Sunday, January 21, 2018

High wire writing

Today I am participating in another one-day play exercise at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica. Five playwrights meet at the theatre at 9:00 am. We are all given the same topic and each handed headshots of the two actors who have been assigned to us. Based on that we each go off to our little corners and write a ten-minute play in three hours.

And there are certain restrictions. They all must take place in a café. (The program is called THE CAFÉ PLAYS.) On the stage is a small table, two chairs and a counter. No internal light cues, no tricky sound requirements. And for the sake of the poor actors who have to learn and perform these plays in only a few hours, no long monologues. Two or three sentences at the most per line.

At 12:30 the actors and directors arrive, receive their scripts and fan out into separate rehearsal spaces. I hear a table reading of my script, offer any insight into how I see it, and then I go home and nap for four hours. The directors stage and rehearse the plays, the actors memorize them, and at 7:30 and 9:00 they’re performed for generally sold-out audiences (the theatre seats 65).

It’s great fun and a real adrenaline rush. But it’s also nerve-wracking as hell. I’m always amazed at the results. Most of these plays are terrific, and the actors learn enough of their lines to pretty convincingly pull it off. It’s also so interesting to see how the same topic leads to five wildly different plays, both in terms of style and subject matter.  Imagination is a wonderful thing.

And at the end, for me as a playwright, I now have another ten-minute play. And I can always polish it at my leisure. A couple of the Café Plays I’ve written have gotten into other festivals. And the Ruskin provides bagels! Another advantage is being introduced to a bunch of really talented actors. It’s a win/win.

Writers always complain of not knowing what to write. They can’t think of a good idea. For some that’s an excuse but for many it’s a legitimate thing -- a form of writer’s block. But this exercise shows there are ways to break through that. Assign yourself a task. Imagine you will have two actors. They can be any age, gender, nationality. Pick a setting. A café, park bench, a street corner. And then pick a topic. It could be an expression, something you saw in the paper, an old cliché. The three I’ve had since participating were “The end of summer,” “The graveyard shift,” and “No good deed goes unpunished.” Pick one of those if you’d like.  You can even impose a time restriction if you like.  Sometimes not having all the time in the world to think about something is a good thing. 

The point is I’ve written plays on topics I never would have thought of had it not been for the exercise. You don’t need the world’s greatest, most unique, dazzling idea. You just need a topic and a relationship between two people. And bagels.

If you’re in LA, come see our Café Plays. They’re tonight and every third Sunday of the month.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

MY PLAYBILL -- Aren't you impressed?

When the musical I co-wrote was produced I was asked to submit my bio for the program. The trouble is, if I list that I am primarily a TV writer it’s like putting a big target on my chest for New York theatre critics. So I thought I’d fudge, tailor it a tad for the Broadway theatre crowd. And now I have a few full-length plays I hope will hit the Great White Way.  What do you think of this?

Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse whom he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.

Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, HAMILTON (it was originally about actor Hamilton Camp), OSLO, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).

An experimental work of his own played four nights in Los Angeles and three nights in Houston. It was called the 2017 WORLD SERIES.

He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Questions

Some Friday Questions and even answers.

Andy Rose starts us off:

If a show’s main set is due to be damaged in some way on camera and then fully restored later (the Cheers bar gutted by fire, Frank driving his car through the front door on Everybody Loves Raymond), do they typically damage the real set and then rebuild it, or do they build a temporary replacement that gets damaged in its place?

They build a duplicate set, or the part of the set needed. And it’s often not exact down to the letter because a car is going to go through and smash it in two seconds.

There was an episode of CHEERS that David Isaacs and I wrote where Cliff was distraught that his mother sold his boyhood home. So he chained himself to the main beam holding up the house. Eventually Norm uses a saw and cuts the beam, releasing him. Once they exit the house the second floor collapses and crashes down to the first, toilet and all. We did that live on the stage in front of the audience. Jimmy Burrows directed.  Needless to say, the audience went wild. 

