Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The surprise of Broadway

A surprise to everyone but me.

The current show at Circle in the Square is CHICKEN & BISCUITS.  And it’s a big success.  Here’s what so surprising about it to the Broadway community:

It’s a comedy.

God forbid!

And not just a comedy — a conventional comedy.  

Kind of a familiar plot — relatives fighting after a funeral.  But apparently it’s funny.  

Blasphemy!

While every other play on the Great White Way is heavy, experimental, and “important,” audiences are turning to a show where they can laugh.  

As disturbing as this concept might be, people occasionally want to go to the theatre to enjoy themselves.


They don’t always want to be challenged, to be lectured, to be made to feel guilty.  

What really surprises me is how this is always a surprise to Broadway.  For every THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG there are five award-winning OSLO’S that close.  They named a theatre for Neil Simon yet don’t seem to remember what his contribution was.  

The big issue in theatre this year of course is diversity.  And that’s fine.  But that shouldn’t dictate subject matter and genre.   Douglas Lyons, the playwright of CHICKEN & BISCUITS is Black.  So what?  People are going because they want to be entertained.  And Lyons delivers the goods.

I congratulate everyone involved in the production of CHICKEN & BISCUITS for taking the daring courageous step of staging an actual show that people want to see. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

When game shows were naturally funny

 Since we seem to be on a nostalgia kick following this weekend's post...

The remake of classic game shows is a current network trend.  And they try desperately to be funny.  As a result they are so forced and for my money, mostly unwatchable.  When ABC has to rely on Anthony Anderson's mother for laughs you know we've reached rock bottom. 

Some of the original game shows elicited laughs, but usually they came out of the double meanings of certain questions and answers.  They weren't desperate quips by celebrity guest stars.  And unlike today, these shows were done live.  Bloopers and unexpected moments were part of the fun.  I'm sure the current prime-time game shows are edited to death in order to eke out a semblance of actual entertainment.  

Here is an example of a classic game from the 1950's.  It's called WHAT'S MY LINE?  Four panelists have to guess the occupation of the guest.  So the occupations tend to be somewhat unusual to better stump the panel.  Part of the charm (and bonus humor) of the show is John Daly, the moderator.  His attempts to clarify points are so long-winded and precise that he forever confuses everybody.  

Enjoy a segment from WHAT'S MY LINE?   Remember, this was 1958.  I don't want any "This is inappropriate and offensive" comments.  No one was offended then.



Saturday, October 23, 2021

Weekend Post

I was at lunch recently with a writer friend and we got onto the topic of role models. We each had writers, parents, other individuals we admired, and then another name occurred to me – one he found surprising. And I imagine you will too.

Those of you who have even heard of this person.

Okay. Ready? One of my role models was Shari Lewis.

So who’s Shari Lewis? Younger readers will have no idea I’m sure.

Shari Lewis was a kids’ show host in the ‘50s-‘70s. She was also a ventriloquist. Remember the puppets Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse? Those were Shari Lewis’. They weren’t particularly hilarious but they were endearing.

And some other things about Shari Lewis: she won twelve Emmys, was a magician, juggler, singer, dancer, and was considered one of the finest ventriloquists in the world. Oh, and she co-wrote an episode of STAR TREK.

So why is she a role model?

In 1974 I was a disc jockey in San Diego.  A friend was visiting and we went to Belmont Park, which is an old-time amusement park, complete with rickety roller coaster, a boardwalk, etc. It’s still open. Neither Sea World nor Legoland could kill it. 

Well this was an afternoon in the middle of the week during August. Crowded it wasn’t. How it’s still open today I don’t know.

Oh wait.  Wrong lamb chop
We walked by an auditorium and saw that Shari Lewis was performing. Next show in ten minutes. What the hell? A little nostalgia. And it’s not like there were a thousand other great things to see or do at Belmont Park. So we went in. The auditorium seated probably 200. There was one person sitting there. We figured, well when it gets closer to showtime people are going to stream in. So we took a seat right up front. I had heard she was a great ventriloquist so I wanted to be close enough to see her lips. (How many people go to a show because they want to see the star’s lips?).

You see where this is going, don't you?

When it was time for the show to begin there were literally three people in the audience. Now remember, Shari Lewis at the time was a big name. She had done network shows for over a decade. She gave not one but two command performances for the Queen. And here she was, on a hot August afternoon in an amusement park performing for three idiots. Oh, and it was free admission.  How much could she have been paid?  I picture some supervisor handing her a big bag of quarters from the Whack-a-mole game. 

I would not have blamed her if she had come out and said, “Sorry guys. I never do shows for audiences smaller than the number of puppets I have.”

Redd Fox essentially did just that once.  He was a long-time nightclub comic who became the star of SANFORD & SON.  As the story goes, he was playing in some Vegas showroom.  It's the midnight show.  There are four people in the house.  The band plays the SANFORD & SON theme, he walks out on stage, surveys the audience, says something to the effect of "Four fucking people?  I ain't plain' for four fucking people."  He then walks off.  The band again plays the SANFORD & SON theme, lights up in the auditorium.  End of show, goodnight.  

But that’s not what Shari Lewis did.

She came out and started her show.

At first, I have to admit, I was really uncomfortable. I felt so self-conscious. She was essentially doing her act just for me. And it’s not like I could leave.

But as her show continued my discomfort slowly gave way to admiration. Even though there were just three audience members, she was performing her heart out. It would have been so easy to just go at half-speed, drop a bunch of bits. But Shari went through her material with energy and class. (She probably did drop some of the jokes geared for kids but that's all the more reason to thank her.)  There could have been 10,000 in the venue. I was in awe.

