×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

In TV Comedy, Improv Makes Way For The Written Word

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.”

More TV

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Signs of Solidarity and Strain Emerge as Week 2 of WGA-Talent Agency Standoff Begins

    Hundreds of WGA members rallied solidly behind their union last week as the industry grappled with uncertainties spurred by the sudden break between writers and their talent agency representatives. But as the standoff heads into its second week, signs of strain among some WGA members are beginning to emerge. Shalom Auslander, author and creator of [...]

  • Jon Snow Arya Stark Game of

    'Game of Thrones' Final Season Vegas Odds Reveal Wild Theories

    With “Game of Thrones” hype at an all-time high, Las Vegas may be raking in as much money as the Iron Bank. HBO’s fantasy masterpiece has seized the gambling world’s attention nearly as much as the Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby. Fans spew countless theories on social media, such as which characters will be axed [...]

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • Adam Lambert, of Queen, performs at

    Adam Lambert Back to 'Idol' to Mentor Finalists Through Queen's Catalog

    Adam Lambert famously launched his career on “American Idol” a decade ago performing a brilliant audition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He wrapped that amazing eighth season performing with the band on the season finale, and years later earned his current spot as the front man touring as Queen + Adam Lambert. On April 28, Lambert comes full circle as he steps [...]

  • Lily Tomlin SAG Lifetime Acheivement Award

    TV News Roundup: Netflix's 'Laugh-In' 50th Anniversary Tribute Sets Premiere Date

    In today’s TV News roundup, Netflix sets the premiere date for its 50th anniversary special of “Laugh-In.” DATES “Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate,” the 50th anniversary tribute to the original series by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, will premiere on Netflix on May 14. The special, which was taped at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, pays [...]

  • Texas Tech's Norense Odiase (32) shoots

    Live+3 Ratings for Week of April 8: NCAA Championship Game Dunks on Competition

    The final of the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament, in which Virginia triumphed over a spirited Texas Tech team, unsurprisingly finished way out in front in the Live+3 ratings for the week of April 8. Although the sports broadcast’s scripted competition made some gains, its 5.4 ratings still more than doubled that of “Grey’s Anatomy” in [...]

  • Mueller Report Release Draws 11 Million

    Mueller Report Release Draws 11 Million Total Viewers Across TV News

    Coverage of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into whether President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice unsurprisingly caused a ratings bump across TV news yesterday. In terms of overall viewership, around 11 million people tuned in to see Attorney General William Barr’s news conference regarding the report’s release, and the news coverage surrounding it. According [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content