Saturday, January 21, 2017

The March of Dames

For the first time since November I have a glimmer of hope.  Thank you, ladies, one and all, wherever you're marching today.   After one of America's darkest days in history comes one of its brightest.  May pink restore the red, white, and blue. 

Speaking Farce-y

One writing question I'm often asked is how are farces constructed? I’m sure fifty different comedy writers would give you fifty different approaches but this is mine.

First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.

Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.

Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.

Generally, farces take place in real time. There are no fade outs, no dissolves, no relief. And as the piece builds the pace quickens. If done right, a farce should be a snowball rolling down a hill, gaining momentum and size.

Neil Simon, who wrote the wonderful farce RUMORS, is quoted as saying “At the final curtain, the audience must be as spent as the actors, who by now are on oxygen support. If the audience is only wheezing with laughter, you need rewrites or actors with stronger lungs.

They’re incredibly tough to pull off but unbelievably satisfying when you do. And for my money, no show ever did them better than FRASIER.

This is a re-post from five years ago.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some FQ’s?

Bob K. gets us started.

When writing for shows like "MASH" and "Frasier", where some jokes are directly related to specific technical areas (in this example the medical or psychiatry fields) is the writing process different? Would you consult with a field expert on a comedic storyline or specific jokes? Or do you let the comedic elements just come from the research and/or your writing sessions- leaving the comedy, so-to-speak, to the experts? 

If you have to rely on experts for comedy you're in trouble.  

On MASH we had Dr. Walt Dishell who was our technical advisor. We would write operating room scenes and just dummy in dialogue and send the scripts to him. He would then fill in what the surgeons might actually say. So our scripts were like:

HAWKEYE: Nurse, hand me the frabazabber.

NURSE: Yes, doctor. Oh, he’s hermaygolading.

HAWKEYE: Let’s give him 10 CC’s of Blojamin stat! 

But any jokes (Hawkeye flirting, the war sucks, etc.) were in the scene before it went to advisors.  

We also had a nurse on the set to make sure the doctors weren’t just stabbing each other.

But we never put any comedy burden on the advisors. That was our job.

On FRASIER, there were times when I consulted my wife who is a therapist. And I majored in Psychology at UCLA so I knew enough psycho-babble to get by on most occasions.  But there were instances when we'd ask how a shrink would handle a certain situation or patient and then write the scene, again putting in the humor ourselves. 

From Charles H. Bryan:

Why did I not know that B.F. Pierce was based on an actual doctor? If I knew it, I've forgotten it. FRIDAY QUESTION: Who is he?

Dr. Roger Willcox. He passed away in 2006. Here’s his obit. You’ll see what a remarkable man he was.

RSaunders has a question about Carrie Fisher:

What were her special skills as a screenwriter and as (didn't realize this) a script doctor?

Well, first of all she was very very smart. Lots of people can point out things that don’t work. Very few can offer fixes.

She was also extremely funny and wrote great character comedy. So she didn’t pump in jokes, she just made the existing characters funnier and more interesting.

She also had great pathos.  She wasn't afraid of emotional moments.  
Additionally, she was fast. Lots of times when a producer needs a rewrite or polish there’s a time crunch. They’re going to start shooting next Tuesday, or they’re trying to entice an actress and would like something to show her over the weekend, etc. Carrie could knock out the pages quickly.

Finally, I think producers and directors just LIKED her and enjoyed her company. She knew the business inside and out and was a genuinely nice and entertaining person.  You got a great rewrite and some fantastic Debbie Reynolds stories. 

And finally, from ScottyB:

Have there ever been any successful 2-person comedy writing teams that you know of where one person is extremely funny but can't develop a story to save his/her life while the other person has a fantastic ability to develop great stories and characters but hasn't the knack for banging out the actual laughs? Elton John and Bernie Taupin are a well-known musical equivalent, but have there ever been any in the TV or film industry?

Any possible combination of personalities and working arrangements exist between writing partners. Usually one partner is stronger in one area complemented by the other who is better in another. But not necessarily. As time goes by they learn from each other and grow.

