Sunday, April 23, 2017

One of my favorite scenes

Of those that remember a movie my partner David Isaacs and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS, the scene most recall is the “what is time again?” scene. So here it is.

To refresh, it’s 1962 and Tom Hanks plays Lawrence, a spoiled preppy who takes his roommate’s place in the Peace Corps in Thailand to avoid a gambling debt. He befriends At Toon, a Thai villager. They’re kidnapped and brought to the lair of Chung Mee, a fierce warlord. To spoof all those characters who spoke so cryptically in these types of movies we decided to have Chung Mee speak exclusively in cryptic double-speak.

INT. CHUNG MEE’S DINING ROOM – DAY

A spacious atrium. Chung Mee, financed by the CIA, has loads of household gadgets – blenders, air conditioners, etc., none of which work on account of there’s no electricity. It’s the thought that counts. Instead of air conditioning, an AGED MAN pulls the rope for an overhead fan.

Chung Mee is feeding fish raw meat as At Toon and Lawrence are brought in by the huge sumo guards. Chung Mee has an unlit cigar in his mouth. He dips the end in a brandy snifter.

LAWRENCE
This is nothing. My parents have friends who are twice this pretentious.

CHUNG MEE
The bridge you are building. When will it be completed?

LAWRENCE
The bridge? You’re interested in our bridge. Here you go –

He takes a wooden match and strikes it along the stubble of one of the monster sumo guards presenting Chung Mee with a light. A frantic scuffle ensues, but Chung Mee stays cool and accepts the light, eyeing Lawrence shrewdly through the smoke.

LAWRENCE
We’ve got a fine young man working on it, but it’s hard to say. Why do you want to know?

CHUNG MEE
Opium is my business. The bridge means more traffic. More traffic means more business. More business means more money. More money means more power.

LAWRENCE
Before I commit that to memory, would there be anything in this for me?

CHUNG MEE
Speed is important in business. Time is money.

LAWRENCE
No, you said opium is money.

CHUNG MEE
Money is money. And money is my objective.

LAWRENCE
Then what is time again?

CHUNG MEE
When the bridge is completed, you can have whatever you need.

LAWRENCE
Got it. (to At) And they told me to go on those interviews at Yale. (to Chung Mee) Well, gosh. Of course, for now, I’d want to run things in Loong Ta. And then, when I’m ready to leave, passage to Bangkok and a plane ticket to America. And – it’s hardly worth mentioning – twenty-eight thousand dollars in cash. I have some library books overdue.

AT TOON
Nice knowin’ you.

CHUNG MEE
I want the bridge finished in six weeks or you are finished in seven.

AT TOON
(to Chung Mee) You’re goin’ along with that?

LAWRENCE
No problem, commander. The bridge is yours.

CHUNG MEE
And you are mine.

LAWRENCE
It’s only fair.

A door opens and a beautiful Eurasian WOMAN enters. She wears a slinky low-cut dress and gloves. She is obviously the most enchanting creature Lawrence has ever seen.

CHUNG MEE
Business is completed. After business comes pleasure. Pleasure is also my business.

LAWRENCE
For me?

CHUNG MEE
If I say “yes” and not “no.”

AT TOON
You want me to translate?

LAWRENCE
Got it. (to Chung Mee) A little incentive. You’re a sly boots. (walking to the woman) Lawrence Bourne the Third, junior partner. And you, of course, would be…

LUCILLE
My name is Lucille.

NOTE: Lucille speaks English with a very thick Chinese accent. It’s indecipherable, so her words are always SUBTITLED.

LAWRENCE
Pardon me?

LUCILLE
My name is Lucille.

LAWRENCE
What?

CHUNG MEE
Lucille! Her name is Lucille!

LAWRENCE
Oh, Lucille. That’s highly erotic. How did you get a name like that?

LUCILLE
My mother was English.

LAWRENCE
What?

CHUNG MEE
(losing patience) That is her name!

LAWRENCE
She’s staying for dinner, of course.

CHUNG MEE
Yes, but you are leaving.

LAWRENCE
Right now? I just got here. (sidles closer to Lucille, sotto) What do you see in him? Are you a chubby chaser?

Lucille grabs Lawrence’s hand and bends the fingers back. He winces in pain.

CHUNG MEE
Lucille is my bodyguard. She doesn’t like it when my orders are questioned.

Chung Mee snaps his fingers and Lucille releases Lawrence.

LAWRENCE
Thank God my fly was zipped.

Chung Mee snaps his fingers again. The two henchmen grab Lawrence and At, leading them out.

LAWRENCE
Glad to be aboard.

AT TOON
Thank you for dinner and not killing us.

LAWRENCE
I’m free any night. Lucille… Did I mention that back home I own a Corvette?

The group exits.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Where were you in 1991?

