Sunday, July 12, 2009

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.


Jo said...

Excellent advice, Ken.

Madcap terrorist cells probably won’t fly.

I once read a pilot script for a show called "Sleeper Cell" that I thought was pretty funny. Of course, now I realize I can't remember anything from it except that the head honcho was coming to visit (which reminded me of Third Rock from the Sun more than anything else), so maybe it wasn't that great.

A_Homer said...

Hm... While I agree whole-heartedly with your point, the 50s-60s classics of TV comedy aren't always so easy to pinpoint to relationships, at least not before the modern Dick van Dyke, Mayberry juggernaut... Especially true if they are built around a known entity - "Make Room for Daddy" was a slim relationship point (he is an entertainer who decides to get off the road and enjoy homelife with kids too) but I am really sure the episodes hold up well today in competition with current sitcoms (if one could see them). I think your point is more true of the 70s sitcom classics, and probably not so true of current viewing tastes ("Office" being more a dramedy than sitcom feel)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Being probably the most recent person who pitched you a 'my life' as sitcom story, I thank you for waiting a few weeks before posting this. I can now laugh along with you. I have written, read/evaluated, re-written and thankfully have the objectivity to say... "hmm, not so funny". At least not yet. :)

Mike Bell said...

I think it's safe to say, with the current economy and my current production, my life is certainly NOT a sitcom.

More like Greek tragedy.

WV: Progionv - What actor Jurgen Prochnow chaged his name from to be more accepted by American moviegoers.

Sean D. said...

Working in Radio (small market) I can't count how many times I've heard co-workers refer to other co-workers as a WKRP parallel. Saddly, the closest we ever got to a 'KRP quality situation was when we learned the morning man was calling 900-sex lines while board opp-ing the general manager's weekly talk show.

Varification word- brisquaw: What the members of the Indian Reservation call the female rabbi.

mark f said...

I wasn't going to post but then I noticed the word verification:


The sister of Green Lantern's arch-enemy. She's also a movie buff. She works in a hair salon and let me tell you, has some really funny things happen to her.

Anonymous said...

Try hearing a sitcom pitch when you're in a dentist's chair about to get a root canal. My head is throbbing in pain as my dentist says, "No, it's a myth... everyone loves their dentist."

Joe said...

Now I'm all in suspense.

What did happen to the guy who slipped in the sugar into Dan's coffee?

Mary Stella said...

Well, now Ken, the place where I work actually was featured in a movie and that sparked a television show. Come to think of it, the stories did focus on relationship. In this case, a couple of kids with a single dad in Florida who made friends with a dolphin. They called it Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning.

I know it's the exception, not the norm.

It isn't strange at all that so many different types of creative endeavors successfully focus on relationships. Sitcoms for you, romance novels for me and my friends. We can have people fighting terrorism, solving international espionage cases, or landing new jobs as celebrity dog walkers in Bevery Hills, but the core of the story is always about the developing relationship between the hero and heroine.

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, you're dead on with your observation. when I was breaking into writing and telling people what my aspiriations were, I would also inevitably get one or two "Uh, gee, you should write a sitcom about this place. You wouldn't believe how much funny stuff goes on around here all day long," and then would be treated to a litany of stories about lost paper clips, leaky toner cartidges and mail sent out without adequate postage. What these people were completely oblivious to was how they themselves interacted with each other and the relationships each person had established with everyone else. No point in telling them, though. They'd just wander off and try and unjam a copier and think that it's the basis for a SHOWTIME series.

I actually did once write a NEWHART spec based on a place I had worked at, which got me in the door there, (but unfortunately didn't get me a sale) so it can happen, but not often.

Max Clarke said...

In his excellent book, You're Lucky You're Funny, show runner Phil Rosenthal also wrote about the people who pitched him sitcom ideas, once word got out that he originated and co-wrote Everybody Loves Raymond. I think the line he used was, "I can't go to weddings anymore."

Brian Fies said...

