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.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Only two more performances

Only two more chances to see my new one act play, THE FUGITIVE at the Stella Adler Theatre in the very heart of Hollywood -- only one block away from "The Museum of Broken Relationships."  We're getting great crowds and if you're in LA, it's tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 7.  For tickets go here and use the promo code 410 for discount seats.

Above is my cast selfie.  Penny Peyser and Andy Goldberg.

Seriously, it's getting big laughs and the other plays on the program are also terrific.  A great night in the theatre and it'll cost you way less than seeing CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS at your local Cineplex. 

Even Oklahoma has talent

I generally don't watch competition talent shows anymore.  Once AMERICAN IDOL became SO YOU WANT TO BE IDINA MENZEL?  I got off the train.  And general talent shows often serve up acts to be used as cannon fodder for humiliation. 

Plus, I'm tired of the format.  Tired of the panelists desperately searching for new ways to say the same things over and over.   Even Howard Stern fell into that trap. 

Oh, and by nature I'm cynical -- especially when it comes to reality shows (since most are fake). 

But I have to say, this act melted even my dark heart.  Ventriloquism is becoming a lost art.  Longtime readers of this blog know how much I admired Shari Lewis, who could do things with her tongue that women earning a thousand dollars an hour couldn't do.   Years ago ventriloquists were in such high demand that one even had a national radio show (Edgar Bergen -- Candice's dad).   Think about the absurdity of that for a moment.   That's like a radio show where a guy does card tricks. 

But I digress...

Recently on AMERICA'S GOT TALENT a 12 year-old girl from Oklahoma did an amazing ventriloquist act.  So much so that I thought I'd share it. 

I predict big things for Darci Lynne.  She's such a remarkable ventriloquist that someday I could see her even getting her own podcast.


Friday, August 04, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions for August begins now.

Okay, not RIGHT now.  First a quick plug.  My one act play, THE FUGITIVE runs this weekend only at the Short + Sweet Festival in Hollywood.  Opening night was great.  Would love to see you sometime this weekend.  Here's where you go for discount tickets.   Just use the Promo Code 410.  There might also be some cheap tickets on Goldstar.    Okay, NOW we begin. 

WOKcreativeWritings gets us started with a question about the crew on a multi-camera show.

If you can make them laugh you know it is funny. How much do the writers take that run through into consideration for rewrites?

The camera crews come in on camera blocking day, which is the day before filming. The scripts are usually far along by then. So they come in with virgin eyes and give you your first real test of the material by objective sources.

I’ve found it helpful and reassuring if the crew laughs. And for the most part they’re a good indication of whether the audience will laugh.

But not always.

On the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW the crew didn’t laugh once. The cast and writers were completely stymied. Showrunners Jim Brooks and Alan Burns went to the cast before the show and apologized. They said it was too late to change anything now. Just go out there and give it your best and they vowed to give them new scenes later.

Then the audience came in. I was among them. And the show went through the roof. From the very first joke. It was a magic night, but you’d never know it from the crew that week.

From Ted:

Just started reading Joe Eszterhas's autobiography.

He says that Sharon Stone slept with him once as gratitude for giving her life's biggest hit. And he is extremely grateful to her for that. Ha Ha Haaa.....


My question: You are a writer whose writing has helped many actors and actresses. Has any one of them shown their gratitude to you in any way - not just "Thank You or Good Job" but say like a gift or something more ;)

Joan Plowright slept with me on ENCORE ENCORE. No, I’m just KIDDING.

Sorry to say that no, no hot actress, no young starlet, no promising ingénue, no hayseed from Indiana ever had sex with me. I hope I don’t lose your respect.

Longtime friend of the blog, Pat Reeder asks:

You wrote about a DJ's show that you thought was hilarious when you were younger, but you were stunned by how unfunny it was when you re-listened to it. I'm curious about the other side of that. What shows/performers did you think were hilarious when you were a child that still crack you up today? For instance, as a little kid, I loved the local reruns of Jay Ward cartoons (especially Bullwinkle, Super Chicken and Fractured Fairy Tales) and Homer & Jethro records. Recently, I revisited both (Ward on YouTube and a download collection of H&J rarities from the early '50s), and I still laughed my head off.

