDY.  

Ironically, Anderson Cooper was the smoothest, most polished guest host, but his ratings were the worst.  Ken Jennings still has the highest (non Tournament of Champions).

THE CHASE is a half-hour game show stretched to an hour.  

Apple announced a new operating system.  Every time they do that I cringe.  When I update things suddenly programs and apps that used to work fine now don't.  Stop "improving!" 

What will get people back into movie theaters?  IN THE HEIGHTS.  It’s supposed to be great and in a recent Fandango poll of over 1300 moviegoers, 96% said that would be the first movie they’d go to see in a theater.   Surprisingly, PETER RABBIT 2 did not score as high.  

Another reminder:  I no longer post comments by "Anonymous" or "Unknown" readers.

I still contend that last year's baseball season was a joke.  Teams played 60 games against weird divisions.  Take the standings this year at 60 games and compare them with the final standings later this fall.  How many teams that qualified at 60 games won't by season's end?  And how many teams that didn't by game 60 ultimately will by game 162?  How much of an advantage did the Dodgers have playing all their postseason games in Texas last year versus Tampa Bay that spent time in San Diego?  Everything about the 2020 MLB season deserves a big asterisk. 

TV sitcoms will be funnier this year, if for no other reason than writers will be together in one room again and not on Zoom.  Zoom is the ice bucket challenge of comedy.  

Please get vaccinated.  Or move to Mississippi. 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Ten years ago...

 

I do this from time to time.  I've answered over 3,000 Friday Questions.  It's one of the most popular features of this blog.  But rarely do readers go way back into the archives.  So occasionally I'll pull out a FQ post from ten years ago, knowing 99% of you haven't read it, and the few that have have long forgotten it.  As NBC once said, "If you haven't seen a rerun it's new to you."  So here are Friday Questions from 2011.  Feel free to dive into the archives.  There's some good stuff buried in there somewhere. 

First up is John Trumbull:

I'm doing a caricature of Danny Devito tonight and it got me to wondering: Was there ever any discussion of having Danny guest star on Cheers? Considering that he's Rhea Perlman's husband in real life, it seems kind of strange that he never even did a cameo in all the years that the show was on.

There was some talk about it the first season but nothing really serious. At one point we thought of including Danny in the Superbowl scene as a lark but ultimately it was decided the objective of the scene was to promote CHEERS and it would just confuse people with TAXI. Were they watching Louie & Zena?

But if you listen carefully, you can hear Danny laughing offstage. He was there when we filmed it.

The first season of CHEERS proved to be the final season of TAXI, and Danny went off to have a hugely successful feature career. I once said to him, “Now that you’re a big star, I hope you won’t forget us little people.”


Joe Pontillo asks:

Here's a different Netflix question - When I click to stream an episode you wrote, does any money filter your way? If not, is that because of the age of the show, or because the writer's strike didn't quite accomplish its goal?

We’re supposed to see some tiny fraction of money. And I’m sure we will because the studios are dedicated to making sure that writers are never screwed.


From Pat Quinn:

When someone pitches a show to a network, and one or all of them pass on it ... is that show/idea for a show dead forever? That is, can that same person come back next year, with tweaks and changes but the same basic idea to pitch to the same networks?

You can but you already have two strikes against you. But sometimes network agendas change. One year they’re looking for urban buddy comedies and you pitch a rural family comedy. They pass but the next year they’re looking for rural family comedies. So you run back in only to learn they bought the exact same idea from someone else three days before.

There are instances where a network will pass on your idea and then during the course of the season decide they really want to be in business with you. So they invite you in and ask what you’ve got. You say all you have is the idea you pitched last year. Suddenly they love it and buy it.

I also find if you wait long enough (two years) you can sometimes re-pitch an idea because the entire development department has turned over. Note: this isn’t true at CBS. Wendi and Julie and that group has been there quite some time now. And to their extreme credit, if they decide months after passing on your idea that now it makes sense for them they will call you back in.

We once wrote a pilot for FOX that was ultimately passed on because they said it felt too much like an NBC project. A couple of years later, one of the development people at FOX during that time moved over to NBC and remembered the project. It was a better fit for NBC and she bought the project. That’s really the perfect scenario.  The late great Jerry Belson wrote the movie SMILE and it was later turned into a Broadway musical.  In his Playbill bio he wrote, "SMILE fulfills a lifelong dream for Mr. Belson -- to be paid twice for the same script". 

Johnny now asks:

Do writing teams get paid half as much as solo writers? (I.e. A normal writing salary halved?) And could having a partner work against you if you're both going to cost more than a single writer?

