Saturday, December 06, 2014

Your life is not a sitcom

Over the years I’ve been pitched hundreds of ideas from people not in the business. I was handling funeral arrangements for my grandmother's passing and the mortician pitched me a movie. Small sample size, but so far there’s not one pitch I’ve sparked to. Most of the pitches go like this:

“I work at __________ and you wouldn’t believe how funny it is there? I mean, the things that go on, I could tell you stories, you could write a GREAT sitcom about it.”

If I’m lucky they’ll leave it there but most times they add one or two of those hilarious incidents. They’re usually on a caliber of “we got a guy who never puts sugar in his coffee and one time when he wasn’t looking some slipped in some sugar and then when he drank he went, “Eeeeeuu! Did someone put sugar in my coffee?” At this point the storyteller is usually convulsing with laughter just recalling this classic event. I’m praying for a meteor.


“Tonight, on a very special episode of LAMP SALESMAN, someone slips sugar in Dan’s coffee.”Just because you sell lamps, or work in a real estate office, or a Costco, or in a barbershop, or at a train station and there are co-workers who are a little quirky, this does not mean you have the premise for a sitcom. You have the premise for a work location. And chances are, even with those zany “nuts” you work with, your situation is no funnier than any of the others.

Here’s what nobody ever pitches me: a show about a relationship. THE OFFICE is funny because of the relationship between Michael and his employees. It is funnier still because of the relationships among the employees. What they actually manufacture is completely unimportant.

Start with the characters first.

What about the dynamics between them are interesting, fresh, and could sustain stories week after week? And then, what is the best setting to put them in? One that hasn’t been seen before is a plus but not imperative. How many shows and plays and radio series have been set in bars?

That said, there are some areas that are tougher sales than others. Madcap terrorist cells probably won’t fly.

But the next time you come up to me, assuming it’s not in a funeral parlor (and his movie idea was just friggin’ awful), and you have a great idea for a series, start with who are they are, not what they do. And if they truly are interesting you won’t even need those hilarious incidents.

This is a re-post from five years ago. 

37 comments:

ScottyB said...

That's pretty much the Golden Rule in any kind of writing, I've always thought. It's got to answer the question of "Yeah? So what?"

That's why this shit ain't easy for most people with any brains.

Amanda Sowards said...

I work in a television news room, and you won't believe the crazy stuff that happens here! (In reality, MTM made it seem a lot more fun than it actually is.)

Scooter Schechtman said...

The creators of "The Goldbergs" should read this column.
"Dancing to George Michael? That was so me!"
"Wore blazers with shoulder pads? Right here!"
"Remember a decade? So do I!"

Scott Cason said...

I work in a radio station and have I got some stories to tell. Oh, wait, well, nevermind. Corporate fired everyone on the air and the morning show comes out of Nashville Tennessee. We only have three sales people....and the stories have probably already been done before on TV. ;-)

Bill Shaffer said...

Well noted, Ken! (quietly) Can I send you my logline?

William said...

The Office probably has the most boring setting of any recent sit-com, and it is my favorite American sit-com of all time.

mmryan314 said...

I`m convinced that Matt Groening saw my husband skiing one time in Lake Tahoe and turned him into Homer Simpson. No, I have no idea how he came up with Marge.

Cory said...

I do think one of the HUGE things missing on TV right now is the workplace sit-com. Whoever does the next one that is written with character and JOKES in mind, will have a hit.

brian t said...

At one time I was pondering a sitcom set in a recording studio, where there would be conflict between the owner, the sound engineer, his/her assistants, and the various clients who would record there. I was imagining a spectrum of musicians who'd pass through, all the way from Spinal Tap wannabes to celeb cameos to genuinely good musos tearing it up. The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated shows such as Frasier. I mean, why pay celebs for their time when you can get them to phone in their performances - literally?

Barry in Portland said...

I work by myself at home. You wouldn't believe the crazy situations, especially with the cats. I will say no more.

Ellen said...

Novelists get these pitches, too. And the individuals are always in utter shock when we don't jump on the chance to write their "surefire bestseller" and make millions of dollars.

Sometimes I explain that in book publishing, there are about three writers who make millions of dollars. That leaves about $1.25 for the rest of us to fight over.

But usually I just smile, wish them luck, and pretend I have someplace else to be.

SharoneRosen said...

right now, my life hangs somewhere between The Goodbye Girl and The Mirror Has Two Faces... talk about SITCOM potential!

(oh, yeah.. right... been done.. nevermind)

Bill the Plumber said...

So people want to talk to you about your work. It's called conversation. At least people don't stop you every day to tell you the funniest thing they every flushed down the toilet.

And those are the nice stories.

Tom said...

You weren't a fan of Four Lions then?

I think the surprising endurance of programmes like Two Broke Girls helps to embed the idea that there's not very much to sitcoms. The great ones rise to the top but it seems you can keep yourself in work for a few years without too much to say if you're lucky.

Damien said...

Madcap terrorist cells is a tough pitch, but Hogan's Heros was set in a madcap concentration camp and it was a big hit.

Johnny Walker said...

This is so incredibly true. I think the "situation" in "situation comedy" throws people. If you think about successful sitcoms, it was the relationships that kept you coming back for more. For example: Uptight, pretentious Frasier versus his slobby, blue collar Dad.

Almost every sitcom I can think of has personality opposites at its core. (Even Larry David sitcoms seem to be about a man's relationship with a world which is at odds with their personality.)

All the situation does is give the characters a reason to spend time together.

Also, don't discount the terrorist idea: The British comedy movie FOUR LIONS did for Islamic terrorists what Hogan's Heroes did for prisoner of war camps -- although it actually was very well researched and took the subject matter very seriously.

