Wednesday, June 29, 2022

EP281: Inside JEOPARDY

JEOPARDY has become a nation obsession. This week and next Ken talks to head researcher Suzanne Stone who was with the show for 38 years. Go behind-the-scenes and learn how the questions are assembled, the contestants are chosen, what happens during production, etc. It’s a show and podcast for smart people (y’know, like YOU).

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ELVIS: My review

People of different ages have very different opinions of Elvis Presley.  He’s been gone for like 45 years now — that’s a long time out of the public eye.  If you’re a boomer you lived through the phenomenon that was the King of Rock n’ Roll.  Gen X might better remember the old fat Vegas Elvis who became a caricature of himself, younger still might think of him as a joke who had many impersonators.  And I’m sure lots of twenty somethings  don’t even know who he is.  Or, at best, just some old geezer my grandparents liked.  

If you’re not that familiar with E (as his band, his bodyguards, and I called him), it’s hard to explain.  You see girls in vintage clothes going crazy over a performer and you go “huh?”  The beauty of the new Baz Luhrmann movie, ELVIS is that he really captures just what made Elvis Presley so extraordinary.  I foresee anyone watching this movie under 40 going “Okay, I get it now.” 

Granted, it’s hard to convey that sense of performing genius and its affect on people.  And to me, that’s what makes ELVIS so special.   And also why Austin Butler was so amazing as Elvis.  The moves, the charisma — he really delivered.   He’ll be going to the Oscars.  There have been countless Elvis movies and TV series and for my money, none of the other Hollywood “impersonators” could wear this young actor’s cape.

Along the way, you also see Elvis’ influences, his private side, and his evolution.  Since it’s Baz Luhrmann, the screen is constantly filled with a kaleidoscope of dazzling images and colors better suited for the big screen than your phone.  And you get Tom Hanks, as Colonel Tom Parker.  It’s fun to see him in a sleazy role (besides his most famous role —  that of Lawrence Bourne III in the iconic classic VOLUNTEERS).  The key relationship in the film is the Presley-Parker partnership.  Elvis certainly signed a Faustian contract.  The fame and fortune came at an enormous price and ultimately a tragic end.   It’s hard to fathom when you see the young vibrant Elvis of the comeback TV special of 1968 that less than ten years later he would be dead.   But such is the lore of this larger-than-life modern-day Icarus.  

Go see ELVIS.   How odd that it’s better to see a movie about Elvis than a movie starring Elvis. 

Monday, June 27, 2022

Writing a script in 45 minutes

This is the post I teased on Friday.

David Isaacs and I wrote an entire half-hour sitcom episode in 45 minutes.  It would have been less but our assistant couldn’t write that fast.  

Yes, some background is required.

In 1993 David and I created a little show for CBS called BIG WAVE DAVE’S.  You’ve all heard of it.  It’s become part of popular culture.

We were given six episodes in the summer.  The show premiered to excellent ratings (and should have been picked up), but CBS did give us three back up scripts in addition to the episodes we were producing.   We took one and assigned the other two to our other writers.  We worked out the stories with the other writers and they went off to write their episodes.  Meanwhile, David and I were busy writing the last episode of production.  We figured when we got the pick up for more episodes (which we stupidly thought was a slam dunk) we would produce those two scripts first, giving us time to write ours.

Then CBS canceled us.  Yes, we got good numbers but they didn’t need us.  In the fall they had blockbuster comedies by Bronson Pinchot, and their real ace in the hole — the hilarious Faye Dunaway.  Big surprise that neither of them got the numbers we did and neither of them lasted more than 13 weeks. (Dunaway didn't even last on her own show.) 

But CBS at least had to pay us for the backup scripts.  We put in the payment requests.  They said fine but we had to produce actual scripts.  No problem for the other writers — they had finished or were in the process of finishing their drafts.  But David and I had nothing.

I’m sure I mentioned this on countless occasions but the way David and I worked was to dictate scripts to a writers assistant who took shorthand then typed it up.  So we brought her in and said take down whatever we pitch.  We’re not going back.  The first line one of us says goes in.  And so we blazed through the script in 45 minutes.  The assistant said, “Do you guys want to proof it?” and we looked at her like she was crazy.  

So she typed it up, we turned it in, and got our money.  All well and good except I have a concern.

I imagine our script is in some file container somewhere buried in a basement.  I further imagine some apocalyptic event wiping out the population.  And then, thousands of years from now when the planet is repopulated someone will find that container and the only remaining trace of our career is the “Marshall’s Brother” episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S.   What a legacy.  50,000 years from now people will be saying “Boy, those guys were hacks.”  

