Wednesday, August 31, 2022

EP290: Meet Documentary Filmmaker John Scheinfeld

John Scheinfeld has been producing, writing, and directing documentaries for twenty years. Learn about the fascinating world of documentary films along with some great stories.

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A learning tip

I bumped into a former USC student of mine this weekend.  I had taught a lecture class with a hundred students called “Foundations of Comedy.”  It was a mixture of lectures and screenings.  I taught this course once a year for two years.  This student was in the second class.

For the first class I allowed the students to use their laptops.  In theory, they were taking notes.  I gave a final I thought was ridiculously easy, but what the hell?  It’s supposed to be a fun class, and I didn’t care if everyone got A’s.  Much to my surprise, a good portion of the class did horrible on the final.  B’s and C’s.  If you were awake in class you should have aced it.  

The next year I did not allow computers.  There was a lot of grumbling.  This former student said, “Yes, the class was pretty pissed off at you.”  But what I said to them was “People got C’s last year.  And you have to be a fucking moron to get a C in the Foundations of Comedy.”   This former student said people were unaccustomed to taking notes longhand. This apparently was a major hardship. 

I gave the exact same final.  Practically everybody got an A.   

What a difference it makes when you’re not texting, playing video games, watching TikTok, surfing the web, competing in on-line poker.

So if you’re currently a student, you might give this some thought — especially if you’re currently reading this while in a Calculus class supposedly taking notes. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Happy Birthday, Annie

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my amazing, funny, talented, compassionate daughter, Annie.  She’s also a spectacular wife, writer, and now mother.  

You have enriched my life in so many ways and I can not love you enough.  

I celebrate your many accomplishments and cheer every time I see your name on television.  My sincere hope is that soon I am known in the industry simply as “Annie Levine’s father.”

Love always,

Annie Levine’s father

Monday, August 29, 2022

Another sign of the changing times

There’s a report that NBC might give back the 10:00 hour to local affiliates and only program two hours of primetime TV a night, a la Fox.  

So let’s see.  First the networks gave up on Saturday night — now showing reruns and newsmagazines and sports.  Then they mostly threw in the towel on Friday nights.   And now NBC is considering dropping 1/3 of it's primetime programming.  

We’re seeing the slow end of broadcast network television as we know it (or soon — knew it).  I would be surprised if there are broadcast networks in three-to-five years.  And if there are, they will just be replaying content that originated on their streaming services (or, in the case of Fox — Tubi).  New NBC shows will premier on Peacock first, not the other way around. 

Cable channels are also in a precarious place.  Cable customers no longer want to pay for channels they don’t watch so they bundle.  As a result, a lot of the niche and fringe cable channels could soon go belly-up.   I'm waiting for the Hallmark Channel to show their Christmas movies all year long. 

It’s the wild wild west out there, folks.  Industry folks were certain streaming was the future, but once Netflix suffered a stock free-fall earlier this year, suddenly streaming no longer looks like such a sure thing.

So what WILL be the future of delivering entertainment to your TV, phone, car, whatever?   Now THERE’S a cliffhanger.  

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Weekend Post


Tourism is always big in Los Angeles, especially during the summer. Local residents on the Westside are used to seeing kids stand out on Sunset Blvd. selling maps to the stars’ homes. Hollywood locals take it for granted that a thousand nimrods in Bermuda shorts will be milling about Grauman’s Chinese Theater and getting selfies with Spiderman or a guy dressed like Marilyn Monroe. And double-decked tour buses clogging up left hand lanes is a city staple.

But this year, for some reason, I am seeing way more tour buses. It’s almost one-to-one Hollywood Tour vans and parking enforcement vehicles. Why there are so many more tour buses these days I do not know. Especially since…

There is nothing to see.

Not really.

One tour takes you by the homes of the stars. But stars don’t live in Beverly Hills anymore. They used to. You could drive by Jack Benny’s house, and Lucille Ball’s, and Ronald Colman’s but the chances of actually seeing them have breakfast or watering the lawn is rather slim since they’re dead. And how many of you even know who Ronald Colman was? You’re driving by lawyers’ homes and guys who own furniture warehouses.

