Friday, November 05, 2010

German Comedy Schools

Time for Friday questions.

The first one comes from Kaan in Germany.

My whole life I have this crazy passion for American television, especially comedy shows. Comedy is really my passion and so many people say I really have a talent for that.

But every German TV Show suck! They are just not funny.

There are some writing programs/schools in Germany. But I'm afraid if I go to these programs/schools they will screw up my writing. Because these are the same programs/schools that produce these terrible writers who write the terrible German TV Shows.

Should I go to these schools to learn at least something, which is most probably wrong or should I wait until I'm in the US, which will take two years at least?

I find it hard to imagine a German comedy school. I don’t know any personally so I can’t vouch for them good or not. You don’t usually think of the Rhineland as the Mecca of comedy.

But the best way to learn how to write American sitcoms (besides reading this blog of course) is to watch and study American sitcoms intensely. This is easier to do now with DVD’s and ON DEMAND and websites like HULU.

Take a full season of a show you admire. Outline every episode. Then begin comparing. Look for patterns in how they break down the stories. What kind of jokes do they tell? Are they set-up/punch line? Or more observational? Or snarky?

It’s all there for you. You just have to deconstruct it.

There are also some good books you could read on the subject by Alex Epstein and William Rabkin & Lee Goldberg.


Michael asks:

It's common to hear about network interference, but do you have any examples where network suggestions or notes actually improved a series or particular episode?

Yes. I’ve mentioned this before but Tim Flack, when he was at CBS was amazing. Every project we did for him benefited greatly from his input. Sadly, Tim passed away. Were he still here I’d be running my pilot ideas and stories by him to this day.

There have been a few others but Tim was a star.

From Eduardo Jencarelli:

What's the criteria for hiring freelance directors on any show?

This is tricky. Imagine you have an office full of workers. And you hire someone to come in for a week and be their boss. That’s the roll of the freelance director. He has to come onto the set as an outsider and somehow garner everyone’s trust, fit in with whatever rehearsal schedule has already been established, and deliver not only a good show but one consistent in tone and style with all the other episodes.

Another key factor is whether he's hands-on or hands-off.  Some casts really like to be directed.  Others don't.

We look for experience, personality, sensibility, style, and talent. We like our sets to be low-key and relaxed so we hire directors accordingly. No screamers. No highly intense guys. Other producers may want just the opposite.

On the other hand, as a frequent guest director myself, I always felt like a substitute teacher coming into an unruly classroom.

Brian Phillips has another directing question:

While watching episodes of "Becker" and "Frasier", I noticed a few scripts credited solely to David Isaacs. Have you ever directed one of his scripts? If so, did you find it any easier or harder directing your writing partner's scripts?

I’ve never directed a script written solely by David but have directed episodes that we’ve written together. And those were easy because in writing it we had talked through practically every moment.

I assume it would also be easy directing one of his scripts because we’ve developed such a shorthand between us over the years. David could convey to me something I was missing with relative ease.

However, I will say this – I threw him off the stage once. It was after a runthrough. I said to him I always wanted to throw someone off the stage but I couldn’t afford to dispatch anyone from the cast and crew. I needed them all. So David got the heave-ho instead.

I did direct an episode of BECKER that I wrote on my own. The writer-me and the director-me fought all week. It was ugly.  I can't tell you how many times I wanted to throw myself off the set.

And finally, Andrew Wickliffe wonders:

When you have a supporting cast member who never talks in the background--I'm thinking of the woman who works for Roy on WINGS--does she never speak because then her pay would be different?

Bingo. Once they speak a line their pay scale shoots up dramatically and they come under SAG’s jurisdiction (Screen Actors Guild) vs. SEG’s (Screen Extras Guild).

Still, every so often it was worth it to give an extra a line. We did that one time on CHEERS. There was some bar run and the payoff was “Sinatra”. Rumpled barfly Al Rosen was assigned the line. It got a huge laugh. Al was then given more lines here and there over the subsequent years. And this is how he was always referred to in scripts: “Man Who Said Sinatra”.

What’s your question?


Keith said...

Mel Brooks always had a rule: "No writers on set". I guess he went through the same conflict you did.

Also, I know some very funny Germans, although I've never seen a German sitcom.

daniel in cherry hill said...

wasent there a line about there are no more funny people in Germany cause they killed them all?

Tom Quigley said...

Ken said:

"I did direct an episode of BECKER that I wrote on my own. The writer-me and the director-me fought all week. It was ugly. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to throw myself off the set."

I remember that episode, "The Usual Suspects"... I watched it one time in syndication while lying in a hospital bed, and it was one of the few things that perked up an otherwise depressing week... Ken, wish you could have been there to throw a few annoying doctors and nurses out of my room...

