Sunday, February 25, 2018

I've got some theatre coming up

I've got a bunch of theatre pieces being produced in March and April.  Depending upon which continent you're on come see one.

My short play, THE HOOK UP gets two productions.  March 2-11 in New York City as part of ANDTheatre's "Eclectic Evening of Shorts."   You can find info here.   I will be there for the evening performances on the 9th & 10th so please say hi if you're coming.  I'll be the one in the back nervously pacing.

And from March 5th to the 11th in Sydney, Australia THE HOOK UP  is in the "Short + Sweet Festival."   More info here.   NOTE:  There are two separate casts.  It's not one cast commuting back and forth between NY & Sydney twice a day. 

On Sunday, March 18th I will again be participating in the Ruskin Theatre's "Cafe Plays" in Santa Monica, Ca.  This is that one-day play exercise where five playwrights are given a topic and assigned actors at 9 AM and at 7:30 that night a full production of all five plays are staged.  Info found here.   I will be at both the 7:30 and 9:00 performances. 

But wait:  There's more! 

On Saturday, March 24th, there's a reading of my full-length comedy about comedy, OUR TIME at the Atwater Theatre in Los Angeles at 1:00 PM.  It's part of EST's "Launchpad" series.  There is still some limited space so if you want to see it, email me at   I'll be there for that too, taking copious notes.

And in April my short play, SURF'S UP hits the shores of Long Island as part of the "9th Annual Northport One Act Festival" in Northport, NY.   Dates are April 14 & 15.  This is where you go for more info.  SURF'S UP is a father/daughter play with a real father and daughter playing the roles. 

Some other things in April are pending too.  Stay tuned.  And Thule, Greenland, I'll get to you soon. 

Thanks for your support.  As someone once said:  You want to see real 3-D?  Go to the theatre.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The best show of the series got the series cancelled

The second writing assignment my partner David Isaacs and I got was a short-lived show on CBS called JOE & SONS. We actually wrote two episodes but they were cancelled before our second could air (or be filmed for that matter). It starred Richard Castellano (the big fat guy from THE GODFATHER) and Jerry Stiller. Although the show was not killing in the ratings we had a blast writing it, and loved working with the showrunners, Bernie Kukoff & Jeff Harris.

Side note: Bernie & Jeff worked on ROSEANNE for a time. When they quit Jeff took out a full-page ad in the trades – an open letter to the cast and crew that said, "My wife and I have decided to share a vacation in the peace and quiet of Beirut.”   I can't imagine the poor writers who had to work on her reboot. 

But I digress…

When shows are bordering on cancellation they do whatever they can to stave off execution. Some appeal directly to viewers, enlist letter-writing campaigns, etc. With ALMOST PERFECT the first year we went back to all the TV critics who gave us good reviews and asked if they would do follow-up stories. Many did and that helped. We were renewed.

In the case of JOE & SONS, it was a time when CBS founder William Paley was still alive. He could single-handedly save a show, despite its numbers. This is the story I heard and I’m assuming it’s true because I heard it from several sources.

Bernie & Jeff argued that they were really starting to find the show and that a few of the yet-to-air episodes were really terrific. If CBS gave the series a chance, audiences would eventually find it. Paley was in Los Angeles on business and planned to fly back to New York on the corporate jet. He agreed to watch a couple of the upcoming episodes on the flight.

So off he went into the wild blue yonder with a couple of tapes. He popped in the first episode. I don’t know the details of storyline but it had something to do with someone dying, a funny funeral, hijinks with caskets, whatever. Apparently it was extremely funny – their best show.


William Paley’s wife had died recently. By the time they were over Nebraska the show was cancelled.

Talk about “oops!” I’m just glad it wasn’t ours.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday when we Question things.

blinky has the first one.

Are you, and comedy writers in general, funny in person? Or do you treat your skill like a job, such that you don't want to give out the funny for free. In my imagination I see comedy writers being like Hawkeye or Mory Amsterdam, unstoppable joke machines. But then again I've met some comedians who were not the least bit funny in a normal situation.

