Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My idea for a really cool slasher movie

I must admit I never got into those slasher movies. Seems to me they’re all the same story. The popular kids who were too good to ever go out with you in high school all frolic off to a cabin for some holiday and some disfigured skeesix in a goalie’s mask terrorizes and one-by-one graphically slices them up. Yes, it’s grizzly and horrible but isn’t that sorta what they deserve? Would it kill them to agree to dance with us just once??

Then there’s a sequel where the ones that survived go BACK to the cabin. You’d think maybe they’d hit Miami Beach the next winter break instead?

And there’s always the backstory explaining how the psychopath became a killer…such as he was a bed wetter or flunked out of Benhinana Chef school.

I have what I believe is a great idea for a slasher movie. I’m sharing it because I’ve had it registered (in other words, you can’t steal it!!!). But it seems to me the key to this genre is creating a truly terrifying slasher. My idea is to hire Gordon from SESAME STREET as the psychopath. Can you imagine how disturbing THAT would be to anyone who grew up with that show?

“You didn’t eat your vegetables!” “AAAAAAAA!!!” Slice! Hack!

“Can you spell ‘help’?” “H-E-L-AAAAAAAAAAA!!” Stab! Slit!

“One of these limbs is not like the others!” Chop!

“Today I’m brought to you by the letters D.O.A.!!”

I can hear the screams now. Freddie and Jason and Chucky, eat (or cut) your hearts out. Plus, I’ve got the sequel all storyboarded. Only this time it’s Maria.

Happy Halloween, kids.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The value of reading to writing

I keep talking about the value of having a reading of your script/play/pilot/screenplay/whatever. Hearing it out loud and getting feedback from people you trust is invaluable. That point was made again last Friday night when I saw my new play, OUR TIME at the Saratoga Arts Center.

First off, the cast and crew did a sensational job. So I didn’t have to worry about them. It was just me and whether my script was working -- that was my main focus. (Note: Thanks again to JJ. David, and all concerned.)

I belong to the EST Playwrights Unit. Every week twenty or so playwrights meet in a living room and members bring in material they’re working on. People weigh in with suggestions. And it’s not like network notes – you don’t have to do all of them. You can pick and choose the ones you want. (If networks had that policy their shows would be considerably better.)

A few months ago I brought in OUR TIME and received some terrific feedback (pro and con). I then went home and did a big rewrite. I threw out the entire last scene, cut a middle scene in half, strengthened motivations, replaced jokes, made trims, sharpened certain story points, brought out the theme more, and just generally made it better.

When I have a new play in production in LA I’m there for rehearsals and can make other changes along the way. For OUR TIME in Saratoga I was 3,000 miles away so my first viewing was the performance. Yes, that’s a little scary.

But as I was watching it I was thinking “Ooooh, I’m glad I changed that,” “Yep, didn’t need that Johnny Carson run,” “that scene moves along now,” “the ending is sooooo much better,” etc. Thank God I had that reading. The play is way farther along as a result.

I also made note of other things to tweak and fix. It’s always a work-in-progress. But I felt a big relief that I had done most of the heavy lifting before the actors had to stage it and learn it and perform it and a paying audience was subjected to it. Okay, it was also fun to hear all the laughter and just enjoy the performances. Once I had determined that the play essentially “worked” I had a great time.

And I owe a lot of that to the reading. Trust me, it’s worth the time and effort. Even if it just means gathering a few of your friends over to your house to read and discuss, it could mean the difference between good and sneaking out of the theatre while the lights are still down.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Switched at birth of pilot

It’s not unusual for there to be major changes during the production of a TV pilot. I’ve helped out on many, coming in to do punch up, and I’ve seen pretty much everything.

Characters change. On Tuesday the best friend suddenly becomes the sister. At the first table reading mom and dad are both present. By mid-week dad had died ten years ago and it's just mom. The scene at the coffee shop is gone replaced by one at a bank and the waitress is now a teller.

Actors are fired and hired all the time.  It's quite frankly brutal (and often unnecessary). I helped out on one pilot where a new actor was hired every day to play one particular role. It was a horribly written role. 

But the strangest pilot I worked on was this:

I think it was about two married couples and the guys worked together. It’s been a long time and the pilot didn’t go. Patrick Warburton was one of the guys. I had never seen him before but remember thinking, “Wow! This guy is a find!”

The runthruogh was uneven and the assembled writers went back to rewrite and eat Red Vines late into the night.

Traffic was bad the next day so I arrived for the runthrough just as it was about to begin. The first scene was a married couple in bed. Except now Patrick Warburton was in the bed. I thought, “This is weird? We’re now saying that Patrick is sleeping with his best friend’s wife?” The dialogue was pretty much what we wrote last night. Not only was there no explanation of why these two people were having an affair, the dialogue made no sense in this new context.

After the scene I cornered the creator to ask, “What the fuck?” That’s when I learned that the decision was made after we had left the night before to just flip Patrick and the other guy. So now Patrick was her husband.  Yeah, that's fine, Patrick's funnier, but the problem was that these were two very different characters. So the rest of the runthrough was completely weird. Imagine Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer just switching roles one week on TWO AND A HALF MEN.

When something doesn't work is it because the joke is bad, the actor didn't deliver it well, you don't believe that actor having that attitude, or you just remember it better yesterday with the other guy saying it? 

The rewrite that night was insane. I wasn’t the only one confused. The creator would say, “We need a line for Fred,” I’d pitch something and he’d say, “No, that’s a Gary line,” and five writers would say, “Which one is Gary again?” We couldn’t keep the two actors and the two characters straight.

Like I said, the show never aired. Whose decision it was to make the flip I do not know (but I suspect the network).  I totally forget who played the other guy and clearly Patrick Warburton has gone on to prove he’s a gifted comic actor.

Actors switching roles is not unheard of certainly. It happens in the theater a lot, especially if there is a company of actors. The director will mix and match until he arrives at the best combination. And there have been cases on Broadway where two stars will just flip roles. Art Carney and Walter Matthau did that in the original ODD COUPLE. But I had never seen it in a pilot.

Thank goodness one of the characters didn’t also have multiple personalities. I’d probably still be in that writing room trying to figure it out.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

One of the worst movie trailers EVER

Here's a movie trailer for THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE, a 1968 film about the inner workings of Hollywood.  I defy you to find one frame of subtlety in this movie.  I think even Faye Dunaway would say, "Whoa, ease up on the throttle."  This movie  makes  THE OSCAR seem understated.   My thanks to bad movie aficionado, Mark Legan for turning me onto this gem.  I'm guessing it's not available on Netflix.  Enjoy.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Questions

Hello from Saratoga Springs, NY where I’m excited to see my new play, OUR TIME at the Saratoga Art Center tonight at 8:00. Not sure if it’s sold out, but if not, come join us.

But no matter where I am in the world I always answer Friday Questions. Here are this week’s:

David Schwartz starts us off:

Why is it that some shows never get a real chance on a network? What I mean by this, is that there are times shows clearly premiere at a time when the network can't help but realize that no matter how good the show may be, it's not going to do well on the air.

For example, I worked on an Ann Jillian show called "Jennifer Slept Here" in the 1980's. It aired on the half-hour and its lead in was a show called "Mr. Smith," which featured an orangutan as the lead character. Anyway, that show premiered a few weeks before "Jennifer Slept Here," and got bad ratings. The competition during that hour were two hit shows, "The Dukes of Hazard" and "Webster" on the other networks. So they premiere the orangutan show a few weeks earlier than "Jennifer Slept Here." It does poorly. Then they premiere "Jennifer Slept Here" on the half hour after much of the audience has already decided they ain't watching "Mr. Smith."

How in the world did NBC expect "Jennifer Slept Here" to get any kind of decent ratings under those circumstances? Could anything? Why would NBC allow a show to premiere where it would be nearly impossible to make an impact and then not give it a chance in a time slot where it could actually succeed?

Yes, networks do this. If for any reason a network stops believing in a show they will bury it. Sometimes they bought shows that just fulfilled commitments and those too they’ll burn off.

