In this Issue: Laughter Through Tears // Nora Ephron’s Lasting Inspiration // Writing Secondary Characters // Top Five Funniest TV Lines
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Laughter Through Tears // Nora Ephron’s Lasting Inspiration // Writing Secondary Characters // Top Five Funniest TV Lines
Dear Storytellers,

You’ve likely witnessed a Jewish wedding scene in a film or show where the one of the newly betrothed smashes a glass to mark the end of the ceremony before the guests erupt in cheers of “Mazel tov!” There are many interpretations for this tradition, but a common one is that, even in our greatest moments of joy, we should recall the suffering in the world.

Comedy writing and directing—often cited as the hardest genre to nail successfully—is not dissimilar. There’s a reason why “I laughed, I cried” is considered the ultimate compliment for a Broadway show to the point where the statement itself has been lampooned countless times. In the Master Class we cite in this issue’s Getting Unstuck, celebrated TV comedy writer Jenny Bicks notes, “Some of the best comedy comes from pain. Laughing through tears is a real thing.”

As counterintuitive as it might seem, if you’re trying to make your work funnier, you may want to start with something painful for your characters. Or even, as Bicks suggests, for yourself. She says that you can ask “What is my own pain that I'm working through? Because the closer you are to whatever it is that you're trying to work through, the funnier and more real your comedy is actually going to be.”
That gets to the heart of it: just like in other genres, comedy often works best when it feels real and relatable. In a Tribeca Talk a few years ago, writer/director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno) shared some similar advice from his father Ivan Reitman, who produced and directed some of the most beloved American comedies (Ghostbusters, I Love You, Man).

Reitman told his son, "Remember, it's not your job to be funny. Your barometer for comedy will never be as good as your barometer for truth, so when you're on set, never ask yourself if it's funny; you won't know. But you will know if it's truthful.”

The world has certainly experienced a lot of challenges in recent years and I’m sure you’ve all been affected in some way. If you’re currently working on a comedy, or even just trying to bring some lighter moments to your dramatic work, can you tap into that pain to ultimately make us laugh?

Meanwhile, read on below for insights and writing tips from the storytellers of the Sundance network.

See you on the page,
Director of Content
Throwing Muses
Writers on their sources of inspiration

Contributed by Alana Sanko, Sundance Collab Advisor (Just for Kicks, Murphy Brown)
My muse is Nora Ephron. She inspires me because she reminds me that a writing career spans over many years and that finding your voice can take many forms. In the ‘60s she was a journalist, in the ‘70s she became known as an essayist and humorist, in the ‘80s she wrote screenplays (Remember Silkwood with Meryl Streep?) That same year, she came out with a novel, Heartburn, which she also adapted into a screenplay. Fun fact: the book was inspired by her divorce from Carl Bernstein (yes, the investigative journalist from Watergate). In the late '80s, there was the iconic When Harry Met Sally and in the ’90s and early 2000s, she directed Sleepless in Seattle and her foodie classic, Julie and Julia. She was also an accomplished playwright and won a posthumous Tony for her play Lucky Guy. There is so much more not mentioned here, but her body of work is tremendous and a reminder that there is always something new to explore as a writer. She wrote fearlessly with honesty and always managed to convey some inkling of wit and humor with her words, no matter what the topic, be it love, life or even the Wonderbra. She reminds me that stories are all around us. Her favorite motto was that no matter what happens in life, “Everything is copy.” Words to live (and write) by.
Getting Unstuck
Answers to common writing questions from Collab experts

Q: How developed should my secondary characters be for a TV pilot, and how many do I need?

A: In her Master Class on Comedy Writing for Television, Jenny Bicks (Seinfeld, Sex and the City) notes that you’ll want to spend as much time developing your secondary characters as you do your lead character. In doing so, she recommends asking yourself, “Who are the foils? Who's the character that is going to bring out the most comedy and the most truth from my lead character?” Putting it simply, you’re trying to create the opposite of your lead character in order to enhance both dramatic and comedic situations. She adds that “An important side note about secondary characters is that you need to make them relatable. I think the mistake we all make is to think, ‘The secondary characters can be zany and goofy and total buffoons.’ They can be more of the extreme parts of comedy but they still need to be relatable.”

Jenny Bicks (left) was a producer and writer on Sex in the City (right) from 1998-2004.
In terms of how many secondary characters to write, Jenny notes that “You only need as many as have differing points of view.” Further, she warns, “Don’t populate your show with any characters that have the same point of view, because really you want to use those characters as foils for your [main] character. Because pilots are still fairly short, you don’t want to spend a lot of time on your secondary characters because you really want to establish your lead. I don’t think I’ve ever written a show where I’ve had more than three significant other characters. You want to make sure you’re limiting yourself and not just writing a funny character who could fold into another character.” Even if there are multiple characters, Jenny adds, “Make sure one of them is really the central juxtaposition to your main character.”

