Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reducing comedy to an equation

Came across this recently from my Chicago friend, Lyle Dean.   No one has been able to accurately define just why something is funny.  Up until now!  Funny man Alastair Clarke has broken the code.  Throw away that seltzer bottle.  Grab a probability calculator!  Here, for the first time ever, is THE SECRET OF COMEDY.

A new theory suggests an equation for identifying the cause and level of our responses to any humorous stimuli: h = m x s.

The theory argues that human beings are more reliant for their behavioural instruction on culturally inherited information than any other species, and that the accuracy of that information is therefore of unparalleled importance. Yet the individual is exposed to the continual threats of error and deception, which can seriously affect their chances of survival and success.

To compensate, humour rewards us for seeing through misinformation that has come close to taking us in. The pleasure we get (h) is calculated by multiplying the degree of misinformation perceived (m) by the extent to which the individual is susceptible to taking it seriously (s).

Humour therefore exists to encourage us to take information apart and to reject that which is unsound and could potentially harm our prospects. Every time we laugh, we have successfully achieved this, resolving inconsistencies in the fabric of our knowledge as we do so.

"I am not attempting to claim that we each engage in an algebraic equation before we find something funny," says the author, Alastair Clarke, "but that this schematic description reflects the instantaneous reactions of the brain to potentially dangerous misinformation."

I'm sorry, that still doesn't explain Gallagher.  (This was a re-post)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Great (Gene) Scott

In the late '70s with the emergence of cable television came a local Los Angeles sensation called Dr. Gene Scott.  He was a TV evangelist who appeared to be on live 20 hours a day.  19 of those hours were spent soliciting donations.   He was unique in that he didn't just ask, he used every sales pitch in the book.  He could cajole you, guilt you, resort to the soft sell, yell at you, or in some cases, just stare into the camera -- for an HOUR.  

As time went on and the FCC closed in on him for not showing his books he became loonier and loonier.  Originally, he wore a nice three-piece suit.  Towards the end he was wearing bizarre hats, leather jackets, and two (yes two) pairs of glasses. 

My writing partner, David Isaacs and I wrote an evening of one-act plays in 1980, all in different comic styles, and all basically LA-themed.   One was a monologue called 555-GIVE, which was modeled after Dr. Gene Scott. 

Today I thought I'd show you Dr. Scott in action, beating the shit out of his viewers, and our one-act.  John Erickson plays the title character and was terrific.  You might remember John as the sidekick on HONEY WEST.

Enjoy and give till it hurts.

The play starts :12 seconds in.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Questions

You’ve been waiting all week, and here they are: Friday Questions!

Berry Canote is up first.

My brother is somewhat of a TV historian, and we often have discussions on the topic of TV history. One question we have often had is why do the broadcast networks keep trying with certain genres, even when it is clear that genre has not produced many successful shows? The genre my brother likes to bring up is that of the legal drama. According to him the failure rate for legal dramas is higher than that for Westerns (a genre the networks gave up on long ago).

I would disagree that legal dramas are primarily unsuccessful. THE GOOD WIFE, SUITS, and that LAW & ORDER thing are doing okay.   And from PERRY MASON to THE DEFENDERS to LA LAW to THE PRACTICE and on and on, there have been many hit lawyer shows. 

Legal dramas work because the stakes are so high – life and death at times. Plus, in this day and age, who isn’t suing someone or being sued by someone?

From Oliver:

How do you feel about actors getting showrunners fired? There's been plenty of examples over the years. Sometimes it's down to personality clashes and production issues but other times it's pretty clearly down to the creative direction of the show. Is it right for the actors to make such an intervene in such a way in how the show is written?

Regardless of who’s right or wrong, or who’s the asshole, the reality is people tune into television shows to see the actors they like. So if push comes to shove the showrunner will lose.


The showrunner generally continues to get paid his full salary and collect his full royalties and ownership stake. So there are showrunners who believe me are praying to be fired. As the saying goes: “Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?”

thomas tucker asks:

I have a great idea for a movie, but I'm not a writer, I'm not in show biz, and I don't live in New York or LA. What do I do with this great idea? (And I'm sure you've never heard this question before, right?)

This question does come up frequently. I wish I had a more optimistic answer. But the truth is execution is more valued than ideas.

If you don’t have a writer to turn your idea into a desirable screenplay or a producer who can attach an approved writer you’re pretty much out of luck no matter how great the idea. And if you manage to somehow beat the odds and get a viable producer to bite, he’ll just pay you a fee for the idea and generally cut you out of the rest of the process.

Sorry I couldn’t more encouraging.

The Bumble Bee Pendant wonders:

Back in the 70s and 80s, Networks always had top notch or at least very popular shows on Saturdays (I remember CBS had the comedy block of MTM, Bob Newhart, All in the Family, Alice and Carol Burnett on Saturdays). I know Saturdays became a viewer wasteland, but now with DVRs/On Demand/Netflix, any show (at any time) can be viewed and become a hit. Do you think the Networks will eventually go back to this?

No. Saturday nights are dead on major networks. Young audiences (all the nets care about) are out on Saturday night and if there’s something they want to watch they’ll DVR it (I guess we’re now starting to phase out the verb “Tivo”) or watch ON DEMAND.

What some networks have discovered however is that sporting events like college football games work on Saturday night. Sports is the only programming people prefer to watch live. And the bonus there is that they can’t zap through the commercials if they’re watching in real-time. I think two of the networks have college football on Saturday nights.

But Saturday original fare will never return. And it’s only a matter of time before Friday falls too.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

My proudest moment as a director

I’ve been fortunate in many areas, but most of all I’ve been blessed with great kids. Last night was a real thrill, watching a show that my daughter co-wrote and I directed. It’s great when you can still do activities with your children. (My thanks as well to the terrific cast and crew of INSTANT MOM – I’d be happy to be related to them too.)

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to collaborate professionally with my son, Matt. He’s an engineer at Apple. He knew more about computers at nine than I’ll ever know. And even though he’s not in television per se, he still won an Emmy. He was part of the team that built Apple TV. For that they were awarded the same statue that Jackee received for Best Actress in a Comedy.
In any event, I couldn’t be more proud of either of them. Please excuse that today’s post is just a father kvelling. I’ll get back to dispensing nonsense tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

I directed and my daughter co-wrote tonight's INSTANT MOM

Tonight on TV LAND they're showing a new episode of INSTANT MOM, starring Tia Mowry.  It was written by Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson.  And directed by me.  This is such a special night of television that TV LAND decided to air it at 11:30 PM.   Hey, it's not like you've got Letterman anymore.  Hope you'll check it out.
And now for today's regular new post:

The day NBC thought I went insane

Just because I was directing my very first episode didn’t mean I couldn’t take time out to punk NBC.

My first episode was WINGS. There was a steep learning curve to be sure, especially in terms of the technical aspects of the job. WINGS was a multi-camera show so it was shot like a play in front of a studio audience. As the actors move about the set performing a scene I had four cameras all in motion, capturing the action from different angles. At any one moment I would have some assigned for close ups, or two-shots, or wide masters. And if someone in the cast crossed from point A to point B that would necessitate a change in all four cameras.

As a result, every moment, every movement is carefully choreographed. Add to that my inexperience. I had a crew of a hundred people waiting around for me to assign them shot for shot.  No pressure there.

