Monday, October 16, 2017

"Did you watch SNL this week?"

Have you noticed that now every week people really look forward to SNL? Industry websites immediately post the opening and any stand-out sketches. It’s weekly overnight ratings are posted as soon as they’re available. Certain sketches go viral. People talk about it on Monday morning around the watercooler at work (instead of being at their desks reading blogs like they should be).

In other words it’s become a “thing.”

I’ve been lucky enough to work on a couple of hit shows and I can’t tell you how utterly intoxicating it was to be a part of a “thing.” There were years on MASH and CHEERS where I knew that each episode was highly anticipated and had an impact. We got letter every week. Most were nice; some were outraged. Fewer trolls because they had to pay for postage. But viewers were paying attention.

How many shows today are produced and aired in relative obscurity? And it takes the same amount of time and effort to produce a show only relatives watch on a network no one has ever heard of than to produce THIS IS US.

Even the first year of CHEERS, when we THOUGHT no one was watching, we averaged 20 million people a week. The show was slowly starting to catch on to where we thought we were an underground hit. 20 million viewers was considered “under the radar” back then. Now the landscape has become so fractured that certain shows on certain platforms shown nationally are seen by 100,000 people. I don’t understand the economics. How can they afford to shell out millions for shows that get way fewer views than cats coughing up fur balls on YouTube?

Happily, I can say I never took riding the zeitgeist for granted. Maybe it was because of my radio background where listeners only paid attention when you gave out contest information, but I appreciated and savored every moment of being on hit shows.

For everybody working on SNL – I’m sure it’s a grind, and with higher expectations comes additional pressure – but you’re in a moment of time here. It will pass. Enjoy every second of it while you can. (And keep going after that fat fuck – both of ‘em.)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Playing the part of Sam Malone today: Ignatz Gloogdeberg

After a sitcom has been on the air for a number of years – like ten -- it’s understandable that the cast loses a certain amount of interest. They know their characters so well and they know the routine so well that they don't require as much rehearsal as in the early discovery years.

Also, they become big stars by year ten. They suddenly have movie careers. They front worthwhile charities. They start their own production companies and split their attention between the show and their various new projects. They buy homes on the east coast and have to let the painters in.

On CHEERS during the last two seasons the runthroughs were unlike anything I’d ever seen. First let me say that I adore the CHEERS cast – every one of ‘em. They’re great people, terrific actors, and very respectful of the writers and everyone on the crew.

But for those last few seasons they often had other obligations and would miss rehearsal. Like I said, they didn’t need it. The only problem was that we writers did need to see a runthrough to determine what worked and what didn't.

And there were times we would go down to the stage for a runthrough and it would be the first assistant director playing Sam, the script supervisor playing Rebecca, the prop guy playing Woody, the wardrobe girl playing Carla, George Wendt and John Ratzenberger. This is what I assume community productions of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA look like.

We’d go back to the room and have no idea what we had. Someone would say, “I don’t think this Sam joke works” and the rest of us would say, “How do we know? Ignatz Gloogdeberg played him.” It was insane.

The craziest was the time we cut a certain actor’s joke who wasn’t at the runthrough. The actor came in the next day, was annoyed that the line was gone, and chided the stand-in for not selling the joke sufficiently.

In fairness, runthroughs with 80% understudies didn’t happen every week, although it was not unusual to have at least one person out for a rehearsal. That the episodes held together so well is also a testament to how well we writers knew the show and could write for it.

The filming nights would be a little rocky because not everyone knew their lines perfectly. But they would always rise to the occasion and on the air CHEERS appeared as polished as ever.

Although… if I'm being 100% honest --  there were times we writers would be on the stage watching the filming and say, “Hey, Zelda did a better job of that joke.”

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Two krazy rabbits

Well, first of all a huge THANKS to everyone who weighed in with their favorite cartoon character. (You're still welcome to tell us yours.)  Part of the fun of doing a blog is creating a little community and finding ways for you to interact.  So thanks for playing along. 

