Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why I thank God I never worked with Cybill Shepherd

Thanks to reader Mike.Pa for reminding me of this post from seven years ago.  Discussion today of Cybill Shepherd because of THE HEARTBREAK KID led him to recall this entry.   For anyone who thought the Charles Grodin character didn't get his comeuppance, imagine being married to THIS.

If the ST. ELSEWHERE/CHEERS scene is one of the more famous crossovers in television history then the ALMOST PERFECT/CYBILL crossover has to be one of the least. But since a reader asked about it and I was there firsthand, I’m going to discuss it anyway.

Quick refresher for the .000006% who never heard of ALMOST PERFECT or don’t remember it – it was a sitcom I co-created/produced/
wrote/directed on CBS for two seasons in the mid 90s. Comedy goddess Nancy Travis played a single woman juggling her personal and professional life. On the day she gets the job of her life (head writer for a testosterone heavy cop show) she meets the man of her life and both are full-time jobs. I know I sound like Roger Clemens proclaiming his innocence but ALMOST PERFECT really was a damn good show.

CYBIL featured Cybill Shepherd as an over-the-hill actress. It was on CBS for about four years and was a modest hit. Second banana Christine Baranski deservedly won an Emmy for her role. Needless to say Ms. Shepherd was not pleased. But that’s another Hollywood bad-behavior story for a later day.

CBS thought it would be a hoot to do a crossover teaser to promote both series. Usually when that happens it’s two shows from the same production team. Such was not the case here. We were Paramount and since CYBILL starred an actress who was a nightmare it of course was produced by Carsey-Werner (right alongside ROSEANNE and GRACE UNDER FIRE).

So a number of issues had to be settled. What exactly was the scene? Which staff was going to write it? Would it be filmed on our stage or theirs? Would it air on our show or theirs?

Nancy, as always, was agreeable to anything. Ms. Shepherd insisted her team write it, it be filmed on her set, and aired on her show. Otherwise she would refuse to do it. Always the team player. We went along with it, just relieved that she didn’t also insist on singing.

Fortunately, I was (and still am) good friends with the CYBILL showrunner, Howard Gould. Together we conceived the idea. Cybill’s actress character would be coming to Nancy’s producer character to audition for her show. Yes, it made sense then that the scene be shot on our soundstage since that’s where Nancy’s office was Ms. Shepherd could give a rat’s ass about that so we shot it at her place.

I was happy to let Howard write the scene. He’s terrific. I wish he could have written whole episodes of our show. When finished, our team polished Nancy’s dialogue a little and sent it back. Ms. Shepherd read it and insisted on more jokes…for herself. After two or three drafts everyone (meaning her) was happy.

Next question: When to film this? They were on a different shooting schedule than we were. Guess who had to change their whole weekly routine to accommodate whom.

The actual filming took forever because Ms. Shepherd had to be backlit in every shot. Nancy was not to be backlit at all. And I can’t say for certain because I wasn’t there, but I think Ms. Shepherd required cue cards.

All of this over a four minute scene that ran once.

One final thought:

Howard Gould has since written a hilarious play about a Cybill Shepherd-type character called DIVA. If it’s ever staged in your neighborhood see it. If you want to read it (and trust me, it’s brilliant) it’s available through Samuel French.

My favorite Neil Simon movie

Well, it was sure fun hosting for TCM.  Hope to do it again sometime.  Last night I showed my favorite Neil Simon movie, THE HEARTBREAK KID.  Here is my script for the intro and outro.   Written by me and Anne Wilson. 


Hi, I’m Ken Levine – a TV writer, playwright and a blogger – quick plug: Ken Levine dot blogspot dot com – and I’m back for the final night of hosting TCM’s “Friday Night Spotlight” on Neil Simon. And right now we have my all-time favorite of his films. It’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” from 1972 starring Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepherd, also Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin.

This is a very atypical Neil Simon film – quite dark – with a screenplay based on a short story by Bruce J. Friedman. There aren’t a ton of Simon jokes and wisecracks here. It’s very satirical, very dry, very Jewish and the humor comes mostly from hypocrisy.

Grodin plays a total cad – a guy who only gets married because his girlfriend – Jeannie Berlin – won’t sleep with him until they’re legal. But of course, their first night together is horrible – at least, according to him.

They drive to Miami for his honeymoon anyway, and while there he proceeds to fall in love with a wasp-y beauty, played by Cybil Shepherd.

And he spends the entire honeymoon figuring out how he can be with her instead of his newylwed bride and convince Cybil’s father Eddie Albert that he’s worthy of his daughter’s hand. There’s clearly a level of Anti-Semitism in the Eddie Albert character, and Grodin is hardly a sympathetic character on any level, but you’ve got to give him credit for salesmanship, perseverance and moxie.

You’ll find yourself laughing at his sheer audacity.

And Eddie Albert steals absolutely every scene he’s in.

Jeannie Berlin is also fantastic as the jilted wife – and both Jeannie and Eddie Albert were nominated for Academy Awards for their supporting performances. The film is directed by Elaine May, who – as you may know – in the late 50’s and early 60’s was one-half of a comedy team with another one of Neil Simon’s long-time collaborators, Mike Nichols. Elaine may is also Jeannie Berlin’s mother.

Here’s the film, with Neil Simon himself in a cameo as one of the wedding guests. From 1972 – “The Heartbreak Kid.”


I love that movie. It’s sick and twisted – but the absurdity is played so straight, so dry, so earnest. I think a lot of the credit goes to director Elaine May for establishing the tone.

There’s also that scene with the egg salad – i mean, will you ever eat an egg salad sandwich again? Or not use sunblock?

In 2007, there was a remake of “The Heartbreak Kid” done by the Farelly Brothers starring Ben Stiller, but it was not faithful to the original story by Bruce J. Friedman and it was, I have to say, awful. For the record, Neil Simon was not associated with it.

Up next is another great Neil Simon movie – with a screenplay based on one of Simon’s own Broadway productions. On stage, it starred Peter Falk and Lee Grant – on film, it’s Jack Lemmon and Ann Bancroft. (The Prisoner of Second Avenue)

UPDATE:  One last plug for my friend, Robin Schiff's show on Amazon, DOWN DOG.  It's in contention for a series pick up.  Check it out and give it lots of stars.  Thanks.  Here's where to find it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday Questions

Well, we’ve come to the end of the Neil Simon Film Festival on TCM. Tonight’s my final night.  Will you miss me?   

But we begin with my all-time favorite Neil Simon film, HEARTBREAK KID. The fun and my schtick begins at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST.

Okay, now some Friday Questions.

Charles H. Bryan starts us off:

So how did you become aware of the TCM gig (or it of you)?

They approached me. I had done a tribute piece on Neil Simon and the folks at TCM were fans of the blog.  (who knew???)

What this illustrates is – you never know. I always maintain that you make your own momentum. Doing this blog everyday I don’t know what opportunities (if any) it will bring. But it’s an active activity, a chance to practice and hone my craft, and I suspect I’ll have a better chance of good things happening if I’m productive as opposed to just sitting home waiting for the phone to ring (which, you know never does). Make the phone ring.

From rockgolf:

What’s the best spec pilot you read that networks turned down.

THE CELL by Mark Legan and Mark Wilding, about a terrorist cell stationed in Chicago. It was hilarious, and of course, totally unsaleable. But it did get the writers quite a lot of attention.   You can read it here. (Thanks to reader Calvin)

Carol asks:

If someone came to you and offered you the Network Suit Job would you take it, or would you be afraid it would suck all the joy out of the business for you?

Would you WANT to be the guy who accepts/rejects shows?

I would not want a corporate job. That’s so not me. Wearing a suit, having to be in the office every morning, “reporting” to people, maneuvering office politics, following marching orders from on-high, and rejecting a lot of my friends would drive me up a wall.

And then there’s the frustration of getting scripts back that are disappointing. If I was a showrunner I could just rewrite them to my satisfaction. But I couldn’t do that in this case. All I could do is give notes and hope the writer rises to the occasion. And when ultimately the script goes up the food chain and is still disappointing, I’ll get blamed for it as much as the writer. Who needs that shit?

To be the guy who selects the shows that get on the air (and face it, those are the only decisions that really matter) I would have to be the network president. No one is going to give me that job off the street. So I would be reduced to standing back while others made the major decisions.