When George S. Kaufman was writing award-winning comedy plays with Moss Hart, whenever there was an emotional moment or speech Kaufman would just leave the room and let Hart handle it.  (Hart was the Carrie Fisher of the two.)

David Isaacs and I write head-to-head but a lot of teams will divide up the scenes and write separately. Or one will do the first draft and the other will rewrite. One team I know works on the outline together, then they each go off and write a first draft. Then they merge the best of the two.

And another team worked this way: One just schmoozed and cultivated contacts while the other did all the writing. David and I both marveled at this arrangement. We would have adopted it for ourselves but both wanted the schmoozer role.

What’s your Friday Question? Remember, I now also answer them on my podcast as well. Have you subscribed yet?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

RIP Miguel Ferrer

Some losses hit you harder than others.  And this one really hit me.  Miguel Ferrer passed away.  He was only 61.   I directed numerous episodes of the sitcom he was in, LATELINE, and became friends.   For the last year or so we worked out at the same gym.  I think I saw him as recently as a few weeks ago.   I had heard he had cancer but was under the impression he had beaten it.  I guess not.

People primarily know him from dramas.  I used to kid him that he's been in every TV drama over the last twenty years.  Even Harry Morgan didn't guest in as many series.  But what folks might not know is that Miguel was a gifted comic actor.  Amazing timing and a pitch-perfect knack for delivering dialogue.  Some actors need to be led to the joke, not Miguel.  He instinctively just "knew" comic rhythms and tone.

He was also, a pro's pro.   I'm sure one of the reasons he worked so often is because so many producers, directors, and actors loved him.

Miguel was also a great storyteller.  And when the stories involve David Lynch (he was in TWIN PEAKS), George Clooney (his cousin and one-time roommate), ROBOCOP, and mother Rosemary Clooney you knew you were in for a mesmerizing tale.   I was hoping to get him to guest on my podcast.

My condolences to his family and fans.  Damn!  Miguel Ferrer.  This one hurts. 

Reboots are made for walking

One downside to having so many networks and so many shows is that audiences can’t keep up with all the product that’s out there. (Not that they’re making that big an effort to do so.) All these titles sound interchangeable and genres are so blurred that you don’t even know what you’re watching while you’re watching it.

To combat this, the networks are leaning towards known franchises. At least they have some recognition. You may not know what HIGH MAINTENANCE is but you have heard of 24.

So this is the year of reboots.

24 is back but with a different lead character. Still, it’s the same format where the star kills many people and never once goes to the bathroom.

A lot of shows are coming back with original casts. WILL & GRACE just officially announced its return. Up first is PRISON BREAK. (I think there may be budget problems because this time they break out of the Disneyland lock-up.) Last year the X-FILES returned and might return again as the FBI is currently investigating the election being hacked by Martians. And TWIN PEAKS will be back. The ghost of Laura Palmer steals the log lady’s log. FULLER HOUSE is a hit on Netflix. And they keep saying ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is returning for another season, but I think we’ll see that when Mexico builds that wall.

Netflix also has ONE DAY AT A TIME, but with a Latino cast. It’s really a reboot of CRISTELA.

And of course there are the game show reboots. MATCH GAME with Alec Baldwin is kinda fun, PYRAMID is okay, but TO TELL THE TRUTH is sacrilegious.

In the pipeline, LIVING SINGLE is being given CPR. There was a TV version of FATAL ATTRACTION, but I understand that is now dead. (What was the format of that show – she boils a different rabbit every week?) And there may be a new TV movie version of BEACHES with Idina Menzel in the Bette Midler role.  Finally!

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that call from a network wanting desperately to reboot BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

With all these re-boots I’m reminded of the great line by Billy Wilder. When asked about remaking one of his classic films he said, “I don’t understand. Why remake movies that work? Remake movies that didn’t work and fix them.”

Oh God, what if someone wants to try AfterMASH again? 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Episode 3: Take Me To Your Pilot

Ken Levine has been through his fair share of pilot seasons, and if you're not in Hollywood you might not know about the madness that it is. So today, buckle up for some tales of wacky TV pilot experiences. Plus, hear from writer David Pollock about his experiences writing for television, and find out about a time he collaborated with legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky on a sitcom pilot.  


