Sunday, April 20, 2014

This is very funny

This is Nina Conti, a very funny (and quite accomplished) ventriloquist. One of her bits is to take people from the audience and turn them into puppets. Here's an example. And for you trivia fans, she is actor Tom Conti's daughter.

Let's play JEOPARDY!

And you are under no obligation to say VOLUNTEERS. 

For me, some would be:

What is  THE GODFATHER Part 2?
What is NETWORK?
What is GUNGA DIN?
What is BANANAS?
What is ARTHUR?
What is DR. NO?
What is GIDGET?
What is STAR WARS?

So what are some of yours? 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

My TCA speech

My post on Thursday on why I really became a comedy writer prompted a number of readers to ask if I could share the acceptance speech I delivered at that TCA dinner.  Kind blogger that I am, I used that request to blackmail you into buying more copies of my book.  It worked.  So thanks very much, and here is the speech.  If you don't like it, please don't return the books.  

There were also a couple of ad libs that got laughs, but I don't remember what they were.  I know I made fun of some of the other acceptance speeches but don't recall the exact lines.  (Maybe Alan Sepinwall or Maureen Ryan or one of the other critics there that night does?)   All I know is Claire Danes laughed.   Here's what I said.

On behalf of Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows and all the writers and crew, I want to thank you for this prestigious honor. I was fortunate enough to be with CHEERS since the beginning and trust me, it meant a lot to us that you embraced our show initially. Critics were very important, especially since critics were the only people who watched the show. That first year, not only were we getting trounced by SIMON & SIMON, but something on ABC called TUCKER’S WITCH was kicking our ass.

But thanks to your support, and the fact that NBC had nothing else – which is kind of like today -- they decided to stick with us. Truly, it was us or PINK LADY & JEFF. (That won the TCA Heritage Award in 2006, didn’t it?).

But it was a great run. Who knew it would last eleven years? Who knew Woody would be the cast member to become a movie star? Who knew our modest little theme song would one day be used to sell auto insurance?

It was an honor to be associated with CHEERS. Writers from today’s shows tell me all the time how much CHEERS influenced them and then won’t hire me. But knowing I’ve inspired others, and will still get royalties long after their shows have been cancelled is satisfaction enough. (That got applause) So again, on behalf of the Glen & Les Charles and Jim Burrows, thanks so much. CHEERS is a great example that quality can ultimately win out, and that critics do make a difference.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Questions

A whole bunch of 'em. What’s yours?

Johnny Walker starts us off:

Ken, of the many TV shows about the behind-the-scenes of television (e.g. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Buffalo Bill, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock, something called "Almost Perfect" - whatever that is), which do you feel portrayed the trials, tribulations, stresses and strains of a real TV show most accurately? I.e. Which make you smart in recognition and go, "That's SO true"?

No contest. THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. So realistic it was painfully funny. ALMOST PERFECT is second of course.  Okay... third. 

Cody asks:

Would you ever consider doing a drama that contained a fair amount of humor? 
Sure. If the right idea came along. I very much enjoyed writing the dramatic aspects of MASH. But still, there would be a lot of humor. I actually laugh more at certain dramas than I do current sitcoms. By far the funniest character on television in the last ten years is Dewey Crow from JUSTIFIED.

David Chase, by the way, always contended that THE SOPRANOS was a comedy.  I think that's stretching it, but there's room for humor in all dramas (except maybe CRIMINAL MINDS). 

Carol has a question based on the Friday Question a few weeks ago about profanity.

Do you think being handcuffed to not being able to use profanity, even when it would make sense to do so forced you to be even more clever with phrasing and jokes and things?

Absolutely. Our goal has always been to write jokes that are clever and elegant. It’s why you hire us and not kids on street corners.   There's a certain challenge to writing a joke that is both low and high road. 

From Mork. (Good to see you back on earth.)

Ken—what’s the cheapest thing you’ve ever seen a studio do?

I told this story before but it’s worth repeating.

From Angry Gamer:

Did you ever end up in a situation (script, outline etc) where the reviewer would reject the product but not give you any useful feedback? In my business we call this "polishing the rock"... you know where the guy says "not right" but can't tell you what is "right". (slushpile question probably :)

Yes. There was a network executive (who I’m very fond of) who used to give notes like “the script is here but needs to be here.” Or “you have the meat and potatoes, but it needs more dessert.”


We would turn in our rewrites and have no idea whether we satisfied the notes.  Much time was spent by me and David arguing over whether to include apple pie or lemon chiffon cake? 