And no, I don’t have a copy.  Why the hell would I? 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Weekend Post

As a long time radio guy I’ve pretty much done it all. I’ve been a disc jockey on numerous formats (Top 40, classic rock, rock of the ‘90s, oldies, chicken rock, country-western, standards, beautiful music, Broadway), talk show host, sportstalk show host, movie critic, newsman, field reporter, play-by-play, disaster coverage anchor, charity radiothon anchor, host of swap meets, and even co-host of a car talk show (despite the fact that I know nothing about cars).

And then, a few years ago, I did traffic reports.

At this point, let me pause and say part of the fun of radio is pulling pranks – either on other jocks, other stations, or the listeners. But for the most part these are done in small markets. There is too much money involved and too much scrutiny to be pulling shit on major stations in Los Angeles, New York, and Boca. If you get fired in Modesto you can probably find a comparable job. If you get canned in Chicago that’s a different story. Of course, I never adhered by that rule. Gee, and you wonder why I got fired from so many stations.  Okay, back to this weekend's post, but this paragraph will tie in.

From 2008-2010 you might remember I co-hosted Dodger Talk with Josh Suchon on KABC, Los Angeles. It was a fun gig and I only left to do play-by-play for the Mariners. In 2009, one of the salesmen at KABC sold a nightly traffic report to be done during each Dodger pre-game show. Traffic reports are big deals in LA where everyone commutes by car (despite the subway system that no one knows about and rarely goes anywhere anyone would want to go). Stations in LA boast “Traffic on the 2’s”, “Traffic on the 4’s”, “Traffic on the 8’s.” Some stations have helicopters. Smarter ones have helicopter sound effects.

So KABC sells a traffic report in the Dodger pre-game show, but who’s going to do it? The Dodgers announcers sure aren’t. I’d like to see the salesman who asks Vin Scully if he wouldn’t mind reporting on fender benders. Since I hosted Dodger Talk after the game they thought, why not dump it on Ken? I graciously declined. They said they’d pay me double my salary. I graciously accepted.

How do you do traffic reports? There are websites you log onto that have the latest traffic info for every major city. I’d log on, enter my password, click “Los Angeles” and cut and paste the most pressing traffic slowdowns. I asked the salesman how long the report should be and he said, “I don’t care. A minute. Forty-five seconds. Whatever. All I give a shit about is that you read the Sprint commercial at the end of it.”

So that’s what I did. It took maybe five minutes to prepare and a minute to deliver. I was usually reporting from the “Massive high-tech space age KABC traffic center sequestered in a secret location.”

Doing this was no problem during home games because I was at the stadium, but when the team was on the road and I wasn’t traveling, I’d have to go to the station to do them. I wanted to record a week’s worth at once and just air them over the course of seven days but that idea didn’t go over very well.

But I always wondered – was anybody actually listening to these traffic reports? One evening, late in the season, the Dodgers were in San Francisco and I was at the station preparing for my big minute. I was hanging out with Howard Hoffman, the production director, and I suggested a way to see if listeners paid any attention. He laughed and said, “you wouldn’t dare.” (This is where that paragraph on pranks pays off.) I gave him a sly smile and headed for my booth.

I opened the report by saying, “If you’re going to the Dodger game tonight, there’s a fifteen minute delay on the Golden Gate Bridge, the 880-Nimitz in the east bay reports slow and go from Concord…”

I just gave the San Francisco traffic report. Super straight, as if this were a San Francisco station. And I tagged it with the Sprint commercial.

Howard came into the booth hysterical. Now we waited to see how many phone calls we got. This was 6:45 in the evening, during the peak afternoon commute.

So how many did we get? I bet you’re ahead of me. That’s right. None. Not a single one. Zero. The big goose egg. No one from the station ever called me. No one from the Dodgers. Nothing.

The following year there was no traffic. I hope Sprint took that money and used it to buy another repeater tower.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions.  Also, I haven't posted a Natalie Wood photo in awhile. 

Mighty Hal starts us off:

Ken, how long did it usually take for you and David to write a television script? Did you ever take weeks or months to write one? What's your record for one written in the least amount of time?

That depends on where we were in our career.  Originally, it would take two weeks to write a half-hour script.  By the end, usually three or four days.  Sometimes two if we were really under the gun.    We wrote “Night at Rosie’s” for MASH, “Bar Wars” for CHEERS, and “Room Service” for FRASIER all in two days.  I don’t recommend it as a general policy. 

Movies obviously take several months.  I can write a first draft of a full-length play in a month if I have no other obligations. 

And then we once wrote a half-hour script in 45 minutes, which will be the topic of next Monday’s post.  (How’s that for a cliffhanger?)

Michael asks:

Ken, did you ever have to deal with a star insisting that they should get the funny line instead of a supporting player, and what did you do about it?

