Magazine article The New Yorker

THE ROOM; HALLS OF ACADEME Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

THE ROOM; HALLS OF ACADEME Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

It's customary for graduate schools to steep their students in the cold realities of their future careers. Medical schools introduce pupils to sleep-deprived snacking; law schools equip them to brave articulate ridicule; business schools cull the weak. Students of film and television, by contrast, have been rather sheltered. But recently Columbia University introduced "Comedy Writers' Room," a master class in writing a sitcom pilot, taught by Tom Leopold, a former writer on "Cheers" and "Seinfeld." The idea was to re-create the Hollywood "room," where Tostito-scarfing writers slag one another's ideas and pitch their own jokes into the wee hours with the aim of overhauling that week's script by morning. Leopold's task, in other words, was to manufacture an experience that would combine the worst aspects of medicine, law, and business.

Last month, the dozen graduate students in Leopold's class took a field trip to hear some standup routines at Carolines, after which they chose Lori Chase, a comedian with a cackling laugh, to be their star. They sat her down and took notes on her backstory: her big move, with her husband, Will, a somewhat vain but successful actor, from the city to Bloomfield, New Jersey, where their new neighbors greeted them with food in Tupperware containers--that they later wanted back. Then the students took her situation and added their comedy: in the pilot of "The Lori Chase Show," Will became entirely vain; the couple's four- and six-year-old daughters, Grace and Daisy, were blended into a sassy ten-year-old named Liza; and that moment of Tupperware awkwardness became the catalyst for the worst day of the Chases' lives.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the class met in a small room in Dodge Hall for its finale, the "table read." Tom Leopold entered, wearing a pink oxford shirt and suede loafers, and looked around the table. The seats that in Hollywood would be occupied by skeptical network executives were here filled by visitors from the "Television as a Dramatic Medium" class. "If this many people watched UPN, it would still be a network," Leopold said. Pause for laughter. "Thank you--try the roast beef, everyone."

He pointed to Ken Kristensen and Colin Marshall, who had written the bulk of the pilot, in thirty-six hours, and continued, "This is the future of bad comedy writing, right here. These guys work fast; they can make it stink in a week." Marshall and Kristensen looked suitably flattered. They were already dressing the part: Marshall had dark-framed glasses and a neat oxford shirt, just like Leopold; Kristensen was wearing a sport coat and a surfing T-shirt and had just embarked on the South Beach diet. …

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