Ellen Sandler could fairly be billed as the Dalai Lama of television writing. It is not clear if she wears orange robes when writing. (There is a swathe of orange on the book’s cover.) What is known and cannot be denied is that she defines, paradigmatically, the medium as one that is simple but not easy. She explores the consciousness of those who create sitcoms and episodic dramas in The TV Writer’s Workbook with a lucid, wise sensibility and wry detachment that avoids pomposity and, yet, paradoxically, establishes her guru status. Not that her credentials are for nothing, including her Emmy nomination while being Co-Executive Producer on the hit show Everybody Loves Raymond and her work on more than 25 prime-time shows, plus the pilots she’s created for network and cable television.
Sandler stresses that, in commercial television, there is a form to be followed; but this does not mean that the writing, especially in situation comedies, should be formulaic. And her philosophy is supported by the structure of her new book. Any “how-to” on TV writing would be expected to have chapters on premise, structure, theme, plot, story, and so on. One might get appendicitis without an appendix on resources. The thesaurus is, in a word, essential.
But beyond all this, what helps this crafty tome sparkle are some unexpected touches. In TV format, she opens the book describing how her career in New York theatre — specifically a play she wrote and directed starring Rhea Perlman—led to her first job in TV, writing for James Brooks and a series called Taxi.
Then, there is a breakdown of the elements in the rather tasty Raymond episode she wrote, “No Fat.” Throughout the book, Sandler sprinkles attributions to others who have helped her along the way. Perhaps her being a member of the experimental Open Theatre in New York, as a performer, helping shape pieces improvisationally, better prepared her for a career in television than anything else could have. When she is not providing extremely useful and clear writing exercises, her prose reflects the traits that are ideal to this collaborative medium, generosity of spirit, and lack of egotism.
And that applies to the breakdown of an email exchange with a potential consulting client, who, despite all best intentions, completely botches her approach to enlist Sandler’s advice and aid. While most writing books are laden with pronouncements on the craft, very few have so much insider dope on business decorum. In particular, Sandler has priceless thoughts on organizing readings of one’s work and networking in social settings without seeming to be a Depression-era fruit vendor.
At the heart of the book, too, is how important heart is to writing for television. It’s not all just formatting and jokes. Sandler reminds us that commercial TV sitcoms such as Raymond become hits because they tap into a humanity that expands the humor. It is no surprise that Ray Romano and show runner Phil Rosenthal called upon their own family and married lives to create their story lines, and relied on talented staffers, such as Sandler, to bring the influence of their own experiences into the show.
When Sandler recalls her own father’s negation of her creative abilities and how it influenced one of the episodes she wrote, there can be no better example of how the best of TV writing wrings laughter or creates tension, but also hits us where we live.