For radio, Dan Ingram, Dick Whittington, Lohman & Barkley, Don McKinnon, Gary Burbank, Gary Owens, and Larry Lujack still make me laugh when I hear tapes.

I too loved Jay Ward cartoons and still do. Same for Looney Tunes.

THE HONEYMOONERS, BILKO, and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW make me laugh as much today as they did when I was a kid.

And movie-wise, Laurel & Hardy kill me. Always have; always will.

For records, the albums of Jonathan & Darlene Edwards and Tom Lehrer.

Tom Asher has sort of a similar question:

Your personal DJ Mount Rushmore? Mine would be The Real Don Steele, Dan Ingram, George Michael, and Terry Young (all but Young were discovered via airchecks).

Well, first of all, Terry Young would be nowhere near my list. He’s a complete rip-off of Jackson Armstrong who would be on my list. If I had to pick only four they would be Jackson, Dan Ingram, the Real Don Steele, and Robert W. Morgan.

And finally, from Jim S:

Long way to get to my Friday question. I am sure that the writers thought they got some great stories out of the baby plot (I agree with my old editor). But they wrote themselves in a corner and never got out of it.

Have you ever gotten yourself into a situation like that -- wrote something and realized the consequences put you in a corner?

On ALMOST PERFECT we ended season one with Nancy Travis and her boyfriend pretty much declaring their love and commitment to each other. Then in the offseason we were told we had to fire the boyfriend. So now we had to figure a way to break them up in one episode. Here’s how we did it.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Today's guest blogger

Greetings! This is guest blogger John Barrymore. Yes, I’m related to Drew. For those few who don't know me (no more than three of you I’m sure), I was one of the great actors of the American stage. Marlon Brando couldn’t carry my makeup case. True, I died in 1942. But I felt the need to come back.

Well, actually this is my second time back. The first was to warn Drew not to do 50 FIRST DATES. Adam Sandler is poison! But she didn’t listen to me.

Maybe you will be smarter and heed my sage advice.

As I mentioned, I ruled Broadway and pretty much all theater. I had nothing to do with Vaudeville – that was for roustabouts who could juggle. But I was an ACTOR. How gifted? How brilliant? I played matinees when I was so stinking drunk I couldn’t stand up. Let’s see Ben Affleck do that! I would have been a war hero too except I had varicose veins and couldn’t serve. It was a great regret of mine so I played war heroes whenever I could. We all serve at the end.

So why have I returned? Why have I ventured back from the Great Beyond when I know my bar tab at Sardi's is still in the thousands? Because of all the roles I played for all the great playwrights of the time (their names escape me but they were big), I never got to act in a Ken Levine play. Some regrets you can’t just satisfy with four crates of champagne.

And now I see Kenneth's new ten-minute one act, THE FUGITIVE, has a part for someone my age (when I was that age). Some knave named Andy Goldberg got my role. Moreover, my leading lady would have been the enchanting Penny Peyser. I’ve loved her since her work on the second season of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW.

I read the play and found it to be delightful and hilarious. Way funnier than those 1913 comedies.   And only ten minutes. I could memorize a ten-minute play. Especially if I had a few months or Prohibition returned. Plus, I see it plays for four nights. So no matinees! I’d never have to worry about posting bail on time.

But you lucky people can see it this week. It’s part of the Hollywood Short + Sweet One Act festival at the Stella Adler Theatre. I don’t recall if I slept with her. I usually slept with women who had drinks named after them, not theatres.

Curtain rises at 8 tonight, Friday, and Saturday. And Sunday night at 7 (which to me IS a matinee). Ten ten-minute one acts and the audience gets to vote for their favorite. I can tell you, as the acknowledged greatest actor who ever lived (thus giving me “street cred” as you Visigoths would say), the one to vote for and definitely the one to see is THE FUGITIVE.