To assist me, I had a “quad split.” This is a bank of four monitors displaying what each camera was showing. I would stare at the quad split and after each blocking move I would assign everyone’s new camera mark. This can be time consuming and tricky even when you do know what you’re doing (which I of course did not). I can camera block a half-hour sitcom in four or five hours these days. For WINGS I think it took me twelve. Maybe thirteen. I lost all sense of time and the use of my limbs after maybe nine hours. 

The routine for filming day is that the cast and crew assembles at noon. I have three hours to fine tune the shots and rehearse with the cast. A dress rehearsal follows at 3:00 with full cameras. The producers give final performance notes to the actors then generally go back to the room to tweak four or five jokes or make little trims. Everyone eats, the cast gets into hair and makeup and costumes, the studio audience is let in at 6:30 and at 7:00 it’s showtime.

On this particular episode I get the new pages after the dress rehearsal. And I almost plotz.

They’ve added a new scene.

It’s now 6:30 and the audience is already streaming in. No time to block the scene, much less camera block it. The set is in full view of the audience.

I go backstage, round up the actors who will be in this scene, and say, “Okay, after the audience leaves we’ll block and shoot this correctly, but now, for their sake, just go out there, move wherever you want to move, but don’t worry about it. We’ll do it once then come back to it later tonight.” They were fine with that.

I went to the camera operators, gave them a rough idea of where people might be moving and said, just get what you get. We probably won’t use any of it anyway.

I also told my plan to the showrunners, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angel.

So we’re filming the show. Huddled around the quad split are me, my script supervisor (also in on the plan), the showrunners, and the executive from NBC assigned to cover the show.

We get to that new scene. I say "Action!" The actors glide around the set, and the audience enjoys it. Meanwhile, what’s on the quad split is utter chaos – cameras swishing around looking for actors, people being out of focus, actors heads cropped off, moments where none of the four cameras have the actor who is speaking, etc.

Out of the corner of my eye I see that the NBC exec is completely gobsmacked. I realize I never told him what we were doing. So I decided to have some fun.

When the scene was over I yelled, “Cut!” then turned to Peter, David, and David and said, “I got what I needed. You guys good?” They instantly picked up on what I was doing and said, “Yes, we’re fine.” I yelled “Moving on!” and the cameras and crew rolled into position for the next scene.

The NBC exec was in a panic. “Whoa, whoa!” he said. “Don’t worry,” I said, cutting him off. “This is by design. I’m doing something stylistic here. It’ll look really cool when it’s cut together.” He then turned to the three showrunners who confirmed they were on board with this.

For the rest of the night the NBC exec was scratching his head. I’m sure he was thinking, “What am I going to say to my bosses when the rough cut comes in and there’s this bizarre Felliniesque scene in the middle of a WINGS episode?”

Once the audience left and we were about to do pick ups I spilled the beans so he wouldn’t have to stay an extra two hours while we re-shot stuff and did that scene for real. I had known him for ten years and he took the prank in good spirits. But curiously, every other NBC show I ever directed I noticed that the network exec watched me like a hawk.

I never saw the gag reel that year. I’d be shocked if that scene wasn’t in it.  I'm only sorry I don't have a copy.  How great to have that start off my demo reel! 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2: My review

Is it possible to see a summer movie these days that doesn’t have 2 in its title? Yes, I know there are exceptions -- reboots like MAD MAX where they just keep the original title. Most times, unless it’s THE GODFATHER or TOY STORY, 2’s are not better than 1’s. Such was the case for me with AVENGERS 2 and it was certainly the case with PITCH PERFECT 2.

I loved PITCH PERFECT 1. It was a delightful little surprise – funny, sweet, and certainly peppy. And you could almost believe Anna Kendrick and the other actresses were of college age. But the sequel? Yikes – this was your typical Hollywood ridiculous, by-the-numbers money grab with only moments of goodness instead of entire sequences.

Good movies start with a good story, a point, a point-of-view. This one started with “Okay, now what do we do?” The artistic exercise here was to jam in all of your favorite characters, do bigger production numbers, shoehorn in love stories, and up the stakes. If in the first one they had to win a collegiate competition then in the second they have to win the world competition. And once that’s established ten minutes into the film they then have ninety minutes to fill until the actual competition.

So what you’re left with are idiotic spontaneous singing competitions, absurd retreat sequences, and Rebel Wilson fat jokes. Every character is a cartoon, every story-turn silly. Did anyone involved with this even see PITCH PERFECT?

Yes, it’s a movie geared to kids (and it’s doing well in the boxoffice), and when I was a kid we had these stupid music/comedies too – classics like HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI. But they were B-movies, fodder for the drive –ins. They weren’t the big studio summer releases.

So what were those moments of goodness? Some of the production numbers were well-done, (although this was an acapella competition and at no time in the film was there not musical accompaniment). There were funny moments between Elizabeth Banks (who also directed) and John Michael Higgins as commentators, but it was a routine clearly ripped off from BEST IN SHOW where Fred Willard did it first and funnier.

The one true saving grace of PP2 it was Keegan-Michael Key as a record producer. He was hilarious and stole every scene he was in. He also seemed to be in a different movie. He was dry, subtle, and real, and the rest of the film was broad, goofy, and over-the-top.

Sequels are a bitch. I’ve been involved in two of them and liked neither. You’re just trying to manufacture more of the same. You’re following formulas, grasping at gimmicks, hoping to recapture the magic of the original. So sure, they’re rarely as good. But here’s the sad part -- Hollywood doesn’t give a shit. Their only reason for greenlighting these movies is to make boatloads of money. Summer movies are not ranked by quality or good reviews. They’re ranked strictly by boxoffice. PAUL BLART: MALL COP 2 got a humiliating 6% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Only 44% of audiences liked it (which is woeful). But it’s taken in $65 million so far. The studio could not be more thrilled. It’s a home run! As a lifelong hardcore movie fan; as someone who once lived to be in the movie business – I find this heartbreaking. It’s one thing to lower the bar – but 6%?

PITCH PERFECT 2 did better. It scored 67% on Rotten Tomatoes – still not great but certainly decent. You won’t hate PITCH PERFECT 2. You might very well like it. Yes, but will it like enough to go see a PITCH PERFECT 3? That’s the only question Hollywood is asking. If yes, then get Anna Kendrick back on campus even if she’s 35.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day -- and the staff work begins

First, a nod to the real reason for Memorial Day -- to give thanks to the many men and women who sacrificed (sometimes giving the ultimate sacrifice) to preserve our freedom.  We owe them a debt we can never repay. 

Besides a day of tribute and gratitude.. and the unofficial start of summer, this is also the time of the year when writing staffs go back to work. If you’re an aspiring TV scribe, I hope someday that’ll be you. Here’s what you can sort of expect…at least on the comedy side.

The first week will just be sharing vacation stories, home remodeling nightmares, and trashing reality shows. You’ll go out for long lunches, bitch about how much other writers make, compare Prius prices, convince non-Mac using colleagues to finally wise up and get a Mac, and discuss the upcoming summer movie slate. My blog might come up. Half will like it, half will think it’s a piece of shit.

You’ll mosey back to the office, maybe talk in very general terms about the season ahead, some scattershot thoughts on characters and stories, then go home at 4.

Week two you’ll come in and the show runner will panic. He’ll realize you’re now hopelessly behind. From there you get to work, really delving into the characters, spitballing story areas, eventually breaking stories. You still go home at 4 but at least you’re getting something done.

