Meet Ken Levine.
He's probably made you laugh, even if you've never heard of him before now. This Los Angeles screenwriter has been the wit behind sitcoms like Cheers, Frasier, M*A*S*H, The Simpsons, and Becker.
Ken talked to us about his career and what it's like making a life in Los Angeles.
Tell us about how you got into writing. Was it always something you were into or did it develop later on in life?
I knew I wanted to do something to utilize my sense of humor (since I was unqualified to do anything else). At first, I was a Top 40 disc jockey out of college and drifted into writing when I realized that playing “Kung Fu Fighting” four times a night for 50 or 60 years was perhaps not the best plan.
It could be argued that some of the shows you're known for (Cheers, Frasier, Becker) are all quite dependent on witticisms and banter between the characters. When writing for those shows, how do you develop the dialogue?
The dialogue comes out of character and not “jokes.” The humor comes from putting characters with clear attitudes in comic situations, often frustrating. But we take great pains to make sure the audience identifies and cares about them, not just laughs at them.
When stepping in as a director or writer for an episode of a show, how do you ensure your vision for the episode is keeping with the overall tone of the show?
My first task is to maintain the tone and vision that has already been established. Beyond that, I try to enhance, find bits of business, and as a writer, possibly help improve the story and add some jokes, but, most of all, create an atmosphere where the cast can feel free and safe to contribute in their way.
You have a book that recently came out called "The Me Generation". How did you decide to write the book and what can we expect when opening it up?
I always loved the period of the 1960s and the music, but any book I picked up on the ‘60s read like history time lines. Kennedy is shot, then the Beatles, then Viet Nam, then hippies, etc. There didn’t seem to be a book that really
gave you the sense of what it was like to actually live through the period. So I wrote one. There’s a lot of humor in it because that’s how I see the world. So what can the reader expect? Well, it’s like taking a class on the ‘60s as taught by a really entertaining professor.
How long was the book in the works and what sort of challenges did you encounter?
It took about four years to write. Reconstructing my life and filling in various holes after so many years was a challenge. Emotionally, the tough part was re-living my various traumas, humiliations and immature decisions. I made a vow to be honest about myself. It was better for the book, even if it did add five years to my therapy.
On the surface, it seems as though writing for the screen and writing a novel are very different. What are some of the similarities between the two?
It’s all just storytelling. Creating compelling characters and giving them fascinating journeys. But in novels you have to know grammar and how to spell.
What is it about your writing that sets it apart from everybody else's writing?
It’s my distinct voice. My unique take on the world, such that it is.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers out there?
Never stop writing. Your second script, play or novel will be better than your first. And your fourth will be better than your third. Don’t just write one script, think it’s brilliant, and sit back waiting for a multi-million dollar offer. You make your own momentum. Also, I recommend reading my blog because I offer free advice that is generally worth the price.
What's next for you?
I conduct an annual weekend seminar for aspiring writers called THE SITCOM ROOM that simulates the experience of really working on the staff of a situation comedy. In small groups, they will re-write scenes and see professional actors perform them. The next one is planned for November and for information, people can go to the site.