Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Writing the Sitcom with a Little Help from a TV Legend Good at Doing It

Participants toss out ideas.
Alan Zweibel Conducts a Workshop at Quinnipiac
By Lauren Yarger
A group of people sit around a table pitching ideas to a producer for what they hope will make the next hit television sitcom. The setting isn’t a Hollywood studio exec’s office, however. It’s the Hamden, CT campus of Quinnipiac University where legendary television sitcom writer Alan Zweibel is conducting a weeklong workshop on the art of writing a sitcom.

This might not be the real thing, but the ambitious pace the program sets can rival any shooting schedule in LA. In just one week, the students are scheduled to come up with an idea for a sitcom, write the script, cast it, shoot it in the studios of the Ed McMahon Communications Center and edit it into a 22-minute show -- a process that takes about five months, not five days, in the real world of sitcoms.

The idea is the brain child of Michael D. Calia, director of the McMahon Center, who met Zweibel at a production of the Emmy-award winning author’s play in New York. The two started sharing ideas for teaching a course that would take students through the process of writing a television sitcom. Zweibel certainly know the process. He got his start as one of the original writers for "Saturday Night Live" creating the memorable Samurai Delicatessen, Rosanne Rosannadanna and Emily Litella sketches, among others.  He has received multiple Emmys and Writers Guild and TV Critics awards for his work in television for shows including “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” ”Great Performances”, “Monk,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Calia was thrilled when Zweibel offered to teach the workshop though the comedy writer doesn’t see himself as a teacher. It was the mentoring part – helping people who always had wanted to write for TV or who thought they might like to try it – to get some hands on experience that interested him.

“I wish we had a program like this when I was in school,” he said. A lot of people took the time to mentor him when he was first starting out, so Zweibel sees the workshop as one way to pay back that investment.

Ranging in age from 17 to 74 from all different backgrounds, the participants themselves would make an interesting sitcom cast of characters.
      ·         Doug, a retired parole officer who has some local TV experience, is a drummer in a band.
·         Lana, a multi-experienced entrepreneur, stockbroker, nurse, has made some documentaries and thinks she might be good behind the camera.
·         Tim, a recent graduate of Quinnipiac, likes the production end and would like to beef up his resume.
·         Audrey, a junior at Quinnipiac, works for the campus news station and is trying to figure out what she would like to do for a career.
·         Lizzy is a senior at Granby High School. She likes the sophisticated comedies currently on TV.
·         Brad is a senior film major at Quinnipiac. When he’s not doing his stand-up comedy, he spends his time writing sitcom pilots. His goal five years from now: to be in the second season of a show he is writing.
·         Frank, a junior at Quinnipiac, also does stand-up. He’s interested in performing in a sitcom.
·         Sam, a senior at Quinnipiac, is interested in editing, rather than writing, but thinks learning about the writing process will make her more well rounded.
·         Joshua, who was an investment analyst in New York took a fiction writing workshop and discovered his passion. He has written two novels and now would like to try something more collaborative. He’s written a TV pilot.
·         Neil, a former orthodontist and investment adviser from Brooklyn, is hoping to get a job on the staff of the “Jerry Kimmel Live!” show where his son is a writer.
·         Brian, a Wallingford High School student, enjoys theater and science.
·         Marty, an assistant professor at Quinnipiac, has written for the New York Times and has an independent film coming out next year. 

“It’s Monday. We have nothing,” Zweibel tells the group. “By Friday, we’ll have something,” then adds, “If the queen had balls, she’d be king.”

He is skeptical that they will be able to come up with a full 22-minute pilot in the timeframe they have, but length isn’t important. As long as they produce something that is cohesive and as good as it can be, he’ll be happy, he says, and they begin the process of coming up with the concept.

Many ideas get tossed around, some funny, some not, but no real winner seems to emerge. In between the ideas, Zweibel skillfully offers general information about the process in Hollywood – what the week’s schedule looks like, what producers are looking for in potential scripts, what script treatments and outlines contain. He also shows an incredible amount of patience, allowing the participants to run with ideas that seem impossible and letting them come to that conclusion on their own. He might be more of a teacher than he thinks. 
Zweibel, right, offers some insights in the studio.
Eventually a few main concepts become the frontrunners: a show featuring a multi-generational family business, one about a parole officer, a show about a ballroom dancing studio and another about campus tour guides. None of them is developed enough to make it by “producer” Zweibel yet though, and the funniest part of the “pitching” becomes how the participants try to shape their favorite parts to fit the others. What about parole officer who takes a tour? What if the ballroom were owned by several generations of a family?

Somewhere the idea of a character searching for a lost bong given to him by Jimi Hendrix gets tossed out there and won’t go away. What if he interacts with the parole officer? What if he is the parole officer? What if he and several generations of his family own a head shop which could be the sitcom’s setting? What if the bong were discovered on a campus tour?

All of those ideas bring a lot of laughter, but won’t stand up as a sitcom idea which needs a solid location, interesting characters and a reason for them to be there over a 26-episode season. It becomes apparent that the first step of deciding on a premise is more difficult than anyone thought it would be.

Zweibel takes the group for a quick tour of the studio where they will be filming. The reality of creating sets in the small studio helps them focus. Finally, at 3 pm, the group satisfies producer Zweibel. It will be ballroom studio featuring characters who run the place as well as those who come for lessons. None of them will be looking for a bong.

The group starts an outline. Who are the characters? What does each scene look like?

Tuesday the participants write the script. They break into small groups to focus on characters or scenes, then come back to work collaboratively. The first draft will be awful, Zweibel warns them, and he’s right. It is. More rewrites, more collaboration and a working script finally emerges. Wednesday involves casting the show, blocking the scenes and rehearsing. Some additional actors will be needed to pull off some of the characters.

Meanwhile, Calia has hired Rachel Reynolds, resident scenic designer at Ivoryton Playhouse, to handle production design for the sitcom. Additional folks are brought in to provide wardrobe, lights and props and Quinnipiac students and staff are tapped to do the filming and editing.

During this phase of the project, Zweibel finds a particularly satisfying pattern emerging. All of the participants seem to have gained in confidence and are finding their niches in the process. In particular, Brad and Sam stand out with their ideas and abilities and Zweibel “deputizes” them as sort of assistant directors for the shooting process.
Tim Behrans waits for the shoot of his scene.
Shooting begins on Thursday. Tim, cast as a writer who lives beneath the dance studio, sits at his desk while last-minute decisions are made before shooting can start. What color is the paper in his typewriter? What should be typed on the paper? What type of material should be used to depict the ceiling falling on his head? What wattage bulb is needed in the light above him? What color should the pillow be on the cot?
Finally shooting begins and after several takes, the first scene is a wrap. And it’s funny. The group heads “on location” to a dance studio conveniently located above the university’s gym for the next scene. As shooting progresses, the group sees their ideas and words come to life. Editing still is being completed, and when it's done, each member will receive a DVD or Blu-Ray copy of the show which gives them all producing, writing, directing and starring credits.

Zweibel already was thinking about ideas for the next workshop and Calia is pleased that Quinnipiac has found another successful program in which its students can interact with seasoned professionals.

For more information about Quinnipiac and its programs, visit http://www.quinnipiac.edu. For more information about Zweibel, visit http://www.alanzweibel.com/.

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