Saturday, August 30, 2014

Happy Birthday, Annie

It's hard to write a birthday post for a comedy writer.   I'd say something sentimental but she's on staff of a sitcom.  I'd be setting her up for endless serenading of "Sunrise/Sunset."    I mean, it was fine to embarrass her when she was a teenager.  I used to do that all the time.  But that was on purpose. 

This time I just want her to know that I'm proud of her, love her, and she makes me laugh everyday.  And if they do sing "Sunrise/Sunset" make them dance too. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the six-day Labor Day weekend, here are some Friday Questions:

Longtime reader and Sitcom Room vet Wendy M. Grossman leads off:

Amazon is moving into commissioning its own streamed series, and has posted the pilots for public voting. What do you make of that as a way to eliminate some of the expense of failures?

I like the idea but only as one indicator, not the sole determining factor. Only a small very vocal portion of the audience will respond. They don’t necessarily reflect the general populace.

But at least your pilot gets a shot. Now that networks no longer air failed pilots, you can work for a year on a project, it gets screened by ten executives and then thrown into a drawer never to be heard from again. It’s nice to know going in that actual people will get the chance to see your hard work.


The pilot turns out to be a total piece of shit. In that case, the last thing you want is to have it unleashed to the unsuspecting public. But hopefully that won’t be the case… too often.

ashes1998 asks:

Ken, you often speak of single camera and multi camera sitcom shoots.

Beyond the (fairly) obvious technical differences, how is the approach to writing different?

Multi-camera shows are shot in front of a studio audience (like a play). As a result, the writers are held accountable. Your jokes have to be good enough to make two hundred strangers laugh.

In single-camera shows, the showrunner has to only please himself. It’s easy to settle because nothing is ever put to a test. And since writing something really funny is hard it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that quirky behavior, catch phrases, and quick cutting is good enough.

Please note that I’m not saying single-camera shows can’t be genuinely funny. They can. But unfortunately, they rarely are.

And multi-camera shows are not bulletproof. Just because you have to make a studio audience laugh doesn’t mean you have the chops to pull it off. It’s easy to resort to cheap sex jokes and stale rhythms. Cue the laugh machine.

Bottom line: get the best writers. Shows should be single or multi depending on their premise. But success will have more to do with “who” rather than “what.”

From JB:

How do you feel about cable channels that squeeze or speed up final credits so much they're not readable? Since your name is in there occasionally it has to sting a little, right?

I find it deplorable. I wish the unions had more clout and could halt this thoroughly insulting practice.

Think of all these network executives in their large offices. What if the parent company said “Here’s your value to us – effectively immediately all of you will work out of one stall in a public restroom.” To me, it’s the same thing.

Jim S wonders:

How do you deal with disagreement? In the past, you've written that if you and your partner disagreed about a joke, the joke was gone. No argument. First, let me say that's really grown up.

But what about a casting director who honestly believes that actor x is right for a part? What about a director who has a vision for how a scene has to be staged? A suit who not only fancies herself creative, but in the past has shown judgment that you respect?

Here’s the reality: the person with the most power wins. Directors are kings on a movie set, but they are hired hands in television where showrunners rules the roost. Writers are usually subservient to everyone. (That’s why they become showrunners or film directors.)

Dealing with suits can be extremely frustrating because now they have more power. I would just say you have to pick your battles. And it seems to me at the end of the day you have three options. You can somehow bring yourself to tolerate the interference, you can reach a level of success where you’re allowed to ignore the notes (you have the most power), or you can leave because the system is not going to change.

And finally, from Tolouse:

In the MASH episode The Light That Failed, they never agree on who the murderer from A Rooster Crowed at Midnight is. Do you know??

Yes. O.J.

What’s your Friday Question? And drive carefully.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight -- my review

I don’t pay to see Woody Allen movies. There have been too many misfires. Most movie reviews help you decide whether it’s worth it to pay to see a particular film. In this case, it’s a review to help you decide whether to see the latest Woody Allen movie if you can see it for free.