Discount tickets are available. Use the promo code 410 (whatever that means) and tickets are just $15. On Broadway today you can’t check in your top hat and ascot for that price. Go here for details and tickets. (I do know about the internet. In heaven we get the Cloud. It’s AT&T that still has shitty reception.)

So all I ask, besides buying tickets, and voting for Ken’s play, is that you picture me in the role Andy Goldberg got only because he’s alive. Thank you, and remember: don’t drink and sword-fight.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

EP31: Hanging out w/ Prince Charles & Writing Cheers "Bar Wars" Episodes

Ken touches on many aspects of his career – radio, writing, and baseball.   You’ll learn how he met Prince Charles and almost caused an international incident, the secrets of the CHEERS “Bar Wars” episodes, useless skills, and you’ll meet the “real” Brockmire.  Plus, another aircheck of Beaver Cleaver on TenQ.   Come for the stories, stay for the laughs. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

"Hey, Mae!"

Half-hour sitcoms always used to be two acts. The big act break would come in the middle. It was (hopefully) suspenseful enough to keep you through the commercial break. When the great Carl Reiner was running THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW he strove for “Hey Mae” act breaks. He defines that like this: You’re in the living room watching the show. Your wife is in the kitchen. And the act break is so compelling you yell, “Hey, Mae! You’ve gotta come in here and see this!”

Storytellingwise (yes, I know that’s not a real world), it was ideal. You want to build the first half of your show to a big crisis point, and then take the second act to resolve it.

Now sitcoms are by and large three acts. Instead of one big “Hey, Mae!” you get “Hmmmm?” and then “Hmmmmm?” again. A show now will set up the story in the first act and end on a problem. Act two will extend that problem and up the stakes a bit. And Act three will resolve the story. It’s not as clean, it’s not as elegant, it’s frankly not as dramatic.

But of course, networks don’t give a shit about that. They’ve added commercial content and are looking for the best ways to slip it in without causing tune-out.

And the changing of dramatic structure is not just exclusive to television. It’s happening in the theater as well.

For most of the 20th Century plays were in three acts. There would be two intermissions. And not just heavy dramatic pieces. Neil Simon plays like THE ODD COUPLE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK are three acts. For the money you spent for theater tickets you got your money’s worth. If curtains went up at 8:00, many of them went down at 11:30. That’s a long night, even for a light romp.

Not sure why but plays shifted to two acts – one intermission.

And now the trend is one long act, no intermission. So if the curtain goes up at 8:00 it now can come down at 9:30.

So why the change? What’s surprising to me is that theater owners seem to embrace this new trend. I would think they’d want an intermission to sell more orange drinks.

Some claim the new template is to prevent people from leaving at intermission. I get that, but the theater already has their money. Why do they really care whether they stay for the whole show or not?

Others claim that with this fast-paced blitz of media we have now, people have shorter attention spans and want to get to things much quicker. That’s true. You can’t fast forward a play you’re attending.

And there’s the cost of babysitters, which trust me, is a factor.

Interestingly, another factor is that people don’t smoke as much. They needed that intermission to light up. Or drink.

Theater owners say that after intermission people forget to once again turn off their cellphones and there are a lot more ring tones in the auditorium and a lot more texting going on. The lack of intermission nips that in the bud.

Some theatergoers complain that they need intermissions to use the bathroom. 90 minutes is too long a stretch. Yet, for a movie, 90 minutes is short.

The bottom line for all these new directives – the decisions are not being made to improve the shows creatively. They’re done for financial reasons, or other factors of convenience.

And times change. Big movies used to have intermissions. When Tarantino did that with THE HATEFUL 8 the audience thought it was self-indulgent and ridiculous. And the texts in the second act all said so.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

My new play opens THIS WEEK

Here's a great alternative to going to the movies.   Go to the theatre.  And see my new play.  

