Saturday, January 31, 2015
Hi, I’m Ken Levine – a TV writer, playwright and a blogger – quick plug: Ken Levine dot blogspot dot com – and I’m back for the final night of hosting TCM’s “Friday Night Spotlight” on Neil Simon. And right now we have my all-time favorite of his films. It’s “The Heartbreak Kid,” from 1972 starring Charles Grodin, Cybil Shepherd, also Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin.
This is a very atypical Neil Simon film – quite dark – with a screenplay based on a short story by Bruce J. Friedman. There aren’t a ton of Simon jokes and wisecracks here. It’s very satirical, very dry, very Jewish and the humor comes mostly from hypocrisy.
Grodin plays a total cad – a guy who only gets married because his girlfriend – Jeannie Berlin – won’t sleep with him until they’re legal. But of course, their first night together is horrible – at least, according to him.
They drive to Miami for his honeymoon anyway, and while there he proceeds to fall in love with a wasp-y beauty, played by Cybil Shepherd.
You’ll find yourself laughing at his sheer audacity.
And Eddie Albert steals absolutely every scene he’s in.
Here’s the film, with Neil Simon himself in a cameo as one of the wedding guests. From 1972 – “The Heartbreak Kid.”
I love that movie. It’s sick and twisted – but the absurdity is played so straight, so dry, so earnest. I think a lot of the credit goes to director Elaine May for establishing the tone.
There’s also that scene with the egg salad – i mean, will you ever eat an egg salad sandwich again? Or not use sunblock?
In 2007, there was a remake of “The Heartbreak Kid” done by the Farelly Brothers starring Ben Stiller, but it was not faithful to the original story by Bruce J. Friedman and it was, I have to say, awful. For the record, Neil Simon was not associated with it.
Up next is another great Neil Simon movie – with a screenplay based on one of Simon’s own Broadway productions. On stage, it starred Peter Falk and Lee Grant – on film, it’s Jack Lemmon and Ann Bancroft. (The Prisoner of Second Avenue)
Friday, January 30, 2015
But we begin with my all-time favorite Neil Simon film, HEARTBREAK KID. The fun and my schtick begins at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST.
Okay, now some Friday Questions.
Charles H. Bryan starts us off:
So how did you become aware of the TCM gig (or it of you)?
They approached me. I had done a tribute piece on Neil Simon and the folks at TCM were fans of the blog. (who knew???)
What this illustrates is – you never know. I always maintain that you make your own momentum. Doing this blog everyday I don’t know what opportunities (if any) it will bring. But it’s an active activity, a chance to practice and hone my craft, and I suspect I’ll have a better chance of good things happening if I’m productive as opposed to just sitting home waiting for the phone to ring (which, you know never does). Make the phone ring.
What’s the best spec pilot you read that networks turned down.
You can read it here. (Thanks to reader Calvin)
If someone came to you and offered you the Network Suit Job would you take it, or would you be afraid it would suck all the joy out of the business for you?
Would you WANT to be the guy who accepts/rejects shows?
I would not want a corporate job. That’s so not me. Wearing a suit, having to be in the office every morning, “reporting” to people, maneuvering office politics, following marching orders from on-high, and rejecting a lot of my friends would drive me up a wall.
And then there’s the frustration of getting scripts back that are disappointing. If I was a showrunner I could just rewrite them to my satisfaction. But I couldn’t do that in this case. All I could do is give notes and hope the writer rises to the occasion. And when ultimately the script goes up the food chain and is still disappointing, I’ll get blamed for it as much as the writer. Who needs that shit?
To be the guy who selects the shows that get on the air (and face it, those are the only decisions that really matter) I would have to be the network president. No one is going to give me that job off the street. So I would be reduced to standing back while others made the major decisions.
No thank you. I’d much rather be the guy creating and making shows then the one shaping them to fit someone else's agenda.
Now this may seem like I’m knocking network executives. I’m not. I’m pointing out that they have incredibly frustrating jobs, and their success hinges on other people and their ability to deliver the goods. They get beat up by their superiors, beat up by writers and agents and studio executives. They constantly walk a political tightrope. And they have to listen to a million inane unfunny obvious pitches. My heart goes out to them.
