Don’t miss this informative account on what lies behind the lights in the world of screen writing — fascinating for both layman and writer

Richard Kaulbars, 42, is a brilliant, Ottawa-born Canadian standup comic and a television comedy writer, including children’s shows. On Wednesday, November 6, he was the guest speaker at a general membership meeting of Ottawa Independent Writers. Mr. Kaulbars teaches a graduate level course in comedy writing at Algonquin College. Here following is his insightful analysis of the serious business of comedy in today’s rapidly changing world of entertainment. True North presents his talk verbatim. Enjoy.

By Richard Kaulbars

Foremost I’d like to thank you for your kind invitation this evening. I’m going to be offering a rather unfocussed presentation as I’m hoping to touch on a number of topics and somehow manage to braid them all together by the conclusion of the presentation.

For those writers among you who might be hoping to try their hand getting into the comedy writing trade I’ll be touching on some of the opportunities that might lie out there for those who market themselves, and their writing, in a responsible, professional manner. But I will also be lapsing into areas that come dangerously close to what some people might refer to as ‘New Age Guff’. Apologies for that. Really it’s more of an attempt to reflect my own personal philosophy and how I try to inject that into my writing…as I suspect we all do.

One of my favorite writers, George Bernard Shaw, once observed that ' Life becomes no less funny when it's serious than it becomes less serious when it's funny." Tonight, thanks to a generous invitation from Judy, I have the privilege of speaking to you a bit about writing for comedy for television, the marketplace general, my experiences there and perhaps, to get a bit serious with you ...about the importance of being funny. Why it benefits OUR work, our writing, our lives and why, especially in a city as typically buttoned down as Ottawa, it’s even more important for us to cherish this distinctly human characteristic more than most.

To put it another way, this will be the least funny speech you hear about comedy, but hopefully, at some point, helpful.

I’ll make a quick notice of what’s going on with the American television writers at the moment.

In writer’s strike producers looking for scabs

Right now, we're hearing a lot about the labour difficulties occurring in the United States, the Writer's Strike with the WGA (Writer's Guild of America) represents the forefront of screenwriters fighting for their rights in both television and new media. Writing for a medium like television or film is very much a negotiated exchange where producers assure you that the rainbow of different media are really some 'baffling' and uncharted cosmic frontier. To give you an example, back in 1985 this new frontier was a miraculous new format called DVD...but the producers at the time didn't want to give the writers a cut of the money because..”oh, they weren't sure this new format” was going to go anywhere? Maybe it would be like the old laserdiscs. They probably were going to end up losing money. “

As it turned out, that didn’t end up being the case. DVDS made billions. Now this same argument is being used about the internet. The Writer’s Guild of Canada will no doubt respect the strike with their reciprocal agreements and so it’s not unrealistic for you to expect to see aggressive inroads being made to enlist first time writers to fulfill programming requirements…perhaps even among you. Be aware, if you’re courted with a big money opportunity to write a few episodes of CSI Manotick, Stittsville SVU you’ll be participating in what’s tantamount to scab labour but you’ll have to answer the moral questions implied by that decision yourselves.

So I've been asked here to speak about writing for this marketplace in Canada and, naturally, my view will be through the lens of writing for comedy. But throughout my discussion I want to stress that humour has many roles, and to appreciate what role it might play in writing, it should be observed with some acknowledgement of how that fits into the full spectrum of humour in our lives. It will help you understand the characters you intend to create and the audience you’re attempting to reach….unless you intend to write humourless characters for an uncaring audience.

For example, humour as an insulating philosophy in times of crisis or trauma. People who 'laugh in the face of danger' or who, as the old song says ‘Smile, though their hearts are weary’..Then there’s humour’s vital role as an important watermark in a supposedly free society, the crucial and important role of the doubter or 'contrarian', the satirists who send up our political figures, always testing how far our freedoms will permit our ridicule to roam. For surely we couldn't boast of being truly free if the spectrum of our humour was some 'sovietized' state-approved 'joke' ministry that told us what was 'fair ball' and what targets of ridicule were forbidden.

