Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Best of Levine & Isaacs

The topic of TV binge watching came up recently at lunch. My friend said, “You’ve written enough shows that you could probably fill an entire weekend.” I said, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to. Some things we wrote I wish we could have back. The fact that they’re still in syndication would bother me terribly if I wasn’t still getting residuals from them. So I can live with it. But he asked, “Could you assemble one full season that you’d be willing to binge on?” Figuring one season to be twenty-two episodes, I thought and said, “Sure.”

I’m still not going to do it, but in case any of you wish to binge on the Best of Levine & Isaacs, here are the episodes I would pick. Let me rephrase that – here are the episodes that are available to stream or rent I would pick. Some of our very best work is from series we created that are no longer in release.

So if you’re really sick one weekend, or starved for entertainment, or just want to punish yourself for some unspeakable thing you've done, here are my Top Twenty-Two:

Out of Sight/Out of Mind
Point of View
Merchant of Korea
Goodbye Radar part 1 and 2

Any Friend of Diane’s
Boys in the Bar
To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before
The Big Kiss Off
Jumping Jerks
Death Takes a Holiday on Ice
Bar Wars V… the Final Judgement
Heeeer’s Cliffy
Rat Girl

The Show Where Lilith Comes Back
Adventures in Paradise part 1 and 2
Room Service
Miss Right Now

Dancin’ Homer
Saturdays of Thunder

Noses Off

Let me know if you actually get through the entire twenty-two. Enjoy!

Monday, April 14, 2014


Marvel gets it. DC doesn’t. Comic book movies need to be fun. I mean, it’s a guy in tights defying the laws of physics, thrilling action scenes, and generally 20,000 innocent bystanders getting killed in the crossfire of all the mayhem and destruction. If you can’t have a good time with all of this, then what’s the point?

MAN OF STEEL was terrible. You’re supposed to want to BE Superman while watching the movie. Wouldn’t it be cool to fly and beat the shit out of anybody, and see anyone naked you wish? Yes, that’s juvenile but how old were we when we bought the comic books and fell in love with the character?   I don’t want to know that Superman is a tortured soul. A hot chick like Lois Lane would sleep with him in a second. Waa waa, he’s from another planet.

But Captain America is my kind of superdude. Yes, he’s got a nagging conscience but he’s 95 years old. We all have baggage. And it’s never enough to distract him from single-handedly beating the living crap out of a small army. You can feel good about human beings being flung into walls and crushed to death because they’re all wearing dark uniforms and it’s all in the service of the Good Old USA. I must confess, there were a few violent encounters with bad guys where I said, “Huh? You let him live? Why? Use your shield. Let’s see if you can swat the guy all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.” Chris Evans is likeable, earnest, and among women moviegoers, I bet there’s not a dry seat in the theater.

Even more fun for me was Scarlett Johansson as whatever-the-word for Catwoman is in Russian. She’s Jewish and she’s badass. Take that Nazis and sinister secret organizations planning on dominating the world (think: Time-Warner Cable).

And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, always good for some rollicking scene stealing. Even as he was saying, “Don’t trust anybody” I was ordering a Capital One card.

Anthony Mackie is Will Smith without the desperate need for an Oscar. Robert Redford has decided it’s time to appear in a movie that anyone will go see. It’s inspired stunt casting for the 20% of Marvel Universe fans who know who he is.

And then there’s Cobie Smulders. Spectacularly gorgeous as always and wisely not asked to be funny. When left to saying lines like, “heat shield in place” and “seven minutes to launch” she’s fine. The best thing about her performance is that she has amazing skin.

The story is a big conspiracy/explosion/car chase fest. THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR meets any Michael Bay film. But it moves at a nice clip, has enough Marvel lore to keep fans happy, and best of all, doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are funny lines throughout.

Naturally, the movie builds to a giant CGI-apalooza complete with thrills and spills and people taking punches that would kill a rhinoceros. But the suspense builds, the threat makes sense, and you get caught up in the film enough that you don’t ask the obvious question: Where the hell are the rest of the Avengers?

CAPTAIN AMERICA 2 is worth seeing. If Superman wants to brood over something, brood over how much better the Marvel filmmakers are than yours.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Before Craig Ferguson was a talk show host...

He guested on our series, ALMOST PERFECT. Nancy Travis juggles the love of her life with the job of her life (showrunning a cop show). Craig plays a former boyfriend in this, one of our better episodes.