And finally: Julia Littleton wonders:
Do you ever find it useful as a writer to watch something really terrible to get a sense of perspective and revisit some of the don'ts of comedy writing?
No. It’s just painful. I don’t need to be reminded that there’s a lot of crap out there. I’d much rather spend my time seeking shows and artists I can admire.
I’m sure for a lot of writers there is a certain comfort in watching shit and knowing they’re better. But I would rather watch great material and push myself to be better.
What’s your Friday Question? And again, thanks for watching me on TCM this month.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
I thought I got fired a lot, but Lee Baby worked in the following markets: Charleston, Orlando, San Antonio, Hartford, Cleveland, San Diego (twice), San Antonio (three times), Detroit, Los Angeles (four times), Miami, Santa Rosa, San Francisco (twice), Honolulu, and Phoenix. A grand total of 27 stations.
Lee Baby Sims was fearless, and obviously paid the price (along with a lot of apartment security deposits). No format could really hold him.
But when he was on his game there was no one more brilliant. First off, he used his voice like a fine Stradivarius violin. His inflections, smooth delivery, and cadence were both soothing and thrilling at the same time. How do you do that? How does anyone do that? No one could imitate him because no one had the pipes and the feel for that unique delivery. It was like word jazz -- music all its own that fit in perfectly with the music he was talking over.
Like everything else about Lee Baby Simms, it’s hard to describe his style other than “all his own.” He was sort of a cross between the Beat generation and Woodstock generation. A hipster/hippie. Somewhat like the Fonz in that by including you in his circle he made you feel cool (even though, if you were like me, you were anything but).
And it felt genuine, not an act. He shared his real feelings, his honest opinions, his candid observations – and that’s what got him fired more often than not.
Back in his heyday, the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were usually two competing Top 40 stations in any given town. One was usually the powerhouse and then there was “the other one.” For the most part, Lee Baby always worked for the “other one.” I can relate. So did I. The powerhouse was generally heavily structured while the competitor was looser; trying anything they could to attract an audience. The competitor took more chances (he had nothing to lose) and tended to hire more “personalities.” And so, as many times as Lee got fired, there were always program directors willing to hire him because he was just so fucking good.
Lee Baby was also not the luckiest guy in the world. I remember when he was at KCBQ in San Diego. There was an opening at CKLW in Detroit (a MAJOR powerhouse). So he taped his show one night and sent it. That tape has made the rounds. It’s phenomenal; Lee at his best. Lee didn’t get hired. But the newsman on the tape did.
The problem with always being on “the other station” is that your ratings tended to suck. So there was zero stability. Those stations were throwing anything against the wall, so they would frequently change formats, fire program directors, adopt new music policies. How many times was Lee Baby just a victim of all these upheavals? Like I said, not lucky.
Lee Baby Simms deserved more recognition. He deserved to be in whatever Halls of Fame the radio industry concocts. He was a true original and a shining example of how radio could be great. He elevated the medium to an art form. Pity he was never really appreciated in his time. RIP Lee Baby. You were the best.
Here's a sample of his work. Listen. Thanks to friend of the blog, David Kruh.
Thanks to Gary Mack for the photo of Lee Baby at KCBQ, San Diego.
The Patriots won the AFC Championship supposedly with under-inflated footballs. (As a result they beat Indianapolis 45-7 instead of 45-14.)
Football has become America’s favorite sport thanks to us and our leadership.
The Cowboys eliminated Detroit from the playoffs essentially thanks to one of the worst calls in history. And then it was discovered that the head of officiating had been on the Cowboys’ party bus.
We here at the NFL take great pride in presenting a product we can all be proud of.
An NFL player clocked his wife in an elevator, all captured by video, and the incident completely mishandled by the commissioner. The player ultimately was given a two game suspension.
Our players are role models for society.
Another player, (from the Carolina Panthers) was convicted of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and received no punishment from his team or the league.
An NFL quarterback served time for torturing animals but then returned to the league and was welcomed with open arms.
