Thursday, June 14, 2007

Starting a pilot

For years the popular thinking was comedy spec scripts had to be from existing shows. Now producers and agents are asking for spec pilots. Pilots present their own set of problems and traps. Setting up the characters, situation, exposition, story, tone, and comedy in the first few pages is the most daunting task. I’ve had many requests for a sample of a pilot first scene. So here’s one David Isaacs and I wrote and produced for Fox a couple of years ago called SNOBS. Paget Brewster (pictured) played Beverly. Hope this helps, or at least you find amusing.

ESTABLISHING

EXT. RESIDENTIAL STREET – SAN MATEO, CALIFORNIA – EARLY MORNING

WORKING-CLASS SUBURB OF SAN FRANCISCO. TRACKING SHOT REVEALING MODEST, TRACT HOMES. FINALLY, WE REACH A HOME LIKE ALL THE OTHERS, ONLY DIFFERENT. MORE ORNATE, MORE MANICURED. THIS IS THE MALLARD HOME.

CUT TO:

INT. DINING ROOM – EARLING MORNING

THE TYPICAL MALLARD BREAKFAST: FINE CHINA SERVICE FILLED WITH BREAKFAST CONDIMENTS (GOOSEBERRY JAM, APPLE BUTTER), LITTLE SERVING SPOONS, PASTRIES, FRESH ORANGE JUICE AND COFFEE. KARL MALLARD, DRESSED FOR WORK, ENJOYS COFFEE AND A SCONE AS HE READS HIS NEW YORK TIMES.

BEVERLY MALLARD ENTERS DRESSED SMARTLY IN A DONNA KARAN SUIT.

BEVERLY
Karl, I don’t have time for a formal breakfast this morning.

KARL
Well, you’re certainly not going to eat a protein bar like some animal. Please, Beverly, sit.

SHE DOES.

BEVERLY
Oh, I suppose I could have a macchiato and a pain au chocolat.

KARL
That’s my girl. We have to keep it civilized in here. Because there’s nothing we can do about (WITH DISDAIN) out there.

BEVERLY
Have faith, honey. Someday we’ll have a home that will live up to our furniture.

KARL
That someday is here, Bev. If tonight’s party goes well, I’m done teaching community college and we’re on our way to… (WITH REVERENCE) Stanford.

BEVERLY
A home in Palo Alto.

KARL
Just think of it. A neighborhood where people park their cars in the garage instead of on the front lawn.

ISABEL MALLARD, 15, ENTERS, CARRYING HER VIOLIN CASE AND HER CAT, HEIFETZ.

ISABEL
Morning.

KARL
Good morning, Isabel.

BEVERLY
What time did you go to bed last night?

ISABEL
I didn’t. (BEAT) You’ll be so proud of me, Daddy. I was practicing my Mendelssohn for your guests this evening.

BEVERLY
But all night? Honey, the therapist said not to put that much pressure on yourself.

ISABEL
But Daddy said it was the most important night of our lives. He told me if I don’t perform this piece perfectly he won’t get the job at Stanford and we’ll be doomed to short brutish lives in this blue collar hell.

KARL
Isabel, that was a “daddy/daughter private talk”.

GORE MALLARD ENTERS. HE’S 12, AND LIKE MOST BOYS HIS AGE, DRESSED IN A TOM WOLFE STYLE VANILLA-COLORED SUIT. AD LIB “GOOD MORNINGS” FROM BEVERLY AND KARL. GORE HANDS THEM EACH A THICK REPORT.

GORE
Here. Read and please respond.

BEVERLY
What is it, Gore?

GORE
35 reasons why Isabel’s cat should be put to death.

ISABEL TAKES A SHEET OF PAPER OUT OF HER NOTEBOOK AND HANDS IT TO GORE.

ISABEL
I anticipated this. My rebuttal.

HE QUICKLY SCANS IT, THEN:

GORE
Unacceptable.

KARL
Children, I won’t have you fighting like this!

BEVERLY
Yes, and I don’t want to see any of this tonight in front of Dr. and Mrs. Shapiro.

KARL
That man holds the future of this entire family in his hands.

ISABEL
I’ll be ready, Daddy.

GORE
What a kiss-ass.

BEVERLY
And Gore, as for you tonight, let’s go over this one more time. People are entitled to their opinions.

GORE
Oh, really? What if our (MAKES AIR QUOTES) “guests” like the Baroque period, or Creationism or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”?

KARL
We will respect what they say… and make fun of them afterwards.

THE DOORBELL RINGS. KARL CROSSES TO ANSWER IT.

KARL
I’ve gone to great lengths for tonight: the right wine, the right flowers, the right music. Everything will be perfect.

KARL OPENS THE DOOR REVEALING A YOUNG MAN, CLAY, 17. HE’S SCRUFFY, A SLACKER.

CLAY
Are you Karl Mallard?

KARL
Yes. What can I do for you?

CLAY
It’s me. Clay!

KARL
Clay?

CLAY
Your son.

KARL
My son?

CLAY
New Orleans? (BEAT) 1986? (BEAT) How many illegitimate kids do you have?

35 comments:

zakley42 said...

