Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How's this for a truly bizarre dream?

This is one of those dreams where I woke up and scrambled for a pen and paper. I had to write it down immediately so I wouldn’t forget. Okay, dream analyzers, have fun with this one.

I go to my agent’s office. Except it’s not my actual agent. It’s some new guy. Young. Very nice. Ken Jeong in a tailored shirt and tie. Always Tweeting on his cellphone.

I’m there because he had dug up a spec pilot I had written years ago and wanted to go out with it. The pilot had something to do with hockey. I’m not sure of the details because I’ve never written a pilot about hockey. Nor really understand hockey. So why I’d choose that as the subject matter since I’m a big proponent of “write what you know” I have no idea. I have no idea why I wrote a spec pilot in the first place. But all of that is beside the point.

The agent places a call to some low level executive in a production company. I can overhear both ends of the conversation. As best as I recall, it went like this:

AGENT: I’ve got a great spec pilot to send you.

EXEC: Awesome.

AGENT: It’s by Ken Levine.

EXEC: Pass.


EXEC: He’s a hack.


EXEC: CHEERS is shit.

AGENT: CHEERS is a classic.

EXEC: Okay. Fine. What’s it about?

AGENT: Hockey.

EXEC: Pass.


EXEC: Ken Levine can’t write that.

AGENT: Why not?

EXEC: He’s gay.

AGENT: What? Ken Levine is not gay.

EXEC: He’s gay.

AGENT: And you know this how?

EXEC: It’s all over social media. A gay guy can’t write hockey.

AGENT: He’s not gay, but even if he were, that’s ridiculous. Why can’t a gay guy write hockey?

EXEC: Hockey is not gay.

AGENT: He wrote MASH.

EXEC: MASH is gay.

AGENT: What? How is MASH gay?

EXEC: Hidden messages. Oh, and it starred a guy in a fucking dress.

I’m overhearing all of this and by now am hysterical. But the agent is getting mad.

AGENT: I’m gay.

EXEC: I love gays. But not for this.

AGENT: That’s discrimination.

EXEC: Can he get Julia Roberts?

AGENT: To play who, the goalie?

EXEC: Not to act. To direct.

AGENT: Julia Roberts directs now?

EXEC: I hear she wants to start. She’d be perfect for this.

AGENT: Julia Roberts directing a pilot about hockey?

EXEC: Get Julia Roberts and send over the script.

That’s when the dream ended, which is too bad because my writing partner knows Julia Roberts and I think I’d have a shot.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Comedy acting advice... not that anyone asked me

The best comic actors know they have to trust the material and not push it. I can always see an actor working, winding up to deliver a punch line. As opposed to actors who are just naturally funny. They know the rhythm but most importantly, they know to play the reality of the moment.

There’s a great example of this from theater royalty. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne performed together on Broadway from the ‘20s to the ‘70s. They were your classic “thee-a-tuh” actors.

Way back in the ‘20s or ‘30s (believe it or not I was not around for that), they were trying out a show in Boston. Lunt got a big laugh on a line where he asked for a cup of tea. But during the New York run the laughs on that line dissipated  until finally there was nothing but crickets. Lunt was perplexed.  Why was the line no longer working?  Fontanne had the answer. “Ask for a cup of tea, not a laugh.”

Good directors understand this.

When Mike Nichols was directing Neil Simon’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley he purposely did not want the actors to go for laughs during rehearsals. Just play the attitudes and emotions and let the circumstances introduce the comedy.

The actors were surprised when they first performed in front of an audience that suddenly there were a ton of laughs. Think about it – Robert Redford getting guffaws? He’s not exactly Mr. Funnypants. But he was hilarious. And why?

He asked for tea.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Working with kids

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post either because the subject matter warranted it or I’m just incredibly verbose.

It’s from Carl:

Ken, what is your opinion of children on sitcoms? I've noticed that the shows you've worked on rarely feature them. Myself, I've noticed that many sitcoms will make an effort early on to give the kiddies screen time, then give up and only trot them out when the plot demands an appearance.

Yeah, not a lot of kids drafted and sent to a MASH unit or hanging out at CHEERS. I did have a running joke though. Remember when there was a show called MUPPET BABIES? I always thought it would be great to have CHEERS BABIES. See little Norm & Cliff ordering beers at the bar. Maybe I should re-pitch it.

