Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stars I claim to have discovered even though I really didn't

Anyone who has been producing TV series for any length of time will have similar stories. They can look back at actors they worked with or hired that since became big names. Here are some of mine.

Shelley Long – played a nurse once in MASH when I was there. I don’t remember much except she looked very cute in army fatigues.

Rita Wilson – same thing. Also cute in army fatigues. Worked with her again when she starred in VOLUNTEERS. Amazingly, she remembered me. I looked awful in army fatigues.  Currently great recurring in THE GOOD WIFE. 

Katey Segal – From one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes to a series regular on the MARY SHOW. We knew from day one that she’d become a star. And that’s without even hearing her sing.  Or ride a motorcycle.

Leah Remini – She played one of Carla’s many daughters on CHEERS. One of my favorite episodes (written by me and David) was “Loathe & Marriage” from the final season where Leah’s character gets married. I also directed her in FIRED UP. She was funny before she was even old enough to drive.

Tim Busfield – He’ll probably cringe but one of his first acting jobs was playing a patient on AfterMASH. Yes, it was, Tim, don't deny it.

James Cromwell – Okay, he wasn’t an unknown when I worked with him but he wasn’t on anyone’s A-List either. He was pretty much a character actor who bounced around. I knew him as Jamie then. We used him on an episode of MASH as a real goofball. Couldn’t quite tell from that role that he’d go on to be nominated for an Oscar. By the way, did you know he was in both BABE and THE BABE?

David Letterman – did a cameo on an OPEN ALL NIGHT we were involved with.

Maggie Lawson – You love her on PSYCH.  You maybe sampled BACK IN THE GAME.  I’ve loved her since writing and directing IT’S ALL RELATIVE.

David Ogden Stiers – Before he became Charles Winchester on MASH he was talk-show host Robert W. Cleaver on a TONY RANDALL SHOW David and I wrote. That was the episode that got huge laughs during rehearsal but silence during the filming. Later we learned that the bussed in audience spoke no English.

Annette O’Toole – had a small role on a TONY RANDALL SHOW. Tony didn’t like her at first. By show night he was pleading with us to bring her back. The English speaking audience loved her too although I must say she was beautiful in any language.

Lisa Kudrow – Did an episode of CHEERS. Very funny even in a small role. I was not surprised. She went to Taft High in Woodland Hills.

Sanaa Lathan – Directed her in LATELINE. I must’ve given her great notes on that three-page scene because she went on to become a movie queen. I went on to write a blog.

Willie Garson – Directed him in the stellar ASK HARRIET. When that show got cancelled he was free to take another assignment – SEX IN THE CITY. He’s now a regular on WHITE COLLAR.

Julie Benz – Another ASK HARRIET alum I directed. Was once married to DEXTER. You can certainly understand the attraction considering she was also in SAW V.

Robert Pastorelli – Later to be a stalwart of MURPHY BROWN, but his greatest role was for us on the MARY show. He played sandwich guy, Mr. Yummy.

Jenna Elfmann – first cast in an ALMOST PERFECT as a whack-job secretary. She had no experience at the time and we knew it was a risk but there was something just so damn special about her. She killed in front of the audience. If ever there was someone I knew was going to make it besides Katey Segal it was Jenna.

And before I slap myself on the back too much for being such a great judge of talent, here are a few of the people I didn’t cast who once came in to read:

Martin Short, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, Jane Lynch, Tea Leoni, Don Johnson, and Andrea Martin (although that was the network’s fault; we wanted her. They wanted Toni Tennille. Don't ask.  Andrea is now killing on Broadway in PIPPIN, doing a trapeze act over the audience.  Let's see Toni do that.),

The most amazing Xmas song you'll hear this year

No matter your religious preference you'll be blown away by this guy. Sam Robson. He does all nine voices in this Acapella rendition of "I Need Thee O I Need Thee." Wow.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday Questions.

Hello from Silicone Valley.  God, I’m stuffed. Here’s today’s Black Friday Questions:

From Janice:

I just watched one of my favorite Frasier episodes, "Dinner Party", in which the entire episode is shot in real time. I always enjoy these types of episodes because I feel like I'm right there in the room. Are they easier to write? And if so, why don't we see more episodes like this on television?

It really depends on the story. Most require the passage of time. But when you can do a story all in one scene it is great fun to write. Essentially you’re doing a one-act play.

Farces work well in this format. Farces are built upon a lie and the more the liar tries to cover his tracks the deeper the hole he digs for himself. Doing a farce in real time keeps the pressure applied. Ideally, the lies and stakes should build and events happen faster and faster. That’s why you see people running in and out of doors, or a character constantly in motion from one end of the room to  the other. Farces are hard to do and no show ever did them better than FRASIER.

Jeff asks:

Do you think it's easier to write for network shows or cable shows? It seems to me writing for network shows is more about planning for commercial breaks (i.e. moments that will keep the viewer tuned in), whereas for cable shows it seems more so planning for a big ending (i.e. a moment that will make you tune in next week)

To be honest, the biggest factor is how much network interference you’re going to get. I’m so used to working around commercials that that’s not even an issue for me.

Obviously if you have a larger budget you can do more things, and that generally means a broadcast network. Expect a ton of scrutiny.  Sometimes you may have to trade budget for freedom. Depending on how ambitious your show is or your tolerance for input you might have to make a choice.

Ironically, some cable channels are more ham-fisted than broadcast networks.  Do your due diligence first. 

404 wonders:

I'm reading MUST KILL TV (and really enjoying it!) and had a question: you have said on this blog that you usually try to write your scripts so they are "timeless"--purposefully lacking contemporary references so that they can survive in syndication, make sense to people seeing them later, etc. And yet, MUST KILL TV is the exact opposite. I'm only about a third of the way through, and it's chock full of contemporary references that won't work in ten years or so. Was this an intentional choice, you thinking that was the only way the book would make sense?

In this case, I felt I needed to make it topical to be authentic. As opposed to a TV series, I don’t think there will be much demand for the book in twenty years (unless it becomes a classic, in which case the joke’s on me).

Humor is very specific, and to make the satire work I felt it necessary to be as realistic as possible. For this project, I’m going for the laughs now.

Besides, in twenty years, who knows what the TV industry will look like? Just the fact that there are “networks” in the book might make it anachronistic.

So I invite you to get it and read it before 2033. Thanks.

And finally, from Lorimartian about EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND:

Ken, I noticed you directed the following episode in which a man sneezes on Ray in the airport restroom. IMDB says you directed three episodes. What was your experience on the show or have you talked about this previously? Did you ever write for the show?

I LOVED working on that show. Great cast, very mellow set, terrific scripts, and showrunner Phil Rosenthal knew what he wanted and every single suggestion he made was helpful. Everyone involved collaborated in the best sense to make the best possible show. To me that’s the ideal situation.

I never wrote for RAYMOND, but during my directing stint I did go back to the writers room and pitch in during rewrites. So I have a joke or two in there.
Happy Thanksgiving weekend. Good luck getting a parking space at the mall.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukkah

It is rare that Thanksgiving and Chanukkah overlap.  I'm sure there will be one year where Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and the World Series all fall on the same night.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  It kicks off the season. And by that I mean awards season.  Guild members receive screeners of some films and are invited to screenings of others.  I'm surprised a studio hasn't come out with "A CHARLIE BROWN FINAL BALLOT" holiday special.

