Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Oscar follow-up

There’s always the second day autopsy on the Oscars after the first day’s initial reactions.

As expected (certainly by me), the ratings were among the lowest ever. I think the combination of Trump supporters not wanting to hear about tolerance and acceptance and diversity and a lackluster slate of movies that no one saw or gave a shit about caused that rating slide. Don’t blame Jimmy Kimmel.  Or the Starline Tours.

I wonder how many people on the east coast actually saw the trainwreck ending live. Lost in all the hoopla about the snafu was that the Oscarcast was way over time.

They could have dropped Mean Tweets (that’s a TV bit not an Oscar bit), cut the tour bus schtick in half, lost the tweet to Trump (it took forever and had no great payoff), and not parachuted in donuts. Or played walk-off music halfway through Viola Davis' speech.  That would have saved half an hour.

Thanks to those who listened to my review on my podcast. If you haven’t heard it yet you can go right here. And please subscribe. Subscriptions are vital in the podcasting world. I know some people prefer just the written version, but a lot of you are saying it added another dimension to actually hear me say the jokes the way they were intended. It was fun to do although I got to bed at 4:30 in the morning. I won’t be doing this with the ESPY’s.

I felt bad for Jimmy during the finale clusterfuck. He clearly was overwhelmed. This is where a seasoned pro is needed. Hope, Carson, even Letterman might have been more in control. It’s like when Al Michaels was calling the 1989 World Series and there was a major earthquake. He instantly turned into a news anchor and handled that emergency with complete assurance and grace. Give Jimmy a few years to really settle into that role and he’ll be that guy too. Remember, when you’re hosting a live event, you have to be ready for the unexpected.

Considering the money that studios pour into Oscar campaigns, when the producer of one film says he happily gives the award to another, behind the scenes the studios are freaking out! Lots of money changed hands as a result of that blunder.

Mixed reaction from commenters on Viola Davis’ speech. Also, some real nasty comments overall, some I just rejected. Again, this is a humor blog. If you want to poke a little fun at something, fine, but several times over the last few days I’ve had to put a halt to threads that were getting out of hand. Play nice, kids.

I'm sorry but I thought Jennifer Aniston's choking up during the IN MEMORIUM intro was over-the-top and fake.  

There weren’t any real fashion disasters this year, at least none that I saw.

HELL OR HIGH WATER picked the wrong year to be in Oscar contention.

Nicole Kidman is taking some internet flack. Everyone has that fine line between deciding whether an actress is still glamorous or scary. For many, that line has been crossed. I thought she is still a procedure away. 

And finally, my friend Earl had a fascinating observation. What if the snafu were reversed? What if MOONLIGHT originally won and then were told that the lily-white LA LA LAND beat them instead? I can’t even imagine the brouhaha that would have caused.

Monday, February 27, 2017

My Oscar review

Normally in this space I post my annual snarky bitchy Oscar review.  But this year I'm trying something different.  I'm doing the review exclusively on my podcast.   That way you can hear the jokes as drippingly sarcastic as they were meant to be.   And what a truly BIZARRE ending to that ceremony.  Yikes!  I talk all about it. 

To listen, just click on the podcast arrow above or right here.   Enjoy. 

Episode 9: My Annual Snarky Oscar Review

Ken reveals the most jaw-dropping Oscar ceremony in history. The winners, the losers, the blunders, the fashions, the politics, the red carpet, the facelifts, the glamour, the whole self-important ego-palooza. Join Ken for Hollywood's finest hour and most embarrassing moment.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Writing the Academy Awards

I’ve never written for the Oscars. I would very much like to, just for the experience. But from what I understand it’s a horrible thankless job.

I did have the chance once, but had to turn it down. My partner and I were showrunning ALMOST PERFECT in 1996. We got a call from Quincy Jones (who was producing the show that year). He had first asked Larry Gelbart who passed. Quincy asked if he could recommend someone else and bless him, Larry mentioned us. I can’t tell you how many writing offers we received thanks to Larry Gelbart. He got us way more work than our agent. But we had to turn it down because we were already working 90 hour weeks.

All of the following information is second and third hand, but from what writers of award shows have told me, this is pretty much the assignment.  You might find it somewhat less than idyllic.  

The hosts generally have their own people. But they may want you to assist. And of course, the host’s people are in charge. Depending on who that is, you may serve at the pleasure of some asshole you wouldn’t hire to write a laundry list.   Or someone you've fired. 

You write the banter between presenters. Then it has to be approved by each presenter, their manager, agent, publicist, dog walker, and psychic. Also the producers, network, and standards-and-practices. When revisions come back you don’t know if they’re from the star himself and must be followed or his pool man in which case they’re just suggestions. And more often than not these revisions are way worse than what you wrote.