I tend not to be always “on.” That’s fine when you’re Mel Brooks, but it can get exhausting being around those people. I can be funny when I want to, like if I’m on a panel, or I’m in a writing room where it’s my JOB to be funny. And throughout the course of a day I’ll say funny things if they occur to me. But no, I’m not a joke machine.

I was in improv workshops with Robin Williams, and even he had his down time. We would all go out to eat after class and there were nights Robin would just sit quietly like a church mouse.  I've also been with Jonathan Winters and Steve Martin and neither are "wild and crazy guys" when not on stage.  And that's a good thing. 

Personally, unless the zany manic joke machine guy is a comic genius, I avoid him like the plague. It’s like being trapped in a Volkswagen with Gallagher.

From Ray:

My question is on the popular notion that "Hollywood is controlled by Jews". What is your take on that?

Not until Rupert Murdoch converts.

Jonny M. wonders:

Cheers Season 3. It says produced by Sam Simon & Ken Estin. But then they will have individual writing credits. Were they a producing team but not a writing team? I thought the ampersand denoted a team.

They were a producing team going into the season but decided to go their separate ways during the course of the season. And both had written individually extensively so doing solo scripts was no problem.

J Lee asks:

You've mentioned before how you would have like to have written for The Dick Van Dyke Show but were a decade too young to have made the cut -- are there any other shows from the 1950s, 60s or early 70s you liked while growing up that you wished you could have written for, but were gone by the time you broke into the business?

THE HONEYMOONERS, SGT. BILKO, HE & SHE, the first year of BEWITCHED (it was a much more sophisticated romantic comedy that initial season), GOOD MORNING WORLD (produced by Persky & Denoff who did THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.

It wasn’t a sitcom but the show I really wanted to write for in the late ‘60s was THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Uncredited work

Liz had a question that became an entire post.

I do know that many writers do help in re-writes but never get the credit. Have you done re-writes for any TV shows or movies, without getting any credit?

I have read that Carrie Fisher was a script doctor, have you done any such work?

David Isaacs and I did were script doctors as well. Uncredited, we did big rewrites on MANNEQUIN and JEWEL OF THE NILE as well as a number of movies that ultimately never got made.

But it’s a trade off you know going in. The kinds of rewrites we used to like were just before the film was about to go into production. Usually two weeks and the trade off was real good money for no credit.

We almost did a rewrite on THE MIGHTY DUCKS. We spoke to the director and said our issue was that it was the EXACT same movie as BAD NEWS BEARS. He did not want to hear that.

In television David and I often helped out on pilots and never received credit. Among the pilots that actually became series (even though you won't remember half of them or more) we contributed to – FRASIER, WINGS, JUST SHOOT ME, PIG STY, GEORGE & LEO. LOVE & MONEY, GOOD COMPANY, THANKS, IT’S ALL RELATIVE, BECKER, THE GEORGE CARLIN SHOW, SIBS, THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW, THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES, OUT OF PRACTICE, BRAM & ALICE, PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, LATELINE, KRISTIN, and probably thirty others that never got on the air. I don’t remember the titles but among the stars of the ill-fated pilots were Cheech Marin, Carol Burnett, Jordana Brewster, Jason Biggs, Jasmine Guy, Michael Chiklis, Georgia Engel, Katey Sagal, Jane Leeves, Tate Donovan, Lewis Black, Cameron Manheim, Lisa Kudrow, Mark Addy, Patrick Warburton, and I’m sure a bunch of actors that went on to become huge stars but I didn’t know it at the time and forgot they were even in one of these projects.

I also did rewrite night uncredited for a number of shows including WINGS, SIBS, JUST IN TIME, and MAMA’S BOY.

