Influences: Comedy and Ken Levine

Oh yeah, and he also did some stuff for "The Simpsons"

Oh yeah, and he also did some stuff for “The Simpsons”

A little over a year ago I decided that I wanted to begin making comedies. I had tried making experimental films, artistic films, mumblecore films, absurdist/surreal films and even a straight-up dramatic film. All of these projects were interesting and valuable experiences, but the resulting films weren’t exactly the kind of thing I would want to kick back on the couch and watch after a hard day’s work much less go through the expense and effort of going to see at a movie theatre.

Comedy sounded like it would be fun. The only problem in my mind is that comedy is deceptively complex. There is a common belief that you are either born funny or you aren’t. It isn’t true, but some people certainly have more of a knack for it than others. For the people who don’t have the knack, like myself, comedy has to be learned like everything else: through trial and error and lots of practice.

When I began graduate school I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to take a few courses on the subject. Thanks to the newly formed Comedy@SCA “movement” (they can’t call it a “track” and they can’t call it a “focus” for bureaucratic reasons) a whole series of classes were developed just for the purpose of promoting the basic skills of comedy including: “Foundations of Comedy” taught by Ken Levine. “Foundations” seemed like just what I needed and it didn’t conflict with any of my required courses so I signed up.

The class consisted of about eighty students; mostly undergraduates who spent their time surfing Facebook and bad-mouthing the Student Assistant. Most of these, I learned, were writers who wanted to learn how to write comedy while I was more interested in learning how to direct and produce it. At the time I didn’t know anything about Ken Levine, but I quickly discovered that I was reasonably familiar with his work: especially from M*A*S*H (I had watched every episode of every season of M*A*S*H thanks to a coworker named Scott back in Chicago). It quickly became evident that the class was being taught by a legitimate work-horse from comedy television. Lectures were delivered, without notes, on subjects like Physical Comedy, Coming Of Age Stories, and Black Comedy (not the Tyler Perry kind) and guest speakers included the likes of Ray Romano and Dan O’Shannon (producer of “Modern Family”). I was appropriately impressed. I have only two regrets: first that the class is over and second that there isn’t a follow-up class called “Applications Of Comedy” that would allow me to try out some of the concepts that “Foundations” introduced.

In an effort to learn more I began following Ken Levine’s blog: He has been blogging a lot longer than I have so there is quite a lot of back-posts that I am still getting caught up on, but I am already discovering that it is a great resource for finding other ideas and examples that I should investigate further. For example- “Are movies too long?” (I vote “yes”, but my attention span tops out at about 50 minutes.) Or How ‘Downton Abbey’ should have handled the long-delayed engagement between Matthew and Mary.

So the class is over but the learning continues.


~ by Gwydhar Gebien on January 10, 2014.

4 Responses to “Influences: Comedy and Ken Levine”

  1. Comedy is like any art. It affects everyone differently and draws as many as it repels (or some close fraction of both). A painting doesn’t appeal to everyone. Nor does one’s sense of humor. Someone might ignore war drama because they despise war yet gravitate toward a story about sexual abuse because they know of it personally.

    I have a few ideas for films but no team to create them. I’d take a crack at comedy. But, I prefer to weave comedy into other genres like the dessert or icing on the main course. I don’t anticipate doing strict dramas or any other form of intense/disturbing film. I can do serious. But then, I lighten things up with a little joke here and/or there to dry the tears or quell the fears. Otherwise, the joke might go around and die when the next/new thing comes along.

    Still, I’d like to do at least one “pure” film for each genre I like and really leave people wetting themselves with a potent comedy. That requires one skill other genres benefit from (timing) and ample material (preferably without any sexual/vulgar content that turns a certain group–including myself in most cases–off). [That means curbing Heather Grahams’ and Malin Ackermans’ “sexploits” and working in the finer wisecracks/antics of Jim Carreys/Simon Peggs (physical, self-deprecating and dynamic) and Tina Feys/Steve Carells (subtle and intellectual).]

    Learning how to direct and produce it? Producing is financing. Directing is delivery of instruction and management of staff. People are people. Money is money. Somewhere in the mix is the concept of “connections”. “Have my people call your people.” And, if you’re in a “foundations” class that doesn’t specify itself as a class for producers/directors, it’s going to be filled with budding writers. “Foundations” merely shakes the nerves/dust off those who want to get started and can’t take a bigger step into the pool/research. It’s an appetizer like “art appreciation”.

    I have only seen a finite number of M.A.S.H. episodes in recent years because I was finally old enough to understand them. When I was young(er), I didn’t get the jokes and didn’t have the stomach to watch surgical scenes. But, you see how drama and comedy were woven together. It wasn’t strictly comedy. And, that made an impact on the audience.

    Lectures without notes…that is fairly impressive (I’d like to think). [But then, some folks are so “full of themselves” they can talk at length without note cards.]

