Monday, December 11, 2017

Only in LA

I love LA but have to admit, some bizarre shit goes on out here.   No wonder people in the rest of the country shake their heads.  Maybe it's the combination of money, sunshine, and Laker Girls but there is a disproportionate amount of lunacy in "Tinsel Town."    We're the home of life coaches and chakra parlors and Life Springs. 

And now comes something new.   And I'm almost embarrassed to write this.

Concierge firemen.

Things are still touch-and-go in certain areas in Southern California with regards to the recent horrific brush fires.  The winds have died down and containment is more within the fire department's grasp, but there are still flare-ups.  (Where's the Justice League when we need 'em?) 

We've all seen footage of heroic homeowners who have ignored evacuation orders and stayed behind to vigilantly protect their homes.  They're on their roofs with hoses.  They're single-handedly slaying  fire breathing dragons, risking their very lives in the process.

Well, now there's a better way it seems.

Concierge firemen.

Last week many residents of the chic LA neighborhood of Bel Air were forced to evacuate.   It was a boon for luxury hotels in the area.  But as everyone held their collective breath some of these wealthy residents breathed a little easier.   Why?  Because they had concierge firemen, freelancers hired to guard and battle blazes that might affect their homes specifically.   I suppose in a town where there are dog psychiatrists, why not?

Still, it seems a little weird and uh... entitled to me.   But my big fear is someone in Congress is going to hear of this and say, "instead of the government providing this service why don't we encourage people to hire their own firemen and we'll give them vouchers?"    You laugh but today -- nothing would surprise me. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

For those who hate theatre

We all talk about how great the theatre is. I'm writing for the theatre. I love it. But in the interest of fairness, I present the opposing view. From British comedienne Sara Pascoe:

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jobs I wish I had

Starting a new feature I’ll do from time to time. “Jobs I Wish I Had.” We all have them. We grow out of most of them, but not all. Secretly, don’t you still wish you could be a ballerina or Navy Seal?

And then there are the jobs you’d love to have but no longer exist. Big band crooner, flapper, Czar of Russia.
There's such a thing as the BUZZR network.  They show old black-and-white episodes of I’VE GOT A SECRET and WHAT’S MY LINE?  These were old musty game shows from the ‘50s and ‘60s. By today’s standard they are positively archaic. A panel of four personalities must guess the contestants’ job or secret.  That's it.  There was zero production value and if a contestant stumped the panel they won the whopping sum of $50. The shows were aired live (for the east coast anyway). Today they're great fun to watch.

WHAT’S MY LINE? was originally on CBS at (I believe) 10:30 p.m. The panelists all wore tuxedos and formal gowns. The host, John Daly was the most erudite emcee in the history of television. If there are 500,000 words in the English language, he knew and used 469,000 of them – each week. Everyone was very formal. Ms. Francis. Mr. Cerf. Ms. Kilgallen.

When little kids are asked what they want to be when they grow up they’ll often say fireman, or actress, or cowboy, or fashion model. I wanted to be a panelist. And you know what? I still do. Too bad those gigs have gone the way of the 8-Track tape.

Think about it. Sunday night. You go out and have a nice dinner in Manhattan. Roll into CBS at 10:00. Don your tuxedo and get made up. There’s nothing to prepare. You’re not supposed to know what will be on the show. You do the show live at 10:30. You play this parlor game and (in my case) say a few witty lines and get a couple of laughs. At 11:00 you’re done. No pick ups. No alternate takes.   By 11:15 you’re in a bar. For this you are handsomely paid, you’re famous, and these shows lasted upwards of fifteen years. You have job security.

You parlay this into appearing on other panels. Ka-ching!! You trade on your fame and write books (or have others ghost write them for you), speak at events for absurd fees, score lucrative commercial endorsements (“Hi, this is Ken Levine for Studerbaker!”), and be invited to all the A-list society parties. Judy Garland could pass out in my lap. 

I was always amused when one of these panelists missed a show because he was on vacation. Vacation from WHAT? A half-hour a week?

There are very few panelist opportunities today.  Bill Maher’s HBO show, a few others. But slim pickings for sure. What few celebrity game shows there are require you must be a has-been from some ‘70s sitcom. Rarely does the casting call go out for never-beens. So I’m at a distinct disadvantage there.

