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The Bastion Says Goodbye!

The Early Weekend Show January 22, 2009We promised ourselves we weren't going to cry...

Thanks for a wild and wonderful two years of blogging and Chicago comedy shenanigans.

This fanblog has been a labor of love and a marvelous experience but, gratefully, life has offered us so many exciting new opportunities that we can no longer spare the hours of work involved in keeping the Bastion up and running. (Related press release here.)

The two primary contributors to this site, editor Elizabeth McQuern, and writer Kristy Mangel, will continue to document their Chicago comedy adventures through writing, photos and videos at their personal blogs, and elsewhere online.

Thanks to all the friends we've made, and to our contributing writers and photographers, for all the laughs we've shared, and for this opportunity to develop our own creative skills. We will always appreciate our Big Poppa Nate at New York's Apiary for trusting us with the creation and nurturing of the Chicago branch of his comedy empire.

And a special message for those of you who been reading from the sidelines and thinking about doing comedy: DO IT. Take a class at Second City, iO, ComedySportz, or the Annoyance. Go to stand-up open mics. Go see sketch and improv shows. Read the AST board. Find each other. You need comedy, and comedy needs you.

Edit - 9-29-08 - A collection of the online tributes to the Bastion here. Special thanks to Time Out Chicago for including us in their Cultural Heroes issue with "Caching out: The Bastion leaves a legacy of indecision—and a model for action."


Bonus Video Friday

Sara Benincasa - Sarah Palin Vlog #6: BEFORE THE BIG SPEECH!

Non-Traditional Athlete Andrew "Cannonball" DeWitt Meets Non-Traditional Olympic Trainer Bryan Bowden:

Schadenfreuede for Chicago 2016: Ready in 8 Years for a Gymnastics Career!:

(Jim Tews) The Opener - Jimmy Dore

Sexy Jesus Takes Chicago!

Impress These Apes: Chicago's fall trends:

Teenager of the Year - Job Interview:


"The Office" Spec Script Readings at the Lakeshore Theater

PhotobucketThe Lakeshore Theater hosted a live spec script reading on Wednesday August 27, 2008. Todd Edwards and Dan Telfer both wrote spec scripts for The Office. It’s pretty much the coolest thing ever that the LST gave these talented writers such a high profile venue for a reading. It made us think a lot about the spec writing process and what the process entails. We know that both writers completed their scripts after taking the Level 3 writing class at iO with Michael McCarthy. McCarthy had to return to LA to work on a pilot of his own and now his mentor Nate Herman is teaching the class. Photos by Bryan Bowden. Interview by Rachael Mason, who performs improv, works at iO and is the Chicago Comedy Examiner.

"The Office" spec script reading - Dan Telfer's reading1. Why did you pick the spec you wrote?

TODD EDWARDS (TE)- Week one, Mike McCarthy, told us that we were to spec a currently running, half an hour sitcom. He said we should know this sitcom fairly well. I took this to mean watch on a weekly basis. But other people might have interpreted know the sitcom fairly well differently. So for me the Office was the only show that fit the parameters given by Mike. So picking the Office was an easy decision. If I remember correctly 12 people in our class of 30 also picked the Office. The second most popular was 30 Rock. Dan even asked a question regarding this in our first class, before people even began to pick our spec, if everyone doing the same two shows was an issue. He said no, but a lot of people are specing 30 Rock and the Office, so yours will really need to be good. So, somewhere around 10 people did 30 Rock. Another 5 people did "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." There was a "South Park", "Til' Death", and a "How I Met Your Mother."

DAN TELFER (DT)- I watch a lot of TV, but not that many sitcoms. The Office was one of only a couple I watch regularly, and I thought I knew those characters' voices best.

