Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Questions

Ready for some Friday Questions?   

Robin gets us started:

Say you're pitching an idea for a show and the network passes. Is it possible for you to move on--let's pretend you were able to get a different show on TV--and after you're a bit more well-known try to get your original idea made? Or is it the case that when it's gone, it's gone?

Until someone buys your idea it’s yours. You can shop it anywhere. And even if everyone passes, if your next idea becomes FRIENDS you can take your old rejected idea out of the drawer and there will be a bidding war.

For whatever reason, my partner and I never had much luck at ABC. Routinely they would pass and another network would buy our pitch. So we always scheduled ABC first and almost used it as a practice pitch.

I don’t know how it is now at ABC but it used to be that when you pitched a comedy, they were in Burbank, and the executives would sit with their backs to the window. You would be looking at the execs and over their shoulders, out the window, was Forest Lawn Cemetery. How perfect was that?

From Marianne:

Hi Ken! In the 'Cheers' finale, we learn that Diane has led a somewhat depressing life after leaving Boston. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her! There are rumors that Diane was written this way out of spite due to Shelley Long's departure from the series. Are these rumors true?

Those rumors are absolutely false. We were thrilled that Shelley agreed to come back for the finale. She certainly didn’t have to. But having Diane return really created a sense of closure and added to the “event” status of the episode. Think about it – why would Shelley agree to return if she felt the script was out to punish her?

Here’s the God’s honest truth: the final episode of CHEERS was much better because Shelley was in it. The series as a whole was elevated greatly by Shelley’s presence. Any other actress besides Shelley Long and CHEERS likely would have been gone in thirteen weeks. We owe her an enormous debt, and it is with delight that I can dispel such rumors. Thanks, Marianne, for giving me the opportunity to do that.

Andy P. has a question in light of the recent BIG BANG THEORY actors’ holdout.

I'd read that Parsons/Galecki/Cuoco also got development deals, Ken. Could you please explain a bit more about what that means?

That means that the studio sets up production companies for the actors, gives them office space, a budget to hire development executives and funds to buy or option material.

Sometimes these turn into legitimate companies like Kelsey Grammer’s Grammnet. They actually produce successful series. But most of the time these "deals" are just vanity projects that go nowhere. The actors think it’ll be fun to be a producer developing projects. And then when they see how difficult the process is they tire quickly.

It gives you an even greater appreciation for Desi Arnaz.
Stephen Robinson has a long question for a short answer.

I've noticed that with sitcoms filmed before a live audience, the audience will "react" (laugh) to a joke that is only a surprise if you're watching at home. For example, the camera zooms in to a close-up of the character saying something inspiring or potentially upsetting and then it pulls back to reveal that everyone she was speaking to has vanished or passed out. The audience would have noticed this set-up (the characters leaving the stage or lying down on the floor) so how do they keep the audience from "reacting" until the actual visual punchline?

We pre-shoot those scenes and show them back to the audience.

Daws asks:

What's your opinion of the movie "Major League?"

I love MAJOR LEAGUE, especially Bob Uecker as Indians’ announcer, Harry Doyle. From what I understand, he improvised all his dialogue, which explains why it was so hilarious. Now that Wesley Snipes is out of prison they should have a reunion.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The amazing Marvin Gaye

Last night I had the great pleasure to go to the Hollywood Bowl and see a tribute to Marvin Gaye. And we were in one of the boxes so the stage was in the same time zone. Just how amazing was Marvin Gaye? Check this out. It's Marvin's vocal track for "Heard it Through the Grapevine" in the clear. The man could sing.

Bonus Questions

As promised, here’s an extra day of Friday Questions. Keep ‘em coming.

Marianne has been patiently waiting. She’s up first.

I was just wondering why it wasn't until the later seasons that Cheers decided to film teasers in front of the actual bar in Boston? Also, were those scenes filmed in one hit or did the actors regularly go to and from Boston?

A large factor was the budget. Once the series got into the later years and Paramount knew it would go into syndication and become a cash cow there was more money to spend.

When CHEERS hit 200 episodes we all went to Boston to celebrate. There was a big parade. It was like following around the Beatles. But since we had the whole cast it seemed very convenient to shoot those teasers. Yes, we shot them all in a couple of days. Even got then-governor Michael Dukakis to do one. We were hoping to spin him off into his own series but it never came about.