And the show itself was great. She was a phenomenal ventriloquist. I remember a bit she did with an auctioneer, puppets talking a mile a minute, she chiming in -- it was amazing. Another time she had her puppets sing and even yodel. How do you yodel without moving your lips?

When the show was over – and it was about 45 minutes. We stood up and gave her a standing ovation. And since it was just the three of us, my friend and I approached the stage, shook her hand, and told her how knocked out we were by her performance. I also joked that she should consider changing agents. She laughed.

But if ever there was the definition of a trouper; that was it. Over the years I’ve been on the radio in the middle of the night knowing no one was listening (a 15 inning Syracuse Chiefs game from Denver on a station that covered less territory than your Wifi router), been in an improv group that would occasionally play to audiences of seven, and wrote everyday for a blog that when I started out was being read by maybe ten people a week. But I always thought back to Shari Lewis. I learned from her that day what it means to be a consummate pro and I have emulated her ever since.  Sadly, she left us way too soon.  She was only 65 when she passed.   But I'm proud to say she's one of my role models. 

Do you have a surprising role model?  If so, who and why?  And can she yodel?

 

Friday, October 22, 2021

Friday Questions

It’s getting dark earlier.  I don’t know anyone who likes that.  Here are some Friday Questions to enjoy by candlelight.

JS  starts us off.

What is your Favorite show that lasted awhile but got lost in Time? Mine is "Early Edition" -that show was so good and different and launched Kyle Chandler into a great career. William Devane was really good in his guest appearances.

Since it’s lost in time you probably won’t know it, but there was a show called THE PRACTICE in the mid-70’s that starred Danny Thomas as a crusty but lovable neighborhood doctor that was a treat.  The creator and primary writer was Steve Gordon, who later went on to write and direct the movie ARTHUR.  

Sadly, Steve passed away very young.  But he wrote crackling dialogue that was effortlessly funny.   He's one of my comedy writing idols.  The show lasted a year.  It too was gone before its time.  

Neil wonders:

What's your opinion of the proposed Additional Literary Material credit for all participating writers who do not otherwise receive writing credits on motion pictures.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing.  Why should everyone who works on a movie including craft-services assistants get credit except for the writers?  That's the way the system is set up now. 

From Tom Asher:

LOVE Christine Baranski... you ever work together, Ken?

I love her too.   I never really worked with her.  She was a finalist for a part in one of my pilots and I got to spend the afternoon with her.   Ultimately, she wasn’t totally right for the part, but I really wanted to work with her.  

By the time we had our next series she was already on CYBILL, but I’d still love to do something with her.   

She’s also a very classy and lovely lady.

And finally, kcross has a question about the HISTORY OF SITCOM debacle that CNN ran.

How would you have approached the assignment? If someone came to you with a lot of money and a really good staff, what would your sitcom history look like?

Very simple.  I would treat it like a history course.  I would start in the late 40’s and work my way up through the decades.  I would immerse the audience in the various decades, sprinkle in some news and societal norms for context, and maybe God forbid mention a writer or two.   

I would show trends, I would praise the shows that were genuinely funny or innovative.  

Along the way I would show sitcoms evolved and how they reflected society as a whole.

What I wouldn’t do is spend half the series pointing out all of sitcoms failings because they didn’t adhere to 2021 sensibilities in 1955.  

What’s your FQ? 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

EP247: The Art of Showrunning


Ken continues his chat with comedy writer, Dave Hackel. This week they delve into what a showrunner really does. It’s a unique and rigorous responsibility. And Dave is one of the best. They also discuss BECKER, a show Dave created and ran for five years. Lots of great info here.

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


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The Many Saints of Newark: My review

 

If you’re a mega fan of THE SOPRANOS it’s a fun ride.  If you’re not, it’s just another gangster movie — one you’ve seen countless times.    It’s now playing in select theaters and on HBO Max.  If you have a decent sized screen at home that should be sufficient.  There’s not enough scope that it’s worth going to the theater, paying for it, and leaving yourself open for possible COVID.  

THE SOPRANOS was a TV show.  So is this.

It’s also very familiar.

People get shot, they eat a lot of Italian food, they get loud and swear, and there’s the obligatory turf war.  Young Tony Soprano witnesses these events, which we’re supposed to believe is ultimately what led him into the family “business.”  And that’s fine except you could do all that in one brief montage or have a narrator quickly walk you through it.

Alan Taylor did a nice job of directing the script by David Chase and Lawrence Konner (who my partner and I rewrote on JEWEL OF THE NILE).  

There’s one story turn (I won’t spoil it) that is so ridiculous  it takes you out of the movie. Suffice to say a character does something they never would because the writers needed the story to go in a specific direction.  Hint: The scene takes place on a beach. 

The acting was good.  The real stars are Alessandro Nivola and Leslie Odom, Jr.   James Gandolfini’s actual son plays his dad as a teenager.  Michael Gandolfini acquitted himself very well.  For my money though, Ray Liotta stole the movie.  

But here’s the thing, and I know it’s intangible — It just didn’t feel like a SOPRANOS episode.   You meet a lot of future characters, and Chase’s writing is always first-class, but the rhythm, the situations, and even the dialogue just didn’t live up to the series.   The original was very fresh.  They had great characters, a real suspense,  memorable scenes and  moments.  This new version feels like  GOOD FELLAS meets THE MUPPET BABIES.   But again, if you’re a diehard SOPRANOS fan you may get a lot more out of it. Wait.  I am a diehard SOPRANOS fan.  So why didn’t I love it?  I was sure hoping to.  Maybe it's because the whole point of the movie (how the environment turned Tony into Tony) is something I and every SOPRANOS fan already knows.