Stars live secluded in canyons and beach colonies and Upper Manhattan. Their compounds are gated. And would you even know the difference? If a tour guide took you to Bel Air, pointed to a gate, and said this is where Tom Cruise lives, how would you know it’s not really where the owner of Starlight Tours lives? Or a military academy?

As for stars’ hangouts – you don’t need a tour bus. Just go to Maestro’s or Spago’s or any super expensive chic eatery. The classic Hollywood haunts like Chasen’s, Perino’s, the Brown Derby, Scandia, Le Dome, Morton’s – they’re long gone. Sure, you can still go to Pink’s Hot Dogs as Orson Welles frequently did, but you’ll suffer the same fate as him. Musso & Frank’s is still open, and it’s worth seeing, but the only movie stars you’ll see there now are celebrating their 105th birthdays. Over the years I’ve seen dozens of big stars in LA restaurants, but they’ve all closed. Perhaps I should start a tour: “Where Robert Duvall, LaToya Jackson, and Dustin Hoffman used to eat.”

Will you see stars shopping in Beverly Hills? Maybe. You’ll more likely see their personal assistants.

These tours also show you “locations” from movies and TV shows. The truth is after a hundred years of movie making, every street and location has been used at least once. So the Coffee Bean you’re in right now was once a hamburger stand used in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. The street you just crossed was seen in an Allstate commercial back in 1967. The actual house used on BLESS THIS HOUSE might be right around the corner. Just assume it is.

LA is a great vacation destination.  Lots of fun things to see and do.   Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, the Venice Beach walk, Universal, the Grove, Farmer's Market, LACMA, Costco. If you want to see television shows you can write to the networks.  TV tickets are free.  And there are kiosks in tourist locations like the Grove that offer these tickets.  Some shows that were locked down due to the pandemic are starting to welcome studio audiences again. 

But the bottom line is this: You want to see big movie stars? You want to see A-list celebrities? Come back in the winter and go to a Lakers game.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Friday Questions

Wrapping up August with Friday Questions.

Kendall Rivers leads off.

Been watching a lot of Cheers and Frasier lately and I'm curious about writing for Frasier Crane in both shows. Which version of the character did you and David enjoy writing for more?

We wrote him the same way in both series.  I’ve told this story before (by now I've told every story before) but as FRASIER progressed his speech got more florid.  David and I got an assignment and decided to write him the way we always had and figured they could just add the curlicues if they felt they needed to.  When we turned in our script the shows creators said to the staff “This is Frasier.  We’ve drifted away a little.  Go back to this.”  

But as a character, Frasier was certainly richer and more layered in his own series.  

Brian Phillips queries:

Reading about the Dick Van Dyke Show, a show was in rehearsal and word got to the set, President Kennedy was shot. Carl Reiner stopped the show and sent everyone home.

Has there ever been a case where a show you were involved with stopped rehearsals?

Yes.  David Isaacs and I had written an episode of BECKER that was in production when 9-11 happened.   

As with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, everyone went home for a few days and the show was not shot in front of a studio audience.  I believe it’s the only episode of BECKER not shot with an audience.  

By the way, it’s the episode where Becker has to take an MRI.  The episode is entitled "Get Me Out of Here" if you want to run to whatever platform it's on and watch it. 

Matt asks:

What do you do when you write for a specific actor, but then the actor becomes unavailable?

We were watching COACH one night and it hit me that Hayden Fox sounds like, acts like, probably could've been played by Dabney Coleman rather than Craig T. Nelson. So I looked it up and sure enough, Barry Kemp wrote the part for Coleman. But when it came time to do the show, Coleman was already cast for BUFFALO BILL.

So as a writer or even Executive Producer (or both), what do you do when you write a part for an actor and that actor is no longer available? Do you go out and find a similar actor (as they did with Craig T. Nelson) or do you rewrite the part in a more general way to attract a wider range of actors

You have two choices.  Find another actor who you can slot in, or rewrite to fit the actor you do hire.  

We were casting a pilot once and wrote a part for a specific actor in mind.  He came in and read and pretty much read it exactly as we pictured it.  When he left, David and I turned to each other and said, “I think we can get someone better.”  And we did.

