Steven Kunes, TV and Film Writer-Episode #293

Apr 30, 2024 | 0 comments

“…and he said the difference between movies and television is with television. You should be able to turn off the picture and just listen to them talk. But with movies, you should be able to turn off the sound and watch it, because one’s visual and one is not.”
~Steven Kunes

What a wonderful fun and funny interview with a fellow who’s toiled at the highest peak of Hollywood as a screenwriter. TV and film writer, Steven Kunes, has worked on numerous sitcoms and movies.  At the age of 26, legendary TV producer, Norman Lear, hired Steven to write and develop half-hour comedies for his company, Embassy Television. This led to assignments in one-hour TV shows and eventually led him to motion pictures, where Steven became one of Hollywood’s most successful script doctors.

He’s worked on TV shows like South Park, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Out of This World, Cheers, and on movies such as Catch Me If You Can, Legally Blonde, Cast Away, The Pelican Brief, Groundhog Day and more.

In 2015, he created the hit comedy series Over My Dead Body, which streams on Amazon Prime. About Over My Dead Body Norman Lear said, “This is the best idea for a TV series that I can remember. It’s absolutely hilarious.”

In 2021, Steven delivered a TEDx talk in Philadelphia entitled “Square One at 60.”




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat:

Steven Kunes: David Lloyd, who was probably my favorite sitcom writer of all time, who did Mary Tyler Moore. Well, he spoke at NYU, and, like, six people were there to go see him. So it’s like this private audience with David Lloyd. And he said the difference between movies and television is television. you should be able to turn off the picture and just listen to them talk. But movies, you should be able to turn off the sound and watch it, because one’s visual one is not.

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, TV and filmwriter Steven Kunis, has worked on numerous sitcoms and movies. At the age of 26, legendary TV producer Norman Lear hired Steven to write and develop half hour comedies for his company, embassy Television. This led to assignments in 1 hour TV shows and eventually led Steven to motion pictures, where he became one of Hollywood’s most successful script doctors. He’s worked on TV shows like South park, the Tonight show, with Johnny Carson, out of this World, Cheers, and on movies such as catch me if you can, legally blonde, Castaway, the Pelican Brief, Groundhog Day, and more. In 2015, he created the hit comedy series over my Dead Body, which streams on Amazon prime. About over my dead body, Norman Lear said, quote, this is the best idea for a TV series that I can remember. It’s absolutely hilarious. Close quote. In 2021, Steve delivered a TEDx talk in Philadelphia entitled Square one at 60. So for all those reasons and many more, I’m truly delighted to welcome the exceptional writer Steven Kunis to storybeat today. Steven, welcome to the show.

Steven Kunes: Thank you very much.

Steve Cuden: Let’s talk about comedy. The old line is that dying is easy and comedy is hard. It’s almost impossible to define. But what makes comedy so difficult to do well?

Steven Kunes: I got my sense of humor from my mother and also living on the east coast, I think I’ve always laughed at tragedy. I don’t mean like somebody getting shot or something, but just somebody trying to put on a particular air or performance and then tripping up. What makes it hard to do well is making it seem like it’s not manufactured. When I watch shows today, they’re just hitting the beats. One of the things that we’ve been complaining about is, oh, my God, AI could take us over. Well, of course they could, because all they’re doing is imitating. Hitting the beats.

Steve Cuden: Sure. Hitting the beats, it’s become stale. I think that’s what you’re saying.

Steven Kunes: Right?

Steve Cuden: And I particularly like the ones that are really strange or offbeat themselves, like, curb your enthusiasm, which I enjoy. That doesn’t hit the beats.

Steven Kunes: that doesn’t hit the beats. Seinfeld didn’t hit the beats. In fact, most of the shows they said would never work, that were wonderful, did not hit the beats.

Steve Cuden: Or shows like Veep didn’t hit the beats.

Steven Kunes: You know, in fact, I still get this today. I got it when I worked on the Tonight show, and I’ve gotten it about other shows. Even my sister said, didn’t Jackie Gleason make up most of that stuff? Just ad libbing on the Honeymooners know?

Steve Cuden: Yeah.

Steven Kunes: Right. And on the Tonight show, people, there was the former head writer, Hank Bradford. His daughter brings home a guy that, she’s dating at Harvard. So the guy said, what do you do for a living? And he says, oh, I write the monologue ya know for Johnny Carson what is. Doesn’t he just make that up when he walks through the curtain I get that. I get this opinion of writing where people just think it’s so easy. It may not even exist. When it looks good, you just go, oh, this isn’t written.

Steve Cuden: Exactly. And you were talking about tragedy being part of comedy. And I think somebody once famously said that comedy is tragedy plus time.

Steven Kunes: Right? And I think that’s, the concept of the show that I’m doing. It is I basically interview dead people, but I don’t pretend they’re dead. I don’t even mention that they’re dead.

Steve Cuden: So tell us about your show, then. I was going to get to it in a bit, but let’s talk about it now. Over my dead body. Tell us what it’s about.

Steven Kunes: What we do is we travel around the world to cemeteries of famous dead people, plug a mic into their headstone. We have a host that sits, next to it, and we have a voiceover actor, obviously, and we interview them about their past, what they’re working on now, get their take on current events. And I got the idea back from the Tonight show. We used to have a fantasy wish list of people that we would love to have on this show, but they would never come on in a million years, like Princess Diana or the queen or people that were dead. Wouldn’t it be great to have Humphrey Bogart come? That kind of thing, right? And with green, screen technology. I’ve had people go like, don’t they arrest you for showing up and filming in these cemeteries? We do it in a studio. But I’ve had people say to me, how can you do that? That’s so eerie. But only I’ve had maybe two people say that the rest is a great idea.