Chris asks:

Have you ever worked on a show that didn't have a writer's room? If you did, how did you find the system to be?

Personally, no. I was asked once to take over as showrunner for a sitcom where the staff was sent off to their own offices to write jokes for the rewrite and the showrunner would then select the ones he wanted. We said we couldn’t work that way and declined the offer.

There was no writing room on SEINFELD. The staff would work one-to-one with Larry David on their scripts and then he and Jerry would rewrite.  One of the writers, Fred Stoller, wrote a terrific account of his year on SEINFELD.  You can buy it here

At the end of the day, it’s whatever works. Oh wait, I shouldn’t use that expression. WHATEVER WORKS was the name of that horrible Woody Allen movie starring Larry David. Sorry for bringing it up, Larry.

From Ally:

You said that directing with Jamie Widdoes crew was like driving a Porsche. Why? Obviously technical skill is important for any crewmember, but what are some of the intangibles that make a good crew? When you are the show runner, what do you look for when hiring your dream crew?

You look for crewmembers who take pride in what they do and excel at their craft. Ideally, you want crewmembers who offer more than just what is asked. There may be a tough shot to get. The cameraman has only a few seconds to get into position. Some will say it’s too tough and others will say, “I’ll get there. Don’t worry.” Those are the guys you want.

But the key is this: you need to recognize and appreciate their contributions. Treat them with the respect they richly deserve. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many directors and producers just treat these people like cattle.

I do everything but wash their cars. I love these guys and gals.

And finally, Maria wonders:

Have you ever thought about doing one of those interviews for the Archive of American Television? You seem to have so many interesting stories and insights - it would be fabulous to see you interviewed!

I would LOVE to do one of those. No one has asked me to. And I think it’s a little tacky to call them and say, “Hey, what about me?” But if anyone on the committee is reading this, I’m available. I’m just sitting here in make up.

More Friday Questions tomorrow (it being Friday and all).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The most ridiculous cop show currently on the air

If I were to write a spoof of a typical hour procedural I could not possibly come up with anything more absurd than TAXI BROOKLYN. This show has been airing on NBC on Wednesdays this summer although originally it was a French show. NBC has found a new way to not hire US writers – just buy shows from France and Sweden. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year they shoot AMERICA’S GOT TALENT in Belgium.

In France TAXI BROOKLYN’S premier drew 5.37 million viewers. In the U.S. it attracted 5.34 million. By comparison, the population of France is 65.7 million and in the United States 318.6 mil. And yet, more people still watched in France.

Out of curiosity I checked out an episode ON DEMAND. I sat with my jaw on the ground for an hour.

Here’s the premise: A hot-looking Brooklyn detective with a Peter Pan bob and the requisite TV grit loses her driving privileges somehow and enlists the help of an illegal alien cab driver to chauffer her around while she solves crimes. She wouldn’t just be paired with another cop who would drive? No, a better option, and one apparently sanctioned by the NYPD, is to have their officers protect the city in taxis. What police detective needs a ride to a homicide? Of course the driver becomes her de facto partner. Peter Pan and Latka fight crime.

How do you pitch that with a straight face?

Beyond that, this show has every possible procedural cliché. Seriously. They don’t miss a one. She comes from a family of cops. Her father was mysteriously murdered and she’s trying to crack the case. Her superiors are hiding something from her. Her ex is an FBI agent who may or may not be in bed with the bad guys. She dresses real butch but off duty is “all girl.” She is highly respected by the other stereotype detectives in the squad room. Of course none of them respect her enough to give her a lift once in awhile.

If there’s ever a taxi strike Brooklyn would be overrun by mobsters.

Cat (that’s her name – Cat) was also in some accident it seems. But in some scenes she’s on crutches and others she walks just fine but with a cane.

Again I ask, is that the best New York’s Finest can do? A cripple in a cab? Oh, and there’s no disability coverage for cops?

The episode I saw was one cliché after another. The mother of a foster home is murdered. Oh, those poor kids. Who would murder such a saint? SPOILER ALERT: did you say one of the kids? Did you say the least likely one? You of course would be right.

