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.

Yikes.

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

Partners

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:

STOP MUMBLING!

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.