The good news today is that scheduling, although important, is no longer vital for a show’s success. Good word of mouth can really help. People can record shows so those shows still might find an audience and catch on.

How and when a network launches a show is another factor. If you’re a new CBS comedy and you don’t premiere behind THE BIG BANG THEORY you’re going to have a much softer debut.

On the other hand, if a network likes a show (or OWNS a show) it will change its time slot four times, promote it heavily, throw money at it for stunt casting, whatever it has to do. NBC did that originally with WILL & GRACE.   But if the show is out of favor, there are a hundred ways a network can kill it. Poor Jennifer never had a “ghost” of a chance. (I’ll take a moment for you to groan then move on.)

Karan G. asks:

Having never been in show business, I don’t have a grasp of the industry language. (Please forgive my stumbling in my attempt to ask a question.) Often referred to as the guys “in the suits” who green-light a project at a network etc., how often do these guys come from the “creative” side of things, or are their qualifications to choose a show and it’s potential success essentially no better than an astute consumer of entertainment (i.e. essentially the rest of us)? I assume they have a background in budgets, finance and potentially marketing. What qualifications should they have in your estimation? (It may or may not be resume qualifications as much as intellect or personality traits.) I assume politics, as always, plays a role. I suppose it is akin to the record business in picking a hit record. Any thoughts?

There have been occasions where writers/directors/producers have become network executives. At one time Barbara Corday, who co-created CAGNEY & LACY was the head of comedy development at ABC. Michael Zinberg, one of TV’s best hour-long directors, became the head of comedy development for NBC for a spell.

But it’s somewhat rare because creative people would rather MAKE the shows. Network jobs are corporate jobs. It’s a different mindset, a different set of skills. I wouldn’t want one of those jobs (I probably wouldn't be very good at one of those jobs).

And often times the people in those positions are not really qualified to make creative decisions. They do come from business or legal backgrounds. It’s very easy to just say these suits are idiots, but they’re not. Most are highly educated, very bright people, excellent in other aspects of their job, just not on the creative side.

It’s like I know a lot about baseball, having broadcast it for years on the Major League level. But I couldn’t be a scout. I can’t evaluate players to such an extent that an organization could make their selections based on my recommendations. Same thing in TV.

That said, there are always exceptions. Brandon Tartikoff, Grant Tinker, Fred Silverman, and I would probably throw in Les Moonves are suits who also have creative savvy. And I’m sure there are others I’m unintentionally omitting.

From Jeff:

Ken, I'd love to hear your opinion on the old adage "ideas are a dime a dozen". I personally find it insulting. While I agree that execution is imperative, without a solid idea to begin with there is nothing to work with. I look at a lot of recent comedy pilots as an example. Either the idea completely bizarre, like a cartoon father in the real world (see: Son of Zorn) or it is same old same old (i.e. adult children move in with their aging parents, see: pretty much every new comedy the past 2 years). I would personally preach, shitty ideas are a dime a dozen, but quality ideas with a good hook are rare. Your thoughts?

Ideas ARE very important. But to me execution is MORE important. What good is a good idea if botched in the execution? Meanwhile, a so-so idea handled really well can result in a good product.

How many shows have there been about people in a bar? Hand that premise to the Charles Brothers and you have CHEERS.

But good ideas are hard to come by, and when I back into one I am always thrilled.

And finally, two quick FQ's from Richard:

What character was your favorite to write?

What character did you write that most closely compares to you?

My favorite character was Lawrence Bourne III – Tom Hanks in VOLUNTEERS. He was smart, arrogant, cowardice, deceitful, condescending, and charming as hell. He was comedy gold. Drop him in any situation and there was fun to be had.

I wish the closest character to me was Hawkeye or Sam Malone, but in all honesty it was probably Marshall on BIG WAVE DAVE’S, although Adam Arkin played me way better than I could play me.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Too many cooks

Nowadays when someone goes to a major broadcast network he brings an army in with him. There is a non-writing “pod” producer attached and he generally has one or two execs, a studio involved so there are three more suits, an agent and possibly a manager. Also figure in the network exec you’re pitching to and three of his or her assistants and suddenly you have ten or so people in the room besides yourself. Wait. If the pod producer is part of an actor’s production company you might also get the actor, his development executive, his agent, and his manager. And if you have talent attached, tack on that person along with his posse. You need to rent out Radio City to pitch a pilot.

When David and I came up with the idea for BIG WAVE DAVE’S  in 1993 we didn’t have any development deal in place with a studio. This was before the era of the “pod” producer. We called CBS ourselves and said we wanted to pitch a show. An appointment date was set.

If CBS bought the pilot we would then shop for a studio to partner with. But even that wasn’t a requirement. If we were really industrious we could start our own independent company, get our own financing, and own the show outright, a la MTM, or Carsey/Werner Production. (But that wasn’t us. We were happy to use this pilot commitment to swing a development deal with some major studio.)

So it was just me and my partner, David Isaacs, and the VP of development for CBS. Three people.

He bought the pilot in the room; David and I went home and wrote the script. We didn’t have to run it by anyone at a studio, production company, TV star with a deal, focus group, etc. There weren’t seven drafts before it went to the network. There was one.

Now it was time to turn it in. It occurred to us that we had never directly turned in a script to a network. The studio always did that. So we had no idea who to submit to, how many to submit, etc. I called this VP’s office, found out the answers, went to Kinko’s, made the appropriate number of copies, and drove over to CBS myself to drop them on her desk. No fancy studio covers, nothing.

Once a script is turned in today, fifteen network department heads weigh-in with their thoughts and suggestions. A conference call is arranged and twenty people hop on as notes are given for a second draft. You don’t even know who is giving the notes. Voices just chime in with opinions. (This can be problematic because you need to determine whose notes are important and whose you can just ignore.)

Thus begins the second round of seven drafts before everyone on your "team" is on board. That script is turned in and you hold your breath for weeks to see whether you get the green light. Often networks will wait until everything is in to make a decision. Or your show is on the fence and they need several days of internal debate.

We turned in our first draft at 5:00 on Friday. At 10:30 the following Monday our agent called to say CBS was greenlighting the show. Just like that. I asked if this was contingent on a second draft and they said no. They had some minor notes and to call them at our convenience but get the ball rolling, hire a casting director, shop for a studio, etc. We were a go.

So when you have a process that three people can handle all by themselves and you have twenty other people involved who are superfluous – there’s something wrong with the system, wouldn’t you say?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

EP43: My First Girlfriend…and Writing Assignment


Ken introduces you to his first girlfriend, who of course was crazy, and his first writing assignment, which was crazier still – a musical for the United States Army. Coming-of-age insanity. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

"Hey, what happened to my favorite line?"

I can’t give you specifics because they would mean nothing out of context, but when I happen to catch reruns on TV of shows I co-wrote or shows I produced invariably they will have cut my favorite line. It’s just uncanny!

Makes no difference where in the episode that line may come. Whether it’s a throwaway line or a punch line to a half-page bit. There is usually one line I particularly like in every episode and it’s gone so you can be told the wonders of some new arthritis drug (that might kill you).

It’s like, how do they know? Whoever edits these things, did they implant a bio-chip in my brain?

I suppose I could go to my DVD’s or whatever streaming service is featuring these series, but that means I'd actively have to seek them out. Ugh.  That takes work.  On the other hand, I’ll be channel surfing and see a CHEERS of mine is coming on that I haven’t seen in years so I’ll stick around and watch it. It’ll be fun to re-live Shelley’s great reading of my favorite line. And sure enough -- no line. (Hell, in half the episodes – no Shelley.) Plus, eczema pills could now cause hearing loss?

I’m thrilled that all of my old shows are still on, still being seen – even if they’re on channels with three digits – and if you don’t know the pithy lines they’ve omitted you don’t realize you’re missing anything. So hopefully you still get enormous enjoyment out of watching the edited re-run. But just know that every show with my name on it is actually 3% better than what you’re seeing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

No more calls!

In 1967 there was an announcers’ strike at ABC radio. My father was an account executive at KABC in Los Angeles, a talk station. Since management had to fill the air slots my dad got assigned the 6-9 pm shift. Thus “On the line with Cliff Levine” was born.

