Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I love LA... when it's empty

The best week of the year in Los Angeles is always this one, the final seven days of the year. More property taxes and obligations are on tap for me in January, but here on the last day of December I can bask in the glory of the city that Zorro once called home.

First of all, the town is practically empty. Most people from the industry are gone, terrorizing the help in Hawaii and Aspen. There’s very little traffic. You can actually make the fifteen minute drive between Brentwood and LAX on the 405 Freeway in only forty minutes. It’s like you’re flying! Hard to get into restaurants? Not this week. Spago will even make reservations for people they don’t know. And at 7:00 not 10:30. (Unfortunately, their chefs are probably in Aspen and Hawaii.)

Los Angeles is so deserted I heard of a friend who found a parking place at the Grove shopping mall. But that’s still just a rumor.

For industry guild folks there are free movies. In the hopes of snaring nominations from any organization that gives out awards (even the WGA), studios let eligible voters and guests attend contending movies gratis. It’s also their way of giving back to the community. However, the nanosecond the nominations are announced this lovely gesture ends instantly. And they go back to the business at hand – busting the unions.

Most of the city’s attention this week is on the upcoming Rose Parade and Bowl. If you have six friends over to your apartment to play poker, the Rose Queen and her court will come and speak to your group.  This year's queen is thinking of going into neurosurgery.  Can't you just see her in the operating room wearing a tiara? 

The Rose Bowl is the "Granddaddy of Bowl Games" and this week.  It's the 100th edition and fifth being sponsored.  So this year we must refer to it as the "Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO". How fucked is that?  The combatants are Michigan State vs. Stanford. And again we have to suffer through Brent Musburger doing the play-by-play.  Keith Jackson, please come back!!!

Highlight of the Rose Bowl festivities is the Lawry’s Beef Bowl. Lawry’s is the greatest prime rib restaurant in the world (a more popular attraction to Japanese tourists than Disneyland). Every year they invite each team and feed them as much prime rib as they can eat. Usually the winning team tops out at around 630 pounds of beef. During the Rose Bowl, you’ll notice half the players sleeping the bench. That’s why.  They've served over 20,000 players since 1956.  Not one salad.

This will be the second Rocking New Years Eve without Dick Clark (although his name is still in the title).  Which means another three minutes of air time for Ryan Seacrest -- who really needs it. 

The Rose Parade is tomorrow morning.  Idiots have been staking out spots along the parade route since Thanksgiving. Every local channel will broadcast the parade. KTLA gets a 50 share, everyone else gets a 2. Why these other stations still bother is beyond me. KTLA coverage begins at like 3:00 a.m. Five hours of watching people paste flowers on floats and the spectators on the street freezing. KTLA will begin replaying the parade immediately upon its conclusion. Then they replay it again. And again. Sometime around January 15th they return to regular programming.

Bob Eubanks has been hosting the parade since the floats were powered by horses.  His co-host is L.A. talkshow goddess, Stephanie Edwards.   Last week when I filled in on KABC, Stephanie was my guest and had great insider info on the parade.  Here's the podcast of that interview.  I invite you to listen.  She's a terrific fun guest.

Be safe and sane tonight so you'll be alive for the parade.  Happy New Year everybody.

And for my fellow Angelinos – enjoy it while you can!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Join me on the radio tonight

I'll be on 790 KABC tonight from 9-midnight PST.  You can hear it live here.  Lot of fun guests.  The hot new writing team of Annie Levine & Jon Emerson will be on at 10 to discuss this year in pop culture.  At 9 I've got Amy Rubin, writer-star of the hit web series, LITTLE HORRIBLES.  Variety calls it one of the top 10 web series on the interweb thing.  Plus, Dodger talk, Black Monday NFL talk, movie talk, TV talk, and God knows what.  I may even plug my book.   So join me for the fun and traffic on the 4's. 

Celebrity Break-Ups 2013

You can’t turn on E! or read PEOPLE without stars gushing about how much in love they are. I don’t mean to be a cynic, but these celebrities invariably pontificate about what makes relationships work. Khloe Kardashian feels qualified to give romantic advice. Many stars live in a world where no one says “no” to them from the minute they wake up till the moment they go to bed. However, this has never stopped lovers and spouses. They will say no. They have said no. And usually at their own peril. They end up on the same scrap heap as the publicist who dared open her mouth. 

So because celebrities make such a public display of their affection – jumping on couches, etc. – and always claim to have the secret of long lasting relationships when in fact many don’t even know how to use a debit card, their break ups are fair game for snark. And before you feel sorry for them, remember, they’re all beautiful and will find love again in six seconds, and most of them found that love already when they were still with the partner they broke up with this year.

So here’s a list:

Julianne Hough & Ryan Seacrest – Split in June. Now people can go back to saying he’s gay.

Britney Spears & Jason Trawick -- All those vows of love she gave him, they were lip-synced.

Justin Bieber & Selena Gomez – This is their second break-up. Gomez decided to date boys who were legal.

George Clooney & Stacy Keibler – All I know is Talia Balsam was once married to George and is happy she’s out. So what does that say?

Catherine Zeta Jones & Michael Douglas – I'm reminded of his movie, THE WAR OF THE ROSES.

Clint & Dina Eastwood – I see him married at least another two times.

Miley Cyrus & Liam Hemsworth – Like everything else, this must be calculated on her part to advance her career.

Chelsea Handler & Andre Balazs – Warning: Skank now on the loose.

Bruce & Kris Jenner – A common line from a disillusioned spouse: “I don’t know you anymore.” Considering all the plastic surgery that was certainly true.

Diane Lane & Josh Brolin – He finally discovered that she’s ten times the actor he is.

Bradley Cooper & Zoe Saldana – Their second split. Bradley was hanging onto relationships a lot longer when he was in KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL on Fox.

Ashley Judd & Dario Franchitti – I thought they were the happiest couple in Kentucky next to Boyd Crowder and Ava.

Michael Sheen & Rachel McAdams – Guess he was not a Master of Sex after all.

Michelle Williams & Jason Segel – I’m just glad he’s back on HIMYM.

Miranda Kerr & Orlando Bloom – They’ll find others. Someday.

Malin Akerman & Roberto Zincone – As a nice touch they split up months after the birth of their first child. My guess is he won’t be fighting for custody.

Keri Russell & Shane Deary – This was an arranged marriage by the Kremlin so I’m less broken up about it.

Idina Menzel & Taye Diggs – Gee, they seemed so happy when I saw them New Year’s Eve.


Kristen Stewart & Robert Pattinson – A match made in a casting office.

Nina Dobrev & Ian Somerhalder – “Dear Vampire Diary – I’m writing tonight with a heavy heart…”

Kat Von D & Deadmau5 -- They couldn’t agree on whether she’d take his last name or number.

Madonna & Brahim Zaibat – If Britney Spears broke up then Madonna has to.

Khloe Kardashian & Lamar Odem – I’m shocked. They had so much in common. Both have an IQ of 27.

Meanwhile, my heart goes out to real people who ended relationships this year. May 2014 bring you better luck, happiness, and someone who looks like Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson but not actually them.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The greatest scenes and quotes in movie history

As we look back at this year, let's take ten minutes to look back at all the years. Here's a great montage of classic movie moments and quotes.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

My one-nighter

Yes, this is a re-post but it's one of my most requested.
One of my favorite radio legends, Dale Dorman read my recent piece on playing the same records as the competition at the same time, and reminded me of another chestnut from my checkered radio career.

For years (decades really) WLS Chicago was a monster Top 40 radio station. Clear channel from Chicago (that meant no other stations on that frequency), you could hear WLS at night almost coast-to-coast. Teens in far away hamlets in Iowa and Arkansas would thrill nightly to the likes of Dick Biondi, Art Roberts, Steve Lundy, and others. I used to hear them in Los Angeles.

So WLS was a station I always wanted to work at.

As fortune would have it, in 1988 my father became the General Manager of WLS. By then I was on staff of CHEERS. But when dad asked if the family would come out to Chicago for Thanksgiving I said, “Yes, under one condition. I want to do one all-night shift on WLS”. He must’ve really wanted to see his grandkids bad because he agreed to that.