No thank you. I’d much rather be the guy creating and making shows then the one shaping them to fit someone else's agenda.

Now this may seem like I’m knocking network executives. I’m not. I’m pointing out that they have incredibly frustrating jobs, and their success hinges on other people and their ability to deliver the goods. They get beat up by their superiors, beat up by writers and agents and studio executives. They constantly walk a political tightrope. And they have to listen to a million inane unfunny obvious pitches. My heart goes out to them.

And finally: Julia Littleton wonders:

Do you ever find it useful as a writer to watch something really terrible to get a sense of perspective and revisit some of the don'ts of comedy writing?

No. It’s just painful. I don’t need to be reminded that there’s a lot of crap out there. I’d much rather spend my time seeking shows and artists I can admire.

I’m sure for a lot of writers there is a certain comfort in watching shit and knowing they’re better. But I would rather watch great material and push myself to be better.

What’s your Friday Question? And again, thanks for watching me on TCM this month.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

R.I.P. Lee Baby Simms

So sorry to hear of the apparent passing of Lee Baby Simms. He was 72. Lee Baby Simms was maybe the greatest disc jockey you never heard of or don’t remember. Even if he was in your market he never stayed around long enough to really attract a following.

I thought I got fired a lot, but Lee Baby worked in the following markets: Charleston, Orlando, San Antonio, Hartford, Cleveland, San Diego (twice), San Antonio (three times), Detroit, Los Angeles (four times), Miami, Santa Rosa, San Francisco (twice), Honolulu, and Phoenix. A grand total of 27 stations.

Lee Baby Sims was fearless, and obviously paid the price (along with a lot of apartment security deposits). No format could really hold him.

But when he was on his game there was no one more brilliant. First off, he used his voice like a fine Stradivarius violin. His inflections, smooth delivery, and cadence were both soothing and thrilling at the same time.  How do you do that?  How does anyone do that?  No one could imitate him because no one had the pipes and the feel for that unique delivery. It was like word jazz -- music all its own that fit in perfectly with the music he was talking over.

Like everything else about Lee Baby Simms, it’s hard to describe his style other than “all his own.” He was sort of a cross between the Beat generation and Woodstock generation. A hipster/hippie. Somewhat like the Fonz in that by including you in his circle he made you feel cool (even though, if you were like me, you were anything but).

And it felt genuine, not an act. He shared his real feelings, his honest opinions, his candid observations – and that’s what got him fired more often than not.

Back in his heyday, the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were usually two competing Top 40 stations in any given town. One was usually the powerhouse and then there was “the other one.” For the most part, Lee Baby always worked for the “other one.” I can relate. So did I. The powerhouse was generally heavily structured while the competitor was looser; trying anything they could to attract an audience. The competitor took more chances (he had nothing to lose) and tended to hire more “personalities.” And so, as many times as Lee got fired, there were always program directors willing to hire him because he was just so fucking good.

Lee Baby was also not the luckiest guy in the world. I remember when he was at KCBQ in San Diego. There was an opening at CKLW in Detroit (a MAJOR powerhouse). So he taped his show one night and sent it. That tape has made the rounds. It’s phenomenal; Lee at his best. Lee didn’t get hired. But the newsman on the tape did.

The problem with always being on “the other station” is that your ratings tended to suck. So there was zero stability. Those stations were throwing anything against the wall, so they would frequently change formats, fire program directors, adopt new music policies. How many times was Lee Baby just a victim of all these upheavals? Like I said, not lucky. 

Lee Baby Simms deserved more recognition. He deserved to be in whatever Halls of Fame the radio industry concocts. He was a true original and a shining example of how radio could be great.  He elevated the medium to an art form. Pity he was never really appreciated in his time. RIP Lee Baby. You were the best.

Here's a sample of his work.  Listen.  Thanks to friend of the blog, David Kruh. 

And here's a video tribute with a great aircheck from Artie Breyfogle.  

Thanks to Gary Mack for the photo of Lee Baby at KCBQ, San Diego.

Positive spin (or in this case -- positive spiral)

Hi, this is the NFL. We’re the professional sports league that brings you the Super Bowl!

The Patriots won the AFC Championship supposedly with under-inflated footballs. (As a result they beat Indianapolis 45-7 instead of 45-14.)

Football has become America’s favorite sport thanks to us and our leadership.

The Cowboys eliminated Detroit from the playoffs essentially thanks to one of the worst calls in history. And then it was discovered that the head of officiating had been on the Cowboys’ party bus.

We here at the NFL take great pride in presenting a product we can all be proud of.

An NFL player clocked his wife in an elevator, all captured by video, and the incident completely mishandled by the commissioner. The player ultimately was given a two game suspension.

Our players are role models for society.

Another player, (from the Carolina Panthers) was convicted of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and received no punishment from his team or the league.

We sponsor charities because, well… we care about our communities.

An NFL quarterback served time for torturing animals but then returned to the league and was welcomed with open arms.

We at the NFL reward leadership.

A pro-bowler and former MVP of a Super Bowl was involved in stabbing two men. 

The mission of Player Engagement is to optimize and revolutionize the personal and professional growth of football players through continuous guidance and support before, during and beyond their NFL experience.

In 2007 17 Minnesota Vikings were accused of throwing a sex party on a boat and doing things with dildos that usually require consent. 

Our goal is to serve and assist as a resource for parents, coaches and athletes in using football as a catalyst to build and develop life skills for success.

There have been 715 arrests of NFL players since 2000 – 85 for domestic violence.

NFL Life provides current NFL players with personal and professional development resources, while supporting and educating players’ families to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by their NFL experience.

The 2006 Cincinnati Bengals were in double-digits in player arrests. But in fairness, they haven’t had more than four a year since.

Above all else, we at the NFL promote good sportsmanship.

In 2012 the New Orleans Saints had a “bounty” system, cash bonuses for injuring opposing players.

So we hope you’ll enjoy this Sunday’s Super Bowl. On behalf of the altruistic owners, model citizen players, and hard working PR staff, we at the NFL will continue to dedicate ourselves to providing you with a product worthy of your allegiance and trust.   (Hey, what are the chances we can get Janet Jackson to do the halftime show again?)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Red Carpet Stupid Question of All-Time

From TNT's Red Carpet arrival show for the SAG Awards. TNT correspondent/idiot Danielle Demsky interviewing Rashida Jones -- daughter of Peggy Lipton & Quincy Jones. Listen to what this airhead asks Rashida. Great job, TNT.

My day at the DMV

Is there anything worse than having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles? It combines all your favorite activities – dealing with bureaucracy, taking tests, waiting endlessly, and paying money.

My driver’s license was up for renewal. In the past they’ve let me do that online. Not this time. I guess they figure my picture is so old it looks more like my son than me.

Every time I go to the DMV I can expect confusion, crowds, and the wrong forms. I can also expect it’ll take the entire day.

Now in California they let you make appointments, which is great… except you have to make them months in advance. My license is up in a few weeks. The first appointment I could make was for early March. So that option is gone.

At this point it becomes a challenge to see if I can beat the system.

The first question is which DMV to target? Are any less crowded? Are any more efficient? Which has the fewest number of crack heads sitting in your row? For the answer to that I went to check Google reviews of the various Westside DMV’s. These proved to be no help. Culver City, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood all seemed to get the same mixed reviews. Half the people thought they were fine, the other half thought they were Guantanamo. Some said they waited for four hours. A few said they were in and out in five minutes? Unless the DMV was open during Monday's East Coast blizzard I can’t imagine how that could be possible. If Obama showed up to renew his license it would still take forty-five minutes because the computers would be out.

I decided on Santa Monica. I just figured I’d be mingling with a higher class of crack heads and gang members.

Next question: When is the best time to go if you don’t have an appointment? If you wander in at 10:30 in the morning or 1:30 in the afternoon you’re a blithering idiot. You’ll be there longer than it took to film BOYHOOD.

One reviewer said to show up at the very end of the day. If they close at 5:00 and you get there at 4:30 it’ll be clear sailing. He may be right, but it’s a schlep to get across town. And if he’s wrong then I’ve wasted an entire afternoon for nothing.

The other option is to arrive right when they open at 8:00. Since this seems like a no-brainer I figured I wouldn’t be the only one employing this gambit. So I decided to get there early. Real early. An hour early. There was already a line. I was maybe tenth. The people in front of me must be the same folks who camp out at Best Buy for four days before Black Friday. By 7:30 the line was around the block. This was the longest line in Los Angeles where they weren’t selling iPhones.