Steve Cuden: Well, that means they don’t have a sense of humor, because I think that’s really funny stuff.

Steven Kunes: It’s very funny. So that, in fact, one of the reviews said this shows that it’s really true, that humor is tragedy plus time.

Steve Cuden: Does it require you to do a lot of research?

Steven Kunes: a ton, it turns out.

Steve Cuden: A ton.

Steven Kunes: Everything in my show is accurate. So, I didn’t realize going in how much research would be involved. And I had a little other, surprise. It’s that my crew of. I have 14 people, they’re all in their early 30s, right? And they said to me, who’s Mae West? I swear to God. Who’s Groucho marks?

Steve Cuden: Oh, my God.

Steven Kunes: Are you kidding me? Who’s the Jimmy Durani? I realized that the people that I chose to do an episode on interview, I had to end up spending about a third of the episode educating people who they were in the first place and why we’re doing it. And as a result, Amazon prime listed us as not only comedy, but education.

Steve Cuden: Oh, really? You know, when I was teaching, and still do teach, but when I was teaching full time, I would frequently say names from the past to students who are 18 years old. They were freshmen. And one of the ones they had no idea about was Johnny Carson, which is not even all that long ago.

Steven Kunes: That, in fact, his nephew, who was one of the producers on the show, Jeff Sotsing, said that initially he wouldn’t release because he’s in charge of the Carson library, all the clips, he, was very careful about what he released. And now it’s like he says, I just want people to remember my uncle. And it’s amazing that even though he died in 2005 and he left the show in 1992, you’re only talking like 32 years ago.

Steve Cuden: That’s right. Most people have no idea who Fred Allen was, who was the originator of all that. They have no idea who he was. Do you believe in research? Is research, like, a very great thing. For you to do? Did you do it as well when you were working on sitcoms and on movies?

Steven Kunes: I did. Even when I did an episode for the loveboat, we had to choose a rare stamp. This is before the Internet, I went to UCLA, to the library, and really did work finding out which is the rarest stamp that we used on the 200th episode of the show, where they wanted to have a plot where they could just book a bunch of celebrities. So I had them searching for this rare stamp that was hidden on the ship. So they got Andy Warhol and Cloris Leachman and Milton Burl, and I got to write in one episode for everybody I ever watched growing up. Annie Griffith. I think I’ve had, early on, not at the very beginning, but pretty early, a sense of responsibility of how many people television affects. Most of them are probably a lot smarter than me when it comes to whatever I’m writing about. There’s some guy in Missouri that’s going to say, like, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about and have some little plot point that has not, been researched.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think anytime that you put into any entertainment piece something from the actual world, from reality, if you say or do something wrong, somebody’s going to call you out on it. When you’re fictionalizing it, it’s a lot easier. Give us the sense of the process of what you do with over my dead body. Is it the same as working on any sitcom, or is it different?

Steven Kunes: It’s much different. The first thing I do is I just read an overview on the person’s life. And then I’ll just go online and I’ll say, right now I’m writing an episode on Walter Cronkite, another person people probably have. So I’ll put in, like, give me 50 funny Walter Cronkite quotes, or give me little known facts, and you’d be surprised what you can find about. He used to be a race car driver. How he bought his first boat. his father was a dentist, and he was going to be a dentist, but his dad said, don’t do that because people have bad breath. He was raised in Texas. what he said about being the most trusted man in America, he says, I tell the truth on the air so I can get away with lying to my wife. I thought it was a great in the. I’m in the middle of writing this thing, and I’m going to have him do the actual news as of today, how he would do it.

Steve Cuden: Do you write them all yourself, or is there a team?

Steven Kunes: I do. I had, like, a few other writers. People ask and I go, okay. They wear me down. So I go, okay, fine, you do an episode. And then I end up having to rewrite the whole thing. It, sounds like it came out of Wikipedia. And, I find it’s harder to rewrite something than it is to just start from scratch. Interesting because I feel like I’m trying to piece it together, then it kind of looks like it’s like put together on index cards, that kind of thing.

Steve Cuden: All, right, so explain for the listeners who don’t know, since some of this is about past experience, what is the difference between the way you do it and the way a typical, standard, traditional sitcom is written?

Steven Kunes: Well, this show is different than what I’m doing now, but a typical sitcom, a person comes in and, they have their sample scripts read and somehow they were able to get in the door, whether they got them an agent or they knew somebody just got in the door somehow and they say, what do you got for us? And you sit around the staff and you just want to die because you’re so nervous and you’ve pitched some ideas and hopefully they go, wow, that would make a great episode. I’ve been lucky that way. I don’t know how sometimes I come up with ideas in a car on the way over. I’m just winging it.

Steve Cuden: Are, those the best ideas?

Steven Kunes: Sometimes. And then you go off and they’ll either say, give us like a story outline and then we’ll go from there. Or, they’ll make an appointment with you to break the story together with the staff. That’s usually what happens. And you will sit down and you’ll just scene by scene. Well, you’ll probably give them your story and then they’ll rip it apart. But that happens on every single episode forever. Sure, you’re taking notes and then you type it up, you give them the story, you might get a few other notes and they go, okay, write the teleplay. So you write that. Hope it doesn’t. You’re convinced it sucks. By the time you’re done, it doesn’t matter. you could be the producer of the show. You think your stuff sucks because there is nothing more terrifying than sitting down at the table read with all the actors and having it read out loud. And sometimes there’s a person from the network there and then you find out how funny it is. It might be funny to do it on paper.

Steve Cuden: Have you ever done a script where it came out worse with the table read? Usually the actors plus everything, it doesn’t.