I recently came upon the baseball play-by-play demo I made while with the Baltimore Orioles.  This is the demo that got me the job with the Seattle Mariners.   It's somewhat unique so I thought I'd share it.  Most people back then (1991) just sent cassette tapes, usually of a half-inning.   And some began with a few highlights. 

I thought, to be different, I would make a video presentation.  I would marry my radio call to the TV picture so the viewer could see how well I called the action along with hearing me.   Also, I figured if they had something to watch they might not get bored.  I imagine after the tenth audio tape the listener just zoned out.

During that season ESPN did a profile feature on me. That served as the perfect introduction plus it included some pretty nifty highlights.   

Disclaimer:  I'm a better announcer today.  This was my first year.   And big glasses were the style back then.  I have no excuse for the helmet hair.

Enjoy and please be kind.
 

Ken Levine Demo by stusshow

Friday, April 21, 2017

My S.I. article on Dave Niehaus

I wrote an article for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED recently on Hall of Fame Broadcaster, Dave Niehaus. He was my partner with the Seattle Mariners and a great friend.   In the Northwest he is beloved.  Recently it went up on line so I thought I would share it with you.   You can find it here.   "My oh my" I miss that guy.

Friday Questions

The tradition continues. Here are more Friday Questions.

John asks:

When an audience sitcom does a double-length episode - like Frasier's 'Three Dates and a Break Up' or 'Shutout In Seattle' - are both parts recorded in the same night, or does it still take two weeks to shoot?

Thanks!

Sometimes they are. You need a quick director and a good cast willing to learn twice as much dialogue. Jim Burrows used to do two-parters on CHEERS in one night. Andy Fickman recently did a two-parter of KEVIN CAN WAIT in one night.

Other times the shows will be filmed in two weeks. As a director I’ve never filmed two shows in one night. But I’m sure not Mr. Burrows or Mr. Fickman.

There is another method called a Wrap Around. You break down one episode into scenes and after filming an episode in front of the audience you piggyback one additional scene from that other script. After six or seven weeks you’ve cobbled together an extra show.

TAXI used to do this. There would be wrap around scenes at the beginning and end where the characters would be at a bar. Example: They all got fired, all got new jobs, and reconnected to catch up on each other’s lives. Then each vignette was shown. That way only one actor per week had an additional scene to rehearse and learn. Eventually that story was put together as a two-parter.

Anthony wonders:

How do multicamera sitcoms handle the use of recurring sets that are used over and over again, although infrequently? For instance, Frasier's bedroom looks almost the same both early in the show's run and later. Others that come to mind are Melville's on Cheers and Nemo's restuarant on Everybody Loves Raymond. Are these sets that are created once and recycled back onto the stage, as needed? Or are they created new every time the script calls for it?

The studio has a warehouse where these sets are stored. They’re folded up and transferred to these cavernous structures. Paramount’s was way up in Valencia somewhere. Trucks transport the sets in the wee small hours.

Certain sets, like restaurants, get redressed. So the Italian restaurant you see on NCIS becomes a French restaurant on NCIS: LOS ANGELES.

Johnny Walker has a question after listening to my podcast.  Have you listened?  Right under the masthead is a big gold arrow.  Just click on it.  Thanks Johnny, I was able to sneak in a plug. 

Just listened to episode 14, and now I have some Friday Questions :)

- Have you ever had any blowback from a comment you made on the air? Was the wife of one of the players listening while you slagged off her husband and it got back to them? (Sorry if you've answered that before!)

In the minors once I had a pitcher approach me furious over what I had said about him the night before. He claimed I announced his age was 30. He was right. I did do that. But it was because he WAS 30. Still, he shouted, I had no business telling people that. The irony of this story is that he became my best friend on the team.

There have been stories in the minors of players so pissed at announcers that they actually go up to the booth, in uniform, to beat the shit out of them. In almost all cases, sanity returned and the announcer escaped serious injury. But still. Yikes.

My first year with the Mariners I was calling the third inning and noticed we hadn’t scored a run in the third inning in weeks. So I started calling it the “third inning of death.” Ken Griffey Jr. heard about it and one day at the batting cage he was giving me shit. I said I would stop doing it when they scored a run. He said they were going to score six runs that night in the third inning. But if they did I had to shave my head. I happily took that bet, got Kenny to record a bit for it that I played on the air and then told my audience about it at the start of the inning.

The first two Mariners get on base. Jr. pops out of the dugout and points up at the booth at me. Then the next guy strikes out and guy after him hits into a doubleplay. End of inning. As Kenny took his position in centerfield I stood up and ran my fingers through my long hair.

I don’t think they ever scored six runs in the third inning.

And finally, from Ed:

Bob Miller, long-time LA Kings broadcaster, ended his career on (this month). I know you're not a "hockey guy" but are a sports fan and have been connected to the LA sports broadcasting scene. Any comments on his career? It's not just the end of his era - it's the end of an era where your market had Vin Scully, Chick Hearn and Bob Miller all serving as the broadcast voices of LA teams.