But that's for tomorrow and next month.  Tonight we celebrate family, gluttony, and the Jews add latkas (just like the pilgrims used to eat).   Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and a bountiful Chanukkah.

I bet this is the one day Ann Curry is happy not to be the co-host of THE TODAY SHOW because that means she doesn't have to freeze her ass off hosting the Macy's Day Parade.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What I'm thankful for...

Besides my family, here are some of the things I’m thankful for this year.

Claire Danes
Twitter followers
Jenny Johnson
New Yorker cartoons
Carl Reiner
Vin Scully
Paul Rudnick
Rachel McAdams
Tina Fey
Louis C.K.
Doc Emrick
My USC students
almond croissants
Apple computers
Throwback Thursday
Lobster at The Lobster
Jon Stewart
Facebook groups
The yellow line in football
Flavored Tootsie Rolls
My daughter is not dating a vampire
Don Draper
Rebecca Hall
Opening Day
The iPhone (when it works)
Rachel Maddow
A one cent residual when MASH plays a thousand times.
Hula dancers
Hawaiian sunsets
Bob’s Big Boy
Spam filters
Frank McCourt sold the Dodgers
The Gigi salad
DVD screeners
Morena Baccarin
Clayton Kershaw
Aaron Sorkin

My KCRW card
The Johnny Mann Singers
Bob & Ray
Joe Torre
Louis Black
Peter Luger's steak sauce
Manhattan Transfer
Dinah Washington
Denzel Washington

Patton Oswalt
The Bilko box set
iPad minis
Coffee Bean Ice Blendeds
Tallulah Moorehead
7 game World Series
Jon Miller
The Crab Cooker
Brian Wilson (the one without the beard)
Julie Bowen

Neil Simon
Sam Simon
Stephen Colbert
Antenna TV
Christina Applegate
Milk Duds

Linda Eder
Red carpet shows
Nicole Atkins
Amoeba Records
Fellow bloggers
On Demand
Our troops

Care to add your own?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Welcome to the Snark Tank

Here’s another edition of random (a)musings.

For members of showbiz guilds that hand out awards, screener DVD’s have started arriving for movies hoping to be in consideration. I got GRAVITY. It’s in 2D of course. If they wanted the voters to have the 3D experience they should have just sent action figures and the script.

If you’re working today, why bother?  Seriously. You know you’re not going to get anything done.

The new Sarah Silverman HBO special is hilarious.   I know it's getting mixed reviews, but I found it very funny.  So what if I'm going to a fiery hell for laughing at masturbation and Republican jokes? 

Wolf Blitzer was reporting on the Iran nuclear deal on Saturday night on CNN. Then he signed off by saying: "I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington. The assassination of President Kennedy begins right now."

Great quote attributed to President Kennedy (although he probably just stole it from Marilyn Monroe or Angie Dickinson): “Only three things are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since we can do nothing with the first two, we must do what we can with the third.” You can get an engraved mug of that at the Kennedy library. No foolin’.

The LA TIMES website still has a section for Emmys 2013.   You wonder why they're being sold for a bucket of chicken. 

HOMELAND used to be my favorite show.  Now it's just above the TV GUIDE channel guide crawl.  

Thanks again to all of you for the nice comments on my blog anniversary. Since there's nowhere to click "like" please accept my actual appreciation. 

It’s Tuesday. Why aren’t you in line already at Best Buy for Black Friday? USB cables half off!

Wedding bells for Charles Manson? She’s 25; he’s 79 and locked away for the rest of his miserable life. He denies the engagement. I guess he doesn’t want to be tied down. Or he's holding out for someone younger.  Or stupider (although I doubt that's possible).  Here’s a suggestion: If ABC is really looking to beef up ratings on THE BACHELOR….

It's not even December yet and I’m already tired of “Feliz Navidad.”

Dennis Rodman has been named GQ's No. 1 least influential celebrity of 2013.  Expect Donald Trump to fire his management team because he didn't win.  

President Obama is here in LA today clogging up traffic. He’s delivering a speech on the economy at the Dreamworks Animation studio.  I wonder if this will be the Dreamworks poster behind him: 

I love Stove Top stuffing.   And "Merry Christmas Darling" by the Carpenters. 

Great Huffington Post headline: 13 Famous Book Characters You Just Want to Slap. 

Another great HuffPost headline: Here’s That Photo of Jessica Alba Eating a Hot Dog You Wished For. 

Listening to football on the radio I’ve concluded you don’t need the analysts. They’re all so technical. Just once I’d like to hear this -- Analyst: “The nickelback found a crease in the five-man blitz coverage but saw one-on-one coverage in the flat forcing the pirateback to shift into a screen prevent defense.” Play-by-play guy: “What the fuck are you talking about? Nobody cares. You have a shitty voice. And you’re drawing on the Telestrator. This is radio you tool!”

People visit Los Angeles and see that restaurants proudly display signs that say “Established 1987” and laugh. But the truth is, that’s a long time for an LA eatery. R.IP. the Omelet Parlor in Venice.

You know what a great Christmas gift would be?  There are some catchy-looking book covers just to the right.   What about something like that??? 

I’m teaching a Foundations of Comedy class at USC. I love my kids. They loved THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW. Biggest laughs we’ve gotten this semester.  See why.  Watch the “Court Martial” episode NOW.  Come on.  You're not going to get any work done anyway. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

My 8th anniversary

When I started I thought this would last a couple of months.  I mean, who reads blogs anyway?   But I had nothing else going at the time, and it seemed like a fun novelty.   I could write whatever I wanted with no one giving me notes.  So what if my audience was zero?  At least the unread articles were all mine! 

Actually, I had no idea what I was going to write about.  So I just opted for variety.  It's not like I had anyone's expectations to meet.   One day I'd give writing advice and the next I'd describe my experiences at Porn Star Karaoke.  It was all free-form and very liberating.

I introduced myself to several established bloggers and asked for advice.  How do I get any traffic?  Besides nude photos of Kim Kardashian how do I get any traffic?   They said post something new every day.  That way readers would always be rewarded stopping back.  And more new readers would find me via search engines.  "Every day?"  I asked.  "Yep," they said, "Each and every day."  I nodded and said,  "How do I get those nude shots of Kim?" 

Since I had already committed to starting the blog I figured I'd give the new-post-a-day format a try.  At least for a couple of weeks.  And if it ever got to be too much of a burden I could just pull the plug.  No one was paying me.

Eight years and 3,485 posts later I'm still churning stuff out.   Thank God I settled on variety and not AMERICAN IDOL recaps.  This blog has taken on a life of its own.

I'm frankly surprised I have so many readers, surprised by how many international readers I have (why does anyone in Kuwait give a shit what I think about anything?), and delighted by how many new friends I've made via the comments section.

At one point, Google Ads came to me and said I could make some money by running their advertising.  The money wasn't spectacular and I felt the ads would junk up the site.  If you want to support this blog just buy one of my books.  The Kindle version of MUST KILL TV is only $2.99.   It's a cheap way to say think you and if you are a fan of my writing (after all, you are here) you should get a lot of laughs out of it.   As proud as I am of my blog, that's how proud I am of this particular book. 

