This past weekend, TSC2014 convened a panel of sitcom showrunners entitled Comedy Is A Funny Business, where the panelists discussed various aspects of developing comedy for Canadian television.
The panel was comprised of Jeff Biederman (showrunner for Spun Out), Joseph Raso (showrunner for Seed) and Katie Ford (showrunner for Working the Engels), and was moderated by Andrew Clark, Director of Humber College’s Comedy Writing and Performance Program.
How do you know you or something is funny?
From Raso’s perspective, most people who want to write comedy typically have good comedic sense, and that it is important to trust your own instincts on what is funny. The rest of the writing process comes down to mechanics. Ford added that it is often about what you watched as a kid, the shows you grew up with.
Biederman mentioned that he had taken improv and stand-up comedy classes several years earlier, but had never really enjoyed them. He still wanted to be associated with comedy, however, so he gravitated to comedy television. Ford is an advocate of such classes, however, as she feels it gives the writer a sense of what you are up against. And Raso echoed those sentiments suggesting it also makes sure that you give actors solid material with which to work.
Can you discuss the seeming renaissance of sitcoms in Canada?
According to Raso, it is important to have a solid premise or conceit for a show, a distinct way to describe the core idea, because simply having ideas for individual episodes won’t cut it. One of the challenges for Canadian sitcoms, he warns, however, is that it is so hard to get networks to see beyond the first year—one and done, as he describes it—which has doomed many shows in the past. For most shows, the first season is difficult as the show hasn’t yet managed an identity or found its audience.
For writers, Biederman adds, this can be a big challenge as it can take a while for a new writer to break through, and there are not a lot of places to build the necessary skills or unique voice needed to be successful.
Can you describe the pitching process?
For Biederman, it is about going in with a story. Rather than try to tell jokes or act things out, he prefers to focus on why this show, what is particularly interesting about this premise. And if you already have a spec pilot script, all the better, because it helps the creator and writer maintain his or her power in the conversation and gives the network something more definitive to look at.
For Ford, it is about walking in with your logline, introducing a sense of theme, outlining a typical episode and then describing the characters. But perhaps most importantly, letting people see your passion for the project and how you connect with the subject matter.
Raso couldn’t agree more. For him, the personal angle is key.
Ford also suggests that it is vital you engage the executive you are pitching because he, she or they are your first audience.
Can you talk about the writers’ room?
Biederman describes the mix as people sharing responsibility for the final product, more as partners than anything in a hierarchical sense. He even brings in outsiders to punch-up the script (e.g., jokes). He describes the room as ruthless but welcoming and admits that it’s not always easy to be in the room or to run it.
Ford agrees, suggesting that it is a collaborative environment, but is by no means a creative free-for-all. Her job is to listen for the voices that add to the show. Raso, meanwhile suggests that the hardest part of the job for him is that he has to say no a lot, but despite that difficulty, it is vital that the room start off with real, honest and open discussion.
Biederman suggests that table reads with the actors can be invaluable to the writers but that they don’t always happen. Scripts for a multi-camera show can change 50 or 60 times over the course of a week, Ford adds, limiting the usefulness of table reads. And single-camera shows tend to work on tighter timelines, so again table reads are not always possible.
So, how does a new writer get into the room?
Biederman suggests starting as a script coordinator rather than try to get in with samples of your writing. The job will give the novice writer invaluable production experience. Ford agrees, suggesting that her own script coordinator kept things together on her show.
Ford also suggests that new writers need to be heard, to get their voice out there by whatever mechanism they can find, whether Twitter feeds, blogs, anything. It’s about demonstrating your strengths and your personality to show you’d be a good fit for the room.
According to Biederman, the make-up of the room has steadily changed over the years. It’s not just television writers, but also stand-up comedians and performers who bring unique voices into the mix.
The biggest place he sees new writers fail is in not sending their work when he offers to look at it. The fear of it being not quite perfect kills a lot of opportunities. Just send the work, he says.
Spec script or spec pilot?
Both Raso and Ford were adamant that they much prefer to read original work over spec scripts. According to Ford, they’re just not interested in reading yet another Big Bang Theory spec or whatever show is popular. She finds it much harder to get a sense of a writer’s unique voice by looking at a script that is trying to be someone else’s voice.