At 8:00 they opened the doors and we charged to the START HERE counter. Within seconds the back-and-forth line looked a TSA checkpoint. By force of habit I started taking off my shoes. I was assigned a letter and a number and told to go to the waiting area and wait to be called. In only ten minutes I was called. Sweet, except I had already been waiting an hour.

As expected, there was confusion. I was there two minutes and someone else approached saying they were called for this window. Actually, they had been called but never responded so the clerk moved on. They didn’t understand the system. You have a number. They call your number. How difficult is it to understand that system? But apparently it was. They were sent back to the START WINDOW and I’m sure, never heard from again.

Sure enough, the computer wasn’t working. I asked if this happens often and the clerk said he didn’t know. How long had he been working there I wondered? Several years. So… sitting at the same computer for a several years he didn’t know if the shutdown was a regular thing or an anomaly? Ohhh-kay.   After about ten minutes it slowly returned to life.

Maybe it’s because I was in the army but I’m always nervous when talking to government employees at windows. He’s going to check the wrong box and I’m going to have to repeat Basic Training.

I didn’t have to take any driving tests or written exams, but I did have to take an eye test. There are eye charts placed periodically behind the windows and I was asked to read one (which I did fine). But depending on which window you were at the top line was either 20/30 or 20/80. I would not use this system to determine your prescription.

I had to take a thumbprint of my right thumb. I just placed it on this electronic pad. I had to do it four times. It wasn’t working.  This must be the same company that made the thumbprint software for iPhones. 

Finally, I was given my form and sent to get my photo taken. Here too there was a line, but only three ahead of me. There was a problem with this computer. It took twenty minutes before I reached the front of the line. Seriously, if you arrive at 10:30 you’re at the DMV until Haley’s Comet returns.

I had to take a thumbprint of my left thumb. This electronic pad didn’t work either. Three times was a charm. For the photo I was told to take off my glasses. I always wear my glasses when driving, but whatever.

And that was that. A grand total of 1:45 hours, counting my wait outside the building. I felt like I had won THE AMAZING RACE. For the DMV that was lightening. As for my review, I have to say that all the clerks were very pleasant. It can’t be easy processing all of us nimrods for eight hours a day. Which takes me to this, one of my favorite scenes of all-time. It’s from TAXI. Reverend Jim goes to the DMV to get his license. It was written by Glen & Les Charles. I bet, in real life, these clerks have seen this and worse.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The most bizarre sentence I've ever written

My father is on Pinterest.

I can't think of a sentence I've ever written more bizarre than that. Why he is on Pinterest is a total mystery to me, as well as how. I guess one of his social media pals signed him up.

He’s already on Facebook. At his request a few years ago I signed him up. At first he was into it. I’d get emails from former high school girlfriends and showrunners saying, “Hey, your dad befriended me.”

God bless him that he wants to stay current. And it’s not like he’s posting baby pictures of me for TBT so I’ve got no problem. But it just speaks to how widespread this notion of social media has become.

I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Dad on Pinterest makes more sense than me on Linkedin. I never use it except to endorse friends. I don’t think Lincoln Center is going to produce my play based on reading my Linkedin profile. I actually tried to unsubscribe to Linkedin and it won’t let me. I am signed up for life and beyond. In fact, I’ve somehow gotten “connect” requests from a person I know has died. Linkedin must really have reach.

I got on these sites initially to help drive traffic to my blog. But I must confess I spend way more time on Facebook than I anticipated. It’s nice to keep up with people who otherwise would fly under my radar. On the other hand, I never know what to do when someone announces a loved one has died or they have been diagnosed with some disease. How do you click “like?’”

I also tend not to comment on someone’s status because I then get email alerts anytime anyone else also comments. So if someone says their 104 year-old grandmother died, if I offer a condolence my in-box will be filled with 160 emails from people I don’t know also offering sympathy.

Similarly, I rarely wish people a Happy Birthday. It’s not that I have anything against it, and I am much more apt to click “like” when it’s their birthday as opposed to their death, but I just never remember to check who’s up that day. And then I feel guilty when hundreds of people wish me a Happy Birthday. So if you’re one of my Facebook friends, please accept my birthday wishes for whenever it is. I’m thinking of you on your special day.

It bothers me that social media sites create whole new areas of unintentional inconsideration. I look like an asshole because I didn’t congratulate someone for some posted achievement or offer sympathy for some loss when the truth is I just wasn’t on Facebook for a few days and missed it. If someone is nominated for an Emmy and I don’t congratulate him is he going to think I’m jealous and resentful? Again, what an asshole I am! Forget that I had a power outage at my house and couldn’t get on line for two days and everything in my freezer spoiled.

And then there are Facebook friends who I am very fond of personally but think their politics are insane. So I never “like” anything they post. And eventually I become afraid of them.

When I post something I try to make it humorous. But as a comedy writer I feel almost obligated to. Plus, I don’t have cute cats so what else am I gonna post? 

Same with Twitter. It’s a forum to toss out one-liners. I don’t get to hear actual laughter, but I can judge how successful the jokes are by the number of people who retweet me. Twenty retweets = one guffaw.

On Twitter I’m an asshole because I don’t automatically follow people who follow me. I don’t even know most of these people. I follow a few select folks whose tweets are either funny or about baseball. So again, I apologize. And ask you, how can you follow 10,000 people? When do you have time for anything else? And of the 10,000, how many are actually interesting? Six? Why not just follow them?

So I continue to participate in social media. You’re welcome to follow me on @KenLevine on Twitter if you so desire. I’ll try to be funny enough so you don’t unfollow me. That’s another way to judge my one-liners. I post one and a half hour later twenty people unfollow me. That also equals a guffaw, by the way.

I’m not on Pininterest yet. I’ll have to ask Dad what the advantage is.

Monday, January 26, 2015

You gotta see this

I posted it on my Facebook page but wanted to share it here too. This flight was stuck on the tarmac. How lucky for those passengers that these guys happened to be on board.

Does anyone know how to fix network comedies?

Warning:  Here comes a rant.  Hide the children.

Just caught a NY Post article from the end of November (okay, I don’t usually read the NY Post, especially if there’s no A-Rod scandal). It’s by Robert Rorke and it’s entitled DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW TO FIX NETWORK COMEDIES?

In the article he claims the new crop of sitcoms did not catch on because they’re not funny. I don’t disagree with him. But the problem comes when trying to answer the question he poses – does anyone know how to fix them?

He basically claims that the answer is no and sitcoms, long rumored to be dead, might indeed be endangered species.

I respectfully disagree.

A writer friend of mine offered this suggestion on his Facebook page. Here’s who he feels is to blame: THE. PEOPLE. IN. CHARGE.

And to that I say ABSOLUTELY. The network executives were the ones who chose the projects, chose the writers, noted them to death, and then made more cast changes based on research.

What I don’t know is this: Were these show unfunny because the writers were not that good, or were they bowing to dogmatic network directives that flattened and destroyed their product?  Probably a mixture of the two.

But what I do know is there are a lot of talented writers who are no longer on the development slates. Writers who have proven track records. What track records do the “deciders” have?

(DISCLAIMER:  I'm talking about other writers, not myself.  I'm quite happy writing plays, blogs, and sharing factoids about Neil Simon.)  

At a time when networks are operating exclusively out of fear, when suddenly they all are scrambling to hastily develop the next EMPIRE because it did well in the ratings for three weeks, it’s understandable to see why sitcoms are suffering. Networks by and large, are hiring writers who they trust (read: will take their notes without objection), basing their decisions on faulty research, and at all costs are avoiding unique visions, projects not geared directly to specific demographics, or writers who might question their brilliant suggestions.

And let’s be real – this is not going to change.   I can bitch all I want.  I'm trying to hold back the Pacific Ocean with a broom.   And when sitcoms don’t catch on these same executives will claim the reason is that the public has lost its appetite for comedy. That’s what they ALWAYS say.

And it’s bullshit.

Here’s what I think will ultimately happen. People always love to laugh. They will flock to shows that do make them laugh – legitimately make them laugh (not occasionally smile over quirky characters or pithy pop culture references), and they don’t care whether they’re on NBC, TBS, their computer, their phone, or (soon) their watch.

