Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jane Espenson on writing comedy & drama

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.


R.A. Porter said...

Aha! Our one and only opportunity to comment on one of Jane's blog posts without licking stamps!

Of course I find myself with nothing much to say other than thanks for this, and all the great advice you regularly dole out.

Anonymous said...


My entire family and I were huge fans of Firefly and then the follow up film Serenity. I can't wait to read your book.

On a strike related note, I assume you've all the seen the open letter in the LA Times from AMTP today. They're so fucking accommodating I'm amazed they didn't get the Nobel peace prize.

Unknown said...

Wow, my two favorite bloggers, united! Thanks, Ken and Jane, you're the best.

Anonymous said...

Could be it's just me, but the "drop by and shill my book" link doesn't work for me.

I assume it's meant to go to this:
"Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe"

Or you can see all of Jane's books on Amazon here.

Bill said...

I'm with both r.a. porter and isabel. Love Jane's blog (even though I'm a terrible writer) because I like the insight on the process. Though it doesn't feel quite right here without the "Lunch: " section on the end.

Anonymous said...

I just finished a feature spec a few weeks ago that deals with merging comedy, drama, and other genres.

It was a challenging but rewarding experience. Nice to see it also is a topic of conversation at the moment.

Rob said...

Thanks for sharing your comments. In the spirit of the Gilmore Girls, I read that twice as fast to my daughter, who responded with several quips and cultural references that a six year old couldn't possibly understand.

Why is it that Andy Richter can't find a successful show? I loved Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and only managed to catch one PI episode before it was cancelled. He's a funny guy who finds funny shows (mostly), but can't seem to find an audience. He's like the male Bonnie Hunt.

Mef said...

what a great post. Thanks Jane, thanks Ken.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...


you have been a favorite of mine and my wife's for a very long time.
buffy and gilmore girls are probably our 2 top shows of all time.

the question i have for when you do a dramedy like Buffy or Gilmore when in the story writing process do you decide that the payoff will be the dramatic situation or a comedic one?

Anonymous said...

Jane, the problem isn't in being able to write both; the problem is getting the moron execs at the studio and/or network to let you. They are so narrow minded in their knowledge that they just assume you are either comedy or drama and pigeon hole eveyone... they are complete morons who are truly unqualified for the very simple jobs that they hold. They are the only real hurdle you need to get over, assuming that you have the talent to do so.

The Minstrel Boy said...

jane, i adore your work. i am an unrepentant unreconstructed browncoat. i read your blog all the time and enjoy being able to finally comment.

p.s. i am a huge battlestar fan too.

i've been waiting for a chance to do this. . .

what's for lunch:

sonoran tacos from Camacho's Place, simply the best.

karigee said...

Excellent! Two of my favorite people in one easy-to-find place. It's like a Thanksgiving miracle. Bravo/a!

Anonymous said...

Jaanneee, enable comments on your blog!

Or else!!

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated the tip on Jane's blog referencing I've signed the petition there and am donating to the people bringing food to the strikers. I am so happy to have found a way to help. I'm not a writer, but I certainly appreciate the craft. I know my world would be much smaller and pretty bland without the creative minds that produce scripts, books, etc. My small way of saying thanks is to support this strike.

Cap'n Bob said...

That skiing/shooting event is the biathalon. Hope I spelled it right.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with the multi-camera half hour world in my opinion... It's too slavish to the frat house room mentality & dynamics of pitching jokes in a room, vs. paying more attention and respect to the carefully pondered upon, funny, yet living and breathing moments that can come from the stream of consciousness writing process on a keyboard.

"Back to You" - The latest case in point. Each little piece of business in this increasingly tired show reeks of being just that, a piece of business. It rings untrue & showy, and oftentimes sounds "written" (ironically) and the audiences sense it. The classic multi-cams were funny... but also had their own subtle sense of reality about them. Like Taxi, and Cheers in its heyday before it became more of a joke machine.

This is why the whole multi-cam form seems tired. If they can make it seem real again... and funny... I think there's still hope.

Anonymous said...


We loved the 'Verse you guys created and miss it much. Can't wait to read your book.


Anonymous said...

great post Jane. Your range is beyond fantastic. And Bill and Minstrel beat me to it! :)

chrisc said...

Thanks Jane. Good to know, since according to my manager I have an uncanny ability to write broad comedy one day and psychosexual sci-fi thrillers the next, without changing my style much.

That's either a good thing or a disaster, but happy to know it's been done successfully.