One of the kids is a smart-ass. He escapes the police station. How? A window in the bathroom of course. The captain yells at Cat to find him, as if this was all her fault. So they go searching, which allows for the obligatory “character banter” between Cat and cabbie. I forgot what it was about (while watching it). They find the kid (big surprise) on a road in New Jersey. The kid pleads for Cat to let him visit his dear sweet aunt. Cat says to him, “Don’t move” and she goes off with Latka to consider his request. This after five hours of searching for him. Does the kid stay still? What do you think? Oh no. He steals the cab. She’s not only hobbled, she’s also addled.


The kid eventually confesses that the foster mother was really Cruella DeVille to the utter shock of Cat (although viewers figured that out before the opening credits). Why couldn’t the kid confess this originally? It would have saved a lot of wear and tear on the cab.

I don’t know the fate of TAXI BROOKLYN. It’s NBC so if it does better than SEAN SAVES THE WORLD it might get renewed. But if it’s cancelled I’m getting on a plane and flying to Norway so I could pitch NBC my can’t-miss police drama – A hot no nonsense cop teams with a Gray Line sightseeing tour bus driver,

“Hey folks, we’re going to see the Statue of Liberty but first we have to go on this high-speed chase through Canarsie.”

I wonder if Chloe Sevigny would be willing to cut her hair.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TV sex

TV sex is not like real sex. Of course you generally don’t have Standards & Practice people hovering over the bed during real sex.

But in an age where mainstream movies are more explicit, the number one best selling book is rated X, and internet porn is only a click away, television is somewhat handcuffed (but not in the fun way). There are conceits we are asked to accept. But in real life….

What woman has sex completely naked except for wearing a bra? This is my favorite. I see it a lot when there’s a prostitute. Like prostitutes are shy. Or on the “groundbreaking” SEX AND THE CITY.

Meanwhile, on cable women are topless in GAME OF THRONES during jousting scenes.

Y’know, through deft camera work it is possible for a woman to be topless but nothing is revealed. She doesn’t have to wear a bra. An Allison Williams GIRLS sex scene is a perfect example. They tastefully cut around and you saw nothing. Meanwhile, Lena Dunham is bare breasted when she’s trying on shoes.
I’ve also seen scenes in shows where the woman is topless and the man is wearing a T-shirt. I don’t understand that at all.

Moving on…

Ladies, when have you ever finished sex then wrapped the bed sheet around you when you climbed out of the bed? This happens all the time on TV. The modest actress couldn’t look more awkward and generally has to hop to the bathroom, which is also somewhat unnatural. Just once I’d like to see her trip.

To avoid the whole nudity issue, another TV convention is the man just slamming the woman against a wall and the two have sex standing up. Sometimes they don’t even bother to remove their underwear, so I’m not sure how that works. And even under optimum conditions, it’s not the most comfortable position. Fortunately, the guy always lasts thirty seconds at the most. That’s not just acceptable, it’s required for television. But those thirty seconds seem to be enough as the woman is always completely satisfied. Not once has the woman said, “Wait. What are you doing? I just got this dress back from the cleaner. You’re going to get it all wrinkled. You know there’s a bedroom fifteen feet from here.” Or: “Really? That’s it?”

And if there’s a condom involved, TV guys can take them out of the packet and apply them in one second. Other than Rob Lowe, I don’t believe it.

Back in bed, the women are always wearing full make up, and it’s never messed up… both before and AFTER sex. One can only conclude that she’s freshening up DURING.

TV couples are always doing it under the covers. And why not? It’s hot, no room to maneuver, and there’s no oxygen. And it must be really hard to apply lipstick and eye liner under those conditions.

Of course, shattering all those taboos is GIRLS. And for all my making fun of broadcast television for its bogus depiction of sex, I found myself really missing bras and bed sheets.

Monday, August 18, 2014

State of the Blog report

Every so often the home plate umpire has to step out and warn both benches to play nice.

The comments section has become a little unruly. Generally, I don’t respond to specific comments. A) It’s your forum, and B) if I did I’d be chained to my computer all day. When could I watch MASTERS OF SEX? So better to just respond here.

