Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the other hand...

Hot topic on the blog this week: Writers asked to provide voluminous amounts of free material to audition for jobs.

Here’s one example I personally encountered early in my career. But I can see the rationale for it.

I used to dabble in cartooning. The picture above is one I drew. (Yeah, I was somewhat “influenced” by Al Hirschfeld.) And one of the things I always wanted to do was get a cartoon in THE NEW YORKER magazine.

This was the late ‘70s. David Isaacs and I were the head writers of MASH. But I inquired as to how you submit cartoons to THE NEW YORKER. I understand things have changed, but back then you were instructed to submit five or six cartoons – just pencil drawings, nothing real elaborate with the typed captions underneath. If they bought a drawing you would go back and do a full pen-and-ink version. So the real effort was coming up with five or six ideas for cartoons. Quick pencil sketches are a breeze.

I came up with some cartoon ideas I thought were funny and off to Gotham they went. A couple of weeks later I received a standard rejection letter. But at the bottom was a hand-written note from the cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz to call him.

I did and got him on the phone. He said he really liked my stuff. But he needed to know if I was prolific. He needed to know he could count on me every week – that these weren’t the only five jokes I ever came up with. So he proposed this: I send him five cartoons a week for a year. After that he would start buying them. And he would even buy a few he had rejected. But he had to be confident that I didn’t just want to get one or two cartoons in on a whim. Unfortunately, that WAS my intent. I told him I was writing MASH so five cartoons a week might be a little tough. He laughed and said, “Well, no wonder the jokes were good.”

I didn’t pursue it further. I just had no time. But I could see his point. And even if it was a lot of work, (a) at least you knew you were being seriously considered, (b) you still might be paid for some of your effort, (c) there was no way he was going to steal your material and use it, and (d) it was THE NEW YORKER, the most prestigious magazine for one-panel cartoons. So if you were accepted you hit a home run.

Interestingly, had I not been on staff of a show, had I submitted those drawings a couple of years earlier when I was writing spec scripts and trying to break in, I probably would have taken him up on his offer and submitted drawings for a year. My career path might have been very different. There would be a lot more drawings on this blog.

23 comments:

Carol said...

Have you ever thought about trying to do cartoons now?

Jerry Krull said...

So when does the book of Ken Levine cartoons come out? Nice work!

slgc said...

Perhaps every so often you could draw a sketch instead of posting a random photo at the top of a blog post? Something to illustrate your point (literally and figuratively)?

Anonymous said...

Can I share what actors HATE?

Being given commercial copy that is usually bad, then after doing it once or twice, the auditioners ask the actor to improvise the scene under the given circumstances, creating their own dialog.

This would lead the actor to suspect the writers are trying to get some ideas to salvage the copy under a deadline, by using the services of the actor without payment.

I've heard stories where the suspicion panned out to be true. Dialog an auditioning actor created was used on a commercial he was not ultimately casted in.

Will SAG ever do anything about this???

VP81955 said...

It was bad enough when critics mistook studio laughter for "canned" laughter -- now they're saying studio laughter has no place in sitcoms. Killjoys!

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/jun/29/can-it-why-studio-laughter-has-no-place-in-modern-sitcoms

Stephen Marks said...

Excellent cartoon. I can see Richard Dreyfuss, Oscar winner, Ron Howard, Oscar winner, Wolfman Jack, SeaBea winner, Harrison Ford, um, ah, has he? Anything? Come on help me out here. I see Paul Le mat, who has disappeared, I liked him. Charles Martin Smith, who looks a lot like Ernie Douglas now, a good actor. I'm pretty sure that's Bo Hopkins telling Dreyfuss to rob those pinball machines. Excellent Ken, you are a very talented man.

So tomorrow is July 1st and I would like to wish the other Canadians who come here a very Happy Canada Day. Everything is closed on Friday so I'm sure you'll be lining up at the beer store today when I get there, so I'll see yea then.

Glenn said...

Good stuff, Ken.

Carol said...

@VP81955

I literally just came here to post that exact same article. Ken, I'm really interested in hearing your take on that. (and if this becomes a whole post, can I take partial credit?)

Howard Hoffman said...

More of Ken's mastery of pen and ink can be seen here:
The ME GENERATION BY ME Gallery

ninja3000 said...

Ha! I just clicked on your site and thought "Wow, there's a Hirschfeld I'm not familiar with." And then I clicked on the image. Yes, pretty good "influence" there, Ken! (PS, I own a Hirschfeld litho and am a big fan. Of him AND you!)

Matt said...