So we arrive in Chicago a few days before Thanksgiving and he says I can go on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. Remember, I had been a disc jockey for a number of years at this point and was quite comfortable in the role.

I arrive at the station at 11:30, enter the studio, and see the memo that my father had posted. It said: “My son Ken will be doing the all-night show from midnight-to-six.” A better way of putting that might have been “Ken Levine will be doing the all-night show from midnight-to-six.” It’s the “my son” part that made it look like “bring your kid to work day”.

At one time WLS had engineers who played all the songs and commercials and jingles. The disc jockeys just talked. Now the disc jockeys also did their own engineering. I prefer that actually; gives me more control.

The jock on duty was surprised to see this new person. He obviously hadn’t read the memo. When he did he said, “Uh, there’s a problem. No one is scheduled to run the board and I have to be somewhere at 12:15. It’s going to take a while to get somebody down here.” Obviously, he thought this was just some lark. The bosses’ kid always wanted to be on the radio so what the hell?

I decided to have a little fun with him. I said, “I don’t need an engineer. My dad said I could do everything myself. “

The jock gulped and with great hesitation said, “O-Kay”.

The control board was very standard. Slide pots, one for the mic, one to bring up network news, one to bring up the phone, and the others for the cartridge machines to play all the music, jingles, promos, commercials, whatnot. You pushed a button to turn on a channel, you raised and lowed the volume with the slide pots. It’s far more complicated today with computers.

Anyway, this was pretty much the conversation:

HIM: Okay, well this is the control board.

ME: Where are the records?

HIM: Records? We don’t play records anymore. All the songs are on carts.

ME: Carts? What’s that?

HIM: (holding one to demonstrate): These. They’re called cartridges.

(I knew full well what cartridges were. Anyone who’s been in the business eleven seconds knew what cartridges were.)

ME: Oh. Cool! Where do they go?

HIM: Uh, in these slots. We have eight cart machines.

ME: Give me a second. I want to take notes.

(By now this poor guy is dying. WLS is a 50,000 watt powerhouse and this rube is going to go on the air… unsupervised?)

ME: (now with pad in hand) Okay. Ready. Carts go in those slots.

HIM: On the board here are numbers corresponding to the cart machines. So if you put something in cart 5, it’s number 5 on the board.

ME: (scrawling) … Number 5 on the board. Got it.

HIM: (biting his lip) You turn the volume up and down with these slide pots.

ME: Volume? Is that how loud it is?

HIM: (ready to kill me and my father) Yes. That’s how loud it is. You press the red button and it goes on the air.

ME: Simple enough. Where’s the microphone?

HIM: Pot 1.

ME: How will I hear the songs?

HIM: You have these headphones.. That’s what they’re for. No disrespect but, have you seen a radio show before?

ME: Sure. It’s just that Dr. Johnny Fever didn’t wear phones and he heard the music.

(Just one of the many inaccuracies of WKRP IN CINCINNATI).

HIM: You need headphones.

(By now it was time for him to sign-off and go to five minutes of ABC network news at :55. He had me sit down.)

HIM: Okay, now at the top of the hour you have to play this jingle.

ME: Which jingle?

HIM: (ready to explode) The one that says “Top of the Hour”.

ME: Oh.

HIM: What’s your first record?

ME: You mean “cartridge”.

HIM: Yes, what’s your first cartridge.

(I selected it, and inserted it tentatively into the machine.)

HIM: Now what you have to do when the news is over is pot down the news here, play the jingle here, and when it sings “WLS Chicago”, right after you hear Chicago play the …rec, uh “cartridge”.

ME: Let me write this down. News…jingle…cartridge. When do I turn my mic on?

HIM: Once the song starts.

ME: Then I’m pushing two buttons at once.

HIM: You can turn it on earlier… or later. Whenever you want.

ME: Okay, I’ll give it a try.

(Sweat is pouring off this poor guy. The news ends. I turn on the mic, pot down the news, fire the jingle, blast the song and say:

ME: 12:00 in Chicago. My name is Ken Levine. I’ve been on the radio in Bakersfield, San Bernardino, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. But never at the same time. THIS is WLS!

(And talked right up to the vocal. Once I turned the mic off: )

HIM: You asshole! You’ve done this before!

ME: Yes. Of course. Do you think my father is going to put someone on a 50,000 radio station who’s never done it before?

For the life of me I don’t remember the name of that jock. But I owe him a nice dinner… and maybe a month’s worth of therapy.

And by the way, being on WLS in the middle of the night was just as cool as I always imagined. Maybe more. Today of course, you can hear just about any station anywhere through the internet but it’s not the same thing. Not the same thing at all.

Friday, December 27, 2013

I'm back on the air in Seattle

At least for an hour.  I'll be co-hosting with John Phillips on KIRO-FM today from 2-3 PST.  It'll be nice to say hi to all my Mariners fans again.  Here's the link.  As Frasier would say, "I love you, Seattle!"

Friday Questions


Last Friday Questions of the Year. Is one of them yours?

Allan V gets us started:

When the cast does a reading prior to rehearsals, how does that work? Who's at the reading besides the actors, and who's in charge? How long does it usually run? Do actors often try to tell the others how to play their roles, resulting in friction?

For a regular episode the cast generally reads around a conference table. The director sits at the head and reads the stage directions. Producers, writers, and other staff members ring the table along with studio and network executives. Occasionally you’ll have casting people there.

For our table readings we try to keep the number of people down.

Now for a pilot things have gotten completely out of hand. There are so many network and studio people there along with other support staff, agents, managers, friends, additional writers, and God knows who that instead of reading around a table the cast will all sit at one long table (like a dais) and face rows and rows of audience members. It’s the Last Supper but less fun.

Thomas wonders:

When filming the episode do the studio audience have to hustle along the bleachers from set to set?

No. The audience stays put. The main sets are in front of them and for scenes in swing sets that may be off to the side out of view there are monitors. The audience watches the show as its filming.

And complicated scenes are sometimes pre-filmed and just shown to the audience via the monitors.

These monitors have only been around for twenty years or so. Before that there was no video assist. So if a scene was out of the audience’s view they were out of luck.

Remember last week I mentioned that cavernous sound stage that Francis Ford Coppola used to erect the Las Vegas strip? I once helped out on a multi-camera pilot on that stage. It was like being on Mars. Usually studio audiences number about 200 in bleachers that have six or seven rows. For this pilot the bleachers sat 200. But it was two rows that stretched from one end of the stage to the other, which was in New Mexico. There were something like eight major sets and no monitors. So for any one scene maybe thirty people could see it. End result: No one saw anything. Everybody was totally confused. No one laughed.  Would you believe the pilot didn’t get picked up?  On a decent stage it might've had a chance. 

If you’ve never been to a filming of a multi-camera show you should try to get tickets to see one at least once. So the next time you come to LA, put that on your Bucket List.

From Ger Apeldoorn:

Talking about a large set... as a director do you like the set smaller or bigger. I used to love large sets, people walking around all the time and shouting. I also liked the fact that two characters could have a believable moment alone (although it was always weird that sometimes in Cheers two characters could talk in private and sometimes they talked just as loud with someone at the other end). But our favorite director liked his sets small, easier to time as he liked it, no time lost with long walks. Do you have a preference or does it depend on the script?

It depends on so many factors, but generally I’d prefer larger sets because it’s easier to get cameras into positions to give me the best shots.

But large sets do present problems. One, as you mentioned, you sometimes have to cover long crosses. Intimate character scenes can seem hollow in wide open spaces.

On the other hand, small sets can be murder when you have a lot of people and not much room. I directed an episode of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND where the entire second act Ray is sick in bed and the room is filled with his friends and relatives. And at one point there’s a basketball game going on, and another time pizzas are delivered. It’s a hilarious scene and I’m thrilled with how it came out, but it was a bitch to block and shoot in front of a live audience. It seemed like someone's face was always blocked. But if the end result is good then it’s all worth it and then some.

A big factor is how well the set is laid out. One set that gave me trouble was the diner on BECKER. It was a nice big set and looked great, but all the action was at the counter pushed against one side. So you’d have five characters huddled around a counter while 70% of the set would be unused. When I directed BECKER I always found ways to move people to booths or have Terry Ferrell waiting on tables so she wasn’t pinned behind the counter. I did anything to create movement and use the entire set.

