hacked By Mister Spy
Last month, I was one of the writers for Urban Improv’s annual “Banned in Boston” fundraiser. A bunch of Boston Illuminati do sketch comedy for a good cause. Writing the show was tough, sometimes arduous. How do you write an hour’s worth of sketch comedy for non-comedians with basically no rehearsal time? Well, it’s different. You write lean, you write heavy-handed with the jokes, you write to please the aged masses. It’s probably like writing original programming for Nick at Nite. Which doesn’t exist.
I learned a lot about compromise during over the months we were working on the show, and to always be ready with a couple other ideas once the best ideas are inevitably shot down (for good and bad reasons). Maybe the biggest is that if you are working on a sketch show with non-comedians, it’s hard to convey the idea that just because you’ve heard a joke/premise a half dozen times while workshopping it, doesn’t mean it’s not funny anymore. I think comedians take for granted our ability to hold on to the comedy of the joke through multiple revisions and edits. We take pride in culling away all the fat off a bit until it’s in its purest form, like my OCD friend who picks every white sinew off an orange slice before eating it.
Non-comedians don’t have that instinct. They hear it once, they love it. The second time, ok, it’s funny. By the third or fourth, they’re looking for a new idea. But that’s not how to build a solid sketch show over time. Then you end up writing brand new, less funny sketches a couple weeks before showtime. Don’t do that. If a bit is funny, it’s funny; and it’s new for each audience. I admire stand ups who can workshop the same bit night after night until it’s perfect. They have the ability to hold onto the funny better than any of us.
So I got to do this a few weeks ago:
(Photo credit to NBC Universal)
Getting into the workshop was a nice confidence boost to continue this comedy thing for a little while longer. Met some great writers, both as classmates and as speakers, and got to learn a bit more about how all the sausage gets made.
As great as it was (and still continues to be as we still have homework!), it’s also a reality check to show that nothing in the industry is ever easy. No resting on laurels; if you’ve got a toe in the door, now’s the time to produce. I’ll be back to churning out Hard Left videos this coming week.
It’s great to see NBC pushing for diversity not just on camera, but behind the scenes. It’s important for comedy because the more perspectives you have at the writers’ desk, the greater to opportunities for comedy, and the more pitfalls you avoid. Only recently did late night get their first black female writer, so there’s still a ways to go. Let’s see if I can ride the tide in.
I’ve been trying to write spec scripts and pilots, which means a lot of reading, writing, and especially watching. That third thing is tough since I’ve spent the past few years focused on using any free time to create rather than consume. Sitting and watching and actually paying attention to a show is a little unfamiliar, and it’s the constant “I should be doing something else” feeling that keeps bothering me when I’m watching a show recently.
Luckily, TV’s sort of designed to make you just sit there.
How much time to do you give a new show?
Whenever I see that a new show’s rating are low, I think back to this article on why Nielsen Ratings are inaccurate but we still use them anyway. That article is from 2011 so doing a little more research shows that the Networks are doing a little more homework these days, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the slew of shows that still get axed each season due to low ratings.
“The Crazy Ones” just got canceled, and that’s too bad: I like Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar. I wanted to write a spec script for this one since it was a David E. Kelley show, was about advertising (which I enjoy), and was relatively new so there wouldn’t be too many specs for it yet. Also, I find it weird that a TV show was named after an old Apple ad campaign. It’s too similar to Cavemen, if you ask me.
I watched the first three episodes and I couldn’t do it. I really wanted to like it, and I went it expecting to like it, but I didn’t. Looks like the writing staff is fairly new (I think?) expect for Kelley, which could account for the troubles, but who knows what they had to contend with reigning in Williams’ persona.
Was three episodes enough of a chance to give a new sitcom? Probably. The pilot is always a rush to explain the universe, so episodes two and three are then playing in the sandbox. I think if a comedy hasn’t grown on you by episode three, it probably won’t (non-comedies I think get more of a pass, as Breaking Bad did).
Luckily, I found “Ground Floor” on TBS.
Great pedigree on staff, and the pilot hooked me in right away. Really great writing (though it did get a little weak in the episodes before the finale). I binged the first season (just ten episodes) and got to work on my spec. It just got renewed for a season two, so it’ll be around for a while.
“Ground Floor” reeled me in with just the pilot. “The Crazy Ones” couldn’t after three episodes. Definitely a lesson for me on what the differences were between the two, when it comes to my own writing. Maybe the simplest goal of a tv pilot is to make watching it not feel like a job at all.
Over a year ago, Chris Duffy asked me if I wanted to be a panelist on “You’re the Expert.” A year later, I’m still a part of this great radio show, which is some sort of testament to just showing up, doing good work, and being nice. Duffy could fill the panelist slots with any number of comedians, but there is something to be said about consistency and knowing who you’re working with, which I think are the reasons I’m a semi-regular. In a nutshell, that’s sort of how I approach comedy and life in general.
Saying “Yes” to Odd Things
I think the most interesting and eventful things have always happened to me because I said “yes” to opportunities great and small (usually small) that I normally wouldn’t have agreed to. They all build together and connect in interesting ways; agreeing to attend a small improv festival in a random city led to a two-week paid residency, for example. Many times, nothing comes from it, but I am always surprised at what results from some of the most random “yeses” I’ve given.
And once you do say yes, do a good job, because people remember that. The comedy circles are pretty small, and word gets around.