Monday, January 09, 2012

What spec script should you write?

This is a common question and an answer that changes almost daily. But as of this moment these are my thoughts regarding specs for sitcoms.

First of all, you know you need at least two specs? One from an existing show and an original piece of material (like a pilot, screenplay, one-act play, funny suicide note). So which existing show should you tackle?

The most important factor is which show do you feel showcases your talents the best? Which show has your sensibilities and sense of humor? What is your favorite show? If you love THE MIDDLE and totally get THE MIDDLE that’s what you should write. Don’t worry that it hasn’t won fifteen Emmys. This even goes for shows I will gently suggest you avoid. Those shows will have drawbacks but if one of them is totally in your sweet spot, write it anyway. And remember, it’s not like you can only write one spec from an existing show. So write the show you want and maybe another just for protection. The more specs you have, the better.

Before I list shows, let me dispel a myth. There is a theory that you never want to send a spec of an existing show to that show. Yes, the producers know that show intimately and will be able to spot flaws no one else will, but so what? The chances of actually selling your spec to that show are minuscule anyway. Your real objective is to impress the town. A thousand years ago when my partner and I wrote specs, our MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW sample was not just rejected but savaged by the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, but that same script got us our JEFFERSONS assignment and work all over town.  So take that MTM!

Okay, so what shows already?

Try to pick one that’s currently hot or up and coming. My guess is MODERN FAMILY is the current rage. But writer beware! MODERN FAMILY is a very difficult show to write. It’s very tightly structured and very character driven. You really need to be good on story. The best MODERN FAMILY’s have a unified theme. So you have to create three separate stories but ideally they intersect and have the same theme.  MODERN FAMILY is fraught with traps. But the good news is if you can write a good one it will really stand out.

Similarly, PARKS AND RECREATION, for all its playfulness has well told intricate stories, usually two or three going simultaneously. But you also have very funny characters and situations. PARKS AND REC would be one I would seriously consider.

BIG BANG THEORY is another popular choice. They key here is not structure but jokes. Lots and lots and lots and lots of jokes. And then five more. Same with MIKE & MOLLY. All Chuck Lorre shows actually. If joke writing is your strength these shows give you your best platform.

TWO AND A HALF MEN is an interesting case. Yes, it has a new star and dynamic. But it’s also an old show and the tone and jokes are the same as before. My vote would be to select something else. Same with THE OFFICE.

COMMUNITY is tough call. On the one hand it has the zeitgeist and buzz, and you have a lot more latitude to be really creative. But the show is so wildly inventive that you’re shooting at a moving target. And there’s the real possibility that it will soon be canceled. Up to you. Just realize that the shelf life of a COMMUNITY script might be very short.

A few slightly off-beat choices I might recommend are RAISING HOPE, HAPPY ENDINGS (pictured above), and COUGAR TOWN. More mainstream options would be THE MIDDLE and LAST MAN STANDING. (Note: If you write a LAST MAN STANDING, please give Nancy Travis a good part – something they don’t seem to do on the show. Thank you.)

2 BROKE GIRLS and NEW GIRL would be my choices for best freshmen series to write. If your specialty is vagina jokes, these are the shows for you.

LOUIS C.K. is a tough one. Very stylized and low-keyed. A good one will gain you points for edginess. But a bad one will bury you.

And then there’s WHITNEY. More points for edginess here. And I bet you could write a very funny episode. But I would be concerned. This show is so universally reviled that you might want to steer clear for your own safety. If this is your sensibility I would suggest 2 BROKE GIRLS as a more acceptable alternative.

If you write a HOT IN CLEVELAND readers are going to assume you’re at least 40. And that’s fine if you are at least 40. But younger writers might be wiser to write younger shows.

Disney Channel sitcoms will only serve as specs for kids’ shows. But you could do a lot worse than landing a gig on a Disney Channel sitcom.

These are the shows that I believe have crested. There must be a glut of specs from 30 ROCK, IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, CALIFORNICATION, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, WEEDS, and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. (Note: HIMYM is another show that puts a high premium on storytelling.)  But readers are less excited because they've already read a thousand of these samples. 

I would have second thoughts about specing an UP ALL NIGHT, I HATE MY TEENAGE DAUGHTER or SUBURGATORY. They might not make it. And this is EASTBOUND AND DOWN’s final season so I would avoid that show.

There are cable comedies like THE LEAGUE, ENLIGHTENED and SHAMELESS. The trap there is that readers might not be that familiar with them.  But then again, they might.  And you might score points for taking the road less traveled. 

