Monday, November 14, 2011

Sitcom Room 5

SITCOM ROOM 5 was held this weekend at that shrine of comedy, the Los Angeles Airport Hilton. For two days twenty attendees experienced what it’s like to be on staff of a sitcom...while mingling with 1500 Anime conventioneers in costume.  (My report and pictures of that event manana.) None left saying they’d rather hide in Death Valley than ever do this again, so I considered it a big success!   And the Sitcom Room students seemed satisfied too.  

Among the things they learned were:

The two “Reds” that all writers require are Red Vines and Red Bull.

There’s always a way to solve story structure. There is no way out of the parking structure.

Jane Espenson explained how new writers can use the new media to get discovered.
Ken Levine, Dan O'Shannon, Jane Espenson, David Isaacs

Air conditioning is a good thing.

The pros and cons of gangbanging.

Servicing actors (not to be confused with gangbanging).

Dan O'Shannon (Executive Producer of MODERN FAMILY) listed the four things a writer needs to become successful.

Jokes are easy. Stories are hard.

Norm stories on CHEERS were particularly hard.

David Isaacs shared the secret of what makes a good pilot.  


The difference between men and women (besides that).

When you’re finished eating the take-out Chinese food throw everything out. Immediately!

What shows to write for your spec. 

What shows not to write for your spec. (hint: I hope you’re not too far along on that HOW TO BE A GENTLEMAN.)

There's only so many things you can store in the front of your pants.

Runthrough etiquette.

The Volkswagen test.

How to handle network notes.

The FRIENDS lawsuit.

The smart way to write a dumb character.

Why a comedy writer should never wear a toupee or Hawaiian shirt (not that anyone should).

Ways to fix troubled scenes.

How to run a room.

How to get a laugh without a joke.

Common mistakes in spec scripts.

Tips on how to get an agent.

What's funny at 5:30 in the morning.

You don’t have to be the funniest person in the writing room to be the most valuable.

The laugh that took fifteen years to understand.

Should you send a spec of a show to that show?

Nothing goes better with Oreo Double-stuffs than beer.

The rule of threes.

The best book for learning how to be funny is Improv Comedy by Andy Goldberg.

… and finally -- 5-Hour Energy works!!! (Oh wait, it’s me who learned that.)

Thanks to Dan O’Day, David Isaacs, Jane Espenson, Dan O'Shannon, Andy Goldberg, Kimberly Wallis, Jeremy Licht, Annie Abrams, Annie Levine, Cliff Levine, Jonathan Emerson, the security manager who let me out of the parking structure, and especially the attendees for making Sitcom Room 5 such a great experience.

Get on our mailing list for next time.

A few of those attendees may comment. I'm holding my breath.  


Nathan said...

Is there a difference between Runthrough Etiquette and Runthrough Roulette? (I kept reading it the second way and thought it sounded like an interesting topic.)

Amy said...

Now that I'm on my way back to the woods of New Hampshire, far from LAX, I'll tell you what I really think of The Sitcom Room - AWESOME! XO

What, at first, feels like a huge investment of time and money, ends up feeling like a bargain.

The weekend is clever, informative, and an enlightening step for any writer (or non-writer). I know at least one CEO who might benefit by being a sitcom writer for a weekend (or a lifetime).

I met and worked with wonderful people, laughed a lot, and sat five feet from Dan O'Shannon for about an hour!

The best part for me? Ken and Dan barging into our writing room and hanging out for a while. During one of these chats, I learned, among other things, there is no Creators Union. I also learned that Ken and Dan want us to succeed and will help in any way they can (which can be really uncomfortable and high in sugar saturated fat).

Thanks Ken & Dan! I'd do it all over again.

Dude of The House said...

Wow, I never thought my picture would be the first thing people see when checking out your blog, Ken! My apologies to your readers.

Thanks for a great weekend. I learned a lot, made some new friends and really got to see what being in the pressure filled situation of a writing room felt like. Now I'm just itching for the real thing...

Thanks for bringing in your All-Star panel yesterday. Meeting Dan O'Shannon was a thrill, just knowing that guys from NE Ohio can make it in this biz.

You and Dan put on a quite an adventure. Since I can't hit a curveball I think this is as close to a Fantasy Camp as I'm ever going to get. Thanks again.


JJ – The Dude of the House
Twitter: @DudeOfTheHouse

Donald said...

Okay, I'll bite: What is the laugh that took 15 years to understand?

Michele Kingery said...

Re: Story structure vs parking structure - I second that. Recently got caught in a parking deck in downtown (or do they still call it "uptown"?) Charlotte, NC, that looked like an outtake from one of M. C. Escher's nightmares!

Laura said...

Anyone follow the Amazon link to the Andy Goldberg book? The publisher's description & comments seem to be for the right book, but the photo & listed title are of a Harold Pinter play. I'll either get a comedy how-to in the mail, or Literatoor capital L.

