Monday, January 23, 2017

Is THAT still on?

There are hit shows on television that I didn’t realize were still on the air.  Someone recently mentioned QUANTICO and I said, “That’s still going?” Apparently it’s doing very well without me thank you.   This kind of goes along with that survey I posted recently that revealed that most Americans don't even know shows that are nominated for awards. 

My normal viewing habit is to sample a show if it seems intriguing for any reason and then either give it a few more tries or never come back. But in the past, I remained aware that those shows I abandoned were still on the schedule. Perhaps it was because I was more in the business and would check the weekly ratings but also because there were far fewer shows, and the way I view television is now radically different. And it’s probably even less radically different from the way YOU watch television.

When watching shows in real time you see promos. So even though I might not be on the QUANTICO train (I watched the pilot, thought it was stupid, bailed), I was still aware of its continued existence. But I never watch shows in real time anymore.  Does anybody?  Now that I record everything, and zap through the endless commercials and promos, these discarded shows get erased from my memory. Also, since I record everything for later playback, I have no idea what the time slots are for these shows I snare. They just appear.

It doesn’t help that series are making fewer episodes so they disappear for long stretches. Is the show on hiatus or gone permanently? Unless you’re a TV critic who’s going to keep track of all of this? And I bet a few of them channel surf and go “QUANTICO’s still on?”

There are so many shows, so much clutter, and new viewing habits like binging. There will come a point where it’s not just the viewer who doesn’t know if a certain show is still on the air – the showrunner will be confused as well. For all I know CBS is trying to reach me to say “When are we going to get the next episode of ALMOST PERFECT? We can’t keep running NCIS in its place forever.”

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Do not try this at home

I'm currently teaching a graduate spec sitcom writing class at UCLA and now offer some suggestions of what not to do based on actual scripts I have read…or at least attempted to read.  I'm alerting my students to these traps.  So why not share the advice with you? 

Don’t view the show from the perspective of a fly. I once read a WINGS spec as seen by a buzzing fly. I offer this as the first example because I know so many young writers fall into this same trap.

Don’t put yourself into the show and make yourself the lead character. I once read a CHEERS where Alan had more lines than Sam & Diane combined. Alan? Who’s Alan? Alan was one of the extras. And so he remained.

And just because people tell you you look like Kaley Cuoco (pictured above) doesn’t mean you should write a BIG BANG THEORY entitled “Penny’s Sister.” If I get a script with a photo attached I know I’m in trouble.

Don't submit specs for canceled series. You are not going to get a job off your spec OLD CHRISTINE or I MARRIED JOAN.

Don’t hand write your script, no matter how good your penmanship. Send your spec in a UCLA blue book and you’ll get an F.

Don’t invent a format.

Know the characters. I read a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW where Mary wondered what to get her husband for his birthday. Her “husband”???!

Keep in mind the production parameters. A MASH I once read featured this:


Hawkeye is on the mound during the World Series. 60,000 people

Huh????? Ask yourself the following question: Can anybody other than Steven Spielberg or James Cameron make this? And if the answer is no, especially for a multi-camera show that takes place in a living room, then don’t do it.

Similarly, avoid dream sequences. THE GOLDBERGS is not looking for the next Fellini.

Don't require 3D or IMAX for your sitcom pilot to work.

Don’t hinge your show on stunt casting. I read a BECKER where former President Jimmy Carter came in for a check-up and offered dating advice. Yeah, President Carter gets his physicals in the Bronx. And yeah, President Carter is always available to guest on a sitcom and advise a character to say whatever is necessary to get laid.

Even with cable shows, there is some line of decorum and taste left. I once read a NEWSRADIO where the story was the Dave Foley character comes into his office in the morning and discovers a semen stain on his couch. Then the episode went downhill.

Don’t marry off any of the main characters.

Don’t kill off any of the main characters.

Don’t go the first ten pages before doing a joke. This even applies to many drama specs.

Don’t do the “supersize” hour episode.

The last sentence in your script should not be “To Be Continued”.

Don’t change the characters’ reality to fit your story. Tracy Jordan is not Jewish. THAT’S why he can’t have a bar mitzvah.

Don’t include a cover letter telling the producer that you sent him a copy of the script months ago and that he was shirking his responsibility by not reading it. Our agent did this once and trust me, David Lloyd was not amused.