We at the NFL reward leadership.
A pro-bowler and former MVP of a Super Bowl was involved in stabbing two men.
The mission of Player Engagement is to optimize and revolutionize the personal and professional growth of football players through continuous guidance and support before, during and beyond their NFL experience.
In 2007 17 Minnesota Vikings were accused of throwing a sex party on a boat and doing things with dildos that usually require consent.
Our goal is to serve and assist as a resource for parents, coaches and athletes in using football as a catalyst to build and develop life skills for success.
There have been 715 arrests of NFL players since 2000 – 85 for domestic violence.
NFL Life provides current NFL players with personal and professional development resources, while supporting and educating players’ families to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by their NFL experience.
The 2006 Cincinnati Bengals were in double-digits in player arrests. But in fairness, they haven’t had more than four a year since.
Above all else, we at the NFL promote good sportsmanship.
In 2012 the New Orleans Saints had a “bounty” system, cash bonuses for injuring opposing players.
So we hope you’ll enjoy this Sunday’s Super Bowl. On behalf of the altruistic owners, model citizen players, and hard working PR staff, we at the NFL will continue to dedicate ourselves to providing you with a product worthy of your allegiance and trust. (Hey, what are the chances we can get Janet Jackson to do the halftime show again?)
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
My driver’s license was up for renewal. In the past they’ve let me do that online. Not this time. I guess they figure my picture is so old it looks more like my son than me.
Every time I go to the DMV I can expect confusion, crowds, and the wrong forms. I can also expect it’ll take the entire day.
Now in California they let you make appointments, which is great… except you have to make them months in advance. My license is up in a few weeks. The first appointment I could make was for early March. So that option is gone.
At this point it becomes a challenge to see if I can beat the system.
The first question is which DMV to target? Are any less crowded? Are any more efficient? Which has the fewest number of crack heads sitting in your row? For the answer to that I went to check Google reviews of the various Westside DMV’s. These proved to be no help. Culver City, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood all seemed to get the same mixed reviews. Half the people thought they were fine, the other half thought they were Guantanamo. Some said they waited for four hours. A few said they were in and out in five minutes? Unless the DMV was open during Monday's East Coast blizzard I can’t imagine how that could be possible. If Obama showed up to renew his license it would still take forty-five minutes because the computers would be out.
I decided on Santa Monica. I just figured I’d be mingling with a higher class of crack heads and gang members.
Next question: When is the best time to go if you don’t have an appointment? If you wander in at 10:30 in the morning or 1:30 in the afternoon you’re a blithering idiot. You’ll be there longer than it took to film BOYHOOD.
One reviewer said to show up at the very end of the day. If they close at 5:00 and you get there at 4:30 it’ll be clear sailing. He may be right, but it’s a schlep to get across town. And if he’s wrong then I’ve wasted an entire afternoon for nothing.
At 8:00 they opened the doors and we charged to the START HERE counter. Within seconds the back-and-forth line looked a TSA checkpoint. By force of habit I started taking off my shoes. I was assigned a letter and a number and told to go to the waiting area and wait to be called. In only ten minutes I was called. Sweet, except I had already been waiting an hour.
As expected, there was confusion. I was there two minutes and someone else approached saying they were called for this window. Actually, they had been called but never responded so the clerk moved on. They didn’t understand the system. You have a number. They call your number. How difficult is it to understand that system? But apparently it was. They were sent back to the START WINDOW and I’m sure, never heard from again.
Sure enough, the computer wasn’t working. I asked if this happens often and the clerk said he didn’t know. How long had he been working there I wondered? Several years. So… sitting at the same computer for a several years he didn’t know if the shutdown was a regular thing or an anomaly? Ohhh-kay. After about ten minutes it slowly returned to life.
Maybe it’s because I was in the army but I’m always nervous when talking to government employees at windows. He’s going to check the wrong box and I’m going to have to repeat Basic Training.
I didn’t have to take any driving tests or written exams, but I did have to take an eye test. There are eye charts placed periodically behind the windows and I was asked to read one (which I did fine). But depending on which window you were at the top line was either 20/30 or 20/80. I would not use this system to determine your prescription.
