Thursday, October 19, 2017


A reader asked about “Potterisms.” These are the colorful expressions, often substitutes for curse words that Colonel Potter would utter on MASH. “Horse hockey!” “Buffalo Bagels!”

The reader wondered about the derivation, how we came up with them, etc.

Sherman Potter (played to perfection by Harry Morgan) arrived at MASH a season before we did. Larry Gelbart was still running the writing room.

I can’t say this for absolute certain, but I’m pretty willing to bet that “Potterisms” were the brainchild of the brilliant writing team of Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum.

Fritzell & Greenbaum had a storied career in TV comedy writing. They wrote 24 episodes of MASH (including the famous one where Colonel Blake is shot down), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They wrote on dozens of shows from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW to SANFORD & SONS, THE REAL McCOYS, all the way back to MR. PEEPERS (which they also created) in the early ‘50s.

When they wrote for MASH they were in their fifties, doing anywhere from six to eight scripts a season. In those days you could still make a nice living as a freelance writer. And in those days writers with experience were actually valued.

Like I said, they were brilliant. Very funny, terrific craftsmen (there was not a wasted word and their scripts always had a definite flow – we learned a lot from them), and something else: they had a real love for Americana. Their scripts were always brimming with great expressions, period slang, and colorful words. I’ve noticed that filmmaker Alexander Payne also has that appreciation for Americana as is evidenced in his work.

Fritzell & Greenbaum also had this love for scatological humor and once a script they’d slip in a shit joke – but always a sneaky network-acceptable shit joke. Klinger would remove a rectal thermometer from a patient and say, “It’s 102 in Pittsburgh.” Or: “Prune juice – greatest invention since the Gatling Gun.”

So when Potter had to say “bullshit” I suspect it was Jim & Ev who came up with “Buffalo Bagels.” And remember, a lot of those euphemisms were not made up – they were existing expressions. “Road Apples!” “Cow Pies!”

Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart realized those expressions could be part of his character and ran with it. And again, those Potterisms for the most part, were actual slang expressions (even if they hadn’t been used since World War I). Potter might praise something by calling it “the Oyster’s Ice-skates.” Now I don’t even know for sure what that means but it sure sounds funny.

When David Isaacs and I were at the helm we used Potterisms sparingly, partly because a lot of those expressions were from before our time. After we left the show Potterisms just became expressions with different words to say the same phrase. My favorite was “Curiosity K.O.’ed the feline.”

But if you’re a MASH fan, I invite you watch episodes from seasons 2-6 and seek out the ones penned by Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum. Next to Larry Gelbart, no one wrote the show better. And that includes me and my partner.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

EP42: Charlize Theron and Other Dreams

Ken talks to writer Avin Das about the Charlize Theron sex tape that he wrote and co-starred in for Funny Or Die.  He also reveals what it’s really like to be a production assistant on a hit situation comedy.  Plus, Ken shares some of his more wacky insane dreams. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

A "me too" story I've never shared

Here’s a sexual harassment story where a woman stood up.

This was the first season of CHEERS. We had a script where Diane enters the Miss Boston Barmaid of the Year competition. “No Contest” was the title. Remember that one?   It was actually a very pro-feminist story with Diane entering solely to publicly denounce the competition for objectifying women. The script was written by Heide Perlman and was terrific.

After a writer completes their second draft the staff does whatever rewriting is necessary to arrive at a script for production. That script gets circulated to the network, cast, studio, and various departments of the crew (including casting director).

Glen & Les Charles and David Isaacs and I did the polish for the production draft. We changed very little. Like I said, Heide had crushed it.

We inadvertently left in most of the stage direction as well. I say “inadvertently” because there was one line that slipped through that shouldn’t have. In describing one of the barmaids, Heide, with tongue-in-cheek, wrote she had “state-of-the-art tits.” It’s the kind of thing we all do – write little jokes in the stage direction as an incentive for people to read them. Lots of readers see a block of direction and just skip it. Anyway, no big deal. These jokes are for the room and generally removed before the production draft.

