Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What is currently going on in the world of television?

Here we are, the end of March and this is what is going on in television production:

Pilots for the fall are in the process of filming. Actors are being replaced, writers are in borrowed studio offices working late into the night rewriting scripts. When it’s break time they wander through the maze of offices at midnight searching for the kitchen or bathroom. Some will never find their way back to the writing room.

On stage many film directors are directing TV pilots. Yes, they come with all the feature cachet, but they’re also not used to filming seven or eight pages in one day. The seasoned TV directors that do it with ease on a regular basis can’t get pilots because there is way more status to have film directors.

Pilot buzz is beginning. What shows are hot? What shows are in trouble? Projects bounce back and forth between the two on an almost daily basis.

There are only two types of sets on pilots – lovefests or snake pits. You’d think shows that are lovefests would have a much better chance of getting on the air but they don't.

There is nothing more stressful in show business than network run-throughs on pilots.

Meanwhile, on current shows still in production:

Those that haven't already wrapped are just finishing up the season.

The writers are walking around like zombies, absolutely fried.

All lead-time has completely evaporated. There is a mad scramble to write the last couple of episodes.

There is much speculation as to whether your show will be back. And weary staff members at this moment are not sure whether they want it back or not.

Wrap parties are either pretty wild or half the participants fall asleep from exhaustion.

The highlight of the wrap party is the blooper reel. You can expect a quick montage of outtakes of your stars saying “fuck!”  The first time you see one of those you fall over laughing.  By the fifth or sixth you just smile. 

Everyone in television looks forward to April 16th. Pilots are done, seasons are in the can and for the rest of the month everyone sleeps.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST -- My review

Saw Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST this weekend, based on the Disney animated version that didn’t need to be remade except for all the money it’ll make for Disney. There’s also a live Broadway musical. I fully expect a performance of that to be filmed and released as yet another version of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Oh, and six other Disney animated films are in the process of being developed for films. Can BEAUTY AND THE BEAST casinos and airport bars be far behind? I can’t believe there are no BEAUTY AND THE BEAST puppet shows, Cirque du Soleil underwater extravaganzas, or skydiving versions for Nebraska air shows.

The current live-action version is exactly what you think it is. Extremely well done, very lavish, minute attention to detail, and a remake that’s as old as time. If there wasn’t the animated version this reboot might be considered dazzling. And again, Disney knows how to do it right. This is way better than the live versions of non-Disney cartoons like INSPECTOR GADGET or RICHIE RICH or ROCKY & BULLWINKLE (although Piper Perabo was robbed at Oscar time with that one).

But if you have seen the animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and you’re not nine, you probably will find yourself checking your watch an hour in. They added new story beats that frankly all felt like padding. There’s no reason the movie should be 129 minutes.

This is me watching this movie: It begins – I’m impressed with the sets (although it's the France where no one speaks French), the opening number is colorful and faithful to the original (and by original I mean the cartoon), and Emma Watson can sing (as opposed to another Emma who Warren Beatty thought won the Best Picture Oscar).

The story unfolds. I’m wondering: was the Beast’s long neglected castle based on the original or Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion? Kevin Kline plays Belle’s father and I’m thinking: Since when did he become a Billy Connolly impersonator?

The animated Belle was very two-dimensional and Emma Watson captured both dimensions. She’s plucky, she’s adorable, and Anne Hathaway is too old. Thank God there isn’t an HBO version starring Lena Dunham.

Now I’m trying to decide whether I like the Beast’s make up.  He's modeled after the original. He’s hardly repulsive to look at. Disney could have saved a lot of money in make up if they had just hired Steve Buscemi. But then I figure: the Beast can’t be too scary or he’ll scare the shit out of millions of tykes (translation: millions of dollars). So he’s a Wookiee with two rams’ horns.

Belle becomes a prisoner in the castle. If you’re yelling “Spoiler Alert,” come on, the cartoon version has been out for 26 years. At this point I’m thinking two things: The talking inanimate objects just look very CGI (they weren’t magical; they were digital), and when are they going back to a Gaston scene?

Luke Evans as Gaston steals the movie for me. My only problem is that he looks 45 and Belle looks 15.  We're getting into Woody Allen country here. But he’s hilarious as is his sidekick played by Josh Gad. I was impressed with Josh Gad. He always plays the nerdish bumbling sidekick, but in this film he really stretches. Yes, he plays a nerdish bumbling sidekick but with straight hair.

