21 Steps to Sitcom Success From a Top Comedy Showrunner
Ken Levine, of "Cheers" and "M*A*S*H" fame, spills his secrets to THR -- including hiring writers who bathe, not abusing assistants and (guffaw!) listening to your actors.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Sitcoms are back! Despite dire predictions just a few years ago, audiences prefer to laugh over watching people eat dung beetles (who knew?), so the sitcom is enjoying a renaissance. As a veteran writer/producer/director of classic, iconic sitcoms now shown after infomercials on channels 400 or higher, I have been asked by The Hollywood Reporter to share some tips for those showrunners currently in the trenches. Happy to do it, and I hope maybe two of these come in handy.
Love your characters -- they're your children. They're better than your children: You can control what they say and do. The best shows are the ones in which viewers develop an emotional attachment to the characters. But they won't love them unless you do first.
Hire writers who are funny and bathe.
When you're done with the script, go back and put in five more great jokes and take out one page.
The best stories come from real life. Between everyone on your writing staff, I guarantee there are enough humiliations, rejections, insecurities, traumas, breakdowns and borderline psychotic episodes to keep America laughing for at least three seasons.
Red Vines are not a vegetable.
It pains me to say it, but when actors have a problem, they're usually right.
Keep overnight ratings away from the cast. Especially if you're a Friday night show.
Don't do jokes about elderly celebrities. If you do, this is what will happen: The night the episode airs, it will be interrupted by a bulletin announcing that the particular notable figure has just died. Then they will return to the show just in time for the joke. Seriously. You don't want blood on your hands.
Networks hate when you respond to their notes via open-mic night.
The most-watched sitcoms on the air today are written by older writers. They bring experience, they're still very funny, and if your office is near the studio day-care center, you're going to need somebody who can chase those damn kids off your lawn.
Be careful about using too many pop-culture references. The ultimate goal is syndication. People in 10 years are not going to know who the Kardashian sisters are. At least if there is a God.
Treat your writers' assistants well. Someday you'll be pitching to them at NBC.
Only allot a half-hour each day to trashing other shows. OK, 45 minutes.
Stunt casting is a great way to artificially boost your ratings. I'm sure the past seven American Idols are available. Hell, they're probably driving around the studio in makeup.
Don't hire a supposed recovered addict as your craft-services person. You'll budget a thousand dollars a week for food, and all you'll get is one box of Grape Nuts and an apple.
Stop using the word vagina as a punch line. Or at least cut back to only 12 times a show.
Take the money you were planning to spend on elaborate packaging for your Emmy consideration DVD and hire another writer instead.
Nothing quenches a thirst like 5-Hour Energy.
If you're going to do a tender, real moment at the end of the show, it has to be earned. You can't do 20 minutes of the dress-shop scene in Bridesmaids and then your stars decide it's time to pull the plug on Grandpa.
Take chances. If the show fails, you're going to be blamed for it anyway. You might as well go down spectacularly.
Good luck to you all. Lead us into another Golden Age of Comedy. And save us from beauty pageants featuring cutthroat toddlers
Ken Levine is an Emmy-winning writer, producer, director, author and Major League Baseball announcer who has worked on such iconic series as Cheers, Frasier, M*A*S*H, Becker and The Simpsons. His blog can be found at kenlevine.blogspot.com.
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