Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Transitioning from comedy to drama and vice versa

Had lunch recently with fellow writer/blogger, Earl Pomerantz. Topics included the usual: shows that aren’t funny, baseball, health insurance, our kids, Hawaii, and of course other writers.

One name that came up was a writer we both admire, Chris Downey. We both worked with him on LATELINE, the (Senator) Al Franken sitcom of the late ‘90s. Chris is currently executive producing SUITS after co-creating LEVERAGE. We noted how well he transitioned from comedy to drama.

And that got us to thinking of others who made the switch from half-hours to hours. I am a huge fan of Shawn Ryan. THE SHIELD is one of my all-time favorite shows. But when I met him a few years ago he said his real goal when he got into the business was to write for CHEERS. His comedy scripts weren’t cutting it and he gravitated towards drama (where he is an exceptional writer). Likewise, David Shore wanted to be a yuckmeister but found much more success creating HOUSE. And sitcom hopeful Leonard Dick is an integral part of THE GOOD WIFE.

Stephen Nathan wrote on Diane English sitcoms and now is running BONES.

Matthew Weiner toiled on BECKER and THE NAKED TRUTH before sliding over to THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN. Comedy veterans Janet Leahy, Tom Palmer, Michael Saltzman, and even my writing partner David Isaacs all had stints on MAD MEN.

Alan Ball was on staff of CYBILL (poor guy) before writing AMERICAN BEAUTY and then SIX FEET UNDER.

Was DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES considered a drama? Well if so, add a bunch of former FRASIER writers to the list – Anne Flett Giordano, Joe Keenan, Bob Daily, Lori Kirkland to name a few.

And former CHEERS scribe, Phoef Sutton worked on TERRIERS and BOSTON LEGAL.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples but they needed our table.

Here’s the interesting thing we noticed though: Whereas lots of comedy writers have transitioned to drama, very few go the other way. Writers of drama rarely reinvent themselves as comedy writers. Even Aaron Sorkin struggled with STUDIO 60. Not saying that it hasn’t happened or can’t happen (Jane Espenson goes back and forth with ease), but it’s more difficult. Oh yeah, and Shakespeare could do it pretty well.

This phenomenon makes sense to me. A good comedy is just drama with a comedic spin. Comedy writers still have to know dramatic structure, suspense, and at times, tapping into genuine emotion. But the ability to write and construct comedy requires a different skill set than drama.

Some drama writers might disagree. And often when they do attempt a comedy they treat it like they’re slumming. David Mamet writes brilliant dramas but sorry, his comedies aren’t very funny – certainly not as funny as he thinks they are.

This discussion made Earl and me feel better about ourselves, which was really the point. Especially after the discussion of health insurance. Comedy writers rule! Fortunately for you drama writers, most scripted shows are dramas. And many have dashes of humor.  Maybe one reason why drama writers aren’t getting into comedy is that they don’t have to.


Anonymous said...

Same with actors.
There are a number of actors who are great comedians and then transition to drama (Jackie Gleason and Art Carney both come to mind) but very few serious actors who can transition well to comedy.

BA said...

As someone who avoids "dead body shows" (CSI:ETCETERA, BLUE BLOODS...) I agree. Mike Nichols specialized in classic comedies like THE GRADUATE and CATCH 22 that had plenty of Heavy where it counted. ANGIE TRIBECA is shooting fish in a barrel.

Stephen Marks said...

Here is what I don't understand. 99% of the people Ken mentioned I've never heard of but I should know their names like I do the '72 Boston Bruins. Shakespeare hasn't written anything in what, must be going on 5 years now, but I certainly know his name and stuff.

I know when I hear a piece of classical music used in a movie, tv show or commercial that its Mozart or Beethoven, or when its a shot of someone walking across an Ivy League campus they will probably use Vivaldi's "Spring." But I could watch an episode of some of the shows mentioned in Ken's post a thousand times and still not know who wrote it.

Other then the flashing of a name on screen or being "inside" the industry I wont know their names because they are not on talk shows, are not interviewed, their work isn't published into book form and unless you are Joe Eszterhas being overpaid for writing shit while looking like Grizzly Adams, a writer's name wont be remembered.

I've seen every episode of All In The Family at least 10 times and I have no clue who wrote them. Who wrote those Honeymooner classics? No fucking clue! Dick Van Dyke? I guess Carl Reiner wrote some but who wrote the rest? I don't know. I loved St. Eleswhere but who wrote those episodes? LA Law? Larry Sanders Show? Who wrote that "Who Shot JR" episode, not only don't I know the name I don't even know the gender.

