Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In search of great burgers

My name might as well be Wimpy. I love me a good burger. And they’re healthy too! (They have lettuce in them, right?) So today I thought I’d survey some burger places. The opinions expressed are my own and you might disagree. Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Getting it out of the way right off the bat, McDonalds’ burgers are awful. Unless you have kids and you’re trying to get them toys from Happy Meals there’s no reason to ever go to McDonalds.

Maybe you have to be from the east coast to appreciate them, but I also think White Castle is disgusting. I need a shower just walking in there.

Burger King to me is airport food court fare. Not terrible and you can customize.  I wouldn't bring one on a plane and eat it four hours later though.

Carl’s Jr./Hardees and Wendy’s are for when you’re on a cross-country driving trip, you’re hungry, and it’s the last rest stop before New Mexico.

Of the more upscale fast-food burgers, there’s much debate on the west coast between Five Guys and In ‘N Out. I like ‘em both. In N’ Out used to be more of a treat when there were fewer of them. But they’re always made to order, the burger is hot and the lettuce and tomatoes are fresh and crispy cold. The fries are meh.

I think I prefer Five Guys. I like when you order a bacon burger the bacon is broken up so you get bacon in every bite. People rave about their fries. I’ve never tried them. They offer free peanuts so I eat those.

In LA we also have Fat Burger and they have their fans. My daughter Annie has a rule: Never eat in an establishment where the consequences are right in the title. So that would disqualify Fat Burger, In N’ Out, and probably Tombstone Pizza. Fat Burger is not as greasy as it sounds. Just order the burger broiled and you’re good to go.

Fuddruckers has two things going for it. Big buns (easy to eat) and a condiment aisle so you can customize it yourself. Last time I was there Jay Leno was right in front of me. So it’s the place to go to see stars.

Do you have The Counter where you live? Might just be a west coast thing. Partially owned by Jon Favreau I’m told, but very good quality beef, lots of condiment options, and somehow they always cook it just right. You order medium rare it comes out medium rare.

We’re now starting to get Shake Shacks out here. I must say the very first time I had a Shake Shack burger I was knocked out by it. Each subsequent time I’ve liked it a little less. Not sure why. Nice soft buns and the fries are tasty. Am I spitting on the cross not saying these are the greatest burgers ever?

Umami Burgers are popular out west. I had one I quite enjoyed and one that was so bad I returned it and got my money back. I’m not hipster enough to appreciate Umami Burgers.

Tommy’s at Beverly & Rampart in LA has yummy chiliburgers, but only if you’re young or have a cast-iron stomach. And whatever you do, don’t eat one in your car. You will NEVER get rid of that chili smell.

Moving up to sit down restaurants, there once was a chain called Hamburger Hamlet. Mostly LA but sprinkled throughout Chicago, Washington DC, and a few other eastern haunts. Their burgers were a cut above and their #11, their “greatest burger” with cheese, bacon, etc. and thousand island dressing was pretty great. The chain went out of business but in LA the one in Van Nuys has re-opened under new management and although they’ve done an okay job of recreating the old menu, their #11 is not even “the goodest.”

A delicious burger can be found at the Apple Pan in West Los Angeles. Only problem there is it’s one horseshoe counter with people standing behind you waiting to take your seat. To me that’s unnerving and I always feel compelled to just shovel down my food.. But if you go off-hours things are more relaxed. The service is spectacular. These waiters have been there for forty years. I once saw Warren Beatty munching at the counter. Not as big a star as Jay Leno but still considered a celebrity I suppose.

I’m told the Burger joint at the Parker-Meridian is supposed to be spectacular. I’m flying to New York today so plan to check it out this trip.

Speaking of New York, I haven’t been there in ages, but I remember a place called Jackson Hole. Their burger was so huge you couldn’t eat it. They must grind an entire cow for every patty. Too big. If I can’t get my mouth around a burger it loses points.

Boll Weevil hamburgers in San Diego were half-pound, real cheap, and surprisingly good.

Call me sentimental, but I still love Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Bob’s was the originator of the double deck hamburger and I enjoy it as much now as I did when I was nine. Some nights they still have car service.

Mel’s Drive-In is another ‘50s throwback diner. Remember them from AMERICAN GRAFFITTI? Decent burgers and more big Hollywood stars. I saw Andy Kindler once in Mel’s.

And finally, my all-time favorite burger place has re-opened but don’t be fooled. Cassell’s now sucks. This breaks my heart. Cassell’s used to be in a corner dumpy spot in the Wilshire district. The grill was on a slant so the grease rolled off. The buns were large, and they had a condiment bar that included homemade potato salad that was out of this world. Now it’s re-opened down the block in a Hotel on Normandy and the condiment bar is gone, the potato salad isn’t nearly as good and it’s no longer free, the buns are different, and it seems to me the quality of the meat has gone downhill. A great burger is more than just a name.

Depending on where you live I’m sure there are awesome burger places I have no knowledge of. If the TRAVEL CHANNEL would let me do a show where I go around the country sampling them, I would be more than happy to give yours a try.

As Wimpy used to say, “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Wait a minute. It IS Tuesday. Never mind.

Note:  Since I will airborne most of the day and I moderate the comments there may be a lag before yours is posted.  But I will get to it.  So comment away.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nothing's changed

Here's a helpful writer tip:

Even though people change, there are traits that always stay the same. You see this a lot at high school reunions. Someone may now be a big hotshot lawyer but he still slouches and wears a pocket protector hidden under the jacket of his $1000 suit. 

When people ask I tell them I’m still 13.  I'm only half-joking.

When I was 13 I used to repair to my room, sit at my desk, and draw comic books. I don’t even think I ever showed them to anybody. But they were fun to draw and fun to create the elaborate stories for them. (Think: Rocky & Bullwinkle) God knows if they were any good.

Also, I would be listening to KFWB Channel 98 “Color Radio.” They played the hits of the day straight off the “Fabulous 40” survey.

Flash forward to today, and I’m in my office, at my desk, writing a new play. Meanwhile, my speakers are blaring Richbroradio.com – bar none the best oldies station on the internet – and I thought to myself, “Ohmygod. Nothing’s changed. Only the jokes are different.”

