Getting Started as a TV Writer

Earl Pomerantz calls himself “a regular person” who “thinks about things and then writes about them.” But his work as a writer on Cheers, Becker, Major Dad, Amazing Stories, The Cosby Show et al show him to be the kind of special dude new writers can – and should – turn to as they enter the Biz:

by Earl Pomerantz

I never wrote mean. I never wrote sexy. I never put characters in humiliating situations. And I never wrote dumb. And I still got a thirty-year career and a pretty nice house.

Visitors to my blog have repeatedly asked me to talk about my writing experiences on shows they enjoyed like Taxi, for which I wrote nine episodes. I hesitate to comply, because the half-hour comedy terrain has been so radically altered that I seriously question the relevance of my experiences with what’s happening in comedy today.

There’s a lot of comedy on television I love; I just couldn’t write it. I love Extras, though the lead character endures humiliation after humiliation, like a man who has a tub of soup showered unceremoniously over his head every thirty seconds of his life. The show can be literally painful to watch. And yet, it still makes me laugh.

I enjoy Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show in which Larry David, or at least the character Larry David, behaves abominably on a regular basis. My wife calls the show a cringedy. You laugh, but you cringe at the same time. It’s a funny thing. In old show business, a comedian would reveal only the best side of his personality on his show, while remaining a despicable human being offstage. I’ve met Larry David; he’s thoughtful and polite. It’s only on his show that he’s despicable. This reversal of a show biz tradition – now it’s “Nice offstage, horrible onstage” – is a telling reflection on the expanding parameters of current comedy.

Polite doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s your parents’ comedy, or maybe your grandparents’. To keep audiences onboard, the comedy envelope continues to be pushed further and further to the extremes. I’m referring to cable comedy. Network comedy has virtually disappeared.

Network comedy is dying, because commercial limitations – Rule Number One: “Offend No One” – prohibit comedy from venturing to those necessary extremes. The advertisers won’t allow writers to go there. Even the most successful comedy on the air, Two and a Half Men– which is basically The Odd Couple with sleepovers – handles sexual situations with an obligatory obliqueness, compared to, say, how sex is dealt with on Entourage. Cable comedies are censorship-free, or censorship-lite; network comedy creativity is defeated by the paralyzing dread of “getting letters.” That’s why the two systems are different, and why one is flourishing while the other’s in the tank….

Read it all at Earl’s Just Thinking blog