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Valuable Tips from Blogger and Emmy Winning Writer/Director/Producer Ken Levine

Named one of the BEST 25 BLOGS OF 2011 by TIME Magazine. Ken Levine is an Emmy winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer. In a career that has spanned over 30 years Ken has worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG, and has co-created his own series including ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis. He and his partner wrote the feature VOLUNTEERS. Ken has also been the radio/TV play-by-play voice of the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres. and has hosted Dodger Talk on the Dodger Radio Network.

Ken’s blog ‘by Ken Levine‘ is a great tool for any aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter who wants to break into the industry. Aside for his insightful and humorous blog posts, Ken always finds time on Fridays to answer questions from his fans.

We compiled a list with some of his best answers. Read them, use them, and follow his blog!


1. When writing a pilot, which has many regular characters (whether a 1 hr drama like Mad Men or a sitcom like The Office), do you submit a separate sheet introducing each character? If so, how much do you write about each?

Do you mean, do we submit them to the network during a pitch? No. We may write a separate profile page on each character for our own use as a way of better defining the character (and it’s a practice I highly recommend), but we don’t submit that… for several reasons.

It’s way more info than the network needs, wants, or can digest. They have sixty pilot projects they’re juggling with.  (Each one has a character named Sam — half are men and half are women.)  They want a quick concise definition of the characters, period. The other thing is that if a network does read an entire page they will invariably have notes. “Did she have to attend Stanford?” “Could one of the parents not be Jewish?” etc.

When writing the actual pilot, a lot of writers like to add an introductory page listing all the characters and a brief description of each. We don’t do that. We’ll quickly define each character as he’s introduced in the script. We feel it’s annoying for the reader to have to keep flipping back to the intro page every time someone new is introduced.

For us it’s all about helping the reader visualize and quickly grasp who the character is. We often give prototypes even though we know we’ll never get them. We’ll say “For Sam picture: George Clooney” “For Sam picture: Emma Watson.”

 

2. Is there any chance for passed-over pilots to be resurrected/resubmitted by some set of circumstances, or are they just dead forever, despite the fact that passing on them might have been a big mistake, and different current management might take a different view?

UNDER ANDREA, the pilot David Isaacs and I wrote that is now being staged every Monday at the Whitefire Theatre as part of DEAD PILOTS SOCIETY – three very funny passed over pilots  (get your tickets now), was picked up by NBC several years after Fox passed. It does happen… but rarely.

However, let’s say you have a drawer full of unsold pilots (like all writers do) and something you do takes off and becomes a monster hit. All of a sudden, everybody is clamoring to do those unsold pilots. CBS recently revived an old Vince Gilligan pilot, BATTLE CREEK after the enormous success of BREAKING BAD.

Who knows? Maybe someone will want to revive UNDER ANDREA.  David and I would become the envy of every television writer in America — getting paid three times for the same project.

 

3. Given the chance to choose, what kind of show would a network prefer: a successful drama or a successful comedy?

This is an easy one. No format of television is as potentially lucrative as a big hit sitcom.

First of all, they’re cheaper to produce than hours. And fans will watch repeat viewings. Once you know what happened in many of these serialized dramas you’re done. But you’ll watch favorite episodes of sitcoms over and over (and thank you by the way).

And you can slot comedies any time of the day or night. Dramas tend to do better at night. Sitcoms are more versatile for filling holes in your schedule.

Ultimately, this is why sitcoms will never die. In success they’re just too profitable.

 

4. Can you explain something about the art of the setup that won’t, as it were, kill the frog in the process? Probably you’ve explained it before, but I can never get enough of this stuff. The setups on Frasier were so elaborate that the reward, when it came, was truly memorable.

The key to the set-up is providing the information the viewer needs to make the joke work. A Donald Trump hair joke makes no sense if you don’t know that Donald Trump has a ridiculous comb-over. Make sure the audience has the information it needs to know in order for the joke reference to connect.

