Ken Levine Gives Us TMI on the 2013 Pilot Scene

Ken Levine is constantly revealing TV secrets, just as Louis C.K. keeps telling everybody what it’s really like to think like a man.

Dangerous doods, both of ’em. Especially Ken:


What’s currently happening in the world of pilots
by Ken Levine

We’re in the middle of pilot season. For those not intimately involved, here’s what’s currently happening:

Network executives are running all over town to get from runthroughs to table readings to filmings. And Coldwater Canyon is closed. As they’re stuck on Laurel Canyon desperately trying to make a runthrough for a pilot they pretty much know is dead they’re muttering to themselves. “Why can’t they spread out these pilots?”

Table readings used to consist of the cast sitting around a conference table with writers, execs, etc. sitting in one row behind them. Now there are so many executives that the cast is generally at one long table like a dais and there are rows of chairs – theater seating.

So to get a jump there are now often pre-table readings.

Actors are being fired after table readings and runthroughs. Networks, studios, producers, and directors try to reassure their nervous casts but actors aren’t dumb.  The pressure can be enormous, especially if a pilot isn’t going well.

Actors are being fired because their parts are being eliminated. Almost every pilot goes into production way too long. The sister, thefourth roommate, the zany mechanic – they’re usually the first to go.

Or, those side characters score and suddenly became the second lead.

Creator/producers will ask their writer friends to come in and help out on rewrites during production. Half of these consultants will show up, sit in the room, and not say a word.

Every cast will have one actor who is a handful. Hopefully, it’s only one, it’s not the star, and whoever it is is worth it.

Some sitcom pilots get massively rewriteen. Here’s what I don’t understand:  the script was good enough to get a pick up, and the actors hired were the ones who got the biggest laugh with thatmaterial. Why is it now all shit?

Read it all

Ken Levine: Decoding Hollywoodspeak

When the dood’s right, he’s right:

by Ken Levine (from Ken’s Stupendous Blog)

Most of the real creativity in Hollywood goes into positive spin. Here are some industry expressions and what they really mean:

“Hospitalized because the actor was simply feeling dizzy due to a medication he was taking for an ear infection” – drunk

“Hiatus” – cancelled

“Good Exit Numbers” – DOA at the boxoffice

“Highly qualified” – knows somebody

“They’re still good friends” – the ugly divorce settlement is still pending.

“They’re just good friends” – they’re humping nine times a day

“I want to spend more time with my family” –fired.

“I want to explore other exciting opportunities” – fired

“Creative differences” – fired

“Parting by mutual agreement” – fired

“We think the script needs a fresh eye” – the director will now destroy your screenplay

“They have a lot of respect for each other” – they despise each other

“No comment” — he did it

“Fielding offers” – unemployed

“Projects in development” — unemployed

“Looking into financing” – unemployed

“Tom Cruise is interested” – I’m a really bad liar

“Proactive” – active

“She’s a perfectionist” – she’s a bitch

“Entry level position” — slave labor

“Thanks for coming by” – no sale, I hated it.

“I really liked it” – thanks for coming by.

“I really loved it!” — it got good coverage

“He’s in a meeting” – you’re not important enough to talk to.

“Back end” – money you’ll never see

“It just needs a little polishing” — page one rewrite

“We’re pleased with the demographics” – the ratings are shit

“Commands a great deal of respect” – he’s a fucking nightmare

“Do you have a card?” – I want to get away from you but don’t want to appear rude.

“Zitcom” – Any half hour on the Disney Channel

“Exhaustion” – overdose

“A private matter” – a public scandal

“I’ll give it a read” – I’m throwing it away

“The studio is really behind it” – it’s going straight to DVD.

“He’s taught me so much” – I’ll never work with that asshole again

“Freelance” – unemployed

“High concept” – gimmicky

“Actor’s Director” – he can’t shoot action movies

“Director’s Director” – his movies haven’t made a nickel.

