Thursday, August 05, 2010

What do I think of HOT IN CLEVELAND and other questions?

I’m falling behind on questions so am tossing in a few extra days this summer to catch up.

Max Clarke gets us started:

Ken, what was the first time you got paid for writing something?

In 1969 I was hired by KMPC radio to write sportscasts. They weren’t very funny, but then again they were paying minimum wage. I once got in trouble during a college football scoreboard report for writing “Texas A&M puffed Rice” and “Oklahoma beat the Jesus out of Oral Roberts”. The sports director was not amused.

I did get a chance to write comedy material for Gary Owens who was on the station at the time. He offered to pay me but I refused. Having him as a mentor and letting me go on the air to perform the material myself from time to time was payment enough.

In the early 70s I sold some jokes to Joan Rivers for $5.00. Don’t know if she ever used them. For all I know she’s still using them. By the way, there’s a documentary about her called PIECE OF WORK that’s out in some markets that is terrific.

Anonymous (please leave your name) wants to know:

Why don't more TV writers write comic novels? The only one that pops into my head is SHEILA LEVINE IS DEAD AND LIVING IN NEW YORK by Gail Parent, many years ago. I'm sure there are others but why so rare?

Simple. They’re almost impossible to sell. For whatever reason publishers consider comic novels death. You can get away with it in chick lit sometimes but by and large editors would rather get Anthrax in the mail than comic manuscripts.

I suppose if you’re Dave Barry you could sell one so I would change my name to Dave Barry.

When I read John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece, THE CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES (a book that was rejected by every editor in New York, drove the author to suicide, and posthumously won the Pulitzer ), I was inspired to try writing a comic novel myself.

I got about two hundred pages in when I made the mistake of going back and fixing things. It became the chair with one leg always shorter. I got the job at CHEERS and happily put the project down.

A few years ago I stumbled upon the unfinished manuscript and started reading it. God, it was awful. I had absolutely no idea where the story was going or even where I thought it was going at the time. Usually something will jog your memory – a plot turn, a scene, an obvious set up. Nope. Nothing. It’s as if someone else wrote it. I wish someone else had.

No, I’m not going to share chapters.

From Dudleys Mom:

I don't think you've talked about "Hot in Cleveland". What do you think about that show, Ken?

It’s very well done. I adore Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. And that old lady who plays the caretaker? Wow. She’s a real find!

And finally, this Anonymous question:

What are the non-writing producers who aren't the line producer doing on the show?

They’re giving notes, drawing a fat salary, and taking a piece of the back end profits leaving the writing producers to do all the real work and put in all the long hours. They go to Laker games while the staff stays up till 4 fixing the script. It’s hard to believe that for fifty years talented writers could actually make hit shows without them.

Tomorrow: some questions delving into our partnership. What do you want to know?


alkali said...

Regarding the second question, I note that Joe Keenan of Frasier and Desperate Housewives wrote a few very well-regarded comic novels.

Mike in SLO said...

Somehow Ken always manages to elicit happy memories from my youth. "Sheila Levine" is definitely one of those. "I'm going to kill myself... DO YOU WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD WHEN A MAN LIES ABOUT CALORIES?". For some reason that line has stayed stuck in my head for the past 36 years. You gotta hand it Gail Parent, it was a really fun read (but oh how they destroyed the movie).

Screwtape said...

Prolific Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder has written several comic novels which he sells exclusively through Amazon. I've yet to pick one up, but they are reportedly damn funny reads

Anonymous said...

Simpsons writer Larry Doyle's "I Love You, Beth Cooper!" apparently did well enough for it to be made into a movie, and he wrote the adaptation script himself. I thought it was funny enough that I have listed it on my Staff Picks at my bookstore day job. I still haven't seen the movie though.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I'm really enjoying HOT IN CLEVELAND too. Funny scripts and great cast, like an All Star game every week.

By Ken Levine said...

Joe's novels (which you should read by the way. They're HILARIOUS) were first sold twenty years ago or so. The publishing world like every other world was completely different back in those days.