In terms of scripts, yes. You split the fee. Unless you rise to a position where you can negotiate a fee beyond that. Same with producing. But in those cases you usually do negotiate the terms. Showrunners rarely work for scale. 

Splitting money is certainly a downside to partnerships. However, I always felt that half of something was worth more than a lot of nothing. I don’t think my career would have been as successful if I weren’t partnered with David Isaacs. So it’s a trade off. But that’s my situation. Yours may be different.

One good thing about splitting money – in today’s marketplace teams are more coveted because shows can get two writers for the price of roughly one. So you might make less but at least you get the job.

There are many instances of partnerships breaking up after they’ve reached a certain level of success and can each carve out a good career on their own.

I think the key to maintaining a good partnership is that there is enough flexibility in the relationship that each member is free to take projects on their own as well as together. For instance, I branched out into directing and sportscasting. David is now a tenured professor at USC. Hey, it just occurred to me, his side profession is way more prestigious than mine. That bastard!

Monday, June 07, 2021

HACKS -- My review

I have a new favorite show.  HACKS on HBO Max.

It’s that rare comedy-drama that actually delivers on both.  The funny parts are genuinely funny, and the drama is real, earned, engrossing, and surprising.  

And that’s not even the best part.

The best part is Jean Smart.  She’s always good in everything she does, which is admirable considering she’s done everything.  But HACKS is her tour de-force.  She has my vote for the Emmy right now.   She plays a famous stand-up comedian, now relegated to a showroom in Las Vegas and hawking crap on QVC.  She’s part Joan Rivers, part Wayne Newton, part Shelley Winters.  Her character is so layered that you find yourself really rooting for her, even though she occasionally will do appalling things.  On top of everything else, Smart is fearless, and all too happy to be shown in a less than favorable light. 

And unlike “Midge Maizel” we’re not asked to believe that every lame joke she tells just pulverizes audiences. To be honest, I find Deborah Vance’s (Smart) material to be way funnier than Midge’s.  

HACKS is a character study of a fascinating, complex woman played to perfection by Jean Smart.  

But wait!  There’s more.

Young Hannah Einbinder (Laraine Newman’s daughter), plays a Millennial sitcom writer who tweets something deemed objectionable and her career is kaput.  The only job she can get is writing fresh material for Deborah Vance.  Their relationship and chemistry is gold.   The job interview scene in the pilot alone is enough to start binging. 

The supporting characters are all terrific, and after watching all these shows shot during the pandemic with no scope and no energy, it’s such a pleasure to watch a show with crowds, and large casinos, and people eating in restaurants.  They make great use of Las Vegas.  HACKS almost makes me want to go there.  I said “almost,” I’m still not ready and when I see the all the house trailers in hotel parking lots, I think: “Probably half of these people aren’t vaccinated and yet they’re indoors, and eating at big buffets” — I’ll let them get COVID, lose all their money gambling, and lose their mobile homes while I get my Vegas fix by watching the series.  

Each episode gets better and better and you learn more and more about each character.  HBO Max drops two episodes every Thursday.  I believe eight are available.  I invite you to get on the train.   I know everyone raves about TED LASSO, and it’s a damn fine show, but for my money (which I’m not spending on KENO) HACKS is better.  

It’s that super rarity — a Las Vegas winner. 

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Weekend Post

 

You’re familiar with the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, right?  Kevin has worked with pretty much everyone in Hollywood.  Even more people than Heidi Fleiss.   In no more than six projects you can usually trace any performer back to Kevin Bacon.  Well, for the serious “Kevin Bacon” player, let me add a few more links based on my involvement with him.
 
Granted, it’s not a big involvement. On FRASIER, whenever Dr. Crane spoke to a listener on his radio show they got a celebrity to play the caller. Kevin Bacon did one for a show my partner David and I wrote. 
 
And recently my daughter and her husband wrote on CALL YOUR MOTHER starring Kyra Sedgwick who is married to Kevin Bacon.  So I'm two degrees from that end. 

And you can now link Kevin to any of the other unlikely celebrities I wrote for or directed.

Dr. Timothy Leary did a FRASIER phone call for one of our shows. That’s right. We wrote for Dr. Timothy Leary.  You'd think that would be good for some complimentary LSD at the Free Clinic, wouldn't you?

Also, we wrote jokes for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe. He did a CHEERS we scripted.  See, aren’t I a name dropper?