When creating characters for your screenplay or pilot or novel, one thing to keep in mind is “who they were.” You can often take character traits of your youth or others and apply them to help define characters in adulthood. It’s just another great tool. Your bratty annoying sister might have just done you a favor by being bratty and annoying.
And by the way, let me double back and recommend Richbroradio.com.  It’s programmed by Rich Brother Robbin, one of the great jocks and PD’s of the golden Top 40 era. If you like oldies from the ‘50s-‘70s this is the station for you. Primarily because he has a deep playlist. Unlike terrestrial stations that play the same 100 tunes (How many times can you hear “Proud Mary?” Ugh!), you’ll hear songs you haven’t heard in years. Also vintage radio jingles and NO COMMERCIALS. I listen on iTunes but you can find it here. Who knows? Maybe it’ll help you write a great play. Or comic book.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

My daughter the pole dancer

This is a re-post from January 2013.    My daughter Annie taking a pole dancing class.  Flash-forward and she and her now husband/partner Jon are co-producers on KEVIN CAN WAIT.  One of their episodes (co-written with Dan Staley) airs tomorrow night at 8 on CBS. But as you'll see, she and Jon were already funnier than me four years ago. 
My daughter, Annie recently took a pole dancing class. Here's her account of it (with help from her writing partner, Jon). As a father I couldn't be more proud.

Everyone likes to think their coworkers respect them…

Mine bought me a Groupon to a pole dancing class for my birthday. (Based on the average age of my coworkers, I chose to take this as a sign of admiration for my functional hips.)

I didn't plan to actually use the thing until my dad demanded I do a blog post about it. Most parents tend to discourage their children entering the world of erotic dancing. Mine bought me kneepads and offered to drive.

I'm lucky to have found the place at all. There was no sign out front, no mention on any directory, absolutely no distinguishing marks of any kind. Areola 51.

I finally discovered the way in and was rewarded for my perseverance with a dimly lit studio whose windows were blacked out by feather boas. It was like stumbling into RuPaul's doomsday bunker.

The class was called Pole Diva (Level 1) and the teacher was a pocket-sized Latina woman who kept criticizing everybody's "sexy pushups."

For the uninitiated, "sexy pushups" are when you caress your body before Shamu sliding along the hardwood and pulling yourself back up. Making sure to rub your hips again for good measure. Based on how my classmates looked doing them, I think "sexy pushup" is meant to be one of those ironic terms like "FOX comedy."

Not that everyone was bad at it. The woman in front of me was clearly the star pupil, and by the end of class even I was throwing her a few singles.

The humiliation of the "sexy pushup" (thoughtfully enhanced by the floor to ceiling mirrors we performed in front of) finally came to an end. It was time to strap on our kneepads (thanks again, Dad!) and pick our pole.

They offered us bottles of alcohol to disinfect the poles before use. I requested penicillin.

We learned a few different spins over the course of the hour. They all had fun names like "the sunburst" and "the firefly." Each one a new way to wind up with my ass on the floor and legs spread wide. The actual spinning was fun, though, until my teacher scolded me for yelling, "Wheeee!"

A large part of pole dancing seems to be walking around the pole, doing a sort of Igor foot drag. I pictured Martha Graham spinning in her grave every time this was referred to as choreography.

I did find one maneuver especially difficult, but was assured it would be much easier once I performed it in high heels. Pole dancing has to be the only physical activity in the world where that's true. "The Lakers are down fifty in the fourth quarter! Get Kobe his stilettos!"

By the end of class, I was so black and blue my dancer name would have been Hematoma. (In actuality, I would choose something a little more exotic if I ever entered the profession. Right now the top candidate is Treif Magnifique.)

The staff knew most of us were only in it for the one class. Still, they kept pressuring us to come back. On our way out, they made sure we knew that they were available for parties. I'm still not clear if they were talking about the studio or the instructors.

I'm sure if I kept at it, I could graduate to Pole Vixen (Level 2). I would love to see that ceremony. No gowns or mortarboards; just the tassels.

That said, I think it's safe to say pole dancing is not going to be added to my list of hobbies. I'd much rather bake the cake than jump out of it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Comedy Geography

As I’ve mentioned on occasion, I’m in a weekly improv workshop taught by the masterful Andy Goldberg. (Notice I've never mentioned whether or not I’m any good?) A few years ago we  had to change theaters. Even though we are very sentimental, we opted not to stay in our original theater once it was torn down. Still, we had been there for eight years and were a little leery about making the change.

But the new theater had ample street parking and an oriental massage parlor next door so it definitely had its pluses. And it wasn't going to be a restaurant in six months.

The new theater was laid out differently. Our original venue was a little larger with a very wide stage area. The new place was narrow. A deeper stage and six rows of seats instead of three.
Lo and behold we had a hot class that first night. Lots of laughs. Everyone concluded this theater has a good comedy vibe.

I could have predicted it. Why?

Because of its shape.

Comedy plays better in confined spaces. Laughs are louder when they don’t drift away.

Now you may say this is a superstition and I just want to be near that massage parlor, but (1) they don’t give group on’s, and (2) being in close quarters amplifies the laughter and laughter is infectious.

Whenever a sitcom episode goes into production the first order of business is a table reading. Several large tables are set up, the actors sit across from each other and read the script aloud as the writers and executives sit around them. Many shows I’ve worked on just hold their table readings right on their cavernous sound stages. On shows I’ve produced I insist we hold the table readings in conference rooms. Yes, it’s a little cramped, and chairs are pushed up against walls, but the difference in the reaction is startling. Laughs are so much bigger when you’re not at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Jokes are so much funnier when they don't echo. 

Lest you think it’s just me, the table readings for CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, THE SIMPSONS, and BECKER were all held in conference rooms.

Do we get an unfair reading as a result? Do the scripts appear funnier than they really are? Sometimes. There are producers who won’t change jokes later if it worked at the table reading. I’m not one of them. If a joke doesn’t work when it’s on its feet I cut it.  Table readings can always be deceiving. 

But way more often, I’ve seen bad table readings done on the stage then gone back to the room and changed the shit out of the script. Later that day we'd have a runthrough of the original table draft and 70% of the stuff we planned to cut suddenly worked.

I’d rather err on the side of the table reading going well. Especially since you have the network and studio there as well. The less nervous they all are about the script, the better it is for all concerned.

Comedy can be effected by many outside factors. Room temperature, audience fatigue, visibility, traffic, distractions, level of alcohol, time of night, and the intimacy of the venue.

So I invite you to take seriously the notion of comedy geography.  You could be in for a happy ending even without the massage parlor.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Questions

Happy St. Patricks Day.  Oh wait.  That's MARCH 17th.   But Friday Questions come every week. 

Gazzoo starts us off:

Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) till the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

No one had any special requests, but David and I were very adamant that we didn’t want a sappy ending. That’s why we constructed the final sequence so that all of the final goodbyes were during triage and the farewells had to be quick and on the run.

I’m a big fan of “little touches”. Hawkeye discovering Radar’s teddy bear on his bed says more about how Radar matured from the MASH experience than any speech could have ever done, no matter how eloquently it was written.

We also wanted to send Radar home happy. Henry Blake was killed and Frank went bonkers. We wanted Radar to return home having benefited somewhat from the experience. He grew up and found love in Korea.

