KEN LEVINE, PART 3Complications Ensue
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Friday, February 03, 2006

CTVW: Do you have techniques for coming up with joke pitches? Do jokes spring out of nowhere, or do they break down into certain categories of jokes that "ought to" work that you can try when you're trying to replace a joke in the script?

KL: There probably is some process going on in my subconscious. But I don't know how I do it. If I'm looking for a specific joke -- say a joke about shoes -- my mind will try to log onto associations with shoes. I don't know ... it's just a gift. I used to be a disc jockey. I was one of those funny top 40 dj's in the 70's talking up the records. I never prepped for my show. Some of those guys would come in with reams of material. I figured, "if I can't think of one funny thing to say in 3 minutes while the record is on, then I'm in the wrong business."

A few years ago I came across a bunch of these tapes. I put one in the car, driving to work. And it was as if it was somebody else was talking. I'm thinking, Where did he come up with that? It was like I'd never heard'em before. Like I have different levels of my brain.

I once had a dream where I was attending a Neil Simon play. Some kind of a light murder mystery. I remember sitting in the audience watching this play and laughing at the jokes, and enjoying the play and being surprised by the turns. When I woke up, I wrote down the plot and a couple of the jokes I remembered. So there had to be two parts of my brain working -- one part writing and constructing the play, the other part watching as an audience member and appreciating it. My brain had to be playing both sides at the same time.

CTVW: So it helps to have a schizoid personality.

KL: I work off inspiration. Say you're in a room and you're pitching. And you got 6, 7 people in there with you. If you're working on a joke and you're constructing it in your head and thinking how to shape it just right before you pitch -- often times the ship has sailed. Someone has pitched something else. You learn to develop -- at least I have – the knack for it. There are times when I will see an area for a joke, and it's almost as if you're looking at something that isn't in focus. And I sort of know the form. I don't totally know the punchline. I start pitching it anyway. More often than not by the time I get to the punchline I'll have it. You're kind of walking the plank.

Sometimes I'll get an idea and I can pitch out a whole run, a whole page, just vomit it out ... the whole run comes to me whole cloth in a split second. Doesn't happen all the time. I've seen Jim Brooks do it frequently. I wish I knew exactly how his mind works.

CTVW: What doesn't work?

KL: When there's no real strong comic situation, the writers are forced to be witty as opposed to funny. For example, I'd never seen [name of show]. I was in Chicago last year, we're getting ready to go out, and I'm channel surfing. I come across [name of show.] Okay, I figure, I'll watch 5-10 minutes. And there's absolutely nothing happening in this kitchen scene. Everybody was pulling jokes out of their [ears]. So forced and desperate and unfunny. I thought to myself, I would shoot myself in the head before I could write a scene like this. And yet these characters are trying to be witty and... it was just awful.

CTVW: How do you recognize a brilliant situation going in? Or do you have to just try it out and see if the jokes come?

KL: You construct a situation where there seems to be room for fun, and then you try to spitball things that can go on. The Frasier ep where Niles sleeps with Lilith, and Frasier comes in the room. We figured, there's a ton of stuff we can do with that. It wrote very quickly. Because the situation was funny going in. The hardest part of sitcoms is story construction -- breaking the stories. If you give us a good comic situation, if you put the characters in a situation where you know there's gonna be room for comedy, then coming up with the comedy is not that hard. You don't always have to write "jokes." Doesn't have to be setup-joke-setup-joke.


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