Thursday, August 31, 2017

Transitioning from TV writing to features

Earl Pomerantz, in his fine blog you should be reading, has an interesting theory as to why so few TV writers seem to make a successful transition to screenwriters. Since I’ve been lucky enough to have dabbled in both he wondered if I might have any thoughts on the subject.

First off, I don’t disagree with anything he said. So there goes the heated debate right there. Sorry. We’d be terrible panelists on CROSSFIRE.

Earl contends that screenwriting is a different animal, with different requirements and rhythms. (I believe he’s also focusing on sitcom writers.) He gives a great example. Learning badminton then playing tennis. One is all wrist; the other is all arm. (In my case it’s all whiff so the transition was easy.)

If I’m interpreting Earl correctly, he goes on to say that the more you’ve mastered one genre the harder it is to switch to another. He also knocks Seth MacFarlane so again, we are on the same page.

I would just add to Earl’s argument although the business keeps changing so fast that by the time you get to the end of this post it might change again and everything I’ve said is obsolete.

But I believe a major factor is that TV writers have it better in TV and know it.

A little history: Back in my day (the Pleistocene Era), it was extremely hard to jump from sitcoms to features. TV writers were considered second-class citizens. David Isaacs and I wanted to make that jump and movie producers and execs would demand a spec screenplay even though we were the head writers of MASH. If you can write MASH you can probably handle HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO. But they insisted on a spec. And the spec better not be “sitcommy.” (They better not see you using your wrist.) So we did that, wrote a very dark comedy about a Kent State-type student riot and that led to feature work.

But now (or at least two paragraphs ago), there is less of a divide between the TV and feature side. Partly because specs are no longer just writing samples. You can actually sell them. If someone pays you $500,000 for your screenplay you’re officially in the club. Also, TV has risen in stature to where the quality is often better than what you see on the silver screen. Even the differing screen sizes are no longer a factor. People watch way more movies on TV and computer screens than in the local Cineplex. Supergirl is just as large as Superman.

So there’s more acceptance.

But also more frustration. In TV you serve it while it’s hot. In movies everything takes forever. And then generally doesn’t happen. People spend an entire career writing movies that never get made. How exasperating is that?

For as little respect as TV writers get, feature scribes get less. In TV you can rise to the level of showrunner. You can set the creative vision. You make final decisions. In movies it will always be the director and/or producer. Even if you’re Aaron Sorkin (who now is directing).

Here’s the reality of Hollywood screenwriting: You do a lot of pro bono work these days. Movie pitches and rewrite pitches aren’t just an overview of the idea. It’s now the whole movie, outlined in detail with jokes, trailer moments, and even proposals for the poster and slogan. Writers toil for months for free just to get a turn at bat. And if you get an assignment you’re in for years of notes and endless rewrites. Most of these end with your script being taken away from you and rewritten by someone else. Earl mentions how the Charles Brothers only did one feature. That’s because (a) someone rewrote their draft, (b) the director changed things, and (c) they wrote other screenplays that never got made. Once you’ve created CHEERS you don’t need that aggravation. (And by the way, their draft of PUSHING TIN was only 1000% better than what made it to the screen.)

So I think a big reason TV writers don’t transition to films is because it’s a step down (despite the Oscar hype). There is more money, buyers, production, and control in television. And you don’t have to spend two years of your life writing BAD MOMS 7.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

EP35: The Fascinating Lives of Natalie Wood & Ann Jillian

Two former child stars who made it to adult stardom.  Ken discusses the life and mysterious death of Natalie Wood and then interviews his childhood friend Ann Jillian who went on to star on sitcoms, Broadway, movies, and Bob Hope USO tours.   Her life is so fascinating they even made a movie-of-the-week about it. THE ANN JILLIAN STORY was the top rated MOW of 1988, and coincidentally, she starred in it. Ann has hilarious and courageous stories. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Happy Birthday Annie


Two days after you were born we took you home and I did a video.   With you on my lap I said, "When you grow up and watch this and you're in therapy four days a week, just know I don't apologize.  I did the best I can."

Well, despite my parenting you have blossomed into a spectacular young woman.  You make me happy and proud every day.  Hell, I even like the guy you chose to marry.   How incredibly rare is that??? And I'm warming to the cat.

Happy Birthday.  Now it's your turn to make America laugh.  They could use it.



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

It's all about the shoes

I was listening to a podcast recently (remarkably, not my own), and they were interviewing a comedy writer I know and greatly respect, Claudia Lonow. She has created four sitcoms that got on the air, all with women leads.

She was discussing the pilot development process and made a very interesting statement. I’m paraphrasing, but they were talking about network interference and notes. She said, “If you really want to get a lot of notes, write a pilot with a woman lead.

Her point was that male leads can get away with a lot more than female leads. Men can slide by with all kinds of boorish, stupid behavior but women doing a lot of the same things are viewed as unlikable and unacceptable.

I hadn’t thought about it, but she’s probably right.

When David Isaacs, Robin Schiff, and I created ALMOST PERFECT our star was a strong female lead (Nancy Travis) and we received very few notes. But that was a different era. It was also when MURPHY BROWN ruled the ratings. Female leads in sitcoms back then were generally stand up comedians. Good luck telling Roseanne or Brett Butler what to do without getting a Coke can thrown at your head (or being called an Asshat).

But as I look at the current landscape, Claudia might well have a point. At least on the network side. I sincerely doubt the writers of VEEP or KIMMY SCHMIDT or BROAD CITY get many notes on their leads’ behavior. And even on the network side, there’s MOM but that’s a Chuck Lorre show. CBS is not going to poke that bear. (And I suspect the show is better for it.)  

In terms of character likeability, I do think there’s a double-standard. A male boss can be firm and viewed as an effective leader. A comparable woman boss is a bitch. I’ve observed focus groups where members had strong dislikes for women characters because they didn’t like their shoes.

It’s really bullshit and it’s really unfair.   And these networks are just hurting themselves.   Remember that KIMMY SCHMIDT was originally developed for NBC with Tina Fey involved and they still passed on it.  

You do see a lot more network sitcoms these days with male leads. Claudia said that one network mentioned they also developed a number of shows with female leads but they didn’t make the grade. It was those damn shoes!

Here’s what networks don’t understand: Audiences may like Matt LeBlanc but they love Lucy.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Who directs what?

Again, thanks to all for your lovely sentiments.  I'll let you in on a little secret.  Knowing this was about to come, I prepared a few blog posts in advance.  So today I have a Friday Question that became an entire post.

Melissa Agar wonders:

I recently happened to catch an episode of Cheers written by Levine and Isaacs and directed by James Burrows. I thought to myself, "Wow. This is a Rolls Royce episode." Which leads to my question ... what sort of input is had in determining who directs whose episodes or who writes whose episodes? Do writers have the opportunity to request a specific director or vice versa? Or is it all just luck of the draw and who is available?

First of all, that’s very nice of you to say. No, generally for writers, it’s the luck of the draw. For multi-camera shows, a lot of directors will do an entire season. Partly, this is because there are fewer multi-camera shows and directors no longer have the luxury of variety – do a few episodes of one show then do a few of another. Now they cling to every assignment they can.

Single-camera shows are different. They require several days of preparation time so any one director can’t direct an entire season. At best you have two who alternate. Multi-camera shows don’t need that prep time.  One guy can do all 22. 