Back in those days talk show hosts didn’t have guests. They opened the phone lines and would field a steady stream of calls all day long. Just getting through to go on the air was a big accomplishment. The phone banks were always lit up. Dad couldn’t believe that so many strangers cared about his opinions. Who was he? he wondered.  I said, “You’re a person on THE RADIO.”

A recent study has revealed that very few people call radio stations today… for any reason.

Top 40 stations always had multiple request lines and many had interns answering the phones. Listeners were invited to call in requests. But today listeners are savvy to the fact that hardly any shows are live. They’re either syndicated (do you really think Ryan Seacrest is there in Kalamazoo?) or automated with voice tracks. Plus, who needs to request music these days? You have every song you want at your fingertips with Spotify or your personal playlists or any other online music streaming service. You’re going to call a radio station, make a request, and sit for an hour hoping you’ll hear your song? Even the nimrod who thinks Ryan Seacrest does broadcast every morning from Kalamazoo knows that’s stupid.

And folks aren’t calling talk radio hosts as much either. I can tell you this firsthand. When I would fill in at KABC a few years ago, it was usually the evening shift. I would follow Mark Levin, who is this obnoxious right-wing crackpot who sounds like Gilbert Gottfried but louder and more shrill. (How ANYONE ever let this guy in front of a microphone I will never know.) When I got on the air at 7:00 pm the phones were dead. And they would stay dead for at least a half an hour. I could have Jesus Christ as my guest in the studio and no one would call. Why? NO ONE WAS LISTENING.

Gone are the days when the host would just give out the numbers, say “what’s on your mind?” and the phone bank would light up like a Christmas tree. Now you often have to beg for calls. Many talk show hosts are not even taking calls anymore. They’re filling their show with guests.

It’s not as bad on sports talk radio. Those hosts, especially if they’re abrasive still get a fair amount of calls. Forget the state of the world, what are the Lakers going to do at power forward?

But even then – I hosted Dodger Talk for years and took listener calls after games. If the team was  losing I got a bunch of calls. But if they were playing well I often got zilch. And among the callers I did receive, at least half were regulars who called every night with the same nonsense.

None of this is surprising to me. Once upon a time the radio was the only way you could express your opinion to a wide audience. Now you have social media. Now you have Twitter and Facebook and any Cliff Clavin (or president) can broadcast his idiotic ill-informed opinions to the world. And unlike radio, there’s no screener. Or waiting time. Who needs radio?

And that’s the problem. Who needs radio indeed? The industry keeps putting out these studies that show that radio is stronger than ever. But anyone with a brain or ears knows that’s bullshit. Nero is just playing his fiddle. The lack of calls is just one sign. People are fleeing to their devices, internet stations, satellite radio, or just not bothering.

And instead of reacting to that and taking steps to stem the tide – like feature more local programming, spend money and hire personalities, not run 30 minutes of commercials an hour, not load up weekend programming with infomercials like “colon blow” – they’re clinging to these bogus surveys. And someday, maybe soon, their phones will stop ringing permanently.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Here's an idea broadcast networks will never do:

First some background.

Table readings are an important part of any scripted form process. TV shows, plays, movies – there is great benefit from assembling a group of actors and hearing your script read aloud. Especially for a comedy.

Now the key of course is to be objective and invite people who will give you an honest reaction to the material. Assembling an audience of the actors’ parents is not the best way to determine whether your script works. And if you as the writer just laugh hysterically to everything that is being said you’ll have no idea what you’ve got. So what’s the point?

Table readings for sitcom pilots have become major pressure cookers. It used to be the actors would sit around a conference table and the writers, networks, agents, etc. would ring the perimeter walls. Actors were able to relate to each other because they were face-to-face.

But now there are so many network people, studio people, agents, managers, production companies, pod producers, etc. that the actors have to sit on a stage all facing out like being on a dais. And there can be close to a hundred people in the audience. It’s just insane.

Pilots get axed at table readings. Actors get fired at table readings. Networks’ enthusiasm for the project could go from high to low depending on the reaction. Things have gotten so crazy that now a lot of producers have pre-table readings to prepare for the actual table readings.

Okay, my idea that networks will never do. This is primarily for comedies.

Sometimes pilots don’t necessarily read funny. Especially if they’re character-based. And many network development executives don’t know how to read a script. They can’t picture it. (Yes, I know. Isn’t that their JOBS?) Also, networks tend to foist casting choices on the producers that are wrong for the parts.

So how about this? Each pilot script gets a table reading before the networks decide which shows they’re greenlighting for production. And here’s the kicker: the creator of the show casts it. That way the show has the best possible chance of showing off its potential. You don’t need to fill the cast with stars. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. But this gives young unknown actors a chance to get network exposure. And who knows? If the pilot does get made perhaps the network will want some of those unknowns to reprise their roles. TV makes stars, and this way you’d have more young actors given a chance to be seen and maybe breakout.

You could have these table readings at the network. You could schedule several for the day. A hundred people don’t decide which shows get picked up so you don’t need a hundred people in the room.

I guarantee you that at least two pilot scripts that didn’t seem impressive will suddenly knock everybody out. And a few of the scripts that were real jokey will be exposed for how lightweight and glib they really are.

The networks could make more informed decisions. They could discover new talent. They could really get a sense of what the writer had in mind. And it wouldn’t cost them a dime. The creators do all the work of assembling and rehearsing the cast.

Doesn’t that make sense? Like I said, it probably won’t happen. Networks don’t like giving up control at any point of the process. Allowing writers to follow their own vision and present the show they want to do (even for an informal table reading) would set a very bad precedent. Better to keep things the way they are – with a 95% failure rate.  Yep, that’s obviously a better system.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What "coverage" looks like

When writers turn in screenplays, producers, agencies, and studios generally hire people to read them and submit a report.  These reports are called "coverage."  Many times projects live or die based on their coverage.  As an example of one, here is our coverage for the screenplay we wrote for VOLUNTEERS (which eventually became a movie starring Tom Hanks and John Candy).  Once you read it you'll know why I saved it all these years.   If only all of our coverage from all of our screenplays could receive this kind of reaction. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fox promos (oy!)

With tonight's big Game 7 of the ALCS taking place on FS1 (if you get it) and Joe Buck on the call, I thought this would be the perfect blog post.  This is a hilarious montage put together by Matthew Callan -- 21 years of Joe Buck during the World Series doing live promo reads for upcoming Fox shows.   A few you know but most of these shows are long forgotten.   So take a nostalgic trip down memory lane to re-acquaint yourself with all these shows you never watched. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anyone?

Unknown starts us off with a timely one.

Ken for non-Americans like me why do they call your baseball competition a world series?

Because people here think America IS the world.

Actually, when the term was coined a few centuries ago America was pretty much the only country playing organized baseball so technically the term applied. And now it’s just a “thing.”

Matt wonders:

Sometimes there are episodes where an established cast character isn't in the episode/script. For example, "The Late Captain Pierce" from 1975. Radar isn't in the episode even though it would be four more seasons before he left.

Are these absentees scheduled in advance? Or is it a "last minute" thing where a script had to be adjusted/rewritten to accommodate?

It depends on the actor’s contract. Sometimes an actor will sign a deal for say 10 out of 13 but included is the stipulation that their credit appear in every episode.

For the episode you mentioned, Gary Burghoff might have been sick and just written out that week.

In the first year of CHEERS, three days into rehearsal for an episode Nick Colasanto went into the hospital with pleurisy. So we worked all night writing him out of the episode. Then came the weekend and on Monday (day four) he was back. So we had to write him back in. That was a fun week.

From Mike Bloodworth:

The 9/28 episode of The Orville was a complete rip-off of the Star Trek:TOS episode, "For The World is Hollow..." Now, they're not the first sci-fi show to steal from S.T. and they won't be the last. And other shows seem to shamelessly steal plot lines and jokes from movies and other series. As it says in Ecclesiastes, "...there is no new thing under the Sun." So, what is your opinion about shows that use other writers' material? Other than an obvious homage. Have you ever "borrowed" jokes or story lines from other shows. And how do they not get sued for plagiarism?

