Thursday, July 30, 2015

It's Official! I'm going to hold another SITCOM ROOM

For the first time since 2013, I'm conducting my 2-day Sitcom Room. It'll be Saturday/Sunday, October Los Angeles, as always.

The Sitcom Room is where I lock 20 brave souls into “writers’ rooms” for an entire weekend so they can experience for themselves what it’s really like to write for a TV sitcom.

The last time I held this event, we sold out all 20 spaces in one hour.

If you're on my Alert List, we'll let you know 24 hours before the rest of the world the exact date & time that Registration will be open...and Registration will open one hour early just for the people on the Alert List.


MikeK.Pa. said...

"I mentioned the idea on my blog, a bunch of people responded, and the next thing I knew I was spending two intense days (and nights) with 20 talented writers from all over the world."

Just curious if you've kept track of these writers and if any of them were able to crack an actual sitcom writing room.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

MikeK.Pa: Some past attendees still post here - me, for example, and Johnny Walker. In my year (2011), the professional qualifications of most of the attendees were pretty substantial already, just not in sitcom writing. One wrote and directed plays for a kids' theater in Ontario (for which another attendee and I went on to write a play); one worked for one of the networks in some commercial capacity; one worked in TV in Australia; one I think was a pilot who simply wanted to exercise his creative muscles. I have worked in journalism and related writing for 25 years. Like that. Of our 20 I'm still in regular touch with two. Some really did want to get into sitcoms, but I think quite a few also simply wanted to gain new ways of thinking about the work they were already doing - and that's not a small thing to get out of such an event even if the larger dream fails.

I'm not sure what category I'll end up in. I found it a worthwhile experience and I'm glad I went. For anyone who wants a sense of what it was like, I wrote about it at the time here:


Ken Levine said...

I am still in touch with a number of former attendees. A couple have gone on to write for TV -- one was on staff of NURSE JACKIE.

Ken Levine said...

I am still in touch with a number of former attendees. A couple have gone on to write for TV -- one was on staff of NURSE JACKIE.

Jerry Krull said...

I attended a couple of years ago and read Ken's blog faithfully. I comment unfaithfully. Attending the Sitcom Room was the closest I expected to get to actually write for a sitcom - since I live in Chicago.I'm a comedy writing nerd and when I saw I could learn from Ken Levine I had to find a way attend. I actually celebrated my birthday at my Sitcom Room weekend and Ken & Dan brought in Hostess cupcakes with a candle. Ken said only the actors got real cakes. I learned a ton and made a couple of new friends. Got to meet David Isaacs and several of Ken's writing friends like Phoef Sutton, Dan O'Shannon, and Robin Schiff-names I knew from the show writing credits I had seen for years.

As a writer, it is a great education. As a life experience - one for the ages! In my life I have completed the Second City writing program, wrote a spec script for a producer pitching a series and needed a couple of sample episodes after the pilot, I ghost write stand-up for some comedians and also write for corporate speakers. I have a couple of humor books too.

If you write comedy and want to experience an actual sitcom room environment then I heartily reccommend attending.

We're still trying to come up with a concept for the next level of Sitcom Room for Ken. You know something where he does little work, but gets lots of accolades. He doesn't charge enough to get lots of money...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Oh, yeah, given the prices I've seen quoted when Danny Simon has done masterclasses and stuff, Ken's seminar is a bargain, especially because it's hands-on and you get to see your work performed by professionals.


Johnny Walker said...

As Wendy has said, I am also a veteran of the Sitcom Room.

Don't be put off if you have no experience. I have zero professional writing experience, and found my fellow attendees were largely in a similar boat.

I comment here a lot (to some people's annoyance), mainly because I find the topic of discussion so interesting, but also because Ken is such an enjoyable read, while also being very generous about sharing his vast experience. As an amateur student of comedy, it's like crack cocaine to me.

And, adding to Wendy's and Jerry's write-ups, it's this which made the Sitcom Room such a worthwhile trip for me. Ken is a master of his craft (not to mention a major voice behind my two favourite shows when I was growing up), but equally as important, he can communicate his craft in a clear, concise, and highly entertaining way. During the weekend, it was Ken's lectures, the panel discussion with Ken's sitcom-writer colleagues, and of course, the face-to-face conversations with the man himself, that were incredibly valuable to me, and that I remember fondly.