I’m also starting to check my watch. The movie's getting long. And with every new detour to added filler material I’m thinking: “Shit, we still have the ballroom dance and Belle-sees-the-library scenes to go.”

The saving grace are the songs. I love those songs (not particularly the new ones -- inserted only to snag a Best Original Song Oscar) and unlike LA LA LAND, each one is gorgeously sung. The visuals and choreography also do justice to every note. Director Bill Condon knows how to stage a production number.

The last act is very stirring and well done. HOME ALONE with the CGI clocks and candlesticks. And I was charmed when the Beast finally turned into handsome Dan Stevens (although I would have been more charmed if it were twenty minutes earlier) but kept thinking: He sure traded up from Lady Mary. (Note: That was a DOWNTON ABBEY reference.)

I also keep waiting throughout for the infamous gay character that has some foreign countries all in a tither. Turns out it’s one great joke. Really? THAT’S the big controversy? Disney has an obligation to be absolutely PC and uphold Red State family values? This is the company that gave us SONG OF THE SOUTH and the Big Bad Wolf originally disguising himself as a Hasidic Jew to fool the Three Little Pigs. More gay jokes please. Grow up Malaysia!

Worse to me is that in the animated version Gaston used a bow and arrow. Here he fires a rifle.

There are those who argue that the Gaston/LeFou relationship has a gay undercurrent but God knows what Captain Hook made Smee do in the Jolly Roger.

All of talking appliances were voiced by A or B-list actors. Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson (if you’re an actress named Emma you sang in a movie this year), Stanley Tucci, and Audra McDonald. Until the end you just heard their voices. They didn’t make Ian McKellen scrunch down into a clock costume.

The most interesting thing about this BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is that it made me want to revisit the animated version. So Disney makes another dollar. "Mission accomplished," Bob Iger is saying.

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.

@GeraldFord:

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

@LBJ: My hands are big too.

@RonaldReagan: I’m wearing clean socks.

@BillClinton: Being president is like being Mick Jagger. 

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

@FDR: Body shaming Eleanor is not cool.

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

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

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

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

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

@GeorgeW: I bet you miss me NOW.

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

@HonestAbe: Has anyone seen the first lady?

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

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

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

@GeorgeWashington: Wooden teeth jokes are getting old.

@RonaldReagan: I had soup for lunch.

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Episode 12: Pissing off NBC and other TV tales


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


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

My favorite GONG SHOW act

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

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

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

Here's to the comedy writers who lunch

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

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

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

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

Who died.

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

Other comedy writers who are funnier than we are.

Agents.

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

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

Cars we’ve sold.

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

Lexapro.

Chuck Lorre.

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

Jury duty (ways to get out of it).

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

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

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

Who else died.

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

Stupid network notes we’ve received.

And new this year…

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

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The not-so-quiet life of a TV writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

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

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

cd1515 asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Sports Illustrated article is on the newsstands now

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

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

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

Marching home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Writing comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary

Here's a Friday Question (even though it's Saturday), complete with a special guest expert!

Jim S. wants to know:

How did the guest celebrity callers to Frasier's show do their bits? Did they record them, do them live, some combination of both?

How did you choose them? Were they favors, a cool inside baseball thing to do?

When I don’t know the answer I try to go to the person who does. Jeff Greenberg was the award-winning casting director on FRASIER and handled that aspect of the show. Jeff graciously took time out from casting MODERN FAMILY to answer your question Jim S.

We mostly used good non-name actors to record the callers when we filmed the show in front of a live studio audience in a special sound booth we built onstage and replaced those voices later with our namier guest actors. We often recorded those by phone or at a sound facility at their convenience, but occasionally they'd come to the show and record them live. One I can remember who did it live was Jay Leno. I remember that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio recorded hers from a payphone in Lincoln Center in NY.

Initially we did call in a few favors to get it going. For the pilot, Linda Hamilton did it as a favor to me, and Griffin Dunne was a friend of Chris Lloyd, one of our producers. Other early favors were Patti LuPone and Judith Ivey.

David Lee, one of the creators of the show, and I would decide whom we would ask to be our celebrity callers. We paid them a favored nations $1000 for a few minutes work.

Thanks so much, Jeff. By the way, Timothy Leary was the caller on an episode my partner David and I penned. How many people can say they wrote comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary?


We also wrote for Art Garfunkel and (in case you ever play "6 Degrees of") Kevin Bacon.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Questions

It’s the St. Patrick’s Day edition of Friday Questions.