Finally, from Rappin' Rodney:

Ken, what's your take on shows/movies that have long, slow parts? When they linger on a scene or image for far too long without anything further in it that moves the plot forward. What is the writer/director trying to tell us? Is it just to add atmosphere? Is it ever just trying to pad screentime? I think what bugs me most about those parts is not just the slow scene itself, but the implication that as the viewer there's something wrong with me if I don't want to sit through it: that I'm some ADD-addled teen that can't appreciate "art." But if there's a chance that's true, what art am I missing?

For the most part I think it’s indulgent and pretentious.  BREAKING BAD established that and it was fine and somewhat unique for the first few times.  But I didn’t tune in to see the New Mexico desert.  One or two quick establishing shots and I’m like “I’ve got it. Get to the story.”   

That’s one of the reasons I can’t stand Terrance Malick movies.  They’re just filled with long atmospheric beauty shots that mean nothing.  It seems stupid to have to pay to be bored.  

What’s your Friday Question? 


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

EP289: Comedy Writer Earl Pomerantz

This week Ken replays his interview with Earl Pomerantz from 2018. Earl was an Emmy winning comedy writer who sadly passed away in 2020. He was insightful, very funny, with a unique voice. With appreciation — here again is Earl Pomerantz.

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Everything old is brought back as new

One night last week I went on DEADLINE, the Hollywood trade site.  And here’s what I learned.

There’s a new cast in the Broadway revival of FUNNY GIRL.

There may be a revival of Reba McEntire’s REBA.

An ALLY MCBEAL sequel is in the works.

Warner Brothers is looking to another OCEAN’S ELEVEN reboot.  

There’s a FERRIS BEULLER’S DAY OFF spinoff being developed.  

Casting updates are announced on the SEX AND THE CITY sequel.  

Can the entertainment industry do anything original anymore?   There is so much product out there that networks and studios and Broadway feel they need a recognizable brand going in.  But it comes at the expense of original material.  

Still, if I’m being honest, I can’t wait for the sequel of JUSTIFIED.  

Monday, August 22, 2022

Room writing vs. real writing

Chris asked a Friday Question that became an entire Monday and Tuesday post.

I know you're a big believer in the writer's room, as is Chuck Lorre. However, he recently discussed the risk of losing one's one voice in that system with regard to going back on writing on his own for The Kominsky Method

He describes many frustrating moments during the writing of The Kominsky Method when he was ready to throw his hands up and quit, because he had thought he'd lost the skill of writing on his own. What's your take on that? Is it like riding a bike or is there a real risk there?

Well, first of all there’s no denying Chuck Lorre’s success with the gangbang method of writing of sitcoms.  No one writer does a draft.  Everything is room written.  And for Chuck it's worked out spectacularly.  So you can't knock success. 

But I hate it.

I certainly don’t mind room writing when rewriting scripts.  And considering the time crunch (you don’t go home until the script is finished because the cast arrives at 9 the next morning), it’s an effective and efficient way of working.

But not for first drafts.  You hope as a writer you’re more than just a room joke guy, and essentially that’s all everyone is reduced to in a gangbang environment.  The stories are flimsy at best and there is rarely any genuine emotion.  So it’s just a joke fest.  And Chuck Lorre shows are funny.  He hires good joke writers.

But to be a writer means you have to have your voice.  You have to wrestle and solve story problems.  You can’t just sit back and let the other 10 people in the room solve it. You have to come up with that big joke to button a scene.  You have to orchestrate that nice moment between your two leads that feels organic and earned.  When the draft is too long you have to decide what to cut.   When you hit a roadblock you have to navigate around it yourself. 

I remember when I was directing DHARMA & GREG, another Chuck Lorre show that was gangbanged, I talked to one of the writers at the wrap party and he was very concerned that after two years of this he didn’t know he could still write a script on his own.  It’s a real concern.  And no, it’s not like riding a bicycle.  You’ve got to tackle the script yourself and that takes a certain amount of confidence — confidence that is undercut by two years of doing nothing more than pitching jokes.  

There are some great room writers who excel at pitching jokes during writing sessions.  They’re fast and funny and prolific.  Some of them write horrible drafts.  (They’re like basketball players who can shoot but not play defense.)   And it’s great to have one or two on your staff.

But there are other writers who are uncomfortable in the room but turn out great drafts.  Shy writers like Neil Simon.  I also want two of those on my staff.   And if I had to choose of the two which was the more valuable — on my staff it would be the Neil Simon writer.   I’m liable to get more heart, and depth in their scripts.  Jokes we can add.