No.  That never happened and never would because we would have quit immediately.   We told our stars in advance we wouldn’t tolerate that for a second nor counting lines.  I worked too hard to write scripts actors would be proud of to put up with that shit.  

Fortunately, like I said, that never became an issue.  The actors that I worked with were very respectful.  That’s not to say they didn’t have script issues and believe me, we rewrote plenty and spent many long nights — but it was always in service of the show and making it better.  

From Bronson:

Looking back, was there a time when there was a clear zenith in your career?  I'm thinking a story like "I was working on X, consulting on Y, and in talks with Z about producing a movie.  Everyone wanted a piece of us."

If so, did you realize it at the time?

Over one utterly insane 24 hour period in 1995 CBS picked up my series, ALMOST PERFECT, I sold a spec screenplay, and was hired by the San Diego Padres to do play-by-play.  Hard to top that day.  And yes, I realized it at the time.  I should have bought a lottery ticket.

And finally, from SueK2001:

I did have a FQ that relates to MASH. I recently watched the episode where Houlihan loses her voice and can't speak. Is there a certain skill to playing "sick"? Was she sick during the shoot? Does acting hoarse hurt your voice in the long run?

There is definitely a skill to playing sick, especially if you also have to be funny.  The trick is not to go overboard and sound like Elmer Fudd.  

And yes, acting hoarse does put a strain on the vocal cords.  Do you know there is a woman who is a professional screamer?  That’s right, she can do various different screams and she is quite in demand.  She must have leather lungs.  But it saves the stars from straining their pipes.  

Too bad WHAT’S MY LINE? is not still on.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

EP280: How to write the script that gets you in the door

If you want to be a TV comedy writer you have to write a pilot on speculation. In this episode Ken will tell you just how to do that.

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A network note I respected

One time my writing partner, David Isaacs and I got a network note that we didn’t necessarily agree with.  These were second draft notes on a pilot we had written for Fox.  

The premise was sort of in the DEVIL WEARS PRADA arena.  A hugely successful but terribly intimating media giant queen hires three young bright assistants but plans to only keep two.  So it’s all about competition set in a swank New York skyscraper.  

The note from Fox was this:  Add a hot babe.  I was somewhat thrown by this. “Where?” I asked, “there’s no real organic reason for adding a bombshell to a sophisticated corporate environment.  These people are all Aaron Sorkins.”

They said, “We know.  She doesn’t have to be in the corporation. We don’t care where you put her, but we want a super hot girl in the show?”

“Why?” we asked.

Their answer:  “Because this is Fox.”  

I said, “Okay, I have to applaud you for your honesty.”   

It also ended all push-back.  Clearly this was not an argument we were going to win.  But at least we knew why. 

We decided she would could be the waitress at the first-floor coffee shop, which we had to invent.   We then took one of the scenes between the battling assistants and set it in the coffee shop, bringing the hot waitress over two or three times.  

Fox was happy.  The president didn’t pick up the show ultimately, but they were happy.  

A couple of years later NBC bought the pilot.  (One of my favorite things in the world — getting paid twice for the same script.)   They had one note.  Take out the useless hot waitress and do that scene up in the office building.  

I hate when you get notes with hidden agendas that networks try to cover up by saying they’re artistic concerns.  Fox at least told it like it is.  I have to tell you, it was a lot easier addressing that note when we knew the real reason for it. 

UPDATE:  You can watch the play adaptation of it here:

Monday, June 20, 2022

"Directed by James Burrows"

James Burrows is a TV legend.  He’s directed over a 1000 sitcom episodes (along with a feature and full length plays).  Credits include THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, TAXI, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS,  and WILL & GRACE.  As a director he was my mentor, and as a writer I have Jim Burrows to personally thank for getting on CHEERS.  Talk about a huge favor.

David Isaacs and I first met Jimmy (as we all call him, even at 80) in the mid 70’s when we were working together on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM.  Flash forward to early 1982 and I get a call out of the blue from Jimmy saying he and the Charles Brothers were going to be doing this new show on NBC called CHEERS and would we like to produce it with them?  We read the pilot script (so early a draft that Sam was still a former Patriots football player), loved it, met with the brothers, and thus began a nine-year relationship with CHEERS.  

Jimmy, quite simply, is the best sitcom director of all-time.  He has eleven Emmys and countless DGA awards (I say “countless” because I don’t know how many, but it’s a lot).  He’s currently making the rounds promoting the book, sharing a lot of the funny stories he’s experienced along the way.  

However, a couple of years ago Jimmy did my podcast and we got into a lot more detail on the process of directing.  It’s a fascinating interview well worth hearing or re-visiting.

Part one is here.

Part two is here.

You can order the book here.  I recommend it (and not just because I’m mentioned).

It’s been an honor to work with Jimmy Burrows.   Of those thousand shows he's directed, probably 50 are ones David and I wrote.  Each one is 10-25% better because he directed them. 