Steven Kunes: Come out worse, but sometimes you can see where the slow spots are. Or you go, we didn’t really need to say that. Kind of thing.

Steve Cuden: And so, writing on a staff, you’re either working, in a room around a table with a bunch of other writers, or you may be sent off to write on your own as you create a script.

Steven Kunes: Most of the time you’re on your own doing the draft, and then you’ll sit down with the writers, and then they’ll just go through page by page. Somebody might have a better idea. This I learned a lot from Mike Scully, who worked on the Simpsons before he did the Simpsons. We worked on out of this world together. He told me, never skip ahead and go back to something. He goes, just, if you’re stuck, just get unstuck before you go ahead. And I’ve kind of gone with that theory. But when you talk about sitting around the table, the first, person I think of is would like, sometimes you didn’t even think he was listening. He would hear everything that everybody was saying. I don’t know how he did it is, it’s very much like the old Dick Van Dyke show, where people sit around and sometimes you’re snowballing, ideas for episodes, but usually it’s just giving notes to something that’s already been delivered.

Steve Cuden: And because it’s more streamlined on over my dead body, it’s, probably a little of a quicker and less challenging process in terms of the overall concept of a script. Am I right?

Steven Kunes: It is, yeah. A lot of considerations with a sitcom. One they’ll say, especially toward the end of the season, when they run out of money from the license fee, they go, we don’t have enough money to do four sets at the end of every show. Every season. At some point, somebody’s stuck in an elevator or somebody broke down in the car, and they’re calling from their phone.

Steve Cuden: And you’re trying to convince us that TV is about money and that it’s all practical considerations that have to have creative solutions.

Steven Kunes: Yeah, Norman was very creative. Norman Lear. But his business partner, Jerry Parencio, said, I see an episode like a pancake. Like what? He goes, just keep turning out the pancakes. Like, there’s 24. He had eight shows on at one time. So I’m thinking, like, he’s thinking of television. Like, I’m going to an IHOP.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s a little bit of an assembly line, in that case.

Steven Kunes: Yeah, it was quite. Or they called it a shop, a factory. It really does run like clockwork.

Steve Cuden: So you’re talking about Norman Lear, and obviously, you had the great privilege of working with him. What would you say are the artistic or life lessons that you learned from him that maybe had a real impact on how you look at writing, your career, life, et cetera.

Steven Kunes: One time we were on a plane together. we weren’t on a trip together. We just happened to be on the same plane coming back from New York to LA, and it was the American airlines, it was the red eye, and we were over Joplin, Missouri. He always said to the flight attendant, where are we now? And she tells Joplin, missouri. He says, see all those lights? it’s all the lights. Some of them, there are street lights, but mostly probably houses building. He goes, every single one of those has a television at that time. I don’t even know if Fox was in existence yet. There are three networks. There’s 3 hours of prime time a week. So, each network only has 21 hours a week. And he said, what we think of what we do. He goes, we have made every one of these people laugh. Like once it wasn’t about how great we were or what anything we did was. He goes, but we’ll never meet them, they’ll never meet us. We do something, and about four weeks later, they’re watching. Goes, and that’s one town. Then we were like Kansas City then. I have never gone on a plane since without looking down at the country. And it really gave me a sense of responsibility to, try to do the best work I can.

Steve Cuden: Well, sure, because if you’re sloughing it, then the chances are it’s going to not get much attention for any length of time.

Steven Kunes: Yeah, it’s just the idea. The country is huge and just that so many people, this particular medium reaches everybody now, of course, we have streaming, we have our cell phones and all, but the idea that you can talk on your cell phone and have a video conference with somebody in China for free, really just like log on.

Steve Cuden: But he clearly was expressing to you at the same time to have pride in your work, to do the best you can because you are serving all of these people.

Steven Kunes: Yeah. And I think that, between that and the type of shows that he did, it really had an impact. The same thing with Johnny Carson. Johnny Carson said, I’m not looking to be the funniest person on television. People look at me before they go to bed. He goes, and also, it’s hard to be hilarious all the time. He says, I’m looking to just make people smile and, feel good with what they’re seeing and entertain them on a consistent basis.

Steve Cuden: Well, Carson was for me, for a period of time in my younger days, kind of a savior, because I felt very isolated and alone when I first got to Los Angeles, and I would watch him at night and I no longer felt alone. I felt like I was connected to the world in some way. He had that effect on people, didn’t he?

Steven Kunes: He did. I think it had to do with the fact that he was more interested in his guests than he was in himself. He would always let the guests talk, even if they were boring. He might not put them back on the show, but he really, showed that he had a respect for the people that he had on. I love David Letterman, but, he’s not the same. It’s just a different thing, that’s all.

Steve Cuden: Different style. And today the styles are extremely different from Carson. I’ve always wondered, so I’m going to ask you, you’d be the first person I’ve ever asked this of because you’re the first person I know who actually wrote on that show. When he’d have a guest on, did he have a list of potential lines that he could use during the interview, comedy lines, or was he just that.

Steven Kunes: Fast with the guests? He was just that fast.

Steve Cuden: Just that fast.

Steven Kunes: We would write savers for him. We called him savers. Savers, where if he bombs on a joke, he could have a comeback for that.

Steve Cuden: But that’s in the monologue.

Steven Kunes: That’s in the monologue or with a sketch, although I really just did the monologue. But for the guests, no, he was really, absolutely nothing was written as far as he had the questions he was going to ask. he just kind of went with it.

Steve Cuden: And that is something that you cannot train someone to be. Am I right?

Steven Kunes: You cannot, absolutely cannot.

Steve Cuden: It’s almost impossible to be that quick and that funny unless it’s innate.

Steven Kunes: I agree with you, and I think that’s why, not everybody can do it. Letterman can do it, Jay Leno can do it. Pretty much all the hosts can do it. That’s why they’re the.

