Monday, March 19, 2018

Will the real David Letterman please stand up?

It’s been a Letterman weekend. The OPEN ALL NIGHT clip I posted Saturday and then I watched his new Netflix series where he conducts in depth interviews. The one I watched (of course) was the one with Barack Obama.

Obama, of course, was magnificent. Charming, funny, articulate, smart, and caring. But what struck me was Letterman. I thought to myself, “Who is this guy?” It’s like he’s adopted a new public persona.

This David Letterman has grown a ridiculous gray beard, let himself go, and now seems to pass himself off as a man of great conscience and concern for humanity. Huh? We see him walking the bridge in Selma with John Lewis and at one point to Obama he makes this confession that when the Civil Rights marchers were there originally he was on a cruise to the Bahamas, and he almost mists up when he says, “Why wasn’t I in Selma?” WTF? David Letterman a freedom fighter? He made it sound like he’s been haunted by this guilt his entire life. That’s a lovely sentiment, but I’m sorry, I don’t believe it for a second.

I have been a fan of David Letterman’s dating back to when I first knew him as an aspiring stand-up at the Comedy Store in the mid-‘70s. I LOVED his NBC morning show, also loved his NBC late night show, and thought his CBS show was… okay. But in every case he was playing a “character.” Originally the wholesome kid from the Midwest who had a mischievous edge eventually morphing into a cranky curmudgeon and now an… I dunno, national treasure? But none of those are really Dave.

At first he was a very ambitious young man. Eventually he became very sullen, very bitter (why I don’t know), very closed off.

But all the years I’ve watched him, both on stage and on television I never feel I’m seeing a genuine person. And it's one thing if you’re a comic and do your one hour set. Steve Martin is not a wild & crazy guy. But if you’re going to be on television for an hour a night for thirty years I would like to think I’m getting to actually know you. Jimmy Kimmel feels more genuine to me. So does Jon Stewart. Even John Oliver. Yes, he’s revved up but I get the sense that’s the real him.

David Letterman keeps trying on characters. Maybe the problem is HE doesn’t really know who he is. But I'll become a much bigger fan when he figures it out. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

If you have no plans for tonight

And in you're in the LA magnificent megalopolis, come see a Cafe Play I wrote for the Ruskin Theatre Group in Santa Monica.   These are plays we wrote this morning, are being rehearsed now, and performed tonight at 7:30 and 9:00.  Here are details.  It's always a fun night.  Say hello if you come.  I'll be there for both shows. 

The comedy rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Lakers tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. 

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Here's a TV rarity

There was a very short-lived show called OPEN ALL NIGHT.  I believe it was 1981.  It lasted 13 weeks on ABC.  David Isaacs and I wrote two of the episodes and appeared in one.  Shockingly, we were nominated for a WGA Award for one of our OPEN ALL NIGHT episodes.  (Yes, we lost. The show was off the air by then and the company disbanded.)   But it was a very funny show about an all-night convenience store created and ran by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, who produced the best years of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.

The show was very nutty.  And from time to time they had bizarre cameos.  Here's one of strangest.  David Letterman on OPEN ALL NIGHT. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday Questions

This turned out to be an all MASH Friday Question day.

Joe starts with a question about the MASH article that ran in the Hollywood Reporter a few weeks ago.

Great article, but I have one question, Ken. They said Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart both left after season 4, but Gene stayed another year, right?

Also, he was listed as a creative consultant for the rest of the show. How much was he involved when you and David were running the writers room?

Yes, Gene stayed for season five and was the showrunner. He left after that to run LOU GRANT for MTM. But he remained a consultant.

Once a week, David Isaacs, Burt Metcalfe, and I would go up to Gene’s house with outlines. Gene would go over them and make suggestions for improvements. It was a weekly master class on story structure. I can’t begin to calculate how much I learned from those sessions. Gene has the uncanny ability to hear a story and almost instantly know what’s wrong with it and what would make it better.

To this day, when I’m stuck on a story I think to myself: What would Gene do?  He's the best I ever worked with in that department. 

From Pete Grossman:

The show was peppered with Yiddish words - Hawkeye yelling "Dreck!" (Shit) during the river of liver and ocean of fish scene; "Mazel Tov" (Good Luck [said with a congratulatory tone] uttered from Pat Morita's character; Col. Potter responding with "Emis" [truth] later in the show's run. For the last one, I remember watching it with my father when it first aired and my dad asking me, "How does Col. Potter know Yiddish?" Sure, there's a certain conceit, but wondering how much it was discussed if at all, as most of the population isn't quite up on their "farshtand" (understanding) of the language. Thanks!

