Sunday, July 27, 2008

The comedy writing team MATCH GAME

In Friday’s post I talked about the benefits of writing with a partner. Summary: you always have a ride when your car is in the shop.

But you have to find the RIGHT partner. Some tips from someone who’s been in a successful partnership for 35 years:

Make sure you both have similar sensibilities. If you love Patton Oswalt and his all-time favorite comedian is Pauley Shore, keep lookin’. (If his all-time favorite comedian is Pauley Shore keep looking even if your favorite funnyman is Donald Rumsfeld.)

There have been a number of sibling teams that have worked out. The Charles Brothers, the Coen Brothers. Make sure you and your sib really get along and your last name begins with C.

Getting into a writing partnership with someone you’re currently having a relationship with is like juggling with live grenades while on a tightrope in a windstorm. You better be incredibly great together – both on and in the sheets. Relationships undergo enough stress without having your professional wellbeing attached to it.

Let’s say you two get a staff job and then start having problems. Do you break up and go back to square one, establishing yourself all over again (if you can)? Or do you remain in the partnership from hell just to maintain your job?

Couples always maintain that they can separate their working and personal lives. So if they do break up they’ll be able to continue writing together. Uh huh. That’s fine until the first one starts going out with someone else. That’s when objects start flying. Sharp objects.

There are a few husband and wife teams that have pulled off successful partnerships. I’ve also been witness to one marriage that literally ended in violence over a script for a series that has long since been canceled. The only residuals they’re getting from that show is bitterness.

He/she partnerships? If you complement each other and are sleeping with other he/she’s (in any combination) then go for it. Some of Hollywood’s most successful teams are this configuration. Certainly one of my favorites – Anne Flett Giordano & Chuck Ranberg.

Do you and your potential partner have similar work habits? If you like to work in a quiet office during the day and she is only comfortable writing at the Viper Club after hours, continue your search.

Have similar aspirations. If your goal is to be a writer and his is just to use this as a means to move into directing or to get chicks, pass. If he wants to write Oscar winning movies in five years and you want to punch up Bette Midler’s Vegas act, shake hands and run.

Figure out just how you’re going to work. Head-to-head? Splitting the assignment up and each taking individual scenes? One person writes the rough draft and the other rewrites it? There’s a screenwriting team of women who sit around the pool and get smashed. One mans the computer while the other floats on a raft. That works for them. I could see it working for me. What works for you?

The Odd Couple would not make a good writing team. Felix would want to start the assignment right away and turn it in early. Oscar would wait until legal action was threatened. Both of you need to be one or the other.

Now the essential stuff:

You must trust and respect your partner. If you don’t think he’s the talented one of the two you haven’t found the right person. And that’s not saying you always have to defer to your partner. I don’t know a single writing team that doesn’t argue. But here’s the key:

Don’t make it personal.

Let me repeat in all-caps:


Think of TV wrestlers. They kill each other on camera and after the show all go out for beers. Argue over script issues but don’t let the disagreement bleed into personal feelings. And along those lines…

Fight fair.

No passive-aggressive bullshit, no mind games, no guilt trips. My partner and I have a policy. First off, we both have to agree before a line goes in. Secondly, if we can’t agree, and one can’t quickly convince the other, we just throw the line out and come up with something else. Trust me, it takes less time to craft a new joke than spend all afternoon arguing and ultimately one person ends up unhappy.

I know this sound like a lot of rules but the rewards if you find the right person can be enormous. And don’t kid yourself. Your car will need servicing sometime.

Happy hunting.


TCinLA said...

Everything Ken said is too true. I had this partner 20-odd years ago, saw a movie he'd written and directed that I really got, showed him my Vietnam script (not autobigraphical but based on personal experience) and he was the one who really "got it." We did stuff together for five years, all seemed great, made money together even if what we were writing on spec turned out to be "too much" to get made. Lots of assignments and we got the "credit" that bank managers recognize; even if the WGA didn't "get it" the producers did.

And then, one day, in the middle of writing something very interesting (did I mention I was the one who understood structure and would never go past page 120? That's important to understand here.) I walk into his house (where we had the writing office) to talk about the fact that his latest rewrite is 180 pages long and structurless but I have been doing some cutting and it'sstarting to make sense. He's there with his wife, and tells me how his new director agent has told him he has to do something on his own to direct, and this is going to be it.

Of course that happened a week after the lady then enjoying the fruits of my creative endeavors said she was leaving for some kid 5 years her junior (and she was 12 years my junior).

