Brent Forrester’s TV Comedy Course: Brainstorming

The first part of Brent Forrester’s TV Comedy Course is about brainstorming. Brent gave us a great sense of how idea generation works in a real writer’s room and how to get started with a scene. Brent suggests finding characters or events from real life and making a personal connection with what you are writing. Trust that your personal perspective will lead you to the funny, not the other way around.

Brent taught the first class over Zoom from the Bahamas while being threatened by a hurricane. A lot of people in my circles are hating meetings and webinars on Zoom, but for me, “Zoom” meetings have given me access to folks and training that I couldn’t have pulled off in person. I appreciate what Brent is doing with the class and what a remote meeting can provide.

Brent Forrester on Zoom

Here are some notes, tips, and takeaways from the brainstorming class.

Brent wanted us to feel the power of what we were doing. A whole bunch of us decided to meet on Zoom on a Saturday afternoon to learn about comedy writing. He set the context by talking about his origin story. Brent didn’t watch much or any TV growing up. He had a loose connection with Susan Harris who become Brent’s mentor. He got started by creating a writing sample which is a spec script of an existing show.

Three lessons from Susan Harris:

  • Silly isn’t funny!
  • Write the way people talk.
  • Write about what’s difficult for you even if it’s painful and trust that it will come out funny.

Brent’s real education came from joining the writer’s room of The Simpsons. This is where he watched 100 episodes of the show and analyzed why jokes worked. He called this “autodidactic” learning and he just had to get in there and break everything down that others did by himself.

Brent Forrester in The Simpsons Writer’s Room

First Writing Hack: Writing is a solo act and this makes the process difficult. Brent recommended that we solve this problem by involving another writer. Having someone else involved in your work will help with motivation, quality, and growth as a writer. Related: involving any other person, writer or not, will help you. Tell that other person the story that you want to write. When you tell the story out loud something magical happens. What is confusing or moving or if there is an ending? The story is important. Also, learn how to be a good partner to others. Really listen to other writers when they are pitching. Reflect back to them something good about someone else’s pitch. Listen closely to the feedback. Be open to critical feedback.

First Writing Choice (for the class): Are you writing a spec script for an existing show or an original pilot script for a half-hour comedy show? The choice is important because you want to be writing about what you want to write about. Writing is hard enough so you should pick something that interests you and that want to explore. This will increase your odds of finishing a script.

Deadline Hack: Set a deadline. Always be writing towards a deadline. You will either be on time, early, or late. Your brain will start to have to wonder how you are going to hit that deadline. You will start breaking down the project into parts and making some progress. Brent asked the class to share a sacred vow. We all agreed to write a script in six weeks. We didn’t agree on quality, funniness, or completeness.

Deadlines are magical.

Brent Forrester

Where to start? A great comedy must have at least one great character. So, what is a great character? David Brent from The Office was inspired by a real-world boss who thinks he was great, but he was not. The character was created to mock this guy. Observation is a great way to find a great character. A great character In one word is a contradiction. A single, interesting contradiction. Tony Soprano, for example, is a mobster but in therapy.

Brent’s trademark formula is to find a character’s core comic contradiction™. The three C’s. A comic character that is trying to come across one way but comes across another way. Then, you can layer onto the character by adding to the core contradiction. These are layers that make the character interesting. Write some background details about your character to provide a large pool of inspiration for the script and interactions. And, by the way, big funny moments by comedy actors are when they go from extremes in a split second.

Secondary characters exist to trigger your primary characters. They provoke the core comedy contradiction of your main character. Brent talked about King of the Hill. Hank Hill is the main character. Every other character like Bobby Hill, Hank’s son, is there to provoke Hank and challenge Hank’s viewpoint. All of the comedy comes from Hank believing one thing and then being pulled out of it by the other characters.

Structures of half-hour comedies:

  • Central comic character model
  • Center and eccentrics model – observation from the inside

A Promise from Brent: Writing gets fun the further along you are in the process. Brent promises.

Homework: Write a document about your primary and one secondary chracter. Watch two episodes of a half-hour comedy show that you like. Write down one of the scenes verbatim and tease it apart. Be analytical. Try to figure it out. Why is it funny? Why do you like it? Why is it funny?

Also, I learned that I need to watch Veep.

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