Sunday, April 26, 2015

The MASH finale returns

Next Sunday night, MeTV is airing the MASH finale, along with new interviews with members of the cast, production team, and even me. These interviews were recorded last year for a proposed documentary on MASH (that is still in the works).

Much to my surprise, I’m included in the promo that MeTV is airing.

When it originally aired in 1983 it was seen in 50.2 million homes. I’m sure MeTV would be happy with just half of that.

Here’s the promo:

What does studio coverage look like?

There has been a lot of discussion in the comments section about the value of readers and coverage.  A number of you have asked "What does a coverage report actually look like?"  Tying in with yesterday's post where I reference the screenplay David Isaacs and I wrote in 1981 called STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE, here is the actual coverage. 

What exactly is studio coverage?    They're synopses of scripts prepared for studio executives and agents by hired readers.  Primarily they're meant to judge the value of a screenplay, both for its commercial potential and quality.   Rival studios also prepare coverage to keep track of the competition and get a heads up on possible new hot writers.    Coverage is Hollywood's Cliff Notes.

Hope you can read it  (you might need a magnifying glass or telescope).   Writers generally never see this.  A friend of a friend of a friend uncovered it.  Gee, I feel like Edward Snowden.  Squint and enjoy.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Levine & Isaacs -- you're fired!

It’s not uncommon for writers to get fired off of film projects. You turn in a draft, the phone stops ringing, and then you learn that someone else has been hired to rewrite you. Larry Gelbart, at a WGA membership meeting debating one of our many contracts, spoke to the crowd of about a thousand and said, “At one time everyone in this room will rewrite everyone else in this room”.  He's right. 

But how many writers have been fired even before they wrote a single word? Not many. The only two I can think of are me and my partner, David Isaacs.  What a dubious distinction!

It’s 1980. Director Randal Kleiser is hot based on an unlikely hit movie he megged (I love that bullshit Hollywood term) called BLUE LAGOON. A young nubile Brooke Shields (before becoming the toast of Broadway) and pretty boy, Christopher Atkins are trapped on a tropical island together. They frolic for two hours and this audiences wanted to see.

So Kleiser gets a big development deal at Columbia. He has an idea for a coming-of-age movie set in an amusement park. David and I are hired to write it. We do. He loves it. The studio loves it. Everybody loves it. No one makes it but everyone loves it.

While we are writing the screenplay, Kleiser is busy writing and preparing the next movie he was going to direct, SUMMER LOVERS. This classic starring nubile Darryl Hannah and pretty boy, Peter Gallagher, is about a gorgeous young couple who fall in love one idyllic summer in picturesque Greece. BLUE LAGOON with Lachanodolmades.

We turn in our screenplay to much praise and get a call from Randal. He’s going off to Greece in a week to begin principal photography of SUMMER LOVERS. But he’s getting a little nervous about the script. Would we be interested in doing a fast rewrite? Nothing major. No story or structure changes. Just round out the characters and maybe add a little humor and dimension. A messenger drops off copies of the script. We read it overnight, meet in the morning to discuss what we’d like to do, and then drive over to Burbank to confab (another favorite bullshit Hollywood word) with him in his office on the WB/Columbia lot.

The meeting goes swimingly. He loves our suggestions. He laughs at the jokes we propose. He couldn’t be more effusive and enthusiastic. What we pitch is just what the script needs he says. So he sends us off to write it, complete with his blessing and thanks.

We drive back over the hill to my condo on the Westside. Takes about a half hour. We walk in my place and immediately the phone rings. It’s our agent. No pleasantries. She starts out with, “Just what happened in that meeting?” I was sort of thrown by the question. “It went great. Why?” I asked. “Well, it couldn’t have gone that great,” she said, “Columbia just called. They fired you.”


"You're no longer on the project."

"Even if we were never on the project."

"Yep.  Your services are no longer needed."

"What services?  We never started service."

"You're fired!"

So that was that.  We never found out why. My guess is Randal didn’t like our suggestions but was just too much of a wimp (an expression I shall use in place of the one I really want to use but am taking the high road – although you know the word I mean) to tell us face-to-face. Randal went off to the make the movie. I never saw it. It bombed. I don’t think our rewrite would have made a damn bit of difference.