ScottyB starts us off.

I was watching an episode of 'Becker', written by you, in which Becker's office is vandalized. During the scene where Becker and the rather large police inspector are at the diner counter for lunch, I swear to god those must've been the hugest burgers I've ever seen served on TV. So here's the question: Where does the food come from?

Sometimes from Craft-services but often the studio commissary provides the grub. We used them a lot on MASH anytime we had a mess tent scene. And by the way, the mess tent food was actually delicious.

When I was directing LATELINE in New York we had a scene where the backstory was a character got roped into a horrible date. So she ordered a seven-pound lobster. The scene is the next day at the office and she’s eating the leftovers.

So the studio went out and got a seven-pound lobster. But they had to get two more just in case there were a lot of retakes. As luck would have it, we got the eating scene in take one.

After the show wrapped the prop guy gave me the other two seven-pound lobsters. So I invited the entire crew to my office where we all had a lovely midnight clambake. These guys work really hard and rarely get any recognition so it was nice to thank them (on someone else’s dime).

From blinky:

I loved the Good Wife but had a hard time with The Good Fight because I kept wondering when Alicia was going to show up. Do you think The Good Fight has some parallels with After M*A*S*H? Were people wondering when Hawkeye was going to make an appearance?

Well, AfterMASH had the advantage that it was on CBS, not a pay channel. I suspect Diane is a strong enough character and Christine Baranski is a strong enough actor that she’ll be able to carry the new series – at least at the start. One of the stars of THE GOOD WIFE was the writing and from what I saw from THE GOOD FIGHT pilot, that sharp writing is still in evidence.

If it were still on CBS I’d watch every episode. Do I love it enough to subscribe? Sorry. No. I’m waiting for CBS All-Access to add ALMOST PERFECT and BIG WAVE DAVE’S. They have them in their library and could easily do that.

As for Alicia returning, Julianne has said she wouldn’t. But honestly, I’m kinda over Alicia stories. Robert & Michelle King have a great knack of creating characters so let’s see how the new series grows. I wish them the best.

As for AfterMASH, hey I was asking when Hawkeye could show up?

ScottyB sneaks in with another question -- this one regarding St. Pat's Day.

The 'Bar Wars VII: The Naked Prey' episode of 'Cheers' written by you and David is by far and away my all-time favorite episode of the entire 11-season run. Everything about it was perfect, IMO. Here's the question: Wherever did the 'Limey Scum' song come from? The whole setup to the morose Irish band singing that song *still* makes me laugh like hell every time no matter how many times I see it. That band was an absolute stroke of genius, you two. Thank you so much for that!!

Thanks for the kind words.  As I recall, one of the other writers on staff, Rob Long, suggested that when we were breaking the story.  So credit where credit is due.

Doug G. asks:

Are an actor's royalties (in terms of more or less $$$) affected by how he is credited on a TV show? The one I'm thinking of is Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe. Depending on the episode of "Frasier," Dan Butler's name either appears in the opening titles or at the end with the credit "Special Appearance by." I can't remember if he ever had the generic credit "Guest Star" or not.

There’s no set answer to this. Fees and credits are negotiated.

If an actor’s name had been in the end credits but got moved to the top of the show it usually means he’s become a series regular (or at least semi-regular) and a price hike is generally attached.

But for a guest appearance, just because an actor’s credit is not in the front doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll make less money than if it were. Some shows have a policy of only featuring series regulars at the front.

And like I said, the credit itself is often negotiated. Does the actor get an “and” before his name at the end of the guest actor credits (thus allowing him to stand out more)? Or “special appearance by?” Does he have to share his credit with one or more other guest stars? Sometimes a studio can trade an “and” credit or the placement or size of the credit for a little less money. Needless to say those are wacky negotiations.

Brian rounds it out.

What is it like when you film in an empty studio? Have you ever filmed before a half-empty studio audience?

I suspect you mean for a multi-camera show where is there is normally an audience.

Without the audience it’s just like shooting a single-camera show but with four cameras. The timing will be a little bit off because the actors won’t know when (and if) to hold for laughs. Normally a show will have a laugh spread that can last up to three or four minutes. (For the pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S we had a ridiculous laugh spread of ten minutes.) That extra time allowed us to trim things that didn’t work. Without an audience those clankers get through.