Still, when they bomb you’ll be blamed for it.

There’s also the issue of writing for some actors who couldn’t be funny if it meant world peace. They will take your genuinely funny lines and trample them into the ground.

You’ll be blamed.

Or worse, they will ad lib. We’ve all seen excruciating examples of that.

It’ll be your fault.

Sometimes presenters come in with their own schtick. So when Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller do a bit that bombs you’re the one who takes the heat.

From what I hear the weekend of the show (i.e. now) the rehearsals are insane. Presenters jockey for position, things get changed, stars are in, stars are out, your lines get cut, you’re scrambling to write new ones then don’t know who to give them to for approval.

The night of the show you’re on call to feed ad libs to the host so that he looks good. And if he doesn’t pull them off you-know-who is held responsible.

Meanwhile, some presenters can’t read off the teleprompter so they inadvertently kill a few of your jokes that have worked every rehearsal. Pin those on you, too.

Still, it’s gotta be a trip to at least experience this once. Even if Dustin Hoffman muffs your joke, hey, you can say you wrote for Dustin Hoffman. For two days you rub elbows with Hollywood royalty. Perhaps Amy Adams or George Clooney will say hello. (Good luck with the twins, George.)   I don’t know if you’re invited to any post-Oscars parties. Or whether you get any swag. I doubt it but maybe you do.  Like I said, it would sure be worth doing once. 

Of course if I wrote the show I couldn’t review it. Hmmm. That’s probably reason alone to hire me.

But since they didn’t this year I will be reviewing tonight’s Academy Awards. For the first time I'll be delivering my snarkfest personally on my podcast.   And if you don't like it, blame the Oscar writers. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

New choice!

There was another great exercise for comedy writers in Andy Goldberg’s improv class recently. This one was called “New Choice!” Two people would do a scene and periodically someone would say something and Andy would interrupt with “New Choice!” The performer then had to devise an alternate line. If Andy wasn’t satisfied he’d again bark “New Choice!” Sometimes it would take two or three lines before the scene was allowed to proceed.


Me and Fred are in a Costco.

Fred: What are you here to buy?
Me: Cheerios.
Andy: New choice!
Me: 300 rolls of toilet paper.
Andy: New choice!
Me: A case of Trojans and a dozen oysters.

Later in the scene:

Fred: I don’t have cash. Do you take American Express?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take the Diner’s Club card?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take second-party Group-ons?

You get the idea.

Why is this such a good exercise?

When writing a script, it’s human nature to come up with a joke and want to just go with it. But more times than not you’re settling. You need to be tough on yourself. Write down the original joke for reference then say “New choice!” And don’t restrict yourself. You’re not limited to the number of choices. Come up with a crazy choice or two; let your imagination really run wild. Who knows? From time to time you might stumble onto something truly brilliant that you never would have thought of otherwise. But the point is, get in the habit of looking for alternatives.

Now that may sound obvious, but just wait. It’ll be the end of the day, you’re tired, or you’re behind schedule and all of a sudden you’re rationalizing that “Cheerios” is the best, funniest reason why anyone would ever shop at Costco.

Improv class in general is a great training ground for young comedy writers. It teaches you spontaneity.

New choice!

It teaches you character development.

New choice!

It forces you to challenge yourself.

New choice!

It’s a helluva lotta fun!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday Questions

Gather around kids for some Friday Questions.

John E. Williams gets us started.

On the many shows on which you worked, which actors in your opinion played their characters the most distant from their real personalities? For instance, I know you've told us Nicholas Colasanto was nothing even remotely like Coach, and I think we all know Kelsey Grammer in real life couldn't be less like Frasier Crane. I have always assumed Alan Alda is very much Hawkeye in a lot of ways, but for all I know I could be wrong.

Ted Danson – twice. Sam Malone was a former athlete and womanizer. Ted knew very little about baseball and was as far from a Lothario as one could be. It actually took him a while that first year to get into a groove because he was so the opposite of Sam.

And then as Becker. Ted is the world’s nicest guy playing a disagreeable crank.

Alan Alda was indeed a lot like Hawkeye, but I’ve seen him in roles where he pays villains and assholes and he’s great in all of them.

Did you ever see him in that Louis CK series, HORACE AND PETE? He plays a bigot that makes Archie Bunker look like Mother Teresa.

I emailed him to say how much I enjoyed him in that role and he wrote back saying it was great fun to do.

From Alec Nickopopoulous:

"Friday Question" - Ken, I love the podcast. What is your studio setup? Quiet garage? Professional soundproof booth at home? And what mic are you using?