    Having Ray Romano (though I am not a huge fan) and the PRODUCER of Modern Family (who probably had an impact on your personal interests) appear in class would be…something. I can’t be sure what I’d get out of it…but that’s certainly something I haven’t experienced. It could be as bland as watching a video or passing the “celebrity” at some convention booth with no more than a brief greeting/thank you. Or, it could be enriching if given the chance to really connect with the person.

    I am not sure what movies being too long or handling the Downton nuptials has to do with producing/directing comedy…but okay. My attention span depends upon the material. If the story goes in a bad direction from the start, so goes my interest in watching. On the flip side, I’ve watched some great longer films that end badly, leaving me to regret the time invested in what was otherwise a fine piece of work.

    I’d be more concerned with making a film too short than too long. I can be just as bothered by a film that ends too soon or speeds things along too quickly. Shorts are shorts. But, if I pay ten bucks to see a movie, it had better keep me entertained for at least two hours. If you want me to watch a short film, charge me a buck or less. I once saw “Willow” for under three dollars at a theater in a local mall. That was a nice day.

    [You’ve written about your attention span and the length of movies before. Haven’t you?]

    The Simpsons team is definitely a source from which to take pointers. That show has a formula that adapts to the times and fads well. It’s usually intelligent comedy at its best. However, it’s not perfect and occasionally irks me. But, if it didn’t do something right consistently, it wouldn’t still be crafting new episodes. It’d be sitting in the dregs of reruns with a few dozen other shows being re-broadcasted on all sorts of rehash channels people sadly now pay for.

    If your attention span hasn’t zoned out already, how could you create so many films that didn’t satisfy you enough to watch them later? And, where are these films? [I have a hard time understanding–yet understand–why actors/actresses say they can’t watch themselves on film. It’s just work? And, seeing oneself in a movie/TV show would be like seeing oneself on a security camera’s or some other invasive/planted camera’s footage?]

    Have your people contact my people. Let’s do lunch:D

    • Part of what makes comedy so difficult is the fact that it is never going to reach everybody in the audience since there are always going to be factors that make something humorous to one person but not to another. But that’s OK: the fact that comedy is so slippery is part of what makes it interesting and keeps it fresh.

      Have you really ever seen a film that was too short? And how often has that happened compared to films that just dragged on and on? Or is the problem with movie theatres charging $10 for a ticket no matter how good or bad the movie is?

      You say that you would love to make movies but you don’t have a team in order to do so: what’s holding you back from building a team? Thinking of movies is fun and easy, but implementing those ideas is tricky, fiddly work- I would challenge you to try it 🙂

      How can I create so many films that don’t satisfy me enough to watch them later? Well, I’ve seen it a thousand times already. I saw it when I read the script. I saw it when the actors performed it. I saw it in editing, in editing, in editingediting (that’s how editing goes- in endless scrubs) and in color timing, scoring, sound mixing, and maybe even a few times at festivals if I’m lucky.

      But if someone ELSE wants to watch my movie- because it makes them laugh, for instance- then I get to see it fresh through their eyes all over again.

      • Bah! It doesn’t matter if it’s comedy or any other emotional target, really. Sure, I may have said–and I really need to stop commenting after midnight–that drama is drama. But, I may have also said (I’m not reviewing the original comment presently thanks to the lil features of this place) that people grasp onto what they can relate to their own lives/knowledge. So, someone who detests violence won’t like a war or violent crime drama but might be familiar with sex crime drama or bad relationship in general drama. There are women-driven movies and male-driven movies, too.

        I am not sure I like a slippery comedy:P But, fresh is important. I have watched some older films that have political jokes that no longer make sense to “historically naive” folks…and some that manage to surprise me with timeless humor. Lingo plays a key part in any genre. If you use hippie or “greaser” slang, only people educated about the 1950’s-60’s will have a clue.

        Yes! I swear I told you this before. I reviewed movies for a local film festival for a few years. I am not sure what my input did anymore than my vote for president. But, I saw some films that were roughly 2 to 5 minutes long. And, they were like weird music videos at best. I think there was one that actually took me by surprise. It was funny, swift and brilliant like a great commercial. But, there was no telling which shorts made it into the short theater night/s. I never got to attend the short film night. I had only so much money for tickets (which were just about as expensive as major theater tickets though most of the films were not feature length) and had to see a few I felt were more “heavy hitters” in terms of quality/time invested.

        Anyway, if a film is shorter than an hour and a half, it had better do its job well in less time. If a film is shorter than thirty minutes, it’s job of telling a story or fully entertaining me is even harder. [In 5-30 minutes, you can create a great music video experience or mini-opera. But, you won’t have a very engrossing story with character depth/chemistry.] Even some big theater films have disappointed me because they were saving money by deleting scenes to shorten the film for fear of folks like yourself with declining attention spans:P You could just tell they were trying to “wrap it up” faster. Some of Jackie Chan’s (and other Asian artists’) films–though I hear this is just their way of making films–seriously lack a resolution to the story.

