Wednesday, February 28, 2018

EP61: Getting You Ready for the Oscars

Ken shares stories and his unique observations about the Academy Awards and all the insanity that go along with them. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


There is a part two to the Hollywood Reporter MASH article I discussed earlier this week.  It just came out.  More stories and details.   You can find it here

A common rookie writing mistake




DETECTIVE 1: Are you Mrs. Hanson?

WOMAN: Yes. What’s this about?

DETECTIVE 1: I’m Detective Green. This is Detective Brown. We’re from the LAPD.

WOMAN: Oh.  Really?

DETECTIVE 1: Yes, ma'am. 

WOMAN: Well... can I see some ID?

DETECTIVE 2: Yes, ma’am.

They both root around their pockets and pull out ID. She scans it.

WOMAN: Okay… I suppose.

DETECTIVE 2: You have a daughter named Mindy?


DETECTIVE 1: Is she home?

WOMAN: No. What is this about?

DETECTIVE 2: You’re aware that a student was killed Wednesday night at the Westfield Mall?

WOMAN: Yes, it was horrible.

DETECTIVE 1: A tragedy, yes’ ma’am.

WOMAN: But what does Mindy have to do with it?

DETECTIVE 2: We think she might have a notebook that the victim gave her that might shed some light on just who did this.

WOMAN: Oh my.

DETECTIVE 1: Do you mind if we come in and take a look?


DETECTIVE 2: Yes, ma’am.

WOMAN:  Well, Mindy's not home.

DETECTIVE 1:  That's okay. Can we come in?

WOMAN: I don't know.  Do you have a warrant?

DETECTIVE 1: No, but your daughter is not a suspect. This is just a piece of evidence that might help us solve the puzzle.

WOMAN: Still... I... Maybe I should call my lawyer.

DETECTIVE 2: Seriously, we just want to see if this notebook exists.

WOMAN: Let me call Mindy.



WOMAN: Mindy, this is Mom. There are two detectives here wanting to go through your room to see if you have a notebook belonging to that boy who was killed at the mall? (long beat, to Detectives) She says she doesn’t have it.

DETECTIVE 1: We just want to take a look.

DETECTIVE 2: Is there anything she’s hiding that she doesn’t want us to see?

WOMAN: (on phone) Mindy, they said is there anything you’re hiding that you don’t want them to see? (beat, to Detectives) No.

DETECTIVE 2: Then can we just look around?

WOMAN: (on phone) Then can they just look around? (long beat, to Detectives) Okay.

DETECTIVE 2: Thank you.

WOMAN: (on phone) Okay, Mindy. I’ll tell you what happened. Bye. (hangs up).

DETECTIVE 1: So can we come in?

WOMAN: Oh, yes. Please.

DETECTIVE 2: Thank you.

WOMAN: Can I get you something to drink?

DETECTIVE 1: No, we’re fine.


Okay, now let me suggest an alternate scene. Instead of the above scenario, you just go straight to this:



WOMAN: Okay, this is Mindy’s room, Detectives. But she said you’re not going to find any notebook.

I think you can see what I’m getting at. There’s a rule of writing: Get into scenes as late as you can and get out of them as early as you can.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scripts from young writers that have versions (usually longer) of the first scene. Let’s be blunt. It’s boring. Nothing happens. People just talk. Often in circles.  Or they wait. Or they tell us things we already know. I would imagine the audience knows about the mall killing. And there was probably a scene where one of Mindy’s friends told the Detectives about a notebook Mindy might be harboring. Was there a scene where the Captain of the precinct told them to go to Mindy’s house and try to find it? I doubt it. Once the Detectives hear about the notebook it’s only logical they’re going to investigate.

One of your jobs as a writer is to find the most economical way to move your story along. A rookie mistake is creating scenes where everyone is just marking time. Think of the audience. Do they want to see two people standing on a porch waiting for someone to come to the door? Do they want to see a woman scanning ID? Do they want to hear all the warrant, lawyer bullshit? Do they want to hear whether the guests are offered refreshments? NO. It's all logical and tracks with the story but who wants to watch it? 

Every line has to count. Every word has to count. There’s no time for pleasantries. There’s no time to ring a doorbell and wait.

Heed this advice and trust me, your script will rise above half the competition.  Heck, they might even read yours all the way through.  As always, best of luck. 

UPDATE:  Already I'm getting comments saying "I've seen plenty of scenes where cops talk to people at the front door," or "They did this all the time on DRAGNET."    Look, it's your script and your career.  If you want to write the above scene on the front porch or a variation of it, or a spec DRAGNET, be my guest.  If you're offering suggestions for how to make the porch scene work or how better to do the scene in Mindy's bedroom you're missing the point of the exercise.   I'm offering some writing advice.  You take what you want from it.  

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


THE BLACK PANTHER is so good I didn’t miss Inspector Clouseau.

It’s the next STAR WARS franchise. Ryan Coogler is the next George Lucas except he can also write.

What’s amazing to me is that after fifty superhero movies, maybe seventy (last year alone)  – Coogler could mount one that is wholly original. Sure there is tons of CGI and exciting chase scenes (who needs a custom Batmobile when you can just go to your local Lexus dealer?), but there is also an engaging story, social commentary that is truly thought-provoking, and big laughs. Zack Snyder should be tied to a chair and forced to watch this movie on a continual loop for a year.

Coogler (and co-writer Joe Robert Cole) have their sites set on way more than just a popcorn movie. They create an entire world, introduce us to inviting but complex characters, and tell a story that makes sense. I was so bored by the latest STAR WARS movie. And baffled by the Byzantine story-telling in THOR. Coogler knows how to set things up and pay them off in non obvious (DC) ways.

Visually the movie is stunning, but we’ve all come to expect that with CGI.

Chadwick Boseman was the perfect choice to play THE BLACK PANTHER. As Jackie Robinson he already broke the color line in baseball. Now he’s essentially Martin Luther King Jr. with superpowers.

