‘Cheers’ Writer Ken Levine On Breaking Into The Sitcom Business
Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Cheers reruns on the local Chicago station MeTV and appreciating them in an all new light. As something of an aspiring comedy writer myself, it’s great to see a sitcom that works on almost every level, from the bar setting to Carla’s zingers.
It should go without saying, then, that I jumped at the chance to listen in on a free teleseminar given by Ken Levine, one of the writers of that show. He’s also written for MASH, Frasier, Becker and many others. Lasting a little over two hours, he gave practical advice for beginning writers and anecdotes from his own experiences working on sitcoms.
A recording of the seminar is available for purchase through his popular website (link here). Below, I have posted excerpts of some of Levine’s answers to questions that people submitted for the seminar. It’s only a small taste of what he all went over. Consider it like the trailer for the full-length version.
When you’re writing a spec script, what’s more important: story or jokes?
For specs, jokes are the most important. When you’re starting out, funny is important. Also, the more versatile you are, the better. One guy on Home Improvement was good at jokes but he would take a nap when they worked on storylines. He’s not in the business anymore.
What’s the best advice you can give about writing a spec?
Start with relationships. Sometimes people will think they have a great idea. They’ll start out by saying, “You know I work in a muffin store and it would make a great sitcom because, this one time, we accidentally put blueberries in the mix and…” That doesn’t cut it. It has to be about relationships.
It’s like if you pitched me Cheers by saying, “I want to do a show about a bar and the wacky people that come in. ” I would be much more interested if you said, “It’s a show, set in a bar that’s like a psychology support group with alcohol.” It’s filled with people struggling to make a name for themselves and of course you have the Sam and Diane relationship.
If you go back and watch the first year, in the first five or six episodes you’ll see a big Carla story or a Barney Miller-esque episode with a four or five people walking into the bar. Soon enough, it became clear that the Sam and Diane relationship was the “money”.
What’s the most important part about writing a spec script?
The relationships. Also, having your pilot be about something. Have some kind of theme. I did a pilot called Big Wave Dave’s. It’s about 3 guys in their 40s who live by a beach. It’s a midlife crisis show. When you have a theme you can write to that theme. Take Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s about a guy who’s getting pressure from his wife, his parents, his brother. He’s stuck in the middle. “Guy in the middle” is the theme.
What do you do when you realize that your character is too ordinary?
Find something special about the character. An attitude, a trait, or lose ‘em. We had that problem on Cheers when Kirstie Alley joined and she was supposed to be this stern boss and it wasn’t funny. Then we had an episode when she was insecure and we realized that was what our “money” was with her character. We also came up with the idea that she hadn’t slept with a guy in years. And then thought, ok, how does that affect her life.