Well, that one stayed in. For all I know it was my fault. I might have been proofing that day and missed it. Who can remember?  It was 35 years ago.   

Anyway, the following day we have our casting session for barmaids. A number of actresses come in and audition. It’s a typical session. Me and David, Glen and Les, Jim Burrows, and our casting director are in the room.

After several candidates, one young woman walks in, points to her breasts and says, “Okay, boys, here they are.” We were all taken a little aback. That was a strange thing to do. We said, “What?” And then she pointed to them again, “Here are my state-of-the-art tits!”

Needless to say, we all were mortified and wanted to crawl into a hole.

We all apologized profusely (and no, I don’t remember if we hired her or not – at the end of the day it was still acting ability). But I think back now and really applaud her (no, I don’t remember her name either). That was an inappropriate description in the script and I suspect the other actresses weren’t too keen on it either but this one stood up.

Obviously there was no disrespect intended, but it just points out the number of indignities – intentionally or unintentionally – that women face.  I've always prided myself on my conduct but even I contributed to a "me too" moment.  Hopefully things will change… even a little. We guys need to be more sensitive to this… and proof better.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I love Bill Nighy

In a recent article, actor Bill Nighy (you’ve seen him in everything) called out actors who didn’t bother to memorize their lines. Not only that, he said it’s become fashionable for actors to show up on a set or rehearsal hall unprepared. The bullshit rationalization is that knowing your lines ahead of time stifles discovery. Nighy says:

“Rehearsal is not the enemy of spontaneity. The idea is the process is you say the lines over and over and over and over and over again until you can give the impression that you’ve never said them before and it’s just occurred to you. That’s the gig.”

Thank you, Mr. Nighy.

Just this weekend I wrote a post on how the CHEERS cast got lazy towards the end. But that’s after ten years and over 200 episodes. I don’t condone it, but I can understand that the show had become a grind and the actors were looking for ways to deal with it. Also, scripts on CHEERS changed practically daily so it really made no sense to commit them to memory until after the third day of rehearsal (day three of a five day production week).

But if you’re an actor in a play, or you have scenes in a movie – and the script is locked – it’s your job to be off-book as soon as possible.

Yes, it’s hard. It’s one of the reasons I never became an actor (that and lack of talent). I marvel at people who can memorize two hours of dialogue word for word. I don’t know how they do it. But as Mr. Nighy says, “It’s the gig.”

I must say this is a real pet peeve of mine. I work very hard on my scripts, shaping every single line. Lines are worded very specifically to get the biggest laughs. There is also a rhythm and flow. All that goes away when the actors are halting, groping for lines.

Just know that the time you take to learn a line is probably a third of the time it took for me to write that line.

So when I hear, “well, I feel restricted by knowing the words, my spontaneity is cut off by memorizing the script” what I really hear is “I’m just lazy and unprofessional.”

And aside from how disrespectful that is to the writer, it’s also a slap in the face to the other actors who have taken the time to learn their parts. Not to mention the director.

Look, as an actor so much in this industry is out of your control. It’s such a subjective business. Unfair, infuriating, illogical. But the only thing you can control is your professionalism. Believe me, I find professionalism a way more impressive "special skill" than ballroom dancing.

Oh, and by the way, postscript on CHEERS: Remember in the series finale there’s that wonderful lengthy scene of everyone sitting around the bar late at night reflecting on their lives? Beautifully written by Glen & Les Charles and directed by James Burrows, that was all filmed in one take. Every actor had their lines down perfectly.

It can be done. And since it can, why not do it? Even if it means bucking a fashionable trend.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"Did you watch SNL this week?"

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

In other words it’s become a “thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Playing the part of Sam Malone today: Ignatz Gloogdeberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Two krazy rabbits

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

On to the results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday (the 13th) Questions

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

mbk starts us off:

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

What's your take on Episodes?

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

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

Cliff asks:

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

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

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

Kyle Burress wonders:

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, from YEKIMI:

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

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

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

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