Baseball, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier and the stage! A Q&A on the life that makes the comedy of the brilliantly funny Ken Levine
If you like comedy, then you’ve experienced the artistry of Ken Levine, an Emmy award-winning writer for many classic, hugely popular American sitcoms. His immeasurable talent goes far beyond his writing, producing and directing pedigree for an impressive list of TV and film work into the craft of playwriting. In recognition of Ken’s wonderful playwriting style, TRW proudly represents six of his plays. Each play features a lineup of memorable characters thrown into chaotic, often ridiculous, but always truthful situations, and is full of laugh-out-loud moments. Recently, Ken took some time with TRW to discuss the entirety of his writing career, how he’s kept strong in his approach to writing throughout his work, and how everything he’s learned in all media has taught him even more about theatre.
Baseball announcing is very much like writing in that you’re story telling. You’re heightening the drama, making the down times entertaining, and really highlighting the personalities of the players. It’s all about following characters on a journey."
KATIE STOTTLEMIRE: Many of our readers likely know you from your outstanding writing career, having written for M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Frasier (just to name a few). However, your life outside of writing is also fascinating. You went into the army early on in your life. How did that sudden change impact your writing?
KEN LEVINE: At first, it killed it. I was 19 and offered a full-time job on Laugh-In, which was the number one show in the country. But I would have had to quit UCLA and lose my student deferment. I would have surely been dragged and shipped to Vietnam (where there was little need for comedy writers). But that was tough, walking away from America’s number one show while still a teenager. Then there was the draft lottery. Numbers were selected randomly based on your birthday. Numbers 1-150 were to be drafted. I was number 4.
So, to avoid that I got into an Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit. There I met my TV writing partner, David Isaacs. By now Laugh-In was gone, I was an all-night disc jockey in San Bernardino playing Donny Osmond records ten times a night for six insomniacs, and David was working at ABC in the long-since- obsolete film shipping department. We decided to team up and give comedy writing a shot. We were lucky, we broke in, and even luckier to get a script assignment on M*A*S*H. Our script was so well received that we wound up on staff and eventually, at 27, we were the head writers. Crazy, isn’t it? So, if it wasn’t for the army, I never would have met my partner, never would have written on M*A*S*H (you really needed to understand the army mentality to write that show with any authority), and M*A*S*H launched my entire career. If my number had been 312, today I might be playing Donny Osmond records at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
KS: You have had many, different exciting opportunities throughout your life. You are also a major league baseball announcer! You started from humble roots by taking tapes with you to stadiums to practice on your own, and went on to announce for teams like the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles, and the San Diego Padres. What drove you to the pursuit of this dream? How has it impacted your artistry?
KEN: From the time I was 8 years-old and first heard Vin Scully I wanted to be a baseball announcer. I knew by T-ball that I’d never become an actual player. I gravitated towards other pursuits and then, at 36, in the throes of a midlife crisis and not wanting to race cars or get a tattoo, I decided to finally pursue baseball announcing. So, I went to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium (with the rest of the nuts and drunks), set up a tape recorder, and for two years called games. That led to three years in the minors and finally the big leagues with Baltimore, Seattle, and San Diego. I should mention that I was doing this concurrently with my TV writing career. (Hey, not a lot to do on airplanes and hotel rooms but write Cheers.)
Baseball announcing is very much like writing in that you’re story telling. You’re heightening the drama, making the down times entertaining, and really highlighting the personalities of the players. It’s all about following characters on a journey.
The big difference between writing and announcing is that in baseball I can’t control the outcome. I wish I could. I went seven years before one of my teams made the playoffs.
But baseball announcing teaches you discipline. A 162-game season is a grind. You have to be sharp and prepared and give your all every night, even if you’re not feeling particularly inspired, even if you’re a little sick, even if your team is down 14-0 in the second inning (which has happened to me... more than once.) Same with playwriting. You learn to be creative on demand and baseball taught me that discipline.
KS: Many of the TV sitcoms you have worked on were with a live studio audience. How did this prepare you for writing for the stage? Are there any surprising similarities or differences?
KEN: It was the greatest training in the world. Like opening a new Broadway show every week. The writers would see a rehearsal every afternoon and every evening we’d rewrite the script. You learn how to identify problems and fix them. A young playwright may take months to write his play, but when it’s in rehearsal and not working and he’s got to figure out why, what’s the fix, and write it overnight so they can rehearse the next day, that’s a lot of pressure. After 20 years of Cheers and Frasier, I’m used to it. I’ve got my 10,000 hours of practice and 10,000 steps walking to the stage.
KS: Comedy often critiques the world around us, and the world has been changing constantly since the beginning of your career to now. And yet, good comedy often rings truthful and poignant no matter what is currently happening. Has your approach to comedy changed as the world changes?
KEN: Not at all. My plays certainly try to reflect current attitudes and sensibilities, but I write about characters and relationships. I’m more interested in universal themes. The relationship problems we have now are the same as they faced in the Pleistocene Era (they even had a form of on-line dating I’m told).
My plays are comedies and I want the audience to laugh because they recognize themselves and people they know. And I want them to care. I’ll gladly sacrifice a laugh for a genuine heartfelt moment. (Okay, I’ll put the laugh somewhere else.)
I hope to follow in the footsteps of Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Herb Gardner — wickedly hilarious plays but all grounded in heart.
It’s sad but you don’t see many playwrights setting out to write genuinely funny plays with smart, witty, dialogue for grown-ups. I don’t know why. There’s certainly an audience for them. Especially now, people want an oasis for two hours where they can forget the troubles of the day and just laugh. A lot of today’s comedy is so dark. Aren’t things dark enough already?
KS: You have six plays available at TRW that have smart, witty dialogue for grown-ups, with AMERICA’S SEXIEST COUPLE, GUILTY PLEASURES, WHAT IS MURDER?, 4:05 NOCTURNAL, ON THE FARCE DAY OF CHRISTMAS, and SMOKE GETS IN YOUR HOUSE. Speaking of dark, here’s your final question: You’re stranded on a deserted island and all you have with you is whatever is currently on your desk. What’s coming with you?
KEN: Well, certainly my packet of orange Tic Tacs. I’m going to have to eat. My laptop would come. Those batteries last several years before you have to recharge them, right? Probably not my printer. Who am I going to send anything to? And how?
It’s times like these I wish I had my Emmy on my desk. Or a volleyball. Or a raft.
I’d bring my stuffed Dancin’ Homer doll (from one of our episodes), my microphone so I could still do my podcast (Hollywood and Levine) assuming I get wifi on the island. All deserted islands offer free wifi, right? Maybe fiber optics will already be installed. That would be great. I’d bring my treasured collection of Neil Simon plays, The Confederacy of Dunces (my favorite book), framed family photos, a couple of my signed baseballs, and most important of all — my certificate for a free milk shake at the Cafe ‘50s in West L.A. I hope there’s no expiration date on it. Then I’m really screwed. Oh, and my Donny Osmond records.