I'm talking in general terms here. Sure you can point out exceptions. And you could always self publish. But I'm just warning people who might be contemplating going to the time and effort of writing a comic novel that as a genre it's a hard sell.

Justim H in MN said...

when I was in school they once announced that our girls basketball team had "destroyed Christ's House of Faith."

I think they also gave the score, but that statement is what stays with me.

Wayne said...

I'm a TV comedy writer who in the 80s chanced on Dobie Gillis author Max Shulman's comic novel Sleep Till Noon. It was LOL funny. So I wrote Shulman a fan letter. I was surprised when he called to say thanks. He invited me to have drinks with him one night at Dan Tana’s.
All his novels are funny and worth your time. I asked him why did he stopped writing comic novels in th 1970s. Max Shulman said it’s the market.
At one time, the NY Times best sellers always had one funny novel like the Egg and I or Cheaper by the Dozen in the top ten. Then the market changed and we get out comedy from TV. Max Shulman said his agent could sell another novel but he’d have to throw in global adventure like Sidney Sheldon.
Shulman said his last novel had disappointing sales. I think the book was Potatoes Are Cheaper from 1972 about a young man’s coming of age misadventures at University of Minnesota during the Depression.
I said “How many did it sell?”
He about “about 100,000.”
Oh, to have that level of failure!

Gary said...

Aug. 5 1921: Pittsburgh radio station KDKA and announcer Harold Arlin (& Tim McCarver) provided listeners with the first broadcast of a major league game. The Pirates beat the Phillies 8-5.

Was it Richard Hooker who wrote several MASH novels? And Jay Cronley, he wrote some doozies, at least 3 of which were made into movies, incl. Funny Farm. But, as Ken says, that was a different era.

Gary said...

I'd forgotten about Max Schulman, that man was hilarious! Rally Round the Flag and House Calls were among my favorites.

Dr. Hornberger worked eleven years on his debut novel, MASH, which was rejected by many publishers before being acquired by William Morrow and Company.[1] Ultimately, however, the book (released under Hornberger's pseudonym, Richard Hooker), proved amazingly successful. The novel, whose main protagonist Hawkeye Pierce was based on Hornberger himself, quickly inspired an Academy Award-winning film released in 1970 and a widely popular television series that lasted eleven seasons. Interestingly however, Hornberger reportedly did not like Alan Alda's portrayal in the TV series,[2] while he viewed the original Robert Altman movie in which Pierce was played by Donald Sutherland many times.

According to John Baxter in A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict, Hooker "was so furious at having sold the film rights for only a few hundred dollars that he never again signed a copy of the book" (203).

Slacker said...

Question for some Friday: The way you explained it, it sounds like the non-writing producer job is a pretty nice gig. Having been a writing producer, could you somehow have (or could you now) make a lateral move into one of those "go watch the Lakers and collect residuals for something else that is going on at the same time somewhere else" jobs? If not, what is the typical career path that one takes to get what sounds like a really excellent job as non-writing producer (who is also not a line producer)?

Rich said...

2 notes...

1) Surprised no one has mentioned Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Buckley, both of whom make a handsome living writing comic novels.

2) When asked about his comic influences, Bob Newhart mentioned 2 -- Robert Benchley and Max Shulman. Go back and read "The Feather Merchants" "Barefoot Boy With Cheek" and "The Zebra Derby." What you'll discover is that Shulman invented the "Airplane" surreal/reality break Mad Magazine style of comedy. The man was a comic genius.

jbryant said...

Just adding to the chorus of Max Shulman praise, which has reminded me that I need to pick up some more of his stuff. It's been a while.

benson said...

I read all the "Mash goes to..." novels while in high school. They were fun.

I don't know if he's related, but Nathaniel Benchley's "The Off Islanders" was funny (and Norman Jewison turned it into "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians are Coming!")

Just saw a review of Hiassen's new book which I guess takes the whole Lindsay Lohan/Paris Hilton culture and skewers it good.

Max Clarke said...

Gary Owens was great in Laugh-In, always holding his ear as he did his announcements. Just the way he opened the show told you it wasn't normal television.

