Monday, March 27, 2017

What you should know about a potential WGA strike

Cutting through all the rhetoric and bullshit, here are some facts you should know about the possible WGA strike. And this is from a longstanding WGA member who has been through four strikes and several near-misses.

No one in the WGA wants to go on strike. We only strike because it’s our absolute last resort.

The AMPTP (producers) completely control the situation. If they feel it’s inconvenient or too costly for a strike they negotiate a fair contract and move on. If they feel there’s something they don’t wish to give up or they want to be punitive and it’s worth the disruption they’ll push us to a strike. So don’t kid yourself --

THEY orchestrate the strike not the WGA.

Likewise, during a strike, when they feel it’s gone on long enough they settle and everybody goes back to work. Usually, it’s not a table of twenty negotiators that hammer things out; it’s a back room with four people. For years, Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal was that guy.

Remember that all press releases are posturing.  You'll read and hear angry statements accusing the other side of hateful practices, and yet when it’s settled everybody will hug and it’s a lovefest.

The AMPTP will always try to sell to the public that the WGA is the bad guy. Greedy writers are preventing you from seeing new episodes of your favorite shows.  Don't you believe it.

Writers have less leverage than other guilds. That's a fact.  When actors or directors go on strike the industry immediately stops dead. When writers go on strike stockpiled scripts can still be shot.

Since we don’t have as much leverage we generally do get screwed more often. That too is just a fact.

People say why don’t writers just accept the deal the DGA took? Because a lot of our issues are different.

Our issues are also more complicated internally. Feature writers have different concerns than TV writers. So again, that tells you if we go out on strike there’s a solidarity to where we’re willing to fight for each other’s causes.

It’s still early.

Major agencies don't want a strike either.  

The AMPTP could just be testing the waters to see whether the WGA membership is willing to undertake the hardships of a work stoppage. Once they know we are all in they might be more willing to negotiate in better faith and get a deal done.

And there’s been a precedent. The WGA has gone out on strike before. And stayed out for months. A strike authorization is not an idle threat.

A “yes” vote for strike authorization does not mean the WGA is necessarily going out on strike. It just gives the negotiating committee ammunition that we’re willing to put down our pens (although no one writes with a pen anymore). Should negotiations completely break down the board could then trigger the strike.  

The AMPTP has a lot to lose with a strike. They’re making $51 billion in profits these days. Way up from past years. That’s a pretty nice incentive to keep things going as is.

We’ve gone up to the very brink before and sometimes the deal is settled at the eleventh hour.

A strike is the only way writers will ever get in their 10,000 steps.  

Now for some specifics:

There are some years when writers are trying to set a precedent and get in on a new revenue stream – like VHS and DVD sales when those were big and now streaming formulas. Those negotiations are wildly complicated because no one really knows what the future will bring. Like I said, DVD sales were once huge and worth a long stoppage to get a piece of that pie. Now DVD sales are relatively insignificant compared to streaming options. But this year the WGA is really looking to just increase minimums, correct some injustices, and build up its health plan.

As mentioned, $51 billion in profit and yet writer budgets on TV series have not gone up. Plus, networks are buying fewer episodes. So you could be on staff of a show, making decent money per episode, but they’re only making eight episodes.   In the past they might have made 13 or even 22.

Since writing partners split a salary, producers are now taking two lower level writers and forcing them to be partners, thus forcing them to surrender half their entry-level salaries. That way the producer gets two writers for the price of one and lower level writers have no choice but to take it if they want a job. How unfair is that? It is possible for a lower level writer to work full-time on a series (50+ hours a week) and still not qualify for health insurance because they haven’t earned enough.

The bottom line is that after two weeks of “negotiating” the AMPTP has given in on nothing, thus setting the stage for a confrontation.

And at the end of the day, there will be increases, there will be some relief for the pension and health plan, and other sticking points will meet in the middle. It’s just that this deal could come a week from now or in six months after a bitter strike (that also causes suffering to many other industry workers who have no dogs in this race).

In the last strike in 2007 I tried to keep you all abreast of what was going on. Lots of you don’t live in LA and don’t bother reading the industry trades (even though you're missing BEAUTY AND THE BEAST'S daily overseas boxoffice total). As before, I will try to be as honest and factual in covering this potential strike. The next few weeks (or months) could be a rollercoaster. The current contract is up May 1st. But the one takeaway I want you to have from this post is that writers do not want to go on strike. And it can be avoided. It’s just not up to us.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

International Marketing Fiascos

I came across some famous campaign slogans and names that didn’t translate all that well to foreign markets. Check these out.

Chevy Nova did not sell well in South and Central America. “No va” means “it doesn’t go” in Spanish.

Coors had a translation problem with their “Turn It Loose” campaign. In Spanish it means “Suffer From Diarrhea”.  Although that could just be truth in advertising.

The Spanish language was no friend to chicken czar Frank Perdue. His slogan, "It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken" translated to "it takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate."

More Spanish: When Parker Pen introduced a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to have read, "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you." The ads really read: "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant!"

“Mist” is slang for “manure” in German. So Clairol’s “Mist Stick” didn’t have the desired effect.

In China, Pepsi's "Come Alive With the Pepsi Generation" translated into "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From the Grave”. And it’s refreshing!

Finally,  this was my favorite: When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with that cute baby on the label. Trouble is, in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the labels of what's inside, since many people can't read. Yum!!

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.


@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.


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. 


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.