Read more from Jenny Bicks: Five Strategies for Creating Strong Comedic Characters

Showing Up
How do you get yourself in the space to write?
Contributed by Aadip Desai, Collab Advisor (The Goldbergs, Mira Royal Detective)
As everyone knows, consistency is hard to come by these days, but this is my IDEAL pandemic-era ritual. Every night before bed, I set up my bullet journal, listing the activities and writing goals for the next day. I begin each day by drinking a couple of coffees or a vanilla latte while writing Morning Pages: three, handwritten pages where I freely associate, express self-doubts, and air grievances, like a daily Festivus for one. This all occurs while sitting outside in the sunshine to get my RDA of Vitamin D while blasting music. If I get all of this in before writing, I’m primed.

While writing, I use the Pomodoro Technique (Pomodoro: Italian for tomato), where I write for 25 minutes then take a five minute break. I’ll do this four times, then take a longer break, then do another four if I have time later. I don’t stop writing until my adorable tomato timer goes off, which is what the creator used when developing the technique.

I also post writing sprints on Twitter and Facebook to guilt everyone else into writing with me. My friends and I occasionally host Zoom accountability writing sessions where we declare what we’re going to write, turn off our mics, but keep the cameras on.

Finally, I visualize my inner critic sealed in a jar on a high shelf, unable to interrupt the muse. That’s a lie. I don’t have to visualize it. I had to write the words “Inner Critic” and “Editor” on slips of paper, seal them in a jar on my shelf. If I’m in rewrite mode, the jar gets to come down.

Top Fives
Writers on their favorites from across the world of cinema

Contributed by Jenn Lloyd, Sundance Collab Advisor (The Barbarian and The Troll, K.C. Undercover)
Funniest TV Comedy Lines
1. Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld
You know the message you’re sending out to the world with sweatpants? You’re telling the world: “I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.”

Seinfeld has quotable moments and laugh-out-loud jokes in every single episode. But I just spent a year trapped inside my house, and this sweatpants line speaks to me.
2. Teddy Perkins in Atlanta
Performed by Donald Glover
I want this wing of the museum to be dedicated to great fathers. My father, Joe Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Sr., Tiger Woods’ father, Serena Williams’ father, the father that drops off Emilio Estevez in ‘The Breakfast Club.’

The Teddy Perkins episode of Atlanta is one of the most memorable and innovative episodes of television in recent times. It's dark, unnerving, and weird. Just like this line.
3. Abed and Jeff in Community
Performed by Danny Pudi and Joel McHale

ABED: Jeff, I think you should play the role of my father.
JEFF: I don't wanna be your father.
ABED: That's perfect. You already know your lines.

I'm a huge fan of the Marx Brothers, and this exchange is on par with the stellar banter of Groucho and Zeppo Marx in Horsefeathers. It's a perfect joke and perfectly in character.
4. Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls
Performed by Betty White
You know what they say: you can lead a herring to water, but you have to walk really fast, or he'll die.

I have a weakness for "dumb" characters. They're fun to write, and they get the best jokes. Rose Nylund is probably the best example. Dorothy Parker she is not. Her homespun wisdom and genuinely lovable personality are clearly illustrated in this line.
5. Chris Peterson and Fred Peterson in Get A Life
Performed by Chris Elliot and Bob Elliot
CHRIS: Dad, I can't. I'm not getting any younger. These are the prettiest years of my life. I'm late for my personal interview. Now, when I walk out this door here, it would be nice if I knew in my heart that I have your blessings, your best wishes, and your full support.
FRED: Well, you don't.

Get A Life was one of the shows that made me want to become a television comedy writer. In this episode, Chris decides to sign up for a male modeling class in hopes of landing a coveted spot walking the runway in the mall fashion show. This line shows everything I love about the character of Chris, his misguided confidence, his tense relationship with his parents, and his ability to do literally anything, no matter how silly. He's a character in his own world, and the dialogue above clearly shows that.
Writing Promptly
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script
Contributed by Deborah Goodwin, Sundance Collab Advisor (Justine To Fault, The Pastor)
Any genre allows for your characters to cause cringeworthy audience moments of self-identification, when your characters say or do exactly the wrong thing! In fact, that can be just what you’re looking for to enliven a scene: those off-kilter, transcendent moments in your storytelling where you invite your audience to close their eyes or half squint in embarrassment as your characters go off the rails. Using humor, deflection, and flat out misdirection can be great tools to energize a scene and endear us to your character's flaws, insecurities and miscalculations. Try writing a cringeworthy character moment into one of your scenes that feels like it needs punching up.

Some potential “wrong moment” scenarios to get you started:

  • The Favor: Your character tries to get someone to return a favor that isn’t actually owed to them. (“It would really mean a lot to my mother — I did tell you she was dead, but that wasn’t actually true at the time. This favor I need, though, is absolutely real and true and urgent!”)
  • I've Got This: Your character pretends to be an expert in some area at which they have little or zero expertise. (“Fly this plane with one engine? In my sleep!” [Sound of engine dying] “I know what I said, but hold that rudder, we're going down!”)
  • Bad News: Your character must deliver unfortunate news but tries to put a positive spin on it, and fails. ( [Enters with bouquet] “There’s no good way to say this except: you’ve got six days to live, would you like these flowers now?”)

For more prompts in a live setting, join our free Writers’ Cafe each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
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