The Office: Tricks of the Comedy-Writing Trade
Brent Forrester is a writer and consulting producer on The Office. He has previously been a writer for several shows that are (rightly) revered by comedy snobs everywhere, including The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show with Bob and David, and The Simpsons.
VF Daily: You’ve written some of my favorite episodes of The Office—the merger between the two branches, Ryan at business school, the sexually explicit cartoon watermark. What do you think is the key to making a really funny, memorable one?
Brent Forrester: This is a question comedy writers come up against every time they write an episode: what is funny, how do you do a funny episode? There are certain truisms that come up. The big one that I learned early on, one of the first lessons ever told to me about comedy writing, was “silly isn’t funny.” The real deep funny stuff comes from trying to express something a little more difficult. So whenever you see that the themes of the story you’re working on have something a little bit difficult emotionally, you go at that stuff and trust that it will come out funny. Somehow that really, really works.
Well, they say there’s always humor in tragedy, or a fine line between comedy and tragedy.
There’s not always humor in tragedy. The truth is, some stuff is just too tragic, and it’s not even appropriate to be laughing at. But stuff that’s a little bit difficult — that’s where humor really lies.
As a consulting producer on The Office, you have a hand in all of the scripts, but is it a more emotional process when it’s your script, your baby?
It’s incomparable. The difference in attention and focus you put on an episode that has your name on it—it’s inevitable. It’s very interesting, because the process by which television shows are written is highly collaborative, but every writer gets to do a first draft. You hope to get one or two episodes per year, maybe three. Those are your moments to shine in any TV season with an ordinary-sized staff…. I like to get feedback after I write a draft—get a couple of guys or gals from the staff to read it and just give me their impressions. I’ll immediately get a feeling for what they like, and I’ll milk that, and stuff that they don’t like or that confuses them, I’ll cut that.
Can you compare and contrast the experience of writing for The Simpsons with that of writing for The Office?
The Simpsons, when I was there [1993-97], seemed like a joke-writing contest, in a weird way. It was highly cerebral and very quiet. For the most part the way it worked was that the writers would just go into isolation and try to think up an entire episode in enormous detail, then come in and pitch the whole thing at a story conference—from fade in to fade out, tons of jokes. It was crazy, man. Extremely stressful. We would do it in a hotel—Shutters [on the Beach, in Santa Monica]. And you’d pitch one, sometimes two stories, and after that the head writer would decide what stories we were going to do. And then you would go off for two to four weeks—we got a lot of time on those episodes! There was a time when you got four weeks? That’s a fucking luxury now!
How it goes here is that the staff is run by [executive producer] Greg Daniels, and under him he has two kind of chief deputies: Paul Lieberstein and Jen Celotta. They divide up all the work of rewriting and coming up with new stories between them. Then there’s a bunch of us who just kind of float around, eight or ten of us at least, including some who act on the show. So we all write little pieces of a larger show. As you build to the pressure of turning a script into the network and having a table read, it’s like “Oh, shit, put all these pieces together! Was that scene funny? No, I don’t think it was.” Sometimes these very heated debates will happen as people begin to get confused and impassioned.
But that’s probably healthy, right?
To some degree it is. The time pressure definitely forces decisions to be made and can be very good for the process. But it can be a little slam-bang and a little tiring after a while. You know, I only come in three days a week. It’s an incredible luxury that I’ve earned for some fucking reason—I guess because I’ve known Greg for so long. But I just played a game of chicken and we made a contract where I only have to come in three days a week.
Thanks, my friend, thank you. Perk of age. But five days a week can be a bit of a burnout for some people. When I was younger and had different priorities, I liked to be at a TV show for 12 hours a day.
But those three days you’re there are 12-hour days, right?
That’s kind of the way the industry works. TV is much more stable and rational than the movies, which is much more megalomaniacal, and where you have people making zero money for 10 years and then making $100 million. It’s just much more fucking insane. Here it’s more of a meritocracy, for the most part. And on this show there’s an enormous amount of talent.