Haven't seen the Joan Rivers movie, but I've caught her on podcasts. Very frank about the business, to which she lost a husband. Doesn't like Johnny Carson much, that's for sure.

Kirk said...


Nathaniel Benchley was Robert Benchley's son. Nathanial, in turn, was the father of Peter Benchley, author of JAWS (not a comic novel, though the movie had a few funny moments)

Michael Tassone said...

Okalahoma beat the Jesus out of Oral Roberts.

you should have been promoted.

Debby G said...

It is really hard to write humorous novels. And just like humorous movies, they don't get much respect.

I've published two humorous young adult novels with Penguin in the last five years, among other books. One, STORKY, did pretty well, selling in hardback, paperback, as an ebook, in audio, and in three other languages. The other one, STUCK IN THE 70S, didn't do very well. But I did have a film agent for it who shopped it around, and it came close to getting optioned. It came out three years ago and was about time travel through a Jacuzzi tub.

But enough about me. I've read many terrific humorous novels. Some authors who've published good humorous novels for adults in the last five years are Marc Acito, Sophie Kinsella, Alan Zweibel (who wrote for SNL), Jonathan Tropper, John McNally, Steve Hely, Nick Hornby (who wrote the screenplay An Education), and Peter Bognanni.

Debby G said...

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York was one of the first adult books I ever read. I was ten and took it from my mother's nightstand. I loved it. I reread it recently and couldn't believe how raunchy it was. The first adult book I ever read was The Happy Hooker. And that's how I came to really love reading.

notworthreading said...

I recently read your script from the Frasier episode where Sam visits and have two questions. When you're writing for a character you know, do you write in a way half-expecting how the line will be delivered? I'm thinking of the scene where Sam says something to the effect of "the kind of chick you can put on a pedestal", Frasier responds about how it's amazing how Sam can both elevate and demean at the same time. Sam kind of gives a "wuh" response, or something to that effect. Are you envisioning the exchange playing out as it does, or is that just part of the collaborative "magic"?

My, second question is regarding the scene title cards in Frasier. They don't appear in your script if I recall correctly. Who wrote those?


Matt said...


Speaking of writing partners, I notice Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum wrote the major transitional MASH episodes: "Abyssinia, Henry", "Welcome To Korea", "Change Of Command", "Fade Out, Fade In", even "Margaret's Marriage." (the exception, of course, being "Goodbye Radar" which you and David wrote).

Was there a reason why Jim and Everett landed these types of episodes?


Wayne said...

I reminded a couple commenters of Max Schulman.
The book of his that's that undiscovered gem is Sleep Till Noon.
He wrote it right before Dobie Gillis. It's his funniest early book. It's zany in a Robert Benchley way.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I am growing a beard. Can you tell me why?

Anonymous said...

Ken, did you ever meet Dr. Hornberger (Hooker)?

Wayne said...

Opps, it's Max Shulman.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Charlie Hauck's Artostic Differences has been mentioned here. I read on of John Schwartzwelder's novels and couldn't get through it. Phoef Sutton wrote Always Six o'Clock, which I can really recommend. And Joe Keenan did indeed write two gay farcical homages to P. G. Wodehouse's comic novels before he became a tv writer. But after Frasier ended and his own series Bram and Alice failed to take off, he wrote a third one, just as good.

Sérgio said...

I would like to thank all the people here for their comments. I've been searching for a while for comic novels. This topic has given me some new names: Gail Parent, John Swartzwelder, Max Shulman, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Buckley, Nathaniel Benchley, Gary Owens and Debby Garfinkle.

I knew already Dave Barry, Joe Keenan, Robert Benchley, Larry Doyle and Phoef Sutton. They're really super!


P.S.: Please Mr. Levine, don't let the market stop you from finishing a comic novel. You can count on us. :-)

LinGin said...

Re: Wendie Malick. She seems to be one of those actors who can make shows better by appearing in them.