Networks will die before sitcoms.

And that's what we call "the last laugh."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Disco MASH

This is the way the song was MEANT to be heard. Presenting the Disco version of the MASH theme by the New Marketts.   Boogie down, Colonel Potter!

Maybe my favorite bad review

I've posted this before, years ago, but it's one of my all-time favorites.  Do you remember a comedian named Gallagher?  I think he's still around.  His basic act was smashing watermelons.  When he performed in Cerritos, California in 1999 the LA Times reviewed it.   The review was so hilarious and scathing I had to keep it.  And share it.   If you can imagine the thinking that could have produced such a staggeringly ill-conceived show, you laugh twice as hard.

And so, as a public service to anyone even thinking of attending an upcoming Gallagher show if he's still touring, here is this LA Times review.


Comedy: Promoted for Latinos, Gallagher's pseudo-Spanish show is a litany of degrading stereotypes and insults.By ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ, Times Staff Writer

Hmm. How to put this delicately? We'll simplify: Mime-like, stringy-haired man in black hat smashes food with mallet on stage for living. Man, who no espeakey no Spanish, hears Spanish, thinks Spanish good, Spanish muy muy dinero. Man spends one month learning important Spanish words such as cerveza, caca and culo (butt). Man invents Spanish words, such as "sperm-o" and "embarazamante." Man decides this is enough Spanish to put on show for Latinos. Man smashes pinatas, wears giant sombrero and shakes keg-sized maracas. Man mocks Jews and gays and women and constipated old people. Man thinks he is muy funny comedian-o.

Man hopes all Spanish-speakers agree.
But wait. There's more. Mucho more.

Man rents hall in Cerritos. Man advertises "Gallagher en espanol: La Fiesta Grande" on Spanish radio. Man hopes thousands will come. Two hundred come, many with children and babies and old (possibly constipated) people. Man babbles for three hours Thursday night in "language" neither English nor Spanish. Language heretofore known as Gallagher-bonics. Next day, executive director of Cerritos Center for Performing Arts issues statement stressing that "Gallagher show was a rental event and not produced or presented by the Cerritos Center."

Man hires dance troupe to open show. Man performing for mostly Mexican American audience. Dance troupe, called Salsa Kids, performs Puerto Rican dance style. Male dancers wear guayaveras, the four-pocket shirts worn by old Cuban men in Miami. Mexican American audience appears unimpressed. Stone faces say: Ugh, bad medicine. "Is this like ballroom?" a woman in the audience asks. "My sister, she's taking that ballroom dancing."

Show goes on.

First nine rows of audience are in white plastic chairs. People in white plastic chairs equipped with clear plastic bag to wear over clothes because later mayonnaise and refried beans will spew over them. Signs warn: Cuidado, Piso Resbaloso. Wet floor. Man shoots water on audience from giant penguin after salsa dancers leave stage.

Other man named Vic Dunlop, a comedian hired to help because he supposedly speaks Espanol, takes stage. Dunlop wears Mexican blanket, sombrero and glasses with eyes painted on them. Makes jokes about black people and blind people in bad Spanish. Says show is sponsored by Culo Cola, the soda with the taste of an expletive. In audience, Debra Garcia, 50, is bored and thinks the show immature and plans to leave early.

Man appears with penguin and yells, "Como? Este hombre no esta en mi show. Vamanos."

Second assistant "comedian" who actually does speak Spanish comes on stage. Her name is Dyana Ortelli and she is Mexican American and makes a living mocking Jennifer Lopez's bottom, stereotyping Chicanos, and wearing bad wig and no pants. Ortelli helps man throw chocolate at crowd. Man says: "Quien no tengo chocolate?" Translation: Who I don't have chocolate? No one sure what he is saying.

Man introduces Chupacabras. Chupacabras is goat-sucking monster seen in Puerto Rico three years ago. Man in ape suit pretends to be goat-sucking monster. Man forces child onto stage with monster. Man asks: "Quien tiene mas pelo de Chupacabra?" Translation: Who has more hair of Chupacabras? Child makes disgusted face, jumps off stage. Ortelli looks sad. Man babbles about goat-sucker: "Es muy fuerze, es muy fuerza." Translation: Is very strength. No one laughs. Man frustrated. Tries to say "espectaculo," which means "show," but says "specta-culo," which sort of means butt-gazer.

Man calls for rock band. Fulano de Tal, from Miami, plays well. Man wears giant parachute dress and dances. Man spray-paints a lie on the back wall: Yo No Soy Gringo. Man says in Spanish that he is a cowboy. Man says he is newborn Mexican and caresses his naked hairy belly.

Man tells joke about bear and rabbit pooping.

Man gathers audience volunteers for Mexican hat dance. Says "Tengo un muchacha" over and over. No one laughs. Man says "Culo, culito" until people laugh. Man says "moco" for extra humor. Man is tired of trying. Man says in English "I need a beer." Man curses under breath off mike, but audience hears anyway.

Man begins dumping buckets of food onto plates. Man stops trying to speak Spanish. Man gives up and speaks English. Man says: "We were expecting a big crowd tonight and we're going to do a show for a big crowd anyway" because the crowd is small and shrinking. Man is booed again. Man yells: "It's the Fourth of July weekend, you don't got no place to go so just shut up." Man hits Pop Tarts with tennis racquet. Man says "Un muchacho quiero comer," which means "I want to eat a boy" and the boys look scared.

Many people who paid between $21.50 and $26.50 per ticket walk out as man flashes white underpants and yells culo, culo, culo and cerveza. Man angry Latinos have no sense of humor. Man throws egg and marshmallows at old woman and baby as they waddle out of theater. Man calls old woman vulgar name in English. Man spits beer on children. Some in audience too polite to leave. Others impolite enough to boo. One courageous enough to hurl a lunchbox-sized chunk of watermelon at man's head.

Man smashes food with 16-pound mallet. Man says, inexplicably, "Todo el mouthwash el hits me en el crotch-o." Man sings "La Cucaracha."

Man smashes more food. Show over. Man bows. Man slips on floor.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

RIP Sky Mall

Oh no. I just read where the Sky Mall has gone belly up. Readers of this blog know it’s one of my favorite subjects (targets). Where else are you going to find all the ridiculous inventions the Sharks reject on SHARK TANK? Yeah, you could go to The Sharper Image or various spy stores, but it’s not the same thing. The Sky Mall assembled all these "wonders of modern science" in catalog form. What a fun way to pass the time while you’re stuck on the tarmac for eleven hours.

But alas, now that most airlines offer Wifi, people can go on line and order the same crap cheaper elsewhere. Of course they’re now paying $14.95 for internet access but still.

It’s just another bit of goofy Americana that is fading into history – like photo booths, responsible government, and radio.

I’d say we all go to HoJo’s to commiserate over a clam bake, but… well, you know.

RIP Sky Mall. May you be forever memorialized in a plaque that attaches to any gravestone by miracle glue and contains a sensor that allows it to light up whenever a mourner gets within two feet – all for only $269.99 ($289.99 in Canada).

Christopher Walken when he could remember lines

You guys keep requesting my intros and outros so here's another one.  One of my favorite Neil Simon films was BILOXI BLUES, primarily because of Christopher Walken, ol' Captain Hook himself.  Here was my wraparound for last night's showing on TCM. 


Hi, I’m Ken Levine – a tv writer and director, a former major league baseball announcer – but my coolest gig ever is this – hosting TCM's Friday Night Spotlight this month.

We’re focusing on writer extraordinaire Neil Simon and up next we have the second story in Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy,” which was a trio of more loosely-autobiographical tales that nostalgically looked back at Simon’s youth and early adulthood. Eugene, by the way, is the lead character’s first name, modeled after Simon himself.

All three began as Broadway plays – the first being “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in 1983, then “Biloxi Blues” in 1985, followed by “Broadway Bound” in 1986. The first two were turned into feature films, and we have the movie version of “Biloxi Blues” right now – which was released in theaters in 1988.

The film was directed by Neil Simon’s long-time collaborator Mike Nichols and it stars Matthew Broderick as “Eugene,” he also played the role on stage. It’s based on Simon’s experiences suffering through army boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi during World War Two. Broderick plays an aspiring writer trying to figure out his place in the army. As if anyone can. 

