Kevin White on the Toronto Screenwriting Conference and Canadian comedy

KevinWhiteKevin White (InSecurity, Dan For Mayor) is one of the speakers at the upcoming Toronto Screenwriting Conference on April 6 and 7. He shared his thoughts on the conference, the Canadian comedy sensibility, and our national batting average for TV comedies.

What do you want to convey at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference?

I think series are better when the creative and executive power of the show rests with the writer and creator. It may sound obvious but it doesn’t happen enough in this country. If you have a young untested writer with a great original script then pair them with a senior writer with showrunning experience who can execute the creative and train the creator to take over as showrunner in Season 2. Too often a creator is paired with a non-writing executive producer who show runs while the creator is relegated to ‘head writer.’ There he or she only deals with script creation, and not how the script is realized for television.

Creating a show is about having something to say. A lot to say. You want to drill down on a world and tell how the people in that world get through their day. If the creator doesn’t have the power to shape the telling of that story all the way along (from props to locations through to final cut and mix) then what’s being told? And why?

What do you hope to get out of it?

I find it very helpful to hear how other show runners approach their job managing writers and production. Particularly in this country where show runners have to get the most out of small rooms and tight budgets.

Have conferences like this played a role in your career development?

Hugely. The WGC once held a Directors & Writers conference at the CFC which I thought was great. They brought in top people from Canada, the US and Britain and I learned a ton. I never tire of hearing the insights and horror stories of other writers.

How did you get your start?

I had a few starts. CBC Radio, TVOntario, CBC’s Comics. But I feel like I started writing for real on This Hour has 22 Minutes. Mark Farrell took a flyer and hired me when I hadn’t done much. My first three weeks on the show were unremarkable and most of what I wrote was shit. But I gradually came to understand the tone of the show and got closer to the target. It was the best comedy writing training of my career.

Any advice for upcoming writers? Is it possible to specialize as a comedy writer in Canada?

My advice would be, listen. Write something, get people you trust to read it then shut up and listen. The shutting up part is important. You don’t have to agree with their comments but don’t defend it on the spot. Take in what they’re saying and sit with it a while. If, after your initial reaction, the note has merit, run it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

As for specialization, I remember a talented feature writer/director saying to me that he wanted to try his hand at comedy. I thought it was kind of presumptuous. I don’t think you can try your hand at comedy. You either look at the world a certain way or you don’t. I think comedy is about laughing at failure, evil and weakness. If that’s your outlook then I think your writing will tend to be comic. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not sure you have a choice. Who you are, what you want to say and how you like to say it, all dictate how you’ll specialize. In Canada or anywhere else.

You’ve been involved in at least a couple long-running successes – 22 Minutes and Corner Gas – that seem like very different forms of comedy. But do you think there’s an identifiable Canadian sense of humour?

I do and I don’t. Corner Gas, Rick Mercer Report, 22 and Republic of Doyle have all done very well. To me they share certain qualities. They all come from a very specific place – the prairie, the east coast, Newfoundland – and they give voice to that culture and point of view. They also have a very unpretentious, everyman quality to them. Regular people in regional settings. We live next to a big, loud, neighbour and I think we see ourselves as a quieter nation, wryly observing from the sidelines. Comedies that do well seem to embrace that ethos. Did I just say ethos? Clearly my everyman is a pretentious dick.

I have to ask the depressing question: what’s your take on why Canadian comedies haven’t had a lot of longevity lately? Every round of award nominations it seems all the comedy contenders have already been cancelled. Is it cyclical? Systemic? Something else?

On This Hour has 22 Minutes, you’d write maybe 10 to 20 jokes for every 1 that got in the show. I think that ratio is the same for shows.

Last year in LA maybe 40 or so comedy pilots were shot. Then how many of those went to series… 20? Then not all of those went to air. And how many of those were breakout hits? You’d be hard pressed to name one. Then in Canada we piloted how many scripted comedies… 2, 4? And we expect them all to be hits. And we’re doing it with half the budget and a much smaller, less experienced talent pool. So I don’t know. It’s number of at bats. And we won’t see more hits unless we produce more shows. And we won’t produce more shows as long as we can buy high quality US programming cheaply.

Bottom line – if you make 10 shows, you have a much better chance of a hit than if you make 2. So the math suggests that in Canada we’ll get a hit every 5 to 10 years.