Generally, if you do have an audience you fill the place. There are companies that shows can hire that will provide studio audiences (even going so far as to pay them). So usually you have a full house (200 to 250 people) to start. But some shows take forever to film and exhausted audience members slip out. In those cases it’s quite common to have half-filled houses by the last few scenes. When I direct or showrun I always try to move things along to keep the audience involved and happy.

Filming before a half-filled audience is usually tedious.  I've experienced it (I've experienced pretty much everything) but like I said, I try desperately to avoid it. 

And then there’s FRIENDS. It would take so long to film an episode of FRIENDS that they had two audiences. One came in about 4:00, the other came in about 9:00. You could do that with a show as popular as FRIENDS. Good luck trying that with DR. KEN.

What’s your Friday Question? Drink safely tonight.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Getting started in show biz

My podcast this week centers on how my writing partner, David Isaacs and I got started. Not a lot of glitz – it’s just me talking directly to you, sharing our story. You can hear it by clicking here or the big gold arrow above.  Like I say at one point, breaking-in stories are like snowflakes – no two are alike. It’s not like you go to law school, get hired by a firm, and work your way up, and then the president of the United States fires you. Breaking into show business takes luck, talent, timing, connections, education, and desire. There’s no question it’s difficult, but every person you see who gets a TV or movie credit found a way in somehow.

The point is it can be done. And why not by you, right?

The factor that I touched on last is perhaps the most important. Desire.

In a really competitive marketplace you’ve got to really want it. Advice I’ve heard given to actors is that if there’s ANYTHING else they would enjoy doing as a fallback, do that. Only pursue a career in acting if there is nothing else in the world that would give you satisfaction. That’s probably good advice. I’m not an actor (which makes me unique in this town).

But the upside of that need for desire is that it is very exciting to want something badly. I look back at my “hungry years” trying to break in as a great period of my life. Comedy was inspiring. Watching every sitcom, learning the names of those who wrote them, devouring books, hanging out at the Comedy Store, going to improv shows, taking night classes, catching every Woody Allen and Mel Brooks movie countless times, listening to comedy albums, marveling at funny disc jockeys – these were not chores, these were not “homework” – these were pleasures.

I used to live for hanging out with other writer wannabes. We could spend hours at an all-night coffee shop dissecting that week’s HAPPY DAYS episode.

David and I both had day jobs but would get together three or four times a week at nights and weekends to write our spec scripts. It was great fun.

We didn’t see the endgame as making a ton of money or even seeing our names on television. To us nothing seemed more heavenly than to get up in the morning and get to go to a studio, sit in a room with really funny people all day and get paid for writing comedy. We weren’t thinking of creating our own shows, or getting a development deal, or winning awards – we just wanted to be a part of it. We wanted drive-ons to Paramount.

My latest play is about this subject. Called OUR TIME, it’s very loosely autobiographical about breaking in in the mid ‘70s. Present are all the frustrations, setbacks, angst, competition, and despair that go along with excitement, drive, and dreams. But it’s a comedy about comedy so pain and neuroses have to be part of the bargain. Along with (hopefully) a lot of laughs. But it’s a time in my life I cherish. And for all the angst, I’m always kind of envious of those young people just starting out today. Enjoy as much of it as you can tolerate.

I hope in the telling of my breaking-in story that I convey some of that excitement and maybe inspire one or two of you to keep pressing on (towards whatever your goal is, not just show business) despite the odds.

Again, why not you???

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Episode 11: Breaking In Is Hard to Do


In this week’s episode Ken tells the story of how he and David Isaacs met, became writing partners, and finally broke into the business – learning lessons, making rookie mistakes (that you can avoid), and discovering the little edges that will place you out in front in a very competitive field.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Today's special guest blogger

Here’s a Friday Question about BECKER that not only deserves its own post, but I was lucky enough to get the show’s creator/showrunner Dave Hackel to answer. Thanks so much, Dave.

The question comes from Brian.

I have always thought the show Becker was pretty good. But there had to be some resistance to having Ted Danson play Becker after Cheers. Was anybody else considered for that character?

Thanks for your question, Brian. The short answer is "No." There was no resistance to having Ted Danson play the part of Dr. John Becker. The part was never offered to any other actor. Once Ted expressed interest, we looked no further. However, there is a story of what led to that decision.

When I first wrote the pilot script for "Becker," no actor was attached. My thoughts about who to approach with the material were pretty "on the nose." I imagined actors who had played misanthropes before. Names like Dabney Coleman or Richard Dreyfus came to mind, but the script was never sent to them or anyone else.