Craig Ferguson guested on an episode of ALMOST PERFECT. So it’s just a few steps from Kevin Bacon to Craig Ferguson’s robot. Amaze your friends!

Then there are the athletes. We wrote for Wade Boggs (later to learn in his mistress’ tell-all in Playboy that he only took the job for a free trip to LA to bang her), Kevin McHale (who was sensational!), and Luis Tiant. (who also would have been great if only you could understand one single solitary thing he was saying – even after sixty takes).

So in only two steps you can get from Kevin Bacon to Luis Tiant. There’s a huge bar bet waiting to be won.

As a director, I had the pleasure of coaxing comic brilliance out of Karl Malone (in this case “the Mail Man” did not deliver – oy!), funnyman Mike Ditka (“a little more energy, Mike”), and Terry Bradshaw (“a little less energy, Terry. In fact, a LOT less energy. In fact, just stand there.”)

Oh sure, I’ve worked with a lot of top flight actors but you know all of them and could probably get to Kevin Bacon through other paths. The real challenge comes when someone throws Art Garfunkel at you (FRASIER caller), or you’re at the national finals and for the world’s championship you’re given the name Bombo the orangutan (did a JUST SHOOT ME I directed).

So use me. Be my guest. It’s my little way of Paying It Forward. The only thing disconcerting about providing this useful public service is that all these celebrities that I worked with so intimately over the years – I bet not one remembers me and knows who I am.  But that's okay.  I'm sure Bombo doesn't know who Kevin Bacon is either.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Friday Questions

Starting to feel like summer.  Vax so you can enjoy it.  Here are this week’s Friday Questions.

Jeff leads off.


Ken, when you watch episodes of sitcoms you were involved with, do you sometimes recognize certain laughs coming from the audience?

Yes.  I recognize Jim Brooks (pictured above) on TAXI and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  He sounds almost like a donkey braying.  

Two distinct laughers on CHEERS were Phoef Sutton and the cackle of Bill Steinkellner.  I occasionally hear Jim Burrows’ laugh as well.  

Chuck Lorre’s laugh is somewhat distinctive and I can pick it out from time to time on one of his shows.

Alas, I am not a loud laugher.  Especially at my own jokes. 

Matt wants to know:


Who is on your Mt Rushmore of announcers. I know you will say Vin Scully (who wouldn’t) and you have just said Marc Albert. Who are the other two?

Vin Scully, Marv Albert, Chick Hearn (of the Lakers), and Bill King (Raiders, Warriors, A’s).    

I don’t think anyone has ever called a better, more exciting football game on the radio than Bill King.  He gave you chills.

Same for Chick Hearn and basketball on the radio.  Most basketball expressions (like slam dunk) were invented by “Chicky baby.”

And while we’re on the subject of sportscasters, Jahn Ghalt wonders:

Where do you stand on broadcasters as they start to lose it, even the legends? Should they be allowed to stay on forever or should someone nudge them to the door at some point, and if so, how do you do that respectfully?

I think to protect them and their legacy, when iconic sportscasters start to lose it they should gracefully retire.   It’s harder for broadcasters who have been with one team for many decades.  Phasing them out might be one answer.  Or if the announcer is really incapable of calling a game, someone has to make the hard call.   

Hey, it's not a Supreme Court Justice.  You're not entitled to these jobs for life. 

I think you appeal to his pride.  You want him to go out with dignity and remain beloved.  

As the old saying goes, it’s better to leave a year too early than a year too late.

That said, I bet Vin Scully, (at 92) could still call a better game than 90% of the announcers out there.

And finally, from Brian:

I enjoyed your episode on writing. Have you ever been plagiarized? If so, what steps did you take?

Not any TV writing that I know of.  Had that been the case I would consulted my attorney. 

Before I had this blog, I would write snarky Oscar reviews and send them to my contact list.  I found out that one radio talk show host on my list would go on the air and steal all of my material as if it was his own.  Once I learned that he was promptly off my list.  

In my disc jockey days, there was an LA DJ who listened to me in San Bernardino and stole my material.  I learned this when I applied for a job at his station and the program director accused me of stealing his jock's material.  That resulted in a very angry phone call from me.  

Flash forward a few years and I’m on TenQ in Los Angeles every Saturday night.  After six months on the air I got a call from that program director apologizing.  He said, after listening to me and the quality and amount of my content it was clear I was the original and his disc jockey had stolen from me.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

EP227: Writer Mike Reiss Part Two


More with SIMPSONS writer Mike Reiss including how he auditioned to star in THE OFFICE and as a tourist was chased down the street by a woman with a meat cleaver.