See for yourself.  It’s on HBO Max. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

10 years ago today


Here's a feature I like to do about once a month or so -- repost Friday Questions from the distant past.  Very few read the archives and there are some worthy FQ's buried in there.  Here's a post from October 2011.  My responses still hold up.

Becky is up first.

I was wondering what Harry Morgan was like in real life?

Becky, you’ll be happy to learn he’s a wonderful guy. Harry has a wicked sense of humor. Very droll. And is a great storyteller. During breaks he would regale us with stories of doing movies with Spencer Tracy and Elvis. And there were a lot of tales about DRAGNET and how, uh… “frugal” Jack Webb was. You’ll notice he and Jack were always in the same suits, every week. That’s because they filmed exterior shots of them entering and exiting buildings, their car, etc. and were able to use the same shots every week.

Harry is the ultimate pro. Could scan a page of dialogue once and have it perfectly memorized. Would lock in on a performance and do it perfectly the same way every time, every take. He was courteous to every member of the staff and crew and knew everyone’s name.

I saw him last at a tribute to MASH producer, Gene Reynolds a couple of years ago. Harry hadn’t seen me in ages. But he was still as sharp as ever. Remembered my name, that I was now involved with baseball. And he must’ve been only 93.

What few people don't know is that Harry is also an excellent director. Once a season he would direct an episode of MASH. During our tenure we made sure Harry got to direct one of ours. If he wasn’t such a terrific actor he would have had a great career behind the camera.

Harry has one of those faces and voices that even when he was 20 he was able to play 60. So it’s no surprise he’s a young 96. He’s been a young senior citizen for 70 years.

From Chris:

Here's a Friday question: why do some shows give the same writer a consulting producer and a written by credit in the same episode?

Those are two different assignments. Consulting producer is a staff position. A written by credit means he wrote the script for that week’s episode.


DyHrdMET asks:

Have you ever worked a playoff game?

Yes, with the Padres in ’96.  We lost. 

From Mark:

This is a question for Friday and you may not want to answer it but I bet that tons of your readers are wondering the same thing, so what the heck, I'll be the guy who asks:

You come across as a very modest, self-effacing, middle-class (okay, upper middle class) kind of guy, and yet you've been involved at a very high level with several extremely successful TV shows. Are you collecting fat (or thin) royalties from those programs, or is that money ancient history?

I am still collecting royalties but not enough to allow me to finally become a dick. Seriously, though, since the 1977 WGA Basic Agreements residuals are into perpetuity (God bless you, Writers Guild). The amounts have dwindled down through the years but royalties are still dribbling in. Even more exciting at this point is that shows I wrote 30 years ago are still being shown and enjoyed today.

And finally, from John based on a post about Charles Winchester of MASH:

There was an episode early in Season 6 written by Laurence Marks entitled "Change Day" in which Charles' scheme to scam people out of their script comes across more like something Frank Burns would do. Was the writing staff still trying to get a handle on who Maj. Winchester was at the time, or was this an idea thought up earlier, when Frank Burns was still the show's main foil, and then reworked to try and fit David Ogden Stiers' new character?

You were right the first time, John. We were still trying to nail down Charles. This was one of the first stories broken with that character. It came from an actual incident we discovered in the research. Unfortunately, it’s confusing as hell. If I’m being honest, it was one of our worst episodes that year, and it was not Laurence Mark’s fault. It was ours.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Dave Chappelle and the current state of comedy

A lot of readers have asked what I thought of the new controversial Dave Chappelle Netflix Special.  This, of course, is a trick question that can only get a person in trouble.  Like “How often do you beat your wife?”  God forbid anyone says something positive about Chappelle’s material they’re instantly branded as a racist, homophobe, or worse.  (Remember the days when some people thought something was funny while others didn’t and it was just chalked up to differing senses of humor?)  

So I’m not going to speak at all about the trans material in his special or any of the subject matter.  All I will say is this:  I’m glad there is a Dave Chappelle.  I’m glad there’s one comic out there who is truly fearless.   In the tradition of Lenny Bruce, we need someone willing to be provocative, willing to ruffle some feathers in the cause of getting society to think.  

There’s a terrific article I want to point you towards.  It’s by David Zucker, one of the writers of AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN.  He’s a very funny guy.  I worked with him on a project once a thousand years ago. In his piece, bemoaning the current sad state of comedy, he brings out a great point.  Through social media a tiny minority now has a huge amplified voice and can dictate policies and norms for the majority — even though the majority doesn’t agree with them.  

The night ALL IN THE FAMILY premiered on CBS, they installed extra phone banks and operators to field the inevitable throng of complaints.  They got 12 calls.  12.  Now today those 12 could cause such a stink that they might be able to pressure ALL IN THE FAMILY off the air.  How horrifying is that?

So when you sit home, by yourself, and watch AIRPLANE, or the DAVE CHAPPELLE SPECIAL, or BLAZING SADDLES, are you really offended?  And if you are, does it really rock you to your very core and affect how you see the world?   Or, do you simply say, “Fuck you, Dave Chappelle or David Zucker,” turn off their show, and go on about your life?   It’s a comedy special not a snuff film.

I’m personally not a fan of mean-spirited comedy.  And if it’s designed to demean anyone, regardless of color, gender, age — then it’s not for me.  And it’s not the type of thing I write.  But I don’t think there should censorship when it comes to comedy.   I don’t think writers or comics should be blasted for things they wrote or said that may not be acceptable now but were when they wrote or said them.  

Anyway, here’s the article.  I encourage you to read it.

Thanks.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Weekend Post

This is my worst movie meeting.

Anyone who’s been in the business for more than eleven minutes has twelve stories of disastrous meetings. My partner, David and I have had more than our share. But our worst is worthy of an I LOVE LUCY episode.