But as a director, I’ve worked with kids quite often. They do present certain challenges, which must be taken into consideration.

The first one of course is stage parents. You may get an adorable talented kid but all too often Momzilla comes as part of the bargain. Cruella de Vil with notes.

There are also quite a few restrictions in place that hamper production, but that’s for a good reason. They’re all for the protection of the child. Not that Hollywood would ever take advantage of kids and work them twenty-hour days like mules and force them to take diet pills if they gained two ounces, but just to be on the safe side, kids can only work so many hours and classroom instruction is mandatory. Still, it’s a arduous day for these youngsters, many of whom would rather be playing videogames with their friends than doing planned-pick-ups.

So it means a director only has them for limited periods. We have to work around their schedules. If we’re shooting the show in front of a live audience we have to do it earlier to ensure they wrap at a decent hour.  (Hey, wait a minute.  That's a good thing.)

Generally, kids don’t get the rehearsal time they need. And in truth, they’re the ones who need it the most because they don’t have the experience adult actors have.  Although Kaitlyn Dever can hold her own with Oscar winners. 

So producers have to ask themselves – is it really worth it? More than one family comedy has opted to downplay the role of the children over time because of the obstacles.

That said, I always looked forward to directing the episodes of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND and INSTANT MOM.   The kids were great, the parents were lovely. 

With young kids (like the twins were at the time), it's unrealistic to ask them to memorize a lot of dialogue.  So that cuts down on their screen time. 

I know a number of actors who are in their 20’s and even 30’s who can still pass for teenagers. And believe me, these actors are in greater demand than Meryl Streep.

The other problem with using children is that they tend to grow up. As a director, it’s hard to tell them not to. I believe Disney Channel series usually only go three or four seasons because of this.

Of course, their aging can also be a plus. As they enter new stages of development it can open up new areas for stories. But as the fine folks of GLEE have learned, you can’t keep the same kids in high school for seven years (although they could probably get away with it on JUSTIFIED).

Some children I've worked with are a pleasure and others are world-weary fifty-year-olds trapped in the body of a ten-year-old.  My heart always goes out to children actors, even the successful ones.  It's tough enough dealing with peer pressure, puberty, and pimples.  I can't imagine also being rejected by the producers of THE SUITE LIFE ON DECK.  

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Everything you wanted to know about the CHEERS "Bar Wars."

I get a lot of questions about the “Bar Wars” episodes of CHEERS that my writing partner, David Isaacs and I wrote. So here are the FAQ’s.

Did we purposely plan for the Cheers gang to lose every time?

Yes. Except for the last one. Frustration is much funnier than victory. The trick however, was to find different ways for them to lose – or screw themselves. Guess I grew up watching too many Road Runner cartoons.

What about the last Bar Wars in the final season?

Ultimately, we decided to not only let Cheers win but to demolish Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern once and for all. We’re nothing if not vengeful. Trivia note: That is the only episode of CHEERS that I appear in. I’m sitting at the bar in an early scene.

Who played Gary?

The answer is: which time? We had two actors who played Gary, in no particular order. The first time the character appeared, Joe Polis played him in a 1985 episode called “From Beer to Eternity”. When we wrote the first Bar Wars episode Joe wasn’t available. It was the very end of the season. We had no other scripts so we just had to recast. Robert Desiderio became Gary. For Bar Wars II we went back to Joel Polis and used him one other time. Otherwise, it was Robert Desiderio. Confusing? I don’t understand why we did it either. Hopefully this mystery will be tackled in the sequel to the DA VINCI CODE.

What is your favorite Bar Wars episode?

Bar Wars V. My partner came up with this idea. Sam’s prank kills Gary. Or at least that’s what Sam thinks. If you can’t get laughs with a man digging up a grave you’re not a comedy writer.

What is your least favorite Bar Wars episode?

Bar Wars VI. The gang thinks a wise guy buys Gary’s bar so a prank unleashes the Mafia after them. We were reaching. And sometimes too clever for our own good. In Bar Wars II, there’s a Bloody Mary contest. I mentioned this last Thursday.  We had too many twists and turns. By the end I think there were maybe six too many. It was the BIG SLEEP of Bar Wars episodes – no one alive can tell you exactly what happened.