Okay, I'm plugging this a lot because it's appearing this week only.   As part of Week 3 of the Hollywood Short + Sweet Festival, my comedy one act, THE FUGITIVE starring Penny Peyser & Andy Goldberg opens Thursday night at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood.

And it's a competition.  So I want to stack the room with ringers!

It plays Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday at 7.   Discount tickets are available.  Just use the code 410 and tickets are only $15.  There are also some on Goldstar.   

Here's where you go for tickets.  

When I had my pilot reading (up on the podcast now -- just click the big gold button under the masthead) on July 20th I also had a preview of THE FUGITIVE.   It got bigger laughs than the pilot so I know I'm onto something.   (If you were at the pilot reading, feel free to chime in.) 

It's a nice comfortable theatre space and Spiderman is hanging out on the street.  So I hope to see you this weekend in Hollywood.   I could use your votes and there's no one in Russia willing to help me.  Thank you. 

GOING to see a movie these days

Commenting on my review of BABY DRIVER, reader ChipO wrote:

Everyone / anyone, and Ken, of course:
Our theater included a short, just before the studio screens, thank you message from the director, expressing his appreciation for us attending the movie at a big screen, which he stated was his intent in the creation of the film. I didn't find it smarmy, and I actually felt appreciated.
Did your theater have that? and, did it work for you?

Yes, ChipO, I saw it at the AMC Century City on a weeknight, and that was a lovely touch.


Tickets were $20.99 (before any processing charges), there was a charge for parking (even with validation), most of the exits were closed after 9:00 pm, one idiot who didn’t know what he was doing created a back up of ten cars, and then there was the theater experience itself.

Ridiculously expensive concessions. You could easily drop another $20 on popcorn and a drink. You know a barrel of popcorn costs the theater 3 cents (maybe 4 now with inflation). 

And God forbid you take your seat early because before previews you are bombarded with non-stop commercials. Many of them 15 seconds so it’s relentless. This is their “pre-show entertainment.” The “entertainment” is trailers for network television shows. I’m paying $40 to be subjected to constant commercials.

Then of course, there are the assholes who check their phones or text throughout the movie. At least we didn’t have a screaming baby at this showing.

Now the theater chains can claim they need to do all these things to stay alive and compete, but what they are doing is driving away their customers. When we can watch movies on demand or blu-ray or wait for cable and see them in the comfort of our own homes with decent pictures and sound (and popcorn that cost us only 3 cents), why “go” to the movies unless it’s something with scope?

To me this is a shame. I always enjoyed the movie experience – getting out of the house, seeing films with a crowd (especially comedies). But now, I’ll see a trailer and go “cable.” Ten/fifteen years ago I would have said, “Yeah, that looks kind of interesting. I’ll go see that.” I bet you do too.

Theater chains are mortgaging their futures. I loved that Edgar Wright had that little thank you. It was a nice gesture. But more people would see his film on the big screen if Edgar wasn’t preceded by 72 loud annoying intrusive commercials for gum, cars, and Cokes.

You've been reading my "rant."  Now enjoy the show!

Monday, July 31, 2017

The new TV season begins

With August almost here, network shows are going back into production. New shows are hoping for November pick ups, returning hits see the horizon as March.

And believe me, for the writing staff, March seems like five years away.

But hiatuses are done. Pre-production is done. Long lunches and leaving early is done. Here come the actors and it’s time for cameras to roll.

I have to say, honestly, when I was on staff of a show, by this point in the process I was ready to start production. It’s all prep until the cast and crew go to work. But once you get going you start making headway through the season.

And I never got over that excitement of writing something one day and seeing it performed the next. That’s one of the things I love most about television. As opposed to features where it can take years before your script gets made (if ever), in TV you serve it while it’s hot.

And you’re making something. Sets get built, actors get hired, stuff as a writer you envision in your head suddenly comes to life.