Over the next few weeks the stories will be outlined, assigned, written, turned in, and rewritten by the staff. You start having lunch brought in, going home at 6…and then 7… and then 9. By the time you go into production in August you might have four scripts ready to go with a few others in the pipeline. And hopefully you’ll have seen every summer movie you wanted to see, made your vacation plans for next year, bought that Mac, remodeled that kitchen, fulfilled every dinner obligation, read all those books in your Kindle, caught up on my archives, and took pictures of sunsets so you’ll remember what they look like…because now the real fun begins.

The actors come in rested and the first day of production you’re ready to kill them. And so it begins.

Your first real break comes when you can say "Happy Thanksgiving".

Note:  for new writers these are all exciting steps, even the long nights.  Enjoy every minute of it.

This is a re-post.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Gentlemen, start your engines

Today marks the annual running of the Indianapolis 500. Today it’s on television, but back in 1967 it was not. Here’s a story from my book, THE ME GENERATION…BY ME (perfect for summer reading… so buy it) about the Indy 500 – its spectacle and personal violence.

Of course I didn’t only usher musicals. The Indianapolis 500 auto race was a huge annual event. But back then there was no network television coverage of it. You either listened to “the greatest spectacle of racing” on the radio anchored by Sid Collins, or you went to selected theaters to watch a closed circuit feed.

The Valley Music Theater was offering the telecast and I volunteered to be one of the ushers. Hey, they were paying $2.50 an hour! I believe the race started at 8:00 AM on the west coast. All I know is we started letting people in at 6:30. By 7:00 AM the place was packed. There were numerous full bars going from the moment the doors opened. USC football players were hired as the bartenders, just to make sure things didn’t get too out of hand.

The race started and literally within the first ten seconds there was a fourteen-car pile up. Roadsters were caroming off each other, smashing into the wall, catching fire, tires flying, drivers scurrying, some scaling the fence. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. But the race was halted for another hour-and-a-half. Needless to say, the natives were getting restless… and hammered.

By the time the drivers rounded the very first turn, 3,000 boisterous rowdies had been drinking for three hours.

The next six hours were insane. There was almost a riot when they ran out of snacks. It was not uncommon to see someone vomiting. Me and three other ushers tried to break up a fight and I got punched. I think it was someone from my temple.

The race finally ended and these lushes staggered out to their cars. God knows how any of them made it home – if they did. We ushers had to comb the building to make sure everyone was out. Yeah, big concern that some were going to hide in the bathrooms for five hours so they could sneak into that night’s performance of The World of Susie Wong starring Connie Chung.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Robert W. Morgan

I’m often asked who were my comic influences? Aside from the usual – Nat Hiken, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Marshall & Belson, Kaufman & Hart, and Dan Ingram – I’d have to put at the top of my list Robert W. Morgan. For almost thirty years Morgan ruled the morning airwaves in Los Angeles (and briefly in Chicago).

He passed away seventeen years ago yesterday.

I still miss him. I still look at something I’ve written and wonder, “what would Robert W. think?” He was never shy in telling me. We worked together briefly in 1974 at a station called K100. (I say briefly because I was fired long before he was.) Robert W. could be a tough critic on you (if you call threatening to come down to the station and beat the shit out of you tough). But he also could inspire you to new heights if he believed you had it in you. There was no middle ground in his eyes. You had the potential to be great or you were Judy Tenuta.

Morgan himself on the air was truly amazing. Hilariously funny, wickedly subversive, a master of comic timing, and ALWAYS spontaneous. In the moment. One “morgan” (you never said “morning”, you said “morgan.”  If I pronounced my name Le-Veen and did a night time shift I'd be on from 6-10 in the E-veeng. Fortunately for all concerned, I'm not ) when he was on KMPC he had to do a live phone interview with Ray Malavasi, the head coach of the Rams. He asked his first question and Malavasi fell asleep. Instead of trying to wake him, and without missing a beat, Morgan just kept asking him questions and pausing while Malavasi snored.

There is a Robert W. Morgan tribute website well worth checking out containing this and many other classic bits. Comedy on the radio is a lost art. Robert W. Morgan was one of its great artists. Morgan also was blessed with a gorgeous voice. Rich, mellow, and warm (as if I wasn’t envious enough of his talent). In 1969 while at KHJ he narrated a 48 hour radio special – THE HISTORY OF ROCK N’ ROLL. This epic work painstakingly traced the roots and trends of rock music and to this day is considered a masterpiece. (back in the days when the only hits Phil Spector was known for were records)

Robert W. was only 61 when he passed away. Way too young. Lung cancer. DON'T SMOKE!! He should still be around, probably writing biting comments in this blog.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the long Memorial Day Weekend with Friday Questions. What’s yours?

kelly childress starts us off:

Thanks to you I found Fresh Off the Boat, the only funny new show on the air. And now I've looked up YOUR FAMILY OR MINE. It's one of those shows where I like the actors involved but don't like the characters. It also feels "forced". I hate that in comedies. That was never felt in Cheers or Frasier, where the actors had to deliver the punch line in such a noticeable way. Is this the director's fault? Are they being told to act like this?

A couple of reasons for this: One – the actors don’t trust the material. So they push and try to wring laughs out of tepid lines. I can spot actors working too hard almost immediately.

The second reason is merely stylistic choice. There are some shows that prefer heightened, more in-your-face performances. It’s not my personal taste but hey, it works for some shows.

Stormy asks:

What do you do with all the screeners you receive year after year? Is there some village in Africa or Central America that gets all the losers, like they do with the t-shirts and caps of the losing Super Bowl team?

No. You’re not allowed to pass them on. I take a scissors, cut them up, and recycle them.

I will admit that there have been a couple of occasions where I was curious to see a show so I kept the screener but didn’t get to it until months after the Emmys were awarded and I really liked the show and thought, “Shit. I would have voted for this.”  Oops.

Mike opens up old wounds.

Reading Wikipedia, I see AfterMASH came in 10th in the ratings its first season on the air, when it aired in MASH's timeslot of Mondays at 9. For the second season, CBS moved it to Tuesdays at 8 to take on The A-Team (which had essentially killed off Happy Days the season before), the show got killed in the ratings, and was canceled in December. Given the show's success the first season, do you think it deserved more of a chance?

No. It should have been canceled after the first season. The ratings from week to week just kept falling (free falling actually). We were making midcourse corrections constantly in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding.  I was shocked when it was picked up for year two.  CBS comedy development that year must've really been God awful. 

We returned the second season with more new cast changes, new opening titles, new time slot, new theme song, and even a new color scheme. But America had voted.

And finally, from CL:

With your background in both TV and sports, it seems like you'd be a natural to write/direct an episode of ESPN's 30 for 30 series. If they came calling (and they should!) what sports-related story would you like to tell?

They may have done this.  I don't know.  If they did, I didn't see it.   But I would do a profile on what a scumbag owner Robert Irsay was for not only relocating the beloved Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis but for the cowardly way he did it. He just packed up the offices and moved unannounced in the middle of the night.
The Colts enjoyed a fiercely loyal and supportive fan base (see the movie DINER) and deserved way better.

To this day I root against the Colts every game. And hey, I wasn’t even a Colts fan growing up. I was a Rams fan. But Baltimore got a raw deal.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Boy, it didn't take CBS long

You want a metaphor for show business these days?  How about this one?

Mere hours after David Letterman's last show and the myriad of tributes and tears that led up to it, his set was dismantled and is already being hauled away in dumpsters.    Don't believe me?  Take a look.