Hopefully I'll keep coming up with ideas for daily posts.  I haven't run dry yet.  My sincerest thanks to you for reading my blog and keeping this folly going.   Eight years.  Wow.  That's longer than all the GOLDEN GIRLS spinoffs combined.

Onwards and sidewards to the next eight.

Just for giggles, here's a link to my very first post

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A prank with a great payoff

Talk about a guy getting what he deserves... Check this out.

I hate Thanksgiving episodes

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. I look forward to the holiday, never writing about it. Every sitcom I’ve ever worked on, we’ve had the obligatory Thanksgiving episode. How many variations can you have on the big family dinner going awry? I think I’ve written the “turkey gets burned”, “relatives clash”, “nutty friends invited”, “can’t find a restaurant”, “kids break something”, “Guess who’s Coming to Dinner variation, “Meet the Parents variation”,“football gambler loses big”, “tofu turkey substitute”, “someone accidentally gets dragged seven blocks by the Mr. Potato Head balloon”, “mom’s a terrible cook”, “relative accidentally not invited”, “someone is allergic to something in the stuffing and has a funny seizure”, “power outage”, “thawing frozen turkey last minute”, “food fight”, and “the pilgrim re-enactment” episode fifteen times.

As a director, bird day is also a bitch.  There are always big crowd scenes and a thousand props.  Usually something explodes. 

For my money there's only been one truly great Thanksgiving episode.  And that was the flying turkey episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI. 

Hopefully, none of the standard sitcom mishaps will happen to you this turkey day. And if they do, at least you’ll have your MODERN FAMILY spec script halfway written.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Gr-gr-gr-groin injury

This is a funny parody on sportscaster auditions.  Lots of laughs along the way. The last bit seems a little familiar though.  

From our CHEERS episode "I on Sports."  Theirs was funny too.

The worst Thanksgiving song ever

From Bacharach & David no less. This is from their musical PROMISES PROMISES. There are some brilliant songs in that show and then...

there is "Turkey Lurkey Time" and it's even more horrifying than that title. Get ready to throw a drumstick at your monitor.

Truly, what were they thinking???

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Questions

Here are this week’s Friday Questions.  If you're just checking in, I also wrote another post today.  Please scroll down to that.  And before we start:

Congratulations to the cast & crew of INSTANT MOM starring Tia Mowry-Hardrick.  Nick at Nite has picked them up for additional episodes this year and a full second season.  Proud that my daughter Annie Levine and her partner Jonathan Emerson were part of the team.  

Okay, now the questions.


Rich D gets us started:

I have a question brought on by the subject of "Very Special Episodes" and if I am mis-remembering things please correct me, but I don't recall an episode of CHEERS where Sam had struggles with his alcoholism or relapsed back to drinking. Was there a conscious decision to go down that road?

There was an episode the very first season called “Endless Slumper” written by Sam Simon that dealt with Sam possibly going back on the bottle. It was a wonderful (if not "very special") episode and featured an amazing stunt where Sam was able to slide a beer down the bar and it turned the corner.

And in a later season, Sam fell off the wagon because Diane was dating Frasier. 

Melissa C. Banczak asks:

I ignored my husband today and read your book. It was good fun and I encourage everyone else to check it out. And post a review. I was surprised at how few reviews you have. As you were writing, were you worried that someone would decide they were one of the characters and show up at your door one rainy night?

The reviews are trickling in, and happily they’re very good. Thanks for getting my book. (You should too, hint hint.)

Most characters in the book are compilations of people. There’s no one character that is clearly a specific individual.  (Except for the Lena Dunham character and if she came after me I wouldn't blame her.)

That said, every time we do write a specific character into a script and hold our breath that the person doesn’t get horribly offended, he will invariably say to us the next day, “Very funny. I know someone just like that.”

From Chris:

Quick question: was reading a book on M*A*S*H, and in it Larry Gelbart said that his problem watching reruns of the show is that he can't stop rewriting them in his head. Do you do that when you watch your old shows?

All the time. Especially MASH. When I watch many of our episodes I say, “I wish I had one more pass at this.” There are jokes that could be sharper, story turns better finessed. People love the episodes as is and God bless ‘em for that, but I always wish I could go back in just one more time.

Oddly, I don’t feel that as much watching old episodes of CHEERS or FRASIER that we wrote. Maybe it’s because they’re both multi-camera shows and we had more opportunities to polish them during the week of production, or just that I became a better writer with experience, but I can watch a lot of our CHEERS and FRASIER episodes and just enjoy them.  It's a very nice feeling.

What’s your question?

Where was I?

Friday Questions coming later in the day, but on this, the 50th anniversary of day that changed America forever, I thought I would give my answer to the big question of the day: “Where was I when I heard about the JFK assassination?”

I was in Parkman Jr. High School in Woodland Hills, California. It was around 11:15, a Friday just like today. I was in science class half-asleep as usual. I started to hear people murmur in the hallways. I just caught fragments of their conversations, but phrases like “he’s been shot!” kept recurring. And there was urgency in their voices. At first I was confused. Was this a school incident they were talking about?

The teacher excused himself and went into the hall to find out what the commotion was all about. He re-entered a moment later clearly shaken. He held up his hands in anticipation of an uproar, assumed a calm demeanor, and told us that there were rumors (and he stressed the word rumors) that President Kennedy had been shot. I was beyond stunned. This seemed absolutely unfathomable to me.

He tried to resume his class lecture but like everyone in the room, was completely distracted.  Somehow the characteristics of unicellular and multicellular life didn't seem that important right then. Eventually he just stopped and said let’s all sit tight and wait for reports.

A few minutes later someone came over the p.a. system to confirm that the president had been shot. At the time, no one knew his status.

The next period was lunch. They now piped in a radio broadcast over the p.a. system. We all sat at the lunch tables completely numb. The only sounds were some people sobbing.

When the announcement was made that Kennedy was dead there was a loud shriek and audible gasp. Now the floodgates opened and everyone was crying. I’m getting misty just writing this.

I seem to recall they cancelled the rest of the school day. I rode my bike home. It was odd to be out of school at 1:00 in the afternoon.

My mother was home when I arrived, glued to the TV. She too had been crying. For the next four days all anybody did was watch the television coverage. Did restaurants close? Did movie theaters close? I have no idea. Like most people, I never left the house.

In LA we had seven television channels. 2,4,and 7 were the networks and 5,9,11, and 13 were independents. All the independents just took the coverage from one of the networks. So everywhere you turned it was the same thing.  Radio was either news coverage or somber music.  As some readers reminded me, NFL games were played that weekend and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle said in retrospect it was the worst decision he ever made.  (Thanks to my readers for that update.)

We were pretty much a CBS family so watched Walter Cronkite anchor the coverage. He was uncharacteristically not wearing a jacket. I seem to recall Frank McGee shouldering most of the NBC load. I have no memory of ABC’s coverage. We never watched ABC news. From time to time I would switch around, hoping one of the other channels had an update. Needless to say, there were no commercials or promos.

