So You Want To Be A Sitcom Producer?
You jump for joy, treat yourself to a pedicure, then head home to start brainstorming. This process takes months, but it's not like you're working too hard; one source tells us that "these are the days you're coming in at 11 a.m. and leaving at 3:30 p.m." When you're done with the pilot episode, you bring it to the studio people and of course, they love it. In fact, they worship you as the goddess of the television sitcom. "Shoot that pilot!" they say - so it's off to work. Your pilot, Everybody Loves Nikki, is going into production.
Now that you've chosen the fabulous title, it's time for the preparatory steps. You find a casting director, set designers, construction people, and all the little people. Then you hold auditions, choose your actors and rehearse. Meanwhile, people are building and decorating the sets, finding the right clothes and props, interns are picking up your dry-cleaning and your half-caf skim lattes - while you fine-tune the script. The studio also has a list of suggestions (or 'notes') that they think will help your pilot's chances for success (sometimes these suggestions are more like orders). Maybe the suits think you should replace the sex-crazed roommate with a gay best friend or a witty doorman who offers love advice and Werther's Originals at the end of every episode. You dutifully obey (remember how much money you're making). Finally you shoot the pilot on a soundstage, supervise the editing and sound mixing process, and bring the final product - 22 minutes of sidesplitting comedy - back to the studio people. Without a laugh track, conventional industry buzz says, studio people have no idea what is funny.
~ The powers that be come back to you with a new set of notes, which with any luck will not necessitate a reshoot of the pilot. If you have to reshoot, then go back to start, but by all means, keep your money. If not, the studio will then shop their new product (a.k.a., your heart and soul) around to all six networks, hoping that one of them will pick up your show. Some of the networks hate it, (Fox says "What, no aliens?" and shows you the door) but one of the other networks loves it, and announces in May that it will air Everybody Loves Nikki at 9 p.m. on Tuesday nights this fall. But they only order 12 shows - just in case it bombs and they want to insert a mid-season replacement.
So you're set. It's July, and your company has just received a fat check for the first 12 episodes. It would be impossible to write all of them by yourself, so you hire a team of about 10 writers. You also hire a production staff of about 50 production people, including cameramen, casting directors, construction and design staff, editors and sound engineers. Your days begin to stretch from a comfy 11 to 3 day to perhaps 9 to 6 (or 9p.m., or 1a.m., sometimes 3). Every day (or nearly so), you and the writers get together and brainstorm story ideas. Individual writers pitch story ideas to you, and when you hear one you like, you tell them to "break the story" - which means to break it down scene by scene, emphasizing the major points (or "beats," as they say in L.A.), and perhaps some important dialogue. Once you get a feel for the story, you choose one writer to actually pen the script for that episode. While that's going on, you tell the production people what you're going to need to shoot the show. For example, this week, Nikki gets stuck in a burning building and gets rescued by a hunky fireman. So the set people have to create the building and the casting people have to find the hunk. After a week or so, your writer comes back with a "writer's draft." ~ The weekend before the shoot, you take the draft home and fiddle around with it in preparation for the production week:
- On Monday you have the "table read." Everyone attends, the network and studio execs, all of the writers and the production staff. The actors read through the script as though they're actually on stage. There is even someone reading the stage directions and making the weird noises (doors shutting, dogs barking, etc.). After the table read everyone tells you how funny it is and how great you are. Once you get back to your office, however, the phone calls start. "Do the elevator doors have to close, or can we cut there?" The actress playing Nikki wants to know why scene C is so long if she's not even in it. You don't sleep much Monday night - you're busy tweaking the script.
- On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday you have rehearsal and blocking. The actors are now on stage blocking the scenes (standing where they will during the actual taping). You make notes so that each night you can go home and rework the script where necessary. Each morning you come back with the revisions and hope everything works. Meanwhile the crew is putting pieces of tape all over the floor to mark where each camera should be during the scene they are rehearsing.
- On Friday, you load in your audience, which is mostly comprised of tourists collared at Disneyland or Magic Mountain. They get to see the stars of the Nikki show for free and you get a live laugh track. You have four 35mm movie cameras on dollies to catch the action from different angles. Shooting begins at around 8 p.m., and you present the episode like a two-act play. At about 10:30 the audience is dismissed (they're bored and hungry), and then you spend a few hours doing "pick-ups" - re-shooting scenes or angles that need perfecting. It's about midnight by the time you're done.
When you're done taping, you supervise the editing and sound mixing - and then the show airs a couple of weeks later.
Now you just have to hope that everyone does indeed love Nikki!