So why do I even go in the first place? Because every so often he’ll do a MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. It’s why I prefer the National League to the American League. Every so often pitchers get a hit.

Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.

Allen’s latest – MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT – is his 44th feature. That’s quite an impressive canon. If only 30 weren’t duds.

First, the good news: it’s not a disaster. It’s not HOLLYWOOD ENDING. It’s not WHATEVER WORKS. It’s just… meh.

There are some good scenes, and interesting points about science vs. magic and whether God does exist (you know – Woody Allen comedy staples). The script is better crafted than usual – meaning he probably wrote it in three weeks instead of two. But as is usually the case, the story is very small and the film is stretched beyond recognition. The cinematography is lovely, which is important because nothing visual happens. The movie is an endless string of scenes of people talking to each other. Not fighting, not seducing – just… talking. Highbrow banter. DOWNTON ABBEY-light.

Okay, to be fair, in some scenes they’re also driving.

So after about a half hour you’re squirming and checking your watch.

I read a number of reviews – practically all pans – and interestingly none of them zeroed in on what I believe to be the real flaw of the movie.

It’s another Woody Allen love story between a middle-aged man and a young girl. It’s FUCKING CREEPY. I’m a middle-aged man and I think it’s creepy. Colin Firth is 53, Emma Stone is 25. That’s a 28 year difference. Yikes. Clearly, this is Woody Allen’s masturbatory fantasy that he keeps trying to justify movie after movie. In MANHATTAN he was dating a high school girl. At least he is no longer asking us to believe Julia Roberts, Tea Leoni, Mira Sorvino, and Elizabeth Shue forgo men their own age to swoon over Woody Allen.

So he can construct elegant little souffl├ęs and hire our finest actors to wax poetic on the magic and illogic of true love, but as long as the leading man can join AARP and the leading lady still needs a fake ID to get a drink, the movie is FUCKING CREEPY.

So to conclude: if you’re under 50, especially a woman -- even for free it’s so not worth it. If you’re over 50, women will likely be bored or not like being reminded that men lust after young girls. So I would say – pass on the freebie. If you’re a 50+ man you’ll either find it icky and not worth your time, or you’ll want to see it tonight even it means the tickets aren’t free. Even if you have to pay full price and parking . Yes, that can be expensive, but I’m guessing you’ll only need one ticket. And if it is two the second one will be a student rate.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My 14 minutes and 12 seconds of fame

It’s always bizarre to be recognized. Celebrities get used to it and expect it (or demand it). But I’m not a celebrity. Even in my radio days, I was able to move about incognito.

I did a few improv shows but always as part of a group. And I was the warm-up man on CHEERS so a few thousand people in total saw me do that. I’ve been able to lead a pretty stealth life.

The first time I was recognized was a few weeks after I began broadcasting for the Mariners in 1992. I was primarily on the radio but we had a few TV games and I would be on-camera during the openings. So that was what, 90 seconds of face time? I went to the Bellvue Mall to pick up some things one morning. I was wearing a ratty t-shirt, shorts, and needed a shave – in other words, my usual attire. Three people stopped me and said they enjoyed me on the Mariner games. I was gobsmacked.

After that I had to actual look presentable when I went outside in Seattle. Fortunately, when we went on the road I was once again anonymous and could dress like a bum in Milwaukee.

However, in Seattle I would get stopped all the time. At restaurants, my wife was always astounded when anybody wanted my autograph.

Same in San Diego when I did the Padres radio and TV. Of course the minute I stopped doing TV I was immediately forgotten. We all get our fifteen minutes, right?

Over the last few years I’ve been occasionally stopped by fans of this blog. I’m always amazed (and DELIGHTED by the way). It’s not like my photo is on the masthead. What’s been particularly nice is that on several of these occasions my daughter, Annie was with me. So it gives her the false illusion that her father is somebody.

But of all the times I’ve been recognized, the strangest was in Des Moines, Iowa. It was 1988, I was broadcasting for the Syracuse Chiefs minor league baseball team. We were in Des Moines to play the mighty Iowa Cubs. I wandered into the Cubs’ clubhouse. The players were all at their lockers (probably calling their agents). I didn’t know anybody. I was seeking out their manager. And then, from one of the players I hear, “Hey, it’s the CHEERS warm-up guy!”

