"Comedy is serious business."
- W.C. Fields
You know what’s funny? I do. But just because I think something’s funny doesn’t mean you will, which probably explains why I don’t have a sitcom on the air… yet. I’ve probably spent more time watching sitcoms than I have making love, lifting weights and dining out with friends… combined. Sounds tragic when I put it like that. But I’ve often heard it said that the best comedy is borne of tragedy. If that’s true I should be a success any minute now.
Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, once told me that in his opinion the difference between a successful sitcom and a not so successful sitcom is relatability. Who am I to argue with Phil. And if what we see on the screen really reflects our own lives, then how hard can it be to write about it? Right? You'd be surprised. A good sitcom, a successful sitcom is one that doesn’t just make you laugh, it makes you empathize. Writing jokes is easy. Placing them within the context of a well crafted story and then having them repeated by a relatable, honest cast of characters in a 22 minute time frame - not so easy.
Michael Pennie makes it looks easy. Michael is a Co-Executive Producer/Writer for My Name Is Earl. The story of a ne'er do well who dedicates his life to cleaning up his Karma. Prior to working on Earl, Michael was a Co-Producer/Writer for the equally successful sitcom, Yes, Dear. Take it from me, when it comes to knowing what's funny, Michael is at the head of the class.
Jeffrey Berman: Humor is subjective. So how do you know when something you've written is funny?
Michael Pennie: That can be tough. Especially when you write and rewrite a scene so many times that you become sick of the jokes and lose perspective. I like to bounce stuff off of other people – and not just people I consider to be funny. Sometimes I even ask my wife. I find it more helpful to get the opinion of those that don’t necessarily have the same sense of humor as I do. Since most people probably don’t want to be critical of their friends work, I make sure to tell them that I’m not looking for their approval; I truly want their honest feedback. Also, it helps to have them read the script or scene in front of me, or listen to me pitch a joke to them verbally. It’s usually not hard to distinguish polite laughter from true enjoyment.
MP: I think finding the voice of My Name is Earl was more difficult than it would be for a lot of other shows. Being there from the beginning while the show’s creator, Greg Garcia, was still developing the show’s voice certainly helped me. In the early stages when all we had to work off of was the pilot episode, I learned as much from which pitches got shot down in the writers’ room as I did from what pitches actually got in the scripts. One example I recall from the first week of work was a joke pitch where Earl’s brother Randy, a grown man, is in an elementary school library, surrounded by kids staring at a computer screen. Suddenly Randy starts banging on the side of the computer and yells, “Hey, my porn machine’s broken!” The joke seemed consistent with what we knew about the character from the pilot. However, Greg Garcia had decided that he wanted Randy to be more innocent and childlike. I think that happens on a lot of shows. In early episodes of Will & Grace, you’ll notice that the character of Karen while fundamentally the same, she is a far more dialed back version of the character in later episodes. Sometimes this character evolution is the result of the actors and writers trying out different things to shape the character. This is especially true of secondary characters like Karen. In pilot episodes, most of the twenty-two minutes is spent introducing the world of the show and defining the main characters’ relationships and points of view. However, when a show gets on the air, the writers have to come up with twenty-two plus episodes, hopefully for several seasons. Inevitably this means the writers will soon look to give the supporting characters more dimension and greater significance to the main characters’ lives so they can serve as a richer source for stories and not just comic relief.
With that in mind, when writing a spec script for a particular show, it is important to stay current with the show and to be true to the characters as they are, not as they once were, or the way you think they should be. A few years ago I had an idea for a Two and a Half Men spec, where Alan’s ex-wife, Judith, and his brother Charlie wind up dating the same woman. It was a good idea except for the fact that at that particular time on the show, the Judith character was no longer a lesbian and had not been for several seasons. As tempting as it was to ignore this fact, I chose not to. My concern was that no matter how funny the spec script may have turned out, it would have seemed out of date compared to the other Two and a Half Men specs. Or even worse, I might appear to not know the show as well as other writers. A spec script’s purpose is to demonstrate that a writer can come up with similar stories and write for characters that someone else created. Why give any reason for someone to question your abilities by writing a story that takes the show or a character in direction that changes the show? Get to know the show and write a spec script that sounds like an episode of the show.
When finding the voice of a show I would recommend not only watching the show – but studying it. Record as many episodes as possible and watch them with a pen and notebook in hand. Pause after each scene and make notes. How many minutes was the scene? How frequently did jokes occur? If the show does B stories and runners, pay attention and indicate whenever a scene includes beats of the B and or C stories. Are the smaller stories different in tone from the A story? At each act break try to predict the direction the story will take. The truly dedicated might also consider taping the audio of the show so they can listen to the dialogue in their downtime. Since cassette tapes are a thing of the past, I’m guessing the best way these days is to download the episodes to an iPod. This may sound excessive, but it will truly help to get the characters’ voices and rhythm of dialogue down. Before long, when watching new episodes, you should be able to recognize a joke set up from a mile away and occasionally find yourself beating the character to their punch line.
JB: I read a quote about Earl that said, "You have to understand the humor to get the jokes." What makes Earl so different from a typical sitcom and how does that affect your approach to writing an episode?
MP: I have heard that said about My Name is Earl as well as some other shows. I’m not sure if I fully understand what that means. I imagine you have to get the humor of any show to appreciate it. One thing that makes My Name is Earl different is that most “traditional sitcoms,” as well as some not-so-traditional sitcoms, are often set in a world or a life situation to which large segments of the population can relate. For example, many people relied on a group of good friends to help them get through their twenties. Those same people probably work in an office and are now probably married and have children. This is not to say that familiarity is the only thing that makes other shows appealing and popular. People don’t just want to watch versions of their lives on TV; they want to watch really funny versions of their lives on TV. But without question, familiarity is wisely the goal of many shows. The more people that can say, “Hey, that’s just like my life.” Or, “That’s the exact same argument I have with my wife,” the more people there are that will likely become loyal viewers. Since large segments of the viewing audience probably can’t identify with the world or character’s situations on My Name is Earl, I guess we can only hope people appreciate the humor.