NOTE: The table reading was a disaster and the staff wrote this entire script in one night. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

NBC is looking for new comedy writers

They've opened a competition searching for new comedy writers with fresh new ideas.  Best ones will result in pilots and maybe series on the network or their website.  Worth checking out.   Here's where you go.  

Again, I have no involvement in this.  I haven't checked out the fine print.  But who knows?  This could be YOUR lucky break.  If so, mention me when you win an Emmy. 

Art has been replaced by VORP

Baseball broadcasting on the radio used to be an art. Announcers were distinctive, passionate, colorful, and entertaining. Those days are sadly slipping away. Instead, the new breed of announcers are polished, generic, stat oriented, and often put you to sleep. 

Statistics have always been a big part of baseball. And a major crutch for announcers who have no imagination and nothing else to fill time with. Now with Sabermetrics and more detailed categories like VORP, DRS, FIP, EQA, WHIP and WAR number crunching has been taken to a whole new level. Not that these new stats aren’t informative and useful, but there is an avalanche of them. Certainly way more than the average baseball fan can process or wants to process.

And now the Houston Astros have mandated that these analytics be a prerequisite to their broadcasts. I feel especially sorry for their longtime TV announcer, Bill Brown. He’s a terrific play-by-play man. But now saddled with this emphasis on modern-day stats and a bad team, this was the rating for the Astros’ telecast last Monday against the Los Angeles Angels: 0.0. Let me repeat that number. 0.0. And this isn’t the end of the season when the team is mathematically eliminated. It’s their first homestand.  How is that even possible?  (And it wasn't the first time.) 

Yeah, WHIP and WAR really save the day.

Listeners want to hear storytellers. They want to be entertained. If they’re listening on the radio they want the game to come alive. They want the announcer to put them in the stadium through vivid descriptions. They want personality.

Statistics are fine in key game situations. Especially if the games have import. Playoff games, for example. Ninth innings.  Pennant races.   They can enhance a big moment.  But breaking down a batter’s average against a certain pitcher when he’s had only six at bats against him and it’s the second inning of a game in mid April – who gives a shit?

Why cater your broadcast to the diehard fans? A) There are not that many of them. B) They’ll listen no matter what you do. C) You chase away casual fans. Women (50.8% of the American population), in particular, tend not to care about Wins Above Replacements.

Who would you rather spend two hours with – a captivating storyteller or someone reading actuary tables?

With MLB.COM and Sirius/XM, baseball fans can now listen to out-of-town local broadcasts. Most are interchangeable. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear Vin Scully (the Dodgers), Jon Miller (the Giants), Marty Brennaman (Reds), Eric Nadel (Rangers), Jim Powell (Braves), Bob Uecker (Brewers), Pat Hughes (Cuts), and Howie Rose & Josh Lewin (Mets). There are other announcers who are also terrific, but these guys can make a game interesting even when their team is losing by 10 runs in the fourth inning. And they all have distinctive styles, voices, deliveries, opinions.

Yes, I'm old school, but give me Ernie Harwell, Bill King, Jack Buck, Dave Niehaus, Hank Greenwald, Lon Simmons, Harry Caray, Chuck Thompson, Bob Prince, Harry Kalas, Mark Holtz, and Jack Brickhouse.

Baseball broadcasts need showmanship, not additional deep-dish analysis. The only statistic that really counts is this: 0.0.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Questions

Happy Friday Question Day.

In light of the HIMYM series finale, Charles H. Bryan asks:

Do you think it's time that if a long running show hits a voluntarily final episode that maybe it should just be a regular episode (unless there's a really solid finale idea)? I mean, what's Modern Family going to do? Let us meet the documentary crew?

Personally? Yes. A half hour regular-sized finale would be my choice.  But last episodes usually get big audiences and networks want to take as much advantage of that as they can. They can sell the ad time at hugely inflated Superbowl-type rates. So they pressure the show into doing a longer episode. I should only be a showrunner in that position with a mega hit under my belt. There are worse problems.

But left to my own devices I would wrap up my series in one half hour episode. Some of the best finales did that. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND to name just a few.

Long finales tend to be filled with filler. Or they break the format so much they don't even seem like the same show.

