Saturday, March 25, 2017

My favorite weekend

Yes, I'm dipping into the archives but it's one of my favorite all-time posts, so what the hell?  I've picked up a few new readers since it ran six years ago.  Here's how long ago this was originally posted -- there's a MySpace joke.  But you will get the idea. 
 
The Thursday Calendar section of the LA TIMES has a feature called “My Favorite Weekend”. A celebrity is asked to describe his or her favorite southland weekend. It’s always bullshit, but now it seems they’re running out of real celebrities. At one time it was Sharon Stone. Now it's one of the models who holds briefcases on DEAL OR NO DEAL. Like anyone gives a crap that she likes to go to Catalina with friends on Sunday then have dinner at someone’s house and let his chef prepare the meal.

So I wrote up my favorite weekend. Or at least, a typical weekend for me. And God bless the TIMES, they ran it. Here it is again just in case you're looking for something to do today and tomorrow.

Friday I like to get an early start and hit the cockfights in Tijuana. I enjoy the action and it’s fun to see all the young couples out on their first dates.

From there I’ll go to the Hotel Del Coronado for a swim to wash any blood off.

There’s a Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus restaurant in Oceanside right off Interstate 5. They have a three-course dinner for two that includes two sides. And on Friday you can get their signature clam chowder, just like the cowboys used to make.

Saturday morning I power walk from Westwood to Malibu, get the paper, then power walk home. Along the way I may stop at an artist friend’s house and pose for a bust.


For lunch I’ll meet some ex car thieves at Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Their Big Boy hamburger is an LA classic, but I order their Super Big Boy hamburger because that one has meat in it.

After lunch and checking to see that one of my dining companions didn’t steal my XM radio, I amble over to the Twin Swallows Oriental Massage Parlor in nearby Inglewood for some pampering at negotiated rates.

Once that ends happily I head back home to work on my “project”. It’s been a ten year labor of love. I’m assembling a table I bought at Ikea in 1998.

For drinks at sunset, especially in the summer when the sky turns an awe inspiring crimson, I prefer the bar at the Shangri-La motel at the beach. Only wish it had a window so I could see outside.

If I went whale hunting the week before I’ll come home and grill it for dinner. I’ll invite some close friends I met on MySpace and we’ll eat, discuss the theater, sample fine wines, and toss water balloons at the useless neighborhood watch patrol car.

Early Sunday morning I reserve for calling back everyone who called me during the week. For some reason I usually wind up leaving messages on their voice mail. I’ve yet to reach my dentist.

For breakfast I’m cutting down on eggs so it’s back to the Shangri-La motel bar for a Ramos Gin Fizz. Those eggs can kill you.

Next I steal a horse and play polo at Will Rogers State Park. The guys love me because I usually bring the little orange juice boxes when we break for snacks.

I love star watching so for lunch I zip out to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills. Last week I saw the remaining cast members of MCHALE’S NAVY.

Sunday afternoon is culture time. You can’t be well informed if you don’t read. Currently I’m poring through Helen Reddy’s autobiography.

Sunday evening is sushi so that means Angel Stadium in Anaheim. There’s nothing like watching the Halos duel the Kansas City Royals and hearing that vendor come down the aisle yelling “Hey, sushi right here! Get yer yellowtail!”

I get home, use the neighbor’s Jacuzzi if he’s not home, watch the CELEBRITY FIT CLUB and then it’s time for bed. The great thing about LA is that it’s not just me – EVERYONE here has weekends like this.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday Questions

Look out! Friday Questions coming your way!

Andy Rose starts us off:

I've noticed that often actors who miss out on a starring role in a sitcom later get a big guest role on the same show. On Cheers, Fred Dryer (who lost the role of Sam) was on a few times as a friend of Sam's who hits on Diane, and Julia Duffy (who lost the role of Diane) had a guest appearance as a friend of Diane's who hits on Sam.

Is this because the producers are already familiar with these actors and genuinely think they'll be best for the guest role, or is there a deliberate effort to give them some work as a consolation for losing the main gig?

It’s because the Charles Brothers and Jimmy Burrows were impressed with both of them. I must say, I loved Julia Duffy. We wrote the episode in which she appeared (“Any Friend of Diane’s”) and she was HILARIOUS. I was thrilled when she got the gig on NEWHART several years later and was able to show the world on a weekly basis just how talented and funny she is.

Fred Dryer, I’ll be honest, I never got. Never liked him on CHEERS, always thought he was stiff, and not in a “serving the character” way but in an “actor just awkward” way.   That said, I loved him as a Los Angeles Ram.  But he didn't have to be funny. 

From Bill in Toronto:

Why doesn't a flailing network like NBC or Fox hire proven showrunners like the Charles Brothers or a somebody with some drama successes to greenlight its program schedule, rather than "execs"?