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Weekend Post


Happy Father’s Day (the most sacred holiday of the year)  I miss my father every day. He  was my hero, mentor, and best friend. And he was a damn good actor when playing against Nancy Travis.
I also want to wish a Happy Father's Day to my son, Matt and son-in-law, Jon.  Becca and Charlotte won the "Dad Lottery." 

Here are some pithy Father’s Day quotes:

“To be a successful father… there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.” -- Ernest Hemingway

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.” -- Bill Cosby

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” -- William Shakespeare

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." – Mark Twain

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.” -- Charles Wadsworth

And finally, a salute to Screaming Jay Hawkins. Screaming Jay was a r&b/blues singer. His big hit was “I Put a Spell on You” in which he came out of a coffin. The man was a crowd pleaser. And also a lady pleaser it seems. Upon his death when it was time to divvy up the estate it was discovered he had 57 children. Screaming Jay will not be saluted on Planned Parenthood day.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.  Note to my family:  I hate power tools.  I'm more of a "free trip to Europe after COVID" kind of guy. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

Friday Questions

Time for some Friday Questions.  What’s yours?

Someone who calls himself Malcolm Burns asks:

Ken have you ever tried acting in something?

“Tried” is the operative word here.  Yes… sorta.   David Isaacs and I wrote ourselves small parts in two series that will never be seen again — OPEN ALL NIGHT and THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES.  

In one case I had to deliver a joke line while walking.  So you know I had chops.  

But it was so clear that “real” actors are better.  And I never had a burning desire to be on stage or in front of the camera myself.   To be honest, the two weeks I was a “cast member” I was bored most of the time.  You sit around all day waiting to rehearse your scene for ten minutes.  

I like being in the part of the industry I’m actually good at.  And I felt a little guilty both times I “acted” that I was taking the job away from someone who did this for a living and deserved the role way more than me.

JS wonders:

What is the best concert you have been to?

I’ve been lucky enough to see some great ones.  The Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Harry Chapin (an amazing performer), Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, Bobby Darin, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Manhattan Transfer, Elvis Costello, James Brown, Tina Turner, Ringo Starr’s all-stars, the Beach Boys (with Brian Wilson), Brian Wilson (without the Beach Boys), Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Sedaka, Jerry Lee Lewis, Barbara Cook, Idina Menzel, Diana Ross, Cher, and Linda Eder (a SPECTACULAR singer).  

But if I had to pick one it would be “the Boss.”  Bruce Springsteen was amazing.  I see him every chance I get and am never disappointed.  

Brian Phillips queries:

Were there any sound stages that were/are set up oddly?

Oh God, yes.  I helped out on a pilot in the late '80s that was filmed on the biggest stage in Hollywood.  It was the sound stage where Coppola built the entire Vegas Strip for ONE FROM THE HEART.  It has two area codes. 

In this case it was used for a multi-cam sitcom.  Usually you’ll have bleachers for 200 people.  That’s what they constructed.  But the stage was so big it was literally two rows on 100.  This was also in the days before monitor assists so the audience could only watch the stage.  

There were a bunch of scenes and no more than maybe 35 people at any one time could see what was going on.  

It was an utter disaster.  

You could easily fit three normal sound stages into that one.  It was at the old Zoetrope Studio on Santa Monica Blvd.  

And finally, from Stephen Cudmore:

Are there writers out there that turn in mediocre work, but that work so fast they consistently get work just because the showrunner knows they will hit the deadline? Even good shows seem to have "filler" episodes that aren't up to their usual standards.

To my knowledge no, although there may be some instances where a show runner wants to hire his friend who may not be very good.   

It’s not such a unique skill.  If the goal is simply to write it fast without regard to quality pretty much any seasoned writer can do that.  

The real skill comes when you can write good or even great scripts rapidly.  Larry Gelbart, Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelley — I tip my hat to you guys.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

EP279: The Art of Radio Drama

A new podcast series called “The Big Lie” starring Jon Hamm drops this week. We’ll meet the creators and learn what goes into creating an entire world based only on sound and your imagination.

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The Frasier episode a reader "despised"

One of my readers commented recently that he despised a FRASIER episode my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote called “Wheels of Fortune.”   If I’m being honest, I didn’t love it either (I didn’t despise it but it’s sure not one of my favorites).   

There are many reasons why an episode doesn’t work.  Writing is certainly one of them.  And I will admit there are episodes of ours I don’t love that I look back and think the script is at fault. 

In this case I blame the actor.  I rarely do that, but I honestly believe had the actor played the character the way we envisioned and wrote him the episode would have played waaaaay better.   And the irony is, it wasn’t just any actor.

It was Michael Keaton.