Lower working class background

So first a bit of background about who I am. My name is Richard Kaulbars  and I was born in 1965 in a small community in Ottawa's west end, Britannia, which was, when I lived there, a robust, lower working class suburb, I was part of a crew of shoplifting, teen-pyromaniacs, killing time delinquently by convincing grown-ups to go to the beer store for us and setting fire to municipal park structures. Is that funny? It's true. Charlie Chaplin said that 'Comedy was simply drama observed in long shot' the farther away from things we are, the easier it is to detach enough and allow ourselves to laugh at them.

After being layed off in 1979, my dad moved the family to the maritimes so he could work his last 5 years off until retirement and get his pension. It was there that I first sensed from a distance that the city of Ottawa, our national capital, was very different from the maritimes. More staid, more uptight, at times more mean, more rude…more humourless…at least outwardly. Conversely, Saint John New Brunswick was a city where a complete stranger would still take off his hat if he saw a funeral procession driving past…and it’s with good reason that stand-up comedians used to have a joke about touring out east.  "What's a no trespassing sign in the maritimes? Asks the joke -Trespassers will be clothed and fed."

That's when I had my first inkling about the reason why Ottawa might be such a breeding ground for comedy talent. This is a government town and sometimes that creates a regimented mindset that the free spirit, the liberated mind will often find difficult to endure.

Eventually I came back to Ottawa with a new view of my hometown. I got my broadcasting degree at Algonquin and, through a contest of all things, became associated with the Skit Row comedy troupe, This was a group of improv performers trying to fashion themselves as an Ottawa version of Second City. During the late 80s and early 90s I branched out a bit, becoming a bit of a groupie of the Yuk Yuks stand up comedy scene and eventually toured as a standup for about four years. I got to know many comedians during this time…in particular a gentleman named Greg Lawrence, who was producing a TV series and wondered if I’d be interested in writing for it. So I started writing a television series on the Comedy Network entitled Kevin Spencer which went on for a very lucrative eight years. Kevin ended up being my first major project and I soon found myself writing animation for television shows like 'White Fang' - For Better or For Worse and a wonderful little thing called ‘Toad Patrol’ which became very big in Japan.

So that's where I'm at.

…and now, like many writers across the country, I’m faced with a marketplace in a state of flux. No longer is it simply a case of coming up with a good script and mailing it off. The market is splintering…and I apologize if some of my mercenary descriptions of the business are daunting to some. Right now a lot is going on in new media.

Over the years

The trend goes like this. In the 1960s-70s everyone had pretty much free television and watched two or three networks. With the advent of cable, pay tv, movie networks and satellite dishes, by the mid-90s you were still able to watch some good shows on free tv, but people were already bragging about the better shows they were watching on cable. Here we are in 2007, where mainstream networks have all but abandoned their previous purpose of providing quality television in favour of mostly cheap reality programming and tabloid junk while those who can afford the premium cable packages, the HBOs and SHOWTIME networks...enjoy first run series' like the Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Deadwood. Or you can buy and rent them in box sets.

It took 30 years, but broadcasters finally found a way to make you pay directly for quality television shows. In fact, if you want to watch reruns of any of the old shows you used watch for free, you have to pay even more to get TVOpolis and put money down for the privilege of enjoying your nostalgia.  And at the end of the day, frankly, all I’m nostalgic for is my money.

Now the networks are starting to pinch even more advertising dollars. In my class I teach my students that if they're writing a 30min. comedy, their scripts should necessarily time out at 23-24 pages because that extra 6 minutes is going to go to commercials anyways. But now I have guest speakers coming to my class telling me that even THAT's shrinking now, that we may reach a commercial block of 10minutes in a half-hour.

How much advertising are we willing to sit through? Or mute?

Especially since TV is losing it’s supremacy. Television has, for the first time, had the size of it's audiences dwarved by emerging like Halo-3, for example, have fans lining up outside the store with the same passion they once showed for Star Wars movies. Video delivery systems like YouTube have populated the internet and the definition of a 'television show' has come into question. Again, there was a time when people looked forward to the NBC Friday Night Line-up, but shows are shuffled so much now there’s no longer any particular ‘night’ to look forward to. You can download most of the shows to your computer directly and watch them anytime you want and there’s a trend that suggests this will ultimately be what TV networks end up being…becoming little more than database from which you download your show at YOUR convenience.

These alterations in the old broadcast model present daunting changes for people who are just trying to establish the best way to broach the marketplace.