And the writers will grow and become better the more drafts they write.  Another part of my job as a show runner is to groom writers.  

Unfortunately, I don’t have a show and seriously doubt if I will in the future.  So it’s just one man’s opinion.  But you asked.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Weekend Post

I think I need therapy based on a very disturbing dream I had last night. (No, it wasn't that you didn't buy my book.)

First, I should mention that I’m not a great dancer. You know when clothes get clogged in your washing machine during the rinse cycle and the whole machine shakes so violently you think it’s going to break? That’s me during slow dances.

But back to dreams. They’re supposed to provide you with wish fulfillment. You’re making love to that one unobtainable person you lust after. You’re a superhero and you can fly. You’re at a Mariners World Series game (okay, that’s maybe too crazy). In any event, unconscious desires often get played out in the privacy and safety of dreams (your Democrat friends are not going to kill you because Marjorie Taylor Greene is your nightly dominatrix).

Anyway, last night I dreamed I was at some party in a ballroom and there was a large dance floor. Very SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. (My dreams do have good art direction, I will say that.)  No one was dancing, but in the dream I thought to myself, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if I could go out there and bust some moves? Wouldn’t it be cool if I were suddenly Fred Astaire?” I sighed and that was that.

When I woke up I thought, “Hey, I shouldn’t be WISHING to dance in the dream. I should be actually DOING it.” If I can't dance in my own fucking dream then when can I?

How pathetic am I that my fantasy is to wish for something? And that’s when I realized I was in need of professional help.

Now this could just be a by-product of being a writer. I’m used to playing out cool scenarios, but only on the page. Highly paid actors get to do the steamy love scenes I construct – not me. Actors get the big laughs. Actors light up the dance floor.  I get network notes. 

Here's another dream I once had.  This was back in the days I was writing for MASH: I was with Alan Alda and David Ogden Stiers. We were just talking. And then, at one point I stopped them and said, “No, David you say this, and then Alan, you say that.” I was rewriting people’s dialog in my dream. This too is not normal.

I hope to eventually work through these nocturnal issues. I long for the days I can actively play out my fantasies. I’ll let you know if that’s what I wish for in my dreams tonight.


Friday, August 19, 2022

Friday Questions

More Friday Questions to begin your summer weekend.

Roderick Allmanson leads off.

I hear a lot of show creators talk about writing improv into their scripts - not Curb Your Enthusiasm style, but just leaving spots blank and counting on actors to come up with something funny in the moment. What is the utility of improv vs. scripted reactions and how common is that?

Well, first of all you need expert improvisers.  If you had Robin Williams or Fred Willard (pictured above) you could be reasonably assured that the material they came with up would be usable.  And there are certainly others who are also incredibly gifted in that area.  I love improv.  I’m still in a weekly improv workshop.  I should be much better at it than I am after all these years.

But I find, for the most part, when you allow improv it results in very uneven scripts.  There’s filler, there’s dead spots, there’s repetition.   There may be moments of inspired hilarity, but there may also be subpar episodes.  

It’s that way in live improv shows, but the audience cuts the performers some slack because they know it’s off the cuff.  Not so on a semi-scripted fully produced TV show.  

Personally, I prefer the quality control of a terrific writing staff crafting every line for the best comic actors available (some brilliant comic actors can’t improvise), producing a series like FRASIER.  

But that’s me.  I’m… a seasoned veteran.  

Brian asks:

You talked about family sitcoms and that got me wondering what brought about the period of "Rural Sitcoms". I enjoyed and still think "Beverly Hillbillies", was a pretty good show, but I didn't much care for "Green Acres" or "Petticoat Junction”.

BEVERLY HILLBILLIES was a breakout hit.  Its creator, Paul Henning took advantage and created other similar shows that also caught on.  It was just CBS playing the hot hand the same way they’ve done more recently with Chuck Lorre.  

Rural sitcoms ran into trouble when demographics and research began to emerge.  Yes, they had large numbers but CBS determines they weren’t the right audience. There was more money to be made with upscale urban comedies, and in a bold move CBS swept them all out replacing them with shows like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and ALL IN THE FAMILY.  