Maybe if they gave writer's numbers like in sports, say give Ken number 44 then it would be "oh yeah, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson and the writer for MASH and Cheers, Ken Levine, all wore Number 44." Have jerseys with the Frasier Seattle skyline logo on the front and "Levine" on the back with "44" and wear it to the Emmys. Shit my ride's here, gotta go.

Graham Powell said...

I think the key word here is constructed. It's fairly easy to come up with inherently dramatic ideas - death failure, etc. - but coming up with comedic situations is more difficult. It really has to be as finely tuned as clockwork. But once you're used to constructing scenarios like that, it should be pretty easy to apply those skills to drama, too.

Unknown said...

I did mostly comedy before I ended up Doctor Who and Sherlock. It's an awfully useful skill to have. And it's kind of great when comedy becomes the servant, not the master - you KNOW you can save a scene with some gags, because you spent years writing nothing else. Plus you put three funnies in a whole hour of television and people think you're a genius.

By Ken Levine said...

For those who don't know, Steven Moffat created one of my favorite sitcoms of all-time -- the British version of COUPLING. Imagine the best of FRIENDS, FRASIER,and CHEERS all rolled into one. Treat yourself if you haven't seen it.

John Hammes said...

Speaking of transitioning from one to the other, an interesting article posted on the interesting A.V.Club, "What Makes A Sports Announcer Great?". Nice tribute to Vin Scully.

Pete Van Wieren presented a talk at a University Of Georgia journalism class back in the day, he generally said the same as this article: be yourself, don't try too hard (i.e. don't be fake), relax and let your natural talent - whatever it may be - come through.

Pete's broadcast partner Skip Caray had his own unique on-air rule: "Tell the truth. Have some fun".

No matter how lousy the season, they were always worth listening to. The Atlanta Braves radio airwaves have never been the same without them. They are missed.

gottacook said...

I hardly think David Mamet will be trying to write any more comedies, but State and Main (which he wrote & directed) is one I've enjoyed enough to see twice.

Anonymous said...

Some people can write a joke and some people can't.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Somewhat off-topic for the thread (but not the blog), Antony Jay, one-half of the team that produced (in my opinion the finest sitcom ever made) Yes, Minister, has died. Anyone who's ever seen John Cleese's hilarious corporate training videos, those were also Jay's work.

His Guardian obituary is here:

I believe mine may have been the last interview he ever gave, last December: I felt extraordinarily lucky to have the chance to meet him.


By Ken Levine said...

Sorry to hear that, Wendy. I loved those shows. Even went to see the play version about a year ago. Good but not the same without that spectacular British cast.

Brian Linn said...

Wasn't there a short-lived American version of COUPLING? I seem to remember one.

Scott Winter said...

There was an American version of Coupling that aired about 5 episodes. Being a fan of the British show I was really looking forward to it. It had an almost identical script. The actors were fine. The direction was fine. It just didn't feel right. Jokes that in the British version were "cheeky" and "naughty" came off as "crass" and "vulgar" in the American version. It actually made me appreciate the British version of that and other shows even more.

Michael Kaplan said...

I recall a very long night I spent helping out in the rewrite room of a comedy pilot that had been written by a very successful drama writer (who had created more than one hit show and whose name I will tactfully not mention). We spent the long night attempting to insert jokes into scenes that were not funny and had great difficulty because the scenes were not constructed with any comedic bend or dynamic to them -- there were no comedic situations (the "sit" in "sit-com"). As a drama writer, he didn't quite understand that a comedy is more than just a drama with jokes added. I do recall him acknowledging how writing comedy was much harder than he had imagined. He may have even conceded that it's much harder than writing drama (or maybe that's just how I want to remember it). That show never went to series. The writer has continued to work in dramas, but, as far as I know, has never attempted another comedy.

MikeN said...

Michael Winter, from King of the Hill, Peggy sits her son down to watch some TV.

Peggy: "This is British comedy. It's very sophisticated."

Bobby: "That man's wearing a dress."

Anonymous said...

Another problem is that people generally tend to view drama as a permanent icon to their writing skills while comedy is treated as ephemeral with the result that you can obtain a DVD of the most turgid dramas while comedy series tend to disappear (and yes Steven Moffat, I am referring to your CHALK. Series 1 now only available at an incredible price and I don't think Series 2 ever appeared on DVD or if it did it was a case of blink and it's gone)
There are many examples, yet the reality is that comedy is incredibly difficult to do well, with a necessarily limited palette (if you want it broadcast that is)

PS I am not Steven Moffat

Unknown said...

