Writing Television Comedy, by Jerry Rannow

Jack Thompson
6 min readJan 9, 2022

Straight in, you’ll learn that one episode of The Bickersons is better than most current TV comedy. Current was 1999, when computers were faster, cars were less polluting, and Zoom meetings screened at 4X4 pixels.

There’s truth in comedy.

A quick note. Several words in the book are written in caps. It’s rare to go a couple of pages without them. Here’s a hypothetical example,

A man walks into a room with a rock hard BANANA. Or is it a BAT? Something starts flapping.

This draws your attention to some words for SOME REASON. Ignore them and get reading. Or as they say round here — best start peeling.

No RUDENESS intended.

The Bickersons comes at you with four script snippets. You’ll learn about Rannow’s intro to comedy, and that his family were late to TV. Dinner was served at midnight.

To further his dreams, Rannow wrote for Jonathan Winters, and in a move to LA, broke the lease on his NY apartment. His mind ran wild, and he imagined aunt Margaret ripping his clothes off.

Just a quick re-read. It was Ann-Margaret.

Phew..

You’re given 7 humour exercises to help with idea creation. They don’t even cover a page, so easy to have a quick go. And another exercise follows straight after.

Rannow suggests you look around for ideas; they’re everywhere. And that to sit down writing, demands total coconcentration.

Where was I? Oh yeah, flicking through my Chrome tabs.

There are plenty of script excerpts in this book on writing TV comedy. It’s a really strong point.

Rannow says to get ideas for your comedy teleplay, you should ask questions, free associate, stare at your wall. And hope there are three others adjoining. Dive into tragedy and keep your senses open. Solid advice, while my critique is that the chapter could be more instructive.

The book continues by urging you to get the story down before you start. There’s some author help, a Welcome Back, Kotter example, then 15 tips to put your story together.

And at this point, things are going well. The general text is interspersed by bad jokes and good. Sounds somewhat familiar…

Next is story outline. One’s provided that Rannow wrote for Head of the Class, called ‘I am the King!!’.

Overall, a great read… except it sucks (the author’s own words). The biggest comfort is Rannow wrote this after 100+ story outlines. Hopefully not of this same story, otherwise it really sucks. Harder than a baby on a bottle with a diamond teat.

One gem in the book is a quick look at how to drive plot forward with characters. It shows the difference between plot ideas, and how characters can use those ideas to forward the story, through their unique behaviour.

Back to that sucky earlier outline, which was rejected by production. I guess the head of the team was a big baby. With a diamond teat.

Forget it.

Anyway, good for Rannow, and good for you, the reader of this book. The outline’s final revision was put in these pages, improved by the use of one of two methods (both of which are shown here).

And while the core story remains, the rewrite has an added element. It’s also far better written and a lot more engaging. It‘s great that it’s here, as its addition makes the poor first outline — and the jump from it — even more valuable and easier to comprehend.

The book moves very quickly from outline to script draft. There’s one of Rannow’s pilot sitcom spec scripts shown, which was rejected. Seven pages — followed by notes — display the correct layout.

A look at character next, with help from Dharma and Greg, and Spin City. A further Welcome Back, Kotter, highlights the role of dialogue .

More quick advice comes at you, with a look at funny sounds — go on, work that armpit.

Hard consonants and K words. What the cluck?!

A sacrilegious joke on page 89. If that’s your type of thing, you’re on the road to hell. See you there.

Jerry Rannow (pronounced Ruh-Now) has worked on a number of shows and has been a comedy teacher. He’s a man with a long career and many TV credits. He knows a thing or two about writing. That’s an UNDERSTATEMENT.

On working jokes into the script, examples come from Carson and Ed McMahon, plus Garry Shandling. Zingers 101 is a whip through different types of jokes. As for how many jokes per page of script, more Kotter, and Head of the Class, provide strong examples.

The pace never lets off. A single Dangerfield bit highlights sentence structure, then there’s a look at the rule of three. It’s just enough to understand what’s required.

Rannow’s meeting with John Wayne, and a realisation that the actor was funny off stage, takes half a page. A sentimental, yet pointless part, in the context of this book.

The soccer game started with a tense atmosphere. This was the championship deciding match between the two heavyweights of the SPL — Celtic and Rangers. Defending champions Rangers applied the early pressure, but it was Celtic that grabbed the initial advantage.

Next is old advice. Mail yourself items for a basic copyright. A blow by blow account of how to fit paper in an envelope, how to stamp it, how to write your own address, and…

Back to reality.

Rannow provides advice on agents, then how to prepare for pitches. There’s even a whole sentence in capitals. HOW LUCKY YOU ARE.

But it’s an important point.

In amongst more good advice, there are some fine pages on rewriting, while a couple of great anecdotes show the bad side of things.

On writing partnerships, Rannow comes across as really sweet. Be prepared to lose your teeth, as he dotes on past partners, Jewel Jaffe and Greg Strangis.

Rannow doesn’t stop there. He urges you to be classy and be professional to all, at every level.

Did you read that last part? Good, now **** off, I’ve taken it to heart. Still here? Also good, because I haven’t finished the review.

Show some respect and finish reading.

While Rannow’s done with writing tips, more industry goodness is dished. What does that mean? That it’s getting late and my writing’s about to collapse.

The book continues as follows; ignore drugs. If you see people snorting them, walk out, because you’ll find a better, untouched supply, elsewhere.

What I mean is, he says to reject them.

Also, Rannow gives you some reasonable pointers to consider on pilot episodes. Wayne Gretzky’s a super guy. And, if you start to make money, reruns will make you even more.

The last meaty bit is the author’s eight page chat with Eric Cohen. It covers some interesting things. His outlines are significantly longer than Rannow suggests you complete.

It’s up to you.

Verdict

Jerry Rannow’s been there and done it. He gives a good idea of what’s needed for a career in TV writing. Numerous script excerpts help his messages hit, while elsewhere, he provides solid advice on how to work and how to behave.

For

Covers a load of good points on TV writing. The use of script excerpts are great lessons on the subject matter.

Against

The ideas section could have been better, while the later jokes chapter could have been thicker.

Other thoughts

Humour comes from characters. Also include jokes in your script. It’s a merge of the two that deserves further exploration, that this book hits on only occasionally.

Length

211 pages. 21 of index and appendices. 10+ of blank spaces. 7 of Roman numerals, one which is a blank page.

Script pieces and formatting give some pages more white space.

Call this 180 pages.

Quicker readers will be through in a couple of days.

Slower, dedicated readers, a couple of weeks.

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Jack Thompson

Writes serious book reviews. Other ideas in the works.