This was a number of years ago. VOLUNTEERS and MANNEQUIN had been made. JEWEL OF THE NILE (which we rewrote – uncredited) was going into production. So for the moment we had a viable feature career.

Our agent arranged a general meeting with an executive from 20th Century Fox, Dylan Sellers. These are generally just meet and greet affairs. You want to be on their radar. It’s fairly hard to screw up these meetings. They just want to be sure you’re not too weird. So if you show up on time, are dressed nicely, and can carry on a breezy conversation for a half hour without revealing that you collect tonsils or God talks to you through hidden messages delivered by Mr. Rogers you’re pretty much in.   Often they have a project in mind and if you don't scare them they offer you the assignment. 

Our meeting was set for the end of the day, around 5:30. At the time, we had an office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and drove across town to 20th. Traffic was bad (duh) and we just arrived on time. Punctuality is important with these meetings. It gives the studio executive an idea of how responsible you are. If you can’t show up on time for a meeting, how can they count on you to turn in the first draft when you promise?

David was driving. I opened the passenger’s door, climbed out of the car, and the seat of my pants ripped right up the butt crack. We’ll dispense with the fat jokes for now because I had a much bigger problem. How was I going to take a meeting with my underwear hanging out?

There was no time to postpone the meeting. I lived way too far to race home and change. We decided to just take our chances. I know. This is like right out of THREE’S COMPANY.

We walked into Mr. Sellers’ outer office with David right behind me. We tried to look nonchalant but I’m sure in some states we were close enough for sodomy charges. The assistant told us Mr. Sellers would only be a couple of minutes and take a seat. We sat on the couch. I tried to grab a copy of Variety that was on the coffee table and as I leaned in I heard the rip get a little longer. I froze immediately.

A few minutes later Mr. Sellers was ready to see us. Instead of just cutting across the room to the door to his office I sort of hugged the walls. The assistant looked at me funny. We entered his office and again I walked laterally along the wall, trying to appear natural.

Dylan Sellers came around from behind his desk, shook our hands, and invited us to take a seat on the couch. Which we did. It was an overstuffed couch, the kind you really disappear into.

He sat in a chair across from us and the meeting began. I sat there with a big smile plastered to my face. Fortunately, David did most of the talking. I just nodded like a bobblehead. I don’t think I heard a thing Mr. Sellers was saying. All I could think was, “How the fuck am I going to get out of this giant couch?”

At one point, the conversation turned to cars. Mr. Sellers was very proud of the new one he had just purchased. It was parked right outside and he invited us to come to the window to have a look.

Shit!

I struggled to my feet, felt a little more rip. Pretty soon the pants were going to just fall off. That would make a great impression. I casually hugged the walls, moving towards the window. David hopped in right behind me so that when Mr. Sellers was behind him he (hopefully) couldn’t see my now-officially fat ass.

It was back to the couch. Was he starting to sense something was weird? Most people turn and walk to a couch. They don’t backpedal.

More charming chit-chat for about fifteen minutes and that was it. Again, I had to hoist myself out of couchzilla. The ripping sound could have been mistaken for a fart but that’s hardly better. We shook hands, said goodbye, I hugged the wall all the way out the room then bolted.

Our agent followed up with him the next day. He said the meeting went well. He liked us but thought we were a little reserved. Worried that our sensibilities were a little too sophisticated for the project he had in mind. It was a very broad comedy. Lots of slapstick. Humiliating situations. That just didn’t seem like us.

Talk about taking one in the shorts.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Friday Questions

Halfway through the month.  Here are some Friday Questions for your Halloween shopping weekend.

Owlchum gets us rolling.

You'll read every once in a while about actors who are so in tune with their characters that they will decline to do a line or a scene stating their characters wouldn't say/do that. I'm curious if you've had that problem in the writing room i.e. a scribe who felt so possessive about a character that he/she actually became too disruptive in finishing script(s)?

Yes, it happens, but let me say this.  Fighting for your script to the point of being disruptive is the fastest way to get yourself fired off a staff.

Here’s the thing:  You’re not going to win.  

The showrunner is not going to put back your material because you put on a full court press.   So you lose the battle and lose the war when you’re out of a job.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re right.  It’s not your call. 

Suck it up.   That’s part of being a professional.  It's happened to all of us.  Multiple times. 

The showrunner points the boat and you all row in that direction.  Someday if you pay your dues you might be the showrunner and you change other writers’ scripts at will.   But for now, don’t jeopardize your job, reputation, and career. 

Philly Cinephile wonders:


How far in advance do you write your blog posts? Is every post "written to order" or do you have a cache of essays that you can pull from if you're short on time?

Both.  I try to have some posts prepared in advance to lesson the burden of constant deadlines.  But I also love the immediacy of something happening one day, being able to write about it, and having it post the next day. 

Friday Questions I usually prepare in advance.  

I probably shouldn't divulge these closely guarded secrets, but what the hell? 

Jeff asks:

Ken, do you get personally annoyed when you watch modern shows and the credits list half the cast as a "producer" or "executive producer"? Are you worried these stars and their agents will next push for writing credits?

You need to write a script to get writing credit.  And if you’re a staff member rewriting a script it’s harder to get shared credit.  This is to prevent people in power from arbitrarily piggy-backing their name on writing credits.

As for number of producers, I don’t mind at all if they’re writers.  More producers mean more working writers.  And you move up in pay grade as your title improves.  So more power to ‘em. 

However, I don’t like all the non-writing producer credits.  “Pod” producers who basically do nothing, managers, and stars.  These are all vanity positions that eat into the showrunner/creator’s potential profit in success, and are often sources of obstruction.  They’re the partners you don’t need. 