Was it hard to plot these episodes?

Yes. Very. These episodes were a bitch to conceive and then hard to write because there was always so much story. By nature, exposition and set ups are not inherently funny and entertaining. We had to pull a lot of jokes out of nowhere.

What was your favorite gag?

Filling Rebecca’s office with sheep. That’s the power of being a writer. You come up with a goofy idea. And voila, there are fifty sheep being herded onto the set. I’m sure the guy who came up with snakes on the plane had the same heady feeling.

There are some Bar Wars type episodes not called Bar Wars. How come?

Those were episodes not originally designed to be bar wars but evolved into them. Or they were competitions not practical joke wars, per se. In other words, I dunno. I’m still trying to figure out BAR WARS II.

And finally, are you that diabolical?

Let’s just say I hope you’re not allergic to sheep.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday Questions

Another weekend and time is running out to see my play, GOING GOING GONE at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. Again this weekend, half-price tickets if you just go here and type in Promo Code 008. And tonight only – a talk-back with me and the cast.  But wait!  There's MORE.  A SPECIAL appearance! Howard Hoffman, who does the voice of the announcer, will BE at the theatre. LIVE and IN PERSON. You do NOT want to miss this!

Okay, let me stop plugging my play for five minutes to answer some Friday Questions. Leave yours in the comments section. Many thanks.

Mike Barer starts us off:

Ken, have you ever been on stage? I know many producers and directors insert themselves into a show.

Not really.  On a few of the sitcoms that David Isaacs and I have written freelance episodes for we’ve inserted ourselves in the shows, but only for a cameo and a line or two.

Here’s my feeling about that:  Yes, as a producer I could insert myself into as many shows as I want, but I’m not an actor and by playing a part myself I’m taking money away from a real actor; someone who is trying to make a living or even support a family on the income he makes acting. So I gladly put my ego aside and let someone way more qualified take the role.

About ten years when I co-wrote a musical that was being produced at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut, I was standing on the stage during one of the final rehearsals with Andrew Rannells, who was starring in the show.

I asked him what was it like to be on stage, to feed off the energy of a big audience? He said, “Why don’t you just write yourself into the show and see for yourself.” I nodded and said, “That’s a great idea except for one thing: I can’t act, I can’t sing, and I can’t dance. What the hell am I gonna do?” He agreed that might be a problem.

From Thomas:

You recently joked about Thomas Gibson's dismissal being mood lifting for the writers room on Criminal Minds. But it occurred to me you did include in him your list of actors who where good to work with. Was he better on the set of Dharma & Greg?

Well Thomas (hey wait a minute – you’re not “Thomas” Gibson, are you?), the truth is Thomas Gibson was an absolute dream during the episodes I directed of DHARMA & GREG. Easy-going, totally professional, prepared, took direction well. I had absolutely no problem with him.

I have no idea what his issues were with CRIMINAL MINDS, what tensions existed, what creative differences there were, or what other shit was going on in his personal life. But apparently his violent outburst at a writer was not his first.

Still, I maintain my experience with him was a pleasure.

Jonathan asks:

Are there any "written-word" comedy writers (novelists, essayists, etc.) you particularly enjoy?

A number of them. My favorite currently is Paul Rudnick. His humor pieces in THE NEW YORKER are brilliant. He’s also a hilarious playwright and screenwriter. There are several books that are compilations of his humor pieces. I recommend them.

Political satirist Andy Borowitz is also a personal fave. Dave Barry still makes me smile. And if you want to go back into ancient times – Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen (when he was young and funny), and P.G. Wodehouse.

A few comic authors I thoroughly enjoy are Carl Hiassen, Douglas McEwan, and the late John Kennedy Toole who wrote my all-time favorite comic novel, CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES.

Doug McEwan has a new book coming out soon. Can’t wait.

And finally, from Jahn Ghalt:

Ken wrote: the amount of time it took to write (The Me Generation) vs. the sales didn’t propel me to just jump right in and begin the next decade. Too bad, because lots of neat stuff happened in the ‘70s.

and Carol wrote: What about writing a play based on your memoir? I can imagine a good 'coming of age in the 60's' story working as a play

Carol almost took the words out of my mouth: How about a play based on your 70s careers? Radio, the Army(?), writers room for M*A*S*H?