2. How did you luck in to the LST as a venue for your lowly reading?

"The Office" spec script reading at Lakeshore Theater, ChicagoTE- That was all Dan, he had a relationship with them through prior gigs. We looked at Beat Kitchen, and Uncommon Ground on Devon as well. I lucked into being paired with Dan because Mike randomly assigned to read our specs the same night, Aug 28 at iO. I was to read at 7:00 and Dan at 7:45. iO eventually decided to move the readings to an earlier time, which we thought would not work for us. Thus the decision to move to another venue.

DT- They've been kind enough to let me do a lot of stand-up there, and I had just found out I could open for one of my favorite stand-ups ever, Maria Bamford, at the Lakeshore in December. I felt like my luck there was good, so I approached them. It turned out they had wanted to do more and more non-traditional comedy shows there, and so they were very supportive of the idea.

3. What was the purpose of doing your reading?

TE- I think it was threefold. 1). It gave me a deadline; I knew I had to finish the spec for the reading. 2). After spending so much time on it, it was nice to hear where people laughed. Some throw away lines got big reactions. Other parts that I thought were funny didn't land. So it was nice to take notes and gauge reactions. So to answer the question put another set of ears on my spec. 3). Finally, to determine if my writing translated when it was performed.

DT- Readings serve to get you some attention from the entertainment writing industry (much easier in other cities where those people exist) but also to hone your script. I got some awesome feedback in the form of a pile of comment cards, but the best part was hearing a live audience react to the script.

4. Was it helpful to your process?

TE- Immeasurably. First, it made me finish. I don't think I would have if it weren’t for the reading. Also, the feedback. Now it's a matter a making it better.

DT- Absolutely. My cast was so good that when something fell a little flat, it was clearly a conceptual or dialogue problem, not an acting one. It's the kind of observations that are hard to make when you are simply showing the text to people for feedback.
5. What did you get out of it versus what you were hoping to get out of it?

TE- I really had no expectations going in. I think it was a relief to have finished it, so everything else afterwards was just gravy.

DT- I got exactly what I wanted out of it. The only difference was my cast knocked it so far out of the park that I was more flattered and entertained than I thought I would be. I'd expected to be more nervous, my elemental state.

6. What was your process in writing the script?

TE- We followed Mike McCarthy's eight week process. First we dealt with 5 Pitches with A, B, C story lines, then we spend two weeks working on the Outline. After going through the process, I think I would have put more time into my outline. The rest of the time was writing Act I and Act II with edits and revisions.

DT- Per Michael McCarthy's suggestion, we wrote episode pitches that summed up plotlines, then outlined the script, then wrote the script chunk by chunk. By the end my "B" and "C" plots were thrown out and re-invented several times. It was such a relief when I got to the point where there was a flawed, rough, but complete plot. Getting to go back and fine tune dialogue is one of my favorite ways to write, and one of the few times I enjoy the process as much as the final result. Most of the process is quite a slog, because you have these huge ideas and such a tight formula to smash it into.

7. Will the script change now?

TE- Once I go through the feedback, I will edit the script with that in mind

DT- Definitely. I feel like all the important parts are there for my script, but I could be making it flow a lot better.

8. How did you get ready for the reading itself?

TE- Dan really handled that. I spend most of the time finishing my spec.

DT- I made all the programs, comment cards, and scripts. The printing, folding, stuffing, cutting, and binder clipping took more time than you might think and I had to enlist my wife for assistance. Also, I couldn't stop my "hustle" at snagging the Lakeshore. I was nagging press and posting about the show online every day for several weeks. As someone who obsesses, however, this was 100% necessary. I felt so good about the hustling I'd done that, by the night of the reading, I was completely relaxed.

9. How did you pick your cast?

TE- The only person I really had in mind was Tim Pinto who played Dwight. He is not a performer, but I knew he would do a great job. Most came from our writing class, and few friends rounded out the rest of the cast.

