Here's the last of four recaps from Breaking Into the Box: Kick-Starting Your Career in Television, an all-day seminar sponsored last weekend by the Writers Guild Foundation.
Very important disclaimer: these aren't verbatim quotes but rather paraphrases from hastily-scribbled notes. If you want the real deal, the Foundation taped the event and will soon offer the seminar on DVD. Check their website in the future for details.
My thoughts about the seminar will follow tomorrow.
PANEL: THE WRITERS ROOM
Panelists: Jeff Greenstein (Desperate Housewives, Will and Grace), Jan Oxenberg (Cold Case, Once and Again), Jay Kogen (The Class, Malcolm in the Middle), Alexa Junge (The West Wing, Friends, Sex in the City), moderator Robin Schiff (Romy & Michele's High School Reunion)
SCHIFF: My family was my first writers room. Sitting at the table with everyone talking, nobody listening, but the best story always captured everyone's attention. When I trained with the Groundlings, that was also a good comedy room. Writing can be lonely. The room has camaraderie, people to bounce ideas off of ... but you can also feel trapped like on Lost, where you can't stand some people and wish the Others would drag them off.
GREENSTEIN: My writers rooms have been run very democratically. The first two weeks of most shows we usually plan for the rest of the year: climactic moments, plot points, map-making. Story generation as planet formation. You start to see markers where you wanna go.
JUNGE: I was one of three women in the Friends room, but it was pretty evolved because most of the college boys had been forced to taken womens' studies courses. We had one gay guy and one feminist running the show so it was a pretty safe room. You have to be game. They can smell fear. One boss said, "I can't hear you, be louder, more confident, don't make me work that hard to hear you." He said it lovingly but it hit me really hard. Women are creative in different ways collaboratively. When women offer suggestions, it's often like table-setting: they build and men complete (and usually take all the damn credit). I learned to keep my mouth shut until I was clear what I wanted to say. Sometimes if it was a joke I would even write it down first.
KOGEN: For me, the writers room erects a typical sitcom structure like this: story first, then scenes, then jokes. And whoever tells you the jokes gets you home earlier. Rewriting happens all week long during sitcom rehearsals, even on the floor during taping.
GREENSTEIN: On Will and Grace, we had a writer, Laura Kightlinger, on the floor every week [at tapings], deconstructing scenes and churning out new jokes on the spot. Almost all of the jokes on that show are hers.
OXENBERG: Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick had no "room" per se -- writers were treated like feature writers. You worked on your own from an outline. That's what I was familiar with. Later, on more procedural shows, every single story beat was blocked out. I learned this from Frank Spotnitz on Robbery Homicide Division: each beat goes onto a card and it has to be perfect handwriting, so you'd take your time and think about each beat. If you messed up, you had to write it over. That's how they did X-Files. (She then pulls out a series of toys that were totems from various writing rooms).
GREENSTEIN: All this stupid crazy stuff is necessary to write a show!
OXENBERG: The Cold Case table has no toys but rather lots of food. The balance is to have a room where you can be wild and tell stories and let your mind go. And one person who knows when to take charge and move things forward. You don't, for example, let people pitch a story more than once.
GREENSTEIN: A showrunner can't be the funniest or smartest person in the room. For me, the rule of the comedy room is the whiteboard. I use a certain color for sluglines, another for action, and I leave blanks where we need to fill in scenes. Then I let the smarter, funnier people fill them in. You have to step away from being the shoot-from-the-hip person.
OXENBERG: It's a skill to point out problems in other ideas but it's better if you can also suggest alternatives. If you have a critique, people also want to hear a suggestion.
JUNGE: People want to hear your truth. I've been in rooms where my sense of "good" differs from that of the showrunner. And when they still wanna hear what you have to say, that's wonderful.
GREENSTEIN: You want people who can keep you honest. People who value you and hold you to a high level.
SCHIFF: A writers room is a living, breathing organism.
KOGEN: You have to know how to pick your battles, when to fight, when to fold. Jokes can come and go but story beats are much more important.
SCHIFF: Even when you're self-conscious, you're probably OK. Even if you're not saying anything, test your ideas against those that come out in the room.
GREENSTEIN: It's easy to tear down. Be a builder. Jump in and hand someone a brick they can use.
KOGEN: You may land on a show you don't like and that's hard. You have to buy into what they're doing and be positive.
GREENSTEIN: For baby writers, it's hard to know when to hang back and when to jump in. You have to find your way. Very tricky.
SCHIFF: I'd rather work with someone who doesn't take my suggestions than someone who doesn't know what their show is. But let's talk about the difference between breaking comedy and drama.
GREENSTEIN: On Housewives it's not that different because it's staffed by lots of half-hour comedy writers.
JUNGE: Once and Again was very different and terrifying for me. People were lying on the floor spouting ideas. On West Wing I found John Wells' room similar to most dramas.
GREENSTEIN: I'm looking for point-of-view when interviewing new writers. People who know the show. When interviewing new writers for Will and Grace, I stumped many of them by asking: where do you think Will and Grace will be in five years? Some gave glassy stares, others just jumped in and went for it. People who said things like, "Well, I had a Will in my life and one time he did this ..." Those people have me leaning forward, wanting more.
SCHIFF: On new shows, it's good to say, "I was wondering where you're gonna go with this aspect of your pilot." Bring specific questions and stories to the meeting.
GREENSTEIN: Right now I'm burnt out on reading existing specs. I can't get through the 39th spec of The Office sitting on my desk. I like original pilots and even feature screenplay specs. I want to read something you're passionate about. I read plays and short stories. I hired someone off a That Girl spec, which certainly got my attention. The simple fact is, aside from Earl, Office and 30 Rock, there just aren't that many comedies to spec these days.