I suspect that was Larry Gelbart’s sensibility. And I think it stems not so much from Larry trying to make the characters more Jewish but from his love of words and language. Larry was always looking for colorful words and expressions you might not expect. It’s one of the many reasons his writing was so sharp and layered.

Podcast listener Chris Dellecese asks:

Why did Henry Blake get a huge goodbye episode on MASH but nothing for Trapper John? Did it involve the timing of who left when?

The producers knew ahead of time that McLean was leaving the end of season three. So they had time to plan his exit.

Wayne decided not to come back after the season wrapped. So Gelbart & Reynolds just had to explain away his disappearance. Whether he was asked to come back and do a farewell show or not, that I don’t know. That all happened a year before David and I came aboard.

But when Larry Linville left after season five we invited him back for the season six opener to explain away Frank Burn’s departure, but he chose not to return.

And finally, from Cedric Hohnstadt:

You've written before that flaws are what make characters interesting and entertaining. During a recent bout of insomnia I was lying in bed trying to think through the flaws of various MASH characters. I got stuck when I came to BJ. Hawkeye could be idealistic, impulsive, mischievous, womanizing, and a bit self-righteous. BJ, on the other hand, was mostly just a warm, friendly family man - intelligent and funny but (aside from an occasional mischievous streak) he was overall a very balanced and grounded guy. I'm sure that made him a good compliment to Hawkeye but I would think there was also a real danger of him becoming a "vanilla" character. How did you get around that problem?

There was a huge distinction between Hawkeye and B.J.   B.J. had a mustache. 

But seriously, it was a problem. We tried to make him more stubborn than Hawkeye, more obsessive with patients, a practical joker, and we gave him a higher moral standard than Hawkeye. There were times when B.J. and Hawkeye would clash over medical treatment. Still, we felt somewhat handcuffed by B.J.’s lack of flaws. Mike Farrell is such a wonderful actor and if I'm being honest, there were times he was not well served. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Levine & Isaacs partnership process

Here’s a three-part Friday Question that takes up a whole post. It’s from Mike Bloodworth and is about my longtime partnership with David Isaacs.

I know some writers prefer to write alone, but previously you've stated that there are advantages to having a partner. However, did you always agree on scripts? Did you ever feel reluctant to compromise on a line? How often, if ever was there conflict?

No, we don’t always agree. And sometimes the arguments have gotten spirited. But the key is we never make it personal. We can argue tooth-and-nail over some story point and then break for lunch and talk about baseball.

When it comes to specific lines, we have a rule. If one of us pitches a joke the other doesn’t spark to and can’t convince him in like two minutes we just throw the line out completely and go for something entirely different. Usually it takes less time to come up with something new than to argue over a line and ultimately one person is unhappy.

All that said, for the most part we're in agreement.  

The key to this and the partnership in general is that you have to have respect for your partner’s opinion and talent. So if I pitch a joke and David thinks we can do better I trust his judgment.

Do you guys have specialties? Having worked with you I know that you're a great "straight man." Is one of you better at set ups, punch lines, story, exposition, etc.?

No, we’re surprisingly similar. Normally we work head-to-head. But early in our career we would take one script assignment a year and break it up. I would write one act and David would write the other. We would then put them together and do the polish together. I swear, you couldn’t tell who wrote which act.

One difference is that very early on I tended to go to fast and David tended to go too slow. We were each a good influence on each other.

Eventually we fell into a groove and write together at a good comfortable clip.

And as for jokes, people always ask if I wrote a certain joke and I tell them I don’t remember. It sounds like I’m being coy, but the truth is one of us will pitch a joke, the other will modify it, and together we will further shape it. So I really don’t remember.

Not all Lennon and McCartney songs were written by both John and Paul together, especially toward the end of the Beatles. Was every Levine & Isaacs written by both of you? Or is that billing just part of your agreement?

Every Levine & Isaacs script was written by both of us. In some cases one more than the other, but that’s the value of a partnership. If one of us had the flu and the script had to be in by Friday the healthy one would do the lion’s share of the work on that draft. Or if I was off doing baseball, one of us would take the first draft and the other would then do the second draft. Then we always did the final polish together.

But the overwhelming majority of our scripts were written with me and David in a room together dictating to a writers’ assistant.