But if the main set needs to be doctored, they often just pre-shoot the day before. Remember one of the Bar Wars episode of CHEERS (also written by me and David) when Woody is trapped in the bar area which has been enclosed by cinder blocks? We just shot that the day before.

From Don Burke:

How does a freelance director get hired? Is there a directory and the show runner rifles through a bunch of names? Is it just through personal relationships? Does a certain script come across the show runner's desk and he thinks "You know who'd be great for this? Ken Levine?" Just curious how certain directors get paired with certain shows/scripts.

Personal relationships help A LOT. Or recommendations. But networks and studios have lists. There are certain directors certain networks just like working with.

Agents also do a lot of the heavy lifting. They pitch directors to show runners. They pass out directors’ reels, etc.

And the reality is many freelance spots are filled by crew members of that show. An editor, First AD, camera coordinator, DP, writer might get that coveted one or two open slots.

Beth wonders:

Who (if anyone) keeps track of when royalties are due? Do people just take it on the honor system that they will get paid if they should? Do certain "groups" (i.e., actors vs writers vs directors vs various crew) keep better track than others?

The various Guilds police that. I can’t speak for all of them but with the WGA, you can now go on line and see what residuals you’ve received. And if there’s something you feel is missing you can call the Guild.

The truth is we all get cheated out of residuals.

VOLUNTEERS (a movie David Isaacs and I wrote) aired several times on ABC, for months on HBO, then in syndicated packages all over the country. We didn’t see a dime. I called the WGA. They investigated. David and I each received huge checks. But if I hadn’t flagged them we never would have received what we were owed.

There is no such thing as "the honor system" in Hollywood. 

Brad Apling queries:

What does your podcasting setup look like? Did you build a sound booth at home or you just plug a microphone into your laptop, setup your script, close the office door & fire away with stories and advice?

Here’s the beauty of radio (and podcasting) – everything is left to your imagination. Radio stations that I imagined looking like the bridge on the starship Enterprise were old shit piles. But boy did they have mystique.

So for my set-up, I’ll just say I do it at home with really excellent equipment. And I’ll let you picture the rest. Hint: think “Norad.”

Do you have a Friday Question? Please just leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A broadcasting lesson I learned the hard way

Sorry to hear that Ronn Owens will no longer be hosting a talk show on KGO radio in San Francisco. He’s been there for like 40 years. Considering you get a gold watch in radio if you stay on the same station for two months, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Ronn taught me the biggest lesson in hosting talk radio shows. And I was reminded of it recently when Jake Tapper shut down White House staffer Stephen Miller.

In 1980 I began hosting a talk show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. My shift was Saturday nights from 8-10. One week I arranged to have Sid Caesar as my guest. Caesar was one of the funniest men in the history of television. He hosted a 90-minute live prime time variety show on NBC in the early ‘50s that was a huge hit. Ever see the movie MY FAVORITE YEAR? That was based on Sid Caesar’s show. Writers of Caesar’s show at various times included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner (who also co-starred), Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen among others. The Mount Rushmore of comedy. Anyway, Caesar was BIG. There’s not even an equivalent in TV I can think of today. B-I-G.

And I got him as a guest. How cool was that?

He arrived at the station and we went on the air at 8:00. I had not realized that Sid had a drinking problem during that period. He got on the air and was surly and abrupt and started snapping at the callers. Needless to say, the phones lines went dead. Who wanted to be denigrated by Sid Caesar? Well, that left only ME. It was just me and him the rest of the hour. Picture the domestic fight scenes in I, TONYA.

The next morning I called Ronn and reported this – how mean he was, what a nightmare for me it was, etc. He listened calmly and finally said, “It was your fault.”


He said it was my show and I should never give up control of it. I should always be prepared with enough other material to talk about so that if I have a bad guest I could get rid of him pronto. He said I should have gotten to the first commercial break, said “Our guest has been Sid Caesar and we’ll be back after this” and send him on his way.

I said, “Yeah, but he came all the way over here from the valley and…” Ronn cut me off. “Who gives a shit? He’s killing YOUR show.”