I don’t know many writers/showrunners who would want one of those jobs. Those are for corporate types. Most successful writers aren’t built for wearing a suit everyday, going to an office, reporting to a superior, negotiating all the politics, unrealistic expectations, and intrigue that goes with one of those jobs.

There have been a few cases of former writers becoming network executives. One, off the top of my head, was Barbara Corday (one of the creators of CAGNEY & LACEY), who did a great job at ABC. But most writers aren’t interested. And truthfully, I don’t think networks are that interested in hiring someone not from their ranks.

As for me (not that you asked)? I wouldn’t want one of those gigs. Unless I had complete autonomy to develop shows the way I wanted, make the ultimate selection on which shows got picked up, and had final say on time slots I am not remotely interested. And nobody in their right mind would agree to those demands so it’s a moot point.

Carson Clark asks:

You have spoken before about NBC wanting Cheers to switch to videotape to save money. This got me to thinking, what exactly determined whether shows in the 70s thru the 90s would be shot on film or video? The film shows have certainly held up better since it's possible to go back now and get an HD print off of them as opposed to the video shows that will forever be stuck in 480 resolution.

Financial considerations for one. Taped shows were cheaper. After that it was creative choice. Some production companies like MTM thought the look of film was richer and more attractive. Other companies like Norm Lear’s preferred tape because he wanted his shows to feel more like plays than little movies. Taped shows are more in your face.

I always preferred the look of film, but lots of my favorite shows are on tape.  More important than format is the writing and casting. 

Ismo Rauvola opens up an old wound.

In episode 10 of your podcast you talk about how the premise of Almost Perfect is shattered by Les Moonves kicking out the boyfriend. Do these guys, producers, bosses, whoever, non-writers ever take the blame for fouling up a potential hit show? You said somewhere that it's always the writers' fault, but have the bosses ever owned up to having made a mistake?

In this case, yes. I have to say, I like Les Moonves very much. I may not agree with all of his decisions, but he’s a straight-up guy, you know where you stand, and he makes himself accessible.

In this case, I said to him we’d agree to write out the boyfriend (it’s not like we had a choice) but we weren’t going to lie to the actor and say it was our decision. He said fine, which is another thing I admire about him – he’s willing to take responsibility for his decisions. Oh, for the days when our country had leaders like that.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

If other U.S. presidents could Tweet...

@JFK: Marilyn Monroe is the greatest actress EVER.

@HonestAbe: Slavery is bad and goes against the principles of America.

@RonaldReagan: I had soup for lunch.

@HarryS.Truman: Don’t believe the polls. Fake news.

@ChesterA.Arthur: No, really. I AM the president.

@HerbertHoover: Yes it’s a Depression but a GREAT Depression?  Fake news.

@JFK: Angie Dickinson is the greatest actress EVER.

@GeraldFord:

@HonestAbe: Thanks for all the RT’s of the Gettysburg Address.

@LBJ: My hands are big too.

@RonaldReagan: I’m wearing clean socks.

@BillClinton: Being president is like being Mick Jagger. 

@ThomasJefferson: No live Tweeting White House picnic. My VP @AaronBurr just shot someone. There’s always something.

@FDR: Body shaming Eleanor is not cool.

@IkeEisenhower:  Yeah yeah, bitch all you want -- a day will come when you will long for "boring."

@WoodrowWilson: Hey, my name and World War have the same initials!

@IkeEisenhower: You'll be BEGGING for "boring."  

@NotACrook: I knew nothing about Watergate. Fake news.

@ChesterA.Arthur: I should have more than 14 followers.

@GeorgeW: I bet you miss me NOW.

@WarrenG.Harding: I bet you miss me NOW.

@HonestAbe: Has anyone seen the first lady?

@IkeEisenhower: Watch out for the Military Industrial Complex and my VP.

@JimmyCarter: Just wait. I’m going to do great things. I just have to leave office first.

@NotACrook: That silverware was gone before I got there. Fake news.

@GeorgeWashington: Wooden teeth jokes are getting old.

@RonaldReagan: I had soup for lunch.

@JFK: Judith Exner is the greatest actress EVER. She is an actress, right?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Episode 12: Pissing off NBC and other TV tales


To avoid NBC giving away a big surprise in an episode of FRASIER that Ken co-write, they slipped it in at the last minute and NBC aired it sight unseen. The peacock was not pleased. Also, hear about the time Ken got thrown off THE DATING GAME, the CHEERS episode he co-wrote wound up in a Playboy Magazine expose, and you’ll meet the most bizarre radio personality you will ever hear.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

My favorite GONG SHOW act

With the passing of Chuck Barris, this bears repeating:  My favorite GONG SHOW act.  It was only seen on the east coast because they figured it out by the time it was scheduled for the west.  Note:  Panelist Jaye P. Morgan has the line of the day!

