Monday, November 12, 2012

Sitcom Room 6

SITCOM ROOM 6 was held this weekend at the birthplace of comedy -- the Custom Hotel in Marina Del Rey (just a mile from LAX where Denzel Washington lands planes upside down). For two days twenty attendees experienced what it’s like to be on staff of a sitcom. As you read this they're still sleeping.  

Two came from Australia and two came from Alabama.  They all had the same accent.  

One of the reason we moved from the LAX Hilton to the chic and stylish Custom Hotel (walking distance to a Ralph's market and bowling alley) is because last year the Hilton had an Anime convention during our weekend and the place was a friggin' zoo.  So what do I encounter in the lobby of the more sedate and exclusive Custom on Saturday night?  
Four terrific comic actors -- Andy Goldberg, Wendy Cutler, Harry Murphy, and Annie Abrahams -- performed a scene that even Ed Wood would say needed work.   The scribes were broken into four teams and all four rewrote the scene Saturday night (and Sunday morning).  Later that day the actors returned and performed their scenes.  The difference was like Billy Carter and Jimmy Carter.  

Later we had a panel discussion that featured David Isaacs, Phoef Sutton (CHEERS, BOSTON LEGAL, TERRIERS), Robin Schiff (ROMY & MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION), and Dan O'Shannon (CHEERS, FRASIER, MODERN FAMILY). I played James Lipton asking pretentious questions and fawning all over them.  

Among the things the scribes learned over the weekend were:

You can't be possibly be funny if you eat carrots..
There’s always a way to solve story problems.  In my case, that's what David is for.  

How do you know if an idea is any good?  You don't really.  But Robin Schiff has an ingenious approach.  She says to herself,  "IF this were a good idea, what would I do with it?"  

How different is writing comedy and drama?

The pros and cons of gangbanging.

Servicing actors (not to be confused with gangbanging).

Jokes are easy. Stories are hard.

It takes two to tango... at least.
Norm stories on CHEERS were particularly hard.

The importance of formatting.

Single camera vs. multi-camera: what's better?  


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 EMILY OWENS M.D. script)

Runthrough etiquette.

Robin shared the secret for a long career in comedy writing.

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.

Working with a partner.

How to run a room.

How to get a laugh without a joke.

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 book that explains comedy.

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, Robin Schiff, Dan O'Shannon, Andy Goldberg, Wendy Cutler, Harry Murphy, Annie Abrams, Cliff Levine, Jonathan Emerson, the housekeeping staff who had to clean the four writing rooms (you might want to just seal them off for two months), and especially the attendees for making Sitcom Room 6 such a great experience.

Get on our mailing list for next time.

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


Johnny Walker said...

Sadly IMPROV COMEDY by Andy Goldberg is long long long out of print. Believe me, I've been trying to get hold of for ages. That Amazon link is actually to a copy of Harold Pinter's THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (for some reason I think the two books share the same ISBN number). I know from experience that it's not worth even attempting. (Incidentally, anyone want a copy of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY?)

The most effective way I've found of getting a copy of Andy's book is attending on of his Improv classes in Los Angeles. He'll happily sell you a copy out of the trunk of his car.

Admittedly, if you're not native of Los Angeles, it could turn out to be the most expensive book you've ever bought.

Rumour has it that Mr. Goldberg is working on a revised edition, though. So it may be back on the market soon, and in an eBook edition to boot.

Johnny Walker said...

Also, it's an EXCELLENT read. Very inspiring.

Mac said...

Sounds like a hoot. A very fine collection of credits in that room. Isn't Marina Del Ray where they shot some of "Arrested Development?" These streets are paved with funny, I tells ya!

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

"You can't possibly be funny if you eat carrots."

A certain Mr. B. Bunny is proof to the contrary.

Unknown said...

There are several copies of Improv Comedy available from including some in the UK. (I am a librarian so I know how to find books.)

PS I cannot make heads or tails of the sounds for verification.

Unknown said...

There are several copies of Improv Comedy available from including some in the UK. (I am a librarian so I know how to find books.)

PS I cannot make heads or tails of the sounds for verification.

Johnny Walker said...

Unknown: Yep, it looks like they do, but trust me, they're not IMPROV COMEDY. Look a little closer. (Also: If it says PRINT ON DEMAND, it's not Andy Goldberg's book.)

Samuel French's edition of Harold Pinter's THE BIRTHDAY PARTY has the same ISBN, which has made a bit of a mess of things.

Every one of those listing of AbeBooks is actually for that.

Johnny Walker said...

I actually took the time to visit the publishers, Samuel French, here in London, and asked them to look for Andy's book on their own systems. Even they said there was no chance of getting a copy.

Top tip: Before you think about buying a second-hand copy online, make sure to check the *synopsis* (not just the book description)! If it mentions a piano player named Stanley Webber, it's not the right book!

404 said...

You need to have some sort of audit system, Ken. I am not a comedy writer. I have no aspirations (or talent) to be a comedy writer. Yet, I would LOVE to sit in on the sitcom room and just watch.

By Ken Levine said...


You would not get much out of this course by auditing. The learning and the fun comes from DOING.

Dan O'Day said...

@Johnny Walker: I'm awfully darn sure that on Saturday Andy said a 20th anniversary new edition is being published very soon.

There's a slight chance he was just asking the waiter for more pesto sauce. But I'm willing to wager on the new edition soon to debut.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

The FRIENDS lawsuit.

I'm assuming that was the one with the writers' assistant who was fired, who promptly sued WB for sexual harassment.

Marie Yuen said...

