Comedy is a serious business. From constructing jokes, to pacing out an episode, crafting a half hour comedy is more than just throwing together a few laugh lines and seeing what happens. So when ABC brought together a group of comedy showrunners for a spirited — and informative — panel on comedy writing at the Television Critics Association's Summer Press Tour, we learned some dead serious facts about how your favorite laugh riots come together.
Okay, maybe not that serious. But still, for comedy nerds and those wondering how sitcoms are made, it was a wealth of fascinating information.
In attendance on the panel were: Mike Sikowitz (Dr. Ken); Matt Berry (Last Man Standing); Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline (The Middle); Steven Levitan (Modern Family); and Casey Johnson, David Windsor and Stacy Traub (The Real O'Neals).
Here's everything we learned watching the panel... Because there's nothing funnier than explaining a joke:
1. How collaborative is the process? The showrunners expressed that the process of what makes a characters... Character, changes over time. "On our show, over all the years, the characters have merged more with the actors than when we started, so we think of them as characters that we share," said Heisler.
"I don't speak to my actors," Berry joked right back.
2. What do you do when kids grow up? "You always wish like characters can stay exactly how they were when you first cast them, but you have to look on the bright side, they have to evolve," Levitan noted, adding that as children age, so do the problems and challenges inherent in parenting. "It can become a positive thing on the show."
Heisler added that even if it's scary for a showrunner, "it can lead you to more stories." She recalled one of the actors coming back from break with a — pardon the pun — breaking, deep voice, but it allowed the writers something to play with.
"They're going through similar things in their character's lives," Berry said, which also makes the plotlines more relatable for the actors.
3. What's it like working with kid actors? "It's always a challenge because kids, sometimes they're not as good as adults," Windsor said, but of course he feels lucky to have who they do on Real O'Neals.
Heisler added that what they're looking for are kid actors who are "real," and not, as Berry joked, "bringing Variety in under their arm" to auditions.
4. What's the hardest thing about not being on cable? "I envy most, the time," Heline said, since balancing multiple stories in 20 minutes is tough. "You have to get out the information so quick, and it may not be artful enough."
Berry added that he doesn't envy having the smaller audience of a cable network, and mused that cable showrunners probably envy the size of ABC's base audience.
"Constraints also lead to comedy a lot of the time," Traub said noting that not being able to use language or nudity actually helps. "That's what somebody would actually say in this situation, now what can we put on the air?" Berry added
Levitan continued the "yay ABC!" bent, saying that they all have family comedies, so there's no real need for raunchier content.
Basically, ABC rules, cable drools.
5. How do you (literally) translate comedy to another language? The showrunners all don't deal with the process, though they're impressed and flattered that their shows are available in so many countries.
"As much as we'd like one more thing to lay awake at night and worry about," Berry quipped, "we don't have to do it."
6. What's the difference between single camera and three camera comedies? "You don't have that audience, so you still have the opportunity to play," Heisler said on single-camera shoots; though she added that the actors also don't get the "juice" from a joke immediately by getting a laugh.
For Berry, he came from stand-up comedy — but found that having a single camera shoot allows you to cut to camera for the laugh line, versus live which all depends on what happens in the room.
Sikowitz continued that he appreciated the three-camera live shoot, because it makes everything feel more like "an event."
7. Where do you get your ideas? It's a pretty tried and true question, but the panel still had varied answers. For Sikowitz, it's in the shower. For Heisler and Levitan, it's from their own kids. "A fight breaks out and I immediately take out my phone and start writing it down," Levitan said, laughing.
Ultimately, he credited how the show is put together in a writers' room, where, "so many people bring together their different lives."
8. How do you deal with a controversy? Specifically, how did Real O'Neals deal with the fall-out from star Noah Galvin's interview with Vulture, which led to rumors that the show was having its episode order cut.
"That part of the story is not true, there was no threat to cut the episode order," Johnson said. "The article came out, and Noah regretted what he said pretty quickly, and we all got back to work. We were busy on Season 2, which we were all excited about. It's all good."
So there you go! Tempest in a comedy tea pot.
9. Does social media affect their reaction to their own shows? Traub noted that they were done shooting Real O'Neals by the time the show aired, so she would just sit and watch the live-tweeting of the show. "That response was amazing, and to connect with your viewer in that way..." Traub said.
"We had some issues we dealt with in the beginning," Heline said of The Middle, adding that the immediate feedback can be helpful for guiding the show.
Heisler lamented the loss of anonymity to being a showrunner, that people can find you — but you can also find them. "It's like an irresistible drug, and you pay attention when it's a trend," Heisler said. "When people are upset, you go back to the writer's room and discuss it."
Berry on the other hand, filters it all out. "I'll listen to it, but I'm not going to change it," Berry said, with Sikowitz adding that Dr. Ken star Ken Jeong has a "huge" social media imprint.
"It's this constant flow back and forth for him," Sikowitz said. "Where as... I have no followers. For him, you gotta live tweet. Our premiere is seven actors with their heads down."
Sikowitz continued that 10, 20 years earlier that never existed, but that, "you can't ignore it."
10. What's in a stunt? Levitan discussed a stunt episode they did on Modern Family that took place entirely on a computer, saying that to do it again, they'd have to come up with a good story; but he'd rather find a new challenge.
Following up, Berry added that to get a network to agree to a stunt, you need to have a clear vision. "They don't want us to be tame," Berry said. "The only thing they would say no to is, you can't smoke." He recalled that on Desperate Housewives, they said, "you can't smoke while you're torturing him to death."
For Traub on Real O'Neals, they have a "fantasy element," so they're always trying to think outside the box. In the Season 2 premiere, for example, guest stars Jane Lynch, Tyler Oakley and Lance Bass jump on a phone call once one character asks Kenny (Noah Galvin) if "all the gay people can tone it down.
Ultimately? It's up to the idea and the execution, not having awards and clout to back you up.