“Homages” get into murky area, at least for me. Unless it is CLEARLY a nod to a specific work there is the danger that the new work is lifted. How do you achieve that clarity? Generally you have to do something meta that lets the audience know that you know you’re treading on someone else’s property.

In terms of similar story areas, this too is a gray area. Often two shows will unknowingly hit upon a similar story. The showrunner of “Show A” sees a story on “Show B” that is close to the one he has airing next week. But both shows were filmed months before. It’s not like the showrunner from “Show A” says, “That’s great. Let’s do that,” gathers the staff, writes and films the show the next day and have it ready to air on Tuesday.

That said, on shows I’ve worked on, anytime we’re looking for stories, if someone pitches something and one of the writers says “They did something like that on (pick any show),” we automatically just throw it out. No discussion, no rationalizing. It’s tossed.

Let’s just say other showrunners don’t strictly adhere to that policy.

And finally, Carson Clark asks:

You've written before about a good writer does his or her best to service all of the main characters on a show. This made me wonder, was there pressure to write content for Moose, a.k.a. Eddie, on Frasier? Was he treated like a character or more like a prop?

Moose never counted lines.

We saw him as a character but tried to use him in a limited fashion and always conferred with his remarkable trainer, Matilda de Cagny (pictured above with Moose) to make sure whatever we asked was easily doable for Moose.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Potterisms

A reader asked about “Potterisms.” These are the colorful expressions, often substitutes for curse words that Colonel Potter would utter on MASH. “Horse hockey!” “Buffalo Bagels!”

The reader wondered about the derivation, how we came up with them, etc.

Sherman Potter (played to perfection by Harry Morgan) arrived at MASH a season before we did. Larry Gelbart was still running the writing room.

I can’t say this for absolute certain, but I’m pretty willing to bet that “Potterisms” were the brainchild of the brilliant writing team of Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum.

Fritzell & Greenbaum had a storied career in TV comedy writing. They wrote 24 episodes of MASH (including the famous one where Colonel Blake is shot down), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They wrote on dozens of shows from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW to SANFORD & SONS, THE REAL McCOYS, all the way back to MR. PEEPERS (which they also created) in the early ‘50s.

When they wrote for MASH they were in their fifties, doing anywhere from six to eight scripts a season. In those days you could still make a nice living as a freelance writer. And in those days writers with experience were actually valued.

Like I said, they were brilliant. Very funny, terrific craftsmen (there was not a wasted word and their scripts always had a definite flow – we learned a lot from them), and something else: they had a real love for Americana. Their scripts were always brimming with great expressions, period slang, and colorful words. I’ve noticed that filmmaker Alexander Payne also has that appreciation for Americana as is evidenced in his work.

Fritzell & Greenbaum also had this love for scatological humor and once a script they’d slip in a shit joke – but always a sneaky network-acceptable shit joke. Klinger would remove a rectal thermometer from a patient and say, “It’s 102 in Pittsburgh.” Or: “Prune juice – greatest invention since the Gatling Gun.”

So when Potter had to say “bullshit” I suspect it was Jim & Ev who came up with “Buffalo Bagels.” And remember, a lot of those euphemisms were not made up – they were existing expressions. “Road Apples!” “Cow Pies!”

Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart realized those expressions could be part of his character and ran with it. And again, those Potterisms for the most part, were actual slang expressions (even if they hadn’t been used since World War I). Potter might praise something by calling it “the Oyster’s Ice-skates.” Now I don’t even know for sure what that means but it sure sounds funny.

When David Isaacs and I were at the helm we used Potterisms sparingly, partly because a lot of those expressions were from before our time. After we left the show Potterisms just became expressions with different words to say the same phrase. My favorite was “Curiosity K.O.’ed the feline.”

But if you’re a MASH fan, I invite you watch episodes from seasons 2-6 and seek out the ones penned by Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum. Next to Larry Gelbart, no one wrote the show better. And that includes me and my partner.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

EP42: Charlize Theron and Other Dreams


Ken talks to writer Avin Das about the Charlize Theron sex tape that he wrote and co-starred in for Funny Or Die.  He also reveals what it’s really like to be a production assistant on a hit situation comedy.  Plus, Ken shares some of his more wacky insane dreams. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A "me too" story I've never shared

Here’s a sexual harassment story where a woman stood up.

This was the first season of CHEERS. We had a script where Diane enters the Miss Boston Barmaid of the Year competition. “No Contest” was the title. Remember that one?   It was actually a very pro-feminist story with Diane entering solely to publicly denounce the competition for objectifying women. The script was written by Heide Perlman and was terrific.

After a writer completes their second draft the staff does whatever rewriting is necessary to arrive at a script for production. That script gets circulated to the network, cast, studio, and various departments of the crew (including casting director).

Glen & Les Charles and David Isaacs and I did the polish for the production draft. We changed very little. Like I said, Heide had crushed it.

We inadvertently left in most of the stage direction as well. I say “inadvertently” because there was one line that slipped through that shouldn’t have. In describing one of the barmaids, Heide, with tongue-in-cheek, wrote she had “state-of-the-art tits.” It’s the kind of thing we all do – write little jokes in the stage direction as an incentive for people to read them. Lots of readers see a block of direction and just skip it. Anyway, no big deal. These jokes are for the room and generally removed before the production draft.

Well, that one stayed in. For all I know it was my fault. I might have been proofing that day and missed it. Who can remember?  It was 35 years ago.   

Anyway, the following day we have our casting session for barmaids. A number of actresses come in and audition. It’s a typical session. Me and David, Glen and Les, Jim Burrows, and our casting director are in the room.

After several candidates, one young woman walks in, points to her breasts and says, “Okay, boys, here they are.” We were all taken a little aback. That was a strange thing to do. We said, “What?” And then she pointed to them again, “Here are my state-of-the-art tits!”

Needless to say, we all were mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.

We all apologized profusely (and no, I don’t remember if we hired her or not – at the end of the day it was still acting ability). But I think back now and really applaud her (no, I don’t remember her name either). That was an inappropriate description in the script and I suspect the other actresses weren’t too keen on it either but this one stood up.

Obviously there was no disrespect intended, but it just points out the number of indignities – intentionally or unintentionally – that women face.  I've always prided myself on my conduct but even I contributed to a "me too" moment.  Hopefully things will change… even a little. We guys need to be more sensitive to this… and proof better.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I love Bill Nighy

In a recent article, actor Bill Nighy (you’ve seen him in everything) called out actors who didn’t bother to memorize their lines. Not only that, he said it’s become fashionable for actors to show up on a set or rehearsal hall unprepared. The bullshit rationalization is that knowing your lines ahead of time stifles discovery. Nighy says:

“Rehearsal is not the enemy of spontaneity. The idea is the process is you say the lines over and over and over and over and over again until you can give the impression that you’ve never said them before and it’s just occurred to you. That’s the gig.”

Thank you, Mr. Nighy.

Just this weekend I wrote a post on how the CHEERS cast got lazy towards the end. But that’s after ten years and over 200 episodes. I don’t condone it, but I can understand that the show had become a grind and the actors were looking for ways to deal with it. Also, scripts on CHEERS changed practically daily so it really made no sense to commit them to memory until after the third day of rehearsal (day three of a five day production week).

But if you’re an actor in a play, or you have scenes in a movie – and the script is locked – it’s your job to be off-book as soon as possible.

Yes, it’s hard. It’s one of the reasons I never became an actor (that and lack of talent). I marvel at people who can memorize two hours of dialogue word for word. I don’t know how they do it. But as Mr. Nighy says, “It’s the gig.”

I must say this is a real pet peeve of mine. I work very hard on my scripts, shaping every single line. Lines are worded very specifically to get the biggest laughs. There is also a rhythm and flow. All that goes away when the actors are halting, groping for lines.

Just know that the time you take to learn a line is probably a third of the time it took for me to write that line.

So when I hear, “well, I feel restricted by knowing the words, my spontaneity is cut off by memorizing the script” what I really hear is “I’m just lazy and unprofessional.”

