Monday, July 28, 2014

What can be done about stealing jokes?

Read a recent article on what recourse a comic or writer has if someone steals his jokes. The short answer: nothing. If you sue for copyright infringement it’ll cost all parties involved anywhere from $373,000 to $2.1 million. It better be one fucking great joke.

Stealing gags have been around since the beginning of time. The article sites an example. Milton Berle – notorious for stealing other people’s material – used this joke: “A man comes home and finds his best friend in bed with his wife. That man throws up his hands in disbelief and says, ‘Joe, I have to—but you?’ ”

Now compare that to this joke from the 4th century tome Philogelos, the world’s oldest-known joke book: “Someone needled a well-known wit: ‘I had your wife, without taking a penny,’ He replied, ‘It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?’ ”

Proof positive that Milton Berle was sixteen centuries old when he died. I will give him this; he improved the joke. The early version really explained the joke. What was with these people?

So if you can't take legal action, what’s to stop someone from pilfering jokes?

There is somewhat of a code between comedians (although enforcing it is probably laughable). If there’s a question of ownership over a particular joke, the comic that delivered it on TV first gets it. This seems unfair to me. Struggling comics don’t get on TV, while Robin Williams merely has to pick up the phone.

Comics tend to ostracize other comics who steal material. Jerry won’t them ride in his car.

If the problem gets too severe some clubs blackball them. For poor Dane Cook that means he can only work in arenas.

You can always beat the shit out of the guy. Although, admittedly, not a lot of ex-Marines or former boxing champions go into comedy.

As a comic you can develop a persona that’s very unique to you. Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Emo Phillips, Steve Martin, Mitch Hedberg, Wendy Liebman (to name but a few) – their material is dependent as much on delivery and character as the written words themselves.

You can try to monitor your material and cut off the pipeline to plagiarists if you can find it. Before I had a blog I would review the Oscars and send it to everyone in my address book. One was a highly rated major market talk show host. I found out from several listeners that he was using my material the next morning and claiming it was his. That’s the last thing he ever received from me.

Sometimes people can get caught stealing material and look stupid as a result. I remember seeing a lounge performer at the Burlingame Hyatt who stole routines from Steve Martin. And this was when Martin was at the height of his popularity. Everyone in the room looked at each other and thought, “Is this guy an idiot?” (I then thought, “What the hell am I doing in a Burlingame Hyatt looking for entertainment?”)

A recent study has determined that there is less joke stealing among comics now than the old Milton Berle days (of the 4th-20th centuries) and they conclude this informal “code” has made the difference. Personally, I think it’s the internet. Up until a decade ago it was possible for a comic to play clubs, work the circuit for years and no one other than drunks and fellow comics knew who he was. Now every comic is on Twitter, has a website, and clips of their stand up act is on YouTube. And all entries are dated. It’s much easier now to point fingers.

But fear not, comedy warriors.  I have the answer. I know how to end joke stealing.   Just have an announcement at the start of every comedy show that lifting material is illegal and hurts artists. You may say, “C’mon, that’s not going to work.” Oh really? How do you think the big Hollywood studios put an end once and for all to film piracy? I rest my case.

And this is my idea. Don’t you go stealing it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

All-night radio -- hookers, brawls, and dead presidents

More on my ill-fated disc jockey career. 

In March 1973 I was hired by KMEN San Bernardino to do the all-night show. My salary was a whopping $650 a month to work the coveted midnight-six shift six nights a week. As with Bakersfield, I was not allowed to use my real name. Let’s just say Levine sounded too, uh… “New York”. So again I was Ken Stevens. Of course how do I complain that my name is too generic when my program director goes by Buddy Scott?

So I did all-nights and never got any sleep. The phone number I was assigned was the same as an LA hooker’s (just a 714 area code instead of 310). She advertised in the LA WEEKLY and a hundred times a day I’m getting calls saying, “Hey, man, is Jeannie there?”