Playing the chief antagonist is Coogler-regular, Michael B. Jordan. For reasons you understand based on his character’s childhood, Jordan wants to destroy the world. And I kept thinking: I’d still prefer him to Trump.

Everyone turns in a terrific performance. Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson on the new SHERLOCK series) does the CIA proud. Andy Serkis is the villain who laughs at everything. Yeah he’s a murderous psychopath but I’d sure want him in my studio audience if I were doing a multi-camera sitcom. Forest Whitaker is always solid, which is good since he’s in every movie and TV show produced in America and Canada. Lupita Nyong’o is also great and I wish she were in everything. I also loved Danai Gurira, Sterling K. Brown (also in everything), Florence Kasumba, and Letitia Wright.

I’ll be interested to see whether this movie gets Academy Award nominations next year. I think it’s a far better movie than any of the candidates for this year’s honor. But it’s also entertaining and people will actually see it so Academy members will likely shun it. Better to nominate LADY BIRD, a pleasant familiar almost stereotypical coming-of-age film.

I don’t want to over-praise THE BLACK PANTHER because then your expectations will be too high. But you should see it once. Zack Snyder needs to see it 100,000 times.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The new MASH article

The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a long article -- an oral history of MASH by Marc Freeman.  I was quoted a couple of times.   You can read the article here.   But then come back.

Anyway, reader Bruce asked a Friday Question that is more timely this Monday. 

What were your thoughts on the Hollywood Reporter oral history of MASH that came out on Thursday?

I thought Marc did an excellent job.  The big challenge he faced was condensing all of the interviews into one coherent article that fit within the parameters of the space allotted.   It's the same issue we TV writers always face.  We only have so much time to tell our stories and that time is not negotiable.  Same with a word count. 

Marc interviewed me for about an hour.  Assuming he did that with everybody I imagine he has enough material for three books. 

I was impressed that he was able to track down so many people.  Especially happy that he interviewed Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe.  Gene, God bless him, is well into his 90's and still sharp as a tack.  And Burt Metcalfe was there from the first day to the last and guided the series for over half of its storied run. 

My big regret is that Larry Gelbart is no longer with us.  Along with Gene Reynolds, Larry was the creative voice of MASH.  He was also a great interview. 

What comes through in the article is the affection everyone truly felt for one another.  Actors, writers, crew -- we all took enormous pride in the show and recognized at the time that we were all a part of something special.  And the article accurately portrayed Alan Alda as the positive force that we all fed off of.   Alan's too modest to admit that but it's true, and that was expressed time and again from person after person. 

So I was very pleased with the article.  

Oh, and one final note --  I'm glad I made the cut. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

I've got some theatre coming up

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

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

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

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

But wait:  There's more! 

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The best show of the series got the series cancelled

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

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

But I digress…

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday when we Question things.

blinky has the first one.

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

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

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

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

From Ray:

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

Not until Rupert Murdoch converts.

Jonny M. wonders:

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

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

J Lee asks:

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

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

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

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Uncredited work

Liz had a question that became an entire post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

EP60: The Art of Improv Comedy

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

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Start the Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Beat the Clock

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

Okay, I also had a crush on Betsy Palmer. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

Are spec scripts dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Oh sure Ron Howard is a major Oscar winning director now. He works on prestigious projects like the new STAR WARS (SOLO) and does big budget racing movies like RUSH. But once upon a time Mr. Howard directed a much more modest effort – 1977’s GRAND THEFT AUTO. The producer was Roger Corman. Not exactly Brian Grazer but with better hair.

And Mr. Howard was not content to just direct. He also starred and co-wrote the screenplay with his father, Rance. Mr. Corman admired and encouraged auteurs – he had great respect for any artist who would do three jobs for one salary.

The plot is deceptively simple: Sam (Opie) and Paula (Nancy Morgan) need to elope because her rich parents are vehemently opposed to this union. So they steal her daddy’s Rolls Royce and flee to Vegas. Daddy gets wind of this and offers a reward to anyone who can stop them. This sets off wild car chases that results in multiple crashes, collisions, explosions, and clarity.

One can see from the playful byplay between Sam and Paula as rednecks try to force them off the road a foreshadowing of the relationship between Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in A BEAUTIFUL MIND. And when Paula’s rich jilted doofus beau, Collins Hedgeworth calls TenQ radio and alerts disc jockey Curly Q. Brown of the reward, the scene between actors Paul Linke and the Real Don Steele was pretty much duplicated by Tom Hanks and Ian MacKellem in THE DA VINCI CODE.

The Real Don Steele, by the way, gave perhaps his finest screen performance in this film – a tip of the cap to Mr. Howard’s ability to work with actors.

The action sequences are spectacular and obviously gave Mr. Howard the experience and confidence he needed to pull off some of those intricate stunts in COCOON.

And who can watch the damaged space capsule in APOLLO 13 and not think immediately of the smashed up Rolls Royce in GRAND THEFT AUTO?

The media circus surrounding the chase undoubtedly was the inspiration for not only THE PAPER but FROST/NIXON, BEAUTIFUL MIND, and maybe even THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS.

I won’t give away the ending. Suffice it to say it’s far and away better than FAR AND AWAY.

GRAND THEFT AUTO. Download it. Study it.  Delete it .

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Squeezing TV credits

You know me.  I love a good rant.  Here is David Mitchell bitching about all those TV credits that are now squeezed into the corner of your screen. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday Questions

Coming up on president’s day weekend when we honor presidents deserving of our respect. Let’s kick off the festivities with Friday Questions.

Graham UK asks:

How do sitcoms filmed in front of a live studio audience ahead of broadcast stop spoilers of upcoming plotlines, character arrivals/ departures etc.

Sometimes they will just block and shoot those episodes without a studio audience. Other times, they’ll film a false ending and then shoot the real ending after the audience has left.

Occasionally, the warm-up guy will just lie and say the last scene hasn’t been written yet, there’s still a lot of debate, etc.