RealBigHits_trump-hair-joke

The other thing set-ups have to be is very specific. You want to lead the viewer down one specific comedy path. If the punch line can be viewed as ambiguous (is the joke about Donald Trump’s hair or his money?) you shoot yourself in the foot.

People underestimate the importance of set ups. Often when a joke doesn’t work the first thing we do is not throw it out and find another joke, it’s analyze the set-up. Maybe the punchline was right; the set up was not.  Changing a word or two or clarifying can save a good joke.

 

5. How exactly is being a Hollywood agent any different than being a pimp? Is it just a better wardrobe?

No. Agents serve a very necessary function and a good one can enhance your career far beyond what you could do in that regard.

Finding work and creating work are generally two very different skill sets. As a creative person (I hate the term “artist”) breaking in I don’t know producers, network executives, studio executives. No one will take my call or read my unsolicited script. I don’t know what new trends are emerging or what new companies or platforms are about to be launched. Agents have information and access.

I always joke that when agents are courting you they always say, “Why aren’t you in a room with Steven Spielberg?” But the truth is, the right agent can get me into that room (in my case, unfortunately, that would be the restroom in the Staples Center).

A good agent can steer you to good opportunities and warn you off of bad ones. He can put together a long range plan for your career and take you down that path.  They can lobby networks.  They can broker deals, exploit leverage, etc.   Perception is reality in Hollywood and agents can create perception.

And if they’re good negotiators they can get you a lot more money than you could get yourself. And they could put clauses in the contract to protect you from any studio or network shenanigans.

Look, corporations are run by killers. I’m not a killer. I dream up funny stories. You need a killer to represent your best interests. A good agent is a godsend. And I don’t even resent that he dresses way better than me.

 

6. I’ve always contended that the order of importance for a successful movie is: 1) script; 2) casting; and 3) direction. Do you weight one factor over another or all equally? My contention is that if you have a great script and cast it right it’s hard for the director to screw it up.
 
A bad director can absolutely kill a good project whereas a good director can sometimes enhance material, get superior performances and elevate a movie.
 
All three elements (cast, script, direction) are key. If there’s a weak link it can bring down the whole thing.
 
But if I had to pick one of the three that was most important, I would begrudgingly have to say casting. Audiences go to movies to see people they like on the screen. If it’s a star they love they will often forgive a sub-par script or sloppy direction. There’s a great Billy Wilder quote about Marilyn Monroe, whom he directed in two movies:
 
“My Aunt Minnie would always be punctual and never hold up production, but who would pay to see my Aunt Minnie?”
RealBigHits_Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe
Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Seven Year Itch, 1955

7. I live in New Jersey and I go to a Video Production School in Maine. My ultimate goal is to write comedy. Does it make more sense to find a crew job on the East Coast while I continue to work on my writing and submit spec scripts?

Absolutely. Take a crew job (or any job) and write at night. The beauty of writing is that all it requires is your time. It’s not like directing where you have to shell out a lot of money to mount a production to direct, or acting where you either have to be hired to practice your craft or attend that classes that cost you money.

J.D. Salinger was one of the soldiers who stormed the beach on D-Day. In his backpack was a few chapters of the book he was writing in his spare time – CATCHER IN THE RYE. A crew job has got to be better that than gig.

 

8. Do you think it is worth writing something that is good but has no chance of being made as a way of obtaining recognition? Maybe an unusual subject matter helps a script cut through the noise of so many other scripts? Does the writing shine through, or do people in the industry discount it since the writer clearly doesn’t understand the market?
Sure. Write something outlandish, BUT also write a pilot that is potentially saleable and a spec for an existing show. 

The best you can hope for with a pilot that is clearly not mainstream is that a producer/agent/studio/whoever will be impressed and want to read more.

But if you want to use it as a lure, then sure. Just have the necessary back-ups.