And finally, from Frank from Campbell in NorCal:

I was talking to a friend who is a major M*A*S*H head and he said Gary Burghoff was the only actor to be in all iterations of M*A*S*H including the pilot of a show called Walter. Does that pilot exist in the You Tube world and did you have anything to do with it?

I don’t know if it’s available on line, but it was called W*A*L*T*E*R and was written by Everett Greenbaum and Elliott Reid. I had nothing to do with it.

Gary was also in the movie MASH and guested on AfterMASH.

Have a great Easter weekend.   


Getting close.  Only 5 more books have to be sold for me to post the speech from yesterday's essay.  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why I became a comedy writer

A couple of years ago CHEERS won the heritage award from the Television Critics. Neither the Charles Brothers nor James Burrows were available to accept so I was asked to do so on their behalf at the big TCA Awards Dinner. It’s as close as I’m ever going to come personally to winning a TCA Award and there was alcohol so I said sure.

The event was held in the glittering Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hiltons, same venue as the Golden Globes. Same alcohol too. The place was packed. Lots of industry folks and cast members from your favorite high quality shows. Aaron Paul even remembered me from the pilot he did for us back in the ‘00s. And Jonathan Banks vaguely remembered I directed him in FIRED UP. (To be fair, he vaguely remembered FIRED UP.)

Louis CK was not there, which was very disappointing since I was assigned to the LOUIE table. Also absent was Morena Baccarin from HOMELAND, but the rest of the cast was there including Claire Danes. I love Claire Danes.

I had a prepared speech (it helps to know you’ve already won) and I just killed. I happened to glance down to the HOMELAND table and I could see that Claire Danes was laughing really hard. I was beyond thrilled. The thousand other people who were laughing including executives who could give me work or critics who could increase my stature? Fine, whatever, but Claire Danes was in stitches.

And as I walked back to my seat it occurred to me: I’m still 14. It was all about making the pretty girl laugh.

That’s why I got into comedy writing – to impress pretty girls. And I bet if most male comedy writers were being honest they’d say that’s why they got into the field too. It wasn’t the money, or the need to express themselves, it was having Claire Danes like me for 1:40 (I kept my speech short).

God, that's sad.  But ultimately rewarding.

If I could play football in high school I’d probably be selling plumbing supplies today. So do I have regrets? My awkward teenage years led me to where I am today. So no. Except for one. Why didn’t I take up playing the goddamn guitar? Those guys really scored. I was an idiot!

UPDATE:  Several of you have asked me to post the speech itself.  Sleazy opportunist that I am, I will be happy to...


I sell 20 more copies of MUST KILL TV, the Kindle version going for only $2.99.    I know.  What a creep.  But it's a very funny book, deals with award dinners, I'm very proud of it and want as many people to read it as possible.   (I can't believe book promotion has come to this.)  Thanks in advance.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Maybe We'll Have You Back

Today I’m plugging a book that’s not mine. MAYBE WE’LL HAVE YOU BACK by Fred Stoller. He presents a hilarious first-person account of what it’s like to be a long-time character actor on sitcoms.

You’ve seen him on a million shows, from FRIENDS to EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND to SEINFELD to DOG WITH A BLOG. Fred is tall, thin, nerdy and usually plays Annoying Guy, or Obnoxious Guy, or Pathetic Guy or worse, Pathetic Guy #2.   He was punched out in DUMB AND DUMBER.

He’s also very funny, which is why he gets all of these roles over other tall, thin, nerdy actors who are scrambling for the same parts.  How funny?   Fred was also a writer on SEINFELD for a season.

The bottom line: show business is a lot easier if you look like Simon Baker.

The brass ring for guest actors is that one of their characters break out and eventually become series regulars. Christopher Lloyd on TAXI and Bebe Neuwirth on CHEERS are two examples. But more often they deliver three lines (two of which get cut in editing) and have to park off the lot.

And if fighting for show biz scraps wasn't hardship enough, Fred once slept with Kathy Griffin. 

For reasons I’ve never understood, there are some casts that ignore or shun guest actors. It’s not like their series won’t end in two years and they’ll be guest actors themselves.

SIDE NOTE: And then there’s Ted Danson. One day on BECKER he was talking about a new Prius he had just gotten. One of the guest actors was curious about it, and Ted handed him his keys and said, “It’s right out front. Drive it around.” The man is a mensch (who gets great mileage).

I found Fred’s book hilarious and illuminating. Imagine a SEINFELD writer conducting a Starline Tour of Hollywood.