On to the results.

Yep, you guys agreed with the EW poll. Not much suspense here since you could all read through the comments yourself, but it was clear that Bugs Bunny was your overwhelming choice for favorite cartoon character. And I can’t disagree at all.

What was surprising to me, and somewhat heartening, is that the winning character hails from the 1940’s, not just someone on a cartoon show that came out in January. I say that because when I was a disc jockey back in the era of Top 40, stations would occasionally put together their “all-time Top 300” songs and invite listeners to send in postcards with their all-time favorite three songs. Invariably they would choose the songs currently in the top ten. (What we had to do was just throw out all the cards and tabulate a list ourselves.)

As for my choice, only one other person (a commenter on Facebook) shared my favorite. But mine is a little obscure, especially to younger generations since it was a TV cartoon from the ‘50’s and probably hasn’t been seen on television in God knows how many years. It was a tough choice because I too love Bugs, along with Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Popeye (the Fleisher cartoons, not the Paramount cartoons), Foghorn Leghorn, Top Cat (how can you not? He’s Bilko), Snagglepuss, Homer Simpson, Mr. Burns, Mr. Peabody, Mr. Magoo, Goofy, Dan Hoard (voice of the Springfield Isotopes – okay, you got me. It’s me), Tom Terrific, Mighty Mouse, and Pepe LePew – but my all-time favorite would have to be Crusader Rabbit. (I can just hear you saying “Who???”)

Crusader Rabbit was a forerunner of Rocky & Bullwinkle – serialized cartoons that were irreverent, sprinkled in adult humor, were the first to feature longform stories, and in addition to the usual cartoon slapstick utilized wordplay humor. Each episode had funny titles that were usually puns like “I can row a boat, canoe?” As a 7 year old that killed me.

Crusader Rabbit was the first cartoon show made exclusively for television. Prior to that cartoons were designed for theatrical release. There were actually two sets of Crusader Rabbit cartoons. The first around 1950 with some of the worst primitive animation ever, and then a new batch in color in the late ‘50s which were a big improvement in design, animation (although all TV animation was pretty cheesy back then), and leaned in even more on the irreverence and wordplay. The writer, Chris Hayward, went on to write and co-run BARNEY MILLER.

One final note: Going through your picks I couldn’t help but notice there were very few Disney characters. For all the dazzling animation, when it came to laughs there was something more subversive and delicious about the Warner Brothers, Jay Ward, Max Fleisher cartoons, Terrytoons, and even Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

Finally, a “Donald” that no one voted for.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Spooky. Friday the 13th AND Halloween the same month. Ooooooh. Here are some Friday (the 13th) Questions:

mbk starts us off:

Love your blog, and even though I think I've read all your pieces, I don't remember that you've ever commented on "Episodes" on Showtime. It seems like something you would relate to, with commentary on writing TV comedy, showrunning, dealing with network suits, actors and their egos, agents, hack writers, backstabbing, Hollywood hypocrisy, and on and on.

What's your take on Episodes?

I loved it the first season until Matt LeBlanc slept with the showrunner. That crossed a line for me and I didn’t buy it (from either side). Before that the LeBlanc character was great fun. After that he was just an asshole.

I tried watching the second season and the satire seemed very broad. The network president was a cartoon. Gave up after that. I hear it’s better. Maybe at some point I’ll revisit it.

Cliff asks:

What happened to the TV practice of 1/2 hour dramatic shows? Have Gun Will Travel, (many other Westerns), Adam-12, Dragnet, Twilight Zone, etc. etc. I enjoy re-watching these on the available old show channels, but was curious why the 1/2 non-comedy format has died.

I think in the same way VHS beat out Betamax and Final Draft beat out Movie Magic, hour dramas just became the standard. I think it’s much easier to tell a dramatic story in an hour, especially if you have returning characters. And yet, I look back at some of those TWILIGHT ZONE half-hour episodes and marvel at how great, how complete, and how satisfying they were.

