Monday, October 23, 2017

Here's an idea broadcast networks will never do:

First some background.

Table readings are an important part of any scripted form process. TV shows, plays, movies – there is great benefit from assembling a group of actors and hearing your script read aloud. Especially for a comedy.

Now the key of course is to be objective and invite people who will give you an honest reaction to the material. Assembling an audience of the actors’ parents is not the best way to determine whether your script works. And if you as the writer just laugh hysterically to everything that is being said you’ll have no idea what you’ve got. So what’s the point?

Table readings for sitcom pilots have become major pressure cookers. It used to be the actors would sit around a conference table and the writers, networks, agents, etc. would ring the perimeter walls. Actors were able to relate to each other because they were face-to-face.

But now there are so many network people, studio people, agents, managers, production companies, pod producers, etc. that the actors have to sit on a stage all facing out like being on a dais. And there can be close to a hundred people in the audience. It’s just insane.

Pilots get axed at table readings. Actors get fired at table readings. Networks’ enthusiasm for the project could go from high to low depending on the reaction. Things have gotten so crazy that now a lot of producers have pre-table readings to prepare for the actual table readings.

Okay, my idea that networks will never do. This is primarily for comedies.

Sometimes pilots don’t necessarily read funny. Especially if they’re character-based. And many network development executives don’t know how to read a script. They can’t picture it. (Yes, I know. Isn’t that their JOBS?) Also, networks tend to foist casting choices on the producers that are wrong for the parts.

So how about this? Each pilot script gets a table reading before the networks decide which shows they’re greenlighting for production. And here’s the kicker: the creator of the show casts it. That way the show has the best possible chance of showing off its potential. You don’t need to fill the cast with stars. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. But this gives young unknown actors a chance to get network exposure. And who knows? If the pilot does get made perhaps the network will want some of those unknowns to reprise their roles. TV makes stars, and this way you’d have more young actors given a chance to be seen and maybe breakout.

You could have these table readings at the network. You could schedule several for the day. A hundred people don’t decide which shows get picked up so you don’t need a hundred people in the room.

I guarantee you that at least two pilot scripts that didn’t seem impressive will suddenly knock everybody out. And a few of the scripts that were real jokey will be exposed for how lightweight and glib they really are.

The networks could make more informed decisions. They could discover new talent. They could really get a sense of what the writer had in mind. And it wouldn’t cost them a dime. The creators do all the work of assembling and rehearsing the cast.

Doesn’t that make sense? Like I said, it probably won’t happen. Networks don’t like giving up control at any point of the process. Allowing writers to follow their own vision and present the show they want to do (even for an informal table reading) would set a very bad precedent. Better to keep things the way they are – with a 95% failure rate.  Yep, that’s obviously a better system.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What "coverage" looks like

When writers turn in screenplays, producers, agencies, and studios generally hire people to read them and submit a report.  These reports are called "coverage."  Many times projects live or die based on their coverage.  As an example of one, here is our coverage for the screenplay we wrote for VOLUNTEERS (which eventually became a movie starring Tom Hanks and John Candy).  Once you read it you'll know why I saved it all these years.   If only all of our coverage from all of our screenplays could receive this kind of reaction. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fox promos (oy!)

With tonight's big Game 7 of the ALCS taking place on FS1 (if you get it) and Joe Buck on the call, I thought this would be the perfect blog post.  This is a hilarious montage put together by Matthew Callan -- 21 years of Joe Buck during the World Series doing live promo reads for upcoming Fox shows.   A few you know but most of these shows are long forgotten.   So take a nostalgic trip down memory lane to re-acquaint yourself with all these shows you never watched. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anyone?

Unknown starts us off with a timely one.

Ken for non-Americans like me why do they call your baseball competition a world series?

Because people here think America IS the world.

Actually, when the term was coined a few centuries ago America was pretty much the only country playing organized baseball so technically the term applied. And now it’s just a “thing.”

Matt wonders:

Sometimes there are episodes where an established cast character isn't in the episode/script. For example, "The Late Captain Pierce" from 1975. Radar isn't in the episode even though it would be four more seasons before he left.

Are these absentees scheduled in advance? Or is it a "last minute" thing where a script had to be adjusted/rewritten to accommodate?

It depends on the actor’s contract. Sometimes an actor will sign a deal for say 10 out of 13 but included is the stipulation that their credit appear in every episode.

For the episode you mentioned, Gary Burghoff might have been sick and just written out that week.

In the first year of CHEERS, three days into rehearsal for an episode Nick Colasanto went into the hospital with pleurisy. So we worked all night writing him out of the episode. Then came the weekend and on Monday (day four) he was back. So we had to write him back in. That was a fun week.