Mike Botula said...

As a long time reporter, I covered a lot of funerals over the years. I was constantly amazed at the number of mourners who would spot the microphone I carried and approach me with ideas for "a great news story." You prayed for a comet to strike. I prayed for a meteor shower.

Mark Legan said...

Great report! But way before FOUR LIONS, Mark Wilding & I wrote a sitcom pilot about a terrorist cell in Chicago (the jokes on them - they becomeCubs fans). We wrote it to satirize sitcoms - never to get it actually on the air - but we got TONS of meetings out of it - sold some movies, etc and it got us on the cover of the NY Times Arts & Leisure Section...
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/01/arts/television/01cell.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Steve Michaels said...

Bring back Hollywood Squares! I loved that show!!!

tb said...

Well, I don't think a sitcom of my job would be any good - but I do meet many people and once in awhile there will be a real character that I feel really belongs in SOMETHING. Like there's this sales rep I see regularly that is such a throwback, aw shucks, Mayberry kind of dude, I almost want to create a show just to use him

Jean said...

Summed it well, Ken -- the people relating those stories already KNOW the relationships and don't understand the importance of that in story telling. Back when I was trying to write fiction -- Great beginnings, good endings, I have no idea how to write a middle -- I was going to a writer's group and the leader would tell us CONSTANTLY -- tell us (the readers) what you know.

For instance -- the writer would set up dialog, but no scenery. People would pop up out of nowhere and disappear into the ether. OR -- all scenery, but a painting -- no movement. Now -- all this stuff was in the head of the writer, but since it was obvious to the writer, the writer felt it was obvious to the reader... which it so wasn't.

That had to be beaten out of a number of us.

Brian Drake said...

I write novels and get the same thing. Certain family members always have "great ideas" for me. I got ideas. I don't need yours. But they keep talking about theirs. If they're so great, YOU write them. That usually gets me a blank stare.

Amy Alkon said...

Loved this post, Ken. I'll join in and say that we non-fic authors also get hit on for this -- usually with people telling us that we are soo lucky that they will "let" us write their life story.

Anth said...

What if one of the terrorists is a slob and the other is a neat freak?

Alan C said...

I have to disagree with Scooter Schechtman about "The Goldbergs." It's about the relationships between the family members. The wacky 80's stuff just provides the setting--and a good deal of the humor. But if you don't like the show, that's fine. I find it hilarious.

Anonymous said...

I'd give you my business carer story, but someone already did it. It's called "Mad Men".

Igor said...

BTW, Ken (as you may know) this happens to people working in all sorts of businesses. Years ago, I had reason to spend lots of time with film/TV producers & studio execs, and when they found out I was connected (so to speak) to the toy business, they all pitched me toy ideas. (Which made me laugh, 'cause they all thought they knew what would make a great toy.)

And I betcha Ben & Jerry had to swat off more bad pitches than Richie Ashburn.

Friday question, please:

You wrote, "Here’s what nobody ever pitches me: a show about a relationship."

I do get that that's what makes a show. But re pitching as a practical matter - a timeline of the actual pitch - it seems the relationship might well be akin to a punchline.

So, could you give us an example? Maybe using Cheers?

Andrew said...

The weeks I have at work sometimes can make my life feel much more like GAME OF THRONES than a sitcom.

Cap'n Bob said...

Hogan's Heroes was set in a POW camp, not a concentration camp.

WOKcreative said...

Great article. Glad I found this blog.
I think you are right on about the relationships. It seems that the longest running sit-coms have always been the ones that were a true ensemble cast. Those things all seem to go together.

Kate Robinson said...

What I enjoyed about CHEERS is that the core relationship between Sam and the leading lady provided a solid foundation for the series.

With Diane, it was the "opposites attract" sparks that flew between her and Sam coupled with Diane as the upper-class barmaid in the working-class bar.

But the series wisely didn't try to repeat that with Rebecca. There, the primary relationship was still generally "battle of the sexes" but this time presented as the man who's used to getting his way having to work for a woman. This probably resonated with a lot of people at the time. And the stories that came from Rebecca's business world (the Gaines family, for instance) were opportunities we'd have never gotten with Diane.

And without Diane, we'd have never gotten Frasier. He made sense as an extension of her world. Nowadays, I've seen workplace sitcoms that might have the euridite "Frasier" character but that's not character-based reason for him to be there. It feels like the characters were selected like a REAL WORLD cast.

Kaleberg said...

My favorite pitch: http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3266

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I have an idea of a story set in a gay bathhouse. A wacky gay bathhouse with straight men "going gay" for a couple of hours a night, and the wacky staff. Did I mention how wacky the gay bathhouse is?

Johnny Walker said...

Here's an idea, as I sit here battling jetlag:

A university professor whose least favourite/laziest student becomes head of their department after they graduate. (This actually happened to a friend of mine, except it was high school -- hey! maybe my life IS a sitcom after all.)

Hmm. I kind of like this idea. Maybe I'll try and write a spec pilot.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

Albert Giesbrecht: Terrence McNally beat you to that idea forty years ago, with his play "The Ritz" (which won Rita Moreno a Tony, and was made into a so-so movie that did not win her an Oscar).

Dan Ball said...

Amanda, I worked in the production department of TV news and it was more like WKRP. Nonetheless, I've given a lot of thought to writing a sitcom about it. I don't know about your news department, but I think there's a lot of social commentary potential with the way newsrooms operate. Whatever the consultants said, our news director did it! I can just imagine that being good for several episodes.

But Ken's right. A good sitcom should be about relationships and I developed some really good ones working the sunrise shift. During the day, news and production might be separate departments, but they come together during sunrise.

Corey Bond said...

So you're saying madcap terrorist cells are on the no-fly list?