I do it out of my home office. I’m very lucky. The acoustics are great. When I close all the doors there’s no echo. Everything I record is edited and assembled on the computer, assisted by Adam Butler, who is an audio wizard.

It’s pretty amazing actually. People can now get studio quality or near-studio quality out of their homes or garages or sensory deprivation tanks.

Not sure of the mic.  It looks like a baby Sennheiser.   Or one of those mics you use to say "Number 12, your pizza's ready!"

GlennNYC asks:

I've been watching the TV show "The Good Place", which recently ended it's 13 episode first season. They've made "Extended Episodes" available on the NBC website and ON-Demand on some cable systems. It's been fun seeing extra dialogue and extra scenes which sometimes have good jokes or plot points which clarify later events. Other times, I can see why they felt the need to tighten the show up. I was wondering what you thought about it; is it a gift to the fans or does it dilute the impact of the show? Also, would you have liked the option to release Extended episodes when working on MASH, Cheers, Frasier,... or would you rather just leave well enough alone once things are final?

On the one hand, anything you can do to generate more fan interest in the show is a good thing. So if people are willing to log on to watch supersized versions of your series, great.

On the other, often less is more. Even if it means cutting some good jokes, usually the shorter version of a show is tighter and better. So the extended version is like serving a dish that is still under-cooked.

Of the shows I’ve worked on, the only one I wish we could offer longer versions is MASH. We crammed so much into those shows and if we had to cut for time we sometimes lost some real great stuff, but we had to in order for the stories to make sense. There are a few episodes during my watch that I feel are choppy and could use an extra two or three minutes.

But CHEERS and FRASIER – I prefer the air versions.

Longtime friend of the blog, Wendy M. Grossman has a FQ:

Over at his blog, Earl Pomerantz has a post up marveling at the number of outlets current writers have to pitch to. This is a situation freelance journalists are familiar with, and standard advice to beginners is always to study the markets (magazines, newspapers) you want to sell to and tailor your pitch to them. You can still, if you do it right, resell the same story to multiple non-competing outlets if you find different angles or ways to tell it for different audiences. So I'm wondering: do today's aspiring sitcom writers need to tailor their pitches differently for HBO, AMC, CBS, etc. Do they need to do more rewriting and rethinking for different outlets than they did in the past when there were just three networks?

You’re right, Wendy, pitches today do have to be tailored for each potential buyer. Every network has their own “brand” even if they really don’t but just think they do. Gone are the days you come up with one pitch and just peddle it from network to network. Today you have to illustrate how your show fits into their distinctive (even if its not) brand. A series you might pitch to CBS would never fly at Fox. Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and AMC and USA and TV LAND, etc. all have their agendas and a young writer would be wise to learn what those are.

The downside is you may only have one or two options per idea, but the upside is if you get lucky you can sell three different projects to three different networks.

What’s disheartening on the broadcast network level now is that you almost have to come in with a package deal. It’s not enough to have a million dollar idea. Now you have to have a director attached, or a star attached, or an A-list pod producer attached to get their attention. And it helps a lot if your idea is just an adaptation of a foreign show that is a success in that country.

And finally, from another longtime friend of the blog, Johnny Walker:

Ed Catmull talks a lot about the major benefit that Pixar experiences from visiting the places their stories are set in, and I know that you're from a school of TV writing, Ken, that benefited a lot from primary research (M*A*S*H, and the Charles Brothers on Taxi).

Did you get a chance to do any research before starting Big Wave Dave's? That would have been fun! :)

As a matter of fact, yes, I did. I went to the North Shore of Hawaii, interviewed owners of surf shops, and took a lot of photos. I also connected with Ron Jacobs, a radio icon who was born and raised in Hawaii, and got a lot of background from him. Ron remained aboard as our technical consultant.

And the best part, of course, is that I was able to write off a trip to Hawaii as business and have it legit.

David Isaacs and I once met with a movie director who was very hot at the time, coming off a series of big hits. He said he didn’t care what his next movie was about as long as it was set in Hawaii. He wanted to spend several months in Hawaii. That’s what I call “artistic vision.”

What’s your Friday Question? I answer them on my podcast as well. Please check it out. You can leave your FQ’s in the comment section. Mahalo.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE -- My bat review

It was nice seeing Batman without Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder there to turn him into a dark brooding tortured soul. Instead we get the more Donald Trump version. He thinks he can save the world all by himself, he hurts other peoples’ feelings, he never wants to share credit, and he thinks he alone has all the good ideas. The difference is you like this Donald Trump. Or at least tolerate him.