It was a programming move that paid off handsomely. 

And finally, from Kendall Rivers:

Regarding the character of Frank Burns. How did you go about writing for such a let's face it pretty one dimensional character while making him still interesting and funny enough to still get laughs despite being so unlikable?

I only wrote three episodes with Frank Burns, and I have to say it was great fun to write such a cartoonish character.   We tried to portray him as being somewhat pathetic to make him more sympathetic.  But to be honest, we were basing his likability on laughs.  If he was really funny we felt that might take the curse of the character.  

Still, when he left we saw it as an opportunity to fill that spot with someone smarter and more formidable.  Boy, did we get lucky with David Ogden Stiers.

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

EP288: Remembering Vin Scully

There have been many tributes to Vin Scully, arguably the greatest sportscaster of all-time, who passed away on August 2nd. Ken was blessed to know him and work with him for many years. In this extended episode, Ken shares his personal stories. It’s a tribute unlike any other.

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After the finale of BETTER CALL SAUL Monday night, various cast members thanked the fans.  It was a classy send off.  

As a fan, let me thank them.  I won’t say anything about the finale.  But Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould constructed a wonderful series.  BREAKING BAD is my all-time favorite dramatic series (sorry MAD MEN, SOPRANOS, CSI MIAMI) and I worried that any prequel would fall way short.  Worse yet, it could be BeforeMASH.  And although it wasn’t as compelling as BREAKING BAD (no show was) and it did have its slow stretches, BETTER CALL SAUL was way better than I expected and wonderful on its own terms.  

It’s hard to do a prequel and super hard to do a finale.  Expectations are so high. And again, Vince & Peter pulled it off.   It was satisfying with lots of surprises.  No SPOILER ALERTS.  Go watch it.

To me the hardest part of writing is the storytelling.  People say it must be really tough to come up with all those jokes.  Actually, jokes are the easy part.  Coming up with a good original story, perhaps told in a unique non-linear way — if that’s constructed well the jokes just naturally come.  

In BREAKING BAD and BETTER CALL SAUL the storytelling was magnificent.  You could never outguess them.  There were ingenious schemes, elegant character development, suspense, and even laughs.   My hat’s off to those writing staffs.  

And of course a nod to the superlative cast.  Bob Odenkirk for sure, but the breakout star was Rhea Seehorn.  Surround them with the likes of Jonathan Banks, Patrick Fabian, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Mando, Tony Dalton, and Michael McKean and you had magic.   It’s the magic that every screenwriter dreams of.  

So thank you, BETTER CALL SAUL.  And whoever cast Rhea Seehorn.  

Monday, August 15, 2022

RIP Terrestrial Radio... and good riddance

There are now 850,000 podcasts out there.  It seems that mine is not the only one.  Only 1% of them are successful enough to have ads.  Happily, I am one of those.  But the point is, terrestrial radio can say they’re doing great, but the truth is they’re dying a not-so-slow death.  850,000 podcasts has to take a big chunk out of their audience.  

And then there’s satellite radio, everyone’s personal playlists, and internet stations and you can see the wolves are at the door.  

So how does terrestrial radio try to stop this erosion and gain back listeners?   By programming 18 minutes of spots an hour… or more.  I drove a rental car recently (no satellite or bluetooth) and couldn’t believe how terrible terrestrial radio in Los Angeles sounded.  Seven-to-ten minute commercial breaks.  If you’re a sponsor why would you possibly pay to be the ninth spot out of nineteen?   Who’s listening?  

Even when there are commercials on podcasts there are generally only one or two and the breaks last a minute or two.  And most podcast commercials are delivered by the host so they’re conversational not produced spots.  I’m never given a script to read for my commercials.  I’m given a page of bullet points, things to work in.  So they’re ad libbed… and hopefully somewhat entertaining.   And the spot load is less than 1/15th of the podcast as opposed to 1/3rd in terrestrial radio.

There are no commercials on satellite radio, maybe a couple on music services and internet stations.  Most of the internet stations are free.  If you have a computer you have choices.    

People usually listen to radio while in the car.   Now with bluetooth and Car Play, all your various options are right there at your fingertips.  