On the air, talking to cows for six hours, I needed something to occupy my mind. So I started a friendly little rivalry with the evening jock, Doug DeRoo. Doug is amazingly talented. Imagine the character Robin Williams played in GOOD MORNING VIET NAM only funnier. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn was the big hit then. We wanted to see who could come up with the most one-liners while introducing it. For days this Titanic tug-of-war continued. One bad one-liner after another. Proud to say I won. Not proud that my winning quip involved urine.

Is it any wonder that the program director kept sending me memos to just shut up and stop trying to be funny?

KMEN’s promotion budget was zero. So we were sent out on appearances that wouldn’t cost the station. A favorite was the high school basketball game between the disc jockeys and the faculty. By “faculty” they pretty much meant gym teachers vs. six out-of-shape mostly drugged out radio nerds. It was an exhibition but invariably there’d be one Cro-Magnon teacher who thought he was Reggie Evans – throwing elbows, and clotheslining guys. I don’t think this is what the station had in mind – we got into a brawl with the Redland High faculty. So in addition to always being sleep deprived I did the show that night holding an ice pack to my head.

June meant school graduations so in the spirit I brought my high school annual from home and read the idiotic things people wrote about me or to me.  It was a good schtick.  If anyone was listening I'm sure they would have enjoyed it.    But as the records were playing at 3 in morning I began leafing thrugh the book, perusing the senior pictures.  All those girls I had a crush on, I thought they were probably sleeping in nice warm beds with loving former football stars/husbands leading a contented life.  And where was I?  In a fucking cow pasture in the middle of the night.  "Most Likely to Waste His Life".  That was more depressing than playing Elanor Rigby. 

Every morning from 4-4:15 I had to do a farm report. So I’d rip all this stuff off the teletype machine and read it verbatim, having no fucking idea what I was talking about. Giving sorghum updates, pork belly prices, and harvest predictions.  Let's just say guys with uh, New York last names know shit about farming. 

I also had to do an hourly newscast. And there again I’d race into the newsroom the last minute, rip off the headlines, and read them on the air. I never pre-read them. No disc jockey ever did. God knows if I ever pronounced all those Cambodian villages correctly. Of course, it’s not like I got any calls complaining. But hard to pronounce names were always the bane of our existence. One former KMEN disc jockey got around that once with what I believe to be the smoothest save EVER. This is how he reported the following news story:

“And in other news – the President of Brazil has just died. His name is being withheld until the family has been notified”.

Genius. Sheer genius. You gotta love radio.

By the way, I called the phone company, changed my number, and explained why.  A week later the guy I talked to called back to thank me. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The wackiest minor league stunt ever

Getting a prostate exam while singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."

Minor league teams are known for their goofy stunts. Cow milking contests, etc. But I think this one takes the cake. Andy Milovich is the GM of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Thursday's big promotion was Prostate Cancer Awareness Night. So to celebrate, Mr. Milovich had his prostate checked in the press box. A doctor donned a rubber glove and checked around while Milovich sang during the seventh inning stretch. This beats Speed Dating Night, Christmas in July Night, Political Correctness Night, Scientology Night, Noah Bobblehead Night, and even Toilet Seat Cushion Night.

You may now return to the Who, What, or Which Game.

The "Who, What, or Which?" game that I just made up

I did this originally as a Tweet but thought it might expand into a fun readership-participation post. This is the kind of crap you'll get if you follow me on Twitter. You don't have to answer them all.

Who, what or which?

Who is more famous? John Denver or Bob Denver

Who was better on CHEERS? Shelley Long or Kirstie Alley?

What's the best sequel? GODFATHER 2 or MANNEQUIN 2?

Which show was better? THE BOB NEWHART SHOW or NEWHART?

What show is better? MAD MEN or BREAKING BAD?

What show is worse? 2 BROKE GIRLS or GIRLS?

Who do you love to hate more? Simon Cowell or Ann Coulter?

What’s the most hated team in America? The New York Yankees or the U.S. Supreme Court?

What’s better? Coke or Pepsi?

Who’s the best Jr.? Ken Griffey or Cal Ripken?