I’m sure there are other shows I’ve neglected to mention (one premiering cross-dressing show on purpose), and I can't stress this enough – don’t make your final decision based solely on this post. Use it for input. I'm not the ultimate authority on anything. 

Best of luck. Every writer on every sitcom at one time had to write specs and they broke through. It can happen. Why not to you?


Bob Ross said...


Speaking of writers over forty, is it possible to get your first writing job if you are over forty?

ally said...


How did you find your partner, David Isaacs? It seems like you worked successfully with him for a really long time. What are the keys to making that partnership work?

David Schwartz said...

Here's a suggestion that I think is very valuable (and one I wish I knew years ago). It is important that even after you write your spec scripts and secure an agent that YOU KEEP WRITING! When I started writing specs in the early 1980's my partner and I wrote a couple of good scripts that landed us an agent, and then we stopped writing. Our attitude was, "We've now written our scripts, it's time for our agent to get us work." We felt that our next assignment should be a paying one. In contrast, at the same time, our agent had another writer that wanted to write for Family Ties. We were told that this writer wrote a Family Ties script practically EVERY WEEK and submitted it to the show. After a couple of months of this, the producers took notice! I believe this writer was Michael J. Weithorn who went on to an incredibly successful career (starting with Family Ties). The point I'm making, is that while you may not be able to write a script every week, persistance is more likely to pay off than inertia. If I had my writing career to do over again, the one thing I'd do differently would be to write more scripts, and then write more scripts after that. First, I'd have gotten better, and second, I'm pretty sure I'd have impressed the producers with my perseverence.

Bill Holst said...


I hadn't seen Last Man Standing until you suggested it. After watching several episodes, I'm not so impressed. The writers leave lots of jokes underdeveloped or use too many words to read the punchline, and the actors' timing is off. Is it kosher write a faster paced script? How about some character development for the daughters? They all meld together.

WriteBrain said...

Ken --

Several of my undergrad and grad students last Fall elected to write "Shameless" for their one-hour spec. It's a great series for showcasing dialogue ability, story-telling, working with characters of wide age-range, and fits both a comedy and drama genre. That written, a bad "Shameless" script can also kill a career. If a writer truly believes they've got those comedy, smart-dialogue, chops, and can nail the terrific character voices, I highly recommend this show as a spec. (Also, as I read dozens of specs at a time, I always look forward to reading a "Shameless" script.)

Chris said...

Here's a friday question: after you get work on various shows, do you/would you write any more specs? I've always thought I'd do that if there would be shows out there that I would really like.

Have you ever done that?

Al said...

I've suffered from the dreaded "every spec I write gets cancelled within a month" dilemma for my last three specs. The upside is, it keeps me writing new specs.
Also, it made me really start outlining my specs prior to writing as a HIMYM spec that was 3/4 done, ran into a severe problem in that I had no idea how to end it. I got stuck for like four months on that one spec, and while I eventually finished it, I never really solved the problem. Wouldn't have happened if I had identified the problem in the outline stage.

Vivian Darkbloom said...


I am writing a sitcom pilot and have a question about the number of acts for the script. Some shows have two acts (e.g., "30 Rock," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Friends"), whereas others have three (e.g., "New Girl," "2 Broke Girls," "Community").

What are your thoughts on writing a pilot with two acts versus three? Is it just a matter of personal preference?

Thank you.

Kid Lean said...

Just discovered SHAMELESS this weekend (thanks to Netflix), what an entertaining, finely done show!

Ken, with the countdown now serioiusly on for spring training and your employer has done nothing other than recall you and your brothers plus sign an unknown pitcher from Japan - what the fuck are they doing????????? Unless you and Fairly can hit, it looks rather bleak for 2012 -again! Fairly was a pretty good hitter but I'm guessing his timing is just a bit off these days!

Paul said...

Ken, what do you think about writing a spec for an animated show like Archer?

Anonymous said...


As someone who works for the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship (a great program for aspiring writers, btw!), let me just tell you that the glut IS "Modern Family".

Used to be "The Office", the "30 Rock", but making your script stand out amongst hundreds of "Modern Familys" is going to be an uphill battle for sure.

I imagine the situation must be the same at agencies.

Personally, I'd advise against it.

-Anonymous Reader

Frank said...

If you write a vagina joke for Whitney do her lips have to move?

jbryant said...

