Thursday, February 17, 2011

What not to do when writing a pilot

Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and RUNNING WILDE wrote a somewhat facetious article for guardian.co.uk on how to get a sitcom cancelled. He brings out some good points like have a confusing title, hint at incest (always a crowd pleaser), offend minority groups, and not use guest star Liza Minnelli to her full advantage. These are all true, but there’s an added factor he mentions which I think is really key. Don’t overreach story-wise.

I bring this up because agents these days are requiring new writers to submit original material in addition to spec scripts for existing shows. For the most part, that means pilots. This is a complete reversal of policy from ten, fifteen years ago. And it just makes a hard process even harder. It’s like getting into college and suddenly learning that starting this year you must also take Advanced Physics and six semesters of Russian.

Pilots are a bitch to write. They are loaded with traps; traps many experienced writers still fall into (read: me). And a big one is that you do too much, trying to dazzle the reader. This is the warning that Mitch heeds. Do not try to do eight stories in one half-hour pilot. Even if you do it well, and the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT staff did it as well as any show ever has, it’s difficult for an audience to process. Add to that another sign-of-the-times issue: program lengths are shrinking. Back when I was writing MASH (the Pleistocene Era) we had close to 24 minutes of content. Now it’s under 20. We did two or three stories an episode and even then we thought we were putting ten pounds of show in a five-pound bag. I marvel at how MODERN FAMILY does it under today’s conditions. Their writers room will someday be located at the UCLA Medical Center.

When you write a spec pilot, make the story as straightforward as you can. I don’t mean so linear that we see every step coming a mile away, or so simple that nothing happens. Your story can be clever and original with delightful surprises but make it easy to track.

Remember, in a pilot you’ve got to establish the premise, establish the characters, establish the tone, show where the series is going, and make it funny. And getting laughs is extra hard because the audience is not familiar with the characters. Throw in a confusing story or six stories and the audience is completely lost.

But here’s the good news: You’re not expected to do too much story in a pilot. Your story should just be a dramatic device to introduce all of the above elements. So let it breathe a little. Let your characters just inter-act for a moment or two. Give the audience a few minutes to get to know them.

You might be saying, “Well, I have nine characters. I need three stories so they all have something to do.” To that I say, then lose three characters.


One of my favorite pilots is the one from TAXI. Here’s the premise: the pay phone in the garage is broken and all the cabbies can make free long distance calls (this was before Sprint). As each character uses the phone we learn who they are and what they want. One character, Alex (Judd Hirsch) wants to talk to his daughter in Florida and we discover they’ve been estranged for fifteen years. The cabbies all have opinions on that, informing us even more as to who they are. Ultimately they all drive down from New York for a reunion. There’s suspense. How’s it going to go after fifteen years? SPOILER ALERT: It goes okay.

Simple. Economical. Clever. And taking a tip from Mitch Hurwitz, there’s no incest.

The truth is, when an agent or producer is reading your spec pilot, they’re trying to learn about YOU. Your voice, sensibility, and level of humor. Don’t cloud that by trying to show you can construct SLEUTH in nineteen minutes.

Best of luck. May you too be in a position someday to have your series cancelled.

24 comments:

Tod Hunter said...

My favorite character-establishing bit in a pilot was for Coach in "Cheers":
==================
COACH
(Answers phone)
Cheers.
(A beat)
Is there an Ernie Pantusso here?

SAM (Off-camera)
That's you, Coach.

COACH
Speaking.
=================
Establishes the guy in three lines: a little addled, but not totally out of it.

As good as it gets.

--t

John Levenstein said...

Believe it or not, Ken, we were always cutting bits and stories to get to the final product. You should have seen the first drafts! I'll miss you on Dodger Talk this year..

Bob Summers said...

Question for Friday: Since you talked about music rights, is there a similar problem with products? I've seen names taped over on shows for years, I know Xerox has gone out of its way to tell people to call it copying, bit Xeroxing to protect their intellectual property. Radar always ordered a grape Nehi. Did they get a cut? What are the rules and customs on that?

Linn said...

Is there anywhere to watch pilots from shows that have aired? (or not been aired, would be fun to compare)

KEN LEVINE said...

Our BIG WAVE DAVE'S and ALMOST PERFECT pilots are up on YouTube. Check 'em out. For whatever faults you may find, you will be able to follow the stories clearly.

Phillip B said...

A great many fans are anxious to go back and see the pilots of their favorite shows, for the same reasons the network execs want to see it - the premise, characters and tone are really interesting to see and compare to what came later.

There are lots of pilot episodes floating around on the web, and I especially enjoyed the short era when the TRIO network showed a series of failed pilots.

Some of my favorites in terms of changes -- mostly in tone -- are:

"The Beverly Hillbillies" - in the pilot the bone crushing poverty of hillbilly life evoked real pathos. Only later was Jed Clampett cast adrift in a world of corn pone surrealism.