Initially we were thrilled that he signed aboard.  A little backstory:  This was the fall of 2001.  The story had been broken and David Angell was slated to write it.  He then perished in one of those doomed flights on 9-11.   Peter Casey & David Lee asked me and David to write it, which we felt was a tremendous honor.  

The character was supposed to be a charismatic televangelist who Frasier suspected was a fraud.   We knew that Keaton could play comedy.  We saw this character as somewhat of a throwback to the character he played in NIGHT SHIFT — a freewheeling unpredictable high energy scamp.  

If we were going to use Michael Keaton we wanted him to really shine.  And I thought we wrote the hell out of that role.  But Michael chose to play him very internal and intense.  We had a terrific director, Jerry Zaks (who continues to win Tonys on Broadway), and he was just as frustrated.  Nothing anyone could say would dissuade him from playing the part as if it were his tortured Bruce Wayne.  

My opinion of course, but that show should have played better.  I think if we weren’t committed to a movie star, if we just had a guest actor who was refused to budge from this choice we would have fired him and gotten someone else.  

That said, I haven’t seen it for years since I don’t like it.  Who knows?  I might see it now and not dislike it as much.  In any event, I do like the residuals I receive from it.  So keep wheeling it out. 

UPDATE:  This is one time where I'm happy so many of you disagreed with me.  As a writer, my goal is for YOU to like it; not me.   So if you thought the episode worked and Keaton played it perfectly -- GREAT.  I hope the majority of people feel that way about a number of shows I wrote that are flying around on various platforms. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

My misspent youth

Longtime reader, Mike Bloodworth, asked a FQ that’s become an entire post.

It was:

What were you into when you were a kid? Did you read MAD magazine and/or the NATIONAL LAMPOON? Were you a comic book guy? What were your Saturday morning viewing habits? Bugs and Daffy?

MAD Magazine was my bible growing up.  Both for the gags and some spectacular cartoonists.  Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Wallace Woods, Don Martin, Al Jaffe — the list goes on.  

In college I graduated to NATIONAL LAMPOON.  They were so subversive.  I bet 90% of the brilliant stuff they did back then society would not allow them to do today — which is a cryin’ shame.  

I also loved SPY Magazine.  

For single-panel cartoons there was always the New Yorker, but in those days there were lots of other magazines that featured cartoons.  ESQUIRE, PLAYBOY (Yeah, that’s why I wanted to get my hands on a PLAYBOY — to see the cartoons), LOOK, and quite a few more.

And since I was a nerd (which I’m sure comes as a complete shock to you), I was a big comic book and comic strip fan.  

Other than Batman and Superman, the comics I gravitated towards focused more on being funny.  I loved the classics:  POPEYE, PEANUTS, HI & LOIS, BLONDIE, SNUFFY SMITH, BRINGING UP FATHER, WIZARD OF ID, BROOM HILDA, ALLEY OOP, and others.  

TV cartoons:  Crusader Rabbit was my favorite, followed by Rocky & Bullwinkle.  They were funny and clever and contained a lot of humor that I knew was over my head, but I liked a show I could watch with Dad.  

I loved Looney Tunes waaaay more than Disney cartoons.  They were edgier, less polished, and way more inspired.  I still love Warner Brother cartoons.

The original Max Fleisher Popeye cartoons were the best.  All that followed — the Paramount era, etc. — sucked in my opinion.  

I also liked Mighty Mouse and some of the Hanna-Barbera stuff.  The first year of both THE FLINTSTONES and THE JETSONS were pretty terrific and then they fell off quickly.  Oh, I also liked TOP CAT.  

Other cartoonists I admired:  Al Hirschfeld who was a God, Virgil Patch (VIP), R. Crumb, Charles Addams, Walt Kelly (POGO), Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Rube Goldberg, Rick Griffen who drew for surf magazines, and a few political cartoonists like Paul Conrad in the LA TIMES.   And I’m sure I’m leaving out ten more.  

So to answer your question, Mike:  All of the above. 

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Weekend Post

This is yet another sordid true story from my early radio career – those halcyon days in the ‘70s when I bounced around the country playing top 40 hits as Beaver Cleaver.   It's a story that in today's world could NEVER happen. 

Top 40 stations back then courted teenagers. So a number of our promotions centered around high schools.

We jocks would host Friday night dances and pep rallies. Those were fine, but at a couple of stations we put together a basketball team made up of the disc jockeys and we would play local high school faculties. Those were brutal.

First of all, out of seven disc jockeys there was maybe one who could dribble. The most exercise most of these guys ever got was rolling joints and opening pop tops.

Meanwhile, these faculties would put together six or seven decent athletes. It’s bad enough they embarrassed us in front of crowds of two thousand or so, but invariably there was one asshole gym teacher who took it upon himself to be Dennis Rodman. He’d elbow us, clock us the face with a forearm and really prove himself to be a big man by outplaying seven stoned undernourished sad sacks.

