Between the Laughs, Sitcom Writing Is Serious Business
With "Seinfeld" leading the way at the top of Nielsen ratings, TV sitcoms have thrived in the 1990s. Audience appetite for entertaining comedies has led to three of the best: "Spin City," "Frasier," and the new "Dharma & Greg." In each of these, it's the writing, from plot to punch lines, that makes us laugh.
Writing sitcoms for a living may sound like a lot of fun, but there's plenty of hard work involved. "We are telling three stories in 18 to 21 scenes for a 22-minute show, and all the scenes have to entertain, make a point in a minute or less, and make sense," says writer/producer Bill Lawrence of "Spin City."
Unlike those lone wolves who compose plays and novels, slaving over a hot PC all day in isolation, TV writers compose by committee - anywhere from eight to 14 writers at a time, depending on the show. And even with all these writers working frenetically, there is often a rush to deadline.
Christopher Lloyd (no relation to the actor), an executive producer for "Frasier," says, "There are eight writers on the show. It's trial and error. We sit down together and ask ourselves what is of interest to us. We think about funny dilemmas we've been in. The best shows are rooted in some kind of reality. And once we've found a through line [pivotal incident or theme] for Frasier, then it is a matter of dressing it up the funniest way possible."
Unlike writers for movies, television writers are more or less traditionally the show's producers as well, having casting, editing, and budgeting responsibilities. So the producer/writers who first conceive the story line are most often, though not always, the people who head the writing staff for the run of the show.
Sitcoms are all created pretty much the same way; a pattern has emerged that changes only slightly from show to show. First, of course, comes the idea. Dottie Dartland and Chuck Lorre ("Caroline in the City," "Cybill") were looking around for a vehicle for Jenna Elfman, a wonderful actress - sort of a screwball cross between Carole Lombard and Goldie Hawn.
"It started with the premise: What would happen if two people fell in love and trusted their instincts about one another?" says Mr. Lorre, who had once dated a woman very much like Dharma. "She tried to make her entire life a work of art," he says of this friend. "I didn't understand it, but I never forgot it."
Greg is the exact opposite of the free-spirited Dharma, daughter of 1960s hippie-liberals. His conservative, upper-crust parents help provide conflict and much of the sardonic humor.
Michael J. Fox's role in "The American President" proved to be the inspiration behind "Spin City," in which Fox plays the "spin doctor" (a cross between a public-relations officer and a political adviser) in a New York mayor's office. The show is a star vehicle with a familiar ensemble approach.
The idea behind "Frasier" was rather simple: Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was a character on the long-running hit "Cheers." But beyond that, the producers were boomers themselves looking at the change in parent-child roles in their own lives, which they incorporated into the show with Frasier's father.
Once the premise is fixed, the characters begin to develop - shaped in large part by the personality of the actors playing them.
The easiest part, say the writers, is making up jokes. "The hardest part is structuring out a story," says Mr. Lawrence of "Spin City." "First someone comes in with an idea, then the group spends two or three days next to a chalkboard outlining the show - not jokes and lines, just where the scenes take place and what goes on in them. Then a team of writers will take two weeks to write a script. Then it is rewritten by the entire staff. We call it punching it up before the table read."
The "table read" is the first run-through by the actors. All week long, as the actors rehearse, the script continues to evolve until the show is shot on Friday. "Altogether there are probably 30 to 40 people on the set, including our 14 writers, the crew, and actors," adds Jeffrey Lowell, also a writer/producer of "Spin City." "If they laugh, we know it's funny."
There are 600 writers currently working in the sitcom genre - a drop in the bucket compared with the number of writers aspiring to write for TV, but a healthy work force, nonetheless.
Mr. Lloyd says that producers have to be sure a writer can write in the voice of established characters.
"Hand me your version of a 'Mad About You,' and I can judge if it's funny, if it's nimble with language," he says. "And I tend to look for writers with a breadth of experience." All kinds of life experience provide grist for the comedy mill.
"There is always a job for a good writer, " says Mr. Lowell. His advice to aspiring writers: "Learn the business and keep writing."