Takeaways from Conversations with TV Comedy Writing Masters

The daughter of a sitcom writing master herself (Herbert Finn  of The Honeymooners, Oh! Susanna! and more), Paula Finn has been reaching out to other TV comedy greats for their views on their profession. Here, she tantalizes us with just a bit about what she’s learned:

by Paula Finn

Over the last few years, I’ve enjoyed in-depth conversations with over 50 successful comedy TV writers. Here for me, are the most surprising takeaways:

The rules aren’t for them: they trust their instincts.

When I asked Carl Reiner if he uses any rules or formulas for joke construction he responded,“No, I think the seat of your pants. If you’re a real writer, you don’t worry about the technique of it; you go by the seat of your pants.”

Get Smart writer/producer Leonard Stern spoke of the undefinable:

There’s a formularization for many jokes, but it’s very hard to explain. Suddenly you have that humorous insight into something. I’ve discussed this very often with Larry Gelbart, who is probably the most gifted writer and satirist by nature.

He’s extremely articulate, and he couldn’t stop the flow of humor. He often said, “I wish I could just write this straight, I’d like to see how I think” — because his writing always had that surprising twist. And he himself was surprised by the direction his thoughts took him. So it’s always been hard to define that. . . that odd perception or perspective of life . . . the capturing of a moment of absurdity. I never could define it; I just knew it existed.

Cheers and Taxi writer/producer Ken Estin agrees:

I’ve read rules but I never worked that way, and I’ve never known anyone who did. We all just go by what our gut tells us.

But Newhart writer Arnie Kogen surprised with this comment:

The set-up comes before the punch line. That’s the rule I use. And you can take that to the bank…whatever banks are left!

Even great writers get blocked. Mary Tyler Moore and The Simpsons co-creator James L. Brooks described his struggles while writing Terms of Endearment:

I was stuck. I was stuck in my script, and I couldn’t go backwards and I couldn’t go forwards. And I spent every day blushing. I’d literally be blushing…It was just intolerable. And I went out one night, and there was a concert pianist there who did pretty well all over the country, but he had never played New York. And he had a fear of what that would be if he played New York. And I described what was happening to me, the blushing and stuff. And he said, “Oh, that’s a state of shame.”

And it helped me enormously that there was a name for it…I went to Hawaii and had a small room at a friend’s house, and I had the illusion that I had cracked the whole thing. And I had one of the most euphoric moments in my life. It turned out I hadn’t cracked the whole thing. But the feeling that I had cracked the whole thing released me from all the tentacles of that writer’s block.

They suffer for their art. Norman Lear recalled the torment he went through over deadlines:

The early years of my career were filled with an incredible amount of fear and anxiety. I always wrote in a clutch. By one 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.

Treva Silverman experienced her own share of torment:

When I was writing The Monkees I would get sick every day before writing. I mean, really physically sick. In my early 20s I was hospitalized for incipient ulcers, which obviously came from tension and anxiety and fear.

I asked the writers if they had confidence in their ability to always find the funny. Without hesitating, Seinfeld writer/producer Larry Charles responded

No, not at all. Not ever. Not from one day to the next.

Hot in Cleveland writer/producer Steve Skrovan concurs:

Every time I finish a script, I think that’s it, that’s the end of my career. I’m done, I have no more stories. There are no more stories left in the world. Now I’m gonna be found out. Seriously, I think every writer has that anxiety. I know Larry David had it — that’s it, we’re done.

Despite creating the wildly popular show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Phil Rosenthal admits:

No. I’m still not confident. Are you kidding? We’d struggle every week. Every week I’d look at the script and say I guess we don’t have it this week. Every single week. I’m filled with self-doubt and worry at every turn.

Finally, Roseanne creator Matt Williams doesn’t think any writer is confident.

If you’re confident, you’re probably not a good writer. I think you constantly question and doubt. And every time you sit down to write, you start from scratch and go, “Oh hell, do I even know how to do this? How did I fake them the last time!

How did these conversations change my views on screenwriting? I have newfound admiration for anyone who succeeds at it. As Steve Skrovan points out:

This is not an easy thing to do, you know. That’s why a child actor can win an Academy Award — but there’s no child that can win an Academy Award as a writer.

Paula Finn is the author of Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind the Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear. and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy, now available at Amazon, (and probably a few other places as well).