And finally, from marka:

I was watching an unnamed movie which was fantastic until the end, which seemed slapped together. It seems to be a thing where someone has a great idea, develops the story really well but then has some disappointing conclusion. Like they just can't figure out how to end the darn thing. Could you comment on this? It doesn't happen all the time, but more than it should it seems.

Most studio films have preview screenings, and if the audience doesn’t like the ending, or the studio feels it’s too much of a downer, whatever — the filmmaker will often scramble to quickly come up with a new ending and shoot it.  So it becomes a mad scramble with other factors that must be worked out.  Which actors are available for re-shoots?  Which sets are still up?  How much will it cost?  How much will we have to cut from the existing film which led to the ending you’re throwing out?  How much time do you have?  When is the release date? 

More often than not what you end up with are band-aids and endings that are “better” in that they address the audience’s concern, but not really “good.” 

What’s your Friday Question? 
 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

EP246: Meet comedy writer Dave Hackel


Dave Hackel is the creator of BECKER, and worked for years on FRASIER, WINGS, and many other shows. This week he talks about breaking into the business on game shows and has a hilarious Truman Capote story (who doesn’t?). Also, some great things he learned along the way coming up through the ranks of sitcom writing and producing. You’ll laugh and shudder.

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

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


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CATS and a dog

 This is from a Variety article that really made me laugh.  Here's the full article.  

It's about Andrew Lloyd Webber.  And here's the part I loved:

Alan Parker’s 1996 version of “Evita,” he concludes, was the best of the lot and that’s due to Madonna’s performance. “To this day, I don’t think anybody else could have done it better,” he says.
And then there’s “Cats,” which hit theaters in 2019 and was a cinematic bomb that launched a thousand memes, one that was excoriated by critics and ignored by the public. Lloyd Webber says the source material was sold to Amblin, which after trying to turn it into a Steven Spielberg-directed animated feature, eventually handed the reins to Tom Hooper, who had helmed “Les Misérables” and “The King’s Speech.” That proved to be a disastrous decision, according to the composer.

“‘Cats’ was off-the-scale all wrong,” says Lloyd Webber. “There wasn’t really any understanding of why the music ticked at all. I saw it and I just thought, ‘Oh, God, no.’ It was the first time in my 70-odd years on this planet that I went out and bought a dog. So the one good thing to come out of it is my little Havanese puppy.”

That puppy has been a constant companion of Lloyd Webber’s during lockdown. They have grown so attached that he’s even figured out a way to bring the dog to New York the next time he travels to the city.

“I wrote off and said I needed him with me at all times because I’m emotionally damaged and I must have this therapy dog,” says Lloyd Webber. “The airline wrote back and said, ‘Can you prove that you really need him?’ And I said ‘Yes, just see what Hollywood did to my musical “Cats.”’ Then the approval came back with a note saying, ‘No doctor’s report required.’”

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A writer's torture


For a writer it never gets easier.

Waiting.

You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Kim Kardashian again?

So Kim Kardashian was on SNL last Saturday night.  Really?

Is Kim Kardashian even a thing anymore?

I didn’t watch it because it, well, I never watch anything Kim Kardashian is on.  She’s a person with no noticeable skill or talent and a product of how reality shows can turn vacuous people into vacuous celebrities.   What does Kim Kardashian contribute to society in any way?  

Yes, she benefits from nepotism, but nepotism alone isn’t to blame.  There are some very successful and deserving offspring of famous people.  Ken Griffey Jr., Rob Reiner, Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Steph Curry, Hannah Einbinder, J.J. Abrams, just to name a few.  

But not all are worthy.  And I was reminded of that recently when TCM replayed a Nancy Sinatra TV special from 1967 recently.  Being a big fan of the ‘60s I tuned in for the nostalgia and what I found was this:

Nancy Sinatra was terrible.  She has a two-note singing range.  She can’t act. She can’t dance. Her attempts of being sultry and sexy are laughable.  If she weren’t Frank Sinatra’s daughter, and didn’t get a record deal on Daddy’s label she couldn’t pass the open auditions of AMERICAN IDOL.  “Daddy” even appears in the special (probably why the greenlit it) and the guests included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra Jr., and singing group Dino, Desi & Billy.  Wonder how she got 'em.  And if she was trying to show how "groovy" she was in 1967, those were not the guests to get.  

The entire show was cringeworthy, lowlighted by a scene where Nancy basically sings a creepy love song to giant posters of her father.  And in one of the posters he’s holding a gun  (I laughed out loud).  

The kitsch factor was off-the-charts, which is the only reason I stuck around.  

But looking back, I really resented Nancy Sinatra.  Not her personally; she might be a wonderful person — but I resented that she was foisted upon me.  I never liked her songs, even “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and the love duet with Daddy — “Something Stupid” — is beyond creepy.   For years I’ve been hearing about the Kardashians — their idiotic exploits, ridiculous marriages, etc.  When I hear people talk about them I think, “Why???  Who gives a shit???”   

So I didn’t watch SNL this week.   My boots were indeed made for walking. 

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Weekend Post

Charlie Hauck was a terrific comedy writer (FRASIER, MAUDE, etc.) and a hilarious author. Sadly, he passed away this year.  

His comic novel about a writing team launching a sitcom starring the diva from hell is both hilarious and all-too-real. The book is called ARTISTIC DIFFERENCES and well worth reading. 

On one page he explains how you can tell a bad sitcom. Simple rules, worth repeating here.