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What's on my desk -- revised

A question for writers that has been circulating the blogosphere recently is “what’s on your desk?” It's the same question I answered a couple of years ago but a few items have changed, so what the hell?

My iMac desktop computer (designed by my son and his team at Apple).

Mouse on a UCLA mouse pad.

brother printer.

Froggy Gremlin childhood toy.

Bob Hope in Dodger uniform bobblehead. (next to Koufax he was my favorite Dodger.)

Cup o’ pens.

Microphone and microphone stand for the podcast.  (Please listen and subscribe.)

High end digital ZOOM recorder.  

Fathers Day cards.

Family photos.

Seattle Mariners paperweight. 

A Gary Larson FAR SIDE card showing the BEWITCHED writing staff brainstorming in the fourth season. Brilliant notions like: “What if Endora casts a spell on Darren?”

Allstate accident report I was supposed to fill out in 2011.

Photo in Lucite of my granddaughter, Rebecca. (She's already gotten much bigger.) 

Box of Ralphs market Oyster Crackers. There are some things it's okay to buy the generic brand.

Plastic Bob’s Big Boy (I’m a Bob’s Big Boy fanatic and can never figure out why that checkered jumpsuit look didn’t catch on.)

Five old drafts of my play, GOING GOING GONE (with practically every page dog-eared).

Initial draft of my new play.  (with EVERY page dog-eared).

Ellen Sandler's TV WRITER'S WORKBOOK, which is required reading for my UCLA class. (Note to my students:  BUY IT) 

Lucite encased Real Don Steele KHJ business card.

A hard bound copy of TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT (personally signed) by author Maria Semple. (Fun reading. I recommend it.  Actually, I recommend all of her books.)

My SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 2017 swimsuit model desk calendar. This week it's this picture of Hannah Davis.

A spec pilot from my rabbi.

A spindle of CD’s that includes albums from Frank Zappa and Joanie Sommers.  Who plays CD's anymore?  Why isn't this in the garage?

Dodger Stadium and Pauley Pavilion replica paperweights.  Both very dusty. 

50 GOING GOING GONE promotional postcards (now completely worthless).  

Lucite encased picture of me with AfterMASH writing staff (that includes Larry Gelbart).

Vintage typewriter from 1890 with the carriage return arm on the right side. No FINAL DRAFT version for that. 

93/KHJ Boss Radio mike flag.

Box of brads and paper clips.

My bobblehead collection that includes Harry Caray (pictured), Speedy Alka-Seltzer, and Jesus Christ.

And -- Oh God – I think there’s still a sandwich.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


HIDDEN FIGURES is APOLLO 13 for nerds. I can’t recommend it enough. You probably know the premise by now – it’s the true(ish) story of three African-American women in the early ‘60s who worked for NASA and were key players in getting our astronauts up into space and more importantly, back down again safely.

It attacks discrimination on every front – racial, gender, declared majors – but doesn’t clobber you over the head with it. This isn’t DJANGO for pencil pushers. There’s no Helen Reddy "Hear me roar" anthem. It’s three “BEAUTIFUL MINDS” with a dash of NORMA RAE and THE HELP.  Or IMITATION GAME with a happy ending. 

Probably because the story is true(ish), but I found HIDDEN FIGURES to be a stirring celebration of intelligence and science – two things that many Americans today don’t believe in. Oh, for the days when complicated important decisions were left to qualified people.

And what a perfect movie for the Motion Picture Academy – a film about diversity that audiences are actually going to see. The cast is certainly Oscar-worthy. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as the Three Mathketeers were superb. And Kevin Costner proved he didn’t have to play an over-the-hill baseball player to be interesting. Also noteworthy is Jim Parsons, who in a big stretch for him played an uptight egghead.  I hardly recognized him. 

For all the hype the Oscar-grab movies are currently receiving, this modest little tale is more satisfying. And it does my heart good to see it doing so well at the boxoffice. So again, go see HIDDEN FIGURES. Travel back to a simpler time; a time where we outsmarted Russia.