Who has better original series? HBO or Showtime?


Who would get rustier going through a carwash? Robocop or a Transformer?

Who is more famous? Honey Boo Boo or the President of the United States?

Who’s more famous? Sweet Caroline or Caroline Kennedy?

What’s worse? Brussels sprouts or cauliflower?

Who’s better? Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?

Which is better? Mac or PC?

What's better? DQ or KFC?

Who’s scarier? Jason or Jigsaw?

Who’s scarier? Faye Dunaway or Liza Minnelli?

Who has the better cereal name? Coco Crisp or Sugar Bear Flyod Rayford?

Who’s more annoying? Flo from Progressive Insurance or the Geico lizard?

Who’s a better hitter? Mike Trout or Liza Minnelli?

Who’s the funnier Jimmy? Kimmell or Fallon.

Who has the best shitty pizza? Dominos or Pizza Hut?

Who is more famous? Marilu Henner or Mary Lou Retton?

Which is better? Facebook or actually having friends?

Thanks in advance.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Questions

Here are some Friday Questions since it's, y'know... Friday.

RockGolf leads off:

Who do you consider to be the best COMIC actor on a current DRAMA series? I'd suggest Tim Kang on The Mentalist, whose deadpan 6-year Sgt. Friday imitation slays me.

I don’t think of Tim as a comic character. I suspect he doesn’t either. I’d be surprised if anyone on the staff does.  And Miguel Ferrer does a way better Sgt. Friday.  Check him out in TWIN PEAKS and the original ROBOCOP. 

No, for my money, I’d have to go with Damon Herriman as Dewey Crow on JUSTIFIED. Not just as the best comic character in a drama but the funniest comic character on television period. No one on any sitcom makes me laugh as hard as Dewey.

Julian Brown has a question on a post I wrote about the need for a theme and the importance of your show being about something.

This really resonates with me; I'm grinding away at a making an album, and this week I'm trying to determine what it's about.

If you feel like it, I'd be interested in what, if any, process you go thru to get to the bottom of yr premise/story/what have you.

Well, the first thing is I do is determine what the theme is before writing. The story, or in your case, album, should reflect that. Taking a finished product and sifting through it looking for gold is rather counter-productive.

This is a question I get a lot (and answer a lot).  It's an important point that needs to be repeated.   Sort of like a "theme." 

When people tell me they just want to start writing and see where the story takes them, I tell them most often it leads to Death Valley.

Put in the time and effort to determine your theme first. And yes, I know – it’s HARD. The hardest part actually. But once you have it, the rest falls into place and it’s much easier to determine if you’re on track or straying. The theme is your compass.

Bottom line: what is it you want to say? And if you don’t have anything, then why are you even bothering?

And finally, from Jay:

Hi Ken,

I've heard and read all about how rough writers' rooms can be, and that if one wants to be a working TV comedy writer, one needs to have a thick skin and be prepared for anything. What's been your experience with a fellow writer (or, maybe it's been you) who's going through a rough time (read: depressed) and may be a little more sensitive to things? Did his or her fellow staffers been sympathetic or just see this more fodder to throw around the room?

I ask because I am going through a rough time right now and am prone to depression from time to time. I'm not a working TV writer but one of those aspiring types. I know me, and I know that when I'm feeling good and confident in myself and my abilities as a writer, I'm sharp and on the ball with a good balance of being amiable but with an edge. But during my downturns, I'm much more sensitive and distracted than I'd like. So this makes me question, do I have the personality to make it in a comedy writers' room.

Thanks for your time!

First off, Jay, my heart goes out to you. Battling those demons are rough.

What I would suggest, in your best interest, is that staff work might not be for you. You may get a supportive room; you may not. It depends on the personalities in the room, the pressure they’re all under, how well the show is working, etc.

I would suggest you concentrate on your drafts. Time was you could make a living in TV as a freelance writer. No more really. But if you write great drafts you may get a show to give you multiple assignments.

And a better avenue might be to write screenplays. Or stage plays (although there’s not a lot of money in that).

