5 lessons for IT leaders from sitcom writers
Selling creative ideas to your peers and your bosses is important and stressful in any business setting. Imagine the pressure when it’s your job to entertain millions of people.
Comedy writing is a team process—up to a point. We wondered if the process was similar to the experience in corporate suites. So we asked a couple of people behind shows you may know—like "Saturday Night Live," "ALF," "Night Court," and "Courage the Cowardly Dog"—how they collaborate their way to success. It turns out there are some pretty good lessons to be learned.
Here are five ways to help your ideas win.
Understand the environment
Different project types can require different approaches. The process for creating sketch comedy, for instance, is not written the same way as situation comedies, says writer Kevin Kelton.
Sketch comedy is usually created by a solo writer who pitches ideas, explains Kelton, who spent two seasons on "Saturday Night Live," was a head writer for “Night Court,” and teaches TV writing at the University of California, Los Angeles, Extension Program. If the pitch is approved (and sometimes even if it isn’t), the writer goes off, writes, and presents to the bosses.
Half-hour comedy series, on the other hand, are story-based. Seasons and sometimes the entire run are planned out in advance. The writing teams are led by an executive producer, also known as a showrunner. Each of the team's writers goes off to create stories based around the show’s characters. The team then convenes and decides which stories work as primary threads and which as subsidiary B, C, and D stories that are interwoven with an episode’s main plot.
The showrunner takes the episode ideas to the network or studio. Once all necessary approvals are obtained, a writer then goes off and creates a beat sheet, or a bulleted list of scenes for each story. Then comes an outline, followed by a first draft, and sometimes a second.
Quite a few people can be involved. It’s important to convey the goals clearly.
“Often, on ‘Courage,’ it was me as head writer and then a couple of writers who were selected by the creator of the show to be around the table,” says David Steven Cohen, whose credits include the animated series “Arthur,” “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” and “Peg + Cat,” as well as the series “Strangers With Candy,” “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and “ALF.” “But I was in charge of organizing the writing. The freelancer would come in, and around the table we would craft the story based on a small idea that was approved. I would want the writer to leave the room with a solid sense of the structure of the story, because we'll take the two hours necessary to have this meeting to craft the story that we're all comfortable with. So when the outline comes back, we're not really surprised except happily, with all the little moments that you've added.”
If there’s a difference of opinion about whether a story element works, “The process is, the showrunner wins,” Kelton says. “You tell them why you think your idea is a good idea, but ultimately, they say yes or no. It's generally a very gentlemanly thing. You just do what they want. I think you get one chance to advocate for your idea, and if they still don't like it, then you move on.”
Have a better idea
In any creative process, hearing the word no can be a crusher. Don’t let it stop you. When you hear or deliver a rejection, suggest an alternative.
“There's an informal saying in half-hour comedy show writing: Beat it or leave it,” Kelton says, “which means if somebody doesn't like an idea in the room, it's not enough to just say, ‘I don't think that's gonna work.’ You should actually have something that's a better idea, an improvement.”
One time on SNL, between dress rehearsal and airtime, someone decided that the ending of a sketch didn't work. “It was only the second show of my run there, and it was the first time I got material in,” Kelton says. “The ending fell flat in dress, and a cameraman pitched an ending that they went with. I really was kind of a little testy about it, because I didn't like the idea of a cameraman rewriting my sketch. But they went with his ending.”
“It really comes down to a version of empathy, a version of looking at somebody else's idea and letting it in, trying to understand what another person is thinking like,” says Cohen. “I'll often stop and say, ‘Oh, wait. Let's dwell on this for a while. What's your take on that?’ Or, swiftly moving off of something that I know isn't going to work or that might work but will take forever and you have to meet the schedule.”
“If there's enough time in the process,” Kelton says, “the executive producer might give you a couple of notes and send you back to do a second draft. At some point, that draft goes to the table into the writers' room. Then you go through the script page by page, and the executive producer will say, ‘I think we need to beat this line,’ or ‘I don't think this scene is working,’ or ‘Something doesn't feel right,’ and everybody pitches on it.
It's a very democratic process, Kelton says. “In comedy, if it gets a laugh, it's got a good shot of getting in. If you happen to be good at pitching, your jokes are more likely to get laughs in the room and therefore more likely to land in the script.”
“But the showrunner himself—or herself—is in the room, and they are the final arbiters of what gets in,” says Kelton. “There's no network executive, there's no studio executive in the room. It's very rare that even a performer is allowed in the room. Only people who have tremendous power over their own series get to ever sit in the writers' room while they're working.”
Build a diverse team
If everyone in a meeting has the same background and similar personalities, why would you expect to get anything but the same old solutions? Actively recruit people who think differently.
In comedy, not everyone has the same skills, and smart team builders cast the writing staff carefully. “Everybody has different strengths,” Cohen says. “Not to say that some people can't do all of these things, but there are people who are particularly good at crafting character, or crafting story, and there are people who are particularly good at dialogue. But they don't necessarily have all the skills you want, so you try to make sure that all the needs of that particular project are met in terms of a writer's creative input.”