Compare that to the CHEERS bar. It was positioned right in the middle of the set. Characters could sit at either end. You had almost unlimited access in filming.

I’ve said it before – the best set I’ve ever worked on was Frasier’s apartment. So many great angles and built-in portals to move cameras way up into the set and get amazing shots. And here’s the irony – the art director who created the Frasier living room also created the Becker diner.

One pet peeve I have is that art directors will create huge elaborate sets with staircases and giant bay windows. Very impressive to the studio audience, but you rarely see any of those things on camera. I’d never do a master so wide that includes the whole staircase or giant chandelier. So all of those niceties are never seen. Plus, when you have high walls it’s that much harder to light the set.

And then there was the reverse. A swing set for an episode of LATELINE I directed in New York. It was an office kitchen area, but only two walls were constructed (at a right angle). It was so small that unless my characters were practically wedged into the corner I couldn’t film them without shooting off the set. I still get nightmares thinking about that one.

And finally, Hesh has another set question. That seems to be the theme this week.

Was the back poolroom in Cheers a swing set as well? And in addition to that, would the bathrooms then be behind, like Sam's office, or were those separate entities? I remember in Season 1 there would be shots going all the way from the back room into the main room in one motion which was well done and made it all look seamless.

The poolroom was a standing set, but it could be removed for a swing set. Most of our swing sets were in that space. A good portion of the audience could see it. And these were in the days before monitors.

The bathroom was a separate set.

Sam’s office was tucked upstage and visible when the wall fanned out.

The first season of CHEERS we never left the bar.  So swing sets were less of an issue.  

What’s your question? I’m now taking them for 2014.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I Blame Sinatra

FIRST:  Program Update.  I will be on 790 KABC radio tonight from 9-midnight PST.  Among my guests will be Stephanie Edwards from Rose Parade fame.  Join me.  And tomorrow, I'll be on the air in Seattle.  Details in the morning.  Okay, back to today's post:

I’m not a great singer. Oh, I can fake it on karaoke night if everybody is drunk and I can carry a tune if need be for an improv sketch. But really singing – making someone swoon who wasn’t swooning already – that’s never been my strength. I always wish I could sing. It just seems like such a great outlet; a way to really let your emotions out without being diagnosed as a sociopath. How uplifting to be able to take a great song and do it justice. That must be so good for the soul.

So I envy good singers. They have a real gift. And yet, many of them squander it. How? By taking a wonderful song and stylizing the crap out of it, or worse, doing patter in the middle of it.

Barbra Streisand is a big offender of both. Maybe the finest pure singer of our time, she sends chills when she just sings a song as written. Take a modest tune like “Shadow of Your Smile.” Her rendition is just gorgeous.

But on other songs she flexes her vocal gymnastics to where the melody is unrecognizable.

AMERICAN IDOL has helped perpetuate this bad habit. There’s a big difference between “making a song your own” and “napalming it.”

And then there’s the patter issue. Watch a Streisand live performance. She’ll be singing a heartbreaking torch song like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and stop to ask some kids in the audience how old they are and make a joke about how young her audience is before returning to the song. In a sense she has obliterated the song. Any emotional resonance is completely gone. And if you’re not going to sing a song like that to evoke a mood and emotion then what’s the point?

To say nothing of the fact that it’s so disrespectful to the songwriter. How thrilled would Tennessee Williams be if in the middle of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Marlon Brando had turned to the audience and said “anyone know a good Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side?” You wanna talk to kids, Barbra? Unless it’s Depression Day on SESAME STREET don’t do it during agonizing torch songs.

Streisand isn’t alone of course. Singers I’m sure get tired of singing songs they’re known for over and over. They spice them up to keep themselves interested. But the audience doesn’t give a shit that you’ve sung “People” eight-gajillion times. They want to hear it the way they know it. Pure. Simple. Like the fucking record. Especially in Streisand’s case when audience members have all had to mortgage their homes to afford tickets.

I blame Sinatra and all that “Rat Pack” shit he started. Maybe the greatest crooner of all time, his “Rat Pack” albums are painful. He’s not entertaining an audience he’s amusing himself.  There's another word for that and it starts with the letter M.

And Sinatra wasn’t funny. Not for a second. And what’s worse was that he thought he WAS funny.  That's a lethal combination.  Terrible racial jokes, insensitive remarks, bad double entendres, musty old clams – that was ole Blue Eyes' comedy repertoire. And all at the expense of the treasure trove of music he at one time sang masterfully.

Bob Dylan I put in a whole separate category. I went to Dylan concert and couldn’t understand one word he was singing or recognize one melody. He was three minutes into a song before I realized it was “Like a Rolling Stone.” What does it say about my generation when the voice of my generation slurs?

I guess I’m just a purist. Whether it’s Bono or Barbra, I want to hear the best most honest version of the song you can sing. Joke around after but when the music starts take me to where the songwriter intended. If only I had the God-given talent to be able to just show you what I mean.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

I'm on the radio tonight

I will be on 790 KABC radio (and here on the net) tonight and tomorrow night from 9-midnight PST.  The Jews always work on Christmas.  Should be fun.  I've got a lot of cool topics to discuss.  So join me.  And call in.  1-800-222-5222.

Here's a random Christmas picture.   Hope you're having a merry one.

The TSA 12 banned items of Christmas

For all you terrorists making pie filling, we're on to you. As a blog public service, here are the 12 banned items of Christmas.

Christmas Love

Merry Christmas to all, and to all one of the greatest singers on the planet crushing one of the coolest Christmas songs out there. Here's the incomparable Darlene Love.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What to get a writer this Christmas

Here’s a holdover question that is apropos for the holiday season. From Susan:

I have a good friend who writes for a tv show. What's a good gift to get for a tv writer, especially one who's out of work right now (between seasons, hoping to get picked up for next season) and is working on her own projects for a while? I got her a book on writing once that I love ("Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott) but it didn't go over well - she said she doesn't really like to read writing books, since she already has her own process that works well for her. Any hints or help?

Yeah, writers generally don’t take well to writing/motivation books. PAY THEM! That’s all the damn motivation they need.

You can’t get them clothes because most of their wardrobe comes from show jackets and shirts. I still get compliments on my IT’S ALL RELATIVE fleece.

I polled a number of writers and this seemed to be the general consensus.

Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, 20 years old bourbon.

Monday, December 23, 2013

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET -- my review

'Tis the season for movie critics to fawn all over iconic filmmakers. Not surprisingly, most are in love with WOLF OF WALL STREET, the latest from director Martin Scorsese that opens on Christmas Day.

They’re half right.

Two hours of this film is spectacular. Great scenes, wonderful performances, sharp dialogue, funny lines, and nudity.

Unfortunately, the other hour is boring, excessive, unnecessary, and takes the whole movie down with it. By the tenth party/orgy scene I was even bored with the nudity.

What you ultimately have here is GOOD FELLAS with Italian suits. All the cocaine, paranoia, and Lorraine Bracco/brunette/townie/first wife were there, but none of the fun extreme violence and crowd-pleasing gunplay. It was the world’s longest episode of WHITE COLLAR.

Along the way there are sensational scenes. Matthew McConaughey gives his best performance EVER in a lunch sequence with star Leo DiCaprio. Leo invites FBI agent, Kyle Chandler to his yacht for a one-on-one and every moment is delicious. (By the way, my daughter Annie observed that since he won an Emmy, every movie that Kyle Chandler is in he wears a badge.) Leo gives a speech to his staff that is mesmerizing. Unfortunately, he gives five more speeches. And that’s the problem. Many of the scenes get repeated.

Scorsese is a master of detail and as usual every shot is a work of art. Scenes are beautifully cut to get the maximum impact. But the job of a director is more. Ultimately, he has to keep the big picture in mind. He has to tell the overall story in a way that holds our interest. It’s not enough to grab us at the beginning (which he always does masterfully), he has to keep the story compelling. It’s a tough job, especially when your film is three hours. And that’s where Marty dropped the ball with this one. The story just goes and goes and goes, told in a very straightforward linear fashion.  After awhile you're checking your watch. 
I could easily chop an hour out of that movie.

