Friday, October 29, 2010

What is the best spec to write?

Working through these Friday questions as fast as I can. Here are a bunch more.

Ajjjj asks:

What show do you recommend to spec? You’ve mentioned 30 Rock, but since it's in its fifth season, is it maybe getting long in the tooth?


Is it wiser to write for a young show with promise (Raising Hope, Modern Family) or to write for a show that might be too stale in a year or so (Always Sunny, 30 Rock?)


Thanks, and I'll take my answer off the air.

If possible, write specs for shows that are hot or on the way up. The problem with writing a spec 30 ROCK now is that there are already a gazillion of them out there.  Producers are tired of reading them.

That said, the most important factor is what show do you feel would best show off your talents?  That's the show you should target. If you really don’t get MODERN FAMILY or like MODERN FAMILY then don’t spec one. On the other hand, if you are Barney, then HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is your "quid pro bro".

Among the preferred specs to write these days – and I’m just guessing here but I’d say MODERN FAMILY, PARKS & RECREATION, COMMUNITY, BIG BANG THEORY, maybe BORED TO DEATH.

I’d give the freshmen comedies a few more weeks before tackling one of them.  I wouldn't put too much time into plotting out a spec RUNNING WILDE.

And if you have a great GARY UNMARRIED, sorry but junk it.

Here’s one from Richard Carpenter (I assume not the one who was Karen’s brother since he’s from Milwaukee):

Do writers for a series have a list of special talents of the actors, or do they ask around when they need something special for a scene?


There was an episode of Modern Family that centered around Cameron playing drums, an episode for which the actor really had to know how to play, and not just fake his way through it. I can't imagine even starting such a script before you knew it was possible to pull off.


Were there any cases in your shows where you used such a special talent, and if so how did that come to be?

Not a list per se but usually on actors’ resumes they will list their “skills”. I always check that because I am forever amused at what they consider to be “talents”. Bicycling, suitcase packing, stenciling, old lady impersonation, can throw a spiral, cook tacos, look good in shorts.

Normally you don’t have to ask actors what their special skills are. They’re happy to volunteer that info. And sometimes we’ll try to work those skills into shows. Eric Stonestreet really was a clown in his past life.  MODERN FAMILY parlayed that knowledge into Emmys.    On that Mary Tyler Moore show David and I did where we gave Katey Sagal her first job, we knew she could sing (she was once one of Bette Midler’s Harletts) and found a way to have her sing in an episode.

And then there’s Jane Leeves.

In the first year of FRASIER there was an episode where they needed her to play pool. Jane had never played pool so a tutor was enlisted to hastily teach her the fundamentals. After two days she was making trick shots. The tutor said he had never met anybody who picked it up faster and was as naturally talented at pool as Jane. He said she could be a professional after three days. Sometimes these people are just brimming with gifts. (I also understand that Jane is good at stenciling.)

Jim Miller wonders:

Why don't TV writers ever use the wisdom of the crowds by publishing and taking comments on a script before the script was shot? Fans could even vote on which jokes worked.

Jim, that’s an honest question but I can tell you there is NOTHING in the world, the universe that would piss off a comedy writer more than people voting on his jokes.


My post yesterday dealt with this to a certain extent. Audiences vote with their laughter.

And finally, from Eduardo Jencarelli:

Regarding those Simpsons episodes you wrote, did you and David get paid extra for creating the Capital City Goofball on Dancin' Homer and Ronnie Beck on Saturdays of Thunder?

No. Maybe we could have made an issue of it but we didn’t. The thing about the Capital City Goofball that I’m most proud about is that I also designed the character. I’m an amateur cartoonist and offered sketches of what I thought the Goof could look like. Much to my delight, they were accepted. I still have my original sketches. And just the fact that a character I designed was used on THE SIMPSONS is worth waaay more than a few dollars residuals. Of course David might not feel that way.

What’s your question?

13 comments:

benson said...

Two things: I remember that episode of Mary where Katey sang. It was very, very good, and poignant, if I remember correctly. And I think I probably have it on VHS somewhere and as I've been saying for a year or so now, will try and find it and post it up on YouTube.

Re: Jane Leeves. Not only a whiz at pool, but also a bit "psy...cic"

Miserable Dreamer said...

Cap City Goofball! You still have the sketches? Oh, you gotta post those!

BigTed said...

Like every “Simpsons” character, wouldn’t a drawing of the Goofball still have to appear with “Matt Groening” underneath?

D. McEwan said...

Jane Leeves is also a dancer. This of course was used to memorable effect when she and Niles tangoed. She is one of the dancers in the "Christmas in Heaven" production number in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. In an extra on the Meaning of Life DVD they highlight her so you can pick her out.

Max Clarke said...

Saw the pool hall episode of Frasier a couple of weeks ago when I visited my parents. Jane Leeves looked very competent shooting pool. Figured she'd been playing the game a long time.

Matt said...

I remember the pool scene, too. I very closely watch actors doing things that take skill, like playing guitar, because if they don't do it well, then it really pisses me off as a viewer.

One that sticks out in particular is Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair. One scene he had to make a golf shot, and he has absolutely the WORST swing in the world. Like, worse than Jim Furyk.

So, when I see an actor really doing something that takes skill, I start admiring them a little bit more.

mcp said...

If you want to check out Jane Leeves dance skills she was on three episodes of "The Benny Hill Show" in the 1980s (check imdb). The episodes are also good for checking out Jane Leeves if you know what I mean and I think you do.

benson said...

Hope people check back...

Got the Mary episode with Katey Sagal singing posted. I guess she didn't sing as long as I remembered in the scene. Also, Mary said "damn" at the beginning of pt. 2. Wow, Ken, having America's Sweetheart say Damn.

part1
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jF9F4tSDhtw

pt2
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q31zgXmjmbk

KEN LEVINE said...

Thanks Benson. I'm going to post this later this afternoon.

If you have any more episodes and would care to put 'em on YouTube please be my guest.

Thanks again.

benson said...

Thanks, Ken.

I probably have a half dozen. I was a tapin' fool back in the eighties. In fact, right after your show on that tape is an episode of "Foley Sq." which I didn't realize was written by Diane English.

I also have a bunch of Tony Randall Show's.

Emily said...

I have a friday question.

How old is too old to decide to become a television writer? Do you think writing is a business for the young or that head writers are only interested in giving young people in their early 20's their first big break?

lucifervandross said...

So from my experience working behind the scenes at a screen writing competition the hot specs were Modern Family (by a large margin), 30 Rock, and It's Always Sunny (if my memory serves correct, seen too many in the past months).

But at panels about television this year they are saying that showrunners want to see original pilots and that the "spec market" is gone (I personally heard this from one writer, and I had a good friend here the other from multiple people at panels).

rhys said...

Do you think the rise of "dramedies" has taken the place of the sitcoms that used to have more character development and character drama in them? I agree that modern sitcoms are more focused on getting out a ton of jokes each episode than putting time and effort into character development. But I think the light-hearted hour long "dramas", such as Psych, Burn Notice, Chuck, Bones, Desperate Housewives, and Men of a Certain Age - or the short-form "comedies" with more slightly more serious undertones on premium cable, such as Weeds, Bored to Death, and Eastbound and Down, have taken their place. I think you could do a show like MASH again in this day and age, but it would likely be an hour long show instead of a 30-minute "sitcom".