Dave Hackel
It was known that CBS had a deal with Ted to do "something" and the executives at Paramount suggested I send the script to Keith Addis, Ted's manager, to gauge his interest on behalf of his client. Some time had passed and since I'd gotten no response, I assumed that to be a negative answer. Then one day my secretary told me that Ted Danson was on the phone for me. I was both excited and a little nervous. Like everyone in the country, Ted had been in my living room many times, but we'd never met. That call turned out to be one of the best I've ever received.

Ted explained that his manager had included my script in a group of others that had been submitted to Ted for consideration. Ted told me later that he really wasn't looking to do or even read another half-hour but that his wife, Mary Steenburgen, had picked my script off the pile, liked it and suggested that he take a look. He enjoyed it -- hence his call. He said, "I don't know if you think I'd be right for this and, frankly, I don't know if I'd be right for it either. I just wondered if you'd be willing to sit down and talk to me about it." I readily and enthusiastically agreed, and he and I set a date to have that conversation.

I'll be perfectly honest - while I had no doubt at all about Ted's ability to play any part he put his mind to, I did wonder if television audiences would accept him...a person they knew best as the affable Sam Malone...as a man as cynical and seemingly pessimistic as John Becker could be. That's what was on my mind when that meeting started.

Scheduled for an hour, that first conversation lasted three. We talked about the character and what my hopes were for the show. Then Ted shared his thoughts about who he thought John Becker was, who he could be and what types of stories we could tell. At the end of that meeting we agreed on a next step -- a reading of the script for our friends. We both welcomed outside opinions and made this deal: At the end of that reading, if either of us had second thoughts about the match -- actor and material -- we'd walk away with no hard feelings. Luckily, the reading went extremely well. Ted enjoyed himself and learned that he would be accepted playing such a different character. I learned that it was his likability -- that very quality that I'd worried would get in the way -- was exactly what the project needed. We saw we could take the character even further than we thought possible because people innately trusted Ted and that we could use that trust for the good of the show.

It was a perfect storm -- a perfectly lucky storm. Everything and everyone came together at the right moment in time.

So, again, Brian -- the network, studio and I never talked about another actor playing the part. Once Ted expressed interest, everyone was thrilled and no further search was conducted.

It’s me again. As someone who was in that initial reading I can confirm, Ted blew us all away. I was impressed with two things: (1) how sensational he was in the part, and (2) his desire to not play a character similar to Sam Malone. How many actors make a nice living repeating their successful characters in project after project? What makes Ted so extraordinary is his willingness to stretch as an actor and assume so many different roles. And crush each one. (Do you get the idea I kinda like the guy?)

Once again, my thanks to Dave Hackel for a great answer (and a great show, worth rediscovering in reruns).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lost in translation

I was watching this music video of Barbara Lewis singing "Hello Stranger."  The bottom of the screen had English and below the Spanish translation.   But you never know how accurate the translation is.   In this line however, I think they captured the essence. 

Saying things that now no longer make sense

In my podcast this week (which you need to hear and subscribe to already) I inadvertently mentioned turning off a “tape recorder.” A few of you good-naturedly razzed me for being so “last century.” The truth is I record the podcast digitally but the term “tape” recorder is ingrained in my brain. And in describing TV shows I recorded on my DVR I will still sometimes say I “taped” them.

So it got me thinking about words and expressions we use in everyday speech that have since outlived their meaning but we still use anyway. Here are a few examples.

“The tube” – a popular synonym for a television. Once upon a time there were tubes in a TV set. No longer. I guess you could call it “the chip” but I don’t see that catching on.

People order additional phone “lines”. In this cellphone world there are no “lines” -- everything is wireless.

“Don’t touch that dial”. You’ll hear announcers still say that. At one time you did have a big dial on your radio or TV, which you twisted to change stations. When was the last time you saw one of those that wasn’t in the Smithsonian right next to Abe Lincoln’s log cabin?

And for that matter, no one “dials” a phone anymore. We’ve been pushing buttons for forty years. And we no longer “hang up on people” although we still say we do.

People still say “roll up your window” in a car even though crank handles are now relics. 

Good photo opportunities are still referred to as “Kodak Moments”. Kodak made film for a thousand years. Today we have “Digital Nanoseconds”.

We used to correspond with certain friends in distant locales by getting out the old Bic and writing letters. Today we email, text, or IM but still refer to them as “Pen Pals”.

Recording artists are still coming out with new “records”. That’s what they were in the old days – vinyl platters. You could even argue that CD’s are just an updated technological version. But now music is released on line (again, is there really a “line”?).