The other problem with trying to keep key story points a secret is that copies of the script get out. Scripts are normally distributed to many departments (wardrobe, props, studio execs, etc.). One of those can easily fall into the wrong hands or wrong internet.

Some tabloids used to pay for heavily-classified scripts. So an extra could make $500 by selling a script to one of these tabloids.

Keeping a lid on anything is hard these days.

From VincentS:

Have you gotten a good writing idea from a dream?

Yes. Good ideas for shows, scenes, and even entire plots.

On the other hand, there have been times I’ve woken up with what I thought was a spectacular idea, written it down in my half haze, gone back to sleep, and when I got up in the morning I realized it was a TERRIBLE idea.

Liggie wonders:

Are there any strictly dramatic actors that would be good in a comic role, and vice versa?

I’ve always felt that a good interesting dramatic villain can play comedy. When I first saw Kurtwood Smith in ROBO COP I said, “I wanna work with that guy some day.” Happily, I did on BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

I saw Alan Rickman in a Noel Coward play on Broadway and he was hilarious. No surprise after his villainous performance in DIE HARD.

Nick Collasanto – the Coach from CHEERS – often played heavies (including one in RAGING BULL) as did Ed Asner who went on to become Lou Grant in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

I could give you a long list of dramatic actors who can play comedy but in the interest of time I’m just to name my favorite – Gene Hackman.

As for the other side, if you can do comedy you can usually do drama.  

Edward wants to know this:

Ken - In a post about Natalie Wood a few months ago, you indicated that she wore jewelry to cover a scar. Gary Burgoff has a deformed left hand. Do you recall writing a script a certain way or altering a draft script to make sure that Radar would not have to use his left hand or have it show up on screen?

No, we never did. We obviously didn’t do anything like having him signal “eight” with his fingers, but Gary pretty much made everything work. And there was always the understanding that if somehow he couldn’t we’d change the script to accommodate him.

Finally, from Chris G:

Did an actor ever fall down the stairs that led to the bar's front door while you were filming Cheers?

Not that I know of. I almost did once.

Be safe and sane this weekend.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Jerry Howarth is retiring

One of my favorite baseball announcers just announced his retirement. Jerry Howarth is stepping down as the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays after 36 years, citing health reasons. A major league baseball season is a grind. Especially for someone in Toronto because you have to go through customs every time you go in and out of Canada.

I’ve known Jerry since my first year broadcasting baseball, 1988. I was one of the announcers for Toronto’s Triple-A affiliate, Syracuse. Midseason I got the chance to fill in one game for the Blue Jays, sitting alongside their iconic (booming) lead voice, Tom Cheek and number two play-by-play man, Jerry Howarth. Needless to say I was nervous. Both made me feel so comfortable and Jerry in particular, took me under his wing. From that day forward Jerry became one of my mentors. And I can't thank him enough.

Even when I got to the big leagues I would send Jerry tapes and he would critique them. He was always very meticulous and descriptive and would really hold my feet to the fire. Adding the right word in a situation could eliminate any confusion, providing a note of strategy could enhance the listener’s appreciation of what was happening on the field, giving the damn score once in a while was nice too.

Jerry had a very conversational style. And he communicated his passion for the game. One thing I loved about him is that he sounded quite unconventional. In an age where announcers all had to have deep authoritative voices, Jerry was more like Wally Cox calling a game. He has a very pleasant voice but it’s distinctive. And very refreshing. Today the trend is to hire generic young guys with interchangeable decent voices who offer nothing but nuts and bolts and statistics. Take away their computers and they’re paralyzed.

With Jerry you knew you were listening to a real person. There was heart in his presentation. His preparation was second-to-none so he knew stories about each player, he knew what the manager was thinking before the manager did, he saw both the overview and the minutia. And yet he conveyed it all in a friendly inviting manner.

With satellite radio and MLB.COM I was able to listen to his broadcasts quite frequently in Los Angeles. Every one was a master class in the craft and art of broadcasting baseball.

Like all Blue Jays fans I will miss his nightly visits. But I think of his retirement as just “the post season.” It’s what you look forward to. And in Jerry’s case it’s that much sweeter because he knows going in he’s won the championship. See ya at Disney World, Jerry.  Or at the very least, Cooperstown. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

EP59: Talking Dogs, Invisible Alien Babies, & Other TV Pilots

With pilot season in full-swing, Ken shares a story of one of his pilots that didn’t get on the air (get ready for a lot of fights with the studio) and introduces you to some of the most bizarre jaw-dropping pilots that never got on the air. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Thank you for liking me on my Birthday

Happy Valentine’s Day.

As longtime readers of this blog know, it’s also my birthday. I’m getting closer and closer to 40.

But having your birthday on Valentine’s Day has its drawbacks. You can’t go out to dinner because everyone is going out to dinner. And restaurants jack up the prices. Or they have special menus AND jack up the prices. Four course gourmet dinner at Applebee’s, that sort of thing.

And you share your birthday with a holiday. I remember in the second grade when we had to give out Valentines to everyone in class, I didn’t get one from Charlene Uranga. Not only did it bum me out because I had a big crush on her, but it’s distressing when the pattern for your love life becomes quite apparent at six.

So I’ve never really loved my birthday. A few years ago I went to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWUIMSUIT party and one of the chefs came down with Hepatitis. So we all had to get emergency immune globulin shots from a needle they use on horses.

And then there was this happy celebration one year.

But now, thanks to social media, my spirits have been lifted. Like (I’m assuming) most people on Facebook, I’ve been receiving lovely birthday greetings from friends and family members far and wide. Even people I don’t know are wishing me Happy Birthday.

One year I wrote back individual notes. That ate up 90% of my birthday. Now I just write one status update thanking everyone who remembered me on this anniversary of the day a bunch of Al Capone’s gangsters mowed down other gangsters in a Chicago garage.