***FRIDAY QUESTION***

John Charles Walters - What's the story behind "Good Night Mr. Walters" at the end of "Taxi." Is JCW a real person?

Dixon Steele said...

OK, but what does your sketch of Natalie Wood look like?

Ken Levine said...

Carol and VP81995,

I will address that article early next week. I have many things to say about it. Stay tuned.

Roseann said...

Interesting to hear this story, Ken. Nowadays when Costume Designer interview for a theatre play they are asked to bring in designs for the show they are interviewing for. Well, that's a double edged sword: Do they spend the time researching, sketching, finessing (at least 2 weeks work) their designs when they don't even have the job? Or do they just dash off a couple of mediocre sketches which will not tell their interviewer who they really and what they can really do. I've even heard that some interviewers ask to keep the sketches -without hiring the person who did them!!!???

What an interesting technic......

BA said...

It looked professional enough for me! Do you ever feel inclined to do more please share with us. I'd like to see a "courtroom" drawing of the Real Don Steele unloading on Sinatra or Jan Smithers at a pep rally, something like that from your memoir.

Donald Benson said...

So, which is sleazier:
Wringing free work out of creatives in the guise of a tryout?
Or persuading hopefuls they'll be paid in "exposure"?

MikeK.Pa., said...

Curious, was there a caption for this cartoon? Impressive. I have a hard time drawing stick figures.

DrBOP said...

Off-Topic Kid reports in with a LIVE update:

Presently streaming this abomination ABC is calling Greatest Hits:1980-1985.....had to write this down from show's opening theme before I forgot it EXACTLY....."sadly John Lennon got shot (tempo slows EVER so slightly.....then EXPLODES into).....but Christie Brinkley was so hot"......

.....I FUCKIN' KID YOU NOT!!!

And first artist featured was Kenny Loggins ("The Soundtrack King???) with his first #1....."Footloose".

Andy Rose said...

This is why the packet request from Colbert didn't seem all that unreasonable to me. If your career goal is to write for a mainstream comedy show, doing Colbert would be like getting called up straight to the Yankees. (Or at least the Dodgers.) Spending some spare hours writing this pitch is a lot less expensive and time consuming than the things that usually lead to jobs like these: moving to New York or LA on your own dime, trying to get in a respected improv comedy troupe or writing and mounting your own show hoping somebody in the industry notices it or financing and making your own comedy film... or getting your parents to pay for Harvard and cutting all your classes to work for the Lampoon.

Anonymous said...

Andy Rose Said:
"trying to get in a respected improv comedy troupe"

Uh-huh. Kind of like trying to get into a respected mime troupe.

"or writing and mounting your own show hoping somebody in the industry notices it or financing and making your own comedy film... or getting your parents to pay for Harvard and cutting all your classes to work for the Lampoon."

You're dating yourself, old man. All you have to do is make hilarious YouTube videos. You can do that at home, alone in your mom's basement in Buttefuk, Wisconsin and make a name for yourself. I've watched it happen from scratch quite a few times. No need to do all that crap you just mentioned, and hasn't been the case in a long time. Save thousands in improv class money and buy a camera. If you're talented, you'll find a way to make the funny. No need to kiss Colbert's ass. If you're funny on YouTube, Colbert will come to you, with his lips pursed, making kissy noises.

Be independent to start off. Don't try to fit into a dying collective.

Robb Hyde said...

DJ. TV sitcom writer. Baseball announcer. Author. Playwright.
Also cartoonist?
I think my head just exploded.

Andy Rose said...

Anonymous said:
"No need to kiss Colbert's ass. If you're funny on YouTube, Colbert will come to you, with his lips pursed, making kissy noises. Be independent to start off. Don't try to fit into a dying collective."

As I made pretty clear before, I think this is a reasonable route for someone who is interested in writing for a mainstream comedy show right now. If you just want to do your own thing, it goes without saying that you should not apply to be an employee in a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Getting noticed online side-by-side with 100s of millions of other videos is a lot less likely to get Stephen Colbert's attention than actually applying to his show, even if you're one of thousands of applicants. Lonely Island and Derrick Comedy both ended up with a lot of mainstream success, but they also put lots of time into conceiving and shooting their videos, considerably more than it would take to make a packet.

The most cheaply produced successful comedy videos I can think of on YouTube were Piotr Walczuk's amazing vocal impression videos. He has had a lot of success and is about to be in the case of the MAD TV reboot. But that role is coming NINE YEARS after he was first noticed on YouTube, and long after he moved to LA and built up a resume in a more traditional manner.

John said...

I know that one long-time writer for Leno's Tonight Show got the job by faxing in topical jokes every weekday for about two years.