For all the "love" and gratitude, this is a tough business. 

The pros and cons of doing LIVE shows

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole long-winded post:

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

Ken, a favorite show of mine, Undateable, has been renewed, but according to NBC, all of its episodes will be broadcast live. While the Live episode the show recently had worked, what would you think (as either a director, writer or showrunner) if the network forced this on you? How would it change how you drafted scripts or blueprinted the series?

To me it’s just a gimmick, and the novelty will wear off quickly. What you’re then left with is a sub-quality product. Yes, there’s the fun of the unpredictability of watching a live performance. And there will be mistakes. But most of the time they won’t be major gaffes, there’ll be mangling lines or killing good jokes because they’re not told correctly. And a level of nerves that will permeate the performances.

The regular cast may get more proficient but the guest cast won’t. You might see two levels of acting going on. There also may be actors you’d like to hire for guest star roles who will pass because they don’t want to go on live.

Actors may not always hit their marks or cameras will be late in getting to shots resulting in some ragged on screen moments. Boom shadows and other technical problems may arise from time to time. A light blows out and suddenly an actor is in shadow in the middle of a room. Yeah, these are glitches but they’re not fun glitches.

On these live shows now the cast and crew are generally given more time to rehearse. And everyone is on their toes. What happens when you’re cranking them out every week? There will be many sloppy moments.

And good luck if someone gets sick. There are no understudies.

Scriptwise, you are very restricted. Stories must be plotted that can be shot in real time. Wardrobe changes must be finessed. You must design the scripts so that you can add or subtract in the last five minutes. It’s not like SNL where they just feature silly skits. One story has to carry through the entire episode. And the actors must never break character. If there is a flub that’s noticeable it can take the audience right out of the show. Or if an actor accidentally drops an important piece of information then the audience will be confused as the story unfolds.

Writers won’t have as many opportunities to tweak the script in live situations. You need to give the actors sufficient time to learn their lines – especially if they have only one chance to get them right (or two if they do a separate version for the west coast, which they should otherwise it’s not live to them). Normally on a multi-camera show, we’ll give actors new lines right before they go on camera. But we can always shoot it again if the actor flubs.

You can’t fall behind on scripts either. You can’t just juggle the production schedule to add a hiatus week. And in this day and age, networks note you to death. Do you think that will change just because the show will be live? No. Showrunners will still have the logjam when network notes on outlines and story notions and drafts are late in arriving. Everything will be a mad scramble. Not the best way to mount a show.
It’s almost impossible to accurately gauge the time of a sitcom episode – especially one shot in front of a live audience. You don’t know how long the laugh spread will be. Generally, when we tape shows they come out a few minutes long. This gives us the opportunity to cut jokes that didn’t work, adjust the pace, select the best performances, and really craft the episode. If a joke bombs on live TV it bombs. And if enough of them bomb then the actors get scared. It’s bad enough they’re nervous. Nervous and scared is a lethal combination. And I don’t blame them. They’re out there for the world to see without a net.

Here’s the good news for showrunners – no pick ups, no post production, no editing, no network editing notes. The show’s over – you go home. But that’s the only good news.

At the end of the day, you’re going to turn out a product that’s less than your best. Showrunners are going to cringe when watching it back. There will be fifty little things the showrunner would want to correct if he could. If the show was filmed he could correct forty of them.

To me, the only reason to do it would be if you had a series that was extremely topical.  That way the jokes could reflect news events or pop culture events in a timely fashion.  

For UNDATEABLE, it’s the Faustian contract they signed. Without the “live” gimmick they most likely never would have gotten renewed. But they’ll be paying the price. It’s a bitch to do a decent sitcom even when you have time. This just adds a whole extra layer of pressure.

Is it worth it? We’ll see when the ratings come out.  I sincerely wish everyone concerned the best of luck. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I'll be co-hosting the Howard Stern Wrap-Up Show...

... this morning after Howard's show on Sirius/XM Channel 100.  Probably around 11:00 EDT/ 8:00 PDT.  This was an unexpected surprise.  Howard apparently read the article I wrote on him last week and invited me to do this.  Should be fun.  If you're not already a subscriber, the best way to hear me is to buy a new car in the next half hour that has a three-month free trial of Sirius/XM.   Thanks.

So long, David Letterman

With tonight being Dave's historic last show, I thought I would re-post my thoughts on his retirement when it was announced last April. Like everyone, I will be watching at 11:30 (after watching INSTANT MOM at 11:00 on TV LAND -- tonight's new episode written by Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson). I'm posting this today while there's still some perspective and not tomorrow when everyone will be swept up in the emotion of the moment.   Please feel free to share your thoughts as well.
Wow. It took Jimmy Fallon less than two months to topple David Letterman. Dave announced his retirement last week. He claimed it was because he was losing passion after doing over 5,000 shows. And I’m sure that was a factor (you could tell from the last 2,000 of them). But getting handily thumped by upstart Fallon and the other Jimmy for that matter was, I’m betting, the more overriding reason.

I think you have to be of a certain age to really appreciate Letterman’s brilliance. For the last ten years he’s just been this cranky guy, quick with a one-liner, but primarily resting on his laurels. The Top Ten, Vegas lounge banter with Paul, monologue.

But in his early days, especially on his late night NBC show, Letterman’s show was a riot. Now, to be fair, a lot of the credit goes to head writer Merrill Markoe, but David Letterman was the perfect choice to pull it off. He set just the right tone of snark, intelligence, and absurdity. His show was filled with remote bits, running bits, recurring crazy characters, and general nuttiness. At times the humor was inspired. For my generation, Letterman was must-see (the way THE DAILY SHOW and COLBERT REPORT is today). (Remember, this is a re-post)

Then something happened along the way. He went from “you and me against them” to “me against all of you.” It’s almost as if he got tired of his act before we did. But a meanness crept in, and the bits and remotes were phased out. From time to time something could energize him and he was once again fantastic. Unfortunately, those instances became few and far between.

And now that he’s announced his retirement you’re not reading an outcry of people saying, “No! Don’t leave us! You still got ten good years left!” Just the thought that Vin Scully is going to retire from announcing Dodger games already has the city of Los Angeles in deep mourning. Letterman’s announcement was met with “thanks for a job well done.”

I’m sure Letterman would hope his legacy will be up there with Johnny Carson, but that’s not going to happen. One thing to keep in mind – ever since Dave went to CBS he’s lost. Jay Leno and NBC always beat him. For twenty years. Johnny Carson trounced all competition. Carson’s numbers were larger than all three late night talk shows combined. And Carson was better. His class, relatability, sense of humor, and interview skills were unmatched. Letterman may have been funnier, but Carson’s humanity trumped him.

Letterman will be remembered fondly, as he should, and who’s to say what he’ll do in the future? I don’t think he’ll just disappear from the airwaves like Carson. My hope is that he finds another project that reignites that fire and passion. Again, Letterman at his best is a comic force of nature.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Can you go home again?

Those who have read my ‘60s book, THE ME GENERATION…BY ME know I spent the entire decade in one house in Woodland Hills, California. Needless to say, it is filled with memories (the embarrassing ones are all included in the memoir – in fact, that’s most of the memories). This was the era of suburban housing developments, and my parents were the first owners. They sold it ten years later.