And aside from how disrespectful that is to the writer, it’s also a slap in the face to the other actors who have taken the time to learn their parts. Not to mention the director.

Look, as an actor so much in this industry is out of your control. It’s such a subjective business. Unfair, infuriating, illogical. But the only thing you can control is your professionalism. Believe me, I find professionalism a way more impressive "special skill" than ballroom dancing.

Oh, and by the way, postscript on CHEERS: Remember in the series finale there’s that wonderful lengthy scene of everyone sitting around the bar late at night reflecting on their lives? Beautifully written by Glen & Les Charles and directed by James Burrows, that was all filmed in one take. Every actor had their lines down perfectly.

It can be done. And since it can, why not do it? Even if it means bucking a fashionable trend.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"Did you watch SNL this week?"

Have you noticed that now every week people really look forward to SNL? Industry websites immediately post the opening and any stand-out sketches. It’s weekly overnight ratings are posted as soon as they’re available. Certain sketches go viral. People talk about it on Monday morning around the watercooler at work (instead of being at their desks reading blogs like they should be).

In other words it’s become a “thing.”

I’ve been lucky enough to work on a couple of hit shows and I can’t tell you how utterly intoxicating it was to be a part of a “thing.” There were years on MASH and CHEERS where I knew that each episode was highly anticipated and had an impact. We got letter every week. Most were nice; some were outraged. Fewer trolls because they had to pay for postage. But viewers were paying attention.

How many shows today are produced and aired in relative obscurity? And it takes the same amount of time and effort to produce a show only relatives watch on a network no one has ever heard of than to produce THIS IS US.

Even the first year of CHEERS, when we THOUGHT no one was watching, we averaged 20 million people a week. The show was slowly starting to catch on to where we thought we were an underground hit. 20 million viewers was considered “under the radar” back then. Now the landscape has become so fractured that certain shows on certain platforms shown nationally are seen by 100,000 people. I don’t understand the economics. How can they afford to shell out millions for shows that get way fewer views than cats coughing up fur balls on YouTube?

Happily, I can say I never took riding the zeitgeist for granted. Maybe it was because of my radio background where listeners only paid attention when you gave out contest information, but I appreciated and savored every moment of being on hit shows.

For everybody working on SNL – I’m sure it’s a grind, and with higher expectations comes additional pressure – but you’re in a moment of time here. It will pass. Enjoy every second of it while you can. (And keep going after that fat fuck – both of ‘em.)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Playing the part of Sam Malone today: Ignatz Gloogdeberg

After a sitcom has been on the air for a number of years – like ten -- it’s understandable that the cast loses a certain amount of interest. They know their characters so well and they know the routine so well that they don't require as much rehearsal as in the early discovery years.

Also, they become big stars by year ten. They suddenly have movie careers. They front worthwhile charities. They start their own production companies and split their attention between the show and their various new projects. They buy homes on the east coast and have to let the painters in.

On CHEERS during the last two seasons the runthroughs were unlike anything I’d ever seen. First let me say that I adore the CHEERS cast – every one of ‘em. They’re great people, terrific actors, and very respectful of the writers and everyone on the crew.

But for those last few seasons they often had other obligations and would miss rehearsal. Like I said, they didn’t need it. The only problem was that we writers did need to see a runthrough to determine what worked and what didn't.

And there were times we would go down to the stage for a runthrough and it would be the first assistant director playing Sam, the script supervisor playing Rebecca, the prop guy playing Woody, the wardrobe girl playing Carla, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger. This is what I assume community productions of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA look like.

We’d go back to the room and have no idea what we had. Someone would say, “I don’t think this Sam joke works” and the rest of us would say, “How do we know? Ignatz Gloogdeberg played him.” It was insane.

The craziest was the time we cut a certain actor’s joke who wasn’t at the runthrough. The actor came in the next day, was annoyed that the line was gone, and chided the stand-in for not selling the joke sufficiently.

In fairness, runthroughs with 80% understudies didn’t happen every week, although it was not unusual to have at least one person out for a rehearsal. That the episodes held together so well is also a testament to how well we writers knew the show and could write for it.

The filming nights would be a little rocky because not everyone knew their lines perfectly. But they would always rise to the occasion and on the air CHEERS appeared as polished as ever.

Although… if I'm being 100% honest --  there were times we writers would be on the stage watching the filming and say, “Hey, Zelda did a better job of that joke.”

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Two krazy rabbits

Well, first of all a huge THANKS to everyone who weighed in with their favorite cartoon character. (You're still welcome to tell us yours.)  Part of the fun of doing a blog is creating a little community and finding ways for you to interact.  So thanks for playing along. 

On to the results.

Yep, you guys agreed with the EW poll. Not much suspense here since you could all read through the comments yourself, but it was clear that Bugs Bunny was your overwhelming choice for favorite cartoon character. And I can’t disagree at all.

What was surprising to me, and somewhat heartening, is that the winning character hails from the 1940’s, not just someone on a cartoon show that came out in January. I say that because when I was a disc jockey back in the era of Top 40, stations would occasionally put together their “all-time Top 300” songs and invite listeners to send in postcards with their all-time favorite three songs. Invariably they would choose the songs currently in the top ten. (What we had to do was just throw out all the cards and tabulate a list ourselves.)

As for my choice, only one other person (a commenter on Facebook) shared my favorite. But mine is a little obscure, especially to younger generations since it was a TV cartoon from the ‘50’s and probably hasn’t been seen on television in God knows how many years. It was a tough choice because I too love Bugs, along with Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Popeye (the Fleisher cartoons, not the Paramount cartoons), Foghorn Leghorn, Top Cat (how can you not? He’s Bilko), Snagglepuss, Homer Simpson, Mr. Burns, Mr. Peabody, Mr. Magoo, Goofy, Dan Hoard (voice of the Springfield Isotopes – okay, you got me. It’s me), Tom Terrific, Mighty Mouse, and Pepe LePew – but my all-time favorite would have to be Crusader Rabbit. (I can just hear you saying “Who???”)

Crusader Rabbit was a forerunner of Rocky & Bullwinkle – serialized cartoons that were irreverent, sprinkled in adult humor, were the first to feature longform stories, and in addition to the usual cartoon slapstick utilized wordplay humor. Each episode had funny titles that were usually puns like “I can row a boat, canoe?” As a 7 year old that killed me.

Crusader Rabbit was the first cartoon show made exclusively for television. Prior to that cartoons were designed for theatrical release. There were actually two sets of Crusader Rabbit cartoons. The first around 1950 with some of the worst primitive animation ever, and then a new batch in color in the late ‘50s which were a big improvement in design, animation (although all TV animation was pretty cheesy back then), and leaned in even more on the irreverence and wordplay. The writer, Chris Hayward, went on to write and co-run BARNEY MILLER.

One final note: Going through your picks I couldn’t help but notice there were very few Disney characters. For all the dazzling animation, when it came to laughs there was something more subversive and delicious about the Warner Brothers, Jay Ward, Max Fleisher cartoons, Terrytoons, and even Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

Finally, a “Donald” that no one voted for.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Spooky. Friday the 13th AND Halloween the same month. Ooooooh. Here are some Friday (the 13th) Questions:

mbk starts us off:

Love your blog, and even though I think I've read all your pieces, I don't remember that you've ever commented on "Episodes" on Showtime. It seems like something you would relate to, with commentary on writing TV comedy, showrunning, dealing with network suits, actors and their egos, agents, hack writers, backstabbing, Hollywood hypocrisy, and on and on.

What's your take on Episodes?

I loved it the first season until Matt LeBlanc slept with the showrunner. That crossed a line for me and I didn’t buy it (from either side). Before that the LeBlanc character was great fun. After that he was just an asshole.

I tried watching the second season and the satire seemed very broad. The network president was a cartoon. Gave up after that. I hear it’s better. Maybe at some point I’ll revisit it.

Cliff asks:

What happened to the TV practice of 1/2 hour dramatic shows? Have Gun Will Travel, (many other Westerns), Adam-12, Dragnet, Twilight Zone, etc. etc. I enjoy re-watching these on the available old show channels, but was curious why the 1/2 non-comedy format has died.