“Emmy winning writer” — blogger

Notice Anything Odd about THE NEWSROOM and SUITS Season Enders?

Ken Levine did:

Great minds plot alike – by Ken Levine

Am I the only one who noticed that the big concluding scene of THE NEWSROOM and SUITS was the exact same scene? I’ve held off writing this post for several weeks, giving you all ample time to catch up on the them on your DVR’s. But if you still haven’t seen them then SPOILER ALERT.

What’s fascinating to me is that this is obviously a coincidence. Both shows are extremely well-written, both shows are very clever, and I don’t even think they’re written on the same coast. They’re on two different networks so the odds that either had a chance to see the other before it aired are remote at best.

And yet, both scenes were so identical it was somewhat eerie.

Here’s the situation: In SUITS, ace lawyer Harvey is about to be fired for taking drugs. In THE NEWSROOM, ace anchor Will is about to be fired for taking drugs. They’re both going before the big board of directors. They both have an ally (Charlie in THE NEWSROOM, Jessica in SUITS). They both admit to taking drugs. They’re both fired.

But wait. They both have cards to play. They both have knowledge of wrongdoing from the corporate head that could explode into a big scandal. At first the charges are denied. Will and Harvey both have proof.

Read it all

LB tells us that back in the day things like this happened frequently because most episodes were written by freelancers who sometimes sold the same basic storyline to more than one series. But these are staff-written shows. So…whatcha think?

Breaking the Sitcom Story

Yes, sitcoms have stories. At least, they’re supposed to.

This is the second part of Ken Levine’s class in Comedy 101. You probably should read the first part before venturing further.

How we break a story – by Ken Levine

Comedy 101 continues.  Here’s an inside look at the thought process that goes on behind-the-scenes when plotting a half hour sitcom. But first – did you do your homework? You can watch the episode I’m discussing here. Do that first. Then come back and look behind the curtain.

Quick disclaimer: The way we plotted shows back then might be a little different than today. The importance we placed on certain aspects like character motivation are less of a priority on most of today’s sitcoms. Not all but a lot. But the more you’re exposed to dramatic structure the better storytellers you’re going to become. And even if you have no desire to write, you’ll still gain a greater appreciation about what goes into telling a good story.

Here’s how this episode came about. At the start of the season we put together a list of possible story areas. We compiled as many as we could and during the season we just kept adding to the list. Probably 70% of the ideas never get used. But we had some for each character, many for the Kim-Mike relationship (that was our money), some for the office, some for home.

Read it all

Ready to write that sitcom spec now? Yeah, us neither. But Mr. Levine makes it sound so damn easy…

Ken Levine on Sitcom Tapings and Series Crossovers

Dood gives a postgrad course right here:


What you see is what we show you by Ken Levine

…Ken, what do you think of series crossovers, like CHEERS/WINGS? This effectively makes CHEERS, WINGS, THE TORTELLI’S and FRASIER exist in the same universe as one another.

Do you think, despite it being an obvious ratings ploy, that it’s nice to have this shared universe among the characters?

On a similar note, what do you think of the CHEERS/FRASIER episodes?

I always like crossover episodes. It’s fun to see characters from different shows interact. I especially liked the CHEERS/FRASIER crossovers because David and I wrote most of them. (Four with Lilith, one with Sam, one with Diane.) We also wrote the WINGS episode with Frasier and Lilith. Here’s a piece of totally useless trivia: David and I are the only writers to write Frasier Crane in three different series. I think that’s our legacy.

Crossovers can get sticky however, if both shows aren’t from the same creative team. On ALMOST PERFECT we did a crossover with CYBILL. There must’ve been four drafts that ping-ponged back and forth between our writing staff and theirs.

Read it all (including more about crossovers and the whole bit about directing)

While we’re at it, maybe Ken will deign to acknowledge us – or, at least TVWriter™ – after he hears that we’ve told you to buy his book, The Me Generation, because it’s great! Because it is!