I’m sure many film critics would disagree. I’m just not smart enough or sophisticated enough to appreciate the brilliance of Mr. Scorsese. The theme and commentary on the state of America were too far above a Joe Lunch Pail like me. One reviewer called him a “master storyteller.” Uh huh. Another reviewer gushed that “it holds nothing back.” To me, that’s the problem. Other critics tossed around words like “visionary,” “epic artistry,” and “genius.” Of course they also said that about THE AVIATOR.

Still, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is worth seeing. Just not worth running to see. Just know you’re in for a long ride.  But along the way you’ll be treated to some great sequences. And if too many orgy scenes are one of the biggest problems, this isn’t the worst movie you’ll see this year. Or even this week.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Now I know what it's like to have a song written about me

I always thought girls named "Laura" were lucky.  There's a gorgeous song named after "Laura."   Same with Roseanna, Wendy, Nancy, Georgia, Mandy, Brandy, Carol, and even Sharona.  For guys, Johnny and Bill, and Tom seemed to have cornered the market.  No one ever sung a love song to "Ken."

Until now.

And what a hard-driving classic it is.  This is from an early '60s Barbie album.   I'm kinda hoping Katy Perry will do a cover.  But until then, I'll have to be content with being the object of affection of a girl who hallucinates and has no genitals.   What a fitting tribute.  

Christmas in Las Vegas

As you prepare for Christmas and all the holiday traditions, take a moment to reflect on the true meaning of the season. And nowhere is that more present than in Vegas -- Bethlehem with slots. Here's my holiday travelogue from a few Decembers ago. Gather up the whole family and enjoy.

Deb and I just got back from a brief weekend in Las Vegas, or, as I like to call it, "Three Card Monty for the Red States". Many big attractions there this holiday weekend. The annual rodeo, the Anti-Aging conference, the Jose Luis Castillo/Joel Casamayer title bout. But we were there to see Linda Eder. Ms. Eder is a spectacular singer -- Barbra Streisand but at affordable prices and you never have to suffer through "Evergreen". We've become friends with her manager, Dave, who graciously invited us to join him for her concert. Since we likely would have gone to Vegas for Christmas anyway, we gladly accepted.

Stayed at the Mandalay Bay. Dave is also a VP of something for the House of Blues (who knows more about the blues than the Jews?) and arranged for us to get a room on the "House of Blues" floor. It had the two things Debby and I require in a hotel room -- a fabulous view and voodoo decor.

I'm not joking about the annual Anti-Aging conference. But am I the only one who finds it odd to hold an Anti-Aging conference in the one place where people stay up all hours drinking, gorging, smoking, and enduring the enormous stress of losing their money? I guess it's held there out of respect for Joan Rivers. My feeling is if the President of the Anti-Aging organization isn't 117 then it's a sham.

Had dinner Friday night at Rumjungle in the hotel. Very classy. Girls dance in cages above your head. To me that is classy. To Vegas it's positively elegant.

Interesting crowd at the hotel because of all the special events. A lot of shitkickers (I assume for either the rodeo or "Mamma Mia") and the prizefight attracted several hundred Ruben Studdards decked out in jewelry and Oakland Raider sweatsuits. Rode in an elevator with one -- a mean looking dude in black sunglasses. He said, "you here for the fuckin' fight, man?" I sheepishly had to say "No, the Linda Eder concert". I'm lucky I'm still alive.

This week a boxing title match, next week an ice spectacular featuring American Idol loser Diana DeGarmo.

The headliner at the hotel was Larry the Cable Guy. If Shecky Green were dead he'd be rolling in his grave.

And as I said, a full Broadway production of "Mamma Mia", not to mention a separate "Mamma Mia" STORE. Someone had a great line about Abba. It's like being hit in the head with Ikea furniture. You appreciate the craftmanship but it hurts.

I won $20 in blackjack. Debby lost $.55 in the slots. I doubt if we'll be comped the next trip.

I think there were Christmas lights and decorations up all over town. Who could tell?

The waitresses were all attractive with massive chests. If there was a flood on the casino floor they would float to the surface.

The most beautiful girl I saw there was a parking valet attendant bundled in a heavy coat. If she got a boob job I'm sure she could get an inside job. Maybe Santa will be good to her.

Next day we hit the beach. Yes, Mandalay Bay has it's own beach. Unfortunately, the ocean was turned off. No waves. But Debby and I took a long walk along the grid that serves as the shore and gazed out at the horizon to see the Lance Burton Magician billboard on Las Vegas Avenue.

From there we hotel hopped. Had to stop in at the Excalibur -- a casino in Sleeping Beauty's castle. This is home to the black socks, shorts, and wife beater shirt crowd. You know you're in trouble when they have a special parking lot just for motorhomes. Handing a pair of dice to one of these idiots is like handing a gun to a monkey.

Then on to the Bellagio, where Debby and I checked out the Monet exhibit at their fine arts gallery. (How can you go to Vegas and not stop in a museum??) I imagine when most of the tourists saw the ad for the exhibit they said, "Hey, they spelled money wrong!" The paintings were glorious and it was just nice to be in the only room in Las Vegas where everybody voted for Kerry. I can only imagine the paintings Monet himself would have made had he been to Las Vegas. "The Imperial Palace as seen from the Luxor".

The highlight of the trip was the Linda Eder concert. It's the third time I've seen her. I realize that if I see her one more time I'm officially gay. But I don't care. That will happen in March when she performs in Northridge. The only problem was that her concert hall was impossible to find. It's somewhere on the UNLV campus -- the Jerry Tarkanian Music Hall, or something like that -- and even cab drivers have no idea where this is. Dave and I set out for the sound check. The venue is five minutes from our hotel but we wound up somewhere near the Mustang Ranch. The only map on how to get there was on the ticket envelope you pick up at the box office. But we ultimately found it and the concert was wonderful. Celine Dion can't carry her Chloraseptic.

Headed home early this morning. McCarran airport is the worst in the country re security checks. You actually DO have to allow two hours. It's bad enough you have to remove your shoes, but the spurs must come off too and that takes some time.

And now we're home, shopping for voodoo wallpaper.

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!

This and other travelogues can be found in my book, WHERE THE HELL AM I? (TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED) available here.  Ebook only $3.99.  It's the perfect gift for anyone who loves to travel or stay home. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

I HATE LUCY in color

The next time CBS wants to show a colorized version of I LOVE LUCY in primetime, I implore to show anything else – even another HAWAII FIVE-O episode.

Last night CBS aired two classic I LOVE LUCY episodes but colorized them. They looked absolutely ghoulish. I think the whole idea of colorizing black and white is reprehensible anyway, but since Ted Turner first adopted this nasty practice some twenty years ago you’d think the technology would improve.

Instead, the process looks worse. Gray sets, day-glo orange hair for Lucy, creepy skin tones, and muted colors for the clothing. What makes it even more unconscionable is that color home movies exist of the filming of I LOVE LUCY. They had the ability to match actual colors and either didn’t bother to or their technology was so bad they couldn’t pull it off.  (Note:  earlier this year I featured that home movie.  You can find it here.)
Don’t fuck with I LOVE LUCY. It’s a classic. It’s a time piece. It’s supposed to be in black-and-white. Its lack of color has not stopped younger generations from enjoying it just fine… for fifty years.

What’s next? Painting the statue of David? Showing STEAMBOAT WILLIE in 3D? Attaching arms to Venus de Milo?

I admire the fact that CBS wanted to show two episodes of I LOVE LUCY in primetime – even though it was on a Friday night (TV’s graveyard shift). I LOVE LUCY was instrumental in the success of CBS television. But at least have the respect to show it in its intended form. Have enough faith in the product and artistry that you can air it in its original form.

I turned it off after ten minutes. And next year I’ll do the same if they show LASSIE and digitally add clothing to the dog. Or AMOS & ANDY if they digitally make all the characters white.

CBS, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Last weekend to Xmas shop.  My new book MUST KILL TV is a  great stocking stuffer for anyone who loves to laugh.  Paperback is only $8.99 -- perfect for co-workers, friends, and ex-lovers you've always wanted to kill.   Here's where you go.    If you buy it you will guarantee that somebody has a Merry Christmas.  That somebody is me.   Thanks much.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Questions

Friday Questions to stuff in your stockings or wherever you normally stuff them.