His fellow recruits are a wide range of interesting characters, who are all led by a soft-spoken yet eerie drill sergeant, played by Christopher Walken. How often have you heard a drill sergeant described as “eerie”? When I was in the army, drill sergeants were more like “Full Metal Jacket” than this, but hey – it’s Christopher Walken and he is great.

In his memoirs, Neil Simon said that during rehearsals for the movie, Walken completely paraphrased a big speech – which was unusual for actors when working with Neil Simon dialogue. Simon was actually ok with doing it Walken’s way but Walken told him that was just his process and when cameras rolled he intended to do it as written. Imagine! Christopher Walken with a strange process?

Here he is, in the film version of a story that won a Tony as the best play on Broadway: from 1988, “Biloxi Blues.”


It’s so interesting to me how movie habits have changed. When this film was released in 1988, i was working as the announcer for the Syracuse Chiefs, a minor league baseball team. It’s Syracuse, so it was snowing – in the spring – and the Friday night game was snowed out.

So i decided to go to the movies and “Biloxi Blues” was what I saw. It was date night, so there were plenty of young couples in the theater. And looking back, i realize how date night and movies in general are so different today. If “Biloxi Blues” was released in 2015, it would be considered an “art” movie.  Kids in Syracuse today are seeing “Sex Tape” or “Hangover 7.”

fortunately, there will always be an audience for the work of Neil Simon. And up next, we have a Simon comedy from 1980 that marked the second on-screen teaming of Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Questions

Got a bunch of Neil Simon movies to host tonight on TCM starting at 8 in the East and 5 in the West… including one of my favorites, BILOXI BLUES. So join me on the TV. Turning to the print mediim, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

From Johann:

I was watching a Cheers rerun and noticed it was directed by John Ratzenberger. I recall seeing an episode of Frasier directed by Kelsey Grammer. One episode of Seinfeld was directed by Jason Alexander.

What's involved in an actor directing an episode of his own show? Is it a professional courtesy, or something more? Do some actors request a chance to direct, and get turned down?

It all depends on the actor. Some, like Alan Alda and Kelsey Grammer really take it seriously. Same with Adam Arkin, who has become quite a sensational director.  Jason Alexander directs a lot of theater. 

On the other hand, yes, there are times when actors are directing but are essentially carried by the crew. For the most part they are good with directing actors but inexperienced with the technical aspect of the job. And especially in multi-cam where you have four cameras moving simultaneously, there is a steep learning curve. But a good camera coordinator can generally just do the camera blocking for the actor-director.

Sometimes actors are allowed to direct as a courtesy; other times actors get it in their contract. Harry Morgan had it in is deal at MASH to direct one episode a year. He did one of ours. The problem was we made Harry light in the show so he had less acting to concentrate on, but we missed his presence in front of the camera.

I’m sure there are cases of actors asking to direct episodes of their series and being turned down, but those are usually private conversations.

George Wendt directed an episode of CHEERS that David Isaacs and I wrote and did a great job.

Brian Phillips is next.

You've recounted the "Hot Rod Lincoln" story as an example of campaigning for a joke that you thought was funny and fell flat.

Do you recall some instances where you fought especially hard, whether it was with David Isaacs, an actor or executive and it paid off?

Yes. Once when I was directing BECKER. In the episode, Becker (Ted Danson) goes on a cruise but doesn’t realize it’s a gay cruise. He’s now back in the diner regaling everybody with what it was like. It was a hysterical scene. If I remember correctly, it was written by Michael Markowitz (who always writes hysterical scenes).

One of the actors didn’t like the scene. Thought it wasn't at all funny.   What he really didn’t like was that Ted had pretty much all the lines and all everybody else did was laugh at the crazy stories Ted's character shared. 

The actor kept putting a bug in Ted’s ear that the scene didn’t work. Eventually he got Ted to question it himself.

I had to take Ted aside and tell him that he had to trust me. I was adamant that the scene would work. To his credit, Ted did the scene as written and it got screams from the studio audience. It’s still one of my favorite scenes ever on BECKER.

Did the other actor ever acknowledge that he was wrong? What do you think?

From willieb:

What I've never been able to understand -- and this may be a Friday question in disguise -- is why sitcoms cannot cope with couples once they are married and have children. Writers are great at the stop-and-start, will-they-or-won't-they romances -- but once they do, sitcom writers are lost. Why? Most of us get married, have kids, and have family lives with tons of funny stories attached. Why do writers lose the funny when couples finally couple?

It’s easier and sexier to explore romantic relationships. This is not just true in sitcoms. There are not a lot of romance novels set in the world of a married couples coping with teething babies. 

That said, there are some terrific sitcoms that do deal with married life. For my money, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND is the gold standard. That show is funnier and more authentic than just about any romantic comedy sitcom out there.

And then there’s the show that I feel is the most underrated on television, THE MIDDLE. They make family comedy work… as does MODERN FAMILY.

And currently, I’m a big fan of INSTANT MOM on Nick @ Nite. Yes, I know I’m somewhat biased, but aside from my daughter writing on it, it really is a well-mounted funny family show. Check it out yourself.   I bet you'll agree.

RyderDA asks:

When writing something, do you ever deliberately write two separate, distinct, independent versions of the same thing for any reason (such as to explore how different story arcs could play out)? Is there utility to a writer in consciously creating two different versions of the exact same thing?

That’s my play, A OR B? I take the same two people and create two different scenarios. In one they’re co-workers and the other they’re lovers. I then do parallel scenes and show the differences and similarities in their relationships based on the circumstances.

And finally, from Ted O'Hara:

Have you ever found that you've boxed yourself in on future stories due to some plot detail in a past show that seem innocuous at the time? And if so, how did you get out of it?

On CHEERS, very early on, maybe even the second episode, we say that Sam has an ex-wife. We even show her (played by Donna McKechnie). It was all for one joke to get out of a scene. Later, we just ignored it.

Long running series will often have continuity problems. The name of Potter’s wife changes, Hawkeye has a sister in one episode; a brother in another. You just try to skip over that stuff real fast. But it was way easier in the days before streaming and the internet.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In defense of multi-camera sitcoms

The multi-camera format of sitcoms has become the gluten-free section of the TV menu. It’s offered but only begrudgingly and the assumption is it will only appeal to a very few. When networks announce their development slate, the first thing they say about a project is whether it’s single or multi-camera. And if it’s a multi-camera, half the time they quickly add that it’s a hybrid, so it’s not REALLY a multi-cam. It’s like multi-camera shows are on a quota system.

The multi-camera shows currently on the air tend to be either family comedies, tween comedies, or raunch. Other than MOM and BIG BANG THEORIES (two big hits), I can’t think of another exception currently on the air on a major broadcast network. THE NEW ODD COUPLE debuts soon but the verdict is still out since no one’s seen it.

Before MULLANEY premiered there were big articles from the folks responsible claiming they were doing something really daring by committing to a multi-cam format. The show itself is terrible and has been unanimously rejected by America, but trust me, it’s not because of the number of cameras.

Was anybody bothered by the fact that CHEERS was multi-camera? Or FRIENDS? Or FRASIER? Or SEINFELD? Or ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, or THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW? You get the idea.

The fact that the bar has been so lowered by shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS doesn’t mean quality shows can’t be mounted. Networks just have to buy them and writers have to write them.

The swing away from multi-camera shows has been such an over-reaction. It’s as if theater owners no longer staged plays because movies gained in popularity. No one wants to just watch actors relate to each other on a stage when they can see giant explosions and special effects on a screen.

Obviously there’s room for both.

In terms of comedy, some of the sharpest, deepest, and funniest endeavors have been for the stage. From Kaufman & Hart to Neil Simon to Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, and a host of other sparkling scribes – playwrights have created inspired work. And they've been held accountable for the comedy. Audiences have to laugh. (And unlike a TV taping, there’s no warm-up guy pleading for the audience to laugh). So you better bring your A-game.

Why can’t that be translated to today's television? I’d like to think if Noel Coward was around in the ‘90s he’d be writing for FRASIER.  I'd probably be squeezed out to make room for him. 

With a few rare exceptions, every great iconic sitcom from I LOVE LUCY to SEINFELD has been multi-camera.