I had to take a thumbprint of my right thumb. I just placed it on this electronic pad. I had to do it four times. It wasn’t working. This must be the same company that made the thumbprint software for iPhones.
Finally, I was given my form and sent to get my photo taken. Here too there was a line, but only three ahead of me. There was a problem with this computer. It took twenty minutes before I reached the front of the line. Seriously, if you arrive at 10:30 you’re at the DMV until Haley’s Comet returns.
I had to take a thumbprint of my left thumb. This electronic pad didn’t work either. Three times was a charm. For the photo I was told to take off my glasses. I always wear my glasses when driving, but whatever.
And that was that. A grand total of 1:45 hours, counting my wait outside the building. I felt like I had won THE AMAZING RACE. For the DMV that was lightening. As for my review, I have to say that all the clerks were very pleasant. It can’t be easy processing all of us nimrods for eight hours a day. Which takes me to this, one of my favorite scenes of all-time. It’s from TAXI. Reverend Jim goes to the DMV to get his license. It was written by Glen & Les Charles. I bet, in real life, these clerks have seen this and worse.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
I can't think of a sentence I've ever written more bizarre than that. Why he is on Pinterest is a total mystery to me, as well as how. I guess one of his social media pals signed him up.
He’s already on Facebook. At his request a few years ago I signed him up. At first he was into it. I’d get emails from former high school girlfriends and showrunners saying, “Hey, your dad befriended me.”
God bless him that he wants to stay current. And it’s not like he’s posting baby pictures of me for TBT so I’ve got no problem. But it just speaks to how widespread this notion of social media has become.
I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Dad on Pinterest makes more sense than me on Linkedin. I never use it except to endorse friends. I don’t think Lincoln Center is going to produce my play based on reading my Linkedin profile. I actually tried to unsubscribe to Linkedin and it won’t let me. I am signed up for life and beyond. In fact, I’ve somehow gotten “connect” requests from a person I know has died. Linkedin must really have reach.
I got on these sites initially to help drive traffic to my blog. But I must confess I spend way more time on Facebook than I anticipated. It’s nice to keep up with people who otherwise would fly under my radar. On the other hand, I never know what to do when someone announces a loved one has died or they have been diagnosed with some disease. How do you click “like?’”
I also tend not to comment on someone’s status because I then get email alerts anytime anyone else also comments. So if someone says their 104 year-old grandmother died, if I offer a condolence my in-box will be filled with 160 emails from people I don’t know also offering sympathy.
It bothers me that social media sites create whole new areas of unintentional inconsideration. I look like an asshole because I didn’t congratulate someone for some posted achievement or offer sympathy for some loss when the truth is I just wasn’t on Facebook for a few days and missed it. If someone is nominated for an Emmy and I don’t congratulate him is he going to think I’m jealous and resentful? Again, what an asshole I am! Forget that I had a power outage at my house and couldn’t get on line for two days and everything in my freezer spoiled.
And then there are Facebook friends who I am very fond of personally but think their politics are insane. So I never “like” anything they post. And eventually I become afraid of them.
When I post something I try to make it humorous. But as a comedy writer I feel almost obligated to. Plus, I don’t have cute cats so what else am I gonna post?
Same with Twitter. It’s a forum to toss out one-liners. I don’t get to hear actual laughter, but I can judge how successful the jokes are by the number of people who retweet me. Twenty retweets = one guffaw.
On Twitter I’m an asshole because I don’t automatically follow people who follow me. I don’t even know most of these people. I follow a few select folks whose tweets are either funny or about baseball. So again, I apologize. And ask you, how can you follow 10,000 people? When do you have time for anything else? And of the 10,000, how many are actually interesting? Six? Why not just follow them?
So I continue to participate in social media. You’re welcome to follow me on @KenLevine on Twitter if you so desire. I’ll try to be funny enough so you don’t unfollow me. That’s another way to judge my one-liners. I post one and a half hour later twenty people unfollow me. That also equals a guffaw, by the way.
I’m not on Pininterest yet. I’ll have to ask Dad what the advantage is.