Steve Cuden: Exactly. Exactly. Did you enjoy your time working on this tonight show?

Steven Kunes: I did. To this day, I read articles about how cold Carson was. He didn’t talk to him, not to the writers. He was real nice to us. In fact, after the show, ended, when OJ Simpson got arrested, I, was living about a couple of miles from him out in Malibu, and I went and we watched the entire 13 month trial together.

Steve Cuden: You and Carson?

Steven Kunes: Yeah, pretty much almost every day. Wow. And when he said, yeah, I was thinking about writing a book, just about watching. I don’t know how interesting.

Steve Cuden: Oh, my goodness. You should write a book about that. That would be fascinating to know.

Steven Kunes: But he had, like, Robert Klein came over, Steve Martin came over a couple times, but he said one time when Robert Shapiro made some argument, I think it was before Johnny Cochrane came into the trial, he did something, that got under Marcia Clark’s skin. And he, you know, she’s not going to win. And I said, well, I just read. She did 23 murder cases. She’s 23. And he looked and he said, well, now she’s 23 and one. He said it was like on the first day, and it just like, played out well.

Steve Cuden: That was prescient of his, but he had the ability to look at situations and people and really quickly size them up. Isn’t that true?

Steven Kunes: yes, especially. He, had kids on the show, and he had just regular people, a lot of old people from around the country for various reasons. Some guy that, a farmer who was like, 102. He was just charming. He was really just, very personable.

Steve Cuden: I occasionally catch clips of him with rickles. Oh, my goodness.

Steven Kunes: Yeah, he discovered Rickles. He was the one that put Rickles on TV for the first time. Just brutal. Rickles is just brutal. We can’t do him on our show because I can’t find anybody that could do him.

Steve Cuden: It’s completely unique.

Steven Kunes: It’s totally know. We did Phyllis Diller. we’re doing Jimmy Stewart. That wasn’t hard. But I have a guy that does a perfect Rodney voice, which is hard to find. Who can do Rodney Dangerfield? A lot of people imitate him.

Steve Cuden: That was also a unique, completely unique act, that ratatat. One zap after another after another after another. That’s really hard to do. So talk to me about you’re working on the Tonight show, or you’re working with Norman Lear and you’re on a staff and you’re working on shows. There’s going to be a certain amount of pressure involved in turning this material out. How would you handle the pressure as it was coming down the pike? You had a show that night or that week, whatever that was.

Steven Kunes: There wasn’t pressure so much on the sitcom scripts. But for the Tonight Show, Johnny did not want anything done the day before. He wanted everything to be fresh. Whereas Jay Leno, for instance, would have, most of his jokes written a week in advance. David Letterman didn’t even tape on Fridays. He would do two shows on Thursday. So what he would do is, if something, know, late breaking news on Friday, he wouldn’t mention it. He didn’t have the show tape. Garson always wanted it written that day from that morning’s news. So, yes, that was pressure.

Steve Cuden: And that, by the way, is interesting about the difference between not every sitcom, but many sitcoms and what the talk shows do on a daily basis, and that is that they’re topical. A talk show is topical, and so they tend to date quite easily. They become passe. Some sitcoms. Some sitcoms also become passe, but many of them have long, long lives, like I love Lucy. Even though it’s kind of dated, it’s still not really passe in terms of the comedy.

Steven Kunes: Yeah, the references are certainly dated.

Steve Cuden: Yes.

Steven Kunes: But the situations are like, they’re just. People can relate to them today. Same thing with the know. Even bring up Lucy. That’s my absolute favorite show. And it was the perfect example for, how to write a my. If you want to learn how to write a sitcom, just study that, and you’ll know how to just go and dig the hole deeper and deeper and deeper until you have to get out of it at the end.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s classic storytelling, as you put a character into the cauldron of conflict and obstacles. And how do they survive it? That seems to be the major way that most movies and TV shows are written, no matter whether they’re comedy or drama. You also wound up working in 1 hour TV. Which TV shows did you enjoy writing on in 1 hour?

Steven Kunes: The one that no one ever heard of. It was called high mountain Rangers, with Robert Conrad, it got canceled, like, after. I don’t even think they aired all the episodes. I think maybe three of them. But I got flown to Fort Lauderdale, and I show up on this set, and there’s this guy from going, I’m looking at, oh, my God, this is Robert Conrad. Knocked the battery off my shoulder and. All right, and what’s he doing? He’s drinking a beer. I go, he’s. This guy’s drinking a beer. And it turns out he drank beer all day, and then he would switch to margaritas at 05:00 so we’re going to have a story meeting, with these two other writers that he also flew in. And, we’re all having the same thought. I’m sitting here with Bob Conrad. He’s, like, drinking a margarita. I don’t really understand what he’s saying he wants. Not because he’s drunk. We just didn’t get, like, yeah, put this kid in it, and then we got to shoot it. Oh, we have a boat. Put him on a boat. And the kid turned out to be the actor was his son, like, changed his name to, Christian Falk, which actually, Falk was Conrad’s actual last name. So we just got thrown into this, maybe an abyss. And ABC occasionally the president of ABC at the time, his name was Lou Ehrlich. He would call up, hey, how’s it going? I’m just going. I didn’t talk to him, but I wonder if the people at the network in California knew, like, this is just a know. And there is a camera and there’s some actors. we’re in this house in the middle. I don’t even know where it was. Somewhere outside of Fort Lauderdale. And I go, is this just like television? Is this the normal thing that sounds.

Steve Cuden: Like the inmates were running the asylum?

