“Sitcom Writers Talk Shop” Quotes

I recently read “Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind The Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy” by Paula Finn. Below are the quotes I found most interesting. (Since many people are quoted in this book, the person’s name who said it appears directly before their quotes.)

Leonard Stern:

“They told me of a memo they received from the network which said, “please change the dialogue on page 14. A Martian wouldn’t have said that.“ (23)

“Herbie Baker sent me a note he’d received on the Fred Astaire specials he did which said, “too much dancing.“ (23)

“Until I was satisfied with the story, I didn’t think it advantageous for us to get involved in a script. Once you start to put dialogue down, the story is more difficult to change.” (25)

“The most important factor in my success was a belief in myself. And that was important because it taught me to reject rejection.” (27)

Norman Lear:
“Imagine 50 people in a room, and somebody yells, “fire!“ And there’s one small door, and when everybody rushes to the door, everybody’s not going to get out. Some of them are are going to be burned. And you think of your ideas that way. It doesn’t matter in what order those people get out; you sort them out afterwards if you wish to. Just get them out. It’s the same thing with your ideas. Good, bad, indifferent, they fit, they don’t fit – you’ll sort that out after they’re out the door.” (33)

“When you had an audience caring about something, they laughed harder. The more they cared, when something funny occurred, the harder they laughed.” (34)

“The most proud thing that I’ve done in my life is, stayed sane.” (41)

I’ve always liked a Talmudic story that says a man should have a jacket with two pockets. In the first pocket, a piece of paper, on which is written, “I am but just in ashes.” In the second pocket, a piece of paper, and which is written, “for me, the world was created.” (42)

Elliot Shoenman:
“I always call it “make the boy a dog“ –meaning we love it, we love it, but why does it have to be a boy?” (39)

Irma Kalish:
Hal Kantor once introduced me by saying, “Irma is a writer, her husband is a writer, her son is a writer –and her daughter is happy.“ (54)

James L. Brooks:
“The purpose of popular culture is to let people know they’re not alone.” (69)

Treva Silverman:
They had nine months lead time, and Jim and Alan have often said that having this long lead time helped them enormously because it gave them a chance to really know what they were doing and think about the show.” (75)

Ken Estin:
“If you can’t think of four scenes, you don’t have enough to tell in 22 minutes. If you have to tell it in 8 to 10 scenes, you won’t be able to do it because that’s too many.” (86)

I remember spending hours trying to find one joke for the end of a scene. Sometimes we’d get tricky; if we couldn’t find one big enough, we’d steal one from earlier in the scene and find a way to rewrite it so that the joke came up at the end.” (96)

I tell people that, if the show has heart, if it has a soul, if it has those human elements that are so precious to us – it’ll be a better episode. I always thought about finding a really human moment, a really touching moment. But you can’t do it all the time because then people start predicting it. It starts getting old if someone does something sweet in every episode.” (102)

Matt Williams:
“With movies, you go into outer space or the center of the earth or to the wild west, right? With television, the viewers get to be a part of their characters’ lives; they invite you into their house. So in creating the Roseanne opening, I said I want the family around the table and I want the camera to rotate around the table and, on an unconscious level, just kind of invite the audience to pull up a chair and join the family.” (108)

“I think sarcasm and yelling and insults can be funny unless it becomes painful. I think it was Molliere or another of the giants in theater who said for Comedy you have to ridicule without pain. So you can tease, you can be sarcastic-but the second you inflict pain, it stops being funny.” (110)

“When a program knows exactly what it wants to be and what it’s trying to say about the human condition-people respond, relate, and become more emotionally involved.” (118)

“In the shows that failed, it was usually because you’re too distracted or you’re too busy juggling too many projects to put in the time to figure out what are you trying to say about the human condition.” (119)

Larry Charles:
When we were told things that were status quo in our lives, many times we would just go, “why?“ And you would find out there really is no “why.“ That this is all a big front, these rules and these regulations, and all these kinds of things. If you just question them, suddenly the whole thing collapses.” (142)

“Larry and Jerry both sort of led the way in terms of, “we’ll just do this, we’ll do it exactly the way we want it – and whatever happens, happens.“ Once you have that attitude, it’s liberating.” (143)

David Lee:
“We didn’t want to be different just to be different; we all agreed that that’s a path a lot of people take, and I think it’s a false path. But to re-examine every convention in the sitcom and if it’s something that serves you and you can do it well, then you can hold onto it. But if the answer to why you’re doing any particular convention is, “that’s the way it’s always been done,“ then you really need to think about getting rid of it.” (163)

Phil Rosenthal:

The most important thing was having good food because the army travels on its stomach, and the only way to show love for your staff and your crew and everyone that works on the show-other than being nice and paying them a reasonable wage-was food. Because I’ve worked on a lot of shows where the food was crap, and nobody really cared.” (176)

“When you write very specifically, you have the best chance of being universal.” (177)

“the laughs come from character, and story comes from character.” (181)

Steve Skrovan:
Because in comedy, when you have somebody who’s got a skewed view of life, it’s only funny when they’re absolutely certain that’s the right way to go.” (179)

We also had the fun boards. One of them was dedicated to memorable things said in the room or inside jokes that made us all laugh out loud at once.” (179)

Mike Reiss:
The key thing on the Simpsons is you’ve always got to have some heart in there – but not too much. I think, for a lot of us, our instinct would have been “don’t have any of that stuff at all-and here’s our edgy show.“ But they told us, “if you throw in 25 seconds of emotion right at the end-if Homer can be a goof the whole show and then suddenly realize he’s been bad-that will be very powerful to people.“” (191)

Jay Kogen
“I think your job is just to please the show runner, to think of things that they’d like and will agree with. If you pitch something that’s super funny but you know the show runner will hate, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.” (210)

“Most show runners could and would write the shows themselves if they had the time, effort, and energy. And for the most part, what they really need is a bunch of brains working together to solve a problem, and hopefully the ideas they get are all or mostly within the range of stuff they like and might even think of themselves. Every now and then, and idea will strike a show runner’s fancy that they could never possibly think of, so occasionally you may get stuff in like that. But primarily, your job is to read the room, read the show, read the show runner – and pitch towards what they do – not try to change the show.” (210)

“You can’t go above the audiences head. With all the great shows I’ve worked on, we never worried about talking down to an audience, ever. The Simpsons, Malcolm in the middle, Frasier-they were shows where we assumed our audience was just smart as we were, had the same reference base as we did, if they didn’t get the joke specifically because they didn’t know the reference, they’d figure it out.” (211)

David Isaacs:
“Stabbing the frog“ means someone pitched a joke, everyone laughed, and then someone tried to improve it, and then someone tried to improve the improvement-and by the time you’re down to the third or fourth generation of improving, no one is laughing anymore.” (220)

Carl Kleinschmitt:
“If you feel like an outsider, you start observing. And when you observe, you see things from different angles than the obvious. And everyone I know who was a successful comedy writer always had a way of looking at things from the outside rather than inside out.” (227)

Did you like the quotes? Then buy and read the book here.

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