For much of the spring, I heralded Bravo's Project Greenlight as the best show on television. Situation: Comedy, its successor of sorts, comes very close to that lofty apogee. Created by Sean Hayes of Will & Grace fame and Todd Milliner, Situation: Comedy goes behind the scenes to examine the fun and terror of creating a sitcom pilot.
Mark Treitel and his longtime writing partner Shoe Schuster, co-creators of The Sperm Donor, were selected from over 10,000 applicants to be filmed during the process of writing, re-writing, getting castigated during States of the Union, and occasionally helping to help out with casting, set design, and post-production. To up the ante even further, Treitel and Schuster face off against another team of aspiring sitcom writers (David Lampson and Andrew Leeds, co-creators of Stephen's Life). The winning team will receive a cash prize, talent agents, and a theoretical shot at sitcom immortality.
I spoke with Mark about the pressures of going through the reality show wringer while trying to pound out a top-notch sitcom pilot under a tight deadline. We also found time to get into such topics as the makings of a great sitcom, the real reality of reality shows, and a hypothetical Happy Days of the future.
Note: Through September 2nd, click here to watch video clips of the shows and to vote for The Sperm Donor or Stephen's Life. The team that receives the most audience votes will win the competition. You can vote once a day.
Eric Berlin: What was being on a reality show like, and how did you feel about the editing process later on while watching yourself on television?
Mark Treitel: [Laughs] For everyone watching reality shows, I would point to the fact that the WGA [Writers Guild of America] this week is basically suing reality show producers, saying there are "reality writers."
You have to know what you're in for going in. My writing partner Shoe Schuster and I are actually avid reality fans, so we were ready to expect anything. When we came in to pitch to Stan and Max [Executive Producers Stan Zimmerman and Maxine Lapiduss] that first day, which you see on Episode One, Shoe and I were expecting anything, like there might be little kids sitting there and we would have to pitch to them like they were the NBC network executives.
You just don't know. And you sign away everything, like this giant ironclad contract that basically signs away all of your rights.
So you're saying things may not be quite what they seem.
Well, the editing can be very frustrating. When they edit it all together, it's very easy to make it look like someone's not working! I mean, we worked 8-10 hours a day, and the one minute where you're not working, they shoot it, and they do five of those in a row, and it looks like you're not working.
Do they film you from the minute you walk in up until you go home?
We got there at 8:00 every morning and left between 11 and midnight and they would put a microphone on you when you first got there and then start filming you. The first day Shoe got there, they actually followed him into the bathroom and he was like, "What are you guys doing?" They stopped after that.
Having a video camera on you is like being in the movie Goodfellas, where the characters develop this language where they're kind of talking in code. Shoe and I wound up talking in code and would talk about "the thing about the other thing" with gesturing!
So imagine what you're really good at, and having a camera put on you. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on you. Our only goal was to make the best sitcom. And obviously the camera makes that a little bit harder, but you kind of get used to it.
Were there ever moments where you would say something and a producer would step in and say, "Hey, can you do that again"?
Not really. The thing about reality shows is that there is a lot of "real" stuff, like reactions to things. But I think you can tell when something doesn't sound real.
There was a scene where they said, "There's a deadline – you have to get it done by 9 PM." And it was just kind of weird. So toward the camera I said [very obvious and over-the-top], "Look Shoe, it's 9:00." It was a fake moment.
With reality shows, the POVs [point of views], the interviews, this happens a lot. Knowing what's going on, you can watch a lot of other shows a lot differently. You have to kind of know when the interview is being done. Is it being done during the taping of the show or after the fact?
The Real World seems to do a lot of this. I'm a reality…
Yeah. They'll speak in the present tense even though it's another time and another place.
It is weird. I mean, you're working with people and you want to give them what they want.
I think the only real reality show is The Amazing Race because you have to do something like climb the Great Wall of China. You can't duplicate that! But anything else, it's…
I would counter with The Contender, but I definitely get your point.
I didn't see The Contender… Oh, you mean because the guy gets punched in the face?
Exactly. Someone gets their ass kicked at the end of the show.
I think we had an episode, maybe it was the sixth or seventh, where we beat each other up!
