Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

Probably half the plays about families and half the family-themed movies in your neighborhood art house take place on Thanksgiving.

Relatives fly in from wherever just to have a dinner that blows up into a huge family fight. Secrets are revealed, longtime resentments bubble to the surface, hurt feeling abound. It’s WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF with stuffing and yams.

With that in mind, try to make sure that your family feast doesn’t fall into this trap. And now that Black Friday sales begin Thursday evening, you have a great excuse for getting the hell out of the house before it’s revealed that your uncle sent dick pix to all the Rocketettes.

I’m in New York this year – mostly thankful that the year is almost over. There’s this large parade going on outside making it hard to sleep.

Have a happy, safe, and conflict-free Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

EP47: Leftover turkeys and tales from the Hollywood front

Ken tells more crazy anecdotes of pitching projects, wants to know more about you, and serves some turkeys that are both hilarious and hard to digest. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Thus begins the Holiday Season

Okay, you can put up your Christmas lights now.

Allright, you can start playing Christmas music on the radio.

It’s safe to cart out Charlie Brown’s Christmas again.

Studios are free to unleash their big holiday tentpole releases.

Take that bottle away from Santa and send him out to the center of the mall.

The tree can go up at Rockefeller Center.

You can open the ice skating rink now.

The Radio City Holiday Show can now officially open. Please close it by March.

Bring on the baseball winter meetings.

It’s still not okay for CBS to colorize and air classic black-and-white sitcoms, but that’s another story.

Networks prepare for their live musicals. Too bad the novelty has worn off. And Christopher Walken isn’t playing the dad in A CHRISTMAS STORY for Fox.

Hollywood officially shuts down until January. The only business that gets done now is firing known celebrities and executives charged with sexual harassment. And of course their shocked reactions.

Travel today becomes an absolute nightmare. If it happens to snow a quarter-inch in Seattle, all flights in and out of O’Hare are cancelled till January. 

Frantic cooking is taking place. People all over America are making that string bean casserole with Campbell’s Mushroom Soup. (“Why?” I ask.)

And finally, it’s time to stop and give thanks to all the people and things in your life that you’re grateful for. In my case, I start with you.

Travel safe this holiday weekend.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In search of great burgers

My name might as well be Wimpy. I love me a good burger. And they’re healthy too! (They have lettuce in them, right?) So today I thought I’d survey some burger places. The opinions expressed are my own and you might disagree. Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Getting it out of the way right off the bat, McDonalds’ burgers are awful. Unless you have kids and you’re trying to get them toys from Happy Meals there’s no reason to ever go to McDonalds.

Maybe you have to be from the east coast to appreciate them, but I also think White Castle is disgusting. I need a shower just walking in there.

Burger King to me is airport food court fare. Not terrible and you can customize.  I wouldn't bring one on a plane and eat it four hours later though.

Carl’s Jr./Hardees and Wendy’s are for when you’re on a cross-country driving trip, you’re hungry, and it’s the last rest stop before New Mexico.

Of the more upscale fast-food burgers, there’s much debate on the west coast between Five Guys and In ‘N Out. I like ‘em both. In N’ Out used to be more of a treat when there were fewer of them. But they’re always made to order, the burger is hot and the lettuce and tomatoes are fresh and crispy cold. The fries are meh.

I think I prefer Five Guys. I like when you order a bacon burger the bacon is broken up so you get bacon in every bite. People rave about their fries. I’ve never tried them. They offer free peanuts so I eat those.

In LA we also have Fat Burger and they have their fans. My daughter Annie has a rule: Never eat in an establishment where the consequences are right in the title. So that would disqualify Fat Burger, In N’ Out, and probably Tombstone Pizza. Fat Burger is not as greasy as it sounds. Just order the burger broiled and you’re good to go.

Fuddruckers has two things going for it. Big buns (easy to eat) and a condiment aisle so you can customize it yourself. Last time I was there Jay Leno was right in front of me. So it’s the place to go to see stars.

Do you have The Counter where you live? Might just be a west coast thing. Partially owned by Jon Favreau I’m told, but very good quality beef, lots of condiment options, and somehow they always cook it just right. You order medium rare it comes out medium rare.

We’re now starting to get Shake Shacks out here. I must say the very first time I had a Shake Shack burger I was knocked out by it. Each subsequent time I’ve liked it a little less. Not sure why. Nice soft buns and the fries are tasty. Am I spitting on the cross not saying these are the greatest burgers ever?

Umami Burgers are popular out west. I had one I quite enjoyed and one that was so bad I returned it and got my money back. I’m not hipster enough to appreciate Umami Burgers.

Tommy’s at Beverly & Rampart in LA has yummy chiliburgers, but only if you’re young or have a cast-iron stomach. And whatever you do, don’t eat one in your car. You will NEVER get rid of that chili smell.