Television reality shows

MOST recently, television has endured the shock of reality shows. This initial tidal wave of cheap unscripted reality programming appears to have eased into a gentle equilibrium of the most sustainable programs, the ‘Idol’ talent shows which us older folk might notice is simply a rebranding of the old ‘Gong Show.’ Amazing Race has won Emmies and the genre as a whole has eased up enough that people are becoming hungry for a new generation of quality scripted programming.

This is why I believe that when the dust finally settles, this new landscape might present exciting, even spectacular new opportunities for the writers and storytellers among us.

Now, earlier I made reference to the 'Spectrum' of humour...and it IS a spectrum.

People can have 'low' humour, or base senses of humour.  Standing next to the drink machine at the office listening to some guy bragging about how he just purchased the 'Best of Benny Hill' DVD ....even though my father worshipped that show, rest his soul.

People can have dark humour or 'gallows' humour, as it's called, literally finding something amusing in even the darkest, most solemn situation, a guilty sort of humour.

Humour can be a-moral and divisive, destructive even. There's mean humour. Racist humour.  Sexist humour. Homophobic jokes. I don't have to give examples as there's already far too many floating around in the common currency of day-to-day existence. Some guy will try to confirm my membership in the secret society of chest-thumping manly machismo by testing me with a sexist or mysoginist joke about who woman who we were just talking to. Or maybe some ignorant jerk might corner you at the beer tent and see if they can get a laugh from you by offering a patently offensive piece of racism masquerading as wit. We’ve all experienced this hurtful type of humour in some form.

There's concept humour. Was Tom Green funny? Some still aren't sure.

There's DJ humour...or 'practical joke' television shows that aren't suggestive of anyone being particularly witty, but provides big picture practical joke silliness that distracts teens from, I guess, noticing that they're getting a lousy education.

All of these styles of humour are represented on the internet now and networks are taking notice. Comedy teams like ‘Supershooter’ and “Barat and Baretta’ (both available on YouTube) were headhunted by ABC executives after posting a popular number of videos online. Having said that, ABC hasn’t really done anything with them since. It’s as if the network simply wanted to get people under contract before someone else found them and then figured they’d decide what to do with them later.

Humour is healthy. Humour is lucrative.

How can you make it more a part of your work and life?

Well for one thing there's more to it than simply slapping a red clown nose on your face and getting on everyone's nerves.  There’s a very lucrative business in federal seminars that do little more than this and I discourage it. What I call an oversimplified clown day and, while it may be funny for the employees of Transport Canada to wear a funny hat for an afternoon, it’s not going to alter anyone’s philosophy.

Humour and wit, sarcasm and satire, these aren't things you can pull from a jokebook any more than I can verbally tell you how to build a house in 20 minutes, or tell you the necessary disciplines in becoming a concert pianist and expect you to pick it up instantly. It's a journey. Like a singer cultivating her singing voice, your wit is something that you either use, or lose. It can disappear from neglect.  But it is a journey. And you'll make mistakes and hurt a lot of feelings along the way.

In fact, it's so complex that in the time alloted I can only breach it in general terms by suggesting you ask yourselves the two big questions that any purported humourist should ask themselves....

What is funny to me? And is there any realistic reason my audience, whoever they are, would think this is funny too?

What is funny to you? And I don't mean the stuff you're ashamed you laugh at, because we're all flawed human beings with guilty pleasures. Sure I watched Benny Hill and Carry on Movies with my father…but I don’t usually brag about it. The great German writer, Goethe used to say that 'Nothing betrays a man like what he laughs at' and certainly the recent resurgence in popularity of that great German word 'Shadenfreude' or 'Shameful/Joy' is indicative of both how much respect we Germans gave to well as how much we associated it with weakness, guilt and shame.

But getting back to my point…Who is YOUR audience?

Now when I'm privileged to make an appearance like this, it's expected that I 'keep it clean' avoiding 'f' and 's' words. Daunting because a lot of words have the letter 's' in them but primarily it's the concern that I should consider 'who is my audience' tonight?  So who is your audience? If you're writing a report about a serious catastrophe, perhaps you might want to keep your sense of humour in it's holster. If you're writing an important newsletter, perhaps it's best that the scope of your humorous writing is relegated to a quaint piece of clip art about some guy wearing the wrong sized shoes or something. But if you're writing an opinion piece about the quirks of bureaucracy, you might have some editorial latitude for humour.

