Jennifer Celotta, writer and director, and Ethan Thompson, media arts professor at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, discussed differing trends in television comedy as a part of the Film, Television and Media’s speaker series Thursday evening.
Celotta, who has worked on popular television sitcoms “The Office,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Home Improvement,” among others, talked about her journey tobreak into Hollywood and the obstacles she faced along the way. She said she found her love for comedy at a young age.
“From an early age, I was like, ‘What is wrong? What is bad? And how can I make comedy out of that?’” Celotta said.
While she was a student at Boston University, Celotta said she obtained her first internship on the set of a commercial. She told a short story about how the director wanted to shoot a scene through a tree branch and made her run into the woods to get one, where she ended up biting off the tree branch. Celotta said she remembers this story because it reminds her of how badly she wished to advance to the next level of production.
Celotta’s next internship through the Television Academy allowed her to work on the sitcom “Home Improvement.” Though she was not allowed inside the writing room, Celotta said she would ask the writers questions to learn about the writing process.
“There were a lot of bizarre experiences where I was just excited to be there and excited to participate,” Celotta said. “I learned a lot about how, even though I wanted to be a writer, I had to go through the steps in order to get there and to give my all in whatever it was.”
During her time working with “Home Improvement,” Celotta said she got the opportunity to help the writers create the character Wilson. She recalled developing a Thanksgiving episode in which Wilson brings the Norwegian dish lutefisk to the table.
Celotta eventually began working on “The Office,” which she said was the best and most fun job she had. She said the writers often fought over style choices on the show, recalling a six-week-long debate over if Jim and Pam’s engagement scene should or should not have audio.
“The experience of that show was when you’re super passionate and get to work in a good group of people and have these fights about things,” Celotta said. “(It was) really collaborative, really passionate.”
Currently, Celotta is working on developing a movie with Netflix. She also recently worked on the Netflix comedy Space Force with Greg Daniels and Steve Carell.
Celotta then spoke about internal obstacles she has faced as a director and writer. She talked about her struggles with ADHD and how she has learned to navigate how to do her job best.
“Writing is hard, but the idea (is) that you can be nice to yourself and kind to yourself because you’re trying to do something that’s difficult,” Celotta said.
Following Celotta’s presentation, Thompson spoke on the evolution of today’s sitcom. He discussed comedy’s role in primetime television and streaming services.
“We live now in this needy environment where we expect to get and be able to find all different kinds of media whenever we want to watch it that suits our tastes, and we can watch it anywhere we want to,” Thompson said. “It’s also easier for us to produce media and distribute it. There’s fluidity to our media environment that didn’t exist before.”
Thompson said comedies today do not find much popularity on primetime television, but instead are most successful on streaming services. He pointed out the majority of these shows were not at first intended to be distributed on multiple platforms.
Additionally, Thompson talked about the development of sitcoms.
“(Sitcoms) came at this time where there was a need to try something different,” Thompson said. “Stop pretending that what happens outside of TV isn’t a part of people’s lives. Maybe people want to see that world and those conflicts dealt within television and comedy, and that’s something we ought to try.”
Ultimately, comedy should focus on the genre, format, network and platform to ensure it is done purposefully, Thompson said.
“Comedy does have this special role to work as the center where we have this time where we can all go off, and if we like watching these kinds of satiric programs, to reinforce the way we feel about the world,” Thompson said.
LSA senior Rachel Dembowski, a Film, Television and Media student, attended the presentation as a part of the screenwriting program. She said she wanted to learn about the speakers’ approach to writing comedy.
“My biggest takeaway would be when pursuing comedy, to always be aware if you’re making someone laugh for a specific reason,” Dembowski said. “It comes down to a balance. Are you making fun of the person saying that, or are you making fun of the joke itself?”