Swedish Pete said...

I once went to LA on a big tour where European producers and writers were introduced to the American methds of sitcom production. (Arranged by MediaXchange and the wonderful Katrina Wood). Once we had lunch with the two Jeffs, Jeff Greenstein och Jeff Strauss, who had just left Friends and were setting up their own company. They were very gracious during the luncheon and wanted to hear more about the state of comedy and sitcoms in our various countries. A German Executive started by saying that they had analyzed this thoroughly. The reason there was no good German comedy was that they had lost touch with the Jewish humour. This statement created an akward silence, where we all thought: We kind know when you did this. Really brilliant cultural clash.

Phillip Hamilton said...

I have to say, having spent a fair amount of time in Germany, that the whole idea of a German comedy school is hilarious unto itself.

amyp3 said...

I'm feeling a pilot idea coming on. Pitch: An American moves to Germany to teach comedy. It'll be like Outsourced in Deutschland. Only funny.

Kaan, are you familiar with any of the US sketch comedy shows in Europe? Might be worth traveling to see them.

There's an ex-pat comedy group in Amsterdam called Boom Chicago. Various people associated with SNL, 30 Rock, etc. have been in it. Also, I think Second City used to send a tour to Vienna but don't know if they still do.

But one minor correction, Ken. I think Hulu isn't available to people outside the US.

Lou H. said...

How did you handle recurring characters like Paul on CHEERS who had a part every 2 to 4 shows? Is it more "Hey, there are some lines this week that Paul would be the best fit for, let's see if he's available, otherwise give the lines to someone else" or did you first find out his schedule and then write him in as often as you could reasonably do so?

Bandit said...

No question. But I might suggest that said German comedy hopeful go WAY back and watch some basic sitcoms - I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, Dick Van Dyke Show, and dare I say, the Beverly Hillbillies - and then see how the form progressed from there.

They might go back further than that and listen to some old radio shows like Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, or Burns and Allen (where Paul Henning cut his teeth before moving on to TV and his CBS trilogy). Because as I watch Seinfeld reruns, I am struck by how much it was like Benny's old radio show (funny then, funny now).

iain said...

Is that a photo of the faculty at the German Comedy School and if so, I would like to enroll.

WV: "spile" a combo platter of spite & bile, a.k.a. modern-day talk radio.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

That's pretty much what I thought. I've heard of stories of conflict between actors and guest directors.

I imagine it has to be a tightrope to walk on, especially when it comes to following the style set by other episodes. It must be even more challenging when you're directing a pilot (no wonder Jim Burrows does most of those).

I don't know much about Germany or their brand of humor. This reminds me of a very in-your-face bit of foreign stereotyping during an episode of The Simpsons where Homer was kidnapped and got replaced by a german impostor, who invited Marge for a night of german sex. It still makes me laugh.

iain said...

I forgot to add that while they are big Simpsons fans, my German business associates aren't too fond of the exchange student character Uter Zorker . Sorry, but the line "Don't make me run, I'm full of chocolate," is still funny to me.

Matt Tauber said...

I remember that guy and his delivery in saying "Sinatra"...and I probably haven't seen it since the first run. How's that for memorable.

Tamara said...

You've probably answered this at some point, but I can't find it on your site (although I did find your post about mentors)...

How did you learn to write? What is most important when it comes to improving your craft? And when did you first know that you were a "writer"?

I love your blog! Thank you for taking the time to share your stories and lessons with us!

Dan Serafini said...

Man Who Said Sinatra's best line: "Dance, Mailman!"

vw: dopperee - what I will be once work is over and kids are in bed

Jim said...

Germany may not have the tradition of sitcom writing that the US has, but in the last few years it has produced some great comedy movies which have far more to offer grown-ups than the fart-joke filled stuff that Hollywood has given us in recent years. Try for example the opening few minutes of Snow White spoof 7 Zwerge starring one-time punk queen Nina Hagen (that link goes to an English dub with very poor voice acting - the timing is a lot better in the original), or the fight and chair-lift chase from Neues vom Wixxer, a spoof of the sixties type of police against a super-villain films (there's a dubbed trailer of that here but the dubbing there is even worse). Although I also have a soft spot for Traumschiff Surprise Part 1, the gay Star Trek ripoff which seems to be based on the camp hairdresser stereotypes that heven't been seen much anywhere else for the last thirty years.

benson said...

Well here's something timely; In today's USA Today, this headline:

Jessica Alba: 'Good actors never use the script...'

"Good actors never use the script unless it's amazing writing. All the good actors I've worked with, they all say whatever they want to say."

Have a wonderful weekend one and all.