And if you're writing, as the great Ottawa writer Elizabeth Smart did in her book ‘Grand Central Station”, a prose as thick as molasses about being up to your soul in adulterous love...well there's certainly a lucrative constituency in both readership and viewership for stories like that. Could Elizabeth Smart have written "Sex in the City'? I think she could...might need some editing, but her and Proust . . .

I’ll give you the most straightforward oversimplified description, first you get an idea. It’s a brilliant idea. It’s so brilliant that you believe the structure of the concept  will allow you to spin story lines out of it indefinitely, like you’re blowing bubbles out of plastic toy.

The idea must stand up to the first litmus test. Being written into a synopsis, a one- page description of the key points of the program idea. Think of it as a blurb you’d read in your TV Guide. Synopsis or ‘Pagers’ as they’re sometimes referred, are the currency on which this industry runs. 

You send that in to the network’s development department, or else shop it around.

If the networks, producers or funding agencies like your synopsis, they might ask for a ‘pitch document’. This means blowing your one-page idea into ten pages with categorized descriptions of the key characters, some suggested plotline synopsis’, story arcs and the prospective audience to whom you are hoping this will appeal.

If they like that? Then they’ll want a pilot script.

There has been a trend in the pitching of animation series where you can no longer just hint at how a show will end. You can’t just use some quirky…”How will they get out of this one?” When producers buy your project, they’re buying the whole project.

Who are you pitching to?  

Where to pitch Comedy in Canada. The Comedy Network and their website, CTV’s farm team. Note that Sandra Faire productions enjoys a pretty high success rate with their Comedy Inc. and Comedy Now franchises. With CBC their farm team is in radio with the Content Factory out in Winnipeg. There’s also what stand-ups call the” this hour has 22minutes/Rick Mercer report mafia.” Producer Gerald Lund.

All of these groups and organizations are easily Googleable, as so much of our world is today and it is to your benefit to do so now before everyone else wakes up and realizes the advantage that a little research and a thank you note can give you. These are by no means fixed or permanent conduits of production and opportunity…just the most recent ones I’ve observed. They’re constantly changing and one of the reasons so many of us gossip in this business is we want to be up to speed on who the hot new producer is.

The problem for television writers, as for so many of Ottawa’s actors, production crews, associated arts and craftspeople is that, at the moment, we’re bleeding producers out of this town. That means less people who want to buy any scripts. Greg Lawrence of Butch Patterson/Kevin Spencer fame is killing himself with a Toronto/Ottawa commute schedule. Derek Diorio, because he’s bilingual, has been snatched up by the industry in Quebec which is much stronger and supportive of it’s own.

DO I SUGGEST PITCHING A COMEDY SERIES? At the moment, no…Kevin Spencer got on the air when the new specialty channels were starved for content. Now EVERYONE’S snapping at that same brass ring. The market’s very competitive, crowded.

I can relate one particular incident, a pitch session I was invited to attend. For writers who haven’t heard of this, a pitch session (or event) is when you’re invited to present your idea for a television show to a respected panel of industry professionals who, in turn, either ask to know more about it or verbally dismantle you on the podium. I was fortunate to be invited as I’m presently the secretary on the board of ACTRA and am a writer who’s been known to have some ideas. So I went to Montreal to a fabulous event featuring an audience of 300 people and 5 big time industry insiders.

I was one of five ‘pitchers’ and I had a concept for a TV show that was simple enough. I wanted to produce a Trailer Park Boys style comedy show about bikers. It was to be a madcap comedy about a hapless, fictional biker-gang who strive to get respect in the criminal underworld but are always botching it up.

I presented my pitch to the panel and was not only rejected but eviscerated in front of everyone present with a zest that would have made Simon Cowell delight. ‘How Dare You…?’ one producer asked me. ‘This is Quebec. Bikers aren’t a joke in Quebec. People have DIED as a result of these criminals and you’re trying to make it look like some big joke.’  One after another, every member in the panel tore me to pieces…and it reached a point where, the audience of 300, were actually on my side and would moan in sympathy with each verbal battering. Finally there was one producer at the end, a wonderful gentleman named Robin Spry, representing a very credentialed production company called Cinegroupe. He liked it. He thought it had merit, he liked where the humour was coming from and suggested that I put together a ten page pitch document that he could look at. I was thrilled. THIS made the entire trip worthwhile….until a few weeks later when Mr. Spry, tragically passed away in a car accident on the Montreal expressway.

