Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is there laughter in the writers room?

Yes.

A lot of it.

There is a misconception that comedy writers never laugh.  Although we frequently do just nod and say, “That’s funny, put it in” there is also a ton of laughter.

Being able to laugh all day is the one saving grace of sitting in a pressure-filled room night after night after night. Well, that and junk food.

True that most of the laughs stem from jokes that don’t get in the script. No comedy writer would ever win a Humanitas Award or Peabody if any outsiders heard him for five minutes during a rewrite session. And when you consider the jokes that do get into TWO AND A HALF MEN and MIKE & MOLLY (they had a whole subplot this week about their dog who couldn’t take a shit), you can only imagine what didn’t get in.

You need laughter to keep the energy level up. And raunchy, totally appalling material sparks that. If you’re loose and having fun you’re more apt to come up with that great line that will get in the script. Even the California courts agreed when a disgruntled writers assistant tried to sue the staff of FRIENDS for sexual harassment. She lost. Courtney Cox vagina jokes won.

The tone of sitcom writers room differ depending on the showrunner and staff. Our first staff job, as I mentioned yesterday, was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW run by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. I’ve never been to a comedy club where I laughed even half as much as I did during any one rewrite night on that show. Don’t tell anybody but I would hope for bad runthroughs so the rewrite nights were longer. I was young, single, had nowhere else to go, and they had Almond Joy minis.

As a showrunner I prefer a raucous room. And I like good laughers. But that isn’t to say you have to have a boisterous atmosphere to write funny scripts. The quietest, most subdued room I’ve ever been in was FRASIER. It was like rewriting in a library. And yet look at the results. Pure magic. But there were long periods of silence. If there was a Daphne joke that didn’t work we could be there for an hour.

I have a rule. If someone pitches a joke (for the script) and it gets a big laugh in the room the joke goes in just the way it was pitched. So often someone will pitch something and someone else will suggest an alternate version. Then it gets tossed around and after awhile you don’t remember the original or why you laughed in the first place. This is called “Stabbing the Frog.” You have a bouncy little frog in Biology class. You dissect it and see what makes it tick. But now you have a dead frog. (I know one showrunner who pathologically had to change at least one or two words of every pitch so he could put his own stamp on it. Yes, he was infuriating.) So my policy – if a pitch got a huge laugh, even if its structured weirdly – it goes in as is.

So yes, there is laughter in the writers room. I would hope in drama writing rooms too, although I can’t picture a real party atmosphere in the CRIMINAL MINDS room. Laughter is a great release, a great indicator, and all you have left when the Almond Joy minis are all gone.

27 comments:

gottacook said...

Of possible interest: I've just finished John Varley's latest novel Slow Apocalypse concerning the adventures of a sitcom creator/showrunner and two of his writer's-room colleagues (and their families) who survive the fall of petroleum-based civilization. It's a page-turner, although it's perhaps a little heavy on the Los Angeles-related detail.

The Curmudgeon said...

I love the expression "Stabbing the Frog" and will try to work it into conversation or an appellate brief in the near future.

But I have a question for you: You're in the writers' room and someone pitches a joke and everyone laughs -- who remembers the exact joke and how? Is there somebody there who used to work for the CIA, who's had their sense of humor surgically removed, available to record these pearls as they issue? I mean, the inspiration strikes, you pitch a line, everyone laughs -- but who catches the exact line?

Volklfan said...

Friday Question
Why do so many new & current shows take place in Chicago?
Good Wife, The League, Happy Endings to name a few. Were audiences tired of New York based shows and Chicago was the next largest market? or is it all just coincidence?
-Thanks

Robert Pierce said...

I just talked to a friend who works in the Bones writers room, a room that you think wouldn't have that much laughter, and she said they constantly are having to rush to meet deadlines because they're too busy laughing the entire day. Then again, I guess it's probably a more morbid sense of humor in the room...

Wade said...