But here’s the dirty little secret: owners of terrestrial radio stations (and there are primarily three or four conglomerates who own 95% of them) don’t care.  When an industry is about to go under, those in the industry try to make as much money as they can while they can.  It’s no longer a matter of mortgaging their future — there is no future.   The idea is to amass as much income as humanly possible before the whole thing crashes.  

What this also means is they don’t give a shit about you, the listener.  Whatever they can program on the cheap is what they’ll do because, again, they have one goal and one goal only — make as much money as they can NOW.  

So in that regard I have no empathy for them.  When major market stations like KABC, Los Angeles have informercials for colon blow on weekend afternoons, when medium market stations have no local programming, when long time personalities are fired simply because they’re making too much money — I say screw them all.   

Not all of the 850,000 podcasts are good (and that’s being charitable).  But at least they all care about pleasing their listeners (even if it’s only three weekly).  Not one of the conglomerates that own terrestrial radio stations can say that.  Not one.   

As a longtime radio freak this breaks my heart.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Weekend Post

Here's some recommended comedy reading for those last few beach weeks of the summer.

Required Reading---

Neil Simon – Odd Couple (play)

John Kennedy Toole - Confederacy of Dunces (novel)

Recommended Reading --

John Vorhaus – The Comic Toolbox
Ken Levine – Must Kill TV
Woody Allen – Without Feathers
Woody Allen – Getting Even
Tad Friend - “What’s So Funny?”
John Morreall – “Historical Theories of Laughter”
Henri Bergson – Laughter, An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
Steve Martin – Born Standing Up
Douglas McEwan -- My Lush Life
Tina Fey – Bossypants
Marc Maron – Attempting Normal
Andy Goldberg – Improv Comedy
Mike Sacks – Poking a Dead Frog

I want a ten page paper on one of these books from all of you by Friday.  

Friday, August 12, 2022

Friday Questions

Friday Questions coming at ya, Pilgrim.

Freida starts this week.

Which scenario would you prefer? A great show with a dream cast but one which doesn’t pay as much, or a great payday on a mediocre show?

How great a payday?  If it’s LeBron James money then I’ll tough it out and have enough “fuck you” money to do any damn thing I want.

But realistically, I would cheerfully sacrifice some income to do a show I was proud of with a dream cast.  Those are rare precious opportunities.  

But again, are we talking Tom Brady money?

From Mighty Hal:

I was unexpectedly introduced to an artist I admire. This came out of nowhere (I had no idea the artist was in my country, much less visiting my hometown), and my mind went completely blank. I couldn't think of anything to say until much later, when my opportunity was long gone. Has something similar ever happened to you?

Yes.  One time.  With John Wayne.

David Isaacs and I had a meeting at Warner Brothers.  We arrived early (the one day in 15 years the traffic wasn’t bad) so took the opportunity to just walk around the lot.

On one of the soundstages they were filming the movie THE SHOOTIST.  As we strolled by, there was John Wayne, in full costume, standing above us on the stage landing, smoking a cigarette.  So he was about 10 feet tall.

He saw us and said, “How’s it goin’, boys?”  We were both completely tongue-tied.  I think I managed to stammer out “Fine, Duke.”  

Other than that, no… although I never was introduced to Natalie Wood.

Anonymous asks:

Penny on BIG BANG said she did a performance of ANNE FRANK on a stage over a bowling alley. Did you and David have any similar experiences?

Yes, I’m sure over the same bowling alley.  On Ventura where Jerry’s Deli used to be.  We had some one acts performed there.

Also, we did a night of one acts over a pizza parlor at 5th & Western in downtown Los Angeles.

Happy to say my full-length plays have all been performed at ground level.  

And finally, from Michael:

I think you have alluded to this before, but do you think you would have pursued your baseball announcing career if you had a better experience working on MARY, even if it was still cancelled after 1 year.

No, I would say it was more of a midlife crisis thing.  It was also the first time in years I was not working full-time on a show and was able to pursue my dream.  

And I figured, if I didn’t go for it then I never would.  

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

EP287: Jobs I didn’t get

No matter how successful you are, there are always jobs you didn’t get for one reason or another. The takeaway is not to be discouraged. It turns out not getting the all-night DJ shift on a radio station in Fresno wasn’t the end of the world. These are the jobs that Ken didn’t get.

