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.

Monday, March 12, 2018

It's easier to write them than go to them

When you make your travel plans, try not to fly to New York during a Nor’easter. Back from Fun City, where I was really lucky to get INTO Fun City. I had a play in the ANDTheatre Company’s One Act Festival and was excited to see it. After all, this was my first time on Broadway. Okay, well… Broadway adjacent. But it was just around the corner from the Stephen Colbert theatre, so that’s not… Rochester.

We were leaving Los Angeles on Wednesday, just when the storm hit. Our flight wasn’t until 2:34 PM. I woke up and checked the JetBlue website. Every JFK-bound flight was canceled… except for ours. And the two or three taking off that night. I signed up for text alerts fully expecting “DELAY: Now leaving June 1st.” Shockingly, the flight took off on time. Needless to say it was jammed as they squeezed in as many of the canceled travelers as they could.

During the flight I was able to watch live TV. They had the local NY stations, all of whom had STORMWATCH COVERAGE. In LA, we have STORMWATCH COVERAGE if it drizzles. But the scenes I was seeing were horrifying. Adorable Millennial field reporters (all with darling first names like Stacy and Nina and long names with lots of consonants –we support diversity) standing in snow up to their hips with howling winds and snow gusts, saying things like: “We’ve lost New Jersey. It’s gone. No one can find it.” Yikes. Traffic reports declared that the Long Island Railroad was shut down in many areas and thousands of commuters were stranded. The Top level of the Verrazano Bridge was closed. There were fifteen shots of buried cars and guys who looked like Kevin James trying to dig them out. And this is what we were flying into.

Man, this play better be great.

The snow had mostly let up by the time we landed (on time and on the tarmac). But getting into the city was an ordeal.

Let me stop here and say NEVER EVER EVER use Carmel Car Service. The worst. We had pre-arranged a car with them. We were instructed to call when we were ready to leave. We did, they told us where to wait and said it was would be five to seven minutes. Twenty minutes went by. I called again. They put me through to the dispatcher. "A half hour, probably an hour, but maybe sooner so please stand out there." It was 34 degrees and snowing. I said, don’t you pre-arrange a car? That’s why we reserved ahead. “Sorry” was his nonchalant response. NEVER use Carmel Car Service. And please tell your friends. We called LYFT and a guy was there in three minutes.

So we made it into Manhattan. Fortunately, the storm was only one day. Most of the city was sufficiently plowed by Thursday and a hiker found New Jersey on Saturday.

The rest of the weekend was fine. Cold, but I didn’t need to put chains on my boots to walk around.

Happily, the play was GREAT. The whole program was terrific, but I was blessed with a fantastic director, Scotty Watson, and a stellar cast of Michelle Conti and Emmanuel Elpenord. They really crushed it. Big laughs (which is my meth). Thanks also to Kristine Niven for including my play, THE HOOK UP in your program.
Added bonus, I got to meet a few of my blog readers and podcast listeners.

I must say, it was a thrill to have a theatre piece done in New York. That’s always been a dream. When I was in college and Neil Simon was churning out hit plays year after year, I thought that might be a good way to make a living. Maybe live in a nice brownstone, write a play a year, get it on Broadway, make a fortune, sell the movie rights and have Jane Fonda star in it even though she’s not funny. So why did I go to LA and try my luck in TV instead?


Thank God for them (with apologies to New Jersey).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The one word to look out for

Now with YouTube, everybody makes videos. HD cameras are so inexpensive that full-length films can be produced on a shoestring budget. Recording an album no longer requires a million bucks. You can do all the engineering and processing on your iMac Mini.

But what the new technology still can’t do is provide feedback.

You still have to show it to your friends and get their reactions. But rarely, if ever, are you going to get an honest appraisal. They’re not going to insult you. They’re going to be very diplomatic. You have to learn to read between the lines.

Here’s what people say when they really hate something.

“That was really fun.”

If you hear “fun” you’re doomed.

It used to be “Well, you did it!” or “How did you do it?” or “That was something else!” but those are so old school. “That was really fun” is both a veiled compliment and right up to date.

My favorite left-handed compliment came the night of the big industry screening for VOLUNTEERS, the Tom Hanks/John Candy movie that David Isaacs and I wrote. We’re standing in the lobby receiving guests. It’s me, David, and to my right – Walter Parkes, one of the producers.

People are coming up congratulating us until one woman took our Walter's hands in hers, looked him straight into the eye with a pained expression, and said, “Oh Walter, we love you anyway.”


I laughed so hard I almost fell over.

We live in a time of superlatives. Awesome now means okay, perfect means acceptable, and epic means it will be remembered for four hours.  So "fun" has been elevated to where it now means sucks. 

Oh, for those days when people were honest and told you “I never knew you had it in ya.”  So beware of false flattery. 

I know what you're thinking.  You want to go to the comments section and respond to this post by saying "that was fun."  I'm ahead of you.   You'll have to be more creative. 

Note: For those new to the blog -- whenever I can't find an appropriate photo to go along with the subject matter I post a picture of Natalie Wood.  And the investigation has been re-opened, ya know?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The NEW Annie Hall

Or should I say the "old" Annie Hall?   A senior center in Manhattan has done a reboot of the Woody Allen classic ANNIE HALL. 

I'll pause here for a moment to say this is not about Woody Allen to hopefully cut down on all the angry comments like "how can you support a child molester?" etc.    Will this disclaimer do any good?  Probably not, but remember I moderate all comments.  This is about Annie Hall not Woody Allen.

The New York Times recently did a story about this re-boot, which you can find here.  

Two young filmmakers found that Alzheimer patients sparked to old movies and experienced temporary improvement.  Eventually the filmmakers decided to do a 30 minute version of ANNIE HALL casting all senior citizens.  There are no plans for its release, but Woody Allen has given them his blessing and apparently the project was a huge success. 

Having spent a lot of time dealing with an aging parent in a skilled nursing facility, I can instantly see the value that having a real "project" could mean to these people.   Whether I ever get to see the finished product or not I give it a thumbs up. 

Sometimes MAKING a motion picture is more important than the picture itself. 

Photo from NY Times.