But the creepiest promotion I ever did was when I was a jock on KYA in San Francisco in 1974. Dean Goss, one of my fellow jocks on the station I’m sure can confirm this story. He gave me shit about it for months.

Here’s the contest: High school girls were asked to send in postcards and I would take one of them to her spring prom. Can you imagine? What parent would let his 16 year-old daughter go out with a 24 year-old disc jockey? I happened to be a nice guy, but on the scale of depravity, disc jockey is just below sex offender.

A winner was selected. I had to rent a tuxedo and buy a corsage. By the way, I loathed proms when I was in high school. I asked if the station was going to provide a limo or some cool mode of transportation? No. I had to drive her in my beat up Mustang.

Not being that familiar with San Francisco at the time it took me twenty minutes to find her place. It turned out she was very sweet.  Honestly, my heart went out to all the girls who entered this contest. Obviously you don’t resort to this if guys from your class ask you to the prom. So it was all the Janis Ian “At Seventeen” unpopular girls who vied for this “honor.”

The prom itself could not have been more awkward. I knew no one of course, and all the kids eyed me like I was some pervert. The teacher/chaperones really viewed me with contempt. I’m sure there was a gym teacher who wanted to clothesline me.  WKRP IN CINCINNATI missed a bet not doing this episode.   My date was very shy and I think more uncomfortable in this environment than I was. Had she been enjoying herself I would have stuck it out, but after a half hour I asked if she wanted to ditch this place and get something to eat? She was so relieved.

I took her to dinner at the Hungry Tiger (a nice lobster place – you can’t show up at Denny’s in formal attire) and probably had her home before ten. I mean, what do you talk about? “So, how is Algebra this year?” “Who’s your favorite Osmond brother?”

It was the only time a date said to me, “This was really a bad idea” and I didn’t take it personally.

The station was mad because I didn’t come back with a prom photo. The whole point was to put that on the cover of their weekly survey they distributed to record stores. What good was the promotion if they couldn’t promote it? The promo director was so mad he wouldn’t reimburse me for the dinner.

The truth is I did have the prom photo. But my date had been through enough. I could at least spare her this.

I can only hope her yearbook showed the same discretion.

That was my last prom. It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have asked me to hand out candy at a middle school from the station van.


Friday, June 10, 2022

Friday Questions

Back with you with Friday Questions.  What’s yours?

Cedricstudio is up first with a MASH FQ:

Why was it decided Colonel Potter would be an artist in his spare time? I would assume that writing an art session into the script would be time consuming and expensive since it required the prop department to paint an entire portrait each time. Also, wouldn't there be very limited story points you can build around sitting for a portrait? (Although the writers did knock out some good scripts around that premise). Why turn this military man into an artist, and did it ever create production problems to paint all those portraits?

To add dimension to the character.  

We didn’t want to just make him a military martinet.   Having him be interested in art and painting also allowed us a hobby that was visual.  Same with his love of horses.  You could see him ride or paint.  It’s not like he collected stamps.

TBaughman queries:

Do you and your writing partner still work on creating new shows/pilots (or write episodes on existing shows)? That would be terrific— you’ve done such great work on some iconic shows, it would be wonderful to see more.

No on writing episodes for current shows. The 200 or so we’ve already written will suffice.

We’re also not actively developing pilots.  David is the Chairman of the TV writing department at USC, which keeps him more than a little busy.  And I have my various projects.   But if one of us does come up with something the other sparks to we’re not averse to writing it and seeing where it goes.  Stay tuned.

From Powerhouse Salter:

Who auditions and chooses the voice actors when an American sitcom gets dubbed into another language for a non-English viewing audience? Do the original actors have any say in the choice?

I can’t say for sure, but I assume foreign distributors are in charge of hiring the actors, usually from the various countries. 

I do know this — the originals actors have absolutely no say in this.  And to be honest, I can’t think of a single original actor who has expressed anything more than idle curiosity in what they sound like in Urdu. 

And finally, from Daniel:

Lots of TV series have segued into movies with their original casts (Star Trek, Sex in the City, The Simpsons, The X-Files). During its peak (maybe during the summer hiatus of any of its first seven seasons), do you think Frasier (my favorite series) could have worked as a movie? Could the premise sustain itself as a 90-minute farce? Or was it designed so specifically to be seen in concentrated 22-minute segments? As someone who was once charged with crafting stories for these characters, do you think the extra time would open up new storytelling possibilities? Or would it just feel narratively flabby?

I think the half-hour format was ideal for FRASIER.  