It was four days of unrelenting sadness. Watching the same clips and hearing the same reports over and over. And then on Sunday, the insanity of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot and killed by Jack Ruby live on camera. This was almost surreal. You just couldn’t wrap your mind around these shocking events.

Monday morning was the funeral. And halfway through it I had had enough. I went to my room, closed the door, and started playing my 45 records. I just needed to hear music. I just needed relief. The songs sounded so good. “He’s a Rebel.” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” “The Locomotion.” I felt a little guilty. Through my closed door I could still faintly hear the funeral broadcast in the other room. And here I was playing, “Surfin’ USA.”

School resumed the next day. Network shows began returning. KFWB went back to playing rock n’ roll although somewhat subdued for the first few days. We would all remain in a haze for several months, brought out of it by the Beatles in early ’64.

That’s my account? Where were you (if indeed there even was a “you” then)? Friday Questions will follow later in the day. Check back for them.

What I find interesting is that this year all the networks are making a big deal of the event because it’s the 50th anniversary. And on some other years it’s hardly mentioned at all. For those of us who lived through it, those events and that date is forever etched in our minds. We always remember. And always will.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Amazing first-person account of covering the JFK assassination

With November 22nd being the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, we're being inundated by specials and tributes to commemorate the event.   Tomorrow in particular.  I thought I would get a jump by presenting a first-person account you've never heard and quite frankly is somewhat astounding. 

In 1963 Geoff Edwards was a San Diego disc jockey who got a job in Los Angeles radio.  Eventually he would become quite popular on big stations like KMPC and KFI, and then go on to become a national game show host.  (Today he writes wonderful travel books and has a great podcast.)   I first heard of Geoff Edwards that fateful weekend because he was interviewed frequently on the major networks.  He was an eye witness to the Jack Ruby shooting.   Anyway, I asked Geoff if he wouldn't mind sharing with you his personal account of being in Dallas and covering this story some fifty years ago.   I knew it would be interesting, but I had no idea HOW interesting.  Thanks, Geoff for a truly remarkable true story.  

I was in San Diego listening to KFMB, my former radio station while packing for my new job at KHJ in Los Angeles. The news broke: President Kennedy had been assassinated. A few hours later I arrived in Dallas, reporting for KHJ and the Mutual Broadcasting System.

My first impression of Dallas was a hefty Dallas policeman directing traffic with a cigar hanging from his mouth. Little did I know it was a metaphor.

Press coverage of this momentous event is hard to believe given the ways of today’s electronic world. No cell phones then, no internet broadcast abilities, and even with the FBI everywhere, no one defined as “in charge”.

I entered the Dallas Police Headquarters, walked right past the desk sergeant and down the halls without showing any Press Credentials, or indeed any ID at all.

There were reporters from all over the world and a room had been set aside for us. We gathered there and exchanged information, nailing down certain facts so all our reports would agree on times,  each of us telling what we had uncovered.

Oswald was brought down a hall with the press lined on one side yelling out questions. His rifle held high by an FBI agent, he was asked if he had a lawyer.

“No”, he said in a soft voice. “I want Melvin Belli”. Belli was a well known defense attorney out of San Francisco. After Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald, Belli represented Ruby for free.

The FBI brought Oswald into a good sized room to be questioned by a group of us. He was seated behind a long table. Oswald was asked if he was handcuffed. He held his hands up in front of him and said, “Yes sir.” Next day the front pages of almost every major newspaper showed that photo with the caption, “Oswald gestures defiantly at the press.”

There was a phone on the table. I dismantled it, and wired it into my tape recorder. The tape recorder’s microphone was placed near Oswald and thus delivered the only live broadcast of the questions and Oswald’s answers.

Listeners wanted to know the reactions of the general public. I went into the office that was collecting telegrams and phone call messages from US citizens.  After locking the door, I called Mutual and read a sampling over the phone, and thus, live on the air. The police information Captain knocked loudly and rattled the door handle. I told him I’d be done in a minute. Still needed no ID.

Opening the door to an interrogation room, I was surprised to find Oswald and his mother. That was the one time during the weekend I backed away.

On the morning that Oswald was to be transported to County Jail, the Dallas Police Chief brought us up to speed, pointing out snipers on rooftops set to protect Oswald on the route.

At the garage entrance door, press credentials were checked for the first time. I walked up to the back of the van that was waiting for Oswald. A police officer roughly yanked me back.

The mass of press was outside a guard rail and a few steps down.
Jack Ruby somehow made his way through the group, and, well, the rest is history.

President LBJ said information relating to the Kennedy assassination would be kept secret until everyone alive at that time was no longer around.

The question should be, what is in those records that we were not supposed to know?

UPDATE: Here is the NBC account of the Ruby shooting with Geoff being interviewed. The NBC reporter is Tom Petit, who happened to be a neighbor of mine. Did I mention the whole thing was surreal? Thanks again to Geoff Edwards.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Join me for a live podcast

My partner David Isaacs and I will be Stu Shostak's radio show live from 4-6 pm PST (7-9 EST).  You can listen here.    We'll be discussing CHEERS, our career, writing, and anything else Stu throws at us.  We'll also be taking your questions via email.    If you can't hear it live it will be available for instant downloading tomorrow.  But personally, I plan to listen live.

What we can learn from DR. STRANGELOVE

I screened DR. STRANGELOVE for my USC comedy class recently. It’s maybe the greatest black comedy ever. If you haven’t seen it, treat yourself. If you have seen it, treat yourself again.

The movie also serves as a great lesson in comedy.  

Things are funnier if you play them straight.

What do I mean by that?

Nobody in this film knew they were in a comedy. The subject matter was somewhat dramatic – the possible destruction of the entire planet, and yet you laughed at how absurd they acted. But they didn’t know they were acting absurd. They were dead serious in everything they said and did. When Peter Sellers as the president of the United States breaks up a tussle between a Russian ambassador and American general and says, “You can't fight in here.  This is the War Room!” there’s no trace of irony in his delivery. Were there, the joke wouldn’t have been funny.

Too often feature comedies and sitcoms these days are very self-conscious. Characters are trying to be funny or are aware they’re being funny. Lines are delivered with irony; with a wink to the audience that they know they’re spoofing pop culture or the form or themselves. “Yeah, I know I’m in a stupid sitcom and you know I’m in a stupid sitcom, but let’s just goof on it and share the laugh together.”

My personal preference is for comedy that’s underplayed rather than overplayed. I’m smart enough. You don’t have to put someone in a chicken suit for me to know I’m watching a comedy. Actors don’t have to be loud or frantic or mocking an entertainment genre for me to laugh.

Ground your comedy in reality. Create interesting characters. Give them strong attitudes. Not just make them glib or hip. Put them in real crisis situations and see how they react. The point is for you the audience to find their behavior funny, not them.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The strangest side effect EVER

Any time I see one of those commercials for some unpronounceable drug, half the ad warns you of all the side effects. They scare the shit out of you. Yes, you could get blessed relief from hay fever, but every organ of your body could shut down.

If loss of vision or a severe stroke occurs stop taking this medication.

If you experience an erection lasting longer than four hours consult your physician.