 

9. We are starting to see the networks ordering pilots. It’s always surprising to see them continuing to go to the same writer-producers who created this and last seasons’ flops. What does that signify? An unwillingness to take a chance on new voices? Or is it a recognition that some of those shows failed because of the process they undergo, with the networks tinkering and tinkering some more?

It just seems odd that they expect some of these people to suddenly lay golden eggs after so many fails (and especially when some of the pilot concept see so stale and lame).

Pilots are expensive. Networks generally feel more secure with writers they know and can trust. Also, networks have their favorite writers. Those are generally writers who don’t give them much push-back when they insert themselves heavily into the process.

 And so many things have to line up for a show to be a hit. Most successful writer/creators have pilots that failed and series that flopped. Kaufman & Crane had several misfires before (and after) FRIENDS. Same with Chuck Lorre, Diane English, Aaron Sorkin, Larry Gelbart, Phil Rosenthal, Norman Lear, and just about anyone else you care to name.

 Pilot writing is an art. Not only must you be able to craft a script that accomplishes a lot of things, you also need the skill to identify problems and fix them during production. This takes experience.

 

RealBigHits_Friends_TV

 

But make no mistake, networks will never take the blame for a failed pilot — despite their meddling, despite their insisting on the wrong actors.

 Networks do take some chances with newer writers, but usually there’s a non-writing producer also attached who surrounds them with more experienced scribes.

 What surprises me however, is that there are some veteran writers who frankly are just not very good. Why the networks continue to give them pilots is beyond me. I generally get copies of the pilots that get greenlit and there are certain writers who are just mediocre and yet there they are again. I read their pilot and yep, just as bad as last year’s pilot. But then again, when has anyone been able to explain decisions in Hollywood?

 

10. How much leverage do writers have in negotiating higher salaries on successful shows?

Never as much as we’d like. Hollywood always feels any writer could be replaced. And even if the quality of a show goes down, audiences tune in to see the actors. 

Aaron Sorkin was replaced on WEST WING and it went another couple of seasons. Larry David left SEINFELD and it trundled on. MASH survived Larry Gelbart’s departure (and even though I was one of the writers who replaced him I can honestly say this was a case where the quality did indeed suffer).

 A few years ago Matthew Weiner’s negotiations with AMC to continue running MAD MEN were stalled. Although it’s inconceivable to imagine that show without Matt at the helm, AMC was making contingency plans. Ultimately they might have gone with new showrunners. But if Jon Hamm were to walk off the show it would be toast.

RealBigHits_MadMen_Hamm_Moss_Weiner

That said, valued writers still can make very rich deals. And if it’s their show and they have ownership stakes they can really make a bundle.

 And A-list writers can leverage their success to get network commitments for future shows, which can be more valuable than money if the circumstances are right.

 

11. How many writers are on a show typically? Does the show runner make that decision and hand out the writing assignments?

Typically yes, working within the show’s budget. Sitcoms today have much larger staffs than in decades past. There can be ten to fifteen writers on a show. On MASH, David Isaacs and I had a staff of two. On the first year of CHEERS the fulltime staff was Levine & Isaacs and the Charles Brothers.

But staffs have grown to where, in some cases, there are two writing rooms. And I must say I’m all for it – more jobs for writers.

 That said, if I ran a show today I would hire a smaller staff of writers who I really trusted. I just think it’s more efficient. Try getting fifteen people to agree on anything. But that’s me and I’m not running a show.

 Showrunners do hand out the script assignments, unless it’s a show like BIG BANG THEORY that’s all room written.  Then credits are just “assigned,” which is a joke.

 

12. Can you explain the difference between an agent and a manager? Are they interchangeable? If not, do they work together? Do you need both?
 Also, I’ve read that Bill Murray does not have an agent. How common is that for someone of his stature in the industry?
 Managers can’t negotiate contracts. Agents do that.  In theory, managers have smaller lists of clients and are there to really guide your career, provide more personal attention, and see that your agent is giving you the proper attention and service.

