Thursday, January 11, 2007

Writing For Fantasy-Comedies

Okay, one more follow-up on my post on all the writers for Weird Science who went on to become successful. I don't think it's a surprising thing. Nor is it surprising that even a crummy show like Out of This World spawned a number of writers who went on to success (even if one of them was Mike Scully). I have a suspicion that a fantasy-comedy or "fantasitcom" -- a half-hour comedy with a supernatural/magical element -- can be a really good training ground for writers.

Because, really, a fantasy-comedy half-hour is hard to write. It's a meshing together of two genres -- situation comedy and fantasy -- that both depend heavily on having a set of rules. And that means the writer is dealing with two different sets of rules: you've got all the rules of situation-comedy plotting and structure (somebody tries something, hijinks ensue, diastrous results, happy ending) and on top of that you've got to follow all the rules of fantasy by explaining what this week's magical gimmick is, how it works, what it can and can't do, how it gets resolved. It's like writing two shows, one on top of another.

And so writing a good fanta-sitcom episode requires that the writer keep two questions in mind. One, is this a good and funny sitcom story, grounded in something real that the audience can relate to? And secondly, is this a fantasy story that makes sense, where the use of magic is for a logical reason and works in a logical way, where we're not just using magic as a deus ex machina to resolve the plot? These are goals that could, if you're not careful, conflict with each other. You have to plausibly show the audience that this is a magical world where the rules of fantasy, not reality, apply. Yet this is a sitcom, so you also need to have the everyday reality underlying the story.

Of course, there are few things cheesier and dumber than a bad fanta-sitcom. But even the bad ones, I think, are harder to write than your average domestic sitcom or sci-fi drama, because, again, the writer has to learn, follow and apply those two sets of rules. A good episode of Sabrina: the Teenage Witch or Weird Science or, yes, even Out of This World (they may have had some good episodes sometimes; even Charles in Charge did) must make the audience say two things: "Yes, I've been in that situation" (that's the sitcom element) and "Yes, that's the situation I'd get into if I had magical powers" (the fantasy element).

A good episode of Weird Science, for example, was the one where Gary (John Asher) joins the school newspaper to get closer to a girl he likes. He can't come up with any stories that impress her, so Lisa the Magic Genie (tm) gives him a pen that makes stories real: whatever he writes about using that pen becomes real. He starts making up crazy stories, which then come to life so he can write about them. This eventually backfires, of course, and he loses the pen and can't fix it; but while he and the girl reporter are hiding from the inevitable consequences of his mistakes, they stumble on a real story -- some kind of scandal with the school cafeteria (it's been a while since I saw the episode), which allows him to write a real story and gain the respect of the girl. The episode works as both a fantasy with rules -- the magic pen is the only magical object introduced; the acts of magic in the episode revolve around what the pen does -- and as a sitcom episode about a kid joining the high school paper. You take away either element and it still works as a story. But what makes it entertaining, of course, is the combination of the two elements; if it's done right, a standard sitcom story can be enlivened by fantasy, and a cheesy fantasy story can be given some definition by the sitcom structure.

This might also be an occasion to link to an older post that I still like: This comparison of a first draft of a Bewitched script with the final, heavily rewritten version. The first season of Bewitched, which I've said many times is one of the best seasons a TV show ever had, doesn't fit neatly into the fantasy-comedy category, because Danny Arnold was trying to keep magic to a minimum, which means the fantasy element was subordinate to the domestic comedy. But the episode covered in that post, "Ling Ling," is one of the more normal fanta-sitcom episodes they did that year (Samantha Turns a Siamese cat into a woman), and a comparison of the two versions helps show the difference between a fanta-sitcom episode that doesn't work on either the sitcom or the fantasy levels, and one that works well within the rules of both genres.

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