Yeah, I’m going to wait four hours. “It’s only been 3 ½ hours, honey. I’m still fine. The fact that I have no blood going to my head would normally be of concern, but according to the Cialis ad on the NASCAR channel I’m still within the window of acceptability.”

Drug manufacturers of course, are covering their asses. And I’m sure they are required by law to list the possible side effects. Otherwise you’d see 60 seconds of old people doing cartwheels and climbing Everest. And they’d be making Flintstones Lexapro for kids.

Most side effects are blessedly minor. And overall, these wonder drugs – if used correctly -- mostly do work wonders. The long list of side effects are to cover every potentiality, and I’m sure your chances of getting trench foot from a diet pill are remote.

But a friend of mine had maybe the weirdest side effect ever. There is a prescription eye drop that starts with the letter “T”. If reduces eye pressure after a cataract operation. I’m sure millions of people use this drop and it has helped them immensely. One woman I know – and she swears this is a true story – has this uncontrollable urge to take off all her clothes after applying this eye drop. No foolin'.  She’s had to excuse herself from social situations.

Now I haven’t seen this first hand. This woman has never stripped naked in front of me. So I’m relying on her account. This is not the kind of thing she would fabricate, as she is not a Kardashian. But according to her doctor, other similar cases have been reported.

So how about this for their disclaimer if they ever decide to advertise?

This eye drop can cause itching, swelling, headaches, a burning sensation, a cough, runny nose, tearing, fatigue, and involuntary nudity. Do not take while driving, in church, when around football players, before political debates, in Utah, in bus stations, and in outer space.

I’m purposely not revealing the name of the drop because college boys will sneak into dorm rooms and slip it into the girls’ Visine bottles. But as a side effect that one is pretty unique.

And how can the drug company test for that? Do they put lab rats in little Jones of New York suits?

Someday science will solve this problem, but in the meantime this sheds new light on unacceptable behavior. Before, when we’d see someone naked streaking across a baseball diamond or exposing himself at the Mall of America we thought, “This is a crazy person.” Now we know this will pass and soon he’ll be able to drive better at night.

Monday, November 18, 2013

R.I.P. Syd Field

Sorry to hear of the passing of Syd Field today. He was 77. I never met him personally, but like most screenwriters, he had a major impact on my life. His books on screenwriting have pretty much become the bible on the subject.

When my partner David and I decided to team up and hopefully become writers we originally wanted to write movies. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks were our comedy idols and they were both very much in vogue back then. The only trouble was we knew nothing about screenwriting. The things that writers turned in were called scripts.   That's all I knew.

And there were no good books on screenwriting – at least none that I found. We decided to break into television first because we figured it had to be easier to master a 40-page script than a 120-page script.

But I didn’t even know what a TV script looked like. I had to go to a Hollywood bookstore that offered TV scripts on a remainder table. I bought an ODD COUPLE script for $2.00.

We learned the hard way. Four years later Syd’s groundbreaking book, SCREENPLAY came out. It was a revelation. And for me and my partner the timing could not have been better. We had broken into TV, had done MASH, and wanted to crack the feature world. We had to have a spec screenplay we were told. Even the MASH credit meant nothing. They had to see a full screenplay. Thanks to Syd’s book we put together the structure and turned out a spec decent enough to get us work (including the assignment to write VOLUNTEERS).

Many top flight writers credit Syd Field with being their guru. If you’re considering writing a screenplay I strongly recommend you read his books first.

Syd Field leaves a legacy. I know I speak for the entire writing community when I say thank you and I hate this ending.

ABOUT TIME -- my review

Richard Curtiss writes and directs lovely little romcoms. LOVE ACTUALLY is maybe the best example. They’re filled with amusing somewhat quirky characters, Bill Nighy to steal every scene he’s in, some good laughs, and enough sentimentality to bring a tear to a glass eye. His characters are all so lovable. If one has a hard edge then he’s only likeable. Wringing comedy out of loveable characters is not easy but Curtiss manages to do so with regularity.

He also has a knack for casting spectacular fantasy girls. From Keira Knightley in LOVE ACTUALLY to Rachel McAdams and Margot Robbie (pictured: left) in his latest effort, ABOUT TIME, the man has a keen eye for adorable.

His male leads are usually a little gawky. Hugh Grant was Curtiss’ go-to goofball in the past, and now he’s elevated character-actor Domhnall Gleeson to leading-nerd status. And he’s fine. Sweet. Loveable. Hey, it's just refreshing to see a romcom that doesn't star Paul Rudd.

I was very much looking forward to this movie. I’m a fan of Curtiss’ work and call me shallow but I’d rather see fantasy girls than tortured slaves. His pictures always have an appealing glossy look and he shows off London the way Woody Allen shows off New York. (My big problem with London is the food, but Curtiss gets around that by establishing a restaurant where everyone eats in pitch-black darkness. I can only assume the food is better when you don’t know what it is.)

So it should be a lovely frothy movies. And it is. For maybe the first half hour. And then the fatal flaw becomes apparent.

The conceit of the movie is what brings it down. That conceit is that when Gleeson turns 21 he learns that men in his family can time travel to the past. It’s not explained why but some things defy explanation like time travel and Skyline Chili. Setting aside all of the paradoxes of time travel, it’s a fun convention for awhile.

But here’s the problem: it eliminates any suspense in the movie. Any obstacle Gleeson faces, any mistakes he makes – he just goes back and fixes them. You NEED obstacles in storytelling. You need problems, and complications, and messy situations, and decisions that carry consequences. Otherwise you run out of steam. And that was the case here. Watching Gleeson use time travel to turn things to his advantage was a hoot for a half hour. But after that it got tedious. It’s like a Superman movie where for two hours all he does is thwart evil and no one has the power to even slow him down. Watching him fly and kill terrorists would be fun at first but after awhile you’re saying “Would anyone mind if I texed  General Zod?”

Once Rachel McAdams becomes the time traveler’s wife – as opposed to the movie she starred in called THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (this may be the weirdest bit of typecasting ever), the film wanders looking for things to do. Thank God for Bill Nighy. I don’t know how he does it. He somehow manages to play the same character and always makes him fresh. And he can play ping pong!
ABOUT TIME is also ABOUT a half hour too much TIME.  Too bad because the good stuff in it is really good.   If only there was a way Richard Curtiss could go back and fix it.

How dumb do you have to be?

I see where you can buy the paperback of my book brand new for $8.73.  Or, if you're a complete moron you can buy one used from a second party.  Check out the last one.  I want to meet the cretin who pays that.  And it doesn't include shipping.   Anyway, if you want a new copy for $112.00 less, here's where you go.   Thanks.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Hollywood tradition -- My Thanksgiving travel tips

The Thanksgiving holiday is the peak travel weekend of the year (in America. The rest of the world could give a rat’s ass about Thanksgiving.) So as a public service, here again -- and with a few additions -- are some travel tips:

Leave for the airport NOW.

Bring no luggage. Wearing the same clothes for a week is a small price to pay. Plus, the airlines now charge you for check-in luggage AND blankets. Pretty soon pressurized air will also be extra.