Networks just have to once again embrace them. And I’m not just speaking to major broadcast carriers. Premium cable networks and streaming services -- this goes for you too. Who subscribes to these services? People with money who can afford them. Grown ups. The same grown ups who grew up on quality multi-camera shows. God forbid Amazon or Netflix or HBO would air a new series in this format.

There aren’t comedy writers currently toiling on middling single camera shows who wouldn’t kill to do their own CHEERS? There aren’t network executives who would love to be proud of their comedies and not have to justify them with bullshit excuses or niche numbers?

It sure seems worth doing... and not just because they feel obligated to toss in a couple of gluten-free items.   Oh, and another thing – multi-camera shows are CHEAPER. So really, what’s the big downside?

UPDATE:  But if you're a big fan of single camera shows, I have one for you to check out.  It's DOWN DOG, one of the Amazon pilots currently under consideration.  It was written/created by Robin Schiff who co-created ALMOST PERFECT with us and wrote ROMY & MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION quite nicely without our help.   Here's where you go.  And if you like it, please give it a whole bunch of stars.  Thanks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What's in a name?

These are the most popular baby names of last year --  according to the website As usual, my name doesn't make the list. But I think that's because it's just not WEIRD enough. Holy shit! I can't believe some of these names. Khaleesi? How many pregnant women watch GAME OF THRONES? Hazel is back? Sadie is back? Katnis? Daenerys? Gemma?  Declan? Bodhi? Lachlan?

These names will show up in Levine scripts you can bet.  

Imogen is the number one girl's name?  Maybe it's popular in the UK but I don't know any Imogen's.  

Names go through phases.  When LOVE STORY was the big movie of the day, Jennifer was the most popular name.  Wendy is actually a made up name for PETER PAN that caught on.  Debbie Reynolds in the '50s inspired lots of Debbie's back then.   My name was popular until the fucking Barbie dolls came out. 

Studies have shown that parents do their kids no favor by giving them an unusual name.  Potential employers look less favorably on applications by job seekers with odd names.  Exact same resumes have gone out with more common names (like Susan) and more creative ones (like, well... Daenerys).  By a wide margin, the more common-named applicants get called in for an interview.  So think about that before you tag your darling baby with Eustacia

And then there's the "getting beat up in the schoolyard" factor.  Poor Dudu Fisher -- can you imagine?

Anyway, here they are.  Good luck finding souvenir mugs with the name Maisie or Wren or Jasper


1. Imogen
2. Khaleesi
3. Charlotte
4. Isla
5. Cora
6. Penelope
7. Violet
8. Amelia
9. Eleanor
10. Hazel
11. Claire
12. Adelaide
13. Adeline
14. Ivy
15. Lucy
16. Alice
17. Olivia
18. Evangeline
19. Genevieve
20. Maisie
21. Lila
22. Beatrice
23. Rose
24. Maeve
25. Scarlett
26. Ava
27. Aurora
28. Nora
29. Willa
30. Elizabeth
31. Eloise
32. Elodie
33. Caroline
34. Emma
35. Matilda
36. Clara
37. Grace
38. Cordelia
39. Clementine
40. Aurelia
41. Ellie
42. Poppy
43. Arabella
44. Elsa
45. Ella
46. Harlow
47. Harper
48. Iris
49. Seraphina
50. Katniss
51. Luna
52. Mila
53. Ruby
54. Aria
55. Sophia
56. Mae
57. Mia
58. Juliet
59. Eliza
60. Evelyn
61. Audrey
62. Josephine
63. Maya
64. Isabella
65. Emmeline
66. Emily
67. Stella
68. Chloe
69. Olive
70. Anna
71. Sadie
72. Wren
73. Louisa
74. Annabelle
75. Lily
76. Piper
77. Daenerys
78. Jane
79. Gemma
80. Lola
81. Esme
82. Margaret
83. Willow
84. Zara
85. Ada
86. Frances
87. Everly
88. Mabel
89. Lydia
90. Daisy
91. Pearl
92. Madeline
93. Phoebe
94. Delilah
95. Kinsley
96. Isabel
97. Georgia
98. Hannah
99. Abigail
100. Millie


1. Asher
2. Declan
3. Atticus
4. Oliver
5. Silas
6. Henry
7. Jasper
8. Finn
9. Milo
10. Ezra
11. Leo
12. Levi
13. Jude
14. Wyatt
15. Felix
16. Sebastian
17. Soren
18. Beckett
19. Miles
20. Theodore
21. Bodhi
22. Jack
23. Liam
24. Archer
25. Owen
26. Emmett
27. Ethan
28. William
29. Sawyer
30. Caleb
31. Benjamin
32. Oscar
33. Josiah
34. Julian
35. James
36. Andrew
37. Hudson
38. Knox
39. Hugo
40. Alexander
41. Zachary
42. Dashiell
43. Ryder
44. Ryker
45. Ronan
46. Lucas
47. Thomas
48. Elijah
49. Luke
50. Samuel
51. Callum
52. Noah
53. Arthur
54. Isaac
55. Jacob
56. Theo
57. Weston
58. Axel
59. Roman
60. Rhys
61. Everett
62. Zane
63. Grayson
64. Rowan
65. August
66. Kai
67. Harrison
68. Beau
69. Gabriel
70. Jackson
71. Griffin
72. Austin
73. Nolan
74. Xavier
75. Daniel
76. Nathaniel
77. Charles
78. Nash
79. Simon
80. Jonah
81. Holden
82. Micah
83. Flynn
84. John
85. Wesley
86. Christian
87. Elliot
88. Graham
89. Nathan
90. George
91. Nicholas
92. Lincoln
93. Cassius
94. Tristan
95. Gideon
96. Maxwell
97. Tobias
98. Lachlan
99. Arlo
100. Matthew

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What I look for in a spec pilot

A few years ago, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for a major network. The development executive was new to the job. We turned in our first draft and heard he was very happy with it. Instead of going to the network for notes we would just do a conference call. The notes would be minimal. All the stuff that’s music to writers’ ears.

At the appointed time he got on the phone and was hugely complimentary. “It’s amazing how you guys introduced the premise and characters and set up the story and it all flowed, it never felt forced. We learned a lot about the characters along the way, and you got it all in in 46 pages.”

I know the appropriate answer would have been thank you and leave it at that. But for some reason I couldn’t do that. What I said instead was this:

“Thank you. That’s great to hear. But… that’s the job. We were just fulfilling the assignment. All of your pilots should come back like that. If not, you’re hiring the wrong writers.”

He laughed and said I was probably right.

The point is, there is a level of craft that should go into pilots. Setting up the premise, introducing the characters, seamlessly weaving in the exposition, setting the tone, being funny, letting the audience know the direction the show will go in – these are REQUIREMENTS.

The trick is to do all of that and have the jokes be better, the characters more original, and the story more inventive than the other well-crafted pilots. What sets one pilot script above the others should be inspiration not professionalism.

Young writers today are being told to write pilots as their specs. The industry is looking for exciting new voices.

What am I looking for when I read a spec pilot? Exciting new voices are nice, but first I’m trying to determine if this person even has a clue. The basics have to be there. Can this person tell a story? Are his characters well-drawn? Are their actions properly motivated? Are the jokes organic to the characters and tone? Do the jokes move the story along?   If a writer can accomplish all that and have a fresh outlook that is genuinely funny then he’s hit a home run. But if the execution is amateurish the exciting “voice” gets lost.

Learn the basics.

Master the craft of pilot writing. Yes, they're difficult and the process is time consuming and frustrating. But the good news is you’re competing with lots of people out there whose scripts are a hopeless mess. When I told that network executive to hire better writers, I was referring to YOU.

Best of luck.

Monday, January 19, 2015

How I create characters

I love when Friday Questions become entire posts.  Here's one. 

Max Davis wonders:

Hi Ken, do you have any techniques or exercises you use when creating sitcom characters? I'm having a bit of trouble breathing life into mine.

First I ask “what is his drive?” What does the character want or need that he can’t just get? You want characters who are active.

Similarly, what is his attitude? What is his worldview?  You want your characters to be opinionated. 

And this is very important: Is this a character who I understand enough that I could write him? Will I be able to relate to this character?  Will I be able to get inside his head? I love JUSTIFIED, but there’s no way I could write that show. I have no idea what idiot hillbillies in Kentucky would do or say in any given situation. But I sure enjoy watching them.