Holy shit!

Cubs’ pitcher, Jeff Hirsch had grown up in LA, went to UCLA, and was a regular in the audience the first season of CHEERS. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.  (Ironically, we since have become lifelong friends.) 

I must admit it’s kind of fun to be recognized. But then the paparazzi is not hanging out in trees across the street, no one who isn't hungry is going through my garbage, and embarrassing selfies are not circulating around the internet. And I bet George Wendt is just a tad weary of people shouting “Norm!” at him wherever he goes.

So if you should ever see me, please stop and say hello. I apologize in advance for how I’m dressed.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My (sort of) 2014 Emmy Review

FULL DISCLOSURE: I didn’t watch a minute of the Emmys. I was teaching a class at USC. But that insignificant little technicality is not going to stop me.

Here is my snarky review of the 2014 Primetime Emmy telecast.

Let’s see how close my predictions came to what actually happened.

Since the Academy clearly has abandoned any delineation in categories – shows enter not based on their genre but on which category they think they can win in – the results were somewhat blurred.

Congratulations to THE WALKING DEAD for winning Best Comedy. Kudos to SUPER FUN NIGHT for winning Best Drama. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK walked away with Best Animated Series, and the 2013 EMMYCAST won Best Mini-series.

Stephen Colbert won the Best Guest Star Emmy for his appearance on THE COLBERT REPORT.

Tatiana Maslany was not even nominated for Best Actress in a Drama despite playing nine characters, each one brilliantly, so as far as I’m concerned no one won this year.

There was a long touching tribute to Robin Williams that made it seem his death was far more significant than all of the other industry people who passed away this year.

Seth Meyers had a few good jokes but made you long for the days when real television stars used to host the Emmys. Jimmy Fallon is now even too big.

Between the four major networks, they combined for a grand total of two Emmy wins.

DATING NAKED contestant, Jessie Nizewitz’s vagina won Best Guest Appearance in a Comedy.

Since NBC carried the Emmys this year the options were move the telecast to Monday to avoid a conflict with their Sunday night NFL game, or air on Sunday as usual but only in a little box in the right corner of the screen. They chose wrong.

But seriously, how important are the Emmys when they get bumped for an exhibition football game? Not even a regular season game. And not even teams that America gives a crap about -- A practice game between Arizona and Cincinnati, with a million players no one’s ever heard of. Of course, there were plenty of Emmy nominees and even shows that no one’s ever heard of either. Not to mention mystery presenters. There were at least two of them familiar only to TV editors of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.

Red Carpet host Sam Rubin mistook Mindy Kaling for Aziz Ansari.

Taylor Schilling was nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy. They didn’t show any of her funny clips because, well… there aren’t any.

If there was one absolute lock it was Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And along those lines, as a rule, if you won before you won again.

Next year the Emmys should be on Netflix and they can announce all the winners at once.

The comedy bits were forced and too long. (That’s my other lock.)

Aaron Paul, who Fox didn’t want us to hire for our pilot, won again. How many Fox stars won anything last night?

Matthew McConaughey is now a Tony away from the hat trick. Or Bryan Cranston is just an Oscar away from the hat trick.

Everyone fawned all over Matthew McConaughey because they were just so excited to have an actual MOVIE STAR in the house.   It was like TV's version of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN.   

Instead of wearing a gown, Lena Dunham had one tattooed to her body.

Shows that didn't win the big prize got consolation Emmys for acting or writing or two for lighting.

Matthew Weiner lost. But at least he has his movie coming out.

Ricky Gervais entertained the industry people in the room and completely ignored the home audience.  And he wonders why America hates him.

Next year Amazon will offer all TV Academy Members free shipping on their next purchase if they vote for one of their shows. Expect one of their shows to win.

GIRLS didn’t win shit.  Can we finally stop wasting valuable nominations on that show?