A few years ago, to promote the book (BUY the damn thing already!) my pal, Howard, Great Big Radio, Hoffman and I set out to Woodland Hills to make a book trailer for YouTube. I thought it would be fun to tour the old house. The lovely 150 year-old woman who owned it practically chased us off the property with her cane. It was literally “You kids get off my lawn!” So we filmed a segment on the sidewalk before she called the SWAT team. (The trailer is included at the bottom of the post.)

Recently, my childhood friend, Wende, who spent many carefree hours in my house pleading with her mother, “Can we GO?” noticed there was a estate sale. So naturally I barreled down there. It was my one chance to walk through my house again and maybe buy some shower curtain rings.

First I should mention that I had never been to an estate sale. I like to buy my spools and scissors new. So I was unprepared for what I initially saw. There was junk and chotskies everywhere. Like a 99 Cent store after a typhoon. I wanted to yell out, “I vacuumed these carpets for hours for THIS?!”

Needless to say it was strange to walk through the house after all these years. Everything seemed smaller, which I hear is quite common. I was smaller then, and as everyone knows, houses shrink.

The real weirdness came when I entered my old room. A woman was manning a card table selling knitting needles and pantyhose purchased in 1983. (If they found and sold the condoms I bought in 1966 I want half.) Other people wandered in and out. And even though it’s been decades, my reaction was: “What are these strangers doing walking through my bedroom?” A lot of uh…private stuff went on in that room and here are people just violating my space. (At least a few bought things.)

I must’ve spent a half hour walking through the house. Each room unleashed a flood of memories. Happy times, life lessons (most learned the hard way), and remembering loved ones who were so alive then and now are gone.

I left feeling very wistful. I can’t imagine ever walking in there again (unless to return the stapler I bought for a dollar if it doesn’t work). At one time it was my home. Now I felt like I didn’t belong. On the other hand, being back, I symbolically revisited that kid who grew up there and hopefully took some of “him” home with me. It’s amazing the things you find at estate sales.

Monday, May 18, 2015

My thoughts on the MAD MEN finale

SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the MAD MEN finale and still want to, thanks for stopping by. See you tomorrow.

I’m sure there are a gazillion reviews (all in 140 characters or less), but here’s mine:

Backstory: I’ve been a huge fan of MAD MEN since Matt Weiner showed me his original script years before it was made. The concept was brilliant – a man living a lie in an industry built on selling lies. And my favorite era is the ‘60s (as evidenced by my book, which you need to buy immediately even if you already have one). I saw a rough cut of the pilot even before titles and music was added. It was clear from day one that this was something special. I thought the first season was the second greatest first season of a drama ever (behind the SOPRANOS – it’s hard to top Tony’s mother putting a hit out on him). Every episode was a little masterpiece, filled with fascinating characters all doing surprising and compelling things. Betty shooting pigeons with a cigarette dangling from her lips was enough to qualify the series for Hall of Fame status.
Season two suffered from a sophomore slump, but in fairness, so did THE SOPRANOS. And by year three I started getting tired of Don’s continual existential search for happiness. I thought, “Oh figure it out already. You have children. Most of us have to make some compromises. Grow up. Determine your priorities and make a commitment.”

After that the series shifted for me. It became a show about disgruntled people who were never satisfied no matter what they had. It also started introducing subliminal references to past moments. You really had to be an expert in the MAD MEN universe to fully appreciate every nuance. I would watch an episode then read Alan Sepinwall to find out what I just saw. Eventually I wasn’t interested enough to do even that.

And yet, along the way, there were still spectacular episodes or scenes. The “suitcase” chapter with Don and Peggy was exceptional. Even though the series had become somewhat uneven I always tuned in. It’s like in baseball – every time Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan took the mound you knew you had a chance to see a no-hitter.

So I was eagerly anticipating the finale. The only thing I was certain of was that Matthew Weiner would find an ending no one expected. I was right.

But what I saw was essentially a 1:17 minute shaggy dog story. Interspersed with neat wrap ups of the other characters (in some cases through lovely scenes) was this winding tale of Don Draper going to an Esalen retreat (popular in California during those hippy-dippy times), experiencing enlightenment, having his emotions stripped bare, discovering inner peace only to learn that his takeaway from all that was to create the “Buy the world a Coke” ad campaign. (That is if I interpreted it correctly.) What a cynical but wickedly funny ending. And what a relief. I was wondering, does Matt really believe all that psycho-bullshit was going to change Don Draper? (That said, I’m sure there are those viewers who believe that that was the ending and maybe the Coke commercial was just in Don’s mind. I so hope those people are wrong.)

But it took a long time to get there. Was the payoff big enough? Yeah… I guess… maybe. But I will say this: the JUSTIFIED finale was better and way more satisfying. Sorry. I know I’m spitting on the cross.
Some random observations:

Even though Sally and Betty told Don not to come back and take care of the kids and it appeared he was ceding to their wishes, I’d like to think that part of his decision to return to the world of advertising was to have more of a role in his children’s lives after Betty passed on. (I loved how Betty continued to smoke.)

As a writer, it bothered me, that Weiner attributed an actual campaign to his fictional character when in fact, a real person other than Weiner or a MAD MEN writer came up with it.

A happy ending of Don finding peace is not a happy ending. The guy was fascinating and had glimmers of kindness, but let’s be real -- he was a giant asshole. Joan and Peggy deserved happy endings.

The one character who deserved the happiest ending and didn’t get it was Sally. She was my absolutely favorite character. But based on her smarts, resourcefulness, and humanity (which she must’ve been born with because she didn’t get it from either of her parents), I’d like to think Sally will succeed in the world. I hope so. She’s the one I’m rooting for. Roger I don’t worry about. Once prohibition was repealed his life was fine.

Pete’s going to love it in Kansas City. With access to private jets he’ll be home four days a year. If that.

It bothered me that so much of the episode was played over phone calls. They’re static. And I think they undercut the big one – between Don and Peggy.

You know it's a very special episode of MAD MEN when Bobby has some lines.  

Poor Gene. Every time something happens he gets sent out of the room. In forty years he’ll be the guy at the Esalen retreat whining that no one chooses him in the refrigerator.

When Don broke down crying I was so relieved he didn’t confess to killing a Korean baby to avoid detection.

When we wrote VOLUNTEERS we had a scene where Tom Hanks’ character gives Rita Wilson’s character a Coke. They were both in the Peace Corps. We got this from research, that Coke was a huge treat for homesick Americans. That draft was 1980. When the movie was finally released and Sony then owned Coca Cola, we took a raft of shit for blatant product placement. Compare that to this. Talk about product placement – the entire 92 hours of MAD MEN built to one Coke commercial. Watch – they get zero complaints.

I bet Coke sales spike today.  And cigarette sales go up. 

I didn't read Alan Sepinwall's recap.  I hope I got even some of my interpretations right. 

I look forward to Matt’s next project. And I look forward to your thoughts on the finale.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Previously on "Guns & Emo"

I know what you’re thinking – what a cliffhanger!! To refresh, I’m writing an action-drama pilot utilizing all the great writing conventions they employ on these shows. Part one was yesterday. And part two is right now. Drama is welcome and we know characters.


By Ken Levine


Previously on “Guns & Emo”…


This wasn’t in the brochure.

I haven’t eaten all day.

Let me pull up the blueprints.

I speak Turkish. Why?

This room is fine. Does the window open?

I need some new shirts. Do you think you could get me an employee discount?




The sniper is just about to squeeze the trigger….

