Monday, January 09, 2012
What spec script should you write?
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.
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.
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?