Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why I became a comedy writer

A couple of years ago CHEERS won the heritage award from the Television Critics. Neither the Charles Brothers nor James Burrows were available to accept so I was asked to do so on their behalf at the big TCA Awards Dinner. It’s as close as I’m ever going to come personally to winning a TCA Award and there was alcohol so I said sure.

The event was held in the glittering Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hiltons, same venue as the Golden Globes. Same alcohol too. The place was packed. Lots of industry folks and cast members from your favorite high quality shows. Aaron Paul even remembered me from the pilot he did for us back in the ‘00s. And Jonathan Banks vaguely remembered I directed him in FIRED UP. (To be fair, he vaguely remembered FIRED UP.)

Louis CK was not there, which was very disappointing since I was assigned to the LOUIE table. Also absent was Morena Baccarin from HOMELAND, but the rest of the cast was there including Claire Danes. I love Claire Danes.

I had a prepared speech (it helps to know you’ve already won) and I just killed. I happened to glance down to the HOMELAND table and I could see that Claire Danes was laughing really hard. I was beyond thrilled. The thousand other people who were laughing including executives who could give me work or critics who could increase my stature? Fine, whatever, but Claire Danes was in stitches.

And as I walked back to my seat it occurred to me: I’m still 14. It was all about making the pretty girl laugh.

That’s why I got into comedy writing – to impress pretty girls. And I bet if most male comedy writers were being honest they’d say that’s why they got into the field too. It wasn’t the money, or the need to express themselves, it was having Claire Danes like me for 1:40 (I kept my speech short).

God, that's sad.  But ultimately rewarding.

If I could play football in high school I’d probably be selling plumbing supplies today. So do I have regrets? My awkward teenage years led me to where I am today. So no. Except for one. Why didn’t I take up playing the goddamn guitar? Those guys really scored. I was an idiot!

UPDATE:  Several of you have asked me to post the speech itself.  Sleazy opportunist that I am, I will be happy to...

IF... 

I sell 20 more copies of MUST KILL TV, the Kindle version going for only $2.99.    I know.  What a creep.  But it's a very funny book, deals with award dinners, I'm very proud of it and want as many people to read it as possible.   (I can't believe book promotion has come to this.)  Thanks in advance.

39 comments:

parking_infraction said...

Ken, do you still have a copy of your speech? Can you post it online so that we can read it?

Angry Tech Gamer said...

First!

Great story I love these stories from your industry... just great entertainment!

The Quote:
"And as I walked back to my seat it occurred to me: I’m still 14. It was all about making the pretty girl laugh. "

I remember a Tim Allen interview where he asserted that he could not think of ONE thing he did that was not for the attention of a female.

But for the 1:40 that you entertained Claire you also entertained others... is that so bad?

Angry Tech Gamer - the real Angry Gamer

Hamid said...

Claire Danes is a cutie but how would you have reacted if the heavenly Morena Baccarin had been there and laughed too?

You're right about the wanting to impress girls. That's how we're hardwired from billions of years of evolution, or 6000 years of intelligent design if you're in Alabama.

Talking of which, I saw a hideously unfunny trailer on Youtube which confirms what we've known all along: evangelical Christian filmmakers and comedy do not go together.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2gnLXW7X-0

Carol said...

Seconding Parking_Infractions's request. I would love to read the speech.

Scooter Schechtman said...

At 14 I had no trouble making pretty girls laugh at me. It's 14, Jake.

David Schwartz said...

Hmmm, maybe it's time Claire Danes replaced Natalie Wood in the "no photo" photo posts...

Freddy Got Fingered said...

Hamid said, "I saw a hideously unfunny trailer on Youtube which confirms what we've known all along: evangelical Christian filmmakers and comedy do not go together."

Wow, what an intolerant and unfunny remark. Even if it’s in jest, it’s pretty stereotypical and sweeping. With that reasoning, we can conclude that Grown Ups 2, Norbit, The Hot Chick, Gigli, Jack and Jill, That’s My Boy, The Love Guru, Kangaroo Jack, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, All About Steve, Year One, Bridal Wars, Big Momma’s House (1 & 2), Little Nicky, Dirty Love, The Hottie and the Nottie, and Whose Your Caddy were all produced by Evangelical Christians as well.

…Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I became a DJ because in the second grade, when I read aloud during reading circle, the girls paid attention. Loved that.

Chicks. It's all about chicks. God bless 'em

Curt Alliaume said...

From the Sports Night episode "Dear Louise":

Jeremy (voiceover): One last thing--Dan finally got over his writer's block. He met Stacey Kerr at the Smoking Dog. Stacey plays on the women's professional beach volleyball tour. Turns out Stacey's a big fan of Dan's, and was particularly taken by his writing.

Stacy: How are you able to write that way? I mean, what goes on in your head? How did you get that style?

Jeremy (voiceover): And in that moment, Dan was reminded once again, why he wanted to write in the first place. It's for the same reason anybody does anything--to impress women.


So you're not alone.

Johnny Walker said...

The motivation required to succeed in a highly competitive field (like TV comedy writing) is fascinating to me. Sometimes I can only see the downsides:

There's much easier ways to make money for one thing, so you don't want to be jumping in if all you care about is dough.

In TV comedy writing your work is constantly hamstrung by networks, studios, directors, actors, sponsors, showrunners. The best thing you ever write might be cut to make time for commercials. If you want to express yourself artistically, nearly any other creative avenue would be more satisfying.

Looking for praise and respect? You may get some, but at a cost: You'll also be exposed to cold dissection from everyone - colleagues, bosses, reviewers, and, of course, strangers everywhere.

Conversely, don't plan on becoming famous (if that's an idea that you find enticing), while your work will be known, you won't. Outside of the show you're hired on, don't plan on being recognized, or even mentioned in interviews (unless your EP is Vince Gilligan or Joss Whedon).

Forget about job-security. Every year you're competing with fresh new talent, eager and willing to do anything to take your place. Have a few bad months in a row, and that could be the end of your entire career. Do brilliant work, but the show doesn't find its audience, and you could be out of the job for a year.

Then there's the work-life balance -- you know, the really important stuff that makes life worth living. You can almost guarantee that you won't be seeing much of your fiancee or your newborn baby, nevermind the rest of your family and friends.

Oh yes, don't forget the stress and pressure. You may need the latest anti-depressants and a great therapist just to keep your head above water.

People will be impressed with what you do for a living, but that won't make it any more enjoyable while you're doing it, and will even occasionally lead to awkward moments when you realise how lucky you sound.

And, if you're ARE somehow extremely successful, and are lavished with critical praise and awards, you might even find yourself developing a ego, too.

Yikes.

Joss Whedon once wrote that only those with something to prove excel... It seems to me that if you want to succeed in such a situation that you're going to have to find a reason that you HAVE to, because I'm not sure that the LOVE for a thing is enough.

VincentS said...

Thank, Ken, for reminding us why us guys to ANYTHING! It's sad. It's merely a reminder that we're still breathing!
PS- Reading MAD AS HELL and you're right. It's a great book!

VincentS said...

Thank, Ken, for reminding us why us guys to ANYTHING! It's not sad. It's merely a reminder that we're still breathing!
PS- Reading MAD AS HELL and you're right. It's a great book!

RockGolf said...

Y'know, if I was trying to make Clare Danes happy, I don't think I could have lasted 1:40. Then again, I'm not a comedy writer.

Anonymous said...

Ken: there was an article this week on one of the writers for Late Night with Seth Meyers who was hired based solely on the jokes on his Twitter account (it's actually a cool Cinderella story: this guy was an I.T. guy at some faceless company in Peoria, Ill., when Seth and his producers started following his tweets.) Other showrunners and stars, like Parks & Rec's Mike Schur and Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Andy Samburg, have come out and agreed that they've found writers via Twitter. Other showrunners like Mindy Kaling agrees that this is a useful tool for producers to search out new talent (especially joke writers), but she also feels social media could be deceptive, because it's can be easy to come up with a quick quip or joke, but that's not the same as crafting 22 minutes of character-driven story. What's your take on this? Thanks.