And folks use the expression "But on the flip side," which refers to when vinyl records had two sides.  45 rpm's had a song on each side.  There was usually the hit and if you "flipped" the record over, a second song.  

I hear TV weathermen (actually – hot babes) say “tomorrow will be a carbon copy of today.” When was the last time you used carbon paper to make a copy? How many of you have even heard of carbon paper?

Many years ago scripts were duplicated by a mimeograph machine. When a writing staff prepared a production draft of a script to be distributed to the actors, network, crew, etc. they would say, “time to put the script into mimeo.” That expression remained long after mimeograph machines were recycled into soda cans.

So what are other examples? It’s kind of interesting isn’t it, to stop and think once in a while about just what the hell we’re saying?

Monday, March 13, 2017

The key to sitcom syndication success

Here is my theory based on no evidence whatsoever (not that evidence counts for anything these days). It was formed purely on observation, deduction, and taking a wild stab in the dark.  So, in other words, it's absolutely valid. 

Why are some sitcoms big hits in syndication while others aren’t? And just because a sitcom is a big hit on a network does not necessarily mean that will translate to syndication. Likewise, certain sitcoms that got meh ratings originally do gangbusters in future runs. 

A recent example of that is LAST MAN STANDING. On ABC the show has done respectably on Friday nights. Nothing to write home about but good enough on a forgotten night of television that it keeps getting renewed. But this year in syndication that show is a SMASH. It’s getting sensational numbers. Way better than expected. Way way better than some bigger primetime hits like MODERN FAMILY.

MODERN FAMILY has not fared well in syndication (despite its ratings, accolades, Emmys). USA was hoping to build a comedy line-up around it, but MODERN FAMILY under-performed to where USA scrapped all plans for original comedy whatsoever. I know this for a fact. I had a pilot in contention that was suddenly dead along with all the other pilots they had in development at the time.

So why is LAST MAN STANDING so much more successful than MODERN FAMILY? And why is BIG BANG THEORY still a powerhouse? And EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND? Why was WINGS a middling performer for NBC but a juggernaut for USA? Why does GOLDEN GIRLS continue to outperform most comedies that came after? And why does FRIENDS continue to be a ratings monster around the world?

Disclaimer: Like with every theory you can find exceptions. I realize that. MASH would be an exception for example. I say that because if I didn’t the comment section would be flooded with people listing exceptions. I’m making a general point here.

A common denominator among these successful shows is that they’re multi-camera, but that’s not the answer. I think a primary reason they do so well is that you don’t have to watch them.

You just have to listen.

Multi-camera shows are way easier to follow if you’re multi-tasking. How many people put the TV on and then just go about their business? You’re making dinner, you’re folding laundry, checking your email, getting ready for bed. The TV is keeping you company and multi-camera shows are great companions. They make you laugh, they’re not dependent on you seeing what’s going one, and the dialogue is enough. You know what Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment looks like, you can picture Central Perk. On MODERN FAMILY you need to pay more attention. The stories bounce around, there are visual gags, subtle gags that require seeing characters’ reactions. Sure there are those elements in multi-camera shows but they’re not as integral.

And dialogue jokes play better for casual viewing. Dialogue jokes drive multi-cams because they’re playing to live audiences. James Burrows always maintained that CHEERS was a radio play. You could enjoy it just as much by listening to it.

There’s a comfort level in general to sitcoms. Multi-cams add to that comfort by making them easy to follow. And I’ve found that if you have a show with lots of jokes, fans will watch reruns, even if they’ve already seen the episodes. Maybe they missed a few jokes the first time, or something they thought was funny before tickles them again.

Yes, multi-cams, especially family multi-cams are not sexy and cutting edge. They’re usually ignored by award shows and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. But believe me, networks and studios have taken note, and they’d gladly trade a boatload of Emmys for one LAST MAN STANDING.

They’re listening.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jessica Harper is a great sport

This is a re-post of an article from six years ago.  But it also has a GREAT payoff.   And it's a pretty funny story.  So it's worth sharing again.  Enjoy.

In early 1975 I was writing spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs, trying desperately to break into the business. At the time we were going nowhere fast. The spec RHODA we had submitted was rejected. Then the producer left and we re-submitted it. And the new producer rejected it. (That new producer is now my next-door neighbor. I just keep re-submitting it.)