Dana Gabbard said...

What an age we live in! I found a link to the website of Boom Chicago amyp3 mentioned. Does look lively, but then it is Amsterdam.

Second City Tour Company doesn't look to be visiting Europe for the coming year.

Henry D said...

Ken, How can you talk about pay without giving us numbers?

(I there a word for the reverse of schadenfreud, when you get joy out of your own misery -- in this case, being envious of what other earn?)

So what would that extra be paid for saying "Sinatra" on a typical show?

And while you're at it, how much does a guest director get paid?

I remember hearing years ago that a writer for a show gets about $25k for an single episode. Does that hold up.


Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RCP said...

"But every German TV Show suck! They are just not funny."

Oh I don't know. Germany's version of Lucy and Ethel - Dagmar and Geerta - was a riot!

Anonymous said...

Kaan, dude. If you're aware of some writing schools in Germany and dont go there you're an idiot. I doubt they'll tell you how awesome "married with children" and "the charlie sheen sitcom" are. also: you can decide by yourself and not let yourself be brainwashed, so suck it uo.

Bill Rabkin said...

Hey, that good book by Lee Goldberg is actually by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin.

And after I helped Annie and her partner with their Psych idea...

Anonymous said...

To edit an old joke:

Hell is where the cooks are English, the generals are French and the comedy writers are German.

By Ken Levine said...

Sorry for the oversight, Bill. It's been corrected.


Maroid Rage said...

I've really been enjoying your blog since I came across it a few weeks ago. I was wondering if you have recommendations for other blogs focused on TV and comedy writing.

Anonymous said...

Minor point, but there is no more Screen Extras Guild.

Anonymous said...

A note about German and comedy, yes it's more about satire and a few individuals on stage, between cabaret roots and more SNL style if you like. Not sitcom that's for sure. But their version of the The Office is supposed to be good. Anyway not having sitcoms is no loss in my opinion. What you can measure by Gerrman's lack of sitcom comedy humor levels is that they are one of the few countries to keep up DAILY reruns of Becker, Dharma and Greg, and countless two-season forgettables. Yes, that's where such pinnacles of American sitcom humor end up.

Rebounding said...

I've got a couple questions, so pick and choose or ignore me completely.

1. After a series goes on a while, it appears that actors start beginning to think that they can direct. Do they do a good job, generally? Are they REALLY directing, or has most stuff been set in stone for so long (camera positions, etc) so that the crew just does what they normally do and the actor just gets a thrill yelling "Action!" and a credit on their resume?

2. Is Steven Weber as filthy in real life as he is on twitter?

3. I'd also like to know some of the dollar amounts that Henry D was curious about. Just ball park it for us.

sophomorecritic said...

Throughout the entire time I watched Frasier during it's original run, I had no idea that the people Frasier Crane was listening to on the radio were actors of a higher caliber than those guesting and I think that might be the same for a lot of the TV-viewing audience. If you were going to go through the trouble of having people call into the show, why didn't you urge them further to be guest stars?

Stephen said...

Did you see Michael J. Fox's guest appearance on The Good Wife this week? He played a character who had a similar disease to the one Michael has in real life. He clearly relished the freedom he had in not needing to restrict his symptoms. What do you think of actors who continue to work despite illness (a recent example is Jill Clayburgh who died after working consistently through 21 years of chronic leukemia)

David Russell said...

There seems to be difference of opinions about the value of writing a spec script vs. writing one's own original pilot on spec. Your 'Everybody Loves Raymond' colleague Ellen Sandler is in the latter camp and doing a workshop to that effect in Burbank.

Do you think there's merit to that nowadays or is trying to pitch one's own pilot hopeless if one is unproduced in an existing show?

Timothy said...


Thanks for keeping up the good work with this blog, even if the sports entries aren't my cup of tea (how can I disparage a man involved with Cheers, MASH and Almost Perfect?).

I've posed this question before, but I don't think it was ever touched upon. My wife and I have recently found a great show from BBBC3/1, Gavin and Stacey. I've also started watching an ITV show called Doc Martin.

Six episodes of Gavin and Stacey, 7 episodes of Doc Martin, and I care about these characters, I want to see what happens to them, I'm invested in their lives.

Why does it take such an incomparably small amount of episodes for me to feel that way about a British show, when it could take literally years to like an American show that well? I feel satisfied, and yes, eager for more, when I watched those shows (as I did when I watched Royale Family, and if you haven't seen that show, WATCH IT!).

So what gives? Are British writers just less constrained with having to churn out 22 episodes? Do they have more freedom? Does having a schedule more like HBO and cable channels, where they can produce episodes when they're polished enough and ready to go?

Feel to edit...and thanks!