by Kacie Lillejord
While in college pursuing higher learning, students are given opportunities to prepare for the professional world. In class, they discover how to program computers, direct movies and interpret an Impressionist painting, yet the University of Arizona provides further resources for students to network and gain the skills they need to pursue their career goals.
The Hanson Film Institute provided one such resource with a golden opportunity for some film and creative writing students in the form of a TV comedy writing lab.
“The institute supplements the curriculum that students receive through their degree program,” said Vicky Westover, Hanson Film Institute director.
This lab, which began Monday, Feb. 12, and runs until Wednesday, Feb. 28, meets for three hours twice a week and is led by the award-winning director, writer and producer Brian Levant.
Levant is best known in the film and television industry for directing box office hits such as “Snow Dogs,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Beethoven.” Levant was also showrunner for “Happy Days” and the beloved Robin Williams sitcom “Mork & Mindy.”
According to a recent Hanson Film Institute press release, Levant is teaching students to develop a concept, plot out a pilot TV episode and create a series “bible.” These concepts are autobiographical; students in the workshop are basing their ideas on their own lives.
This is all in preparation for the students to present their TV ideas to a creative executive at Lucasfilm Animation, a creative director at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, the former president of Universal Studios Worldwide Television and others for the lab’s conclusion.
Autobiographical television series currently on the air include ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” which are based loosely on the lives of Adam F. Goldberg and Eddie Huang, respectively. These shows, among others, were examples introduced to students on day one in the lab as guides for their own television shows.
According to Levant, situation comedy “basically has an accepted structure, so you don’t have to create,” he said. “You don’t have to frame the house; the house comes pre-framed and you can build it out and decorate it any way you want, but it provides a structure for improvisational thinking.”
Since students are already basing their concepts on their own lives, they only need to add to it instead of starting from scratch.
“It allows you to focus on what you can do with an existing format,” Levant said. “And that’s where the freedom comes for the students to create and know that you have this foundation that’s been there all along and can support any number of ideas.”
Levant is no stranger to the UA. He is an alumnus and has given presentations at the university dozens of times over the past 20 years, especially when his daughters were attending.
Levant is set to return this coming fall to teach a “sitcom bootcamp.” It will be a seven-and-a-half-week course where a small group of students will collectively conceive, plot and write an original pilot episode. They will undergo several re-writes before they have a staged reading with actors set in a UA dormitory.
“I’m thrilled to have an ongoing relationship with the university,” Levant said.
Students are also thrilled to have Levant as a teacher. In the comedy writing lab, students have been undergoing some soul-searching to tell the stories that they may not want to tell. However, it is these stories that turn out to be the most relatable for audiences.
“In the process of looking for comedy, you have to be deeply honest,” Robin Williams said in a tribute video shortly before his passing. The lab is helping each student develop their ideas and create the situational comedy of their lives.
“[What’s] most important is that people learn how to present themselves to someone whose experiences give them a new and unique viewpoint to create from,” Levant said.
Higher education is about more than just taking classes; it’s seizing opportunities wherever they may pop up, learning new skills, meeting new people and seeing where it may lead you.
“I took the first film production course ever offered at Arizona, I believe, like 1972 or something like that, and my production teacher was a guy named Jeff Benson,” Levant said. “Five years later when I was a story editor on ‘Happy Days,’ and he was the head of Comedy Development. He’s the guy who hired me to write my first pilot that ended up premiering after the Superbowl.”
Levant is set to return this coming fall to teach a “sitcom bootcamp” for the School of Theatre, Film and Television.
“Put yourself in a position to learn, so when your opportunity comes, you will have a better chance of succeeding. Second chances are hard to come by in this industry.” Levant said.