A terrible tragic loss for his family and loved ones and, for myself and my idea, a trenchant reminder that life isn’t above playing a joke on us. Television, is a strange industry.

But one door closes/ another one opens. When the market’s flooded in one place, another is starving for attention.

CBC is starving for good drama. I had an idea for an hour long drama called ‘The Driver. I sent it to CBC Toronto and within 3 weeks I have the head of development on the phone. A few weeks after that he’s buying me breakfast in his hotel, giving me an hour of his time to batter the idea around. Alas, he took it upstairs, they didn’t like it…but I’m on his radar. He wants drama. Something sustainable.

Because comedy is now extremely competitive. Sometimes I get cynical. To put it bluntly, sometimes I think that every young jerk in the world who can shove a hot dog up his nose is choking the entrances to the comedy channels and they’ll never give a second look to my ideas. But the fact is, once in a while, there’s a really neat show. Corner Gas is a really neat show. I hear ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’ is quite good.

I’d like to conclude by getting into the ‘New Age’ stuff I was talking to you about earlier by encouraging you to support comedy here in this city that needs it so much.

The philosopher Alan Watt used to talk about the meaning of life as being synonymous with a dance or a song. There's no 'point' to dancing, it's not conveying you anywhere useful, there's not some target point on the floor you want to reach. Same with music. You don't listen to music hoping for the fastest, most efficient way of reaching the end of the song. Music, like dance is a series of beats and waves that give us pleasure and make life worth living. Like many types of humour and jokes…there’s the 3beat joke. The waves of stories that have a lively pacing. Yet we lead so much of our lives racing to the end, hoping for top efficiency, higher profits, squirreling away all these treasures so that when we're finally old and retired, too weak and impotent to finally enjoy them, we find that we've missed the point. Life is like that song. If the only important part was racing to the ending, you haven't enjoyed the song and composers would only write operas with spectacular climaxes. People would dance with a stopwatch trying to race to some other part of the room.  Humour hides under this umbrella, of being one of the important enjoyable threads in the tapestry of life's meaning...despite often having an outward appearance of meaninglessness.

Computers can't write jokes.

You wouldn't know it to watch a lot of the popular shows these days but, even to write a joke about how many so-and-so's does it take to screw in a lightbulb? That joke, in all it's crude simplicity, requires degrees of lateral thinking that no artificially created intelligent network, however robust, has yet been able to emulate. Computers can be chess champions yes, but they’ve yet to write a joke or improvise an off-the-cuff remark.   When a comedian onstage says 'I hate it when people throw cigarettes in the makes them so hard to light.'...whether you like the joke or note, the fact that you understand or 'get it' is suggestive of reflexive neural comprehension that is utterly beyond the scope of even the most advanced microchip that we have available today. 

It's a gift. So I appeal to you to cultivate that gift within yourselves. Watch comedy. Read and then write funny stories. Listen to live comedy or download it on the internet. Many comics promote themselves with downloadable promotional clips. Listen to their audience laugh...listen to WHEN they laugh....why are they laughing? What's funny about the mechanism of the joke, story or observation that got you laughing?  Remember that to be a humourist, it's more important to have an intuitive sense of the joke...not the joker. There are many lackluster comics who can tell you what year Eddie Murphy played San Francisco, but can't themselves tell a joke.

And that brings me to the importance of humour for it's own sake. Because it's something we as a living, breathing species can do that's good for us and makes life fun. That precious few animals besides humans can enjoy a good laugh and that people who DON'T have a sense of humour are usually painted as dour 'stick in the muds', social anathaema's, who are too be avoided. What an insult to say someone has no sense of humour. You're almost accusing them of being unevolved. After all, when someone wins a competition of mental acuity, don't they 'outwit' the person, wit being the operative word?

Embrace this natural part of yourself and it will find it’s way into your writing…Do this and you’re not only closer to having a sense of humour and funnier scripts, but maybe closer even to nothing short of the meaning of life. Thank you.