I love her in the last couple of seasons of Frasier. Most of the time when a show is coming to the end, the last year or so becomes unbearable with new characters added just for the sake of keeping the show going (Bill Cosby, I'm looking at you; and I'm glad you're not dead). Wendie's addition to Frasier was a plus and helped the show stay fresh until the end. (And a great ending, BTW, with that lovely little twist).

Screwtape said...

Sergio: If you're looking for good comic novels, you can't go wrong with Thorne Smith. His Topper novels are great, but I'd start with Rain in the Doorway or The Night Life of the Gods. They were written in the 20s and 30s, but are every bit as wild, witty, and irreverent as anything by Douglas Adams or Terry Southern (two other comic authors you might enjoy).

Sérgio said...


Thank you very much!

This afternoon I went to a bookstore that has a lot of English books (I do not live in an English speaking country) but they had zero of the list. So, it seems that I've to order the books through Barnes&Noble or Amazon.

I'm really curious about the books/authors that have been mentioned in this topic.


Paul said...

Should I give "Hot in Cleveland" another chance? I watched the first episode and it was so bad that I literally turned it off 3/4 of the way through.

Tom Quigley said...


First, to get the male chauvinist sexist part of the review out of the way -- Wendie Malik has great eyes and a seductive, smoky, sultry voice, Jane Leeves has great legs, Valerie Bertinelli has great hooters, and Betty White has -- well, she's Betty White...

Best 3-camera show I've seen come along in quite a while (at least since FRASIER and FRIENDS went off the air)... While the story lines and comedy might go a little farther over they edge than if it was on a broadcast network, I haven't seen anything in it yet (except maybe besides the premise that three women from Los Angeles who are on a plane which makes an emergency stop in Cleveland immediately decide to live there --on the other hand, what does that say about living in Los Angeles?) that rendered it unwatchable, or unfunny... The characters already seem fully developed (no pun intended) and the comedy that emanates from them and their situation has worked for me so far... I'll bet there are a few programming executives out there that wish they'd gotten their hands on this one for their own network...

Debby G said...

More specifically:

If you don't mind a lot of raunch, try the hilarious How I Paid for College by Marc Acito. One of the funniest books I've ever read.

Still raunchy but less so, with very witty wordplay, is I Love You Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle (TV writer). It's an adult novel about high school kids and much better than the movie.

Both High Fidelity and About a Boy by Nick Hornby (screenwriter) are funny and romantic and sweet.

Sophie Kinsella's stand-alone novels are also very funny and sweet. I haven't read her Shopahalic series.

A hilarious send-up of writers and MFA students and professors is Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist.

I'm reading House of Tomorrow by Peter Bagnanni and loving it. It's funny and sweet, about a very sheltered homeschooled teen who becomes best friends with a punk rocker teen.

I love the book that made chick lit big, Bridget Jones Diary.

My young adult novel Storky by D.L. Garfinkle is especially for teen boys, but I get nice emails from girls and adults too. Serious, depressing novels get most of the awards, but I get emails from teens saying my book was the first book they read for fun and they shared it with their friends and now they're starting to read more books for fun. That's better than an award, in my opinion.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Also, British Yes Prime Minister writer (and now movie director) Jonathan Lynn wrote a pretty funny novel called Mayday. A bit talky, but's that's to be expected from him.

Sérgio said...

@ Debby,

Thank you for your tips, especially Acito, Helly and Bagnanni. I didn't know these three writers.

@ Gert,

Thank you. I'm very familiar with the work of Lynn. I own the dvd's from "Yes, Minister" + "Yes, Prime Minister". I also bought the book "The complete Yes Prime Minister".

iain said...

Ken, sorry for turning this into the book club, but Sergio might also want to look into books by Christopher Moore & Stephen Fry.

Oh, & to sort of bring this back to topic, when "hot In Cleveland" was first announced, peole here were very concerned that it would just be one more dog-pile on the city. Now, people are complaining that there are too few "local" digs. That's life in America's #1 inferiority complex city.

Kirk Jusko said...

How about Catch-22? Or Bonfire of the Vanities? Anything by Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain.

Kirk said...
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