But that’s one of the jobs I wish I had had. What about you? What’s Your Fantasy Line?

Friday, December 08, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Question time has rolled around again. What’s yours?

Here’s a long FQ from Jeff :)

Hi Ken, not sure if you've heard of the Masked Scheduler or not. He is apparently a former Hollywood executive and he has been posting his 12 Commandments of TV. I have a beef with one of them and wanted to hear your thoughts.

He argues that a show should be simple enough that it is easily digested in a 30 second promo. He used some examples of recent shows such as The Leftovers, Legion, etc. as shows that were discussed heavily on social media but didn't necessarily have great ratings. The takeaway seemingly being that simpler shows that are easily understood are better.

I use Game of Thrones as a counter example. Game of Thrones is a deep, political, complicated show. It would be very difficult to explain Game of Thrones in a 30 second spot. And yet it's ratings continually go up and part of it is because people talk about it constantly. Meanwhile I've seen promos for SWAT, and I understand fully what the show is about yet have not only never watched it, I've never heard of anyone who has. And even if you did watch it, what are you going to discuss about it? "Did you see how they caught that killer on SWAT last night? I didn't think they were going to catch him but then they did. So that's nice". Wouldn't you rather have a deep shows that takes actual thought to comprehend than being spoon fed the same old drivel?

Someone on the internet described GAME OF THRONES as:

Noble families across the realm of Westeros compete for control of the Iron Throne.

Even complicated shows can be distilled down to loglines.

There is so much product out there on so many platforms that to get your show noticed I think it’s a big advantage to be able to convey the premise and hook in thirty seconds. And then you can make your show as complicated as you want.

A mob boss is torn between his killer instincts and his conscience.

That’s THE SOPRANOS. Hardly a simple show.

I do believe that whatever your genre, you need to be able to articulate your show in just a few sentences.

Mike Bloodworth asks:

What is the easiest way to access your archives? As I've said before I've only been reading your blog for a short time. There must be a gold mine of information I've missed.

Look on the right column. You’ll find a section called “Blog Archive” along with years and months. Just click on a year and it will show you months. Click on a month and it will show you the posts from that month. Click on the post. Or click on the month itself and all the posts from that month will come up. A few are actually good. 

David A. Mackey wonders:

What do you think it was about Nancy Travis that made working with her so special? I always hear a lot of great things about her and the work that she is done.

She’s a lovely person, super talented, and a real cheerleader on the stage. A total pro, always prepared, very unselfish as an actress. And when she has a problem with a script she presents it in an intelligent respectful way.

She’s a good sport and will try things. There’s something so warm about her. You want to be married to her or have her as your girlfriend or best friend.

And the camera just loves her.

Had the pleasure to work with her on two series.  I would work with her again in a second.  

Finally, from Stuart Best:

You said you left MASH because all the good ideas had been used up and wrung out. But the show continued for four more years. Did you think the writers after you added fresh ideas, or did they continue to bludgeon the same horse? I respect that you probably don't want to say anything negative about other writers, but I wonder how you think it was a mistake to keep going all those extra years.

I think they did the best they could with what they had to work with, which was not a lot. We pretty much picked over all those bones.

There were some stories where I thought they were really reaching, but others where I said, “Damn, why didn’t WE come up with that?”

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Coping with the Skirball Fire

First off, thanks to everyone for showing concern. I love you guys.  Now to the post...
Yesterday was sure fun.

Awakened to a call stating there was a fire of close enough proximity that it might be good to pack up in case we had to evacuate.  Holy shit!  That’ll send you scurrying to the TV.

The blaze was the Skirball Fire that began just after 5:00 AM across the 405 Freeway from the Skirball Museum in the Sepulveda Pass that is the main artery between West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Due to the fire the 405 was closed completely.... during morning rush hour traffic.  I imagine commuters from yesterday still haven't arrived.  

The path of the fire was headed towards Bel Air, a very chic hillside community. I live farther east and south near UCLA. The local elementary school two blocks from my home remained in session so that was a good sign.

The big X-factor was the wind. We’re in the throes of Santa Ana winds that at times are fierce. Adding to that we’ve had very little rain this year. And this is just one major fire. There are five scorching the Southern California region. Homes have been lost and fires have jumped freeways. But the greatest concern was that Rupert Murdoch’s mansion and vineyard was in jeopardy due to the Skirball skirmish. Those MUST be saved. 