Originally it was a just a single episode but when CBS decided to push it back into the 8th season they asked that it be expanded into a two-parter.

The new staff rewrote very very little of our draft (thanks for that, guys). I don’t believe a line was changed from the entire final act. One day I’ll get Gary Burghoff to write about the episode from his perspective.

Mirror James (from England) wonders:

Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, his predecessor on Doctor Who, often seem to be the targets of abuse from people who claim to be fans. Everything from saying they can't write to accusations of running a so-called "gay agenda", in which the mere acknowledgement that gay people exist is apparently "shoving it down their throats".

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan who claims to love a show yet can't seem to do anything other than hurl insults?

Only all the time. Fans are passionate about their shows. I got a hate letter on MASH from someone who thought Hawkeye was being too mean to Radar. Other loyal MASH viewers claimed in profanity-laced missives that I was a liberal Commie dupe hell bent on destroying America.

The "gay agenda" complaint was a staple on FRASIER.  Referring to this and the "we're too liberal" charge on MASH, I like to think we had an "open minded agenda". 

My favorite was a letter I received when David and I were showrunning the MARY series. It started out like this:

Dear Producers,

Recently I read an article in TV GUIDE that spoke of the growing cocaine problem in the television industry. At first I thought they were grossly exaggerating, but then I watched an episode of your show…


And of course Roseanne called me an “asshat”.

And finally, from Chris:

How do they shoot/do those scenes when the audience laughs just when the camera zooms on something, like a silent opening with the camera zooming on what a character is reading and just then the audience starts to laugh?

I assume you mean a studio audience. There are always monitors overhead and they will be invited to watch them for particular scenes or moments. Often special scenes will be pre-shot and just shown to the audience. What they see is what you’ll see at home so they receive the same surprise.

What’s your Friday Question?  I think I'm going to eat corned beef today anyway. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sitcoms could be better

Here’s a Friday Question worth a whole rant (I mean "post".)

Sean S. asks:

In her book IN SUCH GOOD COMPANY Carol Burnett repeats the following from a conversation she had with Larry Gelbart.

BURNETT: I don't know, but when I watch a comedy show on TV today, I know exactly what's coming so far as the writing goes. No surprises. No originality. Usually it's the 'setup' first, and then comes the obvious joke, and then you hear that awful laugh track. It's as if all the shows are alike and repeating themselves.

GELBART: I think it's because most of the writers today grew up watching television. That was their childhood, so they're writing about life once removed.

BURNETT: What do you mean?

GELBART: They never played stickball in the street.

Thought that was an interesting observation from Gelbart and wondered if you had any thoughts on it.

I agree with him. And right away I know that makes me seem a hundred years old. But there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying.

It’s evidenced by the pop culture references that fill sitcoms today. For many young writers their frame of reference is television, not life.

Not that my generation worked on oil rigs and pretended to be Jack London until we were 30, but our references came from literature. Most writers my age didn’t start out wanting to be comedy writers. We all sought something else. For me it was radio. Once we hit our middle to late 20’s we decided we wanted to go in another direction and that’s when TV writing called to us.

So when we started we already had some other background to draw from. As a disc jockey I bounced around the country so got to live in different cities and associate with people outside of LA. Heaven help me, I lived in “flyover” states. Also, being in the Army I was introduced to a whole new world. No way could I have written MASH without that personal experience.

As for TV itself, I turned to comedy writing back when sitcoms were enjoying a golden era. Smart, sophisticated, adult shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE, RHODA, and THE ODD COUPLE provided a high bar to shoot for. You had to really know social issues. You had to really delve into human relationships. You couldn’t get away with wry irony or Kardashian jokes.

Larry Gelbart, Norman Lear, Alan Burns, James L. Brooks, Gene Reynolds, Garry Marshall and other showrunners of that era had extremely high standards – including the fact that their shows needed to be really funny. The jokes had to land. Audiences, not machines, had to LAUGH. The story telling had to be fresh. They were very tough on the material. And YOU.

So I think back then we fledgling comedy writers felt we needed a lot in our arsenals just to survive. We needed a formal education, life experience, and talent.

Today I think you can get by a little easier.

A couple of weeks ago I saw an improv show starring a group called OFF THE WALL (pictured above). They’ve been together for over 40 years, and they were phenomenal. And the thing I noticed was how literate their humor was. They knew author styles, classic dramatic forms, world history, current events, Shakespeare. And as a result their show was not only hilarious but so smart (and timely). Does UCB do any of that? I wonder.

Our society today is much more insular. We don’t hang out with friends, we follow them on social media. We spend more time looking at pictures of places than visiting them. And it shows in the shows.

Yes, I know. I’m ancient and you kids are on my lawn without permission, but isn’t it always better to strive for something higher? Pop culture references are easy. Crutches are easy. Why bust your ass to come up with a really witty joke when you can just say “vagina?”

I’m not saying go back to the style of Larry Gelbart, James Brooks, et al – just the standards.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EP46: Thanksgiving for the Memories


Ken gets you into the holiday spirit with tales of Thanksgiving – how to survive the travel, the hell that is writing Thanksgiving episodes, the Macy’s Parade, an even tackier one, and what Ken is thankful for.  Hint:  You’re included.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Email etiquette

First off, thanks to all of you who responded to my request yesterday. Great to meet you and thanks for the kind words. You can still weigh in. The more the merrier (I just made that statement up). Now to today's post:

Is this just me?

I’m emailing someone. Or texting someone. We’re going back and forth. And eventually either the thread gets pretty thin or I have other things to do. I always find it awkward signing off. I want to disengage without being rude.

Sometimes of course I can just say, “I gotta run” but if you do that too often I’m sure the other person is going to feel like I’m just blowing them off.

It’s somewhat easier when I’m bantering with some comedy writer pals. Once one of us has the topper the other acknowledges. We always go out on the best joke. (And usually it’s the other guy who has it.)

But I find myself at times reading an email (after we’ve volleyed a few times) and trying to decide, “is this a good place to just not answer?”

Sometimes I worry that I’m being unintentionally rude. I email a person. I don’t get a response for five or ten minutes. I assume he cut if off. Then I leave the computer to do something else. Two minutes after I’ve gone they respond. And of course there’s no subsequent response from me. Are they thinking, “Jesus, this guy is an asshole. I tell him I thought his play was great and he doesn’t even answer?”

And then there’s the other side to this. I’m corresponding back and forth and suddenly radio silence from their end. Did they just get tired of me? Did something I wrote piss them off?  Is this something I should be concerned about?   Just how insecure am I? 

Nothing drives me crazier on the phone than when the other person doesn’t say goodbye. When they just hang up after they’ve said what they want to say. This is a convention that is used ALL the time in TV and movies. I get it. It’s wasted screen time with people saying goodbye to each other, but in real life it’s incredibly rude. Do you feel that way about email correspondence?

