Friday, April 13, 2012

What scripts do you need to get an assignment or representation?


On my way up to Seattle for the big Mariners’ home opener. Here are some Friday Questions while I wait forever in the TSA line.

Damian1342 is up first (beating out the previous 1341 Damians):

Is it possible to get a freelance or staff writing job or even manager from just a Sitcom Pilot script? As opposed to doing a traditional Spec script? Of course we are assuming here the script is good and can be placed in the right hands. Or does one really have to have one of each?

Today you do need one of each – a spec for an existing show and some piece of original material. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a pilot. It can be a one-act play or short film script.

I was on a panel with Bill Lawrence (SCRUBS, COUGAR TOWN) recently and he told the story of a young writer who submitted a spec from an existing show and a DVD. Bill liked the script and turned to the disc, which was labeled “writing sample.” He put it on and it was four minutes of this guy sitting at the computer writing. Bill hired him.

Now you take a big risk doing something outrageous like that. Some producers would not be amused and you’d be dead. But others might think, “Wow! This guy is original.”

Me? I’d laugh, think it was great, and then ask for a pilot.


Heath Brandon (a proud Sitcom Room alum) asks:

Do showrunners listen to the feedback of critics and audience members and potentially adjust something to the prevailing wind throughout the course of the season?

I can’t speak for all, but most do. We certainly did. Especially with a multi-camera show, you have the advantage of an audience's reaction so you see what works and what doesn’t and then steer your show accordingly.

But what that means is you’re really living on the edge that first season. You want to always be ahead, have a few scripts in the bank ready to go, but not too many because things could change. And you sure don’t want to go week-to-week with writing new scripts because then you wind up in a cardiac ward or the Unibomber’s shed.

Mid-season shows have the advantage/disadvantage of filming all episodes of their order before they finally air. The disadvantage is you can’t make mid-course corrections based on feedback. But the advantage is your cast isn’t plunged into a suicidal depression when bad reviews and/or bad ratings come in. Try producing another eight episodes when that occurs. It’s Baghdad with worse weather. Sometimes it’s best when you’re working in a bubble and everyone is happy and optimistic and fooling themselves.

As for critics, there are some I admire and take seriously and others who are idiots and I just dismiss.

From Ben:

Ken, I've just finished watching M*A*S*H for the first time and couldn't help but feel that Charles Winchester was a pre-cursor for Frasier Crane. Do you know how much Frasier was based on or influenced by Winchester?

To my knowledge, not at all. Frasier was created by the Charles Brothers to serve as a temporary love interest for Diane. Who would Diane Chambers be attracted to and why? Those were the only considerations.

And finally, from scotmc:

A few episodes of FRASIER utilized Seattle's now defunct NBA team, the Supersonics. How much should a show incorporate its location, city?

As much as possible. Your location can be a great tool in defining your series. We’re all products of our environment and incorporating that into your series helps determine the attitudes of your characters.

The location also adds flavor and specificity. Generic is the enemy of comedy. (Well, that and Adam Sandler.)  Here's an example.  What’s funnier?

“I’m so sick.”

“That’s what you get for going to White Castle.”

Or

“That’s what you get for going to that popular east coast franchise fast food restaurant that is famous for serving bite size but greasy hamburgers.”

On the other hand, you have to be careful that your location mentions aren’t so specific that only people in that city will get the reference.

“I’m so sick.”

“That’s what you get for going to Ray’s on Cloverdale.”

Ten people in America might get that (although legendary comedy writer Jerry Belson used to say, “ten is enough.”)

Ultimately, my favorite shows are the ones that take me into a whole world, whether it be Seattle, Washington, Harlan County, Kentucky, or Pawnee, Indiana. And I think it was very smart to set WKRP IN CINCINNATI in Cincinnati.

Okay, I have to put my shoes, belt, jacket, eye glasses, and tooth fillings into the bucket and go through security. What’s your question?

24 comments:

Sebastian said...

That "writing sample" bit had me LOLing so loud my neighbours knocked on the wall...

Hilarious kid. Hire him! :-)

Sebastian said...

Oh and I just remembered:

Detlef Schrempf (GERMAN! HA!) was on Frasier AND he's been on Parcs & Rec several times now.

I understood why he was on Frasier (being on the Sonics NBA franchise team when the show was on the air) but who is he sleeping with that they put him on Parks & Rec?

Or are the Pacers the connection, being from Indiana like Pawnee?

Ray Barrington said...

Frazier, of course, was set at a radio station (just reminding you in case you have jet lag). Do shows that mention radio stations have a list of "fake" call letters they can use, like the 555- telephone exchange? (I remember reading an independent TV station started using WKRP long after the show went to syndication.)

Redhead said...

RE: Pawnee, Indiana. As a Hoosier (grew up here, lived far away for years, returned a few years ago), I can tell you that Pawnee is nothing like Indiana or any small town I've ever been to. I love Parks and Recreation, but the setting is totally absurd.

So again, nothing about Pawnee is remotely like Indiana. Except our bad hair. And our fascination with waffles. And with tiny horses. But that's it.

Mitchell Hundred said...

I would actually guess that Damian1342 chose that name because he was born in 1342. That's another common strategy for distinguishing yourself.

liggie said...

F.Q. What are the pros and cons of screenplay coverage? Recommended?

Jenna's fan said...

