Writing on a comedic television show seems like an awesome job to have, and for the most part, it is. You get paid to make people laugh! Your credits are seen on TV screens across America! You hang out all day with other interesting, hilarious creatives! You’re pretty much the star of 30 Rock! But TV writing is still a job. Before you pack your bags for LA or NYC, read this article for a better understanding of real-life sitcom writers’ duties:
The Writers’ Room
Comedic television shows often have large writing staffs; I’ve seen some that have had as many as 14 people. These people are expected to sit in a room and love each other through long hours, constant talking, and takeout from a restaurant that doesn’t please everyone. As a writer in the room, part of your job is to self-edit so that you’re only speaking aloud the ideas that will truly contribute to bettering the draft. You also have to be careful not to interrupt others or re-pitch someone else’s joke because you weren’t listening. You can’t be too quiet, or you won’t be pulling your weight. It’s kind of an etiquette minefield. But they give you Red Vines!
The Script-Writing Process
Every show does it a little differently, depending on the preferences of the showrunner (head writer/producer-type), the studio that’s producing it, and the network that bought and will be airing it. But in general, the writers will begin by coming up with a story area, which is a summary of what will happen over the course of an episode. Story area ideas can be inspired by writers telling personal anecdotes or simply saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny to see [X] character in [weird for X] situation?” When the showrunner feels they have come up with enough cohesive plotlines to form a complete episode, the one-page story area is submitted to the studio and then the network for feedback and approval.
Once the story area has been approved, the writers move on to a process called beating it out, in which the writers break down each storyline into — wait for it — beats, or plot points. With sitcoms, it’s important to make sure the different storylines are able to line up in a way that makes sense chronologically and emotionally within each character’s arc. The writers will usually write out the beats on a big whiteboard so that they can label each one and then arrange the integrated beats into one episode. More experienced writers are able to conceptualize the arrangement of scenes and character trajectories very quickly — it’s kinda magical to watch it play out.
After the separate storylines have been integrated, the group (or the one writer who’s officially getting credit for the episode) will expand the beats into an outline. This is usually a 7- or 8-page document consisting of different paragraphs detailing each individual scene. The outline will be crucial from this point on, as it’s the writers’ roadmap through the ever-changing drafts. Outlines usually have to be approved by studio and network as well.
Next, one writer will go off for a couple weeks and return with a writer’s draft, which she or he will try very hard on. No matter how good it is, however, it will get rewritten. The writers’ room, led by the showrunner, will look for plot holes that weren’t apparent at earlier points in the process and “punch up” jokes to make them funnier. You don’t find too many TV writers with big egos — they can’t stand the in-room rewrites. There’s usually a studio draft, which the studio will give notes on and expect a rewrite from. And then a network draft, which the network will do the same thing to. And then the moment of truth — the table draft, which will be read aloud at a table read by the actors for the writers, production team, and executives. At the table read, writers listen for what jokes are getting laughs. They make check marks, “x”‘s, or “?”‘s in their script so as a group they can make adjustments accordingly. And usually by the next morning.
Just when none of the jokes seem funny to the writers anymore, the script is converted into a shooting draft, complete with scene numbers and everything. On a single-camera show (one that shoots scenes out of order over the course of several days, like a movie), there will usually be one writer on set protecting the script and talking to the director as needed. On a multicamera show (which shoots more like a play in front of a live audience), there will be one shoot night in which the writers are on set, ready to come up with alts (alternative jokes) if stuff is falling flat. It’s almost like being a basketball player. Almost.
If all this still sounds appealing to you, watch for my next article, How To Prepare For A Career As A Sitcom Writer.
Oh, and did I mention watching and laughing at YouTube clips in the room is a vital part of the process? Because it is.
Jessica Poter has worked in various sitcom writers’ room positions since 2008. Previous shows include ABC’s Better Off Ted and Man Up! and several pilots for ABC, NBC, and FOX. She currently assists a showrunner with an overall deal at Universal Television. In addition to her TV writing pursuits, Jessica is the co-founder of Half Day Today!, a new media sketch group that won Syfy’s Viral Video Showdown. Check out her website, or follow her on Twitter at @jessicapoter.