Friday, October 15, 2010

The writing job I regret not accepting

Friday questions comin' at ya.  For new readers, every Friday I answer your questions.  Just leave 'em in the comments section.  

UPDATE:  A lot of you have asked me about last night's live 30 ROCK.  I'll talk about it tomorrow.  Preview:  I liked it.

Michael has two:

1) Any writing jobs do you regret not accepting?

We were offered the job to write the COSBY pilot but had to turn it down because AfterMASH had gotten picked up for a second season and we were still locked in. That was good for ten years therapy.  I still can't see a multi-colored sweater without bursting into tears. 

Otherwise, there were some new shows that offered us a guarantee of 13 episodes and were canceled after 3,  meaning they had to just pay us off for the remaining ten.   We missed some golden opportunities there.

And then of course, walking away from comedy goddess Traci Lords

2) When you wrote for The Simpsons, did you approach it like a live-action show or did you try to include things that only could be done in animation?

We did treat it as live-action because the characters had to have real emotions. The animation part allowed us tremendous freedom and we tried to take advantage of that – doing scenes you couldn’t do (or afford) otherwise, but in our heads we were writing live-action.

 If you overheard any of our internal discussions about the characters you would think we were talking about real people -- damaged real people but real just the same.

But that’s just us. I can’t speak for any other SIMPSONS writers (who are all welcome to chime in).  

sophomorecritic wonders:

How do you ensure writers aren't slacking off on weeks where they're not writing the episode? What specifically are they doing on weeks when the show isn't written by them?

We put ankle bracelets on them and monitor their whereabouts at all times.  Those bitches work for us!

Seriously, when you’re on staff of a show your day is spent in the writers room with everybody else – coming up with notions, breaking stories, rewriting this week’s show, re-writing next week’s. Depending on the show and team of the season, sometime if you’ve got a script assignment they let you skip your room responsibilities and just go off and write the draft. But more often than not you have to write the script on your own time.  So the 80 hour week becomes a 100 hour week.  And that's fine if the show goes into syndication and you get residuals forever.  If you killed yourself to write that HANK episode I'm sorry. 

Here’s one from Jose:

Do tv writers typically get paid weekly, bi-weekly, or?
this is for a small beat in my 30 Rock spec.
i didn't know how to look this up. thanks

They get paid LATE most of the time. That’s the real answer. If you’re on staff you’re generally paid so much per episode. That’s totaled and rationed out every two weeks. But I’m sure different studios have different pay schedules.

The only thing they all do is pay you late. Or not at all.

In going back through contracts my agent recently discovered that David and I were still owed money from a pilot we sold four years ago. “Oops”, the studio said.

And finally, from Anonymous: (please leave a name when asking a question. It won’t go on your police record.)

What I'm curious about now is whether you have had to wade through eccentricity more often than not. In interacting with the actors and directors and producers - and hey maybe writers too - would you say that there are more eccentrics working in the biz or that they are the exception?

Eccentricities are certainly tolerated more in this industry than others. The creative process is nebulous at best. But for the most part everyone is just normally neurotic and crazy.

As for eccentricities: There was a writer who could only work in the valley. He couldn’t go into Los Angeles. So he could never work at 20th or Sony or Paramount or pitch HBO or SHOWTIME or FOX.  Needless to say, his agent was thrilled.

I know actors who don’t like to make eye contact with anyone. Others who have to be the last one to enter the stage before a runthrough (but that’s just diva shit).

My favorite was a certain TV director. She directed multi-camera shows. Directors have a podium to set down their scripts. The podium is always on wheels so you can roll it from scene to scene.

This director had her own. She had a hobby horse built with a music stand for the script. All day long she sat on this hobby horse and rolled around the set.  It's like Annie Oakley rides in to save your show.

What’s your question?


Andrew Wickliffe said...

Here's one I've always wondered about :

When you have a supporting cast member who never talks in the background--I'm thinking of the woman who works for Roy on WINGS--does she never speak because then her pay would be different?

hoss said...

I've got one, if I may.

I wrote a couple of features (that became films) about 13 years ago, then got sucked into an 8 year project , and am now back at screenplays...

and need to find a new agent.

Should i mention the earlier movie work?

Should i mention the internet project?

... and when should i mention that I'm not moving back out to LA, but i do like to visit!?

Thanks as always for your help and advice.

littlejohn said...