The point is when you see someone’s IMDB page and they have a lot of credits, in all likelihood they really have a lot more.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

EP60: The Art of Improv Comedy

Ken talks to Andy Goldberg who performs and teaches improvisation comedy.  It’s an invaluable skill for actors, writers, business people, anybody. And loads of fun. Ken and Andy also share stories of other improvisers they’ve worked with--like Robin Williams--and people even zanier.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Start the Clock

Major League Baseball has taken steps to speed up games. But they’re tiny rather insignificant steps. Limiting number of mound visits to six and shaving a few seconds off of commercial breaks. Maybe 4 hour games will be 6 minutes shorter.

The problem is the Players Union. Players, by and large, are creatures of habit. They don’t want to change things, they don’t want to be inconvenienced . So any real measures to speed up the game are blocked.

But you want faster baseball games? Simple. Pick up the damn pace. How do you do that?

Well, first of all, umpires need to call strikes as designated in the rule book. They don’t. They just call the bottom half of the strike zone strikes. If they called more strikes batters wouldn’t take a thousand borderline pitches. They’d swing more. Each at bat would be more like a minute and a half and not five. Multiply that over sixty or seventy at bats a game.

Batters must stay in the batter’s box. No hopping out after every pitch to adjust your batting gloves or go through idiotic rituals. Get in, hit, get out.

No more walk-up music. Players wait the 30 or 40 seconds while their stupid intro music plays. It’s nonsense. Joe DiMaggio didn’t need to hear “Mrs. Robinson” before he could hit.

Limit the number of throws to first base. The runner gets too big a lead? Pitch out.

Institute a time limit between pitches. You don’t have to be exact to the second but there are some pitchers who take forever. Cut that shit out.

Finally, and I know this will never happen, limit the number of pitchers on your roster. Cut down on the number of relief pitchers you have available. Do that and you won’t have ten pitching changes every game. Do that and you won’t have four pitchers in one inning from time to time. Every time there’s a pitching change it’s another four minutes. You’re not destroying the fabric of the game by limiting the number of relief pitchers available. For a hundred years starters either pitched complete games or got late into games and one or two relievers would finish up. Now each side uses six or seven pitchers a game.

Dodger games in Los Angeles in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and into the ‘70s used to start at 8:00 pm not 7:00 pm. And the games STILL ended sooner than they do now. That’s ridiculous. But like I said, nothing is going to really change. God forbid a third-string catcher steps up to the plate without hearing his signature song.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Beat the Clock

Channel surfing recently around stations in the 1200-1500 range I came across BUZZR. This is a network that airs old game shows. Gene Rayburn lives! You can watch THE MATCH GAME fifteen times a day. But late at night they show OLD game shows. Really OLD. Really really OLD. Black and white from the ‘50s. From time to time I go on nostalgia jags and catch a few episodes of WHAT’S MY LINE?, TO TELL THE TRUTH, and I’VE GOT A SECRET – mostly because they have the original commercials in tact. We see scientific proof that Anacin cures headaches as it stops the anatomically correct cartoon hammer seen pounding in your brain. I’m sold.

Okay, I also had a crush on Betsy Palmer. 

But then BUZZR dug even deeper. I saw an episode of BEAT THE CLOCK. From 1953. Holy shit! Are their videotapes of Shakespeare plays when they were first performed? 1953.

For those not familiar, this was a game show where contestants had to perform goofy stunts in 45 seconds or 55 seconds, whatever – they had to “beat the clock.” What struck me however was how cheesy some of these stunts were. Especially considering this was a CBS prime time program seen nationwide.

One of the stunts from the episode I caught was two Dixie Cups on their sides on a card table. A husband and wife were on either side of the table and by tapping on the underside of the table they had to get the two cups to shift to a standing position. The Dixie Cups alone must’ve cost three cents! As the couple was trying to perform this stunt I was thinking a) I can’t believe this was on network television, and b) I was riveted. Who needs million dollar production values or current game shows with elaborate high tech sets and sound effects when you can see Dixie Cups being jiggled?

