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April 16, 2014

The Sitcom Room: So you think you can write?

by Liz Finn-Arnold, posted Jul 26th 2007 11:21AM
FrasierHow many times have you watched a sitcom on TV and thought, "Hey, I could do that?" Last weekend, twenty aspiring writers came together at the LAX Hilton to test that theory.

The Sitcom Room, an exhausting, yet exhilarating two-day event, was the brainchild of veteran TV sitcom writer Ken Levine. To me, the event was the ultimate summer camp for aspiring writers and/or TV geeks.

The seminar wasn't cheap, but then, it wasn't your typical seminar. There weren't any stuffy meetings, awkward networking, or boring lectures. This was a hands-on event, in which four teams of writers were given the basics of sitcom writing by Ken and then sent into "writers rooms" to revise a 12-page scene from an imaginary sitcom called Still Married.

Armed with junk food, various laptops, and imaginary network and studio notes, each five-person team gladly accepted the challenge to rewrite the problematic scene. In order to make the experience realistic, Ken, and his seminar partner, Dan O'Day, interrupted us around 4:30 PM, just as we were getting on a roll, to give us "imaginary bad news." This news meant we had to scrap a lot of what we were writing, back up, and start over. I've been sworn to secrecy about the imaginary bad news, but let's just say it left many participants broken-hearted.

My team worked the longest on our script -- about 14 hours in total. We spent hours trying to figure out the two main characters, coming up with backstories for each of them. After doing the "heavy lifting" of creating a detailed outline of the revised scene -- we began the actual writing process. It was after 10 PM. The rest of the night was spent polishing the script and punching up the jokes. This shouldn't have been difficult considering EVERYTHING sounds funny after 2 AM. And yet, it was.

I crawled into bed around 4:45 AM, with a slight buzz from all the sugary junk food and the excitement of the evening. After a quick nap, we reassembled the next morning at 8:30 AM to watch professional actors (Andy Goldberg, Jeremy Licht, Kimberly Wallis, KerriLee Kaski) run through four very different versions of the same scene. The actors only had ten minutes with each team's scene before performing it. And although we didn't get to give the actors nearly enough direction, it became clear from the performances where we had story problems, and which of our jokes worked (The Iquana 2000) -- and which ones tanked (The ThighMaster).

Afterwards, we headed to lunch with our teams and then worked on another round of rewrites based on the feedback from the run-through. Some of my team members were understandably disappointed that our scene wasn't perfect and didn't quite work out as well as we had hoped.

Me? I was giddy. Ken Levine told us that we were "funny" and pointed out several specific funny jokes in our scene. Ken Levine is a writer whom I greatly respect and probably even idolize. His blog is funnier than most current sitcoms (don't believe me, read his Sorkin parody) and he's written for some of the best shows (Cheers, Frasier, MASH, Everybody Loves Raymond) in sitcom history. Getting praise from him (I'm so not worthy) is the equivalent of being told you're pretty by Cindy Crawford. I can live with being "less than perfect" under those circumstances.

There were more pleasant surprises for us after lunch, when a panel of well-respected comedy writers (Fred Rubin, Marley Sims, David Isaacs, and Sam Simon) regaled us with stories from the trenches. While comedians sometimes disappoint in real life, I find comedy writers NEVER DO. They are truly hilarious people who can tell stories like nobody else. Makes sense, right?

The entire two-day event was like playtime, at least for me. And yet, I worked harder during those two days than I have worked in a very long time. There wasn't even time to kick back and enjoy cocktails with my fellow attendees. Instead, we bonded over bad Chinese Food, bad jokes, and bad Wi-Fi connections (Wi-Fi was blocked in the hotel's conference room for some inexplicable reason and most of us [especially the bloggers in the group] were experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms).

As an aspiring TV writer myself, with three spec TV scripts and three pilot scripts under my belt, I embarked on this weekend eager to mingle with other writers. I was also curious to see how I would do writing with a team. Part of me worried that I'd find out that I hated writing in a room full of writers (each trying to be wittier than the other). Luckily, my fellow writers were truly pleasant, funny, intelligent, and easy-to-work with. And happily, I found that I could thrive in this group-writing environment. Granted it was only one extremely long day and night (and people may have been on their best behavior) -- but something tells me that I could get used to the creative collaboration that occurs in these rooms.

I also gained a newfound respect for even the lowliest sitcoms. Sure, it's easy to mock obvious targets (but I won't). Take it from me, people – being funny is a lot harder than it looks. And unless you try it yourself, you won't believe how much attention is painstakingly paid to every single word on the page. If I had to guess, I'd say that even the worst TV show (and you can list your own nominees) is comprised of a kick-ass writing team that takes comedy a lot more seriously than you think.

So next time you watch a lame sitcom and think, "Hey, I could do this," think again. Or put your money where your mouth is. If you really think you can write better than the professionals, you should attend the next Sitcom Room seminar. I'm fairly sure that Ken Levine will be hosting another one sometime in the future.

To hear about the experiences of my fellow Sitcom Room survivors, check out the blogs of Christina and Rich and Michael. And of course, check out Ken Levine's account of the event, as well.

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Dan O\'Day

Liz: Glad you survived! (And glad you were there to participate so enthusiastically.)

ugtv.org: When our webmaster returns from wherever the heck he is, he'll update our site so that you can add your name to our "Sitcom Room Alert List."

The website: http://www.sitcomroom.com

In the meantime, if you like you can e-mail me directly and I'll add you to the list. Just go to http://www.danoday.com and click on "Contact Us." (Sorry for the extra work; I'd rather avoid the spam that inevitably results from including my e-mail address in a posting.)

July 26 2007 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Alan

Sounds great. Where do I sign up? Seriously. Where?

July 26 2007 at 12:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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