Southwest has no reserved seating. Get in one of the latter groups boarding. You don’t want to be one of the first to sit then watch as fifty people glance at the empty seat next to you, then to you, and decide to sit somewhere else. Even in the last row.

If you have children under the age of five tell your relatives one has an earache and make everyone come to YOU.

Those people in the Stand-By line – those are the same people who think they can get rich selling Amway products, and the Tooth Fairy really exists. Don’t fly Stand-By unless you like sleeping in airport terminals for five days.

If you rent from Hertz plan on a two hour wait just to get your car. Unless you’re one of their “preferred” customers in which case allow only one hour.

When rental car companies recommend you use premium gasoline put in regular. It’s cheaper, it’ll run just fine, and it’s not your car.

Before you pull off the road to a Chuck E. Cheese for lunch, remember their namesake is a rat.

Air travelers: avoid O’Hare. Better to land in Dallas, even if your destination is Chicago.

If you’re dropping someone off at the airport don’t even think you’ll be able to stop. Have your travelers practice the tuck and roll from a moving car. The first couple of times they’ll bounce but by the fourth or fifth try they should have it down.

Watch the DVD of HOSTEL on your laptop. The bigger the screen, the better.

There’s more legroom in Exit rows. When the flight attendants ask if you are willing to help out in case of emergency just say yes. Like it’s going to make a big difference anyway if you crash.

There are NO bargains in the Sky Mall magazine.

When you’re stuck in St. Louis and all flights are grounded (and trust me, you WILL be), grab lunch at JBucks.

Before you fly to New York and have to negotiate JFK just remember – the parade is on TV. And it’s the same friggin' balloons as last year. The only difference is that the stars of NBC’s big new hit from last year, ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA?, won’t be there (thank God).

Never pay to see an in-flight movie starring Debra Messing.

Put a big strip of duct tape on your luggage so you’ll recognize it easily. And it makes a nice fashion statement.

If you’re flying with small children see if there’s such a thing as “Flintstones Valium”.

In-flight alcoholic beverages are expensive. Better to drink heavily at the airport before boarding.

And finally, watch PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES again and think of it as a “best” case scenario.

Happy trails to you all.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

10 useless things you don't know about me

A question swirling around Facebook is "what are 10 useless things people don't know about you?"  (There are not enough privacy issues with Facebook as it is.)  Anyway, I dutifully answered (since I do whatever Facebook tells me to do) and figured, what the hell, share the answers here as well even though there's nowhere to click "like."   So here dey is:

1. O.J. Simpsons was an uninvited guest at my wedding. -- He happened to be at the hotel, walked by during the ceremony, and just stood in the back, and watched.  A Facebook commenter asked, "Did he cut the cake?"
2. I once wanted to be a cartoonist -- Even drew a comic strip for our hometown paper while in high school.  Got $5 a month and was fired for budgetary reasons.
3. I don't like salmon -- I don't like any fish that swim upstream.
4. I was in a cyclone in the Tasman Sea -- See my travelogue.
5. Joanie Sommers is one of my favorite singers -- What can I say?  I'm in the Pepsi Generation.
6. I once stepped on Reggie Jackson's foot and put him on the DL -- The crybaby. 
7. I was thrown off the Dating Game -- see blog post or better yet, read THE ME GENERATION... BY ME. 
8. I've been doing improv for 30 years and still can't do a single accent -- including American.
9. I'm obsessed with Natalie Wood's death -- RJ knows more than he's telling us.
10. Six of my baseball play-by-play partners are in the Hall of Fame. I am not, nor ever will be -- The six are: Jon Miller, Chuck Thompson, Jerry Coleman, Dave Niehaus, Johnny Bench, and Vin Scully. 

Blog spelling and punctuatio, or lack of same

When I can't think of an appropriate picture I always just use one of Natalie Wood.  It's worth not having an appropriate picture. 

These posts would be so much eazier to write if I didn’t have to worry about spelling and punktuation. That was always one of the beauties of riting dialog. People don’t talk in grammatically correct sentences and who cares about the spellling because the audience is just hereing the words and not seeing dem. (Shit. That last sentence is in fact a question. I forgot the question mark.)

After having proper grammar drummed into my head in school it was difficult at first to not write dialogue stilted but correct. Eventually you learn that flow and writing conversationally is the key. Then its (or it’s) fun. All bets are off.

Until you have to write prose again (or FRASIER).

(This is the punctuation that is the screenwriter’s best friend -- … Use it to represent any pause. Believe me, it… works!)

It’s (or its) amazing how much grammar you forget. And part of the problem – at least for me --, is that if you (or in my case, me) tend to write quickly, you’re trying to get your ideas on the page while their in your head and I can’t do that when your stopping midthoughtwse to ponder whether there’s a comma here or this participle is dangling or there is no such word as midthoughtwise. (That last sentence may or may not be a question. I’m not sure.)

Back to script writing, you see this in rewrite sessions. There are monitors in the room allowing the writers to see the script as the assistant is typing it. Someone pitches a joke, everyone laughs, the assistant starts transcribing it, and there’s always one asshole who sees himself as the Grammar Police barking out that there should be a comma there, or that’s a semi-colon. That shit is “Proofer’s challenge”. Let whoever proofs the script deal with that. Don’t slow down the process by blurting out that dad needs to be capitalized.

Back to prose: Spellcheck and grammar programs help somewhat. A wiggly green line will appear under something the computer doesn’t feel is right. Half the time it’s (or its) useful and half the time I’m thinking, “what the hell is wrong with this?” Or, “the computer just doesn’t get me.”

Same with spell check – it catches a lot of mistakes but misses others. If a word can be spelled correctly two ways or if you write in the wrong word but it’s an actual word -- : that too won’t get caught. Sometimes I remember the little hints we got in school. Principle or principal – the principal is your “pal”. But as I get older my brain is beginning to fill up with the Infield Fly Rule and where I put my keys and those little tips are fading from memory.

I actually do know the difference between it’s and its (it’s is only used as a contraction for it is) but there are others that I’ll admit, I’m guessin’.

And there are certain words I just don’t know how to spell. So I type in some approximation and let Spell Check correct it. If I ever have to write a letter in longhand I am so screwed. Thank you, Steve Jobs.

The point is… from time to time… you will see grammatical mistakes, misspelled words, made up words, tenses changing, inconsistencies, italics for no reason, and other egregious clerical errors. I do try to proof these posts but things still slip by. So I beg your indulgence. I don’t have an editor. And even one of those doesn’t guarantee (that’s one of the words I always struggle with) 100% accuracy. When I got the galley proof for my book IT’S GONE… NO, WAIT A MINUTE (notice the ….?) this is what it said on the cover:


Friday, November 15, 2013

On a very special episode of Friday Questions:

Friday Questions as you book your holiday travel:

Covarr is up first. 

What do you think of "Very special episodes"? Are they good or bad, or does it depend on the show?

Well, it depends of course, but most of the time they're bullshit. There’s something promotable in the show so the network makes a big deal of it.  I mean, how could there ever really be a "Very Special Episode of 2 BROKE GIRLS?"  (Kat Dennings deserves so much better!)

What I really hate is when “a very special episode” means a “particularly maudlin episode.”

