Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here's my really angry rant for the month

WARNING! SPOILER ALERT! DANGER!

This post discusses the season three finale of FARGO that aired earlier this week. So if you haven’t seen it yet, come back when you do. Or you don’t watch FARGO and don’t care, stick around if you want to read an angry rant.

Last chance. The next paragraph I begin.

Okay.

Readers of this blog know I am a fan of FARGO. Especially season two, which I thought was extraordinary. This season has had its moments and I even did a post about how clever they introduced exposition.

Over the last few weeks the season seemed to go off the rails. There was the police chief who was the cliché cockblocker every time Officer Gloria came to him with a plausible case. Then there was all the metaphysical mystical bullshit and if they weren’t trying enough to be TWIN PEAKS, they hired Ray Wise (from TWIN PEAKS) to deliver the nonsense spiritual babble.

But then came the finale. That ended on a cliffhanger or (worse) ambiguity (we'll never know the outcome). My reaction (which you can probably guess) in a second.

But out of curiosity I read a number of respected TV critics’ to see what they thought. One said the ambiguity “plays into exactly what this season has been about: the fluid nature of truth.” Another defined the two main storylines: “One is an act of capitalist savagery. The other is the culmination of personal animus.” And yet a third praised the storytelling that up until the finale he had issues with. All was forgiven as he gleefully stated: “The weird hiccups and sideways jerks of the narrative, the structure that never entirely coalesced into anything coherent — was on purpose.”   That's a good thing I suppose. 

Now may I offer my opinion – and granted I’m not as enlightened or perceptive as these professional television reviewers – I’m just a schmuck with a blog and podcast? But here’s what I thought:

The ending was a fucking cheat! I sat through ten hours for THAT? Ten hours of watching cast members just pick each other off and speak with accents that get more fake each year? And then we’re left with -- NOTHING? Does Varga get put away or doesn’t he?   Really?  Ooooh, that's for me to decide.

On serialized shows the audience puts trust in the showrunner that the time and effort they expend will be rewarded at the end.  It’s a huge burden and if not handled properly ruins the entire experience.  Look at LOST or HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.  Not only do you need to make a choice, you need to make the right one (whatever that is for your particular show) otherwise you destroy all the good will you’ve built up over the years.  So to present an ambiguous ending is avoiding that decision.  To me that’s chickenshit.

Noah Hawley, in an excellent interview with Alan Sepinwall, admits that the "This is a true story" was lying to the audience.  You know what?  I get enough lies from my fucking president. 

I know it’s currently chic to embrace ambiguity and complexity and existentialism – hour dramas are so DEEP with so many LAYERS.  “Oh, the real world is messy. There are no neat conclusions.” But fuck that. Someone gives you ten hours; give them a fucking ending. The open-ended finale is not even original or fresh. THE SOPRANOS did it so much better.  And at least they were groundbreaking.   Plus, it was the end of the series.  David Chase did not ask the audience to continue taking the ride with him.   I wonder how many FARGO viewers feel like me.  

I'm certainly not saying you have to have a happy ending. It can be unsettling, sad, horrific, shocking, surprising, hopeful, weird, wistful – whatever. And you don’t have to tie up every loose end. You don’t have to wrap everything up in a pretty package. But give us SOMETHING. And I’m sorry but characters killing each other off like ducks in a shooting gallery is not SOMETHING.

Sometimes you can be just too artsy, too quirky, too clever for your own good.

They just lost one viewer.   And Emmy vote.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday Questions

Friday Questions comin’ at ya.

John Leader leads off.

Occasionally I’ll spot an “Easter Egg” in a show I’m watching…something that may or may not be obvious enough for everyone to notice, but it’s there for some (comedic?) purpose. An example would be Les Nessman, the News Director on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” always wearing a bandage somewhere on his person. Week-to-week, the bandage would be in different places, but it was never referred to…it was just there.

Have you and David ever stashed such “Easter Eggs” in any of your creations? And, what do you think of the whole idea of doing so?

On a couple of occasions if a character is reading a book on one of our shows, he’ll be reading my book, “It’s Gone… No, wait a minute” (and we make sure it gets on camera).

On ALMOST PERFECT, anytime Nancy’s character was watching TV at home she was watching CHEERS.

In THE BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot we needed a bar so called it “Matt’s” for my son Matt. In the ALMOST PERFECT pilot we needed a restaurant and called it “Annie's” for my daughter Annie. She got the better of the deal. ALMOST PERFECT lasted 34 episodes and that set (with her name prominently featured) got used in probably 30 of them.