Steven Kunes: It was like, ah, the animal house. I felt like I just stepped into animal house. There was a backdoor pilot. It was called. It was a TV movie. It looked pretty good. And I go, wow. How could these guys have done that?

Steve Cuden: Because they’d been doing it forever, so they kind of understood it. I mean, Robert Conrad had probably been in thousands of hours, in front of cameras at that point.

Steven Kunes: Right?

Steve Cuden: Again, for the listeners, what are the major differences, aside from length, between an hour long TV show and a half hour sitcom? How do you see the differences in.

Steven Kunes: The way that the stories are told? the sitcom seems, to be. Each line is like a ping pong match. Somebody says something, the other person has to have a comeback or they have to pause. an hour, hour long is just like a short movie, except that you have to have four cliffhangers because of the commercials. You don’t want them to change the channel.

Steve Cuden: And usually a lot less comedy.

Steven Kunes: A lot less comedy. Even if it’s, something like moonlighting. Let’s say I did not work on that, but it’s funny. But there has to be some type of action, something, driving it, or else it would be ridiculous. You can talk your way through a comedy through the 1 hour or through a movie. You have to actually be able to turn the sound off and understand it from watching it. If you were to turn the sound off on a Lucy show, you might get some of it, but you’d really have pretty much no idea what’s going on.

Steve Cuden: Well, that harks back to the silent era and what they call pure cinema. where there’s no dialogue at all. It’s all imagery. And you have to be able to tell the story in imagery. But sitcoms are like little plays.

Steven Kunes: They really are. And, you still have to have your little twists and turns and try to make it like it hasn’t been done a thousand times before. A sitcom is exactly, really a play to me.

Steve Cuden: Do you have a personal preference between writing one or the other?

Steven Kunes: I have, always preferred the sitcoms. I just like, mean, a great 1 hour show is. Well, we had a cabinet in our house where I grew up in Pennsylvania. And you open the cabinet, and inside is a, television, because they used to be in the wooden cabinets, right? Sometimes you’d have a turntable, and I would sit down. It was a big deal. If you have a TV and you sit down and there’s a schedule, or if it’s dark shadows, you run home from school to try to catch Angelique Laura Parker, who played her, who’s so gorgeous, she just passed away, like, six months ago. And I would study the credits. I got so good at memorizing m, I could recite off the top of my head the prime time schedule of the three networks, you and me both. And I would study those credits. And then when I got out to California, I met some of the people. Oh, I saw your name on this. Ted Baker was one. He was a stage manager on the Tonight Show. I see your name, and he goes, I did the same thing. He goes, I will bet you that half the people that are out here come from little towns all over America. And what did they do? They studied the credits. They go, well, because people would make fun of me. They would to, well, you’re going to go and be a television. Yeah, yeah. And you’re going to go to California. I said, well, look at all these people. They work on the show. I mean, they must exist. Somebody has to.

Steve Cuden: did you then have people come to you over time with the same purpose?

Steven Kunes: I did. And in fact, I have a friend, David Kirkpatrick, who used to be the president of Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney. And he told me the same thing. some people write me letters, and he goes, well, I got a lot because I ran the studio. And I said, what did you do? He says, I answered every single one of them.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Steven Kunes: When he was ten years old, or was it 13, he wrote a letter to Walt Disney. He was from Ohio. Walt Disney writes to him. Back when he was 18, the Disney foundation sponsored him to go to Cal arts. When he was 35, he became the president of Walt Disney Studios.

Steve Cuden: That’s impressive.

Steven Kunes: And he said it was from writing. And that’s how I got my job with Norman Lear. I wrote him a letter. How crazy is that I want to write Norman Lear a letter. I’m in New York, and I got a call. This is Norman Lear. I got your letter. And then I meet David years later. He goes, yeah, I wrote to Walt Disney when I was 13. I go, well, you win. I was 23 when I wrote to Norman.

Steve Cuden: But you absolutely need. I’m, saying this for the listeners to understand. It is a business of contact and being in touch with people. And you can’t just do it just by being a writer or a director or producer. You have to talk to people. So this is a good example of the way to do it if you have access to people, which is, I think, harder and harder today.

Steven Kunes: I think it was always hard.

Steve Cuden: Even with the Internet, it’s still harder.

Steven Kunes: Well, just because people get so many letters. When you write a person, here’s the secret, I think, to meeting somebody. First of all, don’t write 100 letters thinking, well, I’ll write to every show. write to the ones that you absolutely love, like take five. And when you write to the person, don’t talk about you tell them what it is that you like about them and why you’ve chosen them to write to and what it is you want to do, and you’re hoping that you’ll get the opportunity. I realize you get a lot of letters. I get it. But here’s where I live. This is what I do. This is what I want to do, and this is why I’m writing to you. I’m telling you, it’s an amazing thing how you’ll get a good response. Sometimes you won’t. If you write to the right person, usually you can tell, like, if somebody wrote you a letter and said, steve, I saw this, you probably call them up, like, thank you.

Steve Cuden: I get stuff fairly regularly where people contact me, for one thing, or know they maybe want something from me versus not just assistance, but they actually want something from me. But I tend to respond in a courteous and thoughtful and professional way. Most people approach you. They’re not mean spirited. And I think that that’s, a very good thing. The truth is, I can’t really help most people because I no longer am in Hollywood. I’m in Pittsburgh. And so if you’re not in that business right there and then, sometimes it’s a lot harder, unless you’ve maintained certain.

Steven Kunes: Was, you know, at the time, he had eight shows on the air, many things in development, and he could do that. If you write to somebody that has one show on the air and they’re barely hanging in there. That’s another story, right?

Steve Cuden: Yeah. Well, obviously Norman Lear could be very generous. You’re correct. Someone who is maybe on a show that’s going out, that’s no longer going to be on the air, they can’t really do anything for you, really, except maybe introduce you to one person or another.