Anna Hedburg asks:

When you sit down to write characters do you ever think of certain actors for the parts to help yourself write it, even if they might be unattainable, and do you ever go so far to name them (Seth Meyers-like)or is that crossing the line between storyteller and fanatic fan?

Anna, we use specific actors as prototypes all the time. Especially when a team is writing a pilot, having someone in mind greatly helps both partners envision the same character and hear the same voice. We often will select unattainable actors. And sometimes for the draft we’re submitting to the network we’ll flat-out say in the description: (picture Anne Hathaway).

One time we wrote a character for a pilot and modeled him after a specific actor. And then that actor actually came in and read for it. He read the lines exactly the way we pictured it. When he left we both looked at each other and said, “Nah, I think we can do better.” By the way – we did.

Daniel wonders:

How many permanent sets does a sitcom usually have available? An ensemble show like Friends or The Big Bang Theory has a lot of different characters living in separate apartments. Are some of them a generic apartment set that keeps getting redressed, or is there a lot of storage space in the studio?

I assume you’re talking about multi-camera shows that are shot before a live audience. It all depends on how large the stage is. TAXI was on a very small stage at Paramount. I once worked on a pilot done on the soundstage where Coppola erected the entire Las Vegas strip. It was a $5 cab ride from end to end.

Usually, you have your main sets (apartments, office, diner everyone hangs out at), and a certain amount of room for “swing sets.” These are the sets erected for individual episodes. Ballrooms, restaurants, classrooms, hotel rooms, hospital rooms, etc.

Sometimes if a swing set is too big you have to strike one of your existing sets (if you can). So if THE BIG BANG THEORY wants to do a big wedding scene, for example, then maybe they can’t do a scene in the lunch area because they need that extra space.

Designers are pretty ingenious when it comes to designing sets. Take CHEERS for example, designed by Academy Award winner, Richard Sylbert. The bar hinges in the middle. When we wanted to go to Sam’s office we would swing out the right side of the bar and fan out the right wall of the bar, opening to reveal Sam’s office. Look carefully for a line right down the center of bar the next time you watch CHEERS.

Here’s a little known fact: In FRASIER there were two CafĂ© Nervosa sets. Depending on whether they needed the room for a swing set it was either full-size or you just saw a corner of it. Designers use lots of tricks like that in order to maximize space.

And finally, from vicernie:

Your comment about skipping the commercials reminded me of a Friday question I have wanted to ask. The only commercials that have any staying power to me are humorous ones and they often turn up on YouTube. Can sitcom writers turn out a good thirty second, funny commercial?

I’m sure some can, but understand that comedy writing and comic copywriting are two very different skills. Yes, a commercial might be funny, but does it sell the product? And in advertising that’s all that counts. There have been lots of hilarious commercials, but at the end of the day you couldn’t remember what the product was. Those spots are failures.

There are some exceptional copywriters, but unlike sitcom writers, they never get a credit. And Don Draper would take the credit for their work anyway.

What’s your question?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Larry Lujack in the mourning

One of my radio idols broadcast 2,000 miles away from me. He was on the air every morning, but I rarely heard him. Live at least. But I would pester my friends to make tapes and whenever one would arrive in the mail I would cherish it like 14 karat gold.  I marveled at his genius.   I would then listen to the show over and over and over again. At the time there were thousands of disc jockeys, but none were more unique or funnier than Larry Lujack on the Big 89, WLS, Chicago.

Larry Lujack died yesterday. He was only 73.  I know all of Chicago and many in the Midwest are grieving today.  I sure am. 

What made Larry so special? At a time when thousands of disc jockeys all sounded the same, he had a very distinctive cadence and delivery. Jocks back then all tended to be very up and excited with smiles in their voices. They were Club Med social directors on speed.

But not Uncle Lar. He was caustic. He was sarcastic. And what struck me the most was he was honest. If he hated a record he told you. If he thought a certain station promotion was bullshit he told you. This was in stark contrast to all the other deejays who cheerfully drank the Kool-Aid, toted the company line, and even pretended to like “The Night Chicago Died.”

Another thing: Jocks talked fast on those Top 40 days, often like machine guns.  (Think Scorsese but double it.)   Larry Lujack talked slow. He would take pauses (unheard of in radio where the First Commandment is no dead air). He would command your attention.

A lot of the schtick that Howard Stern was doing in 1987, Larry Lujack was doing in 1967. David Letterman grew up in Indiana listening to Lujack and you can clearly hear Uncle Lar’s influence on Letterman’s persona.

Some of his regular features were “Animal Stories,” the “Clunk Letter of the Day,” and “Cheap, Trashy Showbiz Reports. ”  He wrote and performed all of his bits by himself.  

I’m always telling my USC students that great comedy comes from creating great characters. You don’t have to write “jokes” to be funny. You just need a funny attitude. Larry Lujack portrayed this larger-than-life image (he called himself “superjock”) all tongue-in-cheek and got laughs just from his sarcastic tone. He didn’t have to tell “jokes;” he just said all the things you wish you could say.” Ironically, I think his act would be even more popular today. He was doing “irony” long before Letterman, Stewart, Colbert, Conan, and every on-air host on E!

In 1975 he wrote a terrific autobiography called Superjock: The loud, frantic, nonstop world of a rock radio DJ. For a very public figure you learn his favorite job was working as a forest ranger one summer and spending weeks at a time alone in an observation tower. Off the air he was very low key and private. He used to say he didn’t like talking to people, but he was sure nice to me the one time I met him at the WLS studios in 1971. At one point I asked: “What advice would you give a young person wanting to become a disc jockey?” and he said, “You can’t be both.”

I always envied the folks in Chicago who had Uncle Lar in their lives every day. I just had the tapes. But they were a master class in comedy. There have been a lot of celebrity passings this week but none has hit me as hard at Larry Lujack’s. This truly is the night Chicago died.

R.I.P. Superjock

Here's a sample of Larry Lujack.  Not the best but it's what YouTube had.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The year I got fired on Christmas

A holiday annual tradition.  My post on how I got fired.  Yesterday I talked about actors getting fired.  Today it's me.
One of the many reasons I became a writer is that I got tired of being fired as a disc jockey. Today marks the 39th anniversary of the last time I signed off my show with “see you tomorrow” and was never heard from again.   This is a blog tradition:  the anniversary of the Christmas I was fired.  And it ties into yesterday's post.

1974, I’m Beaver Cleaver on KSEA, San Diego, playing “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” five times a night and seriously considering blowing my brains out. Yes, I know – why “Beaver Cleaver”? Ken Levine sounded too Jewish.

The fall rating book came out, the numbers were not good, and at 3:00 I was told to hurry down to the station for an all-important staff meeting at 4:00. We all assembled and were told the station had decided to change formats to gospel and we were all being let go. “Even me?” I said in mock amazement. “Especially you.” “But I could change my name to Eldridge Cleaver.” “I’m going to need your station key”.

Quick aside: a year earlier at KMEN San Bernardino they wanted to get rid of me by moving me from the evening shift to the all-night show. The cheap bastards were hoping I’d quit so they wouldn’t have to pay severance (maybe $300 at most) and be on the hook for unemployment insurance. I asked the program director to at least do the humane thing and fire my sorry ass. “Nope”, he said, “Starting tonight you’re midnight to six.” So I stopped off at the local record store, picked up an LP, and dutifully reported on time for my shift.

Like KSEA, we were a high energy Top 40 station. (Our program director was in love with WLS whose slogan was “the Rock of Chicago” so we became the much catchier “Rock of the Inland Empire”.) I signed on and started playing the hits. Then at 12:30 segued smartly into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF….in Yiddish. The entire album. I was fired during “Anatefka”.

Back to the KSEA staff meeting -- Our morning man, Natural Neil asked when this format change was taking place. A month? A week? The program director looked at his watch and said “45 minutes”. And with that we were all canned. KSEA was gone…along with the promotion we were running at the time --

“Christmas the way it was meant to be!”