Networks have used this gambit so often now that “very special episodes” pretty much mean nothing.

SITCOM ROOM vet Brian Warrick asks:

All of the writers on this year's panel were, at least primarily, part of a writing team. Is there a high percentage of writing teams in writing rooms these days? Does writing with a partner help or hinder someone's chances of being hired?

There are advantages and disadvantages to being in a partnership. It's easier to get hired because the show runner is getting two for one, but you're making half of what sole writers make. That said, just getting the job can be worth its weight in gold.

I've been in a partnership forever.  David Isaacs and I also write alone on occasion -- by design. But we stay together because we think the combined efforts result in better scripts. And better scripts result in better opportunities. Once you're in that place in your career you can negotiate your deal -- so you're no longer making just half. It becomes a win/win.

Also, I prefer the social aspects of being in a partnership. Writing by yourself can be lonely. Especially with comedy, it's great to share the burden with someone who makes you laugh everyday.

Charles H. Bryan has a question going back to a recent post on chemistry.

In addition to chemistry on camera, isn't chemistry also important throughout the production?

Absolutely. When putting together a writing staff I think back to a great line from comedy writng icon, Bob Weiskopf: “What six people would you want to be stuck in a Volkswagen with driving across the country?”

When a show is in production you spend more time with your fellow writers than your family. And always under pressure conditions. It’s a big plus if you don’t want to kill each other.

That’s one of the reasons why show runners tend to hire the same people over and over. Good teams are hard to assemble. People you like, people who are funny, people who bathe – they’re not always easy to find.

On the stage, chemistry is usually determined by the star of the show. Crews take their cue off of him or her. If the star is a monster the set will be filled with tension. If the star is a sweetheart the set will be relaxed and fun. Directors can help steer things in the right direction, but ultimately it’s the star who sets the tone.

Houston Mitchell has a question about the fact that on season 7 of MASH, whenever we needed a name for a patient, corpsman, etc. we just went down the roster of the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers.

While you were doing it, did anyone on the show ever catch on that you were using the names of Dodgers players as the names of guest characters on MASH? If they didn't, do you think they would have made you stop if they had caught on?

No one said anything. Unless we had a big Giants fan in the cast, I don’t think anyone would have objected.

It’s hard to come up with names, and on MASH every week we always had five or six new characters coming through the 4077th. The last thing we wanted to do was spend half the morning coming up with names.

Former girlfriends frequently made their appearance on Levine & Isaacs episodes. The problem there was that between us we had maybe three.

And finally, from Michael:

Of all the shows currently on the air, which one do you think you and David would have the easiest time quickly writing an episode for?


What’s your question?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

If I wrote for SCANDAL

I know I’m late to the party, but I’m just now getting into SCANDAL. It’s good sudsy fun, as if Joe Eszterhas wrote WEST WING. There are elements that seem far fetched – Kerry Washington just yelling at the President of the United States and a woman getting to a fourth floor office in the Capitol building with a bomb strapped to her (good security at the lobby) – but overall it zips along. ABC was so right to get Shonda Rhimes to create this show instead of me. If I were writing SCANDAL this is what a typical scene might be between President Fitzgerald Grant (the always-evil, always-good Tony Goldwyn) and Olivia “Liv” Pope (Kerry Washington).




Olivia places a call on her cellphone. The president’s phone rings. “I’m Saving All My Love For You” is his ringtone. He rolls his eyes and answers.

PREZ: This is not a good time.

LIV: It’s never a good time anymore.

PREZ: Seriously. The world is exploding.

LIV: You said you were going to call last night.

PREZ: A hurricane destroyed New Orleans.

LIV: Yeah, yeah. It’s always something.

PREZ: I had to fly down there and inspect the damage.

LIV: You don’t have people who can do that?

PREZ: No. I have to do it myself. I also helped out sandbagging the levee. I was up to my hips in water for five hours.

LIV: I stayed up past midnight waiting for you.

PREZ: Look, you knew what you were getting into when you met me.

LIV: No, I didn’t. You never said you were the president.

PREZ: I specifically… (realizing) What? You didn’t know I was president of the United States?

LIV: It’s tacky to just ask a guy what he does for a living.

PREZ: We met in the Oval Office.

LIV: Well, there was some confusion. There was someone else’s portrait on the wall. I figured he was the president.

PREZ: That was Lincoln!

LIV: Okay, now it makes sense. I didn’t think Daniel Day Lewis was the president. He’s British. You can’t have an American president from a foreign country, can you?

PREZ: I just got the word. Our embassy in Libya was attacked.

LIV: No, no. You’re not using that old excuse again.

PREZ: What do you want? I’m in the middle of two major crises.

LIV: Do you think I’m pretty?

PREZ: What?

LIV: You never compliment me anymore.

PREZ: You’re gorgeous. Smoking hot. Amazing. I gotta go.

LIV: Should I get a Brazilian?

PREZ: Huh?

LIV: They hurt but I’ll get one for you if that’s what you like.

PREZ: (calling to someone) The War Room? I’ll be right there. Don’t attack anybody until I get there. (to Liv) Uh, sure. Fine.

LIV: Do you know anybody?

PREZ: What? No. How would I know anybody who does Brazilian waxes?

LIV: Can’t you call the CIA? Don’t they know everything?

PREZ: That’s not what they’re there for.

LIV: Then the FBI?


LIV: You’re right. They handle stuff inside the U.S. and this is Brazil.

PREZ: Just Google it!

LIV: Does your wife have one?

PREZ: Honestly. Truly. I have to go.

LIV: Wait. A couple of things. First – when am I going to see you?

PREZ: This is a bad week. Maybe Thursday if the government doesn’t shut down again.

LIV: Okay. Great. I’ll go back on the pill. Number second – I have a friend from yoga class who tried to get a tour of the White House and they said they were booked. Could you call someone and see if they could squeeze her in? Her name is Bambi Moneymaker and she’d like to go tomorrow so if you could call today that would be great.

PREZ: I’ll take care of it.

LIV: You won’t forget now!

PREZ: I said I’d take care of it.

LIV: I know you.

PREZ: I’ll do it!

LIV: Text me when it’s done.

PREZ: (to someone o.s.) How many are dead? Jesus!

LIV: Hello? You’re not listening to me!

PREZ: Liv, I can’t…

LIV: Last thing. Promise.

PREZ: Okay. What?

LIV: I’m in Congressman Krellman’s office and there’s a woman here with a bomb strapped to her. She wants all the classified documents relating to the Kennedy assassination. And a pardon for a jaywalking ticket. I said you can’t help her with that.

PREZ: You waited until NOW to tell me this?

LIV: I didn’t want to forget the other stuff. You’re so hard to get ahold of these days.

PREZ: A woman with a bomb? I swear, Liv, you are the Lucy Riccardo of mistresses. Every goddamn week it’s something else. Your father runs a super secret spy organization, you’re in a hostage situation…

LIV: Well, excuse me for having a life.

PREZ: Put the woman on.

LIV: Thanks. Oh… what time Thursday?

PREZ: Just put the suicide bomber on the phone!

LIV: Okay, but use your nice voice. She has her thumb on the button. One press and we’re all blown to smithereens. Love you. (to woman bomber). He wants to talk to you.