Of course, along with all the positives come production problems, actors balking at scripts, network notes, technical snafus, weather issues, and unforeseen emergencies. Who hasn’t had a set swept out to sea in a hurricane? We’ve all been there.

But for all the frustrations, I suggest everyone associated with a show going into production this week just stop, take a second, and appreciate the fact that you’re making a network television show and how cool is that? Enjoy every minute of it… that you can.

And one last thing: Just get to Thanksgiving. You can worry about the rest of the season later. Just get to Thanksgiving.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


When I was six I could draw Popeye. The only time I was popular in my entire sixteen-year school career was in the first grade because I would draw Popeye on paper towels for everybody. Unfortunately, by high school that no longer worked. Still, cartooning became a big hobby. By the time I was ten I was drawing entire comic books. Forget that nobody read them. (It’s kinda like when I started this blog.)

When I became a teenager I thought seriously about cartooning as a profession. The idea of having my own comic strip was very intoxicating. I’d seen articles about Charles Shulz (creator of PEANUTS) and it seemed like a great life. You have this nice art studio at home with large picture windows looking out at lush gardens or the beach or the Alps (depending on which side of the house your office was situated). You send in your panels to a big syndicate and voila, your comic strip appears in 300 newspapers. You’re right there with HI & LOIS and LITTLE LULU. Hollywood eventually comes calling, an animated Christmas special follows, a series, and then the Holy Grail – action figures!

But, I thought, there’s a problem. I would have to come up with seven jokes. Every week. Like clockwork. Who could possibly perform under that kind of unimaginable pressure?

Later I became a Top 40 disc jockey where I had to come up with a new joke every three minutes for four hours, six days a week. For way less than the artist of BLONDIE makes.

From there I gravitated towards sitcom writing. Here I was expected to come up with thirty or forty jokes a day for ten months.

Recently I picked up the comic section of a major newspaper. It had been years since I scanned the funny pages. Without naming names, I was shocked by how bad they were, how painfully unfunny they were. And these are the current cream of the crop? Getting a national syndicate to pick up your comic strip is like winning the lottery only with worse odds. So you’d expect each strip would kick ass.

I read THE NEW YORKER every week and their one-panel cartoons are always funny and sharp. Their batting average is probably .900. But that’s what you’d expect. THE NEW YORKER has the pick of cartoonists. Why doesn’t the same high standard apply to the comic strip world?

Or is it me? Or is the level of humor designed strictly for kids? There are a few exceptions but for the most part I was disappointed.

And then it occurred to me, back when I was such a fan of comic strips were they any better? Was BEETLE BAILEY really funny? I thought THE PATTY DUKE SHOW was hilarious back then, too.

What do you think about comic strips? Do you have a favorite? Has the quality of a favorite gone downhill over time? Is it lame comic strips and not the internet that is killing the newspaper industry?

Comic books were different. I favored the action hero genre – Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Isis (you know – the classics). They didn’t have to be funny. I had MAD magazine for that (although there's a rumor that MAD is folding.  That would be tragic.) 

But it seems to me daily comic strips could be better. Underground comics are. I know what you’re thinking – then why don’t I submit a comic strip? Are you kidding? That’s seven jokes a week.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Welcome to the Hall of Fame

This is a re-post from last year when I heard that Bill King had been selected to enter the broadcasting wing of the baseball Hall of Fame.   But today's the actual day so I figured, what the hell?  The man was one of my mentors... and idols. 

It is a well-deserved honor. Only wish it wasn’t posthumous. He died in 2005 after being a mainstay in the Northern California sports scene. He broadcast for the A’s and Giants, also was the Voice of the Raiders and the Warriors.

King was maybe the most articulate play-by-play man in the business. His use of vocabulary and descriptive terms were extraordinary. And it seemed effortless. He always had just the right word, just the right adjective right there at his fingertips.  At some point he must've swallowed a dictionary.