DT- In my head I lined up all the most talented people I knew. Then I sort of ran their "voices" as performers against my knowledge of the show's characters. My wife, also a performer, was great in helping me manage my memory and who would read what character best. Dwight was hardest to cast. I asked Todd right away if he'd do it, because he'd read some chunks of my script in class and he does a deadly accurate Dwight impersonation. But, because he wanted to focus on his script, he turned me down. I then contacted no less than 5 people asking them to be Dwight, and all of them were too busy. I came back to Todd begging, and he accepted. Thank goodness too, because my script is very Dwight-heavy and I was grateful for his top-notch job. The very first person I cast, Erica Reid as Angela, was also a big part of helping me come up with the cast.

10. Did you rehearse?

TE- No

DT- I tried to schedule a rehearsal, but my cast was too talented and busy. Instead I set writing goals for myself. I finished a rough draft three full weeks before the reading and sent it to the cast I had so far. Then, I finalized the cast, and I sent a "reading copy" of the script to the cast 3 days before the show, with the promise that I would make NO changes. This gave everyone time to get familiar with it and ask me questions about it, and I think it was enough. It even inspired someone to bring a prop, which was fun.

11. Could you have written this script with out the class that preceded the reading?

TE- I could have, but I would not have, if that makes any sense. Mike's class gave me a process to approach writing a spec, and that's what I needed a step-by-step process.

DT- Nope. I mean, I could have, but it would have been chaotic and completely unworthy of being read aloud.

12. Are you going to submit this script to a network?

TE- That's the goal.

DT- Yes, but generally networks don't care. You have to submit it to an agent (who only 99% won't care) and if you're lucky enough to impress an agent they will nag a network for you. But even then, the staff at The Office won't read this. I have to amass a library of specs, and they are contractually bound to only read specs from other shows or other various commissioned samples.

13. You going to write another one?

TE- Yeah, "they" say you need a one camera show, and a four camera show in your portfolio. Also, one of those should have a kid in the cast.

DT- I am going to write several. I love doing it. The next one will probably be 30 Rock or Futurama. Then a more traditional sitcom that I normally wouldn't watch. In addition to sitcoms, I would also love to try something like Doctor Who.

14. Will you do it differently next time?

TE- I think I will to try to do a little everyday instead of big chunks during extended periods of time. I also won't start writing until I have completed an outline.

DT- Well, I will have to do it without Michael McCarthy encouraging me once a week, which is a huge bummer. The notes he gave me on my rough draft made my reading draft exponentially better. Hopefully I can still get a favor from him again one day and get feedback on another. As far as the reading itself- I would try to emulate the first as much as possible, with the possible exception of seeing what it takes to do it in New York or LA, where the networks actually "live".


A Chat With Paul O'Toole

PhotobucketHey writing nerds! Pull up a squeaky computer desk chair and check this out. Ever wondered how you actually go about landing work as a comedy (or other) writer in L.A.? So have we. So when we found out that Chicago-based writer, actor and comedian Paul O'Toole just got back from writing for an animated sketch pilot for the G4 Network in L.A., we bugged him with a bunch of questions about spec scripts, marketing yourself as a writer, and getting some eyeballs on your funniest work. He gave us all that and recommendations for a couple of really great established Hollywood writers' blogs as well. Interview by Elizabeth McQuern.

What show did you spec? How did you decide which show to base it on?

Before I begin, I want to iterate that I'm not an expert on this stuff. I was lucky enough to get a toenail in the door, and I've learned some useful things I'm happy to share.

I wrote my first spec on IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA. The decision for me was easy. SUNNY is one of my favorite shows, but more importantly, the show's comedic sensibilities are in line with my own. It helps to pick a show you can actually write. It's one thing to like a show, but it's another to be able to emulate it. We all have comedic strengths. Our specs should showcase them. You might love 30 ROCK, but if you can't nail the essence of the show (and you must nail it!), you gotta pick another show.

PhotobucketIt's important to note I was lucky in picking SUNNY, because I wasn't aware of a lot of the following at the time, like...