WOMAN: Me? That’s the president of the United States? And he wants to talk to me? What, what do I call him?

LIV: I call him Sugar Bear but you might want to go with Mr. President, although doesn’t that sound stupid? Shouldn’t it either be mister or president? (on phone) How come people call you Mre. Pres…

PREZ: Just put her on the phone!!

LIV: Don’t talk long. My battery is running low.

Liv hands the phone to the woman.

WOMAN: Hello, Mr. President.

PREZ: Who else besides you and Ms. Pope are in that office?

WOMAN: No one. It’s just us. I’m a big fan. I voted for you.

PREZ: Of course you did. Okay. Listen very carefully. I will release all the Kennedy documents, every single one, but only under one condition.

WOMAN: What’s that?



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'm a paperback writer

I love when TV networks boast, “The critics have spoken!” and as proof use a snippet of a review from a Podunk newspaper that hails WHITNEY as the next great comedy. Well, the paperback of my new novel MUST KILL TV is now available on Amazon, Create Space, and other online book sites. Here’s where you go to order. I too have reviews. They’re not even from real critics. They’re from readers like you who post them on Amazon. This doesn’t have the legitimacy of the Podunk Picayune-Intelligence but here’s one of the reviews:

Will a desperate television executive resort to murder to keep his top-rated sitcom on the air? And which LA hotel is it that only gets to host the humanitarian dinners of second-rung honorees? Ken Levine answers both in his deft and very funny mixture of darkly broad satire and wickedly observed minutiae of everything and everyone television. A fast, stinging novel, full of great throwaway comedy, about a group of entertainingly miserable people and what they'll do to hang onto that misery at all costs.
-- Rich

(For the record, Rich had trouble with WHITNEY.)

The truth is ebooks sell better than hardcopies today. (You can order the Kindle version here.) And although I love my Kindle, there’s still something cool about a physical book. As an author, to me it’s not a real book until you hold it in your hands. Plus, you can have book signings and there’s like the surprise of being on vacation, browsing through a vintage bookstore and finding your book on the one dollar remainder table. People ask why writers write? That’s why we do it.

And you can’t hide comic books behind Kindles. When I was in school I would often appear to be reading THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE or CANTERBURY TALES when in truth I was catching up on the latest edition of BATMAN or BETTY & VERONICA.

And then in 1982 I was on vacation at the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. Michael Eisner was there with his family. I believe he was running Disney at the time.  I just remember he got better service than me.  There were also a whole group of CAA agents staying there. I guess to impress Eisner, or whoever else from the industry was sitting at the beach or pool they all were on lounge chairs reading scripts. But hidden inside the scripts were books. That kind of thinking is my book in a nutshell. It was more impressive to be seen reading a Pauley Shore screenplay than TALE OF TWO CITIES.

I hope you get my paperback. And it’s just the right size for hiding your smartphone inside so you can play videogames.

Okay, here’s one more review. I couldn’t resist.

MUST KILL TV is only about the television business the way CATCH-22 was only about war and CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES was only about hot dogs. Ken Levine has written what he knows, and it is not TV. It is satire. He has taken a savage leap into the absurdities of character, obsession, and excess. Nothing is sacred. Not even Westside youth soccer or that venerable institution, the in-office massage. A fast-paced finger swiper that only slows when you stop to laugh.
--Tom Straw

So seriously, how bad can it be?  Many thanks!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My night with Witt/Thomas/Harris, Mitch Hurwitz, and Betty White

The Witt/Thomas/Harris salute last Saturday night at USC as part of their Comedy Festival was a big success. It was great fun to moderate it. I told the audience it was like interviewing Mt. Rushmore. The only disappointment (and it was a big one) was that Susan Harris was too ill to attend. But Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, director Jay Sandrich, Mitch Hurwitz, and the incomparable Betty White provided a lively evening of insight, anecdotes, and laughs.

Let me just say that Betty White is AMAZING. So sharp, so funny – she’s the John Wooden of comedy. Before the show she was working on a crossword puzzle. 

Among the many fun things we learned:

It was director Jay Sandrich who suggested Rue McClanahan and Betty White switch roles. Betty had played that man hungry character on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and he thought it might be more interesting to have her play against that. And it was Rue who gave “Blanche” a southern accent.  The description of the "Dorothy" character was a Bea Arthur type. 

In the pilot there was a gay houseboy who was slated to be a series regular. Estelle Getty was just supposed to be a guest star. But she killed during the pilot and it was clear they had to write her into the series. And there was just no room for five people in that house. The houseboy was written out.

SOAP was groundbreaking in so many way. It came about because creator/writer Susan Harris hated the standard self-contained half hour format. SOAP was the first serialized sitcom. They took on all kinds of issues and thanks to the support of then-ABC president, Fred Silverman, stayed on the air despite all the protests, letters, and affiliates who refused to air the show. Their numbers were great. What did them in was sponsors dropping out because of all the outcry.

A University of Richmond poll found that 26% found SOAP offensive, and half of those who were offended said they planned to watch it the next week.

Susan Harris wrote all or part of all 93 episodes of SOAP.

In casting GOLDEN GIRLS, NBC originally wanted all new faces. What everyone realized, however, is you get the best people possible. And those four women were a virtual all-star team.

The youngest of the four women was Estelle Getty who played Bea Arthur's mom.  

Elaine Stritch was considered for the Bea Arthur role but hated the script. She later regretted that career move.  Ya think?

After an exhaustive search, Robert Guillaume was cast as Benson just as the pilot of SOAP was getting underway. He joined the show so late that his first scene (a great scene in the kitchen with Katherine Helmond) was done with the script just out of camera range. And he nailed it.

Paul Witt once filled Tony Thomas’ office with goats.

During the audience Q & A I was so happy no one asked if there could be a GOLDEN GIRLS reunion?

Mitch Hurwitz talked about getting his start at W/T/H and that the multi-story arcs and large cast he assembled for ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was really just an updated version of SOAP.

And he talked about how Tony and Paul would protect writers from the network and let them do their thing. After having consulted on several W/T/H shows myself I can confirm that. Paul and Tony really did stand behind their scribes. Oh, those good old days before networks were allowed to own their shows and thus call all the shots. Those halcyon days when writers had advocates.

Betty White said the most interesting thing. This is a woman who started in television in the early ‘50s doing five hours of live local TV a day in Los Angeles. What she loves about television is that she is always playing to a small audience. Yes, 30,000,000 viewers might be watching, but in each home, in front of each set, there are probably two or three people. That’s who she’s playing too.  And now with folks watching shows on their computers and other devices, that audience is more like one.  I had never thought of that perspective. Leave it to a national treasure.

No major broadcast network would put on THE GOLDEN GIRLS today. All they care about is attracting young viewers. But when you see the overflow crowd of college students packed into the auditorium Saturday night all cheering for GOLDEN GIRLS you realize, 18-34 year-olds are not given enough credit. You don’t have to hold a mirror up to them for them to watch. How about great writing, great characters, great actors? They’re ageless.

Thanks to the USC Cinema Department for putting on this Comedy Festival and letting me be a part of it.  And get well soon, Susan! We missed you.