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!


2 Comments on “Interview: John Levenstein”

  1. hotdogla says:

    Thanks.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This was great. Thank you


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.