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Picture Day: My trip to charming Cape May

Cape May Stage in Cape May, N.J.:  Home of my play, AMERICA'S SEXIEST COUPLE.  When you look at the theatre in just the right light it almost resembles a church.  Or is it just me? 

I don't usually take pictures of food, but -- $35.  In LA the same dinner is $75. And you don't get applesauce.

I was kinda hoping they'd join the "Sea Level Club."

Line for Tommy's hot dog stand.  Where's Joey Chestnut?

Kind of unusual.  Not many places take cash these days.

Lovely Victorian homes grace Cape May.  Pretty classy for a beach resort.

Why do I kill myself writing original jokes?

Notice they advertise everything but pizza.

Police activity right under our window at 4 am one morning.

You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a miniature golf course.

Cast, director, and some guy.

Bill Tatum & Karen Ziemba starring in my play.  This is a scene from the play.  I didn't go into their home.

You see as many of these as Tesla's.  

Cape May is beautiful and charming with spectacular restaurants.  AMERICA'S SEXIEST COUPLE plays through this Sunday.  Come see it. 

Monday, August 08, 2022

Exceptional women

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

Msdemos asks:

If Stan Freberg "had one of the most creative minds of anyone", who are some of the women you've met or worked with who are exceptionally talented or creative people?

It’s a fairly long list, and I apologize because I know I’m going to leave some deserving women off.

Treva Silverman (pictured)

Merril Markoe
Anne Flett-Giordano
Regina Hicks
Robin Schiff
Cheri Steinkellner
Jane Wagner

Susan Harris
Linda Teverbaugh
Jen Crittenton
Heidi Perlman
Eileen Heisler
DeAnn Heline
Alexa Junge
Nancy Steen
Doris Hess
Wendy Cutler
Lynne Stewart
Wendy Goldman
Jenny Bicks
Wanda Sykes
Korby Siamis
Rachel Sweet
Janis Hirsch
Lissa Kapstein
Ellen Byron
Joyce Gittlin
Pam Fryman
Katy Garretson
Tracy Newman
Kate Angelo
Charlotte Brown
Pat Nardo
Gloria Banta
Karen Hall

and… Annie Levine

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Weekend Post


This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved. It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Friday Questions

As we enter the dog days of summer, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

VHS Village (Formerly The Beta Barn) starts us off.

What is the unwritten rule for how writers are expected to interact with the stars of a show or film? What I mean is, when you're meeting the actors for the first time, especially if they're big names, are writers supposed to act deferentially or can you be relaxed and direct? Did you have to say "Mr Danson" or could you call him Ted, for example. 

I can't speak for all writers certainly.  But...

I don’t consider them stars, I consider them colleagues.  As such, I refer to them by their first names.  I expect them to call me Mr. Levine though.  (Just kidding.  These days one has to make that disclaimer.)  

Seriously, though, my first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW.  And when introduced to him I called him Mr. Randall.  He quickly said to call him Tony.  

DyHrdMET wonders:

Are there any sitcoms (probably the shortest-lived ones) that you thought would have the basic premise and story arc told better as a play or a movie (wrap it up in about 90 minutes, or about 4 episodes of TV, and move on with your life) than being used as a sitcom?

Okay, just my opinion…

Practically every streaming series (comedy or drama) starts off with a great first season and then flails around after that.   Off the top of my head: DEAD TO ME, KILLING EVE, RUSSIAN DOLL, HOMELAND, and you may disagree but BARRY.   Although I enjoyed the second season of HACKS, it too could have stood alone after season one.  

So to answer your question:  All of them.  

From Jonathan Weiss

Ken, ​​I did a little reading up on Lorenzo Music - in addition to voicing Carlton the Doorman and Garfield, he was quite the writer/producer/creator (especially at MTM). Did you work with/alongside him at any point?​

Sort of.  He had a pilot for MTM that he would have starred in along with his wife, Henrietta.  It was sort of a variety show with sketches of them at home with “their kids.”  I put that in quotes because they hired adults to play the kids.  I remember David L. Lander played one.  Yes, it was weird.

David Isaacs and I wrote back-up sketch material for the pilot.  Had the show gone we would have gone on staff.

