Interview: John Levenstein

I thought I might interview John Levenstein, “retired” television writer, for Helytimes.  His takes and philosophies as expressed on his Twitter are really interesting and perhaps a Q &A would be of value to younger or aspiring writers.

Away we go!

John, you’ve been a writer on a million cool shows, and with your podcast, John Levenstein’s Retirement Party, and your Twitter feed, and in real life, I feel you’ve taken on a kind of mentoring role to a lot of young writers. Can you give us a roundup of some advice you give to young writers of comedy, people who are interested in comedy, or curious about a career in showbiz?

I feel like a lot of people unconsciously take the approach that they’re not in it to achieve their goals so much as to have a story about how things almost worked out. There’s a difference in what it takes to succeed versus what it takes to tell your parents you tried. Actors used to be advised to drop off headshots at every agency in town and keep checking back. That’s not an example of how to get an agent. It’s an example of how to tell your parents you did everything you could so get off my back! You need to take a more unorthodox and original approach to your career. And lie to your parents. Who cares? You can’t approach this by trying to be “correct.” It’s hard to stand out. Don’t go through life with the story that you were almost an Olympic athlete except you broke your ankle when you were 14. Failure can be great to learn from. But don’t hold it too dear. My last talk to a college class was called “the fetishization of failure” and I scared the shit out of a bunch of kids.

Why are executives so frustrating and how have you effectively (or ineffectively) dealt with them?

I’ve gotten better at dealing with executives, but also they’ve made more allowances for me as I’ve gotten older. I’d say take the note or don’t take the note, But don’t project so much power onto the executive that you become rebellious. No one is making you do anything. They won’t take the keyboard away from you. They might get mad. They might not pick up your project.

I try to treat executives as peers. I think language is important. I try to get the executives I work with to call their notes “pitches,” because that’s what they are and are all coming up with hundreds of them every day. And rejecting them for various reasons, some frivolous. But call a pitch a “note” and it is supposed to get due consideration or answered on its own terms. Not everything has to be responded to on its own terms.

I’m dictating onto my phone. Please clean this up a little if necessary, buddy

If you were starting over what do you wish you knew?

I wish I’d known (if I were starting over) that my efforts counted. I was planting seeds, even as I thought I was bombing out. People would remember me from years earlier. I was becoming a better writer. I was gaining life experience. I thought I was invisible, but I was making an impression.

What makes people care about a story?

I think for people to care about a story, they have to identify with someone, preferably more than one person. I’d rather have the audience intensely relate to aspects of character or behavior than feel fondness for a character. I rely on the actor to win the audience over—they live for that. And then the series of incidents has to be surprising. That’s a moving target. More misdirection is required these days to stay ahead of the audience. In television I think too much attention is paid to making sure stories are clear and not enough effort is put into obscuring them. There should be a final story step where you hide your work, if you haven’t already.

What does it take to succeed?

I’d say cultivate the side of yourself that is different from what anyone else has to offer. Figure out the strong points of view that you have that you assumed everyone had. Push up against the world enough to know that you’re different. That’s your voice. 20 years ago you could get a writing job by writing a strong sample of an existing sitcom. Now you need to express yourself in an original pilot script or video or some other form. I would choose the format that leads to the fullest expression of your voice, at least to start.

And (lowers voice) no one else will tell you this, but a good way to stand out is to choose arenas where other people are not being irreverent. An appropriate email is wallpaper. Be funny. Take a chance in a business correspondence. You won’t get a staff writing job by being the best writers assistant. You’ll get it by being the funniest writers assistant.

What makes you mad in the entertainment or comedy business?

Not much makes me mad in terms of results anymore. I can deal with little injustices. But process stuff can still make me crazy. I don’t like rules. I don’t like tyrannical show runners. I try not to put myself in positions I won’t like. In terms of my career, I have not gotten a shit deal, so I try not to act like I have. Some very successful people have chips on their shoulders

Beautiful. Well I think we have enough for a Helytimes post. Anything you wish I’d asked or you’d like to answer?

No I am good. I have not reread my responses. I’m living with them, Steve. Thanks!


Classical KUSC / soundless WW2 footage

found that playing Smithsonian Channel’s The Pacific War In Color while KUSC our local classical station was coming out of my old radio created a cool effect.


not sure why

but I found this ad for Media Group on the Forbes website depressing.  (Also “Media Group”?)

something about the affect of the girl in the shopping cart.

where are her friends?  for whom is she performing?  does she need help? I can see she’s pretending to be happy but also doesn’t truly seem to be having fun.

I guess it got my attention.

I’d love to discuss it with Ogilvy.


When tyrants tremble sick with fear and hear their death knells ringing

we used to listen to this record when I was a kid.

when friends by shame are undefiled

also a good line.

The first was the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, which led, ultimately, to the ousting and gruesome lynching of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Afterward, many people who interacted with Putin noticed how deeply Qaddafi’s death troubled him. He is said to have watched the video of the killing over and over. “The way Qaddafi died made a profound impact on him,” says Jake Sullivan, a former senior State Department official who met repeatedly with senior Russian officials around that time. Another former senior Obama-administration official describes Putin as “obsessed” with Qaddafi’s death

reported Julia Ioffe for the Atlantic in February 2018.


h/t my colleague Emilia


When people had one name

Thinkin’ about the New Testament bros: Mark, John, James, etc when I came across this from Bob Dylan.

Those songs are just in my genes, and I couldn’t stop them comin’ out. In a reincarnative kind of way, maybe. The songs have got some kind of a pedigree to them. But that pedigree stuff, that only works so far. You can go back to the ten-hundreds, and people only had one name. Nobody’s gonna tell you they’re going to go back further than when people had one name.

(Bob Dylan interview with Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone.


The question, silently: do you really know where you are at this point in time and space and in reality and in existence?

(not great image quality there but the audio! from one of my favs:

(avail on FilmStruck streaming, possibly Netflix as well)