Ask Ken a question and he'll spin out an answer for you the second you've finished speaking that will not only answer your initial question, but also the next one you had lined up, too. It may only be later that you realise just how much information he has given you, and it makes you want to mine that brain of his for all it's worth -- if you could keep up.

Of course, all of this is greatly enhanced by the fact that Ken is such an affable and all-round nice guy to begin with. As all regular readers of this blog will attest, Ken's personality is a large part of what makes this site successful. That down-to-earth openness and friendliness is present and correct at the Sitcom Room, and permeates through the weekend.

(And it wouldn't be fair not to didn't mention the person who co-coordinates the weekend, DAN O'DAY, who is also probably one of the nicest and friendliest people I've ever met -- and I'm sure other attendees agree.)

The whole weekend is warm, welcoming, and filled with rare and useful insights, and while I didn't find a writing partner to start a career with, I am still in touch with 5 or 6 people I met that weekend. In that sort of situation, you almost can't fail to learn through sheer osmosis alone.

The main part of the weekend is where you are separated into teams and given a task to complete: Improve a purposely badly written script for a scene that Ken has put together. One of you will be assigned as "Showrunner", the person in charge of the room.

The aim of the exercise is to capture what Jerry just called, "an actual sitcom room environment", and there can be no argument that it does that -- both good and bad. Wendy's write-up points out that such rooms are naturally tough environments, but as someone who was in the room "less blessed by chemistry" (as Wendy put it), you might find it useful to hear my experience.

Being thrown into a room with four strangers to work together on a script to a deadline, with a performance of your work at the end, is a pressured situation. There are lots of hurdles that must be overcome, and the chemistry of the five of you plays a large part in how successful you will be. You're just getting to know each other, and all of a sudden you're trying collaborate -- one big personality in the room can change everything, and you may find yourself with five.

On top of this, the task has been created to throw up the kind of problems and situations that real rooms have to face every day. The one major difference is this: Unlike in a real writers room, nobody has any experience.

Note: It's important to bear in mind that most people echo Wendy and Jerry's experiences. So while most of the time the chemistry in the room is good enough for something to be produced without too much friction, sometimes it inevitably isn't.

Johnny Walker said...

Consider the following: Each room is as different as the people in it, and each person approaches the weekend with different aims. Some will see it as a bit of creative fun, others will want to produce something they're proud of.

This alone makes things tricky for the "Showrunners": Do they keep the weekend fun, and try to be inclusive of everyone in their room, even if they don't like what's being pitched? Or do they take the task of producing a better script seriously, and put the final product ahead of people's feelings? I don't know the right answer to this (my Showrunner tried to keep everyone happy, and maybe he was right to do so, but he later said he regretted it).

And what if you're a writer, and you're stuck in a room with a Showrunner who splits the room into teams. Assigns a section of the scene to a different person, with no idea of how the scene would end, or what the others are writing?

Would you feel frustrated and want to leave, or just take it as part of the experience? (Note, this actually happened one year.)

Ken has a very laissez-faire attitude to the rooms: He treats the Showrunners with the same distance and respect (I presume) he'd like to be treated himself. He lets them find their own way, and he isn't going to tell them that they're doing something wrong (what is "wrong", after all?), although he may give guidance as best he can.

So forgive me for being brutally honest for a moment here, unlike Jerry and Wendy I literally found the room hellish at times, and seriously considered walking out (which might have been a good thing for my room -- one less hurdle). I would even go so far as to say that it took me a while to get over the experience -- but I've never regretted it.

Now, as I have already said, not every room has issues, and even those that do are not experienced in the same way by everyone. In fact, having spoken to attendees, most people came away from the weekend very elated and happy with their experience -- even those in rooms like the ones I've described, but such an experience is not guaranteed, and I think it's worth bearing that in mind so you can be ready for it.

Would you be OK if you found yourself in one of the dysfunctional rooms? Or with someone you didn't get along with?

