If you watch comedy TV, there’s a good chance you’ve seen (and laughed at) the work of Greg Daniels ’85. After writing for The Harvard Lampoon as an undergraduate, he went on to become a writer for Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Parks and Recreation. During Wintersession, he and fellow TV writer Robert Carlock ’95 (30 Rock, Friends, SNL) will hold comedy writing intensives for students as part of the Office of Fine Art’s JAMS! Daniels and I exchanged emails about his experience with comedy and advice for aspiring writers.
What drew you to screenwriting? How is it like other types of writing?
I think It is similar to other forms of fiction writing in that you need to create characters, stories, pacing and dialogue. It is different in that you rarely use passages of description or the sheer poetry of your writing to move people, and you can make a good living with a fraction of the talent.
First of all, I am a television writer, not a screenwriter. That’s a meaningful difference to me, because as a writer in television, you have much more control over your work than you do in movies, where the director is in control. The process has two parts, I would say, which are working on your writing skills and developing a general knowledge of other people’s jobs and how the industry works. Your first writing job is almost always won by the quality of your writing samples; a really great sample attracts attention without you having to push hard. The sample needs to be just the right amount of original — something fresh and not familiar, yet not so different that it will be a risk to hire you to write whatever they are hiring for. Most of us Hollywood writers, you may have noticed, are comfortable staying right in that zone of not-too-original.
What advice do you have for aspiring comedy writers?
Really? With your education? Wouldn’t America be better served if you went into medicine or government? OK, if you feel you must, then take it seriously and try to have high standards for yourself. Somebody has to write all the entertainment that is beamed at us, and if you work hard, it will probably be you, so deserve it. Be original and uplifting.
Robert Carlock and I are going to have a large opening presentation with questions and answers that I hope will satisfy a general curiosity. Then I will take a smaller group and try to show what goes into conceiving of a TV program by getting as far as we can with making an original pilot together. Along the way, I think it will involve learning how a writing team works and a lot of the concerns behind how you structure scenes and write dialogue. I may use examples from what I’m currently working on as well. Applicants for the smaller session should be serious about comedy writing and have something for me to read first. I may contact them before the session with a little homework too.
Daniels and Carlock will hold an open discussion about their careers on January 23 from 10-11:30 a.m. in the Thompson Room in the Barker Center for the Humanities on 12 Quincy Street. Register here.