1. Any show in which any character at any time during the life of the series says the words “Ta da!” is a bad sitcom.

2. Any show in which one character says to another, “What are friends for?” is a bad sitcom.

3. Any show in which a character says “Bingo!” in the sense of “Eureka!” is a bad sitcom.

4. Any show in which an actor or actress under the age of seven says cute things in close-up is a bad sitcom.

5. Any show in which an actor or actress over the age of seventy-five says vulgar things in close-up is a bad sitcom.

6. Any show that resorts to the use of Dr. Zarkov dialogue (named for the villain in the FLASH GORGON series, where one character tells another character something they both already know, for the benefit of the audience) is a bad sitcom.

7. Any show in which a character, in the closing minutes, says, “I guess we’ve all learned a lesson,” and then goes on to explain what that lesson is, is a bad sitcom.

And if I may add a few of my own:

8. Any show where the studio audience says “Awwwwww” and the producers leave it in is a bad sitcom.

9. Any show that makes a Willard Scott joke is a bad sitcom.

10. Any show with opening titles that show close-ups of the cast and then freeze frames to catch zany expression on each is a bad sitcom.

11. Any show with Jim Belushi is a bad sitcom.  

UPDATE:  Getting a number of commenters fact checking minor points and pointing out exceptions.  I invite you to focus on the spirit and gist of the post instead.  There are always exceptions to everything.  I don't quite understand this need to dispute any opinion someone might have.   Yes, there are exceptions.  But you write a spec script trying to break into the industry and ignore these points and see how well you do.  And then defend your rejected script by pointing out the exceptions.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Friday Questions

Glad that so many of you like Friday Questions.  Here are a few more.

Brian Phillips is first.

I just watched a Cheers episode in which the running gag was that Sam's Plymouth Volarè was keeping Sam from scoring with women.

Since the episode made the airwaves, it seems that the Chrysler Corporation was OK with this. What have been some surprising corporate responses to script references?

One in particular.  David Isaacs and I wrote the CHEERS episode killing off Eddie LeBec.  Our idea was that he’d get run over by a Zamboni Machine while skating in an ice show.   

Our legal department said we couldn't use the name Zamboni since the episode shows them in a less than glowing light.  We took a shot and contacted Zamboni ourselves.  Not only did they okay our use, their president flew out to watch the filming and brought t-shirts.   

The episode is called DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY ON ICE if you’re interested in seeing it.

Another instance, our use of Coca Cola in VOLUNTEERS but I’ve told that story many times.  Easy to look up if you’re curious.

McTom asks:

Barney Miller told great stories while being 99% anchored to the primary squad room set, Barney's office included. The Honeymooners is the prime example, but what other great sitcoms made do with such limited settings?

Well… CHEERS for one.  NEWSRADIO, GOLDEN GIRLS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, ALL IN THE FAMILY, GOOD TIMES, ONE DAY AT A TIME, and I’m sure there are way more.   

Feel free to chime in with others I missed.

slgc has a FQ regarding my podcast interview with Joe Buck.  


Buck was discussing the concept of in-game interviews, and he seemed to like them. Personally, I cannot stand them - they distract from the game to the extent that the action isn't even shown, or if it is then it's relegated to a tiny box in the corner. If I'm tuning in to watch a game, I want to watch the game! It's one thing to have a special guest in the booth, but not when the focus on the guest prevents fans from actually seeing what's happening on the field.

What are your thoughts about them?


If it’s an exhibition game like an All-Star Game, I don’t mind it all.  The game means nothing anyway and it’s fun to hear players interact with Joe.  

But now we’re in the playoffs.  During any game that counts I say no interviews or anything to distract the players.  That includes the in-game managers chats that they do now.  I’d eliminate those.  The managers are just spouting bullshit anyway.  They’re not going to divulge their strategy or rip the other team.  They just put a positive spin on their players no matter how good or badly they’re playing.  Lose it.

Exhibition games are “television shows.”  Playoffs are competition.  TV should stand back and let the boys play.  

And finally, from Bob Waldman:


What causes you, if ever, to give up or put aside a script or story idea that you originally thought was good?

First off, it has happened.

For me, it’s usually in the outline stage.  I realize the story has some major flaw I don’t feel is worth wrestling.   Or I finish the outline, look it over, and decide it just isn’t interesting enough.  

Sometimes I’ll just set the project aside and sometime later an idea will occur to me or I’ll come across some other idea and think, “Hey, I can use this to solve that.”  

Research can also point out flaws.  Early in our career we had a pilot idea about the White House Press Corps.  We  thought there was a fascinating dynamic — these people were all in completion with each other but also all colleagues.  

We were lucky enough to get temporary WH press passes and spent several days with them.  Our assumption was they could roam the White House, hang out with the staff, etc.   No.  They’re only allowed out of the press room as a group.  On THE WEST WING when you saw reporters go to the Press Secretary’s office — that doesn’t happen.  Not without prior permission and a pass.   

So for our purposes, that took the legs right out of the series.  No one could sneak around.  No one could have secret sources.   No one could bump into the president in the Rose Garden.  

We did the pilot anyway, but we were thrilled when it didn’t get picked up.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

EP245: Getting through the “Bad” times


We all go through low periods of our life. Ken shares some of his and how they ultimately benefited him.

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


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

My radical suggestion for fixing the MLB playoffs


First off, thanks so much to everyone for checking in yesterday.  I really appreciate it and it’s nice to know you’re out there… especially since I’m apparently the last blogger left.

The baseball playoffs began yesterday (congratulations, Red Sox) and will continue for what seems like eternity.  And this after seven months of baseball.  I have a radical suggestion for how to make the playoffs more exciting.  You’re going to say I’m crazy but hear me out.

The playoffs are now too long.  Wild card games, division series, league championship series, World Series.   There are four division series and two league championship series.   Division series are best 3 out of 5.  Championship and World Series are best 4 out of 7.   A one-game playoff determines the Wild Card.  

