Five Days to Make a Sitcom and Solve a Murder by Sally Carpenter
A mystery writer starting a novel has the perplexing task of structure—what events will happen and in what order. Plotters will painstakingly map out each plot point, sometimes on index cards or sticky notes that are endlessly shuffled. Pansters will dive in, hoping that they don’t get stuck halfway in.
One pleasure of writing my new book, The Sinister Sitcom Caper, was that the subject matter provided me with a built-in structure. My protagonist is Sandy Fairfax, a 38-year-old former teen idol making a comeback. He’s the guest star on Off-Kelter, the lowest rated TV show of the 1993 fall season. When a healthy young actor drops dead at his feet, Sandy unwittingly investigates.
I fit Sandy’s sleuthing around a standard sitcom rehearsal schedule of that era. Whereas most modern sitcoms are shot on location and given a laugh track, in the 1900s sitcoms were filmed in studio soundstages in front of live audiences, as with Off-Kelter.
A sitcom took five days to rehearse and shoot (the script and the set designs were finished before then). The rehearsal time ran from Monday through Friday or Wednesday through Tuesday, which allowed the camera crews to work on two shows per week and avoided a logjam of too many audiences on the lot at once.
The first day—Monday, in my book—began with a table read where the actors, director and writers sat around a table and read the script aloud. The actors gave their opinions on lines that didn’t work and the writers began revisions. Usually a lunch break followed with rehearsals in the afternoon and running through Wednesday.
My story begins with the table read, an easy way to introduce the characters as they arrive for rehearsal. To add more conflict, I made the director, Royce Jobbe, an obnoxious person that Sandy had worked/clashed with on a prior show.
The mysterious death occurs Monday afternoon. This allows Sandy only four-and-a-half days to solve the case (a nice “ticking clock”), since after the show is taped he will no longer have access to the studio lot. People are generally not allowed onto studio lots unless they are working on a show in progress or have a guest pass from an executive.
To break up the monotony of rehearsals, I gave Sandy a preshoot on Wednesday. Some scenes in a sitcom may be filmed in advance and then screened for the live audience. Preshoots are used for action filmed on location or in the backlot; a hazardous scene involving, fire, smoke or explosions; special effects; or scenes with children who may be tired during the live shoot. Sandy performs a dance routine in the backlot (actually the scene was just an excuse to have Sandy boogie. He’s a terrific dancer). The shoot turns deadly when he’s nearly drowned by the rain machine.
Thursday is camera blocking. The four cameras and crew are brought in so the camera setups for each scene can be fixed. Camera placements are marked with bits of colored tape on the floor. Since this work is long and tedious, stand-ins are used for the actors. This gives Sandy a big chunk of spare time to do some on-lot sleuthing, which ends up with him tied up by the villain inside an unused soundstage.
Friday is show time! The actual filming the show with the audience makes a natural climax for the book. The day begins with dress rehearsal. At 4 p.m. the cast and crew break for an early dinner. After eating, the actors get into makeup and costume while the audience is brought in and seated. Shooting starts at 7 p.m. A twenty-minute sitcom takes three to five hours to film, allowing time for retakes and costume changes.
Since Sandy only appears in a few scenes, he has time during the shooting to do some investigating. He escapes a death trap, catches the murderer, and puts in a great performance all in one evening!
To gently ease the reader back down after the exciting conclusion, the final chapter takes place on Saturday when Sandy, finished with his work, can relax and tend to family matters.
Not all stories will have such a rigid structure, but this book was fun to write and proved that solving a murder while working on a sitcom is no laughing matter!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Sally Carpenter is a native Hoosier, with a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University, who now lives in Moorpark, California. While in school, her plays “Star Collector” and “Common Ground” were finalists in the American College Theater Festival One-Act Playwrighting Competition. “Common Ground” also earned a college creative writing award and “Star Collector” was produced in New York City.
Carpenter also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do. She’s worked as an actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper.
Her initial book in the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol series, The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper, was a 2012 Eureka! Award finalist for best first mystery novel. The second book, The Sinister Sitcom Caper, is due out this month.
Her short story, Dark Nights at the Deluxe Drive-in, appears in the anthology Last Exit to Murder. Faster Than a Speeding Bullet was published in the Plan B: Vol. 2, an e-book anthology. The Pie-eyed Spy, a Thanksgiving-themed short story, will appear in the Nov. 23 Kings River Life e-zine.
Sally blogs at http://sandyfairfaxauthor.com. She is a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter. Contact her at Facebook or firstname.lastname@example.org.