By Priscilla Leonard
Jeff Kahn’s writing, which fluidly crosses genres as diverse as screenwriting to personal essay, elevates silliness to a high art. His distinct wit consistently transforms the painful absurdity of daily life into comedic gold.
Emmy award-winning writer, Jeff Kahn got his big break co-writing and co-starring in“The Ben Stiller Show” on MTV. Since then, he sold over a dozen television pilots both on his own and with his writing partner Aline Brosh McKenna of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame. He also sold three original screenplays and produced pilots at every major network including FX, MTV and Comedy Central. Jeff had overall writing deals at Sony and Castle Rock. In 2010, he co-authored “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up” with his wife, Annabelle Gurwitch, which received rave reviews from People Magazine, Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post.
We caught up with Jeff in Atwater Village to hear his insights about the screenwriting life.
1. When did you start your screenwriting career and how did you break in?
I wrote a TV pilot (hand written, not typed) for MTV called “Patio Party”. It never got produced, but it was good enough to land me a job on MTV’s hit show “Remote Control”. From there, Ben Stiller and I (we were doing stand up together at that time) created our own MTV pilot, “The Ben Stiller Show”. We did 13 shows for MTV, got a pilot deal at Fox from that, and two years and three pilots later did 12 episodes for Fox. The year after the Stiller Show won an Emmy, I sold a feature script I had been working on for years to Universal called “Spies and Innkeepers”. It was a comedy set in the American Revolution.
2. You have sold an impressive number of pilots and screenplays and have written for every major TV network. What is the secret to your success?
Please, I have no secrets, and as far as success, it comes and goes. I guess the best thing you can say about me is that I’m spunky and refuse to go away.
3. What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters? A) For folks who want to become working TV writers? B) For anyone who has an original screenplay or TV show that they want to sell?
Never let the dream crushers (the gatekeepers whose job it is to say “NO!”) get you down. Persevere, keep writing, and never give up. You do something that they can’t do. You can write. Create. Make something out of nothing. They can’t have a TV show or a film without a writer. So write. And after you’re done, rewrite. Rewriting is the key to writing.
4. You’ve collaborated with a number of well-known writers, including Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Aline Brosh McKenna, and even your wife, Annabelle Gurwitch. Do you recommend having a writing partner? How do you select your writing partners?
I highly recommend having a partner. It’s good to bounce stuff off each other, make each other work harder and become better writers. I’ve loved all my partners. Partnerships can be particularly helpful when writing comedy. You know something is funny if you can make them laugh.All of my writing partners have come about by luck.
I met Ben through mutual friends, and he wanted to do stand up so I said, “Okay, let’s do it together.” So we started performing a stand up act. I had no idea that someday he’d be a major international movie star and I’d be still me. Little known writer at the time, Judd Apatow, Ben and I wrote the pilot for the Fox Ben Stiller Show.Aline is a different story. We were set up on a “writer’s date” by a mutual friend who was an executive at Newline at that time. She had an idea for a TV show that she thought needed both a male and female POV. Aline and I hit it off right away and although we didn’t end up selling that pilot we did have five very successful and fun filled years together. As far as Annabelle is concerned, well, we’re married and writing with your wife should be against the law.
5. You have been able to pursue a career as a screenwriter, memoirist, and playwright, in addition to having a family. What advice do you have for people trying to find the time for a regular writing practice?
Having a family opens your heart and head to so much, inspires your imagination, answers a lot of interesting questions about life, asks even more interesting questions as well as sucking you dry. Having a baby is like taking care of a helpless vampire who you love more than anything but is also draining you of your life force. Being a parent of a teen now, just doing his laundry takes hours away from writing time. So, you have to write when you can, anywhere you can. For me, it’s in my car, when parked of course, multiple Starbucks, at his baseball games and bass lessons, during lunch at restaurants, at night in bars, and even on the toilet.
6. How did you learn your screenwriting craft? How much of it did you teach yourself (and how did you teach yourself) and how much did you learn from people you worked with?
When I first started writing in 1888, I mean 1988, most of my formal training stemmed from Improv comedy that operates without a script. But even those sketches demand something of an outline, character attributes and some light plot devices. Ben helped me immensely. He was and is a perfectionist and he scrutinized every word I wrote. He was a dictatorial taskmaster of epic proportion, but I needed it. I didn’t have formal training…During this time, I read screenplays that Ben had lying around and copied the structure I learned from reading them when I wrote my first screenplay, “Spies and Innkeepers”. David Kissinger who was an exec at Disney along with his partner at the time, Jordon Levin, schooled Aline and me on pilot writing after they bought our first pitch. The legendary Larry Charles of Seinfeld writing and Borat-directing fame was my boss on my first animated show “Dilbert”. Recently, the brilliant TV producer, Nina Wass acted as a college professor for Annabelle and me as we turned our book into an hour-long dramatic pilot for Lifetime.
7. You have a very distinctive, humorous voice as a writer. How did you cultivate your comic style?
My voice has changed over the years. I think it’s still evolving. I have more, for lack of a better word, command over my voice now than when I was younger. Basically, I started out as a Woody Allen wanna be. Later, performing in an Improv group in Madison, Wisconsin during college helped me to channel what I was studying – political science, history, literature – into short satirical sketches and parodies. For a few years that sketch writing was my voice.With Ben, this sketch writing became streamlined to focus exclusively on his comic vision skewering cultural and media content. That was my voice for at least five years. Then I started to write sit-coms with Aline, and I found a new, more irreverent comedic voice bouncing stuff off of her. I found that voice to be closer to who I really was…I began writing personal essays/stories about my life, my past, my marriage and performing them at literary salons around LA. Eventually some of these stories became the roots of the book “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up“, I co-authored with my wife. That voice, the voice I found writing with her, is the nearest I’ve gotten at writing something truly genuine and authentic.
8. What do you think makes a good TV show?
Many of the great TV writers are very good at distilling writing to its most accessible essence. Some call this mediocre or formulaic, and that may be true to a certain extent, but if everyone could do it and do it that well, there would be a lot more show-runners and show creators than we currently have.
9. You have penned so many TV shows, plays, movies, and books. What inspires you to keep coming up with new ideas? Do you ever get writer’s block?
Money. (Or the lack there of.) Also, I’m still very hungry for success because many of my friends are super successful, famous and rich and I’m insecure and in need of validation. (Hey, at least I’m honest.) Also, I use writing as a cathartic tool so it serves the psychological function of cleaning out my head… Luckily, my life is complicated, problematic, funny and entertaining, so I never run out of ideas.