Tuesday, January 17, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES -- My review

HIDDEN FIGURES is APOLLO 13 for nerds. I can’t recommend it enough. You probably know the premise by now – it’s the true(ish) story of three African-American women in the early ‘60s who worked for NASA and were key players in getting our astronauts up into space and more importantly, back down again safely.

It attacks discrimination on every front – racial, gender, declared majors – but doesn’t clobber you over the head with it. This isn’t DJANGO for pencil pushers. There’s no Helen Reddy "Hear me roar" anthem. It’s three “BEAUTIFUL MINDS” with a dash of NORMA RAE and THE HELP.  Or IMITATION GAME with a happy ending. 

Probably because the story is true(ish), but I found HIDDEN FIGURES to be a stirring celebration of intelligence and science – two things that many Americans today don’t believe in. Oh, for the days when complicated important decisions were left to qualified people.

And what a perfect movie for the Motion Picture Academy – a film about diversity that audiences are actually going to see. The cast is certainly Oscar-worthy. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as the Three Mathketeers were superb. And Kevin Costner proved he didn’t have to play an over-the-hill baseball player to be interesting. Also noteworthy is Jim Parsons, who in a big stretch for him played an uptight egghead.  I hardly recognized him. 

For all the hype the Oscar-grab movies are currently receiving, this modest little tale is more satisfying. And it does my heart good to see it doing so well at the boxoffice. So again, go see HIDDEN FIGURES. Travel back to a simpler time; a time where we outsmarted Russia.

Monday, January 16, 2017

"Are you ready for some football?" No.

As you know, I love LA. Pretty much all things Los Angeles (except traffic and CAA) are “groovy” with me. So when I say this it is not with any glee.

But LA is not a football town. Sorry Angelinos, suck it up.

Oh yes, when USC has a good team they can fill the Coliseum. Same with UCLA (on those rare occasions when they do have a decent team). But the NFL? Yawn.

At one time we had two NFL teams. First the Raiders left (leaving drunks and the refuse of Los Angeles nowhere to riot on Sunday afternoons), then the longtime Rams. The city’s reaction: “They left? Really? Where did they go? Are you sure?” The two teams defection left the same vacuum that Fotomat going out of business did.

Decades went by without an NFL franchise in Tinsel Town. Even when the Rams were gone ten years people were saying: “They left? Really? Where did they go? Are you sure? Hey, what happened to Fotomat?”

When Baltimore lost the Colts (the sniveling owner moved them in the dead of night), the city was in mourning. Now they have the Ravens and the town is crazy for them. Same with Cleveland losing the original Browns (although my heart goes out to their fans with that current team). Imagine Philadelphia losing the Eagles. Half the city would move.

But here in LA there was a much bigger uproar when the Frederick's of Hollywood Museum of Bras closed.

Last year the Rams returned… with all the fanfare of a cheating husband slipping into bed quietly so his wife doesn’t wake up. For the first four or five months there were no billboards, no commercials, nothing. Their first few games drew well out of nostalgia, but once it was clear they were terrible the fans stopped going. I’m not sure even Rams fans knew what radio station they are on. You don’t see any Rams bumper stickers around town. No one wears Rams jerseys or helmets in the street. It wasn’t so much a triumphant return as your old Uncle Lester returning after twenty years to borrow more money.

And now comes word that the San Diego Chargers are returning to Los Angeles. Wooo hoo! This announcement has generated the same level of excitement as a new tattoo parlor opening on your corner.

Nobody in LA cares. And I feel terrible for the loyal Charger fans who lived and died with their team for 56 years. It’s like the girl you love leaving you for Gary Busey.

At a Lakers-Clippers game last week they showed the Chargers' new LA logo and the fans boo'ed.  

They’re here of course because two major television networks cover the AFC and NFC and each feels they need a team in the nation’s second largest market. Once the Rams came it was only a matter of time before some AFC franchise followed them to the Land of Milk and Money. At least it’s not the Raiders. Fans who do go to games will not have to fear for their lives.