I’m bothered less during texting. It’s kind of understood you’re trying to be as brief as possible. In many cases you’re delivering messages. But email conversations tend to be longer (at least mine do).

The solution might be out there but I just don’t know it. Is there an emoji for “nothing personal but I’m done with you now?” That would solve everything. Thank you.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

12th year anniversary

The end of this month marks the 12 year anniversary of this blog. I still can’t believe it. Daily postings for 12 years. Over 5200 posts and over 30,000,000 page views.

For my ten-year anniversary I had a party. For 12 I’m just going to have a drink.

But I always like to know who’s out there, where they’re from, how long they’ve been reading, how they found the blog, how old they are, what subjects they liked and which (besides baseball) they didn’t? So periodically I take a day and let you guys do the heavy lifting. If you would be so kind, could you take a moment to write a comment and answer some of those questions? Your feedback helps me present a better product.  One thing I know you like is Natalie Wood photos. Note:  I moderate the comments so there may be a lag time between when you write it and it's posted.  Popularity has its trolls. 

Since this blog is, and always will be, free – a question I often receive is “How can I repay you?” I would say listen to and subscribe to my podcast (which is also free). I’m really proud of it and am trying to build a sizable audience for that too.  Got some real good shows lined up.  (Subscribe on iTunes, listen via podcast apps, this link, or just click on the big gold arrow above.)  

Thanks much. Hope to hear from you, and (if you check out my podcast) you hear from me. 

Ken

Monday, November 13, 2017

Letter, we get letters

Here’s a question that went from “possible” Friday to entire post.

It’s from Glenn:

Ken, possible Friday question, regarding viewer mail: Do you have any letters you might be able to share here (after removing names and addresses, of course)? I'd love to see what MASH fans were writing in about at the height of the show ("Where can I find that dress Klinger wore last night?")

I didn’t save the letters. I sure wish I did.

On MASH we would get angry letters saying we were anti-American, Commies, that sort of thing. If we received a letter without a return address it was a good bet it was from a troll or idiot.

The network would also get angry letters about our show and they would graciously forward them to us.

But most of the mail we received was complimentary. Sometimes a viewer had a question or wondered if we were going to bring Colonel Flagg back.  And yes, we got inquiries all the time about Klinger's wardrobe. 

We also received unsolicited scripts, which for legal purposes, we had to send back unopened.

On every show I worked on I received mail from people saying “I look just like so-and-so. You should do an episode where I play her sister.” They would always include a picture and NEVER once did they look even remotely like the actor they thought was their doppelganger. Oh, the laughs we had in the writers room passing around those photos. Imagine Mick Jagger thinking he’s Suzanne Pleshette’s identical twin.

The majority of viewer mail went directly to the actors. And in many cases they were addressed to the characters’ names. The post office knew to send letters addressed to “Hawkeye Pierce, 4077th MASH, Korea” to 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles. They knew to send Paramount all correspondence addressed to “Diane Chambers, Cheers bar, Boston, Ma.”

You’d think this would happen two or three times a year. Try hundreds. Maybe thousands.

Sometimes "Hawkeye" would be asked for medical advice.  Or "Frasier" would be asked for relationship advice.  

Actors receive lots of marriage proposals. And fan mail from prisons. Writers don’t get any of that.

Usually if someone sends a letter to an actor on a show he will receive some response. Most of the time it’s from a staff member. Generally a thank you with a photo. Occasionally the star will write back himself. Some are very good about providing autographs, others just send printed autographed photos.

We writers get requests for scripts from time to time. I always try to accommodate them. Now if a young writer wants a script from a show I suspect they can just email the request to the show and if granted, they receive a pdf. And that’s cool except there’s nothing like getting a package in the mail with the logo of the show or studio.

I don’t know whether shows get as much mail today as they once did. Before the internet and social media the only way to express your opinion of a show, yay or nay, was to write letters. Now you can just go on a fan site and chances are the writing staff will read it.

Of course how many letters these days are not getting delivered because, unlike the postal service, the internet doesn’t know how to deliver email sent to Supergirl@Nationalcity.com or TonySoprano@mafia.org?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Why is poker night like rewrite night

Got invited to a poker game recently. A friend plays in a regular game and needed an extra body. Poker is an ingenious game. It involves both skill and luck. If only I had either.

I hadn’t played poker in probably fifteen years so I pretty much had forgotten everything other than I always lose.

Still, I enjoyed myself.  The players were usually a group of comedy writers or improv chums so there were always more laughs than chips (especially in front of me). I likened it to a rewrite night where you didn’t have to address network notes.

This time the only person I knew going in was my friend. But it was a low stakes game so I figured what the hell? The guys all turned out to be fun, and they all came from other branches of the industry so I got to hear all-new horror stories. Nothing breaks the ice like getting fucked over in Hollywood.

I was worried that these dudes would hate me. Since I didn’t know what I was doing I would surely test their patience. And if I won they’d really despise me. Fortunately, they were tolerant, and fortunately they took all my money. So my fears were for naught.

I needed one of those little cheat sheets that told you that a royal flush beats a pair of threes. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to watch an episode of THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER and one of the finalists has the same cheat sheet next to his chips?

Remembering what beats what is hard enough for someone who needs a cheat sheet to retrieve his messages from voicemail, but we rotated dealing and the dealer got to select the game. Holy shit!

Seven card night baseball with the next card after a queen is a wild card

Hi-lo – 5 ½ or 21

Three chip buy-in pass your garbage

Seven card elevator (not to be confused with seven card crisscross)

Seven card Texas hold ‘em, 3’s are wild and 4's entitled you to buy another card if you wanted

On and on. They know you’re not a savvy player when it’s your turn and they say, “What are we playin’?” and you begin your answer with “What’s the one where…?” As the deal was going around the table I was getting progressively more anxious. What to do when it came to me?

Finally, I was up. I decided to just fake it. “Okay, five card double-draw hi-lo Taj Mahal, pig fives are wild, threes are sevens, sevens are tens, face cards are a half, and Jews get six cards instead of five.” Everyone laughed, but one guy who asked what Taj Mahal was.

The night moved along but required a lot of concentration. More than I could muster after a couple of hours. Again, it was like a rewrite night where you just zone out. “What page are we on again?” “Who’s asking who to stop doing what when?” “Has the food arrived yet?”

The food was another reason poker night is like rewrite night. Delivered pizza that you eat off of paper plates while standing . All we needed were Red Vines for me to feel really nostalgic.

You’d think as the night went along I’d get better. But actually, I got worse. I knew I was in trouble when I won a pot with nothing in my hand. Everyone complimented me on how well I bluffed. But I wasn’t bluffing. I actually thought I had a winning hand.

