Friday, April 1, 2016

"How The Process Of Sitcom Writing Has Changed"

“My, aren’t we pedestrian!”

I know.  But I was speaking with this fellow writer/slash/good friend about this matter, and I realized, “He’s not yawning or falling asleep.”  So maybe this is interesting. 

I guess we’ll see, huh?

Okay, “Topic Sentence”.  (Not for you.  I need to know what I’m talking about or I will wander all over the place lacking focus, clarity or intent and miss lunch.)

Over the decades, the sitcom scriptwriting arrangement has changed, altering the sitcom writer’s career opportunities, and arguably the finished product as well.

(Okay, that helps a lot.)

Way back when – way back whenier even than me – half-hour comedy shows produced thirty-nine episodes per season.  (Hiatusing for thirteen weeks during the audience-depleted summer.)  Also, during that era, the series’s writing staffs were comparatively miniscule, two or possibly three writers comprising the entire the writing staff.  (Rather than the bloated hordes staffing TV series today; ten minutes in, and you’re still reading “Story Editor” credits.)

The inevitable consequence of a massive episode order and a limited writing staff?

Numerous writing assignments were handed to what were called “outside” writers.  (Freelancers “outside” of the show’s writing staff.)  This process not only relieved the show’s staff of having to write all of the episodes “in-house”, but, because  freelancers were expected to pitch ideas of their own, it also unburdened the staff from coming up with all thirty-nine episode ideas themselves.

(Is this interesting?  It feels interesting.  But, you know, I have been mistaken about that before.  If it isn’t, I’m sorry and goodbye.  If it is, keep reading.  And thank you.)   

I am not certain why the following evolution occurred.  Maybe because the sitcom show runners followed the template of the variety shows they’d previously worked on where the writing staffs were large rather than the radio sitcom template where they weren’t.  But for whatever reason, the number of writers on sitcom writing staffs increased.

Maybe there was a savvy and sensible “culling” process involved, in which those freelancers delivering the best scripts were recruited for the team, insuring their availability, while bringing a more reliable consistency to the scriptwriting.

Anyway whatever the reason, the writing staffs got larger.  As the number of per-season episodes grew smaller – shrinking, to twenty-six down today’s order of twenty-two.

What did that mean for sitcom writers?

The majority of the now more manageable number of episodes was almost entirely “Staff Written”, leaving the once-lucrative freelance comedy writing business as moribund as men’s hats.     

(Partial Exception:  There were a couple of writers I know, notably David Lloyd and myself, who, having eschewed invitations to join writing staffs, were contracted instead – because of our qualitative consistency – to write “multiples”, meaning multiple episodes for the same series, or, in the case of the Mary Tyler Moore Company – which at a time had as many as six series simultaneously on the air – for the various series under the same productorial umbrella.)

“Step Three” is a more recent evolution.

On many of today’s sitcoms – some of the most popular ones in fact, like The Big Bang Theory – episodes are almost exclusively “table written”, meaning, nobody is sent off to write a script; instead the show runner approves an idea, and they – meaning the entire writing staff –then sit around a table and write the entire script together, right then and there.  (Good luck if you’re a capable writer, but shy.)

Overviewingly speaking, the trajectory in sitcom writing has advanced inexorably in the direction of ever-increasing top-down control.  (In the name, I imagine, of heightened efficiency.) 

And here’s how.

A show runner has less direct content control over an “outside” writer than over a writer working on their staff.  And they have less control over a writer working on the staff than over writers assembled in the same room, where they pronounce immediate “Yays or Nays” perched magisterially at the head of the table. 

The only way the show runner could exert more creative control is if they wrote all of the episodes themselves, which is possible but you end up like Aaron Sorkin getting caught in the airport with drugs, which he desperately needed to write all the episodes himself. 

The closest alternative is to take the completed script home to give it a “final polish”, (often “polishing” a hundred percent of the original script away).  Why then bother writing the original script in the first place?  Because it is easier to rewrite something than to face a totally blank page, thus explaining the famous show runner’s dictum:

“Give me something to hate!

And then they fix it.

The consequential result of this approach to increased centralized control:

(A) – The former freelance writing pool is now in another line of endeavor. 

(B) – Creative satisfaction satisfaction is diminished when you do not get to write an entire script alone.  Not to mention your ability to write an entire script alone.

And “Three” (because my computer will only let me write ©) – There is, as a consequence of “Group Writing”, a homogenization of the finished product.

The script has jokes –maybe even great jokes – but no flavor.  No idiosyncratic “Personal Touch”, because no individual person, with their unique sensibility, got an opportunity to inject any.  Other than the show runner.  And if only their unique sensibility is included, their “Personal Touch Magic” will inevitably wear thin.

Look out.  Next stop:

Sitcoms written entirely by computer.

Hm, he “hmmed” insinuatingly…

I wonder if anybody will notice?


SewTypical said...

In my opinion, the quality of modern sitcoms doesn't compare to the oldies but goodies. Which is why I've watched CHEERS and 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN over and over. Loved the LARRY SANDERS SHOW so much, but it's not on Netflix.

Although THE IT CROWD was much better, I did like BIG BANG THEORY at first, but now it's just a bore. I've stopped watching it. For some reason they let the Sheldon Cooper character dominate every episode, and he is the most annoying "person" on TV. It was nice to see Blossom (Mayim Bialik) again, but even she can't save the show.


Jack said...

i'm a sitcom writer, and very frustrated with the process. my dream job would've been your freelancing years, writing episodes for multiple shows. that dream is dead. but there is another way of doing things. the seinfeld way. it had no writer's room, and writers would come in and pitch larry and jerry full episodes. then they'd write the script, then jerry and larry would rewrite it. i'm not sure this is better or worse, but i don't understand why the most successful sitcom of all time hasn't been copied. instead, everyone is doing it the exact same, mostly unsuccessful, way.

thanks for your blog!