In The Beginning Was The Writers’ Room
The Writers’ Room began on the fabled Show of Shows and is portrayed in Neil Simon’s play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Although written by greats like Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks and the Simon brothers, the best and most original comedy writers of the 1950’s, the work they produced had a distinctive voice. As situation comedy evolved, episodes were written by free-lancers. A now extinct species, the story editor, made sure all the stories conformed to the formula and voice of the particular series they wrote for. In the mid 1970’s, on shows like Happy Days, the story editor and the freelancer morphed into a new kind of writers’ room where staffs worked by committee.
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
In our book, Now That’s Funny! most of the writers we interviewed agree that Rooms are necessary for meaningful collaboration and feel they grew from the process, although Michael Elias (co-creator of Head of the Class) reached a point where he told his partner, Rich Eustis, he couldn’t handle going back into the room. He believes that writing by committee prevents a singular voice from emerging. “It’s not writing, it’s talking.” Phil Rosenthal (co-creator of Everybody Loves Raymond) says that he knows many people hate the writing-by-committee approach. He loves it because if you have bright, funny people in the room they only made you better. “You get to have these different, hopefully brilliant heads, challenging your ideas and coming up with their ideas of what’s good and what’s not and then debating it.
Rooms, the pros told us, come in two categories: functional, like the one Elliot Schoenman (show-runner on Home Improvement) ran and extremely dysfunctional ones like the ones Walter Bennett (The Cosby Show) describes in his experiences before The Cosby Show.
When he was a “baby” writer Walter discovered that when he pitched a joke everyone would say, “No.” Someone else would pitch the identical joke an hour later and the other writers would think it was hysterical. When he complained they said, “Don’t be like that.” Yvette Bowser (creator of Living Single) tells a story about being on a show where they treated her badly because she was a woman and Black. She’d come from A Different World where what she had to say as a woman and, particularly as a Black woman was relevant. “I wasn’t going to allow them to put me in a little cubby. I called my agent and said, ‘Get me off this Plantation.’”
Elliott had the opposite experience as a new writer assigned to Maude where Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf mentored him even after he ripped off a joke from a classic TV series the Bobs had written.
Phil Rosenthal (co-creator of Everybody Loves Raymond) says people getting through the door on false credits can sink Rooms. Bob Myer (show-runner on Roseanne) believes ageism has had a lot to do with bad staffs. “There’s a lot of belief in the business that if you’re older then you are not fresh. You can’t write Friends or Will and Grace. If you say ‘Hip’ you’re not hip.”
What made a Room that worked for Phil? He had only one rule on Raymond: If something didn’t ring true, it didn’t make it into a script.
Armies Travel On Their Stomachs…
…So do Writers’ Rooms. During one of his early gigs, Phil Rosenthal came in one morning to find a memo that read; “The milk is for coffee. The cereal is for snacks. Please do not put milk on your cereal.” When he got his own series he gave his writers the freedom to use condiments as they saw fit but, on Raymond food did more than fuel the writers, it fueled the stories. Raymond’s mother was a better cook than his wife, which created conflict. A discussion in the room about the writers all gaining weight led to an episode about having a tofu turkey for Thanksgiving.
Co-creator of Wings and Frasier, Peter Casey’s development followed a similar path. “I ate more dinners at Cheers my first year than I ate in six years at The Jeffersons.” On The Jeffersons everyone was expected to chip in five bucks for lunch. On the other hand, on Cheers the Charles Brothers used food as a way to express appreciation and respect for their writers. Peter carried this tradition into his shows.
“Running a staff is like running a baseball team…”
Elliott believes you have to select the writers and manage the staff like a baseball team. His staff liked the environment he created on Home Improvement so much that, as a character in Blazing Saddles says, “They stayed in droves.” He praised and supported the abilities of his staff while feeling comfortable enough to exhibit his own humility. “I certainly can write comedy, but it wasn’t my priority. I know how to get it out of people.” Also being around better comedy writers,” he says, “means your comedy becomes better.”
Bob Myer adds that assembling a Writers’ Room isn’t just placing a bunch of funny people together. It’s making certain people can work together and know the positions they play. Are you a story guy or a line guy or a punch up guy or a structure guy?” We were surprised in these interviews to discover how many comedy writers have math and science backgrounds. They were mostly story/structure guys.
According to Bob there are key roles for writers on a series. One of Bob’s talents is recognizing each writer’s gifts and making sure the key roles in the room are matched up with the right people to achieve balance. This is necessary, Bob says, since as a Show-Runner “…you’re going to spend 90% of your time in the Writer’s Room…and the other 90% in the editing room.”
One of the pivotal roles in the Room is the Room Monkey. On Everybody Loves Raymond, Lew Schneider played this part with distinction. Phil assumed this role on previous shows. “You can’t do that and be the Captain of the ship,” Phil says of being a Show-Runner. Quite the opposite of the way it sounds, the Room Monkey is a coveted and respected position. Pure energy, creativity and inventiveness, the Room Monkey provides necessary spontaneity and enthusiasm. They are the spark plug that reignites a group of tired writers.
“Lew was a better monkey than I ever was,” Phil says. “He’s absolutely hysterical to the point where you have to say, ‘Please put your pants back on and come back to the table because we need you.’”