But let’s say there are multiple directors on the schedule (either single or multi-cam). They’re slotted based on availability and assigned shows (by the showrunner usually) based on what scripts are available and if there are some special requirements.   It's not like baseball where certain pitchers have certain catchers. 

If we had a real complicated show on FRASIER, like a car crashing through a restaurant, we tried to assign that episode to Jim Burrows. If possible. If Jimmy wasn’t slated to direct an episode for two months and we weren’t that far ahead on scripts we would assign it to one of the other directors.

When I was showrunning ALMOST PERFECT I directed an episode that had a huge pie fight. It was crazy complicated, but I was scheduled to direct the final episode of the season and as it turned out that was the one. So I did it to myself.

It’s also the luck of the draw for the director because if you’re a freelancer and you happen to draw a weak script it can unfortunately reflect badly on you. (And happily, the reverse is true. You get a great script you look like Billy Wilder.)

But David Isaacs and I have been extremely lucky. We’ve had Jim Burrows direct shows of ours on four different series. And of the 40 CHEERS we wrote, I think Jimmy directed 39 of them. Jimmy also directed an episode we wrote and acted in – THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES. He even got decent performances out of a couple of knuckleheads who had no idea what they were doing.

And finally, besides Jim Burrows we’ve been truly blessed to have had scripts of ours directed by Alan Alda, David Lee, Jerry Zaks, Scott Ellis, Andy Ackerman, Gene Reynolds, Danny DeVito, Burt Metcalfe, and numerous others. All of them made us better than we are.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

My deepest gratitude

Thank you to all who reached out with your condolences and prayers. I am deeply touched by your comments. Dad would have loved them too. Once I showed him how to bookmark my blog he read it often.  Thanks again. 

Cliff Levine

Sad to report that my father, Cliff Levine passed away Friday night.  He was 89, almost 90.  He was a remarkable man who leaves behind cherished memories, many terrific accomplishments, and three generations of family that love him and will be forever grateful that he was in our lives. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The CHEERS Russian Poetry Corner

This is one of my most requested blogpost.  It's a scene of ours from a first season episode of CHEERS called "Any Friend of Diane's".  I posted this a few years ago and still get requests for it.  Diane’s college chum Rebecca (played by Diane runner-up Julia Duffy) comes to visit the bar. Imagine a sitcom today being allowed to do this run.


Diane and Rebecca are chattering away in French. They laugh together. Rebecca’s laugh turns into a sob, and she buries her face in her hands.

Rebecca, something’s wrong.

You always saw through my façade of gaiety… Elliot and I have parted.

No. You and Elliot? Rebecca, you two were together forever.

I know. I know. It all started when Elliot got his doctorate in ichthyology. His eye began to wander, and the next thing I knew he had taken up with a young student he met on a squid expedition.

A doctorate changes a man. Rebecca, there’ll be others. In the meantime you have your work.

You’d think so. I used to find enormous comfort translating Russian poetry. But no more. Even when I went back over my favorite, Karashnikov’s “Another Christmas of Agony”, it failed to soothe me. (RECITING) “Mischa the dog lies dead in the bog. The children cry over the carcass. The mist chokes my heart, covers the mourners. At least this year we eat.”

Well...If that didn’t pick you up, I’m at a virtual loss.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Questions

Yes, it’s time for Friday Questions. Leave yours in the comment section. Thanks.

Bob Sassone is up first.

I can't watch older sitcoms on TV anymore. The stations either chop them up so much to add commercials that it drives me crazy (I know every Dick Van Dyke Show episode by heart and I know every line they take out) or they speed up the episode so much that the pacing is all wrong and the jokes don't land the same (very noticeable with Friends). Do the producers/studios have any say in what happens to their shows when they're syndicated?

To my knowledge, no. Even independent producers like Norman Lear have undoubtedly sold their companies. I imagine most of the producers of those shows are just happy they’re still on anywhere. Especially if there are still royalties involved.

Thank goodness a lot of these series are also available in their original form on streaming services or DVD’s. MASH in particular. Some of those episodes are so hacked up they now make absolutely no sense.

Andrew Ross is next.

Would you recommend any kind of voice coaching if you wanted to give sports announcing/PA announcing a try? I mean in a "do the job better" sense, not "make it easier to get a job" sense.

Absolutely. Breath control, speaking from your diaphragm, diction, inflections – these are all important. Unless you’re born with Jon Miller’s voice a little coaching couldn’t hurt.

Kirk asks:

The Grammar Police made me think of a Friday question. There's no omniscient third person narrating a situation comedy. The dialogue should be true to the character speaking it, not Strunk and White. Good grammar might be expected from Diane Chambers, but not necessarily Carla Tortelli. When writing dialogue, did you ever PURPOSELY have a character split an infinitive, dangle a participle, etc?

My apologies for any grammar errors contained in this comment.

When I write dialogue all I’m interested in is that it sound conversational and true to that character. My English teachers may hate me for this, but I don’t give a shit about grammar unless, like you say, it’s a character such as Diane Chambers or Frasier Crane who do speak the Queen’s English.

People generally don’t talk in perfectly formed sentences. They talk in sentence fragments, they drop pronouns, let sentences trail out, employ crutches (you know), stammer, use slang, go off on tangents, don’t finish their thoughts, etc.

Good dialogue has a flow. It sounds natural – like real people speaking.

I always say to young writers, go to food courts in malls and just listen to conversations around you. What expressions do people use? What words do they leave out? Are there “literally” crutches they use over and over? Ideally, every character in your script should have his or her own distinctive voice. Dialogue helps define them. Let ‘em dangle all the participles they want.

From Mitchell Hundred re my post earlier this month about claiming to be God during my Clippers PA announcer audition:

Are there any other kinds of job interviews at which introducing yourself as God would be (in your opinion) a good idea?

Yes, head of any committee investigating and/or impeaching Trump.

And finally, from jcs:

LA is the entertainment capital of the world. There must be thousands of tourists that visit the city every day. The metro area has a population of 13 million. Why do you think is it so tough to fill theatres in LA with paying customers? Why isn't there a thriving theatre scene when there are actors, writers and producers galore?

I think because movies and television are the two dominant industries here. There are very few major theater venues and they usually feature roadshow versions of past Broadway hits. By the time HELLO DOLLY arrives in Los Angeles Roseanne will be playing Dolly.

And the small theater scene is taking a beating from these new Equity rules. So a lot of the really fun, daring, experimental, original theater productions that several years ago would have found homes, today are cost prohibitive. It’s a shame.

The LA TIMES rarely even reviews theater in LA anymore. They have one theater critic and most of the time he reviews New York shows that will never even get to Los Angeles. A typical Friday in the LA Times Calendar section will include fourteen movie reviews (many for obscure films that are playing in one or two art theaters) and zero theater reviews. Not one. So is it any wonder the theater scene is an afterthought?

Like I said, it’s too bad. There are some wonderfully gifted playwrights, directors, and stage actors in Los Angeles. They deserve a larger audience than they’re receiving. Live theater is special. Even in the entertainment capital of the world.  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

RIP Jay Thomas

So sorry to hear of the passing of Jay Thomas.  He was 69.   All of the articles announcing his death point to his roles on TV, notably as Eddie LeBec on CHEERS.   My partner, David Isaacs and I created that character.  And I suggested Jay to our casting agent.    We were friends from radio. 