Another stunt was a guy had to put on a pair of pants while holding three balloons. Can you just see the network saying to the producer he’s gone way over on his balloon budget?

Networks lately have been revamping old game shows and “improving” them. The new TO TELL THE TRUTH is unwatchable. The new MATCH GAME is only fun because of Alec Baldwin. And there have been numerous reboots of BEAT THE CLOCK. But none can match the innocence and cheesy charm of the originals.

People paid a lot of money for television sets back in 1953. Not every household had one. They were major investments. I wonder if anybody said, “Hey, I shelled out three months salary so I could see Dixie Cups on a card table?” My guess is no. My guess is they were just thrilled to be able to see it.. And that is what’s lost today – the “Oh Wow” factor. Consumers now just expect miracle digital advances. So it’s no longer fun to play “Beat the Clock” because no clock today can keep up.

By the way – TRIVIA NOTE: Did you know that James Dean was a stunt tester on BEAT THE CLOCK?  Yep.  The trouble was he was so agile that real contestants could never complete the tasks in the time he took.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Are spec scripts dead?

There was a recent article in the LA TIMES proclaiming that spec screenplays are now dead. For quite some time studios would buy these scripts written on speculation for goodly amounts and even ungodly amounts. Some specs were going for over a million dollars.

For the studios, it was a chance to buy a script already written. They knew what they had (or what they had to assign to other writers to rewrite). In the “old” days studios would hire writers to write screenplays. They’d come in and pitch, make a sale, and go to work. And often times the studios were burned with disappointing drafts. A spec eliminated throwing all that good money after bad.

But there was trouble in paradise. Some of these big sale specs bombed at the boxoffice. DVD rentals and sales dried up and there wasn’t as much cash available to spend on specs. The film industry became more global and specs tended to be America-centered. So existing franchises and superheroes took center stage. Small, original, personal specs went out of favor. Anything that doesn’t have twelve explosions, people who can fly, or spaceships is now considered an “art film.” And studios are phasing out “art films.”

Screenwriters used to look down their noses at television. When David and I wanted to move into features in the ‘80s studios wouldn’t consider us until we had a spec screenplay. The fact that we wrote MASH for four years meant nothing. That was “television.” Now screenwriters are fleeing to television.

I wrote a number of spec screenplays and played that game. I was fortunate in that I sold a few. And a few I didn’t sell. I’d work for six months crafting an original screenplay, the agent would send it out over a weekend and on Monday morning either there was an offer or two and celebration or the project was dead. And by dead I meant DEAD. Unless I was willing to shell out the ten million required to make it the script would go in a drawer never to be seen again. At the end of the day, for all my hard work, maybe twenty people actually read it.

That’s one of the reasons I got into playwriting. No, you can’t make nearly the money you can in features. In fact, you generally lose money writing plays. But, if they’re not exorbitant to produce, you can actually stage them and invite audiences and see your work come to life. It’s been my experience that people will go to a theatre, but they won’t sit home and read your failed screenplay. The only problem with playwriting vs. screenwriting is that playwrights starve.

Will spec screenplays come back? I’m sure, to a certain extent, just not nearly as many (and for not nearly as much). Aaron Sorkin can sell a spec. Whoever wins an Oscar has probably a two-year window. And just as people win state lotteries, a teacher in Kalamazoo or bus driver in Walla Walla can still land a million dollar sale. But I wouldn’t quit my day job just yet.

The loss of spec sales is just another indication the movie industry is eroding and will slowly go away. They’re making way fewer movies, these franchise sequels and comic book flicks performed way under expectations last year, and audiences (not just screenwriters) are gravitating to television where the writing is better, there’s more variety, home screens and sound systems are awesome, and strangers don’t talk and text while you’re enjoying a show.

What’s missing is the shared experience in a theatre and the hope that some new thing hitches a ride on the zeitgeist and one of my unsold specs can now get sold. But I’m not quitting my day job either (and I don’t even have one).