I’ve been getting more and more angry trolls. Yes, they point out all the myriad reasons why I suck, but my takeaway is “Wow. I must be gaining in popularity to get this much attention.” So thank you.

It’s amazingly flattering. I have actual haters.

The trouble is their diatribes go against the tone I’m trying to set. I want this to be a fun blog, and occasionally by dumb luck – informative. Obviously, controversy sparks more discussion and generally higher traffic, but that’s not my concern. An old war story about CHEERS is not going to get the same volume of readers as Ann Coulter blaming Obama for photosynthesis.

So to steer the comments section back into a non-military zone I’ve begun deleting more Anonymous comments. But again, thanks for the attention. And now you can hate me more. So everyone wins.

One rule I’ve always had was you must leave a name. If you file an Anonymous comment and I don’t like it you’re subject to deletion. Some say they don’t know how to post otherwise. You can still sign the bottom of your piece.

Okay.  Moving on. 

Since new people always ask: If I can’t find an appropriate photo for that day’s post I feature a picture of Natalie Wood. It’s my favorite tradition.

Some readers are angry that I sometimes repost articles on the weekend. I try to repost things from three or more years back. Here’s why: I get a lot of new readers who never saw these gems originally, very few people go rummaging through the archives, traffic tends to be lighter on the weekend, and you try writing new original content every day for almost nine years. My one fear of this blog is that eventually I’ll just get tired of doing it and stop.  It's not like I'm making any money.   Reposting gives me a little breather while still providing fresh material for probably 70% of my audience. It always amuses me that readers get so angry and indignant over this. I’m so sorry you’re not getting your money’s worth from this free blog.

I know a lot of folks are annoyed by the word verification process. This is a Blogger issue. I have no say in this. I wish it easier.  If I eliminate it I'll be deluged in spam. 

From time to time there are typos and grammatical mistakes.   Think of it as part of my charm.

Friday Questions: I do try to answer as many as I can. Over the next few weeks I may add some extra days to catch up a little. But please keep ‘em coming. Some I don’t answer because I’ve answered them before. I’m thinking of compiling them all for a book, but my other books have to sell more first (“hint hint”).

Unfortunately, there will be no Sitcom Room seminar this year. I’m busy with my play, a TV pilot, teaching at USC, directing an episode of INSTANT MOM, and oh yeah – this blog. Hopefully next year I will pick it up again.

Otherwise, thanks so much for your continued support. I’ve met a lot of great people through this blog, and often the comments are more insightful or funnier than the posts themselves.  I’m always curious as to how people found this blog, where they’re from, and what topics they like the most. So feel free to weigh in.  Especially first-timers.  Just sign your name.  Thanks again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ken Levine -- a.k.a. Beaver Cleaver

Barbara Billingsley, who played June Cleaver on the classic 50s sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, passed away several years ago.  She was 94.  Not the star that Lauren Bacall was, but as a kid I marveled at how she cooked and cleaned and always wore a party dress and pearls.  My mom never did.   But for years it was an honor to be mistaken for Barbara's TV son.

I guess that requires an explanation, huh?

Okay, that means a look back at my checkered radio career...

After being fired from KMEN San Bernardino in late ‘73 I sat out of work for six months. Apparently no one wanted a wise-ass disc jockey with a light voice. I couldn’t even land a gig doing all-nights in Fresno. Ironically, when I did get an offer it was to do evenings at WDRQ, Detroit. So I wasn’t good enough for market #100 but I was fine for market #4.

More on my actual adventures in Detroit in future posts but today I want to concentrate on my name. No rock station would let me use my actual name (Levine sounded too… uh, “Red Sea Pedestrian”). And in general disc jockeys had very generic names. Johnny Mitchell. Steve Clark. Bob Shannon. Take any two simple first names and slam them together.

Needless to say, to audiences these disc jockeys were interchangeable. In some cases stations changed personnel but just kept the name. So Bill Bailey could be the afternoon man but over the course of three years that could be four different guys.

In Bakersfield and San Bernardino I was Ken Stevens. When I got the job in Detroit I decided to make a change. I took the moniker Beaver Cleaver.


I wanted something distinctive. I wanted something memorable. The first time the listener heard, “Hi, this is Beaver Cleaver” I wanted him to say "What the fuck?!"   Any major program director will tell you -- if you can get the audience to say "What the fuck?!" you've won. 