Bob Miller was a wonderful hockey announcer, but more than that he is the nicest most down-to-earth guy you’d ever want to meet. Besides doing a spectacular job of calling hockey play-by-play (at that dizzying pace), he is also so genuine on the air. I know him a little from being in the Southern California Sportscasters Association and that’s the real him. Cheerful, warm, and extremely talented – Kings’ fans were so fortunate to have Bob Miller for the last 44 seasons. And he got to parade around the Stanley Cup twice.

I’m sure he’ll approach retirement like everything else – with zeal and vigor. Thanks, Bob, for thrilling calls and warm companionship.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Vote YES for Strike Authorization

I know it sounds strange, but the best way for WGA members to AVOID a strike is to vote YES to authorize it. 

Huh? you may be saying.

Here's why:  Management is just waiting to see how committed the WGA is to strike.   If the Guild sends a resounding message that it is solidly behind our negotiating committee the producers will be way more willing to hammer out a deal and be done with it.   They don't really want a strike either.  They're making $51 billion in profit a year -- why throw a monkey wrench into that? 

If however, the Guild does not give Strike Authorization, or even tepid support, then the producers will let us go on strike, let us suffer, and then give us nothing -- knowing the membership is apt to cave.    The worst of both worlds. 

The only leverage our negotiating committee has is the threat of a strike.  Take that away and we're screwed. 

Young writers might be saying, "But I'm just starting out.  This is a bad time for me to go on strike."  Well, first of all, it's never a good time.  But I feel your pain.  I really do.  I was once in that position myself.   And yes, it requires sacrifice and stalls career momentum.   But think of this:  All of the things that current writers receive -- residuals, decent minimums, credit protection, health & welfare -- those only became reality because writers before you were willing to go out on strike.   We all owe them a great debt.  Believe me, studios would pay $50 an episode if they could get away with it.  $75 for a full screenplay.  So it's time for the current membership to do their part.  

And for you young writers -- who will ultimately get the benefit of a good contract in 2017?   You will. 

Look, I've been through four strikes.  They suck.  They're a hardship on everybody.  But the alternative is losing our health coverage, any previous gains, mega-corporations making billions off of our work and not sharing in any of it, and no protection against bad pay, negligible royalties, and exclusivity clauses that force writers out of work.   You think striking for a month or so is bad?  How about being held to an exclusive contract and not working for a year? 

I've read some comments on industry websites from writers who say if you don't want a strike vote no.   That's idiotic.  Or extremely selfish.  Or cowardice.  Or all three.   

And for you members who say, "Hey, I'm just one vote.  What difference does one vote make?"  I say to you: remember last November? 

Even if you don't really care, even if you passionately don't want a strike, even if you normally don't vote -- this time VOTE.   And vote YES.    We're facing a bully, and how's the only way to deal with one?  By standing up to the son of a bitch.    This is a critical moment in our industry's future.  Do the right thing, the responsible thing, the smart thing:   VOTE YES on Strike Authorization.

WGA members -- here's where you go.  Just click this link.

Thanks and here's to a peaceful and FAIR settlement. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Episode 16: Misc-Takes: Avoiding the Casting Couch & Hollywood Parties


Ken shares five different stories this week – how to avoid the “casting couch,” how to rewrite Neil Simon (if you dare), Hollywood screenings, what not to do at Hollywood parties (a painful but hilarious lesson), and Ken’s most memorable home run call (that he’s still hearing about 25 years later).


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sorry. I don't know soap opera stars

Whenever my writing partner, David, and I had a pilot we always tried to weasel a trip to New York to do some casting. There are many reasons for this. A free trip. Nice hotel. Per diem. Oh, and some of the best actors in the world live there.  Hopefully, a lot of them will be in Broadway productions we get tickets for. 

The joke about Los Angeles is that we have two seasons: summer and pilot. Even a lot of New York actors migrate to LA for the five/six weeks of casting frenzy.

But not all. Some are doing LAW & ORDER and can’t get away. Or they’re in a Broadway show. Or a soap opera.

Confession: I don’t watch soap operas. Never have. But it’s always awkward when one of these soap stars comes in to read. The casting director announces their name and ushers them into the room. I politely say hello. And they strike a pose as if to say, “Yep. It’s me.” Then they’re hurt or angry that I have no fucking idea who they are. A few have even actually said, “Don’t you recognize me?” I have to shake my head no. They then say, “I play Chad on THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL.” I apologize. Sorry, dude. He can’t believe it. I’m sure soap stars in New York are recognized everywhere they go. The readings usually don’t go well because they’re still thrown that we didn’t immediately ask for a selfie.