Monday, January 16, 2017

"Are you ready for some football?" No.

As you know, I love LA. Pretty much all things Los Angeles (except traffic and CAA) are “groovy” with me. So when I say this it is not with any glee.

But LA is not a football town. Sorry Angelinos, suck it up.

Oh yes, when USC has a good team they can fill the Coliseum. Same with UCLA (on those rare occasions when they do have a decent team). But the NFL? Yawn.

At one time we had two NFL teams. First the Raiders left (leaving drunks and the refuse of Los Angeles nowhere to riot on Sunday afternoons), then the longtime Rams. The city’s reaction: “They left? Really? Where did they go? Are you sure?” The two teams defection left the same vacuum that Fotomat going out of business did.

Decades went by without an NFL franchise in Tinsel Town. Even when the Rams were gone ten years people were saying: “They left? Really? Where did they go? Are you sure? Hey, what happened to Fotomat?”

When Baltimore lost the Colts (the sniveling owner moved them in the dead of night), the city was in mourning. Now they have the Ravens and the town is crazy for them. Same with Cleveland losing the original Browns (although my heart goes out to their fans with that current team). Imagine Philadelphia losing the Eagles. Half the city would move.

But here in LA there was a much bigger uproar when the Frederick's of Hollywood Museum of Bras closed.

Last year the Rams returned… with all the fanfare of a cheating husband slipping into bed quietly so his wife doesn’t wake up. For the first four or five months there were no billboards, no commercials, nothing. Their first few games drew well out of nostalgia, but once it was clear they were terrible the fans stopped going. I’m not sure even Rams fans knew what radio station they are on. You don’t see any Rams bumper stickers around town. No one wears Rams jerseys or helmets in the street. It wasn’t so much a triumphant return as your old Uncle Lester returning after twenty years to borrow more money.

And now comes word that the San Diego Chargers are returning to Los Angeles. Wooo hoo! This announcement has generated the same level of excitement as a new tattoo parlor opening on your corner.

Nobody in LA cares. And I feel terrible for the loyal Charger fans who lived and died with their team for 56 years. It’s like the girl you love leaving you for Gary Busey.

At a Lakers-Clippers game last week they showed the Chargers' new LA logo and the fans boo'ed.  

They’re here of course because two major television networks cover the AFC and NFC and each feels they need a team in the nation’s second largest market. Once the Rams came it was only a matter of time before some AFC franchise followed them to the Land of Milk and Money. At least it’s not the Raiders. Fans who do go to games will not have to fear for their lives.

A new stadium is being built (that both teams will share) and I imagine when that opens interest will rekindle (as long as there are enough luxury suites). But make no mistake, if it’s sunny and 80 degrees on a Sunday afternoon in November that new stadium will be half empty regardless of who’s playing. While at the same time it could be -20 in Philadelphia and Lincoln Financial Field will be packed to the rafters.

LA is not a football town.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Topless Table Readings

Table readings are a necessary part of the production process. The cast will sit around a table and read the script aloud before putting it on its feet and beginning rehearsal. For us writers, it’s the first chance to hear what we have and what might need work. Usually we’re listening to hear whether the story works. We’re less concerned with jokes (assuming that some of them worked) at this stage of the process. The actors are not expected to give full performances at table readings. Plus, we have a full week. If, by day three we’ve just got some jokes to fix we’re in great shape.

Some reflections on memorable table readings:

The network and studio also have representatives in attendance. And usually they’ll grace us with their notes. Page after page of them. Suits must assume that if they left writers to their own devices we would never change a thing. But the truth is most of us are tougher on the material than they are. Except we have a better idea of what’s wrong and how to fix it. Yet, that doesn’t stop them from thinking they’re saving the show with suggestions that are often obvious or useless.

On one show I was showrunning we had a network executive who was terrible at notes. He was a good administer, but script doctoring was not his forte. We’d have a mediocre table read and could see him approaching us. He would practically be sweating. Obviously he didn’t know what the hell to tell us but was obligated to give notes anyway. Before he could speak we'd jump in, saying: “We know. We have some work to do.” That’s all he needed to hear. Like a shot he was out of there. Then on show night he would thank us for taking his suggestions.

