Taking a break from the strike today.
One question I'm often asked is can a writer go back and forth between comedy and drama and just how different are the required skills? Since my drama resume is limited to selected scenes from MASH and comedies that didn't work so I called them dramas, I thought I would ask someone who really does thrive in both worlds -- fellow blogger and terrific writer, Jane Espenson.
Hi all. Jane Espenson here. Ken has been kind enough to let me drop by and shill my book here. It's a nifty little collection of essays, called "Serenity Found," about the dearly departed show Firefly and the movie Serenity that followed it.
Ken suggested that for this guest gig, I might want to talk about what it's like to go back and forth between writing comedy and writing drama. I've been lucky enough to get to do this, having written for half-hours including Dinosaurs, and Ellen, and more recently Jake in Progress and the newest Andy Richter project, Andy Barker, PI. My one-hour jobs include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Gilmore Girls, and my current position at Battlestar Galactica, among others. I was initially urged not to try to create a career like that -- my agent at the time worried that it would look "unfocused." Maybe he was right, but, man, I'm having fun.
Switching back and forth between some of these shows has been like that sport where you have to ski for a while and then shoot a gun and then ski some more. The activities are so different, require such different skills, that you feel crazy for putting them together.
I'm actually talking here more about the difference between multi-camera and single-camera, more than I am between half-hour and hour. It's the "puttin' on a show for a live audience" aspect of multi-camera that makes the whole procedure so different. The production of each episode is so intense and immediate, that it becomes the center of the staff's life, their time split between run-throughs and group rewrites on this week's script, and group rewrites of NEXT week's script. You spend almost all your time in that writers' room, and some of it on a sound stage, and none of it at home. And much of the time in the room is spent pitching jokes... tossing words into the air in full view of the rest of the staff. I love the sweaty energy of it, and when you feel like you're contributing, there's nothing like it. And, of course, nothing can compare to hearing a live audience laughing out loud at your joke. It's a job made of adrenaline and guts.
Writing for an hour drama, even a funny one, is a quieter job, with better hours. You still spend a lot of time in the writers' room, but you're looking at a cork board, breaking story, not at a monitor, pitching lines. It can still be a sweaty and urgent business, especially if a story is refusing to break, and the time to produce a draft is dwindling, but the quantities of sweat are smaller and don't actually fly off your head like in a cartoon.
Dramas also generally allow each writer to get more of their words into the mouths of the actors, since there isn't a communal rewrite process. The downside of this is that there's less opportunity to watch more experienced writers sharpen your thoughts for you right in front of your eyes. I always tell people to work on a comedy for a while to learn how to write jokes. Then go to a drama so you can get your jokes on the air.
To return to my biathlon metaphor, drama writing is the cross-country skiing part, requiring solitary patience and an evenness of effort. Multi-cam comedy writing is shooting the rifle -- intense, immediate, and loud.
And, in light of current events, let me add that despite these differences, the core of the job -- skillful word-wrangling -- is the same. Not everyone can do it. If you can, be proud, find the right niche or niches for you, and don't let anyone tell you that what you do doesn't deserve fair compensation.