Friday, October 7

Creating Comedy: The Alliance for Family Entertainment

The Alliance of National Advertisers' (ANA) Alliance for Family Entertainment (The Alliance for Family Entertainment) is launching a national search for a new screenwriter this month, with the winner receiving $5,000 for a 30-minute live-action family comedy. Along with the cash award, the winner will receive personal mentoring from  John Wells on his or her script.

Wells is probably best known for the creation of ER, Third Watch, and The West Wing. The Alliance for Family Entertainment is the same group responsible for bringing the Gilmore Girls, Everybody Hates Chris, and Friday Night Lights to television. It has also helped find, support, and air 20 hit TV shows over the years.

All amateurs are invited to submit a script for consideration. 

The Alliance for Family Entertainment is serious about finding someone new from the United States. Entrants must be individuals (not teams) and not members of a professional writing guild or professional writing union.

After the mentoring, any additional opportunities that arise with networks would be negotiated. While networks make any final decisions, the Alliance for Family Entertainment is a group of nearly 40 national advertisers and supported by the ANA. It represents approximately 30 percent of all U.S. television advertising dollars.

"Marketers of family brands are often stymied in finding shows to support that offer smart, sophisticated takes on family life that everybody can watch and enjoy," says Bob Liodice, president and CEO of the ANA. "So our determination to find and help fund the production of promising family scripts and encourage emerging young talent to write stories about modern family life is good for business."

The contest has a litany of official rules (read those carefully) posted on a standalone site: America's Newest Comedy Writer. The contest was open to submission yesterday, and will continue accepting them through Oct. 28. The judging period is brisk, with judging concluded by Nov. 11 and the winner announced on Nov. 28.

The Alliance for Family Entertainment supports several initiatives, including granting scholarships to young screenwriters from time to time. It was initially started when ANA members Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson felt that there was not enough family programming to display family brands. Those shows tend to lose out over edgier programs in the ratings.

The irony is that many viewers believe that advertisers support the edgier shows, even though there are many companies that would prefer backing family shows (ideally, with viewership). One of the quips on the Alliance for Family Entertainment site is that they believe there can be shows that don't bore or shock families after 8 p.m.

Comedy writing, especially family comedy, is the hardest form of writing. 

Even in writing advertising humor, edgy comedy is immensely easier than wholesome because edgy humor can capitalize on making us uncomfortable. A couple of years ago, I shared six guidelines for funny in advertising and much of it applies to family sitcoms as well. Here are three more.

Tip 1. Jokes aren't funny. While jokes can be funny for standup, they aren't very funny for television. It's one of the reasons that shows packed with one liners don't last long, even if a character is a jokester. When it comes to programming, people want to lose themselves in the characters and not the writer.

Tip 2. Timing is funny. Great script writers know that timing is funny. An easy way to take advantage of timing is to allow the audience to briefly anticipate it. Writers can win one of two ways: Either by delivering what the audience expects or, better, making them think they know what to expect and then delivering something better.

Tip 3. Real life can be funny. There is a close relationship between comedy and tragedy, especially when the tragedy is something we can all relate to, e.g., toilet paper hanging from the back of someone's pants. This is also why stereotypes aren't often funny. Not everyone will be able to relate to them. The more people who can relate, the funnier the situation.

Writing comedy has always been one of my favorite things to do (not that I have many chances to do it). But it is exceptionally hard work to be funny. It's especially hard because you have make it look easy.
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