It’s the old “write what you know” adage. Why? Because you want to be true to that character. Research often helps. You’d be surprised the gold you will find by simply researching your subject matter.

More factors: How will this character be funny? How will I be able to mine comedy out of this character?

Also, I look for what makes the character fresh? What traits can I give him that we haven’t seen a million times before? I will often base characteristics on real people and behavior I’ve seen. We all know interesting “characters.” I watch for that and will jot down idiosyncrasies for possible use later. And again, research is very helpful in this area.

In the quest to make characters comical there is the danger of making them too extreme or cartoonish. No matter how out-there a character is I always make sure he’s grounded in some reality.
You want to avoid stereotypes, but it doesn’t hurt if a character has some recognizable trait, especially in an ensemble comedy. Remember, you’re introducing a lot of characters and the audience has to lock in on them very quickly. In CHEERS, Cliff is the bar know-it-all, Norm is the customer who never leaves, etc.   But as the series unfolds always look for ways to give them more dimension and depth.   

And finally, where does this character fit in with the rest of the characters? If I’m creating a starring vehicle for someone then I make sure all of the characters have some function as it pertains to him. Picture a wagon wheel with the star as the hub.   Example:  Should he have a brother? And if so, are they close and his function is support, or is there a rivalry and his purpose is to create tension? Or is the brother a fuck-up and his purpose is to be a burden for our star? You get the idea.

For an ensemble situation I look at the overall dynamic and try to determine what types might play off of each other the best. Giving characters different points-of-view is one good way. Who is attracted to who is another.

Characters evolve. Once you come up with a possible character, write up a one page profile... just for yourself. What’s his background? Who did he vote for? What kind of car does he drive? What’s his favorite food? Has he been in long lasting relationships?  Why not?  What does he do for fun? How charitable is he? How computer savvy is he? What are his annoying habits? What are his fears? How important are material things? How well does he dress? Does he drink, and if so, what’s his drink of choice? Is he ambitious? What lengths will he go to to get what he wants? How smart is he? How well read? What kind of sense of humor does he have? How articulate is he? Does he have certain speech patterns? Does he have any physical tics? Is he a risk taker? How does he really feel about the opposite sex? Is he a Type A or B personality? How easily does he get rattled? Is he a sports fan? If so, which sport and which team?  How frugal is he?  What was the last movie he saw? Does he have a pet, and if so, what is it? Does he like children? How health conscious is he? Does he really excel in anything? What music does he like? Does he play an instrument?  Does he go to museums?  Which ones?  Where has he traveled to?   Has he served in the military?  Does he have a college degree?  What was his best subject?  Can he speak a foreign language?  Does he talk with his hands?  How easily does he fall in love?  When was the last time he had sex?  Does he believe in God? Is he on Facebook? What’s his guilty pleasure?

And these are just some of the questions to answer. You don’t need to include all of this in your pilot obviusly, but just knowing the answers gives you a better feel for who he really is.

Finally, remember that characters evolve. Even after you put together your detailed profile, once you start actually writing the script, his dialogue will better define him, and you may find that he will veer from the profile. Allow that to happen.

And this is just creating a character on the page. Once an actor assumes the role he will bring his own qualities to the role and that will further shape the character. Then it’s up to you to determine what works and what doesn’t based on his strengths, weaknesses, and chemistry with other cast members.

Since I believe that all good comedy comes from character I spend a lot of the development process on creating good ones. It’s time well spent.   Remember, every little thing a character does, every choice he makes, informs us as to he is.   Who's his all-time favorite movie star and how do you show that? 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Some random thoughts on today's NFL Championship Games

All NFL playoff games should be played outdoors. The worse the weather, the better.

Even though the Seahawks were trailing by 16 and it was rainy and windy, I bet not one single Hawks fan left the stadium early.

How many QB’s throw four interceptions and still win the NFC championship?   Russel Wilson is one lucky and great quarterback. 

Green Bay should have gone for the TD’s in the first quarter when it was 4th and Goal on the 1. Bilichick would’ve.

I don’t care what anybody says, Joe Buck does a great job.

That’s what the Colts get for leaving Baltimore (not that I carry a grudge).

Could you follow all those New England formations? I was so lost I thought the kicker was eligible.

By the third quarter of the AFC game I was hoping they’d just give it to New England and show a new GOOD WIFE.

Since New England is not playing the Giants, Brady has a chance to finally win his 4th Super Bowl.

This is Super Bowl XXIVVCLVVIXXX, right?

I didn’t know that Terry Bradshaw had Shingles, did you?

Packer fans must still be in shock.

How often do onside kicks actually work?

So when Richard Sherman’s arm was hanging by a thread, why didn’t Rodgers throw to the man he was covering every down?

Did you notice passes from Rodgers to Rodgers and Wilson to Willson?

The Fox graphic and referee explanation about the overtime rules confused the hell out of me. I thought the kicker was eligible.

Congratulations to the Seahawks on a remarkable comeback victory. The true mark of a champion.

And the Patriots are clearly the best team in the AFC.

Now the stage is set… for the Pro Bowl. Anything after that is gravy.

Neil Simon meets the Rat Pack

This was my wraparound for COME BLOW YOUR HORN on TCM.  As you might be able to tell, it wasn't my favorite.  Some much better movies on tap for this Friday night.


Hi, I’m Ken Levine – TV writer, playwright and long-time fan of Neil Simon, who’s the subject of this month’s “Friday Night Spotlight.” Up next is the film adaptation of Simon’s first play, “Come Blow your horn.”

Now, we all love a good overnight success story but Neil Simon isn’t one of them. At least not as a playwright. “Come Blow Your horn”, which is semi-autobiographical, went through over 20 rewrites and numerous rejections. And even when it finally did debut on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in February of 1961 it still almost closed after two weeks.

Despite decent reviews, ticket sales were slow and things were looking bleak. But Simon’s producers were resourceful. They decided to hand out free tickets and hope that good word-of-mouth would save the day. Well, it worked. Playwright Noel Coward and Groucho Marx both saw the play – both loved it – and raved about it to local gossip columnists. All of a sudden, the play was a hit. It ran for almost two years.

Then Hollywood came calling and the result is the film you’re about to see. Now I should mention that Simon didn’t write the screenplay. I’ll tell you why later. Instead, Norman Lear, who went on to create “All in the Family” did.

Like i said, it’s semi-autobiographical. And when you think of a jewish family you naturally think of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bill and Lee J. Cobb. Ah, Hollywood. It’s still fun to see. From 1963, here’s “Come Blow Your Horn.”


Frank Sinatra sort of turned the borscht belt into the rat pack, didn’t he? That was the ring-a-ding version of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical hit play, “Come Blow Your Horn” as adapted by Norman Lear. Simon was offered the screenplay but didn’t want to get sucked back into Hollywood. He was originally a TV writer, working on such classic early hits as “Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows” and “Sgt. Bilko.”  

At the time, New York was the center of the TV world, but as production moved west so did the writers. Simon and his wife were native New Yorkers through and through and didn’t want to move to Glitter City. So he turned to playwrighting. Broadway wasn’t going west.

But he was not happy with the movie version. Jews don’t think of the “old country” as Las Vegas. So from then on Simon did his own screenplay adaptations.

Well, that’s it for me tonight. I’ll be back next week for more in TCM’s “Friday Night Spotlight” to Neil Simon. I’ll see you then.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Just a typical Saturday Night that's amazing!

How about these choices?  New York in the early '60s.  Wow.  I would go see any of these... except maybe CLEOPATRA.   If you had to pick, which of these attractions would you see tonight? 

The GOODBBYE GIRL intro and outro

These seem to be popular posts -- the scripts from my stint as host of the Neil Simon Film Festival on TCM.   Here's one from last night.


Hi, I’m Ken Levine – a playwright, tv writer, director and great fan of the man in our “Friday Night Spotlight” this month, Neil Simon.

Simon has written dozens of plays for Broadway and adapted many of them for the big screen, but he’s also written original screenplays and up next is one of his best. And like all of the films we’re showing tonight, it stars his wife at the time, Marsha Mason.

It’s “the Goodbye Girl,” from 1977, also starring Richard Dreyfuss.

In Simon’s memoir, he said the plot of this film is reminiscent of what happened before Dustin Hoffman shot to fame with the 1967 film “the Graduate.” Prior to that, Hoffman was a struggling actor in New York. So when he got the call that he got the role, there was a moment between he and his wife where the two of them just knew that their relationship would change forever. Well, that basic theme is what our movie is all about.