I think a manager is more useful for an actor. Several of my actor friends complain that they’re just “types” to their agent. They’ll be sent out on things along with ten of their other clients who are similar “types.” A manager focuses on you and your needs and desires.

If you’re a big enough star to where you just get offers, then no, you really don’t need an agent. An attorney can negotiate contracts.

 

13. I just started a writing job (in a very different field than TV/ Movies) and am terrified every day that I’m a fraud. Did you ever feel this way and if so, how did you fake (and ultimately develop) your writing confidence? My sponsor says vodka is not an option.

Here’s the dirty little secret – ALL writers are terrified that they’re frauds. And worse, they’ll be exposed for the frauds they are. So you’re in good company. You just have to suppress it.

Experience helps a lot. Knowing how to deal with certain writing problems because you’ve encountered them before instills a confidence that you can overcome hurdles.

 Positive feedback is also very helpful. It’s comforting to know you’re on the right track.

 But at the end of the day it’s the struggle between believing in yourself vs. your insecurity. And you just have to fight through it.

 The good news is that most of us are not frauds.

 

14. I was wondering if you could talk a little about character ownership. A character is created, fleshed out with catchphrases, quirks and backstory by a writer and then given to an actor to embody. In your opinion, who does that character belong to? Or, who *is* that character? Especially in a long running show where an actor can be playing a character for nearly a decade or more, would you say there is dual ownership between the writer and actor? Or does a transition happen somewhere down the line if the character is old enough?

If a writer introduces a character that becomes a recurring or regular character on a series he’s entitled to a character royalty. It’s not much, but it’s something. David Isaacs and I created the character of Eddie LeBec, the hockey goalie who eventually married Carla on CHEERS. He was originally supposed to be in only two episodes. But the chemistry clicked and he was brought back for more. We received royalties on that. And would have received a lot more had Jay Thomas, the actor playing Eddie, not dissed Rhea Perlman on his radio show. We had to kill him off. Let that be a lesson to actors who find themselves in front of a microphone.

 RealBigHits_Cheers

 

To the second part of your questions – over time actors really do embody their characters. And good writers will adjust the character to better fit the actor’s strengths.

 Steven Bochco had a saying: “The first year the actors work for you, the second year you work together, and the third year you work for them.”

 

15. How do you create decent comedy in these days of political correctness, trigger warnings, advancing narratives and backlash?

I try to ignore all of that. As long as my comedy doesn’t intentionally try to hurt someone and is not grossly inappropriate for the audience I’m targeting, I just try to write the funniest and sharpest material I can, knowing full well that some people will always be offended. The trolls will resurface as sure as day. So I expect it.

 And it doesn’t even have to be a charged issue. I could make the most innocuous joke about orange juice and someone will write in furious because their uncle once choked on a glass of orange juice and I’m an insensitive asshole.

 But I keep going back to that great Larry Gelbart quote:

 “If you write something that doesn’t offend anybody, go back and do it over.”

 

16. In your opinion, did FRIENDS mark a turning point in terms of network interference with sitcoms? I have read in several sources that this was the quintessential “network” show, in that–despite the talents of its creators–NBC played a big role in choosing, casting, and cultivating it. And, obviously, it turned out to be huge. Was that the point at which networks said, “We can do this,” and really started to call the shots vs. creators/producers/writers? Obviously there has always been network “input” since the early days, but was FRIENDS a watershed in that respect?

No. The big sea change was when networks were allowed to own their own shows and studios. They then became the 800 pound gorilla. Before that they had to deal with independent studios. And for example, NBC might have had a show done by Warner Brothers. They had notes, but Warner Brothers stood their ground. If NBC strong-armed Warner Brothers into making the changes, Warner Brothers might be really pissed. And next development season when they were going out with a show called FRIENDS they might say, “Let’s take it anywhere but NBC.”

 But now networks have full control over everything.