They should also have a cheat sheet for poker slang. Clubs were puppy paws. Pocket aces were American Airlines. Full houses are full boats. If you have a nine and a five that’s a Dolly Parton. But why do they call kings “cowboys?” When I think of cowboys I rarely imagine Richard Burton.

But it never fails.  The minute any six guys sit down to play poker they all start talking like they're in GUYS AND DOLLS.    The Pope and his cardinals get together and the Pope is dealing saying, "No help. crabs, Kojak, bitch in the bleachers.  Pony up gents."

All in all, it was a fun night, I made some new friends, now am aware of more industry shitheads, and I think after all this time I finally figured out how to win at poker. Have Jennifer Tilly play for me while I drive around for four hours picking up the pizza. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Stars I claimed to have discovered... even though I didn't

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

Kat Dennings -- Star of 2 BROKE GIRLS was in a pilot of ours called SNOBS. We never had her say "vagina", which is why it never got picked up.

Aaron Paul -- Emmy winner for BREAKING BAD was in that same pilot. Okay, these first two I am claiming credit for. It's not like I'm getting any royalties off that damn project. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Maggie Lawson – You love her on PSYCH. I’ve loved her since writing and directing IT’S ALL RELATIVE.

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

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

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

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

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


Julie Benz – Another ASK HARRIET alum I directed.  She's in DEFIANCE, was in DEXTER, A GIFTED MAN, NO ORDINARY FAMILY, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and more. You can certainly understand the attraction considering she was also in SAW V.

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

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

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

Martin Short, Kathy Bates, William H. Macy, Jane Lynch, Tea Leoni, Don Johnson, and Andrea Martin (although that was the network’s fault; we wanted her. They wanted Toni Tennille. Don't ask.),

Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday Questions

Who is up for some Friday Questions?   I also answer a few on my podcast this week.  Just click the big gold arrow above. 

Brian gets us started.

Ken, you have mentioned several times that you got your first writing assignment on THE JEFFERSONS. What was the story line and how did you come up with it?

A new cleaners moves in across the street and George begins losing his confidence. The episode was called “Movin’ on Down”. I can’t remember exactly what led us to it. But I do recall we came up with the idea in a booth at Mario’s restaurant in Westwood late one Saturday night.   That very spot is now Table 17 at the California Pizza Kitchen. 

Tyler K. wonders:

Do TV writers have a harder time writing enough material to fill the required episode time, or cutting material down to do the same? Also, how short do you see TV episodes getting as time goes on? We've gone from 25-minute episodes of Cheers and Mash to 22-minute episodes of Frasier and Friends to some current shows being less than 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, it’s MUCH harder to write a 20 minute show than a 25 minute show. You’d think it would be easier because you had less to write. But it’s much tougher telling a good story in only 20 minutes. Everything has to be so truncated. And if you have a series where you do A and B stories, it makes things especially difficult. Imagine if FRIENDS were still around today. Or MASH.

Stories are more layered, more nuanced, more emotional when you have more time. Why more emotional? Because the emotion has to be earned. And that’s harder to do when characters have to make quick turns.

Michael writes in:

I recently saw a couple episodes of "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" on AntennaTv. 5 or 6 writers shared the writing credit for both shows I saw - I assume they were the show's entire writing staff. Are there union rules that would prevent that from happening today?

Yes. For a sitcom today only two writers or two teams of writers can share teleplay credit on an episode. So if this week’s show is written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs, we each get half. If the show is written by say Earl Pomerantz and Ken Levine & David Isaacs then Earl gets half and David and I split the other half.

You can ask the Guild for a waiver, however. That’s what we did on ALMOST PERFECT. Quite a few scripts were written by David and I and our co-creator, Robin Schiff. But it wasn’t fair that she should get half and we each got a quarter so we asked for a waiver. The Guild said okay as long as all three of us got the equivalent of half – meaning the studio essentially paid for a script and a half. Still with me?

Now things get really complicated when shows are room written like THE BIG BANG THEORY or MOM. Because you can also assign story credit, which pays less than teleplay but at least is something. So if you’ll notice BIG BANG THEORY writing credits, there are usually five or six names. Some get shared story credit, others get shared teleplay credit.   And Chuck Lorre always tacks his name onto the story credit. 

It's a joke because the names on the screen have no relation whatsoever to who actually wrote what. Credits are just divvied up. To me that defeats the purpose of credits. 


From Bob Summers:

Why did the TV seasons of the 70s and into the 80s used to end in March, and why and when did that change to May? I think I have an answer, but I'd like an insider/expert opinion.

This changed when May sweeps were introduced. Most major agencies base their network advertising buys on sweep period ratings. So networks hold back original episodes and sprinkle in stunt programming to inflate their sweeps numbers as much as possible.  Was that what you were thinking, Bob?


What's YOUR Friday Question?

Thursday, November 09, 2017

That'll cost you $20

Dave Hackel was one of the best showrunners I’ve ever worked with. He created and ran BECKER and also was at the helm of WINGS for a number of years. Very organized, a great judge of talent (many of the young writers he hired went on to create their own shows like Matthew Weiner), and decisive (there’s nothing worse than a showrunner who keeps changing his mind every five seconds – you never know where you stand).

I picked up a lot of good showrunning tips from Dave.

He was also very collaborative with the actors. There was no adversarial position between the writers and cast. Everyone worked towards the same goal – making the best show possible with the least amount of internal drama.

However, Dave did have one rule with the cast. It was in jest but really only half-in-jest. BECKER and WINGS were both multi-camera shows (shot in front of a mostly live audience). Each took a week to produce. We would film three in a row then take a week’s hiatus. Production of a full-season would run from August till March.

So for every three weeks of work the cast had a week off. And they would often use that time to travel. They were making good money so off they’d fly to London or New York or Aspen for a week. We’d reconvene and they’d be asking each other about their recent adventures. And they’d also ask us writers where we went during the break.

This was Dave Hackel’s rule: If an actor asked a writer where he went for the hiatus he was fined twenty dollars.

Because the writers NEVER had a hiatus. While the cast was off doing whatever, the writers were always scrambling, often late into the night, to keep the pipeline flowing. We didn’t go to Iceland. We were stuck in the bunker. Hiatuses were a God send because it allowed us to (in theory) get ahead and (in practice) catch up.

Single-camera shows now work on a similar schedule. But how about this? When we did MASH – with all that production value – we filmed the shows in four days instead of five. Actually, we filmed them in three. The first day was used for rehearsal. So we’d start an episode on Monday and a new episode on Friday. The following Thursday we were on to next one, etc. Makes for a jam packed three weeks of shooting, right? Wrong. Because we didn’t shoot three in a row. We shot eight, sometimes seven. And each episode wasn’t 19 minutes long, it was 23. Plus, we didn’t shoot 22 episodes, we shot 25. We also had a few pick-up days built into the schedule to re-shoot scenes or catch scenes we didn’t have time to film previously.

