Talking Comedy—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

(L to R): Jeff Biederman, Katie Ford, Joseph Raso, Andrew Clark

(L to R): Jeff Biederman, Katie Ford, Joseph Raso, Andrew Clark

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.

tsc-logo

Fitting a pitch

Image

The line has been drawn in the sand. I’ve painted myself into a corner. It’s time to s#!t or get off the pot. [Insert other cliché expression indicating you’re stalling and we all know it.]

It is time for me to start pitching my television show ideas to production companies. No more fine tuning. No more market analysis. Get out there and sell, boy.

I was at an information session over the weekend where a Head of Development for a local production company was talking to new comedy writers (and me) about what producers are looking for in new sitcom pitches, and perhaps just as importantly, what they do not want to see.

Much of what he had to tell me was very familiar, but one factoid took me quite by surprise and shook me off the procrastination horse. Nobody, it seems, wants to see your pilot script (at least not in Canada).

They haven’t got time to wade through it and really just want to know three simple facts:

  • What’s your story idea?
  • How expensive will it be to make?
  • Can we sell it in the U.S. or in Europe?

And all of this, the producer assures us, can be handled in no more than 3 pages and for some, ideally in one.

What’s your story idea? Tell me about the scenario, the characters and what I can expect to see in a typically episode.

How expensive will it be to make? One or a couple of sets works in Canada…multiple location shoots gets expensive.

Can we sell it abroad? Make it Canadian enough to get government tax incentives but not so Canadian that Americans and Europeans won’t want it. Broad and universal is the name of the game.

No pilot script? Too many changes after everyone has had their hands in your concept…although, if you have one, you can use it as a sample of your writing.

Oh.

Hunh.

Well.

Suddenly, I have gone from having one sitcom ready to pitch to producers to three sitcoms, two animated kids programs, one anthology series (think Quantum Leap) and two educational/lifestyle programs. [This is aside from the sketch comedy show on which I am a writer, but is someone else’s puppy to pitch.]

Time to figure out what production companies develop shows similar to mine and arrange some meetings. Time to make this career leap pay some bills.

Wish me luck (and please check in every now and again to keep me honest).

(Photo used without permission from the delightful blog Picnics in the Park.)

10 Steps to Writing a Pilot That Sells

No, no! Not that kind of pilot. Although, cute photo. (Image used without permission)

No, no! Not that kind of pilot. Although, cute photo. (Image used without permission)

1) Watch a lot of television; especially stuff you don’t like or think is bad. This will establish the belief within you that you could write something at least that bad and still get it on the air.

2) Conceptualize a show that combines one of your siblings or cousins, the second job you ever had, and a famous moment in history. Every idea after this will sound entirely plausible; and hell, this might actually work as a sitcom.

3) Conceptualize an idea that is morally offensive to you and then see if it was one of the shows in Step 1. If not, then the market is ripe for the picking.

4) Describe the absolute worst day of your life, a day when everything went wrong. Then switch one of the disastrous elements. Then, switch another element. Do this 10 more times. Season One!

If you can’t create 13 variants, your day wasn’t that bad and your life is too good for you to be writing for television. Go write greeting cards.

5) Grab a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology and reset all of the stories in modern-day Seattle or the smallest town you’ve ever visited. Warning: Brace for complaints that it’s a rehash of Dallas or Friday Night Lights.

6) Grab a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology and do not reset the stories. Hell, if it worked for The Borgias and The Tudors, it might work here. Call it The Olympians.

7) Start with Episode Two, because pilots suck and you’ll never want to show it to anyone. You need to know/believe your idea works.

8) No matter what your current idea is, when you go to pitch it and you think you’re losing your audience, suddenly reveal “And the protagonist is a ghost!” Vampire, werewolf and zombie are equally acceptable.

9) Stop reading advice on writing a successful pilot and just write your story, already. There is no telling why someone in a suit will get excited by your story, but I can guarantee they won’t if you’re not.

10) If all else fails, generate a top-ten list of ways to write a pilot that will sell and use it as the basis of a book you will later turn into a sitcom.