By the time he had returned, our amusement park project was dead. We learned later that Columbia had no intention of ever making it. They wanted another BLUE LAGOON, not a teen comedy out of Randal Kleiser. They were just indulging him.  We didn’t know it at the time but we were always just spinning our wheels (back in the days when studios still paid for the spinning).

There’s no real moral to this story. The only advice I could give writers so that this never happens to you is, I guess, don’t ever come home taking Laurel Canyon.

This is a re-post from way back before Global Warming. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Questions

Who’s ready for some Friday Questions?

Gazzoo gets us started.

I notice that beginning in season six of MASH, two chopper shots were changed in the opening credit sequence (the one under the main title, and the quick one before the chorus). The shots that were replaced had clearly shown bloody soldiers with their arms dangling...were those eliminated due to a complaint?

No, just for a little variety. I said to Burt Metcalfe, the producer, “You can change anything but the shot of the hot nurse running towards us.” No, I don’t know her name.

UPDATE:  Thanks to blog reader Curt Alliaume the mystery has been solved.  Her name is Kathy Denny Fradella.

Interestingly, the only day I was out at the ranch (where we filmed the exteriors) was the day they shot those new opening titles. I heard the whirring sound of the chopper blades, looked up, and it was just like Radar sees in the opening shot – there were the helicopters flying against the purple mountain range. Very cool but not as cool as being there the day they shot the original opening titles.

From AJ Thomas:

Ken, as a comedy writer and baseball announcer what are your thoughts on Bob Uecker in MAJOR LEAGUE? Do you ever wish you could just truly tell it like it s?

I think he steals the entire movie. And all of his dialogue was improvised. Bob is one of the funniest people I know in any field. He’s a national treasure and I still love listening to him call Milwaukee Brewer games on the radio.

As for wishing I could really “tell it like it is” when doing play-by-play, you bet. And believe me, that’s what’s going on between innings when the commercials are on and the mics are off.

Doug Thompson has a radio question:

What was the single best piece of advice you received while in radio that you continued to use in your television/movie writing/directing career?

It was advice by example, received by the late Gary Owens. Treat everyone with respect. We worked together at KMPC Los Angeles. He was the big afternoon jock and star of LAUGH IN (then the number one show in television). I was a lowly sports intern making minimum wage. And he treated me as if I was the station or network president.

It’s a practice I have always followed. Production assistants, background extras, cable pullers – they’re just as important as the stars. What it is really is just simple human decency. But being shown that much kindness from someone as big as Gary Owens made a huge impression on me.

The other thing I learned from radio was always be on time. If you know radio people you know we are really punctual. Being late is not an option when you’re on the air live.

And from Bert in Petaluma:

You've mentioned a few times the records that drove you crazy when DJing especially because you had to play them repeatedly. I'm curious if there were also records you played with the same frequency but yet still enjoyed.

One summer when I was in high school I worked at a record store. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out and we played it on a continual loop for twelve hours a day for the entire summer. I must’ve heard every cut at least 1,000 times. And I never got tired of it. I still could listen to that album over and over again.

Same with Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon & Garfunkel, the Phil Spector Christmas album, Both Sides Now by Judy Collins, the Highway 61 Revisited LP by Dylan, Layla by Derek & the Dominos, Suzanne by Leonard Cohen, almost anything by Queen, It’s Too Late by Carole King, Billie Jean by the King of Pop, anything (but Dock of the Bay) by Otis Redding, Year of the Cat by Al Stewart, American Pie by Don McLean, and anything by Roy Orbison.

And then my all-time favorite Beatles song – In My Life. That song kills me, as does Caroline No by the Beach Boys.

What’s yours? Song or question?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Crazy Jewish Mom

Jewish mothers are a staple of comedy. From Ida Morganstern in RHODA to Beverly in THE GOLDBERGS to Marie in EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (Yes, the Barones are technically Italian, but don’t kid yourself, she’s JEWISH) Jewish mothers provide a wealth of hilarity, frustration, bizarre logic, and jaw dropping statements. They're easy to dismiss as a cliché, but here’s the thing – they’re REAL. What made Marie so funny was that she was so relatable. How many times did you say, “Ohmygod, that’s MY mom?” Or, “I know someone just like that?”

