The Sitcom Room

Anyone watching our latest offering is probably sitting there wondering: are sitcom writing rooms really like that? Do people sit around all day and fling insults at each other while the producer gradually goes out of her mind? Can interns really not open jars of coffee? Is photocopying quite such a dangerous activity?

To be honest, we were never entirely sure while writing it. Sure, we had plenty of experience of uncomfortable writing rooms for stage shows; we’d heard tales from deep within the bowels of the BBC, incidents that were spoken of in hushed tones, with furtive glances to see who was looking. And I once injured myself on a Xerox machine back in 1993.

But that’s the UK. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, people as far away as Australia have been watching. People in Canada. People in America. And that got us thinking: America has sitcoms too, and they have sitcom writing rooms as well – they’re famous for it, in fact, as the principal way that TV comedy gets written in Hollywood. Surely their rooms aren’t nearly as dysfunctional as we’d made ours to be. But how could we ever know?

Enter Ken Levine, blogger, Talkradio 790 KABC host, oh and Emmy-winning sitcom writer. Some time last year, he got together with Day O’Day, blogger and expert on Personality Radio (seriously: check his website), and between them they run this thing called The Sitcom Room.

Now I’m not suggesting I flew all the way to Los Angeles, camped out in a hotel for nearly 36 hours, ate reasonable Chinese food (it was advertised as bad Chinese food, but frankly I was disappointed), met some great writers, and stayed up afterwards talking American politics until gone midnight – I’m not suggesting I did all that just to find out whether Hollywood writing rooms involve protracted discussions of pheasants. But since we had to do that research, I sure as hell wasn’t going to put the other James through all that crap. I mean, come on: he’s got delicate skin. It’s entirely possible that California would kill him.

The format was pretty simple. At the start, we spent half an hour chatting and vaguely getting to know people. During this time, Ken and Dan were watching carefully to ensure that we’d later be paired up with precisely the people we talked to the least; to facilitate this piece of admin, Ken talked for two or three hours ahead of lunch, giving us some useful background and tips, punctuated by anecdotes and his hatred of a certain scumbag talent agency. Up till then it was pretty much like any other writing seminar you might imagine, only without air conditioning. Then some actors came in and did a fairly bad scene, with the 20 of us trying to keep up putting crosses through the jokes that didn’t work in the script.

Then off we went in our teams to rewrite the scene in twelve hours, with a list of studio and network notes (some of which contradicted each other, and some of which made no sense and bore no obvious relation to the scene at all; Ken made a point of being very polite about studio and network execs, but if these notes were at all representative I suspect that’s down to tact more than anything).

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In the room: I was clearly being passionate about something, although I can’t remember what. Actually, one of the most interesting things that happened, which a lot of people commented on, was that you quickly lost sight of who came up with different jokes, different ideas. Despite this, people would get incredibly worked up over particular things: this joke, that story beat, whether we were going to like a character if it appeared he might be fleeing the country to avoid being implicated in the death of an innocent dance teacher. (I was guilty of worrying about the last… and I was wrong.)

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The following day, our four totally different takes on the scene were performed for us, letting us see real actors tackle what we’d come up with. I guess for many people, particularly people starting out writing, this would be incredibly helpful; I’ve at least had that experience before, but it’s still the only way to test whether something works. And they did work, all four of them, much to everyone’s relief.

You can read Ken’s own write-up. We had the mirror. We also had the Hitler joke.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Besides the fun of meeting new people, writing, and seeing your work performed (because let’s face it: I can get all that without travelling five thousand miles), it gave me conviction that I want to keep doing this, and do it more; and the confidence that I’m good enough to. Getting started in writing involves a fair amount of sitting on your own waiting for the words to come, and it’s not always clear during those YouTube breaks if you’re heading in quite the right direction, or if there’s going to be anything there when you arrive.

If I could have got more out of it in any way, I think it would have been that during the writing my group could have asked Ken more questions, and maybe got his input on what we were doing. As it was, whenever he turned up we just acted a bit like naughty school children. “Everything going okay?” “Yes, it’s all fine.” “Nothing you want to tell me about? No petty larceny, or dead bodies, or lengthy discussions about the relative merits of the sexual organs of different animals?” Admittedly part of that was because of an early visit where a small bombshell was dropped on us (the details of which are sealed under a vow of secrecy) and we had to throw away some of the work we’d done – so every time either Ken or Dan came in after that we were worried they’d announce that the network wanted to replace the entire thing with a musical.

Right at the end, after the read-throughs, and after we’d all had a chance to have another go over our scripts, a few other show-runners came in and talked about their experiences over the years. Despite the impression given by Ken’s post, and one or two of the comments from people who weren’t actually there, this wasn’t a big part of the weekend, but it was useful in its own way (although, I suspect, the sort of thing you could get in some form or another at other seminars and industry courses), and of course contained a load more stories about the sorts of things that go on in a Hollywood writing room.

Although I’m still not sure how much they talk about pheasants.

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