YouTube won't let me embed it so just click here.

Also, on my new podcast episode coming later tonight, I tell the story of how Chuck Barris threw me off the DATING GAME.   It's a warm touching story so gather the whole family.   And I didn't even have a Popsicle.

Here's to the comedy writers who lunch

The Algonquin Round Table was this legendary rendezvous for witty playwrights, columnists, authors, and actors. They would meet for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York on a regular basis from 1919 to 1929. Out of these fabled luncheons would come classic quotes like Dorothy Parker's -- “Let me get out of these wet clothes into a dry martini.” I’d list the names of the participants but you’ve probably never heard of most if not any of them. I only bring it up because these lunches have become so storied that you would think they were the Justice League of Comedy.

I’m sure witty zingers would be uttered from time to time. And pithy lines. Pith was very big back then. But I bet, for all the hoopla, the Algonquin Round Table was no funnier (and probably less funny) than any six TV comedy writers getting together at a deli. Or comedians for that matter.

If you love to laugh (and kill yourself with fatty meats), there is no greater way to spend a couple of hours. The following topics are always discussed:

Actors who are monsters that we’ve worked with. And trying to top each other with our actor’s horribleness.  It's not a fair fight when Roseanne writers join. 

Who died.

House repairs as a result of a natural disaster. Retaining walls only collapse on comedy writers.

Other comedy writers who are funnier than we are.

Agents.

Shows we hate.  (This can take up half the lunch.) 

Vacation horror stories. (which usually includes lost luggage and more natural disasters.)

Cars we’ve sold.

Cars we’ve bought. Comedy writers are cutting edge. They’re among the first to have electric cars, hybrids, and now hydrogen cars (which sound like four-wheel Hindenburgs).    If they make a car that runs on human waste, comedy writers will buy it if they can get a sticker allowing them to drive in the carpool lane. 

Lexapro.

Chuck Lorre.

Ex-wives, ex-husbands, child support, private school tuition, orthodontia. 

Jury duty (ways to get out of it).

Former writer/crazy man Pat McCormick stories. None I could repeat here.

Projects that we’re working on – real and imagined.

The upcoming WGA strike. There’s always an upcoming WGA strike.

Who else died.

Great jokes we’ve heard – all told really well. At least one pertaining to Bea Arthur.

Stupid network notes we’ve received.

And new this year…

How fucked we all are with Trump in the White House.

I bet for every laugh they got at the Algonquin we get four (although our pith level is shamefully low). Never has anger been so hilarious. It truly is an honor to sit at a table with great comic minds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been doubled over… although that’s probably the pastrami.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The not-so-quiet life of a TV writer

Why is it that any construction project, even if it’s just doing touch-up painting on windowsills, requires jackhammers? And usually for weeks at a time even though the project is a three-day job. Plus, all jackhammers must be in use at 7:00 AM. Only farmers get up earlier than jackhammer operators.

We currently have a construction project going at our house and as I write this the walls are rattling.

When David Isaacs and I are writing at one of our houses we (half) jokingly contend that construction crews wait for us to begin writing a script before they go to work. Obama must’ve wire-tapped our homes and when Barack or Michelle hears “fade in” they alert construction crews waiting around the corner that the mission is a “go.”

TV writers must learn to deal with such distractions. There’s no time to drive up to your cabin, throw some logs in the fireplace, make yourself some Swiss Miss, gaze out over the breathtaking panorama, and wait for the muse to gently caress you. The stage needs pages! NOW!

And often times the conditions are not optimal. David and I had a great bungalow for many years at Paramount. It’s where we had our writing room for several series. The only slight problem was our bungalow was across the street of the studio mill where they built the sets. So all day long we would hear drills and power saws and hammers and they had a radio tuned to the oldies station, KRTH which, at the time, played “Pretty Woman” six times every hour. We tried to send the PA over to tell them to all be quiet, we were working, but that didn’t go well.

Our office at MASH was in the Old Writers Building on the 20th lot. It looks like a Swiss Chalet. Quite often it was used in movies or TV shows. Just a couple of weeks ago I saw it on FEUD. It was not uncommon to hear gun battles outside our window for six hours. Or a body falling down the adjacent staircase after a flurry of bullets.

One time they were taping a Mike Douglas Show outside our window. Mike Douglas was a popular daytime talk show host – think “Ellen” with dark hair. All day long they recorded him singing. So we were writing while Mike Douglas serenaded us with love songs. I preferred the gun battles.