Generally they’re loving and well meaning but have no censor and feel they need to be proactive. You need conflict in comedy. But ideally you also want your antagonist to be likeable.  No one fits that bill better than Jewish mothers.

They have to ability to say the most outrageous things and still be rooted in reality. Want a real life example?

Kate Siegel is a 26-year-old single urban professional in Manhattan. She is Jewish and has a nice Jewish boyfriend. She also has a “Crazy Jewish Mom” who has learned how to text. Last Fall Kate attended a bachelorette party and received numerous texts from Mom. She shared them with her friends who were on the floor. Kate decided to open an Instagram account in November and share some of these texts with more of her friends. At last count she has 370,000 followers (and I’m sure after exposure on this blog that number will grow to 370,010). She also has a Facebook site.

Here are some examples:

I spoke to Kate last week. She said that she and her mother do have a great relationship. They can poke fun at each other; it’s all in good fun. She stressed these texts are just one aspect of their relationship. And Kate only posted them after clearing it with her mom first. Kate said her mom’s feeling about all this is, “More people will get my advice. It’s all good.”

Here’s what I love most – Kate’s reaction to these texts. Instead of being horrified or enraged she saw the absurdity and humor in them. Kate’s mom truly IS funny. And again, she means well.  Kate’s boyfriend, Superjew, is a good sport too. One of my recurring themes in this blog is that there is great humor out there everywhere if you just allow yourself to recognize and appreciate it.

For now Kate is dealing with her new-found notoriety, career, relationship, and mother. She’s got quite a full plate. I’m sure the offers for book deals and TV adaptations have already started pouring in. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kate’s mother doesn’t wind up one of the co-hosts of THE VIEW or at the very least, Brian Williams’ replacement on the NBC NIGHTLY NEWS.

I’ll leave you with a few more – with thanks to Crazy Jewish Mom and Sane Jewish Daughter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The most insane game show ever... or at least, this week

WARNING:  Adult content.  (So now you want to read on even more.)

How has American TV not jumped on this concept? Talk about “can’t miss.” Remember a reality show a couple of years ago called KILLER KARAOKE? Contestants had to sing karaoke and maintain their concentration while being bombarded by tomatoes, given electroshock, or waterboarded – fun stuff like that. The first episode was somewhat amusing, but it became repetitive quite quickly.

The Japanese have solved that problem! They’ve created a show called SING WHAT HAPPENS. Similar premise – can a contestant be disrupted while singing karaoke? Except here’s the twist: A girl is giving him a handjob during his performance. He has to finish the song uninterrupted and not ejaculate. No, I’m not kidding. Really. Seriously. It’s true. Honest. Don’t believe me?

It’s the first game show where there are no losers. I imagine even the screening process to get on the show has its own rewards.

I know on FEAR FACTOR they hired production assistants whose job it was to test out the stunts. Depending on how many beetles they could swallow or feet they could fall before dying, the parameters were set for the contestants. What about this show? It’s bad enough they make interns go for coffee.   What is the average time it would take to disrupt a contestant?  What method is more effective?   These are all vital questions that must be answered -- by somebody... making $2.00 an hour.  

And then there's the auditioning process.  “Very impressive Sally – graduated tops in your class in television production at NYU – I think there’s a place for you here. First assignment: we have 70 guys in the other room here to try out for our show. We need you to give them all handjobs. After that, could you get me coffee?”

I have no idea whether they have women contestants. (Although they’d have an easier time getting interns for that assignment.)

It’s only a matter of time of course before this show hits the American airwaves. The only question is whether Paris Hilton, Monica Lewinsky, or Carson Daly is going to host it.

The trouble is: How do you write sketches spoofing reality shows when shows like this actually exist?

And God knows what is next? Paddy Chayefsky wrote a scathing satire on television in the ‘70s called NETWORK. (If you haven't seen it, you MUST!!!) We have so far gone past it that we’ve now probably lapped it…twice.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What are the chances of your favorite show coming back next year?