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Firing actors

Here’s another Friday Question that warrants its own post.  Since it’s a sensitive subject I choose not to name names. Please respect that and not fill the comment section outting the names or speculating on the names. Who they are is not relevant to the question.  And we're now in the holiday season, dammit.  Thanks.

The question comes from Jeff:

Have you ever had to fire an actor?

Yes, on several occasions, along with my partner David Isaacs. In one case the actor was a good friend and the network demanded he go.  Our one stipulation was that we be honest with him – that it was their decision, not ours. The network was fine with that.

To make matters even worse, the actor was 3,000 miles away at the time so we had to do it over the phone. (At least we didn't text.)  He was extremely gracious about it. That was the only time in my entire life I left work at 3 in the afternoon and went to a bar.

On another series of ours the star (who wielded enormous power) insisted we fire two of the cast members. To make this situation worse, it was during the Christmas hiatus. So when do you fire someone around Christmas? Before? After? I’m sure the star would have said “during.” We did it shortly after, giving each actor the same speech. One was so relieved to be out of that show he sent me Christmas cards for the next ten years. The other was so furious she didn’t speak to me for five years.

I’ve fired very few actors considering the number of years I was in a position to do so, but ironically as a freelance director I’ve had to direct several of them years later. Including the one who wouldn’t speak to me. That was awkward. Fortunately, she accepted my olive branch and all was fine. She was great in the episode, which reminded me that she was also damn good in our show. We should have stood our ground. Of course, I can say that now in hindsight.

But since that Christmas massacre we have taken more stands. In the case of the first actor I mentioned, we had absolutely no choice. Either we fired him or they cancelled the entire show. We had a cast and crew of well over a hundred people we were responsible for and didn’t feel it was right to cost all those people their jobs and income because of our righteous indignation.

However, during a pilot, the network wanted us to fire one of the stars after the third runthrough.  We refused. We believed in her, had seen a hundred other candidates, and if she didn’t test well after the pilot was shot we would be happy to reopen the conversation, but at that point in the process we insisted we stick with her. The network begrudgingly relented (today networks would just shut down the show), the actress rose to the occasion, and tested so well she was the reason the show got picked up at all. To the network president’s credit, he admitted he was wrong and thanked us for believing in her. (He was also wrong when he cancelled the show later that year, but he hasn’t apologized for that.)

There have been times when we’ve had to replace guest actors. Sometimes it’s not their fault. The scripts were too long and their parts were just cut.

Usually if an actor gets fired mid-week it’s no surprise to them. They’re clearly struggling. Here too, maybe they’re terrific actors but just not right for the particular role. Square peg in a round hole (if I may coin a clichĂ©).

In one case, however, a guest actor during a rehearsal kissing scene, stuck his tongue down our star’s throat. When I found out about it I went right down to the stage and fired him on the spot. That was a rather easy firing.

On a show I didn’t work on, the showrunner came into the room one day and announced the decision had been made to fire one of the series regulars. She was not well liked, but it was still going to be a gut wrenching scene and he was dreading it. One of the other writers waved his hand wildly and said, “I’ll do it! Let me do it!”

Early in my career I worried that if I fired an actor the rest of the cast would freak. It would create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. But what I learned was this: If someone needs to be replaced, the rest of the cast knows it too. If you take action you send a message that you’re really looking out for them. And if the replacement actor is better then everyone’s performance is elevated. Obviously, if you’re firing two people a day your set becomes Shutter Island, but if you’re just completing the final piece of a puzzle, that benefits everybody.

Look, it’s never easy to fire anybody (except maybe tongue-guy), but it’s particularly hard firing actors because what they do is so public. But as I always say, casting is the most important decision you will ever make on a project. Everything else can be fixed. And sometimes you don’t know until you see it.

And I'd say 80% of the time (maybe even more) it's not that the actor was bad, it's just that he was not right for this role.  Most actors will have stories of being fired -- actors you'd KILL for.   I helped out on a TV pilot once that due to network decree replaced Tim Robbins.  Think that network would like a Tim Robbins show today?   And sometimes getting fired from one project leaves you available to be hired on a better one. 

Still, just writing this post I have the urge to go to a bar again.

Monday, December 16, 2013

SAVING MR. BANKS -- my review

SAVING MR. BANKS is the behind-the-scenes story of how Walt Disney coerced author P.L. Travers into letting him make MARY POPPINS. There’s no real spoiler alert because, well… if you don’t know by now that MARY POPPINS did get made, you’ve been living in a cave.

It's an enjoyable holiday movie although a better title might have been A TRUCKLOAD OF SCHMALTZ HELPS THE MOVIE GO DOWN.  It was a little, well... Disney.  But if you have fondness for the subject matter and Uncle Walt (which I do) you will probably come away happy.  It’s glossy, it’s PG, it’s homespun, there are even Jews (the Sherman brothers), and it’s more fantasy than reality.

Now then, full disclosure: As a longtime screenwriter, veteran of many maddening notes sessions – they could have all the flashbacks they want showing Ms. Travers tragic childhood; I still couldn’t sympathize with her for throwing the script out a window. And I agree with her on most script points.

There is something a little incestuous about Walt Disney Pictures making a movie where Walt Disney stars and is the shining hero. I shudder to think if Miramax does something similar where the hero that saves the day is Harvey Weinstein.

As I said, this movie has a lot of Disney fairy dust sprinkled on it. Google the real P.L. Travers. This was a horrible wretched woman whose selfishness knew no bounds and who destroyed numerous lives along the way. Emma Thompson was the Julie Andrews version of this hateful spinster.



Tom Hanks was fine as Uncle Walt although he didn’t have much to play. Folksy. He was very folksy.

At the end of the day I felt a more compelling story would have been the making of Disneyland. Or the discovery of Annette.

Nice to see it's doing well at the boxoffice, but please Disney Company, don’t make a sequel. Don’t make SAVING KING TRIDENT where Michael Eisner gets THE LITTLE MERMAID produced by suing everybody.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

R.I.P. Peter O'Toole

Peter O’Toole was always my favorite of those hard-drinking Irish/Welsh/Scottish/British actors. Spectacular look, great voice, and he never took himself too seriously. There was always a twinkle in his eye. That might have been the liquor but I prefer to think not.

O’Toole passed away yesterday at age 81. Seeing him in his last movie, VENUS (from 2007) it is clear he lived every single day of those 81 years.

He was nominated eight times for Academy Awards -- the most nominated actor to never win. Sheepishly, the Academy gave him an honorary one in 2003.

He is of course best remembered for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in which he played Lawrence of Arabia. The picture won Oscars for everyone including the camel but him.

O’Toole does a great comic turn in MY FAVORITE YEAR, a very funny film if you've never seen it. Imagine the worst guest-host ever on SNL.

But my favorite Peter O’Toole film (and performance) was STUNT MAN. This is a hidden little gem. O’Toole plays a mercurial film director in a world where reality and illusion collide. Run to Netflix.

Above all else, in everything he appeared in, Peter O'Toole had a presence and command that was unmistakable and riveting. It’s almost impossible to play larger-than-life and real at the same time. He had that gift.

I personally never met him. We thought about asking him to guest on the TONY RANDALL SHOW but opted for Annette O’Toole instead. Just as well. The character was a young woman. But I never heard any bad stories about Peter O’Toole. The scuttlebutt was he was gracious, kind, and the consummate professional.

He always seemed to view the world with a little half-smile. Not a bad way to go through life. He leaves us with a legacy of many great motion pictures and more than a half-smile when we think about him.

R.I.P. Peter O’Toole

I did not pay this person. Honest.


Adi Tantimedh writes:

Ken Levine, not the chap who develops the Bioshock videogames, but the Emmy-winning screenwriter who has written for shows like M*A*S*H, Cheers and Frasier, has forgotten more about screenwriting and comedy than most of us will ever know.  He has a very funny blog where he talks about screenwriting and the industry, offering a very insider look at how things are done in Hollywood.  Must Kill TV is his first novel after decades writing scripts.  You should read it.  It’s on Amazon in print and as an ebook.
0936+Ken+Levine+ebook+MUST+KILL+TV_10+copy
Must Kill TV is about a beleaguered TV network president Charlie Muncie, a nice, likable guy with his job on the line – his network only has one hit show after all the other new shows he greenlit tanked, and its star is threatening to quit after going through several seasons of boffo ratings.  However, said star has asked Charlie for a favor: in return for which he would agree to stay for another season of his popular sitcom.  He wants Charlie to have his ex-girlfriend killed. The bitch had the audacity to turn down his marriage proposal and therefore must die. Can a desperate network president afford to say no to his biggest star?