So our hiatuses were basically two to three weeks a season.   As opposed to six or seven. 

Like I said, today a half-hour show is in production from August 1-March 20. We filmed 25 episodes between July 4-December 24. It was a mad scramble to be sure, but when you see those shows they don’t feel rushed or slapped together. For us writers it just meant a longer period of pre-production and strict organization was imperative.

So you’d figure with so few hiatuses periods the MASH cast wouldn’t do much traveling. Wrong again. Alan Alda lived in Leonia, New Jersey and every Friday night would fly home, returning to Los Angeles on Sunday night.

Alan was the one actor who had it harder than writers. I’m sure Dave Hackel would have waived the twenty dollar fine.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

EP45: Why I left MASH and Other Vital TV Questions


Ken answers listeners’ questions about television including why he left MASH.  Also, Ken’s thoughts on the World Series and how being a sports fan should not ruin your life. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Dancin' Homer premiered on this date

It was on this date in 1990 that the "Dancin' Homer' episode of THE SIMPSONS, written by me and David Isaacs first premiered on Fox. Yes, I'm also the voice of the Isotopes. Still one of my favorite scripts. Back when creative genius Sam Simon was running the show. Here's a clip. Enjoy. Plus, we all need a little baseball fix. It's been almost a whole week since the World Series.

Dancin' Homer from Mark on Vimeo.

Clip shows

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post:

It's from marka.

My Friday question is about flashback episodes, where the only thing the actors have to say in the show is a version of “yea, and do you remember the time when...”. They seem like they’re done only to give everyone except the editor the week off.

Why do they do them? Why do the networks allow them to happen? Am I the only one who hates them? But, really, what is your opinion of them?

These are called “clip shows.” Often it is the network that requests them. They usually do well in the ratings and they’re cheaper to make than a regular episode.

But make no mistake – they require a lot of work… usually for the writing staff. Someone has to screen all the shows, flag the clips, decide on a format, and put it together. Trust me, as a writer – it takes way less time to write an episode. So it’s not exactly a free ride.

But you save a week of production.  Live wrap-arounds can either be filmed in one day.  Or they're piggybacked to a day's shooting schedule so there's no dedicated day to filming them.  

As for the format, that too is a problem because the normal conventions have been done to death. The “wrap-around” version that you mentioned in your question (“Remember the time we…?), the panel discussion (like we did on CHEERS), or the interview version (like we did on MASH). There’s no good way really. But the audience generally doesn’t care. They’re there for the clips.

I will say this though, clip shows were much more popular before you had access to DVD’s and streaming. Part of the fun of clip shows was seeing excerpts you hadn’t seen in a couple of years. Now you can see any episode at any time. Hell, you can see a lot of gag reels on YouTube. 

Not only that, it used to be that a series wouldn’t do a clip show until they had close to a hundred episodes in the bank. Now I’ve seen series do clip shows season two. Wow. They have six highlights.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about clip shows. They’re very self-congratulatory and I always try to avoid that. I hate shows that toot their own horn. On the other hand, any time they use a clip from a show I co-wrote or directed I get a royalty. I made out like a bandit on the MASH and CHEERS clip shows. So I dislike clip shows on principle but I’m very much in favor of found money.

My worst clip show experience was the night I was having an MRI. I’m in the tube, they gave me headphones, and through a mirror I was able to watch TV. The show that was on was THE NANNY clip show. I was forced to watch it for 45 minutes without moving. I almost hit the panic button… and not because I was claustrophobic.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

RIP Terrestrial Radio

Still being a radio geek at heart (not to be confused with I-Heart Radio), I read a number of online radio trade websites. Yes, I know. This is a cry for help. But invariably these sites will point out how robust terrestrial radio is when the facts would suggest otherwise. They’ll boast that more people listen to radio than make waffles, stuff like that.

And it has seemed to me over the last ten years that terrestrial radio is Nero fiddling while Rome goes up in smoke.

Now a new study has come out, published by the head of New York University’s Steinhart Music Program, that basically says terrestrial radio should look into hospice care. Here are some of its points:

Generation Z (people born after ALMOST PERFECT premiered in 1995) account for 40% of all consumers and they could give a shit about traditional media. They’ve been brought up in a digital world.

The big attraction for young people gravitating to radio was to discover new music. Between 2005-2016 50% of the teen audience has abandoned terrestrial radio. They now find their new tunes on YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora.

Hey, Nero, can you play ‘Love in Bloom’?”

By 2020, 75% of new cars will be connected to digital services. So much for terrestrial radio’s choke hold of the dashboard. It’ll be just as easy to get my podcast as it is to get a major heritage radio station that cost I-Heart or Cumulus $40 million to buy. Probably more people listen to me now than KABC Los Angeles.

“Smart speakers” like Alexa and Amazon Echo don’t have AM/FM antennas. Neither do smart phones.

Record labels prefer to offer their new product to digital services because they pay royalties whereas terrestrial radio doesn’t. At one time record labels needed radio to break hits. Not anymore. So forget the loss of listeners – there goes the payola.

These are just some of the studies salient points. (The whole report is 30 pages.)  I would also add that these mega companies that own the vast majority of the terrestrial radio stations in the United States have mortgaged their future by bombarding the listener with commercials and driven them away due to cost-cutting measures like replacing local programming with syndicated fare.

So what can terrestrial radio do to at least stem the tide? The answer is simple but they won’t do it. Provide better programming. Fill their airwaves with local personalities. If there’s somebody really funny and the only way to hear him is to tune to the FM station he’s on, you will. If the only place you can go to hear a lively discussion on your city’s politics is the local AM station at the top of the dial that’s where you’ll go. Unless, in either case, there are 25 minutes of commercials an hour.

But this takes money. This takes commitment. This takes the genuine desire to serve the public you were entrusted to serve. So it will never happen. What little funds these conglomerates spend will be on bow rosin and the sheet music to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Monday, November 06, 2017

Is it just me?

Or is it a generational thing?

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT for the pilot of GLOW. But I need to point out a story point for my post to make sense. And the plot point is not all that shocking. No one sees dead people.

But I recently watched the first few episodes of GLOW on Netflix. To refresh your memory (since there are 753 scripted shows on 694 channels), this is the comedy where Alison Brie plays a struggling actress who winds up a woman wrestler on TV. I’ve always been a fan of Brie and who doesn’t love women wrestling? The few reviews I’ve read were basically favorable and none of my MASH's were on that night so I said “what the hell?” Somewhat concerning though was that I had not heard any buzz on the show. No one I knew was talking about it. My Facebook timeline showed no mention (instead I got 100 “please pray for me I’m going into surgery” posts – am I supposed to hit “like” for those?), and there were no billboards. Who’s going to watch a show without a billboard?