His section on SEINFELD was particularly interesting. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld ran a writing room unlike any I’ve ever seen before or after. It sounded more like hanging around Elvis Presley and bringing him cakes when he was hungry.

There are so many aspects of show business that go unrecognized. To my knowledge this is the first book about those brave thespians who play roles that are numbered instead of named. Instead of reading the 400th star autobiography (as told to 400 ghost writers), check out this unique perspective of television production.

And then buy my book.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Best of Levine & Isaacs

The topic of TV binge watching came up recently at lunch. My friend said, “You’ve written enough shows that you could probably fill an entire weekend.” I said, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to. Some things we wrote I wish we could have back. The fact that they’re still in syndication would bother me terribly if I wasn’t still getting residuals from them. So I can live with it. But he asked, “Could you assemble one full season that you’d be willing to binge on?” Figuring one season to be twenty-two episodes, I thought and said, “Sure.”

I’m still not going to do it, but in case any of you wish to binge on the Best of Levine & Isaacs, here are the episodes I would pick. Let me rephrase that – here are the episodes that are available to stream or rent I would pick. Some of our very best work is from series we created that are no longer in release.

So if you’re really sick one weekend, or starved for entertainment, or just want to punish yourself for some unspeakable thing you've done, here are my Top Twenty-Two:

Out of Sight/Out of Mind
Point of View
Merchant of Korea
Goodbye Radar part 1 and 2

Any Friend of Diane’s
Boys in the Bar
To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before
The Big Kiss Off
Jumping Jerks
Death Takes a Holiday on Ice
Bar Wars V… the Final Judgement
Heeeer’s Cliffy
Rat Girl

The Show Where Lilith Comes Back
Adventures in Paradise part 1 and 2
Room Service
Miss Right Now

Dancin’ Homer
Saturdays of Thunder

Noses Off

Let me know if you actually get through the entire twenty-two. Enjoy!

Monday, April 14, 2014


Marvel gets it. DC doesn’t. Comic book movies need to be fun. I mean, it’s a guy in tights defying the laws of physics, thrilling action scenes, and generally 20,000 innocent bystanders getting killed in the crossfire of all the mayhem and destruction. If you can’t have a good time with all of this, then what’s the point?

MAN OF STEEL was terrible. You’re supposed to want to BE Superman while watching the movie. Wouldn’t it be cool to fly and beat the shit out of anybody, and see anyone naked you wish? Yes, that’s juvenile but how old were we when we bought the comic books and fell in love with the character?   I don’t want to know that Superman is a tortured soul. A hot chick like Lois Lane would sleep with him in a second. Waa waa, he’s from another planet.

But Captain America is my kind of superdude. Yes, he’s got a nagging conscience but he’s 95 years old. We all have baggage. And it’s never enough to distract him from single-handedly beating the living crap out of a small army. You can feel good about human beings being flung into walls and crushed to death because they’re all wearing dark uniforms and it’s all in the service of the Good Old USA. I must confess, there were a few violent encounters with bad guys where I said, “Huh? You let him live? Why? Use your shield. Let’s see if you can swat the guy all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.” Chris Evans is likeable, earnest, and among women moviegoers, I bet there’s not a dry seat in the theater.

Even more fun for me was Scarlett Johansson as whatever-the-word for Catwoman is in Russian. She’s Jewish and she’s badass. Take that Nazis and sinister secret organizations planning on dominating the world (think: Time-Warner Cable).

And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, always good for some rollicking scene stealing. Even as he was saying, “Don’t trust anybody” I was ordering a Capital One card.

Anthony Mackie is Will Smith without the desperate need for an Oscar. Robert Redford has decided it’s time to appear in a movie that anyone will go see. It’s inspired stunt casting for the 20% of Marvel Universe fans who know who he is.

And then there’s Cobie Smulders. Spectacularly gorgeous as always and wisely not asked to be funny. When left to saying lines like, “heat shield in place” and “seven minutes to launch” she’s fine. The best thing about her performance is that she has amazing skin.

The story is a big conspiracy/explosion/car chase fest. THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR meets any Michael Bay film. But it moves at a nice clip, has enough Marvel lore to keep fans happy, and best of all, doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are funny lines throughout.

Naturally, the movie builds to a giant CGI-apalooza complete with thrills and spills and people taking punches that would kill a rhinoceros. But the suspense builds, the threat makes sense, and you get caught up in the film enough that you don’t ask the obvious question: Where the hell are the rest of the Avengers?

CAPTAIN AMERICA 2 is worth seeing. If Superman wants to brood over something, brood over how much better the Marvel filmmakers are than yours.