But I sort of feel guilty because I don’t check Facebook every day and as a result very rarely reciprocate when someone wishes me a Happy Birthday. I know it's horrible, but it’s nothing personal. I love each and every one of you and wish you all the happiest of birthdays, but Jesus, you people have birthdays EVERY SINGLE DAY. This would be so much easier if, like racehorses, everyone just aged another year on January 1st.

So again, to all of you – thank you and Happy Birthday either in advance or belatedly. And I mean that.

And I already wished you a Happy Valentine’s Day. Charlene Uranga, if you’re out there, it’s not too late.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

THE SHAPE OF WATER -- my review

Okay, I’ll admit it. I was not excited to see THE SHAPE OF WATER. I’ve had the screener for several months. I had heard mixed reviews. When the first thing people say is that it is “visually stunning” that is generally code for boring, pretentious, no story, three hours. But since THE SHAPE OF WATER was nominated for so many awards and I plan on reviewing the awards for my podcast, I decided to see it. And I figured, to really give it the fairest shot, I’d see it on a big screen (even if that meant paying). Plus, I always enjoy going to the Landmark in West LA because I’m still the youngest person in the theatre by 30 years.

Happy to report I was very pleasantly surprised by THE SHAPE OF WATER. It had a good story, was well-acted, very original, ambitious… oh, and it was visually stunning.

Essentially THE SHAPE OF WATER is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST meets SPLASH. Sally Hawkins is Belle who can breathe underwater. Michael Shannon is Gaston. Shannon is becoming the new Robert Shaw – the villain in every movie. And is it just me, but he always reminds me of “Jaws” in those James Bond flicks? Richard Jenkins plays a version of the kindly older man “Belle” is looking after.

Sally Hawkins was quite wonderful. I hope she wins the Oscar, but her performance was very subtle and quiet (VERY quiet, her character was a mute) and Oscars tend to go to more “showy” parts or Meryl Streep for showing up.

Richard Jenkins, a venerable character actor, also deserves a statuette. On the other hand, Octavia Spencer is nominated for best supporting actress and her competition is way more deserving. I’m sorry but Spencer plays the same part in every movie she’s in.

Doug Jones, who played the creature was snubbed. Diversity still doesn’t recognize monsters I suppose. For my money, he was way better than the guy who played the Gimp in PULP FICTION.

Oh, and I also loved Michael Stulberg, who is the new Stanley Tucci. He morphs into whatever role he plays and he’s always excellent.

But the real gold goes to Guillermo del Toro for both his inventive screenplay (co-written by Vanessa Taylor) and dazzling directing. If the Academy wants to give Greta Gerwig an Oscar (and I think to be politically correct they do), they better give her screenplay because her directing wasn’t in del Toro’s league (under the sea). Sorry, I had just to get that pun in. I mean, it was just sitting there.

In a very weak year for movies – when a derivative coming-of-age teen movie is up for picture of the year – my vote for 2018 would be THE SHAPE OF WATER. It’s a lovely homage to old Hollywood films with romance, tension, social commentary… and visually, wow, it’s just STUNNING. Glad I finally saw it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lost in translation

While Googling the 1960's popular singer, Joanie Sommers, I came upon this bio. This was obviously translated into English by someone who was not a great translator.   Anyway, I found it quite amusing.  Try reading it out loud.   Note:  This is printed verbatim. 

Joanie Sommers scored her biggest graph achievement with “Johnny Get Angry” in 1962. The solitary, her second single launch, peaked at the quantity seven place and charted for a lot more than 8 weeks. Her first single record, “One Boy,” was lots through the musical Bye Bye Birdie in support of hit quantity 54 in 1960.

She continuing to record through the 10 years, but never really had another champion that increased as on top of the graphs as “Johnny Obtain Furious.”

She later on accomplished a different sort of achievement in advertisements with a number of different jingles that she sang for Pepsi through the ’60s and once again two decades later on. (The title of 1 of her later on albums, STAND OUT, was even produced from among the Pepsi ad promotions.)

Sommers, whose true name is Joan Drost, was created in NY but was raised in California. During her senior high school and university years, she sang in college rings. She was 18 years of age when Warner Bros. authorized her to a agreement in 1959 and combined her with Edd Byrnes using one of his singles. She also got a small part in 77 Sunset Remove, the tv screen series that presented Byrnes in the part of Kookie. Furthermore, she sang on Byrnes’ “I Don’t Drill down You” and “Sizzling Rock and roll,” which made an appearance using one of his albums.

Sommers released an record of her very own, the jazz-oriented Favorably one of the most, and it helped create her existence in easy hearing and adult circles. Supporters and critics frequently cite her 1965 record, Softly the Brazilian Sound, as you of her greatest efforts.

In 1966, the singer agreed upon with Columbia Information. Among her pursuing recordings was a edition of “Alfie,” which both Cher and Dionne Warwick also protected it. While Sommers’ edition didn’t obtain the observe that the various other two do, she acquired the fulfillment of putting in the very best Ten in the simple hearing category.

She also made an appearance in On the other hand, a television particular that starred Rick Nelson. The show’s soundtrack includes two variations of “Make an effort to VIEW IT My Method,” among which really is a duet with Nelson as the various other is normally a Sommers single.

The singer, wedded with three kids, stepped from the limelight as the ’70s contacted. Before retiring, she produced numerous television performances on the displays of Johnny Carson, Dinah Shoreline, Dean Martin, Mike Douglas, Bobby Darin, among others. Sommers began singing and producing appearances again through the ’80s.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

How to audition for pilots

This is the time of year when actors begin auditioning for TV pilots. It’s Hollywood's answer to musical chairs, but the music is sped up. 90% of the pilots that networks commission are made in the spring. So actors are scurrying from audition to audition.

Producers are also scrambling. It used to be if you saw an actor you liked you brought him back in for a callback after you’ve seen a sizable number of applicants. Now you may see an actor you like at 11 AM and learn he’s going in to be tested for another network pilot at 4 PM. If you want him, make a deal and get him in to see your network before 4. If not, you might lose him. On the other hand, you might be pressured into hiring someone you might not be totally sold on. And there’s always the chance you let the actor test for the other network and he doesn’t get the part. He’s suddenly available again. But it’s a game of high stake poker.