This was similar to earlier in our career when we wrote at my apartment in West Hollywood. A neighbor blared the soundtrack of CHORUS LINE all friggin’ day. “ONE singular sensation!”

The point is, you have to persevere through it. TV writers learn to do that.  And we take pride in our professionalism and stamina.   But Jesus, don’t these maniacs ever take a break?! And... oh no!  One of them just turned on KRTH.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

From the Coach to Woody -- a rough time on CHEERS

Here’s a Friday Question that became a dedicated post.

cd1515 asks:

With Paxton dying and his series Training Day now apparently over, I wonder if you can take us thru some of what went on with Coach dying on Cheers, obviously the series wasn't going to be cancelled but the adjustments that had to be made, how far in advance were they planning to make them knowing Coach was sick, what other people were in the mix to play Woody, what other ideas did people have to replace Coach, etc.

We were not caught totally off guard. Watch the pilot of CHEERS and then the first few episodes. You’ll see that Nick Colasanto lost some weight. We all had an inkling that something was wrong.  Later in that season he came down with pleurisy. He spent a couple of days in the hospital but insisted on coming back for the show. 

In year three he really started to lose weight. You can tell from watching the episodes. We really didn’t know the extent of his failing condition and Nick always downplayed it, but it was a matter of great concern.

By the last half of the season he was hospitalized and we kept his character in the show by saying that the Coach was traveling and sending letters. By reading the letters aloud it kept his voice alive.

Nick passed away shortly before the end of that season (February 12, 1985). He was only 61. I never spoke to the Charles Brothers about it so I have no idea whether they were expecting the worst and already starting to come up with a new character or just hoping Nick would recover during the offseason and be back when season four began in August.

Once he died, thoughts were turned to how to replace him?  You'd think there was a real luxury of time since production wouldn't begin for six months, but the writers wanted the actor in place so they could write scripts and tailor them to the actor. 

The Coach played a very important role. I’ve talked about this before – “dumb” characters are not only easy to write but they also provide a real function. It’s always difficult to get out exposition and by explaining something to the Coach we were in fact explaining it clearly to the audience.

NBC wanted a young character. All networks want young characters. And the Charles Brothers wisely didn’t want to bring in someone who was too similar to Nick.

So the character of Woody was created. It’s not enough to make a character “dumb.” You need a reason. The Coach was hit in the head with too many fastballs. In the case of Woody, the idea was that he was just a naive farmboy. And if you listen carefully to his dialogue you’ll see he’s not stupid, he just takes everything literally.

So that was the casting assignment and you know the rest – Woody Harrelson got the part. Ironically, the character’s name was Woody before Mr. Harrelson auditioned.  Lots of actors went up for the role.  I honestly don't remember who.   I'm sure three or four that went on to be huge stars but Woody was the absolute perfect choice.  (And he became a pretty big star himself.)

In closing, I have to say that as much as I love Woody I always missed the Coach. There was something so sweet about his relationship with Sam and his affection for the others at the bar that to me was never duplicated – and that was a wonderful element of the show.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Sports Illustrated article is on the newsstands now

I was honored to write a piece for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the great Dave Niehaus, the beloved voice of the Seattle Mariners (and my partner).  

It appears in their tribute to Seattle baseball edition, which you can find here.  

My oh my, Dave was the best -- on and off the air. 

Marching home

March 19th has always been a significant date for me. On that date in 1971 I ended my active duty in the U.S. Army. Of course, that active duty was only six months. But three of them were Basic Training in the Ozarks in the winter so it was not the luxury resort the recruiting pamphlets would have you believe.

I had joined the Army Reserves. This was during the Vietnam War and my draft number was four, which meant that if I missed one homework assignment I would lose my student deferment and wind up in Southeast Asia. I was able to get into an Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit so happily enlisted. I figured, we were really in trouble if they called up disc jockeys to fight. What weapon requires the ability to talk up to vocals?

The last three months of active duty were actually kind of fun. I was trained to be an Information Specialist – Broadcaster. Think: Sean Spicer but we were not penalized for telling the truth. I was stationed at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. It snowed every day, but otherwise it was pretty much like college except with KP.,

Once I returned to “civilian” life I then had 5 ½ years of monthly meetings and two-weeks of annual summer camp. And of course we were always on-call to be re-activated to active duty. So for almost six years I held my breath and put on my short-hair wig.

Looking back, on the night I saw my draft number was four I thought this was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. But in many ways, it proved to be the best. I met my writing partner in our reserve unit, and without experiencing army life I don’t think I could have ever really written MASH. That show was our golden ticket. So in a roundabout way I have the army to thank for my career. Me and snipers.

Still, every March 19th, it’s nice to know I no longer have to wear my fatigues – not that I can get into them anymore.