 As for casting, networks have insisted on approving the actors for close to forty years now. The first pilot David Isaacs and I did was for NBC in 1979 and they wouldn’t approve Andrea Martin. She didn’t have the right, uh… “look.”

 As far as NBC’s brilliant development suggestions for FRIENDS — after the first runthrough they said, “Make one of them the star.  Pick whichever you want, but one has to be the star.”  To his credit, director James Burrows said, no, that’s not what he signed on for.  The key to the show was that it was an ensemble.   NBC fortunately backed down. Today there would be no discussion.  Either one becomes the star or the network pulls the plug.  Period.   But if they had their way, they may well have screwed up FRIENDS.   So I always laugh when I see the NBC executives at the time take “credit” for developing FRIENDS.

 

17. Say you’re pitching an idea for a show and the network passes. Is it possible for you to move on–let’s pretend you were able to get a different show on TV–and after you’re a bit more well-known try to get your original idea made? Or is it the case that when it’s gone, it’s gone?

Until someone buys your idea it’s yours. You can shop it anywhere. And even if everyone passes, if your next idea becomes FRIENDS you can take your old rejected idea out of the drawer and there will be a bidding war.

 For whatever reason, my partner and I never had much luck at ABC. Routinely they would pass and another network would buy our pitch. So we always scheduled ABC first and almost used it as a practice pitch.

 I don’t know how it is now at ABC but it used to be that when you pitched a comedy, they were in Burbank, and the executives would sit with their backs to the window. You would be looking at the execs and over their shoulders, out the window, was Forest Lawn Cemetery. How perfect was that?

 

18. Can someone learn to be funny? I know there are aspects of craft — how to structure a joke, etc., — but is basic funny a “you got it/you ain’t got it” quality?

I have answered this before it often comes up so it’s worth repeating. No. Unfortunately, you can’t teach someone to be funny. Your brain is either hotwired to see the absurdity in things or it isn’t. It’s a gift. If you have it you can be taught to be funnier. You can learn joke construction, dramatic structure, elements of timing. You can refine your craft. You can learn to access your gift more freely, but if you’re not funny to begin with then I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

 But here’s the good news: There’s something worse than not being funny. It’s someone who’s not funny but thinks he IS funny.  That’s torture.

 

19. On a show like Cheers, do the showrunners or writers know where they want their main characters to wind up by the end of the series (e.g., Sam & Diane will finally get and stay together), or is that unusual and more typically the story arcs are just thought of season by season, or even every few weeks?

First off, it’s unusual that shows are so successful that producers can determine when the series will end. Usually it’s America.

 In the case of CHEERS, we always thought it would be great to bring Diane back for the finale but Shelley Long had to be available and agreeable to doing it. If she were in Norway making a movie we were shit out of luck.

 If producers know where the finish line is they’ll usually work towards it in the final season.  Graham Yost, showrunner of JUSTIFIED has said recently he doesn’t know how the series is going to end.  Hopefully he does by now.  We’re halfway through the final season.

 Some shows have built in endings. the war ends on MASH.  And of course, the final scene of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER? was filmed only a couple of years into the series, and since kids were involved and they have the audacity to grow, the producers were pretty locked into that ending.

RealBigHits_HowIMetYourMother

A bigger question than what to do for the finale is how long the finale will be? Networks try to make huge events out of these and stretch them from a half hour to (if they had their choice) nine hours plus an intermission. This greatly affects the storytelling. MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, and SEINFELD were waaay longer than they needed to be but the networks got one last massive payday out of them. In my opinion, as good as all of them may have been, they would have been far better if they were only an hour.

 Kudos to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND for ending their series with half hour episodes. For my money they’re three of the best finales ever. And that’s one reason why.

 My partner and I have had three series and none of them had a planned final episode. Once the network says, “You’re canceled! Now get out!” that pretty much puts the kibosh on your glittering two hour finale. If we knew we were doing a last episode of ALMOST PERFECT the plan was to bring back all the characters from our other two series and end all three at once. Well, maybe when our next series is canceled.