Among the many acting courses that are taught here in LA are classes that specifically teach you how to audition. I suppose they’re helpful. I’ve never cast someone who took one of those courses, but that could be coincidence. How these instructors think they know what I’m looking for in an audition is beyond me. On the other hand, there are wonderful actors who just freeze up during auditions and as a result don’t get hired. I could see where one of these courses might be very valuable for these people.

One danger in racing from audition to audition is that you go up for so many roles that after awhile you forget what you did where. When a producer hires an actor he expects him to give the same performance he saw in the room, but actor friends of mine have said there are many times they get hired and have no idea what they did to get that particular role. “Was this the one I was laid back and cool, or was this the one I was real intense?”

Every producer has his own style of casting. And every producer has his own expectations. I can just tell you my tips based on years of casting.

Don’t come in with a shtick. I’ve heard theories that actors should do something crazy to be noticed. 99% of the time you’ll be noticed in a bad way. Just come in, very professional., say hello, shake hands if the producers extend theirs (I always do; a lot of producers don’t), do the scene, thank everybody, and leave.

Don’t spend the first five minutes telling us how hard it was to park or how hard it was to find the office.

If you have questions about the scene or the character or the intent, ask. We’re happy to point you in the right direction, or at least steer you away from the wrong. It’s also quite acceptable and even encouraged to ask, “Is there anything I should know?”

After you do the scene, offer to do it again with any adjustments the producers might have.

Don’t be all “actory.” Don’t face the wall and come out swinging like a boxer. Don’t stare off into space for two minutes while you try to locate your emotional center. Don’t let out a war chant to psyche yourself up before beginning the scene.

Don’t come in wearing an elaborate costume or drenched in blood (unless it’s yours).

Don’t memorize the scene. Read from the script. You get no points for memorizing and most of the time you’ll forget words, paraphrase, or make shit up. I want you to concentrate on your performance, not memorization. Hold the script in your hand and sell it.

Don’t make up dialogue, and especially don’t make up monologues. This happened once to us. I should also add at this point – don’t audition when you’re stinkin’ drunk. Especially at 9:30 AM. This was for BIG WAVE DAVE’S. The character was a colorful free spirit who migrated to Hawaii. This plastered actor starting reading the scene and then stopped right in the middle. That sure caught our attention. What the hell was he doing, just staring at us? Finally he spoke. “Pussy!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. David and I were taken aback. Neither of us could remember writing “Pussy!” into the script. The actor then launched into a long monologue about Hawaiian women and how to get them into the sack. None of it was usable – not that we were looking for ways to get our actors to randomly scream out “Pussy!”

Don’t tell the producers what’s wrong with the script?

Don’t tolerate any inappropriate behavior from the producers. This is not some “indie” project. This is a major network pilot casting legitimate SAG members. If the audition process is anything less that totally professional, you have a right to complain to your agent, manager, or whomever.   Especially now in the "MeToo" era. 

Don’t be late.

Don’t just assume we recognize you from the soap opera you’re on or the Flomax commercial you’ve done.

And finally, remember that we WANT you to succeed. Every person who walks through the door we’re hoping is the one we’ve been looking for. So take a little of the pressure off yourself.

Best of luck, and if this is all the stuff they tell you in those audition classes I want $150.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Come see my short play

I have a number of short plays playing in different festivals.  These are generally evenings of ten-minute plays.  Theatres seek submissions and I send off material.   And so far I've been pretty lucky, getting into any number of them.   Of course that's not to say I don't get rejected.  Usually by email.  I received one on Christmas Day.  Who spends Christmas at the office sending out insulting form rejections? 

But like I said, I've been fortunate.  I have one play called THE HOOK UP that will be in three different festivals within the next month.

Tonight it's playing at the Eclectic Theatre at 5312 Laurel Canyon in North Hollywood.  I'll be there so say hi if you come.  It's a bizarre comedy.  You can get info here

It will also be in the Short + Sweet Festival in Sydney, Australia the week of March 5th -- 11th.  You can get info here.

And in New York at the ANDTheatre Company's night of shorts from March 2-11.  I'll be in New York to see a couple of those performances.  You can get info here.   So if three festivals picked it, you figure it has a chance of being good, right? 

But wait, there's more.  One of my other plays, SURF'S UP, will be performed in Long Island on April 14th & 15th as part of the Northport Plays Readers' Theatre.  You can get info here.

The great thing about ten minute play festivals is that you get a lot of variety.  And if one of the plays sucks you know it'll be over in only ten minutes.  Even if it's one of mine. 

Anyway, hope you'll come out and support live theatre.  And if you live in LA, I hope you'll support live theatre TONIGHT.  Swing by the Eclectic Theatre Company.  And hey, there's a Shakey's across the street so you can make a whole glorious evening of it.  Thanks much. 

Friday, February 09, 2018

Friday Questions

A weekend can not officially begin without Friday Questions, so here they are.

VP81955 kicks us off:

Have you ever written for Chuck Lorre, and if he contacted you about writing an occasional ep for him (with no constraints about having to be part of a writers' room for a prolonged period, given your schedule and commitments), would you?

I have not officially written for Chuck, but when I was directing for him (DHARMA & GREG) I would sit in on rewrite nights and help out. I recall those nights as being great fun. Chuck always puts together rooms of terrifically funny writers.

As for doing an episode, that’s not the way he works. All of his scripts are room-written. Writing credits are just assigned. So no.

From Peter:

This question might be a bit left field, but I'm just wondering. When meeting an executive or an agent, is a writer expected to wear a suit as though going for a job interview or can you dress casual?

Is there such a thing as “nice casual?” I never wear a suit and tie, but I do wear a collared shirt, sports jacket, and no jeans. Whether the dress "requirements" are more relaxed today I couldn’t tell you, but if you’re going in to pitch an executive of some sort show a little respect (whether you actually have respect or not).