Monday, January 26, 2015
Just caught a NY Post article from the end of November (okay, I don’t usually read the NY Post, especially if there’s no A-Rod scandal). It’s by Robert Rorke and it’s entitled DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW TO FIX NETWORK COMEDIES?
In the article he claims the new crop of sitcoms did not catch on because they’re not funny. I don’t disagree with him. But the problem comes when trying to answer the question he poses – does anyone know how to fix them?
He basically claims that the answer is no and sitcoms, long rumored to be dead, might indeed be endangered species.
I respectfully disagree.
A writer friend of mine offered this suggestion on his Facebook page. Here’s who he feels is to blame: THE. PEOPLE. IN. CHARGE.
And to that I say ABSOLUTELY. The network executives were the ones who chose the projects, chose the writers, noted them to death, and then made more cast changes based on research.
What I don’t know is this: Were these show unfunny because the writers were not that good, or were they bowing to dogmatic network directives that flattened and destroyed their product? Probably a mixture of the two.
But what I do know is there are a lot of talented writers who are no longer on the development slates. Writers who have proven track records. What track records do the “deciders” have?
(DISCLAIMER: I'm talking about other writers, not myself. I'm quite happy writing plays, blogs, and sharing factoids about Neil Simon.)
At a time when networks are operating exclusively out of fear, when suddenly they all are scrambling to hastily develop the next EMPIRE because it did well in the ratings for three weeks, it’s understandable to see why sitcoms are suffering. Networks by and large, are hiring writers who they trust (read: will take their notes without objection), basing their decisions on faulty research, and at all costs are avoiding unique visions, projects not geared directly to specific demographics, or writers who might question their brilliant suggestions.
And let’s be real – this is not going to change. I can bitch all I want. I'm trying to hold back the Pacific Ocean with a broom. And when sitcoms don’t catch on these same executives will claim the reason is that the public has lost its appetite for comedy. That’s what they ALWAYS say.
And it’s bullshit.
Here’s what I think will ultimately happen. People always love to laugh. They will flock to shows that do make them laugh – legitimately make them laugh (not occasionally smile over quirky characters or pithy pop culture references), and they don’t care whether they’re on NBC, TBS, their computer, their phone, or (soon) their watch.
Networks will die before sitcoms.
And that's what we call "the last laugh."
Sunday, January 25, 2015
I've posted this before, years ago, but it's one of my all-time favorites. Do you remember a comedian named Gallagher? I think he's still around. His basic act was smashing watermelons. When he performed in Cerritos, California in 1999 the LA Times reviewed it. The review was so hilarious and scathing I had to keep it. And share it. If you can imagine the thinking that
could have produced such a staggeringly ill-conceived show, you laugh
twice as hard.
And so, as a public service to anyone even thinking of attending an upcoming Gallagher show if he's still touring, here is this LA Times review.
Comedy: Promoted for Latinos, Gallagher's pseudo-Spanish show is a litany of degrading stereotypes and insults.By ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ, Times Staff Writer
Hmm. How to put this delicately? We'll simplify: Mime-like, stringy-haired man in black hat smashes food with mallet on stage for living. Man, who no espeakey no Spanish, hears Spanish, thinks Spanish good, Spanish muy muy dinero. Man spends one month learning important Spanish words such as cerveza, caca and culo (butt). Man invents Spanish words, such as "sperm-o" and "embarazamante." Man decides this is enough Spanish to put on show for Latinos. Man smashes pinatas, wears giant sombrero and shakes keg-sized maracas. Man mocks Jews and gays and women and constipated old people. Man thinks he is muy funny comedian-o.
Man hopes all Spanish-speakers agree.
But wait. There's more. Mucho more.
Man rents hall in Cerritos. Man advertises "Gallagher en espanol: La Fiesta Grande" on Spanish radio. Man hopes thousands will come. Two hundred come, many with children and babies and old (possibly constipated) people. Man babbles for three hours Thursday night in "language" neither English nor Spanish. Language heretofore known as Gallagher-bonics. Next day, executive director of Cerritos Center for Performing Arts issues statement stressing that "Gallagher show was a rental event and not produced or presented by the Cerritos Center."
