AN INTERVIEW WITH KEN LEVINE
Ken Levine has had more careers than Larry King has ex-wives. He’s been a disc jockey, a baseball announcer, a legendary television writer, an internet maven and… well, you get the idea.
He’s also been a mentor, although I doubt he knew it at the time. I haven’t had very many mentors in my day, but Ken was one of them. He gently, sometimes not so gently, taught me the craft of writing television comedy.
I first met Ken when I was a lowly freelance writer and he was already a legend, running a network comedy. Together with his partner, the equally legendary David Isaacs, he had already produced MASH and the first year of CHEERS. I was able to make the mistakes that all beginning writers make and with Ken’s help, I was able to learn from them.
We’ve worked together, on and off, every year since then. I sat down with Ken and tried to interview him about his fabulous career. I asked him ten questions:
I can’t keep a job. But seriously, I’m a big believer in re-inventing yourself, especially in today’s marketplace when everything is changing so fast. A number of jobs I’ve had (like being a disc jockey) no longer exist. Re-inventing yourself also forces you to learn new skills, which I believe keeps you young. I’ll let you know in a few years if it works.
You worked on four of the best written television show in history: MASH, CHEERS, THE SIMPSONS and FRASIER. How were these shows different from other shows?
They all set incredibly high standards for themselves. They all placed a strong priority on inventive original storytelling. The hardest part of the process is breaking the story, and it’s very easy to take shortcuts or tell variations of stories other shows (or your show) have done. None of those four shows I worked on would ever settle. All four were built on characters, not jokes — even THE SIMPSONS. It was important that the audience had an emotional investment in the characters. The audience had to “care” about their problems. And for the most part, those problems were universal. As for the comedy, the standards were high there too. No one ever “settled” for jokes that weren’t up to par. Easy jokes were discarded. Obvious jokes were discarded. And lastly, we never looked down on the audience. There was always the assumption that the audience was as smart or smarter than we were. Most shows view the audience with disdain. We viewed ours with respect.
What was your first paying writing job?
I sold a few jokes to Joan Rivers. I think I was paid $5 for every three jokes she used. I probably made about $20 total. I also wrote comedy for Gary Owens’ radio show on KMPC, Los Angeles, but I was never paid for that. Just having Gary think my material was good enough to go on the air was payment enough (back then).
What was your first job in television?
My writing partner, David Isaacs, and I sold an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. That was in June of 1975. At the time we didn’t know if we would ever sell another. Almost forty years later we’re still fooling ’em.
When you became a showrunner, was that very different from being a staff writer?
First off, all the responsibility is on you. If a script doesn’t work, you’re the one in charge of fixing it. If an actor is temperamental, you have to be the wrangler. As a staff writer you just write. As the show runner you have to also be a manager of people, a politician who deals with networks and studios, a therapist, cheerleader, and business manager. You deal with budgets, standards & practices, Human Resources, casting, promotion, post-production, and constant deadlines. But it’s worth it to be able to realize your vision. Television is still a writer’s medium. Movies are controlled by directors. Give me the control any day, even with the headaches.
Do you have a writing routine? What is it?
I try to write SOMETHING every day — even if it’s just a short blog post. I consider my blog “stretching exercises for writers.” One thing being on staff of a show teaches you is how to be creative on demand. So I can write any time of the day or night. If there’s a favorite time, it’s probably late at night. Things are quiet, I can work undisturbed, and all the scores are in.
What was your favorite baseball game you ever broadcast?
A spring training game in Glendale, Arizona in March of 2009. The Dodgers hosted the Colorado Rockies. I was filling in on the Dodger broadcast, doing the play-by-play on the radio. It was also a television game so Vin Scully did a simulcast for the first three innings and then I did the remaining six on the radio. For one glorious day I can say that Dodger baseball — on the Los Angeles Dodgers Radio Network — was broadcast by Vin Scully and me. I can’t imagine a World Series game being any better than that.
What the biggest difference between being a radio announcer and a writer for television?
Besides the fact that radio won’t let you show pictures? Once you say something on the radio it’s gone forever. Episodes of television that I wrote thirty years ago are still being seen and enjoyed today.
Who was your favorite of the actors you worked with?
I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve worked with some of the best and nicest. I couldn’t name one but I will list a few (and in no particular order): Ted Danson, Tom Hanks, David Hyde Pierce, Nancy Travis, John Candy, Alan Alda, Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Katey Sagal, Wendie Malick, Malcolm McDowell, Joan Plowright, Miguel Ferrer, and U.S. Senator Al Franken.
Who was the most difficult?
There was an Orangutan when I directed an episode of JUST SHOOT ME. Once it was past his bedtime he became very mean. I hate when actors bite.