12 Screenwriting Lessons from the Masters of TV Comedy

From her interviews with more than 50 comedy screenwriters, author Paula Finn shares valuable advice for success.
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For my book Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind the Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy, I asked several legendary writers for the most valuable lessons they’d learned about the business or craft. They responded with examples of wisdom received from colleagues and others as well as insights gained from their own experience.

The Dick Van Dyke Show, CBS, Calvada Productions

The Dick Van Dyke Show, CBS, Calvada Productions

1. Get Your Ideas Out.

In the early years of his career, Norman Lear suffered from an incredible amount of fear and anxiety. He recalls his struggles and the advice that saved him:

“I always wrote in a clutch. By 1 o’clock in the morning, I had to start writing or else. I remember sitting on the phone with a shrink after vomiting and literally weeping for hours. I had four hours, five hours to get a monologue in. For years I was stopped by fear. I used to call it shit in the head; I called it that because I couldn’t identify it. But it was a fear, I guess a fear of not making good.” 

A psychiatrist gave Norman an invaluable suggestion for the “shit in the head”:

“Imagine 50 people in a room, and somebody shouts fire. And there’s one small door, and when everybody rushes to the door, everybody’s not gonna get out. Some of them are gonna be burned. And you think of your ideas that way. It doesn’t matter in what order those people get out; you sort them out afterwards if you wish to. Just get ‘em out. It’s the same thing with your ideas. Good, bad, indifferent, they fit, they don’t fit — you’ll sort that out after they’re out the door. It was a great piece of advice, and I’ve given it ten thousand times.”

2. Trust your own judgment.

Phil Doran will never forget the valuable lesson he received from Norman Lear. At one point, the responsibility of writing for audiences of 40 million on All in the Family suddenly got to Phil, and the anxiety overwhelmed him.

“…I remember waking up in a cold sweat thinking how the hell am I gonna do this…what do I have to say to 40 million people!...I was talking to Norman — not about that, since I didn’t want to confess to the boss that I was having an anxiety attack — but in one of our conversations he said, ‘What I do is, I just write what I think is funny. And I think I’m normal enough, that if I think something is funny — you will, too.’ And I thought by God, he’s right. So that’s all I’ve ever done is write what I think is funny. And for the most part, other people have agreed.”

3. Enjoy!

David Isaacs feels he learned a lot from [M*A*S*H creator] Larry Gelbart about just trying to write from your own style, and to really enjoy and love language. “Larry had such ease in what he did…he had a certain innate genius which I think is incomparable, and no matter how hard I tried or how hard I worked, I could never match that. But I think I learned something from him about just settling into your work a little bit and enjoying it more, not judging yourself too harshly, and having fun. He always seemed to be having a good time, which I didn’t always have. And I know I learned some of that from him.”

4. Play the angles.

Carl Kleinschmitt credits Larry Gelbart for teaching him that there are ways to be funny that aren’t obvious. As Carl explains, “Comedy is about not coming head on, but coming from the oblique. And Larry was very good at that…What makes people laugh is what they don’t expect. And to do that, you have to come at things from an angle…everyone I know that was a successful comedy writer always had a way of looking at things from the outside, rather than inside out.”

5. Silence is golden.

Adam Chase’s first room experience was on Phenom. It’s there that he learned the value of silence in group writing: “…to choose your moments, and not say everything that comes into your head, but to really edit yourself and hang back. If you’re the guy who’s constantly talking, your words are gonna be given less weight. And if you hang back and you’re not always talking, when you do open your mouth, people tend to listen.”

6. Take a hint.

Arnie Kogen also has advice on working in a room: “Don’t make a pest of yourself. If your “brilliant” joke is rejected, move on. Don’t keep saying, ‘Hey, this is a good spot to do that smoked salmon line!’ Forget it.” Arnie learned that the hard way from enough producers turning to him and saying, “Kogen enough!”