Cheryl Marks asks:

Why does "Show Runner" never appear in the credits?

Because it doesn’t sound impressive enough. “Executive Producer” sounds way more cool.

It's like “Chief of Staff” sounds way more elegant than “psychotic man-child wrangler.”

Matt wonders:

Have you ever done a cameo in any of the shows you’ve been a part of?

Twice. Once in OPEN ALL NIGHT where I played a swinging lawyer trying to pick up a female mud wrestler in a mace class, and once on THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES, where I played a gay lawyer my mother was trying to fix up with a girl at a Jewish wedding.

I’ve also been an extra in a couple of shows a la Hitchcock. And I’ve done voice-overs as sports announcers on probably fifteen shows (including THE SIMPSONS).

But I’ve had no real desire to act in any of my shows. Better that real actors who need the money and credit (and have way more talent than me) get those gigs.

And fellow blogger Earl Pomerantz has today’s final question.

What was it like transitioning from the quippy one-liners of MASH to the more nuanced and subtle dialogue of Frasier and Cheers? Was it hard to make the adjustment, or was the change in style relatively easy?

The transition was made much easier because my partner (David Isaacs) and I had been on staff of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW before MASH so we had some experience in multi-cam.

But it was a little tough doing our first script for CHEERS because the joke forms were so different. We never had “set ups” on MASH. It was just a steady stream of zingy banter.

On CHEERS, for the audience, there were definite set ups. “They call the Coach 'Red' because he had red hair?” “No, because he read a book.” We would never do a joke like that on MASH. So there was a learning curve. By our second script we pretty much had it down.

As someone who has done both I've always felt it was much easier to go from multi-cam to single-cam (i.e. shot like a movie) then the other way around.   You have more flexibility in single-camera shows to do different kind of jokes, and the jokes themselves don't always have to get laughs.  In multi-camera shows you have 250 strangers in bleachers and you need to make them laugh out loud.  You better know your joke structures.  

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The SORRY! state of board games

My favorite board game is SORRY! I played it as a kid and then many times with my kids. Somehow the game is constructed so that no matter how big a lead a player might have somehow the end comes down to a nail-biter where anybody can win. It’s truly ingenious. Imagine if basketball games all came down to one last shot. (As it is, I’ve always maintained in the NBA they should just give each team 100 points and let them play for five minutes.)

In SORRY! you have four nubbins that you move around the board trying to get them all across the finish line first. If your nubbin lands on an opponent’s square you bump his nubbin back to “start.” You draw cards with numbers and move backwards and forwards accordingly. It’s deceptively simple, but somehow over the course of the game the race always gets tighter and tighter. A game takes about a half-hour. 2-4 players, from age 6 to adult.

Well, there’s now an updated “new” version. Why? Why fuck with perfection? Each player now only gets three nubbins, card restrictions have been lifted and players move around the board faster. Plus, there’s this new Fire and Ice feature that modifies the rules for nubbins that are assigned one. And this feature has caused additional confusion as there are now situations not explained in the rules.

The point of this new version is what? To speed up the game? A half-hour is too long? To sell new versions to fans of the original? To compete with video games? The president of the company was losing too often to his kids?

Whatever the reason it's just another example of fixing things that aren’t broke. Repealing net neutrality. New Coke. Replacing Scott Pelley. Automatic intentional walks. Blue M&M’s. Crystal Pepsi. Clairol Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. KRTH’s new jingles.

Considering how hard it is to get anything right, when you do, LEAVE IT ALONE. SORRY! but that’s the way I feel.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

EP58: How I Write Comedy

Over the years Ken has written countless sitcoms including, Cheers, Frasier, Mash and The Simpsons. On today's show, Ken discusses his process for writing comedy and shares a lot of great tips and stories along the way. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

One of my big pet peeves

Are you ready? 

I’ll be getting notes on a script from a network or studio exec and she’ll say, “Sure it’s funny, but…”

I want to stop her right there and say, “Excuse me, do you have any idea how hard it is to write something that is truly funny?” The ability to craft a joke that will make 200 strangers in the audience laugh or 6 million viewers takes genuine talent. Because it’s not just “jokes”, the laughs have to be in character and move the story forward. Trust me, it is a skill that very few possess. And the time and effort that goes into fine tuning those jokes to ensure that the absolute best version is going on the air is enormous.

A number of current sitcom writers who are in development say the networks tend to ignore “the funny.” They’ll give notes like, “Don’t concentrate on the funny; give us more backstory.” Or “you can make it funnier later.” And then my favorite: “Sure it’s funny, but…”

These are COMEDIES. Situation COMEDIES. What do you mean “it’s funny BUT…”? For my money, the big problem with network comedies is that they’re just not funny. Networks should be pushing writers to make their shows FUNNIER. People don’t tune in for backstory. Dole that shit out along the way, but make the viewer laugh (however you choose to do that).

A lot of the executives in comedy development at both the network and studio level are not inherently funny people. They push likeability (which is comedy death), they lobby for more warmth, they champion formulas. You think they’d learn something from SEINFELD. When people turn on sitcoms they want to LAUGH. Sure, they want to care, but they want to laugh. In superhero movies, yeah, you can establish relationships as long as people are flying and cities are being destroyed.

So to those executives I would like to respectfully say, “Sure you have that job, but…”

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

RIP John Mahoney

Boy, this is a tough one. John Mahoney passed away. He was 77. Probably best known for playing Frasier’s dad, Martin on FRASIER.

John was maybe the nicest, most easy-going man on the planet. And what a sensational actor. I had the privilege to both write for him and direct him. The consummate professional, John always knew his lines, was always there for rehearsal, always cheerful, always generous.

Off the set he was quiet, private, and almost shy. You don’t hear of many actors referred to as “shy.” But that was John. You could really get him talking however if you brought up football. He was a huge football fan. So it was even more tragic for him to die on Super Bowl Sunday.

