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The write stuff

The tenth anniversary of the first net.wars column slid by quietly on November 2. This column wasn't born of 9/11 - net.wars-the-book was published in 1998 - but it did grow out of anger over the way the grief and shock over 9/11 was being hijacked to justify policies that were unacceptable in calmer times Ever since, the column has covered the various border wars between cyberspace and real life, with occasional digressions. This week's column is a digression. I feel I've earned it.

A few weeks ago I had this conversation with a friend:

wg: My friend's son is a writer on The Daily Show.
Friend, puzzled: Jon Stewart needs writers? I thought he did his own jokes.

For the record, Stewart has 12 to 14 staff writers. For a simple reason: comedy is hard, and even the vaudeville-honed joke machine that was Morey Amsterdam would struggle to devise two hours of original material every week.

Which is how we arrive at the enduring mystery of the sitcom. Although people may disagree about exactly when that is, when the form works, says the veteran sitcom writer and showrunner Ken Levine, it is TV's most profitable money machine. Sitcom writing requires not only a substantial joke machine but the ability to create an underlying storyline scaffold of recognizably human reality. And you must do all that under pressure, besieged by conflicting notes from the commissioning network and studio, and conforming to constraints as complex and specific as those of a sonnet: budgets, timing, and your actors' abilities. It takes a village. Or, since today most US sitcoms are written by a roomful of writers working together, a "gang-banging" village.

It is this experience that Levine decided, five years ago. to emulate. The ability to thrive in that environment is an essential skill, but beginning writers work alone until they are thrown in at the deep end on their first job. He calls his packed weekend event The Sitcom Room, and, having spent last weekend taking part in the fifth of the series, I can say the description is accurate. After a few hours of introduction about the inner workings of writers' rooms, scripts, and comedy in general, four teams of five people watch a group of actors perform a Levine-written scene with some obvious and some not-so-obvious things wrong with it. Each team then goes off to fix the scene in its designated room, which comes appropriately equipped with junk food, sodas, and a whiteboard. You have 12 hours (more if you're willing to make your own copies). Go.

After five seminars and 20 teams, Levine says every rewritten script has been different, a reminder that sitcom writing is a treasure hunt where the object of the search is unknown. Levine kindly describes each result as "magical"; attendees were more critical of other groups' efforts. (I liked ours best, although the ending still needed some work.)

I felt lucky: my group were all professionals used to meeting deadlines and working to specification, and all displayed a remarkable lack of ego in pitching and listening to ideas. We packed up around 1am, feeling that any changes we made after that point were unlikely to be improvements. On the other hand, if the point was to experience a writers' room, we failed utterly: both Levine and Sunday panelist Jane Espenson (see her new Web series, Husbands) talked about the brutally competitive environment of many of the real-life versions. Others were less blessed by chemistry: one team wrangled until 3am before agreeing on a strategy, then spent the rest of the night writing their script and getting their copies made. Glassy-eyed, on Sunday they disagreed when asked individually about what went wrong: publicly, their appointed "showrunner" blamed himself for not leading effectively. I imagine them indelibly bonded by their shared suffering.

What happens at this event is catalysis. "You will learn a lot about yourselves," Levine said on that first morning. How do you respond when your best ideas are not good enough to be accepted? How do you take to the discipline of delivering jokes and breaking stories on deadline? How do you function under pressure as part of a team creative effort? Less personally, can you watch a performance and see, instead of the actors' skills, the successes and flaws in your script? Can you stay calm when the "studio executive" (played by Levine's business partner, Dan O'Day) produces a laundry list of complaints and winds up with, "Except for a couple of things I wouldn't change anything"? And, not in the syllabus, can you help Dan play practical jokes on Ken? By the end of the weekend, everyone is on a giddy adrenaline high, exacerbated in our case by the gigantic anime convention happening all around us at the same hotel. (Yes. The human-sized fluffy yellow chick getting on the elevator is real. You're not hallucinating from lack of sleep. Check.)

I found Levine's blog earlier this year after he got into cross-fire with the former sitcom star Roseanne Barr over Charlie Sheen's meltdown. His blog reminds me of William Goldman's books on screenwriting: the same combination of entertainment and education. I think of Goldman's advice every day in everything I write. Now, I will think of Levine's, too.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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