He also could call an exciting play in a way that was positively electrifying. I know he received this honor for baseball, but for money Bill King was the best radio football announcer of all-time. That’s right. ALL-TIME. His Raider calls were thrilling. Here’s just one example:

Bill King was truly an original. He sported a beard and with deep-set eyes and looked like the devil. But a sweeter, kinder, more generous man you’d never find. I’m honored to say he was one of my mentors. When I was learning to broadcast baseball he critiqued several of my tapes. I learned a lot from him. And I’m sure I’m just one of many.

He was also very eccentric. He lived on a houseboat in Sausalito. He only drove beat up used cars. When one would conk out he’d just buy another. He was a history buff and an opera buff. When he did television sports he wore a suit jacket, tie, and (out of camera range) shorts and flip-flops.

Bay Area sports fans have long cherished Bill King. So glad that the baseball world has finally recognized his contribution as well.

Ken Korach, who was Bill’s partner and is now the Voice of the A’s, wrote a terrific and loving book about Bill. I recommend it for anyone interested in reading about a larger-than-life personality and a time in professional sports when personalities, not generic-sounding interchangeable robots, were valued. Congratulations to Bill King. Only wish he were around to give the acceptance speech.  I'm sure it would be so eloquent you wouldn't think it was a sportscaster.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Friday Questions

Use sunscreen and read Friday Questions.

Brian begins this week:

What do you think of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"? I thought the first two seasons were pretty funny, but it’s getting repetitive in season 3.

I have not watched season 3 yet although I have seen seasons 1 and 2 and quite enjoyed them. I think the show is very funny. It’s a live cartoon. I appreciate that they strive to really make you laugh and the jokes come at you fast and furious. And there are even jokes in the margins. If I have a problem it’s that they will break reality at times to get a laugh and that undermines any honest emotional moment they try to have.

But I’m actually looking forward to season 3. I hope it’s as good, or at least as funny. 

It's still hard to believe NBC let that show get away. 

cale Blalock asks:

I'm just curious to when you do radio, how do you not feel like a nut talking to yourself?

Is there something I should know???

In my headphones I listen to the station coming in over the air. That allows me the sense that I’m actually broadcasting and there may just be, by some miracle, another person or two listening. But that’s on the radio.

When I record my podcast I could just be some nut talking to himself. Hopefully not. But that’s up to you. Please listen.   Just click the big gold arrow under the masthead.

From Shelly:

When you were nominated for an EMMY how was the experience? Were you expecting it? Who gave the news first. Share your happiest moment Ken.....

Back in those days the nominations weren’t broadcast. (Can you imagine???)  A press release was just sent out, and so at about noon we’d get a call either from the studio or our agent with the word that we were nominated. It was always a tremendous thrill but I think my two favorite times were our first nomination and last CHEERS nomination.

The first one was for the “Point of View” episode of MASH. I wasn't expecting it, but I was hoping.  When I got the word I remember calling my parents and girlfriend. My parents were very proud and my girlfriend ended up marrying me so I guess they all were suitably impressed.

Our last CHEERS nomination was in 1989 for an episode called “Death Takes a Holiday on Ice.” I was announcing minor league baseball for the Tidewater Tides the day the nominations were announced. We were in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to play the dreaded Paw Sox, and I got word while up in the broadcasting booth. Cheri Steinkellner, one of the showrunners, gave me the good news. As before, I was hoping but not expecting the nomination. 

I was able to then announce it over the air.  Anything to fill a pitching change. 

And when the players got word after the game I was given a huge round of applause when I entered the clubhouse. Not many Emmy nominees in the International League. That was a special moment.

By the way, we lost both of those Emmys.

And finally, from Richard:

Friday Question related to Actors.

Ken, have you ever helped a friend or an acquaintance or anybody who asked for your help, get a gig (at least a walk-on part) in one of the TV series that you have worked on?

Sure. I got my dad into a bunch of shows. And my trainer who is also an actor. I got a couple of radio buddies a couple of one-line parts. One time I got Rick Dees on CHEERS but he was cut out.