It’s getting harder to talk the network/studio into these New York sojourns. Budgets are tighter and actors can easily be put on tape and emailed to LA. But it’s not the same. You don’t have the luxury of directing them, giving them some notes that might make the difference between being on a network series and singing and busing tables at Ellen's Stardust Diner. New York actors are really shooting at a moving target when they just go on tape.

That said, we’ve hired several actors based on New York tapes. And I wonder how many more we would have hired had we had the chance to see some adjustments. We’d see a performance; it wasn’t great but there was something there. But was it worth flying him out to see? Or even asking him to go back to the casting office and re-do the tape? Generally, you find other candidates so that actor is out of luck. It’s unfortunate for him, and unfortunate for us if it turns out we missed something. Casting is an inexact science, and they’re the most important decisions a showrunner will ever have to make. Everything else can be fixed, but if you have a bad actor, no amount of rewriting, make up or back-lighting is going to save you.

That’s why it’s still valuable to go to New York and see for yourself who’s out there. And get to see HAMILTON on someone else’s dime.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The answer: Jeopardy. The question: What is a word I can't spell?

Are there words you just can’t spell? There are a few that always give me fits. And now, of course, with spellcheck I just type an approximation of the word and it fixes it. So there’s no real imperative to learn except that it bugs me.   This isn't the final round of the international Spelling Bee.  These are words high schoolers should know how to spell.

One of those words is privilege. I put e’s where i‘s should go, or vice versa, or drop letters, or sometimes add a d. Let’s just say it – I have no idea how to spell that word.

Jeopardy is another one. And you’d think after seeing the damn word on television for all these years – in big block letters, that I’d know where the vowels go.

Graffiti – double f’s or double t’s or double both? I spell it differently every time. Same with assassin. How many s’s both times?

Even though I know better, I will sometimes write perscription instead of prescription.

I always want to include a d in alleged.   Or an e in unbelievable.  Or drop the e in judgement

UPDATE:  And now commenters are saying the e is optional in judgement.  That's how all words should be spelled -- with at least two correct versions.  
 
And forget about Albuquerque.

Meanwhile, other words that people have problems with – like satellite and subconscious – I spell those correctly with ease.

Like I said, we all have these words we can’t spell. What are some of yours?

Monday, April 17, 2017

FRIENDS: THE MUSICAL -- Really???

As a playwright I can tell you that it’s hard to get a play produced. And especially hard to get a musical on the boards. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had both. But it’s like winning the lottery.

The competition is fierce. A theater group might put on a season of five productions a year and one of them will be Christmas-related and one will be a revival of PAJAMA GAME. So that leaves only two or maybe three slots for original material. And they receive thousands of submissions.

There are producers that fund projects so you can imagine the number of submissions they get.  It must be like THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE but with scripts instead of buckets of water.

Submitting plays is also frustrating because you can go a year before hearing back. You get a faster response if you put a note in a bottle and drop it in the Atlantic Ocean.

Theater companies also put restrictions on the kinds of material they’ll accept. They must be plays about diversity, or plays by women, or agriculture-themed. They must be no longer than 70 minutes or have no more than three characters or not require more than one set or must have the word “Strudel” in the title.

And then there are the layers. Theater companies will offer a staged reading, which could lead to a workshop, which could ultimately lead to a full production. But there is competition at each level of that process.

You can also self-produce and fund the play or musical yourself. But that’s expensive. You almost never break even. And in Los Angeles, with the new Equity rules in place it’s so expensive that fewer shows are being put up.

And yet, like I said, there are thousands of plays and musicals being written on spec. Why? Because we love the theater. Because it’s intimate. Because it’s experimental. Because there’s a genuine camaraderie. Because we can write about things that matter to us even if there are no superheroes. Because Michael Bay can never ruin our work.

So we put up with the competition, and budget restrictions, and theaters that are in urban war zones.

But now comes another hurdle – stage musicals based on sitcoms. Several years ago there was HAPPY DAYS: THE MUSICAL (at least that was written by its original creator Garry Marshall), and then GOLDEN GIRLS, SAVED BY THE BELL (dear God!), and last year a CHEERS stage play where they just cobbled together pieces of existing CHEERS scripts. And now comes word that the Off Broadway Triad Theatre will stage a musical version of FRIENDS. Really?

It’s bad enough that Disney is mounting stage versions of everything they’ve ever done. I fully expect to see “The Making of Disneyland: The Musical.” And other movies are getting stage treatments. But musicals based on sitcoms? Other than a money grab, what could possibly be the point? You’re watching other actors imitate iconic characters, singing for reasons that will need to be explained, acting out either scenes you’ve already seen done better or new scenes probably not written by legitimate FRIENDS writers.

And here’s the ultimate irony – when TV writers write for the theater they are usually buried by critics. Why? What is their biggest sin? “This play felt like a sitcom.” “The writing was merely sitcom.”

Well excuse us for not writing Chekov or having songs.