From Mike Bloodworth:

The 9/28 episode of The Orville was a complete rip-off of the Star Trek:TOS episode, "For The World is Hollow..." Now, they're not the first sci-fi show to steal from S.T. and they won't be the last. And other shows seem to shamelessly steal plot lines and jokes from movies and other series. As it says in Ecclesiastes, "...there is no new thing under the Sun." So, what is your opinion about shows that use other writers' material? Other than an obvious homage. Have you ever "borrowed" jokes or story lines from other shows. And how do they not get sued for plagiarism?

“Homages” get into murky area, at least for me. Unless it is CLEARLY a nod to a specific work there is the danger that the new work is lifted. How do you achieve that clarity? Generally you have to do something meta that lets the audience know that you know you’re treading on someone else’s property.

In terms of similar story areas, this too is a gray area. Often two shows will unknowingly hit upon a similar story. The showrunner of “Show A” sees a story on “Show B” that is close to the one he has airing next week. But both shows were filmed months before. It’s not like the showrunner from “Show A” says, “That’s great. Let’s do that,” gathers the staff, writes and films the show the next day and have it ready to air on Tuesday.

That said, on shows I’ve worked on, anytime we’re looking for stories, if someone pitches something and one of the writers says “They did something like that on (pick any show),” we automatically just throw it out. No discussion, no rationalizing. It’s tossed.

Let’s just say other showrunners don’t strictly adhere to that policy.

And finally, Carson Clark asks:

You've written before about a good writer does his or her best to service all of the main characters on a show. This made me wonder, was there pressure to write content for Moose, a.k.a. Eddie, on Frasier? Was he treated like a character or more like a prop?

Moose never counted lines.

We saw him as a character but tried to use him in a limited fashion and always conferred with his remarkable trainer, Matilda de Cagny (pictured above with Moose) to make sure whatever we asked was easily doable for Moose.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 19, 2017


A reader asked about “Potterisms.” These are the colorful expressions, often substitutes for curse words that Colonel Potter would utter on MASH. “Horse hockey!” “Buffalo Bagels!”

The reader wondered about the derivation, how we came up with them, etc.

Sherman Potter (played to perfection by Harry Morgan) arrived at MASH a season before we did. Larry Gelbart was still running the writing room.

I can’t say this for absolute certain, but I’m pretty willing to bet that “Potterisms” were the brainchild of the brilliant writing team of Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum.

Fritzell & Greenbaum had a storied career in TV comedy writing. They wrote 24 episodes of MASH (including the famous one where Colonel Blake is shot down), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They wrote on dozens of shows from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW to SANFORD & SONS, THE REAL McCOYS, all the way back to MR. PEEPERS (which they also created) in the early ‘50s.

When they wrote for MASH they were in their fifties, doing anywhere from six to eight scripts a season. In those days you could still make a nice living as a freelance writer. And in those days writers with experience were actually valued.

Like I said, they were brilliant. Very funny, terrific craftsmen (there was not a wasted word and their scripts always had a definite flow – we learned a lot from them), and something else: they had a real love for Americana. Their scripts were always brimming with great expressions, period slang, and colorful words. I’ve noticed that filmmaker Alexander Payne also has that appreciation for Americana as is evidenced in his work.

Fritzell & Greenbaum also had this love for scatological humor and once a script they’d slip in a shit joke – but always a sneaky network-acceptable shit joke. Klinger would remove a rectal thermometer from a patient and say, “It’s 102 in Pittsburgh.” Or: “Prune juice – greatest invention since the Gatling Gun.”

So when Potter had to say “bullshit” I suspect it was Jim & Ev who came up with “Buffalo Bagels.” And remember, a lot of those euphemisms were not made up – they were existing expressions. “Road Apples!” “Cow Pies!”

Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart realized those expressions could be part of his character and ran with it. And again, those Potterisms for the most part, were actual slang expressions (even if they hadn’t been used since World War I). Potter might praise something by calling it “the Oyster’s Ice-skates.” Now I don’t even know for sure what that means but it sure sounds funny.

When David Isaacs and I were at the helm we used Potterisms sparingly, partly because a lot of those expressions were from before our time. After we left the show Potterisms just became expressions with different words to say the same phrase. My favorite was “Curiosity K.O.’ed the feline.”

But if you’re a MASH fan, I invite you watch episodes from seasons 2-6 and seek out the ones penned by Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum. Next to Larry Gelbart, no one wrote the show better. And that includes me and my partner.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

EP42: Charlize Theron and Other Dreams

Ken talks to writer Avin Das about the Charlize Theron sex tape that he wrote and co-starred in for Funny Or Die.  He also reveals what it’s really like to be a production assistant on a hit situation comedy.  Plus, Ken shares some of his more wacky insane dreams. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A "me too" story I've never shared

Here’s a sexual harassment story where a woman stood up.

