Greg Daniels: Defining TV comedy one word at a time

The other day I met Greg Daniels. Not casually though, it was part of the Salford Comedy Festival, organised by the BBC. In partnership with the University of Salford, they set up what they call Comedy Masterclasses, in an effort to promote comedy writing and the function of the BBC Writersroom as a facilitator of opportunities.

salford comedy festival

One of these sessions was In Conversation with Greg Daniels. Now, you may not know who he is by name, but I am willing to bet actual money* on the fact that you have indeed seen his work. Saturday Night Live? Seinfeld? The Simpsons? King of the Hill? The American version of The Office? You can tick all those boxes.

I have not encountered a lot of people who are into Seinfeld here in the UK. We, on the contrary, love the show in South America. Something to do with being America’s backyard, I think. I don’t know for how long Seinfeld was aired in the UK or if it was aired at all, but not only is it a funny show, it’s a smart one too. I will use some resources to elaborate on this, first the video below and Greg Daniel’s anecdote.

Seen the video? Great! This episode was written by Greg Daniels and it was based on something that happened to his father, who used to live in New York City and spent hours just to find a parking space. Now, we all have funny anecdotes, but stuff that’s happened to us, family members or friends may not translate well onto the screen and resonate with audiences around the world. “It’s all about the characters” Says Mr Daniels. In the scene shown above, it is funny because of who George Costanza is, and how he reacts to everyday situations. This seems like a rather simple thing to learn when writing comedy, but it is vital. This is why good character-based comedies don’t do well in the beginning. According to Greg Daniels, this is because you need to develop and build these characters first in order to understand why the funny bits should be funny. The audience needs to know who these people are in order to laugh, if you want to have a solid comedy programme.

“Good character comedy takes a while to get going, because you have to get to know the characters”

He moves on to speak about the differences in the original The Office and the American adaptation and how the audiences want different things from the characters. In the UK, people are into the fact that everyone is very incompetent at what they do and at being social. The sarcastic, pessimistic, dark, British comedy had to be cheered-up for the American audience, as they prefer something more optimistic. He goes on to say that the Michael Scott character gets into problems and uncomfortable situations, but because he means well. He gives the example that Michael Scott promised to pay for the University tuitions of several under-privileged children, but is unable to keep his promise as he hasn’t become as successful as he thought he would. He meant well…

“US audiences struggle with the lead character being incompetent at what they do, but British audiences like this”

Greg Daniels also wrote for The Simpsons in a period I like to call the Golden Age of Simpsons. He wrote classics like the one where Bart sells his soul or when Apu moves in with the Simpsons. Just straight up classics!

To wrap things up, here’s some of the jargon he has come up with to assist his team of writers:

  • Walnut: A joke that required a lot of work to get and the reward isn’t that great.
  • Goldilocks: A principle used as a resource to pitch your story in a simple manner.
  • Fat Draft: A script that has multiple possible jokes that could potentially be used.
  • Candy Bag: Excellent jokes or lines that are not used go into the Candy Bag for later use.

Yet again, nothing but high praise for the BBC for organising an event like this. Did I mention it was free? It was an amazing experience overall, being able to learn from one of my heroes. Just wish it had been longer. There is so much more to learn from a giant like Greg Daniels.

*Not actually willing to bet any money at all, you can stop sending emails now. Thank you.

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