People forget that in the early days of television, yes there were half-hour dramas, but there were also fifteen-minute sitcoms.

Kyle Burress wonders:

What are your thoughts on shows that have a character that is around for a while and then just suddenly disappears with no explanation, or treated as if they had never even been there in the first place? Examples that come to mind are Chuck Cunningham from 'Happy Days', Judy Winslow from 'Family Matters' and Mandy Hampton from 'The West Wing', just to name a couple. Other shows such as 'Law & Order' do it all the time.

It’s not ideal, but as a writer I know that shows take on a life of their own. And certain things work while others don’t. Especially the first season, a series is really a work-in-progress.

Sometimes that works to your advantage. A character may break out that you didn’t expect like the Fonz or Alex Keaton or (God help me) Urkel.

But other times you realize that certain aspects of your series or certain relationships just aren’t clicking. And it’s not like a movie where you can just go back and reshoot or edit. These missteps have now aired. So one solution is to just move on and hope that most people don’t notice. Another is to explain away those characters, but that sometimes really draws undue attention to them.

Again, it’s not a perfect way to go, but it can be the lesser of all evils.

And finally, from YEKIMI:

Do the producers, studio, etc. have any say so in how their show is advertised? I've seen some ads where I thought "there's no way in hell that looks interesting to watch" only to find out in re-runs or a couple of years down the road that it's actually was a pretty good show I had been missing. Or do the producers, studios, etc. just scream in silent anguish about how the networks are promoting their show?

Well, in most cases now the studio is owned by the network. I suppose they can offer their opinions. Most producers don’t have any say. Maybe if you’re Dick Wolf or Chuck Lorre you have a little more influence, but by and large the network has a promo department and a mandate sent down by the higher-ups as to who and how to promote and for how much.

Every producer I know thinks they get short-changed, even if there are billboards on every city bus.  

What’s your Friday Question? Stay away from black cats.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Who's your favorite cartoon character?

I was listening to the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY radio channel on Sirius/XM yesterday (still hoping they do an hour-long salute to Levine & Isaacs – I’m losing faith), and the hosts got into a discussion of their “favorite cartoon character.” Listeners then chimed in their picks.

Since I haven’t watched cartoons for many years some of the names people brought up were unknown to me. On the other hand, when one person said Heckle & Jeckle, one of the co-hosts had no idea who they were. (thereby making me feel like a hundred.)

Interestingly, one particular character was the overwhelming choice. I was surprised but not surprised. It's a popular character sure, but I didn’t realize it was that beloved. So I wondered if my readers results would be consistent with theirs.

Thus, I’ll throw the question out to you. Who is your all-time favorite cartoon character?

They seemed to limit the question to short cartoons or TV shows, so no one from a feature (like Ariel from LITTLE MERMAID or Rina in A JEWISH GIRL IN SHANGHAI) qualified. But if characters primarily used in shorts or TV shows eventually got a movie (a la THE SIMPSONS, PEANUTS, SOUTH PARK) that was okay.  (Hey, they're their rules.)

On Saturday I’ll tell you your results, EW’s results, and my pick.

Thanks for playing. I look forward to hearing from you.

A-ba-dee, a-ba-dee, a-ba-dee, that’s all folks!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

EP41: “The Lunch Bit Sucks!” and Other Colorful Stories


Ken tells crazy stories that touch on aspects of his career.  Getting bad script notes, being shunned at a radio convention, a Hollywood ending to be cherished, and classic baseball bloopers. Lots of fun, embarrassment, and pain.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Bob Schiller

Sorry to hear of the passing of Bob Schiller. He was only 98. Along with his partner, Bob Weiskopf, he was one of the greatest comedy writers in the history of television.

Among his many credits, co-writing 53 episodes of I LOVE LUCY including the John Wayne episode and the “stomping grapes” episode.