That’s sort of what I am doing now. The play is very loosely autobiographical about the inspiring world of comedy in the mid ‘70s. And to circle back to the first question – no, I will not be playing a part in it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Come see my play for HALF PRICE

Another great review for GOING GOING GONE.   Still a few half-price tickets for Friday, which will feature a talk-back after, and now I'm going to make Saturday and Sunday half-price too.  So here's what you do.   Go here and for the promo code type 008.  

Would love to fill the theatre for all three weekend performances. 

So see you at the Hudson Theatre for a night of laughs.  And after that debate, God, do we NEED them. 

Following the format

This blog post was inspired by another blog post – by Earl Pomerantz – about “formatting” in TV, films, and musicals. He does a great job discussing the pros and cons of following formats. So I’m not going to do that. I’ll just agree with him and move on.

But he talked about the format of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and pretty much all of the MTM multi-camera shows during their heyday in the ‘70s. Having been there at the time I can attest to its accuracy.

We all followed a six-scene format. Three in the first act, three in the second. I can only speak for THE TONY RANDALL SHOW and BOB NEWHART SHOW, but not only did we have six scenes, no two scenes in the same location were done back to back. In other words, if you open at the office, your next scene has to be at home, and vice versa. There was generally one swing set (built just for that episode) that was like a wildcard that could go anywhere.

Unlike Earl, who questioned it, I just took it for granted that this format was derived after a lot of trial-and-error. As much as I’ve always loved THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, the first year was a little uneven as they groped around in the dark searching for just the right formula.

I also suppose there were practical considerations. Number of wardrobe changes, number of times the cameras moved from place to place, etc.

The only time it felt unwieldy to me was when we had something happen at work in the first scene, then the star went home and had to fill in everybody there as to what happened. The problem there is you’re essentially telling the audience something they’ve already seen. That’s not the best storytelling.

But otherwise I found that having a formula made the stories easier to break. And I was young and new and needed all the help I could get. 

On MASH we had a different format. Five scenes in the first act and five in the second. Generally we tried to avoid doing two scenes in the same locale back to back, but there were no hard and fast rules. We always had at least two stories (and sometimes three) dovetailing throughout the episode. We also knew we could only do 8 1/3 pages of exteriors at the ranch. So we had a lot to juggle.  Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart established this format. 

But unlike at MTM where we were quite content to just follow the format, on MASH David Isaacs and I felt a little restless. So there were times we did shake things up during season seven. We did the POINT OF VIEW episode (seen through the eyes of a patient), the cave episode (to give the show a different look), and one of my favorites – NIGHT AT ROSIES. We wrote that like a play, all in one set (Rosie’s bar). It has to be one of the very few episodes of MASH where you never see the MASH camp.

The key to any format is not to make it so obvious that the audience recognizes it and the show becomes too predictable. Be honest now. Of all the MASH episodes you’ve ever watched in your life, did you know until just now that we had this 5+5 formula? Same with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW?

It might be fun as you watch your current favorite shows to start looking for patterns. Are they following a format and if so, what is it? It’ll give you some audience participation and something to do besides emailing while you watch TV. Let me know if you find anything.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A movie you've got to see

In preparation for tonight’s rehearsal of the next SNL opening (i.e. the presidential debate), I want to alert you to the best movie ever about the absurdity of politics.

It’s called MASTERGATE adapted from the play of the same name. Both were written by the brilliant Larry Gelbart. It is HILARIOUS. No one writes double-speak political bullshit like Gelbart. TIME magazine called it “George Orwell meets the Marx Brothers.”

Two examples: "What did the president know, and did he have any idea that he knew it?" And: "My involvement was strictly limited to the extent of my participation."

The movie of the play was done for SHOWTIME in 1992. It aired for awhile and has been out of circulation for years.

But beginning Friday it will resurface exclusively on Vimeo’s On Demand portal. It will be available on iTunes and Amazon sometime in November. Click here to go to the link.

All proceeds from the film will go to Norman Lear’s People For The American Way Foundation in Larry Gelbart's memory

In this day and age of candidate surrogates, spin doctors, talking heads, and sound bytes, MASTERGATE is a scary funny political satire.