I first met John on CHEERS. David and I had an episode where we needed a middle-aged jingle writer. A real Tin Pan Alley guy. We had another actor, but after the dress rehearsal he just freaked out with such a case of stage fright that he drove off the lot and never returned. Obviously, we couldn’t shoot that part that night, but we re-cast and shot it the following week. John Mahoney was hired to fill that role. And crushed it.

At the time, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell were casting their pilot of FRASIER. They saw the CHEERS episode with John and thought he might be a good choice to play Martin. The rest is history. Crazy how these things work out sometimes.

John was a gentle soul with a twinkle in his eye. He was equally gifted at comedy and drama. And he made it look easy. To me he was the real key to the success of FRASIER. He was voice of the common man who never let the brothers get too full of themselves. And yet his love for them, and theirs for him was evident in every moment of every episode.

Everyone in the FRASIER family, from the writers to the cast to the Teamster drivers loved John. We have a large body of his work, both in TV and films (particularly SAY ANYTHING) to enjoy and appreciate for years to come. John Mahoney was special. One of a kind. No one will ever be able to fill his chair.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Super Bowl XIILCXXILLCCIX review

Super Bowl XIILCXXILLCCIX was the greatest Arena Football game I’ve ever seen. Welcome to my snarky Super Bowl review and why I will never be hired by Sports Illustrated or the Walla Walla Penny Saver. Congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles, beating the New England Patriots 41-33, although since Robert Kraft, Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick voted for our current president, the White House will tell you there were two replay calls overturned and the Patriots won 33-27.

Considering upwards of 100,000,000 people watched the game it’s remarkable how comfortable and commanding Al Michaels was. He’s the Tom Brady of sportscasters if Brady didn’t fumble. Michaels calls a great game, knows how to build the drama and make the memorable highlight calls, is articulate, witty, armed with a million interesting nuggets and uses only the best eight, and most amazing of all -- he somehow knows the NFL rules. NOBODY knows the NFL rules, not even the NFL.

The game was held indoors in Minnesota at the gleaming new U.S. Bank Stadium (former site of the world’s largest jello mold, the Metrodome). They said at game time the outside temperature was 2 degrees but felt like -13. I’m sorry but if it feels like -13 degrees it IS -13 degrees.

As always, there were seventeen hours of Super Bowl pre-game coverage. Usually the sitting president does a folksy sit down interview. Not so this year, since our Commander-in-Chief hates NBC, the NFL, Minnesota (blue state), winter, and later as the commercials unfolded – Toyota, Coke, and T-Mobile. He hated the Toyota spot so much he wanted to deport sideline reporter, Michele Tafoya (confusing her name with Toyota). By the way, it was nice to see Michele not in a parka for a change.

Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr for you HAMILTON fans) did a stellar job with “American the Beautiful” and Pink absolutely crushed it singing the National Anthem, especially since she was recovering from the flu. Seeing her with short hair and that outfit I couldn’t help thinking SHE’S who should have starred in PETER PAN for NBC.

All the players stood during the National Anthem, but all the people holding that giant flag were taking a knee.

Then there was a flyover. Why do a flyover over a domed stadium?

Once the game began and the Joe Buck haters retreated to their basements because there was nothing to Tweet, things immediately got interesting. As Al Michaels said, this was a great game from start to finish. There was more defense in the Pro Bowl.

Some random observations from here on:

Super Bowl Sunday is the second largest food consumption day in the U.S. Tied for first – every Jewish holiday (except Yom Kippur).

Don’t you hate it when you buy two squares for the pool and get the numbers 2 and 5? Well it was looking pretty good when it was 15-12 Eagles.

It’s time to do away with the Roman Numerals already. We’re at the point where only Spartacus can figure them out.

Oh boy. The wait is over. A STAR WARS movie is coming. Finally!

For the most part the commercials were very uninspiring this year. And confusing. Peter Dinklage lip-sycing a Busta Rhymes rap for Doritos? Huh??? Ancient Vikings in a truck singing Queen? What??? Keegan-Michael Key was in a Rocket Mortgage spot translating Millennial-speak. We could have used him to translate fifteen other commercials as well.

Patriot Brandin Cooks took a vicious hit and was out for the rest of the game. At one point Michele Tafoya (still in the country I’m pleased to say) reported he had a head injury but not necessarily a concussion. Huh???? So that means what, his hair was falling out? The NFL continues to put a good spin on the brutality that endangers the lives of its players.

On the other hand, the NFL did produce the best commercial of the night – Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. recreating dance scenes from DIRTY DANCING. Considering Manning was 3-13 this year, he might consider giving up football for the road company of KINKY BOOTS.

Meanwhile, Dilly Dilly not Funny Funny.

The Pats missed two PATS. There were a lot of botched kicks. What direction was the air conditioning blowing?

The E-Trade spot showed all these 85-year-olds. I thought I was watching CBS.

You know there are not a lot of big celebrities in the crowd when they show Mike Trout three times. At one point I think I might have seen WJM’s Sue Ann Nivens.

Al Michaels was pin-point accurate calling the game but did have trouble keeping team names and sports straight. He called the Los Angeles Angels the California Angels (although to me they still are), the Lions he called the Pistons, and Eagle fans he called Phillies fans. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the best announcer of every sport.

There was a technical snafu. NBC broke for commercial and went to 20 seconds of black before bailing and going back to Al and Chris. That must’ve cost the Peacock $10,000.000 in missed commercials. The guy who pushed the wrong button might’ve been the same guy who sent out the false missile alert in Hawaii.

I’m only sorry the blackout didn’t occur when the Febreze “shit doesn’t stink” ad was scheduled to run. That was maybe the worst, most tasteless Super Bowl ad ever.

Second worst this year was Dodge Ram using Martin Luther King Jr. for its voiceover. Next year I fully expect to hear Mother Teresa for Febreze.