Also on CHEERS, although they had no lines, I got a few friends to sit at the bar so they could at least be on camera.

But that was in the good old days. Today networks are so controlling that you have to send them three choices for every part, even one-line parts, and they select. It’s ridiculous, not to mention insulting. My dad used to do great, and never once did he bring down CBS.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

For those who want tickets...

Here's the info.  It's a 10 minute one act festival and one of mine was selected.  Tickets available through Goldstar.   Hope to see you there.  Thanks.

My new play opens next week

If you're in LA, come see it.  
Thanks to Howard Hoffman for the great poster. 

Laughs per minute

Lots of interesting debate on last weekend’s post about laugh tracks (or more accurately, the lack of same). But I want to delve into a deeper aspect – how often are jokes necessary in a multi-camera sitcom? This speaks to the tone you set. As a showrunner are you looking for two laughs a minute or seven? Do they need to be big laughs or a steady stream of smaller laughs? It makes a big difference in the type of jokes you employ and the overall rhythm of the show.

On BIG BANG THEORY they go for LOTS of jokes. Almost every line has a joke or humorous turn. That’s one of the reasons the laugh track sounds more intrusive on that show – a studio audience can’t laugh at every single sentence.

A writer I know who worked on THE NEW ODD COUPLE for CBS said the network’s constant note was “more jokes, more jokes!” Maybe using the successful template of BIG BANG THEORY, or maybe just fear, but they believed if there wasn’t a laugh every few seconds the viewers would flee en masse.

Now you might say, what’s wrong with a laugh every few seconds? Nothing if you can do it. But that’s like saying “what’s wrong with hitting a home run every at-bat?” What often happens is that many of the jokes are forced or unfunny or both. It’s not natural for people to talk in punchlines. Especially if there’s nothing particularly comic going on. Two people are sitting at the kitchen table talking offers way less comic possibilities than two people with claustrophobia trapped in an elevator. And yet, if the same amount of jokes is required that kitchen scene is a holy bitch to write.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Shows with fewer jokes can be funnier than shows with more jokes.

It’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. Having a scene with three big genuine laughs is better than one with twenty zingers, even if a few of the zingers score.

On CHEERS and FRASIER and the shows I created, we were never afraid to go even an entire page without a joke if it meant setting the audience up for a big payoff. The risk of course is that the payoff better pay off, but the reward is so much greater. That’s when you get a real laugh from the audience. It also makes the show feel less stylized, less exhausting, and less desperate.

But I can tell you from experience, it’s hard when you’re watching a runthrough and thirty seconds go by without a laugh to resist the impulse to just pump in a few more jokes. The key is to remember the big picture. Does the episode have a good comic premise? Are the jokes you do have good enough? Is there a funnier way to tell the story?

Now some may say this creates sitcoms that are slow, and that today’s style is machine gun-fast. Maybe. But I would ask you to watch episodes from the first season of CHEERS. See how many jokes still evoke outright laughter thirty-five years after the shows were produced.

Also, laughs come not only from funny lines but from attitudes and pauses and reactions.

On my podcast right now is a reading of a failed pilot David Isaacs and I did for Fox in 2003. (You can hear it by just clicking the big gold button underneath the masthead.) We put a group of actors together on a stage, invited a small audience of about fifty, and recorded the results. So what you’re hearing is the actual laughter. There’s no laugh track, there’s no sweetening. As a result some lines and moments got better laughs than others. And that’s as it should be. There are lines in there that are cute asides and little zingers. They don’t get giant laughs. They aren’t meant to. There are other moments that depend on seeing the show on its feet and since we didn’t have that visual capability those laughs (costume jokes, reactions, throwing a cat out the window) aren’t as big as they would have been. So be it.

And happily, there are still a lot of real laughs in the reading and that tells me they were earned. See what you think?