Steven Kunes: Right. You mentioned, contacts. I think people are spending way too much time trying to make contacts and far little time writing or acting or maybe taking a class might be a good idea.

Steve Cuden: Definitely. They need to be spending time doing what it is they want to do. I am curious about script doctoring, which I’ve never done. I’ve never been a script doctor, though I’ve been a consultant on many different scripts about whether they work or not, but I’ve never been a doctor. How did you get into that and what is it?

Steven Kunes: Basically, you get a script, they’ll say, this isn’t funny. can you make this funny or can you add a love story? I don’t feel sorry for this guy. So you come up with some type of a scene where you go, oh, my God, I really like this guy. He’s got a sensitive part to him. For instance, this isn’t mine. But in rocky, right at the beginning you had Sylvester Stallone. He’s trying to collect money from someone, like he’s a loan shark or he’s working for a loan shark and a guy says, break his fingers or whatever. Stallone says, I’ll break your fingers. I’m not breaking his. That guy’s got a family. He’s trying to feed his family. He didn’t get paid. Give the guy a break. Like when I’m breaking nobody’s. I think I forget how Rocky goes, but I think he might have even given the guy the pay. All of a sudden it’s like he’s the friendly collector. You go, I like this guy. Look, he’s tough, but look at him.

Steve Cuden: How does one become in a position where someone asks you to revise other people’s work?

Steven Kunes: What happened to me? This is with catch me if you can. There was a producer named Hall Bartlett who had done, Jonathan Livingston Siegel and I forget what else. And he bought the rights to the Frank Abagnail’s book outright and he wrote a script. I don’t know if he wrote it himself or he had. I forget what it was before. Spielberg got involved, like, way before. And, he said, could you rewrite this? Because this guy’s like a scumbag. These scams make him kind of likable. And I did it for free. I don’t know why, but I did. And, he went and showed it all around town, and he could not get this thing made. And then he died, and his wife got the rights and sold it. But it made the rounds. So my agent got a call. It went to this woman, Megan Rose, who worked at Warner brothers for 27 years as the story analyst. And she knew Paul Bartlett, and she had read this terrible script, and she said, I can’t believe you did this. And she’s the one that actually put the word out. And I started getting work. It’s actually legal to hire multiple people to do, rewrites. they would pay you for like a week or two. It was a weekly salary thing. And they would take bits and pieces, from different people, and then it would go to arbitration. You would never get credit because the first and the last writer always get the credit, right. So then you tell people, oh, I worked on all this stuff, and then unless they call the legal department at the guild, they won’t see your name. So they think, no, you didn’t work on that. And in the case of catch me if you can, it ended up completely being rewritten by a guy named Jeff Nathanson. And, then they really deviated from the story. They inserted a father who had died early on. They made him go throughout a lot of the movie with Christopher Walken. And I thought they did actually a really good job on that.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s a pretty good movie. They had a fairly decent director working on the movie. Like maybe one of the greatest directors who’ve ever lived.

Steven Kunes: Yeah, he did a hell of a job. Everything about that was good.

Steve Cuden: And a good star.

Steven Kunes: And a real good star. Well, two of them. Tom Hanks. Exactly.

Steve Cuden: And Christopher Walken.

Steven Kunes: Walken and Leonardo DiCaprio. That was great. That is a niche profession, script doctoring.

Steve Cuden: Script doctoring. So is it fulfilling or is it frustrating? Most of the time you will get paid, so you’re taking it for the.

Steven Kunes: Money, but is it, you get paid all the time? I’m just. That first time, I just did it.

Steve Cuden: So did you find that frustrating to work on something that’s somebody else’s work and then maybe you don’t get credit on it?

Steven Kunes: Yeah, I couldn’t stand, it’s like, I feel bad coming on your show and complaining that somebody hired me to rewrite a script, but it’s very, frustrating. You don’t get credit on it. You don’t really have much even a lot of times you don’t even hear if they liked what you did.

Steve Cuden: So you have to be a complete mercenary about it.

Steven Kunes: Right? Yeah, you basically. I mean, Robert town was famous for doing it, but he’d say, yeah, I’ll do it. Give me $50,000 a day. And, ah, this is like 30 years.

Steve Cuden: Ago, and David Mammoth is a famous script doctor. And they’re definitely famous script doctors.

Steven Kunes: Yeah. Nora Efron rewrote sleepless in Seattle, I think, in three weeks, although she ended up getting credit on it. She was also, the director.

Steve Cuden: The director, sure. What would you say are the biggest challenges of being a script doctor?

Steven Kunes: Getting the work in the first place is a good challenge. Sometimes you’ll get a script. How about this one where they want something changed, and you read it and you go, this is great. I wouldn’t change any of it. What do you want me to do, ruin this?

Steve Cuden: So what do you do? Do you walk away?

Steven Kunes: Sometimes? What? I’ll just say, well, we just want to change. We want to add this, put a cop in it. I’m just making this up. Something that’s like, totally. And then I’ll say, well, that doesn’t really. That would throw the whole thing, because they don’t see it. It’s a domino effect. If you change one thing, it’s like you’ve ruined maybe the rest of your movie.

Steve Cuden: I call it pulling the thread on a sweater.

Steven Kunes: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: If you pull the thread out of the sweater, it just falls apart.

Steven Kunes: Yeah. The best thing is if somebody said, you want to make it funnier, you want to make somebody more sympathetic, inject a love story or something, maybe that. Where people might keep them on the edge of their seat, like the fugitive that was rewritten every day. They were shooting it, apparently, right? And they were laughing because at the end of the movie, it was a big hit. it’s now taught in screenwriting classes.

