If you’re a drama writer who’s made the switch to a comedy room, Nastaran Dibai has tips for a smooth transition.
So up to this point, you have made your television career as a drama writer. You’ve finally made the leap from drama to comedy and are in your first comedy writers’ room—now what? How can you set yourself up for success and be an asset to the showrunner? Nastaran Dibai, whose credits include sitcoms 3rd Rock from the Sun and According to Jim, as well as recent dramas like Resident Alien, offers some words of wisdom.
Question: I'm in a comedy writers' room for the first time, having finally made the switch from drama, which I've always wanted to do. Obviously, the content will be different, but are there specific differences or changes in terms of how comedy and drama rooms operate that I should expect going in?
Nastaran Dibai: The biggest difference in going from a drama room to a comedy room is that a lot more of the work is done in the room. While in dramas, writers tend to get their script assignments and then go off on their own, on a comedy a lot of the work upfront—before you go off to script—tends to be communal. That’s mainly due to the fact that comedic beats need to be worked out in more detail.
When breaking a story, a lot of showrunners tend to want to work through the comedic arc of the story as well as the comedic arc of each scene. What will make each scene funny? Yes, you can go joke to joke, but the scenes will be naturally funnier if there’s a comic premise to the scene. In fact, jokes will be more natural and organic that way. That’s actually when a room of comedy writers can come in very handy, because people tend to bounce ideas off each other, and on many occasions, those ideas will morph into something better and funnier than anything you could come up with sitting alone in a room.
Of course, that all depends on the writers’ room and the level of writers.
If you’ve worked exclusively in drama, my advice would be to lay low for the first few days and observe the dynamics of the room. What are the comedic ideas that the showrunner sparks to? What are the comedic moments that work for certain characters on the show?
Also, in a comedy, the room is a big part of the rewrite process. While in dramas, sometimes only the showrunner might take a pass at a script once it’s been turned in, in a comedy often the entire room is involved in the rewrite process, helping to polish and punch up jokes. This is even more true if you’re on a multi-cam show where you need to have a certain number of hard jokes per page.
If you find yourself on a comedy staff, you’ll soon discover there are writers who are particularly good at punch-up and are known as the “joke” people. Having those writers on staff is essential not just for rewrites, but on show night (in the case of multi-cams) when you’re shooting in front of a live audience, because those writers can jump in with jokes on the fly if a certain line or beat doesn’t work in front of the audience.
On a personal level, I think it’s easier to form bonds and friendships with other writers in a comedy room, because there is more camaraderie simply since you tend to spend more time together as a group.
Send your questions about the craft, job hunting, your career, or Guild service to Connect (under 100 words, please) with the subject “Mentor,” and we’ll send them to an established screen or TV writer to answer. Questions might be edited for space or clarity and will be published anonymously. WGAW mentors provide informal career advice and are not expected to read scripts, give notes, hear pitches, or help find representation or work.
Missed a previous “Ask a Mentor”? Read answers to these questions.