A new stadium is being built (that both teams will share) and I imagine when that opens interest will rekindle (as long as there are enough luxury suites). But make no mistake, if it’s sunny and 80 degrees on a Sunday afternoon in November that new stadium will be half empty regardless of who’s playing. While at the same time it could be -20 in Philadelphia and Lincoln Financial Field will be packed to the rafters.

LA is not a football town.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Topless Table Readings

Table readings are a necessary part of the production process. The cast will sit around a table and read the script aloud before putting it on its feet and beginning rehearsal. For us writers, it’s the first chance to hear what we have and what might need work. Usually we’re listening to hear whether the story works. We’re less concerned with jokes (assuming that some of them worked) at this stage of the process. The actors are not expected to give full performances at table readings. Plus, we have a full week. If, by day three we’ve just got some jokes to fix we’re in great shape.

Some reflections on memorable table readings:

The network and studio also have representatives in attendance. And usually they’ll grace us with their notes. Page after page of them. Suits must assume that if they left writers to their own devices we would never change a thing. But the truth is most of us are tougher on the material than they are. Except we have a better idea of what’s wrong and how to fix it. Yet, that doesn’t stop them from thinking they’re saving the show with suggestions that are often obvious or useless.

On one show I was showrunning we had a network executive who was terrible at notes. He was a good administer, but script doctoring was not his forte. We’d have a mediocre table read and could see him approaching us. He would practically be sweating. Obviously he didn’t know what the hell to tell us but was obligated to give notes anyway. Before he could speak we'd jump in, saying: “We know. We have some work to do.” That’s all he needed to hear. Like a shot he was out of there. Then on show night he would thank us for taking his suggestions.

Actors sometimes have embarrassing moments – especially when they mispronounce words they should know but don't. One actress pronounced epitome “ep-a-tome”. Another pronounced hyperbole as "hyper-bowl".  Worse was the thirtysomething actress who referred to a famous New York neighborhood as “Green-witch Village.”

One time I was directly across the table from an attractive actress. It was summer and she was wearing a little halter top. She was so engrossed in the reading she didn’t notice that one of her breasts had popped out. I sure noticed it. I tried to silently signal her. She waved me off, essentially saying “stop bothering me during a reading.” Ohh-kay. So for the next fifteen minutes I enjoyed a delightful view. Eventually she realized it, and to her credit, just popped it back in like it was no big deal. No embarrassment, nothing. She did thank me later for trying to warn her though. I said, “oh, you’ve thanked me enough.”

Right after 9-11 we had a bomb scare at the studio during a table reading. The inspectors alerted us of the situation and advised we just stay put. He told us not to worry. It appeared to be a false alarm. That didn’t stop one of the cast members from freaking, screaming at other cast members who tried to calm him down, and then running out of the room.

One table reading was delayed when the star was late. She finally swept in and said, “Sorry I'm late. I was fucking my husband.”

On another show I co-ran, we decided to have an early table reading so we’d be done by the O.J. verdict that was expected later that morning. That proved to be a good decision. Imagine trying to be funny after that?

On Kirstie Alley’s first table reading at CHEERS she came in wearing a blond wig a la her predecessor, Shelley Long.

My partner and I got our first staff job on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW at MTM. Our first day was the table reading of a script we had written. Just before the reading, Tony stood up, announced that he had just come back from London and was so impressed with British comedies. “Compared to them, everything we have here is shit!” he proclaimed.  With that lovely introduction he neatly segued into our script.

Where you hold table readings is important. We always tried to do them in large conference rooms. Some shows do them on the stage. But laughs get lost in such a cavernous space. Better to hold the readings in close quarters where laughter can fill the room.   The SOUL TRAIN stage was not conducive for comedy it turned out. 