The articles focus primarily on his TV roles (MURPHY BROWN, RAY DONOVAN, LOVE AND WAR, etc.)   His annual David Letterman Show appearance is also highlighted.  And as an afterthought, his radio work.  They mention he had a show on Sirius/XM and was a longtime "DJ." 

But for me, as good as his acting ability was, his real genius was on the radio.  Extremely funny, original, smart -- Jay could really connect with his listeners.  He was fearless, even controversial at times.  Some believe he was radio's first shock jock.  But he understood that that made for good theater. 

Jay was a sensation in the '70s at WAYS, Charlotte and moved on to New York at WXLO.  That's where I first met him.  Later he did mornings at POWER 106 in Los Angeles.

Off the air, he was a terrific guy.  Not as brash; just as funny.   You wanted to hang around this guy. 

Very few disc jockeys are able to make the transition from radio to a successful acting career.  Bob Crane, Dick Van Dyke, Robert David Hall, Rick Moranis, a few others.   It required talent and a lot of work.   Jay threw himself completely into any endeavor he undertook.  I always admired him for that.

69 is too young.  Jay Thomas had way too much to accomplish yet.  I will really miss him. 

Ten second commercials

Because commercial television isn’t cluttered enough, now come :10 second spots. Oh boy! Who doesn’t want to be bombarded with ads?

There used to be a local channel in Los Angeles, KCOP that was so schlock that they would do five minute blocks of :15 second spots for local advertisers. And the same announcer voiced them all. So it was one furniture store to Thai restaurant to motor home repair to nail salon. So that’s like fifty commercials in a row. Good luck to the poor schmuck whose spot ran 43rd. And the station would run this format four times an hour. That’s now two hundred commercials. No FRANCIS THE TALKING MULE movie is worth sitting through all that clutter.

But of course :10 second commercials are cheaper to produce and networks charge less for :10 second spots. In this day and age when advertisers are just happy when they can get the product name to register, :10 second spots offer an attractive option. Only downside is it drives the viewer nuts and they may take it out on you and your product, but hey, why quibble?

If :10 second spots are here to stay (and I imagine they are), it seems to me there are two ways to approach them. Allow me a moment to put on my Don Draper hat and drink heavily. There’s obviously no time for story telling. There’s barely enough time to say “Buy this fucking thing!”

So I suggest one of the following approaches:

Have a strong catchy jingle and a strong visible logo. Works for radio. If they can sing your product’s name you’ve got ‘em. If your product stands out on the shelf you’ve got a big leg up.

The other way is to do what Amazon has done with their Alexa campaign. They made 100 well produced fun :10 second spots. So they eliminate audience burn out. There will always be a few you’re seeing for the first time. And since they’re entertaining you’re less likely to grab the remote the second you see one come on. Best of all, you’ll remember the product.

Here’s an example of a few Alexa spots.

Of course, for :10 seconds to work you have to see many of them before they’ll register. Sometimes I wonder if seeing a :30 second ad five times is way more effective that a :10 second ad fifteen times. I’ll have to Alexa.

Alexa? Alexa? Where are you?

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

EP34: The TV Pilot from Hell

Ken shares the saga of a pilot he and his partner once did for NBC where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.  Spectacularly.    If comedy is “tragedy plus time” I think even Levine & Isaacs can now laugh at this folly. You will too. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Norman Lear just sold a show

God bless, Norman Lear. 95 and he’s still selling projects. Recently it was announced that he and Peter Tolan (a terrific writer) sold a pilot idea to NBC called GUESS WHO DIED. This apparently has been a pet project of Norman's for years. It’s about a life in a retirement village.

I have no doubt that the script is wonderful. And better than most of the scripts that will make up its competition.

Whatever that’s worth.

At the TCA confab earlier this summer, NBC Entertainment President, Jennifer Salke, talked about embracing diversity, even ageism. She then pointed to older actors on her network. John Lithgow on TRIAL & ERROR, Andrea Martin on GREAT NEWS, one or two others. They have a reality show in the works with established name actors backpacking and shit. “We are celebrating people of all ages, “ Ms. Salke said.

GREAT! Looking more closely that pretty much means one very well established TV star per show (with the rest of the casts all young), but hey, we’ll take what we can get. I’m sure Tony Danza will be back at some point.

But I look at the reality of the situation and the chances for Norman & Peter’s pilot. I know this is cynical, and believe me, nothing would please me more than to eat crow on this one and ultimately say that I was completely wrong. And if I am wrong I will not just admit it; I’ll headline it.

But for all the “celebration,” here’s what I think is going to happen: Come next May when NBC is huddled behind closed-doors trying to cobble together their fall schedule, they’re going to say: “We want to put a retirement village on the air every week? Not a fucking chance.”

They will either pass, or if they want to make a big show of their commitment to diversity, they’ll give it a short order and burn it off in the summer when no one is watching like they did with CARMICHAEL.

Again, I so hope I’m wrong. I want this project to be given a real chance. I know that broadcasting networks are desperately trying to program to Millennials, ignoring the fact that that’s the one demographic that has no interest in broadcast networks. So maybe programming to the people who actually would watch NBC is a good idea. And it is… until May.

By the way, do you know one of the most popular sitcoms among Millennials is GOLDEN GIRLS? Yep. It’s not just embracing diversity; it’s smart programming.

Norman, I hope your show goes, it continues for several seasons, and you and your show both celebrate “100” at the same time.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


THE ATOMIC BLONDE is like if Guy Rithie made a John le Carre film. Let’s be clear: the only reason to see this movie is to watch Charlize Theron kick more ass than Wonder Woman. You can’t be a hot actress these days without doing one of these action flicks. Scarlett Johansson is quite adept at it. Keira Knightley has beaten the shit out of her share of guys.

If only they did this back in the golden age of Hollywood. I would love to see Audrey Hepburn flipping 300 pound guys over her shoulder, taking out thirty Ninjas with just her purse, barrel-rolling out of cars, and shooting seventeen bad guys in the face with a semi-automatic while still looking fetching in her sun hat. The only problem would be the soundtrack. Whereas THE ATOMIC BLONDE had a rocking soundtrack of ‘80s hits; watching Audrey pummel twenty body builder/border patrol officers to the strains of Jerome Kern wouldn’t have the same effect.

The plot of ATOMIC BLONDE was confusing. Not only did I zone out on who everybody was, but I couldn’t keep straight when Charlize was in East or West Berlin. Screenplay by Kurt Johnstad. In the graphic novel from whence this came you could always flip back a page or two. But again, that’s not why you see this movie.

The summer of 2017 is clearly the summer of stylish action movies. BABY DRIVER and now ATOMIC BLONDE. They’re both sheer adrenaline rushes with super-slick camera work, well-choreographed action sequences, and a soundtrack right off the K-TEL GREATEST HITS collection.

ATOMIC director David Leitch is clearly going for a commercial hit. There’s no pretense that this is a sophisticated espionage film. Academy members -- don’t expect “for your consideration” screeners of this one. When cars aren’t crashing and bones aren’t crushing, Charlize is dressing in some outfit more suited for the dominatrix in EATING RAOUL and taking off her clothes entirely. There’s a very hot girl-on-girl scene with Charlize and the equally naked Sofia Boutella. (Now I’m thinking back again to the golden age – Audrey and Natalie Wood???  A cinephile can dream.)