This was the first season of CHEERS. We had a script where Diane enters the Miss Boston Barmaid of the Year competition. “No Contest” was the title. Remember that one?   It was actually a very pro-feminist story with Diane entering solely to publicly denounce the competition for objectifying women. The script was written by Heide Perlman and was terrific.

After a writer completes their second draft the staff does whatever rewriting is necessary to arrive at a script for production. That script gets circulated to the network, cast, studio, and various departments of the crew (including casting director).

Glen & Les Charles and David Isaacs and I did the polish for the production draft. We changed very little. Like I said, Heide had crushed it.

We inadvertently left in most of the stage direction as well. I say “inadvertently” because there was one line that slipped through that shouldn’t have. In describing one of the barmaids, Heide, with tongue-in-cheek, wrote she had “state-of-the-art tits.” It’s the kind of thing we all do – write little jokes in the stage direction as an incentive for people to read them. Lots of readers see a block of direction and just skip it. Anyway, no big deal. These jokes are for the room and generally removed before the production draft.

Well, that one stayed in. For all I know it was my fault. I might have been proofing that day and missed it. Who can remember?  It was 35 years ago.   

Anyway, the following day we have our casting session for barmaids. A number of actresses come in and audition. It’s a typical session. Me and David, Glen and Les, Jim Burrows, and our casting director are in the room.

After several candidates, one young woman walks in, points to her breasts and says, “Okay, boys, here they are.” We were all taken a little aback. That was a strange thing to do. We said, “What?” And then she pointed to them again, “Here are my state-of-the-art tits!”

Needless to say, we all were mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.

We all apologized profusely (and no, I don’t remember if we hired her or not – at the end of the day it was still acting ability). But I think back now and really applaud her (no, I don’t remember her name either). That was an inappropriate description in the script and I suspect the other actresses weren’t too keen on it either but this one stood up.

Obviously there was no disrespect intended, but it just points out the number of indignities – intentionally or unintentionally – that women face.  I've always prided myself on my conduct but even I contributed to a "me too" moment.  Hopefully things will change… even a little. We guys need to be more sensitive to this… and proof better.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I love Bill Nighy

In a recent article, actor Bill Nighy (you’ve seen him in everything) called out actors who didn’t bother to memorize their lines. Not only that, he said it’s become fashionable for actors to show up on a set or rehearsal hall unprepared. The bullshit rationalization is that knowing your lines ahead of time stifles discovery. Nighy says:

“Rehearsal is not the enemy of spontaneity. The idea is the process is you say the lines over and over and over and over and over again until you can give the impression that you’ve never said them before and it’s just occurred to you. That’s the gig.”

Thank you, Mr. Nighy.

Just this weekend I wrote a post on how the CHEERS cast got lazy towards the end. But that’s after ten years and over 200 episodes. I don’t condone it, but I can understand that the show had become a grind and the actors were looking for ways to deal with it. Also, scripts on CHEERS changed practically daily so it really made no sense to commit them to memory until after the third day of rehearsal (day three of a five day production week).

But if you’re an actor in a play, or you have scenes in a movie – and the script is locked – it’s your job to be off-book as soon as possible.

Yes, it’s hard. It’s one of the reasons I never became an actor (that and lack of talent). I marvel at people who can memorize two hours of dialogue word for word. I don’t know how they do it. But as Mr. Nighy says, “It’s the gig.”

I must say this is a real pet peeve of mine. I work very hard on my scripts, shaping every single line. Lines are worded very specifically to get the biggest laughs. There is also a rhythm and flow. All that goes away when the actors are halting, groping for lines.

Just know that the time you take to learn a line is probably a third of the time it took for me to write that line.

So when I hear, “well, I feel restricted by knowing the words, my spontaneity is cut off by memorizing the script” what I really hear is “I’m just lazy and unprofessional.”

And aside from how disrespectful that is to the writer, it’s also a slap in the face to the other actors who have taken the time to learn their parts. Not to mention the director.

Look, as an actor so much in this industry is out of your control. It’s such a subjective business. Unfair, infuriating, illogical. But the only thing you can control is your professionalism. Believe me, I find professionalism a way more impressive "special skill" than ballroom dancing.

Oh, and by the way, postscript on CHEERS: Remember in the series finale there’s that wonderful lengthy scene of everyone sitting around the bar late at night reflecting on their lives? Beautifully written by Glen & Les Charles and directed by James Burrows, that was all filmed in one take. Every actor had their lines down perfectly.

It can be done. And since it can, why not do it? Even if it means bucking a fashionable trend.