Dreyfuss is the struggling New York actor. Mason is a dancer recently dumped by her newly-famous actor boyfriend, who abandons her and her 10 year old daughter, played by Quinn Cummings. Mason and Dreyfuss end up rooming together and sparks begin to fly, but she wonders -- will history repeat? Are all actors the same? Will Dreyfuss abandon her too?

Now, Neil Simon always said he found writing much easier when he knew who was in his cast, because he could tailor the dialogue to each actor’s rhythm and personality. Yet Richard Dreyfuss was not the original costar of our film. Robert DeNiro was initially cast in the role, back when the script was titled “Bogart Slept Here.” Mike Nichols – a long-time Simon collaborator – was set to direct.

But right away, it became apparent that DeNiro – as great as he is -- wasn’t right for the part. So exit DeNiro; enter Dryefuss. Mike Nichols ended up moving on from the film as well, so Herbert Ross came on to direct.

But in the end, it was a winning combination. The film received five Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Screenplay, and Dreyfuss won as best actor. From 1977, here’s “the Goodbye Girl.”


Richard Dreyfuss won the Best Actor Oscar for this film, and the movie received four other nominations: Best Picture, Neil Simon’s screenplay, and for the performances of Marsha Mason and Quinn Cummings.

A year or so later, i was writing for MASH which was filmed on the 20th Century Fox lot. I was in the commissary one day and there was little Quinn Cummings just chewing out her agent. He probably had it coming, i dunno – never got to hear his side. But it was just bizarre to see a tween giving her agent hell at the hostess stand. It’s why I love Hollywood.

Up next, Marsha Mason returns in another Neil Simon film in which she received an Oscar nomination. It’s a comedy/drama released in 1979 and it costars James Caan.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Questions

Time for more Friday Questions. And tonight on TCM I host three more Neil Simon movies. The fun begins at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST.  First up is one of his best -- THE GOODBYE GIRL.  And I don't wear the brown jacket so cut me some slack. 

Michael starts us off with a Neil Simon question:

Will both Neil Simon and the creators of the 70's THE ODD COUPLE tv show get paid for the new remake or just Simon because he created the characters?

Way back in the ‘60s Simon sold off the TV rights to THE ODD COUPLE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK to Paramount for $125,000. Bad career advice. He hasn’t seen a dime from any of the TV versions of THE ODD COUPLE. And reading between the lines in his memoir, he’s not all too pleased. Can you blame him?

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

When you are a guest director on any sitcom, is there anything you do that is considered to be a personal signature. This would be something that an observant and knowledgeable viewer would reveal that this episode was directed by "Ken Levine" or "James Burrows"?

First and foremost, you have to match the style of the show, but I like a lot of movement, a little business, establishing a nice pace, and maybe finding a few interesting shots… usually during pick-ups when I have to get a single of someone and have three other cameras to play with.

Mostly though my job is to get the best performances out of he actors and make sure the story works.

It comes down to writing. The great James Burrows always said if the story works you could just shoot the entire show with one camera getting a wide master and it would work. But if the story doesn’t work, no amount of cool camera angles and fancy editing would save it.

I always go back to the writers room after run-throughs and offer any assistance in that department. That’s something I feel I can provide that most other directors can’t. Sometimes I’ll even get a few jokes in. Once in a blue moon those jokes will work. 

But basically my job is to do the best version of their series in their style with their tone. On time and on budget.

From Chris:

As CHEERS went on, did the writers and directors ever let John Ratzenberger improvise his "little known facts" from time to time?


Mike wonders:

On another blog, I saw this comment about Cheers:

"The writers would purposely give Kelsey Grammer who played Frasier bad lines they didn't think could get a laugh and he would turn around and make them work. "

Is this true? Were you trying to get rid of Frasier?


And finally, from scottmc:

I just read the biography of Bob Hope and wondered if you were a fan. Did you like his movies, his work on the Oscar broadcasts and the television specials? Also, did Larry Gelbart ever share stories from the time he was one of Hope's writers?

I was a big fan of his early film work and the Road Pictures he made with Bing Crosby. He was funny and irreverent. But that youthful character didn’t age well. By the ‘50s his movies were creaky.

Same with his stand-up. Listen to his old radio shows. He had a great delivery and most of his material worked.

But eventually it became dated and he never changed it.

I did like his Oscar hosting though. He had the gravitas, occasionally got off some good lines, and he kept the show moving. If nothing else, he was a pro’s pro.

And I greatly admire his going to war zones to entertain the troops; often putting himself in harm’s way. He didn’t have to do that -- year after year, war after war.

Yes, Larry Gelbart worked for Bob Hope and had some great stories. Unfortunately, I can’t share any of them. But they were complimentary to Mr. Hope.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Allison Williams -- from a pirate ship to a motorboat

As you know I dislike the show GIRLS, but I will give Lena Dunham this – she is spectacular at promotion -- the Madonna of bad television. She manages to stir up enormous controversy even though no one watches her show. This is just a fact. Its ratings have sharply declined from year to year and last Sunday night’s 4th season premier attracted only 680,000 viewers. There are 317 million people in the United States and a nationally broadcast “Golden Globe” nominated series (although that’s a joke) on premium cable’s most premium network can’t get close to one million?  By any measure anywhere that's disgraceful.  There have to be 700,000 people watching the Juice Man infomercial.

And yet, the show keeps getting renewed. Why? Because GIRLS generates a lot of buzz. And for HBO, they’re less concerned with ratings than they are about branding. They can boast to subscribers that they have the cutting edge shows. So in that regard GIRLS is a runaway hit. 

Lena gets that. And even though many original fans of the show have been turned off by storylines in the last few years, she keeps finding ways to stir the pot.

In the first year, she raised eyebrows by appearing nude in most episodes. She was hailed as courageous. For many, this was not a body they wanted to see. But Lena understood that even leaving herself open to a barrage of criticism and snark was a small price to pay for the publicity.

Last season they did a non-consensual sex scene where the girl was commanded to get down on all fours. Many found the scene degrading. (Yeah, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press – this is a “comedy.”) Everyone watched the YouTube video. No one watched the show. And the result? GIRLS got renewed. Seriously, Lena is a master showman. I’d hire her to run NBC right now.

Think about all the other shows that are on TV that have higher ratings. Bet you never heard of 80% of them. But you sure know about GIRLS. Lady Gaga can wear all the meat she wants, she’s not in Lena Dunham’s league.

And now the latest controversy. On last Sunday night’s episode (that nobody watched) there was a scene where Allison Williams (how can I put this delicately?) has her lover try to give her a colonoscopy with his nose. Now if they had only done that on PETER PAN people would have watched. She could have played the scene with Christopher Walken and maybe had some of his lines pasted to her cheeks.

Adding fuel to the brouhaha is that Allison’s dad is the lead news anchor of NBC. He of course was asked for his reaction. And as expected he gave the requisite diplomatic show of support to his daughter. What is he going to say? “I’m trying to be the distinguished face of NBC News. Walter Cronkite’s daughter never let some guy motorboat her ass on television.” So his answer was stock and carefully worded, and every news organization in the country ran it. Score another one for Ms. Dunham.

I watched the scene (on YouTube). It’s like fifteen seconds. That’s it? That’s the big whoop? (I found one version where someone overdubbed her singing from PETER PAN during her proctology porn and it was hilarious.)

At a time when actual pornography is as easily accessible as YouTube, the fact that people would rather see Allison Williams’ little fifteen second snippet again tells you the power of hype and the genius of Lena. The real crowning glory will come when Allison Williams wins an AVN award. (which, by the way, is more prestigious than a Golden Globe)

So now I’m curious. What will Lena do next? I’m sure it will be audacious. Graphic childbirth? A girl-on-girl with Charlie Rose’s daughter? Lena will keep this show on the air for ten years. It’ll be getting 24,000 viewers a week by then but Lena will have her fourth book deal and third movie deal so what does she give a shit? I’m only sorry Colonel Tom Parker isn’t still alive to see this.

WARNING:  Below is a screenshot from Sunday night's scene.  It is somewhat graphic.  You're welcome to log out now if it's something you don't want to see.   But I just can't resist a caption.  

"No, I don't see the earring."