The pilot got off to a good start. There were some cute lines and Marc Maron absolutely steals the show. (There’s hope for us podcasters!) Brie is adorable and all is right with the world.

But then…

(Here’s the SPOILER ALERT part:) Brie sleeps with her best friend’s husband. And the best friend (a) just had a baby, and (b) constantly rescues Brie’s character.

This leads to a big plot point where the two women wrestle, but my point is this: I now hate Alison’s character. I no longer root for her. I no longer care whether she climbs the wrestling ladder of success. She did such a shitty thing, essentially … “because.” It’s not even like she and the husband were in love.

So now my question: Is this supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to laugh at how fucked up she is? Are we now supposed to celebrate when she herself gets fucked over? Is this just the new sensibility? It seems cruel and not funny to me, but again, is this just a generational thing? Must everything be “edgy?”

I’ve always believed that the audience should want to root for the protagonist. He can be flawed, he can do stupid things, he can be his own worst enemy, but isn’t there a line? Sleeping with your best friend’s husband while she’s struggling with new motherhood to me crossed that line. Even for adorable Alison Brie.

So what do you think? What does it take to make you laugh? And to make you turn your back on a character? I really want to know. All ages welcome. Thanks in advance.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Was Elvis Jewish?

According to a book by Elaine Dundy, ELVIS AND GLADYS, he was. I always suspected. The obsession with karate, the white jumpsuits, his love of the traditional Jewish meal of peanut butter and banana sandwiches – he might as well have been Larry David with sideburns.

The book claims that Elvis’ grandmother on his mother’s side was Jewish. So his mother, Gladys, was Jewish, and thus, following the birth line according to Jewish law, so was the King.

This now explains all the Cadillacs.

And why he was “Crying in the Chapel.”

Elvis’ middle name was Aron, which the book suggests was just a misspelling of Aaron, the brother of Moses in the Bible. Jews are usually better at spelling so I question that claim.

Elvis had uncles named Sidney and Jerome. That alone does not make them Jewish, but if they annoyed young Elvis at Thanksgiving and told endless stories about going to high school with Milton Berle then you can confirm it.

Gladys was proud of her Jewish ancestry, the book attests. The fact that this was not mentioned in any of the five hundred other books about Elvis must mean her pride did not extend to two separate sets of dishes.

When she died, Elvis put a Star of David on her tombstone to honor her Jewish heritage.
Apparently, his parents told him to downplay his Jewish ancestry because of all the anti-Semitism. (In the South? Really?) I imagine his record company probably felt the same way, although it was okay for the public to think he was black.

The book says at one point he lived in an apartment below a rabbi and he would confer with him on occasion. Religious ethical questions like should he sleep with Delores Hart?


Elvis wore a piece of jewelry called a “Chai” which contained Hebrew words and the Star of David. Here too, this was not a convincing argument for his Jewishness because everyone who wore a gaudy jumpsuit in the ‘70s wore a Chai. It was just part of the look.

A stronger argument would be that he had no chemistry with Mary Tyler Moore who played a nun in his movie CHANGE OF HABIT. And the tagline for that classic was “When the King of Rock meets the Queen of Comedy romance rules.” Well, it didn’t. ‘Nuff said.

Jewish numerology is very significant. There is a Jewish holiday called Lag BaOmer. Literally, the name of the holiday means the "33rd day of the Omer." Elvis made 33 movies. That’s both eerie and conclusive.

By the way, ELVIS AND GLADYS is not the only book to contend the King was Jewish. (Note: ELVIS AND GLADYS is not to be confused with PETE AND GLADYS, a sitcom from the ‘60s starring gentiles.) There’s a book called SCHMELVIS: IN SEARCH OF ELVIS PRESLEY'S JEWISH ROOTS by Jonathan Goldstein & Max Wallace. But unlike Dundy’s book and this post, they don’t take the subject seriously.

So was Elvis actually Jewish? Throughout history Jewish scholars have argued over everything else, why not this too? I’d like to think he was, if for no other reason than Nixon would be spinning in his grave for befriending him.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Are Prius owners bad drivers?

Now before you storm my house with pitchforks and torches for making such an irresponsible unfounded outrageous charge, just know that I have a Prius.

And lately I’ve heard numerous people say when they’re on the road they go out of their way to avoid Priuses (or is it Priuii?). They contend that Prius drivers are entranced by the dashboard and the constant fuel consumption calibration. I personally don’t bother with that.  I'm too busy blasting the radio.  

I’ve posed this question to other Prius owners and many sheepishly admit they do steal numerous glances at their dashboard. I mean, what’s the point of getting great gas mileage if you can’t monitor it and congratulate yourself on how smart you were to buy a Prius?

One feature in the Prius that hampers me is the horizontal stripe in the back window that obscures the view in the rear view mirror. My wife, who is the primary driver of the car, isn’t bothered by that. But I am, and I wonder why the hell it’s even there? There’s also a blind spot.

I’ve surveyed a few Prius owners and they seem split fifty-fifty on this issue. But considering the number of Priuses on the road, if even half see this as an issue that’s still  a lot of folks squinting in traffic.

My other issue is the new navigation system. The new map sucks. It’s gray with white lines and white script. It’s like looking at a complicated blueprint or the Burlington logo. From what I understand, Prius has received lots of complaints about this. Of course I could just be spoiled. I’m used to the Lexus map, which is great. Easy to read, freeway traffic displayed, and the GPS voice is soothing, reassuring, and never belittles me.

The Prius is a terrific car. It handles well, looks pretty cool, and it is nice to be able to pass a gas station charging $4.75 a gallon for regular and yell out, “Fuck you!” But, inadvertently, are we Priusers not driving as well as we did in other cars? I don’t know. You tell me. What’s your experience – both as a Prius driver and fellow motorist? I imagine we won’t be able to arrive at a definitive answer. It’s not like Porsche drivers. We all know they’re dicks. And they get shitty gas mileage.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Friday Questions

Here are Friday Questions for a hungry global society.

jcs starts us off:

Did you encounter actresses or actors during your career whose solid professionalism just blew you away (i.e. who were always on time, courteous and accommodating or who shined in the face of adversity)?

I was very lucky in my career. Most of the actors I worked with were consummate professionals.

Michael Douglas used to say that the lead actor in a show or movie had to “take responsibility as the star.” In other words, the whole tone of the set is determined by the star. If he’s a real cheerleader the set can be a pleasant environment for all concerned. If he’s an asshole there is a level of tension that is palpable.

I worked with cheerleaders. Alan Alda, Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer, Tom Hanks, Adam Arkin, Nancy Travis.

