Thursday, August 17, 2006

Comedy writing 101

I was talking to a writer friend (one of those “old school” comedy writers – has won Emmys and numerous awards and now can’t get his agent on the phone) and exploring the idea of maybe teaching a class on sitcom writing. (dispensing the kind of crap I do in this blog.) He then wondered whether the principles and lessons of comedy writing we learned were even relevant today given what the networks are looking for in their sitcoms? I know when I was taking extension classes at UCLA the teachers seemed very out-of-date. Don’t teach me how to write the perfect FLYING NUN. Would I seem like one of those guys by showing how we broke stories on CHEERS?

I’ve been mulling it over for weeks and have finally come to a conclusion: fuck it! Good story telling and writing craft are always worth learning, even if some of the principles are not in vogue at the moment. Who knows? If Howie Mandell can come back so can quality sitcoms. I will be looking into where and when I could teach a class. So far the Wally Thor Truckmaster School is the only institution to express some interest.

In the meantime, get ahold of TAXI DVD’s. And CHEERS, FRASIER, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, THE HONEYMOONERS and BILKO.

Watch how the comedy comes out of the characters. Notice how relatable most of the situations are even though these shows range in age from ten to forty years old. For the most part they’re about characters forced to make timeless basic human decisions but with a comic spin.

Study the structure. Forget style. How do they set up their dilemmas? How do they build to act breaks? How do they resolve their stories? Are there surprises? If so, how are they set up? How do the casts intermingle? Look at the ensemble players. What is each member’s specific role?

I’ll let you know if I do teach a class. Check the Wally Thor catalogue. But if you study TAXI you’ll know most of what I’m going to say and not have to listen to my insufferable “when I was a young freelancer” stories.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ken,
Awesome idea. I took a class at UCLA extension this past spring although it wasn't comedy writing. The teacher had been a writer-producer on House (among many other fine credits) so whatever they're doing to stay current is working. I would certainly sign up if I saw you teaching one! :-)

Anonymous said...

You could always do it online from the comfort of your home like Larry Brody at tvwriter.com.

Beth Ciotta said...

But I like your "... when I was young freelancer..." stories. :)

I applaud your decision to teach and only wish I was on the west coast to take advantage. I don't watch many of the newer sitcoms. There must be a reason that I prefer reruns of the classics. Go forth and spread your wisdom, Ken!

Alex Epstein said...

I'd be stunned if UCLA wouldn't have you. We had some excellent, Oscar-nominated visiting lecturers -- Sterling Silliphant for screenwriting (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), Richard Marks for Editing (TERMS OF ENDEARMENT).

andrew said...

Hi Ken

did you write for Taxi as well? which ones were your favorites?

And what's your take on Seinfeld? do you think it broke sitcom rules?
if any?

Richard said...

We're watching TAXI via netflix right now! Season One, disc two, "Men are such beasts." Alex just unknowingly took a couple of "black beauties" (uppers) from Tony's clinging stalker girlfriend. (The word "stalker" is not used in the episode, however.) Alex can't shut up and is speaking very quickly, and only Latka ends up listening with interest. Season one also features Marilu Henner bra-less in several episodes--yeah, baby! ;-)

Mary Stella said...

I vote for an online class, too. I think taking a course about comedy writing for television would help me sharpen skills for my books.

The Curmudgeon said...

OK, sure. Comedy comes from developed characters. Got it. That's why Jack Benny is still funny today.

But I know coming in that Jack is going to be shocked by the price -- and I know Louie on Taxi is going to do something slimy, no matter how it seems when he starts off.

But how do you get a character developed? How do you keep an audience with you while the character is fleshed out?

A Martin said...

Charlie Rubin teaches an excellent class at NYU's Dramatic Writing program, on both animated and live-action sit-com writing.

If you were ever to move eastside, it's something to consider, as they are always looking for adjuncts.

cage free brown said...

Does Wally Thor have a Hot Lunch?

Ron Fricano said...

Aloha from a former teacher - RON FRICANO.

What about my famous - 3 Mary Tyler Moore's in one night - classes at UCLA ? Flying Nun? Flying Fuck!

How are you, Ken - what's a few decades? I'm still in Hawaii. And still writing and teaching writing.

I never even saw the Flying Nun, let alone used it as a model when you and Dave took my classes at UCLA.

Wow - I read some of your blogs on TV writing. You've really become a Master at the craft, and could teach.

But remember Shaw - Those who can, do. Those who can't teach.

Keep doing.

Ron - candlealoha@yahoo.com

Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

Ken: Alex is right, UCLA would fall all over you drooling. Write Barbara Boyle, chairman of the film school and tell her I sent you.

e-mail:
boyle@tft.ucla.edu

Anonymous said...

I know that Chapman University, which has a pretty awesome film/tv program (down in OC) is always looking for good TV writing professors since there aren't that many around. You should definitely look them up. I would love to take a class with you!

Anonymous said...

My dad wrote a couple of "Flying Nun" scripts. Did he count them among his best work? Oh, hell, no! But, as he used to point out, they helped make the house payment since mom was too much a prude to work the streets.

Hollywood blond said...

All your shows remain the cream of the crop. And TV is still invading the big screen something fierce. Michael Mann and Stephen J. Cannell, bringing their shows up to date and for film.

It would be great if you turned any of your shows into a screenplay. Clearly, new actors playing classic parts is not a problem. (Okay, so I'm gauging that by Dukes of Hazzard!) So who could fill in for Ted, Kelsey, Shelley and Bebe??

evah said...

The classics never go out of style. I'm enjoying Dick Van Dyke far more than I thought a modern 21-year-old ever could. I'm learning way more -- and laughing way more -- than if I watched War at Home or, god forbid, What I Like About You. I'd take the fictional "Alan Brady Show" over those two any day.

I, too, would be interested in hearing your take on Seinfeld, specifically whether you agree that it is a "show about nothing." I always thought of it as a show about rebelling against and testing social conventions, often with disasterous results. Of course, that's just a small piece of it as I'm only beginning my study of sitcoms!

Anonymous said...

Good comedy lives forever. My children are 8 years old (twins) and watch tons and tons of modern cartoons on TV and enjoy them. But when I put on Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, Fog Horn Leg Horn, Etc, etc... They literally giggle till their eyes water. Actual deep down, fun, carefree laughter. The same thing happens with The Muppet Show. All the old fashioned, 20 year old gags still work and make them actually laugh out loud. It's a joy to be able to share them with them.

Wyze Gai said...

My first visit, and I'm seeing some very old posts so wondering if this blog is still active. I was a little shocked by one post I saw from The Curmudgeon where he said...

"OK, sure. Comedy comes from developed characters. Got it. That's why Jack Benny is still funny today."

Unfortunately I have to disagree. Jack Benny is not funny at all "Today"... he's dead!