LOUIE is such a personal show for Louis CK (who produces, writes, directs and edits every episode, and also works closely with the musicians on the score) that I can't imagine a spec that could do justice to the Louie-ness of it. It's also so utterly unlike most sitcoms that it would seem to have limited value as a showcase for what you could bring to the average show.

Kyah Green said...


What do you suggest one should actually do with a spec once they have it? I have a Modern Family that I'd like to get seen, but having no connections to agents anywhere (and I understand they don't like unsolicited material), I'm not quite sure what to do with it.

I'm sure people ask you for an 'in' all the time, but I'm just curious if there's any course of action you would recommend for people that aren't 'connected' in LA?

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

"This show [Whitney] is so universally reviled that you might want to steer clear for your own safety."

Why is it so reviled? I've only seen one episode, and it didn't inspire me to watch another, but I saw nothing to justify the hate fest.

Bill White said...

Ken, I'd like you to answer Bob Ross' question on one of your Friday Q&As!

I also have an answer for Paul: As someone who has worked in animation, let me assure you, "The Simpsons" aside, animation studios HATE to work with outsiders, a.k.a. "non-cartoonists". Your prospective script will be used as fodder for the Friday afternoon "let's-laugh-at-all-the-lame-submissions-we've-gotten" sessions most animation studios have. Trust me on this.

DyHrdMET said...

could producers rip off elements of your spec script? has that happened before?

bettyd said...

Ken -

Question for Friday. When you were heavily involved with "Big Wave Dave" and "Almost Perfect" were you obligated to go to the upfronts. Those things that are happening this week and every TV magazine and reviewer is tweeting/blogging/writing about.

pumpkinhead said...

Having seen a few episodes of Whitney, and not finding it to be any better or worse than a million other non-premium sitcoms, I'm beginning to wonder if the hate comes, consciously or subconsciously, from a "she's too pretty" place.

kingcooky said...


My style is more drama. I've recently written a Mad Men spec. Any thoughts if this is over done like Modern Family?

My next project will probably be Boardwalk Empire and possibly Boss. Any other ideas on great drama shows I should pay attention to?

Also, I try to stay away from the law/CSI stuff as i think shows like are also overdone.

Pat Reeder said...

I, too, have to speak up for Whitney Cummings. "Whitney" isn't a great show, by any means, but I think she and her co-star are likeable and have good chemistry, and the show is gradually improving. The first few episodes were all the same: Whitney is so insecure that she deliberately does something annoying to try to drive her boyfriend away. Once they got past that and started developing some decent storylines, it started getting better.

Personally, I can't stand the current comic school of women acting like foul-mouthed, horny, drunk frat guys exemplified by Chelsea Handler and Lisa Lampanelli, but I find Whitney Cummings to be reasonably funny and appealing, the further away from that style she gets.

cshel said...

Ken -

Please don't save these for Friday questions, please do more whole posts on this topic. : )

I had a question about so-called comedies like Entourage and Sex and the City. To me, they fell into a weird category I call light cromedy. They are humorous in situations, but they don't really have traditional jokes like sitcoms, and the dramatic moments are a little more like actual drama than sitcommy drama. Is there a real name category for that kind of show?

I'm writing a Parks & Rec spec, so nobody else can write any specs of that one. : )

HogsAteMySister said...


Interesting piece. Could you profile a couple of the most recent writers who cracked the sitcom big time and explain how they did it, or maybe link to a more in-depth story? That would be great. Cheers.

@scriptwreck said...

I hate to be that guy, but does anyone know where I can get a hold of some scripts for 2 Broke Girls? I've managed to get a hold of the pilot but wouldn't mind looking at some of the regular episodes to get a better feel for formatting.

Mya K. said...

Hi. I wanted to know would you take a chance on a new show that has been renewed. My fingers keep itching to write a spec for Scandal. What is your advice for new shows?

Mya K. said...

Hey. What's your advice on writing a spec for a new show like "Scandal? Now that it's been renewed for it's second season and doesn't look like it's going anywhere. Is that show too new? I was told at least 3 seasons or more would suffice.

Joan Miller said...


I've been thinking about writing a spec script for Scandal too, but am not 100% sure about it. The show I was thinking might be a good alternative is The Good Wife. If you haven't seen it and you like Scandal, you'll probably enjoy it.

jeff said...

Hi Ken,

What's your opinion on writing a Bob's Burgers spec?

From what I've heard they are outlined and then improvised. Could there be an upside to writing a spec script for a seemingly unscripted show?