Other than that, just slipping in names of people we knew for an inside joke. Example: One of the happiest married couples I knew was Bill & Sherry Grand. So in a CHEERS we wrote, Diane was on jury duty about a married couple trying to kill each other. They were named Bill & Sherry Grand. Maybe six people in America got that joke. 

Paul Dushkind asks:

How did it come to be that Admiral Crowe, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became a guest star on Cheers? That has to be the strangest choice of a guest appearance on a TV show ever.

Oh, it goes beyond that. In the first draft, we originally wrote it for Larry Bird. He initially said he’d be interested. But then backed out. So then we thought, who would be the single most unlikely replacement? The premise was that Rebecca thinks he stole her earrings. Absurd choices were batted around and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came up. I think we had a list of four or five crazy options. Our casting director inquired and the good Chairman agreed to do it. We then wrote the second draft making the necessary adjustments.

How often was Larry Bird and William J. Crowe offered the same role?

Admiral Crowe did a great job. There was even talk of a spinoff.

From David C:

I wrote a spec of Kimmy Schmidt a while ago and the newest season did some things very similar, joke setups, themes, in one case a specific plot point. It's not close enough for people to think I stole specifics just close enough that someone may see it as lazy if they were unaware of when it was written. I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time. Should I make a note on my script to say it was written before the latest season or should I not say anything?

No. Just leave it. That will be only one aspect of the script. You’ll be judged for your comedy chops, ability to capture the characters’ voices, and storytelling skills. Let your script stand on its own.

Also, you probably will have some readers who are not so familiar with KIMMY SCHMIDT that they'll notice the similarities. Why alert them?

Best of luck.

And finally, Andrew Radford wonders:

You said some young writers "maybe can’t write multi-cameras". Since you've written for both single and multi camera shows, can you explain the difference in how to write for each format?

For multi-camera shows you have to write more hard jokes. You have 250 strangers in the audience you need to make audibly laugh. And believe me, they’ll tell you whether something is funny or NOT. You can’t just rely on irony or smiles.

On single-camera shows you’re not held accountable. If the showrunner thinks something is funny it stays in. The problem is he won’t always know. And that’s not a knock at him or single-camera shows. Some are very funny. But I’ve been doing this a long time and there are plenty of instances when things I thought would kill died in front of the audience. But at least I then had a chance to fix them, to replace the jokes that didn’t work. Or edit them out.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Remember, you're always ON THE AIR

Wow. This is odd. Some public figure made an innocuous off-colored remark in this ultra-PC climate and he wasn’t buried on Twitter. In fact, people seem to take it in stride. Thank you Mets fans. The reaction (at least from what I’ve seen) has been amusement. Besides, there’s enough real shit to get furious over that it’s stupid to waste your outrage on something like this.

We're talking about a comment Mets’ TV analyst Keith Hernandez said during the Mets-Dodger game on Monday night. Oh, by the way, he didn’t say it on the air. He said it during a commercial break but his mic was still hot and if you had a satellite receiver you were able to hear it. So to 99% of the audience, it went unnoticed. More reason why this should be a non-story… although it’s not. Deadspin and the Huffington Post both had stories on it.

So what did Keith actually say?

He was talking to his broadcast partner, Gary Cohen about a pitcher who has been getting hit hard lately. And he casually remarked: “Roark’s been getting his tits lit.”

That’s it.

First off, “getting his tits lit” is a baseball expression. And sorry PC’ers, it’s a fairly common baseball expression. And not that dissimilar to “colder than a witch's tit.

Again, what I’m heartened by is that Mets fans took Keith’s comment for what it was (nothing) and laughed it off.

But it does again remind us that anytime a mic is hot, or anytime we post anything on the internet we are essentially broadcasting. We all live in a giant fishbowl. Remember Al Michaels said some things between innings of the 1987 World Series that pissed a few satellite watchers off and caused a bit of a shitstorm. When I was doing Mariner telecasts I asked people between innings to send in a postcard and I got a bunch from around the country. They’re out there. (They were especially out there for our telecasts because between innings our director would often focus on hot girls in the stands.)

Still, the point remains – when you post a photo of yourself in a Speedo on Instagram or angry tweet when you’re shit-faced, you might as well have a microphone and camera open to the world. And it could get scary. Potential employers Google you and when that 2011 toga party comes up that you were tagged in and you’re seen French kissing a sump pump this does not bode well for you getting that job.

So be careful. You might not get off as easily as Keith Hernandez. You might really get your tits caught in the ringer.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Episode 25: Adventures in Television Directing


Ken shares stories of directing sitcoms. He describes what it's like to be challenged by actors, how to win them over, and almost killing an actor. Then he discusses the many times he got fired in radio and how he went out in a blaze of glory on several of those occasions.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What is a "Bono?"