THE ATOMIC BLONDE is a romp. Highly recommended for anyone who has road rage or can’t watch porno at work. There are also a couple of laughs in it. It’s James Bond with heels and all the wigs left over from THE AMERICANS. The only thing more fun would be THE ATOMIC BRUNETTE with Audrey Hepburn.

Monday, August 21, 2017

"The following is a public service..."

Following up on yesterday's post about having to read news on the radio...

Back in ancient times when there was this thing called “radio,” real human beings were hired to announce on the air 24 hours a day. Disc jockeys were live on the weekends. Even on small town stations. I know. It’s hard to fathom.

Yes, weekend overnight jocks made minimum wage, which back then was like $2.50 an hour, but radio stations could even afford THAT. I can hear you out there – “You’re talking CRAZY talk.”

The money was crap but the experience you got was invaluable. And being on the radio was fun. You played the hits, you goofed around, you stole albums.

But working the all-night shift was a killer. I did it for about three months in enchanting San Bernardino.

There are lots of reasons to want off the 12 a.m.-6 a.m. shift. Lack of sleep is ten of them. But there are more.

The FCC existed at that time to protect the public, not do lobbyists' bidding. Radio station licenses were a privilege that could be revoked at any time. Stations had to continually prove that they were broadcasting in the public’s best interest. Part of that meant a commitment to news and public service. Do you think Top 40 “more music” stations WANTED to break for five-minute newscasts every hour? God no. But they had to. They were serving the community not just squeezing every last advertiser dollar out of it.

Contrast that to today where 95% of the radio stations have automated or syndicated programs and syndicated news. A station that say in Omaha used to have a staff of forty (counting management and engineering), now has a staff of five. And three of them are still making minimum wage. But the good news is you can hear Ryan Seacrest wherever you go.

But even in those halcyon days stations would not employ newsmen to work the all-night shift. So the jock had to do that.  See yesterday's post. 

Usually the full-time disc jockey worked six days a week. For the overnight show that meant Saturday night/Sunday morning. Another mandate from the FCC was that you needed to air a certain number of hours of “public service” programming. These were usually throwaway shows organizations would send to the station. "Join the Peace Corps Show."   Religious programming also counted so some stations were smart enough to charge various church groups for these syndicated preachapaloozas.

And the stations would bury this crap in time slots when nobody listened. That meant early Sunday morning. So for my Saturday night/Sunday morning shift I played music from midnight to three then ran these half-hour public service programs from three until six. I don’t have to tell you how exciting that was. Especially to a sleep-deprived person.

But I dutifully threaded the 7” reel-to-reel tapes and followed the program log, never of course paying any attention to them. But one caught my ear. It was a preacher and I noticed his sermons were decidedly racist. I mentioned this to the program director who basically said, no one is listening and the station is making money. It was not worth creating an issue out of it.

Still, it really rankled me. I had to fill out the program log verifying that the programs on it were aired. This was a legal document and I could go to jail for fraud if I falsified it.

But it occurred to me, I didn’t have to play it at the correct speed. So I slowed that show waaaaaay down. The guy sounded like a moron. Even if someone was out there listening, two minutes of this would have driven him to the push button.

So that’s what I did for three months. Guess how many complaints the station received. That’s right. NONE. And the “Inland Empire” was spared this bigoted moron’s message. There are so many advantages to having a live body on the air.

NOTE:  For those that don't know, whenever I can't find an appropriate photo to go along with the post I feature one of Natalie Wood.  Coming up in a couple of weeks on my podcast I do a whole commentary on my obsession with Natalie Wood (healthy I assure you) and the many questions surrounding her death.  Stay tuned.  Meanwhile, this week is my interview with David Isaacs.  Well worth checking out.  Click on the big gold arrow.  Thanks.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

RIP Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis died today.  He was 91.  As a reader pointed out, so close to Labor Day and his longtime telethon.

I have such mixed feelings about Jerry Lewis.  I'm too young to really appreciate Martin & Lewis (his comedy act with Dean Martin).  To be honest, I never got it.   But at the time people were absolutely in stitches.

Some of his movies were funny.  And the dripping faux sincerity of his telethons were, I must admit, quite entertaining.  One minute he's overcome by emotion and the next he's playing his retarded character for laughs.   How do you take a man seriously who once said without a trace of irony:  "My greatest wish for you is that you have show business people as your friends."?

I've written about Jerry before.  I've had issues.   

But there's no question he was a giant.  For many many decades.  And yes his passing is certainly a loss -- my heart goes out to his family.  But it also means the end of an era in show business -- that Vegas nightclub, tuxedo, booze-fueled brand of razzle dazzle entertainment.   I will miss it.  And I'll miss Jerry too.   He did have show business people as his friends so I guess he led a happy life.  

My short-lived career as a radio newsman

Here’s another chapter from my misguided radio career:

As a Top 40 disc jockey in the early ‘70s, I often had to fill multiple roles. In addition to humming the hits,  I was also the engineer on duty. I would have to take the transmitter readings every few hours. To qualify for that job I needed an FCC First Class Radio License. This required five weeks in a school in Glendale cramming five years of electronics courses into one month. The truth is if a transmitter ever did shut off we were fucked because I knew shit. But you couldn’t get a job as a DJ in these medium market stations unless you had your “first ticket” as the license was called.

My other job responsibility was being the newsman. Rock stations in San Bernardino and Bakersfield didn’t have “newsrooms.” News was a turn-off. The news would come on and half the audience hit the car button for another station. The only reason there were newscasts in the first place was because the FCC insisted on it.  I'll talk more about that tomorrow.

Most of the time I had the evening or late night shifts. I was more your “teen jock”. Translation: higher voice and mildly inappropriate jokes. So another of my responsibilities was reading a five minute newscast every few hours.

The news came over teletype machines. Two minutes before scheduled newscasts I would quickly scan the copy as  the teletype machine coughed it out, I would grab a few stories, and go back in to the control room and read it cold over the air. This is called “rip and read.” I can only imagine the number of Vietnamese names I butchered. The newscasts had a format that everyone followed and that included signing off with your name. Since I didn’t want to use my disc jockey name I reported the news as Barely Read (a name I stole from fellow jock Tom Maule).

When I finally made it to KYA, San Francisco in 1974 I was assigned the 10 pm-2 am shift. And much to my surprise, I was expected to do a ten minute newscast at 1:20 every morning. Now this station did have a news department but the last man left at midnight.

At the time I was using the air-name Beaver Cleaver. I figured, I couldn’t call myself that when I read the news. That’s hardly dignified. And this was a major market heritage radio station.  So at 1:00 each morning I looked to see who Tom Snyder’s guest was on THE TOMORROW SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER on NBC and that’s who delivered KYA People Power News at 1:20. So it could be Charles Manson, it could be George Will, it could be Soupy Sales. It could be Betsy Palmer.

One night while delivering the news on KYA I got the hiccups. I decided to just keep going as if nothing was wrong. My engineer (yes, we had engineers there) was doubled-over in laughter. Let’s be real -- I made a travesty of the news department.

Fortunately, no one was listening.

