Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Writing Ins and Outs

My long-time friend and Selected Hilarity cohort Bryan Tucker flew into Chapel Hill this weekend for the 4th Annual UNC Comedy Festival. Bryan taught a class on “The Ins and Outs of Comedy Writing.”

Bryan Tucker and I onstage at SNLBryan's writing credits include The Chris Rock Show (Emmy Nomination), Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, Mad TV, Chappelle’s Show, and Saturday Night Live, where he currently works. Joining Bryan on panel were The Daily Show writers and producers Rob Riggle, John Oliver, and Rory Albanese.

I helped Bryan put together the outline for the class, and I’ll share it for you here along with a few of my notes.

How to Become a Comedy Writer

  • Find a Venue for Yourself - Find a place where your writing can be read or performed. Examples: a writing workshop, a theater, a comedy club, the internet, etc.
  • Perform or Work with Other Performers - Test your work in front of an audience and find a group that suits your style.
  • Move to LA, New York or, maybe, Chicago - LA has the most opportunity in TV and film. New York and Chicago have more places to develop and form a community.
  • Find Your Niche - Whether it's a regular comedy club, improv theater, magazine or internet site, find a place where you fit in and have a network of people like you.
  • Write Samples - Write sample scripts, bits and jokes for your favorite shows. Get a sample packet together for later use.
  • Get an entry-level job (PA, intern, researcher) on a TV show - This is not always a direct path to getting hired as a writer, but is a great way to understand how things work.
  • Above All: Be patient - Don't compare your success directly to the success of your peers.

Writing Samples You Will Need

  • For sitcoms - A half hour spec script of a current, popular show. Usually 28-32 pages.
  • For comedy/variety - A packet of ideas, sketches and jokes written specifically for that show. Usually 4-10 pages.

Panel Members Paths to Becoming a Comedian

Of the panel members, here is the path that each took to a career in TV comedy writing:
  • Bryan Tucker - started as stand-up comedian, toured the U.S. with sketch/improv group Selected Hilarity, then moved to NYC to pursue stand up comedy and writing. His performing connections led to his first writing job at The Chris Rock Show.
  • Rob Riggle - Took classes for seven years at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) in New York City while serving in the U.S. marines. While at UCB, had many teachers that formed crucial connections at SNL, including Amy Poehler.
  • John Oliver - Wrote comedy during college, honed stand-up skills, and made crucial connections at the Edinburgh Festival - including former Daily Show intern Demetri Martin.
  • Rory Albanese - Started as production assistant at Daily Show and slowly worked his way up to Producer, thanks in part to a strong connection with Lewis Black. Continues to write and perform stand up comedy.

Things to Avoid When Trying to Land a Career in Comedy

Panel members minced no words about their disdain for pushy newcomers who try too hard to be funny. Their turn offs include:
  • handing writers unsolicited scripts after first meeting them,
  • becoming an intern or PA and immediately trying to pitch ideas your first week on the job, and
  • standing outside of Comedy Central offices trying to “impress” the writers/producers as they come into work.

Key Takeaways

Networking. Networking. Networking. There’s no escaping this one in any line of work. You can have all the talent in the World, but you need to be connected to the right people.

One of the best ways to network, hone your writing skills, and eventually become a comedy writer is by becoming a performer, either through stand-up or improvisational comedy. So even if you never have the aspiration of being a performer, it's time to overcome your objections and start getting up on stage as early and often as possible.


Anonymous said...

As an attendee of said seminar, I thank you for those tips! Very helpful things for a lowly beginner such as myself to know!

Caroline Troullis

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Larry for putting this up. It certainly doesn't tell you everything you need to know, but it's a helpful list of things to keep in mind while you're trying to become a professional comedy writer.
I went to UNC, and I'm so glad they have a festival like this with stand ups I admire and comedy people who work on TV and can give you first hand knowledge. I wish we had it when I was in school.
- Bryan Tucker