One of my Friday Question Jeopardy answers was  "What is a Bono?"   Enough readers wondered what that was so I thought I'd explain it today. 

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Make sure your response is in the form of a question

I’m always looking for ways to involve my readers in the blog and yesterday’s post was a case in point. Based on a reader’s suggestion I played “Friday Questions Jeopardy” where I gave you the answers and you had to fill in the questions.  Some of them you got, some you missed (but were funny), and some you didn't even try. 

So here are the questions. How did you do?

A rotating joke, a restaurant, and a congressman.

What’s a “Bono?”

William Devane and a former Ram.

Who were the other two finalists for the role of Sam Malone on CHEERS?

VIPness.

What’s a word that Levine & Isaacs tried to slip past the CBS censors?

ALL IS FORGIVEN and THE TORTELLIS.

What are two failed series under the Charles/Burrows/Charles banner?

The dialogue coach on FLIPPER.

What is one of the erroneous jobs IMDB claimed Ken Levine had?

Molly Ringwald and Darryl Hannah.

Who turned down the Julia Roberts role in PRETTY WOMAN? Or… Who are still kicking themselves today?

Would have stayed in Sacramento if they had only given him a small raise.

What would have kept Rush Limbaugh from accepting an offer to go to New York and host a national radio show?

The “Abby Singer Shot.”

What’s the second-to-the-last shot during any one filming day?

55 share, 19 share.

What were AfterMASH’s ratings the first night of the 1983/84 season and the last night?

An “Up and Back.”

What’s a funny joke run that doesn’t advance the plot?

Hope Lange.

Who played Dick Van Dyke’s wife on THE NEW DICK VAN DYKE SHOW?

Starred in a TV movie about herself.

Who is Ann Jillian?

Schmuck bait.

What’s a plot point that only an idiot would buy?

Paper partners.

What is the insidious practice where scumbag showrunners hire two baby writers and force them to become partners, thus cutting each of their salaries in half?

Charlie Haid and Walton Goggins.

Who were two actors who played characters that got killed in pilots but were so good the producers decided to bring them back from the dead and reinstate them?

HAPPY DAYS and THE ODD COUPLE.

What are two sitcoms that started out as single-camera shows and converted to multi-camera shows?

Camelot.

What was the nickname writers had for MTM Enterprises during the golden comedy age of the ‘70s?

Studio 25 at the NBC Burbank Studios is named in his honor.

Who is Art Fleming, the original host of JEOPARDY?

Thanks for playing. WHEEL OF FORTUNE is next.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Let's all play FRIDAY QUESTIONS JEOPARDY!

Reader bobgassel had an interesting thought:

How about a "Friday Jeopardy" where you post the answers and we try and guess the questions?

Okay, I’ll bite. Try your luck.

A rotating joke, a restaurant, and a congressman.

William Devane and a former Ram.

VIPness.

ALL IS FORGIVEN and THE TORTELLIS.

The dialogue coach on FLIPPER.

Molly Ringwald and Darryl Hannah.

Would have stayed in Sacramento if they had only given him a small raise.

The “Abby Singer Shot.”

55 share, 19 share.

An “Up and Back.”

Hope Lange.

Starred in a TV movie about herself.

Schmuck bait.

Paper partners.

Charlie Haid and Walton Goggins.

HAPPY DAYS and THE ODD COUPLE.

Camelot.

Studio 25 at the NBC Burbank Studios is named in his honor.

The “Questions” tomorrow. Good luck.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day

On this Father’s Day (the most sacred holiday of the year) I’d like to wish a happy one to my dad, who also happens to be my hero, mentor, and best friend. I love you, Dad.  I'm in therapy for other reasons. 

Here are some pithy Father’s Day quotes:

“To be a successful father… there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.” -- Ernest Hemingway

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.” -- Bill Cosby (always great to get parenting advice from this sleazeball)

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” -- William Shakespeare

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." – Mark Twain

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.” -- Charles Wadsworth

And finally, a salute to Screaming Jay Hawkins. Screaming Jay was a r&b/blues singer. His big hit was “I Put a Spell on You” in which he came out of a coffin. The man was a crowd pleaser. And also a lady pleaser it seems. Upon his death when it was time to divvy up the estate it was discovered he had 57 children. Screaming Jay will not be saluted on Planned Parenthood day.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.  Note to my family:  I hate power tools.  I'm more of a "free trip to Hawaii" kind of guy.