Moving up to sit down restaurants, there once was a chain called Hamburger Hamlet. Mostly LA but sprinkled throughout Chicago, Washington DC, and a few other eastern haunts. Their burgers were a cut above and their #11, their “greatest burger” with cheese, bacon, etc. and thousand island dressing was pretty great. The chain went out of business but in LA the one in Van Nuys has re-opened under new management and although they’ve done an okay job of recreating the old menu, their #11 is not even “the goodest.”

A delicious burger can be found at the Apple Pan in West Los Angeles. Only problem there is it’s one horseshoe counter with people standing behind you waiting to take your seat. To me that’s unnerving and I always feel compelled to just shovel down my food.. But if you go off-hours things are more relaxed. The service is spectacular. These waiters have been there for forty years. I once saw Warren Beatty munching at the counter. Not as big a star as Jay Leno but still considered a celebrity I suppose.

I’m told the Burger joint at the Parker-Meridian is supposed to be spectacular. I’m flying to New York today so plan to check it out this trip.

Speaking of New York, I haven’t been there in ages, but I remember a place called Jackson Hole. Their burger was so huge you couldn’t eat it. They must grind an entire cow for every patty. Too big. If I can’t get my mouth around a burger it loses points.

Boll Weevil hamburgers in San Diego were half-pound, real cheap, and surprisingly good.

Call me sentimental, but I still love Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Bob’s was the originator of the double deck hamburger and I enjoy it as much now as I did when I was nine. Some nights they still have car service.

Mel’s Drive-In is another ‘50s throwback diner. Remember them from AMERICAN GRAFFITTI? Decent burgers and more big Hollywood stars. I saw Andy Kindler once in Mel’s.

And finally, my all-time favorite burger place has re-opened but don’t be fooled. Cassell’s now sucks. This breaks my heart. Cassell’s used to be in a corner dumpy spot in the Wilshire district. The grill was on a slant so the grease rolled off. The buns were large, and they had a condiment bar that included homemade potato salad that was out of this world. Now it’s re-opened down the block in a Hotel on Normandy and the condiment bar is gone, the potato salad isn’t nearly as good and it’s no longer free, the buns are different, and it seems to me the quality of the meat has gone downhill. A great burger is more than just a name.

Depending on where you live I’m sure there are awesome burger places I have no knowledge of. If the TRAVEL CHANNEL would let me do a show where I go around the country sampling them, I would be more than happy to give yours a try.

As Wimpy used to say, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Wait a minute. It IS Tuesday. Never mind.

Note:  Since I will airborne most of the day and I moderate the comments there may be a lag before yours is posted.  But I will get to it.  So comment away.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nothing's changed

Here's a helpful writer tip:

Even though people change, there are traits that always stay the same. You see this a lot at high school reunions. Someone may now be a big hotshot lawyer but he still slouches and wears a pocket protector hidden under the jacket of his $1000 suit. 

When people ask I tell them I’m still 13.  I'm only half-joking.

When I was 13 I used to repair to my room, sit at my desk, and draw comic books. I don’t even think I ever showed them to anybody. But they were fun to draw and fun to create the elaborate stories for them. (Think: Rocky & Bullwinkle) God knows if they were any good.

Also, I would be listening to KFWB Channel 98 “Color Radio.” They played the hits of the day straight off the “Fabulous 40” survey.

Flash forward to today, and I’m in my office, at my desk, writing a new play. Meanwhile, my speakers are blaring – bar none the best oldies station on the internet – and I thought to myself, “Ohmygod. Nothing’s changed. Only the jokes are different.”

When creating characters for your screenplay or pilot or novel, one thing to keep in mind is “who they were.” You can often take character traits of your youth or others and apply them to help define characters in adulthood. It’s just another great tool. Your bratty annoying sister might have just done you a favor by being bratty and annoying.
And by the way, let me double back and recommend  It’s programmed by Rich Brother Robbin, one of the great jocks and PD’s of the golden Top 40 era. If you like oldies from the ‘50s-‘70s this is the station for you. Primarily because he has a deep playlist. Unlike terrestrial stations that play the same 100 tunes (How many times can you hear “Proud Mary?” Ugh!), you’ll hear songs you haven’t heard in years. Also vintage radio jingles and NO COMMERCIALS. I listen on iTunes but you can find it here. Who knows? Maybe it’ll help you write a great play. Or comic book.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

My daughter the pole dancer

This is a re-post from January 2013.    My daughter Annie taking a pole dancing class.  Flash-forward and she and her now husband/partner Jon are co-producers on KEVIN CAN WAIT.  One of their episodes (co-written with Dan Staley) airs tomorrow night at 8 on CBS. But as you'll see, she and Jon were already funnier than me four years ago. 
My daughter, Annie recently took a pole dancing class. Here's her account of it (with help from her writing partner, Jon). As a father I couldn't be more proud.

Everyone likes to think their coworkers respect them…

Mine bought me a Groupon to a pole dancing class for my birthday. (Based on the average age of my coworkers, I chose to take this as a sign of admiration for my functional hips.)

I didn't plan to actually use the thing until my dad demanded I do a blog post about it. Most parents tend to discourage their children entering the world of erotic dancing. Mine bought me kneepads and offered to drive.