We were generally confident that we were safe but heeded the warning and gathered some precious items like documents, photographs, and my daughter’s Pez collection. Have you ever had to evacuate your home? Or even had to give some thought as to what items you might take in that emergency situation and what you could live without?

There was a ballplayer on the Dodgers in the ‘80s named Pedro Guerrero. During an earthquake he strained his back lifting his big screen TV into his car. That was the one irreplaceable item he owned? (Of course this was the same ballplayer tried for selling cocaine and the defense was that he was too stupid to know what was going on… and he won.)

So we basically hung around the house, watching TV updates, and staying indoors. Ash from the fire turned the entire city into the bottom of an ashtray. And the sky had this weird FAHRENHEIT 451 glow. You could smell it. You could also taste it. 500 miles of a mesquite BBQ that needed cleaning.

In the past I anchored fire coverage for KABC radio. My goal was to be accurate, reassuring, and when I had guests on the line (like a spokesman for the fire department, evacuation centers, etc.) I simply asked the questions that I as a listener would want to know. I then took down any pertinent information and relayed it back to the audience during my frequent “here’s what we know” recaps.

Since this fire occurred in the morning hours, most local TV stations had their morning news anchors handle the coverage. That’s when you learn the men from the boys. A few were excellent but others were just dunderheads. Their idea of coverage is to just tell you everything you’re seeing on the screen. “There’s a helicopter. And now it’s circling. And there’s some people standing on their lawns looking at the smoke. Can we see the smoke? Yes, there it is. That fire looks pretty bad.” Great analysis. Of course stations generally put their B or even C-teams on the early morning newscasts. Same with the field reporters. They should wrap up their reports by saying: “Just graduated from Chapman College, this is Suzy Creamcheese, Channel 2 News." 

One station meteorologist said don't breathe in the ashes because that could cause "premature death." Forget that hike I was going to take.   

If you log onto an industry trade paper online version you’ll see such fire coverage headlines as “SWAT forced to postpone production for second day. Or: "among the evacuees is Chelsea Handler.” Oh yeah, and people are losing their homes.

Facebook and Twitter came in handy for me.  I was able to update my concerned friends all at once.

At 11:00 PM I watched the local Channel 2 KCBS News.  The winds were really kicking up.  And I'm writing this four hours before posting and at this moment the Skirball Fire is not any worse.  (Some of the others are unfortunately.  My prayers to all involved.)  But as I watched the local news I thought things have really changed.

When I was a kid there was the big Bel Air Fire in 1961.  I vividly remember reporter Clete Roberts (the same Clete Roberts who was in the famous MASH "Interview" episode) giving a live comprehensive report while HIS house was burning in the background.  Last night the KCBS field reporters were mostly attractive young women.  And one was even named Crystal Cruz.   Really?  How do you have any journalistic credibility with a name like Crystal Cruz?  I wonder if her sisters, Princess and Carnival are working at competing stations. 

The wind and dry conditions are expected to last until the weekend so who knows how long these fires will last and to what extent will be the damage? My eternal gratitude to the first responders and emergency crews. My heart goes out to anyone who lost his or her house in this tragedy.

Now I fully expect to see our beloved President arrive on the scene and toss Wet Naps to displaced homeowners.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

EP49: Celebrity Dish Part 2

More with entertainment reporter Arlen Peters who has interviewed hundreds of major Hollywood stars.This week they discuss Robin Williams, Meryl Streep, Richard Pryor, Miss Piggy (who has her own hair and make-up person), Quentin Tarantino, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin who walked on the moon. Lots of good, bad, and strange behavior. But in Hollywood would you expect anything less?

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

How to be a good showrunner

Here's a Friday Question that became an entire post.  I know the WGA has seminars on this and some colleges offer courses in this, but the following points are pretty much everything you need to know.   (Reminder: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

The question is from Brian Hennessy.

Hey Ken - can I ask you what are mistakes that first time showrunners make?

1. Not communicating with your staff. It’s not enough to have your vision for the show; you need to clearly share it with your other writers. Don’t just assume. It’ll be hard enough for them without trying to figure out what’s in your head. Same is true with your editor and directors.

2. Be very organized. Time will go by much faster than you think. From day one lay out a plan. You want so many outlines by this date, so many first drafts by that date, etc.