Big laughs at table readings can be deceiving however. Sometimes a line that worked at the table falls flat on stage. When that happens you’ve got to take out the line even if it originally got a big response. Likewise, there are jokes that are dependent on physical performance. Writers need to resist the urge to change everything just because they don’t get laughs.

There is always a crafts-services table set up in the corner with fruit, lox & bagels, Danish, etc. One of my pet peeves is that some actors will eat during table readings. They’re trying to deliver lines with their mouths full of food. You can’t understand what they’re saying, much less whether their joke works. At best they sound like Sylvester the Cat.

And you can always tell which actor read the script beforehand and which actor is just winging it, reading it for the first time.

Usually actors will give so-so table readings but after rehearsal they lock in and deliver great performances on show night. But there are a few who just have great natural instincts and will give sensational table readings. Unfortunately, as the week unfolds they start to over-analyze the script and their performance gets progressively worse.

Table readings have changed over the last few years. The original idea was that actors sit around a table and relate to each other as they read the script. But now there are so many network and studio and standards & practice people at table readings – not to mention agents, managers, and oh yeah – people who work on the show, that these conference rooms can’t hold everybody. So someone got the bright idea to set it up like a celebrity roast. Actors now sit on one side of one long table (a la a dais) in front of an audience. It’s easier and more convenient for the suits but horrible for the actors. How do you relate to someone who is sitting at the other end of the table from you? Not that the executives care.

And pilots are worse. This is how crazy things have become. A lot of studios will want to have pre-table readings before the actual table readings with the network. This was suggested before one of our pilots. We said okay but only we would be present for the pre-table reading. No studio presence. The executive then said, “Well, I want to be there, so if that’s what you want, then maybe schedule a pre-pre table reading for just you guys.”

And remember, this is just the START of the process.

This is a re-post from four years ago.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

What's your favorite FRASIER opening?

There were lots of them.  Bet you didn't realize how many.  I didn't and I worked on the show.  Karl Malowned put together a collection of all the FRASIER animated openings.  It's pretty cool.  Take a look. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Oh no! Something's different!

Yes, for the more observant of you, I have changed the template of the blog.  With this new template I'll be able to embed the podcast so you can access it anytime with just one click (that's coming soon).  Otherwise, the look has changed but the questionable content within remains the same.

So for the moment I'm hanging the OPEN DURING CONSTRUCTION sign.  

Thanks for your support.  I'm always looking to make the blog better so everyone gets their money's worth. 

Friday (the 13th) Questions

How perfect that the month when we get our new (God help us) president, we also get a Friday the 13th. Here are this week’s FQ’s:

Julian Brown leads off:

Have you ever encountered a professional situation where the jockeying for position backfired in a big, unintentionally schadenfreude inducing way?

[i was thinking about Edwin EncarnaciĆ³n signing with Cleveland, who eliminated Toronto in the playoffs last season, which begs for some karmic comeuppance. For instance : NHL player Marion Hossa 'chased the cup' with consecutive 1 year deals in Detroit and Pittsburgh, who met in the finals both seasons, and whichever team he was on lost that year.]

In television and movies that happens more on the executive level. I think of Fred Silverman, who built CBS in the early ‘70s, ABC in the mid ‘70s, and was a complete bust programming NBC in the late ‘70s.

On the acting side I can think of one example (I’m sure there are more): McLean Stevenson leaving MASH to star in his own series, HELLO LARRY.

But I’ve found that “revenge” is not a great motivator in show business. Yes, CBS might have canceled my show and it would be great to do the next one on NBC and kick their ass. But realistically I would like the option of going back to CBS with that next one. The truth is the same people just move around, it’s Hollywood musical chairs. It makes very little sense to hold grudges and try to get back at people or networks. At least that’s how I feel.

From suek2001:

Rolling Stone ranked 100 TV shows of all time..MASH came in at #15(should have been higher)..Cheers made the list but Frasier did not..and that's a crime.

Do writers use those kinda of lists to boost their profile or payday?