        I’d also say I am not fond of certain film makers breaking up what should be a single film into three or more pieces just to sell more tickets. But, one of my desired projects will likely do just that:P…but I would not make people wait a whole year to see the next chapter unless the chapters are distinctly unique and/or distanced by time.

        I’ve been reading some mystery novels recently that do the same thing. End the story without confirming what became of the key characters and the case. I hate just seeing a case incomplete/dropped and suspects never having any further contact with the detective. This woman goes into these people’s homes to find evidence, creates negative relationships in a short period of time and then just stops speaking of them, running into them and/or tying up loose ends of her investigation. She’s a very detailed writer…but some of the endings are like Swiss cheese. And, reading 300+ pages of housing descriptions tied with detailed analysis of people’s lifestyles and appearances that don’t really amount to anything is a bit of a waste.

        As for films that “drag on” there have been few of those for me. I can think of a few “sleepers” which were just plain lousy from the start. I cannot think of a film that went on forever but was ALMOST great (except for that rare case when the ending sucks). Most films that invest the screen time pay off at least well enough to feel satiated. A bad film usually makes its stink known within the first 30 minutes. Still, I sit through them to be a good critic (and because I paid too much for the ticket).

        Ticket admission is really a joke…as are the award shows for all of these films/actors/directors. Why do we need to pressure people to change their body mass in dangerous ways just to fill a role that makes them have panic attacks or other addictive issues, get a trophy that might earn them some kind of perk, get drunk at the award show and spend the next 6 months cleaning up the fallout press through countless interviews which repeat the crap they have to spew to sell the film as it debuts? What a huge waste of time, talent, money and lives.

        And, if movies get passed around so quickly to DVD and cable/internet mediums, what sense does it make to fork out the big bucks to see it in the theater? The theater loses its appeal because everything gets pushed to those home mediums. Theater becomes a luxury. Maybe that will keep it cleaner and save on custodians. Who knows. But, the movie theater used to be affordable and welcome to everyone.

        Now, like the postage stamp, prices have skyrocketed (sort of) and made people less inclined to go. I think the theaters now count on families with extra cash and teenagers with their first jobs or last allowances to “blow” their earnings on evening group dates before leaving disrespectful messes and taking off into the night.

        I am not much of a “team leader” as so many job recruiters/motivational speakers pitch people to be. I’ve never been much of a joiner. And, I can’t say I’ve ever drawn a crowd to follow in my footsteps or take direction from me. I’ve tried hosting art and writing contests with lousy results. I’m a thinker, an idea guy. But, given the chance some day, maybe I could be a good director. Who knows. I just feel I need to work my way up to that. A screenplay writer doesn’t exactly assemble a team, does he/she? He looks for the team who will help his “seed” blossom.

        But, being someone who’s perpetually working alone on his own thing and not too comfortable socially (and not wanting to down vodka to “get social”)…it’s hard for me to imagine assembling a team. I’ve offered some younger film makers the suggestion to work together, but I never heard back from them and didn’t expect much.

        Tell me about it. I’ve edited my first book at least a dozen times without even sending it to a publisher. I just can’t imagine–and no one really talks about how many times they go through a film in editing on a DVD or elsewhere. You just get a few deleted scenes, a slice of “behind the scenes” and some odd clips of the crew talking about each other and goofing off to get a scene right.

        So, the film-making process just ruins the whole point of the exercise, to create something enjoyable. Yet, you exhaust the fun…you beat the dead horse red. It’s like any artist being a perfectionist, including myself. If someone likes something I drew yet I don’t feel it’s my best, it could go on bugging me to not perfect the piece. Or, if I publish my book and discover later I could have written something better…how sad is that? Now, there might be a few thousand or million copies of my work…and some lucky agent gets me great press…but my product still irks me. I’m not sure the big paycheck (if there ever is one) can make up for the “guilt” I’d feel for not being as stellar as I am “advertised”.

        I would like to think there is joy in any creative work. But, if making a film is more labor than love…then what’s the point? It’s just…work (as some actors say they are lucky to get). I just imagine a bunch of people sweating (as I see Bradley Cooper sweat) and saying, “It beats waiting tables and living out of my car. I’ll cut off my right arm and dye my hair a dozen times for that.”

        I had a rather brilliant idea for an up-to-date/near-future comedy just the other day but thought someone might have made something similar not long ago. It would be hard to track that info down as I can’t think of a title or actor.

  2. […] Ken Levine- a writer of television comedies about whom I wrote in an earlier post entitled: So I won’t go into much greater detail except to say that taking his class was one of the […]

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