My favorite disc jockey-as-newsman story is this: A jock in San Bernardino was reading the news cold. He reported that the president of Bolivia had just died. Then he saw the name, which was a long tongue-twister. No way would he come close to pronouncing it correctly. So instead he said, “the president’s name is being withheld pending notification of his family.”

You gotta love the fun days of radio.

Tomorrow:  How I fucked up public service programming.  

This is Barely Read reporting.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Only in LA

It's not enough that in Hollywood there is the Museum of Broken Relationships.  Now comes word that there is a pop up O.J. Simpson museum in Chinatown.  Complete with a replica Bronco. 

Here's the full story.


It's open until August 22nd. 

If it has memorabilia that he thinks is his, maybe he could threaten the curator and end up back in prison for another ten years.  One can only hope. 

I do live in a nutty town. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Questions

More Friday Questions to launch you into the weekend.

Craig leads off:

Have you got any advice for people living outside of the US on how to break in to TV writing?

That’s a tough one, especially if you don’t plan to come to the US until you’ve sold something. Producers and agents and showrunners and studios want access to the writer. 

There are contests and fellowships you can enter. Professors you might have or working professionals in whatever country you’re in might have stateside connections. A little networking can ease things.

But I’ll be honest: it’s hard to break in even if you live under the Hollywood sign. So to live out of the country, that’s a Herculean task.

Best of luck.

Edward asks:

Can you do a "Friday Questions" podcast as a regular week-ending episode?

The problem is length. I try to hold down my weekly podcast to 40 minutes or less. Ideally, they go a half-hour. So depending on the topic or guest, I often eat up 30 minutes very quickly. And some weeks I have commercials. So I like to squeeze in listener questions when I can. But that’s usually when that week’s content takes up only about 20 minutes.

I will, however, try to squeeze in more listener questions in the future.

Thanks for listening. For everyone else, just click the big gold arrow below the masthead and the podcast comes right up. Please subscribe.

From Ben K:

What happens when a particularly memorable line or catch phrase from a show becomes famous on its own? Is there ever a battle for credit, given that the listed writer(s) of an episode often don't come up with every line?

Normally not. There’s no royalty in a catch-phrase.  Plus, they become catch-phrases either over time or by accident.  No one sets out to "create" a catch-phrase.  

That said, the big catch-phrase from HAPPY DAYS was “sit on it.” Two different writers claim they coined it – Bob Brunner and Mark Rothman.

I was never on the show. I have no idea who’s right.

I’m not a fan of catch-phrases on sitcoms. They make the show sound very formulaic. And the writers twist stories and dialogue around in order to get to them.

I like stories that come out of characters and laughs that stem from attitude and behavior. I never want to feel I have to shoehorn catch-phrases into my dialogue.

There was a show a few years ago called HAPPY ENDINGS that became just a string of catch-phrases. It got to the point where you could write their scripts with “Mad Libs.”

And finally, from Jack Terwilliger:

Friday Question: Preposition proposition: Why do television writers say they write "on a show" rather than "for a show"?

Because that’s just the accepted expression. But you’re right. We could just as easily say “for” instead of “on.”

Either makes sense. As opposed to in baseball when announcers say a hitter is 1 for 3 “on” the night, which is grammatically incorrect. In that case it should be “for the night.”

But getting back to your example: hey, this is a town where we “do” lunch not “have” lunch. So nothing makes sense.

I hope that clears it up for you.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 17, 2017


My podcast this week is an extended interview with my writing partner, David Isaacs. I’ve mentioned him many times in this blog and now he gets a chance to defend himself. You can hear it just by clicking the big gold arrow above. (And I’d love it if you could subscribe and maybe gimme a 5-star review. Those attract ears I understand. Thank you. I need ears.)

Most of the episode is devoted to our partnership – the dynamics, the process, advantages, etc. So today I thought I would add to that discussion.

The entertainment industry can be brutal – especially to writers. It’s much easier navigating those shark-infested waters when you can say “it’s us against them” as opposed to “it’s me against them.”

David and I have written together for 44 years. I owe him a dollar or he owes me a dollar. We’re constantly asking the other for a buck to pay the valet or tip the waiter. At this point we don’t know which one of us has been stiffed (but I think it’s me).

It’s lonely writing by yourself.

Especially for comedy, it’s great to have someone whose opinion you trust tell you something is funny. Laughter doesn’t do well in a vacuum.

You always have someone to give you a ride when you’re having your car repaired.

One issue that needs to be worked out is credit – who gets top billing? In our partnership I originally got top billing because I called David and said I’m going to write a script, do you want to write it with me? But after awhile I made this offer – switch the order every year. David said keep things as is – the credit pops on and off the screen so fast; at least this way his parents and family knew where to look to see his name.

I know it’s an old joke but it’s true. One of us will be walking on the lot and a studio executive or passing agent will say, “Hi boys.”

Make sure your partner has similar work habits. David and I are both too anal to procrastinate when we have a script due. We keep regular work hours, both show up on time, and would rather turn in scripts early than late. If you have one partner who likes to work from 9-5 while the other doesn’t get going until 9 PM, you’ve got a problem.

Along those same lines, both partners should be comfortable in their working environment. David and I both like writing in quiet offices or in one of our homes. If I had a partner who could only work at the food court of the Farmers Market I would last maybe two days. But that’s me.

You find yourself constantly negotiating – for words even. I like characters saying “What?” when they hear something surprising. David is less fond of that. So he’ll pitch something and say, “I’ll give you a ‘what’ for this ‘you gotta be kidding.’” I don’t know about the dollar but I do know I’m owed one “what.”

If the partners’ strengths complement each other you both can grow and minimize your own weaknesses.

Finally, and most important, it helps to like the same sports teams. Probably the biggest test of our partnership was when the Dodgers and Yankees battled each other in three World Series. The fact that we survived that, we knew our partnership could withstand anything. (So in addition to a dollar and a “what,” David still owes me one championship.)

Enjoy the podcast and good luck with your partnership.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

EP33: Meeting, Writing, and Evolving w/ My Writing Partner, David Isaacs

Ken and David Isaacs discuss their longtime partnership, how it formed, their process and how it’s evolved over the years, hard lessons they had to learn, disagreements, triumphs, and many great writing tips. Ken & David wrote for some of the most iconic sitcoms of the last forty years.   Relive their journey.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Getting you ready for the Emmys

With the Emmys only a few weeks away I thought I'd get you in the mood early.  This is an episode from the second season of ALMOST PERFECT.   The story hinges around the Emmy ceremony. 

A couple of things to note:

There's an establishing shot of people arriving to the event.   We got it from ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT.  As luck would have it, I'm in the bottom corner for a couple of seconds.

I directed this episode and it was written by the wonderful Sue Herring (who left us way too soon). 

It was the last ALMOST PERFECT ever filmed.   We found out we were cancelled mid-week.  And yet everyone rallied and turned in great performances. 

It's one of my favorites. 

This is an example of a premise built on miscommunication.   The characters think one thing, but we the audience know something else.  So you get laughs from the dialog, not because jokes are being said, but through the misunderstanding.   Seemingly "straight" lines suddenly have two meanings.  And we laugh because we see how the characters are mis-interpreting the lines.  We know what the characters "think" they're saying and we also know how the lines are being perceived. 

