Penn's Funny Ladies
Have you heard? The popular new television series Spin City was sent hurtling to the top of this season's Neilson ratings with the help of two College graduates, Michelle Nader, C '86, and Sarah Dunn, C '91. And, while they don't trade bon mots with stars Michael J. Fox and Barry Bostwick on camera, these writers from Penn certainly put the funny spin on the show's plots and dialogue.
Both women developed an interest in writing and TV at Penn. Dunn began her writing career as a columnist for 34th Street Magazine at the Daily Pennsylvanian. She made a conscious choice at the time not to take creative writing classes, but studied English literature and art history instead. "I'm not exactly sure what motivated me, but I was doing a lot of writing on my own and for the paper, so in my classwork I focused on learning other things."
Nader, a communications major, remembers a particular class she took with Professor George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication. "It was media theory and explored the blatant stereotyping presented in many TV shows. The message of the class was very anti-TV and it certainly shaped me, in a backhanded sort of way." Nader came away determined to contribute quality writing to the genre, and thus change it for the better. As she says, "It does damage to the intelligence to perpetrate stereotypes. I wouldn't work on a show I wouldn't want my friends and family to watch."
After Penn, Dunn went to work for the City Paper and began work on a satire that became the enormously popular Official Slacker Handbook. As the book gained popularity Dunn came to realize just how much she liked to be anonymous. "Having to put out a book every two years to keep my name out there just seems like a very strange cycle that doesn't have very much to do with writing." So, she stopped doing publicity and headed to California to write for the award winning Murphy Brown. Both women agree that writing in a group is very different from solo projects. The process often begins with sitting in a room with other people and telling lots of jokes. Dunn describes it as "being at a dinner party for twelve hours and having to be really 'on,' you know, focused and clever and smart." The situation was much the same at Nader's earlier job writing for Caroline in the City, with group contributions coming together as a whole.
Spin City's difference is that it has one of the youngest writing staffs in the business, and both Dunn and Nader believe that's an essential part of the show's appeal. This very young group is headed by executive producer Gary David Goldberg, the creator of Michael J. Fox's first hit, Family Ties. Bill Lawrence, an experienced hand at only 27, helped Goldberg create Spin City. Both women are finding the experience fun "because everybody's very young, and nobody's in a rut. It's a phenomenal experience for all of us - probably the best opportunity we could ever have, which is sort of scary. But it's making for a fresh show, a better show."
Nader says, "I think the reason it works so well is that you're just more simpatico with people of your own generation. Older writers' rhythms and sensibilities are different from younger writers'. For me, I laugh most at things from my own generation. However, I do believe that Spin City speaks to a wider audience, everyone from people in their late twenties to those in their forties."
The youth of the writing staff surely comes in handy when considering a typical work week. The first step is to come up with ideas, pitch them to the room, and see what everyone thinks would be a good show. Then they 'break' the story, which means taking a basic idea and breaking it down into scenes, figuring out what's going to happen in each scene, and write the script from that. At that point it becomes public domain and the cast might go ahead and read it at the table or it might be rewritten. Generally it's rewritten. On Monday mornings the actors read the script. The writers listen to hear how it sounds and then rewrite. On Tuesday the cast acts out the revised script, and it is again rewritten on Tuesday night - usually until really late at night. On Wednesday the process repeats itself, and then the rewrite is finished. Thursday the writers aren't at the stage, and on Friday they come for the taping, where they may have to change lines if the audience doesn't respond to something."
Nader, who writes with partner Amy Cohen, applauds the show's producers for rejecting what she calls "spoon-fed morality" and giving the writers considerable leeway to address timely and controversial topics. "Many shows assume ignorance. Spin City assumes sophistication - and delivers it. Many of the things that are actually happening in the mayor's office in New York are the same things we write about." Dunn agrees: "There are a lot of sitcoms that are set in New York, but we're one of only two sitcoms currently shooting here. It would be very theoretical if we were still in California trying to think of what happens in the mayor's office in New York. Here, it's 'Think of all these problems in the city!' Anything could happen."
In addition to being young, Dunn, Nader and Cohen are also pioneers in
what, until very recently, was the all-male world of comedy writing.
But, instead of being intimidated, these young women are thriving on the
challenge of bringing something fresh and new to television comedy. And
who can deny that a Penn presence in the mayor's office isn't a good
thing? After all, it's working in Philly.