Funny scene...Where did the pilot go from there? Are you allowed to tell us? Did they move? Did Clay hinder their move?

Also, you're missing the word fun, presumably, in Karl's line..

KARL
We will respect what they say… and make of them afterwards.

ZAK

Doug said...

You make Larry the Cable Guy the next door neighbor and you got yourself a sale to ABC.

Greg said...

Thanks for sharing, looks like "Keeping Up Appearances" on speed!!

Chris said...

You had me at Paget.

Dave said...

Good start, but San Mateo? I used to live in San Mateo, and while it's no Atherton, it's not Dogpatch, either. Put the show in the East Bay or San Bruno, and you're on the mark.

It reminds me of the episode of The X-Files that had a scene set in the rundown older downtown section of Foster City, ignoring the fact that Foster City was built in the 70s and has neither a downtown, nor anything rundown and old.

Michael Zand said...

Enjoyed it. Loved the witty dialogue.

I mean this in the nicest possible way, but if Niles and Fraser Crane were man and wife and had kids -- this would be them.

Justin said...

Well I lolled, specially at the 'like most 12-year-olds', though I wonder how long it would stay hilarious without Ken's touch and without some miraculous casting of the kids... off on a tangent, speaking as a Brit, so many US actors sound like accountancy firms. Like Chase Cooper, or Price Waterhouse.

Alan Connor said...

"EARLING MORNING"?

"COFEE AND A SCONE"?

I can offer to proofread your future scripts, for, say, 12.5%.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought the spec pilot thing was a bit weird. A writer at the spec-sending stage has more chance of commanding the space shuttle than of actually creating a new TV show. So why have them pretend that they are?

The Crutnacker said...

Paget Brewster. Star of one of the saddest cancellations ever, Andy Richter controls the Universe.

Is it wrong if my WORD VERIFICATION word looks a bit like profanity?

bfcktb?

And quit criticizing Ken's speling. He's a traned profeshunal with dekades of experiens. Wen you get you're own sho, than you can coment!

The Crutnacker said...

I noticed that your script contains a comment about creationism. Any thoughts on $27 million dollar tribute to the Flintstones called the Creation Museum? Being from Kentucky, we're quite proud that our collective stupidity has something else to celebrate.

DodgerGirl said...

That show isn't picked up yet some of these: http://www.cracked.com/index.php?name=News&sid=2064&pageid=1 have been. Hmmm.

(Disclaimer: I liked and watched a few of these shows)

Adam said...

This is great! Congrats! It's a crime this isn't on TV right now.

Dwacon said...

You worked with Birdgirl! Kewl!

Ken Levine said...

Only ONE mis-spelled word? That's got to be a new record for me. Have made the correction. Thanks.

I agree that there is little to no chance that a spec pilot will be produced, but the new thinking is that producers want to see material that is more original and out-of-the-box. Who knows? If you become successful maybe in a few years you CAN sell that old spec pilot.

Why we selected San Mateo. We saw photos of different neighborhoods and streets around the bay area and the lower-middle-class-tract-houses-of-the-50's neighborhood that looked dead on to us was in San Mateo.

The idea of a family of snobs that lived way above their means seemed a fun different way to do a family show. If there's enough interest I'll post more of the script down the line.

Written but not proofed.

Ken

Anonymous said...

Alan,
good catch with the typos. Come out to Hollywood. Your writer's assistant job awaits!

Todd Mueller said...

What a great study tool. It delivers four clearly defined characters, their goal, a tease that makes us want to stick around (the party), the setting, the tone...and a whole lot of funny...all within a very short span of lines. Sheesh. That's an impressive acrobatic feat. Hand those boys a GatorAde.

And I can confirm the current desire for spec pilots. I have a number of perspective agents asking for just that. I wonder if it's just a way to weed out a lot of us wannabes, as it's a much higher bar to clear than 'specing' an established show that comes complete with characters, setting and tone. (...with the exception of TWO AND HALF YUCKS, which has nothing going for it.)

If you don't end up posting the rest...please, please, please bring it to The Sitcom Room.

Eric said...

Ken, was the choice of the neighborhood based on the idea that this family was living in their own reality anyway? I.E., the people around them were perfectly average middle-class, but they were reacting to them as though they were barefoot trailer trash?

Seems like it would be a tough premise to sustain - how often would we actually be rooting for the protagonists? On the other hand, it's a twist on The Munsters - a bizarre family, living in their own world, ignorant of the social cues they throw off, with one "normal" member. (Which is what separates it from The Adams Family.)

Mary Stella said...

I would love that show.

Barry in Portland said...

"Children, I won’t have you fighting like this!".

What a superb line!

addy said...

Reminds me a lot of "Keeping up Appearances" as noted above. Honestly, although I like the fish out of water idea, it doesn't work for me. They would all get pretty tiresome after a while. Funny that Frasier never did.

Ken Levine said...

We actually had a bunch of story ideas. Plus, the bastard son becomes a regular.

The key to the series is that snobs are never satisfied. No matter what they have there is always someone who has more.

So characters are always in a state of frustration, always wanting something and thus always ripe for comedy.

Reid Harrison said...