There are a lot of terrific comedy writers who just don’t have the temperament for staff work. Guys like Neil Simon. Yes, it’s harder to break in, but once you do you can create a working environment more to your comfort level. And the more comfortable you are, the better the work will be.

One last point – comedy writers who suffer from depression is more common than athletes who drink Gatorade. It needs to be addressed, but there’s no reason why you can’t ultimately enjoy a long successful career. You’re already ahead of the game by recognizing your condition. Again, best of luck to you.

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comments section. I do try to get to as many as I can.  Thanks.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Katherine Heigl is at it again

In a move that further cheapens what REAL executive producers do, Katherine Heigl’s mother Nancy is an executive producer on Katherine’s upcoming new series, STATE OF AFFAIRS.

I get the question all the time: What do executive producers do? In theory they set the creative direction of the series, oversee the writing, cast the show, hire the director and crew, supervise editing and post production, deal with the network, studio, media, and generally put out fires. It's a hundred hour a week job.  Maybe more. 

As an executive producer, what will Nancy Heigl do? When asked this at a TV critics panel recently, her daughter Katherine said, “She bakes us cookies.” When a critic suggested Nancy only got the position because she's Katherine's mother she answered: “I am her mother for sure, so, of course I care about her, but I am just learning about exec producing, and am learning from those who really know….I’m a newcomer to it.”

So in other words, she will do nothing. She will get a handsome salary. She will (hopefully) wrangle her daughter. She will get the network credit that many writers who have toiled for years working their way up the staff ladder never receive, and I’m sure she’ll have a nice office with a decorating budget.

Bottom line: she’ll be taking the job away from a qualified deserving professional.

But let the spin and the justification continue.

NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke said that Katherine and mom Nancy both pitched the pilot idea. She said she found Nancy: “incredibly smart through this process” and added: “She is someone who has strong opinions, but we found her to be nothing but additive.”

First of all, is “additive” really a word used in that context? It sounds like a joke from EPISODES. And secondly, what the fuck does all of that mean?

Let me just say in fairness that this is not an isolated incident. Stars’ managers will often attach themselves as executive producers while they too do nothing. Their big contribution was one time sending over the pilot script to their client. It’s a form of extortion, plain and simple. “If you want my client you have to pay for protection.” They’re the partner you don’t need.

But at least in Nancy Heigl's case she'll bake cookies. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

They've closed WHAT?

Are there support groups for people who have lost restaurants? If so, I need to join one. Yes, I know, it seems silly to mourn the closing of a KooKooRoo but local eateries almost become like friends. You seek them out for comfort, familiarity, nourishment, and they generally cost you money. And it’s gratifying to know they’ll always be there – welcoming you in until 10 on weeknights, validating your parking, and serving that special corned beef hash that is so good you forget it’s out of a can. Think CHEERS with patty melts.

Lately, a number of reliable local establishments have closed their doors for good and it has totally bummed me out. In some cases, I never even loved their food, but loved that they were always there. And unlike favorite cancelled TV show that you can just watch again on DVD or Netflix, there’s no LaBarbera’s pizza On-Demand, or Anna’s minestrone soup, or Kelbo’s Hawaiian ribs (although those would probably kill me today).

What’s even sadder is that most of these restaurants have gone under because their landlords have squeezed them out with unreasonable lease increases. Many of these establishments have long histories. Some of your all-time favorite stars have gotten drunk or been thrown out of these iconic eateries.

Among the recent fallen:

Kate Matallini’s – for over twenty years this spacious upscale comfort food diner has been an LA staple at Wilshire and Doheny. Lots of tables, high ceiling, giant photos of MAD MEN, walking distance to the WGA theatre and my car mechanic, and for years it was open late, which for Los Angeles means after 9 PM. Cause of death: Jacked up rent.
Hamburger Hamlet – This was a killer because it’s a part of my childhood snuffed out. At one time this popular chain had locations all over the city. In addition to burgers, they were famous for their Lobster Bisque, which was probably 7,000 calories a spoonful. I used to like their fried chicken wings appetizer back when fried meant "tasty" not "heart attack." A couple of years ago their Sunset Strip location closed. It was there that Dean Martin and Bette Davis used to hold court, and David Isaacs and I formed our writing partnership. Since the Hamlet’s 50 year run there it’s been a failed nightclub, failed high end Chinese restaurant, and soon to be another Chinese restaurant.

