July 17, 2008 Jill

More from Mike at Just Comedy:

Showrunners are superheroes.


They have to be. The job demands superhuman speed, the strength to break obstinate stories with their bare hands, and bulletproof skin when faced with a hail of broadcaster’s notes. As if that weren’t impressive enough, some of them have to be funny, too.


Here’s what the fearless Mark Farrell (Corner Gas and This Hour has 22 Minutes) and the mighty Neal Brennan (Half Baked, Chappelle’s Show) had to say about the job of running a show.


On what the job entails:


– Besides being the primary creative force, and answering questions from wardrobe, casting and locations, they agreed that their primary job was maintaining the consistency of the show, episode to episode.


– While Brennan wrote (or rewrote) every episode of Chappelle’s Show along with Dave Chappelle, Farrell has had more experience managing larger writing teams. While he was on Corner Gas there were around six writers, on 22 Minutes, around eight, plus the cast, who also write as well.


– Farrell originally expected to be hiring crowds of fast talking standup comedians. In practice, he found that the character traits that make for a successful standup don’t always make for a good collaborative member of a story department. Although he still hires standups who play well with others, he’s ended up hiring a lot more writers from the sketch comedy world.


On protecting “the funny:”


– Both men agreed: everyone who works on a comedy wants to help make it even funnier. Sometimes, the props and costumes and set dec folks are trying to add to the joke, and it just gets in the way. As Brennan relates, the showrunner ends up with the difficult job of saying “no” to a lot of well-intentioned help. “You can end up feeling like a jerk.”


– Farrell says he’s had to start using the line “You know, it works both ways, but we’re gonna do it the other way.”


– Brennan lauds Judd Apatow for making sure his films’ sets, props, and costumes are remarkably unremarkable.


– In maintaining a clear vision with a consistent level of quality, Brennan spoke about the importance of suiting the material you’re writing to the specific comic performer who’ll be taking it off the page. Sometimes a script can be hilarious, but if isn’t right for the actors, it’s just not going to be funny.


On network notes:


– Brennan says they got reams of notes from Comedy Central on their first six scripts for Chappelle’s Show. They defied them and shot some of the most contentious sketches for the live studio audience, to test how they would they react. When the sketches absolutely killed, Comedy Central called to say “We do not understand your show.” “They left us alone after that,” said Brennan.


-both showrunners agreed that the old stereotype about network execs being no-nothings when it comes to giving notes is just not true.


There’s good advice out there, which shouldn’t be ignored.

In the end, moderator Virginia Thompson (President & Executive Producer, Vérité Films Inc.) said it best: “When it’s all about the funny, it’s all about the writing.”

Comment (1)

  1. Myrtle

    My fave?

    The fact that Comedy Central gave tons of notes on Chappelle’s Show and said “we do not understand your show.”

    Mike failed to add that it was with tongue firmly in cheek that both showrunners agreed “the old stereotype about network execs being no-nothings (sic)” is not true.

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