Hollywood is a state of mind. It’s part of, but not always the same as, the Los Angeles state of mind though they’re often intertwined.  People who work in the Film and Television industry have a rather different way of looking at life since their work involves creating a fictional and often idealized, if not skewed, version of reality that’s sold to millions if not billions, of people worldwide, and that many eyeballs are worth a lot of money. I’ve always been fond of Hollywood novels.  They tend to be quite existential in nature, presenting a point of view that many people don’t have and might find fascinating, even when it’s appalling.

Charlie goes around telling himself he’s a nice guy at heart, and many people say that to his face, enough for him to believe that even, as he not only slips but barrels at full-speed down several slippery slopes and does things that nice guys would never do.  And all the while he tells himself that he’s entirely justified in what he’s doing. He’s in therapy and he’s a reasonable guy, so whatever he decides to do must be for perfectly reasonable motives. Like plotting to have someone murdered.
Comedy is also a state of mind. It’s about taking the piss out of bad situations and laughing at people making bad decisions.  What drives Must Kill TV is being inside Charlie Muncie’s neurotic head as he tries to think and justify his way through his escalating set of problems without any real self-awareness at all.  He is pretty much the walking definition of a schlemiel, the Yiddish term for a stupid, awkward, unlucky person. There’s nothing more dangerous or funny than a stupid man who thinks he’s being clever, and that provides endless fuel for comedy.  Charlie is in complete denial that he might not be a good guy even as he does more and more bad things, thinking his marriage is fine when it’s in freefall, from his anxiety over ratings and its effects on his job security, to thinking he might get away with cheating on his wife with an on-the-make massage therapist, and trying to work out how to find a hitman by reviewing how TV shows do it. This is a comedy about a man systematically ruining his life while wondering why his life is getting worse.

What makes the book funny is the way it uses Charlie’s headspace to make fun of how a network suit thinks, how someone who doesn’t have any real imagination or creativity tends to draw on terrible TV and movie ideas to look for solutions to their real life problems.  The book is also a time capsule for what the TV industry looks like in the 2010s, full of insider satirical asides  into what executives are thinking when they greenlight new shows. Charlie muses on headaches like the cop show that evolved into a gay cop couple show because its stars ended up in a relationship off-screen, which also resulted in the ratings dropping, the failed David Caruso sitcom, the failed Ann Coulter family comedy, all of which put a dent in his credibility as a president who could deliver hits.

He worries as much about keeping up his lifestyle of executive privilege and the entertainment industry’s version of street cred should he get ousted by the stockholders if he fails to deliver a hit or keep the one hit show that’s keeping his network afloat.  The book is also a satire of how people in Hollywood generally think of themselves as well-intentioned even as they do awful things to each other.  It even takes the piss out of people in the entertainment industry turning to religion to try to absolve themselves of the horrible things they do.

Novels about the movie industry are often serious and literary, even somber as they explore moral and existential dilemmas, though a small minority are comedies. On the other hand, I’ve found that the majority of novels about TV are comedies, and Must Kill TV is the funniest I’ve read for a while. It’s not often that a book makes me laugh hysterically at every page, sometimes several times per page at that. It’s not so much that Levine is writing a wisecracking protagonist so much as Charlie Muncie is completely unaware that his 90 mile-an-hour stream-of-consciousness musings are frequently ridiculous and thus hilarious. His self-examination is entirely on the shallow side, saturated with industry and business-speak to describe and exacerbate his insecurity and anxieties.  The universe of Ken Levine’s Los Angeles is just that little bit off-kilter and over-the-top, but not by much. He knows of what he writes, a world that’s endlessly incestuous where everyone knows each other and wants to know what they’re doing, running into each other at social functions all the time and putting on a polite face even as they might loathe and plot against each other.

This is a Los Angeles not that far away from the satirical, murderous hell depicted in Grand Theft Auto V where everyone is on the make and morally vacuous. If Must Kill TV is a snarky Dante’s Inferno, then Charlie Muncie is its hapless Virgil.  He’s very far from innocent and he’s desperately trying to convince himself things aren’t that bad, not matter how much worse they keep getting. Levine makes him deceptively sympathetic in order to really turn the screws when the farcical plot twists into high gear. There’s a steely mercilessness underneath the easy-going prose that’s the sugar-coating to a hilariously bitter pill.  Nothing turns out the way you think and certainly not the way Charlie Muncie wants.

Ken Levine shows that when a man descends into hell in the TV industry, it’s film noir turned into high comedy.

Always after more time at lookitmoves@gmail.com

Follow the official LOOK! IT MOVES! twitter feed at http://twitter.com/lookitmoves for thoughts and snark on media and pop culture, stuff for future columns and stuff I may never spend a whole column writing about.  

Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Okay, you can play Christmas music now

Now that we're only two weeks away from Christmas instead of the day after Labor Day, I think it's finally appropriate to play Christmas songs. Here are some of my favorites and no-so-favorites. What are yours?

Personally, I get a warm feeling when I hear Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song”, which was written by Mel Torme. One Christmas night I saw him eating alone at Delores coffee shop. It was ironic but sad.

The Phil Spector Christmas album is still my favorite. Putting aside that he killed someone, we thank Phil for a real musical gift.

And Darlene Love's , "Christmas Time for the Jews" which is a recent parody of her own work on the album is maybe the funniest Christmas song ever.

I fancy the oldies. Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”, Bobby Helm’s “Jingle Bell Rock”, and the Beach Boys’ “Little St. Nick”.

The Boss’s Xmas ditty is pretty catchy as are the King’s.

Re: “White Christmas”, give me the Drifters over Bing. (Interesting that so many classic Christmas songs were written by Jews.)

Some obscure holiday songs I recommend: “Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by the Four Seasons, “Monster Holiday” by Bobby Boris Pickett (that one always tears me up), and “Santa Claus is Watching You” by Ray Stevens. Super obscure but worth finding is “Lost Winter Dreams” by Lisa Mychols. And for the motherlode of bad taste fun, try to find Claudine Longet singing “Winter Wonderland”. Before she shot skier Spider Sabich in cold blood she and husband, Andy Williams, were the first couple of the season. Their annual family Christmas special was a must-see. They even have a kid named Noel.
Songs I can’t stand: “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano, “Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, and “the Little Drummer Boy” by anybody. Whey do stations overplay TO DEATH the songs that are the most repetitious? I seem to recall Paul Anka singing Christmas in Japan, which was like a drill to the head. Also, anything sung by kids usually makes me cringe.

I’m only sorry Kurt Cobain left us before he could give the world his Christmas album.

For a more vocal pop sound, you can’t beat Linda Eder’s holiday album. Her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would bring a tear to a glass eye. Listen for it the next time you’re in an elevator.  This year she recorded another Christmas album.  Worth getting too.  Streisand is great, but there’s more ornamentation than on the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. Johnny Mathis is a little too sugar plum fairy for my tastes, and you can always count on “Mr. Peace and Goodwill to All Men”, Sinatra. The Carpenters have their fans too. And The Manhattan Transfer's acapella album is gorgeous.   And of course there's Mariah.

But if I had to pick my all-time favorite Christmas song, the one that most expresses my feelings about the holiday season, it would have to be “The Christmas Song” by the Chipmunks. Sometimes the right song and the right performers just combine for sheer perfection.

Hopefully I can get the strolling Hawaiian minstrels to sing it tonight at the bar.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Not for the superstitious: Friday the 13th Questions.

Jessica Munson leads off:

I was listening to an interview with Phil Rosenthal recently. He made a pretty good point that I never thought of before. He said as good as Friends was, it kind of ruined the types of television shows that made it on-air because executives have never known what's funny, but after the success of Friends they've resorted to build shows around young, attractive people. That's why a grounded, honest show like Raymond would be very difficult to get made today. Do you feel this is true?