Anyway, on the way to lunch I need to stop at the bank. I probably bounced a check. I go to the back of a long line and notice that the person directly in front of me is Jessica Harper. Ms. Harper is a fine actress and at the time was very hot. She had appeared in LOVE AND DEATH for Woody Allen and had starred in the cult feature PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE among other credits.

Oh, did I mention I had a HUGE crush on her?  

So I begin talking to her. She’s very nice. I’m asking about working with Woody Allen, her career, anything to keep the conversation rolling. All the while we slowly inch forward in line. When she is finally at the front I decide to do something I never ever do. If you know me you know this is true.

I ask her out. Right there in the bank.

She very graciously declines. A teller is free, she dashes off, and that was that.

I get back in the car and relate the story to David. He of course, gives me shit for fifteen minutes. “You did WHAT?!” Finally, I say, “Someday we’re going to be big producers casting a pilot and Jessica Harper is going to walk into our office and read for us. And then she’ll be sorry.” We laugh, go back to my apartment, and continue working on a spec that will soon be rejected all over town.  Jessica goes off and stars in another Woody Allen movie and one with Steve Martin. 

Flash forward to 1993. David and I have a pilot for CBS, BIG WAVE DAVE’S and we’re casting. Who walks into our office?

Yep.

Jessica has no idea why we both seem to be beaming the minute she enters the room. Her audition goes well. She’s a terrific actress. She wasn’t totally right for the part but she still gave a great reading.

I’m on the fence about telling her the story. On the one hand, she might be a great sport and find it amusing. On the other, if we don’t hire her maybe she’ll think it’s because of the bank and we’re the most unprofessional spiteful assholes in Hollywood. So we say nothing. I’m sure if Jessica reads this or someone points her to this post it will be the first she’s heard of it. And I guarantee you she has no recollection of the bank encounter. Ten minutes of her life with some schmuck in a line.

But it’s still one of those delicious career moments. And for the record, I still have a crush on Jessica Harper and would be thrilled to work with her. She’s now a blogger and an author as well as an actress and the least I can do is plug her books, which you can find here.

Okay, that's part one of the story.  Here's part two:  SHE RESPONDED.  
 That is one fabulous story!
I would be lying if I said I remember the bank part (I DO remember the script) but I'm sure you were a perfect gentleman or I would have cut that conversation short!...and you were very gracious about the audition...these qualities make you a rare and compelling person in Hollywood!
Thanks for your kind words, and for sharing my link with the world. Hmmmm....wonder where we'd be today if I HAD gone out with you...? Food for thought...!
All the best Ken!
Jessica


Thanks, Jessica.  You are a sweetheart. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Overwriting and why you shouldn't say more than you need to especially if there's no reason for it

When reading a spec, one of the most common traps I see young writers falling into is overwriting.  When I receive a spec the first thing I always do is check its length. If I get a hernia lifting it, that’s not good. A comedy screenplay should be no more than 120 pages and that’s stretching it. Sitcoms vary depending on the rhythm and format of the show. But if you write a spec MODERN FAMILY and it’s 55 pages I can tell you sight unseen it will be unseen. 

The only thing worse than a TV script or screenplay that’s overwritten is a stage play. Plays have no length requirement so the playwright has free rein to torture us long into next month. When a two character piece about what to pack for a vacation is longer than NICHOLAS NICKLEBY that should be a clue.

And then there’s the dialogue.

This may sound obvious but worth stating anyway: Always remember that actors have to perform your script.

Soooo many times I’ll see full page speeches with sentences so long and complicated that no human being on earth could ever deliver them. And certainly not in one breath. Read your script out loud. If you need CPR by the end of a speech, rethink. Dialogue has to sound natural, conversational. And rarely do we speak in big whoppin’ speeches.

When writing a TV spec, writers often go overboard on character quirks. They’ll hear Frasier utter something a little flowery and think that every word out of his mouth has to be Noel Coward. In fairness, shows themselves get caught up in that trap. On MASH the tendency to give every line a spin evolved into absurdity. In a later season (after I had left the series) Potter once said to Klinger, “It was curiosity that KO’d the feline.” WTF?? Who would ever say that? And why?

There is a tendency to want to impress by working in all kinds of complex themes and philosophies – show how you’re the next Paddy Chayefsky. In truth, it’s your inexperience not intellect that’s being put on display. If long intricate theories and complicated Byzantine ideas are your cup of tea, write a book.