On My Name is Earl the humor doesn’t usually come in the familiar set-up joke form as often as it does in more “traditional” sitcoms. This was a difficult adjustment to make. Countless years of watching sitcoms and a few years of writing on one had me conditioned to create opportunities for a character to say something funny when writing a joke. On the first episode of My Name is Earl that I wrote, I was given a note that one of my jokes was “too written.” After trying to figure out how to write a joke that didn’t sound written, I came to realize that in most cases, it’s usually the straight line (the set-up) that is too written or contrived.
The approach I adopted to avoid then when writing episodes of My Name is Earl is to try to write jokes off of straight lines that the character might say regardless of the joke that followed. In other words, can you remove the joke from the scene and leave the set-up line without it sounding out of place or unnecessary? My favorite example of one such joke was in an episode written by Kat Likkel and John Hoberg where Earl and his brother Randy visit an “off the grid” environmentally conscious hippie commune. Earl had just been bombarded with facts about the state of the environment and in recounting everything the hippies had told him to his brother. Earl says, “Randy, these people don’t believe in plastic.” Randy replies: “That’s crazy. I’ve seen plastic.” If you removed the joke from this exchange, Earl’s set-up line still works as a straight line that a person might actually say in that situation, and could live on its own as information that serves the plot. Another example is from a flashback where Earl is in the back of a phony faith healer’s church stealing money from unattended purses. The faith healer’s con-man father approaches Earl, holds out a fistful of cash and says, “You wanna make some real money?” Earl reaches for the cash. The man pulls it back and says: “Hold on. First let me see you walk with a limp.” This flashback was necessary to the plot of the story, but it wasn’t particularly funny. Greg Garcia asked us to find a joke for Earl in the exchange. Everything we wrote sounded too jokey, or just wasn’t funny enough. By about the fifth time the joke was sent back to us, we were convinced it wasn’t possible to wedge a joke in without it sounding forced. Then we tweaked the set-up line from: “Hold on. First let me see you walk with a limp.” To: “Hold on. First let me see you limp.” Then Earl starts to unzip his pants and says, “Alright, but you’re just gonna look, right?” Again, if you remove the joke, the set-up still works as a straight line.
JB: In what way is My Name is Earl different from Yes, Dear and how would you advise writers when it comes to adapting their style from one series to the next?
MP: On Yes, Dear I would say the goal was to do funny relatable stories about young couples raising children. With My Name is Earl, we try to do funny thought provoking stories with heart. Even though the stories and worlds explored on My Name is Earl aren’t usually relatable, we do try touch on themes that people can identify with.
As far as adapting their style form one series to the next, I would advise any writer to adapt their style to that of the show’s creator. Several million people may watch a particular show each week, but as a writer or potential writer for any show you should only be writing for the one or two people that sit at the heads of the writers’ table. That’s not to say that you can’t bring your own talent and experience to the table. However, I have seen many novice and experienced writers show up and try to impose their own sense of humor and style on someone else’s show. If you are being considered for or have landed a staff writing position on a show, chances are you have talent. But for this particular job, the talent that you were hired for is your ability to come up with stories and write for characters created by someone else. You may think you know what’s best for someone else’s show -- but I’m willing to bet that they won’t agree. While this may sound creatively unfulfilling to some, you can always express your personal style by writing your own pilot or screenplay in your spare time.
JB: This one's a little tricky. When writing a sitcom is there a point where the comedy affects character development and story structure or is it just about finding where the laughs fit into each week's script?
MP: I would say that comedy does not have to, but it can certainly and should affect character development if possible. Pheobe from Friends comes to mind. Early on, most of what we knew about Pheobe came from off the cuff jokes about her mother’s suicide and how as a teenager she lived on the streets. Later on, the writers did some very good stories about Pheobie’s past and didn’t have to waste valuable page count with pipey exposition to establish her past in the episodes.
That said, I would contend that character development and story structure are far more likely to affect comedy. One of the first pieces of advice given to me by Greg Garcia, the creator of Yes, Dear and My Name is Earl was not to get too attached to a joke because often times your favorite joke will get cut in favor of story. At the time, I didn’t believe that could be true. It seemed counterintuitive that when writing comedy you would ever choose to lose a joke over a straight line. But over the years I have seen it happen time and time again. The fact is that the audience (or reader) won’t miss a joke that they never knew existed. Conversely, remove straight lines that serve to set up the plot and they surely will notice that the story doesn’t make sense.
Sometime jokes are sacrificed to protect consistency of a character’s actions. Early in the first season of My Name is Earl, Greg Garcia kept rejecting joke and story pitches where Earl’s ex-wife Joy was knowingly negligent with her kids. It was a source of frustration for the writing staff because without question, Joy was the most unredeemable character on the show. She tried to kill the main character throughout the second episode. Greg admitted that he thought the jokes were funny, but it was important to him that no matter how bad of a person Joy is -- above all else she loves her kids and would never do anything to purposely endanger them. To the rest of us it seemed we were sacrificing comedy that was organic to the character. However, in later episodes we have used Joy’s love for her children in several stories that showed a softer side of the character that would have seemed disingenuous and inconsistent had we done a lot of those jokes and stories earlier in the series.