I think in the same way VHS beat out Betamax and Final Draft beat out Movie Magic, hour dramas just became the standard. I think it’s much easier to tell a dramatic story in an hour, especially if you have returning characters. And yet, I look back at some of those TWILIGHT ZONE half-hour episodes and marvel at how great, how complete, and how satisfying they were.

People forget that in the early days of television, yes there were half-hour dramas, but there were also fifteen-minute sitcoms.

Kyle Burress wonders:

What are your thoughts on shows that have a character that is around for a while and then just suddenly disappears with no explanation, or treated as if they had never even been there in the first place? Examples that come to mind are Chuck Cunningham from 'Happy Days', Judy Winslow from 'Family Matters' and Mandy Hampton from 'The West Wing', just to name a couple. Other shows such as 'Law & Order' do it all the time.

It’s not ideal, but as a writer I know that shows take on a life of their own. And certain things work while others don’t. Especially the first season, a series is really a work-in-progress.

Sometimes that works to your advantage. A character may break out that you didn’t expect like the Fonz or Alex Keaton or (God help me) Urkel.

But other times you realize that certain aspects of your series or certain relationships just aren’t clicking. And it’s not like a movie where you can just go back and reshoot or edit. These missteps have now aired. So one solution is to just move on and hope that most people don’t notice. Another is to explain away those characters, but that sometimes really draws undue attention to them.

Again, it’s not a perfect way to go, but it can be the lesser of all evils.

And finally, from YEKIMI:

Do the producers, studio, etc. have any say so in how their show is advertised? I've seen some ads where I thought "there's no way in hell that looks interesting to watch" only to find out in re-runs or a couple of years down the road that it's actually was a pretty good show I had been missing. Or do the producers, studios, etc. just scream in silent anguish about how the networks are promoting their show?

Well, in most cases now the studio is owned by the network. I suppose they can offer their opinions. Most producers don’t have any say. Maybe if you’re Dick Wolf or Chuck Lorre you have a little more influence, but by and large the network has a promo department and a mandate sent down by the higher-ups as to who and how to promote and for how much.

Every producer I know thinks they get short-changed, even if there are billboards on every city bus.  

What’s your Friday Question? Stay away from black cats.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Who's your favorite cartoon character?

I was listening to the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY radio channel on Sirius/XM yesterday (still hoping they do an hour-long salute to Levine & Isaacs – I’m losing faith), and the hosts got into a discussion of their “favorite cartoon character.” Listeners then chimed in their picks.

Since I haven’t watched cartoons for many years some of the names people brought up were unknown to me. On the other hand, when one person said Heckle & Jeckle, one of the co-hosts had no idea who they were. (thereby making me feel like a hundred.)

Interestingly, one particular character was the overwhelming choice. I was surprised but not surprised. It's a popular character sure, but I didn’t realize it was that beloved. So I wondered if my readers results would be consistent with theirs.

Thus, I’ll throw the question out to you. Who is your all-time favorite cartoon character?

They seemed to limit the question to short cartoons or TV shows, so no one from a feature (like Ariel from LITTLE MERMAID or Rina in A JEWISH GIRL IN SHANGHAI) qualified. But if characters primarily used in shorts or TV shows eventually got a movie (a la THE SIMPSONS, PEANUTS, SOUTH PARK) that was okay.  (Hey, they're their rules.)

On Saturday I’ll tell you your results, EW’s results, and my pick.

Thanks for playing. I look forward to hearing from you.

A-ba-dee, a-ba-dee, a-ba-dee, that’s all folks!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

EP41: “The Lunch Bit Sucks!” and Other Colorful Stories


Ken tells crazy stories that touch on aspects of his career.  Getting bad script notes, being shunned at a radio convention, a Hollywood ending to be cherished, and classic baseball bloopers. Lots of fun, embarrassment, and pain.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Bob Schiller

Sorry to hear of the passing of Bob Schiller. He was only 98. Along with his partner, Bob Weiskopf, he was one of the greatest comedy writers in the history of television.

Among his many credits, co-writing 53 episodes of I LOVE LUCY including the John Wayne episode and the “stomping grapes” episode.

If he never did another thing after that he would still be in the TV Hall of Fame. But he and his partner went on to write and/or produce many sitcoms and variety shows and wound up writing on ALL OF THE FAMILY then being the showrunners of MAUDE. Throw in writing for THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW too.

It’s just a staggering body of work. As comedy writing teams go, my partner and I considered them Babe Ruth.

We got to know the Bobs in the late ‘70s when we had a deal at 20th Century Fox and so did they. Both were extremely nice to a couple of young worshiping scribes. We had lunch with them numerous times. Weiskopf was the more boisterous one. Schiller was sneaky funny.

I only worked with them once. It was back in 1988 when I was consulting a Witt-Thomas NBC show called MAMA’S BOY starring Bruce Weitz and Nancy Walker. They were full-time. I was one night a week. I always thought “What the hell do they need me for when they have the two Bobs?”

And indeed they were amazing. It was a thrill to watch them work. Plus, we were on the small lot where they used to make I LOVE LUCY so they would point out landmarks like which stage was theirs and where their offices were back then. To me this was hallowed ground and I couldn’t believe I was (a) talking to the writers of I LOVE LUCY, and (b) they were treating me like a peer.

Bob Weiskopf died in early 2001 at the age of 86. There was a memorial service for him at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Lots of comedy writers spoke, telling stories. One was better and more hilarious than the next. But the very best was Bob Schiller. Babe Ruth.

I last saw Bob Schiller a few years ago at a wedding. He was well into his 90’s but that sly smile and twinkle in his eye was still there. I just sort of figured if he had lived this long then surely he would live forever. And in a way he will. Yes, he’s gone at the tender age of 98 but a hundred years from now people will still be watching I LOVE LUCY and laughing thanks to Bob Schiller. Everyone talks about the “last laugh.” He found the “laugh that lasts.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Misc-Takes

In no order of importance, relevance, or worthiness…

TV ratings across the board took a big dip week two of the season. Even sure-fire hits like BIG BANG THEORY dropped millions of people. Not good for shows premiering that week.

THE GOOD DOCTOR so far is proving to be the only new breakout hit.

Although CBS is touting that YOUNG SHELDON is a breakout hit, even though it’s only been on once, it followed BIG BANG THEORY, and no one I know who saw it liked it at all.

Revised: I stupidly asked a political question so had to cut it.   My bad for thinking I could have a civil discussion but instead just opened up the can of haters.  I suspect the haters will quickly write back outraged but I'll delete those comments as well.  Carry on.

Who else watched 13 hours of baseball yesterday?   So 45 pitching changes. 

Tomorrow night’s Indians-Yankees game should be epic.  I hope you get FS1. 

So let me get this straight – the Weinstein Company knew nothing about Harvey’s behavior. They’re shocked and aghast. But all those sexual harassment suits they settled – Harvey paid out of his own pocket? Uh… I don’t think so. And if not that means they knew all along. The whole lot of them should be fired, including his brother. (Not that the company could survive without Harvey anyway.)

Networks are starting to commission scripts for their new development season. Medical dramas, family dramas, legal dramas, and comedies from actors based on their lives. Boy, they’re really thinking out of the box this year.

At least TBS, in their baseball coverage, didn’t bombard us with 10,000 promos for Conan last past painful seasons. In fact, there have been none.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 was a giant bomb at the boxoffice. This could put the brakes to BUCKAROO BANZAI 3012.

The Steven Spielberg HBO documentary is worth seeing even though it’s 2 1/2 hours long. Did you know he directed HOOK? You still might not if you watch the documentary.

Trump is soooo sensitive. Just because his Secretary of State called him a fucking moron? Sticks and stones, Donald.

Jon Stewart was on Colbert last night. Every time I see him I cry out at the television: “WHY DID YOU LEAVE US? COME BACK!” They can hear us through the TV screen, right?

So far my prediction for movie of the year is LOGAN. But that might change when other studios send me screeners.

And finally, guys – if you want to take your girl somewhere where you can be alone, take her to a Los Angeles Chargers game.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Do I know Harvey Weinstein?