It's best to spec a show that hasn't been on the air forever. No one wants to read another SIMPSONS spec. On that note, I have to imagine the window is closing on THE OFFICE. There are thousands of OFFICE specs out there. It also helps to pick a show that industry people like. SUNNY isn't the most popular show in America, but it's very popular among industry types, probably because it breaks so many rules. So many sitcoms are interchangeable. However, the episode of SUNNY where the guys go to an abortion rally to pick up women... it's just so refreshing! Industry people who eat and breathe comedy want to be refreshed. They've seen it all at this point.

So in sum. Spec a show you like, a show you can actually write, and a show other people would actually would want to read. Oh, and this may be obvious, but the show has to be in production.
Is there one main script you use to showcase your ability?

No, not one main script. There is one particular SUNNY spec that I send to people first. I've gotten enough feedback on it to know this is the one I should use when asked for a spec. But in order to advance the conversation with "my people" in LA, I needed to write an original pilot too. It's my understanding there was a time when you could get an agent or a staff position based on your spec alone, but not anymore. They now demand original material.

In my case, my original pilot was a little too similar in comedic tone to my SUNNY specs. It's not like I ripped off SUNNY, but they wanted to see range. My pilot, like SUNNY, was dirty and edgy. So to make sure I didn't pigeonhole myself, I wrote a spec of THE BIG BANG THEORY. The feedback on that script was very positive, and it answered the concerns of the people who have been helping me along.

Did you ever have a reading for it, and if so, what was that like?

No. In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, I wouldn't want my scripts to be subjected to a staged reading. I find they're really hard to listen to, and the rhythm of the dialogue is mangled by hearing the stage directions. I would probably walk away discouraged if one of my specs was stage-read.

Something to keep in mind: a spec script is made to be read silently, not performed. Barring a miracle, no one will ever produce your 30 ROCK spec. But if you're lucky, plenty of people will read it to themselves. Given that, your spec needs to be readable. It needs to be funny on the page. For example, a typical script may have a stage direction like:

Dennis crosses left and exits.

There's nothing wrong with that, technically speaking. But the fact is, no one's building a set for this scene, directors aren't storyboarding the action, actors aren't prepping their motions based on your commands. Someone is just reading this to themselves. Given this, your stage directions should pop. Using the example above, you should punch it up as appropriate to the scene:

Dennis mopes out the door.
Dennis gets the hell out of there.
Poof! Dennis is gone.

You need to be memorable. I'm not saying "Poof! Dennis gone." is the greatest stage direction ever, but it will stick with a reader longer than "Dennis exits." Your reader wants to know you can write. Stage directions are an opportunity to prove that.

So I went off topic a bit, but that's why I'm not keen on staged readings. These scripts are made to be read. I'd rather have people I trust simply read them. I've been lucky to have a select group give me some excellent advice along the way. There people weren't TV writers, by the way, just people who "get it."

What was your writing process like for it?

When I began the first SUNNY script, I was sitting around watching football when I suddenly had an idea for an episode. I hadn't planned on writing a spec at all. I just happened to have an idea, so I sat down and wrote 20 pages in script form in one sitting. I didn't have an outline and I really didn't know what I was doing structure-wise. I just knew what I thought was funny, which is the most important thing.

After that, I'd work on the script for a while, then put it away, then pick it up again... Finally I kicked myself in the ass and commanded myself to finish the damn thing.

That was a year later. Then I e-mailed the script to a friend in LA for feedback. He liked the script and offered to pass it on to his industry connections. I was floored since I'd only been expecting feedback, but he was confident people would like it. There are, he said, a shitload of bad scripts out there.

This taught me a valuable lesson: use whatever connections you can. There are just too many scripts to be read, so agents and studio-types rely on recommendations. If an agent is told your script is good, she's more likely to read it. Your first script better be good though. If it's not, she probably won't read your second.

So my first spec got good feedback from a few lit agents, and they came back at me with the typical response: "What else ya got?" Gulp. I didn't have anything else. So I cranked out a second SUNNY script in a couple weeks. First one took a year, the second one took a couple of weeks. Shows what you can do with a deadline. (This second SUNNY script is now my go-to spec.) Then I was asked for an original. That took a little longer to write, but I got it done. I think the lesson here is that the hardest script to finish is the first. Now I can write a full script in two or three weeks if I have a good idea.