I must say, of all the super long series finales, I think the CHEERS finale was the best. Glen & Les Charles wrote a great script and that last scene where everyone in the bar just sat around late at night talking was brilliant.

ally wonders:

Have you and David been through WGA arbitration over credit? What is that process like? Is it fair? And, just for giggles, have you ever wanted to take David to WGA arbitration?

Been through arbitrations as both a participant and arbiter (not on the same project however).

The studio sends in their proposed writing credit to the WGA. If it is at all different from just the original writer, all the writers concerned are invited to arbitrate it. Should a writer challenge the proposed credit he submits a personal statement, the credit he believes is valid, and all material he feels is pertinent (outlines, drafts, etc.). I believe three arbiters then read the material and evaluate.

The writers involved are only identified as “Writer A,” Writer B,” and so on. They don’t know who their arbiters are. The arbiters don’t know who the other arbiters are.

I was once an arbiter but recognized one of the writers. So I recused myself from the arbitration. The Guild tries to make the process as objective as possible.

There is a Credits Manual that defines the parameters of ownership and contribution. The arbiters must base their decisions on these parameters and not subjectivity. In other words, the second writer may have made the script much better but didn’t change the structure of the script enough to warrant credit. Just writing great jokes isn’t enough.

Sometimes arbitrations can get very complicated, especially with features. For THE FLINTSTONES movie I think there were forty some writers involved. It was insane.

Arbitration is not a perfect system, but there’s nothing better, and the WGA keeps fine-tuning to make it as fair as possible.

And finally, no, David and I have never taken each other to arbitration. Or marriage counseling.

And finally, from Question Mark:

What's the professional protocol for an inadvertently stolen joke? Like, you write or say a clever line that you think is coming from your brain....but after the line airs/prints, someone else clues you into the fact that, "hey, so-and-so used that same line in an episode of X two years ago." (In today's media age, I can't imagine how horrifying it would be for a writer to be alerted of their unconscious plagiarism via hundreds of snarky tweets.)

Embarrassment mostly. You just hope not too many people noticed. It happens. What’s inexcusable is doing it on purpose. Someone will pitch a joke, someone else in the room will say, “they did a joke just like that on THE MIDDLE” and the showrunner will say, “Yeah, well, that’s a different audience. No one will know. Let’s use it.”  I've been fortunate enough in my career to never have worked with showrunners like that.  If someone flags a joke or story idea as having already been done it's discarded immediately.  Happily, I would say the vast majority of showrunners fall into this category. 

What’s your Friday Question? 

PROGRAMMING NOTE:  I will be filling-in this morning for Marilu Henner on her three hour nationally syndicated radio program.  Check the listings in your local market or go here to listen.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

To prove what a gracious loser I am...

I congratulate Stephen Colbert on being named the replacement for David Letterman.  (Next to me) he's a great choice.  When people complain that he only plays a "character" they're grossly underestimating him.   He's extremely bright, personable, as quick-witted as Letterman or quicker, and he's a terrific interviewer.   I hope he brings a lot of his COLBERT REPORT writers with him.   If so, expect his monologues to be the best of the 11:30 bunch.   Colbert is also a terrific singer.  He's far more talented and versatile than many detractors give him credit for.

As much as it hurts, because I was already going to Ikea picking out my desk, CBS made a great choice.   I placed a call to Stephen to congratulate him.  He hasn't returned it.  Something about not knowing who the fuck I am.  But I'm sure at some point he will reach out.

And not to toot my own horn, but you haven't seen any gracious concession announcements from Craig Ferguson or Sarah Palin.   Show some class, guys.  Just cause I finished second...

Again, my heartiest best wishes to Stephen Colbert.  Just keep Darlene Love's annual Christmas performance and you'll have a nightly viewer in me.

(Anyone know when Kimmel's deal is up?)

Our attempt at SCANDAL in 1980

This is one of those “boy, have times changed” stories. I watch SCANDAL on ABC and it’s filled with corruption in the White House, conspiracies, murders, infidelities, and cover-ups – usually before the opening credits. Pretty much anything goes except necrophilia (although who knows what they have planned for next season?).

Every time I watch SCANDAL I shake my head. Not that I have any problems with it. It’s highly entertaining. But I can’t help thinking back to 1980 when David Isaacs and I sold a pilot to ABC.

The show was centered on the White House Press Corps. We’d follow these journalists and see all the behind-the-scenes activity that led to scoops, romance, competition, and intrigue. ABC bought the pitch in the room. They loved the premise.