No, because they’re ridiculous. No one in the industry takes these ranking lists seriously for a second. They’re so subjective and idiotic.

I’m not sure winning an Emmy would even boost your asking price these days.

I remember several years ago the Oscars did a feature where they brought back as many winners in the acting category as they could get. I was struck by how many of them were out of work. And these were Oscar winners.

Boomska316 wonders:

Seriously: Is there some reason why studio executives are usually the last to understand what the public might like?

Well, start with William Goldman’s great quote that no one in Hollywood knows anything.

And then factor in that studio heads have to project several years into the future. Unlike TV where you can eat it while it’s hot, there is a long process in films between development, production, and editing so years go by before the product finally reaches the marketplace.

So which hot trend will endure and which will flame out? All studio executives can do is guess. And generally they guess wrong.

That’s another reason why sequels are so popular with execs – they’ve already been accepted by filmgoers with wallets. They’re much safer bets.

And finally, from 404:

Esoteric Friday question, Ken: based on that, how many different sitcom ideas do you think are really out there? And how many sitcoms are just rehashings of the same things over and over again in just slightly different situations?

I believe it’s less about the situation and more about the execution. You can take an arena like, say, a bar and do numerous series. ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE, SULLIVAN & SONS, some Stiller & Meara thing, and probably seven or eight more. But CHEERS rose above them all due to the execution.

Yes, there are standard tropes – workplace comedies, family comedies, romantic comedies, but people do stretch the rules a lot. How do you fit MASH into any one category?

New things always seem to come along, you just don’t know when or whether they’ll be accepted.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Nothing's changed

I’ve always felt that in many ways I am still thirteen. Back then I used to sit at a desk and write and draw comic books, dreaming up crazy stories. Today I sit at a desk dreaming up stories for scripts and plays.

When I was thirteen I watched THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Today I still watch THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

When I was thirteen I loved Bob’s Big Boy hamburgers. Nothing’s changed there either… except that they now go to my hips.

And of course my crush on Natalie Wood still seems to linger.

Back when I was thirteen I was a radio freak. Still am. In those days I would do bedroom shows. On Saturday nights my parents would go out for the evening. My younger brother would go to sleep and I would set up my record player and Wollensak tape recorder, grab the latest copy of LOOK magazine for commercial copy, and go “on the air.” I would introduce records but mostly I tried to do funny voices and zany comedy bits. None of those tapes exist today, which I’m sure is just as well. Jonathan Winters I was not. Shelley Winters I was not.

But I had my bedroom station. And I would bet that by noon there will be a bunch of comments from other radio freaks who also had bedroom stations in their formative years.

Mine went nowhere. But some had stations way more elaborate. A few even had low power transmitters and were actually broadcasting. I was content to stick the tapes in a drawer (where they shared space with my homemade comic books).

That was then. And now I’m doing a weekly podcast. Not much has changed. I’m not doing it out of my bedroom – I do it out of my office – but I’m still talking into a tape recorder hoping to make people laugh. The big difference of course is that people can hear this. And LOOK magazine is history.

This is amazing to me. Anybody today can “broadcast” all over the world. 24/7 internet radio stations are just computers sitting in bedrooms. Thank GOD these options didn’t exist when I was thirteen. I’d still be living it down.

But the pressure is on, with so many audio options available, I’ve got to really up my game. No interviews with my mailman or discussions about shopping for tires. I’ve got to go out of my way to impress. It’s like when I first tried to attract girls. God, I am thirteen again.

Episode 2 should now be available for downloading.  Stories about MASH, why I got fired so often from radio jobs, and FQ's.    Check it out and please subscribe.    Thanks. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Episode 2: The Warmhearted Writers of MASH


Get a behind-the-scenes look at one of television's greatest hits as Ken Levine discusses how the writers of MASH handled the actors' notes. Plus, we learn about Ken's ersatz radio career, and he uses a popular segment from his award-winning blog by taking listener questions! This episode is filled with insider information on what goes on making a hit show including stories of what the audience usually doesn't see!