And finally, avoid this ploy: I once received a spec MASH with a note that read “This script was written by my brother. On his way to the post office to mail it he was hit by a car and killed. I’m sure he would have wanted you to read it anyway. P.S. If you want any changes I can make them.” He received a touching rejection sympathy card.

Just remember this, when producers read your script they want to like it. They want to discover the next Larry Gelbart. It only helps them. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by doing something stupid like relying on Jimmy Carter to get your laughs.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The March of Dames

For the first time since November I have a glimmer of hope.  Thank you, ladies, one and all, wherever you're marching today.   After one of America's darkest days in history comes one of its brightest.  May pink restore the red, white, and blue. 

Speaking Farce-y

One writing question I'm often asked is how are farces constructed? I’m sure fifty different comedy writers would give you fifty different approaches but this is mine.

First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.

Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.

Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.

Generally, farces take place in real time. There are no fade outs, no dissolves, no relief. And as the piece builds the pace quickens. If done right, a farce should be a snowball rolling down a hill, gaining momentum and size.

Neil Simon, who wrote the wonderful farce RUMORS, is quoted as saying “At the final curtain, the audience must be as spent as the actors, who by now are on oxygen support. If the audience is only wheezing with laughter, you need rewrites or actors with stronger lungs.

They’re incredibly tough to pull off but unbelievably satisfying when you do. And for my money, no show ever did them better than FRASIER.

This is a re-post from five years ago.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some FQ’s?

Bob K. gets us started.

When writing for shows like "MASH" and "Frasier", where some jokes are directly related to specific technical areas (in this example the medical or psychiatry fields) is the writing process different? Would you consult with a field expert on a comedic storyline or specific jokes? Or do you let the comedic elements just come from the research and/or your writing sessions- leaving the comedy, so-to-speak, to the experts? 

If you have to rely on experts for comedy you're in trouble.  

On MASH we had Dr. Walt Dishell who was our technical advisor. We would write operating room scenes and just dummy in dialogue and send the scripts to him. He would then fill in what the surgeons might actually say. So our scripts were like:

HAWKEYE: Nurse, hand me the frabazabber.

NURSE: Yes, doctor. Oh, he’s hermaygolading.

HAWKEYE: Let’s give him 10 CC’s of Blojamin stat! 

But any jokes (Hawkeye flirting, the war sucks, etc.) were in the scene before it went to advisors.  

We also had a nurse on the set to make sure the doctors weren’t just stabbing each other.

But we never put any comedy burden on the advisors. That was our job.

On FRASIER, there were times when I consulted my wife who is a therapist. And I majored in Psychology at UCLA so I knew enough psycho-babble to get by on most occasions.  But there were instances when we'd ask how a shrink would handle a certain situation or patient and then write the scene, again putting in the humor ourselves. 

From Charles H. Bryan:

Why did I not know that B.F. Pierce was based on an actual doctor? If I knew it, I've forgotten it. FRIDAY QUESTION: Who is he?

Dr. Roger Willcox. He passed away in 2006. Here’s his obit. You’ll see what a remarkable man he was.

RSaunders has a question about Carrie Fisher:

What were her special skills as a screenwriter and as (didn't realize this) a script doctor?

Well, first of all she was very very smart. Lots of people can point out things that don’t work. Very few can offer fixes.

She was also extremely funny and wrote great character comedy. So she didn’t pump in jokes, she just made the existing characters funnier and more interesting.

She also had great pathos.  She wasn't afraid of emotional moments.  
Additionally, she was fast. Lots of times when a producer needs a rewrite or polish there’s a time crunch. They’re going to start shooting next Tuesday, or they’re trying to entice an actress and would like something to show her over the weekend, etc. Carrie could knock out the pages quickly.

Finally, I think producers and directors just LIKED her and enjoyed her company. She knew the business inside and out and was a genuinely nice and entertaining person.  You got a great rewrite and some fantastic Debbie Reynolds stories. 

And finally, from ScottyB:

Have there ever been any successful 2-person comedy writing teams that you know of where one person is extremely funny but can't develop a story to save his/her life while the other person has a fantastic ability to develop great stories and characters but hasn't the knack for banging out the actual laughs? Elton John and Bernie Taupin are a well-known musical equivalent, but have there ever been any in the TV or film industry?