3. Don’t squander that period before production begins. It’s easy to knock off early or move meetings back. But this is golden time before the crunch when actors arrive, cameras roll, and a thousand additional details require your attention.

4. Accept the fact that the first draft of the first script you receive from every staff member will look like a script from the last show they were on. It will take them time to adapt to your show.

5. Remember that every writer is not a “five-tool player” as they say in baseball. By that I mean, some may be strong at story but not jokes, or punch-up but not drafts. Not everybody is good at everything.  Consider that when putting together your staff.

6. Hire the best writers not your best friends.

7. Hire at least one experienced writer. Otherwise, on top of everything else you're doing, you're re-inventing the wheel. 

8. Don’t show favoritism to some writers over others. It destroys morale and no one loves a teacher’s pet.

9. Pick your fights with the network and studio. Don’t go to war over every little note. Antagonizing everyone all the time is a good way to ensure this will be your only showrunning gig. Yes, you’re an artist and you’re trying to protect your vision. And yes, a lot of the notes are moronic, but you have to hear them out. You have to consider them. You have to do the ones you can live with. The best way to get your way is to get them on your side.

10. Don’t overwork your staff. This goes back to being organized. There’s only so many times you can whip the same horse. Your people are dedicated to the show but not to the extent you are. They’re not getting any back end deals. They’re not getting interviewed by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. This show may be your whole life but they want to go home.

11. Praise your staff. If they turn in a good draft, let ‘em know. This sounds like such a simple thing but you’d be surprised how many showrunners don’t do it.

12. Respect the crew and learn their names. When you walk onto the set, greet them.  They’re not just a bunch of convicts picking up litter along the side of the expressway. They’re dedicated highly-trained professionals who never get any recognition. Take the time to know who they are.

13. Take care of yourself. On the weekends get plenty of sleep. Eat right. Relax. It’s a long haul.

14. Never make your staff work late nights if you’re not there with them.

15. Don’t get so caught up in the work and the grind that you forget to have some fun. You’re running your own show. That’s a rare opportunity. Enjoy it… or at least as much as you can before you have to put out another fire.

16. A good way to completely destroy any morale is to automatically put your name on every script and share credit with every writer. You may win in arbitration but you lose your troops. The trade off is not worth it. You’re getting paid more money than anybody already. Let your writers receive full credit and residuals.

17. Accept responsibility. When things go wrong (and they will) ultimately you’re the one in charge. Not saying you can’t make changes in personnel if someone doesn’t work out, but don’t be constantly playing the blame game. You’re the showrunner. You take the hit.

18. On the other hand, don’t take all the credit. When ideas and scripts and jokes come from other people, publicly acknowledge their contribution.

The bottom line is a showrunner has to develop people skills and management skills as well as writing skills. You may have enormous talent but that will do you no good when your staff firebombs your car with you in it. Good luck. The work is hard but the rewards are enormous.  Wasn't Natalie gorgeous? 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Don't cry!

I don’t watch many reality shows. Very few. Almost none. I used to watch more scouring for ridiculous ones to review and make fun of.  Sadly, there are less of those. Where are the new PREGNANT IN HEELS or INSTANT BEAUTY PAGEANTS?

One of the shows I do watch is SHARK TANK. I like it, and my friend Harry’s wife works on it. But one thing drives me crazy.

Is it possible to do a reality show without having someone cry? It’s gotten beyond ridiculous. In the early days of television there was a game show called QUEEN FOR A DAY. Women would compete for the saddest sob stories. It was one icky tear-jerker after another. Finally, a winner was crowned “Queen for a Day.” Destitute housewives were given washer-dryers and blenders.

Those contestants were amateurs compared to today. People have complete breakdowns over cake decorating. Men wail like little girls if they’re not selected for dates.

Clearly, most or all of it is for show. America is a sucker for weep porn. The problem, of course, is that reality has become the “Genre that Cried Wolf.” There’s so much emotion that none of it lands. And the result is that these shows all seem manipulative, bogus, and quite frankly insulting.

I now hate ANYONE who cries on a reality show. More than that I fast-forward through them. So if you go on one of these programs and want a total stranger to hate you just start weeping on national television.

Come on, you people. Man up. It’s just a blender. A fucking blender.