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 I know when I was taking extension classes at UCLA the teachers seemed very out-of-date.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.