Any possible combination of personalities and working arrangements exist between writing partners. Usually one partner is stronger in one area complemented by the other who is better in another. But not necessarily. As time goes by they learn from each other and grow.

When George S. Kaufman was writing award-winning comedy plays with Moss Hart, whenever there was an emotional moment or speech Kaufman would just leave the room and let Hart handle it.  (Hart was the Carrie Fisher of the two.)

David Isaacs and I write head-to-head but a lot of teams will divide up the scenes and write separately. Or one will do the first draft and the other will rewrite. One team I know works on the outline together, then they each go off and write a first draft. Then they merge the best of the two.

And another team worked this way: One just schmoozed and cultivated contacts while the other did all the writing. David and I both marveled at this arrangement. We would have adopted it for ourselves but both wanted the schmoozer role.

What’s your Friday Question? Remember, I now also answer them on my podcast as well. Have you subscribed yet?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

RIP Miguel Ferrer

Some losses hit you harder than others.  And this one really hit me.  Miguel Ferrer passed away.  He was only 61.   I directed numerous episodes of the sitcom he was in, LATELINE, and became friends.   For the last year or so we worked out at the same gym.  I think I saw him as recently as a few weeks ago.   I had heard he had cancer but was under the impression he had beaten it.  I guess not.

People primarily know him from dramas.  I used to kid him that he's been in every TV drama over the last twenty years.  Even Harry Morgan didn't guest in as many series.  But what folks might not know is that Miguel was a gifted comic actor.  Amazing timing and a pitch-perfect knack for delivering dialogue.  Some actors need to be led to the joke, not Miguel.  He instinctively just "knew" comic rhythms and tone.

He was also, a pro's pro.   I'm sure one of the reasons he worked so often is because so many producers, directors, and actors loved him.

Miguel was also a great storyteller.  And when the stories involve David Lynch (he was in TWIN PEAKS), George Clooney (his cousin and one-time roommate), ROBOCOP, and mother Rosemary Clooney you knew you were in for a mesmerizing tale.   I was hoping to get him to guest on my podcast.

My condolences to his family and fans.  Damn!  Miguel Ferrer.  This one hurts. 

Reboots are made for walking

One downside to having so many networks and so many shows is that audiences can’t keep up with all the product that’s out there. (Not that they’re making that big an effort to do so.) All these titles sound interchangeable and genres are so blurred that you don’t even know what you’re watching while you’re watching it.

To combat this, the networks are leaning towards known franchises. At least they have some recognition. You may not know what HIGH MAINTENANCE is but you have heard of 24.

So this is the year of reboots.

24 is back but with a different lead character. Still, it’s the same format where the star kills many people and never once goes to the bathroom.

A lot of shows are coming back with original casts. WILL & GRACE just officially announced its return. Up first is PRISON BREAK. (I think there may be budget problems because this time they break out of the Disneyland lock-up.) Last year the X-FILES returned and might return again as the FBI is currently investigating the election being hacked by Martians. And TWIN PEAKS will be back. The ghost of Laura Palmer steals the log lady’s log. FULLER HOUSE is a hit on Netflix. And they keep saying ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is returning for another season, but I think we’ll see that when Mexico builds that wall.

Netflix also has ONE DAY AT A TIME, but with a Latino cast. It’s really a reboot of CRISTELA.

And of course there are the game show reboots. MATCH GAME with Alec Baldwin is kinda fun, PYRAMID is okay, but TO TELL THE TRUTH is sacrilegious.

In the pipeline, LIVING SINGLE is being given CPR. There was a TV version of FATAL ATTRACTION, but I understand that is now dead. (What was the format of that show – she boils a different rabbit every week?) And there may be a new TV movie version of BEACHES with Idina Menzel in the Bette Midler role.  Finally!

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that call from a network wanting desperately to reboot BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

With all these re-boots I’m reminded of the great line by Billy Wilder. When asked about remaking one of his classic films he said, “I don’t understand. Why remake movies that work? Remake movies that didn’t work and fix them.”