This is one of those comic tropes that has been around since people wore togas.  But it works.  What it requires is setting up the misdirection -- finding a way to tell the audience what's going on but not the characters. 

To me a good sitcom will find as many different ways of making an audience laugh.  Not just zingers.  Not just set up/punch lines.  Not just pop culture references.  Not just irony. 

Yes, it's harder to break these stories, and they're a little bit more ambitious -- but for my money, they're worth it.   I wish more sitcoms today stretched themselves. 

See what you think. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Who's in the mood for a good rant?

I’m glad to know it’s not just me.

At first I thought my hearing was going. More and more now I’m having trouble deciphering what actors are saying on TV dramas. To my ear they’re mumbling.

I find myself rewinding and listening to speeches two or three times trying to glean at least the gist of what they’re saying. I should not have to worry about getting a stiff neck from craning while watching a TV show. But like I said, I wondered if it meant hearing loss. Did that deafening Who concert in 1969 finally come back to bite me? Was it watching that YouTube video of Roseanne mangling the National Anthem that did it?  (That video might explain any eyesight loss as well.) 

But lately other people have mentioned in conversation that they too are struggling with mush mouth actors. A few say they now watch shows with the closed caption feature turned on. There’s something wrong when you need subtitles for shows in your own language.

One of the reasons I never got into THE WIRE (yes, I know it’s supposed to be great) is that, in addition to being told I need to sit through season long slumps, I need to activate the closed captions. Sorry. Not worth my time and effort. There will be other great shows… spoken in my native tongue.

And the really annoying thing is that this mumbling usually comes when explaining a key plot point. So without it I’m confused for the next ten minutes.

Do directors and actors think this makes their shows more realistic or layered? For INTERSTELLAR, director Christopher Nolan purposely drowned out some dialogue with music, saying it was an artistic choice to make the dialogue “impressionistic.” What the fuck? Stop trying to be a visionary and start being a storyteller.

In comedy, I am a stickler for actors clearly saying their lines. If the audience doesn’t hear the line they don’t get the joke. Why sacrifice good laughs because the actor thinks he’s Don Corleone?

When I direct theater pieces I always go to the back row and make sure I can plainly hear the dialogue. The actors have to project. Even when the script calls for them to whisper.

What I don’t understand is this: TV dramas today are lavish affairs. The production values are extraordinary. Even series on cable channels I’ve never heard of and most people can’t get. All that money is spent on scope and special effects and eye-popping cinematography and it doesn’t mean shit if the audience can’t make out the dialogue. Again, what’s the most important aspect of any dramatic endeavor – storytelling. Anything that enhances the storytelling is a good thing. Anything that detracts is bad.

So if I may use the written equivalent of shouting:


Monday, August 14, 2017

Glen Campbell

Nice to see the outpouring of affection for Glen Campbell (who died last week). You never know which passing celebrities will get a flood of Social Media love and which are met with meh.

I would have thought Glen Campbell was merely a memory in baby boomers’ lives, but it was heartening to see he was quite beloved.

I was always a fan. And coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago I put together a playlist for my iPhone of Glen Campbell songs and was reminded of just how good he was. He had that easy accessible voice and could convey heartache in a way that went right to your kishkas. Those Jimmy Webb songs from the late ‘60s were the perfect vehicle for him. (But boy was I disappointed when I finally saw Galveston for myself. Who misses oil wells on the beach?)

Campbell also had his own variety show on CBS in the late ‘60s. It was originally a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers but did so well he got his own slot. He had a real warmth and could really connect with the audience. He also had the sense to know his strengths and weaknesses. A physical comedian he was not so he wisely avoided the cringeworthy kind of sketches you saw on most variety shows. (Sonny was not funny.)

And besides all of that, he was a remarkable guitarist. Prior to his singing success he was a session man on the Wrecking Crew – a collection of the very best studio musicians in the world that backed most hit records in the ‘60s.

Oh, and he was a Beach Boy. Well, a substitute Beach Boy. But sometimes when Brian Wilson didn’t want to tour Glen Campbell would trade his spurs for flip flops.

He’s had Alzheimer’s for years. There’s that documentary about him that’s very hard to watch. But for the most part he’s been out of the public eye for several decades. And in a time where you’re forgotten before you can say “Taylor Hicks” Glen Campbell has happily remained on peoples’ radar.

Now that we all have Spotify and Pandora and other services that allow us to access any music we want, treat yourself to a little Glen Campbell today. But don’t be fooled by Galveston.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Dumbest Friday Questions I've received

Sometimes I get bizarre questions so I thought today I’d try to answer some of them.  Names have been withheld to protect the embarrassed. These were actual questions submitted.  NOTE:  I post these in the spirit of fun, not to be mean-spirited (which is why I'm not identifying anyone).  I love your questions and answer them every week.  But I do get some goofy ones and people are always asking me to share some of those.  My answers are tongue-in-cheek.   So please, just have fun with this.  

Question one:

I've noticed that when a character is writing something he (or she) is usually left handed. I don't know why I notice this or why it bothers me. My question is, is this my imagination?

No, you’re correct. Research has shown that audiences prefer left handed penmanship. So if the actor is right handed they just flip the film. Congratulations on being the first viewer to ever spot this phenomenon.

Question two:

Have there been porn parodies of any of the shows you've worked and, if so, have you seen them?

Yes, but I haven’t seen them. I prefer pornographic parodies of procedurals. My favorites are BONE and CS&M.

Question three:

I was at a casino recently and saw a "Cheers" slot machine. You getting anything from that?

I’m getting as much as I’m making on the porn CHEERS.

Question four:

As a baseball announcer maybe you can answer this – is there an inning where not a lot happens and you can go to the bathroom or concession stands without missing too much?

Any inning the Philadelphia Phillies bat.

Question five:

When is the best time to pitch a show? Time of year, time of day, day of the week?

Summer. 11:13 AM. Second Tuesday of the month.

Question six:

Do you like killing characters?

What writer doesn’t?

Question seven:

It seems alot of people that have recurring roles on series have been popping up as guest stars on other series (Peter/Neil from White Collar on Body of Proof/The New Normal as an example). I never really noticed that much before, is there any reason why it seems to be happening now?

Yes.  Actors like to eat.

Question eight:

Ken, I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the drop in sex scenes in mainstream Hollywood movies. I'm curious as to your thoughts on this trend.

Until I get royalties on the porn version of CHEERS, I’m against it.

Question nine:

An Anyday Question for you:
Have you ever written into a script someone breaking an object during a scene? A glass window, chair, or whatever?

Yes, but unlike killing actors, I get no real satisfaction out of it.

Question ten (this is a FRASIER question… I assume):

Did Eddie have actors that he preferred working with?

Kelsey Grammer because they both went to Julliard. Eddie, however, graduated.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments file. Woof.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Do I know how to read women or what?

A few years ago I went to see a rather unusual play called TAMARA. The theater is actually a mansion and the audience follows around the various cast members as they perform their scenes simultaneously in different rooms. The idea is to attend with a few people and each person follows someone else. Then at intermission you get together and catch everybody up. I know. It’s a lot of work. And the story is a complicated mess. But it’s an experience and they serve chocolate covered strawberries at intermission.

So I’m following the cute little chambermaid (me and about nineteen other guys). In one scene she goes up to her room to get ready for a date. We follow her and stand against the walls.