Did you take a class/how did you know what needed to go into it?

I'd taken sketch-writing classes long ago, but I never took a sitcom-writing class.

In the middle of writing the first spec, I went back and began meticulously outlining a few SUNNY episodes so I could get a sense of the structure, how frequently they use characters, how many scenes they do in a typical episode, etc. Your script needs to feel like a real episode.

I also got my hands on sitcom scripts so I could steal the formatting cues. Your script should look right. Without ever reading a word, someone should be able to flip through your script and see it's formatted correctly.

I began reading blogs by established writers to pick up tips. Jane Espenson of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUFFY/ANGEL keeps a terrific blog. She hasn't been posting as often lately, but her archives are well worth reviewing. For someone who's in the same boat as us, Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer is great too. She lives in Hollywood and her blog is loaded with lots of practical advice, as much about the LA writing lifestyle as writing scripts. Jane and Amanda have links to other great blogs as well.

How important have these scripts been in you marketing yourself as a writer?

They're the sine qua non. You cannot market yourself as a sitcom writer without a spec and an original. There's nothing to talk about if you don't have scripts to give people. And the more scripts you have, the better. I actually had a conversation with a studio exec (that sounds more impressive than it is) and I offered my SUNNY spec. She hadn't seen SUNNY, but she had seen THE BIG BANG THEORY. So I gave her my BIG BANG spec and she loved it. Now she's someone I can e-mail for advice. It was nice to have that extra script in my bag.

Here's another thing about having multiple scripts. I have a relationship with someone at a lit agency in LA who complains that so many writers don't write. If you want to be more likable to an agent, be productive. He's trying to get you a staff job. It makes him more confident in you when he knows you are actively working on your craft.

Oh, and even though you're pursuing TV, it wouldn't hurt to have a screenplay too.

How are things in general, what were you doing in L.A., did you enjoy your experience out there? What do you hope to do in the next year or so?

I was writing for an animated sketch pilot for the G4 Network. It was fun. I worked with some really nice people. I'll have to wait and see what happens with the show. By the way, even though it was sketch, they still wanted to see sitcom scripts: a spec and an original.

Now that I'm back in Chicago, I just want to keep writing. I'm developing another original series. I enjoyed my first pilot a lot, but I wanted to try something different, something more complex. I say that in the sense that SUNNY has a different series structure than ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Not that one show was better than the other, but SUNNY does not have the running through-lines and complicated relationships of ARRESTED. So I'm working at something more complex like ARRESTED. Maybe I'll just rip off ARRESTED entirely. That would be easier.


Thursday Tidbits

PhotobucketSome of you fellow nerds may already be squealingly aware of this, but we're going to tell you anyway: as reported here by the Chicago Comedy Examiner, the guys behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 are coming to the Lakeshore Theater for a live show. Show creator Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu (Crow), and J. Elvis Weinstein (Tom Servo), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) and Frank Conniff (TV’s Frank) will riff live onstage December 18-20 with "Cinematic Titanic."

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that, aside from shooting a beam of subatomic matter into the most powerful particle accelerator ever in existence, physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (more commonly known as CERN) are taking group improv lessons, so they can "think creatively about some of the toughest questions of physics, such as why gravity is so much weaker than the other fundamental forces, and why 95% of the universe seems to be missing." Who knew improv had such practical applications?

Andy Dick has been calling iO looking for "his L.A. friends," and talking about his recent tenth stint in rehab, confusing the interns who answer the phones there.

PhotobucketTime Out Chicago likes the guys behind sketch group Kerpatty, notably "Pat Dwyer’s unflappable physical comedy." They also agree with us that Sarah Haskins is awesome, and are equally enthused about the upcoming third season of Impress These Apes at the Lakeshore Theater.

-Elizabeth McQuern