Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Levine & Isaacs partnership process

Here’s a three-part Friday Question that takes up a whole post. It’s from Mike Bloodworth and is about my longtime partnership with David Isaacs.

I know some writers prefer to write alone, but previously you've stated that there are advantages to having a partner. However, did you always agree on scripts? Did you ever feel reluctant to compromise on a line? How often, if ever was there conflict?

No, we don’t always agree. And sometimes the arguments have gotten spirited. But the key is we never make it personal. We can argue tooth-and-nail over some story point and then break for lunch and talk about baseball.

When it comes to specific lines, we have a rule. If one of us pitches a joke the other doesn’t spark to and can’t convince him in like two minutes we just throw the line out completely and go for something entirely different. Usually it takes less time to come up with something new than to argue over a line and ultimately one person is unhappy.

All that said, for the most part we're in agreement.  

The key to this and the partnership in general is that you have to have respect for your partner’s opinion and talent. So if I pitch a joke and David thinks we can do better I trust his judgment.

Do you guys have specialties? Having worked with you I know that you're a great "straight man." Is one of you better at set ups, punch lines, story, exposition, etc.?

No, we’re surprisingly similar. Normally we work head-to-head. But early in our career we would take one script assignment a year and break it up. I would write one act and David would write the other. We would then put them together and do the polish together. I swear, you couldn’t tell who wrote which act.

One difference is that very early on I tended to go to fast and David tended to go too slow. We were each a good influence on each other.

Eventually we fell into a groove and write together at a good comfortable clip.

And as for jokes, people always ask if I wrote a certain joke and I tell them I don’t remember. It sounds like I’m being coy, but the truth is one of us will pitch a joke, the other will modify it, and together we will further shape it. So I really don’t remember.

Not all Lennon and McCartney songs were written by both John and Paul together, especially toward the end of the Beatles. Was every Levine & Isaacs written by both of you? Or is that billing just part of your agreement?

Every Levine & Isaacs script was written by both of us. In some cases one more than the other, but that’s the value of a partnership. If one of us had the flu and the script had to be in by Friday the healthy one would do the lion’s share of the work on that draft. Or if I was off doing baseball, one of us would take the first draft and the other would then do the second draft. Then we always did the final polish together.

But the overwhelming majority of our scripts were written with me and David in a room together dictating to a writers’ assistant.

Every partnership is different. There is no right or wrong way to collaborate. It depends on you. But this is our process and I’d say it works for us since we’ve been partners for over 120 years.


Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks as always.

Tammy said...

You know how on Four Weddings Hugh Grant says he's always in awe of people who get married? Well I'm always in awe of people who can collaborate on writing projects, especially for so many years. I do a lot of (academic) writing at work and find it pretty hard whenever I have to collaborate. When I get the file back and open it on Show Changes I always feel like, "Noooo! What have they done to my preciousssss???" I'm working on letting go though :)

Follow-up meta question: as a lot of the anecdotes on the blog also involve David, do you ever run them by him first, or do you have carte blanche to post whatever you want?

J Lee said...

Forty-three years from your first TV network sale is a really long time to be able to work together as a writing team (or roughly the same time span as if a writing team for a WWII era radio show was still partnering together to do a "Cheers" episode in the Kirstie Alley era). Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of comedy writers who had longevity working with partners, but not with the same partner for such an extended period. Congratulations on obviously being able to work so well together.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Ken, you wrote:

if I was off doing baseball, one of us would take the first draft and the other would then do the second draft. Then we always did the final polish together.

Did that ever happen when you were in different cities? If so, then was it a long phone call (with assistant in the room with Isaacs)?

Dr Loser said...

Baseball, ah yes. I don't want to drive a wedge between you and David ... but which one argues from a National League perspective, and which one from an American League perspective?

Don K. said...

You guys look pretty good for a 120 year partnership.

Colin Stratton said...

Not exactly "The Sunshine Boys", but a working relationship without strife is refreshing.

Kabe said...

a quick question, maybe too personal, though: you always refer to David as a "writing partner". But are you friends otherwise?