She turns to me and starts talking to herself, excited about this upcoming rendezvous. Bad writing but that’s not the point. She’s imagining being in his strong embrace and how she’ll melt in his arms. And all the while she’s looking directly into my eyes.

The vibe is clear. This chick likes me. The suggestive dialogue, her bedroom eyes locked onto mine. There’s no doubt. For whatever reason I turn her on. I had just had a pilot not picked up and was feeling somewhat inadequate so to have this smoking hot girl pick me out of a room full of men really boosted my bruised ego. The hell with CBS! I was a stud!

So I start making eyes back at her, letting her know the Fonz has received the message.

And then I realized…

I’m standing in front of a mirror. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking through me. She was just playing the scene as if I weren’t even there. Talk about major shrinkage.

For the rest of the night I followed the Fascist Colonel.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Questions

It’s the dog days of hot August Friday Questions.

Richard Anderson starts us off:

I'm thinking about writing a pilot based on an existing movie. Would this be a good idea, or is it better to just stick to writing an original pilot?

By all means, write something original. Why take a chance of writing something you don’t have the rights for? Plus, the reason for the exercise is so that producers and agents can see what you do with original material. Otherwise, just write a spec of an existing show.

But on the off-chance that you write a pilot that someone actually wants to buy, why risk the deal blowing up because the movie rights holder won’t cooperate?

Similarly, an anonymous reader (please include your name) asks:

What do you think about doing a spec script of an older show as a possible reboot? Two years ago it would have been unthinkable to spec "Will & Grace," and now it's coming back in the fall. Similarly, "Arrested Development" has two more seasons coming from Netflix. In this day and age, when a show is never truly dead, is anything ever really off the table?

Don’t do it. If you’re going to spec a show, pick one that is current, on the rise, somewhat well known, and you feel you could do the best job on.

Don’t get cute. Don’t do “stunts.” Even if the vintage show you’re specing comes back, they’ll now be going in a direction you’re not privy to.

Get noticed for your writing, not the novelty of the script.

From Ted O'Hara:

I was reading the original MASH novel, and Hawkeye and Duke Forrest arrive at the 4077th in the snow. We never saw snow on the series, probably due to the expense. It made me wonder - were there any story ideas you would have liked to have done that were too expensive to shoot?

I think we did do snow for a Christmas episode. Yes, having the capability of showing snow would have opened up a new avenue for stories, but the practicality and cost would have been insane. It was bad enough we sometimes made the actors do cold shows. They would go out to the Malibu ranch in 110 degree temperatures and have to don parkas and stand over fire barrels. I don’t think we could keep a snow-cone in tact for twelve seconds under those conditions.

Linda asks:

Was just going thru your Wiki page

It seems longer and detailed now. I remember a year or so ago, it was very short. I don’t know how this wiki page editing works, but did they ask you to send more details or just someone researched your profile and updated.

Is it complete and accurate now or is something still missing?

How do you feel when you first saw your own wiki page? Quite exhilarating I bet.

I’m not sure how Wikipedia works, but I believe people are not allowed to edit their own page. So for the most part I have no idea who is updating my page (or why).

No, it’s not complete, but at least it’s more accurate now than it has been in the past. They had my birthdate wrong, had me as location manager of JURASSIC PARK, and dialogue coach for FLIPPER (I kid you not).

Yes, it’s kind of cool to know the page is out there. But I hardly ever look at it. Cooler still is that I’m now in WHO’S WHO IN AMERICA. That’s the kind of thing that would really get me laid if I were single.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Give comedy its due

How’s this for a premise of a play or movie? A single-mother abandons her young son and her brother is forced to raise him. Her brother works in a soul-sucking job that he hates more than anything.

So he quits his job and tries to lead an unorthodox life, all the while teaching his young nephew the joys and absurdities of life. All the while, he and the boy become very attached to each other.

But this nonconformity lifestyle attracts the attention of social services who feel the unemployed man is providing an unhealthy environment and threatens to take the child away from him. So in order to keep the child the man has to not only get his job back but eat shit in the process.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

It actually IS. It’s a comedy.

The play (and later movie) is called A THOUSAND CLOWNS. It was written by Herb Gardner. It also happens to be my all-time favorite play. It’s from the early ‘60s but practically everything in it is universal and relevant today.

I’m always rankled by “comedy” being considered a second-class citizen to drama. And the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I get a note that starts with, “Well, yeah it’s funny but…”

Do you know how hard it is to make something really funny?

And how much harder it is to make a dramatic point but through humor? How many movies use the crutch of soundtrack music to create the dramatic tone they wish to set? A jilted lover walks down rain slicked city streets late at night while “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” by Sinatra plays. How much more difficult is it to create that same mood but with dialogue that isn’t on-the-nose dramatic?

Through comedy you can make dramatic points in a way that doesn’t seem off-putting. You can get tough points across easier and reach more people. Yes, it’s a tightrope act, but that’s why comedies should get more respect and not less.

As a writer I’m always searching for the truth. The best drama and the funniest comedy comes out of the truth. We laugh because we identify with it, we recognize it, we’ve experienced it ourselves. Comedy writers may not win Tonys but we do win hearts. And that’s good enough… although we also want Tonys. Or at least nominations.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

EP32: Why I REALLY became a writer

As we approach the Emmys, Ken salutes the iconic DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and how it inspired him to become a writer.   Hint: Being in puberty at the time helped.  You’ll get the inside story on the making of the show (and learn things you didn’t know), Ken’s personal recollections, how he wrote an episode and turned it in 50 years too late, interviews, and Laura Petrie herself discusses her sex life with Rob. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The Hollywood Walk of Faded Fame

People who live in LA rarely go to Hollywood – specifically Hollywood Blvd. Yeah, there’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the big mall at Hollywood & Highland. But by and large it’s very touristy and there’s no one I want to see at the Wax Museum.

So for the first time in forever, I spent a lot of time on Hollywood Blvd. last week since my play was running there.  (The Stella Adler Theatre was a terrific space!)  Usually, the only time I go that neighborhood is to eat at Musso & Frank’s (an LA institution where local TV newscasters congregated between their 6:00 and 11:00 newscasts to get roaring drunk).

Hollywood Blvd. was quite the scene. Spiderman dancing with Hari Krishnas. Former Trump cabinet members selling Maps to Stars Home. Polynesian-themed street bars, and T-shirt emporiums on every corner. Meanwhile, the one truly classy attraction is gone. The Frederick’s of Hollywood Museum of Bras is no longer.

Since it’s the summer, the street was packed pretty much day and night. Millennials, gang members, hookers, and young families.

One of the big attractions of course is the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Various celebrities have their names emblazoned on stars on the sidewalk. There are more than 2600 of them. Getting a star is a big deal. There’s a gala ceremony. Several of my disc jockey friends received stars so I attended their unveilings. The local news covers it, fans come out, it’s fun.

Sometimes it’s confusing when two stars have the same name. The night Michael Jackson died there were huge wreaths and candles and shrines placed upon his star – except it was the star of Michael Jackson, the local radio talkshow host.