7. Listen to the children.

“In the most basic sense, the main thing I learned about writing was from my children,” says Janet Leahy. “When they’d ask me to tell them a bedtime story, I had no idea how to do that, and it scared me. Until I realized that all they wanted to know was — and they would ask me this — “Then what happened?” And that’s actually all you need to know for story. But to get to story, you have to know character. Start with an interesting character, and the stories will unfold. When people do it backwards, it's nothing but trouble.”

8. Tell the truth.

The most important thing Janet learned at her subsequent job on The Cosby Show was to tell the truth and the humor will come later. As she explains, “If you’re stuck for a story or if you’re stuck in the middle of a story, and you don’t know how to get yourself out of it ask yourself what would really happen in this situation. Because often writers will make things up, and that’s why their stories feel a little awkward; the writers haven’t done enough research. Even in comedy you can do research. And the more truth you find, the more creative your storytelling becomes. So if you can’t offhand find the truth, then go out and do research, meet people, read books… whatever you need to do. The truth always helps you.”

[COMEDY WRITING: Crossing the Line That Now Keeps Moving]

9. Have patience.

The most valuable lesson Phoef Sutton learned from working on Cheers was “to keep trying.” In other words, don’t settle. As he elaborates, “A story wouldn’t work until it worked. You had to just keep trying. And then it would work. Sometimes stories didn’t work until the day before you shot them and some of those ended up so great they won Emmys.” 

10. Voice matters.

Elliot Shoenman gained a valuable insight early in his career: “On Maude I learned that you have to adjust your voice to the voice of the show…but also to add something of your own. Because later on, when I looked for writers and read spec scripts, I found that people had become very good mimics of a show but they weren’t really able to put anything of themselves into a script. And an example of what I mean is a cancer show we did on Home Improvement where I felt I was putting some of my own stuff in about my relationship with my kids and worrying about them.” 

[Five Screenwriting Lessons from the Geniuses of TV Comedy]

11. Misdirect.

On Maude, Elliot worked alongside veteran I Love Lucy writer Bob Schiller who taught him “how to start off in one direction and then go in the other.” Elliot gives this example from The Honeymooners: “Norton and Kramden were trying to lift a dresser and Norton says wait a second. If you take the drawers out then it’s light, and Ralph says that’s a great idea. So they take them out, they put them on top of the dresser, and they lift it and move it. And Ralph says, ‘Norton, you’re a genius!’ It’s a brilliant piece. The first half of that is a normal bit and then it goes in an insane direction, which is incredibly funny. Totally unreal -- but that’s what I call high-end stupid.”

12. Pass it on.

After thinking more about my question, Elliot offered this last bit of wisdom:

“I think the biggest thing I learned from Schiller and [Bob] Weiskopf and my Maude days was generosity. These guys were all very sharing and patient, and that helped me enormously as I learned the craft. I once asked Weiskopf how I could ever repay them and he said, ‘Pass on what you learned.’” 

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Cast of characters (in alphabetical order):

Adam Chase: Phenom, Friends, Mom

Phil Doran: All in the Family, Too Close for Comfort, Who’s the Boss,? The Facts of Life

David Isaacs: M*A*S*H, Mary (Creator), The Simpsons, Wings, Cheers, Almost Perfect (Creator), Becker, Frasier

Carl Kleinschmitt: The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Funny Face (Creator), M*A*S*H

Arnie Kogen: The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Newhart, Empty Nest

Janet Leahy: Newhart, Major Dad, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Boston Legal, Mad Men

Norman Lear: The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Martha Raye Show, Hot L Baltimore, All in the Family (Creator), The Jeffersons (Creator), Maude (Creator), Sanford and Son (Creator), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (Creator), Fernwood Tonight (Creator), Good Times (Creator), One Day at a Time (Creator)

Elliot Shoenman: Maude, The Cosby Show, Cheers, Home Improvement

Phoef Sutton: Newhart, Cheers, Bob, Thanks (Creator)


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