Creating Sitcom Success

Alex Levy (2006) shares her journey from Ascham to Hollywood’s writers’ rooms. Reflecting on her formative years and a pivot from books to TV, Alex navigates industry changes, a writers’ strike and offers advice to aspiring writers…

Alex, can you tell us a little about your time at Ascham and any specific standout experiences?
Other than the deep friendships I maintain to this day, the most formative part of my Ascham years was my English class, which was the same for all six years of Senior School. We were always encouraged to push boundaries. In retrospect, I wonder if my love of writers’ rooms comes from this first collaborative, creative experience.

Where did life take you after Ascham?
I began my Bachelor of Arts at the University of New South Wales, but when they drastically reduced funding in their creative writing department I transferred to the University of Melbourne where it was still available as a major. Somewhere in between obsessive viewings of The Office and 30 Rock I realised I wanted to write TV, not the books I had always assumed would help pay my way to a Paddington terrace (didn’t understand real estate then, remain blissfully ignorant now). The Australian comedy scene is very small though. I was lucky enough to be familiar with LA thanks to many trips over the years to visit family living there, so I set my sights on the system that produced the sitcoms I loved so much.

In the meantime, I managed to talk my way into an assistant position working for the pâtissier and TV personality, Adriano Zumbo. I thought administrative experience would be useful in landing me a similar job with Mindy Kaling [actor, screenwriter, producer]. Weirdly enough, that is how things played out, more or less. My sister met a former Simpsons/The Office writer, Danny Chun, whose contact info she passed on to me; he went on to sponsor my visa (and eventually green card) and hire me as his assistant. Shadowing him in writers’ rooms on shows like Happy Endings and Hello Ladies was the confirmation I needed that this was my dream job. It seemed crazy to me that you could be paid to sit in a room, eat snacks and try to be funnier than the person next to you.

When one of the shows Danny was developing finally got a series order (Grandfathered, a John Stamos vehicle that probably never made it to Australia), he promoted me to writers’ assistant. And when the show was cancelled after one season, I bopped around from room to room, relying on my network of friends and colleagues to help me get my next gigs. This is both normal and precarious and still makes my mother wish I had chosen almost any other career.

How has the US Writers’ Guild strike impacted your work and job security?
I write this in the fifth month of the Writers’ Guild strike, no end in sight. Working in the US, the land of the $15 minimum wage, I’m grateful to belong to a union dedicated to safeguarding its members’ livelihoods. In the 11 years I’ve worked in the industry I’ve seen how streaming companies like Netflix have eroded the standards that once made this such a viable and wonderful career. When I first arrived, it was possible to work in a writers’ room with a dozen other people for close to nine months out of the year, and a season would contain between 13 to 22 episodes. Now you’re lucky if you can scrape together an eight-week contract for a six-episode show that might never see the light of day. It’s bleak, and I think everyone realised how untenable the situation had become at the same time.

In July, the actors’ union, SAG, joined us for a double strike for the first time since the 60s, because this focus on the bottom line at the expense of human creativity and wellbeing isn’t just limited to screenwriters—or Hollywood in general. So, I’ve been on the picket lines since May, and that’s where I’ll be until the studios present us with an acceptable solution. I don’t know when that will be but I remain (perhaps naively) hopeful that sense and decency will prevail.

Can you share with us a highlight moment of your career?
I had the insane good fortune to work on Grace & Frankie. I’m not sure why they let me write things for Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to say, but I’m beyond happy about it. I came in for the sixth and seventh seasons, and the writers’ room was tight knit, hilarious and excellent.

24 Nov 2023

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