And then I come to this site 14 years later and Ken mentions a project he did that I had heard another story on from said writing partner. Turns out Ken knew him as an asswipe two years before I met him. Good news: said asswipe hasn't had a credit in 10 years and the last one was a TV movie that would induce a cringe just hearing about it.

I have a very good friend whose first script ever was "The Elephant Man," written with a writing partner from high school. They got an Oscar nomination first time out, got lots of work, one other credit - "Dune"- the studio recut of which was laid on them, leading to their breakup. Neither one has ever recovered, 25 years later.

Be very very very careful when picking a writing partner. what Ken hasn't said is he knows his writing partner on a deep deep deep level, better than he knows his wife, and better than his partner knows his wife. When you're doing good stuff and going as deep as you have to to do so, you find out things, very deep basic things, about who you are working with.

This is why the breakup of most good writing partnerships is far nastier than the nastiest divorce you can name. Billy Wilder admitted to me (when I was the guy having lunch with him twice a month who had never heard his stories before) that he never recovered from the breakup with I.A.L. Diamond, and he blamed his own stupidity for the breakup - look at the difference in his work and you'll see it.

Be very very very careful in your choice of partners. Ken is the only writer I know who has managed a lifelong partnership that works on the high level it does, which makes him one of the luckiest writers I've ever known.

Paql Duca said...

But will you convince David to man the computer while you float on the raft?

A. Buck Short said...

Is it when you go out and you're afraid to start your car that you know things have really gotten bad?

notanonymous said...

On the other hand, it took six months of writing with a partner tomake me realise that I didn't need one.

Ben K. said...

I'd like to add one more rule: Never have a partner who's an even worse procrastinator than you are.

D. McEwan said...

"Never have a partner who's an even worse procrastinator than you are."

No problem. It isn't possible to find a greater procrastinator than me, as I'll get around to proving one of these days.

Ken wrote: " If you don’t think he’s the talented one of the two, you haven’t found the right person."

Coincidentally enough, today I received the script for a gay wedding I'm participating in a few months from now. Yes, a script. 34 pages! This is what happens when two gay singer-actors marry: a cast of 28, an 8-person crew (Including Danny Bonaduce's sister!), and 17 musical numbers. (Honest! 17 songs!)

Anyway, on page 21, one of the two ministers says: "The happiest marriages are those in which both partners think they got the better deal."

It's good advice all the way around.

I've always felt my writing partner's death, now 21 years ago, was a bad break for me, if not as bad as it was for him, but reading tcinla's story,and some of the ones in the previous finding-a-partner post comments, I realize I was very lucky. We fought. Oh boy, did we. But it never got personal (Which is odd, as I'll get personal in the bllink of an eye when I'm steamed), and we were never still mad the next day.

And I definitely got the better deal. He made me funnier, and he did the typing while floated in the raft.

D. McEwan said...

That should be "He did the typing while I floated on the raft."

The Crutnacker said...

Ken, this could just as easily be good marriage advice. One only wishes that your writing partner wasn't playing Maris in this blog.

Perhaps you should become Neil Clark Levine, founder of

gwangung said...

Coincidentally enough, today I received the script for a gay wedding I'm participating in a few months from now. Yes, a script. 34 pages! This is what happens when two gay singer-actors marry: a cast of 28, an 8-person crew (Including Danny Bonaduce's sister!), and 17 musical numbers.

Well, of my best friends (she's straight, so am I, and I had the biiiiggest crush on her) did the same thing for the wedding for husband. Happens when you're a theatre producer (eek!)....

Brian Phillips said...

The only story I know is that Frank Muir and Denis Norden (My Word!, My Music, Take it From Here) met when they attended a movie together and when a particular joke went by, only two people laughed: Muir and Norden. When the lights came up, they found each other, realized that they must have the same senses of humo(u)r and their writing partnership lasted until Muir's death. As tcinla said, and Norden echoed at Muir's funeral, Muir and Norden were "more than brothers" to each other.

dgm said...

This is helpful, as my best friend and I have long talked about collaborating on writing projects. The only thing that has stopped us so far is that we are both procrastinators (well, that and we have day jobs, and I have kids). She seems to fit the profile you describe in your post. As a bonus, we even have the same first name. (I assume that must count for something?) If we ever get around to it, I'll be the one on the raft.

So my questions are, beyond finding a good writing partner, how do you keep one? What happens when one wants to fly solo for a while or to "see other people" for certain projects? Do you address those issues up front in some sort of pre-nup-like agreement, or do you wait for the shit to hit the fan?

KEN LEVINE said...


Good question. It will be my Friday question of the week. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Where is the best place to find a comedy writing partner if you don't know anyone personally or have contacts? Are there online forums for aspiring comedy writers?