Creative careers are pretty hard, so whenever somebody goes out of their way to make their job harder, it’s both depressing and noteworthy.
One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in my senior year of college is the story of Tina Fey’s writing process on 30 Rock. Anyone who has watched the show can conﬁrm that a.) it’s hilariously funny, and b.) it has a tone that no other show has replicated. I always attributed that to Fey’s unique voice, but it turns out that it was the result of a methodical process.
When writing sitcoms, the industry standard is to include three jokes on every page. That means your audience is (ideally) laughing three times a minute. It’s harder than it sounds, because a page is not that long, and you have to make room for character names, location descriptions, and white space in between lines. Finding room for three jokes, while making sure the plot moves forward, is a challenge. Finding room for three good ones is even harder.
But I recently learned that Tina Fey, never one to be outdone, insisted on having six jokes on every page of every 30 Rock script. Which absolutely blows my mind. She doubled an already high standard, but she was rewarded with one of the most consistently-funny shows on television. She had to make sacriﬁces — it’s hard to remember the plots of many episodes, as she kept the stories incredibly simple to accommodate jokes. But it helped her achieve the rapid ﬁre tone for which the show became known. She came up with something unmistakably hers.
The whole story just goes to show how high the standards are out there. No matter how challenging your goal seems, there’s always going to be somebody trying to do twice as much work. You can always do more. You can always make your product better, even if it seems impossible. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that he loved lifting weights hours after his friends left the gym, because it felt like cheating. He was thrilled that he could do more work than everybody else was willing to, and the results clearly showed. Whatever your goal is, there’s probably a way to double it, setting yourself apart in the process. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go write a script with 12 jokes per page.
Student of Sitcoms