Bill White said...

Ken the list you present here are all topics I would like to read posts about. Except the parking one.

andrie said...

An incredible experience. Watching Jeremy Kim and Andy perform our scene was especially thrilling. I met an amazing bunch of people and thank you Ken and Dan for putting this on. Highly recommended!

RS Gray said...

MaƱana = tomorrow.
Manana =

(I apologize in advance for getting this stuck in your head.)

Really hope I can attend the next Room. No, not that one.

RJ Battles said...

You thanked Jeremy Licht.
Mark from "Valerie"?
I like him, he was good on that show.

JOV97 said...

Wow. I wish I lived in America. Or had any money. Or was over 18.
Ken, I'd really love it if you did a post on writing a pilot script, as I'm really struggling and I know you'd offer some brilliant advice. Plus, I'd never get to go to your sitcom room in a million years. So I suppose that's a Frisay question. Once you have the characters, the situation - how do you write an engaging pilot?

Thanks Ken. This blog has kept me sane for the past few months.

Best wishes,

Mike said...

Things I learnt:
A few years from now, Dan O'Shannon goes back in time to become Dan O'Bannon.

Kyah Green said...

If I hadn't been in Canada working on my thesis when this was taking place I would have flown down to L.A. It's worth the trip to learn under Ken, whom I respect very much as a writer. Unfortunately this whole 'higher education' thing came first...

When I found out just now that Jane Espenson, my all-time favourite writer and absolute hero was actually there? I'm beginning to regret ever going to university...

Ken, I know this was the first workshop you've run in a while, but I'm going to lobby that you do them more often. It seems like extremely valuable information for anyone going into sitcom writing, and it's coming from some of the best in the business. Please keep doing these, at least as long as it takes for me to attend one...

(I'm really not over this Jane Espenson thing.)

Dan Tedson said...


Though I'd probably dick it up by goofing around too much with the actors and writing things like, "Suddenly, Steve and Karen form Voltron" or "Sneezing funny, Bobby actualizes."

Johnny Walker said...

Meeting Jane Espenson was an absolute thrill. I would only have been more excited if Joss Whedon had been there. I've never watched Modern Family, but listening to Dan O'Shannon has made me want to desperately seek it out.

And, of course, listening to Ken's other half, David Isaacs was also a real thrill.

Something I learned from talking to Jane Espenson is that you can have a "wildcard" spec. The one that's a little crazy. The one that's for a show that's off the air. The one that merges two shows... Just make sure you have the other, more conventional, specs, too!

Johnny Walker said...

Something else I learned: Sometimes all the planning in the world isn't going to help. Sometimes you just need to start writing.

Johnny Walker said...

Another thing I learned: Established writers aren't necessarily keen to share their early specs with the world. Shame!

Johnny Walker said...

An addendum: Jokes are easy. Jokes at 5.30 in the morning are impossible.

Baylink said...

Well, this year, I had the money, but I had it due to a fresh new job at a web startup (yes, amazingly, those actually still exist). So I didn't have the time.

Next year, though, assuming we haven't tanked... you won't be running one again. :-)

Baylink said...

In other news, I see that the after-action comments from the latest batch of attendees are much *funnier* than they've been in previous years, so, Ken, I can only assume you are getting better at this.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

A Friday question (that I meant to pose Sunday afternoon, but it didn't fit): why do so many shows fall off a cliff, quality-wise, in later seasons? In some cases (Sex and the City) it seems like they run out of the original material the show was based on; in others, that the original creative team left (Murphy Brown, mid-run); in others that they lost track of their original premise (Mad About You was a close-up look at a couple forming and negotiating through a marriage - and in later seasons the two of them hardly spent any time together on their own).

But what is the underlying cause? Is it just an incredibly hard problem or is there something endemic in the way US TV is structured?

In the UK, people tend to take the view that many US shows simply go on too long. I remember seeing Dawn French interviewed on Letterman once about AbFab. DL seemed to have great difficulty getting his head around the idea that "We just decided to stop doing it" because they didn't feel they could deliver the same quality of show any more.

(And, judging by the episodes they made after that, they were perfectly correct.)


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Speaking of Ken and Dan and the Sitcom Room: Dan likes to play practical jokes. In this case, he got a bunch of us to set Ken up by asking if Dan suffered from an eating disorder because he kept stealing our food. Ken bought this, and apparently got rather upset with Dan about it.

Later, Dan told us a much better story. It seems that at some point he was traveling with Ken and David Isaacs in Europe. This was before Isaacs' involvement with Mad Men, so at the time their resumes were identical. Dan's setup was to get a succession of airline staff - at clubs, on the plane, etc - to greet Isaacs effusively. "David Isaacs. David Isaacs - the WRITER?! Frasier/MASH is my favorite show!" Etc., etc. Meanwhile, giving polite service to Ken but basically ignoring him.