Paula Finn has a new book out that just might be the perfect present for your TV writer friends — or yourself — this holiday season.
Daughter of Honeymooners writer Herbert Finn, Paula grew up surrounded by writers of some of television’s most revered classic shows. Author of ten inspirational gift books, Paula’s new book of interviews, Sitcom Writers Talk Shop, shares the insights of such TV legends as Carl Reiner and Norman Lear.
Paula was kind enough to share three excerpts from the book with LA Screenwriter. Soak up the below wisdom, then head over to Amazon to pick up a copy of Sitcom Writers Talk Shop.
Carl Reiner (Creator, The Dick Van Dyke Show)
PF: What elements must a good premise have?
Carl Reiner: I would tell the writers on The Dick Van Dyke Show that in the first twoseconds, I want somebody to say, “Hey, May!” By that, I meant a guy calling hiswife, “Come in here, you gotta see this.” In other words, you’re doingsomething they recognize. And soanything recognizable as being part of the human condition, their humancondition — is what you go for. And ifyou go for your human condition, you can guess that your human conditionisn’t that much different from anybody else’s. And if it is — then you shouldn’t be writing! [Laughs]
Treva Silverman (Writer, Mary Tyler Moore, The Monkees, Captain Nice)
PF: Does anything else help you get in the mood, like cigarettes orcoffee?
Treva Silverman: Not really. I used to smoke, but I quit. When you’re smoking and writing, smoking and writing, you think your talent is in the cigarette . . . But in fact, I found that it helped to not be doing anything else when I was writing. I have certain rules. One rule is that I don’t read email, at all, ever, before I start to write because then, “Oh no! Now I have to email this person back.” Your brain is just going around too much. Another rule is not to eat while I’m writing. Because, sometimes if you feel the urge to eat when you’re writing, what you’re really feeling is a frustration — it’s very frustrating to write, so then you go and get something to eat. But it’snot really that you want food; it’s that you want to end the frustration. It’s really very complex. You have to acknowledge that you’re frustrated because you’re writing, and that only writing well will resolve the frustration. Nothing else.
A writer friend told me that she masturbated in the middle of writing. And we decided she absolutely shouldn’t masturbate because then she’s relieving all the tension that really should go into the writing. That’s how it should be —only writing well can cure it. Because masturbating or food — or food while masturbating, if you’re athletically inclined — isn’t the point. The point isn’t relieving your frustration; the point is to get your satisfaction from writing whatever you’re writing.
PF: Can you describe how you feel when you’re writing most creatively . . . when you’re in the zone?
TS: It’s like being in a trance. And I’m so excited, I can’t wait to get to the next line. When I’m in a trance, it means generally that I love everything that I’m writing. I can’t imagine where it came from; I feel like I’m cheating almost because it’s just coming so easily. I feel I can do no wrong, and I’m usually laughing as I do it. And it keeps going and going . . . until it stops. And when it stops you say, “Oh, no, come back — I’ll do anything!”
… Leaving talent out of the equation, I think 99 percent of writing, for me,is the confidence that I can do it…One thing I do if I’m not writing well is totake out an example of a first stab at something I wrote that I ultimatelyended up liking. And I say to my unconscious, “You see how awful this was whenit started? So even though what I’m writing is awful now, that doesn’t meanit’s not gonna end up being good. Right?” It’s a source of inspiration, areminder that you start from awfulness. I have this ritual: when I’m startingto write something brand new, I type at the top of the page, “This is crap.Total crap. That’s all it’s expected to be.” It seems to help.
Ken Estin (Producer/writer, Cheers, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show)
PF: Do you use any specific brainstorming techniques?
Ken Estin: Often the way I find the jokes and the story is by writing stream of consciousness.Sometimes I’ll sit and I just don’t feel funny. I can’t think of where the scene’s going; I feel like I’m at a dead end. I’ll start writing the scene anyhow and forcing myself. I’ll have the character talk, then the next character talks and somebody answers him, and somebody answers that. I just make myself do it.
It rarely comes as inspiration. For me it’s labor; it’s forcing myself to put the words on the page. Then if I put enough words on the page, I always find that I can hone it down to some really good stuff and then work from that.
PF: Do you follow any rules of thumb for joke construction?
KE: 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. I don’t think you can do it by mechanical means. You have to do it by instinct, and experience, and intuition — and all those kinds of vague feelings you have as a human being. When I write a scene, I have to put myself in the situation. And although I won’t laugh out loud, I can feel the difference between something that’s funny and something that doesn’t sound quite right. The formulas don’t really work because comedy is based so much on rhythms. Sometimes just the right word is funny, and you’re not sure why.
So to answer your question, I’m sure there are people who can come up with a very good explanation of the structure of a joke, but I can’t work that way. It’s visceral for me.
Sitcom Writers Talk Shop is available now on Amazon.