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WRITER'S LIFE
Fiction
January, 2008


Radio 30


Sitting Stitching Sit-Coms
No need to get off yer bum
By  Eliott Fields

You have to be more than a couch potato to get any action for your sit-com script.
I
'm a couch potato most days.

Be that as it may, and as it is, I decided I wanted to try my hand at situation comedy writing. I mean how difficult is it to actually write a sit-com?

You crank out a few one-liners, put together a few silly characters in absurd situations, hence the name situation comedy, and let loose a script that will make re-run residuals for years to come.

Brilliant idea!

Wrong! But, I learned a few things along the way, some of which came as a huge surprise. That I failed miserably at making a living in the industry that doesn't mean you have to.

I'll give you basic pointers so you can avoid a few pitfalls that accompany sit-com writing and maybe, if you're lucky, you'll be on the staff of the next big TV comedy hit.

Quick Industry Overview:

  • Under normal circumstances you won't get residuals
  • 22 minutes of laughter can pay anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000
  • Most of the work is done in Hollywood so be prepared to move, unless you happen to live there
  • No, you cannot freelance scripts, you are usually hired onto the show as staff
  • Writers of sit-coms tend to be young, most less than age 40
  • The sit-com writing industry is dominated by males (like it or not it's a fact)
  • Submitting a sit-com script becomes part of the type of writing you perform for future reference (much like submitting a resume for a job - they'll put you on file unless you're "hot")

Terminology:

If you want to actually work trying your hand writing television comedy there is some basic terminology you need to know.

Spec script - means an actual script for a show that presents your ability to write scripts in a structure and format that people who produce and/or act in shows are familiar with.

Act - TV comedies are normally broken into three acts with commercials filling the time between acts that bring in the dough so everyone gets paid.

Scene - Like plays on stage scenes are within Acts and present the characters in either single or multiple scenes of amusement.

Cold open - AKA a Teaser. A Cold Open is the part just before the starting credits roll.

Set-Up and Punch - Remember Abbott (straight lines) and Costello (punch lines)? Set up means the straight lines or set up to, hopefully, an amusing punch line or finish.

A & B Stories - Almost every sit-com has multiple stories occurring at the same time, plots and sub-plots of hilarious situations that sometimes cross reference to one another and other times stand alone. Ever notice Seinfeld has four to six stories running at the same time, yet at the end they all converge? Those are stories A, B, C, D, etc.

Climax - Nope - Not the end - The end is called something different. The first two acts have climaxes. Act I climaxes by setting up a situation that nobody would want to be in in real life, Act II climaxes with the characters hilariously trying to get out of the first act's climax.

Resolution - AKA "Act III". Resolution is the end of the show. So to recap we have two climaxes and a resolution in all sit-coms and you have to write your script in this fashion otherwise it's going to be very tough finding work.

Live with these words and understand their meanings at all levels of your writing and interaction with Hollywood. At times they cross over one another and link together. As an example, a Cold Open could be part of a scene that will be shown later in the program, possibly in Act I or II, or, it could be the actual opening to Act I and Act I continues immediately following the credits.

Work:

Either you will write for an existing show or you will create a new one.

Trust me on this one and go your first few Hollywood rounds writing for existing shows since most new shows get two or three episodes aired and then they're gone, and so are you, and consequently you're out of money, your rent is due, you have no food -- I digress.

So, hedge your bets and pick an existing show that has been on the air for the past few years. Doing so means it's established, the existing actors, producers, directors and other staff are keen about it, and they're always on the lookout for fresh ideas and talent. It's your best shot at getting your foot in the door.

My foot's still aching from the new show I tried to get launched so I'm back on the couch watching, but your foot can get in the door if you follow some basic principles, persevere and don't give up. I'll be back as soon as the cast comes off my foot.IN Icon


Eliott Fields is a University of Toronto English student learning the ropes and struggling with completing his first book, Trevor Milstone And The Underground Adventure. email: jmaccount@canada.com

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