Some of your favorite shows may be on the bubble. Networks are now just getting in their pilots and in a couple of weeks will announce their fall schedules and order additional shows for midseason. Most of the hit series have already been picked up. But each network has two or three “bubble” shows – they could go either way.

Determining whether your fave will survive or face the chopping block is difficult because each show is in its own unique situation. If your show gets a 1.5 share on NBC you might scrape by. The same 1.5 gets you axed with extreme prejudice on CBS.

Many factors figure in. Does the network own your show? Is your show a critical darling? Is the audience small but building? Does it attract the right demographic? Are there commitments attached?

Example: TNT has paid CBS a fortune for syndication rights to HAWAII 5-0. But they must have a certain number of episodes. So CBS will keep HAWAII 5-0 on the air until they reach that number. That’s great for Alex O’Loughlin; not so great for you if you have a drama pilot at CBS. That’s one less slot that’s open.

Also, what are the needs of the network? Good luck getting a comedy on CBS only because they’ve picked up most of their current crop. TWO AND A HALF MEN is gone but that’s only one opening. CBS could add another hour of comedy or pick up a few shows for midseason, but that will depend on how well they like their pilots, whether they want to lean more towards comedy than drama, and whether they keep bubble shows like THE NEW ODD COUPLE.

It seems you have a better chance of getting on the air if you have a comedy pilot at NBC. But the trouble there is that their comedy presence is a disaster. So they have no idea what they want, where to put the shows, and how to launch them. On Tuesday you’re exactly what they want, on Wednesday you’re dead, and then on Thursday you’re back in the mix. You’re shooting at a moving target.

And if you’re a bubble show on NBC like UNDATEABLE and ONE BIG HAPPY with shitty numbers (and they are), are your chances enhanced simply because you’re already a known entity and NBC doesn’t have to launch you? Or will the game plan be to flush out all the marginal shows and start fresh with new shows? And if so, how many new shows? And where? And when? And paired with what? 

Or… a combination of both. Pair a new show with ONE BIG HAPPY. Good luck to that new series, by the way.

Networks pay studios a “license fee” to produce shows. Once you get down to the eleventh hour, negotiations for license fees can get hairy. There may be a show the network wants to add but the studio balks at how little the license fee is. Or the studio goes back to the showrunner and says, “Can you still do the show if we have to cut the budget by 20%?” His answer, and the studio’s willingness to settle for the license fee determines whether the show gets on the schedule. And your pilot or bubble show might hang in the balance based on the negotiations with this other show. Nerve wracking, huh?

And like I discussed last week, re-signing actors whose deals are up is also key.  
But wait… there’s more! Counter-programming. Although time slots are not as crucial as in years past, it’s still important. Maybe half the viewers still watch TV in real time. So will your bubble show or pilot serve as a nice alternative to what else is on during a particular time slot?

And never forget the importance networks place on research, despite how untrustworthy the results are at predicting success. When a staggering number like 90% of shows fail, you have to really question the validity of research that gave these shows a thumbs up. Remember last year? The big story was CRISTELA. ABC had passed on the script. The producers took the penalty payment they received, made the show anyway, and it tested absolutely through the roof. This was going to be the next COSBY. ABC then put the show on the air with great fanfare. The result: it’s a bubble show.

If you have a comedy pilot at ABC I hope it’s about a family. Those are the sitcoms that get on the air. If there’s one slot open and it’s between your pilot that’s set in an office or CRISTELA, who do you think gets the nod?

But wait… there’s STILL more! Casting. Stars (or at least actors networks think are stars). A Matthew Perry project has a much better chance than a pilot starring a fresh new face – even though Matthew Perry has had a string of bombs. Star power matters. Does your pilot or bubble show have one?

And in rare cases, showrunners are stars. Networks want to be in business with them. Chuck Lorre and Shonda Rhimes can pretty much get anything they want on the air. They’ve earned that right.

But wait… yes, there’s even still more. Under the table deals. When our show ALMOST PERFECT got renewed it was only because CBS wanted JAG, which was at the same studio. Paramount tied us into the deal. ABC also wanted JAG. Had Don Bellasario, the producer of JAG decided to take the ABC deal our show probably would not have survived or been pushed to midseason. Instead we were on the fall schedule even though the network demanded we drop one of the stars and we had no idea what the actual show was.