I’ve gotten a lot of readers asking if I know Harvey Weinstein. Nope. Never met him. I'm not nearly important enough.  At one time I had a feature career and was on the B-List.  Now I'm the C-List and the problem with that is: there IS no C-List." 

Harvey is embroiled in a big sexual harassment scandal that is likely to derail his career and tarnish his reputation – only leaving him with the untold millions he’s made over the years and whatever continued profits he earns from his shares of the company.    Gee, don't you feel sorry for him???   He was officially fired from the Weinstein Company yesterday (leaving his brother to run the company -- Hmmm, that doesn't sound remotely fishy, does it?). 

Hollywood is “shocked,” which of course is a giant joke. The only shock is that he was allowed to get away with this reprehensible behavior for so long.

Now come the army of attorneys and spin doctors. The current official response is for the transgressor to plead that he’s “sick” and wants to take steps to be a better person. He’s soooo sorry for what he did.

He’s only soooooo sorry he was caught.

Now he's off to "rehab" -- probably his villa in Italy.  

But this tact seems to have replaced outright denial (at least for the moment).

Meanwhile, a legal team I’m sure is setting about trying to discredit the women who blew the whistle (no pun intended but I’ll take it).

And I’m sure high-powered Hollywood chieftains are frantically meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel to discuss this stain on their cherished industry. Their big concern is probably that half of them could be exposed too.

Am I too cynical? I don’t think so because even I wouldn’t have thought Harvey Weinstein would ask Ashley Judd to watch him shower.

I mean, you figure bigshots like Weinstein and Roger Ailes probably cheat on their wives, and even have multiple mistresses, or call thousand dollar hookers, or go in chat rooms as “Tad from Pasadena.” But masturbating in hallways in front of TV reporters? These are sick fucks.

I’m sure this is nothing new. God knows what movie moguls and power agents did in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Starlets were probably passed around like joints. They were just more powerful then and there wasn’t the scrutiny and ability to break a story globally with one click. Dick pics had to be processed in studio photo labs.

But maybe now things will change – even a little. As these sex scandals continue to make headlines, blowing up longtime prestigious careers and shattering harassment firewalls, maybe one or two (or hopefully ten) of these lowlifes will not subject these women to this abuse.   And maybe women who have been abused will feel safe enough to finally come forward. 

The shame is, and it’s me being cynical again, that these lowlifes will stop this practice not because “they know it’s wrong,” but because now they’ll get caught. Still, I’ll cheerfully take it.

By the way, Harvey Weinstein will start a new company.  So far it doesn't seem like he's going to jail.  So because he makes money for investors he will get backers.   He will be back.  And I'm sure he'll be staying at nice hotels with showers.  Beware, ladies -- despite his "rehab." 

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Come see my new play

Happy to announce that my new play, OUR TIME will be performed at the Saratoga Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, NY.  later this month.

OUR TIME is a loosely autobiographical comedy about breaking into the world of comedy in
1975 Los Angeles during a golden era for comedy.

Four young Baby Boomers come of age and try to find their place in this inspiring new world.

They face levels of talent, degrees of desire, jealousy, confusion, competition, the sexual
revolution, parental pressure, ego, insecurity, religion, discrimination, luck, struggle, and decisions
that will affect the rest of their lives. Who will make it and who won’t?

If you're in the state of New York, or even Georgia and you want to take a drive, come see it.   The address is 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY.  And for reservations you can call 518-393-3496.  Tickets are $15.  I'll be there for the Friday night performance.  If you can't see HAMILTON, see this.

Thanks much.



Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Play-offs are here

Some thoughts on the playoffs. (Yes, I know – a “baseball” post. See most of you tomorrow.)

The Wild Card games always seem to be spectacular and this year was no exception. I’m convinced part of the reason is that it’s a one-game winner-take-all series. So every play is heightened, every moment is exciting.

Personally, I think there are too many playoff games. It’s ridiculous that the World Series practically ends at Thanksgiving.

The World Series is also watered down by interleague-play, so it’s no big whoop anymore to see a National League team play an American League team. Also, the World Series games start so late in the East that kids (the game’s future) are usually in bed by the third inning.

If I were commissioner here’s what I would do: One-game playoffs for the Wild Card. Three-game series for the Division. Five for the Championship Series. And the only series that goes seven is the World Series. Also, only one travel day per series. If the teams have to travel a second time they can do it in the middle of night like they do during the season. Do all of that and each game becomes more important and dramatic, and you cut out a week. You can watch the World Series and still have a few days to decorate your house for Halloween (instead of Christmas).

I’d make it easier for the fans to find the games. They’re currently on Fox, FS-1, ESPN, ESPN-2, TBS, TNT, MLB Network. And in a number of cases different networks cover the same series. And it doesn't stop there.  Your game could be listed on TBS but if the game before runs long (which they all do) the start of your game may be on TNT.  Good luck setting your DVR.

But wait -- there's more.   Beyond the first few games, the start times of future games aren't even announced.  The networks decide last minute who should go where -- meaning: if you're the Yankees, Dodgers, or Cubs you're probably playing in primetime.  If you're Houston you're not.  The casual fan is not going to go to the effort of finding these games. And it’s the casual fan you need to attract – the person who only follows baseball during the post-season.

Keep Harold Reynolds away from any broadcast booth. He’s the current Joe Morgan.

Bring Jon Miller back.

And ESPN – find a place for Jason Benetti (pictured above). You have the best young baseball announcer in the country in your fold. Use him.  Instead, ESPN has Chris Berman calling a series on the radio.  He's maybe the worst radio baseball play-by-play man ever.

If you have the MLB app or Sirius/XM and you want to follow the Cleveland-New York game, listen to the Indians radio broadcast.  Tom Hamilton is exceptional.  

Have you ever seen so many first inning home runs as in these playoff games so far?  Off of pitching aces no less. 

Jose Altuve is the single best player in baseball.  Disagree all you want.  

What World Series match-up do you think Fox is rooting for? Dodgers vs. Yankees or Diamondbacks vs. Astros?

Best of luck to YOUR team.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions, shall we?

Donald Benson gets us started.

Were there ever jokes that had to go because they were TOO funny? Not because of actors' egos or anything like that, but because they broke the pace of a scene or diminished a climax?

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating.

One of the biggest laughs we ever got on CHEERS was taken out when the show aired. Not that big laughs are so easy to get that it’s no big whoop to just toss one, but in this case we felt it ruined the show. Here’s the backstory.

First season. The episode was called “The Coach’s Daughter” (written by Ken Estin and directed by James Burrows). The Coach’s somewhat plain daughter introduces her fiancĂ© Roy to her dad and the gang at Cheers and he’s a real boorish lout. (He sold flame retardant reversible suits and yet he wasn’t reputable.)

Late in the episode there’s a lovely scene where the Coach has a heart-to-heart with his daughter, Lisa in Sam’s office. It’s clear to everyone (but the Coach of course) that she’s marrying this clown out of insecurity not love. Lisa tells her dad that Roy thinks she’s beautiful. The Coach says, “You are beautiful. You look just like your mother.” It was meant to touch Lisa’s heart.

We were holding our breaths hoping it didn’t get a big gooey “Awwwwwwww!” Instead it got this thunderous laugh. Applause even. Everyone on the stage was stunned. We shot the scene again, thinking this time they’ll see it differently. Nope. Huge laugh the SECOND time.

Still, when we assembled the show we all felt it hurt the scene and ultimately the story. Kudos to the Charles Brothers for being willing to lift the episode’s biggest laugh to preserve the emotional core of the show.

Sometimes jokes can also sacrifice the integrity of your characters -- make them too stupid, too insensitive, etc. When that even becomes a borderline call my vote is to dump the joke. Same with jokes of questionable taste. Take the high road.  Even today. 

As hard as it is to write big jokes, it's always much harder to discard them. But the rewards are greater and you'll like yourself in the morining.

Joe asks a question about Frank Burns:

Do you think, in a way, you and David were lucky that Larry Linville left MASH before you took over as great writers?

Larry Linville was a great actor, but it seemed like the character became more creepy and even disturbing in some Season 5 episodes. The Frank of the first four seasons were great, but I felt the character jumped the shark in Season 5.

