November 2008

Laugh Factory

Being a Simpsons writer is hard work—unless you’re a genius

Carolyn
Omine

Carolyn Omine Photo by Frank W Ockenfels 3

I am a television comedy writer. Which means for 8 to 12 hours a day, my job is to think up jokes along with 8 to 12 brilliant, offbeat, uniquely silly writers. It is as fun as it sounds. I’m pretty sure it has done irreversible damage to my personality. Working in close proximity for so many hours with similarly damagedpersonalities, of course there have to be rules. They are numerous and subtle and mostly unwritten. Until now, baby!

Aspiring writers often pepper me with questions, trying to gain an understanding of the “writers’ room.” Most recently, it happened at a funeral by a minister delivering a eulogy. (He also had a spec South Park he wanted me to read.) And so, for the further education of new writers everywhere, and with the hope that I may enjoy funerals without interruption, I shall try to describe this process.

A long-standing tradition of every show I’ve worked on is that each morning, someone must burn an onion bagel. Then after a breakfast of leftover birthday cake, muffin-basket muffins and vitamin water, we gather to discuss anything other than the script. Politics, the weird guy from another building who uses our bathroom (the Mad Crapper), a writer who left seven years ago but for some reason still annoys us—and of course, there’s the gambling (sports, box-office numbers or what time we’ll get out that night). To the uninitiated, it might look like we’re goofing off—and we are—but it does serve a purpose: You’re always funnier when you’re already laughing. You can’t just punch a clock and start thinking up jokes. Eventually, someone always says, “Let’s get started.”

The “someone” who gets us to pipe down and focus is the Room Runner, who says something like, “Okay, guys, we gotta change this joke—turns out the actress’ mother actually is so fat she is taller lying down.” Once the problem has been identified, there’s sometimes a heavy silence as everyone puts on their thinking faces, heaves their thinking sighs and doodles their thinking doodles. A half hour later, some brave soul will break the silence with, “What joke were we working on again?”

But just as often, there will be a flurry of pitches, and here is the best part of the comedy writers’ room: Comedy writers are funny. I’ve read that laughter is the best workout. How I wish that wasn’t a load of crap, because I would be ripped! We laugh a lot. We riff off one another. A writers’ room can be, well, wonderful.

With so many jokes flying, there are sure to be duds. We let those pass. This is where new writers can go wrong. Instead of pitching, they say, “Nah, too obvious.” Or, “They did that on Seinfeld.” If a joke isn’t making it into the script, it’s no danger to anyone. So they need to shut up. However, if the Room Runner says, “Great! Let’s go with it!” it might be time to speak up and say, “Whoa! Are we really gonna have a six-year-old say ‘ass’?”

If a joke someone pitches is met with silence, we let it go. Repitching or lustily laughing at your own joke isn’t going to get your baby to the prom. Even if a line gets a huge laugh, if it isn’t being typed into the script, they need to think of another joke. Writers who are also stand-up comedians sometimes comment on their jokes that bomb. When a line gets nothing but crickets, they’ll say, “And that’s the kind of awkward silence I was hoping for!” This kind of professionally delivered saver is purely optional.

Opinions about what gets in the script are welcome, but the Room Runner has final say. Being a non-democracy minimizes disagreements—99 percent of the time, it works. I’ve heard of people leaping across the table to throttle other writers, though I’ve only seen passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive verbal slapdowns—which, to be honest, I enjoy.

Few things are more entertaining than a grouchy genius. I remember once the Room Runner was in a particularly dark mood. A writer had been told to think of a sign joke. When he returned, he tried to lighten the mood with a bouncy intro: “Got some choices here, each funnier than the last...” The Room Runner growled, “Well, then just read the last one.”

Of course, if you consistently pitch hilarious, ass-saving jokes, no rules apply to you. So if you have a temper or a difficult-to-get-along-with personality, try to be a genius also. The room will put up with a lot of eccentricities if they come packaged with brilliance. Although nobody is funny enough to be like one writer who kept flashing his privates. The problem was he would put his feet up on the table, never wore underwear and always wore shorts. And they were long and baggy. The shorts, I mean.

And that’s the kind of awkward silence I was hoping for!

CAROLYN OMINE has been a writer for The Simpsons since 1998. In her previous life, she performed sketch comedy with the Groundlings.