Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Me and Ken Levine

I spent last weekend at Sitcom Room 3, where for two days I got to experience a simulation of the glamorous life of a TV comedy writer. (See? You're laughing already.) As shown above, I was delirious happy enough after the experience that I didn't attempt to do physical harm to our captor host, Emmy Award winner Ken Levine. (Insert Stockholm Syndrome joke here.)

Hats off also to Dan O'Day, who handled the lion's share of logistics for the event.

Here's a brief summary of the weekend.

Thursday: I arrive in LA, go to dinner with my parents (at an eerily uncrowded Chinese restaurant--we were the only diners there all night), tweak their wireless router (my dad upgraded to FiOS), do a little writing, then go to sleep.

Friday: We drive up to Santa Monica and meet my sister for lunch at Riva. Traffic reminds me why I don't live here anymore. Parents drop me off at the LAX Hilton. Walk down to corner gas station for some Coke (cheaper than the $3 hotel vending machine). Meet some fellow Sitcom Room attendees for dinner in the cafe.

Saturday: Wake up bright and early. Realize I didn't bring any bowls or utensils for my in-room breakfast of instant oatmeal, but make do with a couple of lowball glasses and wooden coffee stirrers. Meet some other folks, then get an earful from Ken about writing TV comedy. Walk to Carl's Jr. for lunch. Watch actors perform a ghodawful scene from a fictitious sitcom, get notes from "network" and "studio," break into teams to rewrite. I'm on Team C, the first to finish at 12:44 AM, having survived a logistical curveball two hours into the process and a lot of mediocre Chinese and junk food.

Sunday: Reconvene to watch actors perform the four scenes that each team rewrote. I'm pleasantly surprised by how well our scene works, how many laughs it gets, how little Ken has to say about fixing it further. We break for lunch and another 90 minutes of rewrites, but my team mostly just shoots the breeze. Finally, the weekend ends with a panel of writers talking about the industry and answering our questions. Scatter drill. I enjoy a quiet dinner of pasta, wine, and Heinlein.

Monday: I fly back home. While waiting in the airport, I run into a former co-worker, then watch Strange Brew. Those events are unrelated. I also watch the "Do-Over" episode of 30 Rock, which had been name-checked during Sitcom Room. It's pretty good.

Now, as promised, a few comparisons.

I went into Sitcom Room expecting it to be a lot like a Richter Scales retreat: lots of vulgar humor, lots of brainstorming for concert skit ideas. It was all that, but more focused and productive. I'm not saying the Scales aren't good, but they're not professionals. It's different, being in a room with four other people who all care deeply about good storytelling.

We spent most of our nine-plus hours working through story problems, talking about characters and motivations and the reality and logic of the scene. Very little time was actually devoted to coming up with jokes. Analyzing comedy is hard, but the fundamental truth is that it comes from characters and situations, not jokes per se. And that is even harder to write well.

Some of the advice about "room writing" given during Sitcom Room echoed sentiments about critiquing I got from Viable Paradise: Don't take things personally. Anyone can pitch a bad joke or a bad story idea. In fact, if you do it long enough, pretty much everyone is guaranteed to suggest a few stinkers. The important thing is to keep going. Your first duty is to the story, not your own ego.

The environment of the writing room felt a lot like Game Control, in that we had a problem to solve, and the problem seemed to keep changing. It wasn't as bad as running a Game, since we only had one really big external issue to deal with--all the rest was just us working through revisions of the story.

In other ways, it felt more like a conference room puzzle hunt, because we were trapped in a single room having to work through problem after problem with no end in sight. It was easy to get punchy, but in this case, it could actually be helpful. Riffing about animal husbandry can help generate jokes, but it almost never helps solve puzzles.

Ken and Dan made the rounds all night, periodically checking in with every team to see if we had questions, and I'm particularly proud of our first couple:

"Do we have the budget for a couple of sheep?"

"How do you feel about Hitler?"

Yes, we are the team, as mentioned in Ken's write-up, which agonized over whether to put in a Hitler joke (final verdict: no). We found out on Sunday that two other groups had also discussed it, but none to the extent that we had. We are also the team that used a mirror for a marker board. (Team C: The "C" stands for "Creative!" Or maybe "Crazy." Would you believe "Crunchy?")

All in all, it was a great experience, and I'm glad I did it. I plan to keep in touch with my fellow Sitcommers--two of them live in the Seattle area, one is in London (where D and I may be stopping next June, on our way to Jeff and Marina's wedding), and others are just a Facebook click away.

Would I ever want to make a living as a TV writer? I don't know. But it's on the short list.


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