So the Wild Card games are crucial because they’re sudden death.  Then you slog through all the other series, which get longer as the playoffs unfold.  And the later you get into the run, the more breathing room a team has (they can lose more games and still win).  By the time you get to the World Series, unless your team is in it, you’re pretty much done.  

So eliminate games. 

Wild Card series - one game
Division series - best 2 of 3
Championship series - best 3 of 5 (that’s how they used to be)

And only play a best of 7 series for the World Series.  A one-game series would be better, but I'm enough of a traditionalist to want to see a full series. 

I told you it was radical.  Owners would complain because they couldn't cash in as much, and all owners care about is making money.  It would be nice to have a commissioner who's not just the owners footstool, but that's not going to happen.   You'd knock off at least 12 potential games, maybe more. 

If there’s a Game 7 of the World Series this year it will be on November 3rd.  That’s insane.  Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, and Boston are lovely that time of year should they make it that far.  And again, the only reason I'm not suggesting a one game winner-take-all World Series is tradition.

Now of course MLB will never adopt my suggestion, but think back to this baseball fans when you're two weeks in and turn over to football or the World Series of Poker.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Who's out there?


It’s that time again.

Once a year I ask you to check in, especially you new readers or lurkers.

It gives me a better sense of who’s out there and how I can best program my blog to suit your needs.

So…

Who are you?  Where you from?  How old are you (or at least what “Gen”)?  How long have you been reading?  How did you find the blog?  Do you also listen to my podcast?   What topics do you like or dislike?   (Yes, I know some of you don’t like when my politics seep through, but that’s not going to change.)  What features do you like or dislike?  Any suggestions or general comments?  

Thanks for your participation.  And for reading this blog.  

Ken

Monday, October 04, 2021

The current sad state of network sitcoms

There’s an article in the new edition of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY entitled “A Moment of Silence for the Network Sitcom.”  In the article, which basically says that network sitcoms are dead, they make the following points: Their ratings are horrible.  It’s a vicious circle.  It’s harder for one to breakthrough and since most have gone away, it’s hard to find companion pieces to schedule them with.  Networks today are more cautious than ever and don’t want to chance getting a low rating.  A better bet is an hour franchise.  Another reason given is the pilot process is flawed.  Network executives or former network executives were interviewed for this piece.

I don’t disagree with any of their points. 

But could I offer a few alternative reasons why network sitcoms are now almost non-existent? 

One:  The sitcoms they develop are not that good.  And then they note the writers to death.  These sitcoms are selected to fit agendas, not which are the most original, which are the funniest, which have the best writers.  Decisions are based on casting, relationships, ownership, cost, writers who are compliant, commitments, and societal pressure.   I sometimes wonder if these VP’s of Comedy Development were allowed complete autonomy whether they would choose totally different projects than the ones they did choose.  How many great pitches did they pass on because they knew they didn’t fit into their agenda and their bosses would never support them? 

And again, the notes.  Unless you’re Chuck Lorre, the notes are crushing.  And constant.  And given out of fear.  How many good ideas by good writers wound up becoming bland generic blobs by the time they were turned in?  Many of these writers have told me that by the time their pilot is filmed they don't even recognize it.  That should NEVER be. 

And do networks even know what they have?  CBS Entertainment President, Kelly Kahl touts their sitcoms by saying in the article: “If you look at all our comedies, they are about something.”  Really?  Their big new comedy is GHOSTS.  A bed & breakfast is haunted by goofy ghosts.  That says what exactly, other than (a) it’s a reboot of a British series (notice in the above photo they claim it's a "CBS original?"), and (b) it’s a premise that has been done to death.  CBS had a better version in 1952.  It was called TOPPER.   Wikipedia lists 99 series about ghosts.  99!  Oh, and omitted TOPPER.  So yeah, that’s fresh.   The Chuck Lorre comedies?  I would argue people tune into them because the shows try to be funny. 

The pilot claim:  I’ve heard this one for thirty years.  And every so often networks abandon pilots for “presentations” (a cheap way to make a pilot), order direct series and it blows up in their face.   Most of these “direct to series” get burned off in March.  Some never even air.   Pilots aren’t the problem.  The wrong pilots and meddling with pilots are the culprits. 

In the early ‘80s there was also this cry that sitcoms were becoming extinct.  Sitcome writers were writing specs of light dramas like MAGNUM P.I. thinking there was no future anymore in half-hour sitcoms.  Then CHEERS came along.  And COSBY.  And all of a sudden sitcoms were back!  There’s been no breakout sitcom in ten years.  Does that mean it’ll never happen again?  Of course not.  It’s not going to happen with the 100th ghost show.  Or reboot of ROSEANNE without Roseanne (or NIGHT COURT, which NBC is developing). And it’s not going to happen if networks are so afraid of something new that they’d rather do CSI Pittsburgh.  Did you see where NBC is bringing back the original LAW & ORDER? 

Make better sitcoms!  There’s room in your schedules.  Maybe instead of shitty reboots of game shows.  Let’s try some fresh sitcom instead of Anthony Anderson’s mom.  Take a chance.  Yeah, it’s been ten years.  Name me a network pilot in that time that was really FUNNY.   Instead of a moment of silence for sitcoms, how about some CPR? 

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Weekend Post

 BARNEY MILLER is one of those forgotten gem sitcoms from the 70s. I guess because they were taped and now look like crap you rarely see them pop up in reruns. Set in a detectives’ squad room in an NYPD precinct, BARNEY MILLER was a quirky character comedy revolving around the detectives and the nutcases that walked through their door (most in handcuffs).

