Logo, part 1
Logo, part 2
Back To Work
  Monday   September 15, 1997




The Usual Suspects

I took a few days off as a reward after finishing "Beginner's Luck," but now it's time to sweep out the cobwebs, grease up the machinery, unshutter the windows and unbolt the door: the idea factory is open again.

I'm trying to come up with a concept for this Finnish sitcom pilot I'm supposed to be writing. What's a Finnish pilot? The pilot has fins? Finland has sitcoms? What? As always, I suppose background is in order.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... No, wait. I used that for a joke in my Spin City spec.

It was a dark and stormy night... No. Peanuts has forever ruined that opener -- not that it was ever useful in the first place.

I was blocked one day... That'll work, I guess. God knows it happens enough. So I was blocked one day while I was writing one of my specs -- Larry Sanders, I think -- and instead of heading to the TV to see what was happening on Furniture To Go I decided I'd write a web page about sitcom writing. (Like the logic? If I can't write it, I'll write about it.) And so Sitcom Format 101 was born.

In case you skipped over the self-promoting link I just graciously provided for you, it's a page for folks who want to write sitcoms. I talk a little bit about what to and not to do when you're trying to break in, and the meat of the page is where I provide script format examples for several current shows people probably want to write. I did it primarily as a way to waste time while deluding myself that I was still being productive, secondarily as a niceguy gesture for my fellow sitcom aspirants. I didn't expect much from it, really. It has surprised me, to say the least.

I've gotten nearly 5,900 hits in the nine months the page has been up. A lot of these people have written to me, many of them asking my advice, many of them pitching ideas for shows. This scares me a little. The advice folks scare me because they're asking me for advice, the idea people because their ideas are so uniformly bad. But scattered in with the scary mail has been cool mail. All things considered, the page has been good to me. Through it, I've met some nice people, gotten a free copy of some writing software I've been lusting after for a long time, established a relationship with one of the executive producers of a certain sitcom that won its fourth Emmy this year, and it led a Finnish TV producer to me.

This producer wrote to me asking if I'd be interested in working with him. He tells me that the Finnish TV networks are always asking him for sitcoms but he hasn't had anything to give them. He's tried, but he says "Finns just aren't funny." Being dour people, their writers apparently can't write comedy. So he decided that what he needed was an American to create and write the show for production and broadcast in Finland, in Finnish. Based on what he saw on my web page, I'm that American. Go figure. I'm working on spec, of course, and this thing is so full of holes it looks like swiss cheese, but it's not costing me anything to do it. I mean, it's not like anyone here is paying me to write, so I'm willing to play this longshot that might get me paid further down the road. At the very least I'll end up with another writing sample my agent can show around town, and if it works I can tell everybody I'm huge in Helsinki. Why not?

So I'm writing a script for this guy. Two months ago I was 25 pages into a script for him when I (surprise) got blocked, so I put it aside and wrote "Beginner's Luck." Now that that's finished I've returned to the Finnish sitcom and I see that my concept won't work. Well, it could work, but not with me writing it.

The basic premise (feel free to steal it -- I'm not using it now) involved an American exchange student moving in with a Finnish family. It's your basic fish-out-of-water situation, a standard which has yielded comedy since... well, ever since evolution got funny and drove fish out of the water. It has potential, especially with the characters I created. But. Fish-out-of-water lives and breathes on culture clash. I put an American into Finnish society and...realized I don't know the first thing about Finland. I ran out, did some research, and what I learned was that even with research I'm not going to know enough about Finland to make the show work. I could probably crank out three or four good episodes, but eventually I was going to hit the Wall of Ignorance. And the show would be dead. Roundfile time.

And so the idea factory is back in business. The producer understands why and reminded me that this is for a land that doesn't have America's sitcom history. I don't have to come up with something that's cutting edge here; I just have to come up with something that's new and different there -- and that could just as easily be Golden Girls. That took a lot of the pressure off and I spent the day today kicking some ideas around. Toward the end of the day I came up with one that just might work. Tomorrow's agenda is to help it grow.

Now I just have one problem: I keep picturing Bea Arthur in a sauna.

The horror... The horror...





Copyright 1997
Chuck Atkins