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Sitcom writer brings funny business to USF

A successful sitcom writer now at USF says the job demands business sense as well as the ability to create funny scripts.

By JOHN PETRIMOULX
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002


TAMPA -- Why would someone trade a fast-lane Hollywood writing career for the sleepy Tampa Bay area and a part-time teaching job at USF?

Lisa Rosenthal explains with a memorable Seinfeld line.

"I had to see the baby," she said with a laugh, referring to her 2-year-old niece, Sarah. Tired of the Hollywood scene, Rosenthal came to town to be near her sister and live more simply.

Her "Writing Situation Comedy" class is now part of the creative writing offerings of USF Educational Outreach, formerly the Division of Lifelong Learning. In 10 two-hour sessions between Feb. 12 and April 23, Rosenthal's students will write a script for an existing situation comedy, get feedback and help critique other students' scripts.

They will also learn what the life of a sitcom writer is like, how to get a job doing it, even how to dress and act the part.

Rosenthal says it's at least as important for students to understand the business of writing as it is how to write a funny script.

"Most beginners think it's all about the writing," she said. "But there's a reason they call it show business. There's a huge amount of money involved. If you understand that, you don't always feel like you're beating your head against the wall."

She should know. She spent 10 years writing for popular shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin and Married with Children.

Typically, says Rosenthal, a dozen or more writers work together on popular TV sitcoms.

"During production we'd go in a conference room about 9 a.m. and come out at midnight or later," she said. "We'd pitch our story ideas that would become scripts, and work with the other writers to tear apart and rewrite scripts, including our own."

It all had to be done quickly.

"Usually we had two weeks to write a 40-page script while also working on other writers' scripts," she said. During taping, if a joke just laid there, we'd have to come up with something else on the spot."

Long hours in close quarters with intense, creative people can be heaven or hell.

"The second season of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was my favorite," she said. "The head writer thought everything I said was funny. She was also good at getting everyone to contribute and work together.

"That's not always the case. There is a lot of insecurity," Rosenthal said. "Writers are only hired season to season, and shows often change out writers or even whole creative teams."

She said the fact that so few shows are produced and so much money is involved can lead to a lot of competition and back-stabbing. Ironically, it was not guile but insincerity that soured her on the business.

"I got tired of people coming up to my table to tell me how much they liked my work," she recalled. "They didn't really know what I did, only that I wrote for a popular show."

Searching for something different, Rosenthal answered an ad about working with kids a couple hours a week. She ended up leading a group of at-risk teens to write and produce a script.

"We wrote a script together for That '70s Show, she said. Then we made sets and they acted out the script for an audience. You should have seen the look on their faces the first time they got a big laugh."

Rosenthal seems content in her new life away from the bright lights of Hollywood. She can tend to a new crop of hopeful writers and share in the lives of her sister and niece.

"I remember what a guy once said who was running a show I was working on. He said, "We're all in this for the money, right?' I never felt that way."

Interested?

For information about Lisa Rosenthal's class and other Educational Outreach offerings, call 974-2403 or go online to www.outreach.usf.edu.

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