Andy Cook wrote in to say:
When creating a new show to pitch to a network, how do you test whether that idea (the location, situation, characters etc) has legs?
Do you have any techniques to check if you’ll run out of ideas 6 shows in? Is it simply a case of coming up with a long list of ideas and if so, how many would you start with on a show?
The first question I ask is “what is this show ABOUT”? Unless there’s some theme, some basic value or issue then you just have a bunch of people trading jokes in various settings. What are your characters trying to achieve? What do you as a writer want to SAY?
30 ROCK is ultimately about a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world. BIG BANG THEORY – how do social outcasts get along in society? During your pitch, if you’re can say in a sentence, “This show is about…” then you’re on your way.
Also, I build series around relationships, not settings. Then you can ask the question, how much mileage will you get out of this relationship? Again, 30 ROCK – the Liz/Jack relationship is the center of the show. He’s her mentor, antagonist, friend, father-figure. There are layers. Quite often sitcom relationships are one-note or one joke. He’s a guy who likes fantasy football. Period. She hates football. Period. Try getting seven years out of that.
Conflict is a key element. Your lead vs. other leads. Or your lead vs. the world. Or your lead vs. himself. A lot of writers make the mistake of just building a show around a workplace. I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me and said, “I work in a bakery. You should do a show in a bakery. You can’t believe the funny things that happen in a bakery.” That’s not a show. That’s a place.
Make the premise as open-ended as you can. There was a show on ABC a few years ago about a group of idiots trying to rob a celebrity. What are you going to do episode ten, much less one hundred? There was another show that all took place during one wedding day. You’ve got to leave yourself some room going in.
Remember that TV characters can only evolve at a glacier’s pace. If your antagonist learns his lesson in the pilot you’ve got nowhere to go. So make sure your characters have issues and flaws and objectives that will take time to resolve.
And then comes the big question: How do I make this funny? Is there a built-in absurdity to the world you’re creating? Or are there enough funny things that audiences can relate to to justify this comedy? EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND was a great example of that. You laughed because you experienced the exact same things the Barones did.
And finally, if you can find original characters, a setting we haven’t seen before, or a style that’s a little off-center – that wouldn't hurt.
Once all of those tiny questions are answered THEN come up with stories for future episodes. If you can bang out seven or eight with relative ease you’ve good. If you find yourself stumped after two pour yourself a scotch and go back to the drawing board.
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it IS. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration. But at least you now KNOW the factors. Hopefully that will give you a leg up.
Best of luck! As always, thank me when you win an Emmy.