More often than not these long speeches have characters express in detail their emotions and attitudes. Not only is it taxing to listen to this balloon juice it also gives the actor nothing to play. Might as well go on to the next scene. Sometimes a look or a gesture can say volumes more a two page speech that James Joyce would find too convoluted.

Whenever my partner, David and I go back to polish a draft we thin out the big speeches. If the speech is 14 lines we make it 11, if it’s 11 lines we make it 9. There are ALWAYS trims.

Same is true in stage direction. A reader sees a big block of stage direction I GUARANTEE he will not read it. You could describe a sex act in detail and he’ll flip the page.

As a rule it’s better to underwrite than overwrite. We have an expression. We like “open pages”. Much more white than type. This may sound obvious too but: You don’t get paid by the word.

Go back through your script. I bet you could lose two pages.  Writer/blogger extraordinaire Earl Pomerantz always maintained that you could lose page 8 from any script.  He's right!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Questions

Are you ready for the return of (a) Daylight Savings and (b) Friday Questions?

Matt starts us off:

Have you ever written for a sketch comedy show? Is this type of writing different?

Yes. My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote sketches for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW on Fox. It was great fun. The trick was finding a good ending. The problem with most sketches is that have funny premises but the writers don’t know how to get out of them.

A couple of the sketches we wrote for Tracey were musicals. In one case, Paula Abdul choreographed a dance number from one of them.

What helped in our case was that Tracey and her supporting players were all terrific and versatile.   Any character we envisioned they could do.  Tracey had several established characters so that made those sketches easier because we could picture her doing it and could imagine her voice.

I imagine the writers of SNL are having a ball these days.  

From Michael:

You've mentioned being fired from several radio jobs. Did they ever let you back on-the-air after firing you? If so, did you ever do/say something memorable?

I was fired from TenQ in Los Angeles. I had been on the air doing Saturday nights for a year, but then a new program director came in and well, you know that drill. He lasted six months. His replacement (who came from out of town) was a big fan and called to see whether I’d consider doing a show on the weekends. He didn’t realize I had already been there. I was happy to return. When I signed on for my first show back I opened with “So as I was saying…”

I then did a talk show on KABC in 1981 and was fired for Maureen Reagan (who was president Reagan’s daughter). Hard to argue with that. Then in 2008 I returned to host Dodger Talk. Fortunately, Obama’s kids were little.

Paul wonders:

I was lucky enough to attend a Cheers filming and have always had a question about the set design -- the episode I attended had several scenes in Sam's office and each time the action shifted in there, they stopped filming, unfolded the set (yes, very cool to watch), shot the scene in the office, then stopped and folded it back up. The question: why not have Sam's office designed back in the pool room, which would have eliminated the need for that time-consuming folding and unfolding? Was there a thought that the office would be rarely used and the pool room would see more action? Or did they need to leave room in the studio for those occasional swing sets? Or is there no reason?

Putting the office where it was was the most efficient use of space on the stage. And anytime you switched from one set to the other there was going to be a time gap since the cameras had to move and re-set. The process of swinging the walls and bar took only a couple of minutes. We had an Indy 500-type pit crew.

And this way we could shoot right down the hallway from the bar to the poolroom, which was a very cool shot and added great depth to the set. Putting Sam’s office over there would eliminate that shot and necessitate that the pool room be smaller.

And finally, from Mark:

You mentioned the difficulty of filming outside for MASH once Fall and Winter set in. Why not have fifteen or twenty scripts ready and then do all the outside filming for all of them before moving to the set and doing all the inside stuff.

Each script required weeks of work to prepare. From idea to breaking the story, to the outline, and all the many drafts. Meanwhile, once we went into production we were filming episodes in four days. Our lead time got swallowed up in short order.

To have 20 scripts ready to go before production began would have required at least a full year of pre-production. We didn’t have that time. We only had a few months.

I like to think we were extremely organized and we had maybe eight scripts ready to go when production began. But the rest of the time we were scrambling to stay ahead of the production schedule. And by the last few shows it was reeeeeeeally tight.

Also, I think it would drive the actors insane to be shooting multiple shows at once. They’d have no idea what they were playing. It would be a confusing mess – not to mention an absolute nightmare for continuity trying to match clothes, where extras were, etc.

Single-camera comedies generally make 22 episodes between the end of July and the end of March. We made 25 episodes a season between July 4th and Christmas. I’d say we cranked them out at a pretty good rate. And first and foremost, we tried to make sure the writing was the absolute best it could possibly be. That takes time even if we didn’t have it.

What's your Friday Question?