When the WAITER approaches with Libby’s coffee. The viewfinder shifts to the waiter and a shot is fired.


The waiter drops to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

What the….?

Libby ducks under the table for cover. Rodney is already there, crouched.

Didn’t I tell you? This is why you always get a table inside.

Hey, gimme a break. I skipped GIA training because they needed someone with my body type to double for a double agent in Dublin. That’s always the risk the G.I.A. has sending me into the field on these dangerous assignments but it never seems to stop them from assigning me anyway.


There must be twenty identical windows.

Over there! That window.


This is a bad angle.

Awkwardly, Libby fires one shot.


The sniper falls out of the window and crashes to the ground below.

Well, there goes his Hilton Honor points.

(breaking into smile)
Oh, Libby.

They race to the scene. Fortunately, no one else is interested and people just cross by the body paying it no mind.

Libby and Rodney crouch down and check him out.

Herbert? Who is he?



Monitors show every street from every angle. This town too must have 10,000 cameras in place.

HERBERT’S COMPUTER SCREEN – A satellite view of the planet earth. It zooms right in to the dead sniper’s face. One second later this word appear on the screen: MATCH.


His name was Abdolreza Ghazanfari – “Cooter” to his friends. Professional sniper. His services have been used by Al Queda, the Russian Mob, and the California Highway Patrol. The number 34th most wanted terrorist in the world. Up from 57.

So why has no one ever take him out?

We think he also works for us.

Rodney begins patting him down.

No incriminating or classified documents here.

Let’s check his room. Maybe we can find out who hired him and who his target was.

Wouldn’t it be funny if it was the waiter?

(breaking into a smile)
Oh, Rodney.

Libby begins climbing a hedge to begin scaling the wall in her heels. Rodney fishes around the guy’s pocket and pulls out his room key.


Libby and Rodney are going through the sniper’s things. There are photos of his targets, including Libby. There are also files and folders strewn about with the words TOP SECRET on them.

What a break that he has Al Queda’s plans for the next five years.

(showing her a document)
Look at this. His boss, the mysterious head of this entire operation, the man we’ve been unsuccessfully tracking for over three years is planning to meet him here in his room tonight at 10.

Then won’t he be surprised when he finds us instead of him?

Yeah. I’d love to see his face.
Oh wait, I will see his face.

(breaking into a smile)
Oh, Rodney.
(dialing her cellphone)
Hi Craig. Listen, honey, I won’t be able to pick the kids up from school today. I’m sorry. Surprise inventory. They do that from time to time… Okay, twice a week. Don’t wait up. I’ll be in late. Tell Ally I rescued her favorite dress. I sewed on a new sleeve. Love you.

She hangs up and sighs.

It’s tough when you’ve got a family.

How do you manage this?

That’s right. We have seven hours. A good chance for us to sit back for a few minutes and reveal personal information about ourselves.

Then I’m going on a break.

Okay. I’ll start I guess. I was abused by my uncle at a family party when I was seven. Whoa! I’ve never told anyone that before.



…So when I hold this gun in my hand, it’s like…this is what my husband’s penis was supposed to be. Not some little pathetic ladies’ derringer. Know what I mean?

Yeah, well, it’s almost ten.

Gee, we didn’t get around to talking about you.

Next week in Zurich.

There’s a knock at the door. They both aim their weapons. A long beat, then:

Uh, one of you should answer it.


Libby opens the door. It’s SKIP, the man with the laptop in Bogotá is standing there. Libby and Rodney are surprised.


Where’s Cooter?

Have you ever seen Cooter before?


Libby invites him in and points to Rodney.

This is Cooter.

No, it’s not. It’s Rodney. He escorted me back to the U.S. yesterday.

Right. Oops.

You’d know this if you didn’t just split right in the middle of a mission.

That is bad form.

Yeah, where were you?

Do you all mind?!

You can put the gun down.

(lowers it, then points it again)
Wait a minute. If you’re here to see the sniper who was supposed to kill me then you’re a bad guy.

But the sniper could be one of ours, which means he’s on our side.

(lowers gun, then points it again at Skip)
Hey. But if he was going to kill me and you’re on his side then everyone is against me.

Or any one of them could be double-agents.

Remember what I said? You can’t trust anybody.

You never said that.

You said you were frustrated by the lack of trust in this business and he said “Never lose that”. It’s the same thing.

No, it’s not.

Yes, it is.

Hey, you’re supposed to back me. You’re my partner.

(points his gun at her)
Yeah, well… about that.

What?! You?! You’re with them?

Which still could be us.

Libby is completely confused. Rodney is just about to shoot her when…

A flurry of bullets enter from the window and kills Skip and Rodney instantly. Libby is unharmed.

The gunfire ends. Libby goes to the window.

LIBBY’S POV – the manager from Seattle’s Finest stands at the café holding an M-16, waving up at her.

No one messes with my help!

(breaks into a smile)
Oh… Seattle’s Finest Manager.



I’m represented by UTA. They’re now accepting bids. Who says writers can’t change genres?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

My action-adventure pilot

I know it’s a guilty pleasure but I watch all those action-adventure shows on USA and TNT. And like most people who watch TV, I thought: “Hey, I could do that.” So I decided to knock out a pilot for my own action-adventure series. After studying the genre carefully, I think I’ve artfully woven in all the standard conventions. So what do you think?


By Ken Levine



(Actually New York Street, Paramount but some trucks and a well-placed burro accurately create the desired effect.) Crowded (within reason).

There’s a commotion. Someone is being chased. It’s beautiful, athletic, resourceful, tough-but-vulnerable LIBBY LANGER, dressed in clingy summer dress, toting a pistol, hauling ass.

Running alongside is RODNEY her young, good-looking, charming, self-deprecating, slightly-ethnic-but-we-don’t-know-from-where partner who is always available for a quick quip or another gun clip.

They’re being hotly pursued by THREE ANGRY GUNMEN with M-16’s. Thousands of rounds are fired at our heroes, just missing them.

While running, Libby turns back for a split-second. She fires one round and kills one of the gunmen.

CLOSE UP – Libby’s feet, running. Her high heels are a blur.


(into her ear bud)
Talk to me!



Hundreds of monitors line the walls of this high-tech monitoring station. Fortunately there are video cameras on every corner in Bogota.

HERBERT, nerdy-but-handsome, skinny-but-athletic surveys the monitors.

Okay, Libby. In about 100 feet you’re going to come to dilapidated shack and then a Seattle’s Finest Coffee. Make a left.


See it. Thanks.

I’ll have a half-caff with cream.

(smiling and shooting)
Oh, Herbert.

Libby and Rodney turn the corner, still dodging a relentless barrage of bullets.

Remember Libby. You and Rodney have to get that thumb drive of the secret formula of the undetectable nerve gas to your contact within the next 90 seconds otherwise the additional chip that’s been planted in it will detonate a dirty bomb releasing the gas that will kill everyone within a thousand miles.

Then they better make your half-caff quick.

(breaking into a smile)
Oh, Libby.

I see the contact!

A MAN with a laptop strapped to his back hangs precariously from a fourth story building.

I’m pulling up the blueprint now.

Not necessary.
(to Rodney)
Cover me!

I’d say that dress does that sufficiently.

(breaks into a smile)
Oh, Rodney.

Libby leaps up on a café table, hurtles onto the café awning, which serves as a trampoline springing her high into the air where she grabs hold of a clothes line and uses it to swing up to the exact spot where the man is holding on for dear life.

