It's hard to imagine television without the situation comedy, perhaps the most intrinsically American form of comedy today. From 'I Love Lucy' to 'Friends' the genre has taken many twists and turns, going from one-camera to three-camera setups, from black and white to color, filming stories that have touched us as much as amused us.
Do you have to be funny to write comedy or can a good writer write any situation funny?
What kind of person writes for situation comedies?
One such person is Lenny Ripps, who has been hugely successful in writing for standup comedians, situation comedy writing and its predecessor, sketch writing that had its heyday on star-studded variety shows.
Ripps has been a writer for Joan Rivers; worked on the staff of such television series as Bosom Buddies, Full House, The Redd Foxx Variety Show, Good News, Good Time Girls, and Angie, and written for variety shows, awards shows, and the television productions of 'Star Wars Holiday Special' and the TV movie, 'Can't Hurry Love;' the cult feature 'Frankenweenie,' and the hugely successful 'The Flintstones' which grossed more than $350,000,000. His new television series, 'The Lot, will debut in January 2001.
HOW DOES A SOCIAL WORKER IN BALTIMORE BECOME A PROFESSIONAL COMEDY WRITER?
I always intended to be a writer. I earned a degree from Boston University in communications, which meant making movies, doing audio-video presentations, etc. It was like getting a degree in show and tell.
When I was graduated, however, there was a deep recession so, thanks to the State of Maryland, I became a social worker. I continued writing, and was thrilled to get a gig writing a training film produced by the State to teach bicycle safety tips. I remember it paid $200, big money in those days and even bigger money compared to my job as a social worker.
During that time, I co-founded a local newspaper, similar to 'L.A. Weekly' where I wrote about the whole gamut of events and happenings: restaurant reviews, film reviews, wrote a boxing column.
Then, for a very brief time, I was a stand-up comedian.
WERE YOU FUNNY AS A KID?
Yes, but I was funny as a kid in self defense, I was a little fat kid who stuttered, so I quickly learned the importance of verbal judo to protect myself.
DID THAT EXPERIENCE IMPACT YOUR WRITING?
Not really, but it did make me understand the importance of being funny.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO WRITE FUNNY?
To write for standup, you have to imitate someone's voice, find his or her rhythms. So much of the writer's job is listening! You listen to how the comic talks then you write phrases together so that they sound like them, not you, the writer. I learned to write in many 'voices': Rodney Dangerfield and David Steinberg; the Captain and Tennille; Pat Boone, and Dick Van Dyke for whom I wrote 'Van Dyke and Company' and was nominated for an Emmy.
HEY, BACK UP A MINUTE. HOW DID YOU GET FROM BALTIMORE TO AN EMMY NOMINATION?
Through a woman I met while working as a social worker, I was introduced to Joan Rivers, and began to write jokes for Rivers, at $7 a joke, and was thrilled to do it. Finally, after six months of doing this I took the risk and moved to Los Angeles.
I continued to write for Joan, and she was wonderful to me. Her work kept me going. Her manager, who also handled Matt Davis, got me an audition for Matt's variety show, and that opened up more doors for me, and I got my first paying gig as a staff for a TV show.
That led to a lot of other variety shows writing for the likes of Dean Martin, Bob Hope, and George Burns. These were LEGENDS, and there I was, a twenty-something kid, writing for THEM every week!
I was working with a staff of guys in their forties and fifties who had been writing comedy for decades. It was fabulous training, and because I was the young kid on staff, they loved teaching, teasing; it was great fun, and they were all my mentors.
WHAT ADVICE DID YOUR EARLY CONTACTS GIVE YOU?
Writer Danny Simon once told me, 'It doesn't always have to be funny, it has to be INTERESTING.'
I learned that essentially everything you write is autobiographical, from something you experienced, felt, or perhaps just observed. I always begin by writing about things that happen to actual people, then funny can follow. Somehow, for me, going from being funny first is backwards.
Writing sketches is a tremendous amount of fun because you're responsible for creating an entire world in seven or eight pages, if you do it right. Sketches have a beginning, middle, and end. It is usually based on a situation that could be taken out of real life, but it's made funny.
AND, THEN YOU WROTE...
It was amazing how my career evolved. Even though I loved variety, I realized that genre was ending for television, and that star-based shows, except for perhaps Carol Burnett, were not happening. Stars were pursing the movies, especially if they were funny.