Still remembering the one about the toupee! Also worth noting: how differently comedy plays out in single-camera vs. multi-cam format. Identifying the objective of a scene and ways to stay on-track. And the value of pitching alternate options.

And yes! a great resource for locals in Los Angeles is the Writer's Guild Foundation Shavelson-Webb Library. Keep in mind that not all scripts are available (i.e., current network season shows) but so long as nothing disappears from their library and/or gets covered in meat sauce, non-WGA members can get in too... :-)

By Ken Levine said...

Re Andy's book, Andy writes:

The projected release date of the 20th anniversary edition of IMPROV COMEDY is Dec. 1. It will be available as a e-Book and as print on demand. Just in time to make a lovely holiday gift. Bonus interview with Bryan Cranston is included."

ScottyB said...

This has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but here's a Friday question for Ken, especially since Bob Brunner (the guy who wrote the infamous 'Happy Days' episode where Fonzie actually jumped the shark) died a few days ago: What's a fairly good altho maybe not so obvious telltale sign for viewers that a sitcom has pretty much reached its end and the writers are now pretty much just phoning it in?

I bring this up because I was watching a rerun episode of 'Til Death' and it occurred to me that that show was pretty much done when Brad Garrett starting becoming the second incarnation of Ralph Kramden (like he did toward the end of 'Raymond') and Joely Fisher started singing acapella a whole lot in like every second episode.

ScottyB said...

Sorry. I meant to say in my original post: "What's a fairly good altho maybe not so obvious telltale sign for viewers that a sitcom has pretty much reached its end and the writers are now pretty much just phoning it in *because the actors have decided they're ready to move on to other things*?

Jerry Krull said...

Waiting for my flight back now. A great weekend for those who aspire to become the broken shell of human beings called writers and showrunners that Ken assembled for us.

Actually, I was very impressed that they shared so candidly their stories and advice. Thank you Ken & Dan.

We were promised Ken has said only positive comments for all past Sitcom Room group scripts. After our group had our script performed, Ken paused and said it was the BEST drama any group had written.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jerry Krull: *drama*?

Sitcom Room 2011

Johnny Walker said...

That's great news, re: Andy's book. I got the impression it was a way away when I spoke to him. I must have gotten the wrong end of the stick.

I'm glad to final have a copy after months of searching... even if I would have been able to get one if I'd just waited a little longer.

D. McEwan said...

"Jokes are easy; stories are hard." Man, is that true.

D. McEwan said...

Well, I'm glad this Andy's Book/The Birthday Party matter is cleared up. I would like to read Andy's book, but I do not need to read Pinter's The Birthday Party. When I played "Goldberg" (Pinter's character Goldberg, not Andy Goldberg) in The Birthday Party back in college, I had to commit the entire play to memory. (Well, actually, I only had to learn my role, but my then-spongelike mind tended to absorb entire plays when I was in them.)

Funniest line in The Birthday Party:

Meg: "How are those corn flakes?"

Stanley: "They're disgusting."

Meg: "You're a liar! They're 'refreshing'; it says so on the box!"

Anonymous said...

So that explains when I went to Amazon to search for the Improv Comedy book, there appears in the "customers who viewed this item also viewed" section, three books on improv and Pinter's "The Birthday Party" with the same COVER image and title as "Improv Comedy." Sounds like one of those innocent, everyday technological snafus, which can cause damning mix-up. In other words a potentially good storyline.

CyberYenta said...

Wasn't there but a lifelong lover of sitcoms, the "haiku" of TV entertainment. I took a Sitcom writing class at NYU Cont. Ed. a few yrs back. Teacher had worked on All In the Family, among others. My fantasy has always been to be Sally on the Dick Van Dyke show. So, part of my motivation for taking the class was to have fun and maybe meet other fun people. I had/have no hope of ever "breaking in" to TV writing.
--What happened was a sitcom--
1. We are seated in a room with huge pipes jutting out from every direction. We must situate ourselves around the pipes. Nobody finds this funny but me.
2. We line the chairs up as best we can in 2 rows. 1 row is against the back wall. The teacher comes in and instructs us to form a circle by turning our chairs around. The people in the BACK row do as he says and they are now FACING THE WALL! No one finds this funny except me.
3. A few weeks in I decide to try to befriend a woman I tend to walk to the subway with each week. I ask her if she might want to come into the city early one week so we can get coffee before class. And she says (wait...take a guess, does she say "Sorry I'm busy," or "Fuck you." ?) no, she says, "Why?" Without missing a beat I say, "No reason."
Learned a lot but it was NOT fun.
-Rachel Levine (unrelated to you, Ken..altho, hmm...who knows!)

Tom Quigley said...

Just a thought, Ken -- now that you've held 6 wildly successful SITCOM ROOMS, when are you going to start designating them with Roman numerals, a la The Super Bowl? That way, all your past and future participants can attach even more importance to the fact that "they were there", possibly even mentioning it when they interview for a writing job: "...By the way, I'd like to make note of the fact that I particpated in Ken Levine's THE SITCOM ROOM ex-ex-vee..."

Seriously, glad it was another rousing success and that you all had a great time!

Steve said...

A unique experience, well organized & well worth the money and the time. Ken and Dan are both so down-to-earth and the limited number of attendees (a big selling point for me)results in an intimate environment great for learning. If you're serious about your continuing personal development as a writer, add this to your 'to do' list.

Jerry Krull said...

Wendy - "drama" as in our script had no laughs. (Actually it did). We should have spent more time on story though...

Steve - I agree. Well worth the price of admission. Very informative and fun!

Unknown said...

What's funny at 5:30AM? In my experience, either nothing or everything.

Sounds like a great weekend.