The winter morn is cold.

But the spring night is warm.


(correcting himself)

Okay. Just had to make sure.

You can’t be too careful. Not in this business.

Know what you mean. Guns and bullets I can handle. But this lack of trust… I dunno.

Never lose that.

Libby bounds into the window, turns and offers her hand.

Here. Grab it.

He reaches up and even though he’s 250 pounds and she’s 100 she manages to hoist him inside easily. They tumble into the room.


Good thing they make those laptop lighter.

(breaks into a smile)
I don’t know your name.

Ten seconds. Libby, if you don’t disarm that thumb drive it will set off a gas that will…

Yeah, yeah. Got it.

She hands the thumb drive to the man who inserts it into the USB port. Libby holds her breath, bracing for the worst. But nothing happens.

Done. It’s disarmed.

Libby collapses in relief.

Good job, Libby.

The door bursts open and Rodney enters.

(re gunmen)
Okay, they’re all dead.

Rodney, meet…
I don’t know your name either.

It’s better that way.

Oh hell, his name is Skip.

Your job now is to escort him back to headquarters. If he’s abducted by the wrong people they could use his expertise to recreate another formula he was working on that would cause half the population of the planet to fall asleep and the other half to tuck them in.

(checking her watch)
Oh. Rodney. Could you do this? There’s someplace I’ve got to be.

This really is a two-person job.

She gives him a quick peck on the cheek. He swoons.

Yeah… okay.

I owe ya.

She climbs out the window, grabs the clothesline, and swings out of view.



Dressed to look like a New York street.


CRAIG, boring-but-handsome, is emptying the dishwasher as Libby bursts in.

Hi, Craig. Sorry I missed dinner.

She kisses him.

They make you work too many hours at the Nordstrom Rack.

I know.

Why are you covered in dirt and smell like manure?

Uh… we’re decorating the loading dock.

(buying it completely)

(in her ear)
Good one.

Shut up!


Nothing. Thanks for doing the dishes.

No, problem. Hey, you free for lunch tomorrow?

Tomorrow? Hmmm. Not sure. Let’s talk in the morning.



(New York Street on Paramount lot. Sand and some bazaar tents should do the trick. Same extras re-dressed.) Libby sits at the Seattle’s Finest outdoor patio. She’s on her cellphone.

Hey, Craig. Something came up. Afraid I won’t be able to make it for lunch.




Tomorrow: Part two. Are you at the edge of your seat?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Questions

Here are some Friday Questions, it being Friday and all.

Christine McElfay leads off:

Ken, why do you think Jon Hamm has not won an Emmy? He certainly is powerful in his portrayal of Don Draper.

I scratch my head too. In the past, he’s lost out to actors who have had showier roles, like Bryan Cranston’s character in BREAKING BAD.  But how Jon lost to Jeff Daniels I’ll never know.  Hopefully this will be his year.

Any actor other besides Jon Hamm and I don’t think MAD MEN succeeds, despite the brilliant writing.

Another actor who has a beef is Hugh Laurie, who deserved to win at least once for HOUSE. For many years he wasn’t even nominated.

From Kristina:

I'm currently writing a Goldbergs spec and at the end of every show, the real Adam Goldberg includes a dedication for the inspiration for each episode (usually from one of his home videos). For spec purposes, do I include a dedication? Do I write it in Adam Goldbergs voice? Or do I write a personal dedication for the inspiration for my spec?

I would just leave it out. Producers are evaluating your writing.  Dedications in the tag  are irrelevant.  If they like your writing, by the time they get to the dedication they're already sending a limo to pick you up.  

Arthur has a question about attending Hollywood screenings:

Ken, did you ever attend a screening expecting to hate the movie, and then being pleasantly surprised?

Yeah. I was a weekend disc jockey on TenQ in Los Angeles and we had a listener screening. We were giving tickets away for this new movie opening soon. I knew nothing about the flick except the title and even that was a little vague. The lights went down and STAR WARS came on. Holy shit!

As great as that movie originally was, it was even greater as a surprise.

And kids, that’s why you have to listen to TenQ!

RyderDA asks:

Recently, I saw a "tribute compilation" of the best quotes of Roger Sterling from MAD MEN, each with a photo of John Slattery. When we said goodbye to Robin Williams, there were endless quotes from his shows or movies. But you know and I know that writers wrote all of that stuff. Does is frustrate or annoy you as a writer that an actor playing your character gets credited with "your stuff" in circumstances like that?

Yes. This is a pet peeve of mine, especially with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. Now, I love EW and I especially love EW radio on Sirius/XM (Tim Stack is one of the funniest people on radio ever), but they do a feature in the magazine called “the week’s best SOUND BITES” and attribute pithy show dialogue to the actors who spoke the lines. It’s one thing if FIELD AND STREAM did that. They don’t know. But EW covers the industry. They do know that writers write these lines.

And of course, through the years it has always bothered me when someone would say “Where does Alan Alda or Ted Danson come up with all those funny lines?” and I have to reply, “They DON’T. I do. And other writers like me.”

I’ll stop before I get too worked up. What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My thoughts on Howard Stern

The first time I heard Howard Stern was in the mid ‘80s. I was visiting New York and caught his act on 66WNBC (W-NNNNNNN-BC). He played a song from Karen Carpenter and said she had a new CD. Her picture was on the spine of the CD case. I thought, “Holy shit! Who is THIS guy? On the National Broadcasting Company's flagship radio station?” As a one-time wise-ass disc jockey myself, I have said some rude things on the radio but nothing like THAT.

I continued to listen that afternoon and instantly became a fan. Yes, he was audacious, even shocking at times, but what impressed me more was this: He was genuinely funny and very very smart.

We all know his rise to fame.  He's the self-proclaimed King of All Media.  Eventually he did mornings, surrounded himself with a gaggle of co-hosts, and was syndicated in markets around the country. One was LA and I became a loyal listener. He remained fearless, fighting at the time, the FCC. Add balls to funny and smart.

And then in 2006 he left “terrestrial” radio for satellite radio. What he lost in listeners he more than made up for in money. And he got the FCC off his back.

As much as I enjoyed Howard I didn’t enjoy him enough to switch from XM radio to Sirius and pay extra to receive his channel.

Side note: Howard gave his terrestrial home (CBS radio) about a year’s notice. And the best they could do was replace him with David Lee Roth. That’s the New Coke of radio decisions.

Even when the two satellite companies merged (thus screwing up XM’s far superior programming) I still didn’t feel the need to pay extra to rejoin Howard. I had commercial-free music, baseball, and traffic conditions for Dallas/Ft. Worth. Who needed any more?

But recently I got a new car. (I know. How come I haven’t posted fifty photos of it on Facebook so I could get a bunch of likes?) It came with a three-month free trial of Sirius/XM that included the Howard Stern channel.

So for the past week (“You’ve had the car a WEEK and haven’t posted photos? What is WRONG with you?”) I’ve had the chance to reconnect with Howard. All I can say is what a pleasure. It had been so long I had forgotten just how good he is.

I am forever amazed that he can be on the air for four hours or five hours (I have no idea how many he does a day – I’m not sure he knows) and still be consistently entertaining. I had trouble filling four hours and that was WITH records. He and his crew just talk. And often make me laugh. (So what if I’m never proud of myself for what I’m laughing at?)