Actors sometimes have embarrassing moments – especially when they mispronounce words they should know but don't. One actress pronounced epitome “ep-a-tome”. Another pronounced hyperbole as "hyper-bowl".  Worse was the thirtysomething actress who referred to a famous New York neighborhood as “Green-witch Village.”

One time I was directly across the table from an attractive actress. It was summer and she was wearing a little halter top. She was so engrossed in the reading she didn’t notice that one of her breasts had popped out. I sure noticed it. I tried to silently signal her. She waved me off, essentially saying “stop bothering me during a reading.” Ohh-kay. So for the next fifteen minutes I enjoyed a delightful view. Eventually she realized it, and to her credit, just popped it back in like it was no big deal. No embarrassment, nothing. She did thank me later for trying to warn her though. I said, “oh, you’ve thanked me enough.”

Right after 9-11 we had a bomb scare at the studio during a table reading. The inspectors alerted us of the situation and advised we just stay put. He told us not to worry. It appeared to be a false alarm. That didn’t stop one of the cast members from freaking, screaming at other cast members who tried to calm him down, and then running out of the room.

One table reading was delayed when the star was late. She finally swept in and said, “Sorry I'm late. I was fucking my husband.”

On another show I co-ran, we decided to have an early table reading so we’d be done by the O.J. verdict that was expected later that morning. That proved to be a good decision. Imagine trying to be funny after that?

On Kirstie Alley’s first table reading at CHEERS she came in wearing a blond wig a la her predecessor, Shelley Long.

My partner and I got our first staff job on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW at MTM. Our first day was the table reading of a script we had written. Just before the reading, Tony stood up, announced that he had just come back from London and was so impressed with British comedies. “Compared to them, everything we have here is shit!” he proclaimed.  With that lovely introduction he neatly segued into our script.

Where you hold table readings is important. We always tried to do them in large conference rooms. Some shows do them on the stage. But laughs get lost in such a cavernous space. Better to hold the readings in close quarters where laughter can fill the room.   The SOUL TRAIN stage was not conducive for comedy it turned out. 

Big laughs at table readings can be deceiving however. Sometimes a line that worked at the table falls flat on stage. When that happens you’ve got to take out the line even if it originally got a big response. Likewise, there are jokes that are dependent on physical performance. Writers need to resist the urge to change everything just because they don’t get laughs.

There is always a crafts-services table set up in the corner with fruit, lox & bagels, Danish, etc. One of my pet peeves is that some actors will eat during table readings. They’re trying to deliver lines with their mouths full of food. You can’t understand what they’re saying, much less whether their joke works. At best they sound like Sylvester the Cat.

And you can always tell which actor read the script beforehand and which actor is just winging it, reading it for the first time.

Usually actors will give so-so table readings but after rehearsal they lock in and deliver great performances on show night. But there are a few who just have great natural instincts and will give sensational table readings. Unfortunately, as the week unfolds they start to over-analyze the script and their performance gets progressively worse.

Table readings have changed over the last few years. The original idea was that actors sit around a table and relate to each other as they read the script. But now there are so many network and studio and standards & practice people at table readings – not to mention agents, managers, and oh yeah – people who work on the show, that these conference rooms can’t hold everybody. So someone got the bright idea to set it up like a celebrity roast. Actors now sit on one side of one long table (a la a dais) in front of an audience. It’s easier and more convenient for the suits but horrible for the actors. How do you relate to someone who is sitting at the other end of the table from you? Not that the executives care.

And pilots are worse. This is how crazy things have become. A lot of studios will want to have pre-table readings before the actual table readings with the network. This was suggested before one of our pilots. We said okay but only we would be present for the pre-table reading. No studio presence. The executive then said, “Well, I want to be there, so if that’s what you want, then maybe schedule a pre-pre table reading for just you guys.”

And remember, this is just the START of the process.

This is a re-post from four years ago.