Monday, September 26, 2016

"Thoughts About Teaching"

I know two – wait, three veteran (Read: underemployed) writers… and an acquaintance, and a writer I bumped into on the street – for a total of five writers – who are teaching TV writing at local universities.  And I don’t know anyone or go anywhere, so I am sure there are a lot more of them than that.  Triggering the question:  Why don’t I teach television writing?  (Like I’m some kind of sheep, or something.  But still.)

The last time I was asked to teach TV writing at a university I was in the early stages of my career and, beyond having no available time to do so, when the suggestion was proposed – and I am not being at all humble about this – I had no idea whatsoever what I was doing.

Having reached the other end of the career telescope, I have a sturdier understanding of what I am doing.  But now, I do not believe it is worth teaching.  (Ah, the joy of rationalized inertia.  But still.)

When the writer I ran into on the street asked if I was interested in speaking to her class, I explained, via a joke heard on the Ed Sullivan Show why I believed my experiential “Two Cents Worth” would be unhelpful to today’s aspiring TV writers.  

It was during the Cold War.  America was losing the “arms race”, and our government was concerned about Soviet spies stealing our secrets.  Here’s the joke about that:

“They’re afraid the Russians will steal our secrets?  I say, ‘Let ‘em.’  Then they’ll be two years behind.”

(It is noteworthy, I believe, that my rejection of her offer to speak to a class of current, hopeful comedy writers came in the form of a joke that was written in 1963.)

Yes, there are still a few sitcoms written in the style I was tutored to deliver – same format, just more below the belt allusions.  Not illusions.  They say the actual body parts. 

What would I tell those kids:  “Aim higher.  Write lower”?

The traditional sitcom format, originating in radio, has been worn out for some time.  The stacking-one-“setup-punchline”-on-top-of-another construction has been supplanted by a nuanced, more naturally conversational approach. 

Joke-o-centric sitcoms were often hilarious, but there was no room for deviation from the “template” and little room for subtlety, which might earn an appreciative laugh at home but garner a disheartening “nothing” from the studio audience, programmed over the years to expect “big funny”, the conditions for which – a writerly wisecrack or situational contrivance – would occur only in a situation comedy. 

“Isn’t that what they’re watching?” you might ask in commonsensical rebuttal.  The undeniable answer to which is “Yes.”  But, as we have seen, the traditional formula has inevitably worn thin.    

Why would I want to teach a style audiences have tired of to neophyte comedy writers?

A CURRENT SHOW RUNNER:  “I enjoyed your submitted writing sample.  Could you come back thirty years ago?”

… is the problem.

The other problem is “content”. 

No, forget “content”.  The issue is not “subject matter”, though that’s a part of it.  The primary distinction (between yesterday and today) is comedic appropriateness. 

In English:  What’s funny and what isn’t.

The target, comedically, has changed.  You might say it has “expanded” but that would suggest that “old-style comedy” is still acceptable and rewarded, and it isn’t.  The definition of “what’s funny” has been altered.  And I, for one, can no longer identify the bull’s eye.

Which creates difficulties for a teacher, evaluating classroom assignments, to tell whether they did it “right” or whether they did it “wrong” and then explaining that evaluational determination to the student.  (And by the way, who wants that kind of authority?)

ME:  “I appreciate the hard work you put into writing this, but I have to tell you, I did not laugh or crack a smile reading this one time.”

NEW YOUNG COMEDY WRITER:  “That’s because it wasn’t written for you.”

“For you”, Read: “For people who remember Milton Berle and went nuts when he got smacked in the face with a giant powder puff.”  (And by the way, that kid’s getting an “F”.)

What can I tell you?   “Funny is funny”?  Maybe it isn’t.  Not long ago, I read an article surveying modern TV comedies, mostly on Netflix and Amazon, headlined: 

“Comedy Without Laughs”

I have no idea what that means.

I can easily understand audiences generationally laughing at different things.  That’s like music.  One generation’s “platinum” recording is another’s “Turn off that noise!”  But comedies where you don’t laugh?  In our day, we had a name for shows like that.  We called them dramas. 

That was a joke.  Unwelcome on any series exemplifying “Comedy Without Laughs.”  As would the joke’s originator.  

What flashes to mind is a joke I wrote back in Canada.  Before the variety special I wrote it for faded into commercial, a professional “Voice Over” announcer intoned:

“This program was brought to you by Desoto… the car they don’t make anymore.”

I was prescient.  Nailing my current situation half a century in advance.

I’m “Desoto”.

What do you want me to teach?


Wayne said...

Aren't Broadway comedies like the Mary Tyler Moore show with real jokes? I loved your scripts for that.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Well, one of the shows that article you read about "comedy in theory" (Ken Levine noted it, too, IIRC) is that some of the shows that writer (and Ken) doesn't find funny...I *do*. Like YOU'RE THE WORST and TRANSPARENT.

However, what you *can* teach that will never go out of style is how to outline, how to analyze a series and find the key ingredients of every episode, how to build a story, how to layer characters. Your background is in character-driven comedy, but even if today's comedy writers don't get what you have to teach I bet the writers wanting to learn to write drama and crossover forms do.

I've learned a lot from Ken's and your blogs. Doesn't matter a bit that I never liked CHEERS and haven't seen BEST OF THE WEST.


Frank said...

I think Earl is a great comedy teacher through reading his blogs so who needs to go to some fancy talking funny class.