"Fantasy Island" - in the pilot Mr. Roarke really is the devil and offers his guests an opportunity which may also be a trap. One of them winds up carried off the island in a straight jacket without so much as a lovely parting gift.

"Hill Street Blues" - a lead character was killed in the pilot, which served as the first episode of the series. The next week, of course, he magically came back to life.

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" - is often cited and shown. Somehow Carl Reiner came to the understanding that he would not be a sitcom star, and recasting was particularly bad news for Morty Gunty - who somehow morphed into Morey Amsterdam.

"Angie" - never seen the pilot, but have read that it took almost 4 years to get the series on the air after it was completed.

Pilots seem especially intriguing when they are not aired, and I've heard the pilot is sometimes used as the second or third episode of a series.

How often does a fully produced pilot remain unaired?

Larry said...

I like the story of Party Down. HBO didn't "get" their show, so they shot their own pilot at someone's home. With YouTube showing so much these days, I wouldn't be surprised if more and more people take this route.

Warren Z said...

Hi Ken, a related Friday question:

When writing a pilot script, do you give a quick description of a main character the first time we meet him/her -- their appearance, quirks, etc?

And if so, how do you do it in only a line or two?

Thanks!

Mac said...

I'd be mighty proud to have a cancellation like "Arrested Development" on my CV. One of the best sitcoms of the decade.

Daniel S. said...

My question is the same as Warren's. I've been working on a pilot since the start of October, fleshing out characters for a while before starting the script.

Linn said...

No luck googeling "Pilots" (although it did get me some nice pictures) so thanks for the tip, will check them out!
Getting on to watch Cedar Rapids now, hope it's worth it.

gottacook said...

The first episodes of Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant (and the 1985-86 Mary as well) are structured around applying for and starting a new job. Of course not every pilot can do this, but it's a simple and straightforward structure that also allows wonderful, brief, character-revealing dialogue such as at the end of Mary's job interview (Lou: "Y'know, you've got spunk"--Mary preens--"I HATE spunk!")

Phillip B: It was actually two characters, Hill and Renko, who were killed in the Hill Street pilot; after the series sold, it was decided to keep them alive, and I believe that when the pilot was broadcast as the first episode in early '81, a few scenes were reshot to accommodate this turn in the story. Either way, a great pilot episode.

Max Clarke said...

The pilot for Cheers is outstanding. It covers so many bases with such ease and wit, it's like watching great dancing.

It's also easy to see what Ted Danson meant when he said Shelley Long was the reason for his success in the first couple of seasons. He didn't know how to play Sam Malone, I think he told Terry Gross on Fresh air, but Shelley was Diane Chambers from the start. In the pilot, Sam Malone is stylish and graceful and bright -not yet the ex-jock.

My favorite line in the Cheers pilot is also Coach.

Diane: Excuse me, where is your bathroom?

Coach: Uh, next to my bedroom.


The pilot for Monk was also great. Within ten minutes, we know we're watching a kind of detective show nobody has ever done.

danny woodhead said...

well, if there's one thing mitch hurwitz knows about, it's how to get a show cancelled. he's had more than just about anyone i can think of. yet, he gets 3 new pilots every year, and they all die a quick death. what a country.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

The 20 minutes length of comedies is more resonsibe for the decline of the genre than anything.

te said...

Best pilot I ever saw -- full, movie length, too, giving him time to establish the two key characters (three if you count Diefenbaker) -- was "Due South," written by the series' creator, Paul Haggis. I don't think he's equaled his work on that series yet.

And yeah; that "spunk" exchange nailed the Mary Tyler Moore Show as one I was going to keep watching.

Phillip B said...

Thanks to gottacook for refreshing my 30 year old memory of Hill Street Blues. Be careful out there...

gottacook said...

te: I saw Paul Haggis' 2-hour pilot for EZ Streets when it was first broadcast, around 1996. That was an extremely vivid piece of work. Too bad CBS didn't give the series a fair chance.

Jen said...

"That's the last time he'll fish over the limit."

Due South was a thing of beauty.

Anonymous said...

I actually liked Sam much better in the early years of Cheers, before he was dumbed down. Sam may not have been an intellectual, but he was street smart. Later, they made him so dumb that he couldn't even run his own bar (a job he previously did) and had to hire Rebecca to manage for him.

analee said...

Thanks for the tips and information.

Jenna Jameson said...

I also hate spunk.

xjill said...

I was actually in a focus group (don't hurt me!) for the show that premiered this week "Mad Love." It was called something else and had Minka Kelly and Lizzie Caplan in the female roles. It was interesting to see essentially the same script I remembered but with different actors.

T said...

Thanks for continuing to write the most useful blog around - both wit and wisdom in abundance