Can you list your top 5-10 actors & actresses who you think are underrated or don't get the props they should ? I'm thinking of people like James Cromwell, who from an amateur's prospective, just seems like a top notch pro, who you could throw into practically anything.


rchesson said...

Hi Ken - Not being a cable consumer for my TV watching I only recently have been able to view (in the comfort of my home) episodes of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM since back episodes are being broadcast on a non-cable outlet. I'm well aware of the "non scripted/improvised" format for the show and was wondering what your thoughts as a writer/director/creator are concerning this process. It seems to be an interesting experiment but somewhat one-dimensional. Obviously after 6 seasons something in it rings with viewers (maybe they identify with neurotic screw-up [Larry David/George Costanza character]) or the "insider" look at Hollywood.

If you have already addressed this topic in one of your earlier posts, forgive me and feel free to ignore it.

Anonymous said...

When I was watching The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960's I loved how Rob, Buddy and Sally would entertain at parties with hilarious skits and songs. I always wanted to attend one of these sophisticated suburban parties when I grew up (but still haven't made it to one). My question: was this an accurate depiction of how all comedy writers behave at parties?

Anonymous said...

Hey...don't be dissin' my lady, Traci Lords.

ImWithTheBand said...

A hobby horse???

Holy f**k, I thought musicians were weird prima donnas.

Thanks for making me feel sane and normal.

Jose said...

I know that you're retired from TV now but if you ever got a great episode idea for like 30 Rock, could you or would you go to them with it?

Matt said...

A Friday question:

You once wrote about how Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum would include a signature scat joke in every script.

Do other writers have signature jokes or styles? Do you and David?

Dana Gabbard said...

"was this an accurate depiction of how all comedy writers behave at parties?"

You hear more often that songwriters and singers would often do legendary intimate performances at parties among showbiz friends. Folks like George Gershwin. That is how Frank Loesser and his wife performed Baby It's Cold Outside and got such a good response that he eventually sold the song to MGM and of course it has since become a standard...

amyp3 said...

Ken, I just got such a great laugh from the image of that director and her hobby horse/music stand.

How could you NOT have found a way to put that into some script at some point?

KG said...

Hello Mr. Levine,

my Name is Kaan, I'm 24 years old and live in Germany. My whole life I have this crazy passion for American television, especially comedy shows.

Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers, 30 Rock etc. just to name a few.

I wanna write comedy.

Comedy is really my passion and so many people say I really have a talent for that.

But every German TV Show suck!
They are just not funny.

So the question is this: whether or not I have talent to write comedy, there are some skills and techniques I have to learn.

There are some writing programs/schools in Germany. But I'm afraid if I go to these programs/schools they will screw up my writing. Because these are the same programs/schools that produce these terrible writers who write the terrible German TV Shows.

I want to learn how to write comedy. But I want to learn it the correct (american) way and not the wrong (german) way.

So, should I go to these schools to learn at least something, which is most probably wrong or should I wait until I'm in the US, which will take two years at least, to go to a real school, like Second City (or antother one)?

Greetings, Kaan.

Sara said...

I'm thinking about the recent live version of 30 Rock, but do you think you'd write differently if the sitcom you are producing was to be performed live?

SarcasticFemme said...

Ken, your blog is SO famous!! You were REPEATEDLY mentioned in the (rather heated) comments section over at Pajiba (the second most interesting blog on the Internet for sarcasm-loving folks). I love how at one point they call it "that guy's blog".

Sheesh. Some days it's hard to be a feminist.

Perhaps you should consider devoting one day a week to sarcastic posts on the state of feminism, so that all the angry womyn can get up in arms about that ignorant Ken Levine. I see page views in the millions in your future.

Scott said...

"We were offered the job to write the COSBY pilot but had to turn it down because AfterMASH had gotten picked up for a second season and we were still locked in."

Sounds like it was your life's version of the Octavio Dotel trade. :)

-Scott from Marina Del Rey

Stephen said...

Most new shows begin with a 13 episode order, but some ill-fated spin-offs from successful shows are granted a full 22 or 24 episode order (like Joey, The Golden Palace) from the outset. Which episode order do you think is best for a new show?

Michael said...