And finally, fan campaigns. It’s a Hail Mary, but the more fans of a bubble show can rally, send letters, emails, and flood the network with love the better. In fairness, networks have been burned by these. They’ve kept shows on the air that had small but fierce fan bases and rarely do those shows suddenly blossom given a second life. But it could happen. And it does get the network’s attention. I’m sure CRISTELA will have a fan campaign. I suspect it will be hard for ONE BIG HAPPY to get six people to write in on their behalf.

The next few weeks will tell. In the meantime, we have pilot buzz, rumors that change hourly, and secret deals in the works. If only the shows themselves could be as exciting as the process.

Good luck to all the writers, producers, and actors who either have pilots or bubble shows still in the ring.

UPDATE:  Speaking of pilots, my writing partner David Isaacs' daughter just graduated from the University of Miami and is trying to produce a sitcom pilot.  She has a Kickstarter campaign and could use your help, dear blog readers with money who like to support the arts.  Here's the info.   Between Annie Levine and Andie Isaacs we're getting ready to pass the baton to the next generation of Levine & Isaacs.   Thanks much.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Women I love

At a newsstand once I saw an Esquire magazine with the headline “Women We Love.” I eagerly leafed through the magazine, figuring I was going to see great glossy photos of hot women. Instead, the women they loved were like Golda Meir and Madeline Albright. Still, it was a great feature and very effectively made the point that the women we love don’t have to be hot. So I’m stealing the concept. Here are some women I love (and to me they all are hot).  NOTE:  These are only SOME of the women.  There are many others. 

EDEN SHER – She plays Sue on THE MIDDLE and is far and away the funniest girl on television. Why she doesn’t have five Emmys is beyond me. While most kids in sitcoms are stereotypes, Eden’s portrayal of a gawky teenager is 100% real and 200% hilarious.

CONSTANCE WU – Second funniest lady on TV. But you know that. I gushed about her a couple of weeks ago.

VIOLA DAVIS – The very definition of a television star. She lights up the screen. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Writers can get away with murder with Viola as their lead.

PAM FRYMAN -- In a predominantly male industry, she's one of the best sitcom directors in the business.  Among her many credits -- all of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.  I'm a director, but when I had a pilot a few years ago I still hired Pam Fryman over myself.  And it was a wise choice.  

TATIANA MASLANY -- See my post on ORPHAN BLACK.  She's the five best actresses in North America.

MICHELE TAFOYA – Best sideline reporter ever – man or woman. Maybe the only smart thing NBC has done in recent years is not replacing her because she stopped being 22. Besides, half the time she’s in a parka or under an umbrella anyway.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON – NPR Ghana correspondent. Very thorough and okay, I just love that someone uses that name on the radio. In my day she’d be Sally Adams.

ILANA GLAZER & ABBI JACOBSON – The Romy & Michele of Millennials.

KELLI O’HARA – When is she going to win a damn Tony already?

ROBIN ROBERTS – The gold standard in class and grace.

AMANDA SCHULL – Can play deliciously evil. Loved her in SUITS. She’s now in 12 MONKEYS.

NAHNATCHKA KHAN – A comedy writer/showrunner not afraid to go for laughs instead of mild detached irony. Created FRESH OFF THE BOAT and the underrated B____ IN APARTMENT 23.

TARAJI P. HENSON – Viola Davis with more bling. With all the good things going for EMPIRE, she’s the best thing.

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY – Okay, so I have a crush on her. But she’s a damn good actress… isn’t she?

AUDRA MCDONALD – Broadway royalty who understands you don’t have to belt every song (like some “Frozen” diva I know).

WENDY LIEBMAN – A comedienne with her own unique rhythms and style. And she’s very funny.

OLIVIA MUNN – See Keira Knightley.

MAGGIE SMITH – The only reason to still watch DOWNTON ABBEY.

VALERIE GELLER – Radio consultant who believes listeners want entertaining, informative compelling personalities and not soulless voice tracked generic drones. So she’s an industry maverick.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG – The hottest Supreme Court Justice ever.

MARGO MARTINDALE – As long as there’s this list, she will be on it.
Who are some of your favorite women?