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09/10/2006: What color is your writers' room?
Hello, Gentle Readers! I just spent a wonderful weekend on board the Queen Mary, where I was a guest at a convention for Buffy fans and, specifically, fans of James Marsters (Spike). Oh, what fun! Buffy fans are generous and amazing. Plus, the green room for us presenters was the ship's old boiler room. It was cavernous and dark and musty and full of clanky noises and creepy echoes and ramps that led down into murky shadows and floorless floors. Atmosphere like you wouldn't believe. I loved it.
One fan asked me whether I preferred writing drama or comedy, and I said I loved them both. Thinking about it now, I realize that was a pretty useless answer. I love them differently. The way a person might love both artichokes and throw pillows, you know?
And it occurs to me that some of you out there may be trying to decide this same question for yourself. So I'm gonna lay out some of the nature of the contrast. Comedy is funny. Ha! No, there's more!
First off, comedy is a hard, hard world right now. No jobs to be had. And the ones that do exist are being given to all the experienced comedy writers who have development deals; the studio is invested in keeping us working. But this will change, I am convinced -- the pendulum will swing and comedy will ride again. Since comedy writing is harder, there is something to be said for having a good solid comedy spec all ready to show off that skill, if you have it.
The working experiences on the two kinds of shows are totally different. Comedy writing is vastly more of a team experience. Every line is evaluated as a group, and most jokes get rewritten. This is true for both single-camera shows (like Earl), and multi-camera shows (like Two and a Half Men). Often, the script that is currently being rewritten is projected on a TV screen in the writers' room, and the writers all shout out their suggestions for gutting-- improving it. When a change meets the approval of the show runner, the writers' assistant types it into the script.
The comedy room tends to be a loud and riotous place -- lots of shouting and laughing. One notable exception I've heard about was the Frasier room, which was, by all accounts, quiet and thoughtful.
Drama writing is much more of an individual pursuit, and often the show runner is the only one who changes your lines. Some drama shows don't even have a writers' room at all -- the writers rarely or never assemble to discuss stories together. House, I understand, works this way. When a change is mandated, the writer goes home (or to her office) and makes the change herself.
You probably already know, at this point, which kind of writing appeals to you more. If you were the class clown, and always found yourself getting funnier when other funny people were around, if you enjoy 'topping' someone else's joke, if you like the verbal by-play, then you are a comedy writer. Now, you might also be a comedy writer if you're more introspective, and are funny on the page if not in person... that can work too. That's more like me. But the comedy rooms of Hollywood tend to be more frequently populated by the first type. These kinds of writers often cringe at the thought of the drama writer's lonely and contemplative life. And they often don't like the idea that they won't get to weigh in on their colleagues' scripts. The collaboration in a comedy room gives the entire staff more of a sense of ownership of *all* the episodes, which is usually lacking in drama.
If you find jokes mysterious, or if you insist on a certain level of taste and respect, then stick with drama, and don't even bother with a comedy spec. You might be able, though hard work and study, to cobble one together, but it'll be really hard to follow it up. And you'll probably find the environment of the room nerve-wracking.
So, which do I like better? Well, I think I like the center of a continuum that slides along from pure procedural drama to really broad jokey comedy. I love watching Law and Order, and I love watching Family Guy. But one is too far to the 'drama' side and one is too far to the 'comedy' side, for me as a writer. I like the middle: comedies with grounded characters that are willing to let us have an emotion or two, and dramas that show us the world complete with a sense of humor.
And, of course, I like aliens and robots. Everyone likes aliens and robots.
Lunch: A peanut butter cookie and a cappucino from the deli on The Queen Mary.