I saw an episode of "Townies" when it first aired, and I distinctly remember seeing Jenna Elfman for the first time and thinking "who is this person because she is going to be famous someday" Of course, "Townies" didn't make it, but Jenna has since had a great career. Were there any actors or actresses you've worked with for the first time whom you had the same kind of reaction?

Smelvis said...

Hi Ken, you mentioned that there are some TV critics you like.
With a trillion websites doing recaps & critiques, whose voice cuts through the clutter for you?

(also, i swear that the squiggly word code that i have to type in before leaving a comment says "Rancho Bathsalts".
THAT will be the name of my first pilot).

Tom Quigley said...

Ray Barrington said...

"Frazier, of course, was set at a radio station (just reminding you in case you have jet lag). Do shows that mention radio stations have a list of "fake" call letters they can use, like the 555- telephone exchange? (I remember reading an independent TV station started using WKRP long after the show went to syndication.)"

In the case of FRASIER, I think it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with who was running the show that the last three call letters for the station (KACL) were the initials of the three executive producers, David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee.

nairam_tdlowneorg said...

I will try it again: Ken, what do you think about Cougar Town? Don't you think it's just about some middle aged bored rich people who desperately try to kill some time? And we are trapped with them...

Markus said...

The "White Castle" bit got me thinking... I'm doing translations for a living. The global TV landscape is certainly somewhat dominated by American shows (and of course movies too). My guess is that, while you do write so that an American audience gets it (and not just 10 locals), you generally do not write with the expectation in mind that your show might be airing in other countries. Case in point, probably ten people outside the US have an idea what "White Castle" is, and you can bet a translator will be very much tempted to simply replace that with "McDonald's" (which everyone on the planet knows). What's your take on the "global audience" angle, and how do you feel about such translations that essentially rewrite your creative work? Would you prefer to have elements left intact at the risk of people not getting it, or are you okay with reworks that remove your original idea but at least put some suitable ersatz in its place in order to still appeal to a different locale?

RCP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

Ken, do you like watching your tv shows?

I never get tired of Cheers and Frasier, but some movie stars supposedly won't ever watch their stuff. Do you see the episode as just an episode, or do you revisit all the stuff that went into making it: the rewrites, the production problems, the broken air conditioning during filming....

chalmers said...

As Ken said, I don’t think Frasier Crane was conceived with Charles Winchester in mind. But as the character rounded out, the similarities were evident enough that David Ogden Stiers was cast as the possible biological father of Frasier and Niles.

It’s an episode that always touched me, with sensitive writing and acting all around, particularly the climax scene with Stiers and John Mahoney.

Kirk said...

I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Frasier the other day, and it said Shelly Long disliked the Frasier Crane character (though not necessarily the actor who played him), and lobbied to get him written off the show. Assuming this is true (it's Wikipedia, after all), do you have any idea what her objections were?

Kirk said...

In case there's any misunderstanding, Shelly Long lobbied to get him written off of Cheers, not Frasier, though I did read about it in the Frasier Wikipedia entry.

Johnny Walker said...

I'd take a guess that she possibly thought his character was too similar to hers, so he was getting lines that she might deliver. Of course I'm sure she SAID it was because he didn't fit the tone of the show, or something like that.

I'd love to hear Ken's answer, though.

Damian1342 said...

Thanks, Ken! Appreciated... I guess I sort of figured that, but at least you put value in the pilot. Thanks again.

And for those keeping score, back in the origin of AOL when I had to pick a screen name, "Damian" was taken so I added "1342" the area code of my home town, so my Aunt who was the only person I knew who had email at the time could remember it easily.

Johnny Walker said...

I was just thinking, an alternative would be to spell the joke out in the place name. So instead of "White Castle" (which no-one outside of the US really knows) you could have, "Bob's Bargain Burgers" or "The Grease Hut" or "Mystery Meat Palace".

Not as funny, perhaps, but you communicate the same message: The character isn't afraid to eat crap.

Don K. said...

Well, Norm Peterson did eat quite often at the Hungry Heifer.

MyNameIsJan said...

I am disappointed with your reference to White Castle as a popular East Coast franchise. It is a midwestern franchise. I didn't even know they were on the East Coast. Even if they're there now, it still isn't any kind of institution, IMO. I am 60 years old, in Chicago, and my parents went to White Castle, in high school, in Chicago. So..... a reference to White Castle as an East Coast franchise would have me saying to the TV, "you should have looked that up." Unless there's a different White Castle and then, well, never mind.

Walt said...

I loved the occasional regional errors on Frasier.
Guards checking fruit on the border with Oregon? Ice fishing in Washington? That view out the window?
Great show.

chuckcd said...

Or perhaps "3D House of Beef" to
steal from SCTV.

roger said...

If your show is going to make use of an actual city, especially if it's a single-camera show with lots of exteriors, then for God's sake at least make an effort to make it LOOK like the city you're representing. You run the risk of alienating viewers if your show is set in, say, the Midwest, yet the San Gabriel Mountains are all over the background.

I'm from the San Francisco area so MONK was a sticking point for me. I wanted to grab the producers and shake them and tell them that San Francisco does NOT have blue flag-style street signs like LA does, nor do the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train stations look like Grand Central Station with freight trains running through them (I'm looking at you, MONK finale).

More recently, the new ALCATRAZ show is set in the Bay Area. They try to utilize the names of actual Bay Area suburbs, but of course they look nothing like the real thing.

Granted, people unfamiliar with actual cities and areas used in TV shows won't care, but believe me, the people who ARE familiar WILL notice these things.