One ability that Howard has that is often overlooked is how good an interviewer he is. He really listens. He follows-up on what the subject says. He asks straight-forward questions (not trying to impress with how articulate or pithy or intellectual he is). He doesn’t let the subject off the hook. He really draws personal information out of them. Trust me, that’s an art. And he asks the questions you yourself would want to ask (if you had the nerve). I heard his recent interview with Clay Aiken. It was riveting and I’ll be honest, my fascination with Clay Aiken had waned from a one-time high of yawn. Still, I couldn’t turn it off. I’m sitting in my driveway waiting to hear if he felt guilty that his opponent in a primary election died shortly after a bitter campaign. That’s so much more refreshing than “What was Randy Jackson really like?”

On Tuesday he interviewed James Taylor and I don't think a therapist could have gotten more out of James than Howard.  

I only met Howard once, very briefly. We attended a Bar Mitzvah together. So it’s not like I’m pimping a friend. Nor do I ever expect I’ll be invited on his show if I ever have a book or play to promote. But as comedy professional (I’ll allow myself that) I do like to occasionally salute other comedy professionals who I feel are tops in their field… and who I can appreciate free on a trial basis.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I cannot vouch for the content of this post

I have no idea what to write about today. So I'm going to try something. I’m always asked how you solve writer’s block (like I’m an expert). One thing I suggest is to just start writing. Anything. Sometimes just jotting down stray thoughts can unlock your imagination. And if you’re writing a script just start a scene. Just let the characters talk to each other.

That said, I’m going to follow my own advice. This is an experiment, but I promise three things. I will write this quickly. I will not censor myself even if the thoughts are fragmented or don’t segue properly, and I will post it (even if it ultimately turns out to be total crap). The thing about experiments is that they could fail. COP ROCK and MICROSOFT BOB leap to mind.

Make that four things – I will not go back and edit. In other words, I will allow myself to be a lazy horseshit writer. Rewriting really makes a difference – as this post will probably prove.

On the other hand, there are writers like Larry Gelbart who can compose a script straight through, without corrections. I don’t know how they do it. I’m as mystified by that as I am people who can break the Enigma Code or build a dresser from Ikea.

Gelbart used to write his scripts in longhand on legal pads with black Sharpies. And the pages would all be clean. And legible. When I used to write longhand it would be on UCLA binders and I would have 24 hours to transcribe it or it would be lost. My handwriting is so bad and I had so many cross-outs and arrows and lines squeezed into the margins that if I didn’t type it within a day I had no idea what I wrote. Of course now I understand they don’t even teach cursive in school. Somehow I can’t picture the US Constitution hand printed. That is if Founding Fathers even bothered to spell out entire words. “provide 4 the common defense.” “U need to be 30 2B a senator.”

Listening to They’re playing “Say a Little Prayer” by Aretha. Great Bacharach-David song. I love Burt Bacharach’s music, but some of Hal David’s lyrics – I dunno. From “A House is Not a Home” comes the brilliant lyric “A chair is still a chair/ even when there’s no one sitting there.” What the fuck? “Chair” seems to be a key word in stupid lyrics. What’s that Neil Diamond song? “I Am/I Said.” I think there’s a line in there something like: “And no one heard at all/not even the chair.” Deep.

Does Neil Diamond still wear pirate shirts when he performs? That’s just not a good look for middle-aged Jews.

See the HBO documentary on Scientology. It’s frightening and if you didn’t think Tom Cruise was an idiot and a tool this will convince you. What I didn’t know was the hot Persian girl from last season’s HOMELAND was a Scientologist and assigned/ordered to be Cruise’s girlfriend.  Like he can't get laid on his own?  He needs a religious leader to pimp for him?  Tom and the exotic hottie got into a fight and he banished her. Maybe the problem was she’s a better actor than he is. Paul Haggis (writer/director of CRASH) was also featured. Remember he and I got into a friendly debate during the last WGA strike? He too is a FORMER Scientologist. Once upon a time a scathing expose like this would topple the institution in question. But today? Does anything really outrage us anymore to take action? Oh, right. Brian Williams was suspended. CITIZEN FOUR is another terrifying documentary that won’t correct any unconscionable injustice but did win an Academy Award.

Uh oh. I’m getting political. Whenever I do I can expect a rash of angry commenters. And speaking of commenters -- yes, Anonymous, we get it – you don’t like readers. Move on. See, this is why I like to edit. I say “commenters” twice in two sentences. Normally I would go back and change one of them.

What photo should I post? Lots of possibilities but since there’s nothing specific I’m going to go with Natalie Wood. Does everyone have that one actor or actress they never got over? That’s probably normal and healthy (unless it’s Tom Cruise – seriously, he’s a fucking imbecile).

Okay, I’m wrapping it up. I don’t know how interesting the actual writing was. And I’m not going back – so excuse me if there are typos or words missing – but if I didn’t just post this I could probably get a few days worth of topics from this exercise. Stupid lyrics, the value of rewriting, penmanship, the Scientology movie – maybe a parody where the Pope has to talk a nun into sleeping with Mel Gibson. None of those ideas were in my head a half hour ago. The point is – ideas lead to other ideas; even if some are bad. But a blank page or blank screen leads to nothing. Start typing.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

SHOCKING NEWS: Some celebrities still water their lawn!

Half the fun of living in LA is how fucking crazy it is (the other half is the weather). In a country where everything has became franchised and standardized, there are precious few unique population centers. My town is one.

We have billboards for TV shows hoping to win Emmys. And billboards for actresses with giant breasts hoping to get noticed. We offer tours to celebrity graves. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills do not stand out. Neither do Maseratis in the drive-through lane at McDonalds. Doctors offer vaginal tightening procedures -- and in some parts of LA that's not considered elective surgery.
So the free time we have not shoveling snow can be used to appreciate just how goofy this locale is.

One need only to watch the local news in Los Angeles. And the genius of it is that it's presented without even a shred of irony. How does a local news anchor say the following recent headline with a straight face?

Fight Over Chuck E. Cheese Parking Spot Leads To Murder

I mean, really?!

Last Sunday night I was watching THE GOOD WIFE and the CBS affiliate broke in with this news teaser:

If California Is In A Drought Why Are Some Celebrity Lawns So Green?

The report featured aerial shots of Kardashian homes and other major “celebrities.” And then, because they’re fair and balanced, they did report that Jennifer Aniston ripped out her vineyard.

This is a news story?

Another news tease promised a look at new wardrobe celebrities are using to hide from the paparazzi. Basically it’s rain gear with hoods.

Nothing’s going on in the Middle East? I don’t think ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT bothers with these stories.

And weather is another major topic. Whenever we get rain in Southern California, all local channels break into “Storm Watch 2015” complete with team coverage from the same street corner that gets flooded during morning mist, and huge animated Doppler maps.
It’s not unusual for a weather person (usually with breasts the size of the actress who has the billboards) to break into programming and breathlessly announce, “Rain is in the forecast. Details at 11.” This is on a Sunday night. You come to learn the rain is not expected until Friday. And then it’s only showers that are predicted. And only a 20% chance of even that.

The extensive coverage that Baltimore stations gave to the riots we give to afterparties.

I may not be informed, but I am amused.

But perhaps the greatest example of how this town takes itself waaaay too seriously is this. A blazing headline in one of the local trade papers on March 31,1981.

Academy Awards Postponed.

Underneath it, in much smaller print:

The President Shot.

Sing it with me now. Everybody. “I Love L.A.”