Steve Cuden: Oh, sure.

Steven Kunes: Everybody was making it up, apparently.

Steve Cuden: there’s a famous story about Mario Puzzo, who wrote the book the Godfather, and then co wrote the movie the Godfather with Fritz Ford Coppola. And there’s a famous story that he had no idea how to write a screenplay. So he and Coppola sit down and they write this screenplay. And obviously Coppola’s giving him some guidance on that. But they finish writing the screenplay, and he comes out of it and says, I really don’t know how to write a screenplay. So he goes and he gets a book about how to write screenplays. And the first thing in the book says, see the Godfather.

Steven Kunes: Oh, that’s really funny. That’s all you got to do is see the Godfather.

Steve Cuden: See the Godfather. So what are a few of the things that you think a screenwriter must do in scripts in general, beyond getting the mechanics of it right to secure a chance at a sale, what are the things that beginning writers should concentrate on when they’re thinking about getting produced?

Steven Kunes: My real expertise, if I even have that, is sitcoms. David Lloyd, who was probably my favorite sitcom writer of all time, who did Mary Tyler Moore, and he wrote the famous chuckle spites the dust episode. So you know David? Yeah, well, he spoke at NYU, and, like, six people were there to go see. Like, they didn’t even care. It was unbelievable. So it’s like this private audience with David Lloyd, and he said, the difference between movies and television is television. You should be able to turn off the picture and just listen to them talk. He goes, but movies, you should be able to turn off the sound and watch it, because one’s visual, one is not. So he said, here’s what you have to do. He goes, take your absolute two favorite shows. And my two favorite at the time that were on the air were taxi and mash. And he said, make. At the time, sony Walkmans were out, little cassettes. He says, make an audio recording of those shows, of an episode. Put it on, don’t watch it. He goes, just put it on, and listen to that show like, 500 times or maybe 300 of times, and then come up with a plot. He says, and if you need a script, get a script. This is before you could download things, but you could go to Sam French, or you’ll find a script so you know how it’s done, and write an episode, and you will have heard this thing so many times, your dialogue is going to be just drop dead perfect. He goes, and I did that for a taxi, and I did that for a mash. Now, I had what I called my arsenal, my arsenal of two things. And then I wrote my letters, and Norman Lear called me. I sent him the scripts. He had everybody in his company read it, including his driver at the time was Jeff Shapiro and Mark Pollock and Glenn Padnick and Fran McConnell and all the people, Alan Horn, the whole thing. And they recommended me. And then Norman read them, flew me out and put me under contract, and I ended up working for him for two years. I said, what was so good? I said one time, I said, what was so good about, like, why me? I wasn’t the only one he had hired three other people, too, because that’s what he did. He said the dialogue. He said, you can teach story construction, but the dialogue is very hard to get for characters because people look at the TV and when they write an all in the family on spec, they will write something. And to them, it sounds like Archie and Edith because they’re picturing it. But to a stranger, a person just goes, the characters kind of sound, they don’t really sound the same, but you nailed these. And that’s exactly how I did it. From what David Lloyd. I did that with Kate and Allie, too. I could write Kate and Allie ordering lunch, and it would sound like Kate and Allie, just like. It’s just kind of drilled into me.

Steve Cuden: Because you had spent a lot of time listening to it. Just listening and listening.

Steven Kunes: Just listening over and over. Almost, I had to listen to these things a hundred times. I mean, I could do that. Anybody could do that. You could do it with a Seinfeld. And don’t take just one show, do it. The show that you can do it on two, all of a sudden you have a career, because somebody can. And that’s how you get in. And then down the line, if you have an idea for a show where the network knows you and they’ll come to you, then you go there. You don’t just sit at home going, I have an idea for a TV show. No, you not only have to know how to write, you have to write a lot, and you have to be involved in production. You don’t just say, I’ll find somebody that can do that for me. Right? So, that’s my advice to anybody who wants to write for television, and I promise you it’ll work if you do that.

Steve Cuden: I think that you’re right. If you have any talent at all that hones it in. Tell us a little bit about your TEDx talk. Square one at 60. Give us the brief on that.

Steven Kunes: The brief on that was that despite the successes we have talked about in this show so far, I had lots of periods of unemployment, and I found myself broke, borderline homeless, and in trouble with the law. That’s, putting it mildly. And then know started doing my show, for Amazon, and I was asked to do a TEd talk about all of this. And, then the pandemic hit. And then I was hoping, oh, God, I hope they’ll never call me. I was happy. We’re in a pandemic now. They can’t do it now because otherwise I got to get up and do this whole thing about my life. And, then they called anyway, when it was a pandemic. Oh, we got the vaccine now. Thanks. Thank God. So I did this thing called square one at 60. and one of the things that happened didn’t happen to me that I did to myself. I got desperate and I put fake checks in my account, got arrested, and went, to jail. When people found out about it, I thought I was going to be, kind of banned. And what they did was they all came around. They said, even Norman Lear. He said, you should have told me. He said, I would have helped you. And then he told me a story about his dad when he was nine. I didn’t know this. 40 years ago, when Norman was nine years old, his father did sold these fake bonds and went to prison for four years. And they had to sell the family furniture, and him and his mom had to live move in with the grandmother in another town.

Steve Cuden: Oh, my.

Steven Kunes: He said he was humiliated. And then Hollywood’s kind of known for this shoot yourself in the foot because of, you know, people get into know Robert Downey, the famous story or all that. I was still so embarrassed after I do this Ted talk that I didn’t even post it on Facebook because I was afraid, like, all my industry friends would read this. And finally, about eight months after it came out, it came out in 2021, somebody posted it on my page and said, I just saw this. I can’t believe. And I got this overwhelmingly great response. And I have to be honest, I felt not, just embarrassed, but ashamed that I hadn’t just been honest with people. And you don’t have to tell everybody, like, all your stuff. But, I mean, I was putting on appearances that completely didn’t have to be put on.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s understandable. That’s not something you want to crow about.

