Want to hear a funny story?
There were a lot of funny stories last week as Warner Brothers Television, the people who bring you "Night Court" and "Murphy Brown," brought a comedy writing workshop to Maryland.
"It was the first time Warner Brothers went outside Hollywood to find writers," said Curtis Kane, public information officer for the Maryland Film Commission, which sponsored and promoted the five-day event in Baltimore. Out of about 500 writers who submitted scripts, Kane said, 19 were selected to participate and have their work critiqued.
Jack Purdy, an advertising copywriter from Ellicott City, was among them. He said he decided to submit a script while watching a sitcom. "I was just watching the stuff and I said, 'I've been watching television for 42 years and I think I could write this,' " he said during a break in the workshop.
Purdy, who read about the workshop in a Baltimore newspaper, submitted a script for "Murphy Brown." Weeks later, while busy cooking dinner, he heard his wife answer the telephone. When she said, "Do you want to talk to Warner Brothers?" he recalled, "I did a take -- just like on television."
His real goal, he added is "to do a script that will be good enough for them to invite me to do 10 weeks in L.A.," where Warner Brothers sponsors a longer and more intense workshop for new writers.
Bob Underwood, senior writer for "Night Court," led one of the workshops. Along with the requisite jokes, he reinforced the technical aspects of comedy writing, constantly referring to the plots and subplots, which he called A stories and B stories; dissolves; and camera angles.
"You have to study the shows to pick up the rhythms of the dialects," he counseled the writers at the workshop. "You have to know how to tell a joke in print. It's a rare talent to be able to do it."
Talent is assumed. "If you're funny, you can learn to write funny," he said.
Another Warner Brothers writer talked about another Hollywood staple, name-dropping, at one point drily noting, "Candice Bergen would have problems with this."
The local workshop came about when Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, director of the Maryland Film Commission of the state Department of Economic and Employment Development, went to Hollywood and met with representatives of Warner Brothers and, as Underwood said, "He convinced them to do it here."
"The best people come from outside L.A.," said Underwood, born in Harrisburg, Pa.
The participants will have their scripts critiqued by writers at Warner Brothers, and some may be invited to the Hollywood workshop.
"What we're trying to do," Underwood said, "is stimulate freelance scripts."
Another goal is to give the aspiring writer practical tips in the business end of comedy writing. "They really stress the importance of the pitch. That's where you go in and tell what kind of story you're going to write," said Amanda Dalton-Fernandez, of Annapolis.
Dalton-Fernandez, a self-described clown/agent for Poppin Magic in Annapolis, writes for a Northern Virginia public access station and got into the workshop with her submission of "Boris the Great," a story about life in the CIA after the Cold War.
"They've been taking us through the business aspects of it," she said, including the commitment involved. "Your whole existence is taken up with" the grueling schedule. "You have to be dedicated to the doing of the thing."
"During a production season, you don't have a life," echoed Underwood, after the critique session.
Underwood advised those interested in working as comedy writers "to watch TV, but watch it very carefully" and then added, "After they write a script, they should write another one. Determination is the most important thing."