Every partnership is different. There is no right or wrong way to collaborate. It depends on you. But this is our process and I’d say it works for us since we’ve been partners for over 120 years.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

EP63: Ben Mankiewicz, The Voice of TCM

Ken interviews TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. They discuss TCM, how the network works, how he works, classic movies, his career, and even a little baseball.  It’s movie buff heaven.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Pilot season update

All of the networks are in the process of casting their pilots for the upcoming TV season. Having been a part of that on numerous occasions I can tell you it’s the world’s most insane version of musical chairs.

Actors race from audition to audition. Producers must decide quickly because often someone they think might possibly be good for a role is on the verge of taking something else. Do you take him pre-emptively or keep looking? Might somebody better come along? Or will it turn out you let the best guy get away?  It's maddening!

Like swallows returning to Capistrano, New York actors fly in for pilot season. These are the casting Olympics. It’s a wild time and everything is up in the air.

But here’s what I’m seeing more and more now: Deadline Hollywood, the online trade website de jour, posts announcements on who’s been cast in what pilot. And invariably, I’d say almost 100%, it’s an actor who has already been in at least one series. They’ll have his name and in parentheses, the show or shows he’s been in before.

So my question is: How does a new actor break in? What do you have to do? It’s not like these actors with a previous series are necessarily that great. A third of them will be fired during pilot production or after. Do the networks really believe that someone who was a supporting player on THE REAL O’NEALS has a big enough fan base that he’ll actually bring in an audience?

Having done primarily multi-camera pilots I do see where it’s an advantage to hire people who have had multi-cam experience. They’re used to working in front of an audience. They’re used to memorizing entire scripts. But you get that with theatre actors too. You don’t need someone who had a recurring role on DR. KEN.

I feel bad for young actors. I wish I had the answer. But just know that if you somehow, someway DO break in, then all the network casting people who dismissed you two years ago for a one-line part will today be shoving your name down the throats of producers with ultimatums to use you or else.

And so it goes in pilot season.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


WARNING: Political Post. If you’re a Trump supporter, have a lovely day. We’ll hopefully see you tomorrow.

WARNING #2: I moderate comments so any pro-Trump rant gets deleted. Yes, I know, that’s not very democratic of me. Complain to the unbiased folks at Fox News.

Now to the post.

Oh joy! Our fucking idiot toxic treasonous elected official (I can’t even bring myself to use any term even resembling “leader”) is coming to California today.

First he’s going to San Diego to see prototypes of this ridiculous wall that will never be built. I guess he doesn’t realize that the people of Mexico know about ladders. You’d think he would tour the Navy base there, but I doubt he even knows there’s a Navy base there. I doubt he even knows we have Navy bases. I’m sure he’ll be disappointed that the Gaslamp area of San Diego has been cleaned up and his favorite strip joints are gone. Expect him to try to endear himself to the San Diego population by wearing a Chargers hat.

Then he goes up to LA for a fundraiser in Beverly Hills. This will result in road closings. Obama used to come and it was a mess. But at least we knew a day or two in advance what the road closures were. As of yesterday they weren’t divulging that information. Why? The location of the fundraiser is being kept secret for fear of protests.

You can bet that when those roads are closed today the protesters will be there, letting our scumbag-in-chief know that he’s as welcome as the Bubonic Plague.

Did you ever think the day would come when the president of the United States would have to sneak into town like a wanted fugitive? In an American city? It used to be an honor to host the president of the United States. Even if he was from the other party. You might disagree with him politically but you were at least sure that he was trying his best to preserve Democracy and improve the public’s way of life. This guy’s only focus is to stay out of a prison and keep Stormy Daniels from telling the world he’s a lousy lay.

No industry people will be at this Beverly Hills fundraiser. In fact, there is talk that if one does go he’ll be blackballed in Hollywood. They want donors to pay $230,000 to attend. Who can afford that other than gun manufacturers? My guess is for that kind of money they can hold the fundraiser in one bungalow in the Beverly Hills Hotel. And by the way, there will be a protest at 4:00 in Beverly Hills by the political group Union Del Barrio regardless of where this fundraiser/hideout is.

The governor invited our irresponsible lying disgrace to humanity to visit the state’s high-speed rail construction projects. “You see, in California we are focusing on bridges, not wall,” Governor Brown said in a letter to our Shithead-in-chief, but since it wasn’t wrapped in a Happy Meal it was never read.

Tonight he plans to stay at our 73 story downtown hotel thus closing off two blocks in every direction and wreaking havoc, which is the only thing he can successfully do.

He’s only here for one day, thank goodness. The next time he visits I hope it’s to stay in San Quentin, and then he can remain for the rest of his life.

Since there will be a lot of traffic today I’ll just stay home and ship off ladders.