The Sitcom Room

I love to write.
I love to make people laugh.
So how hard could it be to write funny stuff?
I just found out. It’s hard.
But FUN!
Back from my weekend foray into the world of sitcom writing.
I treated this experience as kind of a fantasy camp chance to do something I’ve always been fascinated by.
Here’s what happened.
Flew to LA on Friday, and was able to spend some time with my daughter, which was great.
We had dinner, chatted, her friend came, and I heartlessly kicked them out so I could get my sleep, since we’d been told it would be awhile before we’d get that chance again.
Saturday morning we gathered and met Ken Levine, who was leading the class called The Sitcom Room. 
He’s a veteran sitcom writer and producer. His blog is a must-read.
He makes video games on the side, it’s amazing.
This may or may not be true, it’s confusing. He also may direct porn movies, that too is unclear.
Ok, I’m kidding of course. Those are just comedy tidbits from the weekend.

Ken talked to us about writing comedy.
He’s genuinely funny, so it was invaluable and entertaining.
He had great anecdotes, took our questions seriously, and offered practical tips. I loved hearing the terms writers use for different kinds of jokes. For example, one that should be funny — but isn’t –is a “like-a-joke”…you know, it looks like a joke, smells like a joke, but….well more on that later, unfortunately.
We were then given a scene to read, and watched a group of actors —Andy Goldberg, Barbara Howard, Mark Chaet, and Lucy Adden– perform the scene. Most of what Ken had talked about (the good and the bad) was right there in one form or another, and it was up to us to make it better.
Our group had more women than men. Hooray! Letterman would have been thrilled.

My group: Rachel, Jim, Barbie.
We set off for our writer’s room. Ken and his seminar partner Dan O’Day led us to a nice comfy room complete with junk food and white boards. We knew how to attack the scene now–and we had until 2:30 am to do so. For better or worse, I was the team leader, which meant I had the final word on what stayed in and what didn’t. (Also I had to clean up the pop cans when we were done.)
Our group worked a long time on the story. Ken had convincingly showed us that’s the key: good story, jokes will follow. We learned that adding jokes at the end has its disadvantages. We giddily discussed the idea of having a character simply say “Traffic joke here” so we could be done and go to bed.
We had a great time working together, laughing, taking breaks, being silly at times, visiting, learning the whole time. There really were a couple times I wasn’t sure we’d get done, or get anything good. We did though–just like on Project Runway– we made it work. Rest assured that expression came up more than once. But there are plenty of chances to adopt catchphrases in a writer’s room, so we didn’t need to stick with that one. Jokes and phrases get beaten to death, and this in itself becomes funny to you.
We wrapped up at 2:30 am, knowing we’d meet again at 9, when our actors would return to do the scenes from each group. They spent 10 or so minutes with each script, and since we weren’t able to give them any direction, the words on the page were pretty much all they had to help move things along.
This experience is hopefully the closest I’ll ever come to knowing the agony of being a stand-up comic and having your jokes bomb. Some of the jokes our group had thought were sure things fell flat. It was so intriguing to watch all 3 very different versions. After each one, Ken astutely and very kindly gave his opinion about what worked and what didn’t. I was thrilled that he said one of my lines was funny. It made up for when he labeled another the dreaded “like-a-joke”…what?
Next, we were treated to a fun panel discussion with Ken and some veteran writer friends of his:

Ken, Tom, Marley, Fred
They were generous with their time and expertise. It was inspiring to be in a room with a group of people who so clearly enjoy what they do.
I’m still super tired, and need to get some sleep before work tomorrow, but I wanted to share the highlights with you before I have my re-entry into reality tomorrow.
What did I take away? (I mean besides the towels and silverware.) It was fun to see who the others in the group were, why they were there, and how we all did together. I really liked the group process. I’m looking at the stuff on TV in a whole new light now–I cannot imagine the agony of having to endure this process on a show you hate. Our badly written scene was torture enough. But if you loved it–what a joyous way to spend your days.
I also understand the value of a person who can come in and fix a script. That would’ve come in real handy for us around 2 am.
For Ken’s own account of the weekend, be sure to visit his blog at the link above.
Be back soon.

6 thoughts on “The Sitcom Room

  1. Oh what a treat to visit your blog again and to follow you along this trip!! What a fun opportunity ( and hard work clearly). Really enjoyed reading your take on the experience. Hard to imagine you writing a like-a-joke. I find your writing always makes me laugh. This may sound totally off the wall but have you ever considered radio- putting your words and thoughts and voice out there in a different way? You have a great way of describing the things around you.


  2. Juniper: How did I miss the cool comment you wrote about radio?
    I LOVE radio.
    What fun that would be.
    My husband and I WERE on the radio in Chicago back in March.
    If I can find it, I'll send you the link 🙂



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