That said…

I don’t think adapting it into a movie would work.  But I could definitely see a stage play.   The only thing is you would have to get the original cast.  Otherwise, it’s dinner theatre.   And I don’t think that will ever happen.  

When Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were starring in THE ODD COUPLE back in the ‘70s, Tony, Jack, and the rest of the TV cast did the Neil Simon stage play at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles.  I saw it.  It felt like the best written ODD COUPLE episode ever made.  

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

EP278: Overcoming Writers Block

What writer hasn’t faced this? Ken offers tips and reassurance to overcoming this annoying or even crippling problem for writers.

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The Laurie Metcalf "Pepsi Challenge"

Laurie Metcalf is one of the funniest actors on the planet…

When given good material.

The value of writing is never more apparent than in the contrast of the characters Laurie plays in HACKS and on THE CONNERS.  

This pains me because I know some of the writers on THE CONNERS and have admired their work in the past.  

But take the "Pepsi Challenge" (for those old enough to remember what that was):

Watch Laurie play this road manager for several episodes of the second season of HACKS (on HBO Max) and you will be laughing out loud.  Everything out of her mouth is funny.  Her attitude is hilarious.  And she has the chops to absolutely hit it out of the park.

Then watch her on THE CONNERS (on ABC).  Everything is forced.  The laugh track is cranked to high.  Such a waste of a brilliant talent.  It’s like a $500,000 Maserati being asked to deliver for Postmates.  I will grant you that there were times on ROSEANNE that she shined, but lately she can’t rise above the material.

Writing is kinda sorta a little important.  

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Summer announcement

I’m taking a little summer break.  For the summer months I won’t be posting anything new on Tuesdays.  

I’ve got a very busy summer planned — family trips, going to Cape May, New Jersey to see my play AMERICA’S SEXIEST COUPLE (you can order tickets here), keeping up my podcast, contributing more cartoons for the New Yorker, writing a new play, and most important — playing with my grandchildren.  

But rest assured all your favorite features remain — Friday Questions, and… hmmm, that’s my only feature.  Otherwise, the usual rants, ramblings, and photos of Natalie Wood.  

Hope you have a great summer.  Cape May is lovely this time of year — the jewel of the Jersey Shore.  Come visit this July. 

Monday, June 06, 2022

Sad Coms

A recent article I read said that Netflix no longer was interested in developing “Sad Coms.”  Now that’s a term I had never heard, but its meaning is clear.  And maybe puts a finger on why I don’t like many current sitcoms.  

At the heart of these shows is a character or characters who are miserable.  We’re supposed to find their struggles, most of them futile, amusing.  The various ways they fail or fuck themselves over is the path to comedy.  

I acknowledge it may be a generational thing, but I tend to find those shows depressing.  Yes, there needs to be conflict, yes your protagonist needs to struggle, but as I writer I’ve always felt it was my job to love my characters.  They could be horribly flawed, but like a proud father, I had to love them.  

I don’t get the sense that the writers of “sad coms” love their characters.  They’re all too delighted to humiliate them for our entertainment.  So there’s a certain mean-spirited quality that goes into the writing.

All too often characters are so self-destructive that you lose empathy for them.  

I do think this is one of the reasons why TED LASSO was such a hit.  To center the show around a hugely positive character was brilliant.  Netflix and other platforms are seeing that there is a limited appeal for “sad coms” while brighter, life-affirming shows are attracting viewers.  

We’re all engulfed in such dark times.  Why must all our comedy be dark as well?  Again, I’m admittedly from a different era, but I miss sitcoms with characters I care about, grounded in humanity, that make me genuinely laugh.   Just for fun, how about developing a few of those? 

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Weekend Post

Guys, how’s this for a sure fire pick-up line?  Appropriate even in these #YouToo days. 

Margaret Colin is a fine actress. You’ve seen her on many things I’m sure. Recently you've seen her in THE GOOD WIFE, NURSE JACKIE, and GOSSIP GIRL. She’s been in INDEPENDENCE DAY, THREE MEN AND A BABY, and SOMETHING WILD among other features. In the late 80s and early 90s she was very hot in television. She starred in such series as FOLEY SQUARE, LEG WORK, SIBS, and CHICAGO HOPE.

Her first series was FOLEY SQUARE, a comedy that aired on CBS in 1985 right after THE MARY SHOW, which was our series (and could have easily been entitled FOLLY SQUARE). Neither show fared well and by early ’86 they were both cancelled.

Flash forward a few months. I’m on vacation at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara. Hanging out at the pool. And I see Margaret Colin. Actually, every guy saw Margaret Colin. (Back in those days we were still allowed to look.) 

At one point we’re both in the pool. I swim up to her and with a panache that the Fonz himself would approve of, say, “Hi there. Y’know, you and I have something in common.” She rolls her eyes. Another schmuck. “What?” she asks warily.

