Secret Blog 38

I’m trying to teach myself how to write sitcoms.  I know that’s a weird hobby but it’s just one that I have, okay?  I’ve watched a lot of TV in my life and it would seem so admirable to get to call some of it research… yeah.

I’m reading a book called The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sandler.  She’s been a writer on at least 2 shows (Everybody Loves Raymond and Coach).  She recommends that new writers write an episode of a show that’s on the air right now.  That increases the likelihood that a TV producer (or somebody who might hire you) would be faimiliar with it.  Something like that. 

She has this thing around page 25 where there are a bunch of charts that are supposed to break down sitcom scripts.  There are columns for number of pages per script, number of pages per each Act, number of pages per Teaser, number of pages per scenes, number of scenes per episode, number of scenes with Character A, Character B, Character C, etc., blah blah.

The point of doing this is to break down scripts to what normally goes on at each moment.  It’s almost as if there’s a code to the way a TV show works.  There’s a certain pacing or style.  They are normally built on the main character.  In fact, every epsode is designed around that character.  There will be other side stories (B and C stories) happening with the minor characters but usually even those stories are connected to the main character’s A story.

I don’t have scripts but I do have a lot of TV recorded.  One of the shows I am trying to write a spec script for is Parks and Recreation.  I chose it because it’s one of my favorite shows on TV and because I’ve watched nearly every episode.  One problem is that it’s a very smartly written show so I might strain myself trying to write an episode.

Ellen Sandler says that you write spec scripts for TV to get a job writing on TV.  It’s so people can know how you write.  I honestly don’t know if that’s what I want to do (write for TV) (even though it sounds like it would be fun).  I am really just trying to learn how this works because I find it very interesting and I’m fascinated with how television series’ work and have new episodes each week.  It sounds like it would be hard to do.

Anyway, I performed an experiment this morning that was based on all of this stuff.  I have about 6 episodes of P & R recorded so I got a pen and some paper and timed out each scene.  I numbered the scenes and I wrote the time of the beginning and ends of each one.  Then I wrote where each scene took place and what characters were in the scene and then a basic one to five word description of what happens in each scene.  Also, the show is styled like a documentary (maybe it’s a mockumentary).  That means that there are several moments where a character will address the camera directly.  The Office calls these scenes “Talking Heads”.  I’m sure P & R does to.  I got a red marker and every time a character would talk to the camera I would write their name underneath the scene times.

I did this for 2 episodes.  I’d like to do a third at some point.  I figured out a few things so far.

– The first scenes normally seem to take place in the Parks and Recreation office.  There is a big middle room where a few of the characters’ desks are.  Often Leslie (Amy Poehler) will walk in with an announcement that has something to do with how the episode will unfold.  She’ll be addressing Tom (Aziz Ansari), April (Aubrey Plaza), Jerry (Jim O’Heir) and Donna (Retta?) .  Sometimes Ron (Nick Offerman) will be there too or he will walk in a few seconds later.  And sometimes this takes place in the conference room or either Leslie or Ron’s office.  Often the other characters will grumble or make sarcastic comments to each other and Leslie has to boss them around.

– Lately at around 5 minutes into the episode they’ll cut to Andy’s shoeshine stand where something funny happens and then one of the characters will tell Andy (Chris Pratt) what’s going on.

– In the two episode that I watched the guest stars were both introduced in the last scene of the first act, right before the first commercial break.  Often that character would say something crazy to where you go into the commercial thinking something like, “Uh oh…”.

– The second act of both of the shows I watched split the characters up into seperate groups and cut back and forth between the two stories.  Leslie and her group would be doing something, then the other group would be doing something, then Leslie’s group would continue doing whatever they were doing, then the other group would continue whatever they were doing, etc.   It would cut back and forth about 4 times and then go to commercial.  Also, in both episodes I saw the guest stars were in Leslie’s group.

– In both episodes I watched there were less talking-to-the-camera moments then I thought there would be.  Maybe 5 or 6 altogether.  And often the entire third Act wouldn’t have one until the very end.  No one would explain what was going on and it seemed to make it easier to get emmersed in the climax of the show.

– Since Leslie is the main character she seems to drive whatever happens in the episode.  The rest of the stories are put into motion mostly by her.  The show seems to be about her growing as a character even though she is often making mistakes that are amusing to watch.   She always has a positive attitude that makes her a likeable character.   The episodes seem to regularly end with her learning something or coming to some sort of personal conclusion.  Sometimes she is humbled and sometimes she is honored but she is pretty much always at peace with where things are.

– In the episodes I watched they seemed to play with the romantic tensions between Ann (Rashida Jones) and Mark (Paul Schneider) and April and Andy.  Ann broke up with Andy earlier in the season and is now dating Mark.  She seems to see him as the more mature of the two.  But in the later episodes there is a budding relationship between April and Andy.  This ends up showing a slightly jealous side of Ann and it seems as if she is more and more bored with Mark, though she’s enduring it.  I’ve read that Mark is going to leave near the end of this season.  I’m assuming the writers are setting that up right now.

– Jerry was often picked on. 

-Tom seems like a slick salesman who always says slightly offensive things but he gets picked on too.

– April is always giving funny angry looks.

– Ron and Leslie’s professional relationship and respect for each other seem to be keys to many of the episode resolutions.  Often Ron will affirm Leslie professionally like, “Good job, Knope” with his thumb up.  Ron is not as driven politically though he undestands the mechanics of small town politics where as Leslie seems to want to be a small town version of Hillary Clinton.  She is very ambitious.

– Donna doesn’t talk much but when she does it is often very funny or smart.

– There are regularly scenes that happen in cars going between two places.

-Most every scene is less than 2 minutes.  The average scene length is around 45 seconds.  This is a fast paced show.

– There are probably 25 to 30 seperate scenes per episode.  (And I’m counting scenes as each time it cuts to a new place or if they’re at the same place but it suddenly changes focus from one set of characters to another set of characters)

That’s that.

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