Long-time reader, first time I've had anything to contribute. I had the chance to pitch story ideas to some of the newer Star Trek series. Never sold one, but I learned something that really impressed and stayed with me.

When friends and family hear you've got a shot at Star Trek, they can't wait to share their sci-fi ideas (never mind how fast they'd sue if you actually used their ideas). And to a person and without exception, every idea I heard from someone else was about an alien, a mysterious spaceship, a space anomaly, a wormhole, a black hole, a time warp, a weird disease, a doorway into another dimension--and not one person ever mentioned any of the show's characters. Which, I was slow to learn, was pretty much the only kind of story the Star Trek staff wanted to hear from freelancers.

It's a lesson I've tried to use since. A story is nothing if it's not really about the people in it. Plot should serve characters, not the other way around. Sounds simple, but hard to apply.

Jim said...

I spent too many years in academe, getting a doctorate and teaching in the humanities. There was the stuff of gut-busting sitcoms there, eccentrics, psychotic levels of passive aggression, massive egos, class resentment, bureaucratic absurdities, bloodfeuds based on trivialities and rumors of long term infidelities, indiscretion and all kinds of gender ambiguity and confusion.

Trouble is, only academics would get the jokes, and half of them claim they don't watch TV, and four or five of them actually don't.

Dana Gabbard said...

And of course the people who give you these pitches think they have done the fundamental heavy lifting and expect a "created by" credit after the writers take the setting and fill it out with characters and plot lines etc. while a producer navigates the pilot process and hopefully gets the show a deal for x number of episodes.

Ken, am I correct people seem to have little understanding about the creative process, the realities of television production or even what constitutes a funny situation?

AlaskaRay said...

>>Your life is not a sitcom!<<

If it's not, I'm in a lot of trouble.

Actually it never occured to me to pitch a plot to you, but now that you mention it, that coffee incident brings to mind a very funny incident at work.

I'm a scientist in a biodefense lab (it's true) and we have one guy who always uses up all the sugar in his coffee, so one day we substituted anthrax spores for the sugar. His slow agonizing death had us all rolling on the floor in stitches.

WV nasmop - what they use to clean the bricks after the Indi 500.

blogward said...

Characters and relationships, absolutely. Characters and relationships under pressure.

WV: bionc = what bionic would be if Microsoft did the software.

Cap'n Bob said...

Alas, I work for the Air Force. After Bilko, McHale, I Dream of Genie, Gomer Pyle, and No Time For Sergeants there isn't much to pitch. Well, there was the guy in Cargo who filled out his own TDY papers and--wait for it--NEVER WENT ANYWHERE! HAW!

WV: craff. Tole painting by Buckwheat.

Anonymous said...

I work at the morgue in a pediatric hostpital. Oh, those guys, so wacky!

Watch TV Online FREE said...

Your life is not a sitcom, My Word of The Day! I miss the Office Series, hope they bring it back.

charlotte said...

Whoa. This JUST happened to me at a family funeral last week! I'm not even kidding. There I was in the funeral home, seriously jet-lagged from a red-eye flight, all choked up with my uncle/godfather lying there in the room in an open casket (brrr), and his middle-aged son's girlfriend whom I'd never met before starts blathering on to me about how I should totally be writing a hysterical TV show about him and his family. (?!?!) WTF?

At least know I know it's not just me.

ranna said...

Hi Ken! Thank you for this much enlightened entry. I know it has been a couple of years since you wrote it but I don't think your mindset has changed all too much. I have a question for you, if I live in Sweden but have an idea (actually wrote a pilot that probably needs a lot of changing) for an American sitcom, what is your recommendation to move forward? Thank you for your tips, they were helpful.

Bubbles said...

Well, that post was timely...I was googling how to pitch a sitcom idea for Matthew Perry ABOUT a relationship. And I'm confident it has never been done quite like this before (and it really is funny as hell). It's everything you just described and then some. I still haven't discovered how to pitch this idea, but appreciate the blunt advice for sure.