Friday question:
Ken, you've mentioned a number of times that scripts today are by and large developed in the room and that, with the exception of a few rare individuals, no one person could write a script (i.e. from concept to final shooting draft) for shows as they are produced today.

That being the case, how are the scripts written by prospective/aspiring writers regarded when they are being assessed by potential agents, producers, etc? Are they still expected to be as good as a room written script? Or is it since those aspiring writers have unlimited time (in theory) to get the script in shape that it should still reach that level?

Obviously everyone should write the best script they can, but I'm curious where the bar is set by those reading them.

Tom Reeder said...

In response to The Curmudgeon: The writer who pitched the line usually remembers what he or she said, and if not, there are a couple of writers' assistants in the room. It's their job to record the pearls that are produced in the room.

The writers' assistant who is at the keyboard types in the proposed change; everyone looks at it on the monitors, and most of the time it's correct -- as pitched. Once in a while, someone will say, "The way David pitched it, he had 'corn nuts' at the end." That gets fixed, and then the showrunner says the words we all love to hear: "Moving on."

Ed said...

This was great! It addresses what I wondered about watching STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP: writers would study copy looking deadly serious and respond with, "yeah, this is funny," without ever cracking a smile. They never looked like they were having much fun. So you confirm some of the lack of laughter but correct the room being much more fun.

Thanks!

Miles said...

Ken - have you seen the South Park documentary '6 days to air', which shows the process of getting the show out each week in just 6 days?

It had some glimpses of the writing room and showed some of the creative process, very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Mounds are better. Julie, Burlington, Iowa

benson said...

@ Volklfan

Because America is a sick of East Coast bias in comedy as they are of ESPN force-feeding Yankees-Red Sox and Tim Tebow to us. :)

Say what you want about NBC, and it's probably all true, but at least their sports network is giving us Blackhawks-Wild tonight.

Steve McLean said...

I'm the one who took shit for bringing the bag of carrots into the writers room (you tweeted the pic thank-you-very-much) but I didn't get the sugar crash (that I get every afternoon at 4 from the tootsie rolls at my regular job. anyway radio salespeople don't need to be funny after 4:00)

XJill said...

@Volklfan - I do think it's because there was a spell where EVERYTHING was set in NYC and people tried to shake it up. And of course TGW plays well as being in the politically sketchy Chicago and The League works great because Chi-Town is such a sports town. It also has the benefit of still being able to use NYC/"city street" generic backlot sets. At least Chicago Fire actually films IN Chicago. My 2 cents.

D. McEwan said...

"I know one showrunner who pathologically had to change at least one or two words of every pitch so he could put his own stamp on it. Yes, he was infuriating."

In Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, writer charcter Jubal Harshaw says of editors: "You have to give an editor something to change. Once he's peed in your story, he likes the flavor better and will publish it."

gottacook said...

The actual Jubal Harshaw quote (shortly after he reads aloud a macabre poem, favoring poison as a method of suicide, that he's about to submit for publication): "You have to give an editor something to change, or he gets frustrated. After he pees in it himself, he likes the flavor much better, so he buys it." The originally published 1961 version, for which he trimmed many thousands of words to publisher's order, leaves out "himself" and "much"; the uncut one came out posthumously around 1990. Both versions are in print, I think.

(For a copyediting job I had about 7 years ago, I edited Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil, which for many years had been one of those "you couldn't pay me to reread that" books - until someone did pay me to do so. Still not sure whether it was worth it. I also got to handle his two short adult novels circa 1955-1956, The Door into Summer and Double Star; too bad there weren't more like them.)

Greg Ehrbar said...

I once worked with a writer who invited me to a brainstorm and proceeded to assume ownership of an idea by adding the word "the" to a phrase.

She insisted that the definite article made it different and very much her own.

Paul Duca said...

If there's a fire, at least Tina Fey will bring an extinguisher.

KB said...

XJill said...