I said, “You and I both killed Wednesday night for CBS”.

She was not expecting that. She laughed, I explained who I was and we had a nice chat bitching about the network.

A few years later she starred in SIBS for ABC and I did punch-up for that series. She told me that was the greatest pick-up line she had ever heard (and I’m sure she’s heard many).

So fellas, as a public service I offer the line to you. Best of luck with it. Let me know how it goes... with both women and HR.


Friday, June 03, 2022

Friday Questions

June already where you are?  It is here.   Let’s kick off the month with Friday Questions.

Jahn Ghalt is first.

If, Ken, you had tapes of old story conferences - what interesting items would you expect to find - perhaps some triggers for VOL 2 of your memoir?

It would really be to hear great minds at work at their peak.  On our various tapes were Danny Arnold, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Gary David Goldberg, Hugh Wilson, Gene Reynolds, Allan Katz, Don Reo.   Even though you may not know some or any of the names, trust me, each one was comedy royalty.  

In addition to being funny as hell, you’d learn how stories were constructed.  It would be a chance to be a fly on the wall.  

I don’t know if my cassettes even exist.  Maybe someday I’ll stumble upon them.  What a treasure if I do.  Stay tuned.  

Douglas Trapasso asks:

If you could go back in time, would you have OKed the post-game show for the Cheers finale?

Well, I wouldn’t waste time travel on that, but yes, I’ve talked about this before.  The cast was a collective emotional wreck and to go on live national television in that state was just asking for disaster.  And it was.  My God.  

But it was a perfect storm.  Someone should have foreseen that the actors would not be in any shape to go on a live broadcast.  If, for no other reason, all the alcohol consumed between 5 pm and 11:30 pm.   

Also, Jay Leno was new to hosting THE TONIGHT SHOW and lost control of it quickly.  I’ve always maintained if Letterman were running that show things would have been way different.  He would have corralled them in or insisted they be removed.  

FQer queries:

Can you talk about writing for Klinger on "M*A*S*H" and the changes in that character? I find him the most interesting character in the series, and Farr an actor who can do anything.

We certainly had the perfect actor for the role.  And Jamie was a joy to write for.

The danger of that character was becoming one note.  How many dresses can you put him in?  

The two things we held to with his character was that he always played totally straight and that push-came-to-shove he was dedicated to the mission of saving and preserving life.  He never put his goal of getting out of the army over his responsibility to the cause.  All of the medical personnel knew they could depend on him, and that was important.  

After we ran out of dresses we decided to have Klinger try different crazy schemes like posing as an aluminum siding salesman (which my father did for a brief time in his youth) or threatening to set himself on fire.  

And after a few years that started growing old.  We left when Radar did so I can’t speak for the last few seasons when he was promoted to company clerk.  Falling in love with a Korean woman was a terrific arc the writers came up with for him in those later years.  

And finally, from chuckcd:

Is it cheaper to produce a show for a streaming service than it is for a network or cable channel?

The streamers and cable might get a little break from the WGA and DGA in terms of minimums.  But by and large the cost of production has more to do with above-the-line salaries and where you produce the show.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

EP277: TV Today and Tomorrow

More with 35-year network and media vet, Preston Beckman. The future of sitcoms, networks, streaming services, the Super Bowl, various platforms — all discussed right here. The ever-changing world of television is changing ever-faster these days. Stay on top of it with Ken & Preston Beckman.

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After Shows

I’ve grown to hate After Shows.  These are the equivalent of theatre talk-backs after zeitgeist television series.  Usually they run for a half-hour following the episode.  The intent is to provide background and inside info on the making of the episode and series, but in practically all cases it has evolved in something quite different.

Now it’s just one big love-fest.  Thirty minutes of oozing self congratulations.  Actors, writers, and directors are just fawning over one another, usually moderated by a wide-eyed fanboy host.  

The BETTER CALL SAUL one following its midseason finale was just unwatchable.  Every actor was a genius, every screen moment was handled with such amazing sensitivity and depth.  Those camera angles were phenomenal.  And the words — oh those words.  Meanwhile, as an ardent fan of the show I learned nothing except how monumentally impressed they were with each other and themselves.  

I’ve always been a believer that shows should not be self-congratulatory. It’s way classier when you're not.  Let others praise you.  Don’t praise yourself.  At least not in public.  At wrap parties, sure.  When negotiating new contracts, absolutely.  But don’t create a whole show to take bows for thirty minutes.  

That said, a breakdown of the episode, why certain story directions were chosen, nuggets relating to the difficulty of shooting (e.g. it was 35 degrees the day we shot the swimming pool scene, there was a wardrobe malfunction, etc.), fun anecdotes that happened along the way — fans would eat that up.   Do that and then WE’LL tell you how good you are.