There were just a few minor things they insisted on, but those shouldn’t have any effect on the integrity of the piece.

We were not allowed to show the president. They didn’t want the president to be a character. They were concerned that the audience would infer a political allegiance. This they didn’t want. So we were not allowed to specify which party the president was in.

They preferred if we did no politics. How do you do a show about the White House and have no politics? What was the press corps covering?

We spent several days traveling with the White House press corps. ALL they talked about was politics. We also noticed that photographs of the president were everywhere.

So we said to ABC, could we just show the photo of someone, a non-actor (my dad)? They preferred if we didn’t.

We struggled mightily through the first draft. ABC had a big problem. We named our commander-in-chief President Turner (as generic a name we could find). ABC insisted we don’t name him at all. He was only to be referred to as “the president.”

At that point we were writing THE WIZARD OF OZ. The second draft was like pulling teeth. Never had we turned in a script we believed in less. And God forbid if they picked it up. By week two we’d be out of stories.

Needless to say, the pilot didn’t get picked up. I think they felt it was still too controversial. We were never so happy to see a project die.

And today you have SCANDAL. Can you imagine if our pilot story was they discover the president was having an interracial affair? “Yeah, but we never mention him by name.”

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Why I should take over for Letterman

There is lots of speculation as to who will replace David Letterman. Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson, Ellen, Chelsea Handler (dear God),Louis CK, Neil Patrick Harris, and even Sarah Palin.

So if Sarah Palin’s name is mentioned with a straight face then I can throw my hat in the ring too. As long as it doesn’t interfere too much with my blogging or watching baseball, I’d like to take over the LATE SHOW.

I hear the money is great. And I could use this national platform to force the LA police department to reopen the Natalie Wood case.

I’d have to lie about my age though. Say I’m 30. I could pass as long as they stopped airing the show in HD.

I’ve never hosted a TV talk show and I was a writer for THE SIMPSONS, so I have the same qualifications as Conan.

I’ve never done stand up comedy, so Sarah Palin is one up on me there, but hey, who says I have to do a monologue anyway? I could read excerpts from my very funny book, MUST KILL TV (available on Kindle now for the absurdly low price of $2.99 and paperback too!) each night.

Singing and dancing might be a problem. I can't do either.  But talk show hosts who resort to that are only showing how desperate they are for attention. Whenever I see Jimmy Fallon do a spot-on impersonation, or an intricate dance number I can’t helping thinking “how very sad that he has to stoop this low.” So not having any real talent is, in this case, a plus, which is great for me.

As for a band, I noticed on Fallon’s premiere he had U2 but never used them again. What an oversight! I would just have U2 as my house band. Sorry, Paul. Time marches on.

For a co-host, and Les Moonves, none of the other candidates have suggested this – I’d go with Julie Chen.

Interviewing is certainly my strong suit. I’ve hosted many radio talk shows and as a baseball announcer I’ve conducted literally thousands of player interviews. “Emma Watson, great to have you. I hear you’re in a new movie and your hamstring is tight.”

As for guests, let’s shake it up. Why don’t I see more cartoon characters on the couch? Why no accordion players? No porn stars who would do anything for the exposure?

I would keep most of Dave’s staff. They’re terrific. But I’d want the show to move back to Los Angeles. Yes, it might be tough for two hundred families to relocate 3,000 miles but I wouldn’t be inconvenienced. And it’s that kind of thinking that sends the message to CBS that this guy has the right temperament to host a national show.

For the set I want to do something radically different. I’m going to put the desk and the couch on the right side of the stage, not the left like all those other losers. And in tribute to Dave, I’ll keep his backdrop. Yes, it might be confusing to have a New York backdrop for a show set in Los Angeles but that’s the kind of zany edgy thing I plan on doing.

I’m telling ya, I’d be perfect. I’m new, I’m fresh, my daughter lives close to CBS so I can just park on the street. And between my years in television and movies I can get any guest I want, except maybe Robert Wagner.

I’m planning the rally now. We’ll let you know where and when. But you can start by making placards now. Thanks. See ya on CBS.

NOTE:  David Isaacs and I will be on Stu Shostak's internet interview show today from 4-6 PDT/7-9 EDT.  We'll be talking about each others careers.  And it's good practice for me for when I take over for Letterman.