This sequel to the LEGO MOVIE has the same dizzying amount of stimuli coming at you, but it doesn’t have the same writers and suffers somewhat as a result. That is if you can stop to take a breath and compare. I appreciate their desire to fill every frame with as much as possible and cram in as many jokes, pop culture references, and silliness as they can, but after awhile it gets to be overkill. And the trouble with that is some real great jokes get lost in the relentless tornado.

MAD Magazine frequently does that, filling every inch of space with gags. But MAD Magazine you can read at your leisure. You can savor every hidden laugh. But this movie, at least for me, felt like I was watching a 90 minute version of THE BIG BANG THEORY opening title sequence.

Certainly there is the desire to constantly entertain, but it’s okay to slow down and take a breath once in awhile. I know the thought is that Millennials have no attention spans and must be distracted every second or they’ll get bored and will play the LEGO BATMAN VIDEO GAME on their phones while watching the LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, but I think Hollywood is doing Millennials a disservice. If the story is good they’ll get into it, if the jokes are funny they’ll laugh. Even at a normal pace.   But when everything is a wild chase scene, the real chase scenes don’t carry the same wallop.

Slowing the action from time to time allows the audience to recharge, get their second and third winds. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is brimming with ideas and like I said, there are many wonderful moments and snappy lines. I just think it would please more if it tried to please less.

Before the film, they showed the
trailer for a new LEGO NINJA MOVIE. I’ll be skipping that. I’m waiting for THE LEGO TWIN PEAKS MOVIE.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Episode 8: The Romantic Comedies You Need to See

Ken reveals his favorite rom coms and why you need to see them. Some you know, but others you might not. Find out what you’re missing. For anyone who likes to laugh or swoon. Also, he’ll be introducing you to a very young Albert Brooks. And finally, Ken comes clean on his recent appearances on CNN.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Another case of Hollywood nonsense-speak

I read a recent article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY about the upcoming live version of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Director Bill Condon was asked why he chose Emma Watson to play the plum role of Belle. He said, “With actors who got to choose their roles, you look at their resumes and you start to see a kind of autobiography emerge.” He goes on to say that Emma was involved in quite a few women’s equality causes and then: “From what I’d seen of Emma, she seemed to be the person, both on screen and off, who best reflected the qualities that Belle embodied.”

How lovely. What bullshit. Not that Emma doesn’t have all those marvelous qualities, but is that really what a director is looking for in an actor – that he or she personally mirrors the character they are hoping to play? Because for every actor hired for that reason, there is an equal number who get hired because they play against their real personality. Actors who play villains aren’t necessarily scary. Actresses who portray innocent young waifs nowadays have sex tapes about to go viral. Did Condon hire Luke Evans to play Gaston because he’s a narcissistic blowhard in real life?

And not to be too cynical but had the part already been offered to Anne Hathaway and Anna Kendrick who turned it down?

The truth is there is no real answer to why an actor is hired. But that doesn’t stop directors and producers and studios from waxing poetic on the intrinsic courage and spiritual honesty their stars embody that make them so perfect for Aquaman.

Casting is an inexact science. It’s subjective at best. And commercial at worst. Studio movies need stars. If you can’t get Damon get Denzel, and if you can’t get Denzel get Eastwood. So what if the age range and ethnicity are totally different? If you wrote a movie based on the life of Teddy Roosevelt and the studio could get Julia Roberts you have to somehow change the script to make it work. When the studio says “We’re looking for a project for Kate McKinnon” that could mean your COOL HAND LUKE remake.

And otherwise, quite simply, the actor just has to be right for the role. He brings an impossible-to-define quality to a part that the other hundred actors didn’t have. He just felt… right. Then, once you hire him you make up bullshit rationales to tell the press.

Is an actor’s actual personality and worldview important in casting? Sure. It’s a factor. But so are his looks. His age. His hair color. His voice. His chemistry with his co-star. His ability to be funny, or sing, or be scary or whatever the role calls for. His level of exposure. His price. His TMZ baggage. His reputation. His ethnicity. His believability in the role. His global appeal. His recent boxoffice performance. His availability. His previous awards. His previous relationship with the director. His experience riding a horse.

Any one or several of these could be the determining factor in why one actor gets the gig over a hundred equally talented colleagues.

I’m guessing Emma Watson will be fabulous as Belle. Not because of her emerging autobiography, but because she’s a talented actress, can sing and dance, is very pretty, and has a big fan base from the Harry Potter movies – the same audience this film is trying to attract. Or Condon really wanted Emma Stone but the casting director fucked up and offered it to Emma Watson instead.

Just once I’d love to hear a director say, “I hired her because the studio made me.” Or “Meryl Streep wasn’t available” or “She gives the greatest blowjobs in Hollywood” or “They love her in China” or “She came cheap.” At least those explanations I could buy.