It was a name everybody knew from the TV show. I figured a lot of people would wonder if I was Jerry Mathers (who played the Beav). This might even prompt some discussion in various Detroit high schools. How often did you discuss disc jockeys in your high school?

I also liked that the name was easy to say. As opposed to Illya Kuryakin, my second choice (although it would have been fun to hear jingle singers trying to sing Illya Kuryakin).

I’d like to take credit for being the first disc jockey to do something like this, but the truth is I wasn’t. Art Ferguson debuted on KHJ in 1967 as Charlie Tuna. At the time Charlie the Tuna was the cartoon mascot of the Starkist Tuna ad campaign. Whether it was Art’s idea or a program director I thought it was genius.

One other side benefit to “Beaver Cleaver” was that I could use it for double entendres. Remember this was for a teenage audience. I came on the first night and said, “This is the grand opening of the Beaver.” Yes, it was juvenile but my goal was to make noise. I'm sure I got some more "What the fucks?!" with that one. 

Anyway, it worked. People did take notice and remember. A few years ago I was having lunch with Tom Hanks. He was saying he grew up in the Bay Area and I mentioned I was a disc jockey in San Francisco at that time. “Who were you?” he asked. When I told him his eyes lit up and immediately he said, “Beaver Cleaver! KYA! Boss of the Bay!” I don’t think he would have remembered the name I used in Bakersfield.  (I bet you can't either and you just read it fifteen seconds ago.)  

So I used that handle at WDRQ and future stops as a DJ. Later that year I was hired by K100 in Los Angeles. (A year before I couldn’t get arrested in Fresno.) The station was owned by Bill Drake & Gene Chenault, the architects of the KHJ Boss Radio format that was the rage of the 60s. I was brought in to do evenings, following the Real Don Steele. It was a dream job except I hated the program director. When I say he was clueless, here’s how clueless:

The day I was slated to debut the station had all of the other jocks hyping my arrival. The PD stopped in the booth and midday guy, Eric Chase jokingly asked if I was going to have Wally and Lumpy join me my first night. The PD said, “What are you talking about?” Eric said, “Wally and Lumpy – the Beav's brother and his dufus friend.” The PD was completely confused. Eric said, “Y’know, from the TV show. From LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.” The PD’s eyes widened in horror. “There’s a TV show?!”

How the fuck could this moron not have heard of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER?

So he calls me into his office panicked. There were already promos on the air. What if we got sued? I tried to calm him down. “If we get sued,” I said, “it’s the best thing that could ever happen to us.” Now he was really perplexed. I reasoned that in the highly unlikely event we were sued this would become a big story. The local TV stations would probably cover it. K100 would get more free publicity than it could ever imagine. I would stop using Beaver Cleaver and the station could invite listeners to come up with my new name. Fortunately, owner Bill Drake thought that was brilliant and I was allowed to keep calling myself Mrs. Cleaver’s Beaver.

For the record, I was never sued. And continued to use the name until 1980. By the way, Frank Bank, who played “Lumpy”, is now Jerry Mathers’s investment adviser.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Next year we hope to be Number One!

Whoever is #1 -- West Virginia or whover -- we're coming for you!

One of the true idiots I've ever worked with

Early in my directing career I did a couple of episodes of ASK HARRIET for FOX. It actually was not a bad show and I worked with some wonderful actors like Willie Garson, Ed Asner, and Julie Benz. But one of the producers was maybe the worst writer I’ve ever encountered in the business. And he really stuck out because the rest of the staff was terrific.

For purposes of this piece let’s call him Shecky because he pretty much embodied the lowest of the borscht belt comics. Loud, lascivious, dyed his hair and eyebrows with shoe polish, always hustling and creeping-out the extras. He was the uncle your parents always kept you away from when you were little.

Shecky only cared about jokes. Usually old, usually off color. Supposedly when he was on staff of an earlier series whenever it was time to break a story he fell asleep.

One week we had an act break joke that was just a vile gratuitous slam on gays. I called and said the cast and I were all extremely uncomfortable with the line. He said he wanted to see it at runthrough. Okay. Fair enough.

