by Steve Trautmann
Sitcom writers encounter some form of the following question with some regularity: “What’s it like to work in a sitcom writers room?” The answer usually covers laughter, which is plentiful, the code of silence because we mine our personal experiences for comedy gold, and lunch.
Lunch is arguably the most important decision every writer makes on any given work day. A good lunch is vital to the smooth operation of a room. The code of silence is important because stories based on at least a kernel of truth are always better than inventing something out of thin air. And in terms of laughter, most rooms resemble a meeting of a bunch of friends who are planning a trip or a party, or something big. Sometimes that group of friends feels like a beer commercial. Everyone likes each other, gets along and are having a great time. The other type of room is very similar except the writers aren’t normal people. They’re more like standup comedians (and some of them actually are standup comedians) with all the nervous energy, competitiveness, and personal barbs you would encounter in the green room at a comedy club.
Covering a couple of the above topics is usually enough to satisfy the average person, but when it’s another writer who is asking they usually want to dig a bit deeper. At this point I usually quote TV comedy writer David Feeney, who said, “TV writing is really more of a talking job than a writing job.” What he means is that TV writers spend most of their time in the room pitching stories, jokes, characters, and whatever info needs to go into a script or outline to make funny TV. But talking isn’t the whole job. For the past few years I’ve been teaching a sitcom writing class and I’ve discovered, unsurprisingly, that the students who are serious and get the most out of the class do all of the reading assignments and then read even more scripts to help them learn the craft. It struck me that TV writers also do a lot of reading. It’s a big part of the job. And finally there’s writing if you’re lucky enough to get a script assignment.
For many new TV writers this is the toughest part to master, and some never do. It’s not always easy to get your pitch in when there are 8-12 other funny creative people firing off pitches at the same time. Most writers learn the craft by writing alone in quiet rooms and apartments. We take time to figure things out and then tap away on the keyboard. Pitching in a room is like competitive improvisation. You have to come up with something great, and then be fast enough to not only get it out there, but also in a way that makes people laugh.
It’s thinking on your feet, well, usually your butt, but sometimes you’re on your feet pacing around the room or standing in the corner. But it’s not what most people consider writing. It’s more like brainstorming, in fact it’s exactly like brainstorming. Most of the time it’s fun and collegial like the semi-serious discussions that happen in college dorm rooms with a bunch of young people who are trying to either impress with their wit, or make an impassioned case about something they read that week for their sociology 101 class.
Every episode has multiple drafts, and the writing staff reads all of those drafts. Not only does the staff read those drafts, they read them critically. Your job as a writer on the show is to dig into those drafts and find ways to make them better. Those reads aren’t simple skims, they require analyzing each scene and joke. Anything that bumps the writer is noted. Any alternate lines that come to mind are written down. The changes that were made are evaluated to determine if they’re actually better, more effective or funnier than what was replaced.
It’s a lot of reading, especially if you’re on a 22 episode/season show. That’s a minimum of 66 scripts you’ll be reading each season. If you’re not a strong reader, then writing on a any TV show will be a challenge. Unless you’re a showrunner the activity you will engage in the least will be writing. Most writers on a sitcom staff get fewer than a couple of scripts per season, and if you’re a low level writer you may not get any scripts assigned to you. The reality is that for the first few years of a TV writer’s career they will spend more time eating lunch than actually writing scripts that will have their name on them. I’m serious. Twenty weeks in the room, five days a week – that’s 100 hours of lunch. Most sitcom writers can write an outlined episode in a couple of days. Even doing 12-hour days, that’s not a lot of writing hours.
If you like collaborating with a group of smart and funny people, if you’re cool with occasional long hours, if you can live in the greater LA, and if the insecurity of not knowing where your next job will come from, you might be a good fit to try your hand a sitcom writing. Oh yeah, you also have to write a couple really good scripts, because that’s the basis for getting into the room.
So, what are you waiting for? Write those scripts.