Oh God, what if someone wants to try AfterMASH again? 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Episode 3: Take Me To Your Pilot

Ken Levine has been through his fair share of pilot seasons, and if you're not in Hollywood you might not know about the madness that it is. So today, buckle up for some tales of wacky TV pilot experiences. Plus, hear from writer David Pollock about his experiences writing for television, and find out about a time he collaborated with legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky on a sitcom pilot.  


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What's on my desk -- revised

A question for writers that has been circulating the blogosphere recently is “what’s on your desk?” It's the same question I answered a couple of years ago but a few items have changed, so what the hell?

My iMac desktop computer (designed by my son and his team at Apple).

Mouse on a UCLA mouse pad.

brother printer.

Froggy Gremlin childhood toy.

Bob Hope in Dodger uniform bobblehead. (next to Koufax he was my favorite Dodger.)

Cup o’ pens.

Microphone and microphone stand for the podcast.  (Please listen and subscribe.)

High end digital ZOOM recorder.  

Fathers Day cards.

Family photos.

Seattle Mariners paperweight. 

A Gary Larson FAR SIDE card showing the BEWITCHED writing staff brainstorming in the fourth season. Brilliant notions like: “What if Endora casts a spell on Darren?”

Allstate accident report I was supposed to fill out in 2011.

Photo in Lucite of my granddaughter, Rebecca. (She's already gotten much bigger.) 

Box of Ralphs market Oyster Crackers. There are some things it's okay to buy the generic brand.

Plastic Bob’s Big Boy (I’m a Bob’s Big Boy fanatic and can never figure out why that checkered jumpsuit look didn’t catch on.)

Five old drafts of my play, GOING GOING GONE (with practically every page dog-eared).

Initial draft of my new play.  (with EVERY page dog-eared).

Ellen Sandler's TV WRITER'S WORKBOOK, which is required reading for my UCLA class. (Note to my students:  BUY IT) 

Lucite encased Real Don Steele KHJ business card.

A hard bound copy of TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT (personally signed) by author Maria Semple. (Fun reading. I recommend it.  Actually, I recommend all of her books.)

My SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 2017 swimsuit model desk calendar. This week it's this picture of Hannah Davis.

A spec pilot from my rabbi.

A spindle of CD’s that includes albums from Frank Zappa and Joanie Sommers.  Who plays CD's anymore?  Why isn't this in the garage?

Dodger Stadium and Pauley Pavilion replica paperweights.  Both very dusty. 

50 GOING GOING GONE promotional postcards (now completely worthless).  

Lucite encased picture of me with AfterMASH writing staff (that includes Larry Gelbart).

Vintage typewriter from 1890 with the carriage return arm on the right side. No FINAL DRAFT version for that. 

93/KHJ Boss Radio mike flag.

Box of brads and paper clips.

My bobblehead collection that includes Harry Caray (pictured), Speedy Alka-Seltzer, and Jesus Christ.

And -- Oh God – I think there’s still a sandwich.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


HIDDEN FIGURES is APOLLO 13 for nerds. I can’t recommend it enough. You probably know the premise by now – it’s the true(ish) story of three African-American women in the early ‘60s who worked for NASA and were key players in getting our astronauts up into space and more importantly, back down again safely.

It attacks discrimination on every front – racial, gender, declared majors – but doesn’t clobber you over the head with it. This isn’t DJANGO for pencil pushers. There’s no Helen Reddy "Hear me roar" anthem. It’s three “BEAUTIFUL MINDS” with a dash of NORMA RAE and THE HELP.  Or IMITATION GAME with a happy ending. 

Probably because the story is true(ish), but I found HIDDEN FIGURES to be a stirring celebration of intelligence and science – two things that many Americans today don’t believe in. Oh, for the days when complicated important decisions were left to qualified people.

And what a perfect movie for the Motion Picture Academy – a film about diversity that audiences are actually going to see. The cast is certainly Oscar-worthy. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as the Three Mathketeers were superb. And Kevin Costner proved he didn’t have to play an over-the-hill baseball player to be interesting. Also noteworthy is Jim Parsons, who in a big stretch for him played an uptight egghead.  I hardly recognized him. 

For all the hype the Oscar-grab movies are currently receiving, this modest little tale is more satisfying. And it does my heart good to see it doing so well at the boxoffice. So again, go see HIDDEN FIGURES. Travel back to a simpler time; a time where we outsmarted Russia.