 

20.  I can imagine that you have been in situations where a script simply ran too long and you needed to cut something out, but the task seemed impossible because every line was integral to the story. Do you have any suggestions for how to identify what to remove? Would the same advice apply to other forms of writing, such as a short story or an essay?

You are right in that the one thing to preserve at all costs is the story. That sounds obvious, but it’s not. Sitcom writers will fall in love with jokes and trim story beats, hoping the audience will make the connection and still be able to follow the story.

If the audience is confused or is not involved in the story you’ve lost them. Jokes are just lipstick on a pig.

 But that’s one of the reasons why I prefer stories that aren’t too complicated. Sometimes we writers can get too clever. We construct stories with four more twists than it needs. And what happens is you have so much story to tell that you leave yourself precious little room for fun.

 I like my stories to be clever. I don’t want the audience to be able to predict the ending. But I also want to leave room for the show to breathe. I’m sure part of that is my belief that the best comedy comes out of characters. I want to see them interact. I want to be able to throw a topic in the air and have characters come at it from different points of view.

 When I do a multi-camera show I hope that by the time it is filmed in front of a live audience it’s pretty much to time. Then ideally I get a two or three minute laugh spread. That allows me to go into editing with some room to play with. I can tighten things up, remove jokes that don’t work, etc.

 But sometimes you get a bigger laugh spread or you find yourself still thirty seconds over after you’ve taken out everything you want, and then it’s tough. You occasionally have to lose good jokes. It’s a killer, but as the saying goes: sometimes you have to kill your babies.

 David Isaacs and I faced a situation with the pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S that was somewhat unusual (for us). It was a nice problem to have. The show was to time when we brought in the studio audience. But the filming went through the roof. We ended up with a ten-minute laugh spread – on a twenty-minute program.  That’s great until you have to cut it.

 There comes a point where you can’t edit out too many jokes because characters will suddenly jump all over the room.

In this case, we whittled it down to seven-minutes over and decided to turn it into CBS. If they picked up the show we would just go back and re-film a couple of scenes, reblocking to accommodate the lifts.

 The next day we got a call that Jeff Sagansky, the president of CBS, wanted us in his office. Uh oh. We called our agent saying, “I think we’re going to be handed our heads.  Do you know if Orange Julius is hiring?” He said it was a good thing that CBS summoned us. If they weren’t happy with the project they wouldn’t bother. They only had time to concentrate on the show they felt had promise.

 It turns out he was right.

 Jeff said he loved the pilot but of course, it was too long. He offered to screen it with us and help suggest further cuts. So we watched it together. Along the way there were times when David and I would chime in that you could cut this bit or lose that joke, and Jeff would always say, “No, I like that line.” After the show ended we had another thirty seconds in cuts. He said, “Screw it. Just turn it in as is.”

 We did. The show did get picked up. And we did reshoot a couple of scenes to get the show down to time. This was before anyone had come up with the idea of “Super Size” shows. And even then, that was a privilege reserved for big hit series like FRIENDS, not summer tryout pilots like ours.

 It’s a problem all showrunners face, but today it’s worse because networks insist shows be shorter (to accommodate more commercials and promos). You’d think that would make it easier for writers because they had to write less, but it’s actually harder because it’s more difficult to tell good stories in a more condensed period of time.

 So that’s how we attack the problem.   Then there are those mysterious editors hired to trim shows for syndication.  They use a different method.  They just hack indiscriminately.  Or at least that’s how it seems.  I’m so glad that you can now see MASH episodes in their original form.  Some of the syndicated episodes were absolutely butchered.   At times they would just lift entire scenes.  All of a sudden nothing made sense.  For years I couldn’t watch MASH reruns because I got so furious with the editing.

 That’s why it’s best to do it first.  Don’t let “them” fix it.


 

For more from Ken Levine please check out his blog …by Ken Levine.

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