Man hires dance troupe to open show. Man performing for mostly Mexican American audience. Dance troupe, called Salsa Kids, performs Puerto Rican dance style. Male dancers wear guayaveras, the four-pocket shirts worn by old Cuban men in Miami. Mexican American audience appears unimpressed. Stone faces say: Ugh, bad medicine. "Is this like ballroom?" a woman in the audience asks. "My sister, she's taking that ballroom dancing."
Show goes on.
First nine rows of audience are in white plastic chairs. People in white plastic chairs equipped with clear plastic bag to wear over clothes because later mayonnaise and refried beans will spew over them. Signs warn: Cuidado, Piso Resbaloso. Wet floor. Man shoots water on audience from giant penguin after salsa dancers leave stage.
Other man named Vic Dunlop, a comedian hired to help because he supposedly speaks Espanol, takes stage. Dunlop wears Mexican blanket, sombrero and glasses with eyes painted on them. Makes jokes about black people and blind people in bad Spanish. Says show is sponsored by Culo Cola, the soda with the taste of an expletive. In audience, Debra Garcia, 50, is bored and thinks the show immature and plans to leave early.
Man appears with penguin and yells, "Como? Este hombre no esta en mi show. Vamanos."
Second assistant "comedian" who actually does speak Spanish comes on stage. Her name is Dyana Ortelli and she is Mexican American and makes a living mocking Jennifer Lopez's bottom, stereotyping Chicanos, and wearing bad wig and no pants. Ortelli helps man throw chocolate at crowd. Man says: "Quien no tengo chocolate?" Translation: Who I don't have chocolate? No one sure what he is saying.
Man introduces Chupacabras. Chupacabras is goat-sucking monster seen in Puerto Rico three years ago. Man in ape suit pretends to be goat-sucking monster. Man forces child onto stage with monster. Man asks: "Quien tiene mas pelo de Chupacabra?" Translation: Who has more hair of Chupacabras? Child makes disgusted face, jumps off stage. Ortelli looks sad. Man babbles about goat-sucker: "Es muy fuerze, es muy fuerza." Translation: Is very strength. No one laughs. Man frustrated. Tries to say "espectaculo," which means "show," but says "specta-culo," which sort of means butt-gazer.
Man calls for rock band. Fulano de Tal, from Miami, plays well. Man wears giant parachute dress and dances. Man spray-paints a lie on the back wall: Yo No Soy Gringo. Man says in Spanish that he is a cowboy. Man says he is newborn Mexican and caresses his naked hairy belly.
Man tells joke about bear and rabbit pooping.
Man gathers audience volunteers for Mexican hat dance. Says "Tengo un muchacha" over and over. No one laughs. Man says "Culo, culito" until people laugh. Man says "moco" for extra humor. Man is tired of trying. Man says in English "I need a beer." Man curses under breath off mike, but audience hears anyway.
Man begins dumping buckets of food onto plates. Man stops trying to speak Spanish. Man gives up and speaks English. Man says: "We were expecting a big crowd tonight and we're going to do a show for a big crowd anyway" because the crowd is small and shrinking. Man is booed again. Man yells: "It's the Fourth of July weekend, you don't got no place to go so just shut up." Man hits Pop Tarts with tennis racquet. Man says "Un muchacho quiero comer," which means "I want to eat a boy" and the boys look scared.
Many people who paid between $21.50 and $26.50 per ticket walk out as man flashes white underpants and yells culo, culo, culo and cerveza. Man angry Latinos have no sense of humor. Man throws egg and marshmallows at old woman and baby as they waddle out of theater. Man calls old woman vulgar name in English. Man spits beer on children. Some in audience too polite to leave. Others impolite enough to boo. One courageous enough to hurl a lunchbox-sized chunk of watermelon at man's head.
Man smashes food with 16-pound mallet. Man says, inexplicably, "Todo el mouthwash el hits me en el crotch-o." Man sings "La Cucaracha."
Man smashes more food. Show over. Man bows. Man slips on floor.