It was created by Danny Arnold who was a true character. Brilliant, unpredictable (a nice term for bi-polar), demanding, and kind, Danny was an A-list show runner and a type-A+ personally. The man had a heart attack on the treadmill in his doctor’s office getting his heart checked. He had an oxygen tent installed on the BARNEY set so he could keep going during demanding shooting nights (which lasted routinely until 5 in the morning because of all the pick-ups he wanted). The results were fabulous but what a cost.

When David and I were starting out BARNEY MILLER was just starting to take off. It was one of the show we really wanted to write for. We had sold a couple of things and were making the freelance rounds. Our agent called with the good news that Danny had read our material and loved it. He wanted a meeting.

That meeting was one of the best EVER. We walked into his office and there was the nicest, most ebullient cigar-chomping uncle you’ve ever met. He was effusive in his praise. We couldn’t have been more excited. It was like the prettiest girl in school let you eat at her lunch table.

He invited us to come back with some story ideas and very much looked forward to working with us. A week later we were back in his office with our notions.

I noticed a bit of change right at the start. He was a little more gruff. Probably just the result of a long day. We started pitching and every idea was met with, “NO!!” “FUCK! ARE YOU KIDDING?” “JESUS, HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED OUR SHOW?” Needless to say we were shaken. After he had rejected all of them we started out and just before getting to the door he said, almost as an afterthought, “That Yamada gambling thing. I don’t think there’s anything there but if you want to develop it more you can.” Not exactly a sale.

But we went home and decided to develop it anyway. We wanted to show him that if nothing else we weren’t intimidated by him… although we sure as hell were.

We turned in an outline. He bought it. Had us in for notes and was very complimentary. We implemented his changes and turned in the revised outline.

He cut us off.

Well, we figured, so much for BARNEY MILLER. At least we got outline money.

Two weeks later I get a call from Danny’s assistant. Could we be in his office tomorrow at 8:30? Swell, I thought, he wants to chew us out again.

But we go and it’s the happy ingratiating Danny. “Boys! Come on in. You want a doughnut? How was your weekend?” He had read over our outline again and decided it was terrific. He had just a few tweaks. We were told to dash off a revised outline and then we’d go to work on the draft.

Two days later we delivered the new outline. And the following day…

He cut us off.

It just didn’t “jump off the page” for him. But he paid us for a second outline.

Elements of those outlines appeared in future shows but what the hell? He did pay us.

We never did a BARNEY MILLER assignment but a few years later when we were head writers of MASH he called and asked if we wanted to be his showrunners for the upcoming season. We chose to stay with MASH.

The guys who did take the job worked a million hours a week, learned a hell of a lot, got paid a fortune, and Danny gave them Rolls Royces… which they used to drive themselves to Cedar-Sinai hospital.

BARNEY MILLER is back, on some retro cable channels, DVD's, and downloading  If you’ve never seen it, it’s a treat.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Friday Questions

Let’s kick off the month with Friday Questions.

Jack West has left a new comment about my recent post on radio.

So, when you're a DJ, and you don't have an audience you can hear laughing, how do you know the jokes are funny? The crew? The station manager? It doesn't matter? What?

I guess you have to just believe in yourself.  You may get some feedback from listeners but very little.  

With me it was the ratings.  In Bakersfield at KERN I got a 49 share during my time slot.  In San Bernardino, when I did the all-night show on KMEN, the only hour that was rated was 5-6 am and I got an 85 share.   I should mention that the day that rating was announced I was immediately given a better time slot. 

But all you can do is trust in yourself.  I’ve told this many times.  Most of my early program directors didn’t think I was funny and told me repeatedly to shut up (until the ratings came out).   Thankfully some of my PD’s were supportive.  So thanks again to John Barcroft, Bobby Rich, Tom Straw, Bob Whitney, and Jimi Fox. 

From Patrick Weldon:


The Everybody Loves Raymond set covers two rooms, and often the action shifts from the living room to the kitchen and back again.  If the action moves to the kitchen, what do the actors still in the living room do during that time?  Do they interact with each other?  Do they just sit there waiting for the action to return?  Or are these filmed separately and the actors aren't even on set?

If there’s anything an actor hates it’s to be on stage with nothing to do.  Those scenes are filmed separately.  If there are no cameras and no lines there are no actors. 

BethS wonders.

I wish I could see some of the old TV shows that were one season wonders, but too old for DVDs or not popular enough to rate a DVD - or didn't even get to show everything they had filmed because they were cut off early. I've recently dropped cable and have been enjoying the many old shows that ARE available. I love tracking acting careers by seeing some of their work from before they were famous. Wouldn't you think that the owners of these productions could make a bit of money making their shows from the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's available to stream?

This has been a crusade of mine for years — trying to get ALMOST PERFECT on a streaming service.  There are 34 episodes and it went into syndication twice. 

I guess the studios don’t want to spend whatever it costs to digitize these series. 

The other problem is that most of these short-run series are forgotten.   Studios don’t even know they’re in their library.  Or they don’t know where the negatives or final versions are stored.  

Same with movies.  How many movies from the 50’s-90’s no longer exist in any tangible form?  Fortunately, MANNEQUIN 2 is iconic and will run forever. 

And finally, from Matthew Davis:

I am curious about how professionals view others' projects. I listen to a fair amount of tv-based podcasts and they will often say something was directed or edited well. How do they determine that from viewing something they were not involved with? What kinds of things are they looking for?

It works both ways.  Being a writer and director I might admire things most people don’t see.  “That’s a great camera angle.” “What an elegant way to get out that exposition,” etc.

On the other hand, I’m often rewriting in my head.  “This is repetitious.” “There’s a better joke than that.”  “That was a weird edit.” 

I’m not looking to judge.  Things come across my line of vision and I react. 

That said, nothing pleases me more than a show, movie, or play that is so engrossing I can just lose myself in it. 

What’s your FQ?