Congratulations to shows like THE GOOD WIFE, PARKS & REC, ORPHAN BLACK, SUITS, SONS OF ANARCHY, JUSTIFIED, MASTERS OF SEX, THE MIDDLE, THE AMERICANS, and actors Andy Samberg, Katey Sagal, Liv Schreiber, Matthew Rhys, Kerri Russell, Tim Oliphant, Walton Goggins, James Spader, Jeff Daniels (who WON last year), Gabriel Macht, Rick Hoffman, Neal McDonough, and of course, Tatiana Maslany for an Emmy winning year even though you weren’t nominated so that DOWNTON ABBEY and comedy powerhouse Kate Mulgrew could be.

So how’d I do? I’m sure I nailed it on SUPER FUN NIGHT winning Best Drama. I mean, it was its final year.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Emmys are now on Monday

Unfortunately, I won’t be watching the Emmys this year. I teach a class in comedy at USC on Monday nights. I secretly think that’s why the Emmys moved from Sunday, to avoid my snarky recaps. Yes, I could DVR them, start watching when I got home at midnight then stay up all night writing but that’s the kind of stuff you do when people pay you.   So what I shall do instead is write my review BEFORE the show.  After all, you KNOW what you are going to see. 

At least I have the option of not watching the Emmys. If you’re attending them you don’t have that luxury. One year David Isaacs and I were nominated for a CHEERS we wrote. At the time blue ribbon committees were assembled for a long weekend. Each committee was assigned a category and sat together to watch all the nominees. They each then filled out their ballots, ranking the contenders.

A few days before the ceremony I got a call from a friend who happened to be on the blue ribbon committee judging our category. He wanted to give us the heads-up that we had won. Our episode clearly received the best reaction; big laughs all the way through.

So I was really looking forward to the ceremony. David and I prepared our speeches and were ready to go.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Not only did we lose, but it was the very first award of the night. Now we had to sit there for three excruciating hours and watch happy winners and clunky self-congratulatory TV salutes.

The next day at the office we got several calls from other blue ribbon committee members who we didn’t know. They all said there must’ve been some mistake. To everyone’s knowledge we had won. They suggested we investigate.

The trouble is there’s no graceful way of doing that. What, we were going to demand a recount? They’d discover that yes, indeed, a mistake had been made and send somebody to the winner’s house to take the Emmy away from him and drop it off at my door instead? Or they’d do the recount and discover the results were in fact, accurate. Then we’d REALLY look like assholes.

No, we just had to suck it up. But it was a lonnnnnnnng night.

Best of luck to everyone tonight, even if others who weren’t nominated are more deserving or you’re in categories you have no business being in.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Best News Anchor faux pas this year

So far, but it's early.

Recommended comedy reading

Starting tomorrow I will again be teaching "The Foundations of Comedy" lecture course at USC.   I'll be surveying screen comedies, silent pictures, sitcoms, sketch comedy, stand up, improvisation, radio, screenwriting and playwrighting.   Some features I'll be screening include:  WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, THE LADY EVE, ANIMAL HOUSE, MIDNIGHT RUN, DR. STRANGELOVE, and BANANAS.   These are all films I recommend you watch although you won't get credit. 

More than that, it's the old expression:  You gotta be there.

I am however, sharing my reading list.  There are way more books and articles, but these should get you started. 

Required Reading---

Neil Simon – Odd Couple (play)

Recommended Reading --

John Vorhaus – The Comic Toolbox
Dan O’Shannon – What Are You Laughing At?
Ken Levine – Blog:
Woody Allen – Without Feathers
Woody Allen – Getting Even
Tad Friend - “What’s So Funny?”
John Morreall – “Historical Theories of Laughter”
Henri Bergson – Laughter, An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
Steve Martin – Born Standing Up
Douglas McKwan -- My Lush Life
Tina Fey – Bossypants
Marc Maron – Attempting Normal
Andy Goldberg – Improv Comedy
Mike Sacks – Poking a Dead Frog

I want a ten page paper on one of these topics from all of you by Friday.