Get Honey for FREE at JoinHoney.com/LEVINE

More podcasts at WAVE!


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

How I would fix Major League Baseball

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.  Warning:  It’s about baseball.

KLAC Guy asks:

I have been reading comments by Don Mattingly and Reggie Jackson about their dissatisfaction with the way baseball is played today. Both said that many of today’s games are unwatchable due to the lack of offense and the high number of strikeouts. Yankees play by play announcer, Michael Kay, talks about it often on his talk show. If you were baseball’s commissioner, what changes would you make to make the games more entertaining?

Okay, some of these are radical.

First, I’d eliminate the shift. 

I’d eliminate walk-up music.  Get in there and hit.

I’d install a pitch clock.  It works in the minors.  Get the ball and throw it.  And if you’re a hitter, stay in the box and hit.  No more “Human rain delays.” 

With two strikes, you get two foul balls.  Any more than two and it’s a strike out.  No more fouling off pitch after pitch. 

An announcer friend made this suggestion that I would use.   With a runner on first you get one throw over there.  You may say that gives the runner an unfair advantage.  If you think he’s going to steal, pitch out.  There were teams last year who never needed to pitch out once. 

You want fewer home runs?   Move fences back.  That also means outfielders have to cover more ground.  More balls might drop in for singles and doubles. 

Eliminate the stupid extra-inning rule where a runner starts at second base.  Two sacrifices and the runner could score.  That’s an unearned win in my book. 

Challenges must take no more than three minutes.  And if that doesn’t work, eliminate challenges.  I’d rather see arguments in front of the fans than everyone sitting around for ten minutes while umpires review replays in New York. 

Lose one commercial break per half inning.  Charge more for the commercials to make up the difference. 

If a pitcher warms up to begin an inning he has to face at least one batter.  None of this Tony LaRussa shit where a pitcher warms up, then a pinch-hitter is announced, and he pulls the pitcher to bring in someone else, thus causing another three to four minute delay. 

Study analytics before the game all you want, but during the game, no note cards. 

No seven-inning double headers.  This is the fucking big leagues.  

I would fire Angel Hernandez, an absolute disgrace of an umpire.

A quicker hook for pitchers who throw at a batter on purpose.  And an automatic one game suspension.  Pitchers throw at 100 miles an hour now.  They could really kill someone.  Managers get ejected too.  This also eliminates a number of brawls through the course of the season.  

Along those same lines, any player who it is determined willfully tried to injure another (e.g. spikes up) get suspended for at least a week or more if it’s a repeat offense.  Ty Cobb is dead. 

I know.  I’d be a hard-ass commissioner and the owners and players would be pissed at me.  But the games would zip along and there would be way more action and you’d get home at a decent time.    Unfortunately, no one has asked me to be the commissioner. 

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Arlen Peters

Today I’m devoting my post to someone you don’t know.  Well, most of you don’t know.  He has been a guest on my podcast a few times.  

Arlen Peters.

For years Arlen was an entertainment reporter, primarily for CBS, but also made many of those “making of” mini-documentaries that were used to publicize studio movies.  You may not know him, but Meryl Streep did, as did Gene Hackman and many other notables who considered him a friend.

Proud to say I was his friend too.

Arlen died suddenly last week.  

I’m still not over it.  

It’s never easy when  someone close to you dies.  But when it’s sudden, he’s your age, and a nicer person you’ll never find — it truly is devastating.  People throw that word around a lot, but in this case it really applies.

After being in lockdown for 60 weeks, one of the very first lunch appointments I made was with Arlen.  We sat outside at Mel’s on Sunset maybe three weeks ago.  How can he be gone?  

Arlen was a lovely guy.  Always cheerful, always looking ahead with enthusiasm.  For someone who hobnobbed with “the stars,” he was incredibly down-to-earth.  There was no pretense.  No sense of entitlement.  I think that’s why so many stars liked him and trusted him.  In a town of phonies, someone genuine really stands out.  And that was Arlen Peters.  

Like I said, he guested on my podcast.  Several times.  I’m so glad, especially now, I was able to interview him and document his life.  I also wanted to do an episode of someone interviewing me.  And I turned to Arlen because he was such a master at that.  

At Mel’s the waitress asked if we wanted dessert.  Arlen was considering whether to get cherry pie.  I told him, “Get it!  What the hell?”  He did and loved it.  If there’s a takeaway it’s this:  Order the pie.  You never know.

RIP Arlen Peters.  I will miss you terribly.  There was not enough time, not enough laughs, not enough pie.