@Volklfan - I do think it's because there was a spell where EVERYTHING was set in NYC and people tried to shake it up.


Speaking of which, the Disney Channel show "Shake It Up" takes place in... Chicago.

Ron said...

Friday Question

If you're writing a spec script should you target network or cable and also a specific network, i.e., TBS or FX, etc

D. McEwan said...

Thanks, Gottacook. I was just too lazy to get off my butt, cross the room, pull down the book and hunt up the quotation, so I went from memory. If I had hunted it down, it would have been from the uncut version from 1990, as that is the only copy I still have.

Actually, I liked I will Fear No Evil. The premise is excellent, and in it, we saw that Heinlein had evolved a good deal on his attitudes towards homosexuality from Stranger in a Strange Land, in which Michael would sense "essential wrongness" about homosexuals and would not offer them water, which was actually out of character for Michael, and was Heinlein's own prejudice showing. In the later book he showed he'd moved beyond it. And the premise, a brain of one gender transplanted into a body of the other gender, is a premise I am using in the work I'm writing now, though my plot is vastly different than Heinlein's, and of course, mine is a comedy. It's one aspect of a larger arc, and I've reversed the genders from the ones in Heinlein's book, but it is a premise I'm exploring right now.

Double Star and The Door into Summer were two of my dad's favorite books, and I read them as a teenager at his recommendation. He read Stranger in a Strange Land on mine but didn't like it. He told me: "Son, there's more to life than sex in hotel rooms." I replied: "Is that all you got from that book?" Dad was something of a prude.

Marco said...

I can only imagine what scenes and jokes did NOT make it into a "Californication" script then :-)

Helena said...

Friday Q: On MASH, one of the things that characterized Colonel Potter's speech to me was his deliberate mispronunciation of words from time to time. Were these mispronunciations carefully marked up in the scripts, or was Harry Morgan free to do it whenever he found it appropriate?

idencian 36 said...

Helena: You remind me of Morgan's best moment in "Support Your Local Sheriff," when he says of his daughter, "Pooh-berty hit her hard." Perhaps the "M*A*S*H" writers were inspired by that.

Hollywoodaholic said...

Steven Levitan at a NATPE talk the other day said he was taken back by all the intense silences in the "Wings" writer room under Peter Casey (his co-panelist) in their approach. He smilingly attributed a quiet writers' room to 'not enough Jews.'

Christodoulos said...

@D. McEwan, @Gottacook:

Heinlein had some kind words for another profession, too: "[he was] merely a literary critic, which is harmless, like dead yeast left in beer". So says Prof de la Paz, from The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

Thank guys for reminding me that it's time I reread some Heinlein (but not IWFNE, the only novel of his which I only read once).

tb said...

I can imagine the laughs when you came up with bit where Norm levitates-which you didn't use due to technical limitations-but now I'm eager to hear the whole idea anyway. Why did Norm levitate?

Erich said...

I have a Friday question based on this post.

This is not the first time that I've heard that that is the way the Frasier writers' room was run, though this is the first time I've heard it from somebody involved in the show itself. It always made me wonder a few things:

1. How was that established? Was it the showrunner's decision at the beginning of the series or something that developed over time?
2. Was this in response to the way that other writers' rooms were run? I know that a number of the writers on Frasier had been involved in Cheers, so I wonder why they would make a change like that.
3. Was this a strictly enforced policy that was explained to newcomers or did people simply read the room and behave accordingly?
4. Is it possible that this affected the show itself? Frasier was about pretty stuffy characters to begin with, and a lot of the humor was very sharp and tightly structured. Do you think that's because the room was the polar opposite of the Friends writers' room where people played video games and worked until 2am?

Nick said...

Friday Question: How is the writing for a drama series (especially a show like SVU or NCIS etc....) different from that for a comedy series? I mean obviously it's a drama how is it written in a writers room too? Or are these scripts assigned out to writers who work separately?