Consider being stuck in a room with me: I had a major problem that was actually summed up perfectly by Ken himself: "Problems arise [in writers rooms] when characters are so undefined no one really knows how they’ll react in a given situation."

I felt this was a kind of a flaw with the script we were given, and it was a big issue for me (to some of my fellow writer's great annoyance). I wondered: How can you write comedy that comes out of character, when we've only just met those characters? How do you capture their voice, when you only have a single scene to judge them from? It felt like an additional task was figuring out who these people were, but some of the other people in my room didn't think this was necessary (and they were probably right), but how would YOU resolve that issue?

Despite these cautionary tales I would consider doing the weekend again (if I could). If you're serious about learning, I've found it to be a gift that has kept on giving, even if there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel.

Johnny Walker said...

Finally, one tip I would give is this, if you're the type of person who wants to take the weekend seriously: Listen to the CHILDREN OF TENDU podcast. Try and learn from the mistakes that the presenters themselves made when they were new in a writers room. Some of their tips include:

- Don't take criticism of your work personally.
- Don't be a negative presence in the room by only speaking up about things you don't like (such people are dubbed "Dr No").
- Further to this, try and build on what others are pitching, making it better, rather than just commenting on things you don't like.
- If there is something you don't like, offer an alternative solution that you think is better.
- If you've put up a good fight for an idea you love, and still nobody is convinced, let it go. Don't keep bringing it back up, again and again.

These are all perfectly common reactions to not having experience working on a creative endeavour as a team, and you may find them in your room, and even within yourself (I was certainly guilty of them).

I hope that was useful reading to anyone considering attending this year. Good luck!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Here's an anecdote from Johnny's and my year I don't think is in the write-up. My room had two women and three men, and the other woman and I began pondering a female character's background. The three men were happy with the character as she stood, on the basis that "Lots of female characters in sitcoms are like that." We said, "Yes, and that's exactly what's wrong with a lot of female characters in sitcoms!" After a few more rounds of that sort of thing, I turned to my fellow female and said, "Do you think we have a gender gap here?"

Not long after, Ken and Dan showed up on one of their perambulations, and I turned to him and asked how long the show this script was part of had been running? Could they tell us more about this character? I have a history in journalism. I've learned to ask sources questions. And they answered.

Comes time for our draft to be performed, and our character made reference to what we'd learned. Someone from one of the other teams objected: this wasn't in the original script, so how could we just decide these things about this character?

"I asked Ken what her background was," I said.

"That's not fair!"

Always ask to see the show Bible. :) And bear in mind that if someone's opinion differs from yours it may be that they see something from a vantage point you don't inhabit.

Oh - and if Dan starts to take your food, watch Ken very, very closely.


Johnny Walker said...

Wow, how bizarre that someone should object! (Were they being serious?) Either you make up a backstory, or you get info from Ken and Dan. Nothing to get upset about.

Every time Ken and Dan walked in, all the squabbling in the room stopped (for reasons that utterly baffle me, I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone -- I kept thinking: "Isn't Ken's input what we're paying for...? Why are we pretending everything is awesome, when it's anything but...?"). I really wanted to ask about the characters, but it never seemed to happen.

I'd definitely handle everything differently today.

Dan O'Day said...

@Wendy: Were you part of the group I asked to play a little practical joke on Ken...and who did exactly as I asked a little too well?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Dan: I am hurt - HURT - that you have forgotten that.


Dan O'Day said...

@Wendy: I remember it was Team "A." When I realized how successfully you had fulfilled my request, everything else became a blur. To this day, I'm not sure Ken fully believes you guys were joking.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

To be honest, Dan, I don't remember which team we were. But I know we did a good job on the fake-out. Though we may have come in 2nd.

I also remember the great story you told about the scam you pulled on Ken when flying back from Europe one time with David Isaacs.


Diane D. said...

Wow, that was fascinating, Johnny Walker! And very interesting to anyone planning to come, I'm sure.

I would love to read yours, Wendy Grossman, but when I tried to copy and paste that link, I got a message that it was not available.

Mike said...

@Diane D: Wendy's url is fine. Here it is as a link.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Dan: I have looked it up (I keep every damn thing). Yes, I was in Team A. We win!


Diane D. said...

Thanks so much, Mike.