If he never did another thing after that he would still be in the TV Hall of Fame. But he and his partner went on to write and/or produce many sitcoms and variety shows and wound up writing on ALL OF THE FAMILY then being the showrunners of MAUDE. Throw in writing for THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW too.

It’s just a staggering body of work. As comedy writing teams go, my partner and I considered them Babe Ruth.

We got to know the Bobs in the late ‘70s when we had a deal at 20th Century Fox and so did they. Both were extremely nice to a couple of young worshiping scribes. We had lunch with them numerous times. Weiskopf was the more boisterous one. Schiller was sneaky funny.

I only worked with them once. It was back in 1988 when I was consulting a Witt-Thomas NBC show called MAMA’S BOY starring Bruce Weitz and Nancy Walker. They were full-time. I was one night a week. I always thought “What the hell do they need me for when they have the two Bobs?”

And indeed they were amazing. It was a thrill to watch them work. Plus, we were on the small lot where they used to make I LOVE LUCY so they would point out landmarks like which stage was theirs and where their offices were back then. To me this was hallowed ground and I couldn’t believe I was (a) talking to the writers of I LOVE LUCY, and (b) they were treating me like a peer.

Bob Weiskopf died in early 2001 at the age of 86. There was a memorial service for him at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. Lots of comedy writers spoke, telling stories. One was better and more hilarious than the next. But the very best was Bob Schiller. Babe Ruth.

I last saw Bob Schiller a few years ago at a wedding. He was well into his 90’s but that sly smile and twinkle in his eye was still there. I just sort of figured if he had lived this long then surely he would live forever. And in a way he will. Yes, he’s gone at the tender age of 98 but a hundred years from now people will still be watching I LOVE LUCY and laughing thanks to Bob Schiller. Everyone talks about the “last laugh.” He found the “laugh that lasts.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Misc-Takes

In no order of importance, relevance, or worthiness…

TV ratings across the board took a big dip week two of the season. Even sure-fire hits like BIG BANG THEORY dropped millions of people. Not good for shows premiering that week.

THE GOOD DOCTOR so far is proving to be the only new breakout hit.

Although CBS is touting that YOUNG SHELDON is a breakout hit, even though it’s only been on once, it followed BIG BANG THEORY, and no one I know who saw it liked it at all.

Revised: I stupidly asked a political question so had to cut it.   My bad for thinking I could have a civil discussion but instead just opened up the can of haters.  I suspect the haters will quickly write back outraged but I'll delete those comments as well.  Carry on.

Who else watched 13 hours of baseball yesterday?   So 45 pitching changes. 

Tomorrow night’s Indians-Yankees game should be epic.  I hope you get FS1. 

So let me get this straight – the Weinstein Company knew nothing about Harvey’s behavior. They’re shocked and aghast. But all those sexual harassment suits they settled – Harvey paid out of his own pocket? Uh… I don’t think so. And if not that means they knew all along. The whole lot of them should be fired, including his brother. (Not that the company could survive without Harvey anyway.)

Networks are starting to commission scripts for their new development season. Medical dramas, family dramas, legal dramas, and comedies from actors based on their lives. Boy, they’re really thinking out of the box this year.

At least TBS, in their baseball coverage, didn’t bombard us with 10,000 promos for Conan last past painful seasons. In fact, there have been none.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 was a giant bomb at the boxoffice. This could put the brakes to BUCKAROO BANZAI 3012.

The Steven Spielberg HBO documentary is worth seeing even though it’s 2 1/2 hours long. Did you know he directed HOOK? You still might not if you watch the documentary.

Trump is soooo sensitive. Just because his Secretary of State called him a fucking moron? Sticks and stones, Donald.

Jon Stewart was on Colbert last night. Every time I see him I cry out at the television: “WHY DID YOU LEAVE US? COME BACK!” They can hear us through the TV screen, right?

So far my prediction for movie of the year is LOGAN. But that might change when other studios send me screeners.

And finally, guys – if you want to take your girl somewhere where you can be alone, take her to a Los Angeles Chargers game.