Saturday, March 20, 2010

What is the best way to write a pilot?

Here's a question I'm often asked: What is the best way to write a pilot? I can’t speak for dramatic pilots since I’ve never written one but here are some thoughts from the trenches on comedy.

First off, there is no easy answer. But here are some pointers:

Make the premise simple – something you can pitch in one or two sentences. If you have to say

“it’s about two brothers who were separated at birth and now find out they had a sister by another mother who has a diner that she wants to convert into a pizza place but needs help running it because she’s also an actress at night and is raising five kids, three of them orphans from Africa”

then your pilot is dead and you’re dead because you’ve killed yourself trying to write this unwieldy mess.

Make the show about something – I put that in bold because it's important. You know me -- I don't put things in bold haphazardly. Have a theme, a reason for being. Example: THE OFFICE. Trying to survive and find some happiness in a go-nowhere career.

Remember: You have to set up your premise, introduce your characters, establish the tone, and be funny all in the first five minutes. It’s a bitch. Don’t make things harder on yourself by overloading the show with too many characters, too much exposition, a Byzantine story harder to follow than THE BIG SLEEP, or a part for Jim Belushi.

Don't give the girls boys' names and the boys girl' names. It's confusing enough remembering who all the characters are without Sam being a girl and Jan being a guy. And every pilot seems to have a "Kevin". Even if it's set in ancient Rome.

The most common mistake most young pilot writers make is that they over-reach.

“It’s part romantic comedy, part workplace comedy, set in a foreign country with its own language and customs. Kinda like ENCHANTED meets THE WIRE”.

Trust me, by page five you're throwing yourself in front of buses.

When Studio and network people read pilots they ask themselves these questions: Do they like the premise? Does the show make them laugh? Do they get a sense of what the series is about and where it’s going?

Where it’s going is especially key. I once helped out a night on a pilot. It was about midnight and we were bogged down in the story. I said to the creator, “What is episode two of this show?” to which he blurted out, “There is no episode two! Who are we kidding? This show will never get picked up!”

He was right. When you’re developing your show ask yourself: Are there five years worth of stories with this? Don’t write FADE IN until the answer is yes. On the other hand, you don’t need to know all five years worth of stories. We once pitched a pilot and the network president said, “What’s the first show of season seven?” How the hell are we supposed to know that? I said, “The Clip Show because if we’re in season seven we’re a fuckin’ HIT!” And we would’ve been too…if only he didn’t pass on the pilot.

Best of luck with yours.

11 comments:

YEKIMI said...

Dammit! I've been doing it wrong for so many years. I thought the best way to write a pilot was to send a letter to Delta or Southwest Airlines!

Brian Smith said...

I had gone for years without thinking about The WB's "Jack & Jill" until you wrote this entry. I never saw the show, so someone will have to tell me if it had anything going for it other than "Jack's the girl and Jill's the guy LOL".

Michael said...

I read that when Carl Reiner developed what became "The Dick Van Dyke Show," he wrote the first 13 scripts, which the producer, Sheldon Leonard, said was unheard of. That may explain why many still consider it the best sitcom in television history.

Anonymous said...

What about a sitcom with a group of struggling writers who are always working on the first episode for a pilot. Each episode has one of them imagining yet another variation of the same damn three act set-up.

Ian said...

I enjoy the cruise videos and Idol recaps, but posts like this are the reason I read your blog, Ken. Valuable stuff. Thank you.

D. McEwan said...

"Michael said...
I read that when Carl Reiner developed what became "The Dick Van Dyke Show," he wrote the first 13 scripts, which the producer, Sheldon Leonard, said was unheard of. That may explain why many still consider it the best sitcom in television history."


I fail to see why Carl writing 13 scripts up front would be responsible for The Dick Van Dyke Show becoming the great, beloved show that it was. Several other shows on its level, like The Mary tyler Moore Show for only one example, managed to become great without doing that up front. And 13 lousy scripts up front would have been detrimental.

I think the excellence of The Dick Van Dyke Show is attributable to the great cast, and not to how may shows were written before it sole, but to the fact that the scripts, when ever they were written, were written by Carl Reiner.

te said...

I think the excellence of The Dick Van Dyke Show is attributable to the great cast, and not to how may shows were written before it sole, but to the fact that the scripts, when ever they were written, were written by Carl Reiner.

...when they weren't written by Bill Persky & Sam Denoff, Jerry Belson, etc.

D. McEwan said...

"te said...
...when they weren't written by Bill Persky & Sam Denoff, Jerry Belson, etc."


Oh absolutely. No argument. But Carl was overseeing all of those other great writers. all of it filtered through Carl, as M*A*S*H filtered through Larry Gelbart while he was still on the show. But yes, the excellence of the writers Carl assembled must be taken into account in that show's lasting greatness.

Paul Duca said...

This is from a book about sitcoms, discussing Reiner's writing the first 13 episodes of DICK VAN DYKE (single quotes are Reiner's)


"He wanted to 'guard against supposition'. He wanted it clearly known what he intended. What he intended was 'the first situation comedy where you saw where the man worked before he walked in and said "Hi, honey, I'm home!". More than that, he intended 'examining my life and putting it down on paper'. This was the first sitcom conceived from the start with autobiographical intent."


And it was Sheldon Leonard's tinkering with the concept, including hiring Van Dyke to play the role Reiner wrote for himself, that changed that autobiographical intent. Reiner's character was an urban Jew adjusting to WASP suburbia. With Van Dyke, it was now about an innocent Midwesterner adjusting to sophisticated New York.

superblink said...

I lived near Tacoma (near Tom Tuttle?) at the age of 12 when you became the Mariner new play by play guy. After listening to your first Spring Training game on KIRO I immediately called in to KJR because I wanted to be the first to comment on the new announcer. I told Dave Grosby I thought you were "refreshingly different." Grosby said "now there's a kid who watches too much TV" which was ironic because we didn't have a tv at my mom's house and I had to go to my Dad's house to watch episodes of the Simpsons he had taped for me. I rented Volunteers because I heard the new announcer wrote it and decided to ammend my earlier goal of becoming a play by play announcer to becoming a play by play guy AND a tv writer for SNL (although writing for Homer was my first choice, I didn't think the Simpson's would still be around when I was old enough to write). I ended up getting a BA in Screenwriting from Cal State Long Beach live near Canoga Park. I never got a job for SNL or doing play by play but did manage to READ plenty of scripts as an assistant in a production office. Since then, my types of employment have gone in wildly disparate directions but I continue to write at the age of thirty still pursuing the dream you inspired in me when I was twelve.

superblink said...

Mariner"s"