I rehearsed the scene and told the cast not to purposely tank the line. They didn’t need to first of all, and secondly, we didn’t want to give Skecky any ammunition for keeping the line.

So the writers all came down, we did the scene, and predictably the joke bombed… except for Shecky laughing hysterically. And this was the conversation that followed, almost verbatim, between me and the Sheckster.

Me: Well, it didn’t work. We could really use something else here.

Shecky: What are you talking about? It worked great!

Me: Huh?   It did? No one laughed.

Shecky: I laughed.

Me: Yes, but not one of your other writers.

Shecky: Well, of course they didn’t laugh. They’re comedy writers.

Me: Excuse me??

Shecky: They’re comedy writers. But real people will laugh at that.   Writers are jaundiced.

Me: Wait a minute. Isn’t the fact that they’re professional comedy writers mean they’re watching the material to determine whether an audience of real people will find it funny? Their job is not to be entertained themselves. Their job is to best determine what others will like. Otherwise, what’s the point of even having a runthrough?

Shecky: To support the actors. Look, the joke stays.

I was just the freelance director. I walked away in utter disbelief. They did the joke on show night and not only did it not get a laugh, it got gasps from the audience.

Later that night Shecky said he was putting in a new line in the scene we were about to shoot. It was an office party scene and one character was trying to impress a co-worker he had eyes on. So another character suggests Xeroxing his ass. Why this would charm a woman I do not know. But there was some lame line of justification. Shecky wanted to change it. When the one character was reluctant to Xerox his ass the other was now to say, “Look, everyone knows the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt.”

Me: No, really.

Shecky: That’s the line.

Me: You’re not serious, are you? I mean, you’re not actually proposing that line, right?

Shecky: Why not? What’s wrong with it?

Me: What's wrong with it?   Really?  Uh… well, for starters -- it’s tasteless and offense and not remotely funny.

Shecky: Well, fuck you! That’s the line.

I refused to give that line to the cast. If he wanted it in he would have to do it. He cursed me out again and stormed onto the stage. Two minutes later he returned.

Shecky: (begrudgingly) Alright, we’ll do the original line.

Me: Let me guess, the actor refused to say it?

Shecky: FUCK YOU!!

By mutual consent, that was the last ASK HARRIET I directed.

But the big question is this: How do you know when something’s funny? Especially since humor is so subjective. The standard answer is “it’s funny if it’s funny to you”. I disagree. And I use Shecky as an example. If you’re attempting to become a professional comedy writer you need to gage what strangers will find funny.

This requires a knack, based on observation, experience, and your own sense of humor. Paying attention to what works. The only true determination is if the audience laughs. So how are the jokes constructed? How dependent is the material on performance? Or reactions?  What about tone?  Timing? Do you have the right target audience? What and exactly when are they laughing?  And then of course, there’s common sense. I’d be surprised if a single one of you thought, “the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt” was funny and appropriate.

Can this knack be developed? Absolutely. My first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. I went down to my first runthrough, sat on a director chair with the rest of the writers and enjoyed the runthrough immensely. Meanwhile, I’m looking over at everyone else and they’re madly scribbling. I’m thinking “What are they seeing?” But then we’d get back to the writers room and they’d start discussing the script and their concerns. The next day’s runthrough would be dramatically better. By paying attention I began to see what they saw.

So what if you don't have the luxury of being on staff? 

When you go to comedy movies make note of what works and try to figure out why. Same with plays. Sitcoms are harder unless they’re multi-camera and you’re in the audience. Because through editing, sweetening, and retakes they can make shows appear better than they played. But train yourself to study comedy. And when you feel you finally have a real handle on it then learn this cardinal rule:

No one is always right.

I hate to say it and wish it weren’t so but no matter how long you’ve been doing it, how many Oscars or Emmys or Tonys you have, you still may be wrong. That’s why we have runthroughs. That’s why Neil Simon, after all his smash hits, rewrites constantly while his plays are still in tryout. That’s why movies are previewed.

So we never know for sure. But start thinking professionally.  If you do your due diligence, if you begin to trust that you’re right most of the time you’ll have a much greater shot at breaking in. And more importantly you’ll help weed out fucking idiots like Shecky.  Please do it.  For me.