What I didn’t include in the podcast was this: Earlier in the day I had a runthrough and recorded it just for protection. The cast did a terrific job. But the energy level in the room with a live audience added a real sparkle to the nighttime performance. It even got laughs we didn’t expect. Forget the number of jokes, that’s when you know you’re on to something.

In the cast photo of the SNOBS reading (from left to right): Harry Murphy, Bernadette Birkett, Oliver Muirhead, Mark Elliott, Dane Oliver, Suzanne Mayes, Jack Zullo, Barbara Howard. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

EP30: A TV Pilot for Your Listening Enjoyment

Listen to a failed TV pilot that Ken Levine & David Isaacs wrote and produced for Fox in 2003.  Now with a new (and better) cast, you’ll hear a reading of the pilot produced exclusively for this podcast.   Hear how the authors envisioned it and why they still think this is a damn funny show that would do well on TV today. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sam & Diane in the golden age of film

Here’s a fun Friday Question. And it’s one you can participate in. I’ll give my answers. You share yours.

Justin Russo asked:

Ken, with your affinity for classic films and stars of the era, I have a bit of a whimsical question for you. Were you to cast "Cheers" using classic stars, who would you choose for each character? I keep picturing Thelma Ritter as Carla and David Niven as Frasier.

Assuming that all are age appropriate…

Well, Thelma Ritter as Carla for sure. I wouldn’t go with David Niven myself. I might pick William Powell for Frasier.

For Sam, who else? Cary Grant. And for Diane? The young Katherine Hepburn.

The Coach might be Charles Coburn. (You younger readers might have to look up some of these people.) For Norm, how about Wallace Beery?

Cliff is a toughie. Edward G. Robinson perhaps?

The young “No Time For Sergeants” Paul Newman would make a good Woody.   Note:  This was the live TV play version of "No Time For Sergeants," and yes, it was Paul Newman not Andy Griffith who starred.

Vivien Leigh would be my Lilith. The young Shelley Winters would be my Rebecca.

Okay. Those are mine for now. But you may some better suggestions and I’ll go, “Yes. Of course.” So I reserve the right to change my mind. Blogger’s privilege.

Thanks much.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

BABY DRIVER: My review

BABY DRIVER is a fun summer movie thrill ride. Imagine FAST & FURIOUS but not idiotic and Quentin Tarantino without Samuel L. Jackson. Writer/director Edgar Wright has crafted a super stylish adrenaline rush that has the best soundtrack I’ve heard in years.

The car stunts (all 2,000 of them) seemed real. They may be CGI – today they’d use CGI if they were making MY DINNER WITH ANDRE -- but they felt real. I don’t know many cars that could handle those turns, but then “getaway” capabilities are not a high priority for me when auto shopping. The story has some holes you could drive the entire Atlanta Police Force through, but you don’t go to this movie for Chekhov.

(I haven’t read any reviews but how many of them start with “Fasten your seatbelts!?”)

Young Ansel Elgort plays “Baby” the driver with a heart of gold and foot of lead. He has a baby face and sweet quality. He’s like Jesse Eisenberg but without that smugness that makes you want to just punch him in the face. I predict this will be a breakout role for Ansel.   He won't have to play a teenager on some CW show. 

Kevin Spacey is the mob boss for the thirtieth time. Yes, it’s familiar but at no time does he do his Bobby Darin or Johnny Carson impression. And as toupees go he’s sporting a good one.

Jamie Foxx is playing Django gone bad, and Jon Hamm is playing Don Draper gone bad.

Two notable cameos – Brogan Hall as Sam and Paul Williams (yes, Paul Williams) as “the Butcher.”

Enough people get killed that you think you’re watching an episode of 24 and nobody wears seatbelts (even though they could all be cited), and again, none of that matters when “Nowhere to Run” or “Harlem Shuffle” is blaring. And yes, they feature Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver.”

This is one of those movies I’d recommend you see on the big screen. It won’t be the same on your phone. Okay, fasten your seatbelts. Damn! I just couldn’t go the entire review without saying it.