I'm lucky to have found the place at all. There was no sign out front, no mention on any directory, absolutely no distinguishing marks of any kind. Areola 51.

I finally discovered the way in and was rewarded for my perseverance with a dimly lit studio whose windows were blacked out by feather boas. It was like stumbling into RuPaul's doomsday bunker.

The class was called Pole Diva (Level 1) and the teacher was a pocket-sized Latina woman who kept criticizing everybody's "sexy pushups."

For the uninitiated, "sexy pushups" are when you caress your body before Shamu sliding along the hardwood and pulling yourself back up. Making sure to rub your hips again for good measure. Based on how my classmates looked doing them, I think "sexy pushup" is meant to be one of those ironic terms like "FOX comedy."

Not that everyone was bad at it. The woman in front of me was clearly the star pupil, and by the end of class even I was throwing her a few singles.

The humiliation of the "sexy pushup" (thoughtfully enhanced by the floor to ceiling mirrors we performed in front of) finally came to an end. It was time to strap on our kneepads (thanks again, Dad!) and pick our pole.

They offered us bottles of alcohol to disinfect the poles before use. I requested penicillin.

We learned a few different spins over the course of the hour. They all had fun names like "the sunburst" and "the firefly." Each one a new way to wind up with my ass on the floor and legs spread wide. The actual spinning was fun, though, until my teacher scolded me for yelling, "Wheeee!"

A large part of pole dancing seems to be walking around the pole, doing a sort of Igor foot drag. I pictured Martha Graham spinning in her grave every time this was referred to as choreography.

I did find one maneuver especially difficult, but was assured it would be much easier once I performed it in high heels. Pole dancing has to be the only physical activity in the world where that's true. "The Lakers are down fifty in the fourth quarter! Get Kobe his stilettos!"

By the end of class, I was so black and blue my dancer name would have been Hematoma. (In actuality, I would choose something a little more exotic if I ever entered the profession. Right now the top candidate is Treif Magnifique.)

The staff knew most of us were only in it for the one class. Still, they kept pressuring us to come back. On our way out, they made sure we knew that they were available for parties. I'm still not clear if they were talking about the studio or the instructors.

I'm sure if I kept at it, I could graduate to Pole Vixen (Level 2). I would love to see that ceremony. No gowns or mortarboards; just the tassels.

That said, I think it's safe to say pole dancing is not going to be added to my list of hobbies. I'd much rather bake the cake than jump out of it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Comedy Geography

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?) A few years ago we  had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Questions

Happy St. Patricks Day.  Oh wait.  That's MARCH 17th.   But Friday Questions come every week. 

Gazzoo starts us off:

Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) till the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

No one had any special requests, but David and I were very adamant that we didn’t want a sappy ending. That’s why we constructed the final sequence so that all of the final goodbyes were during triage and the farewells had to be quick and on the run.

I’m a big fan of “little touches”. Hawkeye discovering Radar’s teddy bear on his bed says more about how Radar matured from the MASH experience than any speech could have ever done, no matter how eloquently it was written.

We also wanted to send Radar home happy. Henry Blake was killed and Frank went bonkers. We wanted Radar to return home having benefited somewhat from the experience. He grew up and found love in Korea.

Originally it was a just a single episode but when CBS decided to push it back into the 8th season they asked that it be expanded into a two-parter.

The new staff rewrote very very little of our draft (thanks for that, guys). I don’t believe a line was changed from the entire final act. One day I’ll get Gary Burghoff to write about the episode from his perspective.

Mirror James (from England) wonders:

Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, his predecessor on Doctor Who, often seem to be the targets of abuse from people who claim to be fans. Everything from saying they can't write to accusations of running a so-called "gay agenda", in which the mere acknowledgement that gay people exist is apparently "shoving it down their throats".

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan who claims to love a show yet can't seem to do anything other than hurl insults?

Only all the time. Fans are passionate about their shows. I got a hate letter on MASH from someone who thought Hawkeye was being too mean to Radar. Other loyal MASH viewers claimed in profanity-laced missives that I was a liberal Commie dupe hell bent on destroying America.

The "gay agenda" complaint was a staple on FRASIER.  Referring to this and the "we're too liberal" charge on MASH, I like to think we had an "open minded agenda". 

My favorite was a letter I received when David and I were showrunning the MARY series. It started out like this:

Dear Producers,

Recently I read an article in TV GUIDE that spoke of the growing cocaine problem in the television industry. At first I thought they were grossly exaggerating, but then I watched an episode of your show…

And of course Roseanne called me an “asshat”.

And finally, from Chris:

How do they shoot/do those scenes when the audience laughs just when the camera zooms on something, like a silent opening with the camera zooming on what a character is reading and just then the audience starts to laugh?

I assume you mean a studio audience. There are always monitors overhead and they will be invited to watch them for particular scenes or moments. Often special scenes will be pre-shot and just shown to the audience. What they see is what you’ll see at home so they receive the same surprise.

What’s your Friday Question?  I think I'm going to eat corned beef today anyway.