Here's one related to the recent Aaron Sorkin incident:

If you were writing for a show today, would you be looking at blogs and/or fan sites to get feedback from the audience? Would you only seek out sites from writers/critics you already knew and respected?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I've been meaning to ask. Regarding those Simpsons episodes you wrote, did you and David get paid extra for creating the Capital City Goofball on Dancin' Homer and Ronnie Beck on Saturdays of Thunder?

I believe Matt Selman managed to get paid 8 times as much for creating Apu's octuplets in a single episode.

I know the Capital City Goofball made a couple of appearances much later in the series. I'm assuming you got residuals from those.

David said...

"was this an accurate depiction of how all comedy writers behave at parties?"

Anonymous, that reminds me of the following excerpt from a recent L.A. Times article on Marlo Thomas' autobiography:

"The guys" were her father, comic-actor Danny Thomas, and his cronies, including George Burns, Jan Murray, Milton Berle and Bob Hope, to name just a few. They would congregate with their wives for dinner at Thomas' house in Beverly Hills and spend the evening trying to make each other laugh.

"They were smoking cigars, drinking brandy and making each other scream with laughter," she says with affection over the phone from her car while driving in New York. "My mother and the wives would be in the other room; they had had enough of their husbands' jokes. But I would sit on the floor and listen for hours. They just made each other laugh."

luke said...


Hello. I enjoy your blog a great deal.

I have a good idea for a movie, and I am writing the story (it is in my head). However, i am not a very good script writer, and I cannot possibly get it into Hollywood, I think.

Thus, I was just wondering if anyone who has 'insider knowledge' wants to partner up with me? Perhaps i can writ the story, and then can polish the script, and submit it?

anyone interested? It is a very good story, and I can write a script. Just need someone who can polish it up, and can deliver it to an agent.

Thanks so much,



Eric said...

On newer syndie Cheers prints, sometimes as the camera shots are switched, it goes to a "restored" look and then back to a muddy "original" look. Why is that? It's distracting and I've never seen it on any other rerun show.

Stephen said...

How do feel about product placement in shows? What were your experiences with it in your shows? Were you ever asked to feature something ridiculous (e.g. high-end sports gear in M*A*S*H)?

BigTed said...

Ken, I'm curious -- if you had written the "Cosby Show" pilot, how would it have differed from the one that actually ran? (I assume Bill Cosby had a huge amount of influence over the whole concept.)

I imagine your version might actually have been funnier (I enjoyed "Cosby" but it never actually made me laugh as much as Cosby's old comedy routines)... but do you think it would have led to the series being as wildly successful as it was?

William Shatner said...


Rashad Khan said...

"I still can't see a multi-colored sweater without bursting into tears."

Neither can I -- but probably for different reasons.

Here's my question: will the Levine & Isaacs single-camera docu-comedy about a struggling semi-pro baseball team EVER become a reality (preferably on cable)?

Paul Duca said...

Dana....I saw a documentary on Frank Loesser. His wife was hurt when Frank sold "their " song to be used in a movie (which was something that surely contributed to the end of their marriage a few years later). It didn't matter that "Baby, It's Cold Outside" became a hit and won an Oscar.

Eileen K. said...

There's a very funny parody of an academic paper about the Cosby Show, and in particular, the shift in the "ontological structure" between the pilot and the first episode (changes in the number of Huxtable children, Cliff's name, etc). For those of us who have to read (or worse, write) academic papers, it's hilarious. You and David just missed being responsible for "the most radical ontological transformation to be depicted on an American sitcom." Whew.

Eileen K. said...

Sorry--I forgot to include the link to the McSweeney's post:

Anonymous said...

I have always wondered how weekly sitcoms are "put together". That is, are the scripts written far in advance? Do the actors get the scripts the week the show is filmed? If so, what is a typical week like for the writers and actors on a show? How do the set designers build sets so rapidly if shows are put together the week of filming? I'm a huge fan of many of your shows (Cheers and Frasier especially)and wondered how these shows were done. If you could point me to some material on line that describes the process of putting together a weekly sitcom, that would also be great.

Jose said...

How would an actor find out that they're fired from a show for bad behavior? From who and how would they get the news?

Like if it was a young actor on a cable show who didn't take his job seriously and they just had a supporting role that could easily be written out of the show without them appearing again.

Cyn said...

Here's my Q:
Besides the WB, Disney/ABC, Nick and NBC TV writing fellowships, are there any other prominent contests out there for aspiring TV writers to enter? I ask because there seems to be a gazillion of them, and I wonder which ones are actually worth entering.