Publishing His Generation’s Story, Himself


Ken Levine

What do you call a man who has written episodes of beloved television shows, such as The Jeffersons, M.A.S.H., Cheers, The Simpsons, Frasier, as well as created his own sitcom and written a big studio comedy starring Tom Hanks?

The answer: successful. You may have never heard of him—and he might self-deprecatingly disagree—but Ken Levine is an extremely successful writer and one who has been more than happy to use the benefits of self-publishing to his advantage.

Growing up in Los Angeles during the '60s, Levine got his start writing news briefs for local radio station KMPC. However, after a few years bouncing around the city as a DJ, Levine saw the 1973 Woody Allen film, Sleeper, and began to have bigger ideas.

Levine thought, "Wait a minute, he’s writing these movies." "They’re being seen by millions of people, and he doesn’t have to do an intro over Tony Orlando and Dawn records with a station manager yelling in his ear. Something’s wrong here.”

So, after meeting at Army Reserve summer camp, Levine and his friend David Isaacs tried their hands at scriptwriting. After several rejections, the writers of The Jeffersons decided to give the team a chance at writing an episode—and thus, Levine’s television writing career began.

“After The Jeffersons, we did some freelance writing for several TV shows before our Jeffersons script got in the hands of the showrunner of M.A.S.H., and he invited us to write an episode. That script came out well and then became our golden ticket.”

That “ticket” eventually led Levine to a staff-writing job on M.A.S.H. and on the Tony Randall Show. At the Tony Randall Show, Levine met director Jim Burrows, who would later team up with Glen and Les Charles to create Cheers, where Levine and Isaacs joined them as writers—for nine of the show’s 11 seasons.

Thinking back on Cheers, and its recent renaissance in the wake of last year’s GQ oral history, Levine says, "a lot of Cheers’ situations were universal. The problems that the characters were dealing with are the same problems people deal with today. We tried not to be very topical so it wouldn’t seem dated. It was just genuinely a funny show.”

In the summer of 1985, Levine notched another writing credit when Volunteers, starring Tom Hanks and John Candy, was released nationwide. Levine and Isaacs had written the script years earlier as a spec screenplay, but it was eventually picked up and made into a major comedy. Though reviews were mixed at the time, Volunteers is now seen as one of Tom Hanks’ most underrated comedic performances.

Eventually, Levine and Isaacs made their way to The Simpsons, which was just emerging as a network sitcom. Levine’s biggest contribution to the show was writing the second season episode, “Dancin’ Homer,” in which Homer Simpson becomes the mascot for Springfield’s minor league baseball team—the Springfield Isotopes. Levine wrote the episode and came up with the “Isotope” name, which is now the real-life moniker of the minor league baseball team for Albuquerque, N.M.

“We…worked with Sam Simon, who was a genius. He gave the show its tone, its style—he more than anybody is responsible for creating the template for what is The Simpsons,” Levine says. “It was great working with him and all the other great writers: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Conan O’Brien. It was very liberating because you could say ‘Exterior: Yankee Stadium.’ and do a scene there without it costing anything extra.”

After his time on The Simpsons, Levine created the CBS sitcom Almost Perfect starring Nancy Travis, which ran on the network for two seasons in 1995 and 1996. When that series ended, he continued to write and work on such network sitcoms as Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond, among several others.

In 2005, Levine began blogging in search of a larger audience for a manuscript of travelogues he had begun compiling. “I started it in the hopes that a publisher would come along and say, ‘I like your writing. Do you have any books?’ And I could say, ‘Well, as a matter of fact I do!'” That never happened. However, Levine got in the habit of posting every day and has done so for the past eight years. And in that time, he has self-published two books.

Levine CoverLevine’s first self-published book, Where the Hell Am I?: Trips I Have Survived, is a collection of travelogues he put out in 2011. After not hearing back from traditional publishing houses for a memoir he had been working on, Levine wanted to use his travelogues as a test run for the self-publishing system. He published the book and found a positive response. The sales did better than he expected (“I expected to sell 10 copies,” Levine says), and he was even invited on a few travel talk shows.

After that positive experience, when the time came to publish his memoir in 2012, Levine self-published again. The Me Generation…By Me (Growing up in the '60s is a deeply funny and playful look at what it was actually like to grow up and experience the 1960s first-hand—the mundane routines along with the generation's defining moments. The Me Generation has sold better than Where the Hell Am I? and has even helped to re-invigorate sales of the first  book as well.

Levine’s advice to writers new to self-publishing is to devote plenty of time and effort to a marketing strategy, since these days, anyone can put a book on Amazon. “Create a Facebook page, a website featuring additional content to interest a reader,” he says. “My feeling is that I need to give my readers a little bit extra if they are coming to my site.”

As for Levine’s next step in his winding writing career, he is going to continue to self-publish since he enjoys not having to worry whether or not his work will interest “one of five editors.” His first novel, a “dark, comedic, thriller set in network television," will be released later this year, and his behind-the-scenes look at the world of television will be coming soon after that.

“That book will come, and it will sell. A major publisher might be interested in it,” Levine says. “For now, I’m happy with self-publishing.”

Matt Domino is the assistant Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews.


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