Skippymom said...

You're my favorite lil' whore.
And I mean that with as much love as I can imply across teh interwebz.

I wish I had a Kindle just to be able to read your books and the speech.

Congrats on a great night!

Ken Levine said...

Buying copies of the paperback count too. Thanks.

thomas tucker said...

And what's wrong with plumbing supplies?
Ach, never mind....I'll buy the book!

Breadbaker said...

I am a great admirer of you, Ken, but I can't really bring myself to buy a second Kindle copy of the book. I did enjoy it.

Ken Levine said...

Breadbacker. It would be wrong and unreasonable of me to ask you to buy a second copy. So just call every friend you have and pressure them to buy one and honestly, that will be enough. Thanks much.

Hamid said...

Freddy

OK, fair point. I'm not saying non-religious people can't make terrible comedies, obviously they can. But has there ever been a funny comedy that was made overtly as an evangelical product? For example, Pete Docter of Pixar is a creative genius who's also a committed Christian, but he doesn't make his films to be religious tracts, and the result is some of the funniest and most entertaining films of recent times. After seeing the trailer for Moms' Night Out, I read up on it and found that it was made by filmmakers who describe themselves as evangelical and who made the film expressly as a "faith based" movie. Hey, that's their right, I'm not complaining about that, just that it looks really unfunny.

chuckcd said...

Isn't that why us men do EVERYTHING?

chuckcd said...

BTW, already have the paperback of
MKTV.

But you others who have not bought a copy yet...get on it!

chuckcd said...

The Kindle version is only .99 if you already purchased the paperback version, so I bought that version too!

Gordon said...

Never replace Natalie Wood with anyone.


Please

Brendan said...

I'm feeling a little cheated since I already bought the book.

I also bought "The Me Generation...By Me". So do I get a club membership or a secret decoder ring?

Also, I feel cheated because I went into IT for a career. Yup, big girl winner. I spent years spending money to look like a good catch and after a lost decade realized they would like me for my humor. You were way ahead of me. Not that we didn't have the same motives...

Johnny Walker said...

I just found a copy of "It's Gone! No, wait a minute..." -- can that count? :)

benson said...

Saw this Bob Newhart quote from a Guild BBT gathering last night, though I've heard him say it before, too.

“It starts with the writing, otherwise you’ve got a bunch of actors bumping into each other.”

I don't have a funny kicker about doing it to get girls, but I do own MKTV and the Travelogue books.

Chet said...

Can't say that I picked my profession (trainer) to meet guys (I'm gay), but that turned out to be a great fringe benefit.

Mac said...

I'd suggest, then, becoming a comedy writer who does personal training on the side, except that I've met very few comedy writers who look like they've logged anywhere near enough hours in the gym to train anybody to do anything physical.

Gordon said...

Okay, I bought The Me Generation and Must Kill TV for my iPad.

They better be good...

And please don't replace Natalie Wood.

Ed Dempsey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Dempsey said...

Hi Ken,

Just curious if you've ever had an exchange like this. Oof…

http://www.chrisjonesblog.com/2014/04/producers-submit-script.html

Thanks

DBenson said...

Who wrote the Cheers episode where Sam is depressed because somebody pointed out his whole life is about girls?

Rebecca reminds him that he loves the Three Stooges, which girls hate. Sam is overjoyed to know he is not shallow.

estiv said...

Bought my copy, Ken.

Pat Reeder said...

I've considered opening a Twitter account and sending out one-liners. But I already write for two different radio services, and it seems like a waste to tweet out jokes for free when I can get paid for them. I suppose I could send out jokes that aren't worth paying for, but Twitter's already full of those.

parking_infraction said...

Bought my copy too!

Dale said...

Hi Ken.
Mate I paid nearly $20 for the paperback.

Post the speech.

blogward said...

Friday question: Ken, what's your take on Tom Lehrer? It came up on the web recently that he couldn't give a damn about copyright on his songs, or performing at all. This is the ma who lick-started the UK satire boom.

R Williams said...

This explains why the field of comedy is dominated by men and Ellen.