As Brendan Luno suggested in opening this session at the National Screenwriters Conference of 2011, all good TV comedy begins with a writer, and an idea which everything thinks is funny. They everybody else comes in and fucks it up.
“We’re here today to share with you some stories and some things we’ve found out about comedy,” added Mark O’Toole.
The session contained lots of specific and even pointed observations from a panel of near geniuses – Adam Zwar, Brendan Luno, Philip Dalkin, Doug McLeod and Mark O’Toole, who have been responsible or contributed to dozens of great comedies as well as dramas over the years.
Doug McLeod began by wanting to share some home truths about the huge difference in size between the US and Australia. “The USA is a nation of more than 300 million, and we are 21 million,” he began. “In the US they spend $200 million a year on pilots. The networks do 30 each. Very few make it to air. In Australia we would be lucky to do three comedy pilots a year.”
“We’re kind of little and sure many of our sitcoms are awful,” said Doug, “but look at the New Zealand ones.”
Philip Dalkin added that in LA there’s a season for pilots and some of them are staggeringly bad, yet they make it to air. “We have a far better strike rate than in America,” he asserted.
On the subject of messing up a perfectly good comedy, the panel said a brilliant way of doing it was by changing the cast of a pilot, preferably at the last minute. Adam Zwar said that sometimes a network wants to put in a well-known person into a show, such as a model or a footballer. “The problem is that it takes years for someone to become an ordinary comic performer, let alone a great one. So if a network wants to put someone into a guest role on a comedy, it almost never works.”
Adam added that he often writes with a specific performer in mind. “I tend to collect people,” he said. “I see them on stage or in a short film and I think that is a tone of comedy I could write for. “ He added that he has on clashed with casting agents who suggest someone else for a role. “If I’ve spent 100 hours on a script, and they’ve read it a couple of times, I don’t believe they know it as well as me.”
Philip amplified on the problems of casting. “I used to go to the US when I was doing sitcoms,” he explained, “ and the problem is universal. Out of a hundred people you might look at, there’s one guy who is perfect, number 2 is 20% less, not as good but you could work with them, and the network wants number 3. You are trying to get someone who says the lines well, but the network is looking for the guy who has the good Q rating and can get a photo in the magazines.”
Adam said that a good model is to have two creative’s working on a show, as they do on Lowdown, which works well. “Three creatives can work as well, but if you have more, the ideas become diluted and there are too many voices in the room.”
One of the interesting things about comedy, according to the panel, is that the networks don’t trust their own opinions on comedy, unlike in drama where every network executive will throw in suggestions. “If you make a drama pilot and you show it to a group of network executives they will all have input,” said Dalkin. “But with comedy they will all sit back.”
One positive about this is that there’s room for writers to become directors or producers on comedy shows, as the network won’t stop them. “They can’t say no because that would mean making a decision, and they don’t want to do that with comedy,” he said. The downside is that if a comedy is going wrong, the network won’t try to resuscitate it. They’ll just kill it.
There was a fascinating interchange about working to the crew. Adam said a big warning sign for him is if the crew is laughing. “If the crew is laughing, 99% of the time it’s not funny on the screen,” he said. “What’s funny in the room isn’t necessarily funny on the screen. I’ve written the AFI awards and discovered that what is funny in rehearsals doesn’t necessarily work on the screen at all.”
Doug added that a studio audience will laugh at anything, if they’ve been warmed up. It’s not indicative of anything, necessarily. He said that he got a spot in the studio audience of Cheers in the US when it had just been cancelled, and he was surprised to find that the performers were not paying any attention to the studio audience at all. They would speak their lines so low at times that the audience couldn’t even hear them. When Doug saw the episode on air, it worked brilliantly.
Philip reminded us that good sitcoms tend not to have jokes in them. Seinfeld is banter between the characters, not one-liners. “The comedy comes out of the interaction between the characters, who have competing agendas and dig themselves into big holes.”
There was an interesting discussion about how you establish character in comedy. Often the characters are complex, yet they can still be described as the fat guy, the wise guy, and so in, like in Cheers. Doug McLeod recounted the story of how they were casting endlessly for the role of Dick Van Dyke’s wife, and when Mary Tyler Moore said ‘hello,’ she got the part, because she sounded so natural and so authentic. That’s what actors have to do, bring their characters to life.
Adam commented that in the first series of any show, you are searching in the dark for character. On the other hand, in well-established shows the actors sometimes have ideas about their role that don’t necessarily align with the intentions of the creators. “When I took over as story producer on Stingers,” said Philip, “I got the actors to write down what they thought the characters were about. And it bore no resemblance to anything on the screen.”
Mark chimed in that comic characters have to know who they are. “Good stand ups establish their characters within fifteen seconds of stepping onto the stage.”
They panel discussed how to convince a network that an idea is funny and workable, and Doug McLeod commented that a network executive will be scared by any document with a binder or even a staple, as they don’t want any more material than a single page. The panel seemed to agree that if you can shoot something that can be shown to the network, even if it’s only two or three minutes, this is a better idea.
Adam: “I took a presentation we’d shot recently to a network that was five minutes long. That means that they can view it in the meeting, and not wait till later.” Presenting an idea at a early stage creates a space for network input which creates a sense of ownership in the material.
Mark O’Toole emphasised that you should leave them wanting more. “Let them see the potential of it, and start thinking where it could go and what it could do.”
An entertaining and informative session at the National Screenwriters Conference of 2011.