But the idea is you’d walk down the street, see the names, and be reminded of them. And that was true 20 or 30 years ago. But now when I look at the population trudging down the street and read the names of the stars under their feet I realize these people have no clue who 95% of these people are. Some are to be expected – there was Dr. Frank Baxter. Who???? He hosted TV science specials. Ken Niles. Who?????? An offstage announcer like Johnny Olsen. Who????? (Okay, we can play this game forever.) But some were major stars like Red Skelton who have also faded into the mist of time.

It’s now the Hollywood Walk of Faded Fame. And this is what struck me the most: people are no longer even looking down at these plaques. For years you’d see tourists gazing down to the street, taking photos of some of the stars, etc. And now, this once-main-attraction is an afterthought. I don’t know what made me feel older – knowing who Ann Blyth was or being the only person reading the names.

It's just another reminder that nothing lasts forever.  People who were so big, so influential, so popular eventually drift into obscurity.    I noticed that Adam Levine has a star.   For now. 

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

"This is GOD!"

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post.

It’s from Liggie:

FQ based on your podcast with Randy Thomas (yes, I'm behind on all of my podcasts). If you wanted to be a public address announcer for a sports team, what skills and qualifications would you and she recommend?

First off, really know the sport. Know the rules, know the foul calls, and be able to anticipate things like player substitutions and time outs.

Next you have to be enthusiastic. You’re a little bit like a warm-up guy. It’s up to you to get the crowd revved up when you introduce the starting line-ups.

You must be able to read commercial copy well. You’ll be announcing upcoming events and promotions. You can’t stumble all over them. This is also not the place to goof on the copy.

Diction is important. Speaking clearly is important. You must sound like the consummate professional.

A good voice helps, but it’s not mandatory. It’s not even mandatory anymore that you be a guy. The San Francisco Giants have a woman PA announcer, Renel Brooks-Moon, and she’s terrific.

I once applied to be a sports team public address announcer. This was in the ‘80s when I was sitting in the stands learning to do baseball and basketball play-by-play. There was an opening for the Clippers. So I applied, more as a lark.

Six or seven of us were told to report to the Sports Arena (then-home of the Clippers). That afternoon there was nothing on the arena floor. No basketball or hockey configuration. And the lower level stands had been removed. It was just a giant concrete slab of a floor. Off to one side was a little card table with a microphone.

Ralph Lawler, the team’s longtime radio/TV announcer (who should be in the basketball Hall of Fame) was there along with a couple of team officials. They went way up into the upper deck somewhere to listen.

We were instructed to announce starting line-ups and read several pieces of commercial copy.

Since I don’t have the classic announcer’s voice I figured I had no shot.

So when it was my time to audition I sat down at the mic and started by saying: “This is GOD! And I have to say, some of the things you people are doing lately is really pissing me off!” It sounded hilarious swirling and echoing around this cavernous concrete shell.  I was amused anyway. Then I did the line-ups, copy, etc.

When the auditions were over, Ralph and the team officials asked if I’d be interested in the job? I was blown away. I said yes, but my only conflict was that I couldn’t work Thursday nights. That was the CHEERS rewrite night and I was committed to that. Unfortunately, they played a fair number of games on Thursday night so I had to turn down the gig. But like I said, I was gobsmacked that they even asked me.

Now I can’t say I recommend that approach, but it did work for me.

Good luck. And drive home safely.

Monday, August 07, 2017

"Oh wow! It's in COLOR!"

This is one of those posts that my older readers will probably appreciate more than you Millennials. Although it might be interesting to see whether it’s something you can relate to. Don’t feel bad if it isn’t.

Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s practically everybody owned black-and-white TV’s. There were a few isolated cases of folks who owned early color TV’s but that’s like people today owning home IMAX theatres. They were always distant cousins you’d see maybe once every five years. And the color was always weird – purple faces, green horses – or maybe I just had an early acid trip.

By the mid ‘60s more viewers were splurging on color television, the quality of the picture was improving considerably, and more shows started broadcasting in color.

When your family finally got its first color TV it was a revelation. The whole family would gather and gasp in amazement at variety shows where wholesome choral groups would prance around in colorful sweaters holding colorful balloons. Or we’d watch THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY and marvel at otters playing in the bright wilderness.

Today, with HD and Blu-Ray and new systems that are a step-up from even those, we’ve become totally blasé. The Rose Parade where you can count the pedals – yawn. Football games where blades of grass are defined – “the Dallas Cowboys again? Christ. What else is on?”

Hey, don’t feel bad. I do it too. Time and technology have moved on.

But recently I received the box set of THE FUGITIVE. This was a dramatic series from the ‘60s that was quite popular at the time. Its finale was the most watched TV show ever (until the MASH finale). For me it’s fun because it was shot in Los Angeles and I get to see lots of locations I sort of remember as a kid. And you see amazing guest stars like Robert Duvall pop up every other week.

So my wife and I have been binging on THE FUGITIVE. Happily, a lot of episodes still hold up.

The series went four seasons. The first three were in black-and-white, and then for its final season it converted to color.

For the past several weeks we’ve been watching the black-and-white episodes and recently we began season four. And it was just like in the ‘60s. We both were so excited watching the first few episodes. “Oh wow! It’s in COLOR! Look at how pretty those Indian blankets are! Hey, the credits are now in yellow!”

The great fun was having that experience again – the excitement of seeing something for the first time. And it was an added treat because the experience was totally unexpected.

It’s getting harder and harder to have that feeling today. Innovations are arriving at a dizzying speed. Technical miracles we now just take for granted. That’s all great but… part of me really does miss the “oh wow” factor. Even if the colors were still just a little off.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Now you can talk like a real sitcom writer!

You gotta know the lingo. Sitcom writing rooms have their own terms and expressions and if you ever plan on being in one (either by choice or force) you might want to know a few of them. I gave you one earlier this week, "Hey Mae!"  Here are others.

Callbacks -- Doing a joke based on something already mentioned in the scene.

Swinging in on a rope -- A side character enters the screen, delivers a joke, then leaves. We used to do that a lot with Carla on CHEERS. Sam and Diane are having a discussion. She swings in, takes a shot at Diane, and keeps moving.

Button – Final joke of a scene.

Blow -- Same as button but sounds more “street”.

Pipe – Exposition. We had a character on ALMOST PERFECT whose basic function was to come into the room and deliver pipe. So we named her Piper.   She eventually quit.

Clam -- Overused joke.

Sheboygan – A joke too over-the-top.

B story -- A subplot. Often ensemble shows resort to these to give cast members not involved in the main story something to do in the show and keep them off the writers' backs.

Beats – events that occur in a scene.

House number -- Supposedly from the Norman Lear days. Pitching an idea or joke that’s more of an example than the actual pitch you intend to go in the script. You use it to preface your pitch. It’s a good disclaimer in case everyone in the room thinks it’s a stupid idea and you’re an idiot.

Savers -- Damage control jokes right after your real joke pitch dies a horrible death. It was Johnny Carson's best friend.

Captain Obvious -- Pointing out a problem that even the craft services guy could identify.

Grammar police -- Writers whose only contribution in rewrites is correcting grammar. You want to dangle their participle over a lake of snapping alligators.

Proofer’s Challenge – Some technicality you come across during a rewrite that’s not worth everyone’s time to settle. What food should be on the table? What was the year of that Superbowl? It’s left to the person proofing that night.

Throwing a bone -- Giving an actor a joke because he doesn’t have much to do in a scene or you don’t think he’s very good but have to service him anyway. Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take.