Steven Kunes: No. Right.

Steve Cuden: But the TEDx talk, you should crow about, because it’s excellent.

Steven Kunes: I was very happy. I said, what do you want me to do? And they said, well, let’s say that somebody told you you’re going to die in 18 minutes, and the only thing that anybody’s going to remember you by is what you say in the next 18 minutes. What would you say? And that’s what I would say. And I did it in 14 minutes. I go, that would be it. if, like nothing else, was it.

Steve Cuden: Hard to put together, aside from the emotional.

Steven Kunes: I was walking around the shopping mall, and I go, like, what am I going to do? What wisdom do I have to impart to anybody? And it was, know they always say, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. And I said, that’s actually not true. I, did this show about Julia child, and she said, the only difference between pudding and a souffle is if one falls or not. She has the same ingredients, but they’re cooked, like, a little bit differently. And if it falls, you can throw in some ICE cream, stir it around. It’s not a failure. It’s just a different thing. And that’s kind of the way I approached, said, you know, my talk was really about life is a mixed bag.

Steve Cuden: Life is a mixed bag. I am having the most marvelous conversation with Steve Kunis about life and comedy and writing and Hollywood and all these wonderful things. And we’re going to wind the show down a little bit right now. And I’m wondering, in all of your many experiences over a long time, do you have a story that you could share with us that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, strange, or just plain funny?

Steven Kunes: I do, and it’s, one that I share periodically with people. I was, writing what’s called a Saturday morning kickoff special for NBC back. And I think it was, like, 1986, and it was called Alvin goes back to school. And it was kind of a takeoff on Rodney back to school movie. Yeah, this one was where Alvin the chipmunk shows up, and he takes over the school. He lets all the kids go home, but he makes the parents sit in the class. It was a way to promote the Saturday morning schedule. So we had, like, Betty White and Doris Robertson, I don’t know, whoever was, on the network at that time. And we’re sitting around a story meeting, and one of the executives at NBC and specials, a woman, she said, I just have one problem with this whole story and this whole concept, and it wasn’t even my just. I just was brought in to write it. But they already knew what they wanted to do. I said, what’s that? And she goes, well, Alvin, I mean, these are parents. He can’t just make them sit there. They’re the grownups. They could just get up and walk away. What would prevent them from just doing that? I mean, you’re asking the audience to suspend reality. And I said, well, I think we already asked them to suspend reality when we made the principal a chipmunk. And she gave it some thought. And the other people, there was a guy who ran specials named Rick Lugl, and I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He was laughing. So you get these kind of notes over the years, you’re just like, oh, the guy’s a chipmunk. You’re asking me why the parents can’t leave?

Steve Cuden: We do get these very strange notes from people who may not necessarily be creators themselves, but they have opinions.

Steven Kunes: I think she realized what she said after I realized that’s, like, my fault. I probably shouldn’t have said that, but it was okay. So I still talk to the producers once in a while, and, ah, we never finish a call without saying, don’t forget the principles of chipmunk.

Steve Cuden: All right, so last question for you today. Steven you’ve already given us a huge amount of really great advice. In particular, that David Lloyd piece, which I think was fantastic. But I’m wondering if you have any other solid pieces of advice or tip that you can lend to those who are trying to get into the business, or maybe they’re in a little bit, trying to get to the next level.

Steven Kunes: The main one is show up. If you want to make it on Broadway, you have to go to Broadway. If you want to make it in television and movies, you have to go to LA. The ODs are tough anyway. Why would you want to cut them to zero by not going where the business is? And most of the people that ask me the question, you just did, and I give them this answer, they don’t follow through on it. They’re like, why? You wouldn’t want to go and maximize your chances. The other thing is, know your TV and movie history. If you want to work in the car business, you should at least get a book about when the car was invented and all the different models that came out. I’m surprised that people don’t know when television started or anybody. The pioneers of TV, they’ve never heard of the DuMont network. I don’t mean you have to be a historian. I just know what came before you. I think that’s important. And my third and final piece of advice is write what you really are good at and what you like. I had a friend that he found out that my buddy was Rick Berman, who ran Star Trek. He goes, oh, my God, I would like to write that. Can you get me? He’s never even seen the show. And I go, so you want me to call my friend and see if I can get you in the door for a show you’ve never seen? I said, write what you know and write what you love. Don’t just try to say, oh, I think I’ll write a horror movie, because those are selling indeed. Do you even go to horror? Oh, no, I don’t do that. Well, then, because what’s the worst thing that can happen if you write something that you absolutely love and you’re very proud of? The worst thing is it doesn’t sell. But at least you wrote something you love. Can you imagine writing a piece of garbage? You not only don’t sell it, but you’ve completely subtracted, like, six months from.

Steve Cuden: Your life, and you don’t like it.

Steven Kunes: And you don’t like it, so don’t do that.

Steve Cuden: Yeah, I think that’s really excellent advice, that people who are in the business are in the business, usually because they love what they’re doing, and they are, if not expert at that particular topic or subject, they are, at the minimum, very keenly interested in it. And so I think that’s really outstanding advice. Steven Kunis, this has been a fantastic hour plus on StoryBeat today, and I really can’t thank you enough for your time, your energy, and especially your wisdom on all things writing, Hollywood and TV and film and so on. So I thank you kindly.

Steven Kunes: Really appreciate being here.

Steve Cuden: and so we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Tunein, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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