And it opened the door for Charles Emerson Winchester, who might have been the best -- and certainly most complex -- character in the show.

I had very mixed feelings. No one made me laugh harder than Larry Linville as Frank Burns in those early “Gelbart” years. We came aboard season five and got to write three episodes with Frank. And it was great fun.

But a fair criticism of the character was that he was too broad and it strained the credibility of the series that someone that dim could be a doctor. So when Larry chose to leave after season five we made a conscious effort to replace him with a character that was the opposite. Charles Winchester was smarter than Hawkeye and BJ, not just a punching bag.

That character was also fun to write and I think it energized the show and created a different chemistry. And 90% of the credit goes to David Ogden Stiers for playing the character so brilliantly.

And finally, from Gary:

When watching NBC's big hit THIS IS US (and enjoying it as much as anyone), I've noticed the show's writers break one of your cardinal rules: they often have the characters delivering long, long speeches during their conversations. The speeches are beautifully written, and the acting is excellent, but once you're aware of it, it seems unrealistic -- these people never say "um...", they never stumble over their words, they never lose their train of thought, etc. It's just total eloquence. Exactly like real life, right? I'm wondering if you've also noticed this, and whether it affects your enjoyment of the show.

This to me is where you can justifiably claim creative license. Paddy Chayefsky’s characters had long speeches, so do Aaron Sorkin’s. Playwrights have employed them for years. They key, as you said, is that they’re beautifully written.

Similarly, in comedies when characters have just the right comeback. Yeah, it’s stylized but I think the audience will overlook that if they appreciate the line.

Actors will sometimes throw in “uh’s” and stumbles and they think that makes them sound more natural. It actually makes them seem like they don’t really know the line.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Maybe the most thankless role in televison

What's the most thankless role in television?

Ask any actress. They’ll tell you in a heartbeat. Playing the TV wife in a sitcom.

In most cases the show is built around the husband. He’s usually a dolt, and it’s the wife’s job to tolerate him, to be amused by him, or worse, be the wet blanket.

She’s the one always saying, “Don’t do that!” She’s the one always refusing to go storm chasing. He’s the fun one. She’s the “grown up.” She’s the rational one. There’s no greater vein of comedy gold than rationality.

Also, it’s difficult to establish chemistry when in many cases, let’s get real, the wife is so much prettier and/or younger than her husband. So you don’t believe them as a couple for a second. And on top of everything else, the actress has to somehow try to make it believable that she would be married to this clown.

Yeah, like Courtney Thorne-Smith would be married to Jim Belushi.

And this is after years of TV evolution.

Originally TV wives were dingbats. Lucy, Joan (I MARRIED JOAN), Gladys (PETE & GLADYS). Okay, you’ve probably never heard of those last two but trust me, they were knock-off Lucy’s. The only exception (and she was a phenomenal exception) was Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden on THE HONEYMOONERS. She was the smart one, the savvy one, and got laughs from her dignity not shenanigans.

With the ‘60s came Laura Petrie from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Here the wife was an equal partner. But she was still a housewife, and still did goofy things like dye her dark hair blonde, and get her toe stuck in a bathtub nozzle. And there was still resistance to her getting a job or even taking a night class.

70’s wives ran the spectrum. Emily was truly a partner on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. She worked, but there was no need for her to be a stay-at-home mom because they had no children. ALL IN THE FAMILY’S Edith was a complete dingbat, but then came Maude. She was the powerhouse and her husband was a limp noodle. Louise Jefferson took no shit as well.

Roseanne was in the Maude mold (although with a very different sensibility), but slowly family shows gravitated to stand-up comedians doing versions of their act and wives were relegated to cockblockers.

Kudos to the few who broke through that. Patty Heaton on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND had a lot of Alice Kramden in her, Leah Remini was every bit Kevin James’ equal on KING OF QUEENS, and Julie Bowen elevates MODERN FAMILY’S Claire despite being saddled with another man-child husband. (Sofia Vergara remains a sketch.)

And again, it’s not because these actresses in thankless roles aren’t capable of much more and delivering way more comedy; it’s that they aren’t given the material necessary to shine.

So my heart goes out to Patricia Richardson, Nancy Travis, Jamie Gertz, Liza Snyder, Courtney-Thorne Smith, Marion Ross, Phylicia Rashad, Meredith Baxter, Joely Fisher, Wanda McCullough, Betty Rubble, and all the rest.

Obviously, there are more examples for all of these, and exceptions to all as well. And I suspect the comments section will remind me of all of them. But again, ask a working actress what her least favorite roles have been and I’ll bet they tell you TV wives. And it’s not like they can seek counseling.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

EP40: The State of the (WGA) Union.


Ken talks with the President of the WGA West, David Goodman about the state of the industry – strikes and near strikes, issues the Guild hopes to address, diversity, opportunities, the health plan, and navigating this new world of entertainment options. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Bad reviews

Interesting article by playwright/blogger, Donna Hoke about bad reviews (and how to survive them). Basically she says as difficult as it may be, the writer needs to be open to the criticism. (I half expected her piece of weathering bad reviews to be a survey on which drugs and alcoholic beverages were the most effective.) Anyway, it’s well worth reading.

Let me chime in my two cents.

First of all, if you’re a writer for any length of time you’re going to get some bad reviews. They’re inevitable. It’s one of the prices you pay to stick your neck out there and go public with your work.

I’ve had my share of bad reviews. One critic said MANNEQUIN 2 was like “stepping in something.” The review went downhill from there. Tom Shayles, the longtime TV reviewer of the Washington Post hated BIG WAVE DAVE’S so much he blamed my partner and me for the downfall of the television industry. (Okay, he was right.) 

Obviously, bad reviews are no fun. And they sting. But they can also be helpful. Sometimes I’ll read a bad review and be mad at myself. Why didn’t I see that story flaw or whatever the criticism was? If the reviewer was confused about something I have to decide whether I wasn’t clear enough or the reviewer was just dense. Like Donna points out, critics often get details wrong on shows they liked. You get a rave even though they missed the whole point.

There are times when you know going in that your show is bad. And it might not be your fault. Your play was horribly cast and directed. Your screenplay was re-written by six hacks and the result is a piece of shit. And in those cases you just have to hold onto something and take your beating.

It’s important to take into consideration who is critiquing you and whether they have their own agenda. For my play A OR B? (pictured above: me with stars Jason Dechert and Jules Willcox) when it was produced at the Falcon Theatre a few years ago I enjoyed fabulous reviews – except for one. This guy so hated every single thing about it that he even panned the props. Far from being hurt I found the review hilarious.

Another time I received a rave review for ALMOST PERFECT (the Nancy Travis CBS show I co-created) from the Baltimore Sun and in the middle of it the critic said I was a shitty baseball announcer. Huh? Where did that come from?  I had been gone from Baltimore for four years. He needed to get in that gratuitous slam in a review about a TV show?

When you come to playwrighting from a TV comedy background you can almost bet some theatre critics are going to call your play a “sitcom.” Christopher Durang writes the same play and he’s a comic genius. That’s just the nature of the beast. I always take comfort in a 1991 Kurt Vonnegut Jr. interview when he said: “I would rather have written CHEERS than anything I've written.”

Some critics are nasty and you have to take that into account. Some may just not like your work. You’re just not their cup of tea. Some have a certain point-of-view and if your piece goes against it you’re going to get slammed. On the other hand, there may be critics who just adore everything you do and will give you glowing reviews you don’t really deserve.

And that’s another key – you have to weigh the good and bad reviews equally. Just as you might not agree with a certain criticism, you have to discard effusive praise. Your project is probably not as good or bad as they say.

At the end of the day you have to take what you can from them and move on. Al Michaels, a great sportscaster, used to keep in his pocket a review that slammed Vin Scully. Even Vin Scully got blasted. Michaels kept it merely as a reminder that no matter who you are there are going to be people who don’t like you. So do the best you can and don’t worry about it. Al, if you’re reading this, you’re welcome to carry around my Baltimore Sun ALMOST PERFECT review as well.