“Ironically, being paid to be funny involves a lot of serious work…”
Rebecca Addelman graduated from Humber’s Comedy Writing & Performance program in 2005 and now spends most of her waking hours working as a writer for the Fox sitcom, New Girl.
“Ironically, being paid to be funny involves a lot of serious work. At New Girl, we talk a lot. Like… a lot. We discuss the characters, motivations, story arcs, and the small, granular specifics of a given moment or scene. Some of that conversation is funny – it never hurts to pitch a joke – but often logic, reason, and good storytelling wins out. The sweet spot is being able to do both; pitch an idea that makes sense for the given situation, but is also funny.”
After a pause, she adds, “I think the above response is evidence that I ran out of funny things to say a long time ago.”
Clearly her success is evidence of the opposite.
A Day In The Life
Rebecca is one of 16 writers on the show which, she says, is a lot for a sitcom these days.
“I equate it to being on a baseball team. You show up every day and your coach tells you what to do. So some days I’m “breaking story” – that’s when a small group of writers tries to figure out the specifics of an episode and breaks the story down, beat by beat. Sometimes, I write jokes all day. And some days you’re tasked with doing a very surgical rewrite of a scene or a script.”
What’s great about the job, Rebecca says, is that it’s always changing. “I quite honestly don’t know what each day will bring.”
Of course, being part of a team that works for a big company also has its drawbacks – it can be hard to be creative within an institutionalized setting.
“It’s one thing to think, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea! Let’s do it!’ And another to think, ‘What a great idea, I wonder if the studio and network executives will approve it; I wonder if standards and practices will let us say what we want to say; I wonder if the executive producers will sign off on the script; I wonder if the table read will go well… let’s do it?’ There are so many people to please in a big, corporate setting like this one. That can be hard.”
And yet, Rebecca says, being a comedy writer has introduced her to some of the most intelligent, witty, insightful people she’s ever met – and, she adds, “will likely ever meet.”
“There’s nothing like a room full of top-notch storytellers and writers to give you new, exciting perspectives on the mundane things in life. These people have a way of analyzing and contextualizing the world that I feel lucky to be privy to.”
So how do you get this great job doing different things every day and working with the smartest people around? Rebecca’s advice is to learn when to say “no.”
“It’s good to try everything, but you can’t do everything forever. If you love doing stand-up, focus on stand-up and do stand-up every single night. If you’re a writer, then focus on that. I used to think I had to do it all (improv, sketch, pilot-writing, etc). What I’ve discovered is that it’s much better to excel at one thing than to be so-so at a lot of them.”
When asked about the path that took her from comedy school grad to New Girl writer, Rebecca is the first to admit that it wasn’t a straight trip; “Oh boy,” she says, “I’ve had a lot of jobs…”
“I interned at the Walrus and then was a copy editor at Maclean’s. I dabbled in journalism as a day job before fully settling into TV writing. I’ve written freelance sketches for sketch comedy shows and I’ve been on staff on animated sitcoms. I spent a strange three months writing for a CBC sitcom in Regina. (What was strange was the setting, not the job. The job was populated with wonderful people.) I wrote for a really cool, awesome show called China, IL on Adult Swim. The creator of that show, Brad Neely, is brilliant and weird as hell. Working for him was fascinating and fantastic and he’s become a true mentor. Years ago I sold a show to Global, and then, when Global didn’t want to make it, I sold the same show to the CBC (they didn’t make it either). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The point is, when you want to be a paid television writer, sometimes your path is circuitous and full of unlikely bits and pieces. But every experience had value.”
And that was all after she graduated! Rebecca says her time at Humber prepared her in “a million tiny ways.”
“From Lorne Frohman, the sitcom-writing teacher at the time, repeating the mantra ‘writing is rewriting’ day in, day out; to Mark Breslin (the owner of the Yuk Yuk’s comedy chain) sitting me down and telling me I wouldn’t be a good writer until I’d actually lived (and therefore had something to write about); to Andrew Clark showing me The Jerk for the first time. These teachers had lasting influences, influences that continue to help me navigate my working world. Humber also forced me to write and do comedy every single day. And if you want to do something professionally, you better do it every day.”
Rebecca also says she’s still friends with “many, many” Humber Comedy grads, and not all from her graduating year.
“The nice thing about the comedy program is that, yes, we had a community at school, but we also had a community out in the world. We were all doing shows at night and performing together. That’s where the lasting bond formed – we made each other laugh and excited each other with what we were doing on stage. The Toronto comedy scene became flooded with Humber grads. A lot of us have collaborated professionally, too. Many even live in LA, near me, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with them down here.”
Rebecca fell in love with comedy at Humber. And, she adds, she’s grateful.
“I didn’t expect comedy to overtake my life. Though I suppose I should have – I was enrolling in a comedy program, after all. Humber really allowed me to freely explore and then pursue an unconventional path. I’m very thankful that the program exists.”