Chris Collinsworth always does a solid job of analysis, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind. He felt that both of those replay calls should have been overturned. So did our president, which is why Chris Collinsworth will be the next Attorney General.

Here’s something I didn’t know: the two products football fans crave the most are beer and laundry detergent. There were more Tide and Perisol Pro-Clean ads than Ford and Chevy.

Nobody watches the halftime analysis.

The Pepsi commercial saluted every generation except THE “Pepsi Generation” from the ‘60s. Where was Joanie Sommers? (And when will you ever see Joanie Sommers and Brandin Cooks in the same article?)

I’m sorry but every Super Bowl Halftime show is now the same.

Not much suspense. Everyone was hoping Janet Jackson might return to flash her other nipple, but instead we got Justin’s greatest hits and a Prince tribute that felt very disingenuous. Prince fans remember that Timberlake dissed him publicly on several occasions. Other people are peeved that he was in a Woody Allen movie. And still more felt cheated they didn’t at least see his nipple.

Sorry, but the best musical act of the night was Pink.

Key stat of the game: Receptions. Nick Foles 1-1, Tom Brady 0-1.

Finally, the Red States and Blue States, Patriot or Eagles fans all came together to hate something -- The Scientology commercial.

As much as I love Al Michaels I do have to say I missed Dick Enberg. And I bet Al would say that too.

The laughing robots you saw in that ad attend WILL & GRACE tapings and that’s who you hear laughing every week.

Late in the game they kept cutting to Gisele Bundchen, Tom Brady’s wife with their child, and it looked like she was hastily calling airlines to get the hell out of town. After the fumble, reading lips, I thought I heard her say: “Anywhere! Cuba? Sure.”

I sensed a real chemistry between Martha Stewart and Jack from Jack in the Box. I know NBC wants to do a reboot of MAD ABOUT YOU. If they can’t sign the original cast…

Now that the game is over our sports sections can finally focus on fishing!

Super Bowl LXIIXCXXICCIL was a great game. Other than one glitch, NBC produced an excellent broadcast, the team most people wanted to win did win, but at the end of the day, I have to wonder: Did more people Tweet about the Super Bowl or Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy announcement?

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The "lost" CHEERS scene

In all likelihood I will be live tweeting during the Super Bowl.  So if you're not following me ... please do at @KenLevine.  Warning:  There might be one or two snarky ones.  Who can say?  

Now then... A yearly tradition...

For several years I had been talking about the "Lost" CHEERS scene. David and I wrote it for the 1983 Super Bowl Pre-game show to promote our fledgling series. They ran it just before game time and it was seen by 80,000,000 people. Nothing we've ever written before or since has been seen by that many eyeballs at one time. But the scene was never repeated. It never appeared on any DVD's. It just disappeared.

Until a few years ago.

Sportswriter supreme, Joe Resnick had taped every Super Bowl including that one. And since the scene aired so close to the game, it was on the tape.  Sadly, Joe passed away two years ago.   You can read my tribute to him here.

Thanks to friend of the blog, Howard Hoffman, he was able to digitize it and post it on YouTube.  Here's the text of the scene.

So here it is. The Super Bowl is next (ironically, again on NBC)

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Tony Gwynn

The MLB Network is currently running a terrific documentary on Tony Gwynn.  It made me cry.  So I thought I would re-post my tribute to Tony when he died four years ago.  You'll be able to see why I cried. 

I knew Tony Gwynn well. We were together for three years when I broadcast for the San Diego Padres and he was at the height of his career. You’ll be hearing and reading many tributes to TGwynn (as we called him) and every nice thing they say is true. What I want to do is share some personal recollections, show you some day-to-day examples of what a prince this man was.

One time we were playing the Giants in old Candlestick Park. My two kids, Matt & Annie, were with me at the park that day. It’s several hours before the game, me and my kids are sitting in the dugout and Tony saunters by. My son asks if he could have his autograph. Tony said sure. (Tony always said sure.) Matt looked around for a ball. There were a few old batting practice balls lying around so he picked up one of those. Tony said, “That’s not what you want. Wait here.” The Padres clubhouse was way down the rightfield line, past the foul pole. Tony ran all the way to the clubhouse and back with two brand new baseballs to sign for my kids.

For Matt's bar mitzvah Tony gave him one of his bats.  Way cooler than a Savings Bond.  
We all know Tony was a spectacular hitter. Eight-time batting champ. Hall of Famer.   But he never took anything for granted. When we were on the road he would bring a portable VHS player, hook it up to his TV in the room, set the timer for the game, and come back and study his at bats.

And he devoted the same effort to his fielding. We were in Pittsburgh once at old Three-Rivers Stadium. It was late September, the end of the season. The Padres had long since been eliminated (probably in August), as were the Pirates (July). This was a weekend series of utterly meaningless games. I got out to the park very early on Friday to begin my preparations for the series. The field was completely empty except for Tony in rightfield, throwing the ball off various parts of the wall to refamiliarize himself with how to play the carom in this particular outfield.

Tony was a great laugher, but the biggest laugh I ever got from him was just after we both were almost killed. He and I shared a cab to Shea Stadium in New York one afternoon. Somewhere in the streets of Queens the cabbie lost control and the cab did a full 360 spin before coming safely to a stop. Once we caught our breath I said to Tony, “You realize that if anything had happened the headline in all the papers and on all the news shows would be ‘Tony Gwynn and passenger killed in car accident.’ My life would be reduced to ‘passenger.’ “ Tony called me ‘passenger’ for the next two weeks.

He answered every question, he spoke to everyone who approached him, he was loyal to the city of San Diego even though he received larger offers from other teams – I can’t think of one bad thing he ever did.

Except one.

He used chewing tobacco. And it killed him at the way too tender age of 54.

One question I'm often asked is “Of all the baseball players that you’ve known, who’s your favorite?” My answer is always, “Tony Gwynn.” He’s my ultimate MVP – with the M standing for Mensch.

I was honored to be his passenger.