What WAS happening was the sitcom.
HOW DID YOU MAKE THE TRANSITION FROM SKETCH WRITER TO SITCOM WRITER?
I had made a very good living with variety shows, writing intros to award shows, but it was hard to break into sitcom writing. Thanks, again, to Joan Rivers, I got my start.
Joan had a show, 'Husbands, Wives and Lovers' and I was a script doctor. I felt like a night janitor. They would hand me the script in the evening, I would write jokes to add to it, then slide the results under the door. It was isolating and terrifying to write that way. Eventually they came to me and asked if I would consider writing for the show fulltime, and that gave me my first sitcom experience.
HOW WAS THAT DIFFERENT THAN YOUR VARIETY SHOW WRITING?
Making the transition to sitcom writing required thinking about longer pieces, stories that involved a continuing set of characters. I learned that what worked is discovering something that was true about the characters and then making that truth funny.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WRITING SOLO AND WITH A TEAM?
When you're on staff, you need to entertain a lot more people when you're not! You have to make EVERYBODY laugh; you gotta sell what you've written. At first you're writing for the people around the table, THEN you're writing for all those in America viewing the show. Writing by yourself, you just have to make yourself laugh.
I also write with partners, and we sometimes divide a script into acts, then come together and swap pages until it all works out the way we want it to be.
DO YOU USE WRITING SOFTWARE?
Shakespeare wrote with just quill and ink on parchment, and I understand he did pretty well. I actually write in long hand sometimes because it makes me more thoughtful just because it takes longer, makes me choose the words more carefully.
However, the computer certainly speeds up the process for scriptwriting. Computers might even make writing better, and certainly they make rewriting easier. I use FINAL DRAFT. It allows for lots of fine-tuning that takes seconds or just minutes rather than the hours it used to take to retype pages completely. A friend turned me onto FINAL DRAFT and suggested The Writer's Store; I've really been happy with their service, Gabi is a doll!
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THOSE PURSUING A CAREER IN WRITING?
Assuming you have ability, taking the wonderful courses at UCLA Extension or other sources is a good idea. They teach you how to think and how to write, but eventually, you just have to do it.
Then, it's all about contacts and networking.
And, if it's television sitcom writing you want to pursue, you can't to it from any place than L.A. There's no schedule for how long it takes to happen, you just have to commit and believe in yourself and keep at it.
HOW DO YOU NETWORK?
It's all about passion; all good work is about the passion and believing in yourself. Part of being a writer is being a salesman of yourself. And, that's not necessarily compatible. Writing is an introspective art, but you have to be both, writer and salesman.
HOW CAN WRITERS LEARN TO DEAL WITH REJECTION?
You have to have a steel jaw, because you're going to get knocked around a lot. You have to be insensitive to rejection but sensitive to the things that can become part of your writing.
WHAT'S THE KEY TO GETTING WORK?
Keeping up contacts. Agents are well and good, but you have to know what's going on, and many times networking will help you get jobs yourself. (And, yes, you still have to give the agent the ten per cent.)
WHAT KEPT YOU GOING? WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO STICK IT OUT?
I didn't want to be a social worker in Baltimore! I really believed I couldn't do anything else; that I didn't have any other options except to write.
Besides, the highs are so great. The first time you see your name in the credits rolled at the end of the show, it's as thrilling as anything that can happen to you. It's absolutely still is a thrill, and it's such a wonderful gift to be able to do this, to write for a living, and get paid for it.
HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO MENTOR OTHERS?
Yes. Ultimately, that is what you do. You can't help the ones who came before you but you can help the ones who come after you, so I'll always read scripts. It's been so satisfying to see so many of these writers be successful and to know that my input helped them, as other mentors helped me at different times in my life.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR LENNY RIPPS?
Beginning in January 2001 AMC will air a unique show, 'The Lot,' about a movie studio during the thirties, produced by two intelligent and funny guys, Rick Mitz and Mike Ogiens. All the stories on the show are based on some true story that happened in Hollywood during that era, but the characters are on going and much of the stories are fictionalized. It's unique because it was filmed with just one camera. Rob Dames and I were consultants and writers on 13 of the shows and I'm so proud of it.
HAVE YOU EVER NOT BEEN FUNNY?
Not on purpose!