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Home » Archives » December 2006 » A Visit From Ken Levine!
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12/02/2006: A Visit From Ken Levine!

The amazing Ken Levine weighs in today! Ken has written for shows including M*A*S*H, Cheers and Frasier, and is as impressive a writer as you're ever gonna find anywhere. You can, and should, check out his blog

Ken has a comment about my last post. He says:

"You make wonderful points about comedy scripts needing to be real and grounded even at the expense of additional laughs. That was a cardinal rule on shows like CHEERS and FRASIER. But I think today's show runner and network executive would look at that as 'too traditional,' and 'not edgy enough'. The standards have been so lowered on the current crop of sitcoms that what passes for good wouldn't be passable ten years ago... I think the advice you gave was dead on, but as I was reading it I was wondering whether most of your readers even had a clue as to what that meant. And you can't blame them..."

Ooh. Feisty and interesting. If I'm reading Ken right, he's suggesting that writing a *good* spec might be somewhat different than writing a *spec that gets you hired*.

He makes an excellent point. If you look at shows that are older than the ones he mentions, like, say, The Odd Couple or Barney Miller, they often genuinely had the feeling of a filmed stage play, with all the quiet moments left in. A spec that felt like either of these shows now would probably feel slow and under-joked. I'm not certain that a Cheers or Frasier spec would have the same feeling, but I'll bow to Ken's experience on that.

However, I still think that a spec that manages to land a genuine emotional moment is going to stand out above one that offers nothing but empty calories. I'm going to have to trust that today's show runners and network executives know that hiring a writer who can write something real is going to pay off in the long run. You'll have used the rest of the spec to prove you can churn out jokes. Most writers who are writing comedy specs are pretty good at churning out jokes, in fact. But not every writer can strike one o' those emotional chords that suddenly makes an audience care about a character or a relationship.

And, although many of you are probably quite young, you watch shows in syndication, and you're seeking out the best of what's out there. You've probably seen some of those wonderful moments they did so well on, for example, Friends. The Ross/Rachel moments, for example. And you've seen the Jim/Pam stuff on The Office. Even a show as kinetic as Arrested Development had some touching father-son interactions. I would advocate reaching for moments like these.

Now, I could well be wrong here. Ken is a very smart guy, and he's making a more complex point than I think I'm giving him credit for. Writing for the purpose of being hired is a very tricky business indeed, and you'll each have to decide for yourselves how you're going to strike the balance between what you want to write and what you think someone is going to want to read. Just don't let the winds of television fashion blow you so far over that you're no longer doing what inspires you.

Lunch: pizza somewhere in West Hollywood.


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December 2006

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