Blogs I Like: Sitcom Geek

As Stephen Fry said once upon a time: when I was young, comedy albums were my rock albums. The first albums I remember buying were remaindered copies of "Another Monty Python Album" and, rather incredibly, Robert Klein's "Mind Over Matter" (I think because the cover just looked so out-there).

Since then, comedy has always flickered in the background. I've been interested in comedy as a performer (when I acted in college and community theatre, it tended to be in comedies), as a consumer (watching classic sitcoms via Netflix is quite relaxing ["Wings" is my current before-bedtime snack], "The Big Bang Theory" reruns are fun to watch while eating supper, and the Flying Karamazov Bros. are funny as hell), and as a writer/critic (what was Bill Hicks up to? what the hell is Dan Harmon doing with those bloody circles?  how does telling three mini-stories in a single Big Bang episode change the viewing experience compared to a 1977 Mary Tyler Moore episode that focused on only one story for 25 minutes?).

As you can tell from that last paragraph, I have a sort of engineering relationship with comedy. I love reading about what makes comedy work. (Disclaimer: I've never written any skits or humor pieces.) If you see me watching a sitcom or standup special, I may nod, smile, occasionally bark out a laugh. Thing is, what I'm mainly doing is studying the structure, trying to guess where the joke is going, and also kind of watching it like I'd listen to an orchestra -- keeping an ear out for the unique sound or the pattern that's holding everything together, while remaining open to be surprised and delighted.

Over the last few years, I've been reading about comedy and comedy writers (And Here's the Kicker is great place to start), listening to comedy writing podcasts, and particularly enjoying James Cary's blog, "Sitcom Geek."

Cary set his sights on being a comedy writer long ago, writing shows for the Fringe festival, radio skit programs, sitcoms for radio and TV, and more. I enjoy his take on the writer's life from the British comedy writer's point of view, which is not all that different from any other writer's point of view: work hard and you may be rewarded but it's more likely you won't be, so keep working, get better, and try again. And his views on what makes a sitcom work or not work, appraising classic shows and modern alike for what they do that's worth noticing.

My favorite kinds of posts are when he praises the work of those he admires: this tribute to Bob Larbey, who co-wrote on our favorite sitcoms, "The Good Life," was tremendous fun to read. (That photo of Larbey makes him look like a mashup of Jay Leno and Marty Feldman.)

My other favorite posts of his are when he talks about the business of sitcom (the state of the industry, the primacy of hard work and solving problems, incremental improvements, advice to young writers) and the structure of sitcom (characters, plot, theme, research, performance). As someone experienced in the business, he's great at pointing at a comedic success while saying, "Look, did you see how long it took them to devise that concept? How long it took them to write it?" He's also pretty frank about not holding on to sour apples or grapes: if the BBC passed on your script but accepted a script almost exactly like it, it doesn't pay to kick up a fuss. Maybe their script was better, cheaper, hit the accepting editor on a good day -- it doesn't pay to get too up in your head and resentful about this business. Get back to work, figure out your characters' motivations, bring the funny. In other words: Keep writing.

His post "Theoretically Funny" is a great example of the kind of post I just eat up. These aren't templates for writing stories; if anything, they may be more helpful as ways to diagnose why a particular kind of story is going wrong. But they show the bones, the structure, the logistics of a particular kind of storytelling that not only has to make an emotional impact on a viewer, but also deliver a laugh every 20 seconds.