KooKooRoo Santa Monica – I don’t get it. A few years ago KooKooRoo was the biggest thing. They were the Starbucks of fowl. People suddenly stopped eating chicken?

The Daily Grill Brentwood – Couldn’t pay the new lease. At one time you had to know someone to get a booth there. You’d be standing in its entrance waiting for tables along with Neil Simon, Bob Newhart, and Dustin Hoffman. You’d still be standing there after they had all been seated but still.
Asuka Westwood – It stood for over thirty years -- the sushi place next door to the glorious Crest Theatre, which also closed. Instead of super-cool hipsters, Mel Brooks was usually in a booth. They proudly posted a signed headshot of some beauty queen named Porntip. If you ordered teriyaki chicken they charged more for white meat. So by all rights, they should have made a lot of money.

Part of what makes any area unique is it’s long-standing restaurants. I’m sure wherever you live you’re missing a few of your once favorite hangouts. Here in Los Angeles you’ll see restaurants with signs that proudly proclaim “Established 1998.” Sadly, in this town, that is a big accomplishment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We all have to start somewhere

I was hoping the CNN documentary series THE SIXTIES would cause a huge national craze for that decade, and my book, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) would start selling like Beatles records.  I was counting on it, actually.  But alas, so far sales have been more like Freddy and the Dreamer records.  Obviously, I must do something about that.  So as an excuse to get you to pick up a copy and support this free blog (guilt guilt guilt), I am featuring a summer excerpt.  Travel back to 1966 and my first theater experience.  

No family vacation that year, not that we could go very far anyway. 35,000 airline workers from five major carriers went on strike, crippling the industry. From July 8th to August 19th, the peak summer travel season, 60% of U.S. commercial flights were grounded. And it was still easier to fly than it is today.

I had my part-time job at Wallichs and got another part-time gig as well. This one ushering at the Valley Music Theater.

The Valley Music Theater on Ventura Blvd. was a huge concrete white shell, very modernistic, very JFK airport terminal.
The big musical theater fad in Los Angeles in 1966 was theater-in-the-round. Who needed Broadway when Angelinos could be treated to smash hit musicals of the past with knock-off casts, no sets, and no piece of scenery taller than their ankles? In the LA area there were three venues – the Melodyland Theater in Anaheim (across from the Dopey section of the Disneyland parking lot), the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills (later to become the home of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Carousel Theater in glamorous West Covina (gateway to the Inland Empire). The productions would bicycle this circuit, usually for two-week runs.

I showed people to their seats at the Valley Music Theater and could not wait for each new show to bring jaw-dropping performances by miscast actors. Dance numbers tended not to be very elaborate since the stage was the size of a conference table. (If they had lasted long enough to do The Lord Of The Dance, they would use three guys.)

Headliners tended to be of the B variety. Instead of Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Julie Andrews we got Dennis Day, Frank Gorshin, and Betsy Palmer (best known as a perky game show panelist and knife-wielding crazy in Friday the 13th: Part One).

After several years of burning through the Broadway catalog the trend petered out. By 1968 they were down to It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman starring local TV news anchors.

Still, I was able to see beyond the game show-celebrity-guest-caliber casts and really appreciate the writing. That summer I also read Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One and was intrigued by the notion of being a New York playwright. It all sounded so romantic to me – writing all night in a hotel room in exotic New Haven, getting a brainstorm, and saving a play at the last minute, opening on Broadway, having a hit…and someday seeing my work performed at the Valley Music Theater by Barbara Walter.

Ironically, my new play A or B? will be performed in the Valley, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank this fall.  I would get Betsy Palmer is she could pass for 29.