Studio 60 was a great show. But was it classified as a comedy?

Breadbaker said...

Thanks for the interview link, Wendy. I had actually found out about the death of Sir Antony Jay (who was knighted for service to Margaret Thatcher's third reelection campaign, but we forgive him for that because he left us "Yes, Minister") from Jonathan Lynn's own Facebook feed. Lynn and his wife had happened to see him just this past Saturday and were able to say good things before he lapsed into unconsciousness. I commend you to his post:

Pat Quinn said...

Friday question:

Just saw an advertisement on a Boston station for the "Cheers, Live on Stage" production.

What are your thoughts?

Charles H. Bryan said...

I don't know if this is a factor, but most tv comedy is 30,er, 22 minutes - in which everything must be done (plot, character service, etc.). While it may be difficult coming up with additional material, it's gotta be easier to give everything some room to breathe and develop.

Although I think Vince Gillilan could write a comedy.

Tammy said...

Wendy and Breadbaker, thanks for the links. Big fan of Yes, Minister but didn't know much about Antony Jay, both those links provided a glimpse of the kind of person he was.

Regarding the main topic, Jane Espenson (as Ken mentions) was the first example that came to mind, but then I remembered that Joss Whedon also had his start in sitcoms (on Roseanne - oh, the horror), as did David Fury - I guess Joss likes to hire funny people :).

Anonymous said...

TERRIERS got robbed by FX. It featured some good characters, dialogue, and plot. Maybe Netflix will give it the proper second season.

Todd Everett said...

I agree with Anonymous on "Terriers," though he (or she) and I may be the only ones who watched it regularly.

As for "Suits" (or, as I call it, "The Donna Show") I find it quite, if drily, funny at times, particularly when Rick Hoffman's on Louis Litt. Donna's pretty funny, too, come to think of her, er, it.

Earl Boebert said...

Re: Antony Jay. His book "Management and Machiavelli" remains to this day the best guide to corporate life ever written. It served me well through a long career.

Andrew said...

"Although I think Vince Gillilan could write a comedy." (sic: Gilligan)

I agree. One of the amazing things about Breaking Bad was how funny it could be, despite the intense drama and dark subject matter. And of course that continues with Better Call Saul.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Breadbaker: Thanks. I've never met Lynn, though it's on my list of things to do. :)

Tammy: In case it doesn't show, he was also a lovely, kind gent.


James Van Hise said...

Studio 60 was one of those missed opportunities. It started out well but instead of being a behind the scenes show about TV it got bogged down in the characters mundane personal lives and became too much of a soap opera. There was one truly great episode which featured Eli Walach as a now elderly man who was a talented performer in the 1950s who was blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt and his life was never the same again and he turned up at the studio because he once worked there and it took everyone awhile to figure out who he was. There was also the problem that it was supposed to be about an SNL type show but its writing staff consisted of only 2 people! The show was regular criticized by writers who worked on shows like that and who knew perfectly well that they had much larger staffs. Talk shows have more than 2 writers on their staff.

Johnny Walker said...

Lynn's tribute to his old writing partner was wonderful. Honest and loving, the way they're supposed to be. Thanks for sharing that. I will have to check out Wendy's interview, too.

Re: Ken's post. I think the same is true for actors.

MikeN said...

James, a witch hunt generally is called that because there were no witches. There were Communists throughout the government and Hollywood.

Question Mark said...

Steven Moffat?? How cool. Looking forward to the next Sherlock series!

Re: James Van Hise's comment about Studio 60, couldn't agree more. That was one of the great pilots in TV history --- I was so excited after that first episode and couldn't wait to keep watching a show that was already looking like a classic in the making. Talk about peaking early. Sorkin seemingly didn't know if he wanted to keep writing a political show about current events, or a showbiz soap opera, or just to mansplain a TV version of his breakup with Kristin Chenoweth.

In regards to the small writers' room, Sorkin was trying from a "write what you know" standpoint since he wrote or co-wrote every West Wing episode during his four seasons on the show. He even tried some cute meta-material about how the other three writers on staff (Mark McKinney, Lucy Davis and Columbus Short) complained about never getting their material on the air since Matthew Perry wrote everything, echoing some complaints from WW writers about lack of credit. The problem is, the idea of an SNL-type show entirely written by one guy came off as wholly unrealistic, even if Sorkin could use himself as an example of it actually happening.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

James Van Hise: People don't know that, though. I told a friend that the head writer of The Daily Show was the son of someone I went to school with, and he stared at me. "I thought Jon Stewart wrote his own stuff."