“There are different skills that writers bring to the room,” Kelton adds. “Really good showrunners cast their room so they have the right mix of skills and talent. Some people are good at story. Some people are good at jokes. When it's 2:00 a.m. and the energy is dwindling because everybody's been up all day and you're mired in a very difficult rewrite, there are certain writers who just bring a certain energy to the room. There are certain writers who'll pitch a lot of stuff that doesn't get into the script, but it generates a lot of ideas and action. There are certain writers who are just so charming and funny when they talk about their own lives that they keep the room in good spirits. They may not necessarily be the best technical writers, but they're like that funny uncle that you have at Thanksgiving who just makes everything better.”
Diversity benefits any creative process because it gives a wider perspective—but that also makes disagreements inevitable. Negotiation is important even if you work with a frequent collaborator. Learn to turn the dispute into a new solution. “All right, we were disagreeing—like he wanted this, I wanted that—and we both felt very strongly,” Cohen says. “We said OK, put those two things aside. Let's come up with a third thing that we both like better than either of the things that we were just fighting for. Because I know if we both like it and we both think it's right, it's definitely better than the other two things that we were each fighting for.”
Listen to feedback
When your project is done—or when you think you’re done—you most likely go through an approval process. If you’re like most people, this experience requires patience and a willingness to heed feedback that is less than fully informed. Don’t freak out.
Eventually, the scripts or outlines go to the network or producer for approval. Sometimes, there are comments. Sometimes the comments are suggestions, and sometimes they’re carved-in-stone “thou shalts.”
Your response to the feedback depends on your relationship with that particular network and that particular executive, Kelton says. “A really good executive doesn't give thou-shalt notes. A really good executive tries to convince you that his idea will help you be successful with your show. When it's done right, it's truly a creative collaboration. As you can imagine, some executives are more creative than others. Some executives think they're creative and aren't. Some executives know they're not creative and they may throw out an idea or try to influence you, but they may ultimately defer to the creative people.”
If the executive is anxious and you don't trust your ability, you may make everyone around you miserable, Cohen says. “Look, there are some places where you're expected to give notes by the pound. I don't want to name names. But when you wish upon a star, it still doesn't help. Even if you whistle while you work, it won't help you when working for this particular organization.”
The boss’s opinion usually wins.
“When I was working on the show ‘A Different World,’” Kelton says, “we had worked on a script. We'd gone through several drafts. It had gone through the table. Then it went to the first reading from the actors, and it landed with a thud. So the writers all go back to the writing room. Debbie Allen, who was the director and the producer of the show, comes in.... But she turned to the executive producer, and said, ‘I know what your problem is, darling. Your show starts at the beginning of the second act. The episode starts at the beginning of act two. You just need to start there and then add on a whole new act.
“And that's what we ended up doing, because that's what she told us to do,” says Kelton. “We weren't happy about it. We thought that she was nuts. But that's what we ended up doing.”
Was she right?
“You know, I don't remember, actually," he says. “It very well could've been better than ours.”
Remember why you’re there
Sometimes, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in your project’s details that you lose track of the overall goal, which might be improving an IT process, launching a product, or implementing a strategic plan. For comedy, the writers agree, everything comes down to telling a good story.
“The casual viewer sometimes might have a misconception that a half-hour show is a loosely constructed story, and it's really about a lot of jokes and a lot of funny things happening in the episode,“ Kelton says. “From the inside, it's exactly the opposite. We work diligently. We sweat over story. Jokes can be replaced. Jokes can be beaten. Jokes can be punched up with a laugh track sometimes, if a show has a laugh track. Story is immutable. If you don't have a good story, the best jokes in the world are not going to save the episode.”
“In sitcoms,” Cohen says, “there are still a lot of shows that are written around the table. ‘The Simpsons’ is famously written around the table. It comes as a surprise to many writers when they see how much their scripts are changed.” But even as the jokes are being tweaked and improved, he says. “by the time it's a script, the story should be working. If you're unraveling a script, you didn't do your job in the outline or you have an executive giving you ridiculous notes too late. So, to me, the most critical time is working around the table, is in the crafting of the initial story. You need to own the story before you start going into script so that all the moves that you've created for your character are based on who the character is or the characters are: what they want, what their obsession is, the mistakes they make, what they're afraid of. The story is flowing from that, in challenging the characters in ways that bring out their personality.”
That may work in unexpected ways, Cohen adds.
“I worked on a Russian cartoon, and we would get notes from Russia—very different sensibilities. There was a bleakness to all the Russian notes. It was a cartoon, and we were having them discussing Dostoevsky just in the corners of the show," he says. "It was explained to me, to understand the Russian sense of humor, you need to know this joke:
"A guy wakes up on his back and sees lights passing, and he realizes he's on a gurney being wheeled down a long hallway. He looks up and he says, ‘Where are we going?’ The guy looks down at him, the guy pushing the gurney, and says, ‘We are going to the morgue.’ He says, ‘But I'm not dead.’ And the guy pushing the gurney says, ‘Well, we are not there yet.’ Now go write your children's cartoon.”
Lights, cameras, action
Unless you’re very lucky, your job probably doesn’t involve writing comedy. But it does involve collaboration, coming up with ideas, working through the ideas, and presenting them for an audience’s approval. You’ll have an easier time—and maybe more fun—if you follow in the footsteps of experienced comedy writers: Understand what you’re trying to create, pay attention to your narrative, build on ideas instead of rejecting them, work with diverse teams, and take feedback gracefully.
This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.