This was at the height of MTM’s dominance.  They had THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, RHODA, PHYLLIS, DOC, PAUL SANDS: FRIENDS AND LOVERS.  And for the finale of the pilot all of the cast members from all of these shows came out.  Talk about an All-Star squad.  Wow.  

Meanwhile, the pilot did not get picked up.  So much for our first staff job.  

And finally, from 15-Seconds:

You being a radio guy (among other things) did you ever have any dealings with Stan Freberg?

Not professionally, but I met him several times.  I was a HUGE fan, dating back to when he did voices on a local TV daily puppet show in Los Angeles called BEANIE & CECIL.  So I was a fan since I was like four.  

Stan Freberg had one of the most creative minds of anyone in radio, television, advertising, comedy albums - you name it.  

One time when I was a sports intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles, he came in to guest-host a show and I got to spend some time chatting with him.  And circling back to the first question, now that I think about it, I referred to him as Mr. Freberg.

What’s your Friday Question?


Wednesday, August 03, 2022

EP286: Remembering Neil Simon

One of the most successful playwrights and screenwriters in history and no one on Jeopardy even knew who he was. Time to spotlight the work and brilliance of my comedy idol, Neil Simon.

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Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

RIP Vin Scully

Quite simply, no one besides my father has had as much impact on my life as Vin Scully.  My love of baseball, announcing storytelling, even writing stems the inspiration I received growing up listening to Vin Scully.   Imagine the thrill when I hosted Dodger Talk for eight years and got to work with Vin Scully every day.  Whenever he’d see me and say “Hi Kenny” it was like “Ohmygod, the prettiest girl in school knows my name.”  

I first heard him when the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles in 1958.  I was a little kid. It absolutely changed my life.

This will not be a long tribute because there are tears in my eyes as I write it.  And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other tributes to Vin Scully.  I don’t think anyone in the history of Los Angeles was as beloved as this man.  I also believe  no one will ever call a baseball game as well as Vin Scully.  There’s only one Shakespeare, one Mozart.  

His highlight reel is extraordinary — from Don Larsen’s perfect game, to Kirk Gibson’s home run, the Bill Buckner Mets World Series win, Hank Aaron's record-breaking home run, and of course Sandy Koufax’s perfect game.  But in my view the greatest game he ever called was not recorded.  It was a Dodger-Giant game in old Candlestick Park, a Friday night, probably in the early 1960’s.  Around the third inning fog rolled in — fog so thick it halted play.  For 45 minutes Vin Scully just told Dodger-Giant stories.  It was riveting.  And all that was on the screen was gray fog.  Totally off the top of his head, he told spellbinding tales.  No one else could ever do that.  And this was just one game in the middle of the season, one of a his 67 seasons.  

I am so grateful that on any number of occasions I took the opportunity to thank him for all he meant to me.  And Vin being Vin, he was very humble and always downplayed it.  But at least I got to say it.  And then the ultimate thrill: I got to fill-in and do play-by-play on several Dodger broadcasts.  One was with Vin.  In his 59 years calling Los Angeles Dodger baseball only five other announcers have called play-by-play on Dodger broadcasts with Vin — Jerry Doggett, Ross Porter, Don Drysdale, Charley Steiner, and me.  So you can imagine — from that kid listening to Vin Scully in 1958 to doing a game with him, how completely blown away I was. 

Vin Scully was a gift.  He of course was a national presence, but for those of us who grew up with him in Los Angeles, he became a part of our lives, a member of our family. I can’t conceive of a world where I can no longer just “pull up a chair.”    Thank you, Vin.  For EVERYTHING.

Monday, August 01, 2022

My Playbill

With a play currently running at the Cape May Stage (go see it), I was asked to write my bio for the Playbill.  This is standard practice.  If this or any of my plays ever goes to Broadway I will have a certain amount of difficulty writing my bio.  For you see I come from "television."  In Broadway circles that's akin to "axe murderer."  The quickest way for Broadway critics to hate me is see MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER in my bio.  AfterMASH will not redeem me.  So I decided to write my bio that would be more Broadway-acceptable.  Okay, I fudge just a tad with the facts, but I think it's worth it to be the Toast of New York.  Whattaya think?

Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse whom he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.

Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, PROOF, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).

An experimental work of his own played two nights in San Francisco and two nights in Detroit. It was called the 2012 WORLD SERIES.

He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.