In TV Comedy, Improv Makes Way For The Written Word

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Summer TCA
Courtesy Netflix

Smallscreen production schedules don't leave time for many happy accidents

Comedy might have the reputation for being loose and spontaneous, but when it comes to garnering laughs for TV series, writing and refining is often the key to the humor. While some shows leave room for improvisation, both HBO’s “Veep” and Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (pictured) achieve their style from a heavily scripted process.

For “Kimmy Schmidt” writers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, there isn’t time for tweaks on set. They generally make changes after the first table read, but once shooting commences, the script is usually locked.

“We’ll make little adjustments (on set),” Carlock says. “But when you’re doing a single-camera show and shooting for 13 hours a day, you need to be using those hours to shoot and light. It’s hard to give too much rein to finding things on that day.”

Fey adds that they’ll occasionally come to the set with alternate jokes, but for the first season that was often out of necessity. “At the time, we were still shooting for broadcast and a joke would be flagged as a potential standards issue,” Fey says.

“Sometimes it was (because) we liked two or three of these jokes in the (writers’) room. And if it’s just (two characters) sitting in one place and it’s a one-line scene, it’s easy to pick up a couple different versions of a joke.”

“Veep” creator Armando Iannucci begins his writing process six months prior to shooting and does dozens of rewrites before any of the actors read a page.

“By the time we get these scripts on their feet, there are many more drafts that you would generally do for a sitcom,” says Chris Addison, who’s directed much of this season and worked on Iannucci’s BBC show “The Thick of It.”

“Following rehearsal, there will be several more drafts before we get to the shooting. It’s the most written show you can imagine.”

So written, in fact, that Addison says the scripts often end up being twice the length of a regular half-hour show. But after all that preparation, there’s still a bit of room for spontanaeity.

“The ad-libbing aspect is very much the fairy dust at the end of it, and it’s done to give it that sense of reality,” Addison says.

“We (want) it feeling like it’s real people talking rather than funny people saying funny lines.”

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