I remember one time on ALMOST PERFECT with Nancy that we had a very complicated episode. After the audience was released there were hours of necessary pick-ups. We would be shooting until well after midnight. Other stars might’ve balked or been impatient or just generally unpleasant. Not Nancy. She was gung ho and as a result everyone involved got their second wind. I thought to myself, “THIS is a star.”

From Bart:

What do you do when you have an actor who requests a scene in which they sing? I'm thinking of the episode of Halt and Catch Fire, where, for no real plot reason, Boz (played by Toby Huss) sings Frank Sinatra. Wasn't really a part of the story, and could be done without. I'm guessing the actor asked for it? Has this happened to you?

That’s never happened to me personally, but I know when Cybill Shepherd had her sitcom she forced her writers to give her a song to sing, which would still be okay if she could sing.

Not sure what I would do. I guess it depended on the star and the show. I wouldn’t want to turn CRIMINAL MINDS into COP ROCK.

More often than not however, it’s the writers who ask the stars to sing. If you have a star who has a real gift you try to find a way to showcase it. Case in point, when David Isaacs and I were doing that series for Mary Tyler Moore we learned that series regular Katey Sagal had been one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes and could really sing. So we wrote a scene into an episode where she got to sing. It was a fun surprise to the audience. They were blown away and had no idea what an exceptional singer she is.

Now without naming names, there have been a few times when we wrote something into a script requiring an actor to sing (even a few lines) and learned at rehearsal that they just couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. To avoid embarrassing the actors in question we always cut the singing parts.

And finally, from Brad Apling:

Has any TV writer career-wise successfully written for both comedy and drama (e.g. Cheers and Crime Story)? Granted that it's different style of writing & you're likely chosen based on writing a similar style before).

Several of them have. I know I’m leaving out more than I’m naming, but just off the top of my head: Matthew Weiner, Stephen Nathan, Steven Moffat, Phoef Sutton, Janet Leahy, Dave Thomas, Tom Straw, Dan O’Shannon, David Goodman, Jane Espenson, Geoffrey Neigher, Jenny Bicks, Karen Hall, David Fury, Michael Saltzman.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Misc. Takes

Yes, I’m bummed that the Dodgers didn’t win the World Series. But the Astros rose to the occasion and at least for these seven games were the better team.  Congratulations Astro fans. 

And it was a helluva series. I was in New York on Sunday night so sat up until 2 AM watching that incredible 13-12 game. I must be more of a baseball fan than Dodger fan because when it was over I was disappointed that the Bums lost but my overall reaction was “what a great game!”

John Smoltz did an MVP job as analyst.

Dodger Stadium is now empty, except for Larry King who is still sitting there.

Are the Astros the only team to be in the World Series for both leagues?

You want to speed up baseball games? Cut out catchers and infielders going to the mound. You’ll eliminate an hour.

At least the Dodgers didn’t lose to the Yankees.

And Kate Upton is happy which, really, isn’t that all that matters?

CBS is already juggling it’s Monday night comedy line-up. ME, MYSELF, & I is being yanked (I suspect never to return) and MAN WITH A PLAN returns. ME, MYSELF, & I is the show about Bobby Moynihan at three stages of his life. The middle-aged “Bobby” is played by John Larroquette. So we’re supposed to believe that when Moynihan gets older he also gets 8” taller.

What? Kevin Spacey is gay? That’s maybe the worst kept secret in Hollywood.

Netflix immediately cancelled HOUSE OF CARDS. We can’t have a sexual predator playing a US President on TV, but we can have a real one actually in office.

Kevin said he will “seek evaluation and treatment” – for this problem he was blissfully happy to live with until last week when he was caught.

So when these assholes are accused of sexual harassment or worse and they vehemently deny it, who do you believe? Them of the seventeen independent victims for each one?

Whenever anyone in Hollywood reacts to a piece of news by saying “I’m SHOCKED” they knew it all along.

First come the accusations, then the denials, then Gloria Allred, then more accusers, then the lawsuits, more Gloria Allred, then the apology, then the rehab, then the next big scandal, then Gloria Allred.

And finally, Happy Birthday to my son Matt. You’re a wonderful son and now a wonderful father. I love you. Sorry about the Red Sox. Believe me, I know how you feel.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

EP44: The Magic of Disney: A Salute to Classic Disney Animated Features


Ken talks to Greg Ehrbar, a Disney historian who shares the stories and secrets behind Disney’s most beloved animated features.  A must for Disney buffs, film buffs, cartoon buffs, any buffs. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Another plea for Comedy

Back from New York where I saw several theatre pieces (besides mine). DEAR EVAN HANSEN, which is fabulous because of Ben Platt’s performance and THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a serious musical that is extremely well-written with songs from the LA LA LAND guys, and it is packing houses. But expect that to change once Ben Platt leaves the show. Let’s be honest – he’s the whole reason for seeing this. He’s extraordinary. I wouldn’t be shocked if the show closes soon after he leaves in November. And when DEAR EVAN HANSEN tours, probably starring some AMERICAN IDOL finalist or kid from the Disney Channel, good luck.

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG was hilarious. Played strictly for laughs it delivered in a big way. The premise is a British murder mystery where everything that could go wrong does… spectacularly. There’s no redeeming quality, no themes, no exploration of the human condition or commentary on society – it’s just two hours of non-stop laughs. That show too is playing to sold out crowds. And if a cast member leaves (or rendered unconscious by a falling chandelier)  I’m sure they’ll be able to replace him.

There have been some articles lately bemoaning the fact that straight dramatic plays have not been faring well on Broadway. Even Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning plays with remarkable casts are closing early. Meanwhile, THE PLAY GOES WRONG continues to pack ‘em in.

Now you would think the lesson learned here is that people like comedies. And yet, look at the new plays being developed in theatre companies and for the most part they’re dramas, they’re edgy, they’re serious, they’re bleak.

Comedies remain second-class citizens even though that’s what audiences want to see. There is a level of pretension that exists in many theatre companies. Any play that might be considered “commercial” is dismissed. And yet, it is possible to mount a play with serious themes, heartfelt emotion, and still be very funny. An audience can be moved while still having a great time. It's okay for theatergoers to not want to slit their wrists. 

Part of the problem is that young playwrights are not encouraged to pursue comedy. And so instead they turn to television where, in success, they make way more money than even celebrated playwrights. Great for them but a real loss for the theatre.

Again, the comedy writers themselves will do fine. Maybe even better than fine. But meanwhile, back in the “thee-ay-tuh” -- people want to laugh. Especially now. And as a comedy writer myself, there is nothing better than getting a live audience’s reaction. I would hope that theatre companies at least explore the idea that crowd-pleasing comedies are not such a bad thing. Hey, who knows? They might even bring in some money.

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.