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The survey that should scare the shit out of anyone in TV

A friend of mine in advertising (let’s call him Don Draper) turned me on to this rather startling survey, conducted by the Katz Television Group. They surveyed Americans to see how familiar they were with the ten shows that were nominated for Best Comedy and Drama for the Golden Globes. Here’s what they found, and if I were any network, not just the major broadcast networks, or any producer, I’d be very concerned.

THIS IS US did the best. 33% of those surveyed have watched the show. Another 34% have heard of it but haven’t seen it. And 33% have never heard of it. That’s pretty damn good actually for this landscape.

BLACKISH finished second best. 29% have watched it (although it doesn’t say whether they still watch or sampled it once), another 53% have heard of it but haven’t seen it, and only 18% have never heard of it. Kudos to ABC.

GAME OF THRONES has been seen by 26%, another 68% have heard of it, and only 6% have never heard of it. Boy, that’s a big percentage of folks who’ve heard of it but have no desire to check it out.

STRANGER THINGS is this so-called viral hit on Netflix. Only 15% have seen it (still pretty good for a streaming service), 37% know about it but aren’t seemingly interested, and 48% has never heard of it. Almost half the population doesn’t know this zeitgeist darling exists.

WESTWORLD has been seen by 12%, another 36% are aware of it, but 52% have never heard of it. That’s a pretty high number for an HBO show.

Then things get really shocking. VEEP. It wins Emmys for Best Comedy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus wins Emmys every year. Big comedy hit, right? Are you ready? 6% of the population has watched an episode of VEEP. 38% know of it but haven’t watched, and despite all the hype and Emmys and HBO and the fact that it’s in its sixth or seventh season – a whopping 56% of Americans have never even heard of it. Wow. Just… wow.

But wait. It gets worse. Way worse.

THE CROWN won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. 5% of the audience has seen it. 24% has not seen it but knows of it. And 71% of America has never even heard of it. 71% of the audience has never heard of the Best Drama (according to the Golden Globes).

ATLANTA won Best Comedy. 3% have seen it. Another 28% have heard of it (although how many of those thought they were asking about the city?), and 69% were clueless of its existence.

Okay, now let’s get to those shows we’re told are groundbreaking and game-changing. Hold onto your hats.

TRANSPARENT – for all the hype, award consideration, Entertainment Weekly profiles, etc. – only 2% of Americans have ever seen an episode of TRANSPARENT. 32% more know about it. And even after several years of the best press a show can get – 66% of the population has never heard of it.

Let me reiterate – this is an independent study by a company that studies media and determines the best uses of advertising.

Finally, there’s MOZART IN THE JUNGLE. 2% have seen it. Only 15% know about it but have yet to watch. And a staggering 83% of Americans have never heard of it.

What can we conclude? Niche shows have tiny audiences. Even excellent niche shows. I’m still gobsmacked that after all this time, 2/3rds of the population have never even HEARD of TRANSPARENT. I get that many don’t watch it. Amazon is not one of the biggies (yet). But how can so many people not even know it exists?

And the big takeaway is the disconnect between critics and viewers. It used to be that winning awards elevated shows awareness. CHEERS winning Best Comedy its first year resulted in way better ratings. Now it means nothing. And I don’t know what TRANSPARENT and VEEP can do to get on peoples’ radar.

Television needs HITS. REAL hits. Not media darlings, not underground favorites. Shows that people WATCH. Or at least KNOW. When no one is interested in even the so-called best that television can produce, it’s time to really take a hard look at what is being produced, how it is being promoted, and maybe (as a last resort) what the viewer WANTS to see. Maybe your show is excellent but it’s not what the population wants. Could it be that THE BIG BANG THEORY is really the Best Comedy of the Year? And GREY’S ANATOMY is the Best Drama?  I bet you've heard of them.