I feel that is absolutely true. And of course, at the time they were rehearsing the FRIENDS pilot NBC said they had to make one of the kids the star. Director James Burrows said no, that’s not what he signed on for. The beauty of the show was that it was an ensemble and that all six leads would be equal. Once the show was a hit NBC took credit for its development and success of course.

But a sitcom starring all attractive young people became the brass ring for networks. Especially on Fox. NEW GIRL is their template. Older actors could be the “parents” or “bosses” of the young people but the good-looking kids had to be in the forefront.

I’ve always believed that for comedies you cast the funniest people. And often times those are not the most attractive. Today that would probably result in a big fight.

From Rodney:

It seems that when a show goes into syndication while still being on the air it can have a very positive affect on that show's audience numbers for the original shows. Big Bang Theory is a show that I think benefited. Wings could be another example. My question is: have you ever seen the reverse be true. That when a show goes into syndication the audience just loses interest in the older shows as well as the new ones? I bring it up because of Modern Family going into syndication.

Surprisingly, no, I can’t think of one instance where a show that goes into syndication while first-run episodes are still airing has suffered. Maybe I’m missing one or two. But you’d think that lots of them would fall victim to over-exposure when in fact the reverse is true.

Folks discover shows on cable and then become fans. WINGS in particular, got a big boost. When you think about it, with people able to utilize Netflix, buy seasons on DVD, or watch multiple episodes on ON DEMAND, a viewer can easily binge on practically any current show on the air.

The bottom line is the show has to be good. And has to be successful in syndication on its own. Due to its topicality, MURPHY BROWN did horrible in syndication. WINGS did great.

Meanwhile, NCIS has gotten a huge uptick due to syndication. And you can’t kill LAW & ORDER with a stick.

Carson wonders:

Are you encouraged to use actors in guest spots that are already tied to the studio? Specifically I'm thinking that both Kelsey Grammar and Bebe Neuwirth did Star Trek episodes. And several Star Trek alums did Frasier. Or do you just become friends all working on the same lot?

Usually it’s the latter. Same is true with writers. Several CHEERS writers were friends with STAR TREK producers and got to be extras in an episode. They had just been beamed about the ship after having had the shit beaten out of them in some interplanetary battle. I have to say, they stole the show.

And finally, Professor Longnose asks:

Were you ever tempted to create a baseball sitcom? Or did Ball Four just destroy that genre in its infancy?

The problem with doing a baseball series is that they can be very expensive. Staging baseball games, especially on the professional level where you need big crowds and complicated shooting is a real undertaking. That’s why baseball series generally revolve around little leagues. You get a bunch of kids, six crazed dads in the stands and you go.

However, those problems don't exist in animation and indeed we wrote a SIMPSONS episode (Dancing Homer) that was centered around baseball.  

There have been a couple of other series besides BALL FOUR. There was a version of LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN. Steve Bochco did a very ambitious series about the minor leagues called BAY CITY BLUES. A certain BASIC INSTINCT star was in that cast. There was also a Fox series called HARDBALL, which was a knock-off of MAJOR LEAGUE. There may be one or two others, but those are the only ones I can remember.

But getting back to your original question – I would love to do a baseball series.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Golden Globes nominations announced

Here they are.  They waiters... I mean Foreign Press ... have set aside the specials for the night and announced this year's Golden Globes nominees.   Not a lot of surprises.  HOMELAND is nowhere to be seen after being the waiters' darling a couple of years ago.  Nice to see THE GOOD WIFE being recognized.  Somehow GIRLS still gets some nods.  Lena must really tip well.  AMERICAN HUSTLE scored a lot of noms.  OPRAH WINFREY'S THE BUTLER did not get a Best Picture nod.  Heads will roll.  Anyway, here is a complete list of the nominations.   

The awards will be announced on January 12th.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) I will be out of town that weekend so will not review them.  But Tina and Amy are hosting.  It'll be a fun show without me.

The Ten Second Comedy Writing Course

Since I can't find an appropriate photo...
Some of the best training I got in television I got from radio. I came of age in a long ago distant time when there was a thing called “radio.” Radio stations would play music and provide hosts to introduce it. These hosts were called disc jockeys. And here’s the real amazing thing: people listened. Not just those few who are in too big a hurry to access their Pandora station or itune playlists. Everybody listened. Generally they listened every waking hour of the day. In every city there were usually two or three stations who all vied for the attention of these eager young ears. Listeners selected their favorite station and bonded with it. Their allegiance was fierce. You could be on the fence as to whether you were a leg or breast man but you damn well preferred KHJ over KRLA.

Back in the ‘50s, rock & roll emerged and radio stations viewed it the way a dog views a pork chop. Top 40 radio was born.

Quick history lesson: Why Top 40? The legend goes that a Kansas City station owned Todd Storz was in a bar one night and people were playing the same songs on the juke box. Over and over. And then when they left and the staff was cleaning up they played the same songs, even though they had heard them repeatedly. A light bulb went off. Program only a limited number of records and play them in constant rotation. Since disc jockey shifts were four hours and they generally played ten records an hour, they decided to call the format Top 40 allowing every disc jockey to play every hit. By the mid ‘60s that became the Top 30, and WABC in New York reduced that further to where the top 5 played every 70 minutes. I know. Just reading that probably sends you screaming for your itunes.

When two or more Top 40 stations competed in a market they did so by trying to make the most noise, have the loudest presentation, craziest contests, and wildest disc jockeys. They screamed, talked from echo chambers, rang cow bells, did voices, played wild tracks – anything to get attention.

Don’t worry. I’m getting to the comedy.

Then in the mid ‘60s, two radio visionaries – Bill Drake and Ron Jacobs – realized that 80% of the time D.J.’s were just spewing nonsense. So they created a format the restricted disc jockey chatter. Music was the key element of the format and disc jockeys had to limit their rap from endless to however much time they had over the intro of a record. How long were song intros back then? Usually between 8 and 15 second.

So that’s how long the D.J. had to talk. Here’s what might surprise you: 15 seconds is an eternity. A skilled disc jockey can say the call letters, his name, the time, song title, artist, and still get in a one liner – without speaking all that fast.

Funny disc jockeys had to adapt and tailor their humor to this new format. And some became masters of it. Robert W. Morgan, The Real Don Steele, Dale Dorman (pictured: right) , Dan Ingram and Gary Burbank, to name just a few.

By the ‘70s when I joined the ranks of the hit spinners, this restricted format was now the norm. Since I don’t have the typical James Earl Jones voice I felt compelled to compensate by really being funny and entertaining. You talk about “brevity boot camp.” After a few years of this, and ignoring program director memos saying that I wasn’t funny and should not even try, I did develop a pretty amusing act. (Ironically, once I got out of radio and became a TV writer, limiting my disc jockeying to weekends at TenQ in Los Angeles these same program directors who said I sucked now said they knew all along I was a comic genius.)

When you only have ten seconds you must select the right words and the right number of words, and you must put them in the right order. The punch line has to come right before the vocal. And you learn delivery. You can’t rush your one-liner. Yes, you might squeeze it in, but if the audience doesn’t hear it clearly they won’t laugh. And here’s something else to consider: pauses are effective. Just because you have ten seconds doesn’t necessarily mean you have to talk for all ten seconds. A seven-second joke with a well placed pause might get a bigger laugh.

For me, this was an invaluable training ground. Four-to-six hours a night on the radio talking over record intros for several years greatly prepared for TV comedy writing. There too, time is of the essence. The tighter the joke construction the better. Jokes often have two functions in sitcoms. – to get a laugh and move the action forward. Characters rarely just stop to do a joke (at least on good shows). The jokes are woven into conversations and situations as the story barrels on (at a faster pace today than ever before).

Unfortunately, radio in any tangible form no longer exists. There aren’t weekend jobs in Bakersfield for young wannabe broadcasters to cut these teeth. There aren’t Top 30 stations that encourage disc jockeys to talk-up records. But it’s worth keeping the concept in your head. 10 seconds is a long time. 18 seconds is an eternity. When you write a joke, go back. Can you trim it? Is there one word that can replace three? Is there a funnier word or concept? The good news in writing vs. jocking – when you write a joke you don’t have 2:35 to come up with the next one. 10 seconds may be an eternity, but 2:35 goes by in a blink.