I remember reading this a couple of seasons ago. What do you think killed it? Reminds me a little of Staley and Long's "Love & Money." I don't mean derivative; class clash must have been hot for the studios at that time. Well, wait three more years and it'll be all the rage again.

Anonymous said...

Yes, very like "Keeping Up Appearances" except it's a whole family of Hyacinths! I have always dreaded the possibility that US TV would grab that very British show and completely maul it the way they did with "Fawlty Towers" with Bea Arthur.

Not that I'm accusing you, Ken! It seems you had a specifically American angle to your snobs.

By the way, love your blog! I read it every day!

Fran

Anonymous said...

I actually saw this pilot, and really liked it. Felt a little like the dad was miscast, but it seemed like the perfect fit for the schedule and was very funny. Loved Clay. Ken, for what it's worth, I gave it my vote - unfortunately, it didn't count for much back then.

Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

Is it me, or do you guys specialize in young ballsy girls? First there was Almost Perfect, now this great little gal. I also understand you were the Lillith experts on Frasier. I guess she wasn't as young and ballsy as she was terse and scary with the legs of a Broadway dancer, but you get my drift. You, Ken, are in touch with your inner chick.

Tom Quigley said...

Ken,

Didn't get a chance to post earlier, so some of my thoughts have already been expressed by others, but I remember you mentioning this pilot to me when we we talked back in October. Glad I finally got a chance to read some of it. Loved the characters and setup for everyone to be introduced (still laughing!). I can imagine the log lines you and David might have come up with for possible episodes: every attempt by the Mallards to upgrade their social status or prove how much above their neighbors and associates they actually were would be derailed by some character flaw in one of them revealed by black sheep Clay which would naturally lead to the rest of them going into denial about it. If he hadn't already played that type of character in THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, I could have imagined John Lithgow playing "Le homme de la maison"...

Will Teullive said...

"Dad, What's a SITCOM?"

"Well son, long before you were able to TiVo 'Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader' and 'National Bingo Night' while lying on the beach with your Apple iPhone, there were shows created by funny writers and starred talented actors. They were usually 1/2 hour long, same time, each week. We could hardly wait for Thursday night because these shows were so darned good!"

"Sorry, Dad, can you repeat that? I was just texting my vote to keep Sanjaya on 'Amercan Idol' and didn't hear you"

"Nevermind, it doesn't matter"

Bevo said...

I agree with Eric's comment. What would episode #100 look like?

Why not turn this into a movie? It would appear easier to sustain the joke for 90 minutes than for a hundred episodes. With a movie, you would not have to worry about the kids aging. :)

Now, to get nit-picky. Community college to Stanford? Er, not really possible. Maybe community college to Cal State Dominguez Hills, but only if your character teaches a business subject (i.e., finance, marketing, accounting) or a hard science. Otherwise, no way

How about this as the set up: Karl lost his mid six figure audit job. Scapegoat? Maybe. Now, the family is living off its savings while Karl gets by on a mid 50s community college (yes, community college in California pays that lousy for accounting faculty). They downsize their lives (new community, small house, driving a Ford, box wine, etc). Good product placement potential along with a music montage. Buster Keaton set to music.

Karl tries to get a job with Grant Thorton but hilarity ensues. He loses out on the job. Cat's fault?

Money is running out. Karl is feeling the pressure. Third Act goes two ways.

One, Karl figures out that accounting teachers can make a difference in this world. Good MoS potential.

Two, Karl helps out a couple of kids from class launch their business, and Karl gets to tell the old firm (or Grant Thorton) to stick it along the way.

Please send all checks (upfront points only) to...

Ken Levine said...

Great. I'm getting notes on a failed pilot.

gottacook said...

What I thought of when I read (and enjoyed) this bit of script was the old Phyllis Diller sitcom "The Pruitts of Southampton," which my TV reference says aired in the fall of '66 (I would have been 10 but must have seen it often - I still remember the theme song). An inverse situation in some ways; that is, Diller et al. are trying to keep up appearances in their mansion while secretly they are broke.

I liked "Love & Money" (mentioned above) - saw the first episode and one or two others (was that all that aired?)

Yes, please share more of this script.

RAC said...

I'll keep my notes to myself, then… And I'll should probably delete the entire spec script I just riffed off your opening.

I suppose I could recycle some lines for my other spec, tentatively titled, "America's Most Idle Fifth Grade Survivor Brothers," starring Howie Mandel (as bipolar twins) behind the scenes of a hit reality-based gameshow.

I think I'm on to something… Maybe I'll get an agent now.

Grubber said...

Seems like it would be a tough premise to sustain -

I thought the same thing about Frasier. Who wants to listen to this pompous ass each week? After the first couple...me. Have enjoyed each episode since.

Pity about this one, love the premise and I'll also put my hand up for more please Mr Levine.

cheers
Dave.

Jesse Wendel said...

Great. I'm getting notes on a failed pilot.

Funniest line I've heard in months.

Donlee said...

I second the awesomeness of above comment.

A better request might be to see the pilot uploaded somewhere for us to check out a la "Nobody's Watching" and "Heat Vision and Jack."