Times are tough at the television networks: declining audiences, tired programming, sitcoms that aren't funny.
So what's a programmer to do? Where do you look for fresh -- and humorous -- ideas?
Believe it or not, Baltimore. That's what Warner Bros. and Lorimar Television are doing anyway. This week, at the invitation of the Maryland Film Commission, those two Hollywood studios are conducting the second annual Comedy Writers Workshop for local writers eager to make it in television sitcoms.
From the more than 200 applicants, 11 were selected to participate in the free four-day event -- the studios are picking up the tab -- that runs through tomorrow at the Tremont Plaza Hotel. During the workshop, they are being coached to develop story ideas and pitch them to network executives.
They have their work cut out for them. As Gregg Maday, a Warner Bros. executive, explained Wednesday, networks receive more than 1,200 ideas per season, of which 15 may become pilots and only four will ever get on the air. If those odds don't seem daunting enough, he pointed out that 90 to 95 percent of all television shows fail.
The idea is to hone concepts. "Jokes are important," Samm-Art Williams, producer of NBC-TV's "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and a Morgan State University graduate, "but it all has to start with a solid story."
And that story, Mr. Williams told the participants, must be simple and strong, one that can be easily explained in one short sentence. Otherwise, there won't be any fully developed characters the audience can grab onto. Williams, who was nominated for a Tony in 1980 for his Broadway play "Home," said that writing sitcoms is like writing a one-act play.
In the workshop, writers analyze episodes of "Murphy Brown" and "Fresh Prince" to see what makes them work. They pitch their own ideas and discuss them round-table fashion, the way writing teams do it at the networks on individual shows. Teamwork and the ability to take criticism, said Mr. Williams, are crucial to each writer's success.
So, how does one write effective comedy?
"Funny is a strange thing," said Donna Gibson, who graduated this year from the University of Maryland at College Park with degrees in English and Radio, Television and Film. "What you think is funny other people may not, so you have to step back from it and ask, 'Is this really funny?' "
Still, she's undeterred. "I've grown up on television," said the 22-year-old, who was chosen for the workshop on the basis of a "Murphy Brown" episode she wrote for a course last fall. "It's in me. As a young person I would watch shows and say to whoever was with me, 'They should do this . . .' "
Richard Gorelick, a 31-year-old media relations coordinator at the Walters Art Gallery, thinks TV may be his niche, too.
"I finally realized I'm not destined to write the Great American Novel or the perfect New Yorker short story," he said. "But, for better or worse, what I'm equipped to do is write situation comedies."
Inspired to write a "Murphy Brown" script after taking a continuing studies course in writing at Johns Hopkins University, he said "the form of situation comedy was so rigid that it was easy to write, like a sonnet. I didn't try to re-invent the form."
The Maryland Film Commission, which functions to encourage television and movie production in Maryland, hopes the workshop produces scriptwriters who, later in their careers, will bring shows to Maryland.
"It's an investment," said commission director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen. "We look to plant seeds, getting them credit, helping them grow."
From a Hollywood perspective, the workshop will produce talented writers for a field that needs them.
"If television is going to be progressive," said Mr. Williams, "you're going to need programs like this to encourage people who may not have the nerve, but are nonetheless great writers."
Last year, the workshop netted contracts for team writers Eunetta Boone, then an Evening Sun reporter, and Karen Raper from Washington. They were hired by Warner Bros. to attend a 10-week comedy writing workshop, an extended version of Baltimore's, and they are currently seeking sitcom staff writer positions.