It's just weird, because we've always wanted to do sitcom writing and this is who we are, and Shoe and I interact very well together. But the camera's on you the whole time, you know? And there's no one who's natural. When you watch other shows, like The Apprentice, you start thinking about, "If this happened to me…"
I've never been on a reality show, and I think about it, so I definitely get you there.
Eventually, everyone will get their own reality show. I think that's being written into the Constitution right now.
You're paving the way for that right now.
Well, we said we were going to kill off the sitcom or we're going to kill off reality shows!
At the end of the day, we were happy to be on the show, but it was never about that. Our "show" was always about making the best sitcom and proving to the world that we've got the chops. Making a good show and getting it out there.
So what's the status of the show right now? You have the 15 minute pilot in the can and you're waiting for the voting process to take place?
The voting process is happening right now. It started on Friday night and it ends on Friday, September 2nd at midnight. Everyone is invited to vote for our show, The Sperm Donor, or the other show, and you can also watch the pilot. You can vote once a day.
What do you think of the other guys, your competition, the writing team behind Stephen's Life?
I like Stephen's Life, and I like Andrew and David.
Everyone got along?
Yeah, we got along, and I like their show, but I think our show holds up. I feel very strongly that when you compare the two that ours sets out to do what we want it to do. I think, objectively, you can see our show on NBC. Right up there with King of Queens or one of those types of shows.
It's funny, going back to the reality show thing, we were supposed to be living with them originally. But they cut that cut that aspect out of the show.
I'm sure you're really good at this by now, so give me your 30-second pitch for The Sperm Donor.
[Laughs] The Sperm Donor is about an uptight psychiatrist who has a thirteen-year old daughter who she has problems with, so she tries to bring in the father. She thinks the father is going to be an uptight snooty-snoot, but he turns out to be a Jack Black uncontrollable roadie.
And what our show is really about is a male-female Odd Couple. It's kind of harkening back to the sitcoms of the 70s and the 80s: two people who can't get along but you can feel the attraction.
We have such great chemistry between these wonderful actors. Maggie Wheeler and David Deluise. And I've had people tell me, this is a Sam and Diane [from sitcom classic Cheers] kind of thing. We felt it when we watched it. And you have Richie Keen , who plays the brother, and you have Lauren Schaffel (check spell), who is a teenage actor. She's on Still Standing, and she really carried the show.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in writing for television?
Make sure you have money coming in some other way! It's really difficult, but at the same time I would say that there are opportunities, particularly because of the fact that there are so many cable channels.
How many scripts did you write with Shoe before The Sperm Donor?
We've written about four to five features, and about ten pilots. We've been writing together for so long, and you come up with so many different ideas. We have about thirty or forty different treatments.
There are some fun things that we've written. We wrote a Happy Days, where it takes place during the present time as though it's gone through to present day, so you have Chachi Jr. Jr., which is Chachi's grandchild! [Laughs] And then Ron Howard, Richie Cunningham, comes back and he's like the Senator of Wisconsin. And he comes back and has an election against The Fonz. You know, like the old Happy Days, where they have the high school elections? So it's Fonzie versus Richie for State Senator.
Did you write that to get yourselves out there, or was this a serious idea to bring Happy Days back to the air?
It was just a way to do something different to get yourself noticed. And that's why we called this show The Sperm Donor. We had no idea we would actually get a show produced called that!
They were actually talking about changing the name the whole time, and we were cool with that, but because of the reality show and the fact that we called it The Sperm Donor about a billion times, it was impossible not to call it that.
But the fact is that we're so blasé in our society now about language that we can call it The Sperm Donor. It's like, "Yeah, Sperm Donor, whatever!"
What's your take on single-camera versus multi-camera television sitcoms?
Some people say the sitcom is dead. The sitcom isn't dead – you can always reinvent it. Look at Everybody Loves Raymond. It actually started out on a Friday night on CBS. And it goes down to: do you want to see these people every week? Are they funny? Are the characters good?
Does a successful sitcom come down to the comedy, the characters, the story, the writing, or is it a combination of all of them?
Bad actors will kill the best joke and great actors will make the simplest joke work.
On The Sperm Donor, we were writing up until the last minute. On the most recent episode, you see the producer's run through, and it went okay, but I knew deep down there were moments. There was a moment where David is talking to Lauren and she says, "You're my dad!" And it was really kind of a sweet moment. And you think, "There's chemistry here." There's something there, and you just have to go in and mine it.