He was right, of course. And I have always heeded that advice. There have been times when I’ve had to abort interviews (Jose Canseco jumps to mind) and other times when there were technical difficulties and I couldn’t take callers. I always am armed with articles and other topics to fill with.

Jake Tapper must know that rule too. When Stephen Miller became unhinged, Tapper said, “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time,” thanked him, turned to another camera, promoted the next guest, and threw it to break. Miller was gone.

Setting aside politics (if I were interviewing Obama and he suddenly starting flipping out and being abusive I’d cut him off too), to me this shows the value of experience. I always felt terribly embarrassed that I had to learn this particular lesson on a major Los Angeles radio station. Yes, we all make mistakes and we all are green, but that’s what smaller markets or weekend all-night shows are for. Unexpected things happen on live radio and TV. How the host handles them is where the rubber meets the road. All too often these days hosts are hired for their bombast or shtick. My first thought when I watched the Tapper-Miller interview was not what a loon Miller was, but what a pro Tapper was. There’s a lot to be said for experience and professionalism. In all professions.

NOTE: Stephen Miller will not be a guest on my podcast.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

EP55: Let’s Do Lunch!

Power lunches are a Hollywood tradition and this week Ken examines the rituals and which restaurants mean you have a viable career.    Ken also shares some personal lunch tales -- some good, some not so good but all entertaining. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

RIP Hugh Wilson

So sorry to hear that Hugh Wilson has passed away. He was 74 -- waaaaaay too young. Hugh created WKRP IN CINCINNATI, some other terrific series like FRANK’S PLACE, EASY STREET, and THE AMAZING TEDDY Z. And he became a movie director, megging the first POLICE ACADEMY (hey, it was a huge hit and spawned 37 sequels), FIRST WIVES CLUB, BLAST FROM THE PAST, and one of my favorite rarely-seen-today films, RUSTLER’S RHAPSODY.

I first met Hugh in 1977 when my writing partner, David Isaacs and I got our first staff job, which was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM. Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses were the showrunners, but the other two staffers were Gary David Goldberg (sadly, now gone too) and Hugh Wilson.

Hugh could not have been more welcoming and fun. We were nervous, needless to say, but Hugh really helped us come out of our shell. I believe he was originally from Atlanta (although my memory might be faulty). In any event, he had kind of a good-old-boy demeanor. He never lacked for confidence but instilled confidence in you as well. And he had a unique comic way of getting across his message. In wondering if David and I were Jewish he said, “So are you a couple of them boys from the college?”

Another thing about Hugh, he really knew his stuff. His suggestions were great, his joke pitches hilarious, and it all seemed to come so easily. He also directed some episodes for us and was the same unflappable guy we saw in the writers’ room. When he later graduated to film directing I wasn’t surprised in the least. Nor was I surprised by his success.

We left TONY RANDALL to join the staff of MASH after the first season so really didn’t get the chance to spend much time with him over the subsequent years. As a radio guy myself I loved WKRP and called him on several occasions to praise the show. And over the years we would each offer writer recommendations.

I’ll remember Hugh Wilson for his talent, his spirit, his David Letterman gap-tooth grin, and kindness to a couple of young rubes. And I’ll think of you more than just “once in a while.”

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

If they ever did a re-boot of MASH

The new TV trend is to do reboots of classic TV series. WILL & GRACE, X-FILES, ROSEANNE, FULL HOUSE, and others are in the works including MAD ABOUT YOU.

So what about MASH? Why not? As a former writer of MASH, I hope they enlist me to write it. A couple of scenes might look something like this:



I don’t think this is going to work. The prunes gum up the works.

I’d walk over there and help you but my arthritis is too bad.

Save your hands for surgery.

I’ve lost every patient for the last month. I wish someone would invent a drug to relieve arthritis, even if the side-effects were death, blindness, suicidal tendencies, nausea, and seizures.

This damn war. I hate it.

How long has the Korean War lasted so far?

Two years, but I swear it feels like 65.


Have you guys seen my teddy bear?

You’re holding him.

Oh. Right.





I don’t hear them.

Trust us.

Okay. Say, have you seen my teddy bear?




Damn! Lost another one.

How long is this inhuman nightmare going to continue? I’ve been on my feet for forty-five minutes.

HAWKEYE (to Hot Lips)
Hey Margaret, after this, how about we go back to my place and share a heating pad?

Sorry doctor. We’re having a party for Nurse Bigelow who’s walking for the first time since she got a new hip.

Well, I’ll keep my teeth in just in case.

KLINGER ENTERS in a dress.

Klinger, when did you go back to wearing a dress?

I am?

I hate war.

I’ve taken enough shrapnel out of this kid’s chest to build a Buick.

I’ve said that before?


So what’s everyone going to do after the war?

Me?  Well I plan on becoming the Chief Surgeon at Massachusetts General. And hope I can go three months before forced retirement.

Become a role model for the sensitive man. (to Hot Lips) Did you get that X-Ray of my groin I sent you?

I’m going back to Toledo. Sure wish I didn’t have four heart attacks and could still eat Paco’s hot dogs.

I’m going to do dinner theater.


Well, as you know my daughter Erin was born after I was shipped out. So I’m going to see her for the first time and also my granddaughter who’s now twelve. God, this has been a tough two years in Korea.






Monday, January 15, 2018


Okay, first of all I’m not a STAR WARS fanboy. I couldn’t recite the legend. I don’t remember if Chewbacca is really Princess Leia’s nephew or R2D2 is Darth Vader’s life coach. I just go to enjoy a rollicking space adventure film. I know who Luke Skywalker and the gang from the original STAR WARS are. And I know that family trees are important and everyone is searching for their father and when they find him they cry. Since we already have and STAR WARS is in the future, you’d think it’s just matter of signing up for the six months free subscription. But I digress.

Point number two: I loved the original STAR WARS, clunky dialogue aside. I saw a preview screening before it was released and knew nothing at all about it. So I went in with zero expectations and was just blown away. No episode since has had the same affect, but that’s to be expected. So I don’t go into a STAR WARS movie ready to be knocked on my ass.

Point number three: These latest chapters are not targeted to my demographic. They throw us a bone by including Luke Skywalker and Leia and our favorite droids, but this is STAR WARS 2.0. It’s Rey’s world and Adam Driver has graduated from going backdoor on Lena Dunham to the new Darth Vader. Supporting rebel fighters prove that the Resistance now embraces diversity. And creatures in rubber masks round out the players. So if I don’t walk out of the theater with my world rocked, Disney is not going to give a shit.

But I do go into these movies wanting to like them. I want thrilling action scquences, swashbuckling lightsaber duals, space dogfights, overcoming incredible odds, dazzling special effects, heroics, villains dying horribly, magic, cliffhangers, exotic planets, comic moments, betrayal, mythology, advanced technology, a club scene featuring bizarre benign-looking aliens, combat, force fields, laser beams, explosions – and THE LAST JEDI had all of those. Every one.

And I was soooo bored.

Everything was expertly executed. But it was like watching ROCKY 17. The same tropes, the same storylines, the same jeopardy, the same goals, the same everything. They could have cut up the last two STAR WARS movies and reassembled them in a different order and I’d be hard-pressed to know the difference. Sorry. On it’s own or if it had been the first STAR WARS chapter I might have been completely awed. But all I could think during the movie was “why am I so bored? Giant alien ostriches are stampeding through an enormous casino sending space creatures flying while Rey and Adam Driver are using their lightsabers to chop down red storm troopers on a set left over from BARBARELLA and John Williams score is blaring and I’m checking my watch.

The movie was also bittersweet